‘I wish there was a way of doing this without having to come down here!’ said Joe.
The stench of the drains was unbearable. He was beginning to yearn for one of the others to do his work. When the time came though, it had to be him – the data card had genetic encryption. Mitchell and Wiz were excellent at the above-ground stuff. When it came to crouching in a sewer up to your knees in who knows what and braving the rats, it was, unfortunately, a job for Joe Parsons.
Lucy was there, though. She always was and always had been since his dad had been taken away. Lucy who got to shower every day, who had managed to hang on in the family home after her father had died and who lived a life of luxury on the other side of the wall. She could come to him, but he couldn’t cross to her side. She was the same that she’d always been, she smuggled in whatever contraband that she could, but she couldn’t be seen to break the rules. Everybody knew where that ended up.
Still, she was content to crouch in a foul sewer with him and that said a lot. Lucy was supporting the mass of wires that they’d managed to access through the roof of the pipeline. They’d made progress last time they were down there – they knew that data was not only flowing through Fortrillium, but there was also a source outside it. Another location? A government agency perhaps? Or might it have come from beyond The City’s walls?
This was Mitchell’s skill, figuring out the Fortrillium network layout and – most importantly – where they could breach it. Mitchell was from Silk Road too. His mum was involved in infrastructure developments, and it wasn’t difficult to get the information if you knew what you were looking for. Using this mess of wires and some tech assembled from components that Lucy had smuggled in, they’d created an interface from which they could hack into Fortrillium. It was Matt’s files that they were after though – if they still existed on the server. That was where Lucy came in. She was in charge of network forensics.
Life was sweet if you lived on Silk Road. You got taught via screens and started training for work from fourteen years old. It was different in The Climbs. There was no education, only manual employment – or death. Joe survived by his wits. He didn’t take a job, but he’d spent enough time on Silk Road to have the basics that he needed, the rest he’d taught himself.
Zach’s books had helped too. Joe hadn’t told anybody about that, not even Lucy. If he were ever found out, Zach was a dead man. He’d never survive incarceration with his disabilities, and he’d die in The Grid in an instant.
Lucy had been learning about network forensics for three years. She was good – excellent – and through her mum she’d gained entry-level access to one of the few tech companies that existed in The City. Like Joe, Lucy was a survivor, she was quite capable of teaching herself. So while they kept her occupied with mostly menial and meaningless tasks, she was way ahead of them, learning so fast that she could outpace the majority of the employees at the company.
The plan was for Mitchell to find the way into Fortrillium, for Wiz to get them connected, and for Joe to activate whatever it was that his dad had given him before the Centuria took him. Lucy was to get the residual data, which must have been deleted or hidden in the aftermath of Matt’s demise. If they got lucky, Lucy might also find some of her own dad’s files. That was unlikely, unique DNA password protection at Fortrillium was commonplace, it was one of the few technologies that had survived and flourished after the plague. It was as if somebody had something that they were keen to hide, there would be no way into Tom’s files without some sort of assistance, like Joe had been given.
Matt had handed Joe the electronic data card, but it was domestic, it could only be opened by someone with the same genetics – any family member. Joe and his gang had got into the gadget quite quickly a few years previously, but the data was encrypted, Fortrillium had locked it. They needed to run the apparatus via Fortrillium’s network – they had to hack the system.
They’d spent several nights down the sewers, trying to stitch everything together to make it work. They’d fumbled around in the stinking darkness, achieving what they could, and then trying to patch up the problems above ground, using whatever resources Lucy could smuggle in. All of this without arousing any suspicion. Damn, it was hard. But they sensed that they were almost there. If they could just access the network, they were sure that they’d finally be able to unveil some of Fortrillium’s darkest secrets. Joe and Lucy would eventually find out what had happened to their fathers, they would know the truth at last, even though they had no idea what they would do with it.
