Joe woke up feeling as if he was about to be sick. He was cold and uncomfortable, and for a moment he wasn’t sure if he was at home. He wished he had been. As he focused on what was around him, it felt like a replay of earlier, when he’d come round in the cage. Clay’s was the first face he saw, he was relieved about that, this man had already shown himself to be an ally. Opposite him was Lucy, struggling to come round from whatever sedative they’d been given. He thought back to Damien Hunter’s face, he wanted to kill that man. By nature Joe didn’t have a violent bone in his body, but it was true, he wanted to kill him. Truth be told, he’d always wanted to kill him, ever since his father was taken from them. It was a hatred that had burned inside him, incubated by frustration and a sense of helplessness. As he’d changed from a boy to a young man, that bitterness had become focused on finding a solution – or information, anything to help him discover what had happened to his dad and Tom. But when he saw Hunter earlier, he realized that it was contempt that had driven him all along.
He hated that. So much of his life had been dominated by those events. He didn’t think he was a spiteful person. In fact, he did everything he could to help not just his family but others in the same block who needed his help too. He didn’t think he was a hateful person, but Joe wanted Damien Hunter dead. He didn’t know how – or when – or if he would even be able to do it if the time ever came. Would he be able to show forgiveness if he managed to face his tormentor as an equal? Joe wasn’t sure, he doubted that he could do it. Perhaps the anger was just a fantasy which had driven him to where he was now. Caged and defenceless. But the man had poisoned his life.
Clay smiled at him and helped him to his feet once again. There were other people in the room. It wasn’t one of the cages, this was cleaner and more modern. They’d been re-clothed, dressed in brightly coloured overalls. He recognized these from the screens. Green overalls, the colour reserved for traitors. Clay was in blue, Lucy was in green, just like him. Traitors got a hard time in The Grid, they’d save something spectacular for them. If they stayed alive long enough. Joe knew what happened in The Grid, he understood that nobody ever made it out alive. So why wasn’t he giving up? He still felt ready for the fight ahead. Of course he was terrified, but he would fight and survive as long as he could. He would work with the others too, keep as many alive for as long as possible.
He wondered what it was about humans which gave them hope when all the evidence pointed to their sure and certain demise. He’d seen it on the screens – some Justice Seekers had given up before they even entered, they just wanted death to come as soon as possible. Usually it did. But the others were fighters, you could see it in their eyes. They were alert from the beginning, they were warriors. Joe knew what his chances were, and he chose to fight. It was always the fighters who made it to the end. The ones who worked together survived longest too. Clay would work with him, Lucy too. He’d get to know the others before it began, see who wanted to team up.
Lucy stirred, she’d been awake longer than Joe, but the sedative had hit her hard. She threw up on the floor, it sounded guttural and painful. Joe crouched by her, placing his hand on her shoulder. There was not much he could do to help, but at least she knew she wasn’t on her own.
She recovered quickly, apologizing to everybody for the mess. Most of the inmates in the cell avoided her gaze, they weren’t ready to commit, not sure if they’d be looking after themselves or teaming up with others. They were watching and waiting, deciding how things would play out.
It was more sanitary here than in the cages. Joe reckoned that was for the benefit of the screens – they needed them washed and clearly identifiable so that they could be easily picked out when the trial began. He hadn’t been aware of the process taking place, but he’d had a soaking earlier, and he felt cleaner than he had for many years. Lucy had recovered herself and everybody had stepped away from the area where she’d vomited.
A guard came to the bars, not Centuria but Fortrillium still, and pressed a button to the side of the cell, out of reach of the prisoners. There was a sudden movement by Clay’s feet. He jumped, assuming it was a rat. In fact it was a small, circular vacuum cleaner which scuttled across the floor, cleared up and disinfected Lucy’s mess, then returned to a concealed area along the edge of the cell. There was a visible sigh of relief in the enclosure, the stink had been unpleasant. Usually in The Climbs the smell of the inhabitants was what dominated, but with all the detainees clean, it was Lucy who’d caused the problem.
