From his perch high up on the roof parapet, Luke could see right across Millmoor. No one would be charging tourists ten quid to admire the view any time soon.
What stood out wasn’t the shape or size of the slavetown, but its colour – or rather, the lack of it. Everything had a drab, drained look, especially now as dusk mildewed the sky. Partly that was because it was all built of concrete and metal. Partly it was because any sunshine simply zapped the air pollution into perma-smog. But mostly, he’d come to realize, it was inside your head.
Frankly it wasn’t the setting he would have picked for his seventeenth birthday. Nor were this evening’s activities what he would have planned for his big day either.
But as he sat there, waiting for Renie and trying to ignore the fear and excitement knotting his gut, Luke thought there was nothing he’d rather be doing than playing Doc Jackson’s game. With every day that passed, he saw more clearly the injustice of the slavedays and the resilience of those enduring them.
‘Always look at the people, not at the mass,’ Jackson had told him. ‘A face, not the crowd. Look at the world, not at the ground. Every little detail you see is a victory.’
So as he kicked his heels on the rooftop, Luke tried doing just that. He looked out over the low-rise office buildings that surrounded him, towards the residential high-rises beyond. He picked out a pot plant silhouetted on a windowsill; a towel in bright football team colours hanging over a door. In the yellow light of a dormitory stairwell, a couple were snogging up against the wall. He let his eyes move swiftly on. A girl sat by a window, reading. That made him think of his sisters – she looked about Daisy’s age, and Abi was rarely without a book in her hand.
Would he be up here on the roof now if his family were in Millmoor with him? Luke wasn’t sure. It was one thing to risk yourself, but another to endanger those you love by your actions.
And he’d seen a surprising amount of action in the month since he’d reached into the club’s fruit bowl, all of it fitted around his back-breaking work in Zone D. Luckily the guys who shared his dorm had different shift patterns, so coming and going at all hours went unremarked. When it was your turn to sleep you just pulled the thin blankets over your head, wrapped the lumpy pillow round your ears, and tried to ignore it all.
In fact, ignoring things was a talent every Millmoor resident acquired. And Luke had realized that worked to the advantage of the slavetown’s authorities. You weren’t so likely to look out for others if you felt your own survival depended on looking out for yourself.
Well, no one could ignore what he and Renie were about to do.
A low whistle startled Luke so violently he nearly fell off his perch, and he swore. Behind him, Renie let out a noise for which the word ‘cackle’ was surely invented.
‘Wotchit,’ she said. ‘Falling ten storeys ain’t the best way to celebrate, birthday boy.’
Luke swivelled to glare at her, swinging his legs back over into safety.
‘Very funny,’ he said. ‘Ha ha. I’ve got what I need – have you?’
He kicked at the bundle coiled by his feet. It was a length of rope ending in a cat’s cradle of webbing and oval metal clips. He’d nicked the rig from a shed round the back of the casting plant. The Zone D maintenance teams used them to clean inside some of the larger machines. He and Renie had a different use for it tonight.
‘I got my necessaries right here,’ said Renie, patting the bulging pocket on the front of her hoodie, which rattled. ‘Lemme have a look at that rope. You’d better remember your knots, boy scout.’
‘And you’d better remember your letters,’ retorted Luke, nettled by her need to check on him. ‘You did spend long enough at school to learn the alphabet, I presume?’
‘Yee-owch,’ said Renie, sticking her middle finger up. ‘I ain’t never been to school. But yeah, I can write three measly letters.’
‘Never been to school?’ said Luke, incredulous. ‘Is that even possible? Didn’t the council come and find you?’
‘What council?’ said the girl, holding on to Luke’s sleeve with one hand and leaning cautiously over the edge to scan the streets below. ‘Ain’t no councils in here, is there?’
Luke tried to puzzle through the possibilities, but none of them quite fitted.
‘Long story,’ said Renie. ‘Tell you later, if you doesn’t drop me. But now it’s time to go. This way.’
