08:05 Law Lord
Talya was shaken. She’d known that things would get immediately challenging and tough when she became a Law Lord, but she hadn’t quite expected the sudden turnaround that she’d just experienced. She’d barely had time to draw breath before she was being challenged and threatened by her fellow Law Lords. She’d been witness to a level of violence which – thank God – they weren’t exposed to on Silk Road.
The easy course would have been to turn a blind eye, just like everybody else who enjoyed the comfort away from The Climbs. But how could she? She’d been a victim herself. Who knows how she and Lucy had escaped the same fate as the Parsons family? It was as if someone was looking out for them. No, she’d been given a small break, it was her moral duty to do something about it, to do what she could to help.
They were living in a screwed up world, that was for sure, but Talya still believed that it was possible to influence events. To do so, she’d have to live her life on a knife edge, challenging things wherever there was a glimpse of light, choosing her battles carefully and edging forward with the hope of lasting change.
She’d need allies too. She understood that the other Law Lords were terrified, it’s always easier to bow to intimidation and pretend that nothing is happening. They were all complicit in the horrors of The Grid. Every time the citizens gathered around the screen to watch the fates of the latest Justice Seekers, they were making it more impregnable, they were forging the chains which kept them constrained.
They shouted at the screens, willing some of the Justice Seekers to success. They cursed and scorned the killers, thieves and murderers when they perished, and pretended all the time that this was justice and not butchery.
‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a death.’ That was the slogan for The Grid, where justice was seen to be done. The viewers were little more than baying crowds, applauding the deaths. It didn’t matter who was seeking justice in The Grid, no-one ever made it out alive, everybody knew that there was no justice, in spite of the charade they all took part in.
Talya understood that change came from bold and brave moves. She was petrified that she would be the one to upset the equilibrium, but it had to be done. By her. Lucy was fatherless because of this so-called justice system; they both knew that he’d been murdered, but what could they do to challenge Fortrillium?
Talya had bided her time. She’d been strategic, moving up the ranks, increasing her sphere of influence. She was at the top of the tree now, hanging on for dear life, but finally in a position where she could do something. That began right now, as she shook the hand of Max Penner, the man who helped to keep The Grid running smoothly.
This was the facilities tour that Talya had requested, the one which had been reluctantly and hastily organized by Damien Hunter. Damien wasn’t present, he’d been called off to attend to some important business in The Climbs, and he’d informed the Law Lords that they’d be required for a second sitting later that afternoon. Talya felt the ominousness of his comments; he was using this technique as part of the constant intimidation that she now expected.
Max was surrounded by Centuria, there was no chance that he was going to be able to speak freely during this encounter. He was introduced as an ‘operative’ and he explained to Talya – uneasily she thought – how he ensured the smooth operation of the machinery in that area. There was no mention of the flesh grinders or the bots which were dispatched to clear up the human debris after each trial; all hints of anything unsightly had been removed.
Talya knew she was being conned. She had to play along. She could see how the Chief Centuria would move towards Max whenever it appeared that he was about to give an answer that was little too detailed.
By the time she’d finished talking to Max, Talya felt that she was no better off. Sure, she’d seen the facility which housed The Grid, but what had she actually seen? She was not permitted to enter the hangar for ‘security reasons’, even Damien Hunter was not allowed in there, all operations within The Grid were automated or serviced by bots.
Talya felt that Max was a decent man, and she’d like to have talked to him in a different environment, one that was a little more conducive to sharing information. However, Talya got what she came for, even though nobody even knew it at the time.
She was leaning on Max’s desk, asking him more questions which he would never be able to answer, when she caught sight of a circular object clumsily concealed underneath some paperwork. Max apparently hadn’t been expecting a visit at such short notice, it seemed as if he’d been trying to hide something.
Generally, Talya wouldn’t have thought anything of a WristCom in an environment like this, she assumed that Max might need one as part of his work. This one was different, though, she could just make out the letters etched on the back panel. They read ‘TS’ ... Tom Slater, her husband, who’d disappeared so mysteriously six years ago.
Talya was sharp enough not to mention it there and then, not with the Centuria in such close proximity. But sure as hell she was coming back to speak to Max later and next time she wouldn’t accept anything but the truth from him.
Developments came fast on that morning. A casual observer might have commented that it couldn’t have been random, somebody must have been orchestrating events. Zach Fuller was the first casualty. He was on edge, it had been a horrible night. Wiz had brought him supplies in Joe’s absence; they’d come late, and he was already jittery, wondering what had delayed Joe. He hated being so dependent but what could he do? That damned leg, it made moving around the tower block impossible.
