It was the smell that Joe noticed first. For a moment he thought he was back in the sewer, but this was worse. It was the smell of humans, unwashed humans.
He forced his eyes open, it was a real effort. His focus was out at first, but soon it sharpened. He was looking at the bars of a cell, the realization made him sit up. He winced with pain, he’d been thrown into the vehicle with some force earlier, he was bruised and sore. Joe closed his eyes once again, wrestling with the pressing desire to sleep.
He had to stay alert. What had happened? It had been fast, he’d been aware that Lucy was in trouble, then they came for him. They’d got his tech. If they didn’t know already they’d soon discover what he and his friends were up to. It was over, they’d been caught red-handed. This must be the place called The Soak. Joe forced his eyes open once again, lifting his head up from the floor of the cage. This time he focused beyond the bars in front of him and took in the scale of the place. It was massive, a vast concrete circular prison surrounded by multiple levels of cages lining the walls. Each cell was packed with human beings. In the centre, a tall, round watchtower manned by Centuria.
There was no comfort here. It was damp, cool and inhospitable. Joe could see a dead rat caught between the grilles of the cage below. Damn rats, was anywhere in The City clear of them?
He sat up and surveyed the area. Lucy was on the floor next to him, still out cold but beginning to stir slightly. There were six other people in the enclosure, four men and two women. Without warning, there was a crashing noise above them and everybody else in the cage dived to the ground. One of the healthier looking men positioned himself by Joe. He had a bad head wound, it looked like he’d had a run-in with somebody. The sound from the upper levels seemed to be getting nearer. Joe was aware of a sudden massive movement around the entire perimeter of The Soak.
‘I’m Clay!’ shouted the man. The sound was becoming deafening now. ‘Lie down flat, put your hands on the back of your head, take a deep breath and wait until it passes.’
Water began to crash through the bars. It came with a crushing force, Joe was pinned to the floor. The noise was almost unbearable, like violent waves in a heavy storm. It never seemed to end, though it can’t have lasted more than five minutes. Once the water had subsided, the bodies on the floor began to move again and Joe followed their lead.
‘What was that?’ he asked Clay, who offered Joe a hand to help him get up.
His legs were unsteady, he was appreciative of the assistance.
‘Cleaning time in the cages,’ Clay replied. ‘It happens twice a day. Don’t fight it, just get down and wait for it to pass. You’ll be grateful for it in a few days, it helps keep the stink down.’
‘I take it this is The Soak?’
‘What gave that away?’ Clay smiled.
The last thing Joe would expect in this place was humour. He was thankful that Clay had been the first person he spoke to. Joe checked on Lucy – the force of the water gush had begun to revive her, and she was trying to work out where she was. Joe went over to her, he figured she’d be grateful for a friendly face. He caught her up with events as she fought to regain control of her faculties. Whatever they’d been injected with had knocked them both out.
Lucy seemed quite calm about things considering what had happened. Living in The Climbs, the sort of people locked in the cages were familiar to Joe, but for Lucy this must have been a considerable shock after life on Silk Road.
Clay brought them quickly up to speed. They were in one of two holding cells packed with Justice Seekers who would shortly enter The Grid. Clay had already been in front of the Law Lords, but there was a second group -– which included Joe and Lucy – who were scheduled for a session that afternoon. They’d got their neck devices fitted, Joe and Lucy too. They hadn’t particularly noticed them so far, but when Clay pointed them out they began to feel tight and constricting.
‘How did we get in here?’ asked Lucy. She couldn’t figure out the way in or out of The Soak.
‘There is no way out,’ said Clay. ‘When they really want you, they’ll come up on a Hover Pad and collect you, if not they’ll make you use the ladders.
‘Or we’ll roll you out of the trap door if you die in here.’
Clay smiled when he said that, but it didn’t help to put Joe’s mind at rest.
‘Here’s a tip, by the way. When they do open the main door, always stand well away from it. When the doors open, you sometimes get a jumper. They always die, the cages are placed high enough above ground to make sure that nobody gets out crippled or with broken bones, they perish every time when they hit the floor.
