The Grid 1: Fall of Justice

When Joe Parsons breaks into the Fortrillium network, he has no idea what secrets he'll uncover about the harsh world in which he's been brought up.

Discovering the deception and lies behind his father's death, he takes on the two most powerful people in the city.

But before he gets his chance for revenge he must first survive The Grid, the terrifying challenge in which justice must be seen to be done.

It's a gamified arena - and only one person has ever got out alive.

Thrown together with only a small group of friends, Joe must discover the deadly secrets about his city before his enemies can finish him in The Grid.

[Note: This book has a cliffhanger ending]

The Grid is the fourth book by Paul Teague who also wrote The Secret Bunker Trilogy.


12. Chapter Twelve

18:37 Screens

The screens were running pre-trial showreels in the run up to everything getting underway at 20.00. Trial beginnings always drew an audience, however small, in many cases it was the only chance to relocate loved ones who’d gone missing or been taken off by the Centuria without warning. Prison visits were not allowed by Fortrillium – when somebody disappeared on a legal charge, that was the end of it, unless they wound up in The Grid. The watching audience never knew whether to be pleased or horrified if family members or friends were involved in the latest trial. On the one hand, it meant that they could see them at last, find out what had happened and get a glimpse of them. But every time it resulted in certain death.

‘Justice is seen to be done in The Grid!’ boomed a voice from the screens.

The Climbs was dominated by the sound of the screens. Even those who had stayed in their apartments, or were confined to them, couldn’t avoid the commentary, it permeated the blocks. On Silk Road, people watched the screens from the comfort of their homes, grateful to be reminded how lucky they were. It was rare for a Silk Roader to end up in The Grid, most knew to keep their heads down and hang on to what they’d got. The showreels were making a big deal of a bearded man called Ross, a Silk Roader, a ‘violent, aggressive individual who fought with his office co-workers and injured many’. There were interviews and sound bites from so-called colleagues describing his ‘mad rampage’ and his ‘psychological imbalances’ and the camera lingered on images of the man whose arms he’d broken.

The crowds were introduced to Miron, the ‘fire devil’ who’d created a hellish inferno in The Climbs, burning innocent victims without mercy. There was Marjani, the child killer, who’d murdered her own daughter and killed two Centuria when trying to escape a routine check by the authorities. There was ‘Rampage’ – he wasn’t given a proper name – a man who was shown on the screens going crazy in his cage. Most people flinched at his uninhibited aggression, but some on Silk Road were excited by the prospect of having such unbridled madness in the trial. In the crowd, a mother and father held on to each other, with tears in their eyes. They recognized ‘Rampage’ as their son, Chris, who’d experienced psychological troubles as a teenager and who’d been forcibly removed to the Institute three months earlier.

There were others profiled too, twelve in all in this trial, but two of the Justice Seekers had their names kept secret – they were not going to be revealed until they stepped into The Grid. There was a buzz throughout The Climbs when identities were withheld; it usually meant a celebrity, high-ranking official or other big catch for Fortrillium. The scene was set. The Justice Seekers had been introduced, the glossy showreels and booming voice-overs gripped the attention of the entire city. This was going to be a trial on a scale never seen before.

‘Let justice be seen to be done!’ boomed the presenter. ‘It’s the way of The City, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.’

18:52 Confined

Wiz cursed Mitchell for not accompanying him to the sewer. He was going to have a devil of a job crawling along to where they’d hacked into the networks. He’d have to enter from a different point for starters – there were Centuria guarding the entrance that they’d used previously. That meant a long cramped journey carrying a bag full of technical kit in a narrow, stinking sewer. The commentary from the screens made him keep moving on, in spite of his reluctance.

He knew who the two secret Justice Seekers were. It had to be Joe and Lucy, and stuck in The Grid they’d have to rely on their own wits and any help they could get from outside. That meant him and Mitchell, though Mitchell was probably going to be no use at all. Wiz reached the sewer entrance, put his bag on the ground, lifted the cover and manoeuvred himself awkwardly into the narrow pipeline. At least Mitchell had brought him a flashlight. Batteries were a rare thing in The Climbs, they’d have fetched him a lot of currency on the black market.

