Damien sat in the uncomfortable wooden chair that had been put out for him in the President’s office. He was sure that nobody else had to endure the discomfort of that godforsaken, battered old thing. It was a torture that President Josh Delman reserved just for him. It was no secret that there was no love lost between Damien and Delman, but they were forced by necessity to work together. Fortrillium wouldn’t exist without there being a form of governance within The City. They’d just be a bunch of bully boys without their legal remit – and the government couldn’t survive and maintain the peace without Fortrillium. It was a stalemate, but Josh Delman was the senior of the two, and he wasted no time reminding Damien of that fact at every opportunity. In every meeting, Damien would be left on his own in that threadbare chair facing the President’s massive polished wooden desk and his comfortable leather seat. He would ponder if there might be a time in the future that he might get to sit in Delman’s place and have overall control of The City.
Certainly Fortrillium was powerful enough, and it afforded Damien the cover he needed to achieve outcomes that were advantageous to his career and standing. If a particular high-ranking official were to find themselves condemned to The Soak as a result of charges of corruption arising from Centuria ‘evidence’, who was to argue? If the occasional political agitator ‘disappeared’ without trace, who would dare put up much fuss if they’d been forced to enter The Grid before they got a chance for justice? And if an official or two were to go missing and the only witness to have an unfortunate accident soon after, would anybody worry about that in the grand scheme of things? Damien thought not. In fact, he knew not.
For those on Silk Road, life in The City could be sweet. The people who held all the power, influence and money lived on the outer perimeter, and because their lives were so perfect they never needed to wonder what lay beyond that. Besides, Fortrillium Information, the public service division of the corporation, kept them fully updated about life outside the high city walls.
The plague was still out there, having left billions across the planet dead in its wake. Former cities were deserted and crumbling, and this, their city, was the only refuge. They were safe in this sanctuary, they had food, heat, water, shelter and comfort ... lots of it too, if you were fortunate enough to live in the outer perimeter.
Those on the inside were effectively imprisoned by Segregation. This meant that although Silk Roaders could enter The Climbs, the reverse was not possible without a permit. And those permits were hard to come by, extending mainly to work-related duties.
Curfew was enforced between 20:00 until 06:00 every day, and this controlled the flow of people in a way that made resistance impossible. With the firm arm of Damien’s Centuria controlling legal matters throughout The City, the best option remained to keep your head down and get on with your lot, whatever that was.
Even though Damien Hunter would have balked at any such crass suggestion, an outsider looking in might comment that this had every appearance of astute social engineering. The poor kept in their place, the rich made so comfortable that they had no need to complain, the fear of death beyond the city walls, and a powerful policing force threatening anybody who dared to challenge the status quo. Plus a legal system that was formidable and unbeatable: the Law Lords and The Grid. It meant, for all intents and purposes, that Fortrillium – or Damien – was the law.
That’s why he was sitting in that unforgiving wooden chair at that moment. He wanted to petition the President about his recent tactical move to promote Talya Slater to the position of Law Lord. There were seven Law Lords in all, each one a respected member of the Silk Road community. ‘Respected’ generally meant ‘chosen by Damien Hunter’.
Damien had made an error of judgement by removing a Law Lord unceremoniously from the panel. What that entailed in reality was that this particular Law Lord had been found dead, thrown from the top of one of the tower blocks in The Climbs, having been mysteriously trapped in there after curfew. Nobody knew why he was out after Segregation, what he was doing or who would want him flung from the top of a high-rise. Neither could the Centuria find any witnesses or evidence, after what seemed to some to be a brief, even cursory, investigation. That left Damien with the problem of finding a replacement. Surprisingly enough he had just the person in mind, an influential businessman from Silk Road, who ardently supported the good work of Fortrillium, particularly under Damien’s leadership.
President Josh Delman had other ideas. He was not driven by the same base desires as Damien Hunter, his priorities were more political than self-serving, though, of course, it all boiled down to the same thing in the end. Josh Delman had a leadership to sustain. His position was preserved through a combination of public charm and background control, whereas Damien seldom felt the need to exhibit any charm at all.
That’s what this meeting was about. Delman was forcing his choice of replacement Law Lord. Hunter was resisting. This particular Law Lord could cause all sorts of trouble for him. Delman’s acute political sense told him that a well-placed Law Lord would help to maintain harmony within The City. Hunter’s survival instincts knew that if this particular Law Lord made it to the panel, things could become difficult for him.
