CHAPTER I - The Wrong Place

VICTORY OF SOULS

The road was badly rutted, riddled with potholes. The ancient transport vehicle was jolted and jarred as it sped along, seemingly in great haste to be rid of its cargo. As it swung from side to side, the pain from her wrists as she was pitched forward and the handcuffs chaining her to the side of the van tightened behind her back alternated with the sharp metal edge of the bench digging into her legs as she was wrenched backwards again.

The black girl sitting opposite was staring intently at her, making her feel uncomfortable. Suddenly, the girl grinned, “You a rich bitch, ain’t ya?”

“No, not really, I...”

“Who you kidding: gold necklace, white silk blouse, smart navy skirt, fancy goggles. I just know them shiny black leather shoes I seen were yours, too. Course you’re a rich bitch.” The black girl laughed, “You gonna lose all that stuff when we get to the henhouse. They say you’ll get it back when you get out, but it always goes missing. You shoulda given your necklace to one of your rich friends at the courthouse.”

“I never had chance, I...”

“What you in for, anyway, Rich Bitch?”

“Erm, er... they said it was, er... conspiracy to aid rebellion, I think they called it, but I didn’t do anything, I’m innocent, I...”

“Can the sob story, Rich Bitch, no-one wants to hear it.”

“My name isn’t Rich Bitch; it’s Cindy.”

“Cindy what?”

“Cindy-Anne-Marie Palmerston”

The black girl laughed, “Cindy fucking Anna Maria fucking Palmerston; Jesus Christ, you’re gonna have a hard time in the henhouse, honey. You’d be better off sticking with Rich Bitch.  How long did you get, anyway?”

“I don’t want to say, I’m too... I don’t want to talk about it, it’s not fair,” she hung her head so her hair fell across her face and the black girl couldn’t see her crying.

“Life ain’t fair, Rich Bitch. Suit yourself, I’ll find out sooner or later. Bet your Daddy’ll get you out quicker than most of us, anyway. You wanna know what I’m in for?”

Cindy shrugged, “I don’t really care.”

“Assault with a deadly weapon; I got three years. You wanna know what I did?”

Cindy shrugged again.

“Carved some stupid cunt up with a knife, that’s what I did. So, you’d better watch your back, Rich Bitch, I might decide to slash that pretty face of yours just for fun.”

Cindy couldn’t believe it. The black girl was being sent to the same place for attacking someone with a knife, when she’d done nothing at all. Nothing except be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Was it really only nine days since she’d been arrested; it felt like months. It was hard to think clearly, she felt so disoriented; she’d had very little sleep, hardly any food either. She was starving. Surely they would be fed when they got to the prison?

She knew it had been Monday, the Twenty-sixth of September, GIMD 177, she could remember that. It was a date she’d been looking forward to for months: her first day at Anderson Price. She’d been so proud to be starting work as a graduate trainee at the prestigious financial services firm. There’d been a lot of competition for the job, but the interviews had gone really well. They seemed to be keen on her family background and impressed by the voluntary work she did for her parents’ church group. When she got a first class master’s degree in global crypto-finance, the firm confirmed her job offer and she accepted without a moment’s hesitation.

She’d worked as a waitress all summer, putting in extra shifts whenever she got the chance, so she could afford some new clothes to wear when she started at Anderson Price. She had a little money left over, so she bought herself a gold necklace to complete her outfit. It was nothing special, but to her it was precious, the first time she’d had chance to treat herself to something nice. She had to hide it from her parents as she set off for work that first day. As devout Believers, they considered jewellery to be a form of sinful self-worship. They weren’t keen on her new clothes either, but she explained she would be expected to dress smartly if she wanted to fit in.

The day had started normally enough. She’d arrived at reception early, where she’d been collected by the human assets manager, a friendly Polish woman called Magda, who’d taken her up to Anderson Price’s offices for induction. After an hour of running through procedures, working hours, holiday entitlement, salary, benefits, pensions, and several other matters, Magda smiled, “So, one last thing, I have to ask for our medical records, are your spectacles required to correct your vision, or are they just a fashion accessory?”

“Er, no... I need them. I’m er... a little short-sighted and I have astigmatism in my left eye.”

“I see. Have you never considered surgery?”

