Chapter 1

The sunlight glaring in her eyes, Jane reached up to cradle the apple blossom in her hands. This was her favourite time of year, where the fruit trees finally joined in with the other plants in the great party of petal production. She ambled slowly through the orchard, inhaling deeply with every step, enjoying the fragrances that permeated the air around her. As she reached the gate back to the house, someone called to her from within the orchard. Puzzled, she turned to face the noise, sure that she was alone.

’Hello! Is anybody else here?’ she called out tremulously. Realising that she had nothing to fear - this was her home, her orchard, and if anyone else was there then it was they who should be nervous. ’Can I help you with something, are you lost?’

’Jane.’ called out the distant voice. She fancied she vaguely recognised it, but couldn’t place it. she started walking back into the orchard, looking left and right through the mesmeric lines of carefully planted and maintained fruit trees, seeing nothing but the recently cut green grass, the occasional beam of sunlight cutting through the leaves and a wasp or two buzzing about their business.

’Jane.’ called the voice again, louder and more insistent. She was now surer she recognised the voice, but still couldn’t put her finger on who it was. Running now, with the express intent of finding and identifying the voice, she started running over all the people she thought it could be. Suddenly, the ground gave away beneath her, and a black pit appeared out of nowhere and screaming, she plummeted into it.

* * *

Soaring through the sky, the buzzard observed the sprawling metropolis beneath it, scanning for any sign of prey. From above, the city looked like a gigantic oil rig on land - the industrial sector anyway. Metal pipes worked their way around and through all of the buildings, connecting one factory to the other like blood vessels in a body. Each building was unique, the result of many generations of growth and development as the city grew and expanded its requirements. There was a limit to the growth, with the old walls containing the entirety of the city. The walls stretched an incredible distance, and had been there longer than anyone could remember. They were both a symbol of the divide between the city and the wilds outside and practical for keeping unwanted elements out of paradise, or at least that’s what the posters said. On every building in the industrial sector, a poster decorated at least one wall, featuring a variety of hero’s from the cities past and present encouraging the good citizens to work harder, honour the Engineer and report all reports of Vitalism to the nearest Inspector.

Gliding through a cloud of vapour emanating from the factory beneath, the buzzard nearly flew straight into one of the floating gardens. Flapping frantically, it soared higher and came out above it, and settled on the roof, claws gripping the cold, smooth safety rail running around the edge of the flying vegetable patch. The sky all around here was dotted with similar floating platforms, on which were several plots of artificial soil. Due to the premium amount of space available within the cities walls, many years ago the leaders had decided that the solution lay in the sky. After several decades of research, the floating gardens were created. Unfortunately, when they were first deployed there were several accidents involving the pilot-less plots of land crashing into the living quarters, and so an autopilot system was quickly devised. Taking wing again, the bird headed straight towards the nearest living block, a towering silver column stretching from the ground straight up into the cloud layer and supported by cables and balloons attached to the sides filled with a unique, man made gas that provided the incredible lift necessary to maintain the buildings precarious position hundreds of feet above the ground. Dodging around its silvery edifice, the buzzard headed off over the wall in search of less crowded skies to hunt in.

* * *

’Jane! Wake up now!’ Anna stood over her with a panicky look on her face, shaking her shoulders violently, bringing her out of the dream with all the tact and grace with which she seemed to live her life. 

’And a good morning to you sunshine, what is up soul sister?’ grumbled Jane as she shoved Anna away and rolled out of bed, forgetting in her sleepy delirium that she tended to sleep on the edge of her bed, meaning that the result of the rolling was a face full of the metal grating they called a bedroom floor.

’It’s Inspection day today, don’t you remember?’ Anna’s face conveyed enough panic and worry for the both of them, however just for the moment, Jane’s face added a touch more before she regained her composure. One of them at least had to be calm and confident for the Inspectors, and it wasn’t going to be Anna. She struggled immensely with strangers, and was only really comfortable talking and interacting with Jane or their father. This did not mean she was incapable, far from it. She was a wonderfully gifted artist, and her work covered every flat surface inside her room. However, she would often forget to eat, and if someone knocked on the door she wouldn’t be able to answer it. Jane had to act as mother and sister to her, making sure she washed regularly, ate a balanced diet and left the flat for exercise as often as possible.

’How long before they get here?’ Jane asked stoically whilst she scrambled to find some clothes, pulling a threadbare brown dress over her head, cursed softly and took it off again and pulled it on the right way around. Scrambling to find a hairbrush, while her heart pounded in her chest, she reflected on how much easier this used to be. She dreaded Inspection days, not because they had anything to hide, but because every time they visited, she had to watch the officials of the Server trash what little belongings they had left, and hope against hope they wouldn’t find something totally innocent and take it as evidence of Vitalist affiliation. Just last week in an inspection of a block just around the corner, a team found what they claimed to be irrefutable Vitalism affiliation of the occupants, in a plant kept on the windowsill. Looking around, she double checked to make sure that she and Anna were the only living things in the apartment. ’Has Dad left for work yet?’

