Harry was annoyed with herself. How could she have forgotten to mention that to Talya? She was such a lovely lady, so good to her, and she’d neglected a crucial piece of information that she should have passed on.
Harry stared out of her window. She couldn’t see much from up there, just the other apartment windows looking in on the miserable lives of the inhabitants. The tower blocks had been luxurious once, some still contained broken remnants of the previous world, but it had been so long ago, everything was crumbling.
She thought back to her unusual life – the twins, David, where were they now? Had they survived the plague years? She didn’t know, they’d been separated in the tunnels, it was all so long ago now. It happened fast, she was too young to know what was going on.
Harry had been stuck in the tower block for over twelve years, dependent on others to bring her provisions. There were not many who even cared about her stories. They’d all been cowed. She was one of the few who remembered, but even those few were so used to this new world that they were unsure what was real and what was just a fantasy. It was illegal to talk about the days before the plague; she had to be careful who she shared her memories with.
Harry sighed and began the slow walk across the room to the table where Talya had left the pills. Her hands were so stiff and painful, she’d need the tablets to help her sleep through the night – if the rats didn’t wake her, she hated their scratching. Harry feared the creatures, they’d know when she died, they were waiting for her – a hearty meal once she’d taken her final breath.
That time must come soon. She was tired and lonely, the days were long and hard, there were not many visitors. She’d filled the time with her memories, but even they were beginning to fade. She could remember what she’d meant to tell Talya though, but she wouldn’t see her again. Talya had tears in her eyes when she’d passed on the bad news, promising her daughter Lucy would bring supplies, but that she couldn’t visit again.
Harry was tired. She would be ready when it came, even though she hated the thought of the rats getting to her before her body was discovered. It would soon be time to reunite with the others in death, to join the joy and companionship of the family that she missed so much. Her heart ached for those days, she’d never see them again, but she longed to hear the laughter once more. Had she appreciated it enough at the time, before the plague? She hoped so.
She’d have to hang on a little longer, though. She had to explain to Lucy what she’d forgotten to tell her mother. So sad for a girl to grow up without a father, but at least her mother was resilient, Harry knew how important it was to have a capable mother.
She thought about the President, and how she’d revealed to Talya the story about him surviving The Grid. She’d got her thoughts muddled and only given Talya part of the story. It was the strangest thing, it was so long ago. Josh Delman had been a young man at the time. Still, they’d all got a lot older. Not many people could remember, and those who could knew better than to share the information. She was right, Delman was the only person to have survived The Grid, but there was something else altogether unique about him.
Many people hadn’t even noticed at the time. After a while the faces of the Justice Seekers became a blur, it could be hard to keep up with those who died. Sometimes they met their fates so fast in there. Delman was entirely different, though. Sure, he was the last person standing, he got to make The Justice Walk to freedom. The trouble was, nobody ever remembered him going in there in the first place. They all saw him exit The Grid, but not one person saw him enter. His arrival was a complete surprise, there was no one who knew where he’d come from.
The next thing they knew, he was their President.
Talya was feeling shaky, it was unlike her. She was worried that Lucy had been out all night, and she’d have liked to have seen her before leaving for work that morning. Lucy didn’t even know that her mother had been sworn in as a Law Lord, where was she?
Talya was unnerved, was it a coincidence that Lucy had all but disappeared just as she’d become a Law Lord? Her WristCom was not receiving messages, the whole set up didn’t feel right. She hoped that she hadn’t done something rash or foolish accepting the new position, she’d never forgive herself if she’d put Lucy in danger.
She had to keep a straight face, continue moving forward, and assume that Lucy was okay. She’d have heard by now, surely?
She was soon distracted from her own problems, though. She had barely been sworn in and they already had a sitting of the Law Lords scheduled for 07:00 that morning. More inmates wanted to enter The Grid. Why did they do it she wondered? Talya knew that this went on, how else did prisoners end up being killed on their screens? She had no taste for it, she’d never really watched closely since she’d had to witness Matt perish. Fortunately, she’d been spared the moment of his death, but she’d seen enough.
It was hard to keep her resolve and she could change nothing from the sidelines. She had to drink with the devil if anything was to be challenged or changed.
She’d been shocked by the perfunctoriness of it all, sitting up there above the inmates fully gowned and dominating, utterly unable to help them.
The first thing that had taken her aback was the state of the detainees. They were dirty, poorly clothed, some of them just skin and bone, they hadn’t seen a good meal in ages. It had required a substantial exertion of will on her part not to throw up. She wasn’t going to give Leianna Richwald that satisfaction as she smirked at her from her central position among the Law Lords.