‘Make sure you’re out of the way when the door opens in case someone jumps, many people prefer it to rotting here or taking their chances in The Grid, it’s quicker.’
Looking at the environment, Joe could understand why people would do this. It was already oppressive to him, he couldn’t imagine what it was like after a week – a month or even a year. The days must have seemed endless, there was nothing for the detainees to do.
The sound of shouting and fighting broke out in the cage above.
‘Get down!’ Clay commanded. Lucy and Joe took his cue, he had become swiftly severe and urgent. Repeated gunfire sounded from the watchtower. The commotion stopped immediately and something red splashed onto the back of Lucy’s shirt. It was part of someone’s stomach, it had spread out through the grilles of the cages when the guns had found their target. Joe was grateful to Clay – he pulled the debris off Lucy and threw it to the back of the cage. A rat scuttled out and began devouring it. Joe wanted to scream, he needed to get out of this place, it was unbearable. No wonder so many opted for The Grid, it was the only chance of escape and release. Though it sounded like they had no choice, Clay said they were in that cage because they were already heading for trial.
Joe took a moment to run through his thoughts. He couldn’t remember much about what had happened earlier, but Fortrillium must be onto them, they’d got his tech. What had they got to work with? Mitchell and Wiz weren’t in the cages with them; if they’d managed to avoid detection, they would both be working to help them. Nobody had heard from Hannah, they’d been stuck in the pipeline all night, but Joe was hopeful that she’d made it through the Gridder Games. If she had, Hannah might also be able to help. They still had options, Lucy’s mum would be able to exert some influence too.
They’d been onto something in the sewer. There was some level of intervention taking place at the end of the trials, from an external source. Could Mitchell and Wiz find a way to block it? Would Hannah be able to keep them alive long enough for them to figure it out? Too many questions. Joe needed to be able to speak to his friends, there was no chance of that in here.
‘Stand away from the doors!’ Clay alerted them. ‘Someone is coming up.’
Joe heard an electronic whir at the front of the cell, then the door opened wide out into the void beyond them. There was movement in the cage. One of the men who’d been cowed in the corner stood up without warning. He was unkempt, bloody and starving, Joe could hardly believe that he had the energy to stand. He made a fast run at the gate, leaping out into nothingness, catching Lucy as he did so. She’d been slow to respond to Clay’s alert and was caught off guard. As the inmate started his fall to the ground, gunfire began. If he wasn’t dead from his injuries before he hit the floor, then he was after the thud onto concrete that followed five seconds afterwards.
Their most pressing problem was Lucy. She struggled to regain her balance and Joe thought for a moment that she was going to make it. Whatever they’d been drugged with earlier must have still been affecting her because she lost the battle and fell out of the front of the cage.
‘Grab the side!’ Clay shouted to her, rushing towards the open doorway. ‘If she leaves the cell, they’ll shoot at her!’ Joe could sense movement in the watchtower as the Centuria gathered to take shots at Lucy. She was fair game if she left the cage without authorization.
Lucy’s left hand had grasped at the bottom of the cage. It was all they could see of her and she just managed to catch the edge for long enough to give Clay time to dive to the ground. As Lucy’s grasp was lost and she began to drop, Clay seized her wrist and started to pull her up.
‘Help me!’ he barked to Joe, whose reactions had been far too slow. The gunfire resumed, but they were toying with the inmates, the bullets did not find their target. Instead, they ricocheted all around them. Somebody got hit in the next cage. Joe heard the thud and the short cry of the woman who had been struck. She crashed to the floor, dead.
Joe rushed down to the mouth of the enclosure, narrowly missing a bullet. He called to Lucy to raise up her right arm. She was just hanging there, with Clay the only thing preventing her from dropping to her death. They must have been a hundred metres above the ground – Joe had enough time to see the crushed corpse of the man who’d jumped to his demise moments before. Still the bullets sounded around them, but they didn’t seem to be trying to hit Lucy, intimidation appeared to be more their intention. Joe reached down and, working with Clay, they began to pull her up to the security of the cage. She was a dead weight, she had nothing to lever herself up with, she was totally reliant on Joe and Clay to haul her back to safety.
