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The Blurt of Richard Davies

Summary

A warning from a nightmare near-future.

Ten years after the UK fragmented, the emergency mandate of the Consensus goverment is coming to an end. At long last a General Election is due.

World-weary journalist Richard Davies becomes reluctantly drawn into the aspiring National Renewal Party's campaign. But as long suppressed social tensions erupt on to the streets of a nation so much like - yet so different from - our own, he realises his options for doing the right thing in a world gone wrong are narrowing, and time is running out...

A 151,000 word novel.

Chapter One

The

Blurt

Of

Richard

Davies

 

John

Curzon

Copyright © 2015 John Curzon

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or in any means - by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise - without the permission of the author.

John Curzon asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this book.

Disclaimer.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Thanks.

 

There are many people who have encouraged and assisted me in the writing of this novel. Given the nature of this story it is best their names aren't associated with it. But you know who you are, and my gratitude to you is by no means diminished by my maintaining your anonymity.

Dedication.

This book is dedicated to the memory of my late mother. It was her love of reading which introduced me to fiction and eventually inspired me to try my hand at writing.

Wherever her soul is now I hope somehow she is aware of this work, and approves of what her love and determination has finally resulted in.

The

Blurt

Of

Richard

Davies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To whoever finds this blurt: My name is, or was Richard Davies. This, for what it's worth, is my story and that of an era I hope is now ended. As I quickly edit this journal prior to hardlocking it for good I find it hard to believe we lived and acted in the way I describe; yet we did. Still harder to accept my small part in what has happened; yet there can be no denying it.

You may wonder at my reason for leaving you this account. To be honest I'm not sure myself. Perhaps I'm seeking some kind of immortality; to be known as a chronicler of my time rather than an anonymous casualty of the events (The figures for the Crises casualties in the Federation of England, Wales, and Ulster are being 're-evaluated' again and hence unavailable; as they have been for quite some time. Eventually I'm sure it will be statistically proven that no one died or was injured.) Or maybe it's my way of coping. A displacement activity; an individual raging against the dying of the light. I could be hoping my narrative will become part of the record of how history was changed against all the odds and a better future wrested from a foreboding present; though at this moment the outcome remains undecided. Most likely it is a combination of all of these motives.

What follows began as a diary; written as I realised how life in the Fed was at risk of going even more badly wrong than previously: I felt the story of how the decline of our once great nation began to accelerate needed to be told. Had I realised then how events would develop I would have set down a far more detailed and comprehensive record; but how could anyone have foreseen what was to come? I find myself as dumbfounded as everyone else, and I was supposedly in the know. So imperfect as this may be, what follows explains the circumstances which led to this sorry state of affairs coming about. I've done my best to keep it updated as the events unfolded. I'll add this journal to the files described in the text which I've cached in a few dark spaces, and set to massblurt at random times, just in case... So hopefully anyone who finds this will know what really happened and get my undistorted account of it all.

It won't be long now before it becomes clear if things have gone the way I believe they ought to. If not, I hope this will be my testament. I've edited the details of my personal life to protect those involved and because I regard them as irrelevant; but saved what I think may be of use to you, or should be recorded for posterity. Make of it what you will, take it as a warning from history, but above all learn from our mistakes. Don't allow yourselves to be fooled so easily, and become as quiescent as we did.

April the 5th.

I've got yet another conference to attend later today. I'm not sure if at it I'll be offered promotion or be told Independent Media Services no longer needs my talents full time, but it might be possible for me to continue to work for them on a freelance basis. It's nothing you've done wrong, but just the unfortunate way that things are going at the moment. Yes, it's far from ideal for you we know, but at least it's better than being Reassigned...

So I find myself stuck on a standing room only overcrowded train to Oxford; on my way to meet James Purvis and the board. The more I think about it the more hopeful I am this is a move up rather than a move out; God I hope it is! Or maybe I'm just trying to whistle down the wind. I don't think I could take the Reassignment process again, it's far more severe than it was a few years ago when I last claimed, and that was bad enough...

This worrying is making me feel nauseous; I'm flip-flopping between hope and despair. In my more hopeful moments I'm sure that if it was the Hard Word I've have had some idea beforehand, or just a curt message informing me my services were no longer required; and James seemed to like what I was doing when he visited on his last provincial tour. As for the depressive stomach lurches, well recently things haven't been going that well for us... At least I'll know one way or the other by the end of the day, if this cobbled together string of knackered rail buses can get me there on time; and if we don't get delayed by yet another freight train, or any other of the constant 'operational issues'.

The view out of the window has changed considerably since I last came this way a year ago. The spaces between the towns have shrunk still further with more tracts of insubstantial housing where there used to be fields. There are more razor wire surrounded giant sheds, solar panels mirroring the roofs, on the outskirts of the towns; probably National Resilience Agency response nodes, standing ready for the next weather emergency. More land that once would have been left to the weeds appears to be under guerrilla cultivation, and as yet appears to have escaped the attention of the DOA eradication squads, though much of the harvest of these illegal makeshift allotments along road and rail verges is bound to have been lost during the winter. And near Reading I notice a newly constructed Rehabilitation centre.

Looking through the fence I can see hunched, shaven-headed, orange overall wearing figures bent over industriously tilling the soil; closely watched by body armoured guards armed with wands and tasers. I inwardly shudder: Had I remained Pending Assignment for another few months I might have been wearing orange. If not for that reason there are many other quick and easy ways of finding yourself on the wrong side of the wire. The knot of fear in my stomach returns.

After travelling in fits and starts the train halts at Radley. It's the usual problem, line subsidence; hardly surprising after the near constant rain we've been suffering recently. Resigned to the inevitable delay we're all transferred to a waiting electrobus. I let James know that I may be late; his autosist takes the call saying not to worry, everyone else is having similar problems. These days you set off on a long journey hopefully, rather than depart with an expectation of getting to your destination at a set time. It's a sign of the times of course, and the reason so we're constantly reminded for the introduction of TransCred; a way to nudging us into reducing our unsustainable demand for transport.

Oxford seems just as congested as ever; a crawling crush of bikes, mopeds, pedicabs (as rickshaws are euphemistically named these days), tuk-tuks, hybrid buses; as well as biofuel powered vans and HGVs. The traffic is hemmed in on both sides by a throng of peds, all purposely trudging somewhere. You can still drive a private fossil fuel car if you really must, or a slightly less expensive hybrid or electric vehicle. But for most people the costs are prohibitive and it uses large amounts of TransCred, so they've all but given up. They've either put their cars into storage in the hope that the fuel shortage, the Transport Credit Act, and the government which passed it will fall; (some hope!) traded them in for tuks; or sold them at a hefty loss to be recycled - possibly broken for spares to be sold on the international market - or exported whole to somewhere more car friendly.

The shops lining the roads are still much the same since I was last here. The pre-Crises high street landmarks have been replaced by new staples: TecFix, Made4U Tailors, Delivery Depot, Xchange, Ta-Ta! tattoo removals, FixIt, Cobblers!, Fair Food, U-Fab 3D Print, Sew and Sew, Bikez. But there are fewer large supermarkets and home furnishing stores, or ready made clothes shops. More empty units have become Community Support offices, while others have been converted into microhousing or Slop N Drops.

We're ever reminded how business has become greener, more diverse and even modestly successful thanks to the Consensus' economic leadership; but there seems to be less of it visible. Much of it has retreated away from the streets into living rooms and sheds, or further out of sight beyond the reach of Community Credit. Eventually the bus, obviously running low on charge, reaches the Ambition! Business and Conference Centre. There seems to be a growing trend to add exclamation marks to names, I think it derives from some sort of cultural osmosis: A transferring of the leaping over obstacles, up with the rainbows exuberance of our Connie rulers to society in general. Now I've arrived it's time to get off this moribund bus and discover my fate.

Well that's a relief! I'm still fully employed! The role I'd assumed on a temporary basis has been made permanent though I'm not sure if that's good thing; I'm now high enough within the IMS hierarchy to be noticed, but not high enough to be able to deal with the consequences of appearing on the Consensus' radar. There are advantages in being one of the lowly, out of sight people the business can't do without but with the ever-rising cost of living these days the salary increase in New Pounds and ComCred isn't to be sniffed at.

I'm going to be leading the Central South Coast cluster from Southampton to Brighton, and as far north as Reading; in overall charge of news and content. As I'm going to be more mobile I'll also get a much increased company TransCred allowance, as well as an updated scroll. And after my private meeting with James I'm a bit more confident about my position. We both can see the way things are going and are agreed it isn't going to be easy; in fact if James is correct life may well become much more difficult for us in the near future, but at least he's trying to stand firm and do the right thing. I just hope the board will keep supporting him. The Connies aren't above going beyond the Office of Media Standards and other subtle, or less than subtle attempts to influence our editorial policies. It wouldn't surprise me to learn they had a mole or two on the board and were plotting a takeover to silence our independent voice: That's the sneaky way those sly bastards operate.

At least that's all over and done with, but by the time we are finished the evening is drawing on. No-one wants to hang around afterward for a drink, being as eager to get home as I. All of the nearby hotels are full as they always seem to be, so rather than stay overnight I catch a bus back to Radley station. The tracks are still being repaired, but fortunately rather than waiting around, as soon as we last few passengers are embarked the train rattles off. I manage to get a seat this time. It's late evening by now, the drizzly gloom of the line side streets only dimly broken by the new Light Emitting Panel moonlight street lamps: They are partly solar powered; complete with surveillance node and FreeFi repeater; weaker as well as being spaced further apart, but of course more energy efficient than the older lamps they replaced. To me they still appear to be broken or forever trying to warm up; they give the areas they light the appearance of suffering a random power cut or of sliding back to a new dark age - which we may well be doing.

The exception to the semidarkness is the Rehabilitation centre; overwhelmingly bright with harsh, shadowless, searching light. I don't think any of the other passengers slumped in their seats notice, it or allow themselves to be seen to notice. Such are our times... The day is starting to catch up with me, so I give up on trying to introduce myself to my new scroll. I flick it off. It curls into a small, thin, pocketable tube about the size an old style tablet stylus. Then trying, but failing to find a less uncomfortable position to squirm into; aim to get an hour or two's sleep if at all possible. Reaching Petersfield, I stumble off the train and take a taxituk back to Waterlooville.

April the 6th.

It can't be time to get up already! I'd only just gone to sleep. At least one of the perks of my new position is I'm responsible to myself now. I'll make a point of it that providing everyone does what they're supposed to well and on time I'm not bothered about the minutiae of office life, and yes, that includes me.

Still, I've got a good excuse for running a bit late having crashed in so early this morning. I blurt to let everyone know that I'd be in later and set about making myself presentable. I've finally got the hang of shaving with the new safety cutthroat, but I must remember to take it to FixIt for a resharpening; they do a much better job than I can. A quick splash wash has the water meter telling me if I keep being water wise for another day then I'll have saved enough to indulge in a short warm shower by the weekend. Though taking regular showers is encouraged to remove any low level fallout particles, we're not allocated the Water Credit to do so. That, like everything else these days, is of course an extra expense. It's a bitter irony that even as we paddle our way through one of the wettest periods in our metrological history, we're still being urged - nay, forced by rationing by price - to economise on our water use.

I should ride into work but I feel drained after yesterday, and with the monthly partial expiry of the TransCreds due it makes sense to use them or lose them; so I might as well catch the X47 express bus from the 'Ville into Pompey. At least these days it doesn't take long; with limited stops and at the 80kph limit down a clearer M275 you arrive in the city centre quickly enough.

Everyone knows of course, thanks to a massblurt from James; but I call a brief meeting anyway just to let them know everything is fine, and I'm still the same person that they knew the day before yesterday. I won't let my new power go to my head, and any changes will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. After introducing Lisa Burrows as the sort-of replacement in my old post I have a final announcement.

"Oh, and by the way, Kevin Ford blurted me this morning; news travels fast! He and Rosa are OK and busy setting themselves up near Narberth. Right now they've got their hands full with making the place habitable and getting the smallholding off the ground, but he hopes to be 'casting again within a couple of months, any help we could give him would be welcome. So, if any of our stories have a welsh connection, let him know and try to bring him in on it, any ViewCred is always welcome". There are nods all round: Kevin was popular here; we all owe something to him, and wish him well in his new venture.

"His final lines are... Once I've established myself here, consider yourself free to visit if you get the chance; and if you want to escape England for some relative freedom, either temporarily or permanently, just let me know. Get yourselves across the border before they close it! Rosa says that she doesn't regret moving for a moment, and they'd have to drag her back at gunpoint now; she wants Bron and Marie to grow up where there is room to breathe. So keep in touch and the best of luck to you all: I think you're going to need it!" Again more nods of agreement all round, I look for the telltale look or slight body language of disapproval, seeing nothing. I know we're all kindred spirits here but these days you never be absolutely sure... Or someone is very good at keeping their true allegiance hidden.

Lisa, and Bippin Swaroop hang back as everyone leaves.

"Trouble?" I ask.

"Sort of" says Lisa, "Dunno if you've had a chance to notice, but the OMS are all over our case about the Pig Club report after our local Connie media monitoring group took exception to it. Christ knows what got their hackles up about a group of allotment commonholders clubbing together to raise a pig on their plot, but they're claiming the tone of the report was mocking and the comparison with World War Two was misleading as there is no such austerity now; or maybe it's the meat eating that they're objecting to..."

"No, it's not that bad," interrupts Bippin "It's far worse now!" We inwardly groan at his humour.

She continues. "Anyway, as you weren't here I replied with the usual pro-forma; only stating the facts, let the viewers make up their own minds, unbiased, impartial reporting, blah blah blah... That should keep them quiet for a while but it's wearing us all down dealing with this constant drizzle of complaint".

"I know!' I reply. "That's why the wankers do it; but we mustn't let them get to us or they're winning. You did the right thing; let's see what they say to that or if they move it to the next level. If they do I'll take it on. James is aware of what we're putting up with, and we hope to be getting the MaggieSist online to deal with it soon".

"OK, well it's all yours now! I've got to go and compile my next bulletin; see you later!"

Bippin looks furtively around. I pull out my old slate and run my finger across the screen in that particular pattern which starts the scanning programme. No warning messages appear.

"All clear!" I say, showing him the screen, "Looks as if we're not that important yet, they can't be bothered to do more than snoop on our feeds."

"You never can be too careful!" He says. 'Anyway I've got these for you to sign-off: Installation of some more stuff. James has really splashed out this time; he must be expecting a lot of traffic! Thing is, we can't fit it all in here... I'd be able to if we didn't have that sealed space, so we'll have to split it between here and Anchorage Park, front end interface here - the works up there".

"No problem!" I say. "And Bippin; I spoke to James; there's a reason for that sealed space, but keep it to yourself. There's going to be some dark gear in there and a supply cache in case things get really bad".

"Does he-"

"Yes he does, and there's more on the way soon. Can you install it discreetly and keep it off the system register?"

"Of course!"

"I've been meaning to get a duplicate set of keys and codes for you; for here and Anchorage Park, and we'll be the only people with access. So this is strictly between us. As far as everyone else is concerned, and then only if they ask, it's a new Resilient Power Supply and Emergency Memory Core. I'll sort it out soon. When you get them, don't let those keys out of your sight."

"Fair enough! I wondered what was going in there; not even I could hack that code, and you'd need a battle 'bot to break down that door! That is some serious security!"

"I'd have been disappointed if you hadn't tried, and really pissed-off if you'd succeeded! Anything else?"

"No, that'll do it for now".

"OK; and please try to get the MaggieSist online as soon as possible!"

"Trust me; I want her online as badly as you do!" With that he leaves me.

I have the office to myself again. For a moment I can pause and take my newly permanent role in; but only for a moment. Then the responsibilities of it begin to nag at me: I'm barely two hours into the job and I've already done enough to earn myself a very long time filling sandbags on the East Coast Flood Defence Scheme.

The rest of the day passes quickly. A 'Keep up the good work' teleconference with the other local offices; writing my first executive order restating our ban on the use of influential background music and irritating filter effects from all news reports: - "we're repositioning ourselves at the serious news market" - plus the usual admin while keeping an ear on the output occupies me, and then it's time to leave.

I'm glad I took the bus this morning, I don't fancy riding back though the cold, ambush cloudbursts which have been brewing during the afternoon. Yes it is April, but even so...

The standing-only express bus trundles through the spray along the badly surfaced motorway. Strap hanging I can see the new shipyard developments; freshly constructed industrious looking docks; barges, cranes and hanger sized sheds crowding the waterfront. Outside, large primary colour painted parts of offshore aerogenerators ready to be assembled are spread along what was once the derelict tangle of rusty marine scrap around Whale Island and Tipnor.

This is the face of the Federation the Consensus is most proud of; a purposeful, green, industrial autarky newly reclaimed from the silt of the broken nation which had gone before. But soon the illusion passes and we're going past the former Horsea City Park. It was expropriated for housing, but a token play space and microhabitat wood retained as a reminder of the vision it might have been.

The bus reaches the desperate suburbia to the north. Disembarking at the 'Ville, I have a quick shop in the local collective store (no ComCred required), then walk the short distance home to finish my day by cooking myself a good sized baked potato and all the trimmings to celebrate my good fortune.

I'm not expecting Cath to call me, she seems to spend all of her time working in that bloody care home; so once I've had a good tot of Dad's latest hooch I'll turn in for an early night. It's no wonder our relationship has stalled with work keeping us apart, but as everyone is she's too busy trying to keep her head above water. In fact there was some research published recently which claimed we're all getting so tired as a result of our all-consuming grafting that we can't be bothered to get out and search for new partners, or satisfy the ones we have as often as we'd wish. The birth rate is falling despite the effect of all the fecund recent migrants having larger families than we Fedders: Our national libido is drooping. Still the eternal optimists of the Consensus will claim this is a good thing as it reduces promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases.

I really should just man-up about it, admit it's over and start looking for someone else; but it cuts both ways: They say whatever you do, don't date media people. But I can worry about that some other time; right now I need to catch up on some sleep.

Chapter Two

April the 7th.

It didn't take them long! The local and regional Connie apparatchiks sneaked their congratulatory mails through our filters, wishing me well for the future, and looking forward to our maintaining our high standard of 'casting: In other words, we'll be watching you. The lairy buggers even offered the services of a Media Liaison Assistant at no cost to ourselves if we could find some space within our organisation for one; just to make life easier for everyone concerned... Of course I politely acknowledged their best wishes while declining their kind offer; the sooner we get Maggie up and running the better! Bippin, who has been busy helping to create her, claims she will be an utter bitch to crack. I hope so; anything that makes the lives of the Connies more difficult is fine by me.

I wonder though, for how much longer these supporters of the Consensus government will remain merely an irritation? Theirs is an authoritarianism which eschews mass public rallies, intimidating parades and worship of one leader. They do however swear allegiance to a new ideology bereft of old traditions and wear their uniforms in public, as well as displaying their symbol wherever they can with obvious pride. Yet their party remains a cloistered enigma; its organisation and gatherings hidden from public view.

Instead we live under a far more subtle, intimate form of a dictatorship. One which like its supporters is becoming more deeply insinuated into the fabric of public life through their community work and infiltration of public organisations. Connies have an ardent determination, bordering on the messianic, that theirs is the only way forward. There's no point in trying to argue with them; they're constantly training to deflect your arguments like those pesky religious doorknockers who used to call at the most inconvenient times; the ones you don't see any more. In fact I can't remember when I last noticed those earnest, sombre suited young men. I wonder what became of them? Perhaps they realised they were up against some unbeatable competition? Or like many others they thought it prudent to leave the Fed while they were still able to.

The Connies are starting to become more than an annoyance: They are determined, insistent, relentless; allowing nothing to interfere with their goal of moulding the Fed and it's people to conform to their way of thinking. In theory you can still express your opinions more or less freely; as long as you don't fall foul of the continually shifting bounds of the law, or influence others to question the prevailing orthodoxy or act against it. Provided you don't publicly demonstrate your opinions, or risk actually changing things against the Consensus' vision of the common good... Yes, the freedom of speech and expression we once took for granted still notionally exixts, but as what is deemed acceptable is ever more narrowly defined I wonder for how long we will be able to express dissent in a meaningful way?

There is something more which I find unsettling about them. Whenever I see Connies; either in the flesh or on 'cast I get the feeling that there is so much more to them than meets the eye: That they have barely begun their process of social transformation, and  they are becoming increasingly impatient with anyone they see as delaying or obstructing their mission. I wonder for how much longer they will be able to contain their zeal, and what will happen when they feel impelled to increase the pace of change and carry their ideology and sense of ownership still further into our lives?