What had shocked Talya most though was the courage of the man called Clay. He still appeared healthy enough, the records showed that he’d only recently been detained. What had forced him to face inevitable death in The Grid? Why hadn’t he tried to survive a little longer?
Nobody ever saw where the inmates were housed, it was purely a place for imagination and conjecture. Fortrillium preferred it that way. Now she was a Law Lord she would see for herself, it was the only chance she’d ever have to do so.
The process was new to her. They’d been seated before the inmates came into the courtroom. There was not a lot to indicate that it was a courtroom, just the Fortrillium emblem positioned on the wall behind the seven judges. They sat on their Seats of Justice, on a platform looking down on the prisoners.
They were herded into the room wearing electronic neck tags. Talya dare not even guess what they were for, she’d discover later on during her tour of the facilities no doubt – if Damien Hunter hadn’t already covered up any incriminating trails, that is. She reckoned he’d be working on it as they sat in court, he’d probably arranged that morning’s sitting as a delaying tactic.
It was Clay who spoke for the inmates, reading from a prepared statement.
‘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 proved. Our collective crimes are theft, murder, deception, assault, forgery and misappropriation of provisions. Will you grant us our right?’
There was no consultation. ‘Granted!’ shouted Leianna Richwald.
Talya was caught off guard, they were supposed to question and consult at this stage.
‘I challenge,’ replied Talya, recovering her wits, but unable to stop her voice shaking.
There was silence. One by one the Law Lords turned to glare at her. Talya could feel their eyes boring into her, but she stared ahead, watching the man Clay who had just spoken.
‘Which of you is guilty of the lesser crime of misappropriation of provisions?’ she asked.
There were seven inmates, two of them indicated that they had been convicted of the minor infraction.
‘Under City Law Section 5, 2b this crime is not covered by the Law of Retribution.’
The hostility towards Talya was almost tangible. Leianna Richwald inhaled sharply, even the prisoners seemed surprised at the challenge.
‘Overruled,’ she shouted. ‘Those on trial may invoke their right for group justice, in which the crimes of the many are subsumed by all.
‘The Justice Walk will be shared by those whose innocence is proved.’
The Centuria, who were guarding the captives, ushered them towards the exit. Clay drew breath, he’d been emboldened by the challenge that they’d just witnessed. Dissent was not something that people were used to in The City, most were too fearful to even try it.
‘This whole process is a sham!’ he began. ‘I was only taking food to give to the sick and elderly ...’
He was struck on the head by one of the Centuria. He fell to his knees but carried on.
‘The conditions for inmates are unbearable, the cages filled with innocent people who are forced to suffer. I go to seek justice as an honest man but there is no justice in this ...’
Clay was struck again and this time he dropped to the ground. The remaining detainees, shaken by what had just occurred, shuffled out of the courtroom towards the temporary holding area. Clay was carried out, there was a smear of blood where his head had been on the floor.
Talya tried to regulate her breathing, her heart thumped urgently, she was terrified at the violence that she’d just seen. The Law Lord to her right leaned over towards her and spoke. It was Law Lord Brad Sivil.
‘Do not do that again, not if you want to live, he sees it all.’
‘Who? Who sees it all?’ replied Talya.
The Law Lord wouldn’t be drawn. Talya got no answer to her question.
She’d just seen the law at work. And it stank.
Jay had been relieved to find his mum alive and unharmed in the apartment. He didn’t see his mother’s assailants leaving the building on the way up the stairs, just as he hadn’t seen them entering earlier as he’d delivered provisions throughout his block. There was more than one staircase, but they’d taken a lot of trouble over the surprise attack.
His arm was red and raw, he could feel where the incision had been made. What had they placed under his skin? Why had they chosen him? At that moment Jay was so scared he didn’t care that much, he could only think of his mum. She was pale and gaunt, terrified by having been dangled out of the window of the apartment.
Jay did what he could to comfort her, and she finally settled down and rested on her old damp mattress.
That was the last of it for several years. The wound soon healed, it had been expertly cut, and Jay grew accustomed to the feeling of the WristCom beneath his flesh. Everybody knew better than to ask about the scar and life quickly returned to normal. Except that Jay’s mum died not too long afterwards, she’d been severely shaken by the events of that violent day and never fully recovered. There was nothing that Jay could do about it. He’d been raging when his mother’s body was taken away for disposal, but what could he do? There was nothing to do but to keep on with his running duties, to continue serving the people who needed him in his block, and stay off the radar of the Centuria. It was all any of them could do, to survive.