She disappeared across the roof, cat-footed and sure. Luke slung the rope over his shoulder and followed. He could barely make out where he was going, which was unnerving – though maybe it was better not to see the drop. The sky was darkening by the minute. It wasn’t that late in the afternoon, but it was early November and darkness was closing in fast.
As it was a Sunday, the administration district was deserted. Slaves weren’t trusted to work in the MADhouse – the nickname given to the headquarters of Millmoor Administration. The staff were all free employees, recruited from distant parts of the country so there’d be no risk of favouritism. They left the slavetown at the end of each day, and the offices were locked at weekends. Security patrolled, but Renie knew their movements. She and Jackson had timed this perfectly.
Luke had run straight into Renie’s back, and she had every right to look narked, given the precariousness of their footing. They’d passed from the relative safety of the roof onto a narrow grate walkway that joined the building to its neighbour. There was no handrail, just a low metal lip along each side.
‘Keep your mind on the game,’ Renie scolded, sounding more like Mum than any thirteen-year-old had a right to. Then she relented; he must have looked pretty shame-faced. ‘Not bein’ mean. Just we can’t ever afford to clock off, you know? Not till a thing’s done.’
‘No,’ said Luke. ‘It won’t happen again, I’m sorry – and for saying what I did earlier. I’m a bit petrified, to be honest.’
‘S’okay,’ Renie said, her pinched features softening a bit. ‘Me too. This is a biggie.’
She pointed into the gloom ahead. ‘Here we go. This top floor is the Overseer’s Office, for the Overbitch, an’ then all her cronies beneath her. That’s where I’ll go down. Do a bit of redecorating.’
Renie turned and spat expressively over the side of the walkway, then headed for the spot she’d indicated. Luke followed, careful to keep two paces behind, no more, no less.
What had Renie meant about having no schooling? How had she acquired her intimate knowledge of every corner of Millmoor? Could she really have been here for years? That would explain a lot, not least her feral ways and scrawny size.
She’d helped the Doc give the briefing earlier, describing in detail how Luke could make his way up to the rooftop without being seen. She’d outlined the route Oz and Jessica would take, too. They were way across on the other side of Millmoor, near the vehicle depot. Asif and Jackson were at the largest call-centre complex. How were they all getting on, he wondered?
But no, mustn’t get distracted.
Renie was waiting for him, jiggling up and down on the balls of her feet. The thing in her pocket gave a muffled rattle.
The roof here had no parapet, just an edging that came up to about knee-height. If he lost his footing, it wouldn’t be enough to stop him going over.
He pulled the rope bundle from his shoulder, laid it out on the concrete and started sorting through. When he asked her, Renie stepped into the harness without demurring. It was far too big, of course, but he tightened what straps he could until she was cradled in it well enough. He’d spotted a good anchor point for his end of the rope – some sort of maintenance hatch in the roof. The MADhouse occupants presumably never had to wait to get their air-con fixed if the filter bust.
And then for the knots he’d carefully learned. There was a figure-eight follow-through to secure Renie’s harness, with the loop at his end so he could control her descent. He tugged the lines he’d laid down and practised paying out the rope to make sure everything flowed smoothly. Next he ran his hands along the edge of the building, checking for anything that might snag or fray the rope. Renie watched him.
‘Very thorough,’ she said, approvingly. ‘You’re getting good at this, I can see.’
Luke grinned back, running a hand over his fuzzy scalp – some bloke in the dorm had had a go at it with electric clippers a few days ago. Mum would have freaked at the result, but Luke thought it looked sharp.
‘Can’t be dropping you, can I? Not even the Doc would be able to scrape you back together.’
‘Don’t be so sure.’ Renie checked her watch. ‘Come on, kiddo, it’s time.’
He was going to protest at being called ‘kiddo’ by a thirteen-year-old, but Renie avoided any retort by stepping backwards off the roof.
