Chapter Two: Remembrance

Zoë was woken by the whirr of the sun-lamps coming on, their carefully manufactured light exactly reproducing the effects of the far-off sun. Yawning, the girl slipped out of her cot and folded it back into the wall. The false sunlight was streaming in through the clear plastic window of her tiny room, illuminating the mass-produced recyc-plastic furniture that filled her room. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she went over to the window and checked her plants.

Five years earlier, Zoë had fled to Ground Level in a fit of tears over some long-forgotten argument. The single plant she had found then had become her most precious possession, and over the years she had made numerous hazardous trips to obtain more. At eleven, she was a serious girl, with soft brown hair cut short in the style of Level Three. It fell into her large eyes, only to be flicked back in annoyance by one pale hand. Zoë had little time for looks. Her interests lay in her plants.

Now, she checked them over carefully. There were ten. Only ten, over the five years she had been collecting, and yet each of them was a minor triumph for her. The sunlamps had been recommended by upper-level scientists long ago as a way to improve general health and morale in the lower levels, but Zoë had swiftly discovered that they did not have everything a plant needed. She had come up with the solution, giving up her vitamin supplement once in a while to crumble it into the small amounts of water she saved from her ration. Her mother would have been horrified if she had found out... everybody's rations were worked out with great care, so that they received exactly the amount they needed. Zoë's mother, who was a doctor, insisted that it was vital they took in everything the computer gave them to eat and drink.

There were other reasons why Zoë had kept her plants a secret, not least of which was the fact that it was illegal to have them in her possession. The plants were mutant varieties, failures from the genetic adaptation programmes being practiced in the upper-level labs. They were supposed to be thrown out and allowed to die, to protect the fragile ecosystem of the planet.

Yeah, right, Zoë thought sarcastically. There hasn't been a plant or animal outside those labs for generations. Human expansion had simply swallowed everything. The only ecosystem left was the one people had created. Nature had slipped into a coma long ago, its death only held off by a few carefully monitored specimens in artificial environments.

Too little, too late. Air scrubbers could clean the air better than plants ever had, and molecular recombiners could make anything into food. Plants and animals were obsolete, and nobody really cared about them anymore.

"Zoë!" called her mother's voice, and after giving her plants a final look-over, Zoë left her room to go to breakfast.

The housing on Level Three was arranged in apartment units. Zoë, her parents, and her little brother Bain lived in apartment NF11092, which consisted of a corridor along which the doors to their separate room led. At one end was the small bathroom; at the other was the door to their unit area. Zoë now took that door.

She stepped out into a large, square room. Ten other doors were set into the walls. Nine lead to the other apartments in unit NF1109, and the tenth led to the Level Three walkways. The central area acted as kitchen, dining room and living room for ten families, and was therefore very crowded. Children dashed about underfoot, while their parents desperately tried to get them sitting down to eat breakfast. The older children, meanwhile, were trying to ignore the anarchy and get their own food.

Zoë saw her little brother, who was six, charging around the standard issue yellow floor covering. He was screaming, presumably for the sheer purpose of making noise. Zoë intercepted him and plonked him down on one of the high child-seats at the long, scratched table. The white plastic surface was supposed to be hygienic and easy to clean, but in practice the long grooves that had been acquired over years of use captured grime and held it firm.

Zoë's mother cast her a look of gratitude as she calmed Bain down and managed to get him eating his breakfast. Zoë saw that her parents were busy trying to calm the other children, so she made her way over to the dispenser and swiped her ID through the slot. A stream of brown goo spiralled into a bright plastic bowl, and water tipped into her glass. She made her way back to the table, and sat down next to her brother.