I find their whole ethos - what I can understand of it - and their modus operandi creepy. No, sinister. And what makes it worse is knowing you are the object of their obsession; they want to change your life for the better, as defined solely by them, no matter what your opinion.

It's not a personal thing; they want to intervene in everyones' lives. They regard personal affairs as both public and political. A few years ago they would have been told to do one by society in general; but such has our world been turned upside down, so great has the shock to our collective senses been since then; that what would have once seemed incredible or unacceptable is now so routine as to be unremarkable, things having changed so far so quickly. Not only have people become grudgingly accustomed to these previously unreasonable impositions upon their lives; some of them have become so conditioned as to actually welcome them.

April the 14th.

Another day; another war scare. It's understandable given our recent history proving they are crazy enough to Drop It; but just when we're getting almost insouciant about the thought of an internecine war there's another attack of the jitters fuelled by another maritime incident. Of course, living near the Portsmouth naval base as we do, we wonder if we could be the ones who would suffer the Alban wrath; but most of the analysts still think that if the latest spat ever escalated that far it'd be London that would be Target One for a squadron of elderly Typhoons tearing south at low level on a one-way mission armed with the former Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea's most notorious export.

We know the Albans have working nukes thanks to their detonation of a Hiroshima sized warhead - delivered by a sea-skimming cruise missile which was concealed in a launcher disguised as a container and fired from the deck of a DPRK cargo ship - over the North Sea not far from the Sizewell nuclear power stations. Fortunately there was little damage apart from a few scorched and broken blades on the wind farm below, as well as some minor EMP problems, but the implied threat was obvious.

Despite the claim it was a 'demonstration' shot, there are many who still believe that Sizewell, or even London itself was the intended target and it was only due to a malfunction in the missile's guidance system we escaped a greater disaster. The Albans threatened to explode further warheads with even more disastrous consequences, but by then with His Majesty's Dissolution decree in force, the creation of the Transitional Council, and the recalling of the special forces, it was clear Scotland - as it was then known - had won it's independence by some outsourced nuclear blackmail; regardless of whatever the rest of the union, or the forty-eight percent who voted against independence in the Second Referendum, thought.

We're still adjusting to living with a new, unpredictable, and sometimes belligerent nuclear-armed next-door neighbour; as are they. But with the fearsome power of the Bomb comes responsibility. We can but hope the new Sino-Russian axis can bring their influence to bear, as they did in the Gulf an Korea. Even the EU and the US - though both greatly reduced in stature - have offered their good offices to help soothe the current spat to a prickly but workable relationship.

We need only look at the Gulf, Israel, or reunified Korea for a sobering reminder of our fate if the leaders get it wrong. There are practical reasons for realpolitik optimism as well. In our interconnected world there are multinational interests in keeping the hydrocarbons flowing, and our nations are still too conjoined to allow our legacy infrastructure to be disrupted by war. The international community may have shafted us by recognising the fait accompli and tacitly supporting the renegotiation of the energy treaties; but at least our allotted trickle of oil and hydroelectricity still gets through. The poor old British Lion; emaciated, mangey, impotent and toothless, just has to adapt to the changed circumstances.

This latest scare isn't making our lives any easier though. No doubt there'll be yet more reams of reporting 'guidelines' from the OMS, and we'll need to rebalance our output to reflect our audiences' concerns away from the parochial to the international. We'll be taking from the national streams rather than contributing our own content to theirs; that'll cost us ViewCred as few people outside the area actually give a monkey's about the problems the gardeners of the Moneyfields allotments are having in stopping the latest outbreak of veg theft, or their opinions on the current war scare. Besides, vox-pops on sensitive issues such as these are discouraged. It's a good thing most of our local and regional packages aren't too time-sensitive; we can always run them later.

Fortunately whoever was at fault it was only an exchange of warning shots this time. There was no damage, and more importantly no injuries on board the trawler. In 48 hours the diplomatic protests will have been filed and dismissed, the gunboats will hopefully have stood to, and we can return to a sullen stand-off again. But the price of fish, already unaffordable, will rise still further as we realise that what was left of our North Sea fisheries are now swimming beneath the keels of the truculent Alban navy.

April the 27th.

The end of the month is approaching; quota time. Across the city, the region, and the wider Fed, everyone is making sure their accounts are in order; whether they are actually so or not. To that end you can bet every little jumped-up jobsworth in a hi-viz jacket will be out to ensure they have duly detected their tally of offences; whether those misdemeanours are real or imagined. This isn't a good time to be driving any sort of vehicle, ride a bike, or be walking alone: Better to take your chances with the rest of the herd on public transport for a couple of days in the hope the dayglo turds decide to pick on anyone else in the crowd but you.

You'd think by now they'd be aware target driven policing does more harm than good, and only gets peoples' backs up. It just seems to be such an utter waste of everyones' time, effort, and resources; especially since the same officious tossers responsible for this bureaucracy in a moment of serendipitous incompetence arranged for the partial expiry of TransCred just at the right time to enable most people to evade the worst of it by using their soon to expire allowances on public transport. Was that mere coincidence? Or did an empathic spirit trying to subvert the system from within contrive it that way?

Someone usually gets done for some minor infraction, but the chances are as long as you are streetwise or lucky, or know enough of the law and your dwindling body of rights to make them veer away and pick an easier looking target, it won't be you. If it is, you just have to put it down as an unfortunate case of chance taxation.

April the 29th.

That was a couple of days ago, but just when you thought it was safe to get back in the saddle they're at it again. Perhaps the great bureaucratic hive mind is starting to evolve some spontaneity? That would be a bad sign because as long as they are predictable the lower rungs on the ladder of the extended police 'family' are relatively harmless. The City Police can't be bothered with cycling matters; it's the Community Police busybodies who delight in making cyclists' lives a misery; because they can, and they have an incentive to do so.

I'm alerted to this latest development by a blurt from CycloSolidarity; a cycle commuter dark net community, warning of a couple of ComPig checkpoints, though I am puzzled about their timing. I thought the Community Police - aka Compies, ComPigs, Comps, Pols, or Goons - would've realised that they'd missed their cut off date. Perhaps they feel they have to make an early start on next months' quota. Or they've just postponed their deadline.

Even the Compies have enough nouce to realise they're being dicked, so they soon give up on the fixed stops at the few points of entry to Portsea Island and go mobile; that's when the fun begins. A public-spirited frazzler sets to work remotely sabotaging their saucer drone and forces it to land, then comes the call for a mass ride-through.

I've always had a bit of a rebellious streak. Dad says I got it from Mum - God rest her - who spent some time living an 'alternative' lifestyle before she met Dad and settled down. Wherever it came from, I can't resist an opportunity to tweak the noses of the Pols. So I saddle up, flick in, and follow the blurts set on audio to the approximate rendezvous area. You need to have confidence in your blurters, but these have a good rep, so I'm reasonably sure that it isn't a set-up.

The best laid Goon runs don't look out of the ordinary to those not in the know; few would recognise them for what they are until they begin, and as yet the surveillance grid isn't smart enough to recognise the signs, especially when it is being frazzled. To a casual observer, or your average Compie checkpoint, nothing appears amiss. Then, guided by the supposedly uncrackable anonymous microblurt voice in your ear and a bit of local knowledge you set the trap; drawing together into a critical mass too large for Them to cope with before riding through.

An alarm sounds in my ear. "ALL RIDERS! STICKY WICKET! STARBURST! STARBURST!" Shit! Something has gone wrong; the Goons have either got some motorised support, or some of them have been tagged as half-decent riders. Maybe they've cracked the feed or targeted the blurters? Whatever the cause, it's time to scatter far, fast and wide.

I consider riding away from the main routes, locking the bike somewhere out of the way, and catching a bus to the city centre, but that's risking it. I've a better chance of keeping my bike mine by staying on it and continuing to ride in, just as anyone else would do. The trick is to act naturally and not guiltily. Later those who want to can have an online debrief, but whatever the outcome and the lessons learned those blurters have taken a big hit to their reputation; I hope no-one got caught as a result of their failed run.

My earpiece is full of advice to take it easy and lie low if possible, to make your return journeys at different times using different routes, or to park your ride, merge with the crowd on public transport this evening, and pick up your bike tomorrow. Above all else, whatever you do, don't look plugged in! They'll always use the wearing of earphones as evidence of Cycling Without Due Care and Attention, one of their favourite catch-alls... Bugger! It had the makings of a good run.

I wouldn't put it past the ComPigs to go on a parking patrol in an act of spite, ticketing anything they can find; tax, insurance, or annual inspection tag violations, or they'll be giving cycling licences and helmet fitting extra scrutiny when they pull their random stops. If all else fails there are always the old ways and means, such as insufficient rear tyre tread, or lack of all the required area of reflective clothing or day running lights for bike and rider. Which reminds me; I'll need to buy a new tyre soon. Hopefully there'll be some really new ones available, rather than me having to put up with one of those shoddy remakes again.

Doing my best to be inconspicuous I slow down and blend in. It takes a while for my thudding heart and flushed face to return to normal, but I make it to Media House without further problems, park the bike, and set my very illegal dark tag I keep handy for just such an eventuality to transmit a proxy registration if queried by a long range RFID scanner for a while, just in case one of the little fuckers decides to try a random beam sweep. Yes I'm old enough to know better, but I really despise those cunts who would impose themselves so harshly on their fellow citizens; even their next door neighbours or co-workers, just so they can earn some extra privilege points. I hope they skulk back to their ordinary assignments empty-handed and realising they're just going to have to live as the rest of us have to with only the standard ration of life's little luxuries. Or they'll have to do as we do and buy some top-up cred to make up any shortfall.

May the 4th.

It's a commonly held misconception but everyone thinks that IMS is far bigger than we actually are. They don't understand how our small and agile organization works, nor do they really care that much as long as they have something to watch or interact with.

Some parts of the Post-Crises media would be recognisable to a viewer from the past, but the way it is run and funded has changed greatly since the Bennett Report and the Media Act. Following the seemingly endless series of scandals in both the BBC and commercial broadcasters, events suddenly came to a head. What used to be known as ITV went bankrupt following the precipitous fall in advertising after the Second Slump, while the Beeb tried making the news just a step too far and too often, coming badly unstuck in the process. They lost their grandiose Salford complex to a professional arson attack which took place under cover of the last series of riots. That time it was the building; next time - if they were stupid enough to provoke a next time - they were warned the staff would burn... Soon after the incident the BBC lost their interest in sensationalist investigations of the Manchester underworld. The rest of the media duly took note; regionally dispersed resilient office nodes such as we in IMS have are the industry standard, as well as being cheaper to run.

However the problems weren't confined to the terrestrial channels. Even the once all-conquering satellite network was suffering badly; then the effects of the Crises really began to bite... Despite the appetite for rolling news, or escapist programmes to avoid the rolling news, it was obvious the media as we knew it had exhausted the possibilities for development under the existing regulatory regime; the way in which people consumed and interacted with the hyperconnected world had changed far more quickly than the industry could adapt to. Something had to change, and quickly.

The Royal Commission set up in the wake of the turmoil to create a plan for the future concluded the media was one of the reasons for the nation being in its current state, so asked independent critic and commentator Charles Bennett to come up with some radical solutions. He certainly did as he was asked. What he suggested, and became the Media Act, was the drastic restructuring of the BBC, along with the 'democratization' of the independent sector. The Act also established the 'pay as you watch' ViewCred virtual media currency to replace the licence fee and provide an alternative funding stream to advertisements. It was hoped that these new opportunities would rejuvenate a jaded industry. An up and coming entrepreneur named James Purvis, seeing the potential, swooped for the wreckage of both organisations and formed Independent Media Services. Charles Bennett became a major shareholder and member of the IMS board shortly after.

Since then we've grown quickly to become a major provider of streamed services for the majority of people who can't be bothered to seek out their own entertainment, but who instead want it served up for them to slump in front of at the end of an exhausting day. Few people thought that the model would work; a rump BBC providing small quantities of high quality news, drama and documentaries, with IMS providing  streams of ahem, 'popular' programming. To an extent they were right; the Beeb has scraped through the bottom of the barrel in its desperate scramble for ViewCred and we in the independent sector have paradoxically become the home of what quality programming remains.

Those doubters also didn't foresee the effect the Consensus' economic reforms would have. Becoming self-assigned in the media is a bold step or a desperate gamble, depending on your point of view, but it is far better than the alternative. So now we have a growing, vibrant and diverse Arts, Culture and Media sector, even if much of what it produces is utter brain rotting junk. Part of my job at IMS is, to be brutally honest, a sewage screen. I have to find gems, or anything remotely watchable from the torrent of execrable content submitted to us. The autosist culls a lot of it, but plenty remains!

There are only so many times you can watch variations on Cook It! Good As New, Made From Nothing For Nothing (with that irritating jingle), Growers' Club, or community Am-Dram productions before your aching eyes glaze over. Occasionally you'll get a surprisingly good programme such as The Improvisation Show, but those are very rare. The 'Adult Content' is a consolation, but after a while there are only so many home produced slap and tickle or Real Life Love shows you can watch, and many of the people involved are certainly less than erotic!

Ours being a lean and multi-skilled, multi-role organization we need all the help we can get just to keep on top of it all; so we welcome the assistance of any interns or media academy graduates wanting to gain real world experience by aiding us in sifting the diamonds from the dirt. So that's why today I'm familiarising Nathan Taylor to the local area. You can only learn so much sat at your terminal. The way I was taught, and it's still the case, is that to get the real stories you have to beat the streets. There's always more going on there than is visible. There are the personal contacts, the rumours, the undercurrents, the animal sensing of what is otherwise imperceptible. Once you get a good reputation people will take you into their confidence in a way they never would online. To know, you have to Be There.

Some people have this gift, others can learn it. Getting Nate out of the office and into the real world will show us both what he's made of. I've heard good things about him, now we'll see how he does. Getting away from the desk will be good for me as well; time spent on your sources is rarely wasted and besides, due to a reoccurring administrative problem with the insurance I'm the only one allowed to drive the hybrid tuk. If we get any spare time we've got a few prearranged reports to cover, and we'll get some library video on chip; it always comes in useful. But our assignment for this afternoon leading into the evening is the forest of cherry pickers and lighting towers reaching skyward which have taken over Fort Widley as well as the surrounding green spaces. We'll be shooting some background on the practice and pre-selection for the forthcoming series of Dance Together!

It's one of the most viewed, commented on, and participated in programmes of recent times, which really says a lot about the state we're in. The Connies love it of course; with it stimulating mass community involvement, social cohesion, joyful artistic expression, and moderate healthy exercise. In the spirit of our times there is the incentive of collective prizes for the successful neighbourhoods which increase with each level of the competition.

We've already had the preliminary local contests with their own self-produced programmes. From now on it becomes fully professional, and it is decided which of the collectives goes on to represent the city as a whole in the first regional heats. There's plenty to shoot here, and we're not the only ones at it;  in addition to the local set of stringers everyone not actually dancing is vidding. Even the bare-bones Beeb have sent someone because this is The Local News today. But - unlike us - they're not on the inside. Away from the expectant crowds our privileged access gets us into the screened inner compound of portakabins.

Within the closely guarded enclave the hiatus of the production meeting is at its frayed peak; and this is the real conference, not the scripted false spontaneity we'll be allowed to film later. We who know how things are really done know better than to record this part of the process, even though some of the real-life histrionics would make great back-story satellite programme copy. The revelation of such a blatant fixing would be an explosive lead on the national news, but it would be a one-shot story; and probably the final one filed by anyone stupid enough to try it. No-one; least of all us, is going to ruin this nice little earner.

Eventually the final running amendments are made to the outline narrative, a rough script to improvise upon agreed, and we can vid the 'official' behind the scenes programmes with the panel of judges 'choosing' which groups will go through to the next round. The dance groups running through their final practice nearby are unaware their fate has already been decided.

Back outside we can film the motions being gone through; everyone plays their part impeccably. As the judges go into their false conclave we capture the nail-biting anticipation of their verdict and the genuinely innocent, exuberant flushed-faced delight of the Eastney group when they are 'selected'. There are interviews with the winners, losers, judges, family and friends with Nate on the camera. Then we reverse roles before downloading the take back to the office and packing it in. If we've missed anything, though I doubt we have, someone else is bound to have picked it up and will feed it to us; though I'm sure we have enough for as much back programming as we will ever want. It will all get a guaranteed audience, plus the Dance Together! prodco will want to trawl through for anything they might want to use. It's the gift that keeps on giving, and there'll be even more to come when Dance Community! launches next year.

Imagine city sized collectives choreographng kaleidoscopic displays of thousands of synchronised dancers. The lights! The music! The sparkle! The dry ice! The streamers! The live audiences filling the football stadia! The atmosphere! The distraction! The opportunities for monetising the viewer participation! The ViewCred! I may be a cynical bastard, but I'm not as misanthropic as the people planning childrens' versions of both formats.

At least the rain held off. It's been overcast, but the tuk's solarflim roof might have picked up enough of a charge during the day or from the lighting rig to delay using the engine for a few kilometres. In fact we travel 3.6 before the raspy conversation shredder automatically restarts. Then we forget all about the noise as my scroll rings. I didn't need the autosist generated alert as I can hear the approaching sirens and see the reflection of the strobing blue lights in my rear view camera. I pull over to let the fire engine pass, then launch the protesting tuk into its slipstream. We have only a few streets to drive and arrive on the scene as the fire service begin their job.

The incident is in one of the small terraced houses which are so common hereabouts. It looks as if one house that has been subdivided into three flats is involved, with the front door of the ground floor flat open and billowing grey smoke. The crew of a rapid response mini-ambulance are giving oxygen to someone sat nearby on the pavement. Meanwhile a small knot of people are being shooed back to a safe distance by a Street Warden while the fire crew moves in with practiced professionalism. One firefighter hand-launches a microdrone while two more unpack a Salamander robot. The vaguely humanoid 'bot stretches from it's compact cube, seemingly pausing for a moment to get it's bearings, then moves with startling fluid speed through the open door, a firefighter wearing gesture gloves and vidivisor directing it.

Another full-size ambulance arrives, closely followed by a CityPol car and a Compy tuk, but by now it's clear everyone living there have been accounted for, and are unhurt. The Salamander reappears through the door, the fire extinguished thanks to its carbon dioxide jet. Between the two of us we've recced the whole incident; it'll make a good report for tomorrow's South Tonight. Now all we need to do is wrap it.

Once the drone has landed and the Salamander refolded back into itself I have a quick word with the officer in charge. She says that it was a minor kitchen fire; easily dealt with, no casualties. The thermal sensors on the drone and the Salamander, plus a human follow-up, have confirmed the fire is out and staying out, so they're finished here. Nate gets some neighbours' reactions, then we leave.

"Well that was a productive day! Shall I drop you at a bus stop or do you want to go back to the office?"

"I'll go back to the office thanks; I've got a few things to sort out."

"OK, but don't get too workaholic too soon!"

The tuk's ratty little engine stutters back into life. I make a mental note to get it looked at.

May the 5th.

Despite being plugged-in overnight the tuk has only recharged to 70%. The battery pod must be going, and the electric motor has seen better days. This may be the new age of durability, improvisation, making do and mending with the implementation of planned obsolescence now an offence punishable by Rehabilitation; but the simple things in life such as travelling can still be a source of unexpected frustration. I ask my scroll's autosist to look-up the price and availability of a replacement pod as well as searching for the cheapest garage to fit it. Then leaving that to stew I set off for a second day on the beat with Nate.

Today we'd be able to do what we'd wanted to do yesterday, before Dance Together! overran. Our first stop is to report on the opening of a new Korean restaurant and community centre. Actually this is a paid-for by the restaurant, but we can justify it as reflecting the changing demographic of the Fed since the resumption and rapid conclusion of the Korean War. Coming as it did with the Gulf already in flames and much of Israel contaminated we really thought, as our great-grandparents did during the Cuban missile crisis, that this could be The End. It seems bizarre that events so recent and horrific can become anesthetised so quickly: Ever-present yet dulled and pushed to the back of the mind.

I sit down with Mr Park and his family. He's been lucky; both in escaping from the peninsula and in doing reasonably well in the Fed, along with thousands of others who thought it worth travelling so far and undergoing a three-month quarantine at their own expense once they arrived here to begin a new life. Many of them have lent their expertise to the renascent industrial and electronics sectors while others, especially locally, found their skills in demand in restarting the local marine industries. There's so much more I could ask him, but the idea is to keep it positive and upbeat.

