Author's note: Many thanks to mehiali for editing this for me and farechilde for giving me ideas. I hope you enjoy this story. If you do, please vote and leave a comment or drop me an email, all feedback is greatly appreciated. I'd especially like to hear from anyone who has thoughts on what I can improve, what works well or ideas they'd like to see me write about.
They struck swiftly, with brutal efficiency. One moment the old man was hobbling along the pitted surface of the alley with only scurrying rats for company and the next he was set upon by hooded assailants. They did not bother to demand anything from him; they preferred to take things by force. A few frenzied seconds later the old man lay on the broken concrete, blood pooling around his head. Crouched in the shadow of a burnt-out hovercar Jack Redhorn watched them search through his pockets for anything of value. One of the gang produced a half-eaten ration bar and whooped in delight. That was what they did this for? A scrap of food he would have given them anyway? Jack stayed perfectly still until the rabble had left the alley and was getting up to leave when a terrible thought struck him. The old man's jacket was thick and in good condition, he couldn't have been living here long. His own was threadbare and ragged. Walking over to him he made another unpleasant discovery. The old man wasn't dead. Jack was no doctor but he could tell a stricken man when he saw one. An agonising moment passed as he stared down at the twitching, gurgling form before him. A shriek from a nearby street interrupted his reverie.
Take it, he told himself. The old man won't need it and there's nothing you can do for him.
Hating himself for doing it he rolled the man over and wrestled the jacket off him. Turning away he was shocked to hear him whisper "Help me". Jack froze and made to turn around but another yell and a clash of metal on metal, closer this time, made him turn and run. Minutes later in another dark, dingy alley he stopped for breath. How did it come to this? Stealing clothes from dying men and constantly running and hiding?
It was only a few months since Jack had been a typical young professional in the city with a secure job, a wonderful wife and a new-born daughter. The complex he worked in was raided without warning. Such raids were not uncommon among the rival corporations that had long since outgrown the power of the nominal government. The complex was completely stripped, its files removed, machinery disassembled and its workforce taken. Corporations could not openly murder citizens but those who went missing were officially considered to be living in the undercity by their own choice. When he went to work that morning he had a good life, when he was taken from work he had nothing. Worse, he had no way of contacting his family to let them know he was alive so for the best part of two months all they knew was that he had disappeared without a trace.
New Jericho, like many of the cities to survive the flooding of the middle period of the twenty-first century was built as an enormous floating platform. The lowest level of the city was beneath the water level and was the only part of New Jericho to receive no natural light. Initially the governing body intended to use it only as a storage area but as thousands of refugees flocked to the city states to escape the savage wars in Asia the city became increasingly overcrowded. Eventually the government bowed to pressure from corporations who wanted the cheap labour and drafted legislation to allow the lower level to be converted into a habitable area. It was turned into a rambling, enormous grid of identical houses that spanned the whole level and given the designation HAB-1. Tens of thousands of people were crammed into it. The corporations got their cheap labour and the city freed up a lot of space. New Jericho thrived and made a series of important technological breakthroughs. Robotics in particular advanced rapidly.
It was the robots that signalled the start of the city's problems. Corporations began to use them to perform jobs previously done by people. The undercity was most affected by this, its inhabitants were the lowest paid in the city and the most easily replaced. Quickly a large number of the people living in HAB-1 found themselves with no income and no means of leaving. Those who did still have jobs made concerted efforts to leave the level. Riots broke out and the gates from HAB-1 to the upper levels were fortified and sealed. The government had become increasingly weak and franchised off the ownership of HAB-1 to various corporations in exchange for them maintaining security of the gates and assuming responsibility for the residents' welfare.
Most of those living in the upper city were not concerned, their standard of life had never been higher and the city continued to prosper. As time passed rumours began to circulate that the corporations were using HAB-1 as a prison. As the corporations influence grew the number of people disappearing also began to rise and those living above the surface began to find it appealing to talk and think as little as possible about the conditions below them.
Down here though, there was no opportunity to turn a blind eye. The harsh conditions were unavoidably obvious. HAB-1 had degenerated to the stage where it was more primitive than human habitation had been for centuries. Hovercars littered the streets; no fuel had been available for years. Most of the overhead lights had been turned off to save energy and some of those left on were failing, creating a constant night. One ration bar per citizen was issued daily through chutes from the cavernous ceiling. That was one of the few stipulations the government had made when signing their responsibilities away. Even that was flouted though; corporations exchanged other goods for ration bars on their daily trawls of the city so an economy built up around them. Gangs hoarded the rations, depriving many from any nourishment at all. The corporations collected them on their patrols and reissued them, saving themselves a tidy amount and satisfying the government checks and safeguards.
Jack woke groggily the next day. It was impossible to tell what time of day it was. Aside from the challenge of staying alive, Jack found the tedium of living in the undercity unbearable. Every day he wandered around the barren streets, trying to find any sort of sanity or even the miracle of an exit. In two months he had found no sign of either.
The change in this routine came suddenly. Wandering aimlessly along a deserted street Jack heard the low whirring of a hovercar. Hurrying round the corner he saw it was not a hovercar but in fact a full-size transport emblazoned with the distinctive logo of Lenkat Corporation, a pouncing tiger. It settled onto the ground and several people in uniform emerged from the rear hatch.
