September the 13th
Just because you're not paranoid it doesn't mean They aren't out to get you. Sometimes the little scrotes of the ComPol are just looking for an easy mark, but often I wonder if they're not acting under orders. It could be just your turn to be unlucky and get pulled over, or maybe it's my intuition the pair of goons who abruptly pull in front and way too fucking close to me with their tuk are after something more than a routine stop and ticket.
This is the last thing I need right now, I'm already pissed-off at having to pedal against an unseasonably bitter bone chilling northerly wind on the way home. Fuck it! I'll just have to contain my annoyance and be polite to the little wankspurts.
The tuk door slides back and out get the cocky little bastards. Well I know the form; I've read the briefing that you can get off CycloSolidarity; best to get it over with. "Good afternoon officers. I hereby inform you that your actions are being videoed by my helmet cam and are being uplinked to secure storage to be used in evidence if required. I have also summoned independent legal witnesses. Please would you explain under what law, and upon what grounds you have stopped me?"
The Compie looks surprised. I think he was expecting to be able to bully a poor little cyclist into accepting a ticket or several, or maybe he just wants to administer a kicking, and anyone will do; what he wasn't expecting was someone to be knowledgeable and assertive. Well he picked the wrong man on the wrong day. You can almost see the gears grinding behind those dull eyes for a second as he struggles to respond. These part-time pigs just don't have the brains of the full-time CityPol.
He regains his composure. "You have been stopped because we noticed you cycling erratically. It appears to us your pannier may be overloaded and may be affecting your balance, contrary to the Safe Cycling Act. I'd like to see your licence please."
I hand it to him, but also "I hereby require you to provide to me or my legal representative a copy of the on-board vehicle camera video of my riding prior to your decision to stop me as evidence to use in my defence." His colleague is beginning to look decidedly annoyed. I notice that his hand is resting on his wand. "And furthermore I will only consent to a search of my pannier in the presence of independent legal witnesses with video equipment."
His partner is looking really angry now. Had I not been wearing a helmet cam, and had this been later at night in a more out of the way place I'm sure I'd have been given a good zapping with the wand by now, and some story made up to fit the charges, any head cam video 'unavailable' due to my 'breaking' the equipment during a struggle. But this is a busy road with plenty of witnesses riding by, so I don't think they'd be stupid enough to try anything, though I could be wrong. The first Compie is looking really hacked-off now; the wind is slicing through his badly made uniform as easily as my cycling gear.
He finishes scanning my cycle licence, his device beeps a confirmation of its validity. "Mr Davies, we could both stand here getting cold waiting for your legal observers to arrive, so why not allow me to search your pannier now, admit your guilt to a charge of Cycling While Not Being In Full Control Of Your Bicycle, and accept the ticket. It'll be cheaper and less hassle for you."
"Because I am not guilty of that offence, and if my pannier is searched I don't want have anything added to, or taken away from it. I insist upon my right to independent videoing of any search in accordance with the Limitation of Executive Powers Protocol as defined in Chakarabati vs Rex."
He's beginning to seethe now; cheeks reddening, nostrils flaring. Perhaps I've overplayed it but the law is the law; even in these times. He's about to say something else when help arrives. It's one of the informal network of volunteer legal observers who I summoned with a preprepared panic blurt: I''m also a member of this mutual support network. After introducing myself and explaining the situation my witness also takes video notes to his helmet cam. While noting the Compy's number he notices something that I, heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through my veins, and eyes watering from the cold despite my wearing wraparound glasses have missed. He speaks:
"Officer 5778: In the course of making an independent record of this incident I note you are wearing a Consensus badge in contravention of the Community Police Regulations. This fact has been noted and videoed." Yes! The Compie looks taken aback. I love it when they trip themselves up. There's a hope now I can get myself out of this, or if it goes to court I've got a defence that they weren't correctly uniformed at the time of their stopping me, so rendering the stop unlawful to use against them.
Both of ComPigs are looking nonplussed now with their case falling apart. "Given this violation of procedure you may wish to reconsider your continuance of the apprehension of Mr Davies." He sounds as if not only does he knows his stuff, but that he might actually be a lawyer.
Another two observers arrive; now the Compies look outnumbered and intimidated. The silent one is about to speak when their radio crackles with a report of a domestic violence incident nearby. That's the excuse they're looking for to back out of this confrontation. Their eyes light up at the thought of some really exciting work, and the credit they would glean from being there first to deal with it.
