Jay realized that it was all over for him.
Despite being out of breath, wet from the sweat of physical exertion, and with adrenaline levels electrifying his entire body, his survival instinct was replaced in a moment by the acceptance of certain death. These events were being watched by thousands on the big screens placed around The City. Nobody had ever achieved so much in their quest for justice. He’d lost seven of his fellow detainees along the way, all killed in terrible ways by a predator who took their lives from the safety of a computer console.
It had taken nine days to get this far. Every minute had become a struggle for survival, with traps, deceptions and hazards at every turn. Each move had been watched by the viewing public, just a small crowd at first, as the weakest were picked off, one at a time.
Soon, though, a buzz spread through The City – there was a strong leader in this challenge, and it seemed as if somebody might walk out alive. Unknown to Jay, he’d become a celebrity, with half of the population gunning for his success even though they knew that statistically it was unlikely to happen. He was the underdog in these events, but he was fighting back, fierce and defiant.
For a day or two they supposed that he might make it and win a small victory for all of them. It had only ever happened once before in the entire history of Fortrillium, but it meant that there was always a chance, the slightest possibility that there might be a victor. Jay himself had even believed for a few hours that he might make it through.
He’d seen three of the other prisoners perish by his side, one of them he’d known personally. She’d died in his arms, her body pierced in twenty places by the metal shards that had been unleashed from a hidden trap. Her name was Rina – they’d met each other on and off since childhood. As he’d felt the last embers of her life fade away through her limp body, Jay had experienced a new surge of determination, an anger and commitment to see this fight through to the end.
He was seeking justice, and this was the only way it could be done. To avoid a life rotting away in the wet cells beneath the river, incarcerated without trial, he’d have to take his chances in The Grid. It was the only way he was ever getting out.
In those final moments, with fewer than fifty minutes to survive until The Justice Walk, events had taken another turn. It was as if the person who was playing against him had been substituted. A last-minute and unannounced switch of opponent to put a stop to this challenger who dared to think that he might escape with his life.
Jay was tired and weak, but he could have fought and won against his original adversary. He’d even grown to know whoever it was well over those nine days. His opponent had a preference for traps, Jay had realized that early on in the trial, and when a life was taken it would be done dramatically. Jay knew that there were cameras all over, recording every moment for the screens, so he understood why this Gridder went for climactic deaths. It played well to the audience, whether they were gunning for the Justice Seekers or not. A tragic death on screen made the viewing figures soar and took the thoughts of those in The Climbs away from their miserable lives.
Well, they were about to get their final dramatic demise, and this time it was going to be Jay who they watched as he perished in front of them.
He felt the metal plates jolt against his body and the pressure began to build as they started to push against his back and chest. They were moving deliberately – whoever had contrived this death for him had a sense of the dramatic and a love of the horrific. He was going to have the life slowly squeezed out of him in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands. They wouldn’t make it fast, they’d show every horrible moment.
Jay was finding it hard to breathe. He turned his head sideways to remove some of the pressure, even though it was only a matter of time now. He felt the sudden rise of fear, but like the wildebeest in the lion’s jaws he quickly calmed and awaited the end.
In his final seconds of life he wondered how it had ever come to this. He’d been entirely innocent, as had his fellow inmates. All evidence against them was a complete fabrication, everybody knew this, yet nobody did anything to challenge it. They were powerless. His only way out had been to take on The Grid, but all detainees knew that would inevitably end with death.
For Jay, like hundreds of others before him, the scales of justice had been leaned on, tipping them in favour of Fortrillium. As Jay’s life was extinguished, watched by a horrified yet paralysed audience, he would never know how close he was to discovering the secret that they all sought. He was seconds away from the final solution, but if he’d been permitted to get any further the entire veil of deceit would have been swept away.
The two metal plates closed together, and the audience turned away from the screens, barely daring to imagine what Jay must have experienced in those last seconds. Citizens with a conscience felt a sickness deep in their stomachs; it was the bile of passive acquiescence. They all understood what had happened here. This wasn’t justice. It was a public execution.
