They’d all pull us up, then spend the rest of their days knockin’ us back down, reminding us every step of the way that we got by on their pity and conveniently forgetting the fact we were down here because of them in the first place. I figure you might understand a little of that, Miss Chatelaine.
Earlier this month, the city counsel of Crowndon’s capital, Old Crowndon, held a low key memorial for the victims of the Heisenberg catastrophe. One might be surprised to hear that this memorial ever occurred, seeing as how it had not been reported on until now. But I, for one, am not surprised that the Oligarchs kept the event under wraps.
As a matter of fact, it surprises me that such a memorial even took place at all; the disaster, after all, is still a sore wound for Crowndon’s national pride that rivals, or perhaps even exceeds, the military loss against Nor Easter five years ago. Indeed, the effects of the disaster can still be seen throughout the city.
None of these effects is more visible, yet overlooked, than the shanty town that has sprung up around the base of the old Klankenvroot factory (rebranded as the now defunct Crowndonian Ministry for Planar Wing Research and Development after it was taken over by the government). Thousands of former Klankenvroot factory workers found themselves without a place to turn after the disaster, and so huddled beneath the shadow of their former place of employment, constructing shacks of old wood and sheet metal.
While the entirety of the town is one of sorrow and misfortune, the harshest depths of this place lay within the area known as the Gutter, an area that extends down into the dry docks on the western end of the factory grounds. It is here where those unwanted even by the denizens of the shanty town eventually end up: the elderly, the sick, those crippled by the factory’s machines, and perhaps most tragically of all, the abandoned child laborers and orphans of workers who died on the factory floor.
I had a run in with one of these wayward children not long after entering the Gutter, despite protestations from my escort. She was an adolescent girl by the name of Vertiline Torp who tried to steal my photographer’s camera. The attempt was shamefully humorous, as the camera is a bulky thing and when the girl tried to snatch it, the camera stayed in place and her feet flew out from under her.
Realizing her mistake, Vertiline ran. I managed to track her to where she lived with her brother, a younger child with a lame leg. It took some convincing but I managed to get her to talk to me.
“I’ll talk to you,” she said. “But only you. Your copper friend and the man with picto-box have to stay outside.”
The officer escorting us grumbled at the conditions, but agreed to stay outside as I followed Vertiline into her home. It was a crudely thrown together structure constructed of discarded wooden pallets against the side of the dry dock’s wall. Space is limited in the Gutter, but Vertiline and her brother had made due by digging into the wall.
“Tisn’t much, but it’s dry and it stays warm at night,” Vertiline told me. “And there was a pipe in the wall, runs clear up to the top, so we’ve some sort of ventilation. I’d like to say I knew it was there, but it wasn’t. Just a small bit of fortune I guess.”
“Crowndon is kind,” her brother interjected, to which Vertiline scoffed.
“Crowndon ain’t never been kind, not to the likes of us. I look at that damned pipe every night and wait for that small bit of fortune to bite us in the arse.”
She told me that her mother died giving birth to her brother, Pigott. An all too common story, she said.
“He wasn’t turned round the right way, and they couldn’t get mum help in time. Pigott never could wait. Always been impatient. That’s why his leg got mangled.”
Their father worked for Klankenvroot, and they rarely ever saw him.
“Guess you could say we was orphans long before he ever died. One day he went to work, never came back. But I know he’s dead. Saw Old Turner wearing his ring one night.”
She held up her hand to show me a ring, a simple gray band made of chipped tin. I asked her how she got the ring back.
“None of your business,” was Vertiline’s answer. So I asked how it is that she gets by.
“Thems up top all call us the Gutter Rats,” she told me, as if that was answer enough. I suppose I had enough confusion on my face that she expounded on her own. “You know anything about rats, Miss?”
I’ve had my share of experiences. I try to remain objective about their nature.
“Rats are survivors, yeah? When a ship goes down, they tells you to follow the rats. Men in mines? Follow the rats. Fire in the factory? Follow the rats. Rats always know where to run, how to escape. And it’s got nothing to do with planning or being cunning. It’s instinct. I get by because that’s what I do.”
I shifted my eyes to her brother. Her explanation was cold, almost pragmatic. It seemed to me almost opposite of what someone caring for a crippled younger sibling would say. I didn’t challenge her on it, though.
I asked her if she’s ever thought about leaving the Gutter instead.
“Nope,” she said, without hesitation. “This is my world. I know it, and it knows me. Everyone here, we’re all in the same situation, we’re all on the same page. Wouldn’t be the same up there, with that lot. They’d all pull us up, then spend the rest of their days knockin’ us back down, reminding us every step of the way that we got by on their pity and conveniently forgetting the fact we were down here because of them in the first place. I figure you might understand a little of that, Miss Chatelaine.”
She lifted up a copy of my book, detailing my captivity in the colonies. It’s only been out for a month but it’s already beaten and dog eared. It looked like she’s read it more than once.
“That’s right…I know you,” she said. “Only reason I agreed to talk to you. You never asked for help or pity. Why should I?”
I left Vertiline with her brother, taking with me something to think about. I continued my tour around the Gutter with her story in the back of my mind. I conducted a few more interviews, but none of them struck me in the same way as my conversation with the girl. During one such interview, I asked a man if he knew who Old Turner was.
“A bad apple, that one. We don’t like talking about him more than that. Bad as this place is, it was worse when he was around.”
When? I wondered. Meaning he wasn’t around anymore?
“The villain turned up dead, near a month before,” the man said. “Stuck in a drainage pipe and drowned, one half of him dry, the other half bloated up like a soggy loaf of bread, and about as soft, too. No one knows how he got stuck…maybe he was chasing a meal.”
The man laughed, and I excused myself. As I followed my escort out of the Gutter I thought back to Vertiline and her ring, and that pipe in the ceiling of her home, and how she said she stared at it every night, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I smiled, content with the knowledge that when that shoe did drop, Vertiline would probably be ready to deal with it.