"We're needed elsewhere" says the articulate ComPol, tossing my licence back to me. "But we'll be keeping an eye out for you. Ride safely now!" The tuk rasps into life and shoots away, lights and siren on, leaving a group of four chilled cyclists behind.
Teeth chattering from the cold I thank everyone for their help. We shake hands, flick each other our contact details in case they are needed and then set off together in a northwards heading peleton, trying to get some warmth flowing back into our numbed legs and taking turns at the front to block the penetrating wind for our comrades. It saves a lot of energy that way. I think the flow of relief is helping me along. It feels good to know that together we were able to thwart the officious bastards; and you have the protection, however scant, of a network of like-minded people. The links of electronic solidarity have certainly proven their worth today. One day - who knows when - I may be the one riding to someone else's aid.
Eventually we split off and go our separate ways. Rob, the first rider who came to my aid, but who works in insurance rather than the law, is the last to go. He turns his carbon fibre racer off toward Purbrook, gives me a thumbs up, and accelerates away. I've not seen a bike that good since before the Crises. You can't find any for sale now, even if you could afford one.
Alone once more I feel isolated and vulnerable. I don't know whether those Compies really do have it in for me, but it's best to assume that they do. I'll take the bus for a few days, and then try to vary the times I ride in and out of the city as well as the routes I take for a while after. When I get back home I upload the camera footage and a blurt of the event to the CycloSolidarity forum. It will be lodged there for future use if anyone needs it. Though I'm still shivery with the adrenaline rush, and a borderline case of hypothermia I can feel warmed by the satisfaction of winning a small victory against Them. The trouble is though, that far too often the tide flows against us.
September the 30th
I'm summoned to another of James' conferences, but this time I know I've nothing to worry about. In a change from the usual arrangements it's going to be held over the weekend, and instead of a provincial city venue it will be within the LEZ. All expenses (including London Premium) paid. That sounds allright to me. Officially it'll be the usual business, such as how IMS plan to respond to the OMS' plans to increase the amount of PushCred we're obliged to take; but it's an open secret what we're really going to be doing there.
James will explain how he plans to unveil his National Renewal Party, and we'll be sorting out who does what in the organisation. As I managed to find Neil Moore as a potential candidate for James, I think I might have done enough to avoid having to stand myself. In any case, I lack the inclination to; and I think James has begun to understand that. I'm not sure if I've fallen in his opinion as a result. If I have he would usually make his disappointment known in some way; so far I've not picked up on anything.
So once the ostensible conference is finished, and beyond much of the Connie surveillance in the enclave of relative freedom which is the Zone, the divvying-out of the politicking will take place. I think, or at least I hope, I can get away with taking on as junior and behind the scenes role as possible. Though I wish James and the NRP well, I don't think much of their chances despite James' eternal optimism.
I'm on the London bound train for the first time in quite some time, and suffering the effects of DeLondonisation. It's another of the Consensus' radical, idealistic, but badly thought out flagship ideas. Contradictory government policies are nothing new of course, but the Council have this knack of losing their grip on reality even more so.
After spending untold amounts building a partial network of (sometimes) high-speed railways, successive governments were always surprised when, instead of exporting prosperity to the regions, all that happened was a further Londonisation of the economy; with house prices far away from the capital inflating to absorb the money of Londoners willing to pay eye-watering amounts to escape the hellishly high cost of metropolitan living for the suburban idyll. Even if that London suburb was now in the Midlands, and they ended up wasting great amounts of their time in equally ruinously expensive commuting.
Something Had To Be Done of course, and DeLondonisation was the Something. Imposing a London Premium upon nearly every transaction made in the capital was supposed to encourage a 'fairer distribution' of economic activity to the provinces; neglecting the fact life had always been more expensive in London, and it had done nothing at all to dampen the city's attraction.
While the Council were approving this hare-brained plan they also approved the creation of the LEZ which was certain to draw more business to the capital; and so it has. But the contrary nature of their policies appears to be lost on the Connies; just as their ideal of local but interlocking resilient regional sectors; so supposedly reducing the need for people to travel, is at odds with their Assignment policy.