Joe Parsons forced the unruly cluster of wires into the makeshift socket and fired up his screen.
‘Damn it!’ he cursed, as the device flickered for a moment then faded away.
‘Here, let me try something,’ offered Lucy, keeping her voice to a whisper, even though there was no chance that anybody would be able to hear them down there.
Everyone was watching the screens after all. The entire city had been electrified by the way Jay had fought so hard to win his right to speak before the Law Lords. Joe and Lucy didn’t know him personally, but they knew his story well enough. It’s why they were down in the sewers at that moment, trying to break into Fortrillium’s data centre.
A rat scuttled by Joe’s foot. He flinched and kicked out as it passed by. He’d never got used to the rats. They were everywhere in The Climbs, but where Lucy lived they didn’t have to put up with them. He’d grown up with them, in his bedroom and the eating areas – if they were lucky enough to have sufficient food for the vermin to steal.
She always impressed him the way the rats didn’t bother her. She’d had a privileged life over on Silk Road, but you’d never have known that from the way she was with him.
Lucy stamped on the creature, her heavy boot holding it down in the stinking waters of the sewer until it stopped struggling and died. She lifted her foot and the foul corpse floated away. Another death. Like life, it was easy come, easy go, but she wasn’t that casual about killing, even if it was a disgusting, diseased thing. She knew what Joe was like with rats around and she needed him focused.
She’d asked Mitchell to try and keep the pipe-way clear if he could. The last thing they wanted was Joe getting spooked again and abandoning the project halfway. He knew the risks, of course, and they all understood why he was so jittery. Only six years ago Joe’s dad had suffered a similar fate to the one which undoubtedly faced Jay on that night. He was the only person keeping his mother alive. They’d been thrown into poverty since his father’s death. He desperately needed to continue his dad’s work, but he couldn’t risk leaving his mum on her own.
‘Mitchell!’ Lucy hissed up the pipe-way. ‘Stay alert!’
‘Something is going on up there,’ came the reply. ‘It must be near the end now – you’ll need to hurry.’
Joe teased the wires one more time. These opportunities only came along every once in a while, and if they couldn’t get proof on that day, who knew how long they’d have to wait? The screen lit up. Lucy felt him relax.
‘Get Wiz up here,’ said Joe. ‘Bring the codes.’
A lanky, skinny form worked its way awkwardly up the pipeline, stumbling into the stinking water several times. They kept Wiz away from the action as much as they could – he was so tall he had real trouble getting along the pipes. But like so many of the teenagers living in The Climbs, he’d learned some technical skills that were immensely valuable on the black market. It was a useful set of competencies that enabled him and his friends to stay alive.
Joe and Wiz were formidable together, and with Lucy’s connections and access to Silk Road there was little that they couldn’t achieve between them. Except perhaps this, their biggest challenge. It was fine earning food tokens by fixing people’s battered old tech on the black market, but breaking into Fortrillium was an entirely different problem.
‘It’s happening,’ said Lucy. ‘Go faster ...’
Joe took the codes that Wiz had just handed him and tapped them swiftly into the interface. The console looked as if it had seen much better days. Mitchell shouted along the pipes, as loud as he dared.
‘I can hear the groans outside. They must be finishing it soon.’
‘Just a few more seconds ...’
Joe typed furiously at the keypad. His screen burst into life, and a stream of indecipherable data began to flow - there seemed to be pages and pages of it.
‘It’s true.’ Wiz was relieved. ‘They switched over at the last-minute, there was external interference.’
‘That information is coming from outside Fortrillium,’ Joe continued. ‘There’s got to be something else out there.’
Lucy, Joe and Wiz peered at each other, huddled together and crouched in the stinking water of the sewer pipe. Lit only by the glare from the screen, they’d just got the proof they needed to confirm what Joe’s dad had thought all along. When Jay had got close to the centre of The Grid, the final destination, something – or someone – had intervened.
