"16651," Mr. Pareto's voice crackled over the radio, "what's the status on that breach?"
Leo took care to get his moping out of the way before replied, but there was still an unmistakable hint of boredom in his voice as he flicked the transceiver. "Almost done," he lied. "It'll be like five minutes."
His boss' grumbling meshed with the popping of the static until they came out together as a single, disdainful garble. "Be quick about it," he snapped, obviously losing interest already, "there's another one in 38-C when you finish."
Leo closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "Okay," he shrugged. Moving at his usual pace he strolled up to the breach and unfastened his torch, half-heartedly assessing the task before him. From the black interior of the shredded pipe, cold and sterilized air wisped across his face. It was just a tiny tear – nothing he hadn't done a billion times before. He reached into his pocket and began searching for a seal.
He heard it at once; a groaning sound, the kind that only a duct worker knew – the kind made by a rookie when he put too much weight into his step. Leo whipped around to face the direction it had come from; he shot his flashlight right down the throat of the tiny vent behind him, only realizing after he had already spied the huddled figure hiding at the far end that this was the same place where he had first seen the Stranger, so long ago.
The Stranger's eyes widened and then disappeared quickly back around the corner; Leo dropped to his knees before the entrance, twisting his neck to try and see where the man had gone. "Wait!" He looked down; the wrapper of the nutrient bar he had left there lay crumpled against the wall, empty and coated thickly in dust. "I have more food," he called, fumbling through his pockets, "if you're hungry."
He turned in shock, hands still in his pockets, looking right into the blinding arc of another flashlight. For the second time, Mr. Pareto's humorless voice rumbled from somewhere behind it. "What are you doing?"
Leo felt himself turn bright red; he opened his mouth dumbly, trying to parry the question with an utterly unconvincing shake of the head. "I – nothing," he lied – a little too quickly.
His eyes began to adjust to the light; he could see his boss' face now – not furious and disappointed, as he thought it might be, but merely frightened and unnerved. He stared at Leo silently for a few moments, engaged unblinkingly in some sort of deep thought. "Who were you talking to?"
"Nobody," Leo blurted hastily, shaking his head vigorously again. He searched the catacombs of his mind for some plausible excuse. "I…I was just checking the vent-"
"Move," Mr. Pareto commanded flatly. He crouched down right where Leo had been, staring into the creepy little corridor and trying in vain to bend his flashlight around the corner. He gave Leo a sidelong look, deathly serious now. "Was there somebody else here just now – tell the truth," he added urgently.
"I – no!" Leo stammered, throwing up his hands; he could sense the situation slipping away. "I was just checking the vent!"
Mr. Pareto stared at him another moment, finally shaking his head in silent contempt. He snatched his transceiver and pressed it anxiously to his mouth. "Get me the Commissioner," he snapped immediately, still carefully inspecting the duct.
There was a short pause. "This is Commissioner-"
"Mr. Commissioner," the boss interjected hastily, "we may have a situation sir – vent 18-A. I think there's an…" he looked briefly at Leo and hesitated, "an individual maybe sheltering inside. We need to seal it off and run a purge."
"Noted," the Commissioner's voice was already rejoining, "I'll see to it now. Out."
Mr. Pareto exhaled anxiously and shifted his weight back onto his heels; he suddenly looked terribly exhausted, as if he were fifty years older with everything that came with it. He gave Leo a piercing glare. "This is your last chance to tell the truth."
Leo gaped helplessly, almost on the verge of tears now. Why did this have to happen? "I didn't see anyone!"
His boss sighed and shook his head in disappointment. "Oh Leo."
Heavy footsteps crashed against the aging floor of the ducts, and just then the Commissioner briskly turned the corner and strode into the trunk area, a stern and unamused look in his eyes, flanked on either side by the gargantuan shape of two Enforcers carrying some heavy rectangular contraption between them. They were practically invisible in the dimly-lit chamber, but their presence itself gave off an imposing aura of its own, and the device in their grasp hummed as a little red light blinked ominously on the casing.
The Commissioner paid no immediate mind to Leo as he looked around the darkened cavern impatiently, seemingly perturbed as to why nothing productive was happening. "What's the situation?" he demanded.
"I caught him talking to someone inside the vent," Mr. Pareto explained, tipping his head toward Leo. "I tried to catch whoever it was but I was too late – I'm sorry," he added skittishly, turning his eyes downward.
The Commissioner looked at Mr. Pareto, and then at the vent, and then finally at Leo. His gaze, unchanging, subtly redoubled in coldness as it fixed on the young man crouched meekly just off to the side. "Who were you talking to, Leo?" he asked, his voice low, level and dangerous.
Leo's brain was virtually frozen; it took him painful seconds to even muster his same weak evasion. "Nobody," he answered softly, more as an act of surrender than anything else.
The Commissioner snorted and shook his head. "Liar. Seventy-six," he snapped, the soldier at his right jerking to attention, "initiate the purge at once."
The Enforcer steadied the unknown contraption in his hands and then suddenly jammed it against the opening of the vent; it sealed to the opening effortlessly like a suction cup with an audible pumping noise. The high-pitched sound of the flowing air disappeared in an instant, leaving a surreal silence. The Commissioner nodded to his lackey and he hovered a gigantic finger over the power switch. "Do it."