‘Psyche-Eval in ten!’ yelled the guard, disappearing as quickly as she’d arrived. The inmates glanced at each other, some of those glances were becoming more friendly as a fundamental level of trust began to form among some of the inhabitants of this cramped area. Like animals sniffing for a scent, so the prisoners began to seek out alliances, tentatively at first.
Clay was first to speak. ‘Anybody know what Psyche-Eval is?’ he asked. They were all wondering, fearful of what might follow. They’d all seen the screens. Lots of data was presented about each Justice Seeker, particularly information about fears, vices, psychological problems and phobias. None of them had ever wondered where that intelligence came from, now they all suspected that they were about to find out. There were no answers to Clay’s question, just shrugs, so he moved on.
‘What’s the deal with you two?’ he asked, looking at Lucy and Joe. ‘We don’t see green overalls often in The Grid.’ He sounded as if he’d worked there all his life, but they knew what he meant.
‘Sticking our noses in where they weren’t wanted,’ Lucy said. ‘Look where it got us!’
‘A visit from the Head of Fortrillium, you must have annoyed someone!’ he smiled back. Funny how humour seeps in everywhere, thought Joe, even this place of no hope.
‘We got caught red-handed, we must have stirred up a hornet’s nest, they were onto us immediately.’
Joe avoided mentioning Wiz, Mitchell or Hannah, he didn’t know if their conversations were being monitored. He thought it best to keep quiet about the details for the time being.
Clay decided to join in the confessional.
‘I’m in for counterfeiting. We were getting people through to Silk Road for medical treatment.’
Joe and Lucy just stared at him.
‘Yeah, I’ve been doing reconfigs on WristComs for years, took them this long to catch me. Never did it big scale, couldn’t get access to enough devices, but we saved enough lives that way. A doctor on Silk Road helped us, but they only caught me – didn’t find out how the units were being used, never suspected I don’t think.’
Joe and Lucy introduced themselves. If only they’d known Clay before they ended up in The Soak, they could have made good use of his talents. It hadn’t occurred to them before, but there was probably a unique skill set among that group in the cell.
‘Anybody else want to speak up? Might be a good idea to do it now.’
Clay surveyed the four other people, waiting for one to make a start.
‘If we’re going to survive in there, we need each other,’ he continued. ‘If you’ve got skills, tell us now.’
One of the women stood up, she’d been evasive up to this point. She was probably twenty years old, or close to it. Her face was hard, though, it was etched with the scars of a difficult life.
‘Marjani,’ she stepped forward. ‘I’m here for murder.’
They knew that already from her red overalls. They hadn’t judged – red overalls were considered marginally better than green. If you were wearing green, you were in for a hard time. Not from your fellow Justice Seekers, it was Fortrillium who was chasing you. They wanted you dead.
‘Just call me Marjani,’ she carried on. ‘And it wasn’t strictly murder.’
Everybody stared at her expectantly, waiting for her to continue.
‘I broke the necks of two Centuria,’ she said.
‘Three of them killed my baby, only two of them made it out alive and the third isn’t safe until I take my final breath.’
Joe liked her immediately. The concept of crime in here was fluid. With anybody who knew how cruel the Centuria could be, that counted as revenge, not a criminal act.
Marjani’s story gave another man courage to offer his own account. He was dressed in purple overalls.
‘Miron Panko, arson.’
Brief, but everything they needed to know.
‘Real arson or something else?’ Clay asked.
‘Depends on how you view it,’ Miron smiled. ‘We had a gang holed up in our block stealing food from families, ill and old people. I helped them build a fire to keep warm ... only I couldn’t find any firewood, so I used them.’
Everybody chuckled at that one. Most people had been a victim of gangs at one time or another, those in The Climbs at least. It was good to hear of someone getting their revenge and evening things out.
The sturdy, bearded man who’d so far been silent in the corner stood up and neared the group.
‘Ross Donaldson.’ He held out his hand, the others were not sure what he was doing.