There was barely time to talk when they’d finally managed to get Lucy back into the safety of the cage. The Hover Pad levelled up with the doorway, coming to rest where seconds earlier Lucy had been fighting to stay alive. As the Hover Pad met with the opening of the cell, four Centuria primed their weapons in case of any rush of attack from the inmates.
‘To the ground!’ one of them shouted, indicating with his weapon what he wanted them to do.
‘Slater and Parsons step forward, raise your hands!’
The remaining prisoners crashed to the floor. Lucy and Joe turned to each other momentarily and then stepped forward. Lucy struggled to raise her arms above her head, it had felt like they were about to get torn out of their sockets when she’d been hanging from the cage. One of the Centuria placed his weapon to her head.
‘Higher!’ he shouted.
Lucy winced as she forced them upwards.
From behind the Centuria, Damien Hunter stepped out.
‘Welcome to Security Facility Three,’ he smiled. ‘Though you may know it as The Soak.’
It all became clear to Joe. Hunter was going to finish them off. This wasn’t a random arrest, they’d been targeted. Lucy and Joe kept their mouths shut, they were astute enough to realize that they weren’t having a discussion, this conversation was strictly one-way.
‘You are charged with treason and as such you will be moved directly to trial in The Grid.
‘Thank you for all the fantastic research that you did on my behalf, it’s going to be most fascinating working through the data on your consoles. I should be thanking you both, of course, you’ve saved me a lot of time and energy.
‘If it wasn’t for your damn mother Lucy, this would not have been necessary, we might have been able to work together. I need to force Talya into a cage of her own, even if I’m going to struggle to get her in there.’
He drew something out of his pocket and walked towards Joe.
‘You two will make a magnificent spectacle on the screens, I can’t wait to see how things work out for you in The Grid.’
He injected Joe for the second time that day. This time Joe did not drop. Instead he faltered and was supported by one of the Centuria.
‘You are a valuable prize Lucy,’ he continued. One of the Centuria moved to restrain her as she’d begun to take a defensive stance when Joe was injected.
‘You’re going to help me to hurt your mother. By the time we’re done with you, she’ll be as pliable as the rest of them. Even though she’s going to try and put up a decent fight.
‘They always try to fight, but they never win ....’ were the last words that Lucy heard as he injected her with the sedative.
Max was unsettled by Talya’s tour. He couldn’t remember the last time that somebody had paid him a visit to ask him about his work. He’d been running the bots for seven years, his most frequent visitor was Damien Hunter who would sniff around like a hunting dog seeking new prey.
He was subject to routine security inspections by the Centuria – that went with the job, but nobody from outside Fortrillium showed any interest. They found the slaughterhouse that he worked in abhorrent and chose to avoid it. The Justice Trials were public executions. However, they were presented to make them appear like genuine struggles for freedom. There would be massive excitement at times when it seemed as if somebody was going to make it through with their life and the viewing figures rocketed. But it was their own fates that they were watching play out on the screens, the trials were there to remind The City that any attempt at resistance was ultimately futile. If they tried it, they would be exterminated. Not in a quick humane way, but slowly and publicly, so that everybody got to savour the moment when hope was crushed.
Max had long ago resigned himself to the situation. He’d been given the chance to escape from his miserable life in The Climbs. An aptitude for mechanics and tech had allowed him to raise his position from a lowly factory worker to someone with status and responsibility. He was far from being one of the affluent residents in Silk Road, in fact, he had no wealth at all other than the essential necessities in life. A roof over his head, food in his belly, protection from the cold and a few simple belongings. He knew what the alternative was, he’d spent twenty-seven years of his life in The Climbs and seen his sister, mother and father perish there. Max was a survivor, they’d be proud of him if they knew that he’d made it to the other side, he was alive, healthy and he had a good job.