These days it is not only possible, but more than likely that despite suitable positions being available close to home, the local Community Support Office will order an unfortunate assignee to a post many miles away. No doubt they will cross journeys with someone living far away but who has been assigned close to where the first person lives. There is an appeals process; but it takes a long time and is rarely successful; or in the meantime you might be able to arrange an placement swap via an assignment exchange for a fee and another fee paid to the CSO to approve the arrangement. The TransCred costs are subsidised to an extent, but even that concession is time-limited. If the duration of the assignment lasts beyond the one year cut-off point you are expected to up sticks and move closer to it.
The long-distance coaches and trains are always full of these unfortunates who surround me now. Zombie passengers: People who are only just existing rather than living; struggling to keep their heads above water, losing any money that they may earn beyond Minimum Basic Income to travelling costs. They waste so much of their lives in daily journeys, or making a weekly trip to or from their Slop N Drops. Precious time stolen forever; never to be regained. You often see them slumped in their seats trying to catch up on some sleep, or wearing Spex or vidivisors; immersed in their own little worlds, perhaps trying to maintain a online relationship with their remote spouses and families; silently uttering their distant words of love via self-adhesive hush microphones which convert their jaw motions into speech. Too constantly tired or preoccupied to consider rebelling against their vassalage, as most of us are. Ever-present manifestations of how pointless, arbitrary, and inefficient the Busy Doing Nothing system which has come to be known as Fedonomics is.
I should be used to it by now, but I still find sitting in a carriage of such silent talkers unnerving. Perhaps it's because I grew up in the age of loud mobile phone conversations, tapping laptop keyboards, limited wifi, and trains which didn't have noise dampening fields. No, I can't lose myself in a virtual world like that. Instead I sit where any overlooking cameras can't read the scroll's screen; switch it to minimum interaction and try to get some non-sensitive work done as well as updating this text-only blurt. When someone else sits next to me I give up on that and watch the world passing by.
I find it incongruous how we can have such advanced means of communication retrofitted to a forty year old train which has had its maintenance cut to the bare minimum in the expectation it will break down more often, and so hopefully dissuade its passengers from travelling on it to a destination they can't avoid going to as a result; and this a deliberate policy! But these are the bizarre times we are living through.
The journey from Pompey to Waterloo should take around ninety minutes. Instead we're stuck somewhere south of Godalming for an extra hour while an automated announcement from FedRail cuts through the carriage's hush field at regular intervals apologising for the delay due to 'technical issues'.
At least the Council in one of its more sensible moments decided to sweep all of those shoddy little franchise operators off the rail network and unify it under one company again. They also did the same thing with the utilities sector. Millions of previously confused and exasperated customers were relieved to see the greedy energy companies kicked out of their cosy little oligopoly and the welter of confusing tariffs simplified; but for a short while. The public's joy at being freed from the constant attention of those irksome little supplier switching botherers was short-lived when the Connies used their new found control to introduce 'green' pricing and rationing... But that's another story.
At last we begin to creep forward past a group of rail workers and fire fighters surrounding a cluster of grey line side boxes. The pungent burnt rubbery smell gives a clue as to the cause of the problem. Was it a case of physical frazzling or was the switch gear just too old and overloaded? Who can tell? It may be just an isolated incident but it doesn't bode well for the coming winter, when once again it is forecast the power systems will be put under increased stress. After stopping at Godalming we resume our journey at normal speed, and arrive without further problems at Waterloo.
Location alarms generated by their devices and an announcement thundering through the syllibence of the hush field like the final condemnation of a wrathful God explaining we've arrived at our destination startle the zombies awake. Some emerge from their virtual little worlds, while others only partially reconnect with reality. They are so addicted to their connection they would risk being ticketed for 'Walking Without Due Care And Attention' or a similar charge rather than put aside their electronic sanctuary, even for the short time it takes to change transport modes. Together the reanimated and I shuffle on to the platform.
I picked this train in the hope of arriving in London and travelling through it before the Friday afternoon rush begins. Though it's mid-afternoon the station is still busy; more so than I expected. I always feel a bit out of my depth in places like these; so easily confused by the crowds. I imagine myself to be a leaf caught and swept around in a swirling current of people.
I've learned to go with the flow and allow myself to be carried along with the throng toward the gaping maw of the Underground station. Feeling slightly disorientated and light headed as I usually do in these situations I try to look everywhere around me at once, wanting to avoid being jostled too much. I feel like an innocent country rube arriving in the Big City, even though I've been here many times before.