“Er... er, no, er... you see my parents... er, well, I mean, our faith tells us we should be as we are born, as the Creator intended; corrective surgery is a vanity, er... a type of self-worship. It is against our church’s teachings. Not that I think it’s wrong for other people to do it if they want.”

“That’s a relief,” Magda laughed, “I had my eyes fixed when I was a teenager. I’d hate to think you thought I was sinful. But, for the record: do you need to wear your spectacles all the time?”

“Yes, I do, really. I mean, I can sort of cope without them for a bit, but it gives me a headache after a while.”

“OK, I understand. I’ll put that in your record. I can’t imagine it will ever be an issue, but you never know. I need to be thorough.”

“Of course,” Cindy nodded.

Magda smiled again, “Well, that’s it then, Cindy-Anne-Marie we’re all done; welcome aboard.” She gestured at the device sitting on the side of her desk, “Just pop your hand in the wrist-buzzer to acknowledge you accept our terms and conditions, and you will be an official Anderson Price employee.”

Cindy put her hand in the round hole at the front of the machine and there was a momentary buzz as it recorded her new status on the microchip embedded in her wrist. The sound gave the device its nickname.

“Good,” said Magda, “I’ll show you to your desk. You’ll be on eighty-four, working under Benji Chakrabarti, alongside Niko Watanabe. She’s new too, only started in March. I think you’ll get along well. But do keep an eye on the time; Mr Anderson is expecting you at eleven. He likes to see all the new recruits, especially the pretty girls.” Magda laughed, but the comment made Cindy uncomfortable. She hoped it was a joke.

Benji was friendly, he made her feel welcome; and Niko seemed nice, although a bit reserved. Cindy was looking forward to working with them both. At five to eleven she took the elevator up to the eighty-sixth floor. Anderson’s personal assistant showed her to a plush leather sofa, where she sat waiting for about twenty minutes until the firm’s senior partner opened the door to his office and smiled at her. “Come in, it’s er... Cynthia-Annette, isn’t it?”

“It’s Cindy-Anne-Marie, sir, although I usually just go by Cindy,” she said, getting to her feet and walking to the open door.

“Oh, yes, that was it. You don’t need to call me sir, Cindy; we’re all on first name terms here. Call me Andy.”

He held out his hand and she shook it. Then he put his other hand gently on her back and directed her to the chair opposite his massive oak desk. As he touched her, she was reminded of Magda’s comment about him liking to see the pretty girls. She tensed, afraid he might go further. Her parents had warned her about men’s uncontrollable desires, taught her to avoid being alone with them whenever possible, so she could keep herself pure until they found someone suitable for her to marry.

She sat down hastily. He walked around to the other side of the desk and sat facing her. He smiled again, “Well, Cindy, I’ve read your file. I’m expecting good things from you. I am sure you will make an excellent addition to our team. You’ll certainly brighten up the office,” he laughed. Again she felt uncomfortable. She pulled her skirt down over her knees and had to suppress a desire to button her blouse up to the neck.

“And you’ve enhanced our denominational profile; that’s always good for us,” he continued; “you’re a member of the New Believer Fundamentalist Church, I understand?”

“Er, yes, it’s my parents’ church; I was inducted when I was seven.”

“And you do some missionary work, I believe; rehabilitating reborns after they’ve recanted?”

“Yes, I do. I hope that’s not a problem. I won’t let it interfere with my work here.”

“No, no problem at all. In fact, I would urge you to continue. It’s very help...”

He broke off and looked up sharply as there was a commotion outside. Cindy turned around to see what he was looking at. Through the blinds on the glass wall of his office, she could see dark figures pouring out of the lift. She recognised them from the holovision, GES officers, the Global Enforcement Service, also known as hyenas. The armed security men wore dark helmets that obscured their faces, polymer body armour, and each carried a high-powered pulse weapon. They were ordering the firm’s staff to get on their knees, hands behind their backs.

Anderson jumped up and ran to the door. Jerking it open, he shouted, “What is the meaning of this?”

One of the GES men stepped forward, his pulse rifle aimed at the senior partner’s chest, “Andrew Anderson?”

“Yes”

“You are charged with treason. I am here to take you into custody.”

“Treason; that’s absurd, you have no grounds for this. I demand...”