Now things had changed. Max would not be human if he’d never wondered what went on in The Grid. He’d seen it on the screens but nobody ever went in there unless they were caught up in The Justice Trials. Not even Damien Hunter, though Max could tell he was desperate to be able to see inside. There was simply no way in or out, without having to take part in a trial; the bots were the only objects pre-programmed to enter – anything living that tried to get in immediately triggered the default trial settings, and that meant certain death for most people. Justice Seekers were different, they entered The Grid with a new implant, which disabled the default settings and enabled gameplay by The Gridders. If they survived their trial, the implants would allow them to exit via The Justice Walk, a hidden egress somewhere in the massive hangar which housed The Grid.
If Max hadn’t found the WristCom while removing debris from Jay’s body, he would never have thought of doing what he was about to do. But this could be achieved completely undetected, only he would know, the knowledge would go no further. He had to know. Now that the truth was within his grasp, Max wanted to see what was inside The Grid.
After Talya and the Centuria had left, he began preparing the maintenance bots for a sweep of the hangar so that they could make sure it was ready for the new trial that would begin that night. They’d work in there for several hours, ensuring that the rendering grids were fully functional. They’d maintain the cameras which would display the action on the screens and make sure that the entrance was ready for the release of the Justice Seekers. Only this time Max was sending in an additional piece of equipment, the WristCom that he’d discovered, which had been secretly charging on his work area, concealed by a mass of paperwork.
He’d been careless. He thought for a moment that Talya Slater had seen the device, but he’d been quick to cover it, he was sure that it remained undetected. Max attached the WristCom to one of the bots, making certain that the video feed was displaying via a secure channel on his console. You didn’t work with the bots for seven years and not pick up a few tricks that could come in handy every once in a while. Most of the time he used these skills to fix his stuff at home, but now he was using them for subterfuge, to make sure that what he was about to do would go undetected. It had taken him a short time to figure out the device. The feed was working well – Max would see everywhere that the bot went inside The Grid.
He released the maintenance bots into the long tunnel network which protected the hangar from entry by humans. To all intents and purposes it was a completely sealed area, the only living creatures which ever entered came out in the waste storage bags, ready for grinding, shredding, compacting and disposal. The bots made their way up the tunnel. Max watched his feed, riveted, prepared at any moment to close it down if anybody paid him an unexpected visit. Should be fine, a Centuria team would be there in a couple of hours to do the final pre-trial checks, but he was on his own, nobody would bother him.
He couldn’t see much along the tunnels, they were unlit, the bots were programmed, they didn’t need to see where they were going. However, via the audio feed, he counted the five gates to reach The Grid. It took the bots twenty-one minutes to make it to their destination, and he reckoned, at the speed they travelled, it must be at least 7 km to The Grid. That took them beyond The City walls by his calculations; it would make sense if it couldn’t be reached directly from inside the perimeter.
It took the WristCom camera a short time to adjust. His screen went white for a moment, but as the bot made its way through the final gate, there was light inside the hangar and Max had a full view. The Grid itself was vast, a huge empty area in what he thought was a domed structure – he couldn’t get a broad enough view to be sure. There was nothing there, just a blue background with row upon row of criss-crossing rendering strips. This, no doubt, was why they called it The Grid, that’s exactly what it looked like to Max, though people in The City never got to see it like that.
Max was frustrated – there seemed to be little to see. The bots just made their fixes, checking the grid lines for damage or breakages, running a test on cameras, carrying out automated repairs where necessary. As they did so, items were updated on his maintenance inventory. Usually this was the only indication that the bots were executing their work; he never got a visual, that would have been forbidden knowledge.
Towards the end of the maintenance schedule, when Max’s own inventory requirements were completed, something entirely unexpected happened. He’d been waiting for the bots to make their journey back down the tunnels, but they didn’t, they began to move near the centre of the hangar. There were so many tram-lines in The Grid, it created an optical illusion, it was difficult to determine shape or structure there. To Max, it just appeared empty, but as the bots converged in the centre it became apparent that there was something else there, a construction of some kind. This was interesting information. As far as he knew, this delay at the end of the routine was due to the bots undergoing their own self-maintenance schedule. This part of the process was unknown to him and he didn’t receive any data about it.
