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"You have five minutes left," boomed the examination's invigilator.
Ajax Weston jolted in his chair and returned to the horizontal. He checked the clock at the front of the hall. In five minutes he would be free.
The sooner I'm out of here the better, he thought.
He glanced at the examination booklet on his desk. It caused a visceral contempt for those that controlled his life. The questions were a mixture of mathematics and psychology. Some had pretensions to label him a nonconformist and a danger to society. But these questions had not troubled him; he'd ignored them. The examiners would be lucky to find his name on the paper.
He reflected on the countless mysteries of his world, Terra, of which the fourteen-year examinations were just one.
You won't take me, he thought. Not like you took the others.
Ajax checked the clock again and placed an elbow on his desk. Rested his chin in the palm of his hand and gazed at the young girl to his right, who worked avidly.
She'll take top honours, he thought cynically.
Ajax couldn't imagine a more devout citizen.
He recalled the loss of his friends, Lena Vron and Einrik Strenshaw, who were taken two years ago. Yes, taken was the word, for he doubted that they'd wanted to go. Ajax felt sure that their removal from the dormitories was a direct result of the examinations. He glanced at his scruffy answer booklet and grinned.
What would the examiners make of that!
Of all the dormitory children Lena Vron and Einrik Strenshaw had been his only real friends. He thought of Lena, always laughing.
Where are you?
Ajax had known her for two years, the two years prior to her abduction. His body had begun to acquire a will of its own in her presence.
Lena was both resolute and clever. But her real talent was her charismatic personality. All the children had wanted to be a friend of hers.
Ajax's thoughts turned to Einrik. The boy whose brain, and sometimes his mouth, was bigger than his personality. Einrik was considered a genius by his peers, which meant that by Ajax's standards, he was almost intelligent. But Einrik's wit had done him no favours. His questions were the constant bane of his teachers' ordered lives.
Ajax's smile grew as he recalled Einrik in full voice at the academy. A blatantly inadequate teacher struggled to ward off Einrik's boyish enthusiasm. Einrik wanted answers and he wanted them now:
Is there anything beyond Terra? How did Terra begin? Did it begin? Will it end? Do the levels of Terra go on forever? Why am I not allowed into the city? Why don't I get any decent answers?
The children always enjoyed these disruptions; the teachers did not.
Where are you, Einrik? Maybe tonight I'll find your answers.
After Lena and Einrik's abduction it was as if they'd never existed. Ajax could get nothing from the authorities. He didn't enjoy the company of his peers. Not that this bothered him much, for he had no desire to join in their games. He was consumed by a desire to discover Terra.
The dormitory routine was mundane. Each morning the lights came on at the same time and the children readied themselves for the academy. Ajax lambasted his peers for their unquestioning obedience. He believed that all drive, ambition and initiative was being carefully drained from their lives. They were too regimented. Like them, each day he was forced to attend the academy but he hated every minute of it.
Ajax shuddered at the prospect of adulthood. He wasn't frightened of growing up, only of the mindless drudgery that he'd be assigned in adulthood. He wanted answers. He couldn't spend the rest of his life with so many questions. It would be a torment more than he could ever bear.
I'll discover the truth -- I will -- tonight!
It was rumoured there were places at the deepest levels where one could look beyond Terra at myriads of small lights which moved against a jet-black background.
The invigilator snapped his train of thought.
"Stop writing and put your pens down."
A reserved murmuring filled the hall. The examinees sorted and shuffled their papers ready for collection. The adjudicators quickly gathered their manuscripts and the examinees filed from the hall. Some students discussed their performance but most were eager for play. A two-day holiday traditionally followed the examinations.
Ajax had chosen his time well for his venture. He rarely joined in the holiday activities and so would not be missed.
Glad to be free from the examination's hall, Ajax returned to his dormitory. So did some of the other children and Ajax was forced to stall his plans. He sat on a bunk, frustrated. Valuable time was being wasted.
He usually spent the minimum time permissible in the dormitories and sometimes less than that. All he wanted to do at this moment was begin his adventure. He had planned it for many months. His stomach churned, consumed by excitement and anticipation. Eventually, the last few boys tired of bunk trampoline and departed. The dormitory fell silent. Ajax listened to their echoes fade away as they ran to join the others at the games.
The dormitory floors were always strewn with clothes and toys and all the walls were scarred with years of adolescent scribble. The robot cleaners that should have dealt with the problems were out of action. Ajax wondered why it took so long to repair them. Perhaps, no one had the skills any more.