Wiz took care to replace the sewer cover and began to make his way along the dripping pipeline. He didn’t share Joe’s hatred of rats, which was a good job. He’d disturbed a large colony as he dropped down from the opening, and just had to stand there while they ran over his feet, fleeing the area. Wiz moved on. The flashlight was good, it would have helped Joe and Lucy on their previous visits.

He stayed alert. As far as he’d been able to tell, the Centuria were only guarding the outside of the sewer, they hadn’t left it open. They were sure to have a camera down there, but Mitchell had provided him with a jammer to sort that problem out. At least there was one good thing about the tunnel, he thought. They’d just be able to replay a short extract of the video feed and nobody would ever notice – little changed down there. If he put audio on a loop too, he’d be safe to come and go, though he hoped he would not need to be back there for some time.

Mitchell had done an excellent job providing tech, at least. Wiz would be able to set up network access remotely, hopping a signal wirelessly over to Harry’s apartment. He assumed the range would be enough, there was a lot standing between the sewer and the tower block. He’d got a booster and a solar charger – with no power in The Climbs he’d rely on that to stay powered up. With any luck, everything would work and he’d be able to remain in hiding in the high-rise. He’d taken a risk coming out, but he’d kept alert and managed to avoid any Centuria so far. It didn’t take long before his back began to ache. He cursed his height but pressed on regardless.

Wiz found it difficult to work out exactly where he was. He’d remembered that it was two right turns and a left. As he made the left turn he became more alert, taking care to be as quiet as he could. He was sure there would be no guards in the sewer, there was only so long you could stay down there, but he would have been amazed if they hadn’t used cameras. Sure enough, as he began to make the left turn, he caught the reflection of a green flickering light. A NightCam – he immediately recognized the distinctive colour, this was Centuria standard issue. A piece of luck at last, he could break into this quickly enough.

Wiz ducked back around the corner of the sewer and quietly drew out a console. He activated a search, found three NightCam IDs in the immediate area, then accessed each remotely via a secure link. He waited patiently for two minutes as he recorded a video and sound loop, then he sent his recordings directly to the output channels. He did a double check to make sure there were no more cameras and that the loops were working, then he moved on.

He made straight for the opening where Lucy and Joe had left the network cables. He could see signs of disturbance, Fortrillium had sent their own tech team down there. A second lucky break, they hadn’t sealed the area yet. He’d be able to insert the ReRouters into the wires and they’d never know. The RRs as they were known entered each individual wire, sending the data carried wirelessly to a separate unit, encrypting it and only reassembling in a readable form when it reached a suitably adapted console – in this case, the one that Wiz was carrying at that moment. The RRs were Fortrillium manufactured – without Mitchell they never could have got their hands on them – and for that reason Wiz hoped they’d sit undetected in the cables.

Wiz ran his checks. Two streams, one from Fortrillium, one from the second source. Who knew where that one went? The Fortrillium source fed through correctly, and Wiz was able to access the secure area which Matt Parson’s data card had unlocked. So far, so good. Mitchell had created a protocol for the second feed. They were shooting in the dark because it wasn’t in a format that they were used to. The feed came through – a graph on Wiz’s console opened up, showing there was data running on the line that moment. Interesting, they’d only detected it before at the end of the last trial, yet here it was, active, before the latest trial had even begun.

Wiz checked the time – still just under one hour to go until the trial. He tried a few routines to unscramble the flow but had no luck. He confirmed the information on his console for a second time, realizing his mistake. It was audio data running along the line, he’d need speaker output to hear what was going on.

He routed in an audio output, but only a scrambled sound came out, it was meaningless. Wiz took an extract and ran it through a reassembling program. It wasn’t perfect, but he could just about make it out.

He recognized the voice immediately. It wasn’t so much the voice as the speed and delivery. He’d been listening to it for the past hour, booming through the screens, reminding citizens in The City what a transparent justice system they all enjoyed.

‘Let justice be seen to be done!’ he’d declared on one of the showreels.

It was President Josh Delman. He was speaking to somebody outside The City’s walls.

