Mitchell had been quick to figure out that was something was wrong so he fabricated excuses at his workplace, making his way to The Climbs as soon as he could. There were no sick days for workers in The City’s inner core, but as a resident of Silk Road Mitchell was blessed with a little flexibility. He’d been unable to raise Lucy via her WristCom after their early morning exchange. That made him panic straight away, particularly given what they’d just discovered in the sewer.
He headed for Joe’s block first of all, running the fifty-two flights faster than he’d ever managed before. He rattled Joe’s mother bursting in as he did, but he knew that there was no time to waste.
‘Have you seen Joe today?’ he asked. Jena said very little, nobody had heard her talk at any length for many years. It was Joe’s brother who replied. They hadn’t seen him since the day before, Wiz had been around to let them know he was okay.
‘But nothing from Joe this morning?’ Mitchell asked again.
A shake of the head from Dillon.
‘Okay, Dillon, you need to take Joe’s runner duties today. Do what you can. I’ll let you know when I’ve found Joe, he may be in trouble, I don’t know yet.
‘Dillon, you’re in charge here, do you hear me?’
Dillon nodded his head. Mitchell wasn’t sure he was up to the task, but if Joe was in danger they’d both starve if he didn’t take a lead.
‘I’ll be back as soon as I can, stay safe Jena.’
Jena nodded. He could see the fear in her eyes, she thought it was all happening again. She was terrified that she was going to lose her son just as she’d lost her husband six years previously.
Mitchell left them as swiftly as he’d arrived. He ran down the stairs cursing The Climbs for the lack of elevators. They’d never worked in his lifetime – those that weren’t stuck between floors were used as living spaces. Anywhere which could keep a human being from dying outdoors in the cold.
Wiz didn’t live too far away and, fortunately, his apartment was only eight levels up. Mitchell made it no further than the entrance to his block. Wiz had hidden outside, watching to see if the Centuria came for him. Wiz’s parents had died a long time ago, he’d virtually raised himself in The Climbs; he and Joe had met each other through their black market connections.
‘Hey Mitch, over here!’ came the whisper.
Mitchell checked out the area and saw him hiding behind a pile of debris that had been abandoned on the street.
‘What the hell is going on?’ asked Mitchell, and Wiz filled him in as best he could.
‘What are we going to do?’ asked Wiz, interrupting the silence that had followed his update.
‘I have the data and Joe’s unlocked the files with genetic encryption already,’ began Mitchell. ‘We know that there’s a second network that intervenes at the end of the trials. That’s if they even send Joe and Lucy to The Grid,’ he added. But both of them knew city life well enough to know already that that is exactly what would be happening.
‘We need to isolate and control that network, if we can do that we might be able to save them.’
‘What about Hannah?’ Wiz queried. ‘Has anybody heard from her yet?’
‘She got in, she won the Gridder Games, but I don’t know if she’ll get anywhere near the trials. She may be able to help us, though. We need everybody working on this.’
‘Are they on to us though?’ Wiz wondered. It was why he hadn’t risked entering his apartment, in case they came for him.
‘I got through the gates okay,’ Mitchell offered. ‘Hopefully they don’t know about us yet. We need to set up in a secure area – can we hop the data from the pipeline to somewhere nearby?’
‘If you can get me the tech, I can do the work. We’ll need to go into the sewer from the second entrance, I know it’s trickier but they’re sure to have a camera on the main access point now.’
The public screen on Wiz’s square burst into life. The Climbs was plagued by this at any time of day or night. If Fortrillium or President Delman wanted to say something, they had little care for whether people were sleeping or not. When they wished to make an announcement, they just did it, and it was extremely hard to avoid. Those in The Climbs who didn’t have access to tech just had to tolerate the blasting audio from the outdoor screen positioned on every block.
This was good, though, a new Justice Trial was being announced, and they’d get to see who was going into The Grid that night. There was a repeat of the first batch -– Clay’s group – who’d already been announced. Then came Joe and Lucy and the other wretches who’d be forced to enter with them. Wiz and Mitchell just watched, unable to find the words to describe what was unfolding in front of them.
‘Treason,’ said Wiz, after the glossy video trailer had finished. ‘And they’re in with murderers, fraudsters and thieves. There’s no choice for them – if they’re pushing for treason, they’ll go directly to The Grid.’
‘Lucy’s a real coup for Fortrillium,’ it occurred to Mitchell. ‘Damien Hunter will make Talya suffer for this. Did you hear they made her a Law Lord? I don’t think Lucy even knows it yet, it’s been on the news.’