Each dormitory bed had a small locker. Most children had only a few worthless possessions to store in their lockers, but Ajax had his backpack in his. He opened the locker and removed it and made a final check of the pack's contents: a small cake (three days old), a bar of chocolate, three apples and a couple of bruised bananas. The cakes and bananas had suffered from their time spent in his pockets.
He had smuggled the food from one of the dining areas. It had taken him two weeks and a lot of courage. Food was a valuable commodity and always in short supply. He hoped it was enough for the weekend ahead. Anyway, he had no reason to complain for he knew that his supplies were of far better quality than the food available to the masses.
Ajax topped up his old plastic drink container that served as his water bottle, placed it in the pack and drew it shut, pulled the straps over his shoulders and walked towards the door.
As he stepped outside he could almost sense the smell of the city squalor and the freshness of the rural zones that lay ahead. The rural zones were always a joy: green grass, clear rivers, verdant woodland, and meadows speckled white and yellow with small flowers. But it was what lay beyond that excited him. The mystery of Terra beckoned him, for he knew it held a dark secret.
The deepest levels were the provinces of the Guard. And after that, who knows what? Common citizens were never allowed beyond the rural zones unless it was to labour in the agricultural lands below. Indeed, the masses were rarely allowed into the rural zones at all.
In the agricultural lands the food for the Guard was grown. The Guard had access to fresh fruit and vegetables with disdainful regard to the rampant starvation in the city. The city food was synthesised in the recycling plants and spewed out by the tonne, but it was never enough.
Even the lower ranks of the Guard occupied better quarters than the hovels allocated to the masses. And as for the upper ranks, well, they lived in the rural zones and the Great Palace, a place that was just a mythical name the city's citizens.
Ajax stepped out into a deserted alley, but isolation would not be a problem when he reached the crowded city.
The pack was heavy on his back, though it shouldn't be. It didn't contain much. His shoulders were tense. He tried to relax. His surroundings were familiar, too familiar. The alley was three metres wide. Dormitory blocks towered each side of him to touch the sky. They were four storeys high. It was very claustrophobic but Ajax did not notice, for this was his life.
Today he would avoid the elevators; the staircases were a more discreet way to travel between the levels. Their eyes were not as sharp. All the elevators contained cameras, as did most city areas. The staircases would slow his progress but it was a small price to pay for anonymity. The elevators were quicker because they crossed many levels whereas the stairwells rarely descended more than two or three.
Ajax walked past the academy, steadfastly ignoring the few students who remained outside its walls. By now most students were at the games. The students stood idly in groups of three or four. As usual, they took scant regard of him. That was the way Ajax liked it.
Another three minutes' walk and he arrived at an elevator station, one of many. The station was just a wide corridor with a row of ten doors on each side. Lights flashed the arrival of every carriage. Bells pinged and doors opened and closed. From here it was a short ride down to the city. The stations were always busy, especially during the morning and evening peaks. Adults rode the elevators constantly, but if he risked the elevators he might be questioned. Fourteen-year-olds were not allowed in the city; you had to be seventeen for that pleasure.
Ajax spotted a small robotic cleaner that weaved its way amongst the crowd. It ran on caterpillar tracks and dragged a large dirt-bag on wheels. The contents were destined for the recycling plants. This model attended to the station's floors whereas more advanced models patrolled the stairwells and the city streets. The cleaner's hemispherical metallic body was ringed with sensors. On top a pair of mechanical eyes swivelled jerkily. Ajax sighed as the cleaner bumped into his foot after failing to detect his presence. Many things did not function and much was neglected.
Ajax sidestepped the cleaner and made his way to the far end of the station where the stairwell was located. The glass in the stairwell doors had been broken and looked like it had been that way for years. A spider crack ran through the entire left panel and only jagged edges remained from the right panel.
He eased open one door and its rusty hinges screamed alarmingly. He glanced furtively about but no one seemed to have heard or cared. The people in the elevator station all had their own worries, he guessed.
He stepped into the stairwell. Its fetid atmosphere made him queasy. It was squalid and dirty, an anomaly which didn't escape him in a civilisation where the slightest waste was a sin. Even the bodies of the dead were recycled. Yet the evidence was before his eyes. He tried to reconcile the contradiction but could not. It was yet another sign of how deep Terra's troubles ran.
Metal girded steps spiralled down a wide shaft whose walls were covered with graffiti. Some of the slogans looked as if they had been painted in blood and excrement. Or perhaps it was just his imagination?
Ajax shook his head.
He doubted that the robot cleaners had been this way in years. Many of the slogans effused violence:
Death or Freedom; Obliterate the Oppressors; Life or Damnation...
There were too many slogans for him to read but he did notice that several of the slogans were signed TDA and wondered what the letters stood for. He sighed. Terra was in big trouble and he had come to find out why. What was at the root?