Most Law Lords could be offered sweeteners to lean the way that Damien wanted them to. If the sweeteners didn’t work, then a threat often did the job. And if threats didn’t work? Well, being thrown off the top of a tower block usually resolved that little matter. That was what had forced Damien into the President’s office for this particular meeting. He was not at all happy with Delman’s choice, and he’d come to protest against it in no uncertain terms.
As President Josh Delman finally entered his office, a full ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to have begun, Damien knew that he was in for a tough time. It would be difficult convincing him not to assign the popular Talya Slater to the panel of Law Lords. But if the President insisted on forcing through the appointment, he had an excellent counter play up his sleeve which would stop Slater dead in her tracks.
It always surprised Joe how much he could remember about that day. He must have been only twelve years old at the time, his brother nine, but every detail of it was still so clear that it might have just happened hours ago.
He’d been aware that things were tense at home. They lived on Silk Road in those days, and he was used to his parents talking about things of which he had little understanding. It hadn’t particularly bothered him at the time – there was just an awareness that something was going on, and it probably wasn’t good.
Matt Parsons had been on the senior management staff at Fortrillium, under Damien Hunter. The Parsons family were close friends with the Slaters. That’s why Lucy and Joe were such firm allies, they’d known each other for years. At first they’d played together as kids, latterly they’d been planning and colluding together, as their adult selves realized at long last what had been going on at that time. Tom Slater – Lucy’s dad – had worked with Matt at Fortrillium, and that’s how the families had got to know each other. Joe could also recall earnest and hushed conversations between Matt and Tom. He’d just assumed it was ‘adult stuff’, before the Centuria arrived at their house.
It was late in the evening, after Segregation, and Joe and his family were watching the screen and catching up with the latest news from The City. Having a screen in the house was just one of the luxuries of Silk Road. If you wanted to watch a screen in The Climbs, you usually had to stand outside or look out of your window. Only a handful of people there had personal access, usually via the black market or some form of subterfuge. You didn’t boast about it, that would encourage a call from the Centuria, wondering how you’d managed to procure such expensive equipment and a power supply to make it work.
There was no knock on the door, not even any conversation. Four Centuria just burst into the house, electro-cuffed Matt and started to march him out at gunpoint. The only humanity shown was when Matt protested that he should be able to say goodbye to his family. It cost him a bloody blow to his head from a gun butt, but he got his request. A quick hug for Jena, Dillon and Joe and he was away. That was the last they saw of him, he never came back after that. You’d have to be pretty quick to have spotted it, but he lingered just a little longer with Joe, slipping something small into his pocket before he was forced away by the Centuria. Joe was about to ask what it was that he’d been given. Even at that young age, he was wise enough to stay quiet – something in him sensed that his father had just handed over an item of critical importance.
Matt was marched out of the house and driven away in a black, windowless truck under armed guard. The front door was open, and there was silence in the house, they were stunned by what had happened.
Within moments, more vehicles drew up outside the house. Heavy boots were heard marching up to the door: more Centuria, probably different people, but they all had the same appearance in their black, menacing uniforms. Jena, Dillon and Joe were escorted out of their house, thrown into a large cold truck that had been parked outside the house, and driven into The Climbs. There were to be no courtesies or explanations about this. The remaining family members were dumped in the centre of The Climbs in the darkness of the night and left there to fend for themselves. Joe could remember every detail. He recalled sitting there with his sobbing mother, turning the device that his father had given him over and over in his hand. He realized that he was going to have to take charge of the family.
Jena was never the same after that night. It broke her. Although she had two young boys to protect and support, it was Joe who rose to the challenge and who became the new provider for the family. They lived on the streets for two nights, going without food and drinking water from the puddles that had formed on the broken pavements.
Soon a man called Zach came along, took pity on them and offered to help. There was an empty apartment two flights up from him. The previous user had jumped after finding out that he’d got a terminal illness. There were few drugs in The Climbs; it was easier and quicker to jump if you got seriously ill, and everybody knew that.
The remaining members of the Parsons family moved into Magnum Block, and that was their new home. Among the rats, filth and squalor. A decaying tower block, seventy-five storeys high and named after some powerful business magnate from before the plague.
Joe thought he’d seen his dad’s face on the screen outside their block, but Zach had hurried him away, telling him not to bother with such trivial rubbish. Zach had become quite forceful. Joe thought he’d heard mention of The Grid in the news commentary, but he’d been pulled away by then, he couldn’t hear the rest. That was when Zach had both his legs. It’s why Joe thought nothing of bringing him food every day, Zach had once done the same for them. It’s how people survived in The Climbs.
It was a bleak time, and one which Joe could recall with clarity. They never knew what became of Matt immediately after his arrest, but Joe had been able to discover later that he had been sent to The Grid. Jena was too broken to care, she just existed most days. If Joe hadn’t stepped up, they’d all have died out there on the streets.