My senses are overwhelmed: My hearing with the bustle of people on the move and the booming reverberation of service announcements, the decades-old endlessly repeating warnings not to leave your bags unattended lest they be mistaken as suspect and destroyed; a constant aural paranoia that has wormed its way into the subconscious of every Londoner. My nostrils twitch with the alien, fatty, humid, sooty, metallic, sweaty, electrical smell of the city. In passing I note fewer people are wearing masks these days; either we're feeling safer now or more fatalistic about inhaling radionuclides or viruses.
My scroll vibrates, seeking attention. I've attracted a cluster of Sprites; digital hawkers offering me a whole range of services and advice from accommodation to taxis, bus and tube information, resturaunts or 'special offers' from the eye-wateringly expensive fast food franchises on the station's concourse: This instant local knowledge all mine should I tap an acceptance.
I should've reminded myself to set it to reject all of those pesky cyber pedlars. Within the station both TfL's and the OMS' anti-malware programmes should have weeded out any rogue wurdles, but in these Dragon days you can never be absolutely sure... With a curt "Dismiss All!" I shoo away the swarm of virtual flies buzzing around me. In any case I know where I'm going: Along the Jubilee Line to the Canary Wharf portal of the LEZ.
As I enter the concrete and stainless steel sterility of the Tube the prepaid Degréplastic travel card I was given beeps and turns a sickly shade of bioluminescent slime green. The card is just one of the mundane everyday miracles we take for granted: Were I to bury it in some soil once its credit had expired, within six months it would be broken down by bacteria back to its organic components. Science fiction writers of the past such as HG Wells or Jules Verne would be astounded at our technological progression beyond their wildest dreams, as well as disgusted by our revanchist social attitudes which hark back to the indifferent callousness of their age.
At least the card, and the remote sensing ticket barriers are working at the moment. At another time they may revert back to contact scanning or even manual checking, depending on how badly the Black Dragon's fiery breath has burned them. I also pass through the radiation detector without triggering an alarm, it appears nothing harmful has settled on me since I was last scanned at Portsmouth station.
I only caused an alarm to sound here once, many years ago, and that was disturbing enough. Then the protectively garbed RadProFor attendant leapt off her chair nestled in a plastic booth to the side of the entrance, pulled her mask up over her face, and drew me aside for closer inspection with a hand detector. After locating a particle on my sleeve she gave my jacket a good going over with a powerful vacuum hose attached to an imposing metal canister, all lurid yellow and ominously trefoil labelled, before testing me again and finding nothing further.
After declaring me decontaminated I was handed the obligatory post-exposure health advice leaflet; I was free to go and relieved not to have been led to the full excoriating decon shower, head shaving, and confiscation of my clothes to be replaced by a disposable degré suit. Nevertheless, that invisible mote must have been irradiating for a while at least; I still go cold inside thinking about it. The experience was one I don't want to repeat so I'm glad to be allowed into the Underground without any problems.
According to the real-time displays I've three minutes to wait until my train arrives; it's enough time to take in the scene around me. As an occasional visitor looking in as an outsider I'm struck by things most Londoners are so used to they don't even notice. The blast-proof transparent amour plastic walls between the edge of the platform and the tracks; once only found on certain stations on the network, are now installed at all of them. Their doors only open when they are aligned with those on a stopped train.
As yet a barrier has never been put to the test by a bomb, dirty or otherwise, but they have probably saved countless people tempted to end their misery by 'going under', but even I take those measures as a given now.
Instead it's the smaller changes which are most obvious to me. The near disappearance of paper posters and their replacement by well spaced screenfilm displays or the occasional holo projection. The passengers immersed in digital worlds of their own don't take any notice of analogue adverts, so they have all but disappeared. Habitual tube travellers are so inured to the warning notices that even if they look at them they no longer register. But I see them.
Even if I didn't pay any heed to them they have ways of getting my attention. The scroll vibrates again, and this time it's a PushSprite which can't be dismissed or deleted until it has at least been opened. The local infogrid must have tagged my device as an out-of-towner and pushed me the public information clip about Safety and Security on the Underground.
Annoyed I open it and flick it away. As if we've not been told often enough What To Do In The Event Of... and just to reinforce the point there are still old-style posters explaining under which circumstances you should evacuate or shelter here; and what the alert good citizen should be on guard against. I've had enough of this constant nervousness already, and I've only just arrived! At last the train arrives and I squeeze aboard. The journey to Canary Wharf is mercifully short.
