Chapter One

I’ve been lucky today.  

I’ve slept.  

And it’s a rare treat, like the scent of clean air or not having to watch my back for the Powers-that-Be.

It’s Taylor who’s woken me with his relentless picking at the handcuffs that trap him into our world.  It’s a task he’s committed himself to for every waking moment since we captured him.  It’s part to annoy us as a Pod and part to keep us all on our toes in case he manages to miraculously pry them off.  

I can’t see him doing the second part, but you never know with him.  

The annoying part he exceeds at and it’s kept us all on our toes, just in case.  

I continue to watch him with a bubbling admiration that I would never let him or the other Pod members know about.

He’s a beast of a person, really.

He’s strong and determined and aggressive, like I’ve never seen in anyone before.  And he’s right in his own assessment that he’s hard to kill.  

They say if the world was ever destroyed the only thing that would survive are cockroaches. 

I think they’re wrong.

It would be cockroaches and Taylor, and the thought makes me wish once again that he was one of us, or at least fighting on our side.

I stare at the others – Spencer, Kuro, Diego, Rasa and Chantal.  Apart from Rasa, who continues to come in and out of unconsciousness, the others sleep, unaware that Taylor is plotting to kill them given a snippet of a chance.  He’s desperate to go back to Quadrants 5-to-8 and be one of Ilse’s Elite Soldiers for the Powers-that-Be.  I can see it in his eyes that if he can somehow escape and warn the crew of Shifting Horizons he’d be a hero and get the kudos he so desperately wants.

He’d have won.

He suddenly smiles, more to himself, before he stops picking at the mechanism of the handcuffs, letting his eyes come up to rest on mine.

We stare at each other and I feel a weary unease begin to take hold.  

He’s fighting to get into my Soul, somehow picking at it like he is the handcuffs.  I’m not sure what he sees, or even if he understands what he’s looking at.  I’m aware that I’m glimpsing parts of him I’ve not seen before and I see a dark, troubled interior that is waiting to revenge the wrongs which have been inflicted upon him.

I get it.

I’ve been there myself.

I want to tell him I get it too.

But it’ll be wasting my time, because he’s no different from the Wardens and the Court Officials and the Judges and the Lawyers and Ilse, and all those who have done their best to try and destroy my life.  They have listened to the propaganda around them and have made up their minds long before they had looked at the truth that so blatantly stares them in the face.  Taylor can’t even see that he has the option to think and behave differently.  

To take a different view to what he is thinking now, even for a few minutes.  

Omar taught me that you can do it, you can change your thoughts and opinions.  

It’s not always easy.  

It’s tough.  

But it can be done.  

And Taylor is locked on course, like Shifting Horizons is locked on course to dock in our Quadrant, and there’s nothing I can do or say to alter anything.

So I won’t.

I’ll accept it.

I have, too.

Taylor steps back and leans against the steel walls of the Hold, which has been our home for the last ten days and ten nights, and slowly slides to the floor, keeping his eyes locked on mine.

His smile has changed and it’s somewhere between a sneer and a laugh, but more edged towards the sneer.

I think about closing my eyes and ignoring him as I have for most of the journey, but I don’t this time.  

I keep staring.

Waiting.

Wondering.

Worrying, even.

‘You’re a cruel, person, Ned.  The cruellest I’ve ever encountered.’

‘How so?’ I say.

‘You know how so.’

I do, but I disagree with him.  He’s given us all no choice.  

We’ve kept the handcuffs on him twenty-four-seven.  He’s been cuffed to the wall via a rope as thick as my ankle, or cuffed to Diego and Spencer when he’s been allowed his hour’s walk around the Hold.  And he’s slept in the transport box out of protest, but we’ve kept him cuffed in there, his cuffed arm always at an uncomfortable angle, the rope, pulled tight for his night’s sleep.

It’s cruel and to add to his anger and isolation, we released Suki from her handcuffs after two days.  

She’s been the model prisoner.  Keeping quiet and doing as we asked but, more importantly, she’s kept her distance from Taylor, siding with us in attitude if not in voice.  

Something has changed within her and I don’t know what it is, but I sense she’d rather take her chances as a Denounced in our Quadrant than a free Elite Soldier in the World of the Powers-that-Be.  

As we all know, it’s a tough choice, but she’s made the right one, or that’s what I think.

But not Taylor.

She’s now someone else to add to his hate list, which I’m sure is long.

He continues, his voice a whisper but somehow penetrating.  

‘You’ve treated me like a wild dog and I’m gonna make you pay for what you’ve done to me.’

‘And how are you going to do that?’

‘I don’t know.  But I’ll get my time again.  You’ll see.’

‘I might throw you off the boat.  Watch you sink to the ocean floor.  Then we’ll have a party afterwards to celebrate.’

‘Fake words from a fake man.’

‘Don’t tempt me.’