After Wiz had gone, Zach continued thinking he heard sounds out in the hallway. The broken door had made him extremely vulnerable – there was lots of evil lurking within The Climbs after dark and Zach was an easy target.
He retained the knife by his side. Good old Joe, at least he wasn’t left entirely defenceless. With one hand on the weapon’s handle, Zach drifted in and out of sleep. Nobody in The Climbs slept well – if it wasn’t rats or thieves, then it was violent rows or screaming children. Many were in pain from illnesses which would never be treated by drugs, unless they could be obtained on the black market or via the charitable work of a Silk Roader.
Zach got the sense that something was going on outside in the hallway. There seemed to be a lot of hushed movements out there. He knew better than to go investigating in the middle of the night. There was no light in the tower blocks after dark unless people lit fires or had access to solar-charged equipment. Zach had neither.
It wasn’t until sunrise had removed the fear of darkness that it happened. Zach had finally managed to doze off, the arrival of dawn had given him the confidence to do so. It was sudden and violent when it came.
Four Centuria burst into the apartment. There was no warning, Zach heard nothing beforehand, they just came out of nowhere, brandishing weapons as if he were some deadly threat.
His hand tightened on the knife. He was ready to use it but thought better of it. He was one, they were many, it was not likely to end well for him. Instead, he tucked it under what passed as a mattress – it might come in handy later. He didn’t know why they were paying him a visit yet, it might be just an enquiry. Slim chance of that – if it was Centuria, you were usually in bother.
‘Zachery Fuller, you are to be detained on the authority of Fortrillium, as deliverers of justice, for the crimes of violence and withholding forbidden literature.’
Zach was about to protest, but he realized that he must have been snitched on by somebody – who would do that? They knew exactly where to search. Two Centuria went behind the remains of Zach’s kitchen cupboards. They removed a false panel and took out nine damp, stained books, three without covers where they’d fallen apart from overuse. Another Centuria hauled Zach onto his remaining leg and retrieved the knife from under the mattress. All of the items were scanned – as evidence no doubt – and bagged up, and the Chief Centuria indicated to Zach that he should move.
‘How am I going to do that?’ he asked, but they were not in the mood for empathy.
‘Walk or we kick you down!’ barked the Chief Centuria, at least presenting Zach with some battered old crutches. They must have realized that they were either carrying him down or he’d need some sort of assistance. He could have done with the crutches after he’d lost his leg, he’d had to make do with lashed up poles for years. They were useless, but allowed him to get around the apartment at least.
Last time Zach had come up those stairs it had been on a makeshift stretcher after his accident. The severed stump where his leg had once been was bleeding profusely and it was touch and go as to whether he would even survive. Thanks to the efforts of the people in his tower block, and some drugs smuggled over from Silk Road, Zach did get through it but became a prisoner in his own home.
He placed the crutches under his armpits and began to make his way across the room, stumbling at first. The Chief Centuria slammed the butt of his weapon into Zach’s back. He stifled his scream, refusing to cower in the face of these bullies.
Step by step Zach made his way down the stairs of his block – there were fifty levels to tackle in all – it was laborious and painful. At floor ten, the Chief Centuria had had enough. He kicked away Zach’s crutches and pushed him down the concrete stairs. Zach was booted down the remaining flights of steps. By the time he was thrown into the waiting van on the street outside, he was bloodied and bruised.
It was only going to get worse for him after that. They were taking him directly to The Soak.
08:23 Rules of Engagement
There was a buzz in the room; there was a new group about to enter The Grid. The trial would not begin until evening when there were more people to watch on the screens. Fortrillium wouldn’t want to waste an opportunity for striking even more fear into the citizens of The City.
97TRaider explained to Hannah how Fortrillium would create profiles of the Justice Seekers so that they’d be able to dramatize things on the screens. The Gridders would get digital access too – they were putting on a show after all. The Justice Seekers would get a hot shower. Usually it was the first they’d ever experienced if they’d been raised in The Climbs. They’d be patched up and re-clothed to make them fit for the viewing audience.
The Modes would then be determined. That’s where the Gridders came in, they’d have to respond quickly to Mode choices and create and render the gameplay incredibly fast. Such was the pressure that most Gridders saw it as a personal challenge rather than murder. They never saw the live screen feeds, they were forbidden to watch in their role, they only saw the digital simulations on their screens.