Without warning, there was a cry of panic from Wiz at the head of the sewer. Mitchell wasn’t with them that night, he’d had to stay on the Silk Road side, and that meant Wiz had got distracted. Lucy jumped. Joe glanced along the long pipe-way towards the darkness. They’d got carried away, they’d lost track of time. It was two minutes until Segregation – there was insufficient time to make it past the security gate. Lucy was trapped in The Climbs for the night. It was impossible to make it to the end of the sewer pipe and get to the checkpoint in time. Any excuses would fall on deaf ears. If she got caught by the Centuria, there would be no forgiveness for Lucy Slater.
There were wild cheers as Hannah slammed her opponent to the ground, did a back flip that involved an impossibly high leap, then landed on her combatant’s chest. With a sharp kick, he was out cold, yet here was Hannah, a fraction of his height and weight.
It was the annual Gridder contest, a high profile gaming event on Silk Road in which the best gamers in The City competed for the chance to become that year’s champion. For the winner, it meant fame, good fortune and popularity.
The Gridder Games were based on real-life scenarios in The Grid, though, in this case, nobody died. The opponent whom Hannah had floored was just a pixel image on an enormous screen that was being watched by a seated crowd of over five hundred people.
It was her dexterity and speed, rather than her strength, which had caused her to win. Hannah had won that year’s championship. She’d been practising for months from the comfort of her well-equipped home on Silk Road, a privilege denied to the residents of The Climbs.
After the celebrations had died down, Hannah decided to take the long way home. She’d been cooped up in front of screens all day, and she wanted to focus her eyes on something different. As she left the gaming complex, she felt an intense sensation of being followed, but in spite of looking back several times, she could see no evidence to support that theory. The feeling persisted, and she began to think better of having strayed into one of the most remote areas of Silk Road.
Hannah walked out of the park area, onto the walkway, and as she did so – apparently from nowhere – three large black cars drew up at her side. Centuria emerged from the front and back vehicles, one of them opened the passenger door of the middle car and Damien Hunter stepped out. Hannah knew who he was immediately, his face was all over the screens, and Fortrillium pretty well ran The City.
‘Hannah James,’ he began. ‘I’m Damien Hunter, congratulations on your win today, that was an impressive performance!’
Hannah wasn’t sure what tack to take. Usually a visit from so many Centuria meant bad news. This seemed to be a social call, their stance was respectful rather than threatening. They didn’t appear to want to throw her into the boot of one of those vehicles. Hannah opted for the friendly approach.
‘Thanks a lot Mr Hunter, pleased to meet you,’ she replied. ‘I know you’re a big fan of the Gridder Games.’
‘I certainly am, that’s why I was so keen to get to know you. I watch the results of the tournament carefully.’
Hannah wondered what was coming next, this was leading to something, and she could see him manoeuvring the conversation towards the point of his visit.
‘Hannah, I need you to sign this document. What I’m about to discuss with you is covered by a government secrecy clause. It’s imperative that you don’t mention this little chat to anybody.’
Hannah was intrigued and also wary, Damien Hunter tended not to drop in on social calls. Could she say ‘no’? She suspected that wasn’t an option. One of the Centuria handed her an e-Doc device and she flicked through the legal text.
‘I know it seems convoluted,’ said Damien, ‘but all it says is that our conversation is between us only and must remain private.’
Hannah scanned the paperwork swiftly. Damien was right, it used a lot of complicated language to say just that. However, he missed out the bit that was tucked away at the bottom of the page.
‘This document is bound by Government Secrecy Clause 3.f.v4.5 LL.’
The sting was contained in the letters ‘LL’ which meant that this particular breach of the law would be referred to the Law Lords, which in turn entailed incarceration. Hannah wasn’t sure what to do, but she was fascinated to know what this was about. It seemed simple enough. She’d signed the Citizen Contract when she was fourteen years old, just like every other city dweller had. The ‘LL’ was a veiled threat, but like any laws, play by the rules and it was never any bother.