The news was not something that people like Wiz got to keep up with much in The Climbs. Survival tended to be of more importance.
‘Sorry,’ said Mitchell, realizing his mistake. It was easy to forget what Joe and Wiz had to put up with – he thought of them as friends, they were just the same as him. Only, after Segregation every night they were different, they each had to retreat to their homes where they were always reminded who the real winners were.
Wiz’s attention was caught by a black vehicle driving around the corner. He urged Mitchell to duck down. It was Centuria, they were coming for him. He couldn’t be sure of that until they’d had time to reach the eighth floor where he lived.
They shot out the glass that still remained in his apartment windows, and then threw the few things that he owned out onto the ground below. There was no care taken as to whether there was anybody walking in the path of the falling debris. A small and battered wooden table crashed to the right of a mother and her child, forcing them to duck into the side of the tower block to try to take cover. Wiz almost went to help, but Mitchell held him back.
‘They’re okay,’ he said. ‘Stay back.’
The Centuria were in and out of his high-rise in minutes. No need for Wiz to see what they’d done to his apartment, he was homeless now, a fugitive.
He’d be able to hide in the dark corners of The Climbs, but the real problem would be if they were onto Mitchell. Without his access to Silk Road they were lost, they’d never manage what needed to be done to keep Joe and Lucy alive.
It was all Talya could do not to rush at Damien Hunter and scratch out his eyes. He’d made his move now and the gloves were off. Joe and Lucy’s trial would begin at 20:00, after Segregation; they never risked launching a new trial before they’d separated the residents of The Climbs and Silk Road. That gave Talya just under five hours to get battle-ready.
Lucy and Joe could be dead before the end of the night though she suspected that Damien would make sure they stayed alive for long enough to bleed the political capital from the event. This was about Talya and Damien Hunter, it had little to do with Lucy and Joe.
Talya didn’t give Hunter the satisfaction of a response. She kept her eyes on her drugged daughter until she had fully exited the room, then she rushed away, throwing up in the cubicles before she left the building.
She needed to find Mitchell and Wiz first of all. They hadn’t been sentenced so she assumed her daughter’s friends were safe – so far. She was going to make a house call on Max once his shift was over and push him about the WristCom. She was also going to risk a visit to Harry. It was dangerous for her going into The Climbs now she was a Law Lord, but she had no choice, this was her daughter’s life. She wanted to know more about President Delman and what had happened when he walked away from The Grid.
She thought about Harry. Lucy would not have been able to visit her if she’d been apprehended that morning, and Harry might have been beginning to worry. First stop needed to be Harry, after sending a poll call to Mitchell via her WristCom.
As Talya entered The Climbs, she could tell that her arrival had raised eyebrows. Her pass data had been updated. She knew this is how it would work, each journey would now get flagged to Fortrillium. No doubt Damien Hunter would take an interest in all of it.
‘Reason for your visit?’ asked the Centuria guard.
No extra politeness now that she was a Law Lord.
‘I need to make a charitable visit,’ Talya began. ‘Due to the detention of my daughter today I need to make alternative arrangements for a ward of care.’
She spat out the words about the arrest with barely repressed rage.
‘This should be the last time I need to cross over,’ she added.
Just the right combination of anger, resentment and honesty she hoped. It was reasonable that she’d have some preparations to make after Lucy’s arrest, but if she were too polite about it, it would not ring true. They scanned her through, and Talya was on her way. She’d need to make it brief, the last thing she wanted to do was to arouse suspicion.
She took a well-known route through The Climbs, heading directly for Harry’s tower block. She cursed the stairs that she’d have to climb – you couldn’t do anything quickly in this part of The City. Up and up she went, getting increasingly out of breath as she did so. She was beginning to lose count of the number of landings that she’d passed when she came to a pool of congealed and drying blood on the staircase. Talya stopped dead. She hardly dared to move on, this was a floor or two below Harry’s, but she needed to investigate.
Talya walked up the stairs, there was a lot of blood. Further along, a body. There were rats there, not yet eating, but waiting like vultures to begin their feast. Talya instantly recognized that it was Harry, and she rushed over waving away the creatures from their intended feast.
Harry was bruised and bloody, she was like a small child curled up on the ground. Talya felt for signs of life – if the rats hadn’t begun to eat, the chances were she was alive, a possible threat to the vermin waiting to devour her.
Talya cradled Harry in her arms, trying to detect a pulse or breathing. Her WristCom vibrated and she could see that Mitchell had picked up her poll. There was no standing on ceremony.
‘Where are you? Do you know what’s going on?’
