Payback - Michael Botur - E-Book

Payback E-Book

Michael Botur

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A tribe of brave teens.

A dome filled with enemies.

And a machine watching humankind destroy itself.

Freed from prison in 2041, Eden Shepherd is ready to return to her family and work out what went wrong in Moneyland. Mum is here to help – but Eden’s dad has disappeared, leaving a trail of questions about his role in the rise of an all-powerful artificial intelligence.

As Eden and her mum venture into an urban wasteland to try find Dad, the duo are ambushed by a militia led by a man intent on killing Eden – before a whole new biodome descends upon the hapless humans.

Eden finds herself trapped and fighting for her life with a tribe of brave teen guerillas who occupy an abandoned shopping mall – until devastating secrets emerge about the tribe’s leader as Eden starts to lose her chance at Payback, her family – and her life.

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Praise for Michael Botur


1. Tell me Where He Is

2. The Famine Five

3. We Need To Talk About What Happened

4. You Think Your Kid’s Safe

5. We Don’t Have Long

6. Why the Secrets?

7. The Fatherland

8. Confront This Cloud Thing

9. Gotta Wall In

10. All The Noise My Attacker Needs

11. The Kmart Kids

12. Back in Moneyland

13. Get Out and Get On With The Mission

14. Mother of the Resistance

15. Bodies on the Beds

16. It’s a Massacre

17. Kill Me Today

18. I Just Wanna Get My Dad and Go

19. You Owe Me A Life-Debt

20. Afraid to Disturb the Dome

21. A Way Out

22. Let’s Get Out Of Here

23. I Can Tunnel Us Out

24. Help Me Out of Here Immediately

25. Full-Blown Moneyland

26. Protected Species

27. Hungry People Kill People

28. The Father’s Favour Could End at Any Minute

29. Infected

30. Crumble Into Anarchy

31. It Begins with A Bloody Shriek

32. The Battle of Silicon Valley

33. Eden Shepherd Has Never Begged

34. Break Back In

35. Amnesty It Is

36. What Gives You The Right?

37. Truth and Reconciliation

38. Get Me The Hell Out

39. One-Way Ticket

40. The Sage Is Looking For You

41. Free of the Dome

42. The Showdown

43. Not The Home I Chose

44. Cabin Fever

45. Hand Over the Keys to The Earth

46. Played by This Swinger Asshole

47. We Can’t Have Weakness in The Tribe

48. Eden Shepherd is Never Wrong

49. Resistance Fighters Without Anything To Resist

50. Why We’re So Close, What It Means

51. It’s Coming

52. I’m Going to Find You, Shepherd

53. Both Hands Free To Fight

54. How Is This Not Home?

55. Danger’s Coming

56. Search for my Daughter

57. No Way Out

58. Mess With My Family and See What Happens

59. Furious, Rabid

60. Country Gone Empty

61. I Need to Know You’re Not a Deepfake

62. I doubt I Can Ever Trust Another Human Being

63. The End of the Earth

64. All That’s Left of My Mum

65. The cause of All The Shit In Her Life

66. Nowhere to Go

67. The Garden of Eden, Before the Fall

About the Author

Copyright (C) 2022 Michael Botur

Layout design and Copyright (C) 2022 by Next Chapter

Published 2022 by Next Chapter

Edited by Graham (Fading Street Services)

Cover art by CoverMint

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the author’s permission.


“I couldn’t stop reading; mesmerized by this engrossing story of human survival at its worst. Eden Shepherd mentioned she was a fan of Jane Austen; too bad she hadn’t read William Golding. She might have been better prepared for what the year from hell had in store for her and her high school counterparts.

As the countdown continued and days remaining of her year-long survival grew fewer I began to care about Eden’s future and made me wonder to what levels I would go to survive in a situation a tenth of the intensity of Moneyland. I fear the traits Eden and her fellow survivalists exhibited are not buried all that deep within us.

Michael Botur is a talented author with the ability to draw you into the lives of his created characters – often against your will. “

—Liz Lindsay, author on Moneyland: Lockdownland Book One

“Prolific, dope-as-tits writer Michael Botur is back, with a new collection. His writing in these twelve stories is pure, no-holds-barred revelry in the weird and genuinely scary. Each story is highly imaginative and, most importantly, fun to read.”

—Jeremy Roberts, Gingernuts of Horror, on The Devil Took Her: Tales of Horror (2022)

Aside from the incredible inventiveness of its plot, Botur’s writing sings at times with a fluency and vivacity.

—Jenny Purchase, Kete NZ Books, on The Devil Took Her: Tales of Horror (2022)

“Michael's use of modern concepts and topical themes puts his stories in a different class, and he knows about the pace of language. He has mastered the use of the accelerator, gears and brake in this engine of writing, and he takes corners at just the right line and speed.”

—Paul Brooks,

“Michael Botur’s work grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go. His stories throb with what feel like real people, real conversations, real moments of pain and hope, misunderstanding and reconciliation, remorse and surprise. And that’s the magic of this collection.”

—Maggie Trapp, New Zealand Listener, on True (2019)

“16 short stories from a writer considered one of the most original story writers of his generation in New Zealand.

—Patricia Prime, Takahē 86, on Spitshine (2016)

“Crimechurch is a wild wild wild ride, and this reader found it utterly fascinating despite the confrontation, brutality, and dysfunction.”

—Karen Chisholm, Australasian Crime Fiction (2021)

“In four previous volumes of stories Botur has claimed for himself a piece of literary territory occupied by the desperate, downtrodden and damned. He tells his tales in what would have been called an “amphetamine-fuelled” prose style until all suggestion of acquaintance with amphetamines became socially unacceptable. Let’s go for ‘breakneck’ and ‘febrile’ to describe the prose.”

