The room was silent. It was not past six in the morning yet. Still early. Soon the city would be awake but for now George embraced the blissful silence, knowing it would soon end. He lay in his bed staring at the thin slivers of light that had crept through the gaps in the blinds and decorated his duvet like glowing claw marks. He glanced at the alarm: 5.59. Soon the wonderful silence would be broken; soon the city would be drowned in the noise of people and machines and voices on loudspeaker systems. He sighed, vowing that tomorrow he would wake earlier so that he could appreciate the quiet for longer. He closed his eyes once more and waited. Finally came the familiar buzz from the alarm. George tapped the ‘dismiss’ button and sat at the edge of his bed rubbing his eyes. He could hear his upstairs neighbour rising now, crashing hurriedly around the room on his heels. Every morning was the same and George would often sit and listen—not that he had much choice but to listen, such was the volume. It wasn’t just the stomping around either, the upstairs neighbour did everything at a great volume. George could tell when he was brushing his teeth, when he was sitting down to eat breakfast, and when he was taking a piss. He even read things loudly; not the words themselves but he would ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’ over the back of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles. A year ago it had all gotten too much when George had been awoken at three in the morning by the sound of what he initially thought was someone smashing a hole through his ceiling. He threw on a jacket and did some stomping of his own—up the apartment block stairs. He banged an angry fist on the neighbour’s door. The man who answered was no shorter than six foot-two, weighed at least sixteen stone and seemed to take up the entire doorframe. Suddenly all the vigour had been drained from George’s slender five-foot-nine frame and he asked, more politely than he originally intended, what all the noise was about. ‘Mouse’ had been the reply. After further investigation George managed to uncover that the man had spotted a mouse while he was watching television and, due to a lack of Council Credits to pay for an exterminator, had taken it upon himself to catch it. George told the man to call pest control and charge the bill to his Credits account. When George had returned to his room he could hear the neighbour stomp around in search of his phone, then he could hear him reading the number for the exterminators from the Council Services handbook as he dialled, and then he heard the entire episode as it was relayed to the operator. George, defeated, had gone back to bed and had the most wonderful dream in which the exterminators mistook his gigantic neighbour for some kind of mutated mouse and exterminated him instead. The familiar buzz of his alarm at six in the morning had cruelly snatched him from his bliss. Much like it had done this morning. Now George had accepted the fact that the upstairs neighbour would stomp and he would have to be content with quietly despising him.
He got up from the bed and walked to the kitchen area. The apartment building had over three thousand residences and his was the same as all the rest. Bed, lounge and kitchen all in one room with a separate small bathroom featuring a sink, shower and chemical toilet. The shower and sink had once used water, but since the drought started all water used for cleaning had been re-routed to the Liquid Refreshment Corporation for bottling and been replaced with a pale blue chemical wash. It had since become quite the challenge to wash effectively without getting a drop in your eyes or mouth. Despite vicious rumours as to the liquid’s origin, the wash didn’t smell particularly bad, and it certainly fulfilled its cleaning purpose well enough for George. It did leave certain extremities with a tingling sensation, but then he knew of more than one person who professed to rather enjoy that.
George showered quickly and brushed his teeth, being careful to use as little bottled water as possible. The government had distributed bottles to the city shortly after all the water had been redirected to the LRC but it was never enough, not least because of the bright idea by the Minister of Food to start handing out old army dry-rations in place of real food. The rations came in silver pouches and were in the form, usually, of small rock-hard clusters. It had taken George seconds to notice the major flaw in the Food Minister’s decision when he turned the packet over to see the preparation instructions: Just Add Water. Before the week was over the Minister of Food had resigned.
Breakfast, therefore, was condensed cereal bars. Had been for a while, and didn’t look like being anything else in the near future. They were easy to manufacture, didn’t require much water and, according to the packet, had ‘All the carbohydrates, fats and proteins the body needs.’ George sat in his chair finishing his last bite of one. He stared at the TV screen and thought about switching it on. He decided not to. The news, which was the only thing on this early, had been the same for the past five months. There was a water shortage, the war with the East continued unabated, food supplies were low, The Zones were out of control. Rinse and repeat. George checked his watch, 6.27. It was time to leave for work. He put on a light coat over his simple light blue jumpsuit uniform and left the apartment.
George’s apartment was on the fifteenth floor out of fifty, the lifts were quick but often cramped, so this morning he decided to take the stairs. The apartment complex, like all other complexes in the city was split into floors of five with each section housing people from certain occupations. The lower floors were labourers, mostly; the next five were factory floor workers; the third block—George’s block—was mostly made up of technicians, the fourth and fifth blocks were a mix of engineers, high-level technicians, and architects. Anything higher than the thirtieth floor was a bit of a mystery; all most people knew was that it was management. They had a separate elevator that took them to a tram station beneath the apartment block. From there, trams would deliver them to wherever they might be needed, so no one from below the thirtieth floor ever got the chance to ask. George reached the bottom of the stairs and walked outside to find Percy Carnoustie waiting for him.
‘Morning, George.’ He said, smiling.
