The Grid trilogy tells the story of 18-year-old protagonist Joe Parsons whose search for the truth about his father’s death takes him on a perilous journey through a post-plague city.
But before he gets his chance for revenge he must first survive The Grid, the terrifying justice system from which only one person has every walked out alive.
Jay realized that it was all over for him.
Despite being out of breath, wet with the sweat of physical exertion, and with adrenaline levels electrifying his entire body, his survival instinct was replaced in a moment by the acceptance of certain death. These events were being watched by thousands on the big screens placed around The City. Nobody had ever achieved so much in their quest for justice. He’d lost seven of his fellow detainees along the way, all killed in terrible ways by a predator who took their lives from the safety of a computer console.
It had taken nine days to get this far. Every minute had become a struggle for survival, with traps, deceptions and hazards at every turn. Each move had been watched by the viewing public, just a small crowd at first, as the weakest were picked off, one at a time.
Soon, though, a buzz spread through The City – there was a strong leader in this challenge, and it seemed as if somebody might walk out alive. Unknown to Jay, he’d become a celebrity, with half of the population gunning for his success even though they knew that statistically it was unlikely to happen. He was the underdog in these events, but he was fighting back, fierce and defiant.
For a day or two they supposed that he might make it and win a small victory for all of them. It had only ever happened once before in the entire history of Fortrillium, but it meant that there was always a chance, the slightest possibility that there might be a victor. Jay himself had even believed for a few hours that he might make it through.
He’d seen three of the other prisoners perish by his side, one of them he’d known personally. She’d died in his arms, her body pierced in twenty places by the metal shards that had been unleashed from a hidden trap. Her name was Rina – they’d met each other on and off since childhood. As he’d felt the last embers of her life fade away through her limp body, Jay had experienced a new surge of determination, an anger and commitment to see this fight through to the end.
He was seeking justice, and this was the only way it could be done. To avoid a life rotting away in the wet cells beneath the river, incarcerated without trial, he’d have to take his chances in The Grid. It was the only way he was ever getting out.
In those final moments, with fewer than fifty minutes to survive until The Justice Walk, events had taken another turn. It was as if the person who was playing against him had been substituted. A last-minute and unannounced switch of opponent to put a stop to this challenger who dared to think that he could escape with his life.
Jay was tired and weak, but he could have fought and won against his original adversary. He’d even grown to know whoever it was well over those nine days. His opponent had a preference for traps, Jay had realized that early on in the trial, and when a life was taken it would be done dramatically. Jay knew that there were cameras all over, recording every moment for the big screens, so he knew why this Gridder went for climactic deaths. It played well to the audience, whether they were gunning for the Justice Seekers or not. A tragic death on screen made the viewing figures soar and took the thoughts of those in The Climbs away from their miserable lives.
Well, they were about to get their final dramatic demise, and this time it was going to be Jay who they watched as he perished in front of them on the screens. Only his mother and sister would cry for him, but perhaps too the few friends he’d had who hadn’t yet starved or died from illness.
He felt the metal plates jolt against his body and the pressure began to build as they started to push against his back and chest. They were moving deliberately – whoever had contrived this death for him had a sense of the dramatic and a love of the horrific. He was going to have the life slowly squeezed out of him in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands. They wouldn’t make it fast, they’d show every horrible moment.
Jay was finding it hard to breathe. He turned his head sideways to remove some of the pressure, even though it was only a matter of time now. He felt the sudden rise of fear, but like the wildebeest in the lion’s jaws he quickly calmed and awaited the end.
In his final seconds of life he wondered how it had ever come to this. He’d been entirely innocent, as had his fellow inmates. All evidence against them was a complete fabrication, everybody knew this, yet nobody did anything to challenge it. They were powerless. His only way out had been to take on The Grid, but all detainees knew that would inevitably end with death.
For Jay, like hundreds of others before him, the scales of justice had been leaned on, tipping them in favour of Fortrillium. As Jay’s life was extinguished, watched by a horrified yet paralyzed audience, he would never know how close he was to discovering the secret that they all sought. He was seconds away from the final solution, but if he’d been permitted to get any further the entire veil of deceit would have been swept away.