Ajax had gleaned more than most in his fourteen years. He'd learnt that Terra had a population of a hundred and twenty million and was grossly overcrowded. The masses did not have sufficient food to survive. All food was very expensive and good food was the most expensive. The price of an apple was half a day's wages for the average citizen, which made the taste of fresh fruit a distant and youthful memory for most. Even the price of bread was wildly prohibitive. It was common for emaciated corpses to be found in the streets. Ajax had seen several. They were usually discovered by the robot cleaners or a member of the Guard and thrown down the nearest recycling chute. But sometimes other starving citizens ate them.
Ajax knew he was lucky. But he also knew it wouldn't last. The law decreed that all children must be raised in the dormitories by the state. The law and conditions granted the children were sufficient to force parents to surrender their newborn. It would have been impossible to raise a child in the city. People couldn't afford to feed themselves let-alone take responsibility for children. Notably, those who lived in the palace, at the apex of society, flouted the law.
And so Ajax lived apart from adult society. For most children, but not for Ajax, the organised dormitory life offered all they wanted and they grew up ignorant of city deprivation. But at the age of seventeen their innocence was shattered when they were deemed adult and allocated a place in the city.
The sound of his shoes on the metal steps resounded alarmingly so Ajax slowed and trod more timidly. The stairwell was dangerous and no place to attract attention; it sufficed as an excellent location for assault and murder, though for much of the time was deserted.
He passed a pair of doors on his left, which led to the uppermost city level, then descended another flight to the end of the stairwell where it levelled out to a short horizontal section before another pair of doors. Painted in faded blue numerals on the wall above the doors was a large seventy-four -- the level number. He anticipated the street outside. By stepping through the doors he'd be criminalised by his presence, for the city was forbidden to juveniles.
Ajax was tall for his age, which helped him remain anonymous. Although his height was no guarantee of safety as his baby features might easily betray him.
The doors didn't meet cleanly in the middle. Before he stepped out he peered through the central crack and watched the flow of cyclists and pedestrians. The cyclists weaved haphazardly through a river of pedestrians that flowed in both directions, ringing their bells incessantly. Ajax felt it miraculous that the people weren't constantly knocked down by the cyclists. He observed the melee for just two minutes, enough time to sense the crowd's sombre mood.
The street was a metre wider than the dormitory alleys. But, unlike the dormitory alleys, this street was always crowded. Even at night. The early evening was the worst, and it was that time now. Ground-level shops supported only two storeys of apartment blocks because, in the city, more space was needed below street-level for sewage and other utilities. A lot of the utilities, however, no longer functioned. The most notorious loss was the water system. The time when people had had access to clean running water was now not even a distant memory.
The city streets formed a grid. Each and every square of the grid was completely filled by a massive apartment block that touched the sky. Many blocks contained over two thousand separate apartments and nearly all of them were one-room affairs. Long ago, when the population had been much less, a one-room apartment would have been a great rarity.
Ajax glanced at the sky-panels, which illuminated the city day and night. They were as wide and as long as the streets below. He wondered what strange behaviour the panels mimicked. Their bluish brilliance was often covered with a patchy white nebulous haze. He shrugged. Whatever they mimicked it was beautiful, and beauty was in short supply in the city.
The sky had already begun to fade and reminded Ajax that his time was short. He loved it when the sky-panels glowed hues of reds, yellows and oranges and hoped they would tonight.
Someday I'll discover your secret.
As he walked he tried to avoid eye contact with the other pedestrians but noticed an occasional inquisitive glance in his direction, though no one seemed to be too interested. He glanced at the shops. They were barren, as always. He passed one that purported to be a grocery store. Maybe somewhere it contained vegetables but all he could see displayed was synthetic feedcake, the staple diet of the masses. The cake was dry and brown and tasted as bad as it looked. Ajax shuddered and was glad of the rations in his pack.
A cyclist's bell tinged and Ajax turned his head and sidestepped just in time to see the hapless cyclist topple from his bike. Ajax realised at once that the accident had been his fault. He wasn't used to the city and had stopped too suddenly outside a shop.
"Damn idiot!" cursed the cyclist.
Ajax's heart raced. The last thing he wanted was attention.
"Sorry," he apologised and then quickly lost himself amongst the throng, leaving a minor commotion in his wake.
He regained his composure and slowed to a steady gait. The next elevator station was four minute's walk and he had to constantly fight the temptation to hurry. He didn't want to attract the eyes of the Guard who regularly patrolled the streets. The penalties for juvenile trespass were harsh, several months' imprisonment at least, and he didn't relish the prospect of joining the one known only as Angel.
