Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comfficeffice" /> The dream was always the same, every night. She was running through a maze of grey corridors. There were no signs or directions, just endless featureless corridors – and she was lost. Shadows dogged her path, but she didn't know if they were pursuers or just figments of her imagination. Scared, although she could not have said what had scared her, she ran, heedlessly following the twisting corridors in hopes of escape... ...And then she was standing in a massive chamber. Brilliant light surrounded her, so bright that she had to stop and cover her eyes. Suddenly, somehow, she became aware of a figure standing against the light. She could not see anything beyond a shadow, but she was convinced that the figure was looking back at her. And she couldn't move. Her entire body was frozen... ...An endless bombardment of images rushed through her mind. The figure standing against the light; names and faces she barely remembered, yet somehow she knew that they were pregnant with meaning; something moving in the darkness, heading right towards her. She screamed... ...And snapped awake. The lights in her small cubbyhole came up as she threw herself out of the bed and crashed onto the hard floor. She was covered in sweat, pooling around her naked body, yet she felt cold. Her entire body began to shiver as she slowly became aware of her surroundings. The dream was gone. It was already nothing more than a fading memory. Soon, it was hard to tell what had so bothered her at night. She pulled her legs up against her chest and hugged herself, wondering why she dreamed. The System rarely approved of dreamers. A bleeping sound alerted her that it was nearly time to get up. Snorting at the irony, she pulled herself to her feet and scowled at the sweat over her body. Cursing her mind, she stepped into the fresher and allowed warm water to cascade over her body. The shower was the only real luxury in her life, costing more System Credits than she cared to contemplate, but it was a necessary for her. She had long ago lost count of the number of times she had awoken from a nightmare screaming for help that would never come, only to forget the nightmare as her waking life reasserted itself. Naked, she stepped out of the shower and studied herself in the reflecting surface. Long auburn hair framed her face, highlighting her green eyes and perfect mouth. Her body was freakishly tall for one of her class, although an outside observer would probably have called her perfect. She rarely cared for what others thought of her appearance; she had never taken a lover, or engaged in the momentary dalliances of others of her class. She had certainly never applied for permission to breed. The other women of her age and class chatted constantly about breeding, about finding an approvable partner and having his children, but the subject had never interested her. It seemed to be meaningless to her life. The tiny cubbyhole was smaller than the average dwelling, but she had never been claustrophobic. She stepped over to the bed and pulled out the tray from underneath the covers, finding a shapeless tunic, the approved wear for her position in data-entry. She’d been told that she had great prospects to rise within the department, under the System of course, but that too was meaningless to her. She simply was. A faint memory of her nightmare flickered through her mind, only to be lost before she was fully aware of its existence. Her mind refused to look too closely at what had disturbed her sleep. Dressed, she looked at the reflecting surface again, seeing only the grey tunic and the badge on her shoulder, marking her out as one of the worker class. Some of her fellow workers decorated their uniforms, cutting away to daringly show a little more flesh than the average worker, or tightening it to show off their curves, yet it was something else she had never been inclined to consider. Her shapeless tunic hid everything that might have marked her out as an individual, but then the System would have disapproved. Individuality was just as often a curse as a blessing. So said the System. She tied up her hair into a neat ponytail, knowing that she wouldn't have to work on it again until she returned to her cubbyhole after work, and then reached for her badge. It carried her name – Jennifer – and her number, the identification code that allowed the System to identify her at any moment. The tiny photograph attached to the badge bore a slight resemblance to her, if only a version of Jennifer who looked bad, mad or dead – or all three at once – yet she didn't care. There was no room in her life for vanity. There were times when she felt disconnected from the world around her, as if a dark shadow hung over her mind. The other workers might be involved in their lives, daringly pushing the limits of acceptable dress and conduct as far as they dared, but she was untouched by everything. No emotion passed through her mind. She took no pleasure in accomplishing her daily tasks – as mandated by the System – nor was she nervous when confronted by the Peacekeepers, the men who enforced the System’s laws. None of her fellows ever elicited an emotional response from her, not the ones who tried to lure her into a relationship or the ones who mocked her and called her the ice queen behind her back. They were meaningless to her. She walked out of the cubbyhole and down towards the transit shafts. The city never slept; all around her, the different classes were going to their workplaces, where they would relieve their fellows who had been on duty during the last period. She joined a crowd of fellow data-entry workers as she entered the