Jenna hurried down the rough stoned street in her plastic pattens. The wet mud rarely dried off even on the rare sunny days. On rainy ones this, like all the streets, was cross grained with running rivulets. The Waterboys’ race
would be starting, and she didn’t want to miss it. Rae was competing and his winning it was critical to both of them. Jenna pulled her head covering closer around her face so as not to be recognised. The Waterboys, essential as they
were to getting citizens around the city with their speedy, lightweight skiffs, zipping over the canal ways and town enclosed rivers like pond skaters, were low caste. But they were dandies too, and attractive to young girls like Jenna. She and
Rae had been furtive friends for a year or so. Rae often poled and sculled Jenna’s household from the Crystal City where the elite citizens lived in lofty splendour. His boat rank stand was hard won and the territory for it always strongly
contested by Rae. Jenna had watched him fight for it, physically too when other Waterboys had tried to muscle in. For weapons, they wore thick leather belts with heavy buckles which could smash a skull when wielded right.
People were gathered
on the curving, bouncy bridges that spanned the canal sides. Chaotic youths were running through letting off fireworks from their hands to startle, while others pickpocketed. The citizen militia were on duty watching at a distance, taser staffs
at the ready, held out at their sides like bishops’ croziers, their long helmets and decorative capes adding to the saintly illusion. They did affect a holier than thou swagger amongst their ordinary fellows, but that was also due to their power
over the people as informers. The touch of a button on their cell and an instant image could identify you there and then as someone to be kept an eye on, transmitted between them and the logging database in the same second.
Jenna pulled her woman’s
poncho shawl firmly round her hair and ducked her face as she hurried to the barrier edge at the water side. Defying the morality laws, which were supposed to be about respecting the beliefs of others, had crept up the scale of infringements incrementally.
Bare arms, loose hair, short skirts, bare legs, bare anything at all, were not for the streets, not for women. Certainly not for those like Jenna.
The canal towpaths were packed both sides with the Waterboys and those watching. The readied
skiffs were lined up, the competitors clambering aboard. Group alliance was signalled by colours, how caps were worn, peak front, back or side and by hairstyles, often flamboyantly exaggerated. Jenna peered over for Rae but until they set off at
a shot from the judge’s starter gun on the bridge above, she couldn’t spot him. Then, she saw him sculling fast away, the pale blue and gold of his fiberglass skiff ‘Dart’ catching the gleam of the streetlights which were on in
the early dark of evening. Jenna had told him she would come but he was concentrating too hard on the race and avoiding the other jostling craft to glance up at the onlookers as he hurtled away.
The Waterboys fought as dirty on the water as they
did on land. They deliberately bumped, sent off course and crashed into one another by any means possible. If you fell in, nobody stopped. Racers either got themselves out or one of the older men stationed on the bank, if they spotted a swimmer,
held out a pole for them to scrabble on to. Fatalities were not uncommon when the Waterboys raced. A lot of hard risky betting went on. It was just past Summer, so the heavy deluges of that rainy season had stopped being so intense and now,
by evening, the rains had temporarily stopped.
If Rae won and got the purse, he and Jenna would have the means for starting their new life as runaways. The skiff would be transport but not shelter. For that they would have to go inland,
hide it or use it as a roof if they could find none to pay for. Escape was becoming urgent for both of them.
The guardian employers whom Jenna had been placed with by the Agency, which managed the upkeep and suitable education of abandoned or
orphaned young like herself, were ready, now she was of age, to arrange a match for her. The Agency required this soon after childbearing years were reached and before a girl was twenty. Regenerating the population was a priority. Disease
and climate change had made it a necessity. The rich and the more elite ranks could deal with themselves in this regard but a docile workforce, suitably fed and engaged in productive activity, had been vital to the good of the country for the past several
They seemed to live, Jenna thought, like people from long ago, when strip farming and tenants were overseen by nobles in their castles. Only today, the rich farmland she saw images of on screen was swamped, and agrarian work was conducted
below ground in hydroponic acres of tunnels under artificial light. The workforce for that remained in subterranean camps most of the time, sunlamps giving them regular vitamin D doses, a treatment those above ground, like Jenna and her guardian employers,
had access to in their communal glass house apartment buildings.
The Waterboys, always outdoors, were left to themselves to stay hardy, their numbers occasionally culled for military service since they were physically strong to have reached young adulthood
at all. They lived in static barge moorings or rickety stilt house encampments by the canal sides and river edges, brawling and lawless among themselves, but nobody cared much about them. There were plenty more where they came from, unplaced boys
skimming the poorest of livings until they matured enough to be picked off for the army or taken into the more physical trades at the lowest levels. Among them were those who had crept in across the risen waters from many other countries.
