chapter one

The skies shine a violet hue, the stars dimmer than they were the week before. The dual moons creak with age and disrepair, tremors felt by those inside and out. Marching is heard throughout the lower and even some of the middle floors, protests or conflicts or riots erupting and subsiding like low and high tides. It is there, on the forty-third floor of Ark II, that Anka Farside lies in a hammock, watching the worlds burn.

It's not that they're apathetic to the plights of those planetside-- after all, trillions live in the urban forests dotting the planet's land and sea alike, and they're not heartless-- it's just that, from up here, there doesn't seem to be much wrong. The pink and grey clouds run together over the worst of the burning, and the tremors never do enough damage to be visible from orbit. What is there to see, other than a planet that looks not quite identical to the one everyone on the Arks knows?

Anka chides themself for being heartless. They think of all those on the Arks with family and friends down below, those fighting in many floors for further admittance, and sigh. It's got to be harder, knowing the people down there, knowing you'll likely never see them again. Anka only barely remembers, but they recall that the lotteries were brutal, back in the early days when it wasn't just auctions. People left their wives, their children. There were even stories of those killed for their tickets, just for having “won the gods' graces.” It sickens Anka to think about.

A banging on the front door startles them from their contemplative stupor, nearly knocking them from their hammock.

[ANKA:]
"Fuck, what? What on the Sun's name could you possibly want this late?"

The knocking wordlessly continues. Grumbling, Anka swings open the door only to find an... unfamiliar yet likely undesirable face staring back at them. In their doorway stands a man, half a head shorter than Anka with freckled white skin, sunglasses, and the ugliest mustache Anka has ever seen. Judging by his uniform, as well as his aura of undeserved self-importance, he's a cop. Great. Anka musters up as much energy as they can to respond, hoping not to be sent to the floor's brig for a third time this year.

[ANKA:]
"What do you want, pig."

That... could have gone better. It could have gone worse, though, as the man's silence indicates. He gruffly tears a piece of paper from his pocket, turns and spits on the ground, and hands it to Anka before stomping away.

Anka reflects for a moment, and decides that's the best interaction with an authority figure they've ever had. They shut the door and return to their hammock before even considering looking at the paper. When they finally do examine it, they first notice its age- it might actually be from real wood, which surprises them. Not much like the cops to spend so much money on what's inevitably a ticket, or...

Hmm. That's interesting. It's not a ticket, but a summons to the local... judicial center. Anka's always refused to use the word "court" in reference to that institution, as the number of metaphorical kangaroos present far exceeds the tolerance their father instilled in them. However, a summons is a summons, and Anka finds themselves unenthralled by the thought of being at the stand as opposed to in the booth.

The meeting's tomorrow, and it's halfway across the floor. Being fairly planetside, floor forty-three isn't nearly as big as the middle forty or so, but it's still a solid seven or eight miles wide, and the court is in the central administration plaza. It'll be a dangerous walk unless Anka feels particularly inclined towards spending more than they have on a ticket. Not a fun trip to have to travel, at minimum, twice.

[LALI:]
"So what'd the bastard want?"

Anka jumps a foot in the air, startled out of their mind by the seemingly sudden presence of their roommate, Lali Titania. He's known for his... mysterious appearances, but in reality he's just really quiet almost all of the time, which lets him sneak up on people. His ruffled black hair and deep brown eyes tend to intimidate even those who know him well, and his dark skin with even darker freckles could fluster even the most composed of folks. He's hot, basically, and Anka still isn't quite used to it- nor are they used to how he looms over them, six and a half feet to their five and three quarters. He's standing just a bit too close in front of them,

[ANKA:]
"Uh."

Anka can't help but curse that boy and his ability to steal everyone's words.

[ANKA:]
"It's jury duty, I think. Probably some dumb bullshit I'll just have to agree to and move on."

Lali's smirk fades a bit, and he appears almost contemplative.