shaft, dropping down the null-gravity tube and out into a throughway running through the city. Part of her mind observed, as coolly as anything, the presence of five black-suited Peacekeepers at the edge of the crowd. It seemed to her as if the Peacekeepers were aware of her presence, even though none of them looked at her directly. The very thought was absurd. She had done nothing to warrant their attention. “Jenny,” a voice called. “You should have come to the party last night!” Jennifer felt nothing as Victoria joined her. She was short and stunted compared to Jennifer, with short dark hair and a mischievous smile, but she had the most active social life in the department. Victoria would do her work – people who didn’t do their work were eventually taken away and disappeared – and then launch herself into the whirling circle of parties and casual sex that entertained the workers. Part of Jennifer’s mind noted that it also distracted the workers from considering their living conditions, but that thought too vanished before it had been fully considered. Deep inside, she knew that that was wrong, yet she could not even understand why it was wrong. The whole memory vanished from her mind within seconds. Victoria chattered happily as they passed through the grey doors into the data-entry department. It was, in fact, one of many data-entry departments, where workers would take the data from the System’s Galactic Hypercom Network and feed it into the System’s computers. The planners – located in another department, perhaps on another planet – would take the data and use it to steer the path of the System. Jennifer knew that she – and Victoria and the rest of her co-workers – were nothing more than tiny cogs in an organisation that ruled almost all of the galaxy. The System was supreme. It could not be challenged. They had learned that in their first day of socialisation and nothing she’d seen since had disproved it. The System would dominate their lives from the first breath they took to the final departure from life. As she sat down at her desk, hastily vacated by the previous shift’s worker, she caught sight of the Drone on the other side of the massive room. Dead eyes locked on hers, just for a split second, before the Drone looked away. No one knew who he’d been before he committed an offense against the System, but they knew his fate. His personality had been destroyed, leaving behind nothing apart from obedience and servitude to the System. Part of her mind noted that it was another object lesson in obeying the system, rather more blatant than the Peacekeepers, yet that too slipped out of her mind. She was unbothered by the cold unblinking gaze, even though others were repulsed and horrified by the Drones. Their endless servitude, all thoughts hollowed out of their heads, was a nightmare. She placed her hand against the computer screen and it lit up, displaying what promised to be the first of an endless series of statistics. Jennifer keyed a switch, activated the interface link and started to work, keying in the statistics and shooting them into the System’s network. The task was dull and boring, yet she took a kind of solace in entering the data, bit by bit. No troubling thoughts or hazy recollections of her nightmare could reach her mind while she lost herself in mundane work. She was dimly aware of hours slipping by, of her fellow workers contemplating the fun and games to come after their shift was finished, yet it hardly mattered. All that mattered was the data – and serving the System. The dull chime that marked the end of her shift caught her by surprise, as it always did. All around her, her fellow workers were getting to their feet and passing their consoles over to their successors. Nothing had happened that required thought from any of them. In the rare cases when initiative and actual thought was necessary, they knew to forward the datafiles to their superiors. They were not paid to think. Jennifer nodded to her successor, a young man who had tried without success to talk her into his bed, and left without a backwards glance. There was a fresher on the other side of the room, waiting for her to relieve herself before she left the department. She had been so wrapped up in her work that she had ignored her body’s increasingly urgent demands. She caught a glimpse of her own face as she washed herself and – for a brief moment – wondered at the absence of stress. The other workers looked tired and worn, even with the prospect of partying and relaxation coming up, yet her face could have been carved from ice. Shaking her head, she took a sip of water from the tap and headed out of the door, back into the city. Like so many other mysteries, it faded from her mind before she could fully consider it. Soon enough, she forget the matter entirely. There was a new feeling in the air as she walked towards the transit lanes that led up towards the flowered gardens at the top of the city. It was not something she could place, or identify; it was more of a vague unease than anything else. She ignored it as her feet carried her onwards, almost without conscious thought. Every cycle, she would feel the urge to go to the gardens, even though they meant nothing to her. From time to time, she tried to ignore the urge, to resist something that was so clearly irrational. Somehow, all of her strict instructions to her own body were ignored and she had to give in. Perhaps, she thought sometimes, it should have bothered her. It didn't. The curious disconnection she felt from the rest of the world insulated her from considering her mind. Besides, those who showed signs of mental disorder were often taken away and never seen again. No one wanted to