After the pain of his mother’s death had subsided, and the scar long since healed, Jay had pushed those events to the back of his mind. Most days would pass without his thinking about what had happened. Until his life took an abrupt turn.
He was nearing the end of another day running up and down the stairs of the tower block when a black car drove past. The images of that day six years ago came straight back to haunt him. The car passed by, but a sight like this was unusual in The Climbs, he knew that it would be connected.
A few minutes passed, and the car came around again. This time Jay knew it was him. He actually walked up to the vehicle as it slowed down just ahead of him.
The window wound down. Jay recognized the face, but it was not who he expected it to be. Damien Hunter spoke to him.
‘You’re Jay Morgan?’ he asked.
‘You know this woman?’ he asked, holding up an image.
It was a picture of the woman who’d performed the surgery on Jay’s arm. He tried not to give the game away, but he knew as soon as he attempted the deceit that Damien had seen it on his face. Hunter wound up his window and drove off.
Jay was terrified. It would have been better if Hunter had confronted him there and then. Driving off like that, it felt even more intimidating somehow.
He was on edge for the following two days, and he began to think that he was imagining things. At one stage he even thought he’d seen President Delman standing right across the street, watching him from afar. Crazy, he was going out of his mind inventing things.
Then it happened. Under cover of darkness, as these things usually occurred in The City. Only it wasn’t Centuria, this time it was the President’s guards. Same result, though, he still ended up in The Soak.
Jay wasn’t even sure if he understood what the charge was. It seemed that he’d been blamed for the death of the nurse who’d sewn the WristCom into his arm six years beforehand. No evidence, of course, and he didn’t even know who his accuser was.
Jay was removed to The Soak and less than a day after arriving there was rounded up with a group of inmates seeking justice in The Grid. He’d tried to protest that he didn’t wish to seek justice there, he’d take his chances in The Soak, but a sharp electronic charge from the device wrapped around his neck knocked him to the ground. When he woke, the nightmare of The Grid had begun already – it was the first corpse to fall that roused him from unconsciousness.
The fight for survival had begun. Jay would do well in The Grid, years as a runner had made him healthy, fit and resilient. He’d worked with the inmates, keeping many of them alive for days and he’d won the hearts and minds of the viewing populace before the damning lies had started to turn public opinion.
Right up until the last moment, Jay had believed that he was going to make it, in spite of the horrible deaths of those who he had tried to protect.
Jay Morgan was just another resident of The City to meet his end in The Grid.
When President Josh Delman watched Jay’s last moments on the screen in his office, he breathed easy once again. Damien Hunter had been onto him, he’d traced events through the murder of the nurse. If Hunter got to Jay, he’d soon figure out where the evidence had been hidden.
Delman had used the BioPouch so that scanning equipment and security teams would never detect the device; it would be shielded as if it was a part of Jay’s body from birth.
Although Delman had lost that particular piece of verification, he’d managed to elude Hunter once again. Hunter had his suspicions, he knew that the President was onto him, but without Jay he had no proof. The WristCom would die with Jay, it would go to the grinders and never surface again.
Jay was an innocent victim in all of this. He’d been chosen by Delman six years ago, almost on a whim. It could have been anybody, it just happened to be Jay. He was young and vulnerable, a quick check on the database and it was clear that he only had one parent, one who was wholly dependent on him. It would be easy to twist the knife, this kid would do anything he wanted and keep his mouth shut.
Delman’s spies had seen Hunter’s drive past, they knew that he’d put the pieces together and was closing in on Jay. If he got the WristCom, it would be a disaster. Jay had to go – and fast. The WristCom needed to go through the grinder, along with Jay, before Hunter worked out what had happened and cut it out of Jay’s skin.
For Delman, Jay’s demise was nothing personal. The death of his mother was just fallout from some necessary intimidation – again, it was nothing personal. Like so many deaths in The Climbs, there would be nobody to mourn or protest, Jay’s life would be snuffed out and he’d soon be forgotten.
Only things hadn’t played out the way that Delman or Hunter would have liked. Delman’s evidence was now in the hands of a lowly tech-op, who hadn’t yet realized the value of what he’d found among the bloody remains of Jay’s body. Hunter knew he’d been beaten to it by Delman, and coupled with the appointment of Talya Slater he was enraged by the President’s actions, anxious to steal this advantage from him as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the device which both powerful men had sought had fallen into the hands of Max Penner, an operative who neither of them had ever even noticed. Penner had just taken the device from its hiding place and was looking it over at his desk. Just another insignificant worker, ten minutes away from meeting a new Law Lord who’d requested a tour of his facility.