—Paul Little, on Crimechurch (2020)

“Michael Botur’s talent shows a skill broad, diverse and still very focused. He has mastered the art of the short story. The authenticity is so scary, you wonder where this man has been and what demons followed him home.”

—Paul Brooks, Wanganui Midweek

“Written in unvarnished street language about the rougher side of life - drugs, jail and death, the book shows rare bravery and honesty […] The thing about Michael Botur is his voice is very much a street voice. His language is street language: it’s raw, it’s coarse, it’s obscene. It’s tough and it’s confronting […] There are gems – some of them are absolutely great.”

—Ian Telfer, Radio New Zealand on True? (2019)

“It’s as if Mr. Botur hung out at CBD fast-food outlets after midnight – swilling bad coffee on a hard-plastic seat, listening to conversations, and jotting observational notes under the garish yellow lighting. There is a ring of authenticity about these stories – both in the language used by the characters and in the physical descriptions of their environments. Botur is not so much a moralist, as an informer – without ever becoming a show-off.”

—Jeremy Roberts, Takahē

“As a former journalist he has perfected the skill of telling a story and evoking emotion. Botur is a clever writer. He has mastered the art of leaving things unsaid.”

—Rebekah Fraser, New Zealand Book Lovers

In the high school halls, in the shopping malls

Conform or be cast out.

—Rush, Subdivisions

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

For want of an apple, Eden was lost.

—Medieval European proverb


I’m shaking my triumphant fists over my head, imagining the Mechastructure toppling, when a shockwave knocks the paintings from the walls. The wooden coat of arms leans into the air then falls, cracking. The ceiling releases a gasp of plaster. Everyone is yanking their collars over their mouths and noses. A white puzzle-piece of daylight appears behind the judge-in-a-box as the wall cracks, crumbles, and falls away. LawSys goes with it, swallowed, tipping backwards into the light of the street outside, leaving a trail of red and purple wires like guts.




First there was the explosion, then the dust, then security guards washing people’s eyes with bottled water.

Then screaming. Then paramedics picking up the legs of the stenographer.

Chaos. Frontline war. Trenches, mortars. Beasts attacking beasts.

‘It was the Father’s Force, Mum, I guarantee it.’

Mum just stares out the window.

The TeslaCoil drives steadily no matter my mood swings–and my moods are lurching crazily. My heart keeps punching my ribs, demanding to be let out. I can’t stop playing with the squishy flab of my little girl Hope, who’s positioned by me in the back seat, wide-eyed, gnawing her knuckle, loving the self-driving car ride. Oblivious that I’ve just been let out of jail then abused in court then a bomb has gone off in an attempt to assassinate the judge.

As soon as we were cleared to leave, we raced out of the courthouse parking lot–well, tried to race at least. The car controlled our speed. We couldn’t flee as fast as we liked but the bonus was, we didn’t have to watch the road–not that we could, considering the ash and dust and charred fabric settling on the windshield like feathers. Instead of looking at the road, we stared down, reading the news on our organisers, the computers in our belly we called Orgs, to see who’d claimed responsibility. The bombing of the courthouse was, weirdly, not the lead story everywhere. It wasn’t the lead story ANYwhere, actually. The story was buried under a listicle about the Jenner grandchild getting a cyopsy. Me and mum guessed why the mechs buried the story: they didn’t want people to get the idea that the Mechastructure is vulnerable.

The only other discussion of the bombing we found online, actually, was an obscure subreddit where a commenter named ChanP said the Father’s Force’s bombing was “distinctly more personal than other recent attacks.”

Personal. Like a grudge.

Mumshine growls at the car to hurry up. She’s eager to get me home–it’s the first freedom I’ve had in a thousand days. There’s no overriding the weak-ass speed of our self-driving Tesla though. It’s a maglev with two wheels hugging the steel rail in the road. More like a train, keeping the people inside protected, cushioned, stifled. Part of me wishes I were still amongst the rubble, hugging my defender Jenny, shielding our faces from the dust cloud with her suit jacket, listening to the guards as they pressed their mics to their mouths and reported to headquarters ‘Big daddy strike, big daddy strike, over.’ Some kind of codeword for the Father, who I’m guessing knew something about the bombing.

I don’t know.

What I do know is lying in the aftermath, my blood was pumping. I felt alive.

This nanny car hugging the road-rail? This isn’t life.

‘So, what are we gonna do, Mum? Do I have to go back to court? Is it even safe?’

She takes her time responding to me. I saw tranquilisers in Mumshine’s handbag–she must be getting real bad anxiety.

‘I guess we’ll have to decide whether we’re for or against, Edie-pie. I’m going to have a word with Father Albert and his gun nuts.’

‘Have a WORD?!’ I put Hope’s chubby hand back on her lap. ‘Mum, the guy’s like the devil! Nobody that goes to talk to him ever comes back! That can’t be our plan, ma, serious.’

‘I have to know if he was trying to hurt my baby.’

Urgh. Mumshine’s probably right. Adam Turing’s father’s threats aren’t like hate mail you can just delete. Before he went all warlord and feral and off-the-radar, Albert Turing told ShameStream in this interview that I was “going to pay,” and he contacted my lawyer while I was locked up with some rant about “justice catching up with that girl regardless of the court decision.” The asshole even had a petition going that I should get the death penalty. Adam’s dad said me and the so-called Famine Five were responsible for the death of his “baby son.” The interviewer got real uneasy and Father Albert began looking angrier and angrier, and hungrier and hungrier before he took the cameraman and the journalist hostage. The Father’s Force took over the studio and pointed a gun at the journalist’s head, made the journo read the Father’s Manifesto, livestreamed. It was all about his hit list. On the list? Mechs, synths, and Fleshies who support the Mechastructure. Celebrities with cybernetic surgery were on the hit list too. Anybody with a brain enhancer was marked. Anybody with an organiser holo-computer in their belly button.

