Machineries of Mercy

Machineries of Mercy

by Tim Major


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771484695
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Publication date: 10/30/2018
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)
Age Range: 13 Years

About the Author

Tim Major’s novels and novellas include You Don’t Belong Here (Snowbooks, 2016), Blighters (Abaddon, 2016) and Carus & Mitch (Omnium Gatherum, 2015). His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Not One of Us, The Literary Hatchet and numerous anthologies. Tim is co-editor of the British Fantasy Society’s fiction journal, BFS Horizons , and blogs at

Read an Excerpt

Machineries of Mercy

by Tim Major


The Break-In

MERCY. The word hung in the air, riveted to the arch of the wrought-iron gateway.

“You brought a mask or something, right?” Lex tugged down her headscarf so that it covered the upper part of her face, then arranged it so that she could see through the eyeholes cut into the blood-red fabric. She watched as Ethan pulled a balaclava from the pocket of his duffel coat. “Don’t just stand there holding it.”

The balaclava was bulky but too small for the kid. It looked itchy too. Lex imagined that Ethan’s mum might have knitted it. Still, one good thing about the balaclava being so thick was that it would muffle the sound of shouting from the street. Ethan had actually been shaking as Lex had led him here through the alleys.

“And do you have something for me?” She held out a hand.

Ethan stared at her blankly.

“The card?”

Ethan patted each of his coat pockets in turn. Then, with a guilty expression—he must have known where it was all along—he produced the identity card from the breast pocket of his shirt. He cradled it protectively before passing it over. Lex glanced at the photo above the strip of patterned black blocks. Cecil Wright looked almost exactly like his son, only more plump. He had the same worried expression.

“It’ll be all right,” Lex said. “He’ll never know.” She swiped the card through the slot of a silver device attached to the gatepost. The gate swung open. She smiled. “Don’t expect it all to be that easy.”

Mercy’s headquarters was a tall, wide building in the centre of the walled compound. Gleaming metal struts broke up the expanses of tinted glass.

“Won’t our footprints give us away?” Ethan pointed back the way they had come. They had left deep tracks in the snow.

“We’ll be long gone before anyone spots them. Anyway, we haven’t broken in, so nobody will have been alerted. You don’t have a criminal record, do you?”

Ethan gaped at her. It was clear that the idea horrified him.

Lex noticed flickers of movement against the dark walls of the building. CCTV cameras, adjusting their angle to observe them. They wouldn’t have long, but Ethan didn’t need to know that.

The muffled yells, thuds and splintering noises from the street increased in intensity. Bricks meeting glass. Ethan spun around in alarm.

Lex gripped his shoulder, making him flinch again. “Cool it. The only reason Mercy get away with having their HQ smack-bang in the city centre is because nobody with any sense would come anywhere near.”

Nobody with any sense. She felt a sudden wave of sympathy for Ethan. How old was he? Fourteen? Fifteen? Only a few years younger than her—her nineteenth birthday had come and gone without her acknowledging it—but he’d lived a far more sheltered life than she had. She felt twice his age.

“I had no idea it was this bad,” Ethan said, nodding towards the sounds of rioting.

“Yeah. I blame the government.” Lex grinned. “I’m guessing it isn’t like this behind the Gates.”

As they approached the main entrance of the building Lex waved the ID card, hoping to distract Ethan from the cameras. In a smooth movement she swiped it through the reader, which bleeped twice before the door clunked open. If only all her investigations were this straightforward. Then again, it wasn’t every day the ultimate key to an investigation—Ethan, rather than the ID card—waltzed up to her online. It had taken her only a few minutes to feel certain he was legit, and to discover his reasons for showing up in the RealWorld forum. He’d heard all the usual rumours about Mercy, but it wasn’t that, exactly—he didn’t have a political bone in his body. His dad had let slip that he worked for Mercy, but then had clammed up and refused to give the kid any details. So, Ethan wanted to know if his dad was rotten. It couldn’t have been easy for him to betray his dad and start ferreting around for the truth. He might not look it right that moment, but the kid had guts.

Inside, the only light came from the street lamps, made bluish by the tinted windows. A wide, sterile lobby led to a corridor lined with thick glass walls. Each room was plainly furnished with large oval tables and wide, plush chairs. The corridor smelled of stale coffee. Lex couldn’t help feeling a pang of disappointment.