19:06 Encounter

Talya had not been entirely happy about leaving Harry with Jena, but she needed to move fast. Jena had at least shaken herself out of her usual trance enough to attend to Harry’s wounds. She had to get to Max Penner, he’d be finishing his shift and on his way to his home soon. Fortrillium usually changed shifts at 19:00, they were long days. She was running a bit late, she hoped he wouldn’t be delayed because of the trial.

She thought she’d missed him, arriving at the gated entrance to Fortrillium a little later than she’d have liked. As she’d turned away from the gates in frustration, she’d just caught sight of Max in the distance. She started to jog, but it quickly turned into a run. Her legs were aching badly from the trial of having to walk up to Harry’s apartment, but she pushed through the pain, determined to get to Max away from the intimidation of the Centuria.

Max became aware of fast approaching footsteps, instinctively sensing that they were heading towards him. It took him a split second to recognize Talya – he saw the face then made the connection. He was immediately defensive and continued walking as they spoke.

‘Mr Penner,’ she began, thinking that formal and respectful might be the best approach.

‘Law Lord Slater,’ he replied. ‘What a coincidence seeing you so soon after your visit!’

Max knew that this was no fluke, he’d seen enough of the trial build-up on his own screen at work to know what had happened since he’d last seen Talya. Her face was desperate. Of course it was, the trial began in under an hour. But he couldn’t help.

‘You know about my daughter I assume?’

‘I do, I’m sorry.’

‘Is there any way to get into The Grid area from where you work, do you ever go in yourself?’

‘I’m forbidden to talk to anybody about my job, other than under strict supervision ...’

‘Enough of that Mr Penner. Do you have family?’

Max didn’t, he felt as if it was best not to have too many close connections in The City. He shook his head.

‘My daughter enters that place at 20:00 and I need to do whatever I can to keep her alive. You work there Mr Penner, there must be a way in!’

‘You can’t get in, only the bots enter and leave, they take care of all the maintenance and the cleaning.’

‘If the bots can get in, so can a human,’ Talya began, but Max held up his hand to stop her going on.

‘If any living creature enters those tunnel areas, they’re burned to a crisp. Nothing living goes in or out of there unless they’re part of a trial. There’s one way in and one way out, I’ve never seen the way out used in my lifetime.’

Talya hadn’t either, nobody had. She wasn’t giving up.

‘Can equipment be sent through with the bots, communicators or anything like that?’

Max knew where she was going with this. He liked Talya Slater, but he also liked living. He’d risked enough sending the WristCom in, he wasn’t in a hurry to get involved in any of Talya’s plans. She was on a suicide mission, Law Lord or not.

‘That’s impossible too, everything that goes in and out is screened.’ A lie, yes, but it would make her go away.

Talya’s tone changed, he sensed it immediately. She was done with pushing against a closed door.

‘Mr Penner, why was my husband’s WristCom sitting on your desk earlier? I think the Centuria might like to know about that.’

He was immediately on the defensive, he cursed himself for not having concealed it better. Max quickly ran through his options in his head. Should he come clean? Or help this woman who was trying to lean on him and threaten him? Perhaps she would offer some protection?

He did the only thing that he could.

‘I’m sorry Law Lord Slater, I can’t talk to you now, I have to go.’

Max rushed towards his front door which was now only yards away and locked himself in securely.

19:23 Prepped

Joe was thrown back into the cell area. Clay and Lucy rushed to see how he was. They’d taken some time to come round, though Clay still had a terrible ache in his brain – he’d never experienced anything like it. Psyche-Eval is what they’d called it. He’d never known something so painful and he’d had a few knocks and bruises in his time. Including the pounding he’d taken during his sentencing before the Law Lords.

The Psyche-Eval devices entered the brain via their noses. Their heads had been restrained in braces, no anaesthetic was offered, and it hurt. Two large tubes moved to the top of their nostrils, and then from within them two tiny needles went directly into the brain. The pain was sudden, sharp and intense, but was quickly replaced by a mild pulse, which seemed like a dark, leaden fog in the mind. Several of the inmates screamed out at this stage, the sensation was excruciating but mercifully brief.