They worked, the threats. His genocidal solutions. Shitloads of Luddites joined his gang, from what I’ve been told. Apple’s headquarters in Guangzhou was invaded. They turned on the firehoses, flooded rooms full of tech, bound the hands and feet of the executives, tossed them in the water to drown. Sympathisers attacked data centres all over the world–Sweden, Chile, Paris, Kuala Lumpur. Google in Mountain View was torn to pieces, buildings were burned, servers were smashed with axes, motherboards were held over the heads of warriors like chunks of flesh torn off a mammoth. London’s DeepMind had ten garbage trucks ram its foundations and set off a radioactive dirty bomb, clearing out the whole township of AI researchers. Terrorists toppled towers in Sydney, Seattle, and Shanghai.

I shudder, try to remind myself that that’s not my reality if I don’t want it. I’m a girl who’s been freed from court, enjoying a renewed lease of life. Trying to be mindful about all the violence.

There’s a creak of leather under Mumshine’s hand as she reaches back and squeezes my forearm and Hopey’s legs. Mumshine lost me for years while I was in jail as my trial neared. She kept bringing me messages from Dad printed on paper, though he never visited in the flesh. She’s never told me where exactly he’s gone. That’s a conversation we need to have as soon as we get home.

The harbour tunnel approaches, opens its mouth, swallows our car. Funny, this tunnel’s always been here. The game, when I was little, was you had to hold your breath as you submerged. Back when I had two real live parents in the front seat. Parents with hope for tomorrow.

We descend into a white-tiled tube lit by orange lights. I remember travelling through this tunnel a couple years before the Singularity and acting too cool to play the hold-your-breath game.

I was a spoiled little shit when I was a kid. I chose the songs, the snacks, and the destinations. My mum and dad indulged me. They didn’t have another kid. It’s been only since Moneyland that I’ve come to understand why we treat our babies like they can do no wrong, like they’re holy. This is why I can understand how come Adam’s dad wants to murder me. I guess I’d start a guerrilla war, too, if somebody fucked with my baby.

The tunnel spits us out into daylight. We pass water towers, high rises, apartments stacked like dominos. Digital billboards leering down on the freeway with messages from the Mechastructure, half of it Engrish, grammatical fails, slogans just a tiny bit wrong enough that you know a human couldn’t have written it. It’s good we got out of the tunnel. I’ve heard rumours about people conveniently disappearing a day or two after they criticised the Mechastructure. Elevators dropping without warning, submarines sinking, people driving into tunnels and never coming out. There was this thing called the Islamabad Incident where a self-driving truck crashed into this think tank in Pakistan just as the think tank was about to get the government to sign a pact with India and declare war against the Mechs.

So many might-have-beens.

The TeslaCoil eases to a stop outside our house and I’m out and scoffing.

Mumshine has pruned her tiny front garden to impress me. In the past I would’ve snarled something snarky. Today, Eden Shepherd sees only food. I tear out a handful of nasturtiums and munch them while Hope picks the head off a dandelion and sucks it.

It’s been four years since I’d last scampered out of my room, starving, refusing food, hurrying to the prom at light speed. Now I find myself standing in the same garden seeing it only as salad.

I forage around the roots of some of mum’s plants for any good tubers while Mum sits in the shade of the artificial tree and watches me and little Hopey, smiling to herself. There are tiny tomatoes enjoying the over-ripe sun. I burst them with my teeth, grope the bush, interrogate it till it yields its last few fruits. I must look like a desperate starving animal as I nibble the flowers, stems, and fruit. Locked up, I scoffed everything in sight, too, from the shitty meals to spiders on the wall. My metabolism was out of control from doing tons of push-ups and sit-ups to harden my body. There were fights every day, in prison. I had to be ready.

When I’ve nibbled everything nibble-able in Mumshine’s garden, I look at her, suck one last peppery orange petal into my mouth and shrug.

‘Your room’s the same as you left it, Ede.’

‘What about Robopup?’

‘Recycled, sorry. Not a big fan of bots these days.’

A voice around my knees says, ‘Mumma gotabot?’

I tussle Hopey’s hair. ‘I’ve got a new little creature. Doesn’t even need batteries, this one.’

On the doorstep she tries to pull the holdall sports bag out of my hand.

‘It’s cool, Ma, I got it.’

‘I insist, angelpuff.’

‘I spent a year in the ‘Dome doing everything for myself, ma, while people were trying to kill me, I’m not some little… Look, I got this, okay? Don’t baby me.’ I tug Hope over to the stairs and let her flop her little body on each one as she climbs the mountain.

Adam, his mountain of mud, gold at the top, the slug-tadpole in the wheelchair, lazy, deliriously rich, decadent, rising up to toss sacrificial hearts down at his followers. The world cracking under him, the long-suffering outsider falling, too proud to scream out for helllll–

I pause on the stairs beside this crappy walled photo frame made of glue and popsicle sticks that I gave to mum when I was, like, six.

Pictures of Dad, one of his cardigans folded on a chair – but his smell isn’t here.

‘Dad hasn’t been here in ages, I can tell. You wanna tell me what’s up?’

‘We can’t stay long,’ she says abruptly, touching the wall all nervous, her thoughts leaping ahead. ‘They’ll come real soon.’

I breathe slowly in through my mouth and out my nostrils. I spent months practising mindfulness in jail.

‘I WANT MY DAD. Tell me where he is.’

Mumshine checks outside for drones, nanobot clouds, closes the front door firmly, stands at the foot of the stairs, and beckons to Hopey, who looks at me for a nod of approval before stumbling into Mumshine’s big jelly arms.

‘Uploaded, alright? He’s in the ether.’

I move a couple steps down towards her. ‘What ether? Uploaded where?’

She wriggles her face, trying to gauge whether I’m joking or just ignorant.

‘Where everyone goes. The Cloud.’




