A short story set in the Hive Future of the Hive Mind series.Please note this story is still in first draft so may include a few typos.
I joined the upway on Teen Level 50, riding the moving stairs up through shopping areas that had already closed for the night. As I reached Level 46, I heard the people ahead of me relaying an urgent warning down the line.
“There’s a nosy patrol on Level 43!”
I dutifully passed the warning on to the woman behind me, but chose to stay on the upway myself rather than join the rush of people leaving it and heading for lifts to complete their journey. When I reached the shopping area on Level 43, I saw the nosy patrol was standing right next to the upway. Four innocuous human beings in blue Health and Safety uniforms gathered protectively around their grey-robed, masked telepath.
Most people hated having a nosy rummaging through their minds to find their guilty secrets, but I’d broken enough rules on Teen Level to learn that the nosies didn’t care about me committing minor crimes like trespassing. I’d once pushed the limits too far, and entered an area that wasn’t just forbidden territory but seriously dangerous. I’d had a nosy patrol turn up at my teen room the next day, to give me an embarrassingly public lecture about not endangering my life. I had to admit that I’d deserved that though, and there’d never been any suggestion that the nosy patrol would arrest me.
In fact, I’d only ever seen a nosy call on their hasty escort to arrest a random passer-by once, and what I’d overheard made it clear that man had started a fire in a community centre. I’d been indignant when a nosy patrol came to a neighbouring teen corridor, and dragged a boy off under arrest. But then I heard the girls talking about that boy’s behaviour, and decided his arrest had been perfectly justified as well.
Basically, I felt that ordinary patrolling hasties were often ridiculously fussy about enforcing trivial rules, but the nosies were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. Keeping the hundred million citizens of our Hive city safe. They would only bother people who were a genuine threat to others or themselves.
That meant I didn’t worry too much about what nosies might see in my thoughts, but I still didn’t like getting too close to one of them. There was something disturbing about the way the nosies’ grey robes shifted in strange directions when they moved, and the fact their eyes glinted an unnerving purple through the masks they wore over their distorted, oversized heads. I was relieved when the moving stairs carried me on upwards, leaving the nosy patrol safely behind me.
I left the upway when I reached Level 41, and headed down the corridor that led to my uncle’s park. When I went through the double doors with the green park symbol, I found the ceiling lights were still running the daytime suns programme. As I continued along the path though, the transition to the moons and stars programme started. The suns began steadily decreasing in brightness, the smaller lights of stars appeared in the sky, and the few people remaining in the park began hurrying towards the exits.
Uncle Jed wasn’t in his park keeper’s office, or at the event lawn, so I took the left turn that led to the lake. By the time I arrived at the water’s edge, all but a single sun had gone down to the pale moon setting. Uncle Jed was sitting on a bench by one of the pillars holding up the sky, gloomily looking up at the one sun that was still stubbornly shining at full brightness.
“It’s still not working then,” I stated the obvious.
Uncle Jed jumped to his feet, and turned to face me. “Eli! What the waste are you doing here?”
I shrugged. “I know that technically I’m trespassing. I should be down on Teen Level 50 rather than here on Level 41, but you’ve never objected to me visiting you in your park before.”
“I never objected before because it didn’t matter whether you missed some of the Teen Level activity sessions,” said Uncle Jed bitterly. “Today is different. You’re supposed to be half the length of the Hive away, going through the 2532 Lottery assessment. You aren’t supposed to make distracting calls to your family and friends during the tests that will decide your whole future life, let alone go wandering off to visit them!”
I shrugged again. “I’ve finished my Lottery tests.”
Uncle Jed shook his head. “You can’t have finished your Lottery tests. It’s unusual for a candidate to get their result on the third day of Lottery, but I accessed the Lottery listings a few minutes ago just in case. Today’s results had been posted, but when I checked your identity code, it came up as not yet available.”
I tried to keep my voice lightly cheerful. “That’s because I’m in an especially unusual situation. Ever since I was thirteen years old, and left home to live in my own room on Teen Level, I’ve been hearing activity leaders recite the same standard official information about Lottery.”
I switched into imitating the enthusiastic tones of the man who’d been leading my corridor group’s activity sessions for the last year. “The five years on Teen Level climax in the thrilling week of Lottery. Each year, over a million eighteen-year-olds in the Hive enter Lottery, and their abilities are assessed by an individually tailored test sequence.”
Uncle Jed joined in to chant the rest of it with me. “They are optimized to find the list of professions ideally suited to them, and allocated to the one of those professions most urgently needed by the Hive. Finally, they are imprinted with the knowledge needed for their work, and emerge from Lottery as proudly productive adult members of the Hive.”
“I’ve had five years of hearing ordinary activity leaders recite that standard information,” I said bitterly. “During the last year, my corridor group has had several lectures from a visiting specialist activity leader as well, who gave us more details and answered our questions. Nobody has ever mentioned the possibility of Lottery losing my result though.”
Uncle Jed stared at me. “Lottery has lost your result? How could that happen? The automated process is supposed to be perfectly reliable.”
I sighed. “Everything did seem to be going perfectly until a few hours ago. I was given a weird mixture of tests on the first two days. I had no idea whether I was doing well or badly on half of them, but there was definitely some sort of purpose behind them. Today all my tests were focused on straightforward physical things like strength, and I was definitely doing well. At the end of the day, all the candidates at our test centre gathered in the hall. Ten of us were sent to rooms to get our results, while the rest were told to come back the next day.”
It was impossible for me to hide my distress as I explained the disaster that had followed. “I was told to go to room 9, rushed over there, and some sort of Lottery supervisor smiled at me and handed me a dataview with a totally black screen. She said I just needed to tap on that screen to see my Lottery result. I was both thrilled and terrified as I did that, but … Imagine how I felt when there was just a red message about a system failure!”
“A system failure,” Uncle Jed repeated. “What had gone wrong, and more importantly what is the supervisor doing to fix it?”
“She asked me to wait outside the room for a moment,” I said. “In fact, I was waiting outside for nearly an hour while a lot of people went in and out. Eventually, the supervisor called me in again. She said there’d been a system glitch, which had left my details stuck in the optimization stage. As far as they could tell, I was the only candidate out of over a million that was affected by the problem, and they couldn’t risk trying to fix it while the main Lottery assessment was in progress.”
My voice was shaking now. “The supervisor told me that I’d absolutely no need to worry because they still had all the data from my tests. Once the main Lottery assessment was complete, they’d be able to arrange a special test run of Lottery for me, and feed in that data. She said that I should have my result only six or seven days after the main Lottery assessment finishes.”
“Six or seven days!” repeated Uncle Jed furiously. “How could that woman say that you had no need to worry? As the standard information says, the optimization stage of Lottery finds the list of professions best suited to you, and then you’re allocated to the one most urgently needed by the Hive. If every single one of the other candidates is allocated six or seven days ahead of you, then all the good vacancies will be filled!”
“That’s exactly what I said to the supervisor. She just shrugged though, and told me that someone always had to be the last candidate to go through allocation. This year, that last candidate was going to be me. Then she said that candidates were only sent to test centres a long distance from their home area to avoid the danger of a family member or friend interfering in the testing process. Since I’d finished my tests, there was no need for me to stay there, so she was sending me back to my home area to wait for my result.”
“She obviously sent you back here because she didn’t want you telling the other candidates what had happened to you,” said Uncle Jed. “She didn’t want them to be scared that their test centre had incompetently messed up your result, and could mess up theirs as well.”