It feels good to be out of the tunnels and back into the fresh air again. I'm in the Canary Wharf plaza, at the border of the LEZ. In the surrounding offices a lot of the intermediary business is done. This amorphous legal netherworld is a useful place for people who don't want to throw all caution to the wind and base themselves completely in the LEZ to meet and do business with both the Fedders and the LEZzers. But as my business lies entirely within the enclave and I've no reason to linger here I walk eastwards to the Plaza Portal. Further in the distance beyond the new de-facto London Wall, I catch a closer view of the fat, featureless obsidian cylinder of the London Column spearing up into the mist.
Every city has an architectural icon which instantly identifies it as a brand. When the LEZ was created the newly-appointed board in charge decided the traditional tourist images of London; even the Canary Wharf complex or the Shard - which the Column now dwarfs into insignificance - didn't reflect the bold new image the LEZ wanted to project to the world. Something on a more impressive scale was needed.
The Column certainly is imposing. Supposedly it was inspired by Nelson's column and the resonance to the past glories of the mighty trading powerhouse his navy underpinned; but this grotesque construction shares nothing of the graceful proportions of William Railton's design. From the approval of the initial concept, to design using uninspiringly conventional but proven 'off the shelf' elements, through to its construction in the teeth of some of the worst weather in a century, took a mere four years. Now this colossus is the destination of choice for the elite who want to work, live, and risk all in the new wild East End.
Such is its gargantuan size it forced a re-routing of the air traffic holding patterns to and from Heathrow. Its controversial shadow darkens the nearby boroughs and it is visible from up to 80km away on a suitably clear day. It distorts your perspective faculties and offends any aesthetic sensibilities you may have. It is brutish, ugly, and menacing; truly redolent of the ideology behind its creation. Fortunately the true horror of its size is truncated at the moment by a ceiling of low cloud, so at least I won't have my gaze hijacked and drawn ever upward by it. When faced with an eyepoke of this magnitude the only thing you can do is to look away from it, and refuse to be intimidated by its brooding presence.
I doubt I'll ever develop 'column neck' from looking up at it, or be responsible for a 'column collision' with another pedestrian; inattentively walking into someone while being overawed by the monstrosity, but I need to keep my wits about me to avoid dumbstruck people while joining the queue at the portal.
Though the Zone is technically a part of the Federation, that is belied by the notices and PushSprites warning the LEZ operates under a different legal code. It also has its own entry controls.
Contrary to most occasions at Federation borders or within them at pop-up checkpoints, the process of passing through is quick and easy, but still to my mind intrusively Orwellian. After pausing at a turnstile until you are given the green light to proceed you walk through the dog-leg chicanes of a corridor as both you and your entry pass are remotely scanned. If the sensors detect any weapons, or unexplained objects on your person or in your luggage; or signs of elevated stress measured by skin temperature or body language - as well as certain chemical residues - transparent armoured partitions will close in front of and behind you and you will be politely directed down a side exit for further investigation. Otherwise you continue through to the other side, automatically processed.
The authoritarians of the Council would love to see this kind of technology adopted throughout the Fed but they can't afford it, it isn't absolutely reliable, and compulsory general biometric registers are unlawful under Charkarabati vs Rex. So rather than relying on facial recognition systems, the Zone uses 'old style' smart cards as the prohibition applies here as well.
Besides, there is always the Dragon to consider. There have been some instances of intelligent low-level attacks leading to some embarrassing moments for senior Zoners (the term 'LEZzer' is considered derogatory and never used in polite conversation inside the confines of the Zone; not if you want to remain within it.) These unfortunate incidents don't get publicised of course; but then a lot of things that go on in the Zone go unremarked.
In any case, installing a system in the Fed which trigger a warning based on detecting excess stress levels would result in an overload of false positives! Some aspects of the LEZ systems are in sporadic use in major termini, but what use they are when terror can be aerosoled from a stealth minidrone is debatable. There are no problems with my temporary pass so with only a short walk I pass through to the Zone.
I remember one of the school history lessons which stuck with me was the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was around the time the wall fell that some fools were predicting The End Of History, much as they are doing again now. These days the thesis is with recent events rebalancing power away from the US toward a multipolar world and with many of the boils of contention now lanced by the Crises Wars the age of conflict is mostly past. From now on we will grudgingly put aside our differences and work together for a recovery to a duller, poorer, but more peaceful future. It seems the lesson from history is that we never learn the lesson from history... No, what struck me was watching the film of the Osti Germans seeing the material wealth of West Berlin for the first time, and seeing them looking wide eyed with slack jawed disbelief at what they had been missing out on for so long.