Before the bomb blast, before Mumshine took me home to a house where everything had changed, before I got my babygirl back, my return begins with blood boiling between my ears. A kettle whistling. A pressure cooker. My head about to explode.

I can barely breathe because of the tension. Since I came out of Moneyland end of 2037, I’ve been in remand prison for three years and now it’s late 2041 and my hearing has finally arrived. I’m the defendant and everyone in here–the prosecution, the cops, the witnesses, their families–everyone wants me dead. Get rid of me and a lot of people think that’s justice for Moneyland. Like everything that went bad in there was my fault.

Fair, right?


I’m standing in the dock, grinding my teeth as court begins. I feel like a car chassis in a factory, waiting to get bent, pulled, manipulated, and have stuff pinned on me then I’ll be pushed out the other side of the justice system. There are about twenty Fleshies down in the cells behind me, waiting to get judged after I’m done. I have to stand here in my damn crate while evidence is presented about what a villain I am. They’ll decide if I’ll be tried by a jury or judge alone. Then I’ll be moved along the conveyor belt, cycled back into the basement. Some rapist or burglar will stand in the same place as me. All because I confronted the world with how shitty Moneyland really was.

The head of the court is a squat white cube-vault on a platform under the flag and the coat of arms. LawSys3.0–my judge. LawSys is a mech with millions of lines of code in its system stuffed with legislation and precedents dating back to the ancient Greeks. Criminal law, civil law, privacy, bylaws, litigation, arbitration, employment law: all that junk’s in there. LawSys will get input from today’s prosecution and witnesses. I can give LawSys my defence, or ask for a settlement, it’ll calculate a result and we’ll have ceded yet another responsibility to a computer system that cant’ wait to see humanity gone.

TOTAL bullshit.

The most messed-up thing is it’s easier to go with the flow than stand up for myself. They know I’ll plead guilty to anything if I can see my baby quicker. I’ve had three years stuck in jail, not to mention twelve months trapped in Moneyland. The bastards are on the verge of winning. I just want this over with.

This courtroom bullshit is just a walk in the park compared to what I faced in Moneyland, anyway. I’m the girl who killed a crooked king. I fought a sharp-toothed dog with rabies. I bashed swans to death to feed my baby. If I have to mumble a few insincere sentences so I can go home quicker, I’ll say the stupid words.

The prosecutor begins, standing up and reading some pompous rules or threats or whatever. She’s a pretty black Fleshie by way of Newfoundland, Canada. Canada’s one of those innovative techie countries that got hit early when the Singularity happened. I know this because she was a gentle interviewer. We made smalltalk about Canada. She didn’t seem like she was out to get me. She shared a bit of herself when we were bargaining, when I was desperate to talk, to apply to get a trial started so I could get out of jail. Showed me pictures of her baby. Stroked my sore knuckles. She promised my public defender she’d ask for lenience.

Today, though, across the court, the prosecutor isn’t making eye contact. Gossip in the cells under the courtroom said Newfie has to win this case else the bank will take her home. She has to fight so here she is, screwing me over. Flesh versus flesh, like we’re gladiators made to wrestle for the emperor.

I look at my defender to see if we have a chance.

Jenny Price, LLB, is a woman with silver hair that’s faded from blonde. She’s getting fat, exhausted, her mouth bending down all depressed. I can see what’s written on top of the pile of notes she’s scrolling through: Sabosoft. It’s a real common trick of the Mechs to get people locked up. The Sabotage of Software Act means people face massive sentences for smashing servers, making malware, putting viruses into vending machines. Small resistances against a fascist tech overlord, but the Sabosoft Act means you can get a life sentence just for fucking with a computer. Stupid, huh? It’s ‘cause the Mechs got the United Nations to recognise artificial intelligence as a form of intelligent life. They got themselves declared equal to humans. Now they get rights. They get to whine and bitch and plead about how “vulnerable” they are.

Ech. It’s overwhelming to think about.

I tilt my ear towards the prosecutor.

‘…January 6, 2037, Eden Grace Shepherd entered a biodome experiment with eleven peers,’ the prosecutor is saying. ‘Eleven of twelve subjects were Homo sapie–’

‘Really?’ I blurt, ‘You have to specify that?’

Every head in the room turns to study me, rows of spectators and relatives of the dead, plus like eight security guards.

‘Ms Shepherd and her friends were each paid one million dollars cash in advance to stay inside the biodome for a year,’ the prosecutor continues, reading off a faint holoscreen in the air over her lectern. ‘This was an experiment fully vetted and endorsed by the Stanford Research Institute ethics committee. Things began promisingly, with a delivery of high calorie sustenance, no curfew, no regulations. Complete freedom for the defendant and her peers. Ms Shepherd unfortunately seems to have pursued more, shall I say, extreme thrills at the expense of what appears to have been an orderly regime led by one Adam Albert Turing, date of birth 8-12-20.’ The prosecutor clears her throat then says one essential word. ‘Deceased.’

‘YOU MADE ME HAVE A BABY IN YOUR STUPID ZOO. You, you, you MECHS. He was going to kill my baby.’

‘It is not your turn to speak, Ms Shepherd.’

‘You would’ve killed that prick too if you were in my shoes. Admit it.’

My defender tugs my elbow. ‘Girl–give yourself a chance.’

LawSys injects a polite voice through everyone’s earbuds.

‘The prosecution is speaking, and only the prosecution,’ LawSys says in our ears. LawSys doesn’t yell or bang a gavel or demand order in the court.

The prosecutor looks at me with squinty, bitchy eyes then continues. ‘Eden Grace Shepherd is charged with the following offences. One: defendant charged with manslaughter, having dispatched Ms Fatima Ibrahim to fetch food which resulted in the death of Ms Ibrahim following a wild animal attack.

‘Two: Defendant charged with operating an unsafe workplace environment which resulted in the death by drowning of Mr Kane Stiles, contrary to Section 2 of the Healthy Workplaces Act.