“You will demand nothing. You are under arrest, along with your associates. Resistance will be considered an act of aggression against the Glorious Imperial Mendorian State. I am authorised to summarily execute aggressors.”

“This is ridiculous; you cannot do this, I...”

“Take him,” the GES man nodded at two hyenas who grabbed Anderson’s arms, swiftly handcuffed him, and led him away.

Cindy watched, frozen in astonishment, as the GES men handcuffed Anderson’s PA, and the rest of the Anderson Price staff, kneeling on the floor. After a few minutes, another lift arrived and the hyenas started taking the terrified office workers away. She was frightened to move, even to breathe; she could scarcely believe what was happening. For a while, she thought she might be overlooked. Then one of the hyenas spotted her. He marched up to the door of Anderson’s office and pointed a pulse rifle at her head, “On your knees, hands behind your back, rebel scum.”


*


The hyenas roughly manhandled her into the lift, then into the back of a cramped van with a dozen other Anderson Price employees. They were driven to the imperial courts where they were each locked in a separate underground cell. There was a thin strip of faint light shining under the door from the corridor beyond, but otherwise it was completely dark. As her eyes adjusted, Cindy realised how tiny the cell was. There wasn’t enough room to lie down. Not that there was anything to lie on. She sat on the concrete floor, sliding awkwardly down the wall with her hands cuffed behind her back. She couldn’t even stretch out her legs; she had to tuck them up against her chest.

What in the name of Saint Simon was going on? What had she been caught up in? It must all be a crazy mistake. How could anyone at Anderson Price be involved in treason, it was one of the most reputable firms in the region. It didn’t make sense. Even if someone there was a secret rebel, it couldn’t be Anderson himself, surely?

She tried to stay calm. It was a frightening experience, but she was sure it wouldn’t take the GES men long to realise she was innocent. She’d only been at Anderson Price a few hours, after all.

She had no idea how long she’d been in the tiny cell when the door suddenly opened, the dazzling light flooding in. “On your feet, scum,” a voice ordered as she blinked. She tried to struggle up, but her muscles had stiffened after hours sitting on the cold floor.

“Get up,” the voice repeated, and she felt a metal baton hit the side of her head. Desperate to avoid being struck again, she somehow hauled herself onto her feet.

“Come on, I haven’t got all day,” a rough hand grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the cell, then pushed her staggering along the corridor towards a distant doorway. “Quick march,” snarled the hyena, prodding her from behind with his baton to keep her moving.

“Please, what’s happening? I haven’t done anything, where are you taking me?”

“Silence,” snapped the hyena, jamming his baton hard into the small of her back.

They went through the doorway and continued along the corridor for a couple of minutes then the hyena ordered her to halt next to a plain grey, steel door. He put his hand into a wrist-buzzer set in the wall and the door opened. He pushed her inside and she found herself in an interview room. There was a steel table in the centre with a comfortable office chair on one side, and a small metal stool on the other. The stool had a short chain attached at the back. The hyena pushed her down onto the stool and clipped the chain to her handcuffs. He switched off the lights before closing the door, plunging her into darkness once more.

Again, she had no sense of how much time was passing. Her fatigue, her hunger, her thirst... were growing intolerable. Many times, she dropped off to sleep, only to be jerked awake as she began to topple off the stool and the chain pulled on her aching wrists. Then, abruptly, the room was flooded with light. She blinked, shaking herself awake; trying to prepare for what was to come... although she had no idea what that would be.

Someone grabbed her arm from behind, forcing her hand into some sort of opening. She started to panic, what were they doing to her? “Please, don’t hurt me, please, I...”

“Relax, I’m just reading your wrist-chip,” said a woman’s voice; “hold still and you won’t get hurt.” There was a buzzing sound for a few seconds; then the woman released Cindy’s arm. She walked around the table and sat in the leather chair opposite, tapping the portable wrist-buzzer in her hand as she studied the report on her tablet. At last she looked up. She pressed a button on the side of the table. A red light came on, and she began to speak, “This is Detective Chief Inspector Bolade Yakubu, commencing interview with suspect one-two-four in the Anderson Price Case logged as case one-seven-seven-oh-eight-nine, time is nine twenty-three a.m. on, er...what’s the date?”

“It’s the twenty-seventh,” responded a voice that seemed to come out of the walls.

