Jay reached the highest floor, bent over and placed his hands on his knees to steady himself. It had taken him seven minutes, bottom to top, and he was exhausted. There weren’t a lot of advantages to living in The Climbs, but you could certainly keep yourself fit here – if you could find enough food that was.
Jay was a runner for his block. It wasn’t a remunerated job, but those in The Climbs who did have compensated work shared what they had with people like Jay because he provided a valuable service.
People living in The Climbs weren’t paid with money, they received tokens for food and clothing. Water was made available via large butts placed on every street corner, and if you were lucky they were kept full.
As one of the youngest and fittest in The Climbs, people like Jay were obvious choices for runners. From 06:00 until 20:00, curfew time, he would deliver water and food supplies all over his block. There was no piped water here, that was for Silk Road residents only. People in The Climbs had to wash and drink using supplies from the huge public tanks. Showers and baths didn’t exist. There were remnants of bathrooms from before the plague, some had lashed up shower-like devices from old parts, but they weren’t plumbed in anywhere, the only water available was the water from the butts.
Jay kept himself fit this way. He was strong and healthy. He was paid in food tokens by the people in his block and he was used to carrying the large plastic bottles on his shoulders as he ran up and down the stairs. He was popular too, why wouldn’t he be? Jay’s activities were keeping people alive.
Jay had never been in trouble with the Centuria before. His life had been as uneventful as it could be in The Climbs. The odd scrape here and there, but nothing to attract the attention of the authorities. That’s why it had taken him aback when the visit came six years ago. He’d had a lot of time to think about it sitting in his cage in The Soak, and he was never sure if he was chosen or if he just got unlucky. Wrong time, wrong place perhaps?
He was quite young at the time, he’d lost track of his age, but supposed he must have been about eighteen when it happened. It was just before curfew, and he was about to make a final run to the water butt; this one was the last trip of the day, it was for him and his mum. They lived ten floors up, not too high, he’d be back in plenty of time for curfew.
As he approached the water butt, a man walked up to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
‘Look up to your level,’ he said, no introductions.
The voice was familiar, but the man had taken some cursory trouble to disguise his appearance. Jay couldn’t place him
He wasn’t quite sure what to do, it was immediately unsettling. He glanced up to the tenth floor, it was just low enough to see what was going on. He flinched, and his automatic reaction was to threaten the man at his side.
‘Steady,’ he said, holding Jay’s arm which was raised and ready to strike.
‘What’s this about? Don’t you hurt her!’ shouted Jay.
He glanced back up at his mum. She was being dangled out of the window of her apartment by two men – they didn’t appear to be Centuria from that distance, he couldn’t be sure. They each had one arm, and she’d got something over her mouth so she couldn’t scream.
‘No need to hurt her if you play nice,’ said the man. His calmness suggested that he was accustomed to this level of casual violence.
‘I want you to step into this vehicle.’
He signaled towards the black van parked along the street. Jay had noticed it earlier on his water runs, but he’d thought little of it. You didn’t see many vehicles in The Climbs, but this one seemed to be harmless, on city business he’d reckoned.
‘What if I don’t?’ challenged Jay.
The man lifted his right hand as a signal and ten floors above them one of the men released the limb that he was holding.
Jay’s mum began to struggle, she was being held by just one arm.
‘Okay, okay, just make sure mum’s safe. You bring her inside the window and I’ll do what you’ve asked.’
‘No, it’s not going to work that way,’ came the reply. ‘We’ll hold her by two arms and you’ll do what I say.’
He gestured to the man above them, and once again Jay’s mother was grasped more securely. Jay walked towards the van, fearful as to what was going to happen next. He had no options here, he had to comply.
The interior of the vehicle had been converted for medical purposes, and Jay was guided to lie on a metal table and extend his arm. He was surrounded by equipment, the like of which they didn’t have access to in The Climbs. Instinct told him that what was about to happen next would not be good.
The man who’d threatened him watched, this was going to be carried out by the woman who’d been concealed in the van.
‘We’re going to place something in your arm,’ said the man. ‘It’s going to hurt, but it will heal. You will never speak of this. If anybody asks, the wound came from a fall on the stairs.
‘You will leave this device where we place it. If you fail to comply your mother will die.
The woman made an incision in Jay’s forearm, just above his chip, and he flinched.
‘Understood?’ demanded the man, as if nothing had happened.