“It’s not what I was expecting,” Ethan said, as if reading her thoughts.

She pulled two small torches from her pocket and passed one to him. “Did you expect to find an evil master plan written on the walls in blood?”

“I dunno. What now?”

“I know where I’m going.” Then, in response to Ethan’s look of scepticism, “I’m following my nose.”

She shone her torch onto the stencilled signs on each door. “This is the public face of the company. Politicians and Mercy execs sitting around congratulating themselves. There’ll be nothing interesting on this floor.”

They reached a stairwell. Lex darted up, taking the steps two at a time. Ethan’s tiptoed-footsteps followed her up.

The desks of the first-floor offices were stacked with piles of paperwork. Lex entered a room at random and began rifling through the papers. Public reports, PR. The same old stuff she had seen a thousand times. In each room she tutted in disgust at the contents of each successive in-tray.

“What about this one?” Ethan said when she emerged into the corridor. He was pointing at a sign reading, “Branch Managing Director.”

“That’s more like it!” She bounded inside, pulling open desk drawers and retrieving printouts.

“Lex?” Ethan whispered. “What are we even looking for?”


“Of what?”

Lex rolled her eyes. She leaned into the Managing Director’s chair and steepled her fingers as though she had all the time in the world. “Those riots out there. I bet you, your family, your friends, you all think of those people as being in the wrong, am I right?” She didn’t wait for him to respond. “Feral teenagers, good-for-nothing unemployed. But Mercy caused all that—well, first the government failed, which started it, of course, but mostly it was Mercy. Beginning back when it was only a security firm hired to bolster the police. The organization didn’t bother to deny being a gang of mercenaries for hire—it was even stated upfront in the labels they gave their teams: Merc A, Merc B and so on, all the way to Merc Y. When things turned really ugly—when people realized how much their government had screwed them over—the police force shrank while Mercy grew, but the extra troops only provoked more tension. The riots are because of Mercy.”

“You make it sound as though it’s deliberate.”

“Don’t be an idiot. And anyway, that’s not what we’re investigating. Bringing in cops wasn’t the answer, so the prime minister made a song-and-dance announcement—the justice process would respond accordingly, yadda yadda yadda. They pledged to charge offenders immediately, overnight where possible. Harsh justice, long sentences. Lots of manpower involved, so it had to be outsourced. To Mercy. And then Mercy took over the courts too, because Her Majesty’s Government was desperate. Courts, lawyers, prisons, everything.”

Even in the low light she could see that Ethan’s face had become pale. She could imagine his thought processes. From behind the Gates, this must all seem a world away. As far as well-off people were concerned, Mercy dealt with criminals, end of story.

She pushed her way past Ethan and out of the office. “I wonder who really cracks the whip around here?”

“If that’s a reference to my dad—”

“Shut up.”

“I’m serious, Lex. I’m not going to let you—”

“Shut up!” Lex crouched down and pulled Ethan to the ground. “Do you hear that?”

Ethan’s eyes widened as he finally registered the sound. The voices were coming from further along the corridor, both male, a conversational tone.

“Security,” she whispered. “Doesn’t sound like they’re particularly worried though. Just routine.”

“You said there wouldn’t be any security.”

Lex shrugged. “How could I possibly know that? This might be the moment to let you know that I’m winging it, kid.”

She was impressed at how much wider Ethan’s eyes could go. Silently, she motioned towards the stairwell, then gestured with a thumb: up.

Ethan scurried ahead of her, then crouched in wait on the next landing. “You lied!” he hissed.

So naive. What had he expected? He was the idiot who gave all his personal details to a stranger on a conspiracy-theory website. He was the one who let himself be coerced into stealing his father’s ID card and then breaking into a building, with only a balaclava between himself and a criminal record.

“You could explain,” she said. “Those security guards probably have guns. But maybe they won’t shoot immediately if you go down there with a sign saying, I’m here against my will, it’s her you want. Your dad will come and get you, take you back to the Gates, and that’ll be the end of it. But that isn’t what you want, is it? You daren’t see him again without evidence proving he’s not a wrong’un.” Manipulating the kid was almost too easy. She held up a small piece of paper covered in scribbled digits. “And I know how to get it.”