I nodded. “Well, the supervisor said that I wouldn’t be able to go back to my old teen room because another Lottery candidate was staying there. She gave me the door code for a room in a nearby area. She said that it wouldn’t be very comfortable, because it’s in a group of corridors that have been left empty ready for major refurbishment work, but I’d only need to put up with it until I get my Lottery result.”
“It’s probably true that another Lottery candidate is using your old teen room,” said Uncle Jed grimly. “I’m sure that supervisor could have found you a proper room somewhere else though. She’s deliberately given you a room in an empty group of corridors for the same reason she sent you back here. To stop you telling other teens about your Lottery result getting lost.”
“I’m sure that you’re right,” I said. “I don’t want to go around telling a lot of other teens about what happened to me anyway. It’s frightening enough waiting to go into Lottery, knowing that its automated processes will decide your future career and Hive Level, without people telling you scary stories about system glitches.”
I shrugged. “Anyway, I went to my temporary room, left my bag there, and came to find you because … Well, I needed to talk to someone about what had happened.”
“I’m surprised you came to me rather than your parents or Becca.”
I winced. “It’s totally impossible for me to go and see Becca. All teen relationships end at Lottery, but ordinary couples can comfort themselves with the faint hope things will turn out like some romantic bookette, with Lottery making them the same level so they’ll be able to get back together again. There’s no hope at all for Becca and me though, and please don’t tell me that it’s our own fault for breaking the rules against teen relationships crossing the division between Lottery years.”
“There’s no need to go all defensive at me,” said Uncle Jed. “I didn’t join in the torrent of disapproval when you got involved with Becca four years ago, and I’m certainly not going to start criticizing you now. Becca is only a few months younger than you, so there’s less of an age gap between you and her than between you and many girls in your own Lottery year. There’s no actual rule against teen relationships crossing the division between Lottery years anyway. It’s just regarded as unconventional and unwise.”
“Well, it was horribly painful saying goodbye to each other before Lottery,” I said. “We knew that I’d soon be starting my new life as an adult, while Becca had to spend another year on Teen Level waiting for the 2533 Lottery. I’m not going to put us through the farewell ordeal a second time. As for my parents …”
I pulled a face. “I don’t want to tell my parents, because they’ll be dreadfully worried about my Lottery result getting lost.”
“Have you thought through the fact that most candidates get their result on the fourth day of Lottery?” asked Uncle Jed. “Your parents and the twins will start getting nervous when your name isn’t on the Lottery listing tomorrow evening. When it doesn’t appear at the end of the final day of Lottery either, then they’ll be in a blind panic.”
I groaned. “I don’t think the twins care that much about their older brother’s Lottery result, but I agree I’ll have to explain the situation to my parents on the final day of Lottery. Perhaps I should pretend that my details got stuck right at the end of the allocation stage. Say that my Lottery result has already been decided, but it isn’t possible to access it yet. That would mean my parents were less worried during the wait.”
“They’re still going to be seriously disappointed by your Lottery result though,” said Uncle Jed sadly. “They were hoping you’d come out of Lottery as a high level professional athlete, and this situation must have wrecked your chance of that.”
“I was never going to come out of Lottery as a professional athlete anyway. I kept telling my parents that there was a much lower standard for competing for our zone as a teen than as an adult, and to be perfectly honest …”
There was no one else in the area lit up by the stubborn single sun in the sky. There was probably no one else in the park. I still lowered my voice to a more confidential level as I admitted the secret I’d only ever shared with Becca.
“I don’t want to be a professional athlete. It may be a high level career, but I don’t want to spend years competing for meaningless trophies, and then move on to training others to compete for the same trophies. I want to do something practical. Ideally, something that improves the lives of other people. I’ve been thinking for years that I’d like to be a park keeper like you. Maybe this mess means I won’t achieve being a park keeper, but I’d be happy just digging your flowerbeds.”
Uncle Jed shook his head. “I know you’ve always enjoyed helping me in the park, Eli, but you’re a lot more intelligent than me. Brighter even than your parents, and they do complicated work for Hive Power Resources. You’re sociable and have an engaging personality as well. Lottery gets its name because the automated process is far too complex for any human being to predict its results, but you can be perfectly sure of one thing. The optimization stage of Lottery is designed to give you work that you truly love, so if you don’t want to be a professional athlete then you won’t be considered for it. It would be a waste for someone like you to spend your life doing low level work like digging flowerbeds though.”
He paused. “You deserve to do at least as well in Lottery as my eldest did last year.”
“Lottery allocated Abbie as a paramedic,” I said wistfully. “I’d have been thrilled with a Lottery result like hers. Helping injured and sick people. Saving lives. In the current circumstances though, I’ll be grateful if I end up digging flowerbeds.”
There was a chiming sound from Uncle Jed’s pocket. He took out his dataview, frowned at the screen, and groaned. “We’d invited my father-in-law to come to dinner this evening. He’s just called your aunt to say he’s asked my mother-in-law and his other two ex-wives to come as well. It’s typical of my father-in-law not to warn us until it’s too late to stop them coming.”
“Why would your father-in-law invite all three of his ex-wives? I thought they all hated each other.”
“They do,” said Uncle Jed bitterly. “My father-in-law has less sense than the average park duck. I’ll need to get home before any of the guests arrive, but if there’s anything I can do to help you, then just tell me.”
I pulled an embarrassed face. “Well, there is one thing. In the shock of my Lottery result getting lost, I forgot that I’d spent the last of my teen allowance on a necklace for Becca. I wanted her to have a remembrance of all our good times on Teen Level, and I expected to be getting free food all through my Lottery testing, and then have my adult income. When I got to my temporary room here though, the kitchen unit was totally empty, so I’ve got nothing to eat.”
Uncle Jed laughed. “I can certainly help you with that. Phila always has some of the meal deal sandwiches left in the refreshment kiosk at the end of the day. My deputy will be in charge of the park tomorrow morning and afternoon. I’ll buy you enough sandwiches to last you until tomorrow evening when I’m back on duty.”
We headed over to where Phila was closing the shutters on the refreshment kiosk. “Can we have four of your meal deal sandwiches for Eli?” asked Uncle Jed.
“I’ve only got the cheese ones left,” said Phila.
“I like cheese,” I said.
Phila packed sandwiches into a large bag, and handed it to me just as Uncle Jed’s dataview chimed again. He checked the screen and gave a despairing groan.
“My father-in-law has arrived for dinner an hour early, and brought a new girlfriend with him. He’s admitted inviting his three ex-wives to join us for dinner so he can announce his engagement to … To whatever this one’s name is.”
“There’s never a dull moment with your father-in-law,” said Phila cheerfully. “Someone should make a bookette of his life.”
“Someone should drag my father-in-law off to Law Enforcement’s private Level 20, lock him up, and throw away the key,” said Uncle Jed savagely.
“Do you need any more sandwiches to feed all these extra guests, Jed?” asked Phila.
“I think everyone will be too busy arguing to want to eat anything,” said Uncle Jed. “I need to go now. If I’m lucky enough to meet a nosy patrol on my way home, I’ll invite them to come to dinner as well. My father-in-law is so terrified of nosies, that he’d run away screaming at the sight of them.”
I laughed, but Phila shuddered. “You shouldn’t make jokes like that. Just imagine how dreadful it would be to have a nosy walk into your apartment.”
“I’m not joking,” said Uncle Jed. “Right now, I’d prefer to have a nosy in our apartment than my father-in-law!”
Uncle Jed turned to stomp off towards the park exit. I helped Phila finish closing up her kiosk, and then she left too. I was in no hurry to go back to the bare, comfortless temporary room I’d been given, so I stayed in the park to eat one of my sandwiches and listen to the soft night sounds for a while.
Finally, I headed back to the shopping area, and used the downway to go back to Teen Level 50. There weren’t many travellers now, but when I passed through the Level 43 shopping area, I saw the nosy patrol was still standing in the same place as before.
Talking to my uncle, and having something to eat, had cheered me up a little. As I walked through the empty corridors to my temporary room though, the full weight of depression settled on me again, and opening the door of my room made me feel even worse. I’d only spent a few seconds inside it during my first visit, just dumping my bag on the floor, and checking the kitchen unit hopefully for food, before hurrying off to find Uncle Jed. Now I realized that the room was in an even worse state than I’d realized.
The carpet had been ripped up and dumped in the corner of the room. Both the built-in comms system and the wall display unit had been stripped out and were entirely missing. I anxiously checked that the sleep field was still in place, activated it, and was relieved when it began generating its cushion of air. There was more bad news when I tried to shower though, because there was no hot water, and when I undressed and tried to use the sleep field, I discovered the ultimate horror. The sleep field was correctly generating its cushion of air, but that air was supposed to be warm and this was icy cold!
“Waste it!” I yelled at the ceiling.
I tried lying on the cushion of air anyway, but only lasted a couple of minutes before deciding this was a fast way to freeze to death. I ended up getting fully dressed again, folding up the old carpet, and attempting to sleep on that. I spent a seemingly endless time wriggling around trying to get comfortable, before falling into a fitful sleep that only lasted for about fifteen minutes before I was woken up by the sound of a loud conversation in the corridor.
I’d been through a lot today, and now I completely lost my temper. I got to my feet, opened the door, stormed out into the corridor, and saw a girl in a typical teen outfit was arguing with an older, startlingly tall, muscular woman.
“You can’t do this,” said the girl. “You have to let me go back to …”
“Will you please shut up!” I yelled at the pair of them. “I’m trying to get to sleep!”
The woman turned to face me, her right hand in her pocket, and gave me a weirdly unnatural smile. “You’re trying to get to sleep,” she repeated. “Allow me to help you with that.”
She took her right hand from her pocket, bringing out what I thought was an oddly shaped dataview. I only realized it was a gun when she pointed it at me, and the teen girl started screaming.
My brain was numbly refusing to believe this could be happening in our perfectly safe and ordered Hive city, but some deeper survival instinct kicked in, and sent me diving back through the doorway of my room. I was too late though, there was the sound of the gun firing, and I fell on top of the folded carpet, feeling horribly weak.
I’d watched enough entertainment channel thrillers about Hive Defence teams chasing agents from other Hives to know that guns made different sounds when fired on stun setting to kill setting. The complication of the screaming meant I couldn’t work out if that had been the sound of a stun setting or a kill setting. Either way, I needed to close my door, lock it to keep that woman out, and use my dataview to call for help.
I struggled back to my feet, and was staggering towards the door, when I saw the woman come into my room. I heard the gun fire a second time, and then I lost consciousness.
When I regained consciousness, I found myself lying on my face on the filthy carpet. My hands were tied behind me with what felt like rope, and a quick tug of my wrists told me that it was going to be hard to get free. After an instinctive moment of panic, I forced myself to focus on the good side of things. I might be a prisoner and horribly uncomfortable, but I couldn’t have been shot on kill setting because I was alive and not in serious pain. The crucial thing now was to make sure I stayed alive.
I heard the sound of someone moving behind me, and had just decided to pretend I was still unconscious when a voice spoke. “I know you’re awake, Eli.”
That was the voice of the woman who’d shot me. I guessed that she’d seen my arms moving when I tested the rope. What confused me was how she knew my name.
I wriggled onto my side, and saw the woman was sitting on a battered chair. She must have brought that into the room when I was unconscious, because it hadn’t been here earlier. She had two dataviews on her lap, and the very familiar decorations on one of them answered the question of how she knew my name. Like most teens, I’d added some decorations to my dataview, and labelled it with my name and identity code in case it got lost.
The woman thrust my dataview into her pocket, and then tapped at the second dataview, a sedate adult model that had to be her own. “I have a problem,” she said. “You have a problem too. It’s possible that we could work together to solve both our problems.”
There was an urgent, snuffling sound of protest from the corner of the room, and I finally noticed the teen girl was in here as well. She had her hands tied together in front of her, was sitting with her back against the wall, and had some sort of tape stuck over her mouth. When she saw me looking at her, she pulled a desperate face at me. I thought she was trying to warn me that the woman was dangerous, but I’d worked that out for myself when I got shot.
“I’m Katelyn,” said the woman, “and the object in the corner is Maizie. While you were unconscious, I had to give her a lesson on not causing trouble. If she doesn’t keep perfectly still and quiet now, then I’ll give her a harsher lesson.”
Maizie shuffled further into the corner, pulled her knees protectively up against her chest, and bowed her head. Until now, I’d only seen the left side of her face, but her movement revealed that the right side of her face was red and swollen. I winced in sympathy.
“I’ve just been looking up your details on the Lottery system, Eli,” said Katelyn briskly.
I’d been keeping totally silent, paranoidly aware that saying the wrong thing could get me shot again, but now I was startled into asking a question. “How could you access the Lottery system?”
She scowled at me and ignored my question. “Lottery robbed me of my future when it messed up my testing process twenty years ago. Now it’s messed up your future by losing your result in the system. I’m getting my future back now. If you help me, then I can get your future back as well.”
Earlier today, I’d wanted my future back. Right now, I just wanted to get Maizie and me safely far away from Katelyn. Until I managed that, I needed to keep Katelyn happy, so …
“It would be wonderful to get my future back,” I said, in a grovelling voice.
“Then listen while I explain what happened to me and what I plan to do about it,” said Katelyn. “I was born on Law Enforcement’s private Level 20, and spent my childhood there before moving to one of the special Law Enforcement areas of Teen Level. Finally, twenty years ago, I went through Lottery testing. I knew that Lottery always tries to assign those born into Law Enforcement families to work in Law Enforcement themselves. Everyone expected my height and strength to guarantee me a place as one of the blue-uniformed hasties. Instead, Lottery assigned me to be a Level 63 supply specialist in a warehouse holding Law Enforcement equipment.”
Katelyn worked in a warehouse holding Law Enforcement equipment, which explained how she’d got the gun. I made a grim mental note that she might have other specialist Law Enforcement equipment as well.
“I was a little disappointed by my level,” said Katelyn, “but it was less of an issue given that everyone working in Law Enforcement lives on Level 20. My apartment was relatively small, and I had to budget carefully, but I was generally happy. My height and strength were useful in the warehouse, and I found there was something deeply satisfying about keeping all the supplies properly organized, making sure the correct items were handed over, and that immaculate records were kept.”
She smiled. “I especially enjoyed the challenge of demand peaking during the week of Lottery testing. Each year we’d race to keep up with the number of Lottery requests for the equipment used in specialist Law Enforcement tests, and battle to locate extra supplies when our warehouse ran out of an item.”
Katelyn scowled again. “Everything changed a year ago. As teens, we’re all taught that testing every eighteen-year-old in the Hive during one week allows the maximum flexibility for assigning everyone work that they’ll love. There are disadvantages though. During that one week of the year, Lottery makes massive demands on the Hive’s resources. It takes over virtually every community centre on Teen Level to use as a test centre, and calls in hundreds of thousands of people to organize and carry out tests.”