"Hey, Zoë," said a voice, and she looked up to see Leam smirking at her. She rolled her eyes. When would that boy learn she wasn't interested? Ignoring his unwanted attentions, she dug into the goop in her bowl with a grimace. The stuff was nutritionally balanced to provide the exact requirements of a perfect morning meal, but it was completely tasteless and the texture was oddly rubber-like. Zoë gagged it down slowly, then returned her bowl to the slot, where it was immediately swallowed by the autocleaner. Surreptitiously, she pulled a small flask from her pocket and tipped the remains of her water into it. The bright plastic object had been a discovery on her second trip to Ground Level, and she'd used it ever since to store water for her plants.

"Goodbye, sweetie," her mother said, coming up behind her and kissing her forehead. "I'm off to work now. Maybe they'll have the new shots in today." Zoë could see the worry lines on her mother's face, and knew that it was unlikely. Level Three always got the old things, the out of date things, the things that the upper levels no longer needed. New medicines would not arrive until something better had been created.

"I'd better be going, too," Zoë's father said, strolling out of their apartment with his work overalls over one arm. He worked at a plastics factory, and often bemoaned the lack of new materials on their level.

One by one, the adults began to leave, until the children were all left on their own. Zoë went back to her room and dressed in the grey coveralls that were standard issue for her level. She finished just as the soft chimes went off, telling those left in the apartment that it was time to leave for school.

Zoë collected Bain, who was doing his best to make a mess in the super-clean environment. Holding his hand firmly, she stepped out of the front door, running several minutes ahead of the others. The walkways were crowded, people hurrying to their jobs. Zoë took care to avoid being jostled too hard. The walkways had a barrier at the edge of their metal mesh flooring, but it wasn't unknown for small children to fall over the edge, and she certainly didn't want to loose Bain that way.

Up above, she could see people walking on the Level Four walkways, barely bothering to glance down, and above them were more walkways, and more, a forest of metal that formed an impenetrable roof over the lower levels. Looking down, Zoë could see nothing but darkness. Levels One and Two were uninhabited, their rusted walkways and crumbling structures officially labelled hazardous. And below them, of course, was Ground Level, where nobody went if they had a choice. Except Zoë.

They arrived at the crèche, and with a great deal of wailing and protest Bain was deposited with the smiling childcare workers. Zoë made sure her little brother was settled, then made her way to school. It was an easier journey than before; most of the adults had already arrived at their destinations, and now the traffic was mostly children heading the same way as her.

School looked no different to any other doorway on the level, apart from the sign announcing it to be "Child Education Centre L3NF11". Zoë stepped through the door, into the familiar large room, each individual desk awaiting its occupant. She made her way to the one at which she usually sat, and swiped her ID through the slot.


Zoë sighed. Her favourite lesson was biology, but clearly the central education computer considered her proficient enough in that subject. Lifting the computer pen, she began to work on the problems the desk supplied.

Day and night did not exist on Ground Level. No matter what the time above, the shadowy half-light was always the same. Jerei skipped from shadow to shadow, her pale hair flashing in the perpetual twilight. A watcher would have seen that her movement had purpose, that her initially random-seeming manoeuvres had a target. The object of her travel proved to be a large building, blue birds sprayed across the boarded-up windows. Her dark eyes took in the wide-open door, and silently she slipped through it, knowing she would be safe.

Inside, the building could easily be identified as a gang headquarters. People walked purposefully from place to place, sometimes carrying strange items, sometimes not. Their clothes were all shabby and grubby, but all of them had a blue silhouette of a bird sewed onto their top, even if the blues were all different, and the shape varied. The symbol of the Blue Hawk Gang.

Jerei made her way through the extensive HQ, noting as she passed the wide-open doors of different rooms. Through one, she could make out people lying on pallets on the floor while Blue Hawks walked between them. In another, gang members sat tearing up strips of cloth and winding them carefully.

"Jerei!" called a joyful voice, and she looked up to see one of the gang members approaching her. Unlike the other Blue Hawks, who looked normal although underfed and pale, he looked almost ghostly. Like Jerei, his hair was silver and his skin almost pure white. His eyes were as large and dark as hers, his ears as oversized. Smiling shyly, the young girl reached up and hugged her big brother.