The Koreans are a proud, resilient, dignified people who have put up with far more than we can possibly imagine. Give it time and there may yet be some astonishing recollections of those extraordinary moments in history; yet I sense it will be a long time before the collective grief of the diaspora has healed enough to be able to express in words the obvious sadness in their eyes. The immediate numbing shock may have passed, but the wounds deeper within will take longer to mend.

Mouths still stinging from some spicy kimchi, we whirr along the road to our next assignment. At both bike and tuk repairers I stop at along the way I'm told there's a shortage of battery pods. These days I'm not surprised to hear it; there's usually a shortage of something or other. It's the times of course. Sorry, there's no news on when we might get some more in... It really pisses me off to think there is probably a warehouse full of them in India or even Brum, where they assemble the imported tuk kits, but not here and now when they are needed. I'm offered a special deal on a re-gel or an exchange pod but I'm not that desperate yet.

Then we go on to a background piece on the decline of the eastern European community, with the young heading to the polar regions or the new boom towns of the Wild East of Siberia. Where there's methane hydrate to be extracted there's money, and there are few reasons why they'd want to stay here.

Puttering back to Media House I pass a group of people manually cleaning the gutters and sweeping the road; though the road appears to be clean enough anyway. They are Credders; trying to garner themselves the Community Credits that are required to be spent, along with money, to obtain many 'luxury' goods and services.

ComCred was the brainchild of one of the many demented right-wing think tanks which existed before the Crises. With no visible means of funding they existed to act as a sock puppet and sounding board for the more extreme elements in government to express their wilder fantasies, yet not to have their lunatic ideas attributed to them.

The original idea was to side step the human rights laws blocking the policies which in effect turned unemployed people into state property; to be conscripted on to degrading workfare schemes or directed to move at the whim of the authorities to areas where it was deemed they may have a better chance of finding suitable work matching their skills. Several times legal challenges to the measures using the Human Rights Act, or the Slavery and Servitude Act 2010 were successful; only to have the government determined to enforce its bullying will sneak retrospective legislation through parliament in late-night sittings to legitimise the measures.

In due course their furtive attempts to undermine the fundamental human right not to be starved into a form of community bondage were ruled unlawful by the European Court. Defiantly the government refused to concede defeat, but tried again to stretch the law to suit its ends and exhaust the resources of those attempting to resist it. While they were at it they increased the term of the thralldoms from weeks and months to years: Someone who was unemployed and innocent of any offence faced doing more unpaid punishment work than a convicted minor criminal who had been given a community sentence. Not only that, but in addition to having to do a full week's work they had to prove they had been conducting full and active jobseeking activities as well or risk having their benefit cut.

After only a few short months of relative freedom in which to recover the unfortunate claimants faced going through the whole process again; despite the fact the schemes actually proved to be counterproductive as they destroyed employment rather than created it. Not that the government would allow facts to get in the way of ideology; it continued this perverse game of legal ping-pong regardless of all the more pressing issues demanding its attention, such was the obsession of the ruling class in enforcing their will upon those they mistakenly deemed to be idle from choice.

By the time those measures were incontrovertibly struck down for the final time by the European Court of Human Rights and remained unlawful as part of the agreed distancing of the Federation from the EU, unemployment and poverty had reached unimaginable proportions. Those who had previously been so vociferously supportive of the government's drive to conscript others into forced labour were themselves the most surprisedly indignant when; as part of the massive post-Crises state organised reconstruction of the economy and society in general, the Transitional Council made the embryonic 'voluntary' ComCred scheme universally applicable to the entire population; whether they were unemployed or working. By then most people were in some way directly or indirectly reliant on the state for some or all of their income, so there was little room for evading the obligation.

ComCred is 'earned' by performing various types of unpaid community work, and more often these days the sort of work which used to be paid, and is essential for the provision of state services. The definition of 'community' has been stretched over time so the private sector can benefit from this low cost to them source of state-supplied labour. Beyond the basic cred grant, any supplemental credit needed must be worked for or bought. ComCred is unequally distributed with those on higher incomes granted a higher basic credit allowance. Those wealthy enough can buy off part or all of the government ransom on their bodies and time, but the poor, on whom the system weighs most heavily, have no option but to fulfil their duties. As with money, ComCred can also be eroded by inflation, with each budget bringing a readjustment to how much cred is required for a purchase. Each year one must strive that little bit harder to merit life's little luxuries or permitted sins. ComCred is as it was designed to be; a very regressive form of covert serfdom and rationing.

Further along the road I realise why the street is looking so clean. There, busy brushing away and poking rods into drains, are another squad of credders getting their fluorescent overalls grimy! This is going to make my day, and James'; if there's one thing that really annoys us both it's the utter incompetence of the Consensus, with this sort of thing being just the latest and most blatant example: He loves to collect irrefutable video evidence of it.

"Nate, get ready to 'cord this!"

I turn off at the next side road, and using my local knowledge pick a route running parallel to the main road, ahead of the cred gang; then I take another turning leading me back to the main road. Acting like just another tuk, I double back on to the road facing them.

"Roll it Nate!"

Unnoticed we cruise past the first credders at the 30kph limit, then 400 metres further down the road within sight of the first, Nate frames the second group.

 It feels good to get some juicy copy in the bag, but we won't use it just yet. If we made an issue of it now the local Community Credit Administration would just shrug it off, claiming it wasn't a wasted duplication of effort but a two-stage cleaning process. Instead we'll add it to the archive of similar stories, just waiting for James to decide the moment is right to launch his political campaign. There's supposed to be an election scheduled for next May. Perhaps they may even hold it this time rather than ask the Regent to invoke another term extension clause.

Chapter Three

June the 8th.

Bugger! Surfacing from the deep dreamless sleep of the exhausted the first sound I hear is the early morning rain pelting down. I don't want to get soaked again riding in this morning; I don't want to put on that cycling gear which has yet to fully dry from yesterday's homeward-bound downpour again; but someone has to set an example. A quick cup of nasty coffee (these days that's the only kind there is) with a couple of slices of toast for breakfast; then it's time to squirm into the cool clammy intimacy of lycra shorts and fleecy tights. I complete my outfit with a base layer and thick thermal top, covered with a rain cape, despite it being early June.

Outside I flick on the interactive world in my ear, unlock all three locks on the cycle vault and deactivate the alarm before releasing the shackle securing my bike to the ground anchor. Now I'm ready to ride. I'd love to have one of the new Raleigh mountain bikes which are being made in Nottingham once more, but they're expensive, and there's a waiting list for them. Production will be increased as the early teething problems are worked through we're told; but as ever it's always the promise of jam tomorrow.

It seems as if it hasn't stopped raining for the last week. Already there are warnings this may be the wettest year on record. Whatever the statistics, from the perspective of the rider getting soaked is just as unpleasant whether this particular wet spell is a record-breaker or not.

There are various theories doing the rounds to explain the recent changes in the weather. CThe conventional wisdom is the melting Arctic ice has cooled the northern Atlantic and the atmosphere above it, forcing the jet stream further south of its normal track, so steering the bad weather directly to us. Alternatively, it isn't the result of anthropogenic global warming but the earth's natural self-regulating mechanism in action, counteracting any human excess. Or our influence has sent the climate into an unstable oscillation between warming and cooling which will eventually result in a new ice age. Some even blame the Crises wars for polluting the atmosphere and affecting the weather.

My sneaking suspicion is what we are seeing now may be a repeat of the events of the 1340s when it is thought low solar activity led to a decade-long bitterly cold and wet spell. There were widespread famines due to the poor growing conditions and the resultant malnutrition weakened the populations' immunity, making it easier for the Black Death to spread. This isn't a time of famine and plague - for the moment - but I can understand how undernourishment can reduce your immunity to illnesses. Despite the Consensus' claims that our more vegetarian eating habits are healthier, there always seems to be some sort of minor bug going around with the constant background sounds of sniffing and sneezing. It can't all be just the weakened reassemblages of rhinoviruses dispersed when The Great Marshal's biological weapons labs were destroyed; there must be something more to it. I think it has to  be our austere diet, coupled with increased manual activity - be it muscle-powered commuting, or credding, or digging-in with your local growers' collective; and this on top of our Stankhovite working habits - which is wearing our immune systems down.

Getting regularly cold and wet doesn't help either. I'm hardly four kilometres along the crumbling cycle lane of the A3 and already those chill raindrops are seeking the intimate crevices of my body warmth; sneaking in through any way they can find. I suppose I could've taken the bus if I were really desperate, but there are already plenty of people huddling beneath the interactive bus stop canopies. They all look miserable as well; trying to hunch deeper into their waterproof ponchos, waiting for their bus to crawl along the real-time updated route to them. I wonder which of the latest low-level lurgies will find the crowded and damp interiors of the buses the ideal environment in which to spread?

There are head-down peds walking indomitably onwards under their umbrellas; and other cyclists flinching under the onslaught as they pedal, probably wondering as well why they are mad enough to ride in this weather. Maybe like me they have become resigned to getting wet; accepting there is no such thing as waterproof clothing; that the rain always finds a way in or through. Do they also take some perverse pride in toughing it out? Or is there some masochistic solace in the realization beyond a certain point you can't get any wetter or colder? Are they as used to feeling as if their pink, chilled, numb, wrinkled fingers and toes are only partially their own? Is the only thing keeping them going the thought of warm towels, dry clothes, and a drying closet at the end of their journey? At least on a bike you are generating your own heat, even if you lose a lot of it to the raw air.

Chilled and shivering, I arrive at the office and after wiping the corrosive wet grime off my chain with an old rag - good chains don't grow on trees you know, and it's always a good idea to look after them - park the bike and squelch through the entrance radiation detector arch.

Gavin, our receptionist-security guard, has anticipated my arrival. Bless him, he's laid a ribbon of plastic rubbish bag roll (biodegradable of course} across the reception to the gents'. As I cross, fat drops loudly splatting onto the shiny strip, he hands me my bag of dry office clothes pre-warmed from the drying cupboard, my towels, and an empty bag for my wet things. "You're all clear, and the kettle's on!"

"Thanks Gavin, you're a star!"

"Once you're warm and dry, there's a priority message for you from James Purvis. It was his human PA, not his 'sist."

"Right... thanks. I'll have the strongest, hottest tea you can make, two sugars please!"

So what's happening now? Still shuddering I peel-off my sodden lycra with uncooperative fingers and towel myself dry; whatever the matter is it can wait until I feel something close to human again. At last dressed in clothes that didn't need to be wrung-out I spread my towels and wet things in the drying closet, before finishing my tea. Then, with some feeling returning to my wrinkled ruddy digits, I flick-in to see what's up. James is expecting my call.

"You look as if you've been through a lot this morning!" My wet plastered hair and beetroot complexion must be obvious.

"You might say that; I'm worried about contracting trench crotch!" We both laugh.

Then with a more serious expression James says; "This is a heads-up. I'm led to understand there will be an announcement later today regarding the Regency. It looks set to be extended for another year. You can expect a new set of Guidelines as well."

"So it's that bad then?"

"It seems to be. I'm not in the know, but I wouldn't be surprised to see this becoming semi-permanent."

"It'll be a mandatory national lead tonight then?"

"Yes; let London take care of it. It'll all be FreeCred so you won't be losing out."

"Fair enough! Do you think this going to make any difference to-?"

"Yes, I'm sure the Regent will push for the election to be run on schedule barring his father dying at the wrong time. But it'd be crass to speculate too early. Which reminds me, Richard. We're considering candidates for our party list. Have you considered putting yourself forward?"

"What? Look, I'm flattered you're asking me but that's not something I've even thought about, or could possibly make a decision on at the moment"

"That's understandable; but please gives it some consideration. Don't feel as if you need to rush into making up your mind right now; there's plenty of time yet. We're still preparing the registration documents, but we want to be ready in advance for whatever happens, or just in case they decide to surprise us."

"OK, but that's one hell of a career change that you're offering me, even if there was a chance of-"

"If I didn't think we had a chance I'd be living in Canada or Hong Kong. I'm serious about this Richard; and so are the many other people involved. This may be our last chance at stopping the Consensus. Just think for a moment about what that means; and what the Fed would be like with the Connies in permanent charge."

"I'd rather not!"

"Exactly! That's why we need people like you along with us. All I ask is that you think about it"

"I will." At least that gets me off the hook for the moment.

"Great! Well we'll both have a lot to do today; they'll be trailing the speculation about the announcement from 10.30 with the release and 'cast at 16.00. Have you received the blurt with all the details?"

"Yes, it's arrived."

"Good. Well keep in touch, won't you?"

"Of course."

"Oh, by the way, I nearly forgot to congratulate you on your credder vid. Well done! I'm sure we'll be using it when the time comes! Well 'bye for now!"

"Thanks; goodbye!"

Fuck! As if I didn't have enough on my plate I risk being caught-up in what could be a really nasty political scrap, and these days things may not go too well for members of the losing party. At least I've postponed having to give him an answer for a while, and hopefully he'll be able to find some other candidates instead of me. Surely there must be enough of his supporters in the London Enterprise Zone to fill any vacancies?

But enough of that; I've got work to do. In the media we're used to dropping everything at a moment's notice and improvising, so it doesn't take too long to reorganize our schedule to accommodate the announcement and follow-on discussion.

When I get a reasonably quiet moment I set my old slate to search the vacads, it never hurts to be prepared, and I have a gnawing feeling were I to fall out with James then I'd be looking for a new job very soon after. Yes he's perfectly reasonable when things are going his way or while you agree with him; but I've seen his steely determination, and the way that he's ruthlessly successful at getting what he wants. You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side with him, and turning down a place on his party might just do that. He may be positive about his chances but I don't share his confidence: Nor do I much fancy a career as one of his junior yes-men.

The slate finishes its search; it doesn't find much. The Connies are infiltrating the media as much as they are the rest of society, and anyone who knows the industry can recognise by the way that the vacancy ads are worded where Connie sympathisers are seeking kindred spirits, and people such as I wouldn't have a hope.

Even the independent sector isn't that pleasant a place to be these days. Take this from one of the adverts just found: "In order to qualify for the collective health insurance scheme and to maintain their employment status, all members of staff must commit to live a healthy lifestyle; as well as consenting to their dietary preferences, exercise regimes, and any other aspects of their lifestyle which may adversely affect their ability to perform their roles being monitored and assessed on a regular basis. Failure to abide by any reasonable measures to correct potentially unhealthy or harmful lifestyle choices may result in termination." Despite that, I suspect they will be overwhelmed with applications.

It was as we'd expected. His Majesty, by Royal Proclamation, has reappointed His Son and Heir to be his Regent for the term of a further calendar year unless His Majesty recovers His health to the point where He is able to resume His duties. Everyone knows it isn't going to happen; though the latest rumour leaking from a palace insider deemed to need to know is following His latest unreported stroke His Majesty can hardly eat unaided; let alone sign a proclamation.

At any other time the people would be slowly prepared for an abdication on medical grounds. But these are far from ordinary times, and it is thought by the Consensus having the King abdicate before being officially crowned would damage national morale. His Coronation has been postponed until it is deemed prudent once more to host such pomp and ceremony; when circumstances, and His Majesty's health allow.

It is also considered unbecoming to have an 'austerity' event. Instead a Coronation should be something for the nation to look forward to; a sign our recovery is well under way. Additionally the Federation would benefit from the sense of continuity that the Monarch provides in these transitional times, as well as giving his Regent more experience of his office. Not to mention the end of His reign would be the point at which retrospective reflections might raise - even now - some uncomfortable questions about how He conducted Himself during the Crises, and the alternative decisions He might have made. All in all, popular sympathy for His current plight and support for the Regency is better for all concerned than a searching analysis. The lid on that can of worms will be kept shut and sealed for as long as possible.

Chapter Four

June the 30th

We're all feeling depressed this morning after hearing Chris Hammond collapsed while he was on air last night. He's in the QA at the moment. Given the new emphasis on 'Natural Health Outcomes' and 'Not artificially prolonging end-of-life suffering' we fear for the worst.

Chris started his career way back in the early 1970s; way before most of us were even alive. He dabbled in pirate radio for a while before becoming a legitimate broadcaster. His was a varied media career before the "That Was Then' archive show broke through to prominence and even won an award before the Connies started sniffing at it.

It began as a community local history project (one of his many interests) and as a way of stimulating memories in older people; but its popularity spread, soon reaching a national audience. We found it astonishing at the time how some people should find an inoffensive series of reminiscent documentaries so threatening, but in retrospect we shouldn't have been surprised. It was a sign of the way things were going; but like so many other warnings it went unheeded.

From our perspective it seems scarcely possible to believe those old films dating from the late 1950s to the 1990s were real. Yes, it was another time; but could it really have been that different; so far removed from the way we live now? The people of those times looked so much happier and better dressed than we do today; they seemed to take a greater pride in themselves and their appearance back then, despite our New Modestly. It was a time of plenty, and there was a palpable sense of optimism the future really would be something to look forward to.

Of course life in the past had its fears and problems, real enough to the people of the time, but they were inconsequential compared to what we live with now. In retrospect they lived in a golden age and they didn't realise it. But how could those modern ghosts captured immortal in the video image have known that from that peak, imperfect though it was, our quality of life would go sliding inexorably down to the level we endure now? Or their bright tomorrow become our worn-down, hand-me-down, reliant on charity, not quite enough, constantly peckish, shiveringly energy poor; held together with glue and tape dystopia?

We had to fight hard to keep the show on air; the record of past abundance being too much of an inconvenient truth for some influential people to allow to be seen. Though they tried as hard as they could the Connies couldn't do any more than vociferously complain, not being as strong then as they are now. They are bullies at heart, and as bullies are they are fundamentally weak inside; they will back down whenever they are faced with someone who has the courage to stand their ground and push back with equal force against such unsubtle attempts at intimidation.

Chris was such a man. He kept making the shows, but after a while the audience declined; people finding it too painful to be reminded of what they had once had and now lost: The implied question of why we collectively allowed this national decline to happen too uncomfortable to ask or answer.

So he returned to his first love of radio; his night-time eclectic stream of mixed genres from the 60s to the 80s developing a large and loyal following. He lived up to his punk pirate principles, never backing down when controversy sought him out. He had a resurgence of infamy when he innocently played a request for the eighties song by Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin - 'Busy Doing Nothing'. An over-zealous Connie complainer objected to the newly-established OMS claiming the song parodied the Consensus' employment policies - 'An Assignment for everyone and everyone to be Assigned'. The regulator agreed and ordered it not be played again. That was a red rag to a bull, so Chris kept playing it whenever it was requested despite their ruling. James to his credit rallied the IMS board to back him all the way. It was due to get protractedly legal when the Connies, realising that all they were doing was making fools of themselves and giving the opposition to their unsteady rule a rallying song, cut their losses and quietly retreated.

It was an automatic alarm after thirty seconds of silence that warned Lena Skibinska, the night duty supervisor that something was wrong. She found Chris slumped incommunicative over the studio console. We're all hoping you can pull through mate. I don't think he has any local relatives so I'll drop in and visit him tonight.

This is bringing back some bad memories. Hospitals are never pleasant places to visit, but seeing someone who was once so full of life just lying there, kept alive by machines, is heartbreaking. It was just the same when Mum was losing her battle with cancer. As Chris had no nearby next-of-kin, only a sister living in New Zealand and a daughter in Canada, I appointed myself his advocate and assumed the powers on his behalf. That should keep the vultures from switching him off for a while.

It transpires he'd lodged a living will; and if there was no sign of improvement in his condition after a week, or any hope of a recovery then he was happy to let the doctors do as they thought best. He was adamant though that his organs weren't to be harvested. He was so opposed to the principle of Presumed Consent, saying that his organs were his to donate, not the State's to appropriate, that he carried an opt-out card.

I wonder how he would've reacted if the ever-circulating rumours about the introduction of implantable health record chips to replace the cards were to be substantiated, as he was even more vehemently opposed to any form of ID card or tag. Not that I think they'd be able to use many of his organs, given his multiple health problems caused by a life well lived. "Yeah, so it'll all catch up with me in the end - so fucking what!" was his response to any criticism of his excesses. He knew where his lifestyle choices were leading him, and rebel that he was he didn't give a shit.