Angel's contrary appellation had been acquired before his first murder. Even the prison wardens referred to him as Angel. No one seemed to know his real name or if they did it was never used.
At the time of the murders Angel was a gangly blue-eyed fourteen-year-old with scruffy blond hair, a quiet loner whose silence created an aura of menace. He was convicted of the murders of five boys a couple of years ago. Events, now shrouded in mystic, occurred in the same dormitory where Ajax currently lived. Only Angel knows exactly what happened. But the popular story went something like this:
The other dormitory boys had been fearful of Angel for years. But for his awesome reactions and incredible skill with a knife, Angel always carried one, events might have come to a head much sooner. It was said, that with a sharp knife Angel could slice a fly clean in two, in mid flight.
Every boys' dormitory had someone who liked to rule the roost and Floyd had the misfortune to be the one in Angel's. Floyd was not bright and considered Angel's notorious reflexes an exaggeration. Moreover, Angel's silent presence was a threat to Floyd's authority. Confrontation was inevitable.
On the day Floyd died, so the story goes, he decided to assert his position as the dominant male and oust Angel from his bunk. Four friends aided Floyd. The next part of the tale is uncertain but the dormitory was closed for three weeks afterwards. Pieces of Floyd and his friends were found in a toilet. It was assumed that the rest of their remains disappeared down a recycling chute. When the dormitory reopened it sported a fresh coat of paint. But the paint didn't the cover the legend of Angel, which began at that moment.
Ajax walked on. The buildings were more derelict and the graffiti more prevalent. The next elevator station was in a rough area. The few windows that weren't cracked or broken were opaque from years of city grime. He read the slogans on the walls as he walked. Many of the sentiments were the same as those in the stairwells and some were signed with the letters TDA.
An old billboard advertisement from another age persuaded no one with its faded colours. It emitted a dull light that indicated that it had stood for centuries or, perhaps, much longer. The board used the similar light panels to those that displayed timetables at the academy and for all practical purposes the academy panels' light was eternal.
Another board caught his eye. The advert pictured a woman devouring a bread roll with, what looked like, a slice of feedcake down its centre. Ajax shuddered and knew at once that he didn't like hot-dogs, whatever they were?
The bustle on the streets noticeably thinned as he wandered into the city's red-light district. A cyclist whisked by at a higher speed than the narrow street warranted. Men and women gazed at lurid pictures in the shop windows. The shops catered to every type of paraphilia, some that Ajax had imagined and some that he had not. Many of the street people wore vacant expressions and feigned nonchalance. Ajax sensed that there was misery, not pleasure, in a lot of souls.
At first Ajax took only a cursory interest in the merchandise, for he had more important business. Then a young woman who sold sex from behind a glass window caught his eye. Her tight black attire and provocative pose excited him. But it was more than her come-on stance that caused him to falter. Her eyes were bright and fiery, and not desperate and hopeless like so many others. Ajax saw from her sign that her name was Lucy. She promised a glut of sexual excitement for those able to afford her scandalous fee. As he hesitated he felt his feisty physique stiffen but lingered only seconds, which was as long as his juvenile self-conscience would allow. He glanced furtively up and down the street to check that no one had witnessed his moment of weakness then walked on. Of course, none of the people were interested in him. Lucy's image still lingered on his mind as the next elevator station came into sight.
This station was wider and busier than the street. A small maintenance block was positioned near the entrance. The location of the emergency stairwell was the same in every station, which meant it would be situated at the rear. He weaved through the station crowd. The people flowed like lemmings, oppressive and empty, travelling to and from their duties at the recycling plants, food production areas and city treadmills. Beggars sat on the ground, their caps placed before them in desperate hope. Ajax noted they'd all had a poor harvest today. One had keeled over. Without closer investigation, it wasn't possible to tell whether he was alive or dead. The beggars' presence increased Ajax's unease and so it was with some relief that he entered the relative calm of the stairwell.
Ajax wasn't surprised to find that its walls were strewn with graffiti. A rancid smell of urine hung in the air. He walked down a flight of steps and suddenly froze. A man's body lay facedown on the horizontal section where the steps made a right angle. The man's dishevelled clothes were stained with blood and some had matted in his hair. It was clear the man had been killed by a severe blow to his head.
Scarcely worth the effort, thought Ajax.
The dead man looked penniless. His attacker might only have gained a few credits, at most.