Hannah decided to sign. This clause only related to their conversation, it would be easy enough to keep that quiet, she wasn’t signing her life away, not yet at least. She pressed her thumb on the signature panel; the sensor did not detect sufficient sweat, so a small pinprick of blood was taken to determine and confirm identity. With that over, the e-Doc device was handed back to the Centuria and placed in a secure case that was then locked.
Hannah wasn’t sure if she could have resisted these overtures even if she’d tried. She desperately wanted to know why someone like Damien Hunter had stopped her in the street on such intriguing business. She’d heard the rumours just like everybody else, but she supposed that the reason they’d remained only whispers was because all the others had had to sign a document just as she had. It had been her motivation for pushing hard to win the Gridder Games too – apart from the prestige – she wondered if the hearsay was true.
They’d all seen The Justice Trials on the screens. All residents of The City grew up with them, but those who were a little more perceptive speculated about who was behind The Grid and how those justice challenges were created. A few had noticed in recent times that things seemed to change at the end. Many on trial had nearly made it to The Justice Walk, but in the last moments it appeared that no person was ever supposed to make it beyond The Grid. It was as if a final executioner was laying in wait to rob them of life, even though they might have survived many days to get as far as they had.
The suspicion in The City was – and nobody dared speak this theory in open conversation – that champion Gridders were secretly approached by Fortrillium to help to create The Justice Trials. This was why Hannah could not resist signing the paperwork. She knew for sure that she was speaking to a monster, but by completing that document she would move closer to the truth. It appeared that the rumours were correct, it was not more than three hours since she’d won the contest and already here was Damien Hunter courting her directly.
Hannah understood exactly what she was getting herself into – what they were all getting themselves into. At least she wasn’t knee-deep in the sewers, though, like Wiz, Lucy and Joe. Thanks to her gaming abilities, she’d been the obvious choice for this particular role, the particulars of which she had every intention of sharing with her group of friends.
Clay watched as the predator in the cage picked the man up by his neck, lifting him away from the floor, slowly choking him and looking directly into his eyes as he did so. It had been like this all week, but as the most recent addition to the cell, he hadn’t started to intimidate Clay yet. Still too much strength in him no doubt, a few weeks on the hopelessly inadequate rations in The Soak and Clay would begin to weaken too.
There was no justice in this legal system, as Clay had learned already. The strongest in the cell got most of the food, the remainder got what was left after he’d finished. As the rest got weaker, he’d threaten them and make their lives a misery, eventually killing them.
They’d lost two of the men and one of the women in the past three days. Clay had tried to intervene, but the madman was just too strong, he was just brushed aside and thrown into the corner. He was lucky they had not been spotted by the guards, he’d expected them to open fire at any moment. It would be Clay’s turn soon. He would probably be choked in the night just like one of the other men. There was no attempt to segregate inmates based on the levels of their crimes, and they’d found themselves caged in with a psychotic murderer. Talk about drawing the short straw.
Clay knew that he’d have to act – he had done so from the minute he’d clocked what this man was capable of. It was kill or be killed, either way there was unlikely to be a happy ending in all of this.
He’d been in The Soak for long enough to figure out the routine, even if it was so darn difficult to keep track of the time in there. It was underground, so there was no natural daylight. The patterns of the day were dictated by food, staff changeovers and the level of dripping from the river bed above them. At certain times of day, the seepage would increase; although Clay didn’t know it, this was due to tidal ebbs and flows on the surface overhead.
Clay had never seen the sea, neither had anybody else in The City, except for a few people who were from the first generation, but not many of those were still alive. Clay reckoned that the psychopath had timed his attack just right. They should be flushing out the cages soon. That meant that an almighty gush of water would come cascading through the cells, starting at the top and working its way to the bottom, bringing with it all the filth and dirt from the inmates. It was as close as things got to hygiene in The Soak, but it seemed fairly effective in keeping disease out – possibly something was added to the water.