As tobacco was gradually and surreptitiously outlawed he tried growing his own, but eventually he gave it up. It was too energy intensive to cultivate and when smart meters began to automatically report any constant over-quota use of electricity, drawing unwelcome attention to home growers, he decided that it was no longer worth the risk. Besides, it was cheaper and easier to buy it from the drug dealers who had easy access to the latest strains of genetically modified cold-tolerant plants that could be grown outside on waste ground. They were only too pleased to profit from the latest misguided efforts of the Nanny State.

In the end even he gave it up. His body started rebelling against a lifetime of abuse, and it was more trouble than it was worth to continue. Smoking began to irritate his lungs. I think he was surprised to have lived as long as he has given his heavy drinking, as well as his heart and liver troubles. He always shrugged-off thoughts of his mortality, but in the end death always catches up with you.

Here I am talking about him in the past tense. It seems a rather pathetic, undignified way to slowly let go of your grip on life; beep by beep by beep, in an impersonal little cubicle under a dim, timeless light. Just in case he can hear anything I have a one-way conversation with him, and tell him I'll look after everything: But I get no sign of a response. The displays on the life support machinery keep on with their metronomic, mesmerising rhythm.

After sitting with him for twenty minutes I promise to return again tomorrow and leave. There can be no doubt that Chris has but a few tomorrows left, poor sod.

July the 1st.

It's the lead story this morning, and PushCred as well; which means we'll have to wait a prudent interval before dropping its prominence. So what is this item that the OMS insists we all see? It's the start of another DOA campaign against guerrilla gardens and verge farms.

The justification given is always the same: To prevent the cultivation of drugs, as well as the use and spread of unregulated Genetically Modified seeds; for only the Department Of Agrivironment in its all-knowing wisdom can licence what may be sown - be the seeds organic or transgenic. Food production must be as planned and regulated as the rest of the economy, with cultivars chosen only from their Approved List of varieties.

We hoped we'd freed ourselves from this bureaucratic nonsense when the Transitional Council negotiated the Federation's partial withdrawal from the European Union. Instead we exchanged corrupt collectivist control from Brussels for incompetent collectivist control from the local office in Basingstoke.

Such is the state's obsessive-compulsive need to control every aspect of horticulture that even individual gardeners must pay a fee to register, report their plantings, and account for each item of produce; whether lost to the weather, pests, or harvested. Successful growers are then assessed as to how much of their crop must be 'donated' to their local Community Food Store, or be counted as 'income in kind' to be offset against their ComCred. And not forgetting the inevitable losses to confiscation of produce deemed to be 'contaminated' by fallout or pollutants.

Unsurprisingly, what happens in real life is very different. Despite the ever-present risk of an audit from the eager and mobile Agriviroment Inspectorate the returns submitted bear hardly any resemblance to what is actually grown, with losses being grossly overestimated. So what it results in is a black market in illicit vegetables and erroneous statistics of food production.

We could probably put up with it and laugh it off in times of plenty; but these aren't times of plenty. The cost of food spirals relentlessly higher, with constant shortages of official produce, and an increase in demand for dark veg. With a shortage of land to grow on people try to supplement their income, or even avoid starvation or rickets, by growing greens and roots on any spare patch of ground they can. If it is possible to grow on, it'll be used by clandestine farmers and Ferals as a source of uncontrolled food.

The DOA claim their actions are there to protect the public by discouraging people away from potentially dangerous areas such as motorway verges or railway embankments; and the prohibition of private foraging for wild food is to protect the environment from over-exploitation. Yet the state approved, Connie dominated foraging parties inevitably strip bare any areas they are allowed to harvest.

Yes, it's logical to preserve the 'linear reserves' of wildflowers so vital for pollinating insects, or to prohibit invasive plant varieties potentially harmful to the environment, or even to prevent the cultivation of drugs. But that isn't their reason.

If the DOA really cared about the environment their hazmat-suited staff wouldn't liberally be spraying weed killers the department themselves have condemned as unsafe; confiscating any 'legacy stocks' they come across for their own use for this, and only this, purpose. Instead theirs is a darker, ulterior motive. It is that of control.

Whoever regulates the source of your sustenance has absolute authority over you. Having managed to get the majority of people food dependant on the state, and therefore more susceptible to its domination; the Consensus intends to keep them that way. Cutting-off alternative sources of supply reinforces their power. (Remember the furore there was when the Irish charity, Hands Across The Sea, tried to organise food banks and Community Canteens in the Fed? And how they were told they couldn't do so unless they 'cooperated' with the authorities and abided by strict 'eligibility criteria' for the recipients of the aid, among other stipulations?)

No, the random, mobile checkpoints on rural roads aren't only there to search for 'illegally' foraged plants or 'unsafe' game or road kill. They also reinforce the assertion that one eats only by the state's munificence, with its permission; and by no other means. Denial of wild food supplies is also a means to try to starve the independent, wandering Ferals back into society.

So it's no surprise to see land which might have been used for growing food rendered temporarily poisonous and barren; the state using hunger as a weapon against its own citizens, and its bureaucratic stubbornness plumbing new depths of obduracy.

Yet despite their best destructive efforts, new strains of unlicensed, untested GM seeds are easily smuggled into the Fed and distributed. No amount of searching or scanning at ports and airports can stop virtually undetectable GPS guided stealthy drones from flitting at low level across the Channel or the Irish Sea laden with the latest varieties of cold-tolerant, pesticide resistant cannabis or tobacco plants.

But the DOA still go on doing as they do because that is what they do and are used to doing. What I can't understand is how they are allowed to get away with it.

I think I'll let that 'Cred drop down the running order a bit sooner than would be politic; if anyone wants to resist the pervasive DOA intimidation and grow their own unregistered food, than the best of Feddish luck to them! I for one am getting sick of IMS being used as a state mouthpiece. I think there will have to be a few more unfortunate 'technical issues' in the future.

July the 6th.

Things must be bad; they're hoisting the Alban scare flag again. It's semi-official PushCred speculation and absolute bollocks as usual; yet some people still swallow it.

We have to 'cast it without comment of course; but judging by the feedback we're getting, few of those brave enough to comment on public spaces take it at all seriously. Usually we get an outburst of anti-Alban propaganda on the 30th of November - St Andrew's Day - along with video of the habitual 'border protection' exercises, and the opposing forces glaring at each other through the pelting Reiver country sleet; as if the Albans would push south beyond Hadrian's Wall... But this is an unscheduled 'Cred so something must be up.

The unattributable background briefing claims that Alba's resident community of expatriate North Korean weapons specialists have been busy. They've dismantled the Trident sub, HMS Valiant, they managed to seize while she was docked at Faslane prior to her disarming and decommissioning as part of a vicious commando operation which took place during the secession blitzkrieg; mercilessly slaughtering the crew who did their best to resist the boarding.

Thanks to Commander Bannister's and Senior Weapons Officer Franklin's heroic acts of self sacrifice - they were both awarded the Victoria Cross for simultaneously blowing each others' brains out on a count of three to prevent themselves being captured alive and revealing the mnemonic component of the launch codes under torture - the Albans were denied a fully armed SSBN. Not that they have the resources or technical capability to run a sub like that in any case, but that hasn't stopped them from dismantling the warheads and reusing the plutonium to make an estimated fifty or more viable nuclear weapons of varying yields thought to be as high as 100 kilotons. The spent fuel from the reactors is said to have provided material for over a hundred Radioactive Dispersal Devices, or 'Dirty Bombs' as they are commonly known.

Not only we're told do they have the weapons; but they also have the means to deliver them as well, thanks to the cargo of crated Nodong medium range missiles the Nodong gyegeub-ui cheol-ui uiji (The Iron Will of the Proletariat) delivered when it docked in South Leith. Though regarded as dated by current standards they still remain potent and reliable weapons. What components the Alban government can't make for themselves they have been very astute at getting made for them in defiance of the selectively ignored UN arms embargo. They've also been wiley when it comes to deploying their arsenal. Along with the squadron of Typhoons captured before they could be flown out from Leuchars, they've deployed road mobile Transporter Erector Launchers, and adapted cargo ships as standby launch platforms. In addition numerous hardened launch complexes have been constructed for their rocket fleet. Not all of the bunkers are occupied all of the time, but even when unoccupied they are guarded by the Alban army as if they contained live missiles or dirty drones; with regular movements of both real and decoy launch vehicles to enhance the uncertainty. Such a shell game and dispersed arsenal, as well as the availability of Radioactive Dispersal Shells to the Alban long-range artillery units renders a decisive first strike by the Fed an impossibility.

Some of it may well be true but to me it appears to be a desperately pathetic piece of scaremongering: Not that I'm a military expert, but I know bullshit when I see it. No doubt fedologists here and around the world will be reading the story with interest, trying to work out what the release at this time says about the relative strengths of the various fractious elements who have been forced together by circumstance to form the Consensus.

Chapter Five

The Crises - Part One. I've just been struck by a thought. I've been writing as if my reader - whoever you may be - would understand the context of the events that I'm describing. I realise that may not be the case, especially if the subtle rewriting of recent history goes unchallenged. So here; for those of you who may not know, is a summation of how we got to our present parlous state.

Even before the Crises things were grim; though most people had no idea of just how bad the situation really was, or would become. The point at which the process leading to the state we're in began has been widely debated, with some experts tracing the genesis of the Crises as far back as the Thatcherite free market policies of the 1980s.

What most people agree on is by the mid-noughties events had reached a critical point. By then decades of deindustrialisation, overseas outsourcing, and a misguided concentration on the service and financial sectors had left the nation unable to fend for itself. The economy was artificially kept alive by the casino of financial speculation; the issuing of endless amounts of government debt; a seemingly unburstable property bubble; and the income from offshore oil and gas reserves: It was a fools' paradise. Some analysts who didn't share the collective delusion warned things couldn't go on this way, but they were ignored until the Credit Crunch of 2007/8.

The near-meltdown of the world economy should have forced some new thinking and innovative strategies to reset the economy on a sustainable basis; but a logical response to the crisis was never going to happen while the policymakers had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. So instead of a jubilee being declared on the loans raised on assets that should never have been so highly valued and the banks allowed to fail in a controlled manner - with small savers and businesses protected by the statutory deposit insurance schemes - the losses of the private banks that were 'too big to fail' were socialised to sovereign balance sheets and became the taxpayers' responsibility.

The plundering of the state finances by the avaricious banking sector didn't end there. With the world economy at risk of sliding into a unprecedented depression, central bankers around the world panicked, and jointly agreed on the suicidal policy of Quantitative Easing - creating unimaginable amounts of virtual money to throw at the problem. The state-supported banks used this money to speculate on the markets and commodities, creating large profits for themselves at the expense of those who found themselves the victims of the inflation the speculation created. They also became dependent on a constant infusion of state funds, with the markets plummeting at the mere hint of the support being withdrawn. Despite this injection of liquidity into the system, the best that could be said for it was for the short term it stopped things getting worse at the cost of stockpiling stagflation for the future.

The cost of these policies was borne by those who weren't responsible for the crisis and could least afford to shoulder the burden. Public services and social security budgets were slashed, with the poor and disadvantaged being blamed by a government inspired whispering campaign for their own plight. They became the new Jewry; responsible for all of society's problems, with misrepresentative TV programmes deliberately encouraging prejudice against them. The judgmental tabloid press leapt at the chance to latch on to any story, real or invented, about the misdeeds of the 'chav' underclass.

The government was happy to see this diversion of attention away from the problems it had created, and used the climate of antagonism for their own vindictive ends. The official policy towards those in need changed from one of indifferent neglect to outright hostility. It was far easier to condemn unemployed people for their own predicament rather than admit the intractable issue of unemployment was the real problem which needed to be dealt with: There was also political capital and real money to be made from blaming the scapegoats, so that was what happened.

Benefit cuts, 'social cleansing' of the poor from areas they were deemed not to deserve to inhabit, and the bullying of people with disabilities to find non-existent work; jobs they would find difficult or impossible to do in the unlikely event their search were to be successful - and this in the teeth of the worst recession since the 1930s - were supplemented by constant exhortations to report any suspected benefit fraud; real or imagined. Further impositions on the lives of the poor - and only the poor - were introduced. Vast amounts of taxpayers' money that could have been better spent supporting the creation of real jobs were instead wasted on deliberately humiliating 'back to work' schemes which rarely produced any work. No matter; the private companies - allies and funders of the political class - who provided these schemes profited from them. The programmes were another handy stick to beat the unemployed with; a pretext to cut support from those unworthy 'spongers' arbitrarily deemed not to have done enough to justify their meagre allowance.

Further measures to 'make work pay' by making the lives of people claiming benefits so miserable they would leap at the chance of any work - if any could be found - were planned. As an added twist of the knife these measures were portrayed by the Department of Work and Pensions as being in the best interests of those involved, and safeguarding their future. And this was only the beginning of the process...

An ill-informed intolerant climate of enmity festered against a growing number of our fellow citizens. Denied the legal protection against prejudice  extended to the rest of society and abandoned by all sections of the political establishment as feckless wasters they became society's whipping boys. I remember reading at the time a comment posted on a local newspaper site which cautioned "If you kick a dog often enough, one day it will bite back." Eventually, and far later than expected their forbearance snapped. Soon we would learn how true that prescient warning was. One of the volatile elements which would contribute to the Crises was primed; and ready to explode.

Meanwhile the mass delusion continued. Constantly fed the Big Lie by the financial class and their tame media, the gullible believed that we were over the worst of the crisis, and a gradual recovery was underway. The reality was far different. The systemic problems had only been whitewashed over. The vaunted 'recovery' was anything but; based as it was not on the creation of new work and new wealth, but the transformation of what used to be full-time posts into insecure and badly paid part-time positions, with the state expected to make up the shortfall in earnings through the social security system.

This policy had begun in the former UK in the late 1990s with the introduction of Tax Credits. They were intended to alleviate poverty; but their effect was to perpetuate it. But the UK was not alone, other nations also had similar schemes in place. Not until the mid-to-late noughties was there a realisation an unsustainable mechanism for the public purse to subsidise the wage costs of the multinational corporations had been established; despite those companies being adept at tax avoidance and providing little revenue in return. It was no wonder the state finances ran at such an enormous and increasing deficit; but by the time the danger had been realised it was too late to stop the juggernaut.

All the mainstream political parties of the time were beholden to corporate interests; committed to maintaining the status quo in some form, rather than a careful and humane retrenchment from the policy, back to the promotion of a 'Living Wage' sufficient to support households without recourse to state benefits. The failure of successive governments to address the issue left the nation particularly vulnerable when the overdue Great Slump could be postponed no longer.

The question was not if, but when it was going to end. Buoyed by infinite amounts of artificial 'air money' the markets recovered to their pre-crunch highs, then far exceeded them. Even the housing market began to blow another bubble, inflated by taxpayer support. The True Believers rejoiced in the 'recovery' though insisting at the same time that despite the glad tidings, only the continued strangling of the economy with austerity and maintenance of state underpinning for their overvalued markets would sustain the process. Others, realising what had been done and how temporary the respite would be, set about making as much money as they could during this contrived calm before getting out while the going was still good. The next great storm was approaching, even if few people realised the fact.

The irrational exuberance continued for far longer than anyone had thought possible. Some countries fudged their books and declared they were officially out of the special bail-out measures. Then, as it always, inevitably does, the undeniable truth of the situation reasserted itself.

There were any number of potential triggers which could have prompted the panic; the US public and private debt time bomb, the Chinese bubble bursting, another natural disaster undermining the Japanese economy... But even though the underlying causes were many, and the problems began elsewhere it was the knock on effects that set the dominoes falling in the bankrupt in all but name Eurozone.

Time after time before its problems had supposedly been 'fixed' by printing more imaginary money and lending it to the impoverished basket case nations with such vicious austerity conditions attached that their economies contracted still further. Each time 'the can was kicked further along the road' it became heavier, the distance it travelled became shorter, and the foot kicking it became more bruised.

Eventually the self-destructive process reached its limit. The Euro lost its credibility, and splintered into a 'hard' Euro backed by Germany and the Benelux countries, while the rest of the former Eurozone nations reverted back to their legacy currencies. Those victim nations of the Great European Project put up their remaining meagre gold reserves, or the last state-owned assets, or anything that they could get the international lenders to accept as having some sort of value, to try to tide themselves over the currency shock.

The ripples of the financial turmoil spread around the world and destabilised both the United States and  especially Japan, both of whom had thrown caution to the wind and yet more make-believe money into the market in a desperate attempt to stimulate their moribund economies. Latterly even China had got in on the act in the hope that some sort of growth - even a sluggish growth - would help avoid or at least defer the formidable problems she faced; but all to no avail: Suddenly the imaginary confidence was shown up to be the illusion it was.

The reckoning came with electronic swiftness. Irrespective of whether the markets were open, or trades done on the out-of-hours unofficial grey exchanges; regardless of 'circuit breakers' and suspensions of trading; heedless of reassurances both human and algorithmic traders panic sold at whatever price they could get for fear of losing even more if they delayed. This time there were no 'Buy The Dip' or 'Dead Cat Bounce' temporary respite rallies. Anyone who was brave or foolish enough to try those strategies went bankrupt even more quickly.

Around the world in an instant the Flash Crash reduced the value of all kinds of assets by an average of around 40%. The hysteria spread from the markets to the streets with a rush of panic buying while money still had some value. The first instances of disorder and frantic looting were seen. There were runs on banks as individual depositors and institutions withdrew their deposits before the accounts were frozen and raided by the state for 'bail-in' funds.

The central bankers tried to intervene but they had already used every last measure of their credibility. No-one believed them anymore. As the interconnected strands of commerce unraveled, inflation began to soar; seeing rises in a week which would have once been considered appalling as an annual rate. Increasing numbers of people were thrown to the tender mercies of the social security system as the effete 'weightless' sectors of the economy were blown away by the winds of the financial storm.

Eventually as happens with all financial disasters the smart money which had been biding its time on the sidelines decided values had fallen far enough and there were now bargains to be had. Even in this gravest of crashes there was always the opportunity to profit in adversity; you just needed to be in a position to exploit the distress of others. The markets stabilised for the time being with states once more underwriting/ the risks of those who were the most vehemently opposed to providing safety nets for others less fortunate. The collective confidence in the fantasy of 'magic money' returned for the moment at a much reduced level, but who knew for how long this respite would last?

Though absolute catastrophe had been averted - or more likely postponed - we still faced a dread future of inflation, or deflation, or bizarrely even a combination of both at the same time as the delayed effects of the crisis worked their way through. The global economy had been so damaged by the excesses of the past few decades that it would remain in state intensive care for the foreseeable future. It would take generations to recover to its previous levels, suffering as it was from outstanding debts which could never be repaid, and money that had permanently lost its value. The future had come to reclaim that which had been mortgaged on it with a vengeance and the years of growth were gone as if they'd never existed. This had been the Great Reset, and from this point on our lives were going to be very different.

But how much deeper would the yawning gulf opening beneath us have seemed? How many more of us would have joined the suicides preferring death to the hopeless life they saw ahead of them? What would have happened had we known then what our future would hold? For though things were bad at that moment; they were about to get far worse.

Chapter Six

June 12th.

Writing all of that down has revived some unpleasant memories. It's no surprise so many of us suffer from a collective social amnesia, trying to put our traumatic past out of mind and concentrating instead on the day-to-day business of just surviving. Too much of that sort of retrospection is bad for my mental health; I need to get out for some fresh air, so I straddle my reliable old treader and set off for the nearby South Downs National Park.

Despite the development of Portsmouth and surrounding towns encroaching relentlessly at its borders it is still there; though in a much reduced area. We're assured that although some parts of it must be regrettably sacrificed for essential lebensraum its ambience will be preserved; mostly by the use of landscaping and clever tree plantings to screen the modern world away from the contrived illusion of the countryside that used to be. Sadly it doesn't work so well in practice. Once you complete the low-gear grind up the road that leads to the summit of Butser Hill and see things from that perspective, you find the effect is lost.

The view to the north is the suburban sprawl spreading alongside the A3; while in the distance Petersfield is a much larger town than it used to be even a couple of years ago. Looking further beyond across the sour green turf covering the crumpled panorama of the South Downs you notice more 'sympathetic' developments spreading like spots of mould; yet despite all the indignities that this urbane pocket wilderness has suffered, a sense of its former rural self still remains.

Turning to the east, on the far side of the artificial valley gouged through the chalk of the hill around a century ago for the trunk road, the forest of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park is beginning to stain varied shimmering hues of gold and burnt copper. Is this happening so early a portent of another severe winter to come?

