The liquid thrummed gently in the cup, refusing to settle. Even this far out from the Superslab, its twenty-four lanes of endless traffic running the length of the city made itself known, a giant artery on which some people spent their entire lives. Judge Ellison stretched and happily took up her cup of synthi-caf, She enjoyed traffic duty, rolling the Meg-Ways and seeing what the city would throw at her. It lent a particular sense of freedom. Still there were longs days here in the saddle, and she always made sure to drop into Brenda’s Stop N’ Gulp at the end of a patrol. Best synthi-caf in the sector, if not the whole city.
“’Nuther cup, hun?,” Brenda beamed, proffering to a jug of dark liquid in her hand. Ellison accepted with a smile. “I’ll always look after my girls,” she said. Ellison, like Brenda, originally hailed from Brit-Cit. Her family had relocated when her father was offered a promotion here in the Big Meg, selling cheap thrills to bored citizens.
Not long after turning five Ellison had enrolled in the Academy of Law. She had always maintained there was more honesty on the streets than in a boardroom of executives. It was a point that was somewhat reinforced when her father was sentenced to three years in the iso-cubes for illegal trading, ten years on common assault charges and, perhaps most heinous of all, six months for cheeking a Judge. Ellison suspected that’s why she liked this place so much. In the sprawling crazy mass that was Mega-City One, Brenda and her roadside café was a little slice of a home. Somewhere to belong when she wasn’t busting perps.
It wasn’t long before her reverie was interrupted by the crackle of static from her Lawmaster’s radio.
“Requesting Judge assistance, Sector 168. Please respond.”
“Judge Ellison here, Central. What seems to be the problem?”
“Possible domestic disturbance called in at 587 Peter Molyneux Block.”
“Roger, I’ll check it out. Ellison out.”
Draining the last of her mug, Ellison slid some credits across the table and pulled her helmet on. “Well, back to work. I’ll be seeing you Brenda.” The Lawmaster rumbled into life. Brenda waved her off.
“Don’t you go getting yourself into trouble, now. Ordinary folks like us rely on our regulars!”
It didn’t take long to roll up to Molyneux. The monolithic mega-block rose into the clear blue sky, jutting upwards with the rest of the city in an affront to the heavens. Its domed balconies and pleasure centers streamed light twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Molyneux was an affluent block. It even had gardens. The grass was a fake substitute, of course. Strict water laws made that the only viable option. Molyneux’s citizens didn’t care as long as it provided them with a distraction from the daily grind.
Once this had been the block to live in, the standard for others to follow. It had taken a pretty hard knock during the Apocalypse War. Since then nothing ran right. Plumbing burst on a near daily basis. The electrics were faulty. It also was supposedly a hotbed of weird activity, like the infestation of little black cubes that appeared out of nowhere once overnight, disintegrating on contact. Or the elevators that sometimes took tenants places that weren’t even in the block, as if some mischievous god had singled some unlucky resident out as its plaything. Molyneux may have been a shiny collection of broken promises, but you couldn’t argue it was without a personality.
Judge Ellison stood outside hab unit 587.
“This is the law. Open up!” she barked into the intercom. No response. Readying her lawgiver, she squared up and sent the door rocking off its frame with one stamp of her heavy boot. The living space was dark inside, lit only with the pale glow of a holo-vid screen. There was a body lying sprawled among magazines and wires. Ellison knew she had happened upon a murder. Human heads tended not to have a caved in look to them. There was another shape kneeling over the body. A juve, about 14 years old.
“What the hell have you done, kid?” she barked.
In a quiet voice the boy, with a strangled tone, “It was the game. The game made me. I didn’t. The game.” Ellison was about to call it in when there was a scream. Another boy appeared, eyes bulging in horror at the sight of a judge.
“She’s here!” he yelled, pointing a trembling finger at the imposing figure. “She’s here to take our games! She’s going to take our vid-games!”
Judge Ellison knew the second boy would make a move. He’d barely begun to lunge when she laid a vicious backhand into his face. It hit him like a ton of rockrete on a run away zoomer. Out for the count.