One of the medical team who had administered this procedure seemed more talkative than the others. Piecing together what had happened in the cell, Clay, Lucy and Marjani had worked out that they were looking for fears, phobias and life events. No explanation was given as to why, but they knew that bit already. They’d all seen enough of the trials to work it out. Many of the scenarios inside The Grid would be based on personal experiences and terrors. As somebody watching on the screens, it wasn’t clear how those had come into play. They understood now, though. They’d be teased and tormented with their greatest fears when the trial began. For the moment they focused on Joe. There was an unspoken agreement that they needed to stay sharp and calm.

They’d caught a fleeting glimpse of the person in the next cell to them. He was only young, clearly distressed, but receiving no comfort at all, just constant contemptuousness from the guards. They’d do what they could to help him inside The Grid, they’d try to keep an eye out for him, but they doubted that he’d survive long, whatever they did.

Joe was feeling the impact of two tranquilizers and a Psyche-Eval. His chest was red raw from the punishment he’d received earlier, the flesh sore and bloody still, his brain pounding from what had just taken place in the medical area.

‘Hell, my head hurts!’

‘Mine too,’ said Clay. ‘The others don’t seem too bad.’

‘What were they doing in there? It was horrible, did you hear me calling out?’

Nobody had heard Joe scream, not that it would have mattered, there was no victory in managing to keep silent, there was no need for bravado. They were all terrified, but they would only survive if they could master their fear. That would be a battle fought alone and in silence in the hours that lay ahead.

Joe needed a moment to sit down and get his mind back on track. Whatever had been done to him in there, it felt as if his thoughts had been scrambled, and they were just starting to settle down and re-order themselves.

‘We need to plan, we need to think about how it starts,’ Clay began.

‘There’s always something horrible at the beginning,’ Miron added. ‘They always go for shock value.’

‘How many of us in the trial? Did anybody manage to count?’ asked Lucy.

‘At least ten I think,’ said Joe, who’d been last to go for the Psyche-Eval. ‘There’s another cell. I counted four more – and the person next to us. They’ll pick someone off early, they always do in the first ten minutes.’

Lucy had seen more trials than she’d have liked. She would force herself to watch at times, it was too easy to turn away and pretend it wasn’t happening. She wanted to stare the horror in the face; by doing that she felt that she was honouring those in the trial. Turning away or treating it as entertainment denied the atrocities which they all acquiesced in. She would not look away. It was how Joe’s father had died after all.

The time for talk was over. Joe had barely recovered enough to walk properly.

Heavily armed escorts had arrived – the inmates were to be shackled together by the ankles. The neck devices were removed. There were more guards than prisoners; something serious was happening next, they appeared to be expecting runners.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Clay, hoping he’d not be rewarded by a burst of the electronic batons.

‘Your trial begins in twenty minutes,’ answered one of the guards. ‘We’re taking you to The Grid.’

19:37 First Blood

Hannah was feeling nervous. Nobody knew how these trials worked, but she hadn’t expected to go into lock-down when the trial was confirmed. No entrance or exit was permitted until there were no Justice Seekers left standing. Or, they got a Justice Walk by surviving.

A large clock had gone live in the work area; it was counting down until the trial began. Hannah hadn’t a clue that her friends were involved – things had moved so fast since the competition that she’d had no time to catch up with Lucy. Where was Lucy? Why hadn’t she been in contact? Hannah’s WristCom was disabled now, it had been blocked the minute the trial confirmation came through. She was cut off until the trial was over. It was contempt of court for her to discuss an ongoing trial.

There was no showreel playing either. The Gridders were given no knowledge of the Justice Seekers, only their profiles and gender.

97TRaider sidled up to Hannah, he had something to share with her. He was proving a useful source of information.

‘They’re going to first blood you,’ he whispered. ‘Have something up your sleeve. It’s an initiation test.’

Hannah’s reaction was to panic, but she quickly calmed herself. She’d asked for this, this was her chance to find out what went on in the trials. Lucy and Joe could use this information, they might finally be able to bring down Fortrillium with what she was learning here.

97TRaider sensed her question.

‘They’ll give you first kill, but it’ll have to be good. They like drama to begin the trials. Get thinking, they’ll tell you with fifteen minutes to go, it won’t play well if you don’t come up with something.’