It had been a long and uncomfortable night in the sewer. Joe and Lucy had managed to doze off occasionally, but the scurry of rats or the sheer discomfort of being perched so awkwardly in the pipe-way made unbroken rest impossible. Joe reckoned that if he could survive a night like that, his fear of the wretched creatures should subside. He just hated the things, they were a constant reminder of the squalor that he was forced to live in in The Climbs. It wasn’t just him, there were millions packed into those decaying tower blocks while the privileged few led a life of luxury on Silk Road.
Knowing Lucy and Mitchell so well had helped not to make it an ‘us and them’ situation for Joe. It could easily have become that, but it reminded him always that most Silk Roaders were as trapped as he was. They were stuck in The City too and it made challenge and resistance impossible for all of them.
He and Lucy needed to step out after curfew. She wouldn’t raise any alarm bells if she left The Climbs via a different exit, sometime after Segregation ended. She had to give it long enough to create the deception that she might have been in The Climbs from early morning, probably near 08:00 would be a good time to leave.
It was not uncommon to see Silk Roaders entering The Climbs on charitable missions. Talya was just one of many whose conscience did not permit her to switch off from what was going on in the tower blocks. There was nothing they could do to challenge city law or take on the establishment, but it still wasn’t illegal to show some human compassion.
Wiz was back at the sewer entrance promptly at 06:00, he’d brought food and water. The three moved away from the pipe’s outlet and found somewhere to sit and chat.
‘How’d it go?’ asked Wiz. ‘You two stink, a bit of time in the open air will make the smell go away with any luck.’
Joe and Lucy had long stopped noticing it. For Lucy, it would entail a warm shower at home and a change of clothing. For Joe, it would mean carrying the water that he needed for washing up more than fifty flights of stairs, then sponging himself down with ice-cold water. He’d then have to find his only other clothes, donated by Silk Roaders to a street store, and he’d have to do his best to hand-wash the old set in cold water.
Joe never felt as if his things were properly dry in winter, it was so difficult to get heat. It was crazy that he could access old tech on the black market, yet getting a bit of warmth into your tower block apartment was almost impossible. He recalled his time on Silk Road as a child, but quickly dismissed the memories, it was pointless thinking about what had been, he needed to focus on the future.
They had ambitious plans in mind, and he knew how it might conclude. Lucy did too, they all understood that they were playing with fire. To even think of doing what they were doing was insane; they could all end up in The Grid, the next human fodder for the screens. The Grid was a constant warning about how dangerous this all was, but there seemed to be no other way.
Hannah was their safety net. If they ended up in The Grid, she could help them to survive, they’d have an ally on the inside. They’d kept her away from the sewer activity – if they ever got caught, Hannah needed to be well away from any suspicion. Only Lucy dealt with Hannah. Joe wasn’t even sure if the two had exchanged full details of what was going on.
Lucy was anxious to hear from Hannah, having had no communications all night. She was unaware of the pace of events while she’d been cut off below ground. Hannah was already preparing for her first day at work with the Gridders. They were closer to the truth than they could possibly have imagined.
Joe and Lucy shared details of the night’s breakthroughs with Wiz, making sure that the now accessible data from Matt’s card was paired between devices. There were a lot of files in there. They’d need to go through them thoroughly, away from the sewer. That job would mainly fall to Lucy and Mitchell – Wiz and Joe had to rely only on solar charge, they were lucky enough to have device access at all. As Silk Roaders, Lucy and Mitchell could get to power supplies and the Fortrillium public mainframe, they’d be able to move a lot faster.
There was much speculation about the source of the second network. Having grown up in The City, none of the group could possibly imagine life outside the walls. In The Climbs, the majority of people had never even seen Silk Road, so they could only guess what it was like. Silk Roaders had access to The Climbs because that helped to focus their minds on what they had to lose if they didn’t play nicely. But what was beyond Silk Road? The irony was, most Silk Roaders never asked, and they never dared investigate for fear of punishment. The reality was that The City was made up of three concentric circles. At the heart was The Climbs, surrounding that was Silk Road, which had a well-defined perimeter. That perimeter was miles of rubble and wasteland, the remains of a fallen city. There was no life there, nothing to see, just several miles of decaying, levelled city. Beyond that, in the final circle, was a concrete wall, a hundred metres high, made from bricked-up and vacant tower blocks with the gaps filled in by a man-made barrier. No way out and no way in. It had to be that way after the plague years. The residents in The City believed they were the only ones left, it’s what they were constantly told, The City was their refuge and sanctuary.