I stop here to eat a cereal bar, and just let the ambience of the place soak into me. As a kid we used to come up here a lot for family breaks away from the city below. I spent seemingly endless days up here with Mum and Dad picnicking. Often we tried - and more often than not failed - to fly a kite. Or else I enjoyed running down the rabbit hole pocked slopes; something I gave up on when one of my feet got caught in a burrow and I sprained my ankle.

Later in life Karen and I used to spend romantic times here, until our differing expectations of what life should be pulled us in different directions. I thought it best to stay here and make a steady but unexceptional career in the media. She, having her head turned by the bright lights of London, moving there to become a corporate genealogist. (Don't ask me! But there must be enough companies in the LEZ who want their histories researched for her to make a living.) No, we don't stay in touch.

Isn't it paradoxical when you seek out the country places which are so special to you in order to forget for a while the things that bother you, the result is only to dredge up yet more memories? Yet the exercise in getting here and the power latent in the fabric of your peculiar spiritual place works unnoticed healing on you. Your issues may still be there but you feel better in some indefinable way. You may not 'get over it', whatever that It is; be it a bereavement, or a long-term relationship breaking up; or just getting by in the Fed; but you learn to accept what is, and can't be changed. Being up here alone with your thoughts and reconnecting with yourself puts things in perspective.

In any case you can't be depressed for too long hearing the skylarks singing and overcoming the grey aural mist of the road below. Or seeing that startlingly blue cloudless sky above. You could imagine it to still be as pure as it was in the past; unpolluted by the diluted fallout and the orbiting debris of our stupidity. There is something of the infinite in that piercing intensity of colour; the sky endures, as does the landscape. Eventually it must yield to the inevitability of geologic forces or a reglaciation, but from our mayfly brief perspective it was here long before us, and will be so long after we are gone. I find the thought strangely reassuring; but then that may be just me.

Hark at me getting all profound and poetic! I'd better stop musing and work out where to go next. l could swoop back down the road again and then follow one of the many graveled cycle tracks that lead to one of the three newly-constructed underpasses which go beneath the London road and connect Butser Hill to the QE park. There I could park my bike at the visitor centre and take one of the numerous walking routes. Or I might go as far as Havant Thicket; I've not been there for a while

I'd better get moving again, there's a chill nip in this north-easterly breeze even this midsummer, so you don't want stay still for too long. I decide to ride under the A3 and head south to the Thicket.

Passing the entrance to the Park I think I've made the right choice; the scenic honey pot is usually crowded with people arriving by bus, and there in the nearly empty car park is a coach disembarking a Connie walking group. Forget any hopes of finding some woodland tranquility here today; I've seen these groups before! They, and the curious they've managed to entice along with the offer of free transport and admission, will be marching along at a quick pace to the shrill encouragement of the group leaders. During any brief pauses to snack, drink, and draw breath they may get a quick lecture about the natural history of the War Down in the same patronising lilting tone of voice which always seems to be used when addressing non-Connies as if they were young children; and then it will be off and away again.

These groups don't understand how they're missing the whole point of countryside recreation, but I don't mind if they continue to put people off the Consensus movement by doing so. I'd just rather not hear their enthusiastically loud voices and jaunty singing echoing through the trees.

Riding around the bike paths of the Thicket I notice new signs proclaiming what you can and can't do, and the increased penalties for breaching the rules. There are occasional Compy cycle patrols; probably there to prevent the foraging of wild fruit or edible herbs, and by the look of the bushes I've seen, utterly ineffective at their mission. Even out in the country the all-encompassing regimentation of our lives persists. No, there's no getting away from the times we live in.

On my way back via the designated cycle path (Federation-wide, cycling off-road is restricted to only those paths where it is specifically permitted) I'm bursting to relieve myself. Looking around there's no one else in sight, and no obvious cameras attached to the trees so I stop the bike, dismount, and wheel it along a barely visible narrow side trail - possibly an old deer run - deeper into the scrubby coppices. Out of sight and sound of the main trail I can ease my aching bladder. I'm alone here; apart from the breeze sighing through the tree tops and the occasional bird call, all is silence.

I pause to savour this hidden pocket of calm. I deliberately left my scroll at home today; no-one knows where I am. No-one can contact me, recall me back to the office to sort out an urgent matter, know my position by triangulating my signals, or distract me. I am incommunicado; free. Just for a wild moment I can understand the attraction of leaving it all behind and going Feral.

Perhaps I've got Feral tendencies because I'm looking around at this tiny clearing and noticing among the ancient confetti of litter which the credders have yet to reach the long aged ashes of a small fire; what looks like the sun bleached, flattened remains of a pre-Crises cola can trampled into the soil (you can't buy those sort of soft drinks now), and over on the other side of this tiny clearing, some blackberries!

Foraging may be illegal but I'm not going to let these go to waste, or leave them for someone else to find. Remembering to blow long and hard over them in the hope of dislodging any radioactive dust which might conceivably have fallen on them, I put the berries in my mouth without touching my lips and leaving any tell-tale stains on them or my fingers (a survival tip well-learned during the Transition). I've tasted better; they're not quite ripe yet, but it's the vitamins I want.

I was always taught to "Leave something for nature", so I don't pick any more than I can comfortably eat. There will be plenty of fruit left behind for the birds and animals. Leave No Trace is always a wise maxim to live by. If you've left no obviously visible evidence you've been here then there's less likely to be any unwanted attention if you visit this spot again; and gorging yourself with too many unripe berries will give you an upset stomach, or cramps: That's another lesson forgotten we've had to relearn the hard way.

Carefully pushing my bike back towards the main trail I stop and listen, before looking through a bush for any curious observers with unwelcome questions, but there's no one else around. Back in the saddle it doesn't take too long to reach the signposted turn towards the 'Ville, and shortly after I'm leaving the Thicket behind.

It's late afternoon now, and I notice the change in the quality of the light; still bright and clear but with the angled platinum tint of the sun beginning to finish its day. Perhaps it's just my imagination, but is that big, almost ouranophobia inducing expanse of sky turning a darker shade of cobalt as well? The breeze nudging me along feels slightly cooler, with a chillness  which hints of colder to come from the Arctic wastelands of the imagination. I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising and a shiver running down my spine. I think it must be an instinctive connection to my inner animal, but there are times when I'm aware of great yet imperceptible things moving; the changing of the seasons, and of how insignificant I am in comparison. I sense the cusp of the tipping point is now; and feel the urge to burrow a shelter and gather in food in anticipation of the cruel winter times to come. It is an almost palpable feeling.

Riding back through a different A3 underpass, I'm relieved to find no Compy checkpoint in operation and it looks as if the vandalised cameras have yet to be replaced. You never can tell though; they might be cunning enough to have installed an unobtrusive, more advanced type in the burnt-out casings of the previous model, or a covert Smart Portal.

Whenever I go out I only take the smart cards I'm likely to need, and them keep them shielded in a screened privacy wallet. And I always try to keep the top of my helmet pointing toward any possible camera locations so its peaked visor obscures my face. It's always best to be careful; no point in giving them any data you don't have to.

With a fair wind behind me I hope to have an untroubled ride home. If I don't trigger the rad detector at the flats' common entrance and need to visit the local decon centre then so much the better. The portal is regularly checked, so we know it works. So far I've only set off the alarm a couple of times, but each has been an experience I'd rather not repeat.

Hurrah!On returning home the portal alarm remains silent. But I find some Connie flyers pushed through my letterbox. Our complex of flats is access controlled; people can't just wander into the foyer from the street, and there was an informal agreement between all we residents not to let Connie doorknockers in. Now it seems  someone has let us all down. I wonder who it was?

Chapter Seven

The Crises - Part Two. Stunned by what had happened we wondered what an ominous future held in store for us. We hoped, prayed, things would improve; but they didn't: In fact they lurched downward once more.

Despite the best efforts of the Federal Reserve to postpone it, the financial disaster occurred during the US presidential election year. But for the backdrop of such a crisis it would have been impossible for a candidate such as Lloyd 'Mad Dog' Farrell to win the Republican nomination; yet he did. Political observers wrote him and the Republican challenge off: Surely no-one in their right mind would vote for this ultra-conservative senator from Arkansas? Farrell was a fervent believer in his own particular style of fundamentalist Christianity; a good ol' boy redneck of little education, but well-endowed with the reptilian cunning required for national politics, even though he was perhaps just a little too far to the right for the mainstream; and not to mention the fact of his borderline mental illness... Yet his campaign struck a chord with enough people to propel the Farrell/Hernandez ticket into the Republican convention with an assailable lead.

The Mad Dog was so reactionary he considered George W Bush to have wimped-out by not launching nuclear strikes on Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, and Osama Bin Laden's cave. And as for Obama pulling back from launching a drone strike through President Assad's bathroom window when he had ample opportunities to do so; well there were no words that could adequately express his contempt.

The talking heads concluded Farrell's nomination was proof - were any needed - of how far shifting demographics and social attitudes had rendered the Republicans out of touch and destined for permanent minorities in both the House and Senate, with no hope of regaining the White House.

But those commentators underestimated the degree to which people seek security in extremes in troubled times. Farrell's ultra-neocon message that a world dominated once more by America would be a better place chimed with an uneasy electorate. No matter how the more educated sections of the intelligentsia cringed, the fact remained his simplistic views resonated with a newly impoverished, frightened, and angry people who chose to express their insecurity by lashing out at the disadvantaged groups in their own midst and the outside world in general.

Nor did those political spectators fully understand the ingenuity behind Farrell's choice of Victor Hernandez as his running mate. Hernandez, the son of formerly illegal Mexican immigrants who had gone through the process of being legally naturalised, was able to appeal to both the minority communities and  conservatives as someone who had by his own efforts pulled himself out of poverty to attain the American dream. His would be the example minorities could aspire to and emulate if they rallied to his banner. The determined campaign he ran to register Latino voters, ready to be delivered en bloc to the right candidate is regarded by many pundits to have been the deciding factor in Farrell's choice of running mate. Hernandez's rumoured past connections via his family to a drugs cartel were effectively swept under the carpet, and anyway nothing could be proved. Farrell may have been a throwback to a past age, but he was certainly no racist. His courting of the conservative vote in whatever community it was to be found would eventually prove decisive.

It was a hard fought campaign, and in the end Farrell could only win 46% of the popular vote; but he gained enough votes in the right places to carry the Electoral College and enter the White House. As the world and many cultured Americans looked on aghast, the newly elected President Farrell took the oath of office.

His first actions were - of course - to announce tax cuts for the wealthy and entitlement cuts for the poor. But soon as every newly elected president does he felt the need to 'blood' himself; to prove his resolve and America's military prowess to the world by creating and winning a war. There were many simmering conflicts which Farrell could have intervened in, but he chose to pick on Iran.

Iran had been a self-inflicted thorn in the side of the United States since the late 1970s. An undeclared war of economic sanctions had been waged for decades, with Iran retaliating by providing practical support to any enemies of the USA who sought assistance. From time to time there had been brief thaws in relations between Iran and the US-led international community, but these rapprochements were inevitably undermined by America and the reactive hardening of attitudes in response by the Iranians.

Iran was never going to allow her sovereignty to be dictated by powers implacably hostile to her; and the US was never going to allow Iran to develop the nuclear weapons technology which many other nations already possessed and regarded as a right. Iran had always argued as Israel had been aided and abetted by the United States in acquiring the Bomb, why shouldn't she have a countervailing deterrent?

The impasse continued with the best which could be hoped for a continuing uneasy stalemate. A deadlock which would one day be broken either by Iran becoming a de-facto nuclear power, or the United States destroying Iran. President Farrell decided on the latter option.

To Farrell, Iran was a literal tool of Satan upon the face of the earth; and he believed he had been personally chosen by God to destroy it. He began to beat the drums of war; and this time it would be more than diplomatic posturing. Such was his bellicose rhetoric on the issue that the UTO, the Gulf States and even Israel were on the verge of publicly disassociating themselves from his crusade. But then miscalculations by both the US and Iran started a series of events which rapidly got out of control.

Feeling increasingly under threat, Iran rapidly advanced her ongoing nuclear weapons programme to the point of testing and deployment. Who will ever forget the day when the Iranians triumphantly announced during a debate on their nuclear activities in the United Nations General Assembly that they had just joined the ranks of the nuclear powers with not one, but three incrementally successful underground tests with yields of five, twenty, and fifty kilotons? And who would have thought even President Farrell would have responded in the way he did?

When the Iranian tests were confirmed by seismological data it is said - though any recollections from those nearest to the president should be treated with suspicion - Farrell flew into a table thumping rage and considered what Iran had done a personal slight against him. He ordered the standby plans for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against all known Iranian nuclear sites to be enacted.

As the world waited with trepidation for the unilaterally announced deadline for Iran to submit to all the conditions set by the United States or face massive nuclear destruction to arrive, frantic efforts were made by Russia, China and the EU to try to de-escalate the situation. All their attempts to broker a settlement were rebuffed by Farrell who was hell-bent on punitive strikes, regardless of what Iran chose to do.

The deadline expired. The air and missile strikes which had been launched in advance to strike as the deadline passed mostly hit their targets without being intercepted; but instead of the overwhelming victory they expected, the Americans learned the hard way the Iranians weren't bluffing when they claimed that their tests were reliability trials of operationally deployed weapons.

The resulting conflict was over quickly but disastrous for the Gulf. Tehran was hit with multiple low-yield strikes; as were any areas thought to be potential sites for nuclear weapons. But though the US attacks were successful in wiping-out the Iranian military and political leadership, they failed to destroy all of the Iranian retaliatory forces hidden and dispersed in anticipation of such a war. The Iranian counter strike, despite so many of their weapons being destroyed, was more than destructive enough.

The Saudi oil terminal at Kharg Island was obliterated first; quickly followed by the capital of Riyahd. Suddenly the data links with many of the ships of the Fifth Fleet stationed in the Gulf region were lost all at once; the few vessels which were still able to communicate reporting a massive explosion - most likely nuclear in origin - emanating from the approximate position of the battle group's aircraft carrier. The Omani capital of Doha was the next target; the newly created affluence of the Gulf's financial centre ruined in an instant, its impressive towers toppled or reduced to skeletal frameworks. Many of its residents, some of the wealthiest people in the world, were incinerated along with their fortunes. Those last apocalyptic blurts taken by petrified news correspondents of the nuclear flash silhouetting the doomed skyscrapers can still be found on Viddit; and judging by the number of times they have been viewed they still hold a morbid fascination for some people.

Then came Israel's turn to suffer the Iranian revenge. Four out of the six missiles launched against her were intercepted, but she could do nothing to stop the other two, or the stealthy low-level drones from overflying and dispersing their contaminent payloads.

The Palestinians, seeing their mortal enemy weakened under attack and sensing now was the hour to right the wrongs of generations past, swarmed over the minefields and the 'security barrier' of the Israeli border in a human wave. If not now, then when would their hour of deliverance come? This was their chance to wrest back what was rightfully theirs; they would never have a better opportunity to end the occupation of their land.

Many of the fighters were cut down, but still they kept coming. Soon their sheer weight of numbers told, and they broke through the border strong points. Armed with little more than light weapons and a seething resentment fuelled by decades of oppression they set out to settle the old scores with a final, bloody certainty.

The following day dawned on a hecatomb. Hundreds of thousands of people had died; many thousands more were yet to follow. The oil installations of the Persian Gulf were aflame and the skies above them darkened by apocalyptic clouds of smoke. Oil prices leapt to a record high, and the markets - which had thought that the worst of the economic shocks were over - were back on the slide again.

Meanwhile, in the US and Europe the hostilities prompted sleeper cells of Iranian agents to perform preplanned acts of sabotage. Many of the groups were known to the intelligence agencies and prevented from carrying out their missions; but not all. The TGV that was derailed at full speed north of Marseille; the poisoning of the Rutland reservoir; as well as the bombs on the San Francisco BART, and the nerve gas attacks in the New York subway all reminded the world that wars are no longer confined to the battlefield.

China and Russia, both outraged by the flagrant disregard of international law shown by the US, announced that pre-empting any UN debate and resolution which was bound to be vetoed by America they were sending their armed forces to Iran on a joint 'Aid and Protection' mission: They defied anyone to stop them. As anti-American riots swept the world, and emergency resolutions against President Farrell were brought before the International War Crimes Tribunal, it seemed that he had grossly miscalculated. There were many senior people in the Washington establishment and the military who shared that view.

Due to the severe penalties of breaching the unrepealed emergency legislation we will never know exactly what happened as the situation began to escalate. That sort of omerta is permanently inviolable. Even if some posthumous accounts are eventually released, they will have to be read with extreme scepticism as attempts by the various protagonists to cast themselves in the best historical light. What is undeniable is the 'men in grey suits' as well as the men in uniform had serious misgivings about the strategy and the mental health of their Commander-in-Chief. So much so there was active discussion of a military coup.

Farrell's reaction when he was made aware of the conspiracy was swift and ruthless. Using his executive powers he ordered the arrest of the ringleaders, and their immediate drumhead court martial for treason by a specially convened secret military tribunal. Within hours the ringleaders faced the firing squad, while the lesser plotters were sentenced to life without parole in one of the many secret prisons which had mushroomed across the nation in recent years. Soon the new inmates were to be joined by those congressmen and senators calling for Farrell's impeachment. With a signature of a presidential directive the constitution was suspended and federal martial law introduced.

But no matter how hard Farrell cracked down on dissent and tried to censor the truth, the fact was he'd got it badly wrong; and though the state of Iran as we knew it had perished in the process, it had given the United States a bloody nose.

In nullifying the 'threat' of a nuclear Iran, the US had lost the major part of a carrier battle group, several thousand personnel, and many high-value weapons. Not to mention her international reputation and influence. With Russo-Chinese peacekeeping forces entrenching themselves in the Gulf; the holy land of their Israeli ally permanently ruined by contaminants and her people fighting last-ditch battles in the urban areas for their very lives it was clear that American influence in the Middle East had effectively ended.

For a frightening few hours it seemed as if Farrell was going to use what remaining forces were left at his disposal to try and prevent the Russians and Chinese from occupying Iran. Fortunately for the world the military-industrial-surveillance complex pulled on his choke chain. With the emergency measures in force and the nation on a war footing for the foreseeable future they had what they wanted for now; forcing the issue further would be catastrophic for business. Privately even Farrell was forced to accept he had made a monumental blunder; not that he seemed too contrite about the death and destruction he was responsible for.

In an address to a reduced in numbers joint session of Congress and the Senate, the members being warned in advance exactly what would happen to them if they showed any sign of dissent, President Farrell declared that though the cost of doing so had been high, the danger posed to the world by Iran had been eliminated once and for all. He promised to honour the memory of those who had fallen for their nation by replacing the carrier group which had been destroyed; and ensuring any Iranian terrorist cells which were laying low, waiting for the opportunity to strike, were held in check and then hunted down by the 'temporary' security measures that he had introduced.

Nothing was said about the spontaneous foundation of secessionist movements in several states; or the detention camps hurriedly constructed in out-of-the-way areas filling with thousands of new inmates every day. Or the long lines of US citizens at airports taking the first flight out they could get; while others were packing as many of their worldly goods as possible into their cars and taking a one-way drive to Canada or Mexico.

As for the Arabian Gulf, well; their oil production had been falling for a while in any case, so little had been lost. The Russians and the Chinese were welcome to the wasteland; the USA would become even more energy independent thanks to its shale gas, access to the Canadian tar sands, and the recently announced oil supply contract with its Australian ally.

The United States had shown it meant what it said, and was prepared to back up its promises with force. Having made the world safer at a great cost to itself it was time to look inward; to rebuild the economy and cleanse the nation's morals. The trials we had just been through were just a stage in the transition process which would toughen America by adversity into a greater, more robust country with a stronger people.

The world winced, but expected that Farrell would do as he said and become an isolationist dictator. In any case, no matter what emergency powers he had at his disposal, he'd have his hands full trying to contain the social unrest he'd prompted. Internationally the Chinese and Russians should be able to keep him in check. So surely we had survived the worst he could do? The international community could wait for the pendulum of change to swing back to some sort of normality.

But the world had yet to see what Lloyd Farrell was capable of. And it didn't know the next conflict would start in a totally unexpected place. We, living in the UK as we knew it then, were the most shocked when war erupted on our door step.

Chapter Eight

June the 16th.