She paused. “Last year, Lottery called me in to act as equipment coordinator for a test centre. I was supposed to be given access to the Lottery systems on equipment supplies, but someone made a mistake and gave me senior supervisor access. I discovered that I could look up anything on the system, anything at all, and couldn’t resist looking up my own Lottery records. I didn’t understand the details of most of them, but everyone knows that each candidate follows their own Lottery testing path, with the results of past tests deciding the future ones they’re given. My records included something called a Lottery path record, and I understood exactly what that said.”
She shouted in outrage. “My Lottery path record said that I’d been robbed! On the morning of the second day of Lottery, I was following the path to becoming a professional athlete. I was thirty seconds too slow on a crucial test though. The person running that test could have let me take it again. Should have let me take that test again. I could have easily done it thirty seconds faster.”
I wasn’t convinced Katelyn could have done that test thirty seconds faster. There were events where the difference between a perfectly average teen and a champion athlete was far less than thirty seconds. I wasn’t even convinced that she’d been on the path to becoming a professional athlete in the first place. Lottery gave some wide-range physical and mental tests to virtually every candidate, so Katelyn could have just been given a test where an outstanding score could put her on the professional athlete path. She obviously wouldn’t react well to me pointing that out though.
“From that moment on, I lived with the knowledge that I should have been imprinted as a professional athlete,” said Katelyn. “I should have had crowds cheering me instead of living as an unknown worker in a warehouse. I should have been accepting trophies instead of organizing supplies. I should have been living on one of the elite top ten levels of the Hive, rather than on Level 20.”
She gave me an expectant look, and I hastily made a sympathetic sound.
“I started planning how I could get back the life that had been stolen from me,” Katelyn continued. “As Lottery approached, I carried out my preparations. I found a convenient area of Teen Level that was empty for major maintenance work. I borrowed a few key items from the warehouse. When Lottery called me in to do the same work again, I just had to start checking the Lottery path records of candidates. I was looking for someone who was doing badly, and someone doing outstandingly well. It was easy to find someone who was doing so badly that they eagerly agreed to help me in exchange for the promise of a stunningly good Lottery result. Finding someone doing outstandingly well was harder, but then I stumbled across her Lottery path record.”
Katelyn stabbed an aggressive forefinger in the direction of Maizie. “That object got lucky in a few music tests, and Lottery rated her a Level 1 Composer. Our test centre wanted someone to escort her to the imprinting centre, help her through the validation process needed to get such a rare imprint, and then take her up to her vast new apartment on Level 1.”
Katelyn laughed joyously. “I made a nauseating speech about how massively honoured I’d be to escort someone so important to the Hive, took Maizie to be imprinted, and then led her into an express lift. She was so busy being ecstatic about her newly imprinted knowledge that she didn’t realize the lift was going down instead of up until we’d nearly reached Teen Level. I told her that I’d had a message from the test centre, saying that we needed to go back and clear up a processing error, but something made her suspicious. Fortunately, the two of us were the only people in the lift, so I just needed to shoot her on stun, and then sneak her through a couple of corridors to this abandoned area.”
She gave a frustrated sigh. “Everything went perfectly until I got to the room where my assistant was waiting. Topaz had claimed she’d do anything at all to come out of Lottery rated Level 1, but she had a major panic attack when I arrived carrying an unconscious Maizie. When Topaz started wailing about changing her mind, I had to dispose of her, so it’s fortunate you’ve turned up to be her replacement.”
Katelyn stood up and moved to stand looming over me. “How would you like to be Level 1, Eli?”
Katelyn was at least as tall and heavily muscled as me, armed with a gun, and I was lying helpless on the ground with my hands tied behind my back. She’d disposed of Topaz for changing her mind about helping her. If I said the wrong thing now, she’d dispose of me as well.
I gazed up at her, and spoke in greedy tones. “I’d love that.”
“And you wouldn’t have a panic attack and change your mind over a little … unpleasantness?”
“If you can really make me Level 1, I’m not changing my mind over anything,” I said firmly. “What do you need me to do?”
“I only need your help because I couldn’t convince an imprinting centre that I’m an eighteen-year-old Lottery candidate,” said Katelyn. “I’ll do all the difficult things myself. First thing tomorrow morning, I’ll use the Lottery system to transfer you to a new test centre. Your old test centre won’t question you being transferred, because they’ll be glad to get rid of an embarrassing problem. I’ll then set your test results to be identical to Maizie’s results, so Lottery automatically allocates you to be a Level 1 Composer as well. We then leave Maizie tied up here, while I take you to be imprinted.”
I could see a lot of problems with that. I assumed that Katelyn would have enough sense not to take me to the same centre that had just imprinted Maizie. Anyone giving even a cursory glance at Maizie’s test results would still see a lot of obvious physical discrepancies though. An even bigger problem was that being given a Level 1 Composer imprint would give me a lot of information about music, but not the skill to compose anything.
“We’ll come back here after that,” continued Katelyn. “I’ll change Maizie’s Lottery result to make her a low level cleaner, assign her to clean your newly allocated Level 1 apartment, and assign myself to be your assistant. We’ll then wait until the middle of the night to take Maizie to your apartment. Once there, the two of us can live in luxury, while we keep Maizie in a locked room to do the actual composing of music.”
There was an angry grunt from Maizie’s direction, but Katelyn ignored her. “What do you think of my plan, Eli?”
I thought that if the imprinting centre failed to notice details like me being twice the weight on my record, and I managed to avoid getting too close to nosy patrols, then the plan might work for long enough to get through the initial stage of Lottery setting up a new eighteen-year-old composer on Level 1. I suspected that Katelyn had another plan for after that. One that involved disposing of me and taking my place as the Level 1 Composer, because she surely wouldn’t want to play the humble role of my assistant for long.
“It’s a brilliant plan,” I said aloud, in a suitably awed voice.
Katelyn gave me a satisfied smile. “Now, I need to go and deal with Topaz’s body. That won’t take long. I chose this location because it was near a boarded-up, disused lift shaft. After Topaz’s body has fallen all the way from Level 50 to Level 100, there shouldn’t be any sign left of how she really died.”
She took the two steps to the door, and was opening it as I called out. “You’ve forgotten to untie me.”
Katelyn laughed. “I’m not risking leaving you alone and untied until after you’ve been imprinted, Eli. Once that’s been done, there’ll be no way for you to change your mind about helping me, because you’ll be as guilty as I am.”
She went out of the door, closed it behind her, and I looked at Maizie. “We have to get out of here before Katelyn comes back. You’ve got your hands tied in front of you. Can you undo my ropes?”
Maizie nodded, and we shuffled closer together. I felt her tugging at the ropes holding my wrists together for what felt like a century. Finally, I was free. The moment I pulled the tape from Maizie’s mouth, she gasped out an urgent sentence.
“Katelyn put a lock on the outside of the door.”
“Waste that!” I rapidly massaged my wrists, and then forced my numb hands to start work on untying Maizie’s ropes.
“Do you think the two of us could fight Katelyn?” Maizie asked hopefully.
“I think we could fight Katelyn if she didn’t have the gun. As things are, we’ll have to crawl through the air vent system to escape.”
Maizie twisted her head round to look at the air vent. “There’s no chance of us getting through that. It isn’t a full-sized inspection hatch. Just a tiny thing.”
