(Part one, part two coming soon!)
Emma rose from her makeshift bed: an old mattress with a curtain pulled around it, leaned against a crumbled wall she had built herself. Like all Poor, she rose with the sun, in a cold, dark alley on the ground, not above the ground in a high building, like the Riches did.
She combed her stringy red hair with her fingers, splashed water on her face from a bucket in a makeshift bathroom, pulled on her pale-blue extra-extra-large shirt that hung on her like a dress, and left her makeshift house. Everything was makeshift for the Poor and the Low-dwellers.
She let out a huff of infuriation as she walked down the alley, tall and skinny and tattooed with old graffiti reading No Richez; D3th 2 th3 3mpir3; Rebelz LEAVE; Ratskull territory, keep out; and RIP Kera Schwartz-- 11562-11564.
Emma sighed, wishing that it was Trash Day. That was when the Riches dropped their unwanted food hundreds of feet from their sky-high palaces, far above Emma's uncared-for head. If it was Trash Day, than she could pick up food off the ground and eat that, She and her sisters would have enough for days. But last week's finds were already finished, and so this would mean that there was one thing to do: steal.
Emma scaled a rusty old fire escape, smelling of copper and earth. the peeling, reddish metal would have cut the hands of a Rich girl, but she was a Poor, who had to work with her hands and survive off that which she found. Her palms were calloused and strong, unlike the dainty hands of the girls living highs above her head, looking down on her like an ant-- that is, if they could even see Emma. Most of them were up so high, and the alleys were so full of gathered shadows and whispering dust that they wouldn't even see her.
Well, they sure would once Emma got up into their gilded city and stole some food.
She swung on a window ledge, leaping over to a thin railing that he herself had installed; then she made her way up a sewer pipe, crawling up the smooth, gray tube like a monkey.
"The Riches never realize that their stupid sewer system just dumps their poop into our water. Or maybe they do, and don't care."
There will always be three classes: the Riches, who live in the blessed cities on the clouds, the Poor, who dig through the scraps of the old world, and the Low-dwellers, those who live in abandoned cities of the Old Earth like vermin, or scavengers. You are born into your class, and must live it for the rest of your life, unless you do something miraculous. But no Poor ever amounted to more than an unaired cleanup crew for the Rich's food scraps.
Good luck dreaming.
It will only get you in your head.
Emma frowned. All Riches were stuck-up, all Poor were starving most of the time, unable to make the most of their dwindling days before they died of bacteria from polluted water, or ran out of food, or fell from a height such as the one Emma was climbing on. But she would be okay-- she was a great climber.
She used an old window ledge and a board that she had nailed there when she was six for that very reason as a trampoline, bouncing on it like a diver about to go into the Atlantic Ocean-- before that became toxic and lifeless, a part of Old Earth. When Emma got in five good jumps, she leapt off the board and into the air, grabbing a rusted bit of metal that she was surprised hadn't killed her with tetanus yet, in all her years of doing this.
With a bold swing, she vaulted onto a thin stone ledge, continuing her ascent as the buildings loomed, less gray and sad, and more brick-red and marble-white. She began to see bridges.
Emma grinned wickedly.
She charged across a splintered strip of tremendously shaking wood, aiming directly for the slide-like marble thing. it reminded her of a dusty photograph she had found of a little kid going down a slide at a playground, back when those existed. It was entirely too fancy, and Emma wanted to leave her muddy footprints all over it, to spite the Riches. Well, they didn't come down here anyway. Not unless it was on a dare. These were only here because the ramps had to start somewhere.
The slick sides of the ramp were slippery, but Emma kept a good, firm hold on them.
Emma remembered the meaning of her name: whole, universal. "You'll rock the world," her mother had told her, before leaving her, at eight years old, alone and hungry, in the alley that she now lived in. Every Poor woman, if she ever had a child, would leave the child in the nearest, safest alley they could find. From there on, well, it was up to the child to survive.
Emma had received news recently that her mother had died from something they called a gas-out: when fossil fuels or power lines left abandoned underground were uncovered and broken, electrocuting the uncoverer, or killing them with toxic gas. It wasn't much of a tragedy. The only things she had from her mother were her name, and her life. The woman had been beautiful, in the natural way, though. Not like the fake Rich women who made themselves look like perfect statues, or porcelain dolls. She was really pretty. Natural red, wavy hair, perfect skin, (considering that Poor cleansed themselves with rainwater and the filth-filled liquid that came out of broken downspouts.) and green eyes, like the emeralds that Emma had seen in a store once, trying to steal food from the manager.
It didn't matter though.
For the Rich, there was wealth.
For the Poor, there was death.
Emma scaled the ramp twirling up past the cloud level, where she had to hold her breath for all the soot. The cloud level was a result of over-pollution, and was a thick cloud smoke that a few Poor had suffocated in, or fallen to their dooms from, since they couldn't see the next handhold. But once Emma got safely past it, though, and then a good two hundred feet above it, she took a deep breath and looked up at the golden rooftops of North Intel, the Rich city she was born under.
Emma's first goal was to get a dress she could wear, to cover up her tattered, too-long shirt and worn-out, too-small shorts. Maybe a hat, to cover her long, unbrushed hair.
Emma saw the prefect outfit on a mannequin right by the edge of the stacked, suspended city.
"Great," she said.
The dress was the color of butter, with layers of tulle and flowing silk. it had puffy, princess-y sleeves, and came with a sunhat in the same colors with a big yellow bow on it. Emma didn't have the money to buy, so she'd have to steal the outfit.
She slipped in through the half-open back door like oil into water. She didn't belong, she just floated in the surface.