Luke staggered as the rope went taut. But it held. His heart was banging away beneath his ribs: should-have-done-another-check-did-I-anchor-it-firmly-enough-what-if-the-knot’s-loose-what-if—
‘More!’ Renie’s voice floated up from the darkness below. ‘Three metres. Slowly.’
Luke paid out the rope, little by little. From over the edge came a rattle as Renie drew the canister from her pocket and shook it. He heard the pop of the plastic lid coming off, then the hiss as she sprayed the letter as large as she could make it. Luke wondered what colour paint she’d purloined. Something neon would be good. Or red, like blood. He imagined it dripping slowly down the building. Yeah, nice effect.
‘Lower!’ Renie called.
Luke shifted to feed out more rope, wincing as it scraped along the roof edge. Again, he heard the whirr of the ball bearings and the hiss of propellant gas. He felt their connection flex as Renie twisted her body. The rope dug into his palm, but didn’t cut, and when she called up he paid out one final length. Renie was fifteen metres down and despite her sparrow weight the tension through the cord was unbelievable.
The third letter. He heard a huff of effort as the girl strained to draw it in one long, smooth shape. Then the plastic cap snapped back in place. The smell of wet paint and aerosol drifted up from the darkness, tickling his nose.
‘Up!’ he heard.
He braced his foot against the edge and prepared to heave the deadweight that was Renie back up and onto the roof. Oz would easily manage Jessica, but he wondered if the Doc and Asif had tossed a coin to decide who did the heavy lifting in their team.
Of course not. No coins in Millmoor. Just one more bizarre thing about life here, he thought, as he grunted and hauled. No cash. He used to wonder at the stories in his mum’s magazines about women who bankrupted themselves shortly after finishing their days. They emptied their savings accounts from their lives before and blew it on handbags, shoes, junk like that. He thought he understood their madness a bit better now.
He understood a lot of things better now. He’d just turned seventeen, but he felt at least ten years older.
But age wasn’t the only alteration on his mind as he stood there, steadily moving hand over hand on the rope until he saw Renie’s fingers scrabbling at the roof edge. He was getting stronger, his muscles harder. Who knew that all it took to get ripped was a steady diet of canteen cuisine and some serious slave labour? It was a winning combination, albeit not one likely to catch on.
Millmoor was changing him, inside and out. And he remembered Renie’s words when he’d done his first job for her: Millmoor changes people. But you get to choose how.
‘Awright!’ the girl said, as he grabbed both her hands and lifted her up bodily. He lowered her to the safety of the roof and she crouched there a moment, wiping her face with the flat of her palm.
‘Let’s get back to base,’ she said. ‘I wanna hear from Jackson exactly why we’ve all been kindly giving a paint job to Millmoor’s prettiest landmarks.’
She stepped out of the harness and they were off. Back across the walkway, down the fire escape, into the dank-smelling service stairwell, and out.
The street lighting was intermittent and dim, but Renie knew where all the lamp posts were. As they rounded each corner they were always on the unlit side of the street. She kept up a mumbling, sarcastic commentary like the world’s least tippable tour guide: shortcuts here, CCTV cameras there. But it wasn’t Millmoor Luke was curious about.
‘How do you know all this?’ he asked her. ‘How long have you been here? Kids can’t start days until they’re ten, and then only accompanied by their parents. Yours must have brought you, but you never mention them.’
Even as the words left his mouth, an awful thought occurred and he kicked himself. What if Renie’s parents were dead, both killed in some terrible accident?
But it was somehow even worse than that.
Renie’s jaw stopped its urgent working of the gum in her mouth. When she turned to Luke her expression was ferocious. He was glad the darkness half hid it.
‘All that stuff,’ she said, hunching her shoulders, hands deep in her pockets. ‘That’s the rules they tell you about. The rules for people like you. Ain’t the rules for all of us.