“Damn right. Control. Ellison. You’re going to want to come see this.”
Back at the sector house Ellison watched the Tek team lay out and catalog all of the evidence. She had stumbled upon a real treasure trove. Boxes of old world games and literature had been found in the next hab unit, accessible through the demolished wall between it and the crime scene. The owners couldn’t be found. Most likely, the name was just an alias used by smugglers. These thoughts occupied Judge Ellison’s mind when Dredd strode in. She was convinced you could see the scowl before you saw the rest of him coming.
“Long time no see, Dredd.”
“Likewise, Ellison. Good to see you. I hear you have something of a smuggler problem.”
“Well, it looks that way. We’re just not entirely sure what they’re pushing, on who, or any effects. Right now we’re at a bit of loose end.”
Dredd strode over to the bench, the evidence piling high in a mass of cartridges and components. “The higher ups mentioned you had come across something. They sent me over because of my experience breaking up old comic book rings.” Dredd surveyed the haul. “So,” he turned to the attendant Tek Judge, “what have we got?”
“We talked to the kid, thinking we were dealing with a case of future shock. Once he calmed down he was found to be perfectly well adjusted, which certainly lends more credence to his statements that the game he and his friends were playing had more to do with this. Regardless I heard he got eighteen years in a Juve-Cube rather than life in the Kook-Cube.”
“Guess he lucked out,” Dredd intoned. “So what, we’ve got a load of dangerous, suggestive material?”
“Not quite. I’ve put a team on the game that allegedly caused the murder.” She paused to consult a screen. “Ah, here, a Mario Party, whatever that means. We’ve also loaded up some other cartridges.”
Ellison wandered over to the screens. Among the sound of gunfire and death a particular scene stole her gaze. A bright and colorful dreamscape, with pink trees and rolling hills. A river trickling its way into eternity. It was beautiful. The days stress fell away like a sodden shroud.
“Ah yes, this one seems to be called Proteus. Rather unusual fare compared to the others I must say,” remarked the Tek Judge. “You know, Judge Keogh actually giggled chasing some frogs. I’ve never seen a Judge giggle before.”
“Wait, is it even a vid-game?” frowned Ellison. “All these other ones have objectives and targets. This just has you walking around.”
“Honestly, I have no idea,” the Tek replied. “Maybe it’s best to group them as experiences, rather than confining the issue. There’s some reading material as well. Mostly old buyer guides and such, not much interest unless you’re a historian.”
Ellison, picked up a cartridge emblazoned with what looked like a big pink cloud with eyes. Kirby’s Dream Land plastered across it in big neon colors. “So what are we looking at?” she said, still looking at the label. “Toys? Or something else?”
The Tek Judge pushed another box her way. “This is an interesting one. Old magazines, real paper as well, amazingly. An old periodical type called Unwinnable Weekly. There’s not a lot there compared to the rest, but it looks like people at some stage held vid-games to be as critically interesting as any other media of the time. It’s not like we don’t have full immersion simulators now, but each one has to be vetted by the Justice Department.”
“I don’t like it,” rumbled Dredd. “We don’t need these things in homes with messages. Messages that might cause us trouble down the line. We already have enough to worry about with the pro-democracy terrorist groups.”
Judge Ellison scanned the report. “Thomas M. Bithell. Cursed Earth Salvage.”
“They had been commissioned to head out to the Mega-City Two ruins. By all accounts, he and his crew never got there. Then a few weeks ago some perp name drops one of his guys during a routine crime blitz. Something about a big haul out in the New Mexico area,” the Tek finished.
“Just another small time smuggler lost in the system,” growled Dredd.
“Lost and found,” Ellison said. “You coming for the ride-along, Dredd?”
“Game on, Ellison.”
The sun’s last defiant rays were setting fire to the sky by the time the Judges had navigated their way through the warren of storage facilities that made up the majority of Sector 170. Filthy and cloaked in lengthening shadows, these industrial slums reached out in invitation to illicit persuasions in the hearts criminals citywide. Warehouse C350-6 was just one lot of thousands. The only thing marking it from the nondescript concrete maze was a heavy-duty Cursed Earth trawler sitting idle. Muffled voices came from within.
