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Mileway Maximum Security Prison, Outer London
12 April 2113
The first time I notice the new inmate is when we’re all lined up outside our cells for morning head count. He’s standing five doors down from me, sneaking glances at the rest of us as the guards wave their wrist-scanners across our hips to read the spytags that are implanted when we first get here.
His blond hair is cropped close and the white T-shirt straining across his gut is crisp and fresh; he must have arrived in the night. When his gaze lands on me, he does a double take, just as I knew he would. Watching him out of the corner of my eye, I can tell what he’s thinking as clearly as if he’d said it out loud: A girl? Here? What the hell?
And then, so quickly I almost miss it, a smile flickers across his lips, his eyes narrowing as his surprise turns to anticipation. A girl. Here. What’re the chances?
I curl my lip into a snarl, half tempted to go over there and introduce him to my fists. What a creep. But what did I expect? At Mileway, I stand out like . . . well, like a seventeen-year-old female in a prison full of men.
One of the guards, dressed in a black ACID uniform, reaches me. “Strong, JennaPrisoner ID 4347X,” he intones. I clasp my hands behind my back, gazing straight ahead, feeling Creep’s stare drilling into me. “What’s she in for?” I hear him ask one of the other guards. The guard doesn’t answer, just scans his hip and moves on down the line.
After the count, breakfast is served: cereal and watery substitute milk. A lot of the food we get here is sub–super-cheap, made out of synthetic protein. Real food isn’t worth wasting on criminals. As usual, I eat standing up, leaning against a pillar by the catwalk in front of the cells, one foot tucked up behind me. “This crap gets worse every day,” one of the guys at a nearby table grumbles, lifting up his spoon and letting the mushy gray cereal plop back into his bowl. Neil Rennick, ex–Anarchy Regiment, who, ten years ago, blew up an ACID van with fifteen agents inside it, before going on the run. ACID finally caught up with him last year, and a month after his arrival he tried to corner me in my cell, which is how he got the scar that runs from his right eyebrow to the corner of his jaw. I got five weeks in solitary, but it was worth it. Now he leaves me alone, just like everyone else.
“They’re trying to kill us, is what they’re trying to do,” Rennick says loudly, looking around, trying to gather an audience. “And you know what? They can go”
A guard hears him and steps forward. “Watch that mouth of yours, Rennick,” he says, jabbing the muzzle of his pulse gun between Rennick’s shoulder blades and flipping the charger switch back.
The gun powers up with a whine. Rennick clenches his jaw, and after a few moments the guard steps away. Every so often, the inmates’ hatred will spill over, and they’ll riot. It’s happened four times since I came herealthough I’m not stupid or suicidal enough to have been involvedbut at this time of day, everyone’s still half asleep. Rennick finishes his cereal in silence. I see Creep staring at him and the guard. Rennick sees too, and gives him the finger.
When I’ve eaten my breakfast, I return to my cell. The other inmates have to share theirs with five, sometimes even six other people, but I have mine to myselfthe one and only concession the prison have made to my gender. Peering into the square of polished metal riveted to the wall by my bunk, I run my hand over my scalp. Every other day, I shave it with a razor made out of a sharpened plastic spoon which I keep hidden inside a loose section of my bunk frame. It goes better with the scars on my face and the shadows under my eyes than the waist-length, glossy chestnut hair I had two years ago, when I was a privileged Upper girl with her own en suite bathroom, a chauffeur and unlimited access to her father’s bank account who was two years away from being LifePartneredmatched to a partner specially chosen by ACID to be her perfect match, emotionally, intellectually and physically.
I glower at my reflection. Why the hell am I thinking about my parents? I’ve only been up half an hour, and already I’m feeling depressed. I turn away from the mirror and leave my cell to go down to the gym, a gloomy cave in the incarceration tower basement that smells of mold and drains. No one else is down there yet. After some stretches to warm up, I grab a set of weights and do reps until my arms burn, before moving on to the leg press. After that, I switch to the treadmill. As I lose myself in the rhythmic slap of my feet against the worn rubber belt, the gloomy thoughts that drove me down here fade. I count the miles under my breath, my gaze fixed on the holoscreen display in front of me. “One . . . two . . . three . . .”
