In which Goodson Grimmer takes advantage of the depredations of his fellows to escape the black capsule and continue his pursuit of Mr. Masterson.
The room I entered was dark. Those of us who had passed the initial qualifier wasted little energy in celebration. We huddled against the walls and our ClingForm™ jumpsuits, though touted by State Solutions for odor impermeability, could not quite hide the acrid scent of terror.
The last Prospective Juror popped her head through the hatch. She blinked solemnly as her eyes adjusted to the dark. Illumination from beneath lit her chin and brow and for a moment her head appeared some ghostly decapitation, hovering in a beam of light. No one helped her as she pulled herself wearily in.
The rumbling from below had ceased and darkness enveloped us as the hatch shut with a clang. After the thunderous rolling, the shrieking of the axle and struts, and the wails of disqualified participants, the silence we sat in was palpable, punctuated only by the ragged breathing of those remaining and a smatterings of muttered prayers.
I felt for the wall of this new room and upon finding it, slid to the base. I had to rest for a minute, though it cost me precious time. Haste without purpose would avail me nothing. I closed my eyes; opened them. They were indeed adjusting to the dark, though it was darkness so absolute that I could barely register when my eyes were open. I looked to my right, then my left. I could make out the slightest outline of a body: the shoulders, head, the face…. But was the face turned towards me? A shiver of cold shot through me and I could not shake the feeling that the person beside me was staring at me, raking me up and down with eyes unblinded. And where his eyes should be, was there not a subtle glint, like coins in a river or stars in a well?
I felt a hand on my throat, reaching, grabbing… to throttle me? No… they were probing for the goggles that hung from my neck! I shoved my hand out and grabbed the Prospective Juror’s fingers, twisting them, and was rewarded with a groan of pain. The hand shrank away. My assailant melted into the blackness.
How could I have been so stupid?
I fumbled for the goggle straps and put them on as quickly as possible. The room sprang into existence in shimmering greens and blacks. Before me a Prospective Juror sat rocking, his hands clasped about his knees. Another rolled on the ground in mute despair. Some waved invisible hands before their faces; others groped in the darkness, caressing the pitch like coral polyps combing the Reservoirs for food.
A hand brushed my arm. A Prospective Juror squatted down next to me. He put a finger to his mouth and then mimed a snatching movement with his hands. Then he pointed at the goggles hanging from the neck of the rolling man. I pushed him away: such chicanery was not worthy of my Level.
But that was just the half of it. The truth was that I was enraptured by that beautiful silent pageant. How strangely exhilarating it felt to watch my fellow Prospective Juror’s flounder in the dark, the hopelessness they held in their hearts worn nakedly upon their faces.
Such a raw display of human emotion was… magnificent. It could never have happened in the streamlined efficiency that defined our lives outside. For a long moment, I forgot all about the Jury Selection, transfixed in this unveiling of the masquerade.
A slow surge of bodies toward the center of the room aroused my attention. As by osmosis, our ranks were splitting in two. Those still blinded rocked and trembled at the periphery, while those who had donned the eyewear drifted to the middle of the room and from there, coldly assessed the misfortunate.
But I was growing anxious; the contest was by no means over. Let these others stand mesmerized. I would be gone.
There had to be another exit from this new room. I scanned every inch of the curvilinear chamber but found nothing. I looked around a second time more slowly. This time I noticed a block of negative space recessed into the wall which I had not noticed at first, but the perfect symmetry of its dimensions, under closer scrutiny, betrayed the hand of man. I squinted. It was a square of approximately one hath, a meter and a half above the floor. I marveled at the ingeniousness of its design. As it was off the ground, those sitting at the base could not stumble upon it by chance. But my vigilance had been rewarded: Now was my chance to take the lead.
Unless Masterson had already found it.
Even as the thought came, I knew with certainty that he was already gone. I was beginning to harbor the suspicion that Mr. Alistair Masterson didn’t need to find anything in the Forum, that he had been here before, somehow gone through the Selection already. But how? And why? A Citizen was afforded only one opportunity in their lifetime. If he had participated before, how could he have managed to infiltrate anew?
That he had somehow been able to deceive the system made a mockery of it as surely as the attempts of Corporate Interests to win a seat through their genetically enhanced monstrosities did. It angered me to no end. And yet, anger had always been a marvelous motivator: we would see who would prevail.
I walked towards what I was certain would prove an exit, carefully avoiding those huddled on the ground or against the wall. But with each step, the heads of those Potential Jurors who could see in this obscurity swiveled, as if possessed of one mind, to track my passage. What power held them in such unity? Perhaps I would never know, but what was certain was that if I took flight at that moment, they would of a certain take note of my means of escape. I shrank against the wall, slumping down, as though defeated in spirit.
My ruse worked and, when they had ceased paying attention, I slowly ran my hand to the edge of the square. It met no resistance. An almost imperceptible breeze blew out. Slowly, slowly, so as to attract no attention, I assumed a crouching position and sniffed at the air issuing forth. I heard a faint shuffling within. Was the sound fading or drawing nigh? A few seconds of listening confirmed what my instinct had already presumed: It was Masterson, slithering through the duct.
And I would follow.
At the precise moment of this revelation, a discordance swept the room: a high pitched keening rose to fill the stifling air. Soon, it swooped, like a bird of prey, and dissolved into breathless sobs. A woman was weeping, tapping upon a reservoir of despair so wretched and virulent that in only a few moments others had joined in. Soon a dreadful murmur arose from those Prospective Jurors who, in losing their sight, had lost all composure.
I would stay focused; their desperation need not disconcert me, nor keep me from my purpose. My only reason for being here, in this place, was to win selection to the Jury. These others who now wept and shivered should have asked themselves: “For what purpose have these goggles been provided? There must be a reason, just as there is a reason for everything the State does.” But no: this dross from the Middle and Lower Levels had dropped the ball as was their wont and now waited pathetically for someone to save them, mewling like the lost beasts who wandered the chasms betwixt the reservoirs and mining settlements.
I braced my hands on the inside and, as quietly as I could, hoisted myself up and into the duct. I looked back one last time. Unsurprisingly, those Potential Jurors who had had the presence of mind to don their eyewear were sniping at those who had not, striking them down in their blindness and ripping the paraphernalia from their necks and hands. The moaning and sobbing was now cut by peals of laughter.
Let them fight amongst themselves I thought. Let them waste precious time harrying each other. The more they labored, the farther away I would get.
I felt no remorse this time leaving the weakened and crippled to the assaults of the others. Had roles been reversed, they would have done the same. Every Citizen knows these things.