Damien Hunter stared out from his office window, intermittently surveying the reports that were laid out in front of him on the dark wooden desk. These were updates filed by the Centuria, the latest batch of inhabitants who’d aroused suspicion or challenged the dominance of Fortrillium in some way.
With a population getting close to four million in The City, it took fifty teams of military personnel to manage the trickier intelligence elements of policing, working alongside the regular law enforcement units.
It never ceased to amaze him. Even though they’d created a societal system in which hundreds of thousands flourished, albeit at the expense of many others who were forced to do the physical work, there was always resistance from the privileged. Why couldn’t they just shut up and enjoy their lives of advantage?
The equilibrium within this sanctuary was perfect, so long as nobody made waves. A minority of the wealthy and favoured profited from a majority of the poor and deprived. It was always that way, whichever political system you chose to adopt. There were winners and losers in capitalism; the same was true for communism or any other form of governance that had been used to run a country. There were always going to be winners and losers.
The impoverished would seldom be denied access to food or shelter, that’s when riots and mob resistance became a threat. They’d have to work for provisions of course. That’s why he’d continued to support the Centuria, to maintain that perfect balance between rich and poor. Within those groups, you always had dissenters and lawbreakers.
The lawbreakers were easy, they were all sent to The Soak. The Soak was a vast underground prison, so-named because it had been located under a river. It housed several thousand lawbreakers in over-packed cells and once incarcerated there your only chance of escape was to seek justice in The Grid. The watercourse itself lay beyond The City’s boundaries. It could not be accessed from inside the walls, and it was imperative for order and discipline that nobody ever saw the outlying area from above ground. The Soak solved most of his problems with city discipline.
It was all a matter of stability. Monitoring population growth and depletion, putting an immediate stop to any form of lawbreaking or resistance, maintaining the perfect economic balance between rich and poor. Someone had to do the work after all, every societal model in history had relied on a manipulated majority who aspired to little more than sustenance and shelter. Of course, someone always had to be at the top of the food chain too.
They’d created this equilibrium out of the ashes of the plague years, and it was his kingdom in which to rule. Nothing was going to end that as far as he was concerned.
Damien began to flick through the papers on his desk, even in Utopia paperwork had to be done. He scanned the names and one in particular caught his eye. Lucy Slater.
Isn’t that the daughter of Talya Slater? he thought, placing the paper back on his work area and keying the name into his terminal to check her files.
Name: Slater, Lucy
Parents: Slater, Tom and Slater, Talya
He was right, names didn’t usually jump out at him like that, but that Slater woman was such a pain in the neck, she was beginning to feel like an insomniac mosquito. She had that uncanny ability to charm large groups of people. She’d been used as a legal expert on one of the debates shown on the screens and somehow, bit by bit, she’d gained a massive following among both rich and poor in The City. They loved her fire and passion. She was dangerous, he knew. Most people he could just remove if they became a nuisance, but Talya had supporters. If she disappeared without explanation, that might cause trouble for him.
So what was Slater’s daughter up to if she’d caught the attention of the Centuria? Damien picked up the file again and carried on reading. This might be just the chance he’d been waiting for.
Inside The Climbs
However many times Joe sprinted up the fifty-two flights of stairs, he could never do it in fewer than eleven minutes. When he was younger it was one of the big challenges of his tower, trying to achieve fifty floors in nine minutes. The problem was you never climbed them empty-handed, it was one of the unwritten rules of The Climbs.
Within every dilapidated tower block was a community of people: babies, seniors, those with disabilities. There was no welfare here beyond basic subsistence, not in The Climbs. You lived or died, the world wasn’t particularly worried about it. They alone took care of each other, with the able-bodied residents bringing water and food for those who couldn’t make it up or down the stairs.
You had to carry if you could. That was how people survived, and that’s why Joe was always weighed down when he went up or down the stairs. He was fit, young and healthy, and he made enough currency on the black market to feed his mum, his brother and himself, so he felt it his duty to ferry more than he should have. Many were incarcerated in those concrete tombs, fated never to leave until they were carried out dead.
People like Joe and his friends were in high demand. They’d learned tech skills that enabled people to patch up what they could afford to buy if they were lucky enough to have employment.
He reached floor fifty, stepped off the staircase and moved towards Zach Fuller’s door. As he went to knock, the door crashed to the ground. It had been barely hanging on to its hinges for months; the door had finally given up the battle and fallen off with a simple strike.
‘That you Joe?’ came a voice from inside.
Joe heard the tap of Zach’s makeshift crutches as they struck the concrete floor. He’d lost a leg in a factory accident three years ago, and the stairs were no longer a safe option for him.
‘Damn Zach, that door’s had it. Are you going to be okay in here on your own?’
‘Don’t you worry Joe, I’ve still got the knife you brought me, and I keep it with me all the time.’
Joe wondered how Zach could fight off any intruders when he needed two crutches just to stand up, but he also knew how determined this man was. He’d survived an amputation without anaesthetic – a privilege denied to most people living in The Climbs, especially those who’d just lost their job after an industrial accident.
Joe placed the provisions and water on Zach’s battered table, dropping some bread on the floor as he did so. A large rat emerged from under the cupboard and made a dash at the ready-made meal. Joe jumped as he realized what was moving across the room in his direction. In an instant, Zach drew the knife from his belt and threw it with lethal accuracy, stopping the creature dead in its tracks. Joe figured that Zach could take care of himself after all.
‘Hope you don’t mind if I leave you to clear up?’