“Is that it? Evidence?”

“Hardly. But our friend the Branch Managing Director can’t even remember the door codes in this building. So he wrote them all down.” She continued up the stairs. “If in doubt, head for the top floor.”

They trudged in silence up the stairs to the fourth floor. Consulting the scrap of paper, Lex tapped at the security panel. It beeped twice and the lock clicked. She traced her fingers along the upper edge of the door frame, then paused. She winked at Ethan. With both hands raised, she bumped open the door with her hip, and in the same motion she slipped her right hand upward around the frame. A bell sounded above, then stopped immediately. Not enough to alert the guards two floors down.

“Pressure sensitive,” Lex said. “The klaxon won’t go off as long as it’s pressed down.” With her free hand she reached up, fumbled underneath her headscarf, and retrieved a hairpin. She pushed it into place above the door, jamming the button. “That should do it.” She folded the Branch Managing Director’s scrap of paper several times and squeezed it under the door, forcing it to remain open, then sauntered into the room. Sometimes it was nice to have a witness to her ingenuity.

A huge oblong table filled an open-plan central area and rows of smaller glass-walled offices lined the huge space.

The table was empty, so Lex shifted her attention to the surrounding offices. She raised a finger, pointing at each in turn, picking one at random. Inside, a desktop computer took up most of the small desk, but her attention was focused on a grey filing cabinet at the rear of the room.

“You’re not going to use the computer?” Ethan said behind her.

“I’ve already tried to hack the system from outside. No dice. It’ll be just as well protected from here. Concentrate on paperwork, anything that looks official and important. Go and get started somewhere else.”

She glanced up to see Ethan dithering beside the long central table, and shot him a look to get him moving as she moved into the next office. Only the photographs on the pinboard calendar behind the desk distinguished this room from the first one.

Ethan’s voice came from the adjoining room, through the thin wall. “So this is about the prisons for you?”


“The trials?”

“The lack of them. Find anything yet?” Lex called without looking up.

“Still looking. But why do you care? Is someone in your family mixed up with Mercy too?”

“No!” she retorted indignantly. Then she made her voice sound calmer—there was no use in making Ethan feel any worse about his dad. “Not with Mercy. The other side.”

“They’re in prison?”

Lex rubbed at her eyes. She felt suddenly tired. She was glad that she and Ethan weren’t in the same room—there was no way she wanted him to see her cry. “James. My brother. He was innocent, but that’s not the point. The point is that he wasn’t given the chance to protest his innocence. No lawyer, no trial.”

“But that’s illegal.”

She felt like smacking her forehead on the desk in her annoyance. “You’ve not been paying attention at all, have you? Mercy are the law. Now keep looking. What we’re looking for is some document that proves… I don’t know. Anything.”

“And what about my investigation?”

“What about it?” she said, sharply. “Look, I’m sorry if this setup isn’t exactly what you imagined. I needed to get in here, and the only way was to use a Mercy ID.”

“But you—” Ethan’s voice stopped abruptly.

“I what?”

After a few seconds of silence, Ethan replied in a quieter voice. “Never mind.”

Lex padded out of the office she was currently searching and into the room in which Ethan stood, facing the open-plan area. He blinked rapidly as he noticed her approach. What on earth was wrong with him?

As she entered the tiny room, she saw what he had been looking at. A piece of paper had been sellotaped to the window, facing inwards. She lifted the piece of paper on its taped hinge, exposing a drawing of two stick men, one tall and one short. The taller figure had ringed eyes, representing glasses. The shorter had a mop of wild hair. Beneath the drawing was a scrawled message in a child’s handwriting, with each letter ‘e’ written backwards.

happy fathers dad day love ethan xxx

Poor kid. So Cecil Wright worked on the top floor. Ethan wasn’t stupid; he’d worked out that his dad had to be pretty high-up within the ranks at Mercy. And that meant that his dad was partly responsible for locking up offenders without trial.

She hovered behind Ethan. Partly, it was due to her uncertainty about how to comfort him, but mainly she just wished she could rifle in the filing cabinet tucked behind the desk without the kid making a scene.

She didn’t have to make the choice. They both spun around at a sharp sound from the direction of the stairwell.

“What was that?” Ethan said.

Lex didn’t answer. They listened in silence.

“Probably just the door shutting,” she said finally. While Ethan’s attention was elsewhere, she pushed at the filing cabinet drawer with her foot to peer inside. “Go and take a look, will you? And make sure you don’t set off the alarm.”


“It’s fine, I promise. Go ahead.”

The moment Ethan slipped out of the office she knelt beside the filing cabinet. A dozen or more grey cardboard separators rattled in the empty space of each drawer. She pulled all of the separators out. Why would someone working on the top floor not have a single document to file? She tapped on the bottom of the drawer. Hollow. Scrabbling at the edges, she pulled away the base entirely. Tucked into the hidden area below was a single lilac-coloured cardboard folder.

It contained around twenty sheets of paper. The pages must once have been filled with dense text, but someone had carefully blanked out most of the words in each paragraph with a black marker. The text that was legible was a mix of dull phrases and legal language. As she leafed through, a few phrases stood out: “necessary streamlining,” “proxy defence,” “generalized offender profiles.” She held a page up to the light. Maybe the blacked-out text would become visible if she ran it through imaging software.

A few sheets at the back of the pack had been stapled together. Written in a neat typeface on the first page was a title, Project Q. Beneath it, in smaller text, were the words, Towards a swifter sentencing. Text in stamped red ink announced, SENSITIVE—eyes only.

“Hey Ethan, I think I’ve got it!” she hissed. There was no answer. How long had he been gone? She closed the filing cabinet with her foot and left the office, pausing only to glance again at Ethan’s drawing taped to the window.

The door to the stairwell was still propped open.

“Ethan?” she whispered. Was that a noise from downstairs? She froze. It sounded like muffled voices.

“—got someone else up there, have you?” a deep voice said.

She heard others, one almost as deep as the first, the third higher-pitched and wavering. Ethan.

“Let’s go have a look, shall we?” the first voice said.

Footsteps echoed up the stairwell. There was no chance of Lex getting downstairs now. She dashed back into the central area. What now? The lilac folder lay on the desk in Cecil Wright’s office where she had left it. She darted inside, placing both hands flat on the folder as if it might help her plan an escape.

The voices came from the stairwell again. “Hey, Grimmy? Do me a favour and hit the lock-down.”

The response was only a grunt. Before Lex could react, the glass door to the office slid closed, as did the doors to all the other offices. She tugged at the handle. It was locked tight.

Heavy footsteps clanged on the metal steps of the stairwell.

With the door locked, Cecil Wright’s office seemed tiny. Other than the desk, the filing cabinet and a single chair, the room was bare. The heavy desk was positioned up against the glass wall. There could be no hiding place beneath it.

Stupid, stupid. She flung her head back in disgust at herself and her lack of planning.

She blinked. Directly above the desk was a white plastic grille.

It was her only chance. She leapt up onto the desk and pulled at the grille with fumbling fingers. It gave way more easily than she had expected, and soon dropped down. A reflex sent her left hand shooting down to catch it before it clattered onto the desk. Not knowing what else to do with the grille, she held it between her knees. She looked up at the opening, wiping the perspiration that had broken out on her forehead.

She leapt upwards, scrabbling at the edges of the square hole. Her arms strained as she pulled herself into the narrow gap. The rough metal edge scraped at her skin.

“Grimshaw! He’s only gone and monkeyed with the alarms. Top floor! Come up here, wouldya?”

The klaxon rang again. Lex’s mind reeled with disorientation and the shrill sound.

With a final wrench she dragged herself fully into the vent. It was wide but low, so that she was unable to raise herself into a sitting position. She contorted her body to retrieve the white grille from between her knees, nearly dropping it again in the process. It fitted into place in the hole with a dull click.

“Bollocks. We’ll have to do a full search then,” the deeper voice said.

Lex lay motionless in the tiny space, trying to keep her breath under control.

“Make it easy on yourself, son,” said the second voice, the man the other had called Grimshaw. “You got any accomplices? Speak up.”

“No.” Ethan’s voice sounded desperately faint. The poor kid was terrified. This must all be beyond his worst nightmare. Lex tried not to dwell on the fact that she had been the one who had put him in danger. Feeling guilty wasn’t going to help her get out of this mess.

She shuffled backwards so that her face hung directly over the grille. If she pressed her cheek flat she could see out into the central area. She could see Ethan. He was actually shivering with fear. And who could blame him? His arm was gripped by a burly, bearded man in a black uniform. A dark, vertical line of blood snaked along Ethan’s right cheek, dripping freely. The wound looked pretty deep.

Grimshaw plodded towards Cecil Wright’s office, peering all around the central area and into each office he passed. He held a torch in his left hand and a pistol in his right.

“All right. I’ll open the doors again, you can do the search,” Grimshaw said.

“Always me doing the legwork, innit?” said the first guard.

Lex couldn’t take her eyes from the wound on Ethan’s cheek. It wasn’t her fault. He was to blame. He must have gone downstairs, or at least stuck his head out into the stairwell, when she’d only told him to check the door. He wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. As if to prove the point, she realized that he was staring at his dad’s office—the room in which she was hiding. Didn’t he realize that he was drawing attention towards her? She followed the direction of his gaze.

Her stomach lurched when she realized what he was looking at. On Cecil’s desk, directly below her, was the lilac folder. The evidence. Project Q. Seeing the folder there, so close but unreachable, made her feel physically sick.

Grimshaw approached a wall panel. Lex craned her neck to watch as the glass door of Cecil’s office opened again. Could she drop out of the vent, grab the folder and make a run for it? She knew the answer immediately. Grimshaw, holding Ethan captive, now stood at the top of the stairwell, blocking the only exit.

The other guard stepped into Cecil’s office. His bald head reflected the neon strip light. He lifted the lilac folder from the desk, tapping it on the palm of his other hand.

Lex held her breath. Her heartbeat sounded so loud in her ears that she felt certain that the guard would hear it.

The bald head swayed from side to side. Then, as if in slow motion, it turned upwards. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ethan glance up too, his eyes wide with horror. Lex scrabbled away from the grille.

Too late.

“Bloody hell! There’s one of them up there!” the guard roared.

Lex fought her panic and her sudden claustrophobia. Thumping sounds came from below. The guard was clambering up onto the desk. Still facing the grille, she pushed herself away from it, her neck jammed at forty-five degrees and scraping painfully against the cold metal. Light streamed into the enclosed space. The bald head thrust up from below. The guard was facing in the opposite direction and was close enough for Lex to see the deep folds of skin on his neck.

A thought struck her: this vent was a ridiculous place to spend her last moments of freedom.

The head turned. The guard’s eyes narrowed as they adjusted to the dimness. “Got her! I’ve got her, Grim!”

She yelped when an arm as thick as a tree trunk appeared. Fat fingers scrabbled for purchase on the surface of the vent. Lex pushed against the sides of the vent with her feet and finally managed to double up, performing a graceless, agonizing somersault in the confined space, ending up facing the opposite direction. Her breaths were shallow with panic as she clawed her way forward.

The bellows of the guard became more muffled behind her. Her breathing calmed a little, but she muttered, “Stupid, stupid,” like a mantra. Any sense of triumph about escaping was overwhelmed by the sting of her idiocy, the loss of the evidence. The wound on Ethan’s cheek.

The vent widened a little. Now she was able to stand on her feet, so long as she kept her neck cricked. Loping like an ape, she made her way along the passageway as it curved gently upwards.

Bars of light shone at the end of the passage. Icy air screeched along the vent, nipping at her skin. She staggered to the dead end and pushed at the bars with both hands. The outer covering of the opening rocked and then gave way, falling noiselessly.

She peered over the edge to look at the tall exterior wall of the compound and, below her, the sheer wall of the HQ. This must be the rear of the building: it was windowless and lacked any features that she might use as handholds. Upwards was no different. Three floors below, the base of the wall was obscured by a deep snowdrift. What might be below the snow? Grass or concrete?

There was only one way to find out. She shuffled forwards until her feet hung over the edge. The snow made it impossible to judge the distance to the ground.

Just as well.

She wondered if she should say a prayer. Instead, she just mouthed the word, “Sorry,” though she wasn’t sure who it was aimed at.