Hannah moved back to her work area and began rendering a play environment on the screen. Texture, depth, temperature, sound – she was able to control everything by the touch of a button and the selection of a menu. A new message arrived at the top of her main screen. She opened it up. It was about the Psyche-Evals. The profiles were being downloaded to the primary database, they’d need those later as the trial developed.

The Head Gridder called for everybody’s attention, they were entering the final minutes now. Hannah figured this would be the pep talk, the motivational chat before the killing began. She had to get over that. The carnage would go on anyway – with or without her. She was there to try and bring an end to it. Lucy, Joe, Mitchell and Wiz, if they could, they were going to stop this carnage.

‘We have sixteen minutes until entry,’ she began. ‘The selection is taking place now, we’ll know how many Modes in the next five minutes. We have a new member of the team with us today, and because of that we’re giving Janexx2 first-blood privileges. Janexx2, get to work and make it something powerful to open with.’

Hannah was still adjusting to being referred to by her gaming name – it was how anonymity was preserved for the Gridders beyond Fortrillium’s walls. They became celebrated figures on the screens, but nobody ever knew who the Gridders were, identities were shrouded in secrecy.

‘Mr Hunter has sent me a personal memo insisting that we make this trial special. You need to make the gameplay powerful, he’s promised a cull if we fail to reach an engagement score of less than 9.1. You know what you have to do everybody!’

They were dismissed. Hannah didn’t like the sound of a cull but she was familiar with engagement scores, it was how they measured attentiveness to a trial. Damien Hunter wanted The City gripped with this trial, and a score of 9.1 would ensure that everybody was talking about it.

She put any thoughts about a cull to the back of her mind, she had her own challenge to meet and a deadline coming up fast behind her.

Hannah became Janexx2 and set to work on her gameplay. She had to forget that these were human beings. On their screens they’d just see digitally rendered figures, they never got to see the real action. So she typed at her console and worked hard to concentrate on the challenge. She’d have to sacrifice these Justice Seekers, but their deaths would count for something. With what she would learn at Fortrillium she was sure they could eventually stop the senseless killing.

So Hannah mastered her conscience and set about the task in hand. The first kill would be hers. And it would take their breath away.

19:42 Scream

Jena stroked the hair away from Harry’s eyes, she was still semi-conscious but had become increasingly restless. Most of the blood had been cleared away from the wounds and Jena had utilized the few dressings that Wiz had managed to find to cover them as best she could. Clean bandages were hard to get your hands on in The Climbs, these didn’t seem to be new, but they weren’t too dirty at least.

As Jena sat there, she listened to the muffled boom from the screens outside. They were high up, the sound wasn’t clear, but she knew what was going on.

She’d been here before. Dillon and Joe were much younger then, and she’d just collapsed at the time. Every day she tried to will herself on, she saw how much of the load that Joe was carrying, but she’d just crumpled when Matt died. She was perpetually frightened, terrified of what might happen at any moment, paralysed at the thought of taking action. She knew it was ridiculous, but she was imprisoned by her own mind, she just couldn’t master it.

So she cowered, seldom leaving the house, never speaking to anybody, locked up in the prison of her own fear. She’d known that Joe was in trouble, she’d understood what they’d said to her, but she just wanted to fold in on herself and disappear. If she could have killed herself, she would have, but she was too terrified even to do that.

It was checkmate in a game that only she was playing, there was no move for her to make, just existing, marking the hours, a captive in her own life.

When Wiz had come to the apartment it had stirred her, she’d sensed his urgency, understood the seriousness of what was going on. She’d grasped that Joe was in trouble, it was happening again. Joe, wonderful Joe, who’d kept them all alive since Matt was taken away.

She owed him this at least. She felt harnessed to her own fears, but she forced herself to stand up and leave the apartment with Wiz. Every step was painful, her mind was filled with a thousand horrors, but she willed herself on. Surely anything would be better than the living death that she’d inflicted on herself for six years? If she was ever going to change things, now was the time. If Joe died, they’d both perish, Dillon was still too young to do what Joe had done. He was different to Joe, he didn’t have that determination. The same determination that had got Matt killed.

Harry was getting restless, she was mouthing words now, her eyes still closed, but her body jumping about as if it was possessed.

‘Delman ... must tell Talya ... President Delman ...’

Jena could just make the words out. She put her ears to the old woman’s lips, struggling to hear what she was trying to say.