Ajax was aware of the danger he was in and so didn't dally long and sidled past the body giving it a wide berth. Suddenly his heart raced, two people ascended the stairs towards him. It was impossible to tell if they carried weapons. He hesitated. As they got closer his heart steadied somewhat when he realised they were both women. He realised, however, that their sex wasn't much guarantee of his safety and that they might well be interested in the contents of his backpack. Then he noticed that both women wore smart clothes and the possibility of confrontation receded further in his mind, though he still maintained a wary guard. The shorter woman had an ugly, stern face, which was moderated only marginally by her blonde hair. The taller one was well-built with short red hair and brown eyes. Ajax thought it unusual to see two well-dressed people in the stairwells and wondered what business had brought them this way. Ajax quickened his pace as the women passed him by with no more than a cursory glance.
The stairwell ended at level seventy, where Ajax exited via another set of swing doors and rejoined the throng. The sight of the dead man coupled with the incongruous appearance of the women had left him on edge. Each new journey to the city troubled him more than his last, yet he was always driven to return and discover what lay beyond. The answers to his questions, and perhaps society's problems too, lay further down, he was sure. He'd find those answers or die trying.
The sky-panels had lost their brilliance a while back. But, as ever, the city streets were crowded. One city level was much like another and he continued to walk past run-down apartments supported by shops, which had nothing to offer but feedcake.
Then a shout up ahead drew his attention. Ajax quickly identified the cause of the commotion. A scrawny young woman was desperately pushing her way through the crowd as she fled and a shopkeeper stood outside his store and yelled frantically after her. The woman clutched an apple in her hand. It was obvious that starvation had driven her to the crime. Likely, she'd seen an opportunity and taken it.
Much wiser to steal feedcake, thought Ajax.
Apples were very expensive.
From nowhere, a member of the Guard blocked her path. He was dressed in the Guard's grey uniform. He drew his baton and struck a violent blow to her head. The woman fell to the ground and the apple tumbled from her hand. The shopkeeper seemed almost as stunned as the woman. Ajax watched the keeper hesitate and then retreat back inside his shop. The guard showed no such hesitation or any intention to return the woman's bounty to the keeper. Instead, he reached down and picked up the apple, dusted it off on his tunic, took a bite and strolled into the crowd. Ajax felt a desire to help the woman but knew he couldn't interfere, for he too was committing a crime. The entire incident seemed to pass the crowd by unnoticed even though people were forced to step over the woman's body and cyclists forced to weave around her. In the few seconds that Ajax was there, no one stopped to help her. Ajax moved on and tried to cast her image from his mind. She was, after all, only one victim of Terra's troubles.
A clock in a shop window showed six o'clock and reminded Ajax that his time was short. He had to reach the rural zones and the safety of his hideout; otherwise he might be caught. He didn't think he could survive a night in the city.
Access to the rural zones was very restricted. Some people went there only once or twice a year but most never did. Although the top echelons of Terra visited the rural zones frequently. The Guard, who enforced a nine o'clock curfew, patrolled the zones. But the clearing of the zones actually began an hour earlier, at eight. All unauthorised citizens had to be clear by nine or risk imprisonment and possibly death. The rural zones were a barrier between the city and Terra's lower levels, so this practice ensured that the masses remained ignorant of the world beyond.
As a young child Ajax had been told tales of fierce creatures that inhabited Terra's depths and of the dreadful fate that befell anyone foolish enough to venture there. But he quickly realised these tales were intended to foster fear. Hence, they only served to pique his interest, although they proved surprisingly effective on the masses.
Two hours remained before Ajax had to be in position. He descended the next few levels without incident and now stood on a horizontal section of a stairwell just above the recycling and life support levels. The support levels were almost as large as the city and were his last remaining difficulty between the city and the rural zones. Ajax had discovered a route directly through the support levels, straight down to the rural zones, but it was a cramped and dangerous passage.
By his side was a pair of doors that led out onto a street at the city's lowest level. On the wall in front of him, at a height of three metres, was a square metal grill that rested on the rim of an air duct. The grill was loose. Ajax had forced it free from its fastenings over a year ago on his first visit to the rural levels. Much as expected, and to his good fortune, it had never been repaired.
The fear of muggers kept the stairwells clear. They were the last quiet places left on Terra that were readily accessible to city folk. Ajax checked the coast was clear. Right now he was alone. He placed his foot on a lower door hinge, steadied himself with one hand on top of the door and hauled himself up. He was now standing precariously on the lower hinge. His hard shoes, which had been a nuisance in the stairwells, now helped him maintain his awkward position. If anyone came through the door he would be knocked flying. Although in all the times he had been this way, no one ever had. With a firm hand on the door, he brought his other foot up to rest on a higher hinge and then climbed up further and onto the top edge of door where he sat for a few wobbly seconds. Skilfully maintaining his balance, he leaned out and grabbed the grill. It came free easily but the door swayed unexpectedly and he almost dropped the grill. If that had happened he'd have been forced to retrieve it and waste valuable time. Much relieved, he placed the grill inside the air vent, then shrugged off his pack and put that in the vent too.