Over the years it had been discovered that this was the best way to manage the Gridders. If they could think of what they were doing as gameplay rather than murder, it helped focus their minds considerably. The watching audiences saw and heard every last moment of a Justice Seeker’s death. For the Gridders it was just another digital casualty. They were separated from the real human being who’d just lost their life.
‘How do the Modes work?’ asked Hannah. She’d seen the trials on the screens but never realized that there was an element of chance involved.
‘They get a maximum of ten Modes,’ 97TRaider began. ‘It’s completely random, nobody knows how it will play out. The lowest number is two, the maximum ten. Each Mode presents a different, deadly challenge, created by a Gridder who’s allocated at random. The Grid itself is a vast, artificially rendered environment. We can make it appear however we want to – when they’re in there it’s real to them, even though it’s recreated directly from the consoles in this room.’
97TRaider paused a moment, unsure whether to ask Hannah the question that he wanted to ask.
‘Have you signed yet?’ He dropped his voice. ‘You know there’s a catch to being here don’t you?’
Hannah felt a churn in her stomach. This was new to her.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked, not particularly wanting to hear the answer.
‘You have to sign a second document, it’s how they keep us on our game. If we let anyone through The Grid, they throw us in there to join the next batch.’
Like Talya, Hannah had known that she was exposing herself to danger. She’d imagined that she could walk away, that she could get the information they were after then turn her back on this job. She was wrong. This appeared to be a one-way trip.
‘Is there any way out of this commitment?’ she asked, beginning to panic.
‘There are two ways to get out,’ 97TRaider began. ‘The bad way, which I just told you, or the good way.’
‘And that is?’
‘You make a hundred kills, that’s the only other way out,’ came the reply. ‘I’m up to thirty-nine, just over sixty to go.’
This was not what Hannah had been expecting. This information was top secret, she’d already signed the document which would confirm her silence, and that’s why none of this was common knowledge.
There was worse news to come. One of the Gridders had been in an accident overnight – and they were a Gridder down. City law decreed that there had to be at least ten Gridders to make all of the Modes available, there was nothing else for it.
It was an unprecedented move, but it was fortuitous that Hannah had arrived that morning. It was almost as if that accident had been arranged for the now deceased Gridder. The Head Gridder handed Hannah a console on which was displayed the document that 97TRaider had just spoken about.
‘You’ll need to sign this,’ said the Head Gridder, handing it over.
‘You’re going to get a baptism of fire, you’re going into the draw with all the other Gridders, you may even get some gameplay today!’
Harry had been expecting Lucy that morning, Talya had promised that she’d send her in her absence. Unknown to Harry, Talya and Lucy hadn’t even had a chance to speak, events were moving so fast.
Harry wasn’t sure what to do. Talya was her only link to the outside world – she needed water, it was hot in the apartment during the daytime, she’d need to drink.
08:00 or thereabouts Talya had promised, it was long past that now, Lucy must have forgotten. Harry glanced out of her window. The sun was going to be fierce, the glare would burn through what was left of her windows all day. She’d be baked in an oven. Harry smiled as she remembered cooking at home with her mum, in the days before the plague. She’d been tiny then, loving every minute that she spent with her mother, precious moments. If only they’d all known how cherished those memories would be. The epidemic had caught them all by surprise, nobody even saw it coming.
It was all inconsequential now, the plague had happened, wiping millions off the face of the Earth. For all she knew they were the only ones left, that’s what Fortrillium told them. Harry thought otherwise. Even though she was so young when it occurred, she’d travelled the world even then. It was a big place, surely there must be others?
She’d learned a long time ago to keep thoughts like these to herself. Fortrillium was clear about that in its threatening public information films – there was to be no talk of the world as it was. Harry had lived through five generations in The City. She’d watched as Fortrillium’s version of events had eroded the real truth until it just became accepted as how things were.
Harry was thirsty, she didn’t have enough water to last the day. She’d need to pace herself in case Lucy didn’t come. She reckoned that if she started to walk down the stairs she’d be able to make it there and back before nightfall. She could take her time, it would be safe enough. What choice did she have?
She wouldn’t be able to carry much, she’d drink at the water barrel and take some back with her.