I got the call I had been expecting and dreading: Chris Hammond died early this morning. He was stubborn enough to hold on for longer than anyone expected, but it was clear he was never going to recover. He left detailed instructions for his cremation arrangements: All I have to do as his advocate is give them to the funeral director.

June the 22nd.

Well that was a rare sight! Riding in today I spotted a long and very shapely pair of female calves displayed in public despite the weather. She was wearing long dark grey socks but even so it is a brave soul who expresses such borderline contempt for the New Modesty.

Like the beginning of the Consensus no-one can pin down its origins exactly: In truth there were probably a number of causes. There was the inevitable counteraction to the tattooing craze earlier in the century; now tattoos are seen as out of fashion, gauche, lower class, and a barrier to getting a good assignment. These days they are not to be seen in public, and would be better removed if possible (done for free if visible on hands, neck, or face).

The New Modesty values also frown upon the brazen display of bare flesh by both sexes as it is seen as disrespectful of and antagonistic to the Muslim community. The recent run of colder weather, and the fact clothes made from more material are seen as a sign of relative affluence have also played their part in making covering up à la mode.

The pendulum of fashion had been swinging away from not so cheap but nasty disposable wear before the Crises, but the suddenly intensified post-Crises austerity made all the difference. With the disruption in world trade caused by the economic crises the retail clothing sector lost their easy access to supplies of worn for a single season, made just-in-time, imported garments; prompting an instant shortage of new clothes. When the Transitional Council assumed 'temporary' control over the sector - along with so many others of the economy - they used the opportunity to impose their values on what people wore: Dictating how peoples' bodies were to be clothed being another step closer to imposing a far more comprehensive regime upon them.

It took far longer than expected to establish a Fed clothing industry, and while the workforce were being trained to produce subsistence clothing the many people who had expected an endless supply of throwaway glad rags were left waiting for the new stocks to arrive. They began to look increasingly dishevelled and had to learn to repair what they had left to wear in order to make it last as long as possible. Nowadays looking patched and shabby is unwise, as it is a Connie maxim that one who is scruffily dressed is a person of suspect morality deserving of closer scrutiny. Once it may have been fashionable, but now anyone wearing deliberately distressed or holed clothes is asking to be referred to the Community Support Office as an urgent case; something which is best avoided.

Eventually the officially approved styles in a limited range of sizes began to trickle into the few remaining shops with the promise of a planned reduction over time in the availability of extra-large and beyond sizes to encourage the population to lose weight. It was measures such as these which reinforced how our lives had changed for good: Consumer choice was now a bygone luxury.

The new garb was dowdy, drab and uncompromisingly utilitarian; made out of heavy, durable, recycled but not very comfortable to wear synthetic fabrics. Dull colours were specified in order to reduce the need for laundering. Awkwardly cut, the designs came as a shock and met initial public rejection, but there was no choice; either you wore your pre-Crises clothes until they wore out, or bought from the dwindling stocks of upmarket apparel if you could still afford to, or did as some skilled and independent people did and made your own. For the rest of us it was the Hobson's choice of utility or nudity.

Once the early quality control and sometimes hilariously bizarre sizing problems were sorted the Clothing Credits were allocated: Then slowly and out of necessity people grudgingly began to adopt the naff new styles. Soon, fuel-poor and freezing they clamoured for Warmsuits - a rebranded heavily padded thermal onesie - to live in when the first of the really bitterly cold winters took hold.

Some of the changes which were made were understandable: The move from many sizes of rain jackets to one-size-fits-all waterproof ponchos was logical, simplifying production. As was the replacement of zips with buttons in most cases: Buttons were less likely to fail; and if they did they could be repaired rather than throwing the whole garment away because of a broken zip. Some other decisions didn't make any sense, but were imposed anyway. Despite meeting the one-size-fits-many criteria, production of tights and stockings was halted; they were considered to be a wasteful use of resources and an encouragement to wanton sluttishness. Leggings and jeggings were banned as well: They are seen as inherrently mal-moral, and demeaning to a woman's dignity. In pre-Crises times many women who should never have worn unflattering leggings did so, and the results were often an unpleasant - nay disgusting - sight, with the seams being stretched to bursting point. But back then it was a woman's choice what she wore; now it is no longer the case. The anonymous controllers of clothing production (no doubt hardcore Connies) decreed maxi skirts, wraps, or full-length loose fitting trousers would henceforth protect female modesty.

Footwear has changed as well. Louche high heels are out; along with shoddy ballerina pumps. For both sexes flip-flops and cloth shoes are proscribed for encouraging slovenly attitudes. Though canvas shoes with hook-and-loop touch fastenings for people with special needs are still available. And now, for some obscure reason, black plimsolls are once again permitted.

Sequins, bows, and other shoe decorations were forbidden as an unnecessary frivolity. Boots have become strictly practical, and sports shoes are now only to be worn while training for or playing sport. Instead most styles have been substituted by durable but unstylish plastic shoes; with ardent Connies adopting unisex sandals and clogs as part of their uniform. Eventually those evolved into Flacks; hardwearing wooden or plastic soles which can be fitted with a variety of interchangeable strap styles or uppers.

The Crises also affected the hair and beauty industries. Hair styling and colouring products became scarce, so styles became more 'natural' and easier to maintain without a continual supply of products the Connies deemed harmful to the environment. The same paternalistic shortages applied to cosmetics of all kinds, with it being deemed a sign of empowered self-esteem to show your face without them. Nail bars closed down almost overnight as the need for manageable, low-maintenance, ready for manual work fingernails became apparent.

Although the move away from artificial beauty products seems to have become permanent, clothing styles have altered as the slight recovery has eased the material shortages, and people learned the skills to make their own clothes, recycle material, or choose to buy made-to-measure from the resurgent tailoring sector. A subtle counter-revolutionary style has evolved; pushing the boundaries of accepted taste, but not too far. At the moment colourful ethnic home woven designs are in vogue, as are wraps which conceal many sins. The public weigh-ins, shamings, compulsory exercise regimes, and the other excesses of the strident anti-obesity campaign may have been brought to a premature end after things began to spin out of control, but it is still prudent to artfully conceal too much body fat with carefully styled fabric; even though overweight people are a much rarer sight now. No doubt the Connies will find a way of being offended by these new fashions, but as yet they have no cause for complaint.

Even so, showing too much leg, neckline, or bodily flesh can still attract verbal abuse by Connie zealots; and women need to be very careful not to show any cleavage in public for fear of being charged with exposing oneself: Through in the spirit of sexual equality the offence applies against topless men as well; were they to be so bold. Flamboyant displays of accessories, jewellery, and all facial piercings will result in many disapproving glances; as would the flaunting of a pale flabby lifebelt of a midriff with a pierced navel below a short camisole see women refused service in most places; not that anyone would be foolish enough to dress so outrageously.

Facial hair, unless worn as a statement of religious identity, is also frowned upon; designer stubble even more so as a sign of indolent decadence. Effeminate long hair or ponytails haven't been seen on men for many a year. Good grooming and modest hairstyles are seen as a personal sign of adherence to and support of the new moralism.

Wearing any prominently branded sportswear is strictly from poverty now. It seems scarcely believable that people used to pay inflated prices to become a walking advert for a company's product, and to have mistakenly believed doing so actually increased their stature in the opinion of others. Well if that was the case then, it certainly isn't now! Having to wear clothes so old they date from that misguided era is certain to see the unfortunate person be looked down upon as a bit lacking in a certain something.

No one wears garments which are too tight-fitting, too obviously show their bodily curves, or jackets too short for them; and denim is a thing of the past with jeans, as well as shorts or any cropped calf-exposing trousers falling foul of the unwritten dress code.

Most people conform to the norm; avoiding controversy by wearing New Modesty styles, work wear, or uniforms; of which there are many. The Connies are very keen on uniforms, be they the standard Personal Protective Equipment for manual workers, or smarter suits for the more office based occupations. Most professions have them, though they are by no means compulsory - yet - as it is seen to encourage pride in oneself and one's work, as well as fostering a sense of community. Otherwise the uniforms are variations on the boiler suit or two-piece tracksuit theme; having different colours and patches to denote the company or assignment class. Even pre-school groups have them now, supposedly to ease the transition to the first National Education System uniform; standardised throughout the Fed, but with different patches for each school.

I had to look away and concentrate on the road again to avoid the cluster of potholes I knew to be near. By the time I had dodged those perennial hazards I'd passed her. I mentally wished her luck. Wearing a calf length skirt - even it is obviously home sewn from recycled fabric and worn with practical flacks in an attempt to downplay the effect - is a bold statement; one bound to get you noticed. I hope her legs didn't get too chilled, and the attention she got was the sort she was looking for.

 

June the 24th.

It's Chris Hammond's cremation this afternoon. He wanted it to be a low-key affair but he was so popular there was no way that could ever be possible. A group of two hundred or so of his friends and most loyal fans have come to Havant crematorium for the humanist service, and I've arranged for one of our news crews to record the event; it will be a prime item on South Tonight. It's the least we can do for Chris, and it fulfils one of his last wishes to rile the Connies a final time, as it surely will.

It turns out we aren't the only ones filming here. Stationed on the other side of the road, a couple of Young Communitarians, cameras in hand, are 'cording the mourners as they enter. I don't know if they thought up their pathetic attempt at intimidation themselves or if they are dutifully carrying out someone else's orders but I have to control the urge to cross the road and ram their cameras right down their fucking throats. Instead I get our crew to turn their cameras on the duo. Once the YCs realise they are in the spotlight they skulk away, but now we have their images I'm going to make damn sure their appearance today is coupled with the report of our final farewell to Chris. Let's see how they like their faces shown up in public! Making some Connies squirm is what he would have wanted us to do; and so we shall mate.

As for the service, it went as well as can be expected; a full house, and nary a dry eye in it. For all the talk about a Celebration of Life, when all is said and done it is still a funeral.

His ashes were laid to rest in the Garden of Remembrance for the time being, until his surviving family decide how they should be disposed of. The ceremony over, and my duties discharged, I head back to Media House to finish the report of his send-off in a sombre and annoyed mood. My temper isn't helped by the drizzle slowly thickening into a steady rain. A final veil of tears for a great man and a firm friend.

Chapter Nine

July the 13th.

This morning I received an innocuous SMS from an anonymous number. Yes, you can still send such an archaic thing as a text message! It wasn't the content of the text which was significant, but the fact of its sending. So prompted I checked one of my little used but still highly illegal dark net accounts and found a blurt from Neil Moore, someone who I've known professionally and as a friend for more years than I care to remember.

He works for the Portsmouth Record, a hub which evolved from a former large-circulation local newspaper. Somehow the Record has survived; much adapted, until now. Much of the credit for that can be given to Neil, and the incisive style of journalism he inspires there. Sadly it's becoming more of a rarity these days.

He wants to meet me for a meal and a chat. It'll be worth it to see him and find out what's going on. I ping him an acceptance and agree to meet at one of our usual rendezvous. I lock my folder of smart cards along with my scroll in my draw (you never can be too careful, it would be just your luck to get tagged by a random beam sweep, and it's rumoured the latest generation of scanners can overwhelm the protection of a screened wallet) and  walk to a covert working lunch.

This poor old city has suffered more than its far share of hard knocks over the years. From the Luftwaffe blitz, to the botched redevelopments of the 60s and 70s, then the failed shopping centres of the 1980s and 90s, Pompey has endured it all. Now the city centre is being remade in the name of progress once more; this time to cram yet more people into the limited space available: A forest of termite towers are planned to reach upwards to accommodate an ever growing population of rootless itinerants. Their construction seems, like everything else in the Fed, to progress in fits and starts before grinding to a halt once more.

What I see going up bears only a passing resemblance at present to the idealistic artist's impression of the finished towers displayed on the hoardings: The buildings have a predominantly south-facing aspect to make the most of the available solar energy, and a ubiquitous aerogenerator is built into the topmost floors. The overall effect is more insipid than the overbearing brutalism of traditional command economy mass housing.

At the moment the large tower crane on site is aiding some workers unfurling a large banner along the side of the first tower to stretch haltingly upward; RISING ABOVE ADVERSITY! it reads. Apparently reaching the halfway point of its construction is itself a reason to celebrate.

Some fortunate people may well be rising above adversity, but the majority of us are still well and truly stuck in it. For only the select new model citizens will be considered fit to live in one of the new hutches while the Connie leadership will claim the higher, more spacious and private apartments for themselves as a well deserved reward for their unceasing efforts in charting our course towards their promised land. The hypocritical fucktards!

I'm relieved my housing needs are taken care of for the moment. When Karen and I separated we were fortunate to do so at the right time to sell at the top of that particular bubble, so having the liquidity to buy as the prices plunged once more. This was at the same time the Consensus were running live economic experiments with policies gyrating from near-communism to laissez-faire turbo capitalism and back before settling on a schizophrenic combination of the worst aspects of both models.

Eventually I managed to get a commonhold micro flat in Waterlooville. Existing in a legal limbo somewhere in the muddled space between social housing and privately owned, it may not be perfect but it's far better then some of the traps I might have fallen into. At least as a part owner my tenancy is secured - at least until the Connies decide to go on another slash and burn session through the laws of property rights - and I don't have any conditionality requirements written into my agreement. That reason alone was probably why commonhold part-ownership was short-lived, but the existing contracts, mine included, remain inviolate for the time being. The costs may be steep, but it's worth it.

Things have changed a lot since then. When I've been out news gathering I've seen some of the new spartan single person and childless couple accommodation now filling many of the formerly derelict office blocks in the city centre. I couldn't imagine living in such a place without going mad. These days if you're fortunate you can look forward to living in a tiny space with partitions so impermanent they flex if you push hard on them; and don't expect much in the way of privacy, acoustic insulation, security against your meagre belongings being stolen; or even your own individual bathroom for that matter.

Not only will you pay through the nose for the privilege of having a jerry-built roof over your head, but you'll also have to regularly jump through hoops of reassessment to prove you truly deserve to continue living there; for in the view of the Consensus being settled and secure breeds complacency, which in turn will lead inevitably to an unacceptably indolent coasting along; a not giving of one's all, all of the time; which will never do.

We're told these are only temporary stopgap measures until we finally get on top of the housing crisis, and more permanent provision can be made. Things will be better in the near but always receding future, once the economy has fully stabilised; but in the meantime we should be thankful for what we have, and at least console ourselves we're a step up from a Slop N Drop.

You may think you have it bad but at least you're not living in one of the trailblazing completely Connietised blocks: There things get really strange.

I've not seen it with my own eyes but I'm told the social experimenters have remodeled the interior spaces to reflect their 'scientific' ideas regarding the development of society and the fashioning of a new collective consciousness. Intimacy is restricted only to the bedroom, with all other daily living activities taking place in minimalistic communal areas.

This, it is believed, will result in the creation of a more harmonious people as a result of them living so closely with their fellows in self-policing communities; as well as removing the wasteful 'need' for individually owned furniture and domestic appliances; possibly even kitchen utensils and cutlery. Not forgetting that by removing 'unnecessary' rooms and reducing individual living space, more people can be squeezed into the same sized building, and the energy which will be saved by living together.

Any increase in the size of an individual family can be accommodated by allocating extra rooms as required, and moving the existing occupants further along to another. With little in the way of personal possessions to take with them this should pose few difficulties. There are no traditional locks on the doors planned for these brave new homes; as a condition of their tenancy all residents must submit their biometric data for access control purposes, and consent that even their bedrooms may be searched at will without notice by the building's management committee. Why I've no idea. What are they looking for, or do they expect to find?

This then is their blueprint for the society of the future. An insecure population of mobile, mutably expectant workers ready to be deployed at short notice to wherever they may be needed. I find it both bizarre and disturbing how some people could conceive this to be a desirable lifestyle to impose upon others; and for those others to uncomplainingly submit themselves to it. Yet these are the times we're living through.

However my experience, borne out by my time on the IMS news desk, is that living cheek by jowl inevitably breeds mental illness and conflict. I wonder how long it will be before the first of many ambulances are called to these vertical utopias when they are populated? Not that a few stabbings - even though only round ended knives are permitted - or suicides will make any difference. The social scientists are allowed more-or-less free rein to meddle with peoples' lives as they wish; provided what they do doesn't adversely affect the economy.

Parts of Portsmouth are a soul-destroying eyesore, but I dread the thought of a domino line of those domineering towers marching Godzilla-like across the city, obliterating the scruffy terraces and miserable low rise flats in their path. Just looking at them would be enough to bring on an episode of depression; such is their ability to crush one's spirit.

It would be better to keep the down-at-heel familiarity of the city we know, rather than erasing the way of life we are used to and fixing the Connie ideology in the lowering permanence of concrete. I fervently hope that something prevents these awful plans from coming to fruition.

Just past the hoardings of the site is the new statue commemorating the life of John Anthony Portsmouth Football Club Westwood. His bronze clown figure tribute was commissioned and paid for by his friends in the teeth of fierce opposition from the you-know-who. It is there I meet Neil.

"Hi Rich! It's good to see you!"

"You as well!"

"Where do you fancy going? There's a new Fair Food opened near the Guildhall, or we could go to EmDee's."

"No, I wouldn't touch that oily ProTex with a barge pole! I'll have a real morsel of meat and some proper veg!"

"Allright! Fair Food it is!"

Eating out in the post-Crises Fed has changed as much as the rest of our lives. Most of the fast food outlets have disappeared as a result of the mandatory weight loss targets of the Obesity Reduction Act, and the fact people don't have the money to afford so little nutrition for so high a price. These days eating out on a whim is a luxury few can afford; home cooking or meals from Community Canteens have largely taken over, though you'll still find the occasional SubSarnie, or EmDee's (as the well-known burger chain rebranded itself to move with the times and adapt to the meat shortage is now named) for desperate hunger pangs. At the prices charged for real meat or the substitute Protein Texture you'd have to be both desperate and hungry! However some chains still continue to do a steady trade; such as Fair Food.

They are one of the few successful survivors of the former High Streets. Their well-known predecessor had a branch in almost every town, and weathered the Crises by providing acceptable food cheaply (They had to when they faced such stiff competition from the ComCants). Someone transported into the present from twenty years ago would feel reasonably at home there despite the rebranding; but they would be shocked both by today's prices and the reduced variety on the menu. They might also complain about the portion sizes and the quality of the fare they were served. But then they wouldn't have experienced what we went through... When you've been truly hungry and on the verge of destitution even meat substitute is like manna from heaven.

Yes, we know how it is made, or rather grown on an industrial scale; but we also know what naturally reared meat is fed on; even though we're assured that both kinds are fully compliant to the Fed (but not the EU) food regulations. But you should also remember some of the things that people ate back in the pre-Crises times, or during the immediate post-Crises aftermath and the Hard Winter: There were far fewer pets alive to see the next spring. The extreme cold and shortages of pet food must have accounted for some of the fatalities, but by no means all of them...

The Council considered an Animal Registration Act to ensure pet corpses wouldn't find their way into the human food chain, but they gave up on the idea as closing the kennel door long after the dog had vanished; after all meat was meat and people were desperate... As with so many aspects of our recent past it is something which has now been all but erased from our collective memory.

Walking through the Commercial Road pedestrian precinct we pass a Connie dancercise display set up on the boarded over fountain which has now been turned into a public stage. At least ten Connies and a couple of passers-by who've been drawn in are gently swaying, swirling, bending, and stretching on command to some slow-paced, traditional flute, zither, and violin Chinese music swelling from a portable PA system.

Encouraged by a radio-miked leader they complete their routine to a smattering of polite applause from a handful of bystanders. "We'll be having another session in a few moments!" gushes the instructress "Why don't you join in? You'll feel so empowered and good about yourself when you take the responsibility for your health into your own hands! We're running wellness groups everywhere at times to suit you, so take the first steps to a better life today!" Helpers thrust flyers into the hands of anyone who will take them. There are no refusals. Neil and I take them as well so as not to stand out - one of many survival strategies learned during the Transition - then we inconspicuously amble away.

Out of earshot and masked by the urban noise, Neil speaks.

"And that's how it begins... Before they know it those new recruits will be earning extra ComCred for the valuable work they are doing in promoting community health. They won't realise how dependant they're becoming on those so easily earned creds for the necessities of life, and by the time they do - if they do - they'll be hooked on achieving their quota of Good Deeds Done every month. Not to mention those preferential, off-credit food allocations... Do you know local Connie groups are authorised to issue Cred, and that you can earn it by attending their dancerecise classes or awareness meetings?"