‘They’ve got Lucy and Joe, they’re after Wiz, he has to stay hidden,’ replied Mitchell, as anxious as Talya to share as much information as they had between them.
‘They’re going into The Grid tonight. What were you doing?’
Mitchell and Wiz glanced at each other. Normally this would be between just them, but looking at Talya’s face on the small screen, evasion was not a good tactic.
‘We’ve deciphered Joe’s data card, we’ve been trying to figure out what happened to Matt and Tom.’
Talya heard Wiz’s voice off-screen. She cursed Lucy’s curiosity – she had been so busy plotting her own revenge, she’d never even considered that Lucy and Joe might also want their own answers. They were as good as adults now, why shouldn’t they want to get to the truth as well? She was angry, mostly out of frustration with herself, but she wished that Lucy had shared what she was doing, she might have been able to protect her better.
‘There’s something going on with the trials. We found another data source which isn’t Fortrillium,’ Mitchell picked up. ‘We think someone else is finishing them off. Nobody is supposed to take The Justice Walk.’
‘Can you save them?’ Talya asked bluntly, she wasn’t in the mood for conjecture.
‘We need a safe house to work from, we’ve got to conceal Wiz and get a link-up to the data streams. If we can do that, I think we can help. They’re going to have to keep themselves alive in there too, we can’t do everything.’
Talya nodded at her WristCom – whatever they could do to help Joe and Lucy, they’d still have to achieve what they could on their own to survive. They had seemed to be in such bad shape the last time she’d seen them, she wasn’t so sure about that.
‘I need you both here at Progressive Block. Harry has had an accident, but she might be able to help us too. Can you get your hands on any med supplies Wiz?’
Although she’d never been explicitly told so, Talya understood that Joe and Wiz would have black market connections – how else could they survive? She’d never met Wiz, only heard Lucy talk about him, but if Lucy liked him she knew he’d be okay.
‘I need bandages, painkillers and disinfectant. Can you get any of that?’
‘I’ll get them, don’t worry. The dressings might not be new, but I think I can do it.’
‘Do what you can, as fast as you can,’ replied Talya. ‘Wiz, you can hole up at Harry’s and take care of her as well. Mitchell, you need to sort out the tech. Are they looking for you?’
‘I don’t think so. I wasn’t at the sewer last night, they must only just have discovered what we were doing there. I think I’m safe, there’s nothing in the equipment that they have that will track back to me, they’ll just see that Lucy and I are friends, no big deal in that.
‘There’s one more thing, have you heard about Hannah?’ Mitchell added.
‘She’s joined the Gridder team, we thought we’d better get someone on the inside so that we had another route into Fortrillium.’
‘Has anybody spoken to her yet?’
‘Not yet, she can’t be tracked back to what we’ve been doing in the sewer, we kept them separate. They’ll only know about her relationship with Lucy, there’s no way they can connect her with the treason charges.’
Talya wasn’t so sure. She’d seen enough of Damien Hunter’s work already to know that if he wanted to he’d be able to remove everybody in Lucy’s circle of friends. And he was likely to do so too, just out of spite.
Harry started to gasp. It had helped her breathing when Talya laid her head on her lap. She seemed small and weak, Talya had to make sure Harry was okay.
‘Let’s move,’ she said. ‘Wiz, I need you here as soon as possible. I have to get back to Silk Road. Mitchell, get the tech sorted out and make a start, the trial begins at 20.00. We need to give them whatever help we can.’
‘What will you be able to do?’ asked Wiz hopefully. ‘Can you do anything as a Law Lord?’
‘I’m as powerless as you,’ came the reply. ‘But I know a man who can help me. Get over here as soon as you can and I’m paying him a visit next.’
Reevil96 keyed into his terminal. This was different tech from the equipment used in Fortrillium, more advanced and much more to his liking. He proxied into Hannah’s console, undetected, ready to watch her every move. He already had access to the other Gridders, he knew their gaming preferences, strategic techniques and play styles intimately. He’d watched Hannah’s performance in the contest and was intrigued. She was different, her approach unique. As if it had been studied and learned, not developed over time.
She’d be a wild card in the next trial, it always took a while to get used to new recruits, you could never be sure which erratic move they might make next. She’d be easily beaten, though, they all were. They were given the scraps at the table, the illusion that they could control events in The Grid. But when the time came, he would make his play, just like he always had. It would be he who would deal with Lucy Slater and Joe Parsons as the entire city watched the spectacle on their screens. They’d get the surprise of their lives when the time of reckoning finally came.