In which Goodson Alan Grimmer narrowly avoids perdition–and is unexpectedly reunited with his rival.
I had gone on for no more than a minute when the duct began to ring with the sound of feet and hands slapping its sides. The contest had begun again and in earnest. The aggressor Prospective Jurors must have lost interest in the harassment of the meek and now, in full frenzy, they shuffled after me, making no attempt to hide the sounds of their passage. The racket insured that it wouldn’t be long before those left blind discovered the exit. Oh the stupidity! I entertained the idea of lying in wait and lashing out at my pursuers, raining blows on their idiot polystyrene craniums, I, who had always seen physical force as the crudest of tools.
But no. As gratifying as it might be, embroiling in useless conflict would not help me win my goal.
I moved faster. The din of the mad race echoed immense and inhuman within the confines, no longer resembling the efforts of men and women. The slick ClingForm™ suits glided against the surface and, in doing so, created a slithering sound that, when multiplied by fifty filled the space with a thundering chitinoid rush. Were human beings capable of such sounds? I imagined myself Freidrich of the Abyss, who had fled the depredations of the Light, pursued by the Founding Fathers. His resolve would be my model.
I had to stoop. At times I crawled on all fours, which proved much too slow. I tried squatting and thrusting my feet out before me, but this required too much exertion and time. Luckily, I soon stumbled—literally—upon another means of propulsion. Perspiration on my palms caused me to lose my grip on the wall and, in falling, I inadvertently spun and landed on my back. The force of my fall, coupled with the almost frictionless material of my uniform propelled me forward a few haths. I lay on my back for a moment as my discovery sank in. What genius! With my feet pushing on the floor and my arms pulling on the sides, I was able to row forward, like an oarsman in a boat.
That my position kept me from seeing what lay ahead was disconcerting, but it was worth its currency in speed: I could hear my pursuers drawing ever closer. The strongest no doubt snatched and grappled with each other as they strove for position. It was then that I understood how integral this culling was to the Process. What Citizen would willingly put themselves at the mercy of one too weak to merit selection?
My peculiar means of mobility preserved my lead—of this I have no doubt—and in that it necessitated that I keep my eyes predominantly on the duct’s ceiling, I made a chance, but inestimably fortuitous, discovery. A few minutes along, there, a narrow crack just large enough for a person to squeeze through, was set into the ceiling.
I stood and stuck my head in: a secret shaft! Inside, the crack widened by way of a platform about a hath deeper than what was visible from below. The edge was beveled so that the goggles, which conveyed stark gradations of space, would not catch it.
The riot was growing closer by the second. Should I risk this new passage or continue on? And even if I were to take it, how would I ascend? Except for the platform—which I could easily step on to escape the rush of bodies below—this chimney was as featureless as the duct it joined.
I had prepared, of course, for every eventuality, as was the wont of my House, which, as Masterson had rightly assumed, was of not insignificant repute: A chance to join the jury comes once or not at all. Should not the beggar build himself for the betterment of the system, as the saying goes? For such as I, daring-do was the only option.
The footwear we had been given provided excellent traction; they would brace me easily on the one side. It was the other side that posed a problem. My jumpsuit was too slick and my hands too sweaty to gain purchase on the smooth surface. I tried wiping my hands on my trousers, but ClingForm™ has no capacity for absorption. The sweat smeared.
I would have to be faster, cleverer, if I hoped to survi… to pass this stage. I imagined my two children and beloved wife—who had helped me so diligently to prepare—at home, waiting in intense anticipation for the selection outcome. I would make them proud. Them and my father, who, if truth be told, had never had much to say about any of my endeavors. Not that I expected empty approbation or the stupid flattery that lulls the ordinary Citizen into disproportionate estimation of their own meager abilities. Of course not. But perhaps something…. In any case, neither he nor his cronies would be able to ignore this triumph. For once he would be able to mention me in more than dismissive terms over lunch in the gilded flats, in the Echelons.
But enough fantasizing. I must stay in the moment, for competition draws near.
I stripped the vest and turned it inside out. ClingForm’s interior is the exact opposite of its exterior, gripping whatever it comes into contact with, before my skin, now the walls of the chute. I had climbed but a few haths in this unwieldy manner before they were beneath me. I froze, anxious not to make a sound. And there below, like salmon in the rivers of old, the others roiled by in a seething, silver stream.