The easy part was over; the hard part was to get into the vent. He had practised this manoeuvre many times but it still didn't come easily. Nevertheless, three minutes later he replaced the grill behind him, an operation which the tightness of the vent made extremely difficult.
He wriggled along the shaft and pushed his pack ahead of him as he went. On previous occasions he'd dragged the pack behind him but that method had proved useless because it always snagged on protrusions from the shaft walls. Inevitably, he began to sweat. This section of his journey required much physical fitness; even more was required on the return journey. Ajax made steady but slow progress through cramped shaft. Every few seconds he had to stop and push the pack in front of him. It was stop-start motion all the way. The shaft was dusty, dark and hot. A cool headwind eased his discomfort but did not prevent his T-shirt from quickly becoming drenched with sweat. His clammy top clung uncomfortably to his body and the shaft floor played havoc with his knees. The problem with his knees was exacerbated by his shorts, which gave absolutely no protection. The shorts, however, were necessary for the descent ahead. Moreover, he couldn't make the return journey in trousers. After several minutes' toil he was grateful that his eyes had adapted to the darkness. Eventually he reached a six-way 3-D junction. Shafts extended to his front and rear, left and right, up and down -- a very long way down. He peered into the lower shaft that dropped away into blackness and shuddered. He considered it fortunate that he couldn't see the bottom. Ajax never cared much for heights, for he'd had little experience of them. The tallest buildings on Terra were only fifteen metres high. But his drive to uncover Terra's secrets easily overcame his acrophobia and he prepared for the descent.
In the confines of the shaft he struggled to remove his shoes and socks which took longer than he would have liked. Time was short. He had to reach the rural zones before they were closed off. He placed his shoes and socks in his pack and dropped it into the blackness. The pack continuously struck the shaft walls on its clangorous twelve-second descent and hit the ground with a dull thud that reverberated upwards.
Ajax shivered, twelve seconds was a long time to fall. Still, the walls had slowed the pack's descent.
Trying to cast all fear from his mind, he braced himself against the sides of the shaft and began his slow, steady descent to the bottom. He pressed his bare feet and legs against the shaft walls, which prevented him from plummeting after his pack and controlled his descent. It took a lot of energy to maintain his tight wedge and soon sweat stung his eyes and dripped from his elbows.
Approximately every ten metres shafts intersected his own and provided a ledge on which to snatch a breather, but he was constantly aware that his time was short and so could never rest for long. Every now and then he was in total darkness. At other times light from an intersecting vent illuminated his way, but only for a few metres.
The sweaty minutes passed.
After an interminable struggle he sighted his pack on the ground below. His spirits lifted. Soon he would be at the bottom. Finally, he dropped the remaining metre, narrowly missing his pack.
He was exhausted but felt as elated as a climber at the summit. He'd spent almost an hour in the shaft and knew it was too long and so had no time for self-congratulations if he was to make the sanctuary of his hideout by nightfall.
In front of him was another grill that he'd also loosened on a previous visit. He kicked away the grill, grabbed his pack and emerged into a short cave. A few steps later he stood in the lambent glow of the evening skies -- in the rural zones.
Ajax glanced around and breathed a sigh of relief; the Guard, who patrolled the rural zones on foot and on their fat-tyred bicycles, were nowhere in sight. But they were never out of sight for long.
He sat down and donned his shoes and socks while he surveyed the scene. Then drank the last of his water, stood up and lifted his pack onto his back. The grassy tor on which he stood met the sky a hundred metres up the slope from him. He wasn't perturbed that the hills touched the sky. It seemed natural. All the buildings in the city touched the sky. What did disturb him, however, was that the sky was held up in so few places. He could hardly believe it wasn't about to crash down on his head.
The weather was dry. Ajax was glad. On previous occasions when he'd ventured to the rural zones water had fallen from the sky. It seemed an incredible waste, for water was as valuable as life itself.
As he hurried down the slope it never ceased to amaze him how much his supposed education had omitted. Yet it was no real surprise that such beauty should be jealously guarded. Another sign of Terra's divisions lay in the distance, a kilometre away. He jogged towards it. Boats of many colours were anchored around the shores of a small lake. One or two people were about, enjoying the water, but no one who looked like a guard.
Rich woodland touched the lake's left-hand side. At the bottom of the hill was a meadow speckled with white and yellow. Ajax recalled that five months ago it had looked very different. In fact, everything had been different. The trees had been stripped of their leaves, the air colder and the ground hard and barren. Gone were the small creatures that fluttered about him now. Yet the place had still been beautiful and had possessed a crisp splendour.