"Citizens of HAB-1," a voice blared, echoing around the slums, "Lenkat would like to offer you the chance to come and work with us. We will provide shelter, food and healthcare and give you a role that makes use of your skills and experience. This could be your last day in the undercity, just step up to one of our recruitment officers and get started."
This is too good to be true, he thought as he walked warily towards them. They'll probably make us sign an agreement to work sixteen hour shifts for years on end. But what does it matter? Nobody survives long down here, get out while you can.
Jack was quite close to them before he realised the Lenkat contingent were armed. Hardly surprising down here, he thought. One of them, a stern grey-haired man, scrutinised him carefully before nodding at him to get into the transport. A young man and woman emerged from the shadows and approached the transport, clutching hands. They too received the disinterested nod of approval and followed him inside. About a dozen others were already sitting in the transport. Surreptitiously looking around at them Jack was appalled at how ill looking they all were. All of them were thinner than they should have been. Some were sporting scars and bruises. Two or three were breathing hoarsely and another few were ashen faced. The young woman that had followed him in collapsed on her companion and sobbed silently into his shoulder.
Jack found himself wondering how long they had been here to get into this condition and was both shaken and cheered by how lucky he was to be getting out. The transport cruised around more streets, picking people up. It soon became apparent the Lenkat officials had a profile of recruit in mind as elderly people were turned away.
There was a crowd around the gateway. Entry and exit to the undercity was by means of a giant circular elevator, walled off and heavily guarded. As the transport approached the outer wall and the gates opened, the crowd began running towards them. This was obviously not an isolated event because the guards inside the walls had lined up before hand and were stunning anyone that came close. Jack was startled by the sheer desperation of these people, as more of them scrambled over the prone bodies of the leaders to try to worm their way inside. One or two nearly got within touching distance of the guards but a forcefield flickered into life and sent them sprawling. Jack's last view of the undercity as the transport skimmed onto the elevator platform was the guards rolling the unconscious bodies outside the gate to fend for themselves.
Despite the suffering he had seen Jack couldn't help but feel a surge of excitement as the elevator took them upwards. And then he saw it for the first time in weeks. The sun cast a soft glow across the city of New Jericho as the transport emerged above the surface and hovered again. He'd taken so much for granted, ignored so many of the wonders that surrounded him. Now he appreciated them all anew as they joined a stream of traffic flowing through the corporate sector of the first level, the sparkling fountains below and the towering Kelek trees that formed a lilac canopy over the park to their left. On their right the glass pyramids of Troman Corporation made a beautiful sight as the pinkish sunset reflected on them.
The transport set them down before the magnificent conical headquarters of Lenkat. From outside it appeared as a polished black marble. From the inside the outer walls were all transparent. They disembarked and were led inside, an arch slid out of the smooth black wall as they approached. Once inside a guide asked anyone who wanted to rest to follow her while the rest could go with her colleague for a meal. Jack very much doubted any of them had eaten a full meal in months and was not surprised to see most of them go to the dining hall with him.
It seemed they were being kept separate from the rest of the corporation employees. The room they were led to was spartan, white-walled and fairly small. A few tables had been added and Lenkat officials brought in bowls of broth, bread and water. After weeks eating scraps of rations whenever they could be found, to get something hot was wonderful. Jack ate heartily and was feeling as good as he had in weeks as he followed a guide to a dormitory. A bed to sleep in was another luxury he had missed for far too long. There were a dozen or so others in the room with him, all from the same transport he had arrived on. He was settling down to sleep when he realised something else, there was a synthetic Luia plant in the room, giving off a faint but refreshing pineapple smell. He grinned to himself in the dark; it had been weeks since he had even seen a plant. They were woken early the next morning by a crisply dressed corporation officer.
"Good morning citizens," he barked, "You may call me Mr. Nardini. Today you will all undergo a series of physical, mental and aptitude tests to determine the role you are best suited to in the corporation. Wash, dress and report to room CA27 by 1000. There are direction signs in every corridor. Anyone who chooses not to do so will not be retained by the corporation. After you have been assigned a role you will be given the opportunity to contact any relatives or friends you may wish to. I bid you all a very warm welcome and hope your service with Lenkat is as enjoyable and rewarding as mine has been."
Jack went about his ablutions with one eye on the clock -- he had no intention of going back to the undercity. Clean clothes had been provided for them, plain but of good quality. Dressing quickly, he followed the trickle of people already leaving the dormitory. CA27 was some distance away; signs directed them through a labyrinth of corridors before they arrived. Jack was impressed with the building; Greenwells had been very plain by comparison. The corridors all had plants in them -- a very rare commodity after the ecological ravages of the middle decades.
Jack entered into a large, well-lit room. There was a short queue of people at a desk directly in front of the door. Around the walls in a horseshoe were several more desks with corporation officials. Jack joined the queue and wondered when he would be able to send a message to his family and when he would be able to see them again. When he reached the front of the queue the man behind the desk shook his hand energetically.