"No." I reply. "But then I try to stay as far away from them as possible."

"I can understand that, but it's now the major source of cred inflation;, and the reason there's too much cred in circulation, so its value needs to be readjusted each budget. 'S a vicious circle innit?"

"And there I was thinking I was on top of the news, it's only my job after all! So how did they sneak that one through?"

"Ways and means mate, but they didn't go out of their way to publicise it. It gives them quite a grip on people doesn't it?"

"Bloody right moosh! I'm behind the times, I've been doing Kevin Ford's job as well as my previous role while we were reorganising, so I've had my hands full!"

"Pah! You're spending too much time in your office! You need to beat the street more! You may not see as much of it as we grunts on the Record, but things are starting to turn very creepy out there..."

"Yeah but we don't have your contacts in the CityPol, do we? They won't have anything to do with us; professional media relations only - no unofficial contacts, and they only really engage with us when there's a major incident and they want help."

I hold open the door of the Fair Food for Neil and we enter. We choose an inconspicuous table, sit down, and order a Spuddie Special each; along with a half-litre of the risible 2% imitation beer which is all you can buy without spending ComCred. (4% 'extra strong' beer is available in specially licensed premises, along with reduced-alcohol 10% spirits; both subject to ComCred and Health Tax. For anything stronger you have to see your local spiv or home-brewer.)

"My shout, Rich.' says Neil as he pays in cash. The server accepts it with indifference; the Black Dragon has made people far more wary of cashless systems these days;  with good reason.

"Off the grid for a reason?" I ask as our order is conveyed to the kitchen.

"Well you can't be too careful. I doubt if it'd matter, but you don't want to leave too much of a data trail."

"Yeah, I understand."

"And I'd rather not make it too obvious that we'd met; nothing personal of course, but things may be getting a bit sticky at the Record."

"What's up?"

"We've not been doing too well; I'm sure you've probably heard; it's hardly a secret. Traffic is down by twelve percent, ViewCred by nine, and I don't think it's going to recover. Since we were taken over by Multicast last year there's been some talk about a reorganisation, and now it would appear it's more than talk. Steve Williamson is thinking about giving it up and going indie. Me, I dunno what I'm going to do. I've been looking around of course, but you know what it's like..."

"Only too well."

"So I wanted to sound you out about what might be available with you."

I ponder. "Well I don't have responsibility for recruitment; all that gets done in London, and you know what James is like for running a lean organisation. But I can probably get you an associate status, though I know that wouldn't be much use to you. And we'd always be interested in any copy you could send us; you know I'd be straight with you on that."

"Yeah..."

"I don't think you'd want to move to Brighton, and the Hub there won't be ready to stand alone for a while yet, but you could always bear that in mind... What I'm thinking; and I can't promise anything, is you get to see James directly and talk to him. I could set it up; anything I send him gets his attention, not dumped into a 'sist. I think you might want to step sideways a bit and get a post with his new party-"

"What! Me get into politics?"

"That's what I thought when he was trying to tap me up to stand as his candidate here. But think about it;: you've got the local connections, you know the area, you've got a rep for standing up against the Connies: You'd be ideal! And I'd put a word in for you. I think that would count for something. And if you didn't want to stand you could probably get yourself a media relations role with the NRP."

"If it sounds that good the why aren't you going for it?"

"It's not for me! I'd rather lead a quiet life. No doubt he'll push again for me to get involved, and I'll end up doing some support work, but I don't want to stand because frankly, I don't think he's got much of a chance. I reckon the LEZzers are happy enough with the way things are. They've got the Council dependant on their credit, and they get plenty of cheap labour in return. So why upset a mutually beneficial arrangement?"

"Oh, thanks! So get me involved instead!"

"It's not like that! Look, you'd get a position with James for as long as it took; you'd get to know him professionally, and that counts for a lot; and if it didn't work out, you'd still be better placed to get something else in London. You'd have more recent experience than most of the cunts trying to get back in to hang on to the political class. There'd be plenty of posts available that aren't overtly political in the lobbying industry - even now - and they won't hold your past against you. They really don't give a shit just as long as you get the job done. If all else fails you could get into media relations, it'd be as easy as falling off a bike for you. It beats getting drafted into the NRA."

Neil mulls what I say over. "Maybe they've made a mistake with this beer; you're starting to make sense! But I'd rather stay in the media then get too political. Even if they have this election, whoever wins isn't going to change policy that radically, so it may be best to keep well clear. You know what they say; 'No matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in!' So they'll be doing much the same as the Council did. I can't see much point in getting involved and making enemies"

"So what's the problem?" I ask. Our conversation pauses as the waitress arrives with our meals.

"The Connies; they're the wild card: Those fuckers are worming their way in everywhere... I can't help but be worried about them because I really think they're going to get out of control; especially now that they've become more of a social movement more independent of the Council. You know they won't take no for an answer, and I'm not sure how they're going to react if things don't go their way. They can turn nasty if they feel threatened, or if they think they're going to lose everything they've built up so far... Word is there's one being sent to us from Multicast central as part of the amalgamation; and you know what happens when you get one of them in your organization; it'll be nothing but supportively happy-clappy good news, voluntarily taking extra PushCreds, and anyone who's unhappy with it can fuck off before they get pushed!"

"So you don't want to hang-on and see what happens?"

"No. The writing's on the wall for the Record. I reckon it'll be merged with SolentCast." He screws up his face, as do I. Even after all the conflict the world has suffered some enmities still endure, such as the bitter rivalry between the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton. It's a visceral, reflexive hatred; even though IMS has offices and studios there, and many of my colleagues live in that city, the rancour remains; especially when it comes to rival media companies.

"Besides, I couldn't do that tabloid shit. No, they'll get someone to 'cast it remotely from fucking Bristol or someplace. You know; thinking about it I'd like to meet James if you could arrange it. See where it leads; more irons in the fire and all that. Could you set it up?"

"Of course! But I can't promise anything though."

The conversation stalls while Neil digs into his Spuddie and swigs his watery beer. "Here's to the Emerald Isle!"

"Aye! T'ank the Lord and all His Saints for the Oirish Tattie!" The sentiment is heartfelt. We wouldn't have made it through the Hard Winter without the food imports and aid from the Irish Republic. Oh, we paid for it allright with the annulment of their loans taken out when the UK, as we then were, bailed them out of their financial mess all those years ago. They had us by the balls, and they knew it; but they also knew they didn't dare push for any further political concessions regarding the North as well; being only too aware how that would reignite those long-suppressed tensions. So the uneasy compromise continues; they got what they wanted, and get it still, but without annoying their biggest trading partner too much.

The rest of the EU aren't happy about the Republic cutting a deal with and having such close links with an 'Associate' member, but there's not a lot they can do about it. So we give our Celtic friends sincere thanks for their food exports, their aid, and their intermittent wind power, and don't dwell too closely on how our relative statuses are changing.

I want to change the subject; to try to snap Neil out of his depressive mood: "How's the family?"

"Oh, Kerry's doing alright, there are always people who need their teeth looking after so she's always busy, and Jaden is growing up fast. I'm trying to get him into the Scouts or the Woodcraft Folk to keep him away from the Young Communitarians, but you know how it is; the peer pressure and all that... He'll be changing school soon and I'm at a loss to find one which doesn't have a Connie influence."

"You really do have a thing about them!" I say.

Neil lowers his voice "I really hate the fuckers! Rick, you don't see as much of them in action as I do. I know you find them a pain in the arse but they're much more than that... Oh, and while I think about it, I have something for you."

In a well rehearsed move which won't attract attention we both slide a hand under the table. "This is a back-up of all my files, just in case I get back to find my terminal wiped. The decryption key is already in your darkmail." I pocket it. "And this..." he said, placing another chip in my hand "is something I'd like you to send to James when you talk about me. Think of it as my CV. There's some sensitive stuff that can't be properly confirmed yet, but I'm working on it while I still can. Some of it is readable now; the rest is a timeblurt decrypt if anything happens to me-"

"Aren't you sounding just a bit paranoid?"

"No." He replied, keeping his voice quiet and deadpan. "This could be a story they'd want to bury. I don't think they'd kill me, but they'd certainly make my life a fucking misery if they knew I was onto it"

"Is there anything you can tell me about it?"

"Not yet. It's probably best you don't know. It'll all come out in the timeblurt if I'm prevented from breaking the story; it may come to nothing anyway, but it's always best to cover yourself... Fancy another half-litre of piss? Might as well use our allowance before they ask for a ComCred card, and it's better than that disgusting tea substitute."

"Might as well."

Neil goes to the bar, and while he is there I wonder what I can do to help him. He's obviously stressed, but who isn't these days? Though in all the time I've known him I'd never seen him like this. There are few customers so he is soon back.

"Believe it or not this is bitter! And you will be after drinking it! One day you'll have to come round and have a proper shant; I'll treat you to some of the latest homebrew that's going around. I've got a good man who cares about his rep, won't sell any shit, and isn't too expensive. I hope he lasts at it."

"That's all very well, but don't overdo it. You know how easy it is to let it take over your life."

"I know, and I've got to keep it all together for Kerry and Jaden. Don't worry mate, I'm just under a bit of pressure and stressed out at the moment. I'll get it sorted out one way or the other."

"I'm always around if you need a chat..."

"Thanks! I'll remember... How are things with you by the way?"

"Hectic as ever, not had a shag for far too long! I've more or less given up on Cathy and there's no one at work available or who I fancy!"

"How's your Dad?"

"He's alright, still high and dry in his park home but he's miffed they reclassified his flood risk to high. He's appealing against it, and reckons it's still only a 1-in-125 year risk, and he has the NRA risk map to back him up, but they're claiming it's been superseded by events. I think it's just another one of their tactics to clear the site and dump them in some condensed housing."

"What a cunt!"

"Well he won't move until he's forced to, and he's leading the Residents' Association at the appeal. They'd have to offer him alternative accommodation and some compensation to get him out, and that's not worth their while. So they'll just indulge in a bit of low-level harassment, let the flood defences go a bit more, and hope that the weather does its worst."

"Didn't he have a close call last winter?"

"Yes; but the closest it got was 100 metres away and he was a metre higher. They wanted to evacuate the park but the residents wouldn't go for fear of never being allowed back. He's got a Ready Bag packed just in case."

"I suppose while he stays put he's got the law on his side... Oi Oi, what's all this then?" Neil says quietly while looking at the door as a group of four men, dressed in Connie jumpsuits, enter. They wear security patches and heavy boots rather than flacks. I see no obvious signs of them being armed, and they walk in confidently, rather then with the swagger of a group searching for someone or spoiling for a fight. They pick an empty table not too far from our own and sit down.

"Trouble?" I ask.

"Not sure..." says Neil cautiously.  "I don't see any of the high-profile Faces but it's always best to be on your guard..." He pretends to look above them at the muted large screen showing a live BBC 'cast of the latest unseasonable typhoon making landfall in Hong Kong. "No, I don't think so, but we might as well go quietly now". Acting as naturally as possible we finish our drinks and leave. I hear no sounds of them getting up to follow us. We shake hands.

"It's been good to see you again Rich; keep in touch won't you?"

"I will! I'll flick your file on to James, and do what I can to help. Keep your head up!"

"Thanks! I will." He seems almost on the verge of crying. "We'd better get back to work and out of this bloody wind! It's turning nippy again!"

We part, and go our separate ways. The strengthening wind has cleared the precinct; the dancercise group have packed up and gone. Now there are only a few people hurrying for shelter and a masked credder armed only with a broom, long handled scoop, and handcart half-heartedly trying to keep on top of the Sisyphean task of clearing up the windblown dust.

Back in Media House I send Neil's file and a covering note to James, then open the portion he left accessible to me. There are a few possible stories and a lead about a Connie glutton party, along with another worth following about some residents in a local care home whose relatives allege are being forced to knit clothes all day long by their Connie carers with the threat of reduced meal portions if they refuse or don't reach their quota. I've heard about this before, but without some testimony or other substantiation it won't go any further; and no-one is talking; not even the relatives, for fear of reprisals. There's also the latest version of Phantom, a wurdle (they used to be known as programnes or apps) which allows you into many supposedly secure online places, and covers any trace you've been there, as well as getting you a one-way journey to the Fens if you are caught using it. I don't know how he got hold of that, and its better not to know, but I flick it on to Bippin so that he can test it against our systems.

Neil certainly has some contacts. If we can get him on board he'll be very useful. And though he tends to worry more about the Connies than I, he made a good point about the uncertainty regarding how they may react during the election; especially if they thought they risked losing office. They've had things go their way for the best part of a decad. When anyone is entrenched in power for that long arrogance and intolerance of the opposition are bound to become established. So how they'll react to the forthcoming Democratic Reset is anyones' guess. It's a thought that gnaws at the back of my mind for the rest of the day.

 

Getting home was difficult this evening, thanks to an unwelcome reminder of the past which descended near the bus stops and forced their closure until the panic was over. From which bomb in which war that tiny speck of material was liberated is unknown to us: Apparently radioactive particles can be fingerprinted to discover exactly in which nuclear installation and which year they were created; but with there being so much of it floating free, nobody bothers now.

There was a time, shortly after the Crises and the rushed creation of a RADiation PROtection FORce, when the fallout forecasts were both eagerly watched and apprehensively feared. But as time passed and the shorter-lived radioisotopes decayed to a 'safe' level, people became indurated to the danger; so much so that nowadays the Radiation Quality Index isn't even mentioned on the mainstream media, unless something of this magnitude drops in on us.

It was a credder equipped with a hand-held monitor who first raised the alarm. As soon as that happened the city's specialist RadProFor squad leapt into their hybrid van and swung into action. Once they arrived on scene and in sight of the CCTV cameras, we livecast them in action. At first the fully hazsuited men decided to use their autonomous robot to locate and sweep up the offending few particles: Obediently it did as it was ordered, but when a second, smaller robot was remotely driven across the scene to check that every deadly speck had been removed the readings went off the scale again.

The cleaning robot was sent back for another scrub and vacuum. Again its work was checked; again the detector registered danger levels. After a third attempt to pick up the contaminants failed, a new strategy was tried. While one of the crew strapped-on extra heavy body protection and a tool belt, his colleagues removed a small box on a trolley from the back of the van. The first man, pulling the box behind him, strode quickly out to the approximate spot where the recalcitrant specks had attached themselves to the paving stone.

Using his hand held detector he narrowed the location of the danger down to a few square centimetres; then hurriedly cold chiseled out the offending patch by hand before picking it up with tongs and dumping it inside the lead-lined box. The area was scanned once more, and this time found to be satisfactory. The box was returned to the additionally shielded rear of the van before the crew departed, mission completed.

The incident took little more than ninety minutes to clear, but that was enough to disrupt bus services all over the island, and cause gridlock as well. No-one was heard to grumble about the disruption; it's become such a part of daily life it goes unremarked now. Nor is it likely to be the last time that it happens: This long after the Crises much of the fallout has drifted back to earth but there is still plenty of the lighter weight - but still invisibly lethal - material which remains borne aloft by atmospheric currents. Eventually it will all settle, but it will be a long time yet in coming.

I'm sure some of the slack jawed gawpers looking on with gormless curiosity behind the Keep Out tapes didn't understand the basic facts about radioactivity, despite the years of public information campaigns. They probably watched not realising if their credding over the past years had anything to do with hand brushing the streets, as it often is assigned; the chances are they've inhaled some radioactive dust which has lodged in their lungs and will continue to irradiate them for the rest of their shortened lives.

Sometimes surgical removal of the offending particles is a possibility, but not always. There are masks  issued to credders and the general public, but they're next to useless. Sadly, even after all this time the Crises Wars are still slowly, imperceptibly, claiming victims; but few people give a toss any more.

July the 19th.

That didn't take long; but then James doesn't wait around once he's made up his mind. Only yesterday I wished Neil Moore the best of luck in his interview, and this morning I arrive to a massblurt announcing his joining IMS as an editorial consultant. It's a dogsbody of a job title which will allow him to create his own niche within the organisation; most of his time will be taken up researching stories and the rest, increasingly so toward May next year, will be spent campaigning for the NRP.

He'll be based in this office, but as he'll be roaming far and wide he won't be my responsibility, so I've nothing extra to worry about. I'm pleased he was able to jump across to us before - as he correctly predicted - the axe stared to swing at the Record. He was prescient to see what was coming and get out while he could: Sadly, few of us have that option available these days.

Chapter Ten

The Crises - Part Three. The vexed question of Scottish independence wasn't decided by the referendum of 2014: Far from it. Despite the narrow vote in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom there remained a large, disaffected minority who felt London and the unionists had skewed the debate by fearmongering; aided by the overbearing, partisan coverage from the BBC; as well as a duplicitous promise of greater automony as a reward for voting No, and this in addition to seeding the ground in advance of the vote with a proportionately larger share of public spending grants in an attempt to bolster pro-unionist opinion than would have otherwise been the case had there not been a separatist campaign.

After the 2015 general election resulted in another austerity government the nationalist campaign was reignited when the new Westminster administration renegued on the promised devolution, and as part of yet another round of cutbacks clawed back much of the 'over generous' financial settlement they had earlier awarded to Scotland. The Scottish people, realising they'd been duped, took out their dissatisfaction on both the unionist parties and the established independence movement, which had by then splintered into squabbling factionalism. The unionists in both Edinburgh and London watched with wry amusement but events soon wiped the smirks from their faces.

A renewed and far more militant secessionist movement arose from the ashes; it was determined to win at any cost. Adopting the strategy of the IRA - the gun and bomb in one hand, and the ballot box in the other - it embarked on a dual campaign of political agitation and low-level terrorism. They were careful enough not to get caught most of the time; and as the new wave of vindictive social policies bit ever more deeply, their political wing gained support.

Rather than plead for the Westminster government to hold another referendum - which they never would, having had one so recently and considering the matter to have been decided for good - the Pairtidh Nodha Alba organised a grassroots plebiscite of their own. The mainstream unionists and nationalists urged a boycott of the vote, but still a sizeable proportion of the electorate participated. Again the result was a almost evenly divided impasse.

The unionists claimed the referendum was irrelevant; its organisation flawed, and counting suspect. Even so it was verified by an independent supervisory body composed of international observers that 45% of the self-selected electorate had voted for independence; 48% against; with the remaining 7% spoiling their ballots in protest at the behest of some unionist organisations. Despite the result it appeared the secessionist movement had stalled; there seemed to be no way of making any further progress. Barring an unexpected development it seemed things would remain as they were for the foreseeable future.

As with much recent history the exact details of how it happened are either suppressed or will remain untold. What we do know is some of the more extreme elements of the new nationalist leadership were introduced to people who could 'arrange' for their ideal to be made a reality.

Whether the NuNats realised they were knowingly dealing with the representatives of an opportunistic alliance of organised international criminals, aided by the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea, or were naive dupes is open to question. But whatever their motives they were made - and accepted - an offer they couldn't refuse.

As a result of the agreement the unobtrusive preparations began. Not every container entering the UK could be checked and searched; and if drugs and people could be so easily trafficked, then so could the weaponry and personnel needed for a seizure of power. Even with the latest 'security' features embedded in passports there were many easy ways to get hold of valid travel documents; and with more ethnic Chinese people entering the UK to study, or on business, it was easy for the North Korean special forces and soldiers of fortune from around the world to infiltrate unnoticed.

With law and order unravelling in the UK just before the Secession there were plenty of 'security contractors' entering on short-term work visas; and as they were in such demand applications for such visas were fast-tracked with little scrutiny paid to them. Those people whose skills were deemed essential for the operation but considered too much of a risk to use conventional transport and means of entry to the UK were smuggled in by other means.

In any case the law enforcement and intelligence services had their hands full coping with our own little local difficulty. The long-postponed class war had finally erupted.

The latest in the seemingly never ending round of social security cuts had pushed some sections of the sullen underclass beyond their breaking point. Faced with a hopeless future with nothing but indefinite privation and mistreatment to look forward to, perilously impoverished people finding themselves under attack by their own government were driven to perform desperate acts in self-defence.

Their seething anger could no longer be contained and erupted on to the streets, but in addition to the usual rioting they realised they had to think beyond disorganised looting in their struggle to survive. There was no point in assembling in large groups and providing easy targets for kettling, mass arrests, tear gas, water cannon or baton rounds. Instead, dispersed but acting coherently, they would take active measures to combat those organisations which were making their lives hell.