’Yes, he left about 5 minutes before I woke you up.’ Anna called over her shoulder as she went to tidy up the kitchen. ’He seemed better this morning, he remembered to pick up his lunch today.’

’What did he take for lunch though?’ she asked, fearing the answer. Their father loved them dearly and worked hard every day to make sure that they retained their apartment just over the smog layer, but he had never been the same after their dad had passed. He had loved him intensely, and ever since the accident, had never seemed able to fully concentrate on any activity. It was only through Jane taking over the running of the household and his supervisor being their uncle that he kept his job and escaped the notice of harsher eyes.

’Some bread and a bottle of water, I think’ Anna responded hastily, sweeping the debris from last nights meagre supper into the rubbish chute. The thudding and tumbling sounds of the plates and packaging from their evening meal faded slowly as they fell further and further down the vertical tunnel which ran down the side of the building, passing every kitchen from the very top of the building, where the managers looked down on their factories hard at work, all the way to the ground far below Jane’s apartment, hidden by a thick layer of smog that no-one who valued their ability to reproduce would breath without a gas mask on for more than 13 seconds. 

’Excellent, ok, are you ready then?’ Jane asked, trying desperately to pull the brush through her tangled mane of hair, a daily ritual which resulted in many broken hair brushes and curses falling from Jane’s tongue. A knock on the door stopped them both in their respective activities. Frozen, they both stared at the door in mingled horror and shock. A second knocked them out of their freeze, and Anna crept back to Jane, who was extracting the brush from her hair with difficulty.

’Why are they so early today, it’s not even midday yet.’ she whispered urgently to her elder sister.

’I don’t know, go and answer the door!’ Jane whispered forcefully back, still struggling with the brush. Anna slowly moved to the door, fear pouring out of her like a cloud of panic. A third, louder knock jolted her to her senses and she leapt for the handle, and opened the door.

’Any longer and we would’ve knocked that door down.’ stated the first Inspector as he barged past Anna and immediately started scanning the apartment. ’I assume your father isn’t in today?’ he asked Jane in a bored tone, while his colleague followed him in and began rifling through the bookshelf. The First Inspector was a tall man, easily over 6 foot, and built like a Kopple beast on steroids, so to a nervous 18 year old the sight of this behemoth of a man barging into her was easily enough to scare away the last of her faculties for speech, and she merely stood next to the door, staring at the ground and trembling slightly.

’Yes, he’s gone to work, he left about 10 minutes ago’ replied Jane hurriedly, resisting the urge to move over to Anna to comfort her. Anna was safer if she was struck dumb and frozen, she could give the Inspectors nothing to suspect or pick on. The second Inspector, similar in stature to the first, but slightly shorter and with hands like shovels, reached the kitchen and started going through the cupboards, pulling out glasses and crockery. Every so often one would slip out of his hands and fall to the floor, smashing and leading to a small squeak emanating from Anna at each crash. He made no attempt to go more careful, and took special care to tread on any particularly large fragments, crushing them into a fine powder under his shiny black heel. Jane stood there meek and unassuming, to all the world a good little girl who would cause no trouble sir, can she make you a cup of tea? It was a role she learnt from a young age was the safest for her to play.

’How old are you now little girl?’ asked the first Inspector, mildly curious, seeing her standing there, arm around her sister protectively. His eyes in particular seemed to focus on her well developed hips, not quite hidden under the formless shift dress and her modest breasts, which betrayed her transition from child to adult. She had been lucky when younger that she had had to have her puberty delayed for medical reasons, which let her retain her youthful looks for longer, but obviously that was no longer the case. Now, she was in serious trouble.

’Ni-twenty one sir’ replied Jane, trying not to let her rising panic show in her voice. She could have tried lying her way out, but that required courage she was not feeling. Besides, if she got found out the punishment would be even worse, and now it was all about mitigating the damage.

’Why aren’t you at work then?’ he responded, a frown deepening on his face. He was not ugly, but his thick eyebrows, which nearly met in the middle, gave him a look of constant disapproval, and a fairly heavy set jaw with a mouth fixed in a permanent scowl made him appear difficult to mollify, and even more difficult to please. ’The law dictates that every person-’

’Every person over the age of 20 must have a job that services the advancement of society as a whole’ recited Jane quickly, then, realising that she had interrupted him, shut her mouth quickly and cast her eyes to the floor, flushing red with anger and shame for allowing herself to lose control like that. This was not the time to grow a spine for crying out loud! Of course she knew the law, it had been forced down every child’s throat almost every day at school, and her father, whilst he did love her, was not currently capable of defending her if she got found out as Unemployed. She burned with shame at the feeling that she was not employed, but if she had got a job when she had turned twenty, there would of been no-one to look after Anna. Try telling that to the job office, she thought bitterly. Then, the boots of the Inspector appeared in her field of vision and a hand gently but firmly tilted her head upwards to face his stubble encrusted scarred visage.