‘Sorry,’ he said. Handshaking was a custom used only on Silk Road, it had died out many years ago in The Climbs. That gave the game away, few people living on Silk Road ever ended up in The Grid. Why would they, they had everything?
Everybody glared at him, he was not one of them. To Joe’s shame even he became defensive. Silk Roaders who ended up in The Grid were usually psychologically ill, murders, thieves and arsonists who couldn’t help themselves. Not people who had to do these things to survive.
Ross sensed the unease. ‘Assault!’ he announced, by way of explanation. ‘Though I prefer to think of it as feedback. I caught my supervisor embezzling money and had a quiet word with him that he ought to stop, in case someone else got to know -– someone who’d inform on him. Instead of thanking me, he changed the paperwork trail so it looked like it was me.’
‘Why do you call it feedback?’ asked Clay.
‘I snapped both his arms. That’s my way of leaving a negative review.’
He chuckled at his own comment. It was infectious, the others laughed too. It broke the ice. Joe thought things were looking good, but this was only their cell. Up to fifteen people usually entered The Grid at one time, there were probably more.
There was one woman left, she was not willing to offer her name or take part in what was going on.
‘You’re welcome to join in at any time,’ Clay offered. ‘Whenever you’re ready, just tell us, we’ll help however we can.’
The mood in the cell was better, but a noise had started up to the side of them. It was a cross between wailing and shouting, somebody in one of the cells was highly distressed. It bothered Joe – they couldn’t see who it was, but they were isolated by the sound of it.
‘It may be a patient from the Institute?’ Lucy suggested.
Everybody knew about the Institute, but it was another of Fortrillium’s dark secrets. People with mental health issues went there, for treatment or incarceration, nobody knew. What was clear was that in every trial there was usually somebody who had come from the Institute. Often they were first to die, unable to defend themselves or sometimes even understand what was going on. It was just one more sight that had enraged those watching the screens, as they saw lives being taken mercilessly before them. Joe’s eyes moistened, he’d always been oversensitive to the plight of others, he knew it made him vulnerable. He just couldn’t hold back, he was a sucker for anybody in need. He called along the corridor to the guard.
‘Hey! Somebody here needs help!’
No reply, no sound of movement, just the distressed sobbing of the person in the next cell, male or female, Joe couldn’t tell.
‘Hey! Can you help out here, please?’
He hadn’t finished his sentence before the guard reappeared. She thrust an electrified mace straight through the bars, plunging it towards Joe’s chest. She held it there as the shock from the charge stopped Joe dead in his tracks. He seemed paralysed, just shaking as the baton passed a massive voltage through his entire body.
‘Get off him!’ shouted Lucy, rushing to his defence, pushing the guard away through the bars. Clay had to pull Joe off the baton, it had clasped into his skin, that’s what was keeping him there. A small patch of blood formed on his overalls as the hook tore through his skin, and he crashed to the ground, still shaking from the charge.
‘I just found my first volunteer for Psyche-Eval,’ said the guard as she hooked the baton into Lucy and began opening up the cell doors.
It seemed to take Wiz forever to get back to Harry’s apartment with the supplies. That was only because Talya was torn between taking care of her injured friend and putting the events in motion which she hoped would save her daughter’s life. If only Jena had not been so cowed by what had happened. They’d both lost their husbands, but why hadn’t Jena fought like her? They could have done so much more together. Talya needed allies and they were fast becoming fewer and fewer.
She had a couple of hours before the trial began. They’d always wait until the workday ended, the whole point of The Grid was to frighten, intimidate and suppress, it demanded the largest audience possible. Talya thought back to previous trials. The pattern was always the same. They’d soften up the Justice Seekers first, nothing to be gained in finishing it too fast. There would be a few shocks, perhaps a death or two depending on the numbers seeking justice, but the early hours were played for dramatic purposes. They’d want Lucy to survive until the end, Joe too probably. If it followed the pattern, Lucy should be fine for several days, but she couldn’t guarantee that. If Damien Hunter wanted her dead, she was sure that could be arranged.