You know what a vacuum sounds like? It was just like that; all at once the corridor was filled with the sound of a whining motor as the metal box sucked the air right out of the vent and scattered it in cold, stale gusts around the room. A minute passed. Leo covered his ears but it did no good; it still could not block out the deafening commotion, nor could it block out the faint pounding sound which began to fight for attention over the din of the machine. It sounded like someone knocking, only more frenzied and more insistent.
The Commissioner heard it too; instantly his eyes lit up with predatory anticipation. He slipped past the Enforcer and quickly flicked the power off; the knocking sound remained, clearly audible now from just inside the covered vent. Through the weight of the metal walls someone's muffled voice called out repeatedly, sounding almost as if they might be saying "let me out".
The Commissioner was want to oblige them. He nodded again to the Enforcer, and just like that the device was pried back off from the duct again. The sound of agonized, full-body gasping and wheezing filled the dusty corridor, as the Stranger's upper-half flopped out the opening and sprawled across the crumbling floor in exhausted, traumatized, uncontrolled relief.
His respite did not last long. Almost as soon as he had been revealed he was accosted by the unflinching grasp of the Enforcers; they dragged him roughly to his feet, forcing him to stand even as the rest of his body could only dangle limply in-between them. Leo surveyed him uncertainly; even in his current state, hunched over and beaten, he could not help but seem like an imposing, significant figure. His hair and beard had grown wild over the course of his unknown eternity spent in hiding, but it did not obscure the fiery defiance of his features.
The Commissioner stood before his captive with unbearable smugness; for a few moments he just stood there, beaming, his hands clasped behind his back as he surveyed his catch. "Well, well, well," he began slowly, inhaling deeply through his nose. He shook his head as he relinquished a toothy smile in silence; it was almost like he was too happy to even speak. "We finally found you."
"Took you long enough," the Stranger spat between breaths.
The Commissioner chuckled easily. "Well you certainly didn't make it easy on us! How long have you been hiding in this shithole – a year now, maybe two?" He looked around the room, bemusedly scanning the ducts and vents as if he were only just now becoming aware of his dismal surroundings. He snickered. "No wonder. Who would have thought, all this time and you were just hiding here in the pipes like a coward."
"I'm no coward," the Stranger snarled, looking up into the eyes of his captor for the first time.
The Commissioner snickered again, nodding his head sarcastically. "Indeed. 'I'm no coward', he says. And yet, while all your friends were out there fighting and dying – like real men – you were right here, holed up like a rat in your little tunnels, clinging to your miserable, worthless life." His eyes narrowed as he silently dismembered his captive debate partner. "What am I to call that, then?"
The Stranger took a furious breath; Leo had never even conceived of the amount of hatred etched onto the man's face. "I was continuing the fight," he growled.
The Commissioner laughed heartily, literally throwing his head back. "Ha! Is that what they call it," he teased, still laughing, "when you paint graffiti on the walls!? When you spend your days skulking around through the air ducts, eating leftover candy bars from an overgrown child!?"
Leo withered at this comment. He hung his head and silently pressed his face in his hands, feeling unwanted tears building beneath his eyelids. Why did this have to happen? Why couldn't he have just minded his own business? All he wanted now was to be left alone.
The Commissioner seemed to sense something behind him; he turned halfway around and his eyes widened, as if he were rediscovering this dejected young man for the first time. "You know who I should really be thanking right now," he began, turning his head to the Stranger with a smirk, "is Leo here. He's the reason we were able to find you, after all – who knows if we would ever have even known you were here without him!" He turned back. "How're we doing today Leo?"
Leo said nothing; he kept his same frozen posture. He couldn't even be angry. He couldn't even be upset. He couldn't even feel sad. He was just done.
The Commissioner grinned broadly, smiling with his whole face. "Leo is one of our more…troublesome workers," he decided, slowly sauntering over with absolute satisfaction. "He doesn't pay much attention. He doesn't work very hard. He's not so bright. He's something of a coward himself actually," the Commissioner added, as if this were a considerable new insight. "I bet the two of you would get along; you'd make good friends." He knelt down next to his victim and put a hand on his shoulder, looking at his stubbornly downturned face in amusement. "That's all you really want Leo, right? You just want a friend." He held out his other hand toward the Stranger. "You should say hello – that'd be a good start; just tell him 'hello'."
Leo shook his head, his eyes still facing his lap.
The Commissioner tightened his grasp on the boy's shoulder. "Say it."
He looked up at the Stranger; the man's gaze was still trained at the floor, as it had been the whole time. "…hello," Leo spoke quietly.
The Stranger said nothing. He turned his head off to the side, looking at the film-covered walls as if he found them extremely fascinating.
The Commissioner refocused his attention on this newly perceived challenge. "It's pretty rude not to return a greeting," he observed, strolling back across the room. "Don't they still have manners, wherever the hell you came from?"
No reaction. The Commissioner got right up in his face, eyes narrowing in theatrical fashion. "Didn't you hear me? I said-"
He almost reacted quickly enough, but even in the faint light of the ducts Leo could see the streak of spit across the Commissioner's cheek as he pulled away. He heaved an enormous full-body sigh as he carefully wiped the offending material with his hand. "Charming," he remarked flatly. "I think that's quite enough. Seventy-six," he snapped again, "take these two down to Processing. You," he added, making Mr. Pareto jolt, "will be in my office at 8 AM sharp tomorrow for a debriefing – that's an order."
The boss hastily clambered to his feet, having been quite content to simply relax on the sidelines. "Yes Mr. Commissioner – whatever you command."
The Commissioner sniffed and straightened his collar, checking for loose bits of spittle as he already began his exit. "Always."