Within those concentric circles, a perfect equilibrium was maintained, with the poor stuck in the centre with no way out, and the affluent paralysed by their own complacency and comfort in the outer circle. At the heart of it all was Fortrillium, and Damien Hunter, and a President who seemed to be in charge – most of the time.
It was these institutions of power that the friends were taking on now. They’d already uncovered the first lie – perhaps the biggest deception. For all of their lives they’d believed that there was nothing beyond the outer walls, that life in The City was all that was left, all that was keeping them alive. But with the discovery of the second network, all of that was thrown into doubt. There was something else out there, something that wasn’t Fortrillium. Everything in The City was Fortrillium – the thought that there was anything else in existence was almost unbelievable.
What was the source of that other network? Did it come from within The City walls or could there be life outside? Did Fortrillium – or the President – even know about it? If they did, why was it being kept a secret? They’d tried to explore the sewers over a year ago when their work had just begun. They were all dead ends, blocked by several levels of iron gratings, impossible to break through without power sources and heavy tools. None of those were options in The Climbs.
They all understood the dangers of pushing on further, but the thought of there being life outside the walls was tantalizing, it challenged the entire fabric of the society that had been built up inside the barricade. Were they the only plague survivors, as they’d believed for so many years, or was there more than this beyond The City’s walls? They were going to find their answers within the next few days and the truth would be more astonishing than any of them could ever have imagined.
Hannah was taken aback by the speed of it all. There was no standing on ceremony here, she’d been greeted and introduced, then it was straight down to work. She liked it that they referred to her by her Gridder ID – Janexx2 – that was respectful, and they were all clearly impressed by her performance in the competition.
She hadn’t expected to get to make a start immediately, but they’d had a new intake that morning, and there was no better way to learn than on the job. Hannah wouldn’t participate in the trial, but she’d get to create zones and present them for review. They’d assess her performance and give feedback to her. Depending on how fast she learned, she might get to construct a zone soon.
This was the closest Hannah had ever got to The Grid. She’d seen it on the screens, but there was only so much you could surmise from that. It was smart, the gamer in her loved it, but she knew not to become distracted; innocent people were being killed in these trials, they had to find a way to stop it.
On her console was the guide, the full rules for the trials that took place in The Grid. She read it quickly, feeling both amazed and horrified about what had been conceived.
The Grid was a huge hangar, the size of a small town. Its walls were flat, its ceiling domed. The perimeter, roof and floor were coloured blue, and close yellow lines ran along and across, creating a grid pattern throughout. This was an artificially rendered environment; anything that the Gridder team modelled on their consoles would be immediately generated in the arena. Entire environments could be created or destroyed in a moment, traps and hazards deployed, and food and water supplied – or denied. The Justice Seekers were at the whim of the Gridder whose job it was to do everything possible to stop them reaching The Core, the circular dome right at the centre of the hangar.
If they reached The Core, they got to walk away and make The Justice Walk. Not one person had ever made it to the centre before.
‘This thing is amazing,’ Hannah whispered to the Gridder seated behind her. ‘No wonder nobody ever makes it out alive.’
‘That’s just it.’ The Gridder’s name was 97TRaider. ‘If it were left to us, they would make it out of there.’
‘What do you mean?’ Hannah asked, intrigued by the answer she’d just received to an innocent question.
‘Well, the Justice Seekers have been improving, they’re getting harder to beat. We don’t know if they’ve just seen the trials so many times on the screens or if something has changed, but we’ve had several recently who almost reached The Core.
‘That guy Jay, for instance, he was minutes away, we thought we’d lost it. I’d have taken the rap for that, it was my zone. I’d glitched it, missed something obvious with all the pressure.’
‘It’s easily done,’ Hannah offered, figuring that it would be best to make friends here rather than enemies. ‘What happened?’
‘I thought he was through and I was in big trouble, but I lost control of my console and something took over. The others swear it wasn’t them, but it was like someone else finished the trial for me. It’s occurred several times recently, whenever we get close to a Justice Walk someone takes over and completes the trial.’
Hannah didn’t know what to say. 97TRaider saved her.
‘There’s someone else out there you know and it’s very clear that they don’t want anyone near that core.’