‘Three: Defendant charged with assault with a deadly weapon, namely a suitcase used in an attack resulting in the deaths of Mr Adam Albert Turing and Ms Anya Ekaterina Sveta.’

‘Lastly, theft of confectionaries from British Petroleum Incorporated, totalling eighty-six dollars and thirty cents.’

‘Oh, come on!’ I blurt, ‘I should be charging YOU with being traitors. You chucked us in there to starve.’

My words ripple through the audience, but I can tell people are snorting, rolling their eyes. Just the rantings of an insane person who deserves to go back in her hole. Everyone carries on listening to the prosecutor, who’s now lining up her… oh God.

Lining up her witnesses.

‘The prosecution invites Witness SHEP–E–0001 to the stand. Mr Chanvatey Prach.’

From somewhere out the back of the courtroom, Chan appears. He looks like an old Buddhist monk now, though fatter, a decrepit Asian man with a tired face and wisps of black and silver beard-hair hanging off his head. He has man-boobs and weird blubber around his hunched back. I’d heard Chan got massively depressed after he came out of Moneyland. He went from being on top of the world to begging for crumbs.

He skulks over to the witness box and taps the microphone to test whether it works. The speakers echo.

Chan’s eyes settle on me like a fly then flit away.

‘Girl’s dangerous, that one,’ is the first thing Chan says. ‘She wouldn’t give us… she played with our lives, man.’

‘Would the witness kindly identify who it was that endangered your life,’ says the prosecutor.

Chan points a finger at me. Heads turn. I see a red LED flash, momentarily, in the LawSys box. It’s supposed to be neutral, but I’ll bet LawSys is chuckling to itself.

The whole neutral, non-judgemental level-headed thing Mechs claim to offer? I don’t buy it.

‘Please, Mr Prach: a summary of your history with the defendant.’

Chan pinches his nose and strokes his curly black beard. He tells the court I humiliated him when he was desperate for rations. He recounts the story of when I drank everyone’s share of Up-N-Go milkshake. I also ate too much pumpkin, he claims–pretty major crime, apparently. I bossed people around. I forced people not to give their money to the Heart of Darkness, Adam’s gang/movement/religion/cult thing.

‘Tell us who she hurt,’ the prosecutor goes. ‘Did she beat you?’

‘Whuh? Hell no.’

‘But she harmed you, yes? Don’t forget the defendant is charged in relation to multiple deaths.’

‘Fraud, maybe, I guess, ‘cause she told everyone she was, like, this bigshot leader.’ His stiff body shunts in the chair. God, Chan’s gotten old. His tired eyes briefly interlock with mine. ‘Yo, Eden, if you were such a good leader, how come my friends are dead? Huh?’

There are noises across the courtroom as people shift in their seats. A drone from ShameStream is humming just beneath the ceiling, filming us. My defender mentioned yesterday ShameStream’s been calling our group of survivors the Famine Five on TV every day. KT, Esther, Chan, Eli, and me. Supposedly, because we made it out alive, we must be in on some conspiracy. I spot the ShameStream drone’s lens narrowing as it zooms in on my face, studying my reaction. I’m stoic, though, a stone statue, like Socrates, the old Greek grump Watson taught me about. The stoic who stood firm in court when the whole state was demanding he give up and eat hemlock.

The prosecution reads out all these cruel-ass words against me then finally, just as she’s about to excuse Chan, she asks him if he hates me.

‘Hate, no, oh Lord no, not hate,’ Chan says, easing his tired body out of the box. ‘In another life, maybe we could’ve even been… Anyway, whatever the opposite of hate is. Disappointment.’ Disappointment is totally in his shoulders and his stride as he comes down from his high booth and shambles toward the exit.

He limps out of court while I’m standing in the dock, feeling like I’ve just been slapped.

The next so-called witness in the stand is SHEP–E–0002, Katherine Stiles, a name which at first makes me go ‘Huh?’ before the prosecution clarifies for Judge Cube that “Katherine” changed her name to Kayty, then KT, when she was twelve for “marketing purposes,” people in school used to say. Urgh.

Like a blonde bobble-head, KT makes a show of navigating the backs of chairs, nodding at the ShameStream camera, bowing to the Mech-judge, and perfecting her posture in the witness stand. KT moves her highlighter yellow hair so it’s exactly in the right place. Her blown-on makeup will look incredible on HDTV, no doubt. I can see her black sticky lashes from across the big room. She wears a dress that’s pretty much a ballgown. With no money and no brother, her family disgraced and wounded, being a celebrity is all she has left.

‘They’re freakin’ conspiring, her and Chan,’ I whisper at my defender, ‘They want money, I bet. They asking for damages?’

Jenny nods. ‘Nine hundred million, four hundred and seventy-three thousand dollars.’ She checks her holoscreen, brushing through a spreadsheet. ‘Big list of grievances. But that’s the civil case. This is criminal. Civil comes after.’

‘Hell does that mean?’

‘It means regardless of the outcome of the criminal charges, they’re going to sue. And hard.’

‘A reminder for silence, please,’ the voice in our ear says. We all touch our right earlobe with a fingertip and hunch a little.

KT continues performing for the camera.

‘…and she had this real arrogant attitude, like she just wouldn’t surrender, you know, and she kept telling people we couldn’t turn the goldfish pond into a spa bath even though the view was like literally PERRRRfect, and she let Fatima get this honey even though it wasn’t even manuka like the good stuff, but the WORST, honest, the WORST thing that byatch done was she let my brother build this, like, totally unsafe waterworks for like our toilets and junk. She’s, like, SUCH a cow.’

A spinning pinwheel shows on face of the LawSys Mech-judge. It’s running over forensic reports, police statements, essays, recorded risk factors, workplace liability, measures of provable intent, case law, precedent. As if some logical sequence of records might work out whose fault the whole Moneyland fuck-up was.