He began to wonder if the rural zones followed a regular cycle but the idea had no time to root when, in the distance, a group of guards appeared on their bicycles silhouetted against the lake. They hadn't seen him yet, though, unfortunately, he wanted to go in their direction.
He crouched low and steadied his pace but the upward curve of Terra made it difficult to hide. Both edges of Terra were in view. At a fast walk it was possible to traverse the width of Terra in only six or seven minutes. This made it easy for the Guard to sweep the rural zones and hard for Ajax to avoid them. But at least he would pass by on the opposite side of the lake.
He was now only half a kilometre from the guards who were engaged in idle chatter. He had to get nearer to them before he could get farther away and even from the opposite side of the lake he would be clearly visible. He trembled at the prospect of arrest.
As he ran his pack bounced irksomely on his back and he felt a familiar yet intangible force try to shift him from his path. The force was always more pronounced at higher speeds. He was tired and the force caused him to misjudge a pothole. His foot landed awkwardly on its edge and his ankle twisted and tumbled him to the ground. He hit the grass hard.
Dazed, he sat up and examined himself for damage.
His ankle was tender.
Damn! He cursed himself for his carelessness.
There was a piece of litter on the grass nearby. The decay was here too.
He shook his head and looked towards the guards. Had they noticed him yet? No.
Relief. They were still engaged in idle chatter.
He picked himself up and took a few steps to test his ankle. It was swollen and painful. Then suddenly he heard a distant shout.
"Hey you! -- let's see some identification."
The guard's order carried easily through the still air. Ajax was stunned. One of the guards by the lake was pointing directly at him. Ajax felt a reflex adrenalin rush that instantly obliterated the pain in his ankle. He ran. There was no point in feigning innocence. The guard shouted again with more vehemence.
"You there! Stop!"
Ajax did not stop and the guards mounted their bikes when they realised he had no intention of obeying. But the guards were on the far side of the lake and in no position to arrest him yet.
Ajax ran desperately.
Dammit! So close to his hideout, and yet so far.
A man mooring his boat at the lakeside paused to witness Ajax's flight. An elderly couple sitting on a bench by the water turned their heads to watch the drama. Ajax fled by at a rapid limp. Why, he wondered, were these people so casual? Were they related to Harlan Kaminski, the supreme commander?
Ajax caught the boatman's eye and was shocked to recognise the man as the head of his academy. He prayed that the recognition was not mutual, for he'd surely be finished even if he escaped the guards.
In seconds the lake was behind him and he was running down a gravelled track that narrowed into a patch of dense woodland. He breathed deeply, already in oxygen debt, and snatched a glance over his shoulder. The guards were hidden behind the trees but he could hear their voices. On their bikes they would be catching him rapidly and wouldn't stay hidden for long.
He ran frantically and scanned the scrub at the track-side, searching for the wooden stump that marked the spot near his hideaway. The stump wasn't hard to find; its peculiar head-like shape marked it out. When he reached the spot Ajax turned off the track and through the bracken.
The bracken was thick. Thick enough, he prayed, to hide him. It wasn't by chance that he'd chosen this place for his hideout. As he ploughed through the scrub the brambles blooded his legs but he scarcely noticed them. Then the undergrowth cleared and he sighted the location of his hideout.
He could hear the guards, who were closer now.
At the centre of the clearing a gnarled bush hid his hideout and he hobbled over to it. His ankle twinged as he tugged at the bush. At first the bush didn't want to shift then, abruptly, it lifted. The bush's short roots were entwined to a trap door of woven branches. He checked the hole below, only a metre wide and less than that in depth, and wished he'd had time to make it larger. Bicycle tyres scrunched on the gravelled track behind. There was no time. The guards were urgent and angry.
He swung his pack from his back and dropped it into the hole then climbed in after. As he dragged the cover of woven branches above him, dirt and leaves showered down. Would the bush provide sufficient camouflage? It had too. His chest heaved. He tried to relax and calm his breathing and waited and listened.
Amazingly, the sound of bicycle tyres receded. The guards hadn't seen him leave the track! He breathed a momentary sigh of relief. So far, so good. But they'd be back, for sure. They'd expect to catch up with him and when they didn't, well, what then?
He waited and waited. The minutes slipped by. He could only hear the chirping of a few birds. Had he dodged them completely? Suddenly, his heart jumped again when he heard the sound of their bicycles return.
"The bastard's here somewhere."
"In the woods, I reckon."
"Did you get a good look at 'im, sir?"
"No. Could be a woman."