[LALI:]
"That's probably the best news you could've gotten, huh."

Anka nods.

[ANKA:]
"The whole system is a fucking sham, obviously. They're just gonna send an armed guard in with us and we'll all vote whatever poor kid's in the chair guilty."

Lali's mood seems to fall further.

[LALI:]
"...yeah."
[ANKA:]
"Sorry, you- you didn't need me to tell you that."

Lali doesn't respond, merely stepping out of Anka's personal space and back to the chair on which he tends to sleep, eat... do almost anything, really. He works from home, optimizing corporate code for some automated mine or another planetside. Without a word, he returns to coding, and despite his proximity Anka feels left alone with their supposedly important scrap of paper.

With a sigh, Anka heads to the bathroom. Despite their apartment being literally two rooms, the few steps to the bathroom door remind them that their body is still heavy and tired from yesterday's shift. Thankfully, they’re not scheduled to work again until Marte, but who knows how long the court case will take? It'd be strange for it to last too long; after all, it's not as though there's any doubt in the judiciary's mind about the guiltiness of the accused.

Anka stretches in front of the mirror, trying desperately to relieve the tension they know a cold shower will only return to them. For just a moment, they catch their reflection in the mirror and pause, displeased with what they see. Pale green eyes stare back at them, glimmering just slightly. The lack of artificial sun in the harbor has turned their formerly vibrant skin tone a sullen shade of pallor grey-brown, barely contrasting with their grey tank top. Their shoulders and hips frame their body in a way that makes Anka sick, and before long they tear their eyes away from the mirror and to the ever-grimy shower.

With a sigh, they shed their clothes, turn the water on, and close their eyes.
---

Anka nearly stumbles down the "stairs" that lead to their doorway. Cinderblocks stacked together make up much of their neighborhood's infrastructure, after all, and such things are not exactly designed for being walked upon. Especially not with steel-toed boots. Anka sighs, briefly bending over to ensure their shoes are tied before proceeding onward.

The neighborhood, officially referred to as "43-PERIMETER-C," is probably one of the worst on the whole floor. Typically, one would expect windowed buildings to be a luxury, but as it turns out many don't particularly enjoy looking down upon the planet they once called home. Since 43PC faces the planet at all times, it's been spared the waves of gentrification caused by lottery scalpers. Anka doesn't need to know the economics of the situation, though; even the most unobservant of residents could see the decay the settlement embodies. The moisture from the stories above oh-so-gently cascades down here, with pools a couple feet deep running where streets once were- creating a constant gentle, almost serene sound that echoes, silencing footsteps. In that rain, sweat and tears and other fluids alike fall and re-evaporate, creating a constant low-level biohazard in the "skies." Metal scrap laid horizontally on concrete winds from home to home, a "temporary solution" to a perpetual problem. The slapdash nature of 43PC's streets pales in comparison to the apartment towers, though. Jagged metal rectangles reach several stories up to scratch the floor's ceiling, forged from thin sheets of whatever was salvaged from refuge vessels a decade and a half ago. Luminescent dots litter their glassless windows, rechargable lithium batteries with shorter and shorter lifespans. Anka keeps her eyes on the "road."

For once, Anka’s had the foresight to pick up lunch for later. There’s a joint food lab-hydrofarm on the edge of “town,” ran by one of Anka's... friends. Anka attempts to push open the door gently, but its unoiled hinges announce their entrance with enthusiasm. A grizzled woman sits at the counter, her still expression unmoving as her eyes scan the pages of a well-worn book. Her lips curve into a tiny smile upon looking up.

[MEHR:]
“Oh, it’s you again. Fantastic.”
[ANKA:]
“What’cha got for me today, Mehr?”

Mehr rolls her good eye and sighs, her wrinkled forehead compressing further as the shaky breath shakes her body. Mehr’s known for her heart of gold, within the community- most people in outer 43 can’t afford meat, even the stuff that’s easy to grow like fish, so she sells at a loss. Anka’s still not entirely sure how she stays afloat, considering the price she sells her goods at.