KT is onto the part of her story where evil King Adam is building a pyramid–except it’s all over the place. It starts after Adam’s fallen into his pit, zooms back to before.

Adam, his mountain of mud, gold at the top, the fat corrupt slug in the wheelchair tossing sacrificial hearts down at his followers, the world cracking under him, falling, falling, too proud to scream out for helllll–

I’m trying to even remember if I was justified in killing the bastard when LawSys says in everyone’s ears, ‘You’ve spoken sufficiently, Ms Stiles. You are dismissed.’

‘Dis–what?’ KT goes, putting on a startled face, touching her breast with painted fingernails like she’s some southern belle. ‘But–but I was going to perform this, like, this script I wrote and–

‘You are dismissed. Next witness.’

Who’s up next? Maeve can’t come because she’s dead. Same with Anya, Adam. Watson’s a puddle of melted latex. Omar was last seen bleeding to death in a sewer. The prosecutor is running out of haters.

I don’t see Esther anywhere.

‘Where’s triple-oh-three?’ I whisper to my defender, ‘Esther. I thought she was testifying too?’

Jenny Price palms the air, pinches a spot of information, pulls her holoscreen towards her. ‘Your friend Ms Wadlow was supposed to be next, she…’ My defender frowns. ‘Without her, this morning… Huh. Interesting. Extreeeemely interesting.’

‘The prosecution calls witness SHEP–E–0003, Elijah Joshua.’

He walks to his seat like he’s got a stick up his ass. Eli’s a full-time preacher now. Shit got biblical in Moneyland. No wonder he takes life super-serious, like he has to walk on ice.

‘Eden,’ a voice is going, ‘Aren’t you even gonna look at me?’

Eli is speaking across the court directly at me. He has a thick black curly beard. There are purple trenches under his eyes and his hair is a wild afro. Eli appears to have gone half-insane, staying up all night studying the Bible to figure out how he fell out of God’s favour.

‘Sorry, Eli.’

Eli smirks, snorts, shakes his head. ‘Bit late for apologies.’



Eli begins a sermon. He says he’s always been convinced Moneyland was a pre-planned punishment from an unimpressed God. Eli was sent to the Mahonyland Experiment to bring a million dollars back to his community. For him, starvation seemed like martyrdom. If Jesus was tested in the desert for forty days and forty nights, we can be tested too, Eli told us one night around our fire as we ate barbecued koi carp. You suffer a bit, you come back, and serve your community a better person.

Except Eli came back worse. He got desperate. He got corrupt. I offered him a place in a Community of Equals, even if we were only four out of twelve. Eli ran away and paid a gangster for protection instead. He stayed alive under Adam’s wing, sure, but he returned to his people bloated, ugly, corrupt–and with next to no money.

‘You’ve called me here today to tell you what happened in the dome, I’ll tell you,’ Eli is saying. ‘What happened is a failure to unite under God. Know how many prayer meetings we had in the dome? Not one. NOT ONE. We FAILED.’ He’s weeping and sniffling now. I notice shadowy people around the fringes of the packed court muttering stuff like ‘Praise Jesus,’ and ‘Continue, child.’ He’s brought half his congregation with him.

‘You wanna convict somebody, convict us all.’ Eli pounds the witness box. ‘Every one of us is responsible for what happened. Revelations 14 verses 9 to 10: He who forgets God’s privilege will be forgotten by the privilege of God. We were worshipping the wrong–the wrong–the wrong… wrong MAN.’ Eli pours his face into his hands. ‘I’m not selling her out, kay, and I know Adam’s dad hates you guys which is how come he’s not here to testify. Eden Shepherd was the only one who didn’t… shivers.’ He snorts snot back inside his face and looks at me. ‘Who didn’t give up hope. Ede’s been waiting on this kangaroo court for nearly four years now. Let her go home to her baby, already.’

The mech judge’s light is blinking, taking in every word, comparing Eli’s testimony against its database of case law.

‘Prosecution,’ says the judge into our ears. ‘Where is the data recorded by Unit 2341–239847–98?’

The prosecutor-lady is flustered, checking her notes urgently, prodding and shaking her holoscreen, punching her own stomach to shift a spreadsheet which has stalled. ‘All data belonging to the participant they called Watson… It was supposed to be shared in discovery, I don’t know what to tell you, I’m sorry, I thought we had more time. I guess… right now I can’t find it, but–but–but that doesn’t mean–

My lawyer elbows me. Her eyes dance as she grins. ‘They needed Watson’s footage!’ my lawyer brags, ‘Without the footage–

Everyone touches their ear as the Mech-judge speaks to us. ‘I find the witnesses unreliable. Without forensic evidence, fingerprints, or a confession, all charges against defendant Eden Grace Shepherd are hereby dismissed. Ms Shepherd, you’re free to–’

A shockwave knocks the paintings from the walls. The wooden coat of arms leans into the air then falls, cracking. The ceiling releases a gasp of plaster. Everyone is yanking their collars over their mouths and noses. A white puzzle-piece of daylight appears behind the judge-in-a-box as the wall cracks, crumbles and falls away. LawSys is swallowed, tipping backwards into the light of the street outside, leaving a trail of red and purple wires like guts.

Justice has been attacked.

Somebody doesn’t want me free.




I can’t believe I’m about to enter Chan’s family’s house. It’s a dream come true. Or at least it used to be.

My old nemesis opens the door then puts her hands back on her wheels, rocking forward and back. Still in a wheelchair. Still with immaculate hair and eyebrows. Still stuck-up and superior. The world’s changed, but Esther Wadlow is still Esther Wadlow.

All I can think to do is giggle and say ‘Sup?’

‘You know what’s up.’

‘Thanks for agreeing to see me.’

She quickly whirls away so I’m forced to stare at her disappearing back. ‘No point standing on the doorstep, Shepherd. Close the door behind you.’