‘It was Delman ... I remember now ... he was alive, how could he be alive?’

Jena stroked Harry’s hair, trying to calm her down, but desperate to grasp some meaning from her words. Harry made one last effort to pass on the memory which had been troubling her. It would cost her her life. Harry’s body went still and limp, but her deadly secret had passed into the world on her final breath.

‘Delman, he was there before the plague ... he was part of it ... Delman could have prevented the disease.’

19:51 Hidden

Damien Hunter loved the stillness of the Umbilica, even though it held so much sadness for him. He always went there before a trial, it reminded him of the purpose of his struggles. He reached out and touched his daughter through the transparent film. He could feel her tiny heart beating. He dreamed of being able to hold her hands for real one day and have her running alongside him, with his son calling out behind.

And there was his beautiful wife Cassie, how he longed to hold her again and hear her laughter. Her body twitched as if she knew he was there, but that was impossible, her sleep was deep, he had to walk this path alone.

He dreamed of having them all at his side again, to experience the pure happiness of family. But that was not his lot. It nourished him to be in there, alone with them, away from the fear and expectation of those who were cowed by him in The City.

He studied the innocent, white faces of his beautiful children and touched the outstretched hand of his wife.

‘It’s close now,’ he told them. ‘We’re nearly there, we’ll be together again soon.’

He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and stared ahead.

It was almost 20:00. He would need to open the trial. If Slater came, he’d be amazed, but she was tough, she’d keep fighting him until the end.

‘I’ll see you shortly,’ he whispered to Cassie. ‘I love you.’

Damien Hunter wiped the tear from his eye and made himself stand tall. There was killing to be done. Lives had to be ended if he was ever going to hold his family again, and he would stop at nothing to achieve that goal.

19:58 Sentenced

There were twelve of them in all, they hadn’t known the final numbers until the last minute. They were in a dark room, shackled in a circle and facing outward. There was complete silence except for the man that they’d seen earlier; he was sobbing and weeping as if he was able to understand what was about to happen.

‘Lucy, Clay, you there?’ asked Joe. They’d been split up just before the end, it was disorienting, he was sure they were still there.

‘I’m here,’ said Lucy, ‘Miron and Marjani too.’

‘When it begins, stay together,’ said Clay. ‘Whoever you are, whatever you did, stay close – we fight as a unit and we survive.’

‘Screw you!’ came a voice. It was unfamiliar, nobody who’d been in their cell.

The room lit up, it was complete darkness all around them, but they could see each other.

Joe counted up fast. There was Ross and the woman from their cage who hadn’t wanted to get involved – she was wearing white overalls, the same as two others, both men. Smugglers, three of them. If they came from The Climbs, smuggling was all about survival, that was all. Joe did it every day.

There was one yellow overall. That was somebody from the Institute, he was sobbing. That must have been the man in the cell next to them.

He was moving around the circle quickly now – one more set of orange overalls, a woman, assault, same as Ross.

It was the black overalls that bothered him. You seldom saw black in The Grid. It had come from the man who’d cursed Clay moments earlier. A serial killer, a great hate figure for the people watching on the screens. Everybody loathed a serial killer, it was the type of crime for which there was never any excuse, no decent explanation.

A voice boomed from all around them. They knew this well, it was the beginning of the trial. The voice was Damien Hunter’s.

‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. So it is in our city that any person who breaks the law shall find justice in The Grid. It has been our way since the plague years, it has kept our city safe and fair for almost one hundred years.’

Joe noticed how the lighting had left their feet in shadow. He’d never seen shackles before and had wondered why the Justice Seekers never ran. They’d concealed them in the darkness so that the cameras didn’t pick them up. The voice began again.

‘Thirteen Justice Seekers will enter The Grid today. If any find justice there, they will walk away with their freedom. This is how our society preserves truth and honesty.’

Joe surveyed the circle, counting the figures on the platform once more. He counted twelve again. Who was the thirteenth? Where was the thirteenth?

The lights moved to an area behind the Justice Seekers, illuminating six Law Lords who were projected as holographic images. They stood there in a line, in their black legal gowns. The trial would begin with the dropping of Leianna Richwald’s gavel.