So intent were they on jockeying for position that they did not notice me, or the shaft itself. I was surprised at how many more there were than I remembered. The tumble of limbs and grunts at the fore followed by the slow trickle of stragglers, some wounded. Few of this pathetic ruck were concerned with winning at this point. Escape was their objective now. But they were a danger to me. I remained frozen, my weight equally distributed between my legs and shoulders, hands pressed at my sides. The effort was not so terrible. I could wait.
The voice came from below.
A man slid along the ground in much the same fashion as I but not by choice; his leg was bent at a…troubling angle. He pulled it along behind him as a man might drag a bag of golf clubs when the wheels have fallen off.
“Hey,” his tongue clacked against a palette dry from pain. “I can see you.”
So what, I thought, I am safely out of reach.
His voice cracked, “Someone attacked me…. My leg’s broken.”
I shushed him, a bit more vigorously perhaps than I would have under normal circumstances. In a sibilant rejoinder, I informed him that altercations were an unfortunate concomitant to the competition.
“You’re just gonna leave me?” he asked, more desperately now. “Help me!”
I resumed my climb, ignoring his pleas. It was neither my responsibility nor my fault that he had gotten himself in that state. No one would have faulted me for keeping on course—he would be found soon by the Cleaners and whisked off to safety, of course. People were often hurt during Jury Selection, but the State always took responsibility for the human detritus in one way or another. Mollycoddling was as a general rule in conflict with its mandate, however. This particular Prospective Juror would have to endure; he had signed the waiver after all. Perhaps he should have read it more closely.
I continued carefully, carefully. Bracing my feet, then my back with my hands supporting me, fingers pointing down. No room for error or emotion.
“You son of a bitch, if you don’t help me, I’m gonna get the others! They’ll come after you when they see you! They’re gonna git you, mother fucker!”
How amusing, how base the threat! Confuting prudence, a laugh bubbled from deep within my being. It filled the chute and duct below. Did he think me some moron, an imbecile like the rest of the race? They would never come back. They would think his pusillanimous plea some ploy to throw them off the scent. To keep them from victory. And whose wrath is more cruel than those sabotaged just short of the prize?
Perhaps in the soft light of regularity, my indifference reeks of cruelty. But you were not there. His empty threat, proclaimed impotently under savage duress, hit some chord in me. A voice—that of my father’s—came from the misty gallery of memory. Adam, he proclaims sagely, belt in hand, there are two types of people in this world: those who don’t prepare, do no work and then blame others; and those who do the work, get the job done though adversity is their constant companion. Make sure that you are the latter.
Well this Prospective Juror should have done the work; he should have realized earlier that he would get no help. Mr. Masterson had warned me, and in my own perhaps stilted manner, I was now passing on this kernel of wisdom, like a firebrand at the dawn of humanity.
“You bastard,” he delivered this weakest of epithets and that was that. He made no further noise, but remained silent—though not from weariness, I imagined, but from an understanding that if he attracted the attention of the stronger, he would be made to suffer more. Let him nurse his leg. Let him lick his wounds like a bayed creature in a cave.
The distance I climbed was about ten haths; falling would have brought serious injury or even death. Finally I reached the top, which ended in another hatch, identical in all ways to the last. Bracing myself, I cautiously reached over my cocked head and turned the hatch’s wheel, pushing it open with one hand, as my other, trembling from exertion, braced me against the shaft’s slick wall. Droplets of sweat ran down my back. When finally it gave, I was quite literally on my last legs. But one last thrust with my free arm, and it opened. Thanks the Gods, it opened!
A flood of light blinded me, equipped as I still was with the dark-vision eyewear. But to falter would prove perilous. Pushing with my legs and arching my back, I just topped the rim. I rolled onto my side and knocked the goggles from my eyes. In a greater state of exhaustion I had never been in all my life.
And then the padding of gentle footsteps, like that of a cat’s. I rolled again to distance myself from whatever adversary, man or phantasm, approached. I tried to leap to my feet, but I was too undone by the ordeal and sight had not returned. I fell, ignobly, to my knees.
“Gently, son, you’ve made it,” I felt a hand on my elbow: that of Alistair Masterson.