The Job Centres were the first targets on their lists. For too long they had regarded unemployed people as state chattels, to be forced to run non-stop in hamster wheels of conditionality, and bullied under the threat of benefit sanctions into ever more onerous activities just to continue to receive what they were rightfully entitled to.

Sick of being society's scapegoats to be objectified for continual official harassment; having their noses regularly rubbed in the dirt because it amused the multi-millionaire ruling class to see them abused, the jobless, being the most adversely affected, struck back with the greatest force against their tormenters. The administrative systems used by the DWP to bear down on their subjects came under concerted frazzling attacks, and the Job Centres were torched or trashed; as happened to the premises of any organisations who collaborated with the degrading 'work for your dole' forced labour schemes the government were still intent on trying to impose on the long-term unemployed.

Soon to follow were the housing associations when they complied with court eviction orders which imposed homelessness as a collective punishment on the families of convicted rioters. The courts, local authorities, and anyone associated with them were fair game; but they remained for the most part secure behind sandbagged emplacements and constant patrols. Instead the insurgents targeted those they could more easily reach: The local authority enforcement officers, community police and wardens; bailiffs, social workers, employees of the private companies that made random alcohol and drug tests on benefit claimants, or monitored the electronic tags fitted to them so their movements could be checked: Anyone who represented Them and who needed to work in the field became an endangered species; only able to travel and work under guard, subject to the constant threat of attack, their school age children at risk of being bullied and beaten-up by their fellow pupils.

Then the mobs directed their anger against the medical examination companies involved in harassing disabled people off benefit by moving the goal posts as to how their disability was assessed. After their evaluation centres were ransacked and threats made against their staff, the leading company involved suspended its contract with the government until it was given assurances about its security: Assurances that the government and a stretched to breaking point police force had a difficult time guaranteeing.

No matter how well their buildings were guarded the people who worked in them couldn't be shadowed all of the time. Their protection was stretched even more thinly when they were away from work, and so they became the targets of intimidation and severe assaults. Despite the extra private security personnel deployed to protect them, the staff involved in the persecution of the poor lived with the ever-present fear of molotov cocktail attacks on their homes; drive-by shootings; even kidnapping, kneecapping, or other mutilations of themselves and family members. If you were on the wrong side of the class war, it could come right to your door and become unpleasantly personal. You too might find yourself experiencing the realities of living with a permanent, life-changing disability: Something a middle-market tabloid columnist discovered to her cost.

For many years Lois Merck's snide sniping had inflamed resentment against the disadvantaged sections of society. Her payback came late one night soon after the publication of one of her most outspoken columns yet; in which she accused disabled people of hamming it up at their medical assessments. She alleged they were making too much of an issue of their handicaps; and claimed with the right attitude any disability could be overcome. She was soon to put her beliefs to a practical test.

After tracing her address a masked group burst into her home; shooting and seriously injuring her husband when he tried to resist them, then silencing her screaming with a jaw-breaking punch. She was thrown face down on her bed, her flailing limbs held fast by strong arms, before particular care was taken to pound a hatchet blade with a lump hammer deep into her lower back. Her legs stopped thrashing for good when her spinal cord was severed; permanently paralysing her lower body. The raiders disappeared back into the night as quickly as they had come, taking nothing else except her ability. This was the first publicly acknowledged instance of a 'flidding'. Soon these attacks would become far more common.

It was an indication of how divided the nation had become that while many people were appalled by the attack, just as many thought the bitch had got what she deserved. The incident marked the end of her journalistic career; she was too traumatised to write another column.

Betrayed by a political establishment who regarded them as only a 'problem' that needed to be dealt with harshly and a drain on society; the poor sought their protection and alternative forms of social security from an unlikely coalition of street gangs, anarchist groups, and the criminal underworld. Together they set about 'liberating' first the ghetto estates, and then other areas of the inner cities from the heavy hand of the authorities. They dismantled state control by vandalising as many of the CCTV cameras that they were able to get at, and remotely frazzling the surveillance networks or drones that they couldn't physically reach; then they saw off any police patrols who dared to enter their domain. What had initially began as a slow-burning, sporadic insurgency spread and gathered momentum, claiming more areas as its own. People of all races and religions put aside their differences for the time being and united against the state which had declared war against them.

Though there was no organised revolutionary leadership the disparate groups were united by a common belief that the government had gone too far; and believing that none of the existing political parties offered any hope, they would have to stop waiting for a change for the better which would never come. Instead they would rip power from the state's grasp and make it their own. From now on any area they could control would become the peoples' space; subject to their law, their order, their form of social support. Their patience had snapped, the line had been crossed, and things would never be the same again because they'd had enough. Enough of ineffectual protests; enough of being ignored by the corrupt politicians who were supposed to represent them; enough of being demonised; enough of being treated like the scum of the earth: They were never going to endure it again. The government had done fuck-all for them apart from fucking them over so it could go and fuck itself.

The North Korean backers of the NuNat coup delighted in providing aid to the seditious groups; they would be a useful diversion, and preoccupy forces which London might otherwise deploy against them.

Emboldened by their initial successes the insurgents sallied forth from their home areas and out onto the offensive. Special units raided the modern workhouses in which 'problem' families had been incarcerated; freeing the inmates, leaving the institutions burning and the guards grievously beaten. Prisons though proved harder to break into.

Then they spread terror through the wealthier suburbs, where those who planned, supported, and profited from the War Against The Poor were most likely to be found. Pursued with the same determination they applied in persecuting their quarry, the wealthy found themselves subject to revenge attacks of robbery and arson. Sometimes there was no motive; just flaunting your affluence in the face of mass poverty was reason enough.

In response the richer neighbourhoods organised themselves into defensive vigilante groups. They set up roadblocks, bought more physical security products and hired more guards. Though with security in such high demand the costs spiraled, and the quality of the personnel available began to fall. When push came to shove many of them just weren't up to the job.

The right-wing vigilante militias which sprang up in response to the revolution offered their services for hire and did well for a time. Then they became overconfident and decided to take the fight to their enemy. It was a mistake they only made twice; each time suffering heavy losses. Instead they reverted to snatching and 'disappearing' the occasional suspected rebel, and were repaid by the insurgents in the same coin. The police and army knew full well what was going on, but turned a blind eye.

The situation steadily deteriorated. Despite the locally declared States of Emergency and Martial Law; the preventive arrests and indefinite internment without charge; in spite of the limited Military Assistance to the Civil Power rendered by the army in the worst trouble spots, the UK seemed set to follow the inexorable road to a balkanized civil war and indefinite misery which so many other nations had travelled before. While there were continuing calls for a declaration of a nationwide State of Emergency and an intensification of the repressive powers available, the government was reluctant to act; fearing it would be a public admission of their incompetence in preventing the social breakdown; and the final nudge down the irreversible slide into total anarchy.

As politicians claimed they were making steady progress in re-establishing the rule of law, flash mobs robbed and burned supermarkets, banks, building societies, bookmakers, and moneylenders. Then they retrieved their own or someone else's pledges from the predatory high street pawnbrokers, before vanishing as quickly as they arrived: They were long gone before the struggling police had any hope of responding.

In any case the police had enough on their plate defending their stations when they came under sustained attack: First with petrol bombs, then with guns and grenades, finally with car bombs and home-made mortars. They were forced to patrol in fours for their own safety, armed with 'less lethal' weapons; then fully armed in armoured vehicles.

When a low-flying police helicopter was shot down by sniper fire, killing all on board, it was reluctantly accepted that every military resource available had to be mobilised in an all-out effort to deal with the insurgency once and for al. The last available units of the overstretched army were withdrawn from their 'peacekeeping' mission to support the Pakistani government and returned home for 'public order' duties.

But the tactics which had stalemated them in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan followed them home. Every wannabe urban guerrilla knew how to successfully drain the resolve of an occupying force, bit by bit, until it was exhausted. The army could conduct joint patrols with the police, and for a while impose its control upon an area with lockdowns, checkpoints and raids. But the control came at a heavy human and material cost to all sides in the conflict. The military couldn't address or resolve the underlying reasons for the conflict; only impose a temporary, brutal, pause.

Even that couldn't last. The insurgents were smart and flexible, changing their targets and campaigns. They became fluid and savvy to the counter-insurgency methods used against them: They were difficult to catch; hardened, trained and experienced. They didn't fall into the trap of defending limited areas which could be blockaded into submission by cutting off food, water and power supplies: Instead their invisible control ebbed and flowed with the ever-changing situation on the streets. A martial lid may have been clamped on to the ongoing civil war but despite the harsh emergency measures the insurgency still simmered and constantly threatened to blow out of control.

With their hands full just coping with the English insurgency it was understandable how the intelligence services missed the preparations for the Scottish secession; especially as it was organised so professionally. If anyone thought about Scotland it was with relief that the class war hadn't taken hold there to the same extent it had in the rest of England and Wales. Things had calmed there for the moment; perhaps the NuNats had realised they could never hope to win and given up on or at least suspended their campaign for now.

We'll probably never know if anyone wondered if it was too damn quiet; or for how long the relative calm could continue. If only the spooks hadn't wasted their time and resources in the past regarding innocent people and peaceful protesters as potential threats to national security; if only they hadn't been so overwhelmed just coping with the English insurgency, someone could have conducted a more thorough investigation into the ways the English rebels were being supplied with their materiel.

They might have considered more carefully who it was arming the insurgents, and what they stood to gain by doing so, rather than getting sidetracked into reactive fire fighting. They might even have struck lucky and by chance discovered the arms pipeline from Scotland, then followed it back to its source. But they didn't. They missed the greatest ever threat to national security, and even if they had understood what was about to happen it may have been too late to stop the inevitable.

The Crises - Part Four. I was on holiday when it happened. Back then a holiday abroad was still reasonably affordable, although the costs had started their rapid rise to the prohibitive levels of today. I needed a quick and very dirty break away from my then job of editing a series of professional journal web sites, so Karen and I were spending a week in the south of France.

After a day in Nice we'd just decided to go to bed after a pleasant evening meal. If only I'd not flicked on the room terminal while Kaz was in the bathroom we might have spent a final night in blissful ignorance. But I did, and was astonished to see the international news channels all carrying unconfirmed reports about some sort of attack or insurrection to do with the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh, with a nationalist Council announcing the dismissal of the Assembly and proclaiming itself to be in power. More details would follow as they became known, but in the meantime uninformed speculation padded the breaking story.

We were both shocked, but neither of us thought that the secessionists stood a hope in hell of succeeding. The police would soon break into Holyrood and turf them out, or the army would be sent in. We watched rapt through the night as the scale of the takeover, and further reports of seemingly well-trained, powerful squads of mercenaries taking over strategic points emerged. There was no hope of sleep now so we kept up with events as much as we could.

A special late-night session of Parliament was called at short notice. The Prime Minister - breaking for a moment from chairing the Cobra emergency committee - declared the forcible seizure of Scotland would never be tolerated, and if the terrorists didn't surrender immediately the armed forces would crush the plot by force if necessary. To thunderous jeers the timid Leader of the Opposition found his voice and asked exactly where the government was going to find the forces to perform that mission, given the army was fully committed 'supporting' the police in England. There were cheers and uproar when a rabidly right wing Tory moved the death penalty be restored for treason; he proposed emergency legislation to that effect, calling for the House to immediately approve it by acclamation. The Speaker ruled him out of order and suspended the sitting for half an hour.

Breathless rumours swamped the rolling news streams. Two MSPs had been killed trying to resist the storming of the building. The mercenaries had surrendered. The plotters had pledged to die fighting if necessary. The SAS had been sent in. Quick reaction army units were flying north, and the RAF would obliterate any NuNat strong points if required. Leading Scottish politicians and public figures had been assassinated, kidnapped, or imprisoned; or were under house arrest. There were reports of fighting in military bases and the Faslane naval dockyard. There had been demonstrations both for and against the coup, with fatalities when the opposing factions clashed. Some of the rumours were frankly ridiculous, such as the one the usurpers were threatening a nuclear strike on London unless the UK government withdrew its forces and recognised the legitimacy of the new regime. Far away in a budget hotel bedroom we watched the Clauswitzian fog of war descending over the story.

As the night wore on the tone of the reports changed. It was most noticeable on the BBC which gradually stopped broadcasting breaking news and live studio or phone interviews with experts or witnesses. Instead it started repeating loops of the government speeches in the raucous parliamentary debate; adding little in the way of new updates or reportage. Feeling I wasn't being informed I switched to the other channels to find them announcing that due to the emergency reporting restrictions imposed by the British government they were moving their coverage of the Scottish crisis to their offices in Dublin, Paris, and Brussels; where the EU Council of Ministers would convene to discuss the issue shortly.

This was the moment for me when the BBC's reputation was sullied beyond redemption. The various Broadcasting Acts had always specified during times of emergency the duty to report accurately and impartially was to be set aside; they made provision for the direct state control of the media. Anyone with half a brain who had watched the news bulletins for the past two decades couldn't have failed to notice how year by year the news had become less informative, more dumbed-down, and subtly more supportive of whichever government was in power. Over time, many people had come to regard the BBC as little more than a government news agency.

Thanks to the 'unique way it is funded' by a poll tax on viewers, the BBC had always felt under pressure from governments of all parties to justify its licence fee. This in turn made the corporation susceptible to political pressure; a pressure which intensified from the mid-noughties onward following the well-publicised scandals the corporation had become embroiled in. Once the political class had the Beeb on the defensive they used their advantage to compromise its notional independence as much as possible.

The law's reserve powers applied equally to all broadcasters operating in the UK, but the craven way in which the BBC was so eager to curry favour by complying with the act before being forced to, and the way it finally gave up the pretence of not being a state mouthpiece - adopting the uncritically deferential tone it usually reserved for anything to do with royalty - was sickening. Especially now of all times, when there was a desperate hunger for news of what was happening.

The censorship extended beyond the native broadcasters. Reporters inside and outside of the UK encountered problems of sudden internet blocking and loss of service. Making phone calls to and within the UK became problematic; partly due the volume of calls overloading the available capacity, as well as the mobile networks being restricted by both Westminster and the Albans, as the rebels began to call themselves, to hinder 'the enemy' from communicating.

In place of absent facts the rumours became more credible. Cars with Scottish number plates were prohibited from travelling; their occupants subject to summary arrest at ANPR road checks (as if Scots with evil intent couldn't have hired or stolen a car with English plates in advance!) There were reports of refugee convoys fleeing south from the major Scottish cities at speed. All air, rail, and road links with Scotland were suspended. Anyone with a Scottish accent in England was advised to keep a low profile or surrender themselves to protective police custody. A ginger-haired man with a Scottish accent had been kicked to death in Hackney. The Westminster government again denied receiving a nuclear ultimatum from the Albans. The London transport system was apparently in chaos as a result of real or imagined bomb threats which may or may not be second front attacks by Alban sympathisers. A broken down lorry on the Edgeware Road had prompted a precautionary evacuation of nearby areas. The French authorities were to require UK nationals living or on holiday in France to register themselves with the local Gendarmerie, or their hotel management.

Just as we heard that report there was a polite knock at our door. It was the apologetic hotel receptionist with our freshly printed forms and a cover letter from the Ministère de l'Intérieur  regretting the inconvenience, but politely requiring we register ourselves in case we were to need assistance in the future; and to inform the authorities of our destination should we decide to move on. An online link for registering had just gone live, so we did so electronically. Suddenly it sunk in; we could be trapped out here, unwilling refugees for the duration of this crisis. There were worse places to be stuck, but for how long could we stretch our finances if we were forced to stay here?

The French government must have been remarkably prescient because soon after it was announced from London and Paris that all international air, Chunnel, and ferry services to the UK were suspended until further notice. Regular updates on the travel situation were promised but failed to materialise. The hairs on my neck began to rise: Something must be very wrong back in Blighty. Why should an outbreak of fighting, however serious it may be, hundreds of kilometres north of London lead to a transport shutdown of services to southern England? In the news vacuum of the UK something more serious than we were led to believe must be going on.

As dawn broke a further trickle of news and rumour began to emerge as more people discovered ways to circumvent the online censorship. A lot of information could be gleaned from blogs, blurts, and social media but due to the high demand for these services they were running frustratingly slowly. Instant blurt spaces appeared relaying eyewitness reports and spliced CCTV feeds of the ongoing fighting, but they rarely stayed live for long, as the Albans obviously had a unit dedicated to tracing them and shutting them down either remotely or physically: Violently so by the looks of some of the last live images 'cast before they went offline.

Yet more rumours: The government was meeting in a continuous emergency session. And this unreported on the UK news, but carried by the international feeds: The British government had activated its Emergency War Plan, with second-tier ministers and members of the Royal family being evacuated out of London and dispersed to Regional Seats of Government. In a statement downplaying the move we were informed it was purely a precaution; a decades old contingency plan automatically set in motion, and no conclusions should be read into it. I doubt if many people were reassured. Westminster sources also claimed the situation was bound to be resolved in the next few hours. A twelve hour nationwide curfew was announced to come into force at 18.00 hours tonight, and subsequent nights until further notice: To allow the army to move freely about the Essential Service Routes, and ensure public order was maintained at this difficult time.

Less than a day of sleepless hours had passed since news of the coup broke; but as the crisis continued my sense of foreboding increased.

Another headline flashed across the bottom of the screen while the picture panned across airport floors of camped out stranded tourists: The French Direction de la Défense de la Sécurité Civile had been placed on Alert Orange. Then the programme cut to a live test transmission on French TV from the Réseau national d'alerte explaining what people should do in the event of nuclear contamination being detected in France. What the fuck was going on?

The log jam of information broke again. There had been an inadvertent massacre when a column of refugees heading south had met the army heading north, and been mistaken for Alban rebels believed to be heading for Berwick-upon-Tweed. Apache helicopters had attacked and destroyed an Alban unit attempting to establish a border checkpoint. The newly constructed extensions to the detention camps on the bleak northern moors, planned to incarcerate the latest wave of insurgency prisoners would instead be housing displaced people in those bare wooden huts. The Albans had begun broadcasting using captured radio stations in addition to their online presence, and warned unless the Westminster occupiers stopped attacking the Alban freedom fighters within the hour they would suffer "extreme consequences". A group of ninjas had taken over the Sullom Voe oil terminal and booby-trapped it; ready to be destroyed on command from Edinburgh or if there were any attempt by special forces to recapture it. London was in constant consultation with our US and Union Treaty Organisation allies. The Prime Minister had been summoned to Buckingham Palace for urgent talks with His Majesty...

Then everything changed.

The first the international audience knew of it was from a small Dutch fishing boat. As soon as news of the putsch broke an enterprising Nederlandse Publieke Omroep news personality named Babette Veldjans, expecting travel to the UK would be restricted, decided it would be a good idea to charter a trawler to sail across the North Sea to an east coast English port. Captain Van Oort; master of the Vermeermin - at that moment fishing mid-way between the Netherlands and the UK in the southern North Sea - was only too pleased to accept the satphoned offer. With the state of fishing the way it was, any source of income would be welcome. A chartered helicopter would rendezvous with Van Oort's craft and rope ladder the film crew down. A tricky, possibly dangerous manoeuvre, but one worth trying. All went well and the TV crew boarded without injury.

Veldjans' logic was flawless: If she encountered the Royal Navy or a coastguard vessel and was turned back she had a story. If she and her crew were able to dock in a UK harbour she could report on the mood of the British people at the moment, and their reaction to the events. This far away from the conflict they would be in no danger, but while they were making their eight hour journey they could create an air of mounting tension with a series of piece-to-camera commentaries to occupy any slack airtime in the developing news.

It was while they were filming a false jeopardy update as the Zeemeermin sailed west-northwest towards Lowestoft with approximately twenty kilometres to go until landfall, the event occurred which would define Veldjans' career and change the destiny of two nations. The images have become as much a part of our common culture as those of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As then we will never forget where we were and what we were doing at that moment.

We'd left the hotel to go to a nearby bar-restaurant for a light lunch; though neither of us had much of an appetite. As everywhere a muted TV tuned to Euronews was on in a corner. Suddenly we heard a startled "Mon Dieu!" and looked round to where the exclamation had come from. The trio of regular patrons at the bar were looking ashen-faced at the screen which was just beginning to replay the footage we have all come to know so well. With the volume urgently raised the French voiceover drowns out the language used in the report, but the video speaks for itself.

Veldjans is standing in the bow with the haze of the horizon behind her; the Suffolk coast is not yet visible. She has just finished recording a Dutch language report; then she switches to her fluent English to repeat the same account before uploