A/N: Here's another story of mine. Not exactly sure if sweeping air vents makes much sense, but ah well, it's my story! Enjoy, and let me know what you think. And maybe sometime soon, I'll type up another chapter of Lost Voice...


ONE

It was very early in the morning, the sky still dark, and the sun still hidden beneath the horizon. Even so, the metropolian city was active, and busy. People still crossed the skybridges that arced in the sky, many meters above the ground below. Air vehicles shoomed arouind the city airways, while a few people walked bravely on the roads below.

And high, high up, on the tops of the towering buildings that reached nearly a mile up into the dark sky, sweeps cleaned out the pipes and tubing of the air filtrations that ran around the buildings' outer surfaces. Sweeping was an ugly, dirty job, that no decent man would undertake. So sweeps comprised mainly of street orphans, who earned a coin or two for doing the ugly job.

On one of the cities' highest buildings, a small figure climbed up to the roof. He had no safety gear, no harness, and not even a rope. If he lost his grip and fell, it would be to his certain death. He was one of the best sweepers around, and he carried his tools in a ragged pouch around his neck. He was the only sweeper who dared to climb the highest buildings, the only one who had done so and survived. All the other sweepers, when they contracted a job that involved a high building, went to him and asked him to do it for them. And he did, on the condition that they owed him.

He demanded a higher price for higher buildings, and had made a small stash for himself somewhere. He was saving up so he could move into a small village far away from the terrible stench of the crowded city.

Even though he was sixteen, he was rather short, the hard life of sweeping and living in the streets having stunted his growth. Even so, he stood out among the other sweepers. He had a thick thatch of ebony hair, coupled with brilliant green-blue eyes. Taka was his name, and everyone knew who he was by just his unusual eyes. A life of living in near death had given him lightning reflexes, a quickness on his feet, and an ever present alertness.

On a building across the airway, he could see another sweeper climbing up to the roof. He was much higher than the other boy, and as he neared the roof, he could see nearly across the city. Almost without looking, his hands and feet found small little holes or jutting pieces of material to aid his climb. He could easily use the windowsills, but the man who had hired him had been firm about him keeping out of sight. He didn't want to scare his clients with a small, grungy boy.

Taka wasn't offended, being used to that sort of thing. He understood that he was greasy and grungy and covered in head to toe with filth. Only at the end of his shift did he wash in one of the ice-cold puddled that dripped form various water pipes.

His fingers finally gripped the rail that ran around the roof, and he pulled himself up and over. Once on the other side, he glanced down, his face blank. It was incredibly so far down that he could hardly make out the forms of the air vehicles on the lowest airway.

Turning away, he made his way to the large air vent on top of the building. Thankfully, this building's air system was the kind that consisted of one huge pipe that ran down inside the building, instead of several branching off in all kinds of directions. Those took him a whole day to do, but this one he could be done in a couple hours.

Lifting the grate, he lowered himself inside, pressing his feet against either side of the vent, to hold himself in place as he lowered the grate down. The venting tube was large, and grossly coated in filth. But he ignored it, and removed a large, steel scrub brush from his bag. Emotionlessly, he started scrubbing at the top of the tube at the grate's edges. Grit and pieces of black soot fell past him below, some hitting his face and ragged clothing. He was very careful not to loosen the pressure he applied against the sides of the tube with his feet, for if he did, he'd fall to his death. Using a rag to wipe away the remaining soot around the top, he revealed a dull silver metal from under all the blackness. The newer sweepers would polish the metal until it shone, wasting several hours. It was a waste of time. No one ever saw the inside of the air ventilation tubes but sweepers.

Using his hands as braces, he lowered himself a foot, and resumed cleaning. By the time he reached the bottom, his legs would be burning with the exertion. He would be exhausted. But after an hours rest, he would move on onto another building. His legs, as a result, were incredibly strong, along with his arms and shoulders. His body was thin, but strong.

The lower he went, the darker it was, and eventually, he was working by fell alone. His grimy hands could tell the difference between clean, smooth metal, and rough, filthy grime.

He had stared sweeping when he was eight. He had rummaged through the garbage-filled alleys until he found a rag, and went up to a man and asked if he wanted his air vents cleaned. The man said sure, and gave him a small coin, and pointed to the building. It happened to be a pretty tall one for a beginner, and he remembered other sweeps laughing at him, and shaking their soiled heads. He wouldn't last, they said. He'd fall, and break his legs. But without a word, he had climbed up the building, and found the vent. It had been a one-shafter like this one, and he had cleaned it. At the end he was exhausted, and shaky, but he'd done it.

Since then, he had taken only the tallest, the hardest jobs, and got as many as ten kirs, enough to buy a good pair of shoes. He kept to himself, and rarely talked with the other sweepers, except about a job. He even had his own quarters away from the others. People asked for him by name, knowing he did the most dangerous buildings, and did a good job. The air ventilation never turned sour for a long time after.

His life was lonely, and filled with long, hard hours. He rarely was clean, but he made sure he had enough to eat, and of the right stuff. As a result, he rarely fell sick, despite the filthy condition in which he lived, yet it had taken its toll. He was small for his age, around four feet eleven.

He pulled in his legs, and dropped the fourteen inches to the ground. In twenty minutes he was done, and carefully swept out the huge pile of gunk through the small door. The vent ended in a small alley, and had a small door for this very sort of thing. Soon, it was all in the alley, and Taka stepped out into sunlight again, blinking at the brightness, although it was actually quite dim, the sunlight being blocked by all the buildings and skybridges.

He took a deep breath, and even the thick, smelly air at the bottom of the city was savory compared to that inside the vent. He walked out of the alley into an open road, completely covered in filth. The peasant folk took care to give him a wide berth, grimacing as they passed.

"Hey, Taka!" Another sweeper stepped out of an alley, also covered in dirt. "I've a job for you!"

Familiar voices reached his ears, taunting and mocking. He frowned and turned that way. "Just a moment, Geral," he said, walking quickly. He found a group of sweepers, all in different levels of filth, surrounding a girl. She had a look of disgust on her face, and her bright gray eyes were afraid. Her long, red-golden hair was in a thick braid that went to her waist, and she turned slowly, looking for an escape.

"C'mon, lass, don't ya wanta play with us?" An older sweep sneered. Taka had never liked him, and he strode quickly up to them.

"Leave her alone," he said in quiet, authorative voice. The sweepers all turned, and looked at him.

"Aw, come one, Taka, let us have some fun."

"You want some fun, you climb the Gargoyle building yourself." The Gargoyle building was the most dreaded building for every sweeper. It was the highest, and had gargoyles on its roof. It had a complicated air ventilation system, that branched out into an intricate system. The smallest shafts only let an arm fit through, and it was agonizing to clean. It took a whole three days just to clean it from top to bottom. Taka had done it twice.

The sweepers fell silent then, and slowly drifted away in subdued silence, all disappearing into different alleys. Taka looked at the girl, keeping his distance.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes," she said, staring at him with wide eyes. All she saw was a dark, dirty figure, with brilliant green eyes staring out of a blackened face. It was almost comical, the effect, and she couldn't help but give a small smile. "Thank-you." She cocked her head to one side. "What was that about the Gargoyle building? It seemed to work pretty fast; maybe I should try it."

Taka was surprised by her curious attitude. After a scare like that, most girls would be near tears. He gave a slight smile.

"The Gargoyle building is the dread of all sweepers," he said.

"Why?"

"It's the tallest, most dangerous, and the hardest of all in this city to sweep." He shrugged. "It's not so bad. They wouldn't know, because they're too chicken to try it."

"And you've done it?"

"Twice," he smiled. "See me now? Imagine ten times more dirt. That would be me after the Gargoyle vents."

"Sweeping's a terrible job, isn't it?" Her gray eyes were sad, and concerned.

"It's not pleasant," Taka said, " and that's why no one wants to do it. But it isn't so bad, once your used to it."

"How old are you?" she asked suddenly, taking a step closer. He only came up to her shoulders.

"Sixteen,' he answered, a little ashamed.

"Sixteen!" she exclaimed. "Why, I'm a year younger!"

He gave a tight smile. "If I were much bigger, I'd have trouble sweeping the smaller pipes."

"But you're so. . .so small and thin!" She seemed horrified. "This isn't right!" Her eyes grew fierce, and her hands balled into fists. "The government cant allow this to happen! Why can't they invent some kind of machines to clean the vents, instead of forcing young boys to do it?"

"You shouldn't worry about us, miss. It's not your business. And I wasn't forced to clean; I chose to when I was eight. Besides, I soon will have enough to move out of the city." He turned to go.

"Wait!" He looked over his shoulder, and she cried, "I'm Kaela! What's your name?"

"Taka," he said, then hurried down the road, heading to the next building to sweep.