Having to remove Jay’s crushed skull from the pipework was one of the lower points of Max’s work operating and maintaining the cleaner bots. He’d never come face-to-face with a victim before, most of the time he could detach himself from what was going on in there. Max had to go into his tool drawer to get something sturdy enough to lever out the jammed remains.
Jay’s bloodied eyeball stared at him accusingly. He had to rush to his bin to throw up. Max hadn’t got a weak stomach, but this was testing even him. He pulled, levered and eventually cajoled the blockage out of the mouth of the pipe. It rolled across the floor when it finally came free.
Max picked up the skull and felt compelled to acknowledge this man who’d fought so bravely in The Grid. He took a few moments in silence to pay his respects to Jay, then did what he had to do. He tossed the fleshy skull into the Bio-Shredder and it was devoured in a moment. There was no grave for those who sought and failed to gain justice – marked graves might have given cause for martyrdom.
As Max went to re-attach the pipe, he noticed something else, it was man-made and wrapped in the remains of a pouch. Whatever it was had been trapped by the skull. It would have been small enough to pass through had there not been a larger obstruction. It was bloody in there, so he hooked the remains out with one of his tools, rinsing it in water. As the human debris washed away from the object, it became clear what he was holding. It was a WristCom.
Max had never had direct access to one of these before. How had one got into The Grid? WristComs were usually worn by executive workers and more affluent Silk Roaders, certainly nobody at his pay grade ever got near one. It must have come in with one of the Justice Seekers – the only way they’d have got it through was inside their body, anything outside would be detected by security.
He cleaned away the final stains of blood and examined the unit carefully. There was a name etched onto the metallic disk at the back of it. Max’s eyesight was quite poor, but he strained to read it. There was a T in there certainly, it was somebody’s initials, it appeared to be a TS. There was a Fortrillium logo on it too – that figured, everybody at Fortrillium used these devices.
None of it meant much to Max, but somehow this WristCom had made its way into The Grid, and nobody knew about it. If Max was careful he could use the thing himself, it would go undetected. Okay, it was risky, but he was left on his own down there, it was just him and the bots. He was as certain as he could be that he could get away with it.
So Max concealed the device in a bag attached securely inside one of the outlet pipes of the cleaner bots, there was no way anybody else was going to find it there. He had a plan, but it would take some time and courage to work it through. Those WristComs were audio and digital devices, he knew enough about them from the screens to know that you could record video on them. They were mostly used for remote conferences and routine communications, but he had another purpose in mind.
Max was planning to send the WristCom in with the bots along the long tunnel to the centre of The Grid. He wanted to know what was in there.
Joe and Lucy considered the situation in the darkness of the sewer. Was there enough time for Lucy to make a run for it? They thought not.
Everybody in The City was chipped. At 20:00 there would be a location-based head count, anybody who was caught on the wrong side would be in trouble. This was to protect the Silk Roaders, though it had more to do with the control of crime under cover of darkness. It was also safety related. The Climbs were largely left to their own devices after dark. No Silk Roader would have volunteered to stay there at night, not even people like Lucy and Talya who were familiar faces to the residents. In the daytime you were protected by the many honest people in The Climbs, but in the darkness, when even they were safely sheltering in their homes, there was nobody to keep you alive.
‘Damn it!’ cursed Lucy. ‘Why wasn’t Mitchell here to provide surveillance for us?’
Mitchell had a WristCom, as did Lucy, but she had been so absorbed among the wires that she’d neglected to watch the clock. Wiz had no such luxury, no residents in The Climbs had WristCom access – unless they’d stolen one or cut off somebody’s hand to get it.
‘We need to get Mitchell up on your WristCom, Lucy. He’ll need to stall for you.’
They pushed the wires back up into the void in the sewer pipe and quickly made their way to the end. Wiz checked that the coast was clear and they emerged from the hole in the ground, being careful to replace the drain cover so as not to arouse any suspicion. Lucy touched her WristCom and Mitchell responded almost immediately.
‘Are you somewhere private?’ asked Lucy.
‘Yes, good to go,’ came the reply. ‘You alright?’
‘I’m about to miss Segregation Mitch. Can you create a clone for me?’
‘Hell Lucy, a bit more warning would be helpful. Quick, give me your access info.’
Lucy could hear Mitchell tapping away at his console, it was at a frantic speed.
‘Okay. Slater-L,’ she began. ‘Zero, zero, five, alpha, gamma, gamma, two, nine, seven ...’
‘Slower, slower. I’m writing a code base here and typing in your numbers. Start again from nine ...’