Then she jumped.

She entered the snowdrift with a violent crunch. Displaced mounds of white burst up around her and her lower back flashed with pain as she hit the concrete.

Since the death of her parents she had taught herself not to cry, but now tears came to her eyes freely. She lay there, gasping for breath, wishing that somebody—anybody—might comfort her.

She had to stop wallowing in her misery. She nipped at the skin of one cheek to snap herself into alertness. How badly she had been injured? As she hefted herself to her feet she grimaced at a jabbing sensation along her spine.

She spun around, aimless and drunk from the pain.

She bobbed around the corner of the building, just for a second. Nothing. The guards were heavy and slow—but so was she, now, and she had spent longer in the vent than it would take them to get downstairs. They might show up at any moment.

She was no more free out here than she had been in the vent. The exterior wall of the compound was impossibly high and ringed with barbed wire.

For a lack of any other plan, she aimed for the front gate. She was limping badly.

Dimly, she recognized that her reflexes were slow. She barely registered that the gate was swinging open before it was too late. Pain surged through her thighs as she threw herself onto the ground to hide. Frantically, she pulled clods of snow up and onto her body. She pressed her face into the snow, which burned her skin as if it were hot rather than cold.

She heard the crunch of heavy footfalls of at least three people, tramping through the snow from the outer gate to the HQ. This must be the cavalry, summoned by the security guards. Her body tensed as she heard the unmistakable snick of the safety catch of a pistol being flicked.

The footsteps passed by. The door to the HQ slammed twice—once as it opened, once as it shut.

She waited a few moments before she dared look up.

She saw nobody.


The gate to the compound was ajar.

She laughed out loud.

She heard the slap of a door being thrown open behind her. Without checking to see who might be emerging from the HQ, she darted through the gate, pulling it shut behind her with a clang.

Her pace was desperately slow. There was no way that she would outrun the guards—or the cavalry, who would be far less stupid and bulky—for long. The distant shouts from a few streets away seemed to be jeering at her.

The riot!

She wheeled around, aiming for the source of the noise. The street opened out. A line of Mercy police officers stood across the road from a gang of teens wearing dark hoods. While the police were barricaded behind thick plastic shields, it was clear it was the gang that was on the defensive. A Mercy cop darted forward, flanked by two others, trying to pick off one of the weaker kids. The rioters shouted, hurling rocks and bottles to ward them off.

Lex pulled her headscarf back to reveal her face. She held up both hands in a gesture of peace as she slid in among the crowd of hooded teens. Only a couple of them paid her any attention.

It wasn’t a moment too soon. The two security guards appeared at the end of the street, and skidded to a halt as the angry crowd turned to face them. In their pristine uniforms, and without shields, they must have appeared perfect targets. Both guards ducked under a hail of projectiles from the crowd. They retreated with their hands held up.

Lex ducked from the rear of the crowd and slunk away in the opposite direction, further into the city, disappearing into the darkness.

But even in her relief, she thought of Ethan. What would they do with him?

She couldn’t let herself dwell on it now. Ethan would be okay. It was just like she’d told him. Your dad will come and get you, take you back to the Gates, and that’ll be the end of it.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Tim Major

For Machineries of Mercy

“A fun, fast-paced two-hander that switches between a creepily perfect English village and a dark vision of the cities of the near future. This imaginative tale deftly explores the dangerous results of combining technology and the punishment-for-profit industry.”
—Kate Blair, author of Tangled Planet and Transferral

For You Don’t Belong Here

“Clever, intriguing and suspenseful . . . a must-read book from a terrific new voice.”
—Alison Littlewood

“A beautifully-written, cleverly unsettling puzzle-box of a novel.”
—Adam Roberts

For Blighters

“Strongly recommended for fans of original and uniquely weird fiction.”
Ginger Nuts of Horror

For Carus & Mitch

Carus & Mitch is punchy and scary and tense and genuinely moving. Tim Major is an exceptional writer.”
—Adam Roberts

“More The Road than The Hunger Games , blending a John Wyndham-esque melancholy with a dose of existential despair, Carus & Mitch is a compelling, unconventional page-turner.”
—Lynda Rucker

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