They seemed to be engaged in a repair task, but Max had no knowledge of this, it was not part of his own schedule. It appeared that he was not supposed to know about this. Did anybody else know, even Damien Hunter? How could they? The cameras within The Grid were only activated by the chips inside the Justice Seekers, there was no feed to the outside world until they entered the gameplay area.
Max didn’t know what this was, but whatever its purpose the bots seemed intent on spending a lot of time there. Then there was movement, sudden and unannounced. A doorway opened right in front of the bots, then closed once again. Although Max saw it for only a moment, it was clearly an exit. Was this where The Justice Walk began? Was it true that you could get out of The Grid? He’d only caught a glimpse, but that was definitely an opening, right at the centre of The Grid. But where did it go? Max felt a leap of excitement, this was new knowledge; he wondered who knew about this, he’d never seen it on the feeds that they watched on the screens.
Then something happened – one of the bots seemed to falter as if there was some interference or technical issue. One of its arms began striking out haphazardly, hitting two of the bots to its immediate right. One of those bots was carrying the WristCom, and Max watched his feed as he saw it become dislodged and fall to the ground. The faulty bot went into auto-shutdown, but the damage was done, Max had lost the device. Damn, how could he have been so careless? He thought he’d secured it firmly – that must have been some impact from the faulty bot.
He cursed as his feed became a static view of the grid lines. He could only hear the bots now, there was nothing to see. They were retrieving the damaged bot for a return to the facility – it sounded as if they were heading back. The WristCom would lie there undetected during the next trial; the cleaner bots wouldn’t go in there now until it was all over. When there would be new bodies to retrieve.
Max was angry. He’d got a glimpse of the truth only to have it snatched away from him before he could consider it properly. It seemed much clearer to him now. Whatever lay at the centre of The Grid was a secret, from him and everybody else who watched on the screens. There was an exit at the heart of The Grid – or was it an entrance? He couldn’t be sure, but as he waited for the bots to return from their maintenance tasks, Max was certain of one thing at least. Whatever they thought they knew about The Grid had been wrong. There was a way out of that place, but nobody else had found it yet.
Talya knew that her tour had been a complete charade, there was no way that Damien Hunter had allowed her to have any access to areas which he didn’t want her to see. She’d seen Centuria training zones, Fortrillium server houses, and what was claimed to be the primary detention area for The City. What Talya should have seen was The Soak, but she was denied entry to that. Instead, her Centuria guide allowed her to see a video feed of what was supposed to be the main custody centre. Talya saw clean, well-fed detainees held in sanitary, uncrowded cells. She was not stupid – she knew that they were trying to throw her off the scent. There was no way that this was what actually happened to those found guilty of crimes in The City. Everybody had heard about The Soak, even if they’d never seen it. And she’d seen a group of detainees for herself already, their condition had been shocking.
Everything was a rush, no definite answers were given to her questions, she was denied direct access for ‘safety protocol purposes’; everywhere she turned, Talya was blanked. They were hiding something, that was for sure, but would she ever get to the truth? Damien Hunter had orchestrated this deception, in fact it was all so brazen there wasn’t that much pretence about it. The message was clear. ‘Don’t push your luck, Slater!’ This tour of the facility had been a direct defiance to Talya. Either she accepted it and played along, having gone through the whole pretence of ‘approving’ the good work of Fortrillium. Or, she could challenge again. She was supposed to go away happy with what she’d just seen. If she’d wanted to please Damien Hunter, Talya would have used one of her appearances on the screens to explain how reassured she’d been about the excellent, humane and fair justice system within The City.
Talya wasn’t wired that way. She knew that every time she pushed, her life would be in more danger, but she would keep on pushing Hunter until she got closer to the truth. And she was going to see that man Max Penner as soon as she could, he was the only non-Centuria access she’d had all morning.