Lucy continued reading the digits from the tattoo on her left forearm. The tattoo was directly linked to a chip beneath the skin, it provided a unique identifier for everybody in The City.
‘Okay,’ said Mitchell, his brain in overdrive figuring out what he’d need to do to cheat the system.
Roll call was a wireless and momentary process. When it was triggered at Fortrillium, every device would be polled at rapid speed in alphabetical order. Mitchell’s surname was Cranshaw, he would be counted in before Lucy, so that at least gave him warning when registration had begun.
‘Ask Wiz, what’s the best environment to place this in, SimBio or Vantrex?’
‘SimBio,’ Wiz replied straight away. ‘Lucy, send him your Gen-ID.’
At rapid speed, Mitchell was creating a simulated biological framework into which he was going to place a virtual chip. He was going to cheat the chip into thinking it was embedded in Lucy, that’s why he needed the DNA information. His own chip pulsed – he wouldn’t have even noticed it under normal circumstances, but this time he was looking for it.
‘We’ve got about three minutes Lucy,’ he said, still typing furiously away.
‘When I say so, get down the sewer so you don’t get polled twice. It should block the signal down there.’
A stream of digital information ran across Mitchell’s display. It felt like ages to him, but in reality it was no more than half a minute. His terminal confirmed that the coding was accurate by correctly identifying as Slater, L. It looked as if it had worked. Mitchell swiped his hand across the screen, dropping a folder of data into the artificial environment that he’d just created.
‘I reckon about sixty seconds,’ came his voice on Lucy’s WristCom. Get below ground now.’
‘If you see your chip pulse, it didn’t work. Good luck, I’ll be waiting here, give it ten minutes before you come out.’
Wiz, Joe and Lucy went back down into the sewer, replacing the cover behind them.
‘Go as far along the pipe as you can,’ urged Joe. ‘The deeper, the better.’
Joe and Lucy made their way through the duct. Wiz stayed at the entrance – he’d only hinder them. When they’d reached their usual place, just beneath the mess of wires where they’d abandoned work earlier, they sat in the darkness and waited. It was difficult to judge the time. Mitchell had said a minute.
Lucy held out her arm, they’d see the pulse if it happened. They stood by, hardly daring to blink unless they missed the momentary beat. Joe realized that he hadn’t been exhaling, he tried to relax. They felt as if they’d been down there for hours, but it was only about fifteen minutes. Both were sure that the chip hadn’t pulsed. They were ready to return to the surface to confirm with Mitchell.
Mitchell had only just begun breathing properly. He was good with tech, but it helped to get some thinking time. He was sweating, his forehead and back wet from the stress of what had just happened. Lucy’s WristCom was active again, he heard her voice.
‘Are we okay Mitch?’ she asked, hardly daring to hear the answer.
‘It was fine,’ came the reply. ‘You’re all accounted for in the system, nobody will know you’re there tonight.’
Lucy relaxed now. She smiled at Joe and Wiz.
‘Can you get a message to mum, tell her I’m staying with the Parsons family overnight, say not to worry, I’ll be back immediately after Segregation.’
‘No problem, I’ll make sure she knows ...’
Mitchell’s voice stopped, as if he were deciding whether to say something or not. Lucy helped him. ‘What?’ she asked.
‘I have got some bad news, I’m afraid. I don’t know what time they’ll do the morning poll, and they might do a spot check at any time of night. I can leave my console running so when they survey they’ll track you to Silk Road.’
Lucy and Joe knew what he was going to say before he even said it.
‘I’m sorry Lucy, but the only safe way to guarantee not getting caught out is to stay down the sewer all night.’
Hannah had tried to make contact with Lucy to arrange a meeting, but her WristCom was either engaged or out of range. Unusual, but she was probably busy. Damien Hunter had said that he was on his way to some event involving Lucy’s mum, so it was possible that she’d got caught up in it.
She couldn’t believe the conversation that she’d just had. Everybody had their suspicions about the Gridder Games, but this was beyond what anyone could have imagined. There was no way she could discuss this with others outside her closest circle. Hunter had made it perfectly clear that if the information were shared a severe punishment would be given to the person leaking it and those receiving it. She didn’t recall reading that bit in the contract that she’d signed, probably that’s what you’d call ‘small print’.
Hunter had explained to Hannah how the most capable Gridders were pro-actively courted by Fortrillium. Indeed, it was Fortrillium which secretly sponsored the contest. ‘Think of it as a job interview,’ he’d said. Fortrillium used the competition to isolate the best gamers, using computer-generated scenarios from previous Justice Trials.