Harry closed the door of her apartment behind her, it had long ago ceased to lock properly. She began to shuffle along the hallway towards the concrete stairs. It had been a long time since she’d done this, but she was sure she could still manage if she took her time. Harry cursed her arthritis, it was so difficult to grasp the railing tightly. Her foot hovered above the first step, and she listened again to see if she could hear Lucy making her way up, but it was all quiet, not a sound up or down the stairwell. The workers left at 06:00, immediately after Segregation. If luck was on her side she might even catch one of the runners. Did they have any on her block? She wasn’t even sure.
Harry began her slow descent of the stairs. Her legs were stiff, little used in her cramped living space so high above the ground. One ... two ... three ... Harry counted each one. She was doing it, she was sure that she could make it. Four ... five ... six ... She was getting faster, her calves burned with the effort but it was working, she was okay.
If she’d been able to continue like that, Harry might have made it. However, three floors below a door slammed as somebody left their apartment in a hurry. She heard them running down the stairwell at high speed and longed for a moment to recapture those days when she too would have had no trouble with that staircase. The noise from the slam startled a pigeon which had found its own sanctuary in an old light fitting on one of the landings. It fluttered its wings in a bid to escape the perceived threat, flying up the stairwell and brushing Harry’s cheek as it passed.
She knew that she shouldn’t have reacted the moment that she flinched and lifted her hand from the rail. Her hand moved before her brain could stop it. She was in mid-step, the fall was inevitable. Harry reached out her hand, trying desperately to clasp onto the rail, but her arthritis – damn that arthritis – her hand was too stiff to steady herself. She’d put off taking Talya’s pills that morning because she wanted to wash them down with water, they had a foul taste.
Harry appeared to be hovering in mid-air for a moment; she desperately tried to catch a hold of something – anything – to break her fall. As her frail, elderly body fell hard onto the concrete steps, she was conscious long enough to hear the snap of her arm as it broke clean through. She began to cry out in pain, but her head slammed on the unforgiving step, knocking her unconscious immediately.
With her body now relaxed and in motion, she rolled down several more steps before finally coming to rest at the bottom of the next landing, her head once more striking the hard floor. There was nobody making their way up or down the stairs, all was quiet. Harry’s limp body rested awkwardly on the concrete. If anybody had heard her cry, nobody came to investigate it. You were best minding your own business in The Climbs, it wasn’t wise to go in search of trouble.
As Harry lay motionless on the floor, a pool of blood began to form around her head. She was lifeless, completely still. Nobody would ever get to hear her stories of how the world had been before the outbreak, the memories would die with her. Nobody would ever know that her real name was Harriet and that she had once suffered several broken ribs when only a young child. They would never hear about the things that she had seen and done, and why the plague had come in the first place.
As the pool of blood by Harry’s head spread out across the floor, the pigeon flew down and came to rest on her shoulder. It was the only living creature which knew she was there.
Lucy had spent long enough in The Climbs not to attract any attention heading back through the gate. Typically she used the exit closest to her home, but on that morning she felt it more prudent to pass Centuria who were not so familiar with her, to avoid a challenge. Her clothes had had plenty of time to dry out from being immersed in the water in the sewer, so although she was a bit smelly, she expected to go through without any problems.
She was anxious to catch up with her mum, who’d left several text-based messages on her WristCom. There was also a video message there from Hannah, but she dare not retrieve any of them, her remaining charge was hanging on by a thread. It helped to be out in the light again, where the device could recharge, but she didn’t want to risk any kind of alerts when she passed through security.
She’d picked up Mitchell’s early morning message confirming that she was clear of that day’s roll call checks. She was safe to pass to the other side, they’d cheated the machines – this time.
Lucy was anxious to get back to her data. She’d made sure that Mitchell had a copy, which she passed to him over the network via secure encryption. That particular information needed to stay safe. If it fell into the wrong hands, they’d all be in trouble.
Joe was beginning to think about making a start with his runner duties. Their morning routines were all awry. Wiz had assured him that he’d got the message back to his mum that he was safe, but Joe was still anxious to get back to Jena and check in on her. She had become nervous and scared since his father’s death, and who could blame her? His brother was still too young to take a proper role in fending for the family, he didn’t share Joe’s resilience. However reluctant Joe was to admit it, they were dependent on him. If anything ever happened to him, he feared the worst for them. And Zach too – there were many people who relied on Joe being there for them.