“Right, yeah, thanks Tomkins. Wednesday is it?”

“No, Tuesday, all day; you should get out more, Yakubu.”

“Yeah, I know,” the inspector laughed; “so, for the record, it is now nine twenty-four a.m. on Tuesday, the Twenty-seventh of September in the one hundred and seventy-seventh year of the Glorious Imperial Mendorian Dynasty.” Looking back down at her tablet, she continued, “Cindy-Anne-Marie Palmerston, by authority of the Glorious Imperial Mendorian State, I hereby formally charge you with the following crimes: membership of, or association with, an organisation prohibited by imperial law; conspiracy to aid rebellion; conspiracy to incite rebellion; commission of an act of rebellion; and, of course, the big one, treason. You will have an opportunity to enter your pleas at a preliminary hearing, date to be set by the court. The purpose of this interview is to establish the degree of your guilt and to allow you to enter a confession in mitigation of your crimes and to support the ongoing efforts of the Global Enforcement Service to bring a lasting peace to our planet. Full co-operation is actively encouraged as it may lead to a reduction in the length or severity of your sentence. If you remain silent, it will be taken as an admission of guilt on all counts.”

Yakubu put down her tablet and looked Cindy in the eyes, “I wouldn’t recommend that. Two of them carry the death sentence. So, Palmerston, what can you tell us about the secret rebel financing operations run through Anderson Price?”

“N-nothing,” Cindy shook her head; “please, I don’t know anything. I only started this morning, I mean yesterday morning now...”

“These are serious charges, Palmerston; the more you tell me, the better your prospects. What was your role in the rebel financing network?”

“I didn’t have any role, I haven’t done anything. I’m not a rebel; I’ve never had anything to do with any rebels. Please... how much more of this torment are you going to put me through?”

“As much as it takes, Palmerston, we have to be thorough, this is a serious case. Anderson Price’s activities have threatened the stability of the empire. We know the firm was a front, used to finance reborn rebel operations in the region, perhaps even globally. Anything you can tell us, even minor details, will be helpful... to us, and to you.”

“But, I’m just a trainee, I just started, I was only there a few hours before the GES men arrived.”

“Well, your wrist-chip corroborates that, but the rebels are getting pretty good at falsifying the records, so we can’t be sure. Tell me, Palmerston, why were you in Anderson’s office when we arrived. Seems unlikely for a trainee?”

“It was my first day. He... Anderson, I mean, he likes to see all the new recruits. Please,” she coughed, “can I get some water. Please?”

“When you’ve answered my questions, Palmerston.”

After almost two hours of interrogation from Yakubu, Cindy’s voice was hoarse, rasping in her throat. “Please... I need water.”

Yakubu leaned forward and said, “This interview is now concluded. Time is eleven nineteen a.m. on Tuesday, Twenty-seventh of September, in the one hundred and seventy-seventh year of the Glorious Imperial Mendorian Dynasty; Chief Inspector Bolade Yakubu signing off.”

The inspector pressed another button in the side of the table and the red light went off. Then she sat back in her chair, her hands clasped in front of her, fingers intertwined. She nodded, “Bring her water, Tomkins.” A few minutes later, a hyena appeared, holding a bottle with a straw sticking out the top. He put it on the table in front of Cindy. She leaned forward and sucked gratefully on the liquid.

“You know, Palmerston,” Yakubu said at last, “I could have subjected you to some more intense interrogation techniques. Some of my colleagues would, they enjoy that sort of thing. But I don’t like to do it for its own sake. And I’ve got a feeling you might be telling the truth: doesn’t happen very often in here.” She sighed, “I feel sorry for you. It looks like it was just bad luck, you starting at Anderson Price yesterday. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you kinda got scooped up with the rest of them. It’s a pity; you seem like a nice girl.”

“So, can I go now? Please? My parents will be worried about me.”

Yakubu smiled sympathetically and shook her head, “I’m sorry, Palmerston, I don’t have that authority. You’ll need to have a preliminary hearing and enter a plea, that’s the way it works.”

“Will they let me go then?”

Yakubu sighed again, “It’s not my place to comment on court proceedings, but I very much doubt it. They’re likely to put you on remand until you get a date for a formal trial.”

“You mean they would send me to prison?”

“Yeah,” Yakubu nodded, “that’s what I mean.”