‘We’re looking for skill, strategy, dexterity, and the ability to win at all costs,’ he’d gone on to explain. ‘You stood out Hannah because you have an ability to anticipate Justice Seeker moves many steps ahead – I’ve never seen anything quite like it.’
Hannah resisted the urge to feel flattered by his comments. She knew she was a skilled gamer, but that wasn’t what all of this was about.
‘Tomorrow morning, I’d like you to report to Fortrillium, where you’ll be inducted into the team which creates The Justice Trials. Your current job detail will be terminated, I’ll handle that, and you start work for me at 08.00. Do you have any queries?’
Hannah had many questions that she’d like to ask, such as, ‘How do The Grid trials operate?’ and ‘What happens if a Justice Seeker makes it through their trial?’ She also wanted to know if she would ever be required to make a kill directly. She thought that they wouldn’t let her loose on a trial for some time; she was banking on Lucy and Joe hacking into Fortrillium before that even became an issue. They needed to bring down Fortrillium before she was forced into taking a life – she’d have to step aside if it ever came to that. But could you hand in your resignation at Fortrillium? She wasn’t so sure about that. They had to be successful in their attempts to infiltrate Fortrillium, they were all in too deep now. Failure could only mean disaster for all of them.
Hannah stuck with a benign question – she’d pick up the rest as she went along.
‘I always wondered how the environments were rendered,’ she began. ‘Are they built or generated?’
That was safe and generalized, it didn’t force Hunter into uncomfortable territory.
‘They use pre-plague technology, it’s ingenious. You create complete immersion scenarios on your console and we render those within The Grid. The Grid itself is a restricted space; using the system it can feel infinite to the participants. They’re effectively going over the same ground time and time again, but they can’t tell, the environment changes infinitely as they move through the challenges.’
Hannah was intrigued, she was afraid and nervous, yet the gamer in her still wanted to know how it all worked.
‘Other than the need for secrecy, are there any other key requirements for the position?’
Damien smiled at her and paused a moment.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘There’s just one. Nobody ever gets out of there. That’s your job, you make sure that no-one ever leaves there alive.’
Talya worked her away around the room, exchanging pleasantries with her new colleagues from the panel of Law Lords. It wasn’t an agreeable way to spend an evening, but she knew that she would have to grin and bear it. From now on she’d be seeing a lot of these people. The thing that surprised her was the wealth that was on display. Normally she mixed in much less ostentatious circles, but this was something new to her.
The majority of people living on Silk Road had the decency not to make a big fuss of the privilege that they were fortunate enough to enjoy. Most wouldn’t openly acknowledge what was going on at the heart of their community in The Climbs, because they knew that their own lives and the lives of the people who lived there were precariously balanced. A small slip, a wrongly placed comment, making an enemy at Fortrillium and your cosy life could come tumbling down in an instant. All it took was a knock at the door from the Centuria – if you were lucky enough to be afforded that courtesy.
In spite of watching their own backs, they knew what was going on over in The Climbs. Even if they’d never had the courage to cross over, there was always the gnawing feeling of guilt and discomfort. They knew that their good fortune brought misery and squalor for others. What could you do if you had families to care for? Nobody would volunteer for The Climbs, you just had to shelter your immediate dependents and be thankful that your own lot was a good one.
There was no such shame from the Law Lords. Their dominant position in society made them almost untouchable, they were given the highest privileges and a level of prosperity enjoyed by nobody else in The City. This was what also agitated President Delman – this wealth did not automatically come with the job, yet he too was aware of how much affluence was on display. He would never have been able to prove it, but he knew it was Hunter’s doing. Fortrillium controlled law and order in The City. Sure, the President was involved with policy, but it was what they referred to as ‘arm’s length’ service. That meant Damien Hunter ran it and there was not a lot that the President could do to change it, not while Hunter had bought the allegiance of those serving within the justice system.
It was a stalemate, that’s why Delman had brought in Talya. She was a liability, but she was completely straight and honest. It had taken him a long time to find somebody with the correct legal background who was also incorruptible. People like Talya were rare in The City – she seemed to have a death wish in that she would not step back from saying and doing the right thing. Of course this made her a problem. She’d even dared to criticize the President while appearing on the screens, but he desperately needed someone like her, particularly with what was coming.
President Delman could feel the long, wiry tentacles of Fortrillium circling around him. He knew what Hunter was after and what that would eventually mean for him. His leadership had been sustained and unchallenged for many years. However, Hunter was like nobody else he’d ever encountered. His ability to intimidate, control, corrupt and – if necessary – charm, was unstoppable, he was slowly colonizing all of the President’s supporters. The endgame would be that Delman was isolated – an aging President would be unable to fight off the major challenge.
