In which the first of the Prospective Jurors are disqualified– with horrible finality.
All hell broke loose. Chaos reigned. A scene plucked straight from the Judeo-Christo-Brahmanic Pholio™ was made manifest there on that uncertain ground.
The paralytic man clung white-knuckled to my arm and would not let go. Such a cumbrance could only sabotage my chances at Selection, and so I prized his fingers off my arm, all the while offering a curt apology, which was lost in the screams and footfalls of out fellow participants. I would not turn to face this man again, but I have no doubt that fear kept him as he was, prostate before his monumental inadequacy. Such is the lot of those who do not take the time to prepare both mentally and physically for the rigors of Jury Selection.
Masterson bounded easily over the milling earth. No one was within ten haths of him. He reached the ladder in record time and, with one deft leap, caught its rungs.
I had spent considerable time training and my wife—bless her heart—had been my true second, assisting me in the exhaustive application process. Together we had deduced just how challenging each stage in the qualifier might be and planned accordingly.
But these other participants, running in a fat herd, their flabby bodies flopping along, were fast becoming victims of their own incompetence. They ran awkwardly, slipping often and struggling to regain their feet. I watched a man, easily in excess of the State mandated 90 kg, crumple to the ground as one leg snapped beneath him. His initial blubbering disbelief quickly soared to a blood-curdling howl that mirrored the trajectory of agony from ruined limb to brain. He begged those around him for help. But none came.
The floor was gaining speed, gradually but perceptibly. In order to maintain balance, I fixed my eyes on the ladder—a trick I had practiced on other moving surfaces—and ignored the pandemonium around me. Masterson had reached the top and was laboring to open a circular hatch imbedded in the stone. The other fastest participants had only just reached the lowest rungs when he flung it upwards and slipped through into a room above.
Those at the ladder’s base had to run just to stay still and, in leaping for the bars, risked collision with one another. Some fell stunned and were carried away. Others recovered to try again.
The giant I had earlier spoken with loped to the base of the ladder and, launching over the others’ heads with inhuman grace, caught hold. For a moment it looked as though he were going to follow Masterson, but bloodlust must have gotten the better of him for he stopped and, with a savage grin visible even from my vantage, began to stomp down on the heads of those beneath. I had seen such bloodlust in other genetic crossbreeds. This was most likely a Corporate Product, augmented with simian DNA. Such imposters were supposed to be identified under pre-Selection scrutiny but were not always discovered.
The first of the goliath’s victims fell to the ground to be swept away as flotsam in a rill. Other bodies followed. A man whose uncontrollable twitching indicated a broken back drifted by me and towards assured Disqualification. I leapt over each and every one, smartly recovering my stride. If anyone deserved Selection, it was I.
Despite the increasing speed of the sphere, I was gaining ground. The ersatz obstacle course forced me to focus on the task at hand, but what I would do when I reached the ladder was of more than passing concern. The giant still held the ladder, and his wrath towards those attempting to climb it was not inconsiderable.
Fortunately, the stalemate resolved itself before my arrival. A Prospective Juror managed to grab hold of one of the brute’s legs and in no time a concatenation of bodies had formed. From each huge limb dangled a burden of five or six people, and though the giant held on, it was only a matter of time.
The situation was finally decided when Masterson himself, no doubt watching the spectacle from above, stuck his foot through and hammered at the giant’s head. Gene-spliced muscle is notoriously insolvent. Though State Engineers have done their utmost to replicate the ply of biological tissue, there is fragility in its construction as with most mimetic material. After five or six swift kicks, one of the grotesquerie’s arms ripped from its socket and he fell, a dozen Prospective Jurors plummeting with him.
This fresh tangle of bodies soon swept towards me, but my hours of practice at the L’Academie Physique proved its worth, and I evaded them easily, even the brute, whose flailing arm sought to bring me down. Despite its imminent disqualification and the jet of blood pulsing from the sundered shoulder, the grotesquerie’s slate blue eyes were vacant, empty as the measureless caverns.
The clutch of Potential Jurors at the base of the ladder was thinning out. Those remaining no longer had the energy to contend against one another as well as with the relentless rotation of the orb. In something resembling a queue we took turns leaping onto the ladder. In a fit of fancy quite at odds with the gravity of the situation, I imagined myself one of the characters in the books I had read as a child: Barbarians who had run and jumped onto the Shinkensen of old, before such crude vehicles had been replaced by their modern analogues: the unmanned torpedoes that zipped at the speed of sound, in endless night, through the empty tunnels of the State.
When it came my turn I took no chances. Still running, I methodically clamped one and then the other hand onto the same rung. I then transferred my weight all at once from my legs to my arms.
My feet dragged momentarily on the ground and I had just put one foot on the lowest rung, when a sudden force yanked at my free leg; a woman in falling had caught hold. Her body slithered on the sphere’s glassy surface. Intermittently she was able to right herself and take a few steps, but invariably she lost her footing again and with each fall, she threatened to pull me from the ladder.
I looked down at her and, in the intimate space between seconds, memorized her face. She was neither old nor young. Her mouth was creased at the sides: the marks of youthful pride that over the years had eroded to a constrained despair. In ordinary life she would be a semi-autonomous woman of the Mid Levels who spent lonely evenings training for the Selection. Too poor to afford any State Solutions other than the usual DigitalEx™, she had no resources to offset the march of time. She was undoubtedly childless: no mother in her right mind would enter the Selection Process. It was here that her hopes of escaping days of endless drudgery and isolation would be dashed or rewarded.
In ordinary life she would not even have made the effort to meet my eyes. But present circumstances demanded bolder interaction. The expression she now wore countenanced desperation, muted terror, and an appeal—a naked appeal beneath naked providence—to my humanity.
A jolt of pain went through my fingers as another Prospective Juror tromped on them on his way to the top. The pain awakened me, shattering all fantasies of compunction.
The lesson was amply apparent: there could be no pause in ascension. I pitied this woman, I truly did, but at that moment compassion had to be deferred, else I be disqualified like the others.
As had happened to the giant a train soon formed in my wake. Another Prospective Juror, having fallen, grasped hold of my stowaway. The jumpsuits were nearly frictionless; now two bodies skated on the floor, supported only by my tenuous grip.
I turned a rueful gaze down on the woman. No doubt she saw the remorse in my eyes, but—and here I must be honest—remorse tempered with ironclad resolve. Had the situation been different, I would have extended a hand.
Her pride remained intact. She didn’t force my hand. Instead, she let go freely. The two of them whisked away down the graded floor and into the void, the thrumming sphere mercifully overtopping their screams.
I had done nothing wrong. No one would blame me. I was destined for selection. She would have done the same in my place.
I climbed the ladder and slid through the hatch.