If that man could keep breathing until the flush came, Clay thought, he might be able to sort out the problem they had in their cell. The big, violent and brutal one.
He was right. He heard the discharge of the water from above. They were five cages down as far as he could tell, and the water would fall fast and hard on them. The minute the release came, most inmates threw themselves to the floor and just let it wash over them. You only tried fighting it once – the water came through the bars with such a force that it thrust the inmates to the ground anyway.
You never knew what was coming down with it either. Your best bet was to throw yourself on the floor, belly down, and protect the back of your head with clasped hands. All sorts worked their way down through the cages: rats, body parts, human waste, and the occasional weapon or dangerous object. If one of these hit you on the head, you could be a goner.
So when the flush began, Clay threw himself to the ground, but just by the feet of the monster who ignored the water and continued with his violent strangulation.
Clay waited for the water to make its way down, counting the cries as it smashed against the inhabitants of the cells higher up. One - two - three - four ... Clay’s cage next. Clay stood up before the water hit and ran with every bit of energy that he could summon towards the thighs of the killer. The thug was completely taken aback by this, tackled out of nowhere, and he dropped his victim as he fell heavily to the floor.
Clay heard the water strike the bars above him. He rushed at the assailant, wrenching his head upwards so that it would meet the powerful cascade of water as it made its way down from the upper cells. The water came thundering through the cell. He could hear the cries of his cellmates as it stung their bodies, but Clay held the psycho’s head directly towards the flow, forcing his jaw open. He hadn’t been expecting the attack. He’d tried to inhale as his massive frame went crashing to the floor and, when the water came, it washed into his open mouth as he struggled to draw in air. When the water came, it washed into his open mouth as he struggled to draw in air.
As he drew breath, he took water into his lungs. Immediately his body reacted to repel the water. Clay felt him panic as air was denied, but the force was too overpowering. He gulped in more water, and there was a spasm as it washed into his stomach. Clay held him there in the path of the water until he went limp, and the water had passed through.
When the water had subsided, Clay broke his neck just to make sure, an action concealed by the other inmates standing up once again now the coast was clear. The monster was dead, the cage was safe. He’d avoided the guns too – if the guards had seen them fighting, it would all have been over.
The killer had worked silently. His victims were no match for him, and so his kills were silent. If Clay had tackled him in open combat, it would have been loud, violent and nasty. This was the only way to finish it. The rats and the decomposition would take care of the rest, but at least they were safe for the time being.
The killer was no more. Only to survive, Clay himself had had to turn assassin. This was going to be life in The Soak. Clay was beginning to understand why taking his chances in The Grid might seem like a good idea.
Talya was staring into the eyes of the man who, only two hours earlier, she’d learned was the only survivor that anybody could remember ever making it out of The Grid alive. Harry had told her as much. She’d been sure of her facts on that one, it was a timely moment of clarity.
President Delman was old, that was for sure, possibly eighty years, perhaps a little younger. He was certainly still healthy and robust, sharp-minded and very much in charge, there was no doubt about that. But he’d been President for so long, there was no wonder that people like Harry could barely remember. It was just one of those things that you accepted. Josh Delman had always been President for as long as most people could recall.
The summons had come unexpectedly. She’d had to make her excuses and leave Harry at some speed. Delman required his seventh Law Lord, and he was set on Talya. He needed her sworn in as soon as possible. For Talya, that meant immediately.
The President had sent a car for her. She’d covered her tracks by claiming to be engaged in pro bono activities in The Climbs, making an excuse for being there rather than at work on Silk Road. She reckoned she’d got close to beating Lucy’s record running back down the stairs of the tower block, she’d never run so fast in her life. She’d arranged to meet up with the car somewhere more general in The Climbs, she didn’t want them getting any ideas about where she’d been at the particular moment they’d messaged her. Damn WristComs, they meant that you could never truly get away.