Rae himself had no idea where he had come from, but he had scrambled up from somewhere and been canny enough to be taken under the wing of some older ones until he learned his craft. Rae was getting dangerously near to being fighting weight himself
and he had told Jenna he had seen the citizen militia idly eyeing him and a few others up, not just for the usual thing that earned some a bit extra, but to identify whose they would mug shot up to the database for the next soldier sweep to handpick their
reluctant recruits easily. The Waterboys did not have many places to hide, confined as they were to the margins of the canals and river banks or old viaduct archways and bridges. Buckles and knives were completely ineffectual against an armed guard
sortie. Tasers were the least of it.
The race coursed along with shouting and manoeuvring, fierce clashes going on over the water. Jenna forced her way along in the crowd following the Waterboys’ race, keeping from under the lights
which would pick out her lower status by the yellow of her shawl covering and have her sent packing home by the citizen militia for being a domestic out after curfew. Jenna’s guardian employers were kindly enough and, although she served them,
there was none of the cruelty in bondage that occasional cases brought up before the courts highlighted. Her ‘family’ was lawfully unquestioning, though and had already been showing her images of youths who might be suitable for her.
With them, there might be a degree of choice, but if she didn’t show willing, they would make her mind up for her.
So long as babies were produced, if the young people’s relationship failed later, they were allowed to part after a judicious
interval and the Agency would completely take over the upbringing of the offspring. It was not thought that attachments of any kind were strong in people of Jenna’s caste and young mothers were not encouraged to keep contact if that happened.
In any case, the Agency oversaw the bringing up of all their children from the first to ensure they had the right training and development. Jenna did not want to wait for either of those outcomes to be her fate.
The population overall was kept
in a general state of fear due to threats of further natural catastrophes, such as storms, floods, famines, disease, war, economic or diplomatic breakdowns with other nation states. A shifting chaos in the outside world kept people in their places and
their homes under directives from the government. Road and rail systems were things of legend due to flooding levels and erosion. Ordinary mankind was reduced to the oldest forms of travel of all, by water or on foot. Air was for the government,
the military, or the Royals.
Jenna found her way barred by a knot of citizen militia clustered round at the race end along with the excited audience. Feelings were running high and as ever, not all the racers had made it to the end of the course.
Jenna had seen Rae’s skiff colours still bright among the finishers but there was a dispute over who had won. The Waterboys, adrenalin fuelled after their arduous charge through the dirty canal waters, were squaring up together.
see Rae, who was fast and pugnacious, whipping off the belt from round his waist and wrapping it round his wrist in a great swing above his head, warding off his challengers. The heavy buckle, with its thick metal scrolling caught the light with ugly
intent. Jenna had stolen it for him, and it was a far more finely crafted weapon than the crude buckles of most of the others. It gave him status even as the other boys were always vying to win it or take it from him for themselves. Swinging
the belt, Rae looked up and Jenna let her shawl back so he could see her face. It was enough to spur him on to a great, defiant roar as he lashed out and his challengers scrambled back out of range and fell away from the combat. Rae had won the
race. Applause went up and Rae’s face was alight with victory. The judge ceremonially descended the bridge and presented him with the purse. As the publicly acknowledged winner, none of his fellows now, as a matter of tribal honour,
would attempt to steal it from him later.
He raised it towards Jenna, who waved a signal in return before slipping back into the crowd as their contact attracted the attention of one of the citizen militia, a figure fat under his robe who was casting
about for somewhere to exert his authority. The betting winners and losers were falling out over their stakes and tasers were flashing out, felling the fighters. Under cover of this, Jenna hastened back to the Glass House, her plastic pattens slipping
as the rain started up again.
Tomorrow, she and Rae could start their journey. It didn’t matter where to, so long as they got away from where they were known individually. Jenna had a picture in her mind of somewhere there had once
been a Summer, by the water that she and Rae would travel on. She had seen it on the screen of ‘before’ pictures. She hoped to reach somewhere like it, somewhere.
As for running away, Rae would not count, and Jenna would soon
be only one among some of the disappeared young girls of her caste. And as with the Waterboys, there were plenty more where she came from. Her only failure in the eyes of the state would be in having failed to produce new babies for the Agency
first. But again, in an underclass kept so for the purpose, there were plenty more to do that, the important thing was to ensure that there were enough of them to keep on doing it. The disaffected, in the uncertain world outside of the underground
food sources, were unlikely to survive for long enough to be any danger to the established civilisation.
The government did its best to create a regulated society in which people could flourish as was fitting. There was a constant consumer
boom in the falsely upheld online retail industry of fashion and home goods, and a plentiful workforce to produce them as required from synthetics in the modern factories. Food produce was assured. New ways, new roles, new foundations for a prosperous
nation had been set in place. After that, it was up to individuals. If they preferred hunger and a marshland swamp to a settled life and the sociability of internet feeds where debate raged (and the government was ever ready to look at any online
petitions generated by that public voice, as they were happy to assure the populace) then that was up to them. It was, after all, a free country, wasn’t it?