Standing here as a new visitor to the Zone I feel like Alice of the childrens' story; I now know exactly how she, and the Ostis must have felt, for I'm sure I've passed through a rabbit hole into a wonderland. It seems hard to credit, but within the living memory we seem to have collectively put out of mind the entire UK used to be like this. Well, not quite; the changes we've been through have manifested themselves here as well. But look around!
It's the small things: For example the hawkers at the portal looking happy; unconcerned about being hassled by the Facillitators provided that they keep their accreditation visible and don't stray beyond the painted boundaries of their pavement pitches. Cheery greetings invite me to buy snacks, and even flowers. Flowers! Why, I've not seen a florist in many a year! Fedders don't have the money to waste on fripperies like flowers and so the florists closed en-masse. And there! Someone selling imported stockings! Women Zoners wear them; that much is clear from the few officey girls I can see clip-clopping along in proper high heels and skirts so short they would be ticketed outside the Zone for Offending Public Modesty.
It's one of the reasons for having a buffer zone between the Zone and the Fed proper: Some things are allowed to pass there which would otherwise cause friction, and it eases cross-border business. Still, if your journey was going to take you deeper into the Fed, you wouldn't dress so immodestly. It's hard to tear my gaze away from those lovely pert rears walking away; after so long with nothing but females in frumpy Fedwear to ogle, a well turned out woman has a certain effect on a red-blooded man...
But I must get back to concentrating on the matter in hand: I need to find my hotel. For a change the helpful official Zone Sprite is welcome to interact with my scroll's 'sist. It informs me the electrobus I need to catch will be arriving in a moment.
Despite the wealth within the Zone there is very little private traffic on the streets. While waiting for my bus I spot the occasional brutish hulk of a hybrid offroad limo; all dog straining for a shit cyber creased curves, slitty headlights, bloated high haunches, garish chrome, and opaque pill-box windows. Never to see dirt in its lifetime. Or the odd supercar such a hideous collection of falling skip flattened angles they look designed by a visually impaired person suffering a migraine while doing so.
But those are the exception; for in an area so compact and secure there is no reason to drive. It is far easier to walk, take public transport, or hail an automated taxipod. With land at such a premium there is little to waste for parking, no matter how rich the car owner may be to afford it, with the prices paid for the few spaces remaining being truly staggering. In any case even among the most gaudily vulgar of the ultra rich, attitudes have changed.
Inside the Zone there really is no need for a car capable of reaching 400kph when the speed limit is electronically enforced at 50kph; no point to having a all-terrain monster truck when the roads are flat and asphalted. Confined to the roads within the Zone is where these vehicles must stay; as only the stupid would dare venture beyond the boundary driving them. In the Fed the inflammable vapour of persistent social inequality can be ignited into a flashover of violence at a flaunting of such ostentatiousness in the midst of our poverty.
Once they may have been a flamboyant display of status but now, being superfluous, ownership of such a vehicle identifies one as unsophisticated; someone who is not up with the trend and lacking a certain virility.
The other thing which I notice, and it has me choking back tears, are the shops: Both those which are, and aren't here. There are a few enclaves of retail excess for the wealthy elite to be found elsewhere in the Fed; but most people aren't allowed anywhere near them. This is the first time I've seen anything like this for longer than I can remember. Take that bespoke jeweller's shop for example; the styles may be subdued these days, with less being more, but even the thinnest gold neck chain would cost more than I earn in five years. And next door to it is a walk-in scroll boutique-consultancy.
In these days of pervasive HyperFi the obsessions we once had with device specifications or the costs and features the competing networks offered seem but a quaint memory. Only the nerdy really care anymore; for the rest of us it's there, it works, and it does more than we could possibly need or want it to do - most of the time. Now the device is taken for granted; what matters is how you interact with it, and what it can do for you. Even in this tech-savvy world there are consultants - both human and virtual - available to infinitely customise your online experience to your personal wishes.
I don't need to cross the street to see the prices of the customised scroll tubes on display in the window; if I really wanted to I could engage with the sales sprite from here. But I won't; I can imagine how much some of the hand made strips of exotic (though sustainably sourced) animal skin would cost. I could never afford, or justify to myself affording such pointless luxury. If I had any spare money I'd probably spend in the posh looking pub next door. Christ! a proper pub selling proper beer; no doubt at chest clutching Zone prices, but I would, just the once...
My bus arrives. I board it, and trying hard not to look like a gawping Osti yokel despite my Fedwear business suit notice more changes through the window as it moves off. Superficially the streets may look the same as those outside but the differences are there to be noticed by the discerning observer. There are tailors here, but not your usual lumpen Made4U or Sew and Sew; these are far more exclusive. And you won't see the likes of TecFix or Xchange on these streets; though if you look carefully enough there are still the discreet three-balled signs to be found; some things never change, especially in this area of London. And there is such an abundance of everything on display!
My first impression of the Zone shops is they are the sort who service the kind of clientele so wealthy and self-assured they don't need to draw attention to themselves; a wise policy in my view. So here a window display containing only one item is an example of hauteur: In the Fed we'd call that a typical supply hiatus. Advertising in the Fed is low-key because there is little to buy; here it is understated because is more specifically targeted. And I note that pavement signs and A-boards are banned here in the Zone as well as the Fed. In the Fed because they cause problems for visually and mobility impaired people, in the Zone because they are thought of as vulgar.
Quietly and smoothly the leather upholstered bus glides past parades of shops, bars, and restaurants - so many of them! - until I'm alerted to my stop. Head spinning at the sight of so much affluence I stumble out and look for my hotel.
The Perch is a clever exercise in speciality branding of your typical Slop N Drop. Budget hotels had been around from way before the Crises, but they suffered a downturn as business and holiday travel fell back; while Assignment Dormitories, colloquially known as Slop N Drops, undercut them. Naming it the Perch invokes a redolence of a place for a social bird to pause and sing before flying onward - hopefully to bluer skies - than a bare cubicle with a bed, sink, storage, and little else: That's all you get in a Perch.
Even in the Zone there is a need for the most basic accommodation for those on their uppers to pitch themselves or their ideas to the Zoners. A Japanese company once tried to open a pod hotel where the guests had to slide themselves into horizontal cells the size of those old red phone boxes like larvae in a beehive, but it didn't take off. Though these are strange days there are still things we won't put up with.
The reception, when I finally find it, is completely automated. At least it is unaffected by the Dragon for the moment, so I don't have to call for human assistance. The door portal recognises the prepaid booking IMS added to my temporary Zone pass, welcomes me, and allows me in. Inside the bare lobby I'm directed to collect my standby key card from a dispensing machine, just in case I'm unable to unlock my door with my scroll, before squeezing past a couple of starry-eyed hopefuls wearing Fed business suits in the narrow corridor on my way to my room.
Dumping my holdall inside I'm considering what and where I may eat without blowing my expenses budget when my problem is solved by a priority geoblurt from James. Opening this message triggered by my scroll's arrival at the coordinates of the hotel, I learn that James, or more likely his 'sist, has decided to invite me to a light late lunch. No wait; this is signed by his latest human (and very nubile) PA. Things must be looking up if I merit such attention. Well I didn't fancy an overpriced instant hot pot of bland something from the Perch's vending machine so I may as well go and meet James: He's someone you don't turn down in any case.
IMS has its head office in the Zone. Its location here puts us beyond a lot of Connie hassle so it's worth the eye-watering rent. But I've never been here before, only seeing our old office when I was interviewed, so I'll need to find it. Despite the pervasive connectivity permeating the very air of the Zone I seem to have found myself in a data shadow. I think it must be the overbearing proximity of the Column shading the lesser buildings at its feet. Anyway, without my interactive sprite I'm lost; but not for long.
A man wearing a scarlet 18th century frock coat, knee breeches, and a tricorn hat notices my predicament and offers to help. I'm pleased to see him, and in any case you don't want to arouse any undue suspicion by trying to brush off a uniformed Facillitator.
A combination of guide and private police, Facillitators are not to be trifled with. In an instant they can order your expulsion from the Zone and revoke your entry pass without having to provide a reason, and they can call in some heavy reinforcements if need be That's how the Zone handles its law and order issues: Low-level infractions punished by a temporary or permanent suspension of residence; the more serious cases get exported and fast-tracked through the Fed courts.