‘Yes, yes, understood!’ Jay winced through the pain.
The woman drove a small circular object into a BioPouch, then forced the package into the flesh which she’d just exposed with her scalpel. Jay recognized the item as a WristCom; he’d seen them on the screens, but never actually handled one. The pouch was entirely alien to him, but essential to the man who was standing at his side. The BioPouch would screen it from detection in any security scans, it would be hidden and secure.
The woman removed her fingers from Jay’s flesh and pushed the two sides of the laceration together. With no care to avoid discomfort, she quickly stitched up Jay’s arm and placed a bandage on the raw wound.
‘Remember, you fell on the stairs,’ said the man. ‘Never show the stitches, never tell anybody what happened here today, never remove the device.’
‘Okay, I get it,’ said Jay, desperate to get out of the van and check on his mum.
He was finally released and relieved to see that his mother was no longer dangling from the window.
Jay never knew what had occurred on that night, but his survival instincts told him that he needed to keep this to himself. These people meant business, you didn’t mess with the authorities or whoever it was who’d done this to him.
‘Thank you, Susan,’ the man said to the medic as Jay made his way back towards his tower block. ‘That bit of evidence will be safe there if we ever need it again.’
She smiled a collusive smile. He wouldn’t usually bother to explain himself to a subordinate, but to preserve the trail of secrecy he’d be disposing of her in the next five minutes anyway. Never leave footprints, that was his rule. This item of evidence might be needed later. Always remove witnesses.
Susan, who hadn’t yet realized that this was a one-time job with no pension at the end of it, went about clearing up the van.
‘No problem at all, any time I can be of assistance. It’s always a pleasure to serve The City, President Delman.’
Reevil96 switched off his console and slammed his fist on the desk. It was getting more and more difficult to defend the core. The systems and procedures that they’d put in place were supposed to protect their greatest secret, but the Gridders seemed to be becoming weaker, the gameplay sloppier. The Justice Seekers were becoming stronger and more resourceful.
He’d had to intervene once again when the Justice Seeker known as Jay had got so near to the core. If the population of The City had realized how close he was, what they were looking at on their screens, there might have been riots. That would have been the first time that it had ever happened within its high walls. The ecosystem of rich, poor and an iron hand had kept things in a perfect equilibrium for many years since the plague. But if the secret were ever revealed, if the truth ever became known? Well, it would all crumble around them fast.
Reevil96 picked up the new files on Hannah, they’d just been sent securely to his console. He scanned her reaction times, checked the strategic scores and surveyed her psychometric profile. She seemed highly suitable on paper, but something was not ringing true to him.
Reevil96 was the Master Gridder; though nobody at Fortrillium knew it. He was in sole charge of ensuring that nobody ever made it as far as The Justice Walk. The cards were always stacked against the Justice Seekers, there was never any chance of them making it out of there alive. The entire process had been constructed for protection and defence, The Grid served as a big, electrified fence that nobody was ever meant to pass through.
Hannah was fresh blood, a new member of the team. He would never get to meet her, the Gridders didn’t even know of his existence, but they must have suspected. He’d had to intervene at the last moment with Jay, he couldn’t let it go on any longer, he was sure that Jay was going to make it to the core.
In the final minutes, he’d taken over control of the gameplay. He’d come up with an obstacle that Jay simply didn’t have the energy to take on, and finished him off in no time at all. Jay never stood a chance, but the Gridders should have seen it coming. They thought they’d beaten Jay with their final play, but he was quick and intelligent, he cheated them and they were caught out, they had nothing left to throw at him. Reevil96 had jumped in fast, taking control of The Grid via his own console, re-rendering the environment at incredible speed, desperate to beat Jay. He’d been forced to kill again too, he despised himself for that.
Unknown to him his interference had been detected by two teenagers concealed within a sewage pipe in the poorest part of The City. They’d identified a cable infrastructure that nobody inside The City should have been aware of, yet they’d discovered that second source, a glimpse of something else that might be controlling their destiny. Although they were unaware of it at the time, Joe and Lucy had spied their Nemesis in that dark, stinking tunnel, the man who would hold their fate in his hands within the next three days.
But Reevil96 had spotted something in Hannah’s files, his suspicions had been aroused, he was not the Master Gridder without a very good reason. He could spot a gameplay from several steps back. Hannah James had gamed the system, she’d used a series of ingenious strategies and cheats to guide her way to the winning position. He was onto her and he’d be watching when she made her move.
Damien was angry. Talya had got him wound up. Every Law Lord he’d ever known had declined the right to check out Fortrillium’s facilities. One or two had asked, but a brief reference to family members or a mention of some sensitive information that they might prefer to stay private, and most accepted his offer of a visit within a year. That never happened, of course, it was conveniently forgotten about and the Law Lord didn’t mention it again. Especially after the intimidation was promptly followed up by a gift the following day. Law Lords soon learned that it was better to take ‘guidance’ from Damien Hunter – rewards for good behaviour would always follow swiftly afterwards.
He’d always found the Law Lords so easy to control, but he knew he had a job on his hands with Talya Slater. What had Delman been thinking about appointing her? She was going to be a pain to both of them. As someone commanding more public support than the two of them put together, Talya’s little moral crusades were becoming a threat to the status quo.
You would think what happened to her husband would have scared her off, but it seemed to invigorate her. He’d watched her climb from grieving widow and mother to respected lawyer, influential citizen, and screen celebrity. People warmed to her, and that was always going to be a problem.
If he and Delman had one thing in common, it was that The City had no choice about them – they were stuck with them, whether they liked it or not. Everybody was too fearful to make a challenge, the system was perfectly balanced to keep them in their respective offices.
But Talya Slater didn’t follow the rules, it seemed that she couldn’t be bought or intimidated. Delman had been canny, moving her so close to him. If he hadn’t been quite so spiteful, Damien might have thought of that one, but he’d missed his chance.
No worries, Talya was not immune, he’d shake her up with a threat to her child – she was a teenager, bound to be up to something. Her files had already raised some interesting movements in The Climbs, no doubt a relationship with Parsons. A lovely bit of scandal for a Law Lord that, a daughter seeing someone in The Climbs, he’d be able to turn that into something threatening to Talya.
He’d contacted the office and Talya’s visit was all arranged. She’d see what she needed to see and the problem would soon go away. They’d steer her away from the important areas, she’d be in and out of there in no time. A quick threat to Lucy’s activities, followed by a financial sweetener and she’d toe the line. They all did eventually, and if not? Well, it was unbelievable how dangerous The City could be at times.
Still, no need to carry the stress around with him all night. That was why he was in The Climbs. No Segregation for the Head of Fortrillium, for him The City had no areas that were out of bounds. This was where he came whenever he needed to let off steam.
There were always homeless people in this area. Those who’d not managed to find vacant living quarters in one of the tower blocks, or who had been forced onto the streets because infirmity or disability had meant that they could no longer manage the stairs. It was the chance of food scraps and survival on the pavements, or certain death in a cramped, dirty apartment high above the ground.
Damien hated the untidiness of it all. He despised the homeless inhabitants of The Climbs, looking down on them as the weakest and most needy in their small world.
‘File a news report about an unfortunate massacre in The Square, suspect escaped, no witnesses, twelve dead, Centuria investigating.’
The man at his side nodded, pulling out a console and beginning to type as instructed. He was used to this, reporting a news story which hadn’t yet happened.
Damien reached into the black car and bought out a weapon. He aimed it at the closest homeless person to him, who was asleep under a threadbare blanket, leaning against a wall. He fired. The man’s body jumped and then was still, a pool of blood forming around his head. Damien shot again. A woman this time, with her two children, another man, running to escape the carnage. It was too easy.
The shots rang out for five minutes as Damien Hunter chose his victims one by one and then killed them.
When The Square was quiet and littered with fresh corpses, he handed the gun to one of the Centuria at his side.
Turning to the man who was filing the story for the screens he said, ‘Update that report, it needs to say nineteen dead.’
A night in the sewer, it wasn’t their idea of fun, but at least Mitchell had saved Lucy from detection. They weren’t out of trouble yet, they had to avoid discovery until Segregation ended at 06:00. It was going to be a long night for both of them. For Joe, it was a night spent among the rats, for Lucy, being caught there could mean disaster. She hoped that Mitchell had managed to alert her mum, all she needed now was some ‘missing person’ hunt started by an anxious Talya. Mitchell had been amazing so far, she was sure he wouldn’t let them down.
Joe sent Wiz back home – he was so tall, he’d have been unable to walk for a week if he had to spend a night down in the sewer.
‘Make sure you don’t get spotted out after curfew,’ warned Joe, ‘but get a message to my mum that I’m okay.’
Wiz lived in a block that was very close to Joe’s. It’s how they’d become friends; he was used to moving around after curfew, he’d be fine.
‘Hey, and get back here as soon as you can after 06:00!’ shouted Lucy. ‘I have to get home as quickly as I can.’
She’d need to leave via a different gate, she didn’t want to arouse suspicion with the Centuria. Probably best to clean up at Joe’s, and then head out of The Climbs a little later, it would be suspicious leaving so early in the morning.
‘We might as well carry on working,’ said Joe. ‘The more I have to focus on, the less I’ll think about the rats.’
‘Can we do it without Wiz and Mitchell?’ asked Lucy.
Joe was sure that they could. They’d secured access a few nights previously using Wiz’s codes, the rest was a job for Joe, then Lucy’s skills would be needed once they were in.
‘Have you heard from Hannah?’ asked Joe. ‘How did she get on in the Gridder Games?’
‘I can’t tell yet, I have messages from her, but I can’t connect down here.’
It would have to wait for now. Hannah’s performance in the Gridder Games had been in their minds all day, but there was nothing they could do about it at that moment. Hannah’s success in the contest would be the final part of their plan coming to fruition.
Joe grabbed the wires that they’d hurriedly concealed at the top of the pipework; they had to be careful to keep them dry, they could lose a couple of nights work if the cables got damp. Between them, they manipulated each wire into place.
‘Will the power last the night?’
‘Not sure, I’ve never used it this long before.’
‘Okay, we’re live. Let’s enter the codes and we’re back where we were the other night.’
Joe entered the information and the console displayed the screen view that they’d succeeded in bringing up previously. They’d managed to prove that there was more than one data source alongside Fortrillium, but they still couldn’t get into either of them. The chances of ever getting into the external source were minimal; they had no information on which to base a hack. It was interesting, though, as they had always understood that all data was carried through Fortrillium’s network. The discovery of the other night had suggested that wasn’t true.
‘We need to ignore that location for now and focus on the Fortrillium network. What do you think?’
Lucy analyzed the digital sequences on the screens. She’d seen this before at work, that configuration was familiar. Fresh eyes and a break of a few days had allowed her to approach the problem afresh.
‘Let me try something,’ she said, leaning across Joe to take the console. The pair were so accustomed to each other that there was no awkwardness as she leaned over and pressed against his arm. Joe let her take it, he was a bit out of his depth. Lucy typed away, it was so hard to work with only the light of the screen.
Alone down there in the darkness, Joe imagined the rats that must be all around them in the sewer; he had to use all the willpower that he could muster to fight his fear. He thought of Zach and hoped he’d be okay with the provisions that he’d left. Joe had expected to call in on him that evening, that wouldn’t be happening after recent events.
‘Look at this, I’m in,’ Lucy announced in the darkness. ‘It’s quite straightforward, I’m surprised that there’s not more protection there.’
Joe suspected that it was probably because there was nobody who would even dare think about doing what they were doing. If everybody is terrified of you, it’s fine to leave your front door open.
Lucy typed frantically at the screen, and Joe watched. He was able to follow what she was up to, he wanted to learn this for himself. If he’d stayed on Silk Road he would have chosen a similar career path to Lucy.
‘Can you try the data card? You did bring it with you I hope?’
Of course he had. Joe was never parted from the device, it was all he had left of his dad. He kept it with him as a constant reminder of his mission, to find out who had had their fathers killed – and why. He inserted it into the console.
‘Okay, you’ll need to authenticate.’
Joe placed his finger on the panel; the authentication was completed. This was the bit only he could do – the data was encrypted for family use, they’d done this before, but never while connected to the Fortrillium network. Last time they got to this stage it ended in disappointment. They got to his dad’s stored information, but they couldn’t read it off a conventional system.
‘This is encouraging,’ said Lucy. ‘See, it’s reading the device, it recognizes the file types.’
Sure enough, the encrypted information on Matt’s card was being deciphered right there on the screen.
Seventy percent complete … eighty-three percent complete … ninety-two percent complete ... then it reached one hundred percent. They’d waited six years for this, they were going to get answers at last.
Without warning, just as the progress bar indicated completion, there was darkness. The console faded to black. They’d run out of power – they’d had the explanation at their fingertips, only to be blocked at the last minute.
‘You’re kidding!’ Joe snapped in the blackness. He felt something brush by his feet, a rat; he was too frustrated to react at that moment, his mind was fixed on their dilemma.