‘You would have done it by now if you were going to do it.  It’s not in you, Ned.  You have strange ideas about what is going to happen to you, and what is right and wrong.  But I’ll tell you what is going to happen to you.  You’re going to land back home and they’ll catch you in a heartbeat, and then they’ll laugh at you for being the most stupid Denounced of all time.  Then while they’re still laughing at you, they’re going to put a rope around your neck and then pull the lever and watch you fall through the trap door, and the last thing you’ll hear before your neck snaps is their howls of laughter.’

‘Is that right,’ I say.  

I know I’m forcing my smile and trying to pretend I’m cool, but there’s a sprinkling of truth in what Taylor is saying to me.

More than a sprinkling, really.  

He’s scaring me and he knows that he is.  

His smile is more confident than mine and I wish I was a better actor than I am.

‘You had it all, Ned.  Ilse wanted you to be her protege.  You were her Star Pupil and she was lining you up to be an Elite within the Powers-that-Be.  We could have all ridden your wave.  We could have all been Stars under you.  You could have protected us all like you so desperately want to, but just in a different way.  You could have had your own power-base.  People would have pretended to follow the Powers-that-Be, but they would really be followers of Ned.  Then after we had won the Unification War, you could have had it all.  The Power.  The Control.  The Fame.  The Digital Credits.  You could have saved as many Denounced as you wanted.  But more than all that.  You could have had your Freedom.  FREE… DOM.  And you threw it away to prove your innocence.  Something that’s never going to happen. EV… ER.  Watch my lips, Ned.  EV… ER.’

‘Shut up.  You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Whatsup?  You scared?  You should be.  The laughing, Ned.  That’s all you’re going to hear.  Laughter at your stupidity.  The Denounced who was free and who returned to be hung.’

I start to sweat with anger and fear and hate.  

I want my freedom, but I want it on my terms.  I’m not a Denounced and I’m not Ilse’s puppet or the Powers-that-Be or even Omar’s.  

I own myself and that’s how it will always be.

‘Listen to me, Ned.’  Taylor’s voice dropping to a guttural whisper.  ‘All you have to do is release me from these cuffs.  Then we shake hands.  Be partners.  You and me.  Then we go upstairs together and tell the crew to turn this boat around.  The Powers-that-Be won’t punish them for missing the next pick-up if it’s you who returns.  We’ll be heroes, Ned.  True Elites.’

‘Forget it.’

He smiles.

‘I tell you what.  Why don’t you wake the others and put it to the vote?’

‘Their minds are made up.  We’re going home.’

‘Your mind is made up.  Spencer still wants revenge on our Quadrant, if I’m right.  And I am.  He’s a real, man.  You’re the weak one, Ned.  You think you’re strong, but going back to our Quadrant is a sign of weakness not strength.’

Taylor raises his hands and presents them to me.  

The rope we used to attach him to the steel ring in the wall goes taught.  

He tugs at it hard and fast.  

Anger and frustration fuelling his sneering smile.

‘Come on, Ned.  Let’s put it to the vote?  Or, even better, you can be a real leader and make a decision by letting me go.  After you do, we’ll head upstairs and do this thing they call destiny.’

I stand, slow and deliberate.  

Taylor matches me.  

He’s hyped.  He’s been practicing his speech for days and now he’s said his bit, he wants his answer.

I walk towards him.  

There’s a metre between us, less.  

I can smell the hatred on his breath. 

It’s hot. 

I can see it in his eyes.

It burns bright.  

‘The only person who is laughing is me … at you.  I’m laughing, because you don’t get it and never will.  You should join us.  We’d be stronger with you, I can’t deny it.’

‘I’m not going back.’

‘You have no choice.  Change is coming.  Peaceful change.  The System is going to fall and it’s not going to be via a Unification War.  No more hangings.  No more Denounced.  No more Doubters.  We’re all going to be free to choose our own lives.’

Taylor yanks at the rope, his anger boiling over.

‘I’m going to kill you, Ned.  And I’m going to enjoy doing it.  Piece by piece.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ I say, walking towards the Hold door.

‘You’re a coward.  You always were and you always will be.  I want you to come back and kick me in the teeth again.  Kick me while I’m tied up.’  

He yanks so hard at the rope it makes me turn back.  I watch him kneel and he juts out his chin towards me.  

‘Come on.  Do it.  I know you want to.  It’ll make you feel good.  It’ll make you feel like a real man.  Something you will never be.  I’m giving you the chance to be an adult, even for a few split seconds.’

He starts to laugh at me.  

It’s low at first, but gets louder by the second and I think he looks more like a wild dog than any wild dog I’ve ever seen.  

I turn again from him and put my hand on the handle of the Hold door.

‘Ned?’ He says.

There’s something in his voice that makes me stop and turn back once more.

‘What?’ I say.

‘Rasa.’

‘What about her?’

‘She’s going to die and I’m going to bury you next to her.’

‘Is that right,’ I say, turning and stepping out of the Hold, closing the door behind me.

‘Yeah, that’s right,’ he shouts, his voice echoing behind me.