Zach laughed. ‘No worries son, I know you hate the things, I’ve been after that one for weeks now.’ Joe smiled at Zach, picked up the remainder of the provisions for his family and headed out towards the doorless entrance.
‘See you tomorrow Zach!’ called Joe as he departed. ‘You want me to prop the door up before I go?’
‘Leave it,’ came the reply. ‘Anybody intends to steal what’s mine, they’ve got fifty levels to climb before they do. I reckon they’ll be so tired out when they get here, I’ll just be able to blow them over if they try it.’
Joe smiled to himself and started making his way up the final two flights. He hoped that he’d be as resilient as his neighbour if he were ever thrown on his own resources like that. He didn’t know it then, as he walked into his home to be welcomed by his mum and brother, but he’d be needing some courage like that in the days that followed.
The Old World
Talya reached Harry’s floor, exhausted by the climb. Her daughter Lucy had boasted that she could manage Joe’s fifty-two flights in less than twelve minutes – and she didn’t doubt it – but for her, progress was much slower. Still, she knew it would be worth it; she’d never spent time with Harry that had been wasted, she was a mine of useful information.
Not many books had survived the plague years, and those that did exist had to be held in a secure area of the Fortrillium building by decree of the Law Lords. This was for archiving purposes apparently, but Talya knew that it was more about suppressing the truth and creating a new timeline. A more convenient version of their history. Life according to Damien Hunter probably.
She despised the man, and she knew how much he hated her too. She understood that she was a threat to him, but there was nothing he could do about it – yet. Her power and influence within both city communities was too far-reaching. If the screens were ever switched off, that might change quickly, but Hunter relied on these to sedate and misinform the people.
Talya caught her breath at the top of the staircase and mopped her forehead with a handkerchief. She felt ridiculous as she did it – she’d passed babies who were barely clothed as she made her way up the stairs, how dare she even pay any attention to her own discomfort?
Talya knocked at the door. She knew to give it several hard bangs, as Harry was losing her hearing.
‘Come in Talya!’ came a bright voice. Harry was incredible, 103 and still sounding like she was only sixty.
Talya gave the old lady a hug. Harry welcomed her visits – most people dared not even talk about the pre-plague years. For her, it was the world that she’d been born into, and she wanted to remember, even if there did end up being consequences for her.
Talya put her hand into her bag and felt around, eventually drawing out what had been secreted in the lining.
‘I got you these.’ She handed the packets to Harry. ‘I don’t know how long until I’ll be able to get my hands on more.’
Harry thanked her. The drugs that Talya had smuggled in would help to reduce the pain of her arthritis.
‘Damn getting old!’ she cursed to herself. Her mind was still sharp and agile, if only her body could keep up.
Talya prepared some food for her friend, making a hot drink on the gas stove that Lucy and Joe had managed to procure on her behalf. They sat down by Harry’s window and gazed out over the city.
‘What lies beyond the boundary, Harry?’ asked Talya. ‘Is there anything left there now?’
There was a glint in Harry’s eyes. It was forbidden to say what she was about to say, but who cared? What could they do to a 103-year-old lady now?
‘That depends on who you ask Talya, Damien Hunter or me.’
Clay Hillman had had one week to get used to life in The Soak. There were rumours about this place, where it was and what it was like. Nobody ever got out of here anyway. Once you’d been sent to The Soak your time was up, there was no release.
They were right about The Soak bit. It was so wet in his cell that there was a constant dripping from the river bed above.
They were in a vast circular underground dungeon. Hundreds of cages surrounded the walls, and each enclosure housed ten detainees – he reckoned there were several thousand people incarcerated there.
Every cage was accessible via a narrow walkway. There were only four ladders down to exit or enter the containers, and these were placed at quarter points. The steps were retracted unless someone new was coming in or leaving. Most of the time people only came in. The only time anybody got out was when they’d chosen to seek justice in The Grid.
The cells were mixed gender – women, children, youngsters, the elderly, they all suffered in the same cages. The sanitation was perfunctory, only open toilets with no showers, and food and water were delivered via automated hatches built into the concrete walls at the rear of every cell.
You got to eat if you were strong enough to fight for what came through the upper hatch. If you weren’t assertive enough, you died, and then you left through the small trap that was placed at the front of each cage before you started to decompose and stink the place out. If anybody noticed, that is.
Clay sat in the corner of his prison, still not used to the stench given off by his nine companions, all of whom had been there much longer than himself. He surveyed the vast central watchtower from which they were monitored twenty-four hours a day, large rapid-fire guns aimed at them continually in case of any unrest.
He was in a cell with four females and five other men. The women were scared for their lives, terrified by one of the men in particular who had been jailed for violence. Clay knew that sooner or later he’d have to confront the man and take the consequences. That’s if they couldn’t all team up and sort him out between them.
They had been too intimidated. Two of the men were nearly dead, and the other two didn’t seem as if they were capable of putting up a defence. It would probably end up with Clay intervening, but if he made too much fuss about it the shots would begin.
He’d seen it already on his second day when a fight broke out in one of the cages overhead. Without warning the guns began to fire from the tower – all of the inhabitants of that cell were gunned down, no questions asked about the cause or the instigator of the trouble. The deaths were followed by a flush of water from above. This usually sufficed for a shower in The Soak. As the bloody water from the upper cages turned clear, Clay had realized that an arm had washed its way through the grilles and come to rest at his side. By the time he’d woken up from a restless sleep, the rats had taken it, there was just bone left on the floor.
Whatever Clay did to sort out the maniac, it would have to be done quickly and quietly. After only a week in The Soak he was beginning to think that it might be worth taking his chances in The Grid.