Talya thought about Lucy and her near-lifelong friend and wondered if they had what it would take to survive in The Grid. Lucy and Joe were sharp, smart, intelligent and resilient, they’d had to be, losing their fathers like that. But were they fit enough, strong enough – violent enough even? The few Justice Seekers who made it to the end were powerful, athletic types, able to run, fight, jump and defend. Talya wasn’t sure how Lucy and Joe would fare in that arena, but then she had been caught by surprise by what the five friends had already accomplished together. But they’d been caught, how had they got detected so quickly?
Talya stopped goading herself with the endless and terrifying possibilities. She would be as much use as Jena if she couldn’t focus and figure out a way around the problem. Jena might be part of the solution here, she could at least care for Harry while Mitchell and Wiz were working with her to save Joe and Lucy. Talya resolved to concentrate on actions, not possibilities. She would need all the sharpness and strategy that her legal mind could muster in the hours ahead. And she might need to use a bit of violence herself – she was determined to make the most of her meeting with Max. The one that he didn’t even know that she’d scheduled yet.
Talya picked up Harry from the stairwell, she was heavier than she’d expected, then returned to her apartment up the stairs. The bloody trail left by her fall was spattered across the steps, and Talya winced at how painful it must have been for her old friend. She placed Harry on what passed as her bed in The Climbs. As she surveyed the dirty pile of old blankets, rags and discarded clothes used to soften the hardness of the concrete floor, anger began to surge through her body. Harry made light of the conditions that she had to endure, but Talya’s sense of human justice cursed that someone so elderly could not be cared for with more dignity and compassion.
Harry had known life before the plague, she was one of only a handful who remembered. What must it be like for her living in this world? Talya felt guilty again at the comfort which she enjoyed on Silk Road. What could she do, what could any of them do? Harry couldn’t cross to Silk Road, it was forbidden, there was only limited help that Talya or anybody else could give. She had Lucy to think of too, she couldn’t just sacrifice her life of privilege on a principle. Could she? Talya was becoming uncertain, she felt as if she was damned whatever she did.
Wiz entered the apartment carrying supplies. He was sweaty and out of breath, he’d probably run up the stairs in half the time it had taken Talya. He seemed more cheerful than he should be, given his life in The Climbs. He was so tall too, he towered over her. She wondered how he’d ever managed to get to that height on the rations that he would be restricted to. More guilt. Talya knew she’d have to fight this, it wasn’t productive.
‘I got what you needed,’ Wiz began, then screwed up his face at the bloodied body of Harry lying on the ground. He was choked up seeing her like that. Talya spotted it and cursed his compassion, knowing that it might be that same impulse that could cause Joe and Lucy to lose their lives in The Grid. They were good kids, but they needed to toughen up. Talya helped him out and gave him something to do.
‘Hand me those bandages Wiz, I need you to do something else for me, are you okay?’
‘No problem,’ said Wiz, composing himself. ‘Whatever you need.’
‘I want you to see Jena Parsons and see if you can get her over here to take care of Harry. She should come with Dillon. Dillon will have to act as a runner with Joe away. Jena needs to understand what’s going on Wiz, she can’t just hide from this. If she does, she’ll lose Joe.’
The silence hung for a few moments, but Talya didn’t let them indulge it. She signaled to Wiz that he should leave by beginning to attend to Harry’s wounds, and he was off, as quickly as he’d arrived.
As soon as she’d taken care of Harry she was going to make that house call on Max Penner.
Mitchell walked through the gates, the open top of his bag showing the fresh produce that it contained. He went unchallenged, the Centuria just considered it another futile charity trip from a hopeless do-gooder. Had they taken more trouble to search the bag, they’d have seen a vast array of tech. This type of equipment did not belong in The Climbs, there could be no possible use for it here. Mitchell’s contraband went through unchallenged. He only began to breathe again once he was out of sight of the gates.
He had to think where to go to get to Harriet’s block. He was most used to visiting Joe, but he kept out of The Climbs if he could. It was only because of Lucy that he’d got involved – any chance to be near her. He envied Joe’s easiness with her, they were like brother and sister together, he couldn’t match that familiarity.
