In which the Prospective Jurors are ushered into the vault to face the first challenge.
Men were to go to the right, women to the left. I followed the yellow stripe on the floor into a changing room lined with parallel rows of lockers. These were of recent design, locked biometrically and made of an almost indestructible polymer that had been developed by State Solutions only the year before—an innovation I am proud to admit I had played a small part in.
I walked the rows. I was certain Masterson knew more than he was letting on and it would behoove me to keep an eye on him. I found him at the far end of a nearby row, already divested of his suit. I had been right of course: his body had been augmented with top of the line protein-infused muscles; they moved beneath skin so white as to almost be translucent.
I chose a locker opposite him. Masterson was taking great pains to fold and hang his suit and did not notice—or ignored—my approach so I went about my own preparations. There was no latch, only an LDD plate. A soft depression of the fingertips would do it. But it did not open. I passed my palm over it, and then, when that effected nothing, ran my hands over every gira of the locker’s surface. Again, no response. I pried my eyelids and gazed into the plate. Nothing.
“Excuse me,” I said, a bit too loudly, I confess. It was the excitement of the moment, though my face suddenly felt hot.
“Yes, Alan?” Masterson was putting on the ClingForm™ regulation uniform that he had found in the locker, a shiny silver suit that covered the wearer from head to foot and clung to the physique: a trick, of course, of the physio-morphic polymers of which it was made.
“I can’t quite figure out how to get this open.”
A violent cursing fit came from the row next to us, accompanied by shuddering blows. The lockers behind Masterson shook from the force.
“Evidently you’re not the only one,” Masterson chuckled. He finished pulling his jumpsuit on and came to my assistance. “You’ve got to depress the pad, here, with your thumb. Now breathe into the lock cylinder. The Mainframe will remember the acid/basal content of your saliva. Apparently everyone has their own degree of bad breath: something that State Solutions has been able to exploit—for the betterment of the Citizenry, of course.”
I mumbled thanks—purely out of habit, I must admit—and did as he suggested. But his mocking solicitude rankled, and so I reminded him that Aspirometers had been available in our Level for years. I knew of the devices, of course. I was just surprised to find them being used in the Selection Complex, which was, of course, open to the general Citizenry.
He said nothing and in this silence, what had meant to be a remonstration became nothing more than the petulant protest of a child. The mien of the Adjudicator clung to him like a scent. I would know. It was among such men I had labored for attention in my developing years. My face grew hotter.
The locker popped open. Inside were my own ClingForm™ jumpsuit, treaded footwear and a pair of dark goggles. The jumpsuit was entirely silver but for a dull gray breastplate one gira by half. I pressed my thumb against it and my name and holographic likeness appeared, summarily conjured from the Æthernet™.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Alan,” Masterson said, his voice almost in my ear so close was one locker to the other. “But that is the last time you’ll be getting help—from me or anyone,” he smiled this time with no hint of cynicism. “You’re not in the Upper Levels anymore.”
He stood for a moment as if to say something more but then, as I gave no rejoinder, left.
I pulled the jumpsuit on and tried the goggles, which—at least for now—were entirely opaque. I hung them around my neck. I assumed they performed some function and would be needed later. I closed the locker and took a deep breath. I was ready to join the other Potential Jurors.
As I passed the row from which the invectives had issued, I could not help but venture a look. I was curious to see how the struggle with the locker had resolved. There a large man whose musculature had been obscenely modified—evidently with no regard for aesthetics—stood on one leg. Though he had managed to open the locker he was now beset by the difficulty of getting his massive leg into the ClingForm™ trousers. The material is immensely strong and incredibly light. It resisted each brutal thrust of his elephantine limb.
I had not liked Masterson’s warning against seeking—or providing—assistance. Was their no gentlemanly quarter to be given, even before the sport had begun?
“Give it a moment,” I offered. “ClingForm™ adapts to one’s physique, but it requires a moment.”
The giant ceased his efforts and turned empty, slate blue eyes on me: “Fuck you, queer.”
Perhaps Masterson had been right after all. In uncertain times, any offer of assistance must, of necessity, be viewed with a degree of skepticism.
A dais of steps led me from the changing room and into the immense chamber where the first stage of the Selection Process would be held. Walls were white, the ceiling was white, and the floor—white as well—rose steadily in an arc that, once reaching its apogee, sloped downwards to the far side. There was no exit to be seen, only a ladder of iron that reached from the center of the room to the ceiling: I estimated a five-meter climb.
My fellow Prospective Jurors poured from both changing rooms, jostling as they negotiated the steps into the chamber in a wave of silver. I looked for Masterson, but as all of us were similarly bedecked, finding him proved difficult.
It wasn’t long however, before I saw a lean figure pulling through the throng, walking with the same measured confidence that had so made an impression on me earlier. It had to be my man. I took note of his position, anticipating that his actions would prove a model for my own.
Though Citizens have become inured to the teeming ruck of humanity, there are still times when the sheer crush of bodies arouses our most primal impulse. In the waiting room, I had felt its shadow. Now in this silent chamber, with walls so white and bare that they defied estimation of distance, with the lone ladder rising to meet a cloud white vault, the Animal stirred once again. Stripped of Digital Extensions and reduced to our biological meme, we waited—we who are stupefied by a colossal singularity of purpose—for someone to tell us what to do.
But, as Masterson had presaged, the time for directives was over.
I looked to where he was standing. Many of the other Prospective Jurors shuffled here and there without purpose or plan. He seemingly did the same, yet to the discerning eye one could deduce that his amblings were indeed, not random. Instead, each step invariably brought him closer to the vanguard. Soon he was but a single step behind the farthest venturing Prospective Juror.
I guessed something would happen, and soon and so strode down the stairs and pushed my way without subtlety towards the front.
My suspicions were soon rewarded. The screech of metal against metal pierced the still air. A rumbling followed. As one we turned and watched as the wall behind us, steps and all, lifted from the floor. The few Potential Jurors still milling on them leapt down to the chamber floor or instinctively tried to flee back into the changing rooms. But those doors had slid shut: There was no going back. In a panic they tumbled down to join the rest of us as the black seam between the floor and rear wall widened. Struts unfolded like cavehopper legs in the darkness beneath.
I tore my eyes from this spectacle, and when I had turned back the lone figure I now knew for certain to be Masterson was sprinting full bore up the shallow incline and toward the ladder. I felt a strange sense of betrayal: I doubted he had even turned at the cacophonous disjunction. He knew something the rest of us did not: a breach of sportsmanship that was by all accounts unforgiveable.
Neither did he pause when, in sync with the deafening grind of gears, the very floor beneath us lurched, suddenly shifting a half meter backwards before coming to a standstill. But relief is ever only temporary; one second later, and the floor began to roll again, now without pause, slowly yet inexorably toward the deepening gap behind.
Some had fallen to their knees. The man next to me was on all fours. I reached down to help him to his feet, but he would not budge. Terror had riveted him in place. He, like me, had apprehended what terrible mechanism was in effect.
The sphere—for that was what we stood upon—was rotating ever more quickly into the dark seam behind us.
The first Prospective Juror to be disqualified that day howled as gravity took hold of her and she skittered down the orb’s smooth surface to disappear in the gloom.