“We can’t get through that air vent,” I said, “but someone’s ripped out the wall display next to it. That’s left a gaping hole with just thin boarding behind it. If we can smash our way through that, we’ll be able to get into the vent system.”
I finally felt Maizie’s ropes loosen. She instantly pulled her hands free, we both stood up, and I looked urgently around.
“We need something to … Ah!” I grabbed the chair, and used it to hammer at the boarding.
“You’re making an awful lot of noise,” said Maizie critically.
“I spent my five years on Teen Level living close to here. I know all about the disused lift shaft Katelyn is planning to use to dispose of Topaz’s body. If Katelyn is that far away, then she won’t be able to hear anything we do. If she’s already on her way back, and close enough to hear the noise, then it’s already too late for us to …”
The boarding at the back of the hole came free and fell into the vent behind it with a crash. I pulled myself up into the hole, wriggled through into the darkness of the vent, and turned to help Maizie. I was hugely relieved to see she was already coming through the hole after me. Virtually everywhere in the Hive had at least a low level of lighting whatever the time of day or night, so most people were scared of the dark. I’d been worried that Maizie would refuse to enter the pitch darkness of the vent system, but she was either incredibly courageous or totally desperate. Probably both.
“I know that it’s very dark in here,” I said, “but most of the corridors on Teen Level are built with a standard layout. If we crawl along this vent, then we should reach one of the bigger maintenance crawl ways, and those have motion-triggered lighting.”
“Stop talking and crawl!” Maizie ordered me.
I started crawling, feeling the familiar texture of maintenance mesh under my hands and knees. “Shout if you get left behind, and I’ll come back for you.”
“I’m fine,” gasped Maizie. “How do you know all this stuff about maintenance crawl ways?”
“My uncle is a park keeper. I’ve spent a lot of time helping him out with jobs. You have to get into the maintenance crawl ways over the park ceiling to do things like changing the light fittings for the suns. I’ve done a bit of general exploring on Teen Level as well, so …”
“I don’t need to hear your entire life story,” Maizie interrupted me. “What’s the plan? Where are we going?”
“I’m still thinking that over,” I said.
“You’re an annoying person to rescue,” I said breathlessly. “We either need to reach help ourselves or find a way to call Emergency Services to come and help us. The built-in comms system in that room had been ripped out, so I doubt the other rooms around here have working comms systems either. I’m also assuming Katelyn took your dataview as well as mine.”
There was an exasperated sound from behind me. “If I had a dataview, I’d be calling for help rather than crawling through the vent system after a brainless, over-muscled oaf.”
“You’re a deeply annoying person to rescue. In that case, we need to get clear of this abandoned area, and then find a way out of the crawl ways. The problem is that it’s often easier to find the way into these crawl ways than to find a safe way out, and I’ve never explored the ones in this area.”
Crawling through the vent system was hard work, so I had to gasp for breath before continuing. “Maintenance crawl ways are like a bewildering giant maze. My uncle explained what he knew about the maintenance codes on the walls to me, so I can work out things like which way is east or west, but you often reach dead ends where your only option is going up or down a ladder. Do you think you can manage ladders?”
“Will there be lights?”
I heard Maizie’s voice shake as she asked the question. Of course she was grumpy and criticizing me. The poor girl was utterly terrified.
“There’ll be lights,” I said reassuringly.
“If there are lights, then I can cope with ladders.”
“In that case, we can head east to the area of Teen Level that I know well, and …”
I broke off my sentence, because a light had come on directly ahead of me. “We’ve reached the proper maintenance crawl way with motion-triggered lighting,” I said joyfully. “Things will be much easier now.”
There was a distant crash from somewhere behind me. “No, things are going to be far harder now,” said Maizie grimly. “That sound has to be Katelyn coming into the air vents after us!”
I turned right into the maintenance crawl way, and started scurrying along it on my hands and knees. The motion-activated lights were coming on ahead of me, creating odd reflections in the maintenance mesh floor, and illuminating the dust motes being swept along in the constant air current of the vent system.
“If you can’t keep up, Maizie,” I said, “just tell me. I’ll …”
Maizie’s hand slapped my right foot. “I’m right behind you. Now shut up, and move faster!”
“I can’t move faster without making a lot of noise.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to make more noise than you’re making already.”
“I didn’t think it was possible for you to get more annoying,” I said savagely, “but you seem to be managing it. I suppose it doesn’t matter if Katelyn can hear us moving through the crawl way though. We got into the vent system near the dead-end of a spur, so there was only one way for us to go. Besides, the weird way sounds echo through the vent system makes it virtually impossible to work out where they came from.”
I accelerated to top speed, recklessly clattering my way along the mesh floor of the crawl way. “The crucial thing is to find a hiding place before Katelyn reaches this maintenance crawl way. If we don’t, then the motion-activated lighting will give our position away. She’ll shoot me on kill setting, and take you prisoner again.”
“I’d rather be shot on kill setting than be taken prisoner by Katelyn,” said Maizie. “The way she lost her temper and hit me earlier showed me that being held prisoner by her wouldn’t be living. It would just be a terrifyingly slow and painful way to die. That’s why I followed you into the darkness of the vent system.”
“I understand,” I said softly.
There was silence for a minute after that. I was about to ask if Maizie was still keeping up when she slapped my foot again and gasped out a sentence.
“You missed a side turning.”
“I didn’t miss that side turning,” I gasped back. “Taking the first side turning would be too obvious, and I could tell from the strength of the air currents that it was only another air vent spur rather than a main route. We can’t risk getting ourselves trapped in a dead-end. We have to find a junction with another maintenance crawl way to … Ah, that looks like a more promising junction ahead of us now!”
As we got closer, I saw the junction was a crossway. Even better, when I turned left at the crossway, the motion-activated lights came on to show a shadowy alcove in the distance.
“This is perfect,” I said, in a joyful whisper. “Those alcoves always hold ladders, so Katelyn won’t know whether we’ve gone left, right, straight on, up, or down.”
“Which way are we going?” asked Maizie.
“We’re going up.” I crawled on until I’d nearly reached the alcove, and then shuffled as far to one side of the crawl way as possible. “I need you to squeeze past me now, and go up the ladder first. That way, I can catch you if you fall.”
“Don’t get any ideas if I rub against you when I’m squeezing past,” said Maizie. “You aren’t my type.”
“And I’ve always preferred the cuddly rabbits in parks to the prickly hedgehogs.”
“I don’t believe there are really hedgehogs in parks,” grumbled Maizie. “I’ve never seen one.”
“That’s because hedgehogs usually only come out at night.”
Maizie managed to get past me without any body contact at all, and then studied the alcove and ladder doubtfully. “If I did fall, I can see that ladder goes down to at least Level 53. The lights below that aren’t on, so the ladder could actually go all the way down to Level 100. Can’t we take a side turning instead?”
Waste it! I should never have mentioned the possibility of falling. A confident Maizie was irritating, but a panicking Maizie could get us both killed.
“Our best way to escape Katelyn is to climb that ladder,” I said, in my best coaxing tone. “There’s no need for you to worry about falling. Remember what you said about me being a brainless, over-muscled oaf. It’s going to be impossible for you to fall when I’m totally blocking the way below you.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said Maizie grudgingly. “You’re at least twice my size. Possibly three times my size.”
I was hugely relieved to see her get onto the ladder and start climbing upwards. The moment she was high enough up the ladder, I started following her, but I’d only got half-a-dozen rungs up before she stopped.
“I’ve reached a way into another maintenance crawl way. Do I get off the ladder?”