President Delman knew that he was hanging on by a thread, but he didn’t need to maintain this position for much longer. He hadn’t become President by being passive. Bringing Talya in was his masterstroke; with her in place he would be able to separate the fact from the fiction. He watched her making her way around the room, the only member of the justice panel not to be dripping in jewellery or wearing a diamond-encrusted WristCom.
Damien Hunter arrived, late, but instantly dominated the room with his entrance. Talya hadn’t noticed him immediately, as she was reading a text message from Lucy’s friend, Mitchell, when he arrived. Her daughter had got caught in The Climbs. Talya knew she’d be safe there with Joe, but she couldn’t help but worry about how they’d evaded detection after Segregation. She had to trust Lucy, she knew she was capable and streetwise, but that didn’t stop the panic rising in her.
Talya checked herself. She’d have to get used to feeling one thing and showing another. She was in a room with the two most influential men in The City. Both of them had the power to sentence Lucy to incarceration for the rest of her life, it would barely matter that she was a Law Lord now.
Damien soon edged in on her conversation, effectively blanking out the person that she’d been speaking to and dismissing them, without even a word.
‘Congratulations Talya, I’m delighted that you’re now joining us on the panel, it’s well deserved.’
He’d barely drawn breath and he was lying already. Firstly she knew for a fact that he’d been leaning on Delman not to appoint her, probably trying to dig up all sorts of scandal to block it. Secondly, the use of ‘us’ was instantly telling. There was no ‘us’ when it came to justice within The City, the Law Lords were the final power. Fortrillium’s role was to deliver their will – it was not supposed to be the other way round.
‘Thank you, Damien,’ Talya replied, mustering every bit of charm that she could. ‘It’s an absolute privilege to be able to serve The City.’
Okay, she was lying now too. She thought of the office more like a poisoned chalice, but there was no way she was sharing those thoughts in public.
‘Of course, you understand that we’ll be working closely together now Talya, and I do hope that you’ll impress upon your child – Lucy is it? – the responsibilities that come with your new role.’
This man was unbelievable. Here was the veiled threat already. Translate that last sentence in ‘Hunter speak’ and she’d just been told to watch herself, Hunter was monitoring Talya and her daughter. It had begun immediately. If she were a weaker person, she’d be next in line for the massive house and gaudy jewellery. No doubt this is how he’d intimidated every one of the other members of the panel, by letting them know that their families were in danger if they didn’t work with him.
Talya felt the panic rise in her once again. If Hunter knew where Lucy was, it would be the shortest Law Lord appointment in history. They’d have to have words. Lucy needed to be aware that they’d be watching carefully from now on.
‘Of course Damien. Lucy is more concerned with building a career for herself in network forensics these days. She hopes that she can join Fortrillium in future years, it certainly seems to be her aspiration.’
Another lie, how many would she be forced to tell? Lucy was more likely to blow up Fortrillium than work for it – she’d never stopped blaming them for her father’s disappearance. Fortunately for Talya, even she didn’t know what Lucy was up to: hacking into Fortrillium’s networked infrastructure. Not quite the career choice that they’d discussed.
Talya decided to take the initiative. If Hunter was throwing down the gauntlet so soon, she’d have to move fast to outmanoeuvre him. An early advantage would help her to secure her own leverage.
‘As you know Damien, the new role affords me certain non-civilian privileges, and I’d like to move on these swiftly.’
Damien’s face changed from its forced charm to a more natural scowl.
‘I’d like to request a tour of the detention facilities operated by Fortrillium so that I can be more informed in my new role.’
Few people ever got to see The Soak, only Fortrillium employees who were sworn to secrecy, and those who entered it and never left. Most Law Lords gave it a wide berth; they all knew about it, but none of them wanted to acknowledge its existence.
‘No problem at all.’ Damien’s charming face returned, though it took a little more effort to get it in place this time.
‘That’s quite difficult to arrange. I’m sure that we can organize that for you within, say, the next year – is that a reasonable time frame for you?’
‘No, it’s not,’ replied Talya. She’d been expecting a stall from him.
‘As you know, under article IP6.v3 Law Lords have the right to inspect all detention facilities at one hour’s notice.’
Damien’s scowl was back. It was proving too much for him to even pretend charm now.
‘I want to have a full tour at 08:00 tomorrow Damien, so I’m being generous, you’ve got almost twelve hours warning.’
‘No problem at all Talya, I’ll get that arranged for you straight away.
‘By the way, how is that daughter of yours?’