"The hospital's doing well," she observed as he led her through the building. The boy laughed happily.

"Just like I saw it," he agreed. "They've got someone new now, a kid called Mike. He's a natural techno-whiz, and he should be able to make the hospital much better."

The girl smiled widely. "You know what everyone said when Korl opened this place, Ado?"

The pale boy nodded. "They said it was crazy and the Blue Hawks would be eaten alive." He waved a hand, encompassing the meagre facility in which they stood. "But now look! It's not much, but it's enough, little sister. People come here to be healed, now. So many lives have been saved here..." he broke off, and glanced at Jerei. "And it's all because Korl followed his heart."

Jerei frowned. "If that's a veiled hint that I should find a charge..."

"Well, why not?" Ado asked, inquisitively. "You know what our purpose is, and if you don't find someone soon then you might miss your chance to help make the world a better place."
"But Ado, I already found someone. Years ago."

The pale boy frowned. "Jerei, you need to stop believing such rubbish..." He broke off as his sister's eyes lost their focus, staring at something he couldn't see.

"I have to go," she whispered, still looking at the air. Ado gave a single nod, and watched as his sister turned and fled from the building.

Zoë held Bain's hand tightly all the way home, releasing him only when they arrived back at the apartment unit. He ran off to play with the other youngsters, and only then did Zoë notice her parents sitting at the table watching her solemnly.

"What's wrong?" she asked, puzzled. Her mind rewound through the past few days, but she couldn't remember doing anything wrong...

"Zoë," her mother said sadly, and then the girl saw it. The single plant, still only half-grown, lying on the table between her parents' arms.

"Oh," was all she could say.

"We put the rest in the chute," her father told her. "Where they belonged."

"My own daughter, keeping illegal plants," her mother added. Neither of them sounded cross. Just disappointed.

"The recycler?" Zoë echoed, horror filling her. Her precious plants, gone?

"We've made an appointment for you. With the psychiatrist," her mother said. "I'm sure everything is going to be fine..."

"You killed my plants," Zoë whispered, tears in her eyes. Those small lives, so precious to her, now gone.

"We thought you should put this one in yourself," her father explained, pushing the final survivor forwards.

Zoë looked at the plant, lifted it carefully, began to walk towards the garbage chute. Her mind was numb. She had to get rid of her plants. They had to go.

Suddenly she remembered finding this one. It had fallen a long way, and was lying, barely alive, on a heap of junk. She'd lifted it gently, slipped it into the pot she'd prepared earlier.

"I'll look after you," she'd promised it.

And now she was standing in front of the chute, ready to throw it into the darkness again.

Cradling the precious plant to her chest, Zoë turned around to face her parents.

"No," she said, and ran.

The walkways were fairly empty by that time, and only a few faces turned to stare as she ran past, tears pouring down her face. She reached one of the stairways to Level Two; it was blocked by a Civic Safety Gate, which she jumped. She clattered down the stairs, instinctively avoiding the rusted ones, then did the same for the stairs to Level One. The stairs to Ground Level were unusable; she ran along the crumbling walkways until she found some that seemed safe enough. Her feet in their standard issue boots touched the concrete ground, and suddenly she fell to the ground in tears, still holding her plant.

What have I done? her mind wailed. She couldn't stay on Ground Level. It wasn't safe. She would have to go back. Abandon the plant and go home, take the therapy and grow used to a life in a dead world of metal and plastic...

"Come with me," said a voice.

Her eyes blurred with tears, Zoë looked up to see one pale hand being extended to her. Her eyes moved further up, to see a small pixie-face and large, dark eyes.

"You?" she asked. The face smiled and nodded.

"I know a place where you and your plant will be safe," it said. Hesitantly, Zoë took the offered hand and found herself being hauled to her feet. The strange girl looked at her with an inscrutable expression on her face.

"Follow me," she ordered, and turned to leave. Still cradling her plant with care, Zoë followed.