The two metal plates closed together, and the audience turned away from their screens, barely daring to imagine what Jay must have experienced in those last seconds. Citizens with a conscience felt a sickness deep in their stomachs; it was the bile of passive acquiescence. They all understood what had happened here. This wasn’t justice. It was a public execution.
Joe Parsons forced the unruly cluster of wires into the makeshift socket and fired up his screen.
‘Damn it!’ he cursed, as the device flickered for a moment then faded away.
‘Here, let me try something,’ offered Lucy, keeping her voice to a whisper, even though there was no chance that anybody would be able to hear them down there.
Everyone was watching the screens after all. The entire city had been electrified by the way Jay had fought so hard to win his right to speak before the Law Lords. Joe and Lucy didn’t know him personally, but they knew his story well enough. It’s why they were down in the sewers at that moment, trying to break into Fortrillium’s data centre.
A rat scuttled by Joe’s foot. He flinched and kicked out as it passed by. He’d never got used to the rats. They were everywhere in The Climbs, but where Lucy lived they didn’t have to put up with them. He’d grown up with them, in his bedroom and the eating areas – if they were lucky enough to have enough food for the vermin to steal.
She always impressed him the way the creatures didn’t bother her. She’d had a privileged life over on Silk Road, but you’d never have known that from the way she was with him.
Lucy stamped on the creature, her heavy boot holding it down in the stinking waters of the sewer until it stopped struggling and died. She lifted her foot and the foul corpse floated away. Another death. Like life, it was easy come, easy go, but she wasn’t that casual about killing, even if it was a disgusting, diseased creature. She knew what Joe was like with rats around and she needed him focused.
She’d asked Mitchell to try and keep the pipe-way clear if he could. The last thing they wanted tonight was Joe getting spooked again and abandoning the project halfway. He knew the risks, of course, and they all understood why he was so jittery. Only six years ago Joe’s dad had suffered a similar fate to the one which undoubtedly faced Jay on that night. He was the only person keeping his mother alive. They’d been thrown into poverty since his father’s death. He desperately needed to continue his dad’s work, but he couldn’t risk leaving his mum on her own.
‘Mitchell!’ Lucy hissed up the pipe-way. ‘Stay alert!’
‘Something is going on up there,’ came the reply. ‘It must be near the end now – you’ll need to hurry.’
Joe teased the wires one more time. These opportunities only came along every once in a while, and if they couldn’t get proof today, who knows how long they’d have to wait? The screen lit up. Lucy felt him relax.
‘Get Wiz up here,’ said Joe. ‘Bring the codes.’
A lanky, skinny form worked its way awkwardly up the pipeline, stumbling into the stinking water several times. They kept Wiz away from the action as much as they could – he was so tall he had real trouble getting along the pipes. But like so many of the teenagers living in The Climbs, he’d learned some technical skills that were immensely valuable on the black market. It was a useful set of competencies that enabled him and his friends to stay alive.
Joe and Wiz were formidable together, and with Lucy’s connections and access to Silk Road there was little that they couldn’t achieve between them. Except perhaps this, their biggest challenge. It was fine earning food tokens by fixing people’s battered old tech on the black market, but breaking into Fortrillium was an entirely different problem.
‘It’s happening,’ said Lucy. ‘Go faster …’
Joe took the codes that Wiz had just handed him and tapped them swiftly into the interface. The console looked as if it had seen much better days. Mitchell shouted down the pipes, as loud as he dared.
‘I can hear the groans outside. They must be finishing it soon.’
‘Just a few more seconds …’
Joe typed furiously at the keypad. His screen burst into life, and a stream of indecipherable data began flowing down – there seemed to be pages and pages of it.
‘It’s true.’ Wiz was relieved. ‘They switched over at the last minute, there was external interference.’
‘That information is coming from outside Fortrillium,’ Joe continued. ‘There’s got to be something else out there.’
Lucy, Joe and Wiz peered at each other, huddled together and crouched in the stinking water of the sewer pipe. Lit only by the glare from the screen, they’d just got the proof they needed to confirm what Joe’s dad had thought all along. When Jay had got close to the centre of The Grid, the final destination, something – or someone – had intervened.