‘Me mam and da was decent folk, and they tried to do their best for us kids. Mam was young – she’d been your age when she had the first of us. And Da didn’t have much education to speak of. But they loved each other, and me an’ my brothers. Da provided for us all the best way he could. It just weren’t a way the police exactly approved of.
‘Stuff would turn up at home, nice stuff he’d nicked. Mam would tell us not to touch it in case we broke it so it couldn’t be sold. We moved around a lot, so he never got noticed too much in one place, I guess. But someone musta noticed eventually. I was about six when we was all rounded up.’
She trailed off and stared ahead into the gloom, as if looking for her family among the pooling shadows.
‘Didn’t know what happened to any of ’em until Asif helped me look up my records one time when we was on a game. Da got sent to one of the lifer places; my brothers, Mam and me was parcelled out all over. I came to Millmoor. Used to live in a block with a few other oo-moos – that’s kids,’ she added, seeing Luke’s blank look. ‘Unaccompanied Minors Under Sixteen. Sounds cute, right? It weren’t. I ran away about two years ago. Fended for myself; never got caught. I hid out in the old part of town, the original bit. It’s all derelict and no one ever goes there.
‘But I needed to move around to get food and stuff, so I cut out my tracking chip. Didn’t do a good job.’ The girl pulled up her sleeve and Luke winced at the twisted mass of scar tissue. It looked like Renie had carved a fillet from her flesh. ‘Got infected and I thought I was gonna die, but at least I would have died free. I weren’t going to a hospital to get taken in again. Then Doc Jackson found me.’
Luke was aghast. You were always told that there were no children by themselves in slavetowns. That people were only given life for really wicked crimes, like murder or rape. Weren’t there foster homes for youngsters like Renie?
‘Foster homes is for kids what can be fixed,’ she said bitterly. ‘Kids like you if something bad happens to your family. Not kids like me what’s born unfixable. You’ve got a lot to learn.’
Didn’t he just.
He’d thought he was getting the hang of this place, and that in the club he’d found a way to fight back against its petty cruelties.
But it turned out that behind the petty cruelties were bigger cruelties. Worse ones. Did adults know that things like this went on – small children being abandoned in slavetowns – but never mention it? Or was everyone completely oblivious?
Luke wasn’t sure if Renie regretted sharing all that with him, because she was subdued for the rest of the way back. When they reached that day’s HQ, where Jackson and Asif were already waiting, she perched on a stack of cardboard boxes without a word. It was Luke who responded to the Doc’s enquiry about their mission’s success with a big thumbs-up.
‘Now are you going to tell us what it was all about?’ Luke asked. ‘Why the MADhouse now has the word “YES” written on it in letters three metres high?’
‘And Comms-1,’ added Asif. ‘He didn’t tell me why, even when we were out there.’
‘Let’s wait till Jessica and Oz get back,’ Jackson said with a smile. ‘They won’t be long. And rest assured Hildy and Tildy have been busy, too.’
He gestured to the boxes. They hadn’t been there when the club had met earlier.
The ditcher sisters staggered through the door with one more box, then collapsed into flimsy stacking chairs. Hilda tipped her head back, staring at the ceiling, while Tilda massaged her neck with both hands. They looked knackered. Soon after, Jessica and Oz burst in. They were sweaty-faced and panting, as if they’d been running, but had triumphant grins on their faces.
‘All done, Doc,’ said Jessica, banging a can of spray paint down on the shelf nearest Jackson.
‘Now spill,’ said Oz. ‘You’ve got “YES” written all over that depot – Jessie got a bit carried away – and we want to know why. Did the Overbitch ask for your hand in marriage, and this is your way of showing how much you love her?’
Even Renie, who was still looking subdued, snorted at that.
‘Good guess,’ said Jackson wryly. ‘But no. And Asif, no to your theories. All of them. Especially the one about aliens. Hilda, maybe you’d like to show everyone what the two of you have been up to?’
Hilda nodded, and rose from her chair. Flipping the top off one of the boxes, she pulled out a printed sheet and held it up.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ she announced, ‘I give you the Chancellor’s Proposal: the abolition of the slavedays.’