It was time for her to head back to The Justice Halls. Hunter had been adamant that they reconvene for a second sitting of the Law Lords. Talya felt weary. How many Justice Seekers would she have to send to their deaths before she could change this system? She would keep protesting and blocking with procedural matters wherever she could, but she was outnumbered by the Law Lords six-to-one, she’d be shouted down every time.
Talya dressed up in her legal robes and made her way to The Justice Halls, taking her seat next to Leianna Richwald once again. Damien Hunter was there, exerting his right as Fortrillium head to sit in on these proceedings.
Talya would never forgive herself for what she did next. As the next batch of Justice Seekers shuffled into the room, she barely glanced at them, ashamed of what she was about to oversee. She found the neck devices particularly distasteful, one more sign of oppression and control. A woman in the group began to speak.
‘We here present demand the right to pursue justice under the laws of our city. As outlined in the Law of Retribution, we hereby request the right to seek a trial in The Grid, to be granted our freedom in The Justice Walk if our innocence is proven. Our collective crimes are treason, arson, robbery, kidnapping and fraud. Will you give us our right?’
‘Granted!’ shouted Leianna Richwald, in a replay of the earlier session. Did any of the Law Lords ever challenge?
There was something about one of the Justice Seekers which caught Talya’s attention. It was the posture and way of moving – she couldn’t see a face, but it was familiar somehow.
‘I challenge!’ she called out.
There was an audible sigh among the Law Lords. Damien Hunter was watching Talya intently for some reason, as if he was waiting for her to see something.
Then she saw it. Two of the Justice Seekers seemed drugged, they weren’t alert, they were just going through the motions.
‘Lucy?’ she asked. ‘Is that Lucy?’
Her daughter was bloodied and dirty, she didn’t have her wits about her, she was distant and vague. And that was Joe Parsons with her. Damien Hunter’s revenge was swift and absolute. What had he done?
Damien’s eyes gave the game away; he’d seen that Talya had finally realized what was going on, he was actually smiling now.
He jumped up and intervened.
‘As Head of Fortrillium I present the evidence files for Lucy Slater and Joe Parsons, proving treason against The City. Justice may only be sought in The Grid, under our most basic constitution.’
With a sweep of his hands, Damien sent the information to the consoles of the other Law Lords. Much of the data was redacted for the purposes of city security, but Talya got the gist quickly enough. Lucy and Joe had been caught red-handed hacking into Fortrillium networks. She knew why straight away – they were trying to discover the truth about their fathers, just as she was. Only they’d gone about it the wrong way, they should have remained out of sight.
Talya knew that there was nothing she could do. A charge of treason and this supposed evidence was all Hunter needed to send Joe and Lucy to their deaths. Her challenge stood, but the Law Lords voted against her.
Leianna Richwald turned to Talya and said, ‘I told you. He sees everything, this has cost you your daughter.
‘Was it worth it, Talya?’
The sentence was passed.
‘The inmates may invoke their right for group justice, in which the crimes of the many are subsumed by all, and The Justice Walk will be shared by those whose innocence is proved.’
The Justice Seekers were led away. Lucy and Joe seemed barely aware of what was happening, they’d perish fast in The Grid unless they could get their wits about them again. What had happened to make them this way? They didn’t stand a chance in there.
The trial would not begin until the evening. Talya had about five hours to see what she could do to help out Lucy and Joe. She’d need to see Wiz and Mitchell, they’d know what Lucy and Joe had been up to. And that man -– Max – he was sure as hell getting a home visit as soon as he’d finished his shift.
Talya understood what was happening now – this was going to be her final fight for the truth. This would either end in her death – and the death of her daughter – or she’d succeed in bringing down Damien Hunter and this entire corrupt system.
If Lucy perished in The Grid, Hunter was dying anyway. If Lucy died, she’d kill him with her own hands. She would be his judge, jury and executioner.