‘No, surely not?’ said Lucy.
She set straight to work, trying to solve the problem. It was tricky in the dark tunnel, their console had provided the light for them to continue.
‘Can we take a charge from your WristCom, and hop it through the battery unit?’ suggested Joe. He wasn’t hopeful. Not having a WristCom he’d never had the chance to investigate one carefully. He knew that they self-generated their power from a combination of solar and body movement, using direct top-ups only occasionally.
‘I’m onto it,’ Lucy replied. ‘We need to be careful not to take it offline – if we do I’ll risk getting flagged on the register, and everything that Mitchell did will have been a waste of time.’
Making the most of the small light from the WristCom, Joe and Lucy worked swiftly with the synchronized movements of people who were accustomed to working well together. A redeployment of wires and a quick reconfiguration of the power source and the console lit up once again. They were in.
‘We don’t have much time to do this, we must keep some charge in my WristCom. It’s only used kinetic charging while we’ve been in the dark, there’s not a lot of juice left in it.’
‘No problem, let’s dig deeper on this framework, there must be something here that we can use.’
The pair worked adeptly, Joe deferring to Lucy, who recognized the network protocols immediately. They could finally read Matt’s card data. It was a jumble of jottings, images, video files and observations. Joe scanned it at speed while Lucy attended to gaining access.
‘It’s notes about Damien Hunter and Fortrillium,’ Joe began, summarizing. ‘It confirms what we thought; there is a second source – your dad was in on it, it’s what they were investigating when they died.’
Joe was always surprised at how matter of fact they could be about the deaths of their fathers. They’d talked about this so much that it had almost become somebody else’s story. It was only when alone at night that he would burn with anger and frustration. When they were down there in the sewers, working to solve the problem, he felt that he’d taken some power back.
‘They knew that Hunter was onto them, there was something between him and the President going on, but they don’t seem to know what it was all about. Dad mentions a lot of tension between them, struggles over authority and accusations – they don’t hit it off by the sound of it.’
Lucy signaled for him to stop for a moment, and she took over the console and worked at the screen.
‘We’re right, there are two networks. They’re entirely separate by default. One of them is Fortrillium, we know about that, but this second one is something completely different, it comes from an alternative source. The second network can join Fortrillium’s via a gateway, but it’s one way only, Fortrillium cannot reciprocate on the other network.’
Joe realized what she was saying. ‘Which means that there’s something more powerful than Fortrillium out there ...’
‘But it’s not inside The City.’ Lucy picked up his sentence. ‘It’s different infrastructure, this is not like anything I’ve seen within The City.’
‘What could outrank Fortrillium? The President’s office?’
Joe switched back to his dad’s notes. For him this was like discovering a long-lost diary, it was a chance to talk to the dead.
‘There are comments about Hunter here, all sorts of incidents about him intimidating people, he added dates too. Dad reckons Hunter was killing people in The Climbs, says he was doing it for sport, there are pictures here somewhere.’
Joe fumbled around on the console; he was getting cramped and uncomfortable balanced against the cold curve of the sewer pipe. A folder of images appeared on the screen. Joe and Lucy didn’t need to study it too closely, they could see immediately what they were. Image after image of Damien Hunter firing weapons, a leer of exhilaration on his face. Dead bodies on the ground, people running in terror. Joe closed the folder, he felt sick, he recognized some of the locations from The Climbs in the images.
He was frustrated. It felt as if they were no further forward. They knew there was a second stream, but they didn’t know its source. He’d confirmed that his dad was onto something, that he had incriminating evidence which could put Damien Hunter in The Grid – that’s if it ever saw the light of day. Who could they give that information to? It would be suppressed and they would meet the same fate as their fathers had. The discoveries were explosive, but what could they do with them?
The console screen dimmed and Lucy pulled out the wires.
‘We have to leave it there Joe, I can’t risk my WristCom.’
They were annoyed with themselves, angry that they’d finally managed to break into Fortrillium’s network and access Matt’s data, but stopped dead in their tracks by a failing power source. They felt that the night had been risky and futile. Wiz would be back shortly. Lucy would need to re-enter Silk Road and it would be a few days until they risked entering the sewer again to re-establish the network connection.
They needn’t have been frustrated if they’d known what was coming. The information that they’d secured on that night would become pivotal in surviving the horror that was to follow.