[MEHR:]
“For you? Nothing. Maybe scraps? You know, the labs have this awful-smelling byproduct that’s technically edible.”
[ANKA:]
“I got five decs to spend on something that’ll keep for a day.”

Mehr raises an eyebrow.

[MEHR:]
“Five decs? That’s it? What shit are they paying you down there?”

Anka shrugs, eyes darting away from the shopkeeper.

[ANKA:]
“Same as they always have. It’s fine, Mehr. Just get me whatever.

Silence lingers for just a moment.

[MEHR:]
“You know, if you need to-”

Anka cuts them off. They don’t have time for this again.

[ANKA:]
“It’s fine. What can five decs get me.”

It’s less of a question and more of a demand. Normally, Anka’d feel bad for their tone, especially with someone like Mehr, but they can’t afford to bring up old memories.

[MEHR:]
“...Fine. I’ll get you some salad. Pass me a bowl.”

Anka pulls a metal bowl with a plastic lid from their bag. Mehr takes it wordlessly, but Anka just barely catches her muttering under her breath about its size.

In just a few moments, Mehr returns, Anka’s bowl packed tight with various home-grown plants. Anka says nothing- with Mehr, one has to pick their battles. Before Mehr can say anything, Anka has their card out.

[MEHR:]
“I-”
[ANKA:]
“Mehr.”

For the first time since entering the building, the two make eye contact. Mehr looks tired- the kind of tired that living twenty years on the Ark will bring you, the kind of tired that transcends words. Eventually, Mehr looks away, wordlessly grabs Anka’s card, and charges them. Anka nods and walks away.

[MEHR:]
“You don’t have work today, right? Where are you going?”
[ANKA:]
“You’re not my-”

Anka can feel Mehr’s gaze burning through their skull. They reconsider their response.

[ANKA:]
“Court summons."

There's a pause for just a moment. Worry speeds across Mehr's still face for just a moment, flickering like the ceiling lights.

[ANKA:]
"Sorry. Not for me, I’m on the jury.”

Anka lingers in the doorway, desperate to escape this conversation, but they understand they don’t have much of a choice.

[ANKA:]
“I’ll be fine.”

The silence remains.

[ANKA:]
“I’ll check in on my way back.”

That should be enough, they decide. Anka sighs and steps through, the gentle jingle of the bell signaling their departure. Their gaze turns centre-ward once more, and they continue walking.

The inner rings of floor forty-three have massive dehumidifiers- one doesn't need an umbrella to travel the streets, although they might still want a hazmat suit. The alleyways of 43's South Central Corridor feel claustrophobically tight, with harbor workers and hydrofarmers walking opposite each other to head up or down, left or right. Back before capacity breached two hundred percent, there were tons of vendors lining the sides of the pre-built buildings, selling imported planetary wares or home-grown food and drink. Their stands were built when the Ark was, one of the few planned marketplaces that actually came to be. They didn't last, though, and now the metal that was once welded to the ground has been torn and repurposed. Now, all that's left are sharp points sticking out from where they once were, left to trip or skewer. Anka steps around them with ease, trekking onwards through the rings.

Gradually, candlelight and chatter turn to clustered commotion as Anka approaches the center of the floor. The noise is almost as bright as the lights are loud, and large fires are burnt on top of the shorter buildings just to mask the sheer smell that comes with such density of organic matter. Anka takes a shaky deep breath and sidesteps into an alleyway to take a quick break. The smell of burning fails to conceal the smell of garbage here, and were Anka not used to it, they’d likely feel sick. They pull their messenger out- connection is usually passable out here, especially with the pirate networks that litter the middle rings.