Lucy always walked up the security gates alone. It would not have been clever to tip off the Centuria that she had relationships in The Climbs. Many people crossed over to do charitable work or to provide practical support. Had Joe or Wiz approached with her, the alert sirens would have sounded, their own security chips never allowing them to cross over onto Silk Road. In fact any attempt to try to make it over to Silk Road without authorization would have resulted in certain death.
The friends bid each other goodbye and headed off in their separate directions. However much they wanted to hack back into Fortrillium’s network again, they had to give it a break for a few days, the last thing they wanted to do was to attract unwanted attention.
It was too late for that. Damien Hunter had had Lucy in his sights for several weeks, ever since President Delman had made the first unwelcome suggestion that Talya should become his replacement Law Lord. Hunter had fought and argued over that one, but he was blocked by the President. So Damien found another way around the problem.
To control Talya, he would need to hit her where it hurt most. She would withstand threats to her own safety, but no parent could ever cope with the direct intimidation of their child. So he started having her monitored and getting a feel for her movements and relationships. It didn’t take long until he got involved personally. Lucy Slater was potentially of more interest than her mother. Whatever she was up to with those friends of hers could possibly lead him back to the information that had just escaped him. He’d been onto the man Jay, but somehow Delman had got a step ahead of him and made sure that Jay ended up dead in The Grid.
If Damien could stifle Talya, he could get to the President. If he could get his hands on Lucy, he would generate considerable leverage.
He couldn’t have hoped for more. Lucy was involved in some surreptitious activity which amounted to treason. But even more than that it appeared that she’d come across information that would be useful to him, so he let the secret operation run a little longer, intrigued by what might be unearthed.
Every moment that Lucy and Joe had spent in the sewer the night before had been monitored by Damien and one of his best tech guys. They had recorded every bit of information, hopefully it would provide useful information about the President. Damien was forty years his junior, but he knew the stories about Delman’s arrival in The City, and how he was the only known person to survive The Grid. Now Damien had got a glimpse into why that might be, why there seemed to be no records of the President in Fortrillium’s database, just the legal documents confirming his right to his position.
Damien had what he needed. There was something beyond Fortrillium, a force that even he was not aware of. And he knew that it would lead back to the President. What Lucy and Joe had stumbled upon would likely be exactly what he required to hasten Delman’s downfall. Without Delman, The City would be his, the firm grasp of Fortrillium would tighten immediately once Delman was gone. The President’s deadly hold over him could be broken at long last.
So now he was done with the teenagers. Just as Lucy approached the gates, Damien drove through in his black car. He signaled to the Centuria who were on guard, and they grabbed Lucy’s arms before she even realized what was going on. Her tech was taken away from her, she was injected with something that immediately made her unconscious, then thrown into the back of the windowless black van which was following behind Damien’s car.
Further along the road, well away from the commotion at the gate, Joe separated from Wiz and arranged to meet up briefly with him towards the end of that day. Wiz wasn’t sure what made him hang back and check Joe as he walked off in the distance. He’d just got a strange sensation that all was not well. Sure enough, just a few minutes after they’d parted, two vehicles pulled up alongside Joe. Wiz ducked in behind a wall, watching what was happening. Joe was wrestled to the ground, his tech removed from his bag, and then he was injected with something which knocked him out immediately. Two of the Centuria threw him contemptuously into the back of the van. Wiz saw enough to glimpse Lucy in there too.
He’d seen all he needed to see. He knew exactly what this was, it had happened so many times in The Climbs. His friends were being taken; he would have to go into hiding in case they were onto him as well. He’d need to tip off Mitchell and Hannah, but he didn’t know how he was going to do that as he couldn’t get over to Silk Road. He’d have to figure it out. Quickly. Wiz glimpsed Damien’s face through the windscreen as the vehicles drove away. He knew then that his friends’ lives were at risk. This was no routine questioning, they’d been rumbled.
Wiz would need to think fast. They were committed now, he’d need to steer this quickly to its conclusion. Whatever the result.
By 09:43 Lucy and Joe had been processed for detention, their limp bodies thrown into one of the cages in The Soak. Damien was ready to make his move. The Law Lords had been summoned to meet that afternoon. Talya Slater would be forced to preside over her own daughter’s sentencing. Joe and Lucy were guilty of treason, they’d go straight to The Grid with the next batch of Justice Seekers.
He’d finish Talya Slater by killing her daughter and when Slater was gone he’d take down the President. Damien Hunter smiled to himself. Soon Fortrillium would have control of the entire city. Then he would begin his plans to reclaim his family and conquer whatever was beyond the walls.