In spite of all that had happened, it might have been worse. At precisely the same time that the Centuria broke down the door of Joe’s house, the Slaters had received a late-night knock at their door. Tom Slater had disappeared without a trace. His WristCom had stopped transmitting data. Strangely, there were no witnesses and no body.
Max Penner began the activation sequence for the cleaner bots. There were twenty in all, all about half his height, made out of metal and built for heavy industrial use. They used a combination of cleaners, spinners, cutters and grinders – Max didn’t like to think about it too much.
It was his job to release the bots into The Grid. No human was permitted to step into the arena unless it was to seek justice. The bots entered a long dark tunnel via his control area, but there were five more iron doors to go through before they even accessed The Grid. There was no chance of Max ever getting a view of what was in there. There were no cameras switched on until the environment had been rendered for Justice Seeking.
Fortrillium only let you see what they wanted you to see. They saved that for the screens, and to Max’s knowledge nobody at his level had ever got to see in there. Besides, it might have sounded like a prime job, being at the heart of the legal system, but all he did was to program the bots for cleaning and maintenance.
They’d make their long journey up the tunnels, clean up after the trial, and then return to the warehouse area for Max to deal with the waste. The bots left him empty and returned to him full. He didn’t like to dwell too much on what the bots contained. They took care of the cutting and grinding that was required for disposal, and then they would auto-connect to the pipelines and eject their contents.
Max only had to get involved every once in a while, but like everything mechanical, sometimes the bots would get a jam. When those things stuck, you needed to get your overalls on and make sure your stomach was firmly in place. In the past Max had removed the lower part of an arm, a left foot and a crushed skull from blocked pipes. They smelled terrible too -– many of the bodies had begun decomposing, but there was no retrieval of bodies until after the trial was over.
The skull was the latest blockage that he’d had to clear, and it had taken some time to get the bot going again. Usually he could shut off his feelings from the ugliness of his work. His was a privileged role. He’d been allocated a small and plainly furnished house on Silk Road when he’d been given the job – it was a blessed relief after a lifetime being brought up in The Climbs. On a regular day, he’d just get on with it, satisfying himself that that was how things were, it was not up to him to challenge The City’s system of justice. That day was different, though, it had spooked him.
Normally he could detach himself from what was going on inside The Grid. But the skull had changed things. It had just been stuck there in the wide circular mouth of the bot’s pipework. He’d taken an hour to get it out and remove the blockage. And all through that time he’d been face-to-face with the crushed bones of the man called Jay, who he’d watched on his home screen perishing in The Grid only hours before.
Talya knew that if Josh Delman’s campaign played out she’d never be able to get back into The Climbs unobserved. Once she was a Law Lord – if that’s what happened – she’d have to stay well away, she’d be more scrutinized than she’d ever been before in her life.
Delman had first approached her a couple of days previously. It seemed remarkable after the disappearance of Tom six years before that her climb to such heights should have been so meteoric. Whereas Jena had caved in at the time, it had made Talya stronger. It was just her and Lucy. They’d avoided being sent to The Climbs, unlike the Parsons family. Tom had to have been onto something at Fortrillium, there must have been a reason he and Matt were so hastily disposed of. There was no proof that Tom had been murdered, of course – all the theories of the Centuria pointed towards a motiveless crime. He must have been in The Climbs for some purpose – he never went there usually. The only clue was that Tom’s WristCom was missing, the last signal received from it had originated in The Climbs.
Talya was not stupid, she was a survivor. She knew then that it was not the time to challenge. She had to grieve for the loss of her husband, regroup with Lucy – and survive. They had to be grateful for the small mercies that they’d been given, tiny scraps in which to find some solace. She hoped that Tom had died quickly, without fear, if that’s how he’d met his end.
Matt’s death had been prolonged. He’d sought justice in The Grid, and lost. He’d survived in there over two weeks. The screen audiences were massive, and Matt had been an inspirational leader guiding his fellow Justice Seekers to survival for over fourteen days. Nobody had ever seen such an incredible trial in the history of The Grid, and Matt had almost become a hero.
Just as it seemed as if this team of Justice Seekers might make it out alive, things took a sudden turn. The Centuria uncovered evidence that Matt had been involved in a funding scandal, siphoning off and selling valuable aid that was destined to help the needy in The Climbs. On top of that, his bedraggled team of fellow Justice Seekers had additional information leaked about their pasts. It seemed there were child-killers, thieves who took food from the elderly, and evil predators among them. Public opinion turned, the situation within The Grid itself pivoted without warning – as if a new person were in control – and the survivors perished, one by one. Each death was greeted by the cheers of the misinformed crowds who’d bought wholesale the spurious information disseminated by Fortrillium Information. Originating from the desk of Damien Hunter.