Within moments of attaining his goal – The Justice Walk – and a chance to prove his innocence at last, Jay was deprived of his victory. Having almost beaten his opponent in The Grid, a last-minute switch was made and the rules of engagement changed right at the end of the challenge. There was no doubt about it now. There was no rectitude in Fortrillium. They were sending detainees to the slaughter.
Talya Slater always felt guilty the moment that she crossed over into The Climbs. She was one of the privileged few, for she had wealth, resources, and even some degree of influence and power. However, walking confidently through the security barriers that marked the limits of Silk Road, she did not feel that fearlessness inside.
Every time she stepped into The Climbs, she questioned her advantages in life and if it was right to hang onto them she did. She had Lucy to safeguard; she couldn’t just abandon them both to a life of poverty on a principle and a whim. She’d rationalized this to herself many times before – the best way she could help was to continue to do pro bono work, and she would be no use to anybody without her present standing in society.
She was viewed as a bit of an anomaly on Silk Road, most people in her position would have happily helped themselves to the spoils of the misbehaving rich and feathered their nests. But Talya had always had a conscience. For as long as there was so much injustice she would continue to do her best to fight it. She did this by spending the one day that she didn’t have to work helping the miserable souls in The Climbs.
The transition from Silk Road was almost immediate as she stepped through the security barrier. A massive solid concrete wall ran all around the vast boundary of Silk Road, keeping the inhabitants of The Climbs locked in – or the Silk Roaders out, who knew? Hundreds of thousands of affluent households formed a perimeter around which the residents of The Climbs were squeezed in, like caged animals. There were over three million in there, piled high in decaying tower blocks that had been prosperous business centres in the days before the plague.
On the Silk Road side, the walls were fitted with projections of rural scenes, the lovely greenery never seemed to end, and the towering, crumbling towers of The Climbs were out of sight. Beyond the blockades, though, the truth was hard to bear, which is why so few of the rich residents ever bothered to venture inside from their affluent perimeter.
Most found it distasteful, a glimpse of a terrible world which they knew might befall them on any day. The rules of Fortrillium were strict and merciless, enforced by the menacing Centuria, a state-run team of military police who carried out the will of the Law Lords without mercy. The Silk Roaders knew never to force the issue. It was a working harmony of rich and poor, a balanced ecosystem that had ultimately saved all of their lives after the plague years. Sure, they all had a feeling of what life must be like beyond those walls, but because they weren’t forced to confront the vast concrete barriers it was easy to forget. It was even more convenient to deny what was going on.
Talya was a different beast, but she was also a clever one. She knew enough to understand that if she chose the wrong battles she too would end up incarcerated. She would be another victim of the Centuria. There would be a mysterious late-night visit from their threatening mob and a series of allegations that seemed unlikely to most people. The only way to resist this was through influence and power, by using her lucky advantage to move closer to the centre, to try to change things that way.
Six days of the week she spent her time sorting out the trivial affairs of the wealthy, attending to relationship breakdowns, property concerns, legal contracts and financial matters. On Sundays she walked among the high towers of The Climbs. They were known as The Climbs because the elevators that served them had long since broken down. The only way to access the upper levels was via the crumbling stairways that formerly acted as fire escapes, in the days before the plague came. It had been well before her memories began – she was too young to remember any of it.
There was only one resident that she knew of who could recall what had happened when the change came. There must be others, but they were old now and life was harsh. That person was Harry – Harriet – a 103-year-old inhabitant of the tower that Talya was standing in front of at that precise moment. She lived on the thirty-third floor, so at her age and with her frailty she’d been just like a prisoner there for many years.
She steeled herself for the long climb but knew that it would be worth it when she got up there. She’d finally coaxed Harry into sharing with her the truth about what had happened during the years of the plague.
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 now 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 where 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 have 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 thousands of 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 that 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 now 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. 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 money 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 now; 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 kitchen table, dropping some bread on the floor as he did so. A large rat emerged from under the cupboards 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 deadly accuracy, killing the creature dead in its tracks. Joe figured that Zach could take care of himself after all.
‘Hope you don’t mind if I don’t help you 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, 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 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 big 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 now.
‘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 now. 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 shuffled around a bit, 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.’