vanish from the city and be lost forever. She stepped through the gateway and into the terminal. Hundreds of people surrounded her, hastening to their destinations with a single-mindedness that came from living under the System. A man ran past her, pale and worn, clearly overdue for his shift. She doubted, deep in her heart, that he would remain in the city for much longer. Either the Peacekeepers would take him away or he would seek to end himself in the Termination Booth. That thought too should have disturbed her, yet it faded and was gone, lost forever. A shout echoed on the air as the people ahead of her began to scatter. Jennifer moved slowly backwards with the crowd, watching as it parted to reveal a young girl being chased by two Peacekeepers. The girl wore a ragged uniform, her long dark hair streaming out behind her – and her face was a mask of terror. No one moved to help her, for the absence of a proper uniform meant only one thing. The girl was an Underperson, from the hidden passages and caves under the city, and almost certainly a rebel. She might be dangerous. The Peacekeepers would remove her and she would never darken the city again. Jennifer caught sight of the girl’s eyes as she slipped and crashed to the hard metal floor, close enough for Jennifer to touch. The sudden moment of understanding between them seemed to send unfamiliar signals through Jennifer’s mind. For a moment, she hovered between two states, one comforting and familiar, the other dark and dangerous. The pause was long enough for the crowd to move away from her, leaving her – and the girl – exposed to the Peacekeepers. She was vaguely aware that the entire crowd was leaving as fast as it could, feeling like sheep confronted by a single wolf. It didn't seem to matter to her. All that mattered was the strange sensation in her head. “You,” the lead Peacekeeper snapped. Part of Jennifer knew that she should immediately assume the correct submissive posture before the Peacekeepers. The rest of her told that part to shut up. Her mind was still spinning. The Peacekeepers, for all the noise they made, weren’t important to her, not while her mind was out of control. “Get over here, now!” Jennifer felt a cold anger flooding through her mind, all the worse because she wasn't entirely sure why she was angry. Intellectually, there seemed to be no reason to be angry. The girl was an Underperson. Her fate had been mandated by the System long before she’d been born and become an Underperson, perhaps as a deserter from the System or simple birth into the Undercity. What was her life – and her death – to Jennifer? She didn't know, yet she cared. The Peacekeepers seemed to be moving in slow motion as Jennifer lunged forward. She threw a punch right at the lead Peacekeeper, aiming right at his throat. Her fist connected satisfactorily with his neck and she felt bones breaking under the impact. He staggered backwards and collapsed, his neck broken. Jennifer was still moving, heading right towards the second Peacekeeper as he struggled to bring his weapon to bear on her. He couldn't move fast enough to prevent her slamming her fist into his jaw. Blood and bone splashed on the floor – she heard screams from the few remaining workers in the area – and he hit the ground, gasping in pain. Jennifer raised her foot and stamped hard on his chest, feeling his ribcage shatter under the impact. Oddly, she felt nothing, as if the deaths were meaningless to her, just another event to note and then forget. A gasp reminded her of the girl they’d been chasing and she turned to look at her. The girl’s eyes were very wide, staring at Jennifer. She didn't believe her eyes, Jennifer realised; she might have been brought up among violence, instead of the peace of the city, yet she hadn't seen anyone kill someone with their bare hands. Now she had a moment to consider, she was dimly aware that no one should have been able to inflict such damage. Her mind seemed to fade, as if she was already trying to forget what had happened, but this time it was impossible to forget. The deaths were burned into her mind. The girl lunged to her feet and caught Jennifer by the arm. “Are you mad?” She demanded, in a high-pitched tone. “They’ll be after us soon. Come on!” Jennifer allowed herself to be dragged away, even though part of her mind was contemplating how easy it would have been to crush the girl’s hand with her bare fingers. They ran through grey corridors and into one of the maintenance ducts. Jennifer had never been in one of the tubes the maintenance workers used for repairing the city, but she discovered that she had no problems enduring the cramped ladders that seemed to plunge down for miles under the city. A far worse problem, she realised suddenly, was the implant in her arm. Everyone who lived in the city had a tracking implant, allowing the System to locate them instantly, wherever they were. If she’d become a criminal and a refugee in the space of bare minutes, her career would last as long as it took the Peacekeepers to track her down. And yet, somehow, she was unconcerned. Her mind felt as if someone was plucking away at it, trying to rewrite her thoughts so she forget what she’d done. The girl ignored her as she tried to explain about the implant, leading her into a darkened tunnel that smelt ghastly. Jennifer tried to ignore the smell – and the sound of dripping liquid in the distance – as they headed down under the city. She was suddenly very aware of the mass of the city over her and of how easily she would be crushed if the supports failed and billions of tons of rock and building concrete fell on her head... And then there was a flash of blue light and she plunged down into darkness.