Jessica actually gasped. Even Asif stopped fidgeting.
Surely this was some kind of wind-up?
‘No one has a vote on the Proposal except the Equal parliamentarians, of course,’ said Jackson. ‘And apart from maybe a handful, they’ll all vote “no”. But I don’t think they realize what they’ve done by even having this debate. All it would take for the slavedays to end – the loss of liberty, the abuses, the drudgery, all of it – is for a few hundred Equals to open their mouths and say “yes”. One little syllable after the Third Debate, in the East Wing of Kyneston next spring, and everything’s gone.’
Jessica retied her ponytail with a brisk snap of the elastic, a gesture that reminded Luke painfully of Abi. When she spoke her tone was brisk, too.
‘Not to be a party pooper, Jack, but are you sure? How do you know this?’
The Doc paused for a moment, looking round the room. He’s wondering if he can trust us, Luke realized.
And that was when it hit him: loyalty goes both ways.
When this all began, Luke had lost sleep over whether he could trust Jackson. Whether the club wasn’t some elaborate trap. But once he’d played a few games and there’d been no visit from Kessler, no hands pulling him roughly from his bed in the middle of the night, he had forced himself to let go of a little of that fear. The Doc was for real.
But for Jackson, any one of them could betray him – at any time.
Well, not Luke. Never Luke.
‘I’m in touch with someone on the outside,’ Jackson said eventually. ‘An Equal. More than that – someone close to power.’
Renie rocked forward so fast it was a wonder she didn’t fall off the boxes. Hilda and Tilda exchanged startled glances. Jessica put the end of her hair in her mouth and chewed like a nervous girl, not a grown woman. It was Oz who spoke.
‘Crikey, Doc,’ he said. ‘Bit of a surprise you been keeping there. Care to explain?’
Jackson placed his hands palms down on the table and stared at them for a moment.
‘He sees every shadow in the House of Light,’ the Doc said, as if telling them about someone he was pointing out across a room at a party. ‘He believes in this cause – our cause.’
‘And you trust him?’ said Hilda, bluntly.
‘I do,’ said Jackson. He opened his mouth as if to say more, then decided against it.
‘Why has no one heard about this Proposal?’ Asif asked. ‘Because it’s too hot to handle? Media blackout?’
Jackson looked like a man trying to smile who had forgotten how you did it.
‘Sort of,’ he said eventually. ‘There are acts of Skill called the Silence and the Quiet. The Silence makes you forget things. At the end of the Proposal session the Chancellor laid it on all the commoners, the Observers of Parliament. The Equal parliamentarians have submitted to the Quiet. They remember everything, but the Quiet prevents them communicating what they know to anyone who’s not also an MP – even to their own families. Let’s just say that we found a way around that.’
The room fell silent.
Luke was appalled. The Equals could take your memories? ‘Silence’ you with Skill? It was unthinkable. They did it in Abi’s novels, of course – caddish heirs seducing girls then making them forget all about it with a snap of their fingers. But never in a million years had Luke imagined it was true.
How could you hope to win against people who could do that?
Except Jackson must think you could, because he leaned in towards them like a general imparting battle plans to his trusted officers.
Which, Luke realized, was exactly what the Doc was. He felt dizzy, as if he’d just downed a cocktail of one part thrill and two parts terror. Over ice.
‘I’m glad you’re shocked,’ Jackson said, looking at each of them in turn with those clear blue eyes. ‘It means you’re all thinking about the task ahead of us. Really thinking about it. Everyone in this slavetown needs to know about this Proposal. Everyone needs to understand that abolition is so close we could just reach out and take it – if we dare. This could be the best chance we get in our lifetimes of ending the slavedays.’
His eyes met Luke’s, and Luke couldn’t look away.
‘This is the long game,’ the Doc said. ‘We need to be the winners when it ends.’