Ducking through the layers of detailed fabric and around more mannequins, silent as a mouse stealing food from a Low-dweller when she passed a young girl dressed in considerable amounts of lace, examining a pale green satin gown that looked like something a fairy goddess would wear, Emma slowly sidestepped over to the front window, leaping up and taking the hat from the mannequin. She placed it on her head, examining her face in the reflection of the glass. She looked pretty good. passable for a slightly dirty Rich girl. maybe if she stayed near their man-made parks, full of grass and dirt and quaint walking paths, everyone would think that she had simply fallen down in some mud or grime.
The dress was harder to retrieve.
First of all, the street had just been entered by a bunch of rowdy schoolchildren dashing through the streets, and though the occasional shopper may overlook a hat vanishing from a storefront window, many children and teens would see an entire dress get pulled away.
Second of all, it was pretty well pinned on the bust of the headless, white-cloth figure.
And third of all, the storekeeper's eyes were only shielded from Emma by a pretty white Coming of Age gown with skirts as wide as Emma's "bathroom".
"Come on..." Emma hissed through a bountiful of pins, removing the shining fabric from the mannequin bit by bit. So far, she only had the shoulders. Emma continued to pull and unfasten the dress from the decapitated, place feminine figure. It was slim-wasted, the kind that was popular back when women used corsets to make themselves look thin, but on one meal per day for six years, Emma had became skin and bones. The only things supporting her were her muscles, taut and strong form years of climbing the buildings around her little world. Even something designed to pull tightly around one's waist wouldn't do a thing for Emma. She was small enough to have breathing room in the dress.
Finally, she managed to unpin the dress from the mannequin.
Emma yelped as the layered skirts came tumbling off the model. She caught them, the smooth, soft material gentler than anything she'd worn in her life.
She slipped out the door before the shopkeeper could notice the naked mannequin and the butter-yellow skirts trailing behind the thief who had just entered her shop.
It wasn't that hard to be a Rich.
You just held your head up high, kept your messy hair tucked into your hat, and quietly acknowledge someone if they acknowledged you, in a slight accent.
Emma was getting the hang of it by her tenth mastery stolen. She was keeping them in a wicker basket she'd nicked from a vendor, and no one noticed anything out of the ordinary. She did have a bit of an encounter when a boy dressed in a neat suit, with perfectly combed blond hair, said "Good day, Bethany-Ann! I like your new dress! Did your sister get it for you on holiday?" but Emma quickly nodded, said "thank you, sir," and waved as she walked away.
"One close encounter is too many," she said.
But soon, Emma was fitting in with the other Riches like she'd been born up there.
"Hey, Hallo! You're the new girl, right? From Ivory? Welcome to Prosperity Side! I'm Alexander!"
Or, maybe not, Emma thought. The boy shook her hand. His black hair was slicked back, and he was dressed in black pants, a black vest, and a tie.
"Alexander as in Alexander the Great, that guy from Rome. Ancient Rome, not modern-day Rome. it's a bit of a burden to have such a name, but it's better than my sister, Carla. Her name means 'freedom woman', and Mother is alwaaaaaaaaaays pestering her about it."
"I'm Emma. It means 'universe'."
"Huh. You must mean the world and more to your parents, huh?"
"...Yes... I... do." Emma felt something constrict in her chest.
"Well, Emma, I'm having a sweets party in three days! You're invited, since you're new."
"What on God's Green Earth is a sweets party?"
"You've never been to a sweets party before Well, we all go to someone's house and eat sweets."
"I know you're still getting settled, having only been here for a short time, but, uh, if you want to come..."
Should I go? Emma thought. She didn't want to spend too much time around them, in case thy found her out. But from her limited interactions with Rich children, she found that they were kind of rebellious. Maybe they'd invite her even if they knew she was a Poor, to spite someone.
Besides, she could pick up some food for herself and her sisters. (They weren't her real sisters, they were just girls her age, who's he shared food with sometimes.)
"I'm coming," she said. "Thank you and good day." She turned to leave, but Alexander chased her.
"Wait! You Dion't have my address yet! Here! " He pushed a piece of paper into her hands.
Emma stared at it, the gesture unfamiliar and alien.
"Just take it! You won't know which house to go to otherwise."
"Thank you," she said, leaving Alexander speedily.
As soon as she was out of his sight, she ran the heck pout of there, like a wolf was on her heels.
Three days later.
Dressed in a flowing light purple gown with jewels studded all along its seams, Emma snuck up the ramps and down to Alexander's dress: 44 Bird lane.
His house was huge, with white brick walls and a peaked roof-- no, four. It was so bit that it needed more than one roof above it. Topiaries surrounded the vast yard around it. A doorman was waiting in front of the door, and he let her in without a second glance, She had washed her hair that day, and even stolen shampoo to help with the process.
"Hey, Emma, I want to talk to you about something," Alexander said nervously. Emma didn't hear him. She was looking at the polished, marble, domed ceiling, the gold chandelier dangling form it, and the jewels everywhere, covering every surface.
How did anyone live like this?
"Emma!" Alexander repeated his question.
"What is it?"
"Can I tell you... uh, privately?"
Oh boy, here he is, about to tell me that he has a crush on me or something, Emma thought.
She followed him up a sweeping fight of stairs, down a long winding hallway twister than a web of lies, and up into a side corridor with walls made of a crystal-blue stone.
"So," Alexander did after a whole minute of silence.
"I want to be like you."
"How? And what does that mean?"
"I want to be like you. I want to be a low-dweller."
Emma's face paled.
"First of all, I'm not a Low-dweller. Second of all--" Emma inhaled deeply, restoring air to her lungs; having never breathed once during that exchange.
"Why would you want to be a Low-dweller, living in the ruined cities of Old Earth?"
"Here's why," Alex said with a smile...
(Part 2 coming soon!
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