As with the Fed system you don't get an adversarial trial; just a hearing to affirm the details of the case and that the process has been correctly administered, a chance to put your side of the story, and to be legally represented. If you're lucky you may get a referral hearing, which is more like the Magistrates' courts of old. If not you can be a Zonebody on Monday and a nobody banged-up in a Fed holding centre awaiting your processing by the next Wednesday; reduced to cleaning ditches by hand by Friday.
As a result the streets of the Zone are safe to walk at any time of the day or night, and most people are very well behaved; taking particular care to be as well-mannered to the Facillitators as the Facillitators are to them.
It must have been my Fedwear and lost expression he noticed, or an alert from the street camera AI beamed to his Spex. After learning about my difficulty he apologises for the temporary problem with the data field and promises it will be remedied shortly. In the meantime he would be glad to be of service by guiding me to my destination.
IMS's head office is located in the top two floors in a low-rise block thrown up in the frantic building boom of the mid-eighties a few streets away: The building is badly showing its age. It is dwarfed by the nearby Column, and planned to be demolished once the Column is tenanted to 80% of its capacity; then this site will be redeveloped in the next phase of the Zone's ambitious expansion programme. The next big project may well be a huge pyramid of a building, with us relocating to it, though as yet there are no firm plans. Wishing me a successful day, my guide bids me farewell.
Though I know I've nothing to worry about with this latest one-to-one session with James, I'm still not keen on them. I find them too intensely personal, but that's the way he operates. Taking the stairs to the tenth and top floor - Fedder habits die hard, despite the Zone's promises of a uninterruptably secure power supply - I arrive not too badly out of breath at reception.
Without delay I'm ushered in by the doorkeeper and introduced to James' latest PA, Ms Chintata. Thai women look ageless but she can only just be out of her teens; I think her secretarial skills were only part of what persuaded James to take her on. After a cup of real coffee and a short wait I'm shown through to the man himself. As always James is straight to the point. "Congratulations on making it through so early, Richard! I wanted to see you first and chat about where we're going from here. Let's talk and eat at the same time!" he says, motioning to a buffet plate.
Trying not to wolf down the food (even we constantly peckish Osties have some pride, and here face is everything) I fill my plate, sit down, and settle in. This food really is good! I'd almost forgotten what real food tastes like; and this is but a quick finger buffet snack!
"So; how's it going Richard?"
This is the cue for an in-depth discussion. Half an hour seems to vanish, but it's not been too bad. I'm granted a small salary increase as I'd hoped for, and we discussed some organisational issues. I'm pleased I won't have so much personnel management to do. Bippin is being transferred to another part of our organisation: He'll be remaining in our office, but will be part of a company-wide caucus implementing the MaggieSist updates, and providing logistical support to the NRP: So here it comes...
"I'm really pleased you found Neil Moore for me: He'll come in very useful! I've pencilled him in as a candidate for Portsmouth South. There are other seats available if you feel up to putting your name forward..." The time has come to make my position clear, no matter what the cost.
"I've given it some thought; but I consider I'd be more use to you in a supporting role. I'm think running the media relations, or policy and image development, or creating some persuasive blurt is more my forté. I really wouldn't be doing my best for you or myself by standing: It's just not me!"
There: I've said it. Now to face the consequences... Yet James doesn't seem to be that taken aback.
"I'm glad you feel able to be so honest with me: If there's one thing the NRP has to stand for, then it's integrity. I still think you'd make a good candidate; but if your heart isn't in it, then there's no use in trying to pretend otherwise. Anyway, I'm happy you feel able to make a contribution. There'll be a meeting on Sunday to sort out who fits where; and of course you'll be welcome!"
Was it really so easy? James seems to have taken it in his stride, or was he expecting me to say what I did and resigned himself to it? There are few loose ends to tidy up and that seems to be the crux of the meeting over with; fortunately without rancour.
Once our business is done, James has his 'sist display the locations of the other attendees making their way into the Zone, and blurts them to come and join us for an informal evening buffet get-together.
So that's my evening entertainment taken care of. No need now to sync my scroll with the Perch's node in the hope of finding some entertainment, or search out a Fair Food, or one of the out of the way cheaper cafes the humbler Zoners use. And there are proper alcoholic drinks available for free in the IMS conference room: Yes!
The evening passes pleasantly enough and it's good to reacquaint yourself with colleagues who you deal with remotely via terminal in the actual flesh. After a while the drink and the day catches up with me so I make my excuses and manage to find the Perch unaided. Usually I have trouble getting to sleep in strange places, but not this time.ns 22.214.171.124da2