“You’ve reached a maintenance crawl way on Level 49,” I said. “If Katelyn follows us as far as the crossway, she’s bound to spot the ladder alcove, and may climb up a level or two looking for us. If you can keep climbing as far as Level 46 though, we should be able to hide there in perfect safety.”
There was a moment of silence while Maizie thought that over, and then she started climbing again. I followed her up the ladder, counting the motion-activated lights as we passed them. I was thinking that Maizie was climbing faster now, which must mean she was growing in confidence, when she abruptly stopped.
“I’ve climbed up an awfully long way,” she whispered anxiously, “and I haven’t reached another maintenance crawl way.”
“I’ve been counting the lights, so I know we’re on Level 46,” I reassured her. “The fact we haven’t reached any more maintenance crawl ways means that we’re climbing past something that takes up several levels. It’s probably a park. We just need to climb a bit further to get past it.”
“Exactly how much further?” asked Maizie shakily.
“One more level should be enough.”
“One more level,” she repeated. “Are you absolutely sure it will only be one more level?”
I couldn’t be absolutely sure of anything. These maintenance crawl ways were a bewildering maze, threading their way under, over, and between things like apartments, community centres, and shopping areas. We might not be climbing our way past a park at all, but a whole series of other obstacles. I couldn’t admit that to Maizie though, because I was burningly aware of the need to get her climbing further up the ladder. Katelyn would have reached the maintenance crawl way on Teen Level by now and be searching for us. If she reached the ladder alcove, then she’d just have to look up to see the motion-activated lights shining on us.
I tried stating some reassuringly indisputable facts. “The park on one level always takes up two levels above it to give the extra ceiling height, and one level below it for soil, tree roots, drains and things. That’s a total of four levels, and we’ve already climbed past three, so …”
“Only one more level,” Maizie muttered to herself, and started climbing again.
I followed her upwards, and was hugely relieved when there was a scrabbling sound and she vanished off sideways. A moment later, we were sitting side by side in a maintenance crawl way. A helpful sign on the wall confirmed that we were on Level 45.
“Where do we go now?” asked Maizie.
“We’re staying where we are for a while,” I said. “You need to rest after that climb, and I need to find out if Katelyn has followed us down to the crossway. If we keep perfectly still and quiet, the motion-activated lights will go out up here, and we’ll be able to hear Katelyn if she’s moving around anywhere near us.”
I was pleasantly surprised that Maizie didn’t argue. After we’d been sitting perfectly still for a minute, the motion-activated lights decided that we’d left the area and turned themselves off. I could hear the faint rhythmic sounds of air pumps, and a metallic tapping that was probably something loose being blown about by air currents. Some distant music had to be coming from a room where the soundproofing on the air vent had been damaged rather than from Katelyn. There weren’t any of the distinctive clanks of someone climbing ladders or crawling along maintenance mesh.
“Katelyn isn’t anywhere within sound range of us,” I whispered at last, “and sound carries a long way along these air vents.”
“So what’s the plan now?” Maizie whispered back.
I groaned. “As I told you before, it’s often easier to find ways into these crawl ways than ways out, and I’ve never explored the ones in this area. I was considering heading east to my old home area of Teen Level, where I know half-a-dozen routes out of the crawl ways, but we can’t do that now.”
“It’s true that going back to Teen Level would mean going back down that long ladder,” said Maizie. “Going down should be easier than going up though.”
“It’s not the ladder that’s the problem, but the fact Katelyn followed us into the vent system. I hoped she’d be too scared of the dark to do that, but of course she’s desperate to stop us telling Law Enforcement about her killing Topaz. She must realize they’ll respond by sending dozens of nosy squads to converge on this area and search for her guilty thoughts.”
“Perhaps that’s the reason we can’t hear Katelyn,” said Maizie hopefully. “She could have decided to stop chasing us, abandon her plans to live in luxury on Level 1, and escape before the nosy squads get here.”
“I don’t think anything will make Katelyn stop chasing us,” I said grimly. “She knows that we can tell Law Enforcement her name and profession. If she did manage to escape, then Law Enforcement would send nosy squads to her home, the Lottery test centre where she’s been helping, and the warehouse where she works. Her only option after that would be to hide out somewhere like Level 100.”
I paused. “Katelyn was willing to commit murder to live in Level 1 luxury. I don’t believe she’s going to abandon her plans and run away to live a miserable existence skulking among dusty pipes and tanks in the maintenance areas on Level 100. She’s going to keep chasing us and her dreams to the bitter end.”
Maizie made an unhappy sound. “You’re right. Katelyn won’t stop hunting for us, but surely that means we should do what you said. Head for your home area of Teen Level where you know ways out of the vent system.”
I thought about the easiest way out of the vent system. The one through the air vent into the room where Becca would be peacefully sleeping. It was easy to imagine her waking up, me gabbling a hasty explanation, and using her dataview to call Law Enforcement. It was also easy to imagine Katelyn appearing through the air vent, and how she wouldn’t stop with just shooting me on kill setting. Becca would be the next to die.
“We aren’t going to my home area of Teen Level,” I said aloud. “I’m not risking leading a murderer into corridors packed with defenceless teens. Especially a murderer that’s armed with a gun!”
I firmly interrupted Maizie. “There aren’t any buts on this. I’m not risking Katelyn following us to my home area of Teen Level. That leaves us two options. The first is that I saw a nosy patrol in the shopping area on Level 43 earlier. They were standing right next to the upway. If the nosy patrol is still there, we’d just need to get in telepathic range of the nosy, and they’d help us.”
“We’re on Level 45 now,” said Maizie glumly, “so we’d have to climb another two levels up the ladder.”
“It’s not just a question of climbing two levels up the ladder. It’s especially difficult getting through the vent system near moving stairs, and we’d probably arrive to discover the nosy patrol had left hours ago.”
“So, what’s our second option?”
“I told you that my uncle is a park keeper,” I said eagerly. “I’ve helped him by going into the maintenance crawl ways over the park ceiling to do things like changing the light fittings for the suns. We just need to reach those crawl ways, and I can get us into the park itself. It’s going to be totally deserted this late at night, so we shouldn’t be putting anyone in danger if we just go to the park keeper’s office and call for help.”
“How easy will it be to break into the park keeper’s office?” asked Maizie.
“We don’t have to break in. I know the door code.”
“Knowing the door code helps,” said Maizie, “but … What level is the park on?”
“It’s a Level 41 park,” I admitted, “and I’m afraid we need to go a couple of levels higher to reach the maintenance crawl ways over the park ceiling. I believe this is our best chance though.”
Maizie groaned her acceptance. We both stood up, and the motion-activated lighting instantly responded by coming on.
“Waste these lights!” said Maizie. “I wish we could turn them off. If Katelyn sees the faintest glow coming from an alcove or side turning …”
“Even if we could turn the lights off,” I said sadly, “just think what it would be like groping our way through this maze in absolute darkness.”
“I don’t want to think about that,” snapped Maizie.
She got onto the ladder and started climbing at a speed that showed she’d reached the point of total desperation. I chased after her, counting the number of lights we passed, and watching for any location signs. Finally, I called up to her.
“We need to get off the ladder at the next maintenance crawl way.”
Maizie climbed a few more steps before abruptly disappearing. A moment later, I joined her in what turned out to be a three-way junction between maintenance crawl ways. I stared doubtfully at a sign, before leading the way down one of the crawl ways.
“I think we need to go this way,” I said.