Damien Hunter’s voice was replaced by Leianna Richwald’s.

‘You thirteen stand charged with crimes against The City. If you find justice in The Grid, you shall walk free.’

Where was the thirteenth? Joe didn’t like it, they were up to something.

‘Law Lord Sivil will now determine the Modes.’

A number was drawn out of a small black bag. Sivil held it up for the Justice Seekers to see.

‘There shall be three Modes in the first hearing.’

Joe wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or not. It could have been better – two Modes – but it could have been a lot worse, five, seven or even nine perhaps. The fewer the Modes, the greater the chance of making it through to the final trial. However many Modes, they were probably all going to die, unless Hannah, Wiz and Mitchell were working on a plan.

‘Justice Seekers, you may enter The Grid. Find your justice!’

Hunter’s voice boomed once again, the lights went out, and the Law Lords could no longer be seen.

Joe felt the shackles release around his ankles. All twelve on the platform scrutinized the area, waiting for the first threat that would come to take their lives.

20:00 The Grid

The Climbs was alive with the anticipation of the new trial. Most could barely watch, the first minutes always began with a death. As the commentary boomed throughout the tower blocks, Jena finally let go of Harry’s hand. Many memories would die with the demise of this remarkable woman, but before she had passed from the wicked world in which she lived, she had managed to pass on a final memory to those who survived. It would eventually reveal the dark truth that had been hiding in The City. Jena covered Harry’s body with a dirty, ragged sheet and signaled to Dillon. They intended to work with Talya, they were going to help to save Joe.

At the same time as Jena was leaving the old woman’s sorry corpse, President Josh Delman was shaking Mitchell’s hand and welcoming him into his imposing office. Mitchell wasn’t entirely sure why he’d been summoned, but within the next fifteen minutes he would accept an offer from the President and betray his friends.

Elsewhere in The Climbs, Wiz typed frantically at his console in the damp darkness, cleaning up the audio from The City’s President. He’d stumbled on something that could save his companions – but condemn Josh Delman to be a hunted man.

Talya Slater hadn’t bothered to turn up for the beginning of the trial, she’d decided to spend her time more productively, whatever the consequences for her. After being hastily dismissed by Max Penner, she’d gone to the back of his house, kicked down his door and confronted him in his kitchen. At the time her daughter’s trial began, Talya was twisting a carving knife which she’d plunged into Max’s hand to encourage him to share a little more willingly. Max would not hang out for long before he fainted and the knife tore through his flesh as he fell to the ground. Before he hit the floor, he would have given Talya a glimpse of hope, the possibility that lives could be saved.

Damien Hunter had retired to the solitude of the Umbilica, where he was holding his wife’s hand through the protective film once again. He always became emotional during the trials – each one offered him the promise of reclaiming his family.

Hannah checked her console, her Gridder colleagues were all focused on the large screen at the front of the room, where the digitized events in The Grid would play out before them. Hannah didn’t know that Joe and Lucy were in there. She’d prepared a spectacle that could kill two of the people who were closest to her.

‘Are you ready?’ asked the Head Gridder. Hannah nodded. She had to do this. She knew it was wrong, but they had to take lives to save lives.

Hannah began the trial. Everything changed around the Justice Seekers as a new environment rendered. There was a roar of flames, the heat was intense. The Justice Seekers were caught in the middle, there seemed no way to escape. Then Joe saw movement within the fire, there was somebody in there already, he couldn’t make it out at first.

It had to be the thirteenth Justice Seeker, the one that nobody had seen yet. There was a cry from Chris, it was animal-like in its rawness, he was scared for his life, he didn’t know what to do.

Whoever was in the flames moved awkwardly towards the centre where the Justice Seekers were trapped. The badly burned body fell at Joe’s feet. No wonder the movement had seemed unusual, the thirteenth man was that day’s first victim of The Grid.

It was Zach Fuller. They’d given him crutches, but the charred body was his. They’d put him in there so that Joe could see his friend burned alive. The first Justice Seeker had fallen inside The Grid.

As Joe held Zach’s scorched hand, the life slipped away from his friend. Joe vowed that he would be delivering his own justice to Damien Hunter, and when it came it would be merciless and final.

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