It took him a while to get on track. He found Joe’s block first, then traced his steps from there. Once you’d seen one block, you’d seen them all. They called them apartments, but many of the blocks had been office space before the plague. In the desperate rush for survival that had followed, people had carved them up, creating their own territory. The word ‘apartment’ was an affectation from the past, few residents in The Climbs knew what it meant.
If you’d pushed Mitchell, he probably would admit to being a bit of a snob about Joe and Wiz. Sure, he liked them, they were fabulous guys. But they both smelled. He knew they couldn’t help it, water was at a premium in The Climbs. But really? How did they live with it? How did Lucy ignore it? It was as if Joe’s smell was invisible to her, she seemed not to notice.
Still, he did like all of them, Hannah too, he’d never felt so welcome in a group like that. He’d always been a bit of an outsider, but they’d all welcomed him into their company, celebrated his skills with tech and ignored his awkwardness. Things were heating up too much for him now, it’s why he’d made his excuses when they were in the sewer the previous night, it was all a bit too risky for him. If it wasn’t for Lucy, he’d have been out weeks ago.
He was going to start looking for a way out. Of course, he wanted Lucy safely out of The Grid, but her mum was Talya Slater, surely they wouldn’t let anything happen to her – would they? Mitchell started the long climb up the stairs to Harry’s place. This was another thing he hated about The Climbs, all those levels. Why couldn’t they get power over there and fix the elevators? Everything worked fine on Silk Road. That’s when the prejudice reared its head, just for a moment. That feeling in Mitchell that these people had brought this upon themselves, they were living in their own mess.
Mitchell was not accustomed to making his way up so many stairs. He was exhausted by the time he reached Harry’s floor. He was sweating and his clothes were wet, his face red and puffy. It was quite busy when he stepped into the room. Jena Parsons was there, he hadn’t expected that. He’d never heard her utter a word ever since he’d known Joe. Dillon, was there too, as was Wiz, who greeted him straight away. No sign of Talya, she must have left them to it.
‘How’s Harry?’ asked Mitchell, handing the bag to Wiz. Wiz was more interested in the bag and its hi-tech contents. He opened it as if it was Christmas Day, discarding the fruit, bread and salted meats as if they were of no importance whatsoever. Everything he needed was there – he wished that he lived on Silk Road and he could get easy access to kit like this, just like Mitchell.
‘I’m going down in the sewer this evening,’ said Wiz. ‘Need to get this locked into that second feed and see what’s going on – you coming?’
That’s just what Mitchell was hoping he wouldn’t ask.
‘I can’t tonight Wiz, sorry. I need to stay at home and mind my sister.’
He could see the disappointment on Wiz’s face and felt he’d need to throw in a consolation prize.
‘I’ll be connected at home, though. Let’s set up a secure channel before I go so we can talk, I’ll help out if I can.’
Wiz wasn’t looking forward to negotiating that sewer on his own. He was far too tall to be down there – they’d agreed from the outset that Joe and Mitchell should do it. Mitchell had refused on the grounds of the smell, but Lucy had leapt in there anyway and offered to support Joe. She knew that rats would be the issue for Joe, she’d encountered that problem before. Wiz considered getting Dillon involved but thought better of it. Jena was in a big enough fix already without losing another member of her family.
Harry gave a loud wheeze as she sat up without warning. Jena calmed her and lay her back down on her bedding. It was getting late in the day, the trial would begin at 20:00. Mitchell needed to be back before Segregation. He made link-up arrangements with Wiz, exchanged a few words with Jena and Dillon, then started to make his way down the steps.
He hoped that Wiz hadn’t seen through his lies. He wasn’t looking after his sister that night. After he had passed back through the security gates, he’d got an important meeting to attend. He’d been summoned by President Josh Delman to meet at his private apartment block in the government buildings. Apparently he was keen to seek Mitchell’s expertise on a technical matter.