“You think we need to go this way,” Maizie repeated. “Don’t you know where your uncle’s park is?”
“I know exactly where my uncle’s park is,” I said. “The problem is that I’m not sure where we are. Maintenance workers can use their dataviews to look up the codes on signs and get their location, but I don’t have either a dataview or access authorization.”
Maizie made a sound of either contempt or despair, and we kept on crawling. At the next two junctions, she followed me down my choice of crawl way without comment. At the third junction, I went straight on but stopped after a minute.
Maizie sighed impatiently. “We’re hopelessly lost, aren’t we?”
“I actually know exactly where we are. I’ve reached a point where the crawl way slopes dangerously steeply downwards, and that only happens when you’re beside the upway or the downway in a shopping area.”
Maizie gasped. “You mean that we can just follow that slope downwards to reach the nosy patrol on Level 43?”
“We could do that,” I said, “but if we find the nosy patrol has gone then it won’t be easy getting back up here again. Our safest option is to carry on to the park. I know exactly how to get there from here.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I’m totally sure. We just go back to the last junction and turn north.”
We reversed our direction, crawled back to the junction, and I took the turning labelled as heading north. A minute later, we reached a side turning, and I made a triumphant sound.
“We’ve made it to my uncle’s park.”
“How do you know that?” asked Maizie suspiciously.
I pointed at a sign next to the turning. “Because that’s a park grid sign.”
I scurried down the side turning to a vast area where half the crawl way walls were missing. Structural pillars were sticking up through the maintenance mesh beneath us, and then continuing on through the featureless boarding over our heads.
“We’re now in the crawl way area above the park sky,” I said rapidly. “Don’t touch the control boxes. Keep your weight off the large and small light fittings, because we don’t want to damage the suns or stars. The big squares in the maintenance mesh are the inspection hatches that lead down into the park itself. They’re usually kept locked to stop random people sticking their heads up here and messing with the park controls, and I don’t have a key.”
“You could have mentioned that earlier,” said Maizie. “Does that mean we have to smash our way down into the park?”
“No. We just need to find one of the park suns that isn’t working properly. My uncle has tried and failed to fix that sun so many times that he’s given up bothering to lock the nearest inspection hatch.”
I checked the code on the nearest large light fitting. “N1, and we need to find S17.”
I moved rapidly through gaps in the crawl way walls, checking light fittings at intervals and muttering codes to myself. “M4. P8. Q11. R15. S17!”
I glanced around, found the inspection hatch next to the nearest pillar, opened it, and such bright light streamed upwards that the crawl way motion-activated lighting seemed dim in comparison.
“Sun S17 still isn’t going down to moon brightness,” I said sadly. “It’s got to be a control error. Maybe the control system thinks S17 is a …”
Maizie gave me a painful prod in the ribs. “We aren’t here to fix the park suns, Eli. We’re running for our lives. How are we going to get down to the ground? Is there a ladder?”
“I just turn on the handholds for this pillar.” I flicked a switch on the pillar next to me, and watched the handholds slowly extend outwards. As soon as they reached their final position, I started climbing downwards, but paused when my head was still sticking up through the inspection hatch.
“Will you need me to help you climb down, Maizie?”
“No,” said Maizie. “These are the handholds made for skydive competitions, and I’ve played pillar defence.”
I carried on climbing downwards into the warmth of sunlight. “My uncle told me that the handholds were originally made for maintenance workers. They started playing a basic version of skydive, and it gradually evolved to become a professional sport.”
Maizie just grunted a response, and started climbing down the handholds after me. She might have played pillar defence skydive, but she wasn’t wearing a harness now, so I shut up rather than distract her. When I reached the ground, I kept staring up at Maizie in case she got into trouble, but she was moving swiftly and confidently.
I was taking a few steps sideways to get out of Maizie’s way, when something heavy hit me from behind. I fell face forward to the ground, and hands closed on my neck, choking me.
“Nice to meet you again, Eli,” said Katelyn’s voice in my ear.
I instinctively reached behind me to grab at Katelyn’s hands, and then rolled rapidly sideways to try and shake her off me. I ended up on my back, dazzled by the light of sun S17, with the heavy weight of Katelyn on top of me. She’d lost her stranglehold on me though, and I used my hands and feet to throw her sideways.
I thought I was winning the fight, and scrambled to get up, but Katelyn was on her feet impossibly fast. I ended up still on my hands and knees, while Katelyn was standing pointing her gun at me.
“It’s time to dispose of you permanently, Eli,” she said.
I knew I was a dead man, but Maizie was still halfway up the pillar. Every second I delayed Katelyn would increase Maizie’s chances of making it back into the maintenance crawl way and reaching the nosy patrol on Level 43. I prepared to launch myself at Katelyn, but she saw my movement, dodged backwards, and laughed.
“No chance, Eli. No chance at all.”
I saw Katelyn’s finger tighten on the trigger of the gun, but a small figure came flying down from the pillar. Maizie landed on Katelyn’s shoulder, and knocked the gun from her hand so it tumbled towards me.
I pounced on the gun and pointed it at Katelyn. “Surrender or I’ll shoot.”
She laughed again. “That gun’s on kill setting, Eli. You don’t have the courage to use it.”
Katelyn brushed Maizie aside like an annoying fly, and took a step towards me. I’d lost one fight with Katelyn already, and knew I wouldn’t win another. It was a choice between her life and the lives of Maizie and me, so I fired the gun.
I was expecting to hear the sound of a gun on kill setting, and I did. I was expecting to see Katelyn fall to the ground either dead or wounded, but she just smiled at me.
“Congratulations, Eli,” she said. “You’ve passed your final Lottery test.”
“Congratulations,” Maizie happily echoed her.
“What?” I stared at Katelyn, then at Maizie, then back at Katelyn again. “This was a Lottery test? All of it? Including my details getting stuck in the optimization stage of Lottery?”
“Yes.” Katelyn took a small object from her pocket and put it into her ear. “Katelyn back on comms now. Test team will gather at the main park entrance.”
Maizie was putting something into her ear too. “The amazing Maizie is also back on comms.”
I was still staring at Katelyn. “You didn’t really kidnap Maizie. Well, of course you didn’t. Our Hive is a perfectly safe place. People don’t get kidnapped. You did genuinely shoot me though. In fact, you shot me twice!”
“I only shot you on a low level stun setting,” said Katelyn cheerfully. “You’re perfectly healthy, so that wasn’t going to harm you. While you were unconscious, we changed the real gun for a fake one that just made special effect noises.”
“But … Why go to these lengths for a Lottery test?”
“A very special candidate was discovered on the second day of Lottery,” said Katelyn. “That triggered Lottery into selecting potential members for a new, high-status unit that technically belongs to Law Enforcement though its role could equally be described as Hive Defence.”
I frowned. “Law Enforcement.”
“Will your family have a problem with you joining Law Enforcement?” asked Katelyn.
“They’ll be surprised,” I said. “I’m surprised myself, but … I don’t think there’ll be a problem.”
Katelyn nodded. “There will initially be twenty vacancies for members of that unit’s Alpha Strike team. Later this year, there will be another twenty vacancies for the Beta Strike team. Today, Lottery selected seventy potential candidates for those vacancies including you. It will select about another hundred and thirty tomorrow. We need plenty of additional candidates to allow for rejections, other vacancies, and to fill roles with overlapping requirements.”
Lottery had chosen me as a potential Strike team member for a new high-status unit. That was probably good news, but …
“I’ve never heard of a Strike team,” I said anxiously. “What do they do?”