I step off eight miles later, drenched in sweat and breathing hard. I’m about to pull up the bottom of my T-shirt to wipe my face when I hear a sound behind me. I turn. Creep’s in the doorway, staring. I’m guessing from the way his mouth’s hanging open in amazement that he’s been watching me work out for a while.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” I snap, shouldering past him to go back up to my cell. I can feel him still watching me as I go. Hopefully he’s got a good view of the tattoo on the back of my neck, the one I did myself, awkwardly, using ink from a pen I found in the laundry and a shard of metal, telling him and anyone else who cares to read it where they can go and what they can do with themselves.
By the time I’ve showered and changed, the job lists are up on the holoscreens outside the cells, and I see I’m on kitchen detail. I recognize all the other names on the list except one6292D Liffey. I feel my heart sink. And when I reach the kitchen, there he is, goggling at me.
I ignore him, pulling on an overall and heading over to the other side of the kitchen, where vegetables are piled on one of the battered metal worktops, waiting to be prepared for the evening meal. Creep is sent to operate the dishwashers. I scrub and peel and chop and slice, heaping stuff into the pans on top of the stoves nearby, not letting myself think about anything except the task in front of me. When we get a break for lunch at midday, I line up with the rest, waiting for the guards to hand out the fooddry bread, sub cheese and water, which we eat and drink down in the kitchen to save time.
I’m about to pick up a cup when the guard holding the tray jolts it like he’s about to drop it. Instinctively, I reach out to steady it. The guard nods and hands me a cup. The water in it tastes chalky; I gulp it down in three swallows, trying not to make a face. When I put my cup down, I see Creep staring at me again.
After that, it’s back to food prep: lighting the stoves and fetching trays of gristly meat swimming in brownish, watery blood from one of the vast fridges that line the right-hand side of the kitchen. Usually, I’ve got a strong stomach, but as I start to saw the pieces of meat up with a blunted knife, the coppery stink of the blood steals into my nostrils and I have to swallow hard against a wave of nausea. What animal did this come from? An elephant? I wouldn’t put it past them.
When the meat’s ready, I carry it over to one of the stoves so the inmate stirring the stewpots can tip it in. For the first time, I notice how hot it ismuch hotter than it usually gets down here. And the stewing meat smells badreally bad. A headache starts to pulsate deep inside my skull, turning my stomach sour. As I gulp down another surge of nausea, I realize the skin on my forearms feels sore and tight. Great. I must be coming down with something. But what? I felt fine when I got up this morning.
Dammit, I’m not going to the infirmary. I fetch another tray of meat and carry it over to a worktop between the ventilation shafts and the end of the row of fridges, hoping it’ll be cooler there. Then I turn back, thinking I’ll go and look for a sharper knife and get this stuff cut up a bit fasteralthough there aren’t any sharp knives in this place, not when most of the inmates are blade-happy psychos.
And I almost collide with Creep.
He grins at me, showing yellow, peglike teeth. “Hello.”
“Get lost,” I tell him. I try to push past him, but he steps in front of me, blocking my way.
“Now, that ain’t nice,” he says.
“I’m not nice,” I say.
“Oh, I think I’ll be the judge of that, don’t you, darlin’?” His gaze slides from my face to my chestnot that there’s much to seeand the tip of his tongue flickers out from between his lips like a snake’s.
“Don’t bother,” I say.
“Don’t bother with what?” His tone’s light, innocent.
“You know what.” At my temples, the headache snarls and pounds. Just deck him! a little voice in my head says. But I don’t want another stretch in solitary. I’ll get dragged in front of the governor, lose my gym privileges. It’s too much hassle.
“I just want to get acquainted, darlin’,” he says. “Must be lonely in here for a young lady like you.” His gaze shifts to my legs, then begins to crawl up them.
“Yeah, and you know what?” I say. “I like it that way.”
“You don’t mean that. Think what a good time we could have, me and you.”
“Believe me, it’ll be anything but good. For you, that is.”
“Really?” he says.
And lunges at me.
I bring my arm up and pivot sideways so that, as Creep tries to grab me, he’s thrown off balance and staggers against the worktop. Before he can recover I spin and kick out, planting my left foot squarely in his stomach. He doubles over with a strangled-sounding oof. Then, as he tries to straighten up and get hold of the edge of the worktop, I lace my hands together and bring them down hard on the back of his neck. He pitches forward onto the floor, catching the tray with his outstretched fingers and showering himself in watery blood and lumps of meat. As he cracks his chin on the tiles at my feet, he gives a yelp of pain that trails off into a whimper.
“I tried to warn you,” I say, my throbbing skin and thumping head momentarily forgotten. “Maybe you’ll listen to me next time, huh?”
I push my foot into his neck to emphasize my point. Coughing, he rolls onto his back, trying to twist away from me. Blood is streaming from his mouth; he must have bitten his tongue when he smashed his chin against the floor.
“What’re you in here for, anyway?” he mumbles thickly, spitting red froth.
“You really wanna know?” I say.
I lean down until our faces are so close we could kiss.
“I killed my parents,” I murmur, and watch his eyes go wide.
A guard’s shout jolts me back to reality. I straighten up and look around, wincing as fresh pain stabs through my head.
“What happened?” the guard says, disgust flickering across his face at the sight of the meat and blood sprayed everywhere.
“Fat-arse skidded in some water and fell,” I say.
“Really.” It’s a statement, not a question; clearly, he doesn’t believe me. But I hold his gaze, and he’s the one who looks away first.
“Get up,” he tells Creep, curling his upper lip. Creep just lies there, groaning.
“I said get up.” The guard slams his boot into Creep’s ribs and Creep jackknifes, a sobbing grunt exploding from his lips. I close my eyes, pressing my hand to my forehead, feeling the heat pulsating from beneath my skin. When I open my eyes again, another guard is helping the first drag Creep to his feet so they can haul him to the infirmary. I sag against the worktop, my remaining energy leaving me in a rush.
“Get back to work,” the first guard snarls at me over his shoulder as they leave, but he’s not really paying me any attention. Which is just as well, because I’m not sure I can do anything right now. My nausea’s returned, assaulting me in steady swells. I try to take a deep breath, but the stench from the stewpots coats my tongue and throat. Cold sweat springs out all over my body. My hands are clammy, and even though I still feel hot, I’m racked with shivers. A sharp pain jabs through my stomach. Tearing off my meat- and blood-smeared overall, I run through the kitchen, head down, ignoring the cries of the other inmates and the remaining guards.
But the doors are locked. Of course they’re locked. They wouldn’t want one of us sneaking out of here with anything sharp, would they? I pound on the doors with the flat of one hand, gripping my stomach with the other. “What the hell are you playing at?” a guard barks at me, grabbing my arm, trying to force me to turn round.
“Open the doors!” I snarl at him. “Now!”
Another cramping pain squeezes through me. Oh God. Oh God oh God oh God.
“Have you gone out of your mind?” the guard snaps. “Get back to work!”
“Seriously,” I say through clenched teeth, trying to swallow down the acid rising in my throat. “You need to open these doors.”
“Oh. Do I?” The guard folds his arms. His pulse gun dangles from one hand, his finger curled loosely around the trigger. Behind him, the other inmates are watching us with interest. “Why?”
“Because I’m gonna”
My stomach spasms. I retch. The guard realizes what’s wrong and his eyes widen. But it’s too late. The acid burns up my throat and I retch again and bend forward, everything I ate for lunch splattering onto the tiles at his feet.