[A]: yo lali
[A]: youre probably not up yet but
[A]: this shit sux
[A]: mehr was all on my ass earlier
[A]: plus i’m like
[A]: pretty fuckin sure she didn’t charge me full price for this salad
[A]: ok well anyway
[A]: im gonna go back to walking now i just needed to take a second
[A]: stay safe when youre working today ok dude?

Anka lets out a shaky sigh and closes their eyes for a moment. They cross their fingers and pray that they won’t have to do this trek again tomorrow. They open their eyes, take a steadier breath, and head back out into the horde.

In the very center of all floors lies a giant elevator, known usually as "the lift" by anyone on just about any floor. A quarter of a mile in diameter, the great cylinder actually contains dozens of individual smaller shafts running various distances. It's costly to travel on even the cheapest of shafts, though, so most just use the various staircases or unofficial elevators run by various corporate groups. Were Anka heading to work today, they likely would've simply taken the harbor elevator near their neighborhood, but unfortunately for them their assigned court lies on floor forty-five, a floor unconnected by any of the elevators they have access to. It's for that reason that Anka now finally finds themselves in front of the lift, eyes squinting at the unnecessary lights assaulting their retinas from every angle. Every floor's central plaza is filled with the biggest, most expensive stores, hotels, and apartments, and forty-three is no exception. Glass tubes of expensive gasses like neon or radon adorn buildings like obnoxious ornaments, screaming at Anka to buy, sell, work, consume. Looking away from the lights themselves fails to effectively protect one's constitution, as the innermost circles of floors are always filled with literal smoke and mirrors, bright white metal making up the walls and floors while vents from the ceiling recycle the same old dirty air. It's nausea-inducing, and Anka picks up their pace in a desperate attempt to escape- keeping their head down, marching forward. A couple swipes of their card and they're en route to forty-five, the first leg of their mandatory sojourn at a close.

Anka breaks out their messenger, desperate for an interaction that won’t fill them with misery.

[A]: lali i hate this place so much i swear to the stars
[A]: if i have 2 go back here tomorrow i think im gonna just scream in this elevator

For a moment, it seems he won’t respond, but Lali is always on the computer; at least, after he’s woken up. A sassy response is shot back within seconds.

[L]: What do you mean stay safe
[L]: Im on a computer
[L]: Also the lift plaza really isnt that big of a deal
[L]: Its just lights and motion sickness wrapped together thats like half the ark
[A]: yeah but there bright lights
[A]: *theyre
[A]: my poor harbor eyes cant handle it
[L]: Youll be fine just keep moving
[L]: Now quit bothering me and wasting our message plan
[L]: This shit isnt cheap

Anka smiles for just a moment. They hadn’t spoken to Lali since their odd interaction the night before, and that always tends to worry them. Lali might not be the most talkative, but he’s usually polite enough to call out “try not to die” whenever Anka leaves the house. The reassurance that they are not, in fact, fighting soothes Anka just enough to motivate them to continue. It’s then, of course, that the doors open, and the light pours back in.

The ninety seconds or so that Anka had spent in the crowded elevator box were not nearly enough to allow them to recover from the hell that is freshly-waxed vinyl and aluminum. Even on floors with official government buildings, lit-up billboards make navigation a nightmare. Anka finds themselves almost happy that they had twice received tickets at work that required resolution up here, as they're mostly familiar with the path. Both "almost" and "mostly" are operative adverbs, though; the debt they were sent into still lingers, and the path to the courthouse remains lucrative to a degree. Two and a half wrong turns and several readjustments later, Anka finally arrives in the thankfully dim courthouse. They take greedy sips of their canteen, water with just a hint of raw alcohol soothing their throat and dulling their senses. As they drink in their water, they can't help but drink in the scenery, their open eyes more than eager to gaze at anything that doesn't emulate the sun in its brightness. The floors are soft linoleum, tiled to look almost like smooth stone. The walls are a utilitarian grey, fake candles wired to the wall providing an ugly but thankfully soft and yellow glow A few armed guards stand scattered about the main hall. The cops eye Anka warily, as if trying to discern whether someone drinking water could be construed as a threatening act. With a gasp, Anka finally tears themselves from the bottle, adjusts their jacket, and heads over to the counter, canteen clipped safely to their belt loop.