‘Walk today did we George? Good man. I’d take the stairs myself but you know what it’s like. This humidity does my knee no good and the walk would leave me rather thirsty. A problem, nowadays.’
Percy worked alongside George as a technician in the Liquid Refreshment Corporation bottling facility. Percy’s job was to ensure that the production line belt kept turning. Two years ago he had been lying under the belt trying to fix some kind of jam when the thing unexpectedly jolted into action. It caught his sleeve in the machinery and in a desperate attempt to scramble out from under the belt, he twisted his knee, damaging the ligaments beyond repair. Now he walked with a slight limp, which seemed to suit him in a strange way.
As they walked along the pavement toward the huge, grey, towering mass of the Liquid Refreshment Corp building they could hear the distant, monotonous voice of Minister Dotson on the loudspeaker.
Save your bottled water. Supplies are more limited now than ever. The conflict in the East continues. The battle on the home front is against a different but just as dangerous common enemy—indulgence!
George had heard the message before. As had Percy. As had every man and woman who made the trek from the thousands of apartment blocks to the employment district on a daily basis. The road from George’s building was just shy of a mile. George didn’t mind but since the accident Percy had often complained about the fact they were neither close enough to walk there before his leg began to ache, nor far enough away that they qualified for the public transport system. While George made no real complaints, it was not a pleasant walk. For most of the way the tall apartment complexes rose on either ride of the road, shrouding everything in shadow. At their tops, long connecting walkways for maintenance access stretched across adjacent buildings, blocking out the sky. It was not until a few hundred yards from the entrance to the employment district that the apartments began to shrink down and the road opened up into an enormous space called Sunlit Square. Sunlit Square was easily the most open area in the city, and sunlight shone down onto it unobstructed. When they arrived there George looked up, squinting.
‘Lovely day, eh George?’ Percy said, suddenly very close to George’s side.
‘Not a cloud in sight. We’ll see no rain today.’ George sighed. ‘I’m low on water—everyone is. It’s not been this bad before. Not in years.’
‘Tomorrow, I’m certain. The news said there was a raincloud on its way here.’
George looked at Percy but said nothing. He had seen the same news report promising rain within a week. The report had aired over a month ago.
‘It could be worse.’ He continued. ‘We could be down there.’
Percy pointed over to his left toward the western edge of Sunlit Square toward the passage that led down away from the apartments and into the lower area of the city. Sun Gaze City was built in two tiers. The top tier, which was essentially split into a separate two tiers itself, was home to The Skyland and The Suburbs. The Skyland was home to the super-rich and powerful; the ministers, the board members and directors of the various corporations—people like Bryce Callaghan, the Director of Operations for the Liquid Refreshment Corp, where Percy and George worked.
The Suburbs were considered anything from floor thirty down to ground level. This was where the vast majority of the population lived and worked. It were made up of the enormous employment district in the North where all of the major manufacturing plants had been built. There was the Liquid Refreshment Corp obviously, the Parts and Repairs Corp, the Council Services building, the Sun Gaze Banking Corporation and many more. In the South, along a huge stretching road, known as the Corridor, were the apartments. To the East was the Sun Gaze Transport Hub, where all of the public transportation for the city began and terminated. And to the West was the Government District. The Government District was home to the Prison, the City Court, Parliament, and the House of the Minister—a gigantic glass tower with no access from the ground level that housed Minister Dotson and all his party members. Below the Suburbs was a labyrinth of shafts, giant pipes, cables and ducts. These descended down for another few hundred feet until reaching the very foundation of Sun Gaze City. Tier 2, The Zones.
The government had shut off access to The Zones over ten years ago, citing the increased level of violence and terrorism as the cause. Many of its inhabitants had been convicted as spies and now instead inhabited cells inside Sun Gaze prison. George had often peered over the side of Sunlit Square into the mess of mechanical contraptions descending into blackness below and wondered what type of human could possibly carve out an existence in all that darkness and steam. Minister Dotson constantly warned against the threat of those who called The Zones home; they had set fire to apartment buildings murdering hundreds, stolen months of water and food supplies, kidnapped women and children from the Skyland and ransomed them off for weapons—or they tried to, but Minister Dotson had refused to negotiate. The Zones were as deadly a place as people like George knew of, and he feared what and who dwelled within them far more than some nameless enemy in the East, and far more than the ever increasing threat of this drought.
‘Come on, George. Let’s get punched in before we’re late. I have a feeling today is going to be thoroughly productive one!’
Normally George found Percy’s enthusiasm a little nauseating, but it brightened his mood a little today. He walked into the LRC bottling facility main entrance and swiped his employment ID against the reader. It beeped sharply.
George Wick. Third Level Technician LRC bottling facility 2.
George began to walk away when the machine beeped again, this was unexpected.
Message for G. Wick. Please report immediately to office of Mr. B. Callaghan. Elevator 4, floor three hundred and twelve.
George stared at the machine in disbelief, then turned to Percy.
‘George…’ He said with a look of childlike fear in his eyes. ‘…what have you done?’