Katelyn smiled. “Once you’re imprinted, you’ll know what a Strike team does, and exactly how they do it. For now, I’ll just explain that our Hive is an almost perfectly safe place. Sometimes innocent people get into dangerous situations though, and a Strike team goes in to save their lives. Doing that involves rapidly adjusting to new and potentially deadly situations, and taking risks to protect the innocent from the guilty. Basically doing exactly what you just did to rescue Maizie.”
I felt an odd breathless sensation. The activity leaders on Teen Level had kept telling me that Lottery would find me work that suited me perfectly, and this sounded like all my dreams coming true. I wasn’t celebrating though, but panicking and doing frantic mental calculations.
Only twenty initial vacancies, and twenty more later on. That meant forty in total. Lottery had already selected seventy candidates and there’d be another one hundred and thirty tomorrow. Two hundred of us competing for forty vacancies!
“What are my chances of getting one of the forty vacancies?” I asked urgently.
Katelyn’s smile widened. “Very good indeed. We don’t give this final test to all the two hundred Strike team candidates, Eli. Most of them finish their testing and are told they are being given an imprint that covers several positions, the most demanding and sought after of those positions being Strike team member. Only those candidates with the highest scores continue to do this test. Candidates who aren’t just bound to be first choice selections for the first twenty vacancies, but are being considered for the imprint that allows them the possibility of one day progressing to Strike team leader.”
She paused. “We have to be extremely careful who we select for that imprint because it includes a lot of information on Hive security precautions. The most experienced of the similar high-status units has the job of carrying out the final testing of Strike team leader candidates. We deliberately put the candidates under the maximum possible pressure, by sending them to get their Lottery result, only to give them the shattering news that a system failure means their details won’t be processed until days after every one of over a million other eighteen-year-olds.”
She paused. “Any Strike team leader candidate is intelligent enough to immediately realize that’s going to badly damage their chance of a good result. We then send each candidate to a group of empty corridors that are deliberately chosen to be near their home area of Teen Level. They’re given a half-wrecked room, with an empty kitchen unit, no hot water, and as the final sadistic touch the sleep field has been altered to make the air cushion freezing cold. They’re bound to be angry at the cruel injustice of their situation.”
“I was bitterly angry,” I admitted. “You wanted me to feel that way?”
Katelyn smiled. “Oh yes. We needed to make absolutely sure that if you were ever going to lose control and lash out at random people, it would be during our test. The first part of the test was about discretion, loyalty, and judgement. You weren’t just feeling angry, but also hungry, so you needed to go and get some food. If you’d immediately run back to your home area, and told your grievances to every teen in sight, you’d have failed the test. You limited yourself to explaining your problem to a single person though. An uncle who you knew was both trustworthy and in a position to help you.”
“But …” I tugged at my hair. “How do you know that I talked to my uncle?”
“While you were on the way to your temporary room, our Tactical team reviewed your teen record,” said Katelyn. “They were especially interested by the large number of comments about rule breaking and missing activity sessions.”
I felt myself blushing. “I realize my record looks bad, but …”
“I’m sure it looked exactly like my own teen record,” said Katelyn. “I’m a Strike team leader myself.”
“You lead a Strike team?” I gazed at her in awe.
“Our Tactical team predicted that you’d either approach your uncle or your teen girlfriend,” said Katelyn. “Probably your uncle, because he was obviously better placed to provide you with food. We arranged for the lifts nearest your temporary room to be out of order, stationed one nosy patrol near your girlfriend’s corridor, and another patrol next to the upway on Level 43.”
She paused. “The nosy patrol on Level 43 confirmed you were heading to the park, so we moved the nosy patrol from near your girlfriend’s corridor to a position where they could intercept your uncle on his way home. The nosy confirmed what you’d told your uncle, and said something suitably enigmatic about the Hive knowing best.”
“Did my uncle invite the nosy to dinner?”
Katelyn gave me a bewildered look. “Why the waste would your uncle invite a nosy to dinner?”
“It’s a long story involving my uncle’s father-in-law.”
“Sadly, I’ve only got a few minutes to give you the orientation talk,” said Katelyn, “so we need to move on rapidly. Lottery virtually always finds Strike team leader candidates on the third day. It’s a high-priority profession, so there are relatively few diversions on the Lottery path for those who keep passing the tests. Lottery found ten candidates for us to test this year, and two of them failed the first stage of the test, so we’re currently working our way through the remaining eight of you.”
She grinned at me. “The second stage of the test is based on a real-life case, and centres on saving a helpless hostage. In this case, saving Maizie. You’d been unjustly robbed of your own chance at Lottery success, and an evil murderer offered you the chance to steal Maizie’s Level 1 result. We’d be seriously worried if Lottery made the mistake of selecting a Strike team leader candidate who genuinely tried to steal Maizie’s result, but any candidate with sense should make a pretence of agreeing. After that, the standard failure and success criteria are simple.”
She paused. “Maizie had her crystal comms unit in her pocket set to transmit during the entire test. Our test team was listening to every word you said, so we know that you worked out most of the failure and success criteria for yourself. You fail if you can’t escape the room, abandon Maizie to save yourself, or lead the evil murderer into an area full of defenceless people. You succeed if you get Maizie to the nosy patrol on Level 43, find a way to call Emergency Services, do sufficiently well in combat for us to allow you to get the gun and shoot me, or find a more creative way to take me out of action.”
I was urgently rethinking the past events. “So, Maizie was told to be as annoying as possible to tempt me to abandon her.”
Katelyn laughed. “We didn’t have to tell Maizie to be annoying. We use an experienced Strike team leader to play the evil murderer, so the candidates can’t seriously injure them in combat. We need to use someone to play the hostage who looks convincing as an eighteen-year-old, appears deceptively vulnerable, but is also perfectly capable of taking down our candidates in unarmed combat if they lose their temper and attack her.”
She patted Maizie on the shoulder. “Maizie came out of Lottery last year, is our scout in training, and perfect for the role. However, she’s naturally contemptuous of anyone who can’t move through the vent system as swiftly and silently as she can. You were the fifth test candidate rescuing her, so she was losing patience with playing the helpless hostage.”
“The first two candidates weren’t bad,” said Maizie judiciously, “but then we had two total disasters before you, Eli.”
Katelyn looked amused. “Those two weren’t total disasters, Maizie. They proved they were willing to sacrifice their lives to save you. However, we prefer potential Strike team leaders to keep both themselves and the hostage alive.”
She paused. “Eli, I’m afraid our team needs to move on to put candidate number six through the second stage test. One of our Liaison team will arrive in a minute to take you to be imprinted. Maizie, don’t forget to clean off your fake injuries, so you don’t scare any late-night travellers we meet on the express belt.”
I watched in awe as Maizie pulled at the side of her face, and the swelling peeled off to show she was totally uninjured beneath it. “I’m getting so tired of messing around with fake injuries,” she grumbled.
Katelyn gave me an expectant look. “Any last questions before we go, Eli?”
I shook my head. “No. I think I understand what happened now.”
She looked amused. “So, you aren’t interested in knowing what level Lottery has rated you?”
I blinked. “I’d forgotten about that, but I suppose that being imprinted as a potential Strike team leader must mean I’m fairly high level.”
“Eli, you are now Level 1,” said Katelyn.
She and Maizie turned and walked off into the darkness. I was left standing alone under the sunlight of sun S17. I was Level 1!
“High up!” I shouted my joy at the sleeping park.
© 2022 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.
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