A tired pale woman sits behind a clear plastic barrier, unamused by Anka's intrusion. With a sigh, she pulls herself forward in her chair and places her hands back on her keyboard. Before Anka can say anything, she speaks.

[RECEPTIONIST:]
"Name, please."

The “please” sounds more like a barb than a pleasantry, and Anka finds themselves instantly put off by the amount of distaste packed into a mere two words.

[ANKA:]
"Anka Farside. I'm here for, uh, jury duty?"

The receptionist scoffs quietly, or as quietly as someone could scoff.

[RECEPTIONIST:]
"Your summons."

Anka winces. Although they’d quite like to say something in response to the woman’s terseness, they recall the several armed goons in the building who would like nothing more than to release some stress by pulling a trigger, and proceed.

They pull the twice-crumpled sheet of re-recycled paper out of their pocket and slide it under the barrier. The woman fails to make any attempt to hide her displeasure with the state of the document, daintily stretching apart each corner in an obvious attempt to minimize contact with anything Anka's touched while also making the damn thing legible. The woman checks her watch in the process and hastens the proceedings.

[RECEPTIONIST:]
"It all seems to be in order. The same couldn't be said of your presentation, but unfortunately the restrictions placed on attire were dropped years ago."

The direct insult comes as a surprise, standing in stark contrast to the professional malice from earlier. Confused, Anka quickly examines themselves. They're wearing a ragged black jacket, the bottom pockets of which have long been lost to wear and tear at the harbor. Their jeans are worn, but surprisingly entirely intact. To be honest, this is one of their nicer outfits. They jerk their eyes back to the woman, who seems to be unsatisfied with Anka's lack of shame.

[RECEPTIONIST:]
"Just hurry along to courtroom eleven. Next time, try to find something more proper than rags to wear, hmm?"

Before Anka can respond, the woman darts into a backroom. Anka snorts. Maybe it was the lady’s lunch break. They sigh and calm themselves. It's far from the time to be getting agitated in a court of law- what are they, a prosecutor? Chuckling at their own lazy joke, they meander along towards the entrance- a double door made of what is very obviously fake wood. Not as though anyone'd have real wood up here, anyway. Taking in the sights one more time, Anka leans against the wall and closes their eyes, just for a second.

[????:]
"Beats another day at work, right?"

Startled from their micronap, Anka stands up straight, eyes darting around for the source of the voice. They quickly find it- a short man stands opposite them, well-kept but receding black hair and a shabby suit clearly marking a standard forties' businessman. His hollow blue eyes stare up at them, a clear tell that his small talk is little but a mask to hide his exhaustion.

[ANKA:]
"Uh, I guess. It's a long-ass walk all the way up here, though."

Seemingly taken aback by Anka's bluntness, the man chuckles politely.

[ECKHART:]
"That it is, my friend. I'm Taylor Eckhart. Am I right in guessing you're on the jury as well?"

Anka sighs quietly. They're not looking forward to spending any more time with this dude, or anyone in particular.

...At least, anyone that isn't Lali.

[ANKA:]
"Anka. I mean, Anka Farside. Yeah, I'm on the jury. Looking forward to a, uh, swift trial."
[ECKHART:]
"You and me both."

He winks, for some reason. There's an awkward pause, just for a second, but Eckhart clears his throat before Anka can think of something inane to fill the silence.

[ECKHART:]
"Well, we best get in there! Wouldn't want to keep Lady Justice waiting!"

Before they can try to figure out whether or not he's actually fucking serious or not, he pushes his way through the double doors.

Anka sighes another long, defeated sigh, and follows after him, the doors shutting behind them.

They’re filled with dread for the second time this morning, and they get the feeling it won’t be the last time today.

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