’I see you know the law, and you don’t look unfit to work.’ he whispered into her ear. His breath smelt stale, and the hand gripping Jane’s jaw like a vice wore a ring with the spanner and axe symbol of the First, a group of Automologists who lived their lives as simply as possible at home, so they could devote themselves more fully to society and progress. It was said that the higher up through the ranks you progressed, the less of a home life you led. It was rumoured the leaders completely removed themselves from personal lives and spent every waking second working.

’Well, I’m sure that if you want to continue living at home, and look after your mentally stunted little sister, then we could come to some sort of arrangement...’ The words froze Jane in her place, and her mind raced in a terrified jumble with the ramifications of what he had just said. He was much more observant than she had imagined. She was so caught up with worrying about her sister, she almost missed what he had been insinuating. Almost.

’What...what do you mean sir?’ she asked tremulously, sure she knew but praying against hope that she was wrong. Growing up in the slums had quite prepared Jane for situations like this, but always in dark alleys at night, or in the park, never at home, never in front of her little sister, never somewhere so close to her heart, and with the only other option possibly being even worse for her and her family.

’I don’t think I need to explain do dear?’ he muttered as his other hand slowly reached out to pull her closer to him. Involuntarily shuddering, she allowed him to pull her closer, not daring to resist for fear of the ramifications. Mistaking the shudder for anticipation, he slid his hand down her back and let it rest on her bottom. Suddenly, a blur of movement from the doorway and the Inspector folded up with a little moan, releasing Jane and collapsing to the floor. Standing behind him was Anna, a burning look in her eyes and a frying pan in her hands, standing ready to hit him again. The second Inspector stopped his destructive searching in their fathers bedroom when he heard the thud and sudden silence from his colleague, and came to see what was going on. When he saw what had happened, his fellow Inspector unconscious on the floor and Anna above him with a heavy iron pan in her hands, he let out a bellowing cry of anger and moved towards the girls, anger in his eyes and violence on his mind.

The Inspector barrelled towards Anna, bellowing in anger. Jane tried to get between him and Anna, in a vain hope to protect her sister from her own foolhardiness, but she was knocked aside by a swipe of the man’s hand and fell to the floor, blood flowing from her nose. Face down, wind knocked out of her and pain flashing across her face, she looked up just in time to see the brute reach Anna and deflect her attempted kick at his face with another swipe of his hand. He then grabbed Anna’s wrist as she tried to punch him in the stomach, and with a sickening crunch snapped her arm around so hard that it broke, extracting a scream from Anna which did nothing to alleviate the assault, as he proceeded to bring his foot up hard to connect with her face, spinning the girl up and backwards, landing in a bloodied mess on her back.

’Please...stop!’ cried out Jane, pitifully hoping that she could reach some part of this rage fuelled monster and save Anna. ’She’s sorry, she won’t do it again! She was just trying to protect me!’ The man turned, and, snarling, brought his foot around and stomped on her face, snapping her neck back and making her cry out in agony.

’Assault on an Inspector comes with immediate punishment.’ snarled the First Inspector as he lent over Jane, anger evident in his deep green eyes. His hand suddenly snapped forward, grabbing Jane’s throat, lifting her bodily and shoving her against the wall. Jane struggled desperately, trying to break his grip so she could breath, but he slapped her so hard she collapsed in his grip, and he followed that up with punishing blows into her ribs with his free hand and knee. Jane felt one, two ribs at least breaking and, as pain overwhelmed her and she slowly sank into the pitch black of unconsciousness, her last thought was of her father, and whether he would notice if they died.

* * *

Jane opened her eyes to see sunlight pouring through the soft green leaves of her orchard. She smiled and sat up, looking around and feeling a wave of contentment wash over her. She was home.

* * *

Jane woke in an unfamiliar room, bright with the light of day shining through cream coloured curtains. She sat up, immediately wincing with pain as her abdomen reminded her of the beating she had taken. Looking around, trying not to breath too much, as she tried taking stock of her situation from flat on her back. She found herself in a firm bed, cheap and threadbare, in a room that had most definitely seen better days. From the patched and fraying nature of the wallpaper on the walls, the dirt on the floor and the hole in the wall across from her, she fancied that she was in the remains of a very old building. For one thing, the floor was wooden, which only the very rich could afford these days. For another, the style remaining in the room was incredibly old fashioned, from a time when buildings weren’t just designed for function, but for aesthetic reasons too. She had heard that some of the original city still survived in the hidden corners of the underbelly of Lassa, the capital city. Places like this, though filthy and dangerous, where sometimes the only places for the lost and abandoned of the city. Which, Jane thought with a bolt of fear, she must be now too. There was no way she was going to be able to go back, not with the Inspectors who they assaulted. They would have filed a report by now, and their father would have been fetched. Things had gone south so quickly, it was almost unbelievable, yet her aching body was proof of the turmoil it had undergone. 

Next Chapter: The one after Chapter 1