"Good morning friend, good to see so many new recruits this morning and good for you to be off the streets I dare say. You've got a busy day ahead, what we're doing here is registering you with the corporation archives and then you'll be sent for various tests. Jamie is free and will do the registration with you, just go over to his desk and you can get started," he said, pointing at a desk that had just been vacated by another recruit.
Jamie, it turned out, was not as chirpy as his colleague. He shook Jack's hand with a bored expression on his face and immediately started asking him questions in a disinterested monotone.
"Fourteenth May, 2054."
"I worked in the Greenwells complex, manufacturing casings for reactors."
"Do you have a spouse?"
"I have a daughter, born just this year."
"Before entering the undercity, did you have any physical or mental illness?"
"Have you had any enhancements?"
"No, I could never afford them."
"Do you know the date you entered the undercity?"
"Yes, it was the first of March."
"Very well, that is all we need to do here Your age and skills make you an ideal recruit, provided your tests are favourable you should attain a position similar to what you had at Greenwells. Make your way to GB12."
After another trek around the rambling corridors of the complex Jack found a much smaller room occupied by a smiling old man in a dilapidated suit who leapt to his feet happily when Jack entered and wrung his hand vigorously. The sloping wall and panoramic view out over the ocean gave the room away as being on the edge of the building.
"Hello Jack, pleased to meet you, I am Dr. Wilson. I am going to run a series of tests on you to assess your health and fitness and particularly to determine whether your stay on the streets has had any harmful effects on you. The corporation takes the wellbeing of its staff very seriously, unhealthy workers are unproductive workers. The first thing I need to do is take some blood to test for any infections or diseases you may have picked up. Take a seat and roll up your sleeve."
Over the course of an hour Dr. Wilson performed a full body scan on Jack, grilled him on any injuries he had sustained in the last six months and tested his sight, hearing, strength and dexterity. At last he ran out of tests and invited Jack to sit again.
"I'm happy to tell you it appears you've been relatively unscathed if a bit malnourished, you've stood up to the undercity much better than most do. I was surprised at just how little effect the hardship seemed to have had on you so I did a couple of extra tests."
"The corporation developed a new enhancement technique with rather astounding results but only a small percentage of the populace have compatible physiology, it tends to be those who are naturally hardy. Turns out that you are one such person. It's a great opportunity for you; the corporation's policy is to enhance all employees that are suitable. We hold the patents too; nobody else does anything like it. Going forward will also guarantee you a place in the top-stream of employees -- you'll get more interesting work and be paid more."
"We'd induce a medical coma for two weeks and implement the enhancements; you'd wake up with perfect command of your enhanced abilities. The effects really are incredible, candidates benefit from improved strength, speed, stamina and cognitive skills. However we can only do one procedure a month so I would recommend starting immediately. If you wait you risk someone else who is eligible being discovered and by next month if there are multiple candidates a form of competitive selection would be used and you may miss out altogether."
"You really give them out free?"
"It's an investment. You get enhanced and the corporation gets specialised employees to fulfil critical roles."
"Seems like there's not much of a choice really. I want to contact my family first and let them know I'm alive."
"Of course, use my terminal to compose a message and I'll have it delivered. I'll tell the team to prep."
The old doctor left the room and left Jack to his thoughts. He had thought about nothing other than his family for weeks but now that it came to speaking to them he struggled to find the words to express what he had gone through. In the end he left a short message saying he was fine and would see them soon and loved them dearly.
Shortly thereafter he found himself on a bed, being hooked up to various machines. Someone told him they were inducing the coma and he felt the world fade around him.
It seemed like a long time passed, his bed wasn't comfortable. Sounds drifted in and out of focus, a dull roaring. He opened his eyes. He wasn't in a bed at all. Scrambling upright he found himself standing in the middle of an amphitheatre. Around him a crowd filled grandstands that stretched toward the horizon. It was night but the ring of earth he stood in was illuminated by strong floodlights.
The breeze tickled his bare skin, his body felt oddly different to him as if he were stronger and leaner. So they really had enhanced him. But then, why leave him here and why take his clothes? There were small frameworks, like gymnastic equipment or scaffolding, littering the arena. Jack moved around, trying to work out what they were for. He jumped as a voice boomed out around him.
"Hello and good evening ladies and gentlemen! It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to a very special deathmatch. Already in the arena is our challenger who has been specially enhanced for this match."
Deathmatch? What sort of twisted joke was this? There had been rumours in recent years that some of the corporations were running clandestine deathmatches, selling tickets for ludicrous amounts to the bored thrill-seekers of New Jericho's rich upper-class. Was this why they had dragged him off the street? To serve as fodder in some underworld brawl? That didn't make sense, enhancements were expensive and they wouldn't have given him them just to lose their investment straight away, would they?
The crowd's murmur rose to an excited clamour, Jack saw several hands pointing upwards and saw a platform hover over the centre of the ring and start to descend.
"Please show your appreciation for the beautiful and deadly Ashlyn!" boomed the announcer. The crowd eagerly complied, a roar echoed around the arena. That caught Jack by surprise, he was no expert on the deathmatches but he had the impression the fighters were all male.