“But they can’t, I haven’t done anything wrong. You said it yourself, it was just bad luck. Surely, I could get bail until the trial?”

“Unlikely. They’re after blood for this; they’ll be pushing for as many treason convictions as they can get. The judge won’t grant bail for anyone on a treason charge. They’ll probably send you to Fort Niflheim.”

“You don’t mean the hard labour camp in North Greenland?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“But... but... how long would I be there?”

Yakubu shrugged, “A year, maybe eighteen months; there’s no way of knowing. The courts have got a large backlog, and the Anderson Price case is gonna take up a lot of time. Look, you’re small fry, one of the minnows, there’s a good chance they’ll accept a plea bargain; I’d go for that if I was you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Plead guilty to one of the lesser charges. Based on the evidence I’ve gathered here, you should get a pretty short sentence. You could get it over and done with and be back with your parents by next spring.”

“But why should I plead guilty to something I haven’t done?”

Yakubu stood up and started walking towards the door.

“Please, you know I’m innocent, can’t you help me?”

“I’ve already helped you as much as I can,” Yakubu switched off the lights and closed the door.


*


Tomkins took her back to her tiny cell and locked her in again. In the dark, silent solitude, there was no way to measure the passage of time, she couldn’t tell the difference between minutes, hours, and days. All she had to go on was the growing hunger pains in her stomach and the agony in her bladder. Eventually, she succumbed to the latter, relieving herself in the corner of the cell. After that, the smell of urine became a new torment to add to the rest.

She must have slept, because she dreamed. She was in bed, looking down at a man. She could feel the strength of her love for him, stronger than any emotion she’d ever known. But there was other love in her heart; the love of a mother for her child, and it was tearing her apart.

“I don’t like it, Suze, Sparks is pulling some kind of trick,” the man said.

She sighed, “Well, I don’t trust him either, but I have to go. If there’s a chance I can persuade them to adopt some sensible, reasonable measures for everyone’s safety, instead of locking up millions of innocent children...”

“Yeah, well we’ve got our own innocent child locked up, or had you forgotten about Ollie when you decided to fly off to New York?”

“She’s the other reason I’m going, Ben. Sparks virtually promised her appeal would be granted this time if I go.”

The man sighed, “Well, I guess you’d better go then. But please be careful, Suze. I still don’t trust Sparks. He’s up to something, I know it. I...”

Cindy woke, dragged abruptly back to reality, though she had no idea what had woken her. She was horrified, deeply ashamed. She was in enough trouble already, and now she’d had one of her forbidden dreams… here, in the courthouse. In a panic, she got on her knees and prayed for forgiveness, as her parents had taught her. But she was unable to pay her penance. She was frightened praying alone would not be enough; the Creator would punish her for her sin. She would have to pay penance as soon as she got the chance.

The forbidden dreams had plagued her since childhood. They started when she was eight, too young to understand how dangerous they were, but her parents warned her about their sinfulness. She would go to Hell unless she cleansed herself by paying penance. Her father helped by administering her penance for her. The dreams came and went over the years. They were at their worst when she was in her early teens. Sometimes, she hadn’t told her father. She knew the penance was for her own good, but when she began having the dreams every night, it started hurting too much. She would still be sore from the night before, she didn’t want to pay penance again. So she lied to her parents and said she’d had ordinary dreams. She sighed. That was probably why all this was happening to her now. She hadn’t paid penance for all her forbidden dreams and the Creator was punishing her. Now she’d failed to pay penance again. He was sure to send her to Fort Niflheim. Would a year’s hard labour be enough to make up for all the penance she owed?

She hadn’t noticed the hatch in the bottom of the door until it slid open. Squinting to see in the sudden brightness pouring through from the corridor, she saw a hand placing a bottle of water and a bowl of food on the floor, then the hatch slid closed. It took a minute for her to adjust to the darkness again. She crawled to the bottle and guzzled the water, assuaging her desperate thirst. Then she looked at the bowl. There was a kind of brown sludge in it. It smelled awful. But she was starving. She tried to reach around with her hands to pick up the bowl but she soon realised it was impossible. In the end, her only option was to bend down and eat like a dog.

The food was disgusting, but having something in her stomach made her feel better. She sat against the wall and slowly drifted off to sleep again.