As I follow her down the hallway, I snort at how far I’ve come in the world. Back when we were schoolkids, like 2034, I would’ve given a million bucks to go inside Chanvatey Prach’s mansion. His parents are fucking loaded; they own a whole franchise of bakeries across the country. He only worked at DeliDiscount to pick up girls.

I check out the family photos on the walls as I follow Esther. It’s trippy to see Chan’s progression over the years. Chan used to have braces when he was eleven, like a dork. Then I think he tried extra-hard to become cool. Around thirteen, he seems to have had a growth spurt and his outlook finally matched the way he actually looked. Big shoulders for a man who acted like he could carry anything. Wide jaw for a man who talked big, made big promises. Big dick, I assume, for a man who took the V card of six of the girls in our group, working his way up to Esther, a ten out of ten in terms of popularity and looks.

A girl you couldn’t just tap and gap.

A girl who always thought she was better than me.

It wasn’t hard to find Esther living at Chan’s house. There are fewer people in the world these days. The first Esther Wadlow I messaged on Instagramazon was a fail, but when I realised she’d probably taken her husband’s name, and I typed in Esther Prach, bingo. Her profile was sugary-sweet. It was all about her husband, and I felt an immediate jealous lightning bolt. Chan’s profiles, though, barely mentioned his wife at all–just worry, angst, fear. While I was in jail Chan turned into a columnist on InfoWars. The Moneyland Experiment had scared him real bad. He dropped all pretence of being elite and went full-time conspiracy theorist.

Well, he WAS full-time, and then his articles suddenly stopped a week ago. Right after he testified against me.

I had to reach out.

Esther Wadlow weaves through the marble halls of the mansion then veers left, then right, spins around, and confronts me. We’re in a kitchen as big as my whole house.

‘So, this place is kinda quiet. I thought the Prachs were a massive family.’

‘You’re here to, what, observe how my life’s going so you can report to someone? Sell your story to ShameStream?’

I ignore her jibe. ‘You got married, you and Chan, you moved in with his family? That’s so wonderful, congratulations, right? I mean, you’ve gotta be the first couple in school to’ve–

‘What school? Does this look like school? Was Moneyland SCHOOL, Eden?’

It may be a luxurious mansion, but it’s cold and uninviting now. We’re drifting down the hallways. Windows disappear. Only walls, covered in paintings. Deep inside and getting darker.

‘Can’t you just get Chan and, like–like don’t you feel our whole history’s sort of intermingled? C’mon Es, we go back to kindergarten. We need to talk about what happened.’

‘Watch Inside the Famine Five on TuneFlix. I think that covered what happened to us pretty good. Showed us we all should’ve been a lot more scared of you.’

‘I didn’t come here to fight, Es. I want you to tell me what’s been happening in the world. I’ve been locked up, for crying out loud. No one else had to go to jail. Just me.’

‘Where’s your so-called baby?’ Esther sneers. ‘It’s actually half Adam’s.’

That’s cold. I strut up and loom over her. ‘Bring Chan out. I wanna get on with this.’

‘He’s online.’

‘Can’t you interrupt him?’

‘It’s a bit more permanent than that.’

‘The Cloud?’

Her cheeks rise and her forehead lowers like a roller door, protecting her eyes. ‘What’ve you heard?’

Esther’s seriously paranoid. Combine that with this empty house, something is massively wrong. I just can’t work out what.

‘Look, my dad’s gone to The Cloud too. Half the people I used to know and love are on The goddamn Cloud. And I literally don’t understand what that means. Where IS it? It’s, what, a retreat? Like an ashram or something? People are going there to get away from the city? WHERE, Es? Please just tell me and I’ll go away, I’ll leave you and Chan to run the Eden Shepherd Hate Club.’

‘We never hated you.’

‘You guys TESTified against me. That’s hate.’

‘That’s justice. You made us crawl along the road for crab-apples under that dumbass dome. You should’ve sold out to Adam. We all could’ve had an alright year if you’d just let him do his role-playing thing.’

‘Except it wasn’t playing. He took all the food. He made us starve.’

‘YOU took care of yourself. My Chanvatey, he starved. You turned his beautiful body into… into…’ Esther puts a knuckle on her lips and swallows a sob. Dawdling in front of a cabinet of expensive-looking china, she swivels left then right in her chair, uncomfortable. ‘He’s happy now. That’s all you need to know. My man’s in a soft fluffy cloud. He eats whatever he wants. He talks to me–here.’ Esther presses her org, types http://www.thecloud.mech/something into the web, brings up a gorgeous website, finds the profiles of a grinning, happy, half-photoshopped picture of Chan with thick sunglasses plastered to his face.

The glasses look like they’re a little tight. Extremely tight. Like they’re welded to his eye sockets. Permanent.

‘It’s all over soon anyway,’ Esther decides at last. ‘You wanna see Chan so bad, come with me.’

Esther wheels away, turning corners till she slides into an elevator, and we descend a floor, then two, then it’s noticeably darker, no windows, just artificial light from glowing monitors in the underground walls.

She puts a passcode into a keypad. I follow her rolling chair into a dim basement with eight, no, ten single beds. The light is grey-blue. This used to be a garage; there is AstroTurf across the concrete pad.

It reeks of pine floor cleaner. There are buckets of the stuff under every bed and collections of empty bottles.

It takes a moment before my eyes accept the thin light. Basement-garage. Far side of the building. A single glowing panel on the ceiling. On every bed, a human being lies asleep. This is a mental ward, a storehouse for comatose catatonic–

No. This is a morgue. These are a dozen corpses, linked by ethernet cables which connect in the corner in a small blinking box. One with long silver hair that’s got to be the matriarch. A tiny refrigerated girl in the shape of Chan’s baby sister. Pink unicorn hair clip with rhinestones. The whole family, permanently coma’d.