Talya had hung on until the end to watch Matt’s final moments. Somebody needed to know for Jena. Someone had to bear witness for her. Talya knew that Jena wasn’t watching. She’d asked Zach to protect the boys from the trial, but one day Joe and Dillon would be men, they’d want to know what happened to their father. It was the least that she could do for them, to be able to tell them how bravely their father had fought before he died.
She’d forced herself to watch the screen at the end, but fortunately she was spared Matt’s final moments, as were the rest of the population in The City. A technical problem shut off all the screens in The City in the last minutes of Matt’s trial. It was certain that he couldn’t escape anyway. It was clear that there was no way out for him. In those final, terrible moments, Matt had shouted something. It sounded like ‘You head for the core Joe ...’ but it was meaningless out of context, the sound feed went down, then the picture and it was over. Matt was dead, the same as Tom. Whatever they’d been talking about at work, whatever plot they’d been making, it had gone to the grave with them.
Talya realized a couple of years afterwards that Tom and Matt had probably given them a precious gift by not sharing the information with their wives. If all the parents had been taken away, what would have happened to the children? Talya shuddered, she couldn’t bear the thought of Lucy being left to perish in The Climbs. She’d had to be tough – she needed to survive for both of them. Lucy was becoming an adult, and she was strong in her own way. Talya could focus on getting her revenge. It had taken every bit of courage, cunning, planning and strategy that she could muster.
Her pro bono work in The Climbs had made her hugely popular among its residents. Her legal activities on behalf of the wealthy of Silk Road had given her access to some of the most influential people in The City. She’d worked her contacts, rich and poor, and her appearances on the screens had boosted her fame and popularity. The citizens loved her passion and fire. She was in that unique position of being liked by both sides. It was this that President Josh Delman had noticed and was the reason for him nurturing her as an ally. She was a perfect and timely addition to the unpopular panel of Law Lords, she alone would help Delman to revive his profile and image.
Damien Hunter had recognized her as a danger many years ago, but he felt unable to move with Delman breathing down his neck. She had the flimsy protection of the President. There were to be no mysterious accidents for Talya Slater. Damien had seriously considered for a while the possibility of staging her public murder in The Climbs, by some drugged-up resident. Unusually for him, he’d called off the assassination at the last moment, thinking better of it and deciding to wait for a more suitable opportunity to strike.
Talya tuned back into Harry’s voice. She was remarkable for 103 years old, but she did tend to wander a little. Talya had to focus – if this was the last time she’d be able to make a visit, she needed to pump Harry for as much knowledge as she could. Harry loved to talk about the days before the plague, the twins, her brother and parents. She couldn’t help herself getting distracted by who did what and when, rather than giving Talya the valuable information that she craved.
What lay beyond the city walls, what was out there? Harry was hazy on the details.
It was a long time ago. She wished her friends were still alive so that she could clarify the facts; she was so old that she had to make a real effort to separate what was genuine from what was imagination.
Indeed, the plague had come quickly. It had killed millions, probably billions. There had been riots, civil unrest, violence and destruction. Everybody carried the disease; some managed to survive it, though.
She couldn’t recall where The City was based. She thought either the USA or the UK, but these terms were meaningless to Talya, they only knew ‘The City’, it was all most of them had ever known. She understood that Fortrillium was telling lies about what happened in the past, but so many years of their untruths and she’d forgotten what was real and what was not. Harry had fallen ill with the plague, she recalled being in an aircraft, but couldn’t remember which country she’d started in and which country she’d ended up in. Talya had never seen an aircraft, she found it hard to imagine what one was.
There was a swift recovery for Harry. She was lucky, she’d developed immunity. Her parents knew influential people, and they took her to a secret place – underground, if she remembered correctly. But she was only a child then, seeing things through a child’s eyes, it was so long ago, and her memories were hazy. Talya couldn’t delay it any longer, this was her last visit, it was almost Segregation, and she had to leave Harry and try and get her to recollect.
‘Harry, who was it who survived The Grid … who got out of there alive?’
A direct question, but it was unlikely that she’d get an immediate answer. But she was wrong. Harry ceased what she was saying and paused.
‘Do you know what Talya? I can remember at long last. It just came to me in a flash, I don’t why I ever forgot!’
She stopped herself again as if to check her memory files and make sure that what she was about to say was correct.
‘It was the President, Talya. It was Josh Delman.’