The Judges entered the low level space, Dredd sidling off, concealed between some crates. This was Ellison’s show, and she was in charge. She strode purposefully up to the huddled figures immersed in the warm emissions of various vid-screens.
“Bithell!,” she bellowed, her voice striking like a neutron bomb in the vast space. “The Justice Department hereby places you and your associates under arrest for the transportation and distribution of illegal material.”
Bithell chuckled nervously, hand running through his dirty hair, covered from the grime of the hellscape that lay outside the city walls. “Hell, Judge, there ain’t no law ‘gainst vid-games. I mean, they’re just toys, ya know?”
“You know the laws against political and subversive materials, creep. Now raise ‘em. All of you.” Ellison raised her lawgiver as incentive.
Bithell paused for a moment. “ Y’see, Judge, maybe you’re not gettin’ it,” he started, arms still lowered. “There’s a lot of money to be made here, and you’re just one uniform.”
The mob scattered. Dredd’s lawgiver thundered from the shadows. Ellison went down with a combat roll, spring up to deal death with the steady precision of one who knows their craft. The Judges and miscreants dove between the towering piles of artifacts. And then nothing.
One foot in front of the other. Scanning every nook and cranny. Ellison’s footfalls seemed to amplified by the deathly quiet that had fallen over the scene. The silence of anticipation.
“Judge,” The voice whispered out, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. “Hey, Judge. I’m gonna get ya.”
The thug’s tones could have been coming from anywhere. It was impossible to tell if they were five feet in front of her or thirty. “Juuuudge, come out to plaaaaaa—“
The taunt ended in an abrupt gurgle as a heat-seeking round sliced like a flame through the dark, finding its destination in the unseen criminal’s throat. Yet Judge Ellison had no time to register the kill as a strangled snarl erupted to her left and she felt metal slice across her back. Off-balance, she fell to the ground, landing hard, waiting for the inevitable. Seconds passed and nothing came. Twisting, the man was standing over her, his puzzlement evident even in the gloom.
“I don’t get it,” he muttered, huddling over his mark. “Knives are always one hit kills.”
Ellison’s lawgiver tore through the man’s chest. He slumped, quizzical to the end.
“Should have got yourself one of these,” she said to the corpse.
Ellison clambered to her feet just as Dredd was hauling Bithell out by his hair. Rather than screaming, the man was babbling about emotion and art. Beauty embedded in the code. Games bringing people together while the law, with its unshakable rules only tore them apart.
Dredd slammed the cuffs on him and lead him outside. “You’ll have plenty of time to develop your theories on art criticism when you’re alone in a nice cozy iso-cube.”
Finally off shift, Ellison crashed down into her couch. She slouched in silent contemplation for a while, staring at her large utility pack sitting on the floor. Stretching leisurely, she reached down the side of the sofa, bringing up a half empty bottle of whiskey and a glass. She kept it strictly for emergencies, even though she’d be off to the Pit if HQ ever found out she possessed an illegal substance. She shrugged. “Drokk it. It’s been a long day.”
They had got back to the sector house to find the Mario Party team had turned on each other. Fists and colorful language erupted as five Judges broke up the brawl. This pushed things over the edge for the higher-ups – all old vid-games, whether they were violent, colorful, wacky or intelligent, would be illegal in Mega-City One by morning. There was to be a week of crime blitzes targeting any bored citizen that might have the disposable income to indulge in this new contraband.
Rain poured outside. The gutters of the city filled with blood and violence of innumerable varieties. Tomorrow Judge Ellison would rise to a new day, upholding the law and doing her duty, emerging from it all filthier than ever. Tonight, she was far away from all that. Whiskey in hand, the soft glow of a pixilated sunset radiating from the vid-screen, Ellison took out an issue of Unwinnable and began to read.
Follow Judge Milne on Twitter @Corey_Milne.