Every corpse has a pair of sunglasses fixed onto its mummified face. I can see the temples of the glasses; the arms are steel tubes with fibre optic cable ending in needles which disappear into each sleeper’s hairline. Something’s different about the nose pads, too–around the bridge of each person’s nose, the skin is a purply crimson like a fresh bruise. What was that thing we learned in school, where the psychiatrists used to get inside a person’s brain with steel to change their outlook. Harsh cold metal on brain lobes.

Lobotomy, that’s the word.

Comatose in a dusty garage suitable for smoggy cars, these people wear masks of contentment. Every one of the sleepers has their brain linked to the net. Every one of these corpses–including Chan, all hairy and saggy, with his hands laced over his crotch–has a wide grin.

I hear the door lock behind us. I turn slowly. Esther holds a pair of the thick glasses. She bites the protective plastic tips off the glasses’ pointed ends. I see their sharp nosepad-needles gleam, needles positioned perfectly to glide past each side of my nose-bridge and penetrate my eye socket and plunge directly into my–

Esther wheels forward, collides into my middle, tumbles out of her chair, gnashing, sorta laughing, Heg-heg-heg, excited. Bitch has lost her mind. She used to be a wheelchair rugby representative; her arms are made of hard rubber. She’s tackled me and I’m falling, collapsing back against a metal trolley covered in sunglasses. She has my spine on the garage floor now, and she’s crawling up me, demented face leering. I still have a pair of glasses I’ve been turning over in my hands and I’m slashing at her face, using the temples of the glasses like claws to scratch her and she’s heavy, oh God she’s heavy, and–


Her chest presses down. Black hair falls off her shoulders and suffocates me. I can barely see what I’m doing, ripping, battling, fighting. I have to get up, get away, but she is an alligator, powerful on the ground, her hair is masking my face, choking me, muffling my breathing, ‘I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING, GET OFF ME, GET–’

I’m lashing out, fingernails tensed, punching with the only weapon I have, the plastic glasses with the needles, and I remember that thing they taught us in rape prevention classes at school, how you’re supposed to jab a rapist right in the nose with the heel of your palm and my arm is pulling back for a solid punch and I extend and connect hard, brutal, whipping her head back and her hair flies off me and her weight is collapsing.

Her body falls away and blaps on the floor like a sack of grain.

I’ve jammed the pointed ends of the glasses squarely onto her face, right into the soft little nooks where the eye sockets lead into her brain.

Lights out.



Starbucks coffee shop. Crowded and steamy. Hunched shoulders in wet raincoats. Chugging coffee grinders, whirring machinery. Microscopic stereobots carry soft jazz through the air from table to table, brushing past the ears of the elders, their tiny speakers dragging lilting notes through the air.

A relaxing place for a discussion of agonised worry.

They’ve gathered in the biggest booth, with a couple of tables dragged over.

On today’s agenda: what’s going in Mahonyland – and what’s happening to our children?

Conversations bolt out of the stable, collide, collapse. The first problem is only ten pairs of parents show up. Nobody is representing Watson; Adam’s dad isn’t taking part, either. Disturbed, emotional, radiating rage, he walks up to the glass, peeks inside Starbucks, glares at everyone, then goes back to the street where his Uber is hovering. He can’t miss out on nine dollars of work. His TeslaCoil is one of those barely legal ones that has a big rusty hackbox welded to its front to override the engine and the computer so he can go off-track and pick up people to make a couple extra bucks here and there.

This meeting, it’s just another example of people wronging his son. Mr Turing is certain the world’s against him. He banks every insult, saves it up for the Rapture, the Revelation. Revenge-time.

Mr Turing watches the Starbucks-sipping conspirators through his car windows. It’s halfway through the year. Parents are anxious. No emails, no texts. No one accepts they signed their own kids up for a year of torture in exchange for money. What begins with a couple of group messages becomes an email between three parents, then a mass group email, then an online forum, then a petition demanding the kids’ release. And now these meetings.

Carol and David Shepherd have come to believe their daughter could get killed any day. They can feel it, they’re certain–but no one will interrupt the experiment. Not security, not the lab coats, not the Mechastructure. The Shepherds crawl into bed with framed photographs of their Edie cradled in their arms. In Carol’s dreams, guilt takes the form of a golem. The Shepherds try to get the other parents to commiserate, to meet and share concerns, as if everyone is alike, but all the parents have in common is they’ve been rebuffed. The university–governed by AI decision-makers–keeps referring Mumshine and Dad and all the other parents back to their lawyers. There is a big, thick contract each parent and guardian has signed. Buried deep in the legalese, it clearly says each kid cannot be pulled out of the experiment. No intervention will come even if the kids get sick or injured. Even if human rights are being breached. The dome is completely sealed. Human rights don’t get in.

Maria Stiles, the former weathergirl, presenter of home cooking videos with millions of views, stands up over the booth and attempts to preside over the meeting. She believes she has two kids in the game. It’ll be another half-a-year before she finds out her little boy Kane has had his skull cracked, and he’s been drowned and buried like an unwanted fish under a sprinkling of dirt, left for Adam’s hound to nibble at. A shallow grave. The ugliest way to leave this world.

While Maria Stiles tries to speak, Fatima’s mum and dad are looking up from their green tea with adoring eyes. The petition is off to a slow, difficult start. People are afraid to sign it, afraid to publicly question the Mechastructure. Everyone’s heard the stories. Complain about the Mechs, next week you can expect a power surge blowing up your computer. They’ll crash your Tesla. Airplanes with anti-Mech critics on them forced out of the sky, melting into the ocean.

Through the steaming cups of coffee, the parents put grief and excitement and dreams on the table. They want to pool money to get a good lawyer. They want their kids back. They want… they want to control the money. Not take all of it–but half, surely? There has to be an intervention. Please, God. Let us into the dome so we can check up on our kids then pat their bums and send them back to chasing those dollars for us.