The car drew up just as she arrived at the meeting place. She did her best to conceal her breathlessness, but the run down so many flights of stairs had got the better of her. She’d barely had time to say a proper goodbye to Harry before she went. She’d quickly explained how she would send Lucy with the drugs and provisions and that she wouldn’t be able to visit anymore. Lucy spent enough time in The Climbs seeing Joe and the gang, she sometimes worried about her being there so much, but who was she to complain? They’d both felt a tremendous obligation to Joe and his family after they were evicted from Silk Road. They’d come within an inch of the same fate themselves, so the two of them were forever bound to life in The Climbs.
Talya held her gaze on President Delman as she repeated the words of the oath after him. She knew she was playing with fire, but how else could she get to the truth about Tom’s assumed death? She had to move closer to the centre. That’s where the answers were concealed.
Talya’s senses told her that Damien Hunter was the enemy, not President Delman. With the latest information from Harry, the aging man standing before her must have been athletic and active at one time if he ever made it through The Grid.
Why was he in there in the first place? she wondered.
The only way to cease being a Law Lord was through death – natural or otherwise – so this was no temporary arrangement. Wherever this was leading, Talya was committing to the whole journey. Once you’d experienced bereavement so close to you, you lost a certain amount of fear. If a loved one could make it through the last walk to death, you knew that you could, there was comfort in that, it made the unknown a little less sinister.
Lucy was old enough to take care of herself. She hoped it would never come to that, but she owed it to Tom and Lucy – to the Parsons family too – to find out what happened on that terrible night.
‘Congratulations Talya.’ President Delman extended his hand. ‘I’m delighted to welcome you as the seventh Law Lord. I know you’ll be passionate about seeing that justice is done.’
‘Thank you, President, it’s an honour to join the panel, I’m extremely grateful for your sponsorship.’
President Delman ushered Talya to the side of the room. He wanted to speak privately.
‘Between you and me, I want you to keep an eye on Hunter for me. Let me know if he makes any approaches to you, anything at all. We need to maintain a watch on that man.’
She hadn’t been a Law Lord for more than five minutes and already Talya was being sucked in, she hadn’t imagined that things would move quite so fast. Even more interesting was that Hunter had been delayed, he’d sent his apologies that he would be unable to make the ceremony in time. Important Fortrillium business to be attended to apparently, something that couldn’t wait.
Talya knew the rest of the Law Lords already, through social contacts, though she would never have claimed to like any of them. This was what was making her give the President the benefit of the doubt, they all knew that she’d be a thorn in everyone’s side, he must have wanted her there to stir things up. The Chief Law Lord was Leianna Richwald, who happened to be friendly with Damien Hunter.
There were few super rich in Silk Road, five hundred or so, but Leianna was certainly one of them. In fact, every single one of the most affluent and influential people living in The City had a direct link, in one way or another, to Fortrillium. Except Talya, who’d rejected the trappings of her new role, preferring instead to remain in the family house on Silk Road. Her conscience had not allowed her to accept the palatial home recently vacated by the unfortunate Law Lord who’d met such a tragic death.
Talya wasn’t sure if she’d ever want to live in that particular home anyway, bearing in mind the fate of its previous owner. How could she acquire affluence and prosperity when she’d seen for herself how much poverty and misery there was in The Climbs? Her power was in her position. She didn’t need more wealth. She would have preferred to be able to share some of her good fortune with the people in The Climbs.
She’d become a Law Lord because it was the only way that she could influence legal affairs. She understood that she’d have to do things that she didn’t like, challenges would have to be faced one at a time. But sure as hell, nothing was changing in The City if someone didn’t have the guts to fight it from inside. The injustices would go on whether she was a Law Lord or not. Sooner be one of them, even if she was outnumbered, and try to figure it out and end it.
Talya knew that she’d need resilience and steadfastness that she’d never required before, but she was sure she had the stomach for whatever lay ahead. She might not have been quite so confident if she’d known that one of the first people to stand before her would be her own daughter.