"What we gonna say, sir? I mean if he gets away?"
"Nothing, fool. We say nothing. Anyway, he's not gonna get away."
"No sir, he isn't."
Ajax's heart pounded.
"We're gonna search the entire area. You two take the meadows. Check he didn't double back. And you stay here and check the woods. I'll take the lake. If you don't find the bastard within an hour meet at the usual place. Got it?"
"Yes sir!" they replied in unison.
Ajax heard their bikes roll away on the gravelled track. After a moment's quiet he heard the sound of bracken crumpling under heavy boots and peered through the trap door above him. He could just see through a crack between two woven branches.
A guard entered the clearing above. The lack of decoration on his grey uniform identified him as a private. The guard had a large baton strapped to his waist and three gold concentric rings, the emblem of the Guard, stitched to the front centre of his cap. He walked close, very close. Another step and the two of them would be bedfellows. But the gnarled bush above Ajax's head caused the guard to halt.
One step from disaster. Ajax's heart slowed. He remained calm. He had too and his coolness in the face of danger pleased him. With the prospect of escape at hand he realised he had enjoyed the chase. It was the most exciting time of his life. He smiled when he thought of his dormitory inmates and their organised games.
The guard turned and walked towards a tree. To Ajax's utter amazement, the man sat down, leaned his back against the tree and lit a cigarette.
Guard efficiency, thought Ajax.
The guard had decided that the woods were here to be enjoyed and intended to enjoy them right now.
Ajax was no longer troubled by thoughts of imminent arrest.
The last of the evening light finally faded. It was the first time Ajax had seen the rural zones at night. He peered through the crack between the branches. The guard's cigarette glowed bright orange in the dusk. He watched the guard take another puff. The man didn't seem so dangerous now. Ajax looked up at the sky and noticed the sky-panels were as dark as he'd ever seen them. It never got this dark on the dormitory levels.
The woods were so dark that Ajax almost started to fear the blackness. Were the stories of devilish creatures true after all? Maybe they were based on partial fact? That would be bad enough. He tried to squash his sudden doubts as he watched the sky. Points of white light were speckled across its blackness. Many many points. As time passed the points of light gradually processed across the sky. They were much more prominent here than he'd ever seen them elsewhere.
The guard finished his third cigarette and flicked the butt into the undergrowth. Ajax wanted action. But the guard pulled his cap down over his face, closed his eyes and dozed. Ajax shrugged. The guard would have to move some time. After all, he had to rendezvous with his colleagues within an hour.
But time dragged and still the man didn't move.
Ajax had time to reflect. The upper levels were as much a puzzle as the lower ones. He didn't know where Terra began or ended, neither in time nor space. Indeed, he didn't know if Terra had a beginning or an end; but he wanted to find out. There could be thousands of levels beneath him now but he figured there were at most hundreds above.
At higher levels Terra's upward curve was more pronounced, so Terra was probably constructed as a series of decreasing concentric rings. Therefore there was a limit to the number of levels above. As for the number below, well, theoretically they could go on forever. But he had problems with that idea too.
The physical problems, however, were more than enough to trouble him but there were also the human problems. The children were permitted to know only what was required to become model citizens and no more. Ajax felt that important facts were deliberately kept from them. His teachers told him: Terra is all you see around you. There's no need to look beyond, for all you see is all you'll ever need.
It was a small-minded attitude that Ajax held in contempt but the majority of the population appeared to have resigned themselves to it and to the life they had. Ajax, however, knew he was not and never could be like the others.
His academy focused on mundane practical tasks, such as the operation of the recycling systems, the synthesis of food, the payment of taxes and the allocation of Terra's very limited space. Last, but not least, there was law and order. All these, Ajax conceded, required an education.
Many arcane topics were also covered, such as the individual's place in society, the ethics of deprivation and the benefits of an autocratic society. The list was endless. He lamented that very little was of any interest to him. There was much he wanted to know that was never touched on.
Beyond age fourteen, physical science was given short shrift. Its bounds at the academy were dictated by the necessity to run the recycling systems. And usually this was just basic systems operation, button pushing and the like. No intricate working details were ever mentioned. Fortunately, the recycling systems rarely malfunctioned. But they were poorly understood. The consequences of a major failure would be catastrophic. This thought had often troubled Ajax. But his tutors didn't seem to care or, in some cases, even think of these problems. Perhaps the people were too afraid to ask the questions, never mind obtain the answers?
A twig snapped and cut short Ajax's meditations. He peered out.
The guard was awake and sitting upright and repositioning his cap assiduously. The guard stood up and trod his way back through the bracken.
Ajax was left alone at last. His time had come to discover the secret of Terra.
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