Within moments of attaining his goal – The Justice Walk – and a chance to prove his innocence at last, Jay was deprived of his victory. Having almost beaten his opponent in The Grid, a last-minute switch was made and the rules of engagement changed right at the end of the challenge. There was no doubt about it. There was no rectitude in Fortrillium. They were sending detainees to the slaughter.
Talya Slater always felt guilty the moment that she crossed over into The Climbs. She was one of the privileged few, for she had wealth, resources, and even some degree of influence and power. However, walking confidently through the security barriers that marked the limits of Silk Road, she did not feel that fearlessness inside.
Every time she stepped into The Climbs, she questioned her advantages in life and if it was right to hang onto them as she did. She had Lucy to safeguard; she couldn’t just abandon them both to a life of poverty on a principle and a whim. She’d rationalized this to herself many times before – the best way she could help was to continue to do pro bono work, and she would be no use to anybody without her present standing in society.
She was viewed as a bit of an anomaly on Silk Road, most people in her position would have happily helped themselves to the spoils of the misbehaving rich and feathered their nests. But Talya had always had a conscience. For as long as there was so much injustice she would continue to do her best to fight it. She did this by spending the one day that she didn’t have to work helping the miserable souls in The Climbs.
The transition from Silk Road was almost immediate as she stepped through the security barrier. A massive solid concrete wall ran all around the vast boundary of Silk Road, keeping the inhabitants of The Climbs locked in – or the Silk Roaders out, who knew? Hundreds of thousands of affluent households formed a perimeter around which the residents of The Climbs were squeezed in, like caged animals. There were over three million in there, piled high in decaying tower blocks that had been prosperous business centres in the days before the plague.
On the Silk Road side, the walls were fitted with projections of rural scenes, the lovely greenery never seemed to end, and the gigantic, crumbling towers of The Climbs were out of sight. Beyond the blockades, though, the truth was hard to bear, which is why so few of the rich residents ever bothered to venture inside from their affluent perimeter.
Most found it distasteful, a glimpse of a terrible world which they knew might befall them on any day. The rules of Fortrillium were strict and merciless, enforced by the menacing Centuria, a state-run team of military police who carried out the will of the Law Lords and Damien Hunter without mercy. The Silk Roaders knew never to force the issue. It was a working harmony of rich and poor, a balanced ecosystem that had ultimately saved all of their lives after the plague years. Sure, they all had a feeling of what life must be like beyond those walls, but because they weren’t forced to confront the vast concrete barriers which separated them, it was easy to forget. It was even more convenient to deny what was going on.
Talya was a different beast, but she was also a clever one. She knew enough to understand that if she chose the wrong battles she too would end up incarcerated. She would be another victim of the Centuria. There would be a mysterious late-night visit from their threatening mob and a series of allegations that seemed unlikely to most people. The only way to resist this was through influence and power, by using her lucky advantage to move closer to the centre, to try to change things that way.
Six days of the week she spent her time sorting out the trivial affairs of the wealthy, attending to relationship breakdowns, property concerns, legal contracts and financial matters. On Sundays she walked among the high towers of The Climbs. They were known as The Climbs because the elevators that served them had long since broken down. The only way to access the upper levels was via the crumbling stairways that formerly acted as fire escapes, in the days before the plague came. It had been well before her memories began – she was too young to remember any of it.
There was only one resident that she knew of who could recall what had happened when the change came. There must have been others, but they were old and life was harsh. That person was Harry – Harriet – a 103-year-old inhabitant of the tower that Talya was standing in front of at that precise moment. She lived on the thirty-third floor, so at her age and with her frailty she’d been just like a prisoner there for many years.
She steeled herself for the long climb but knew that it would be worth it when she got up there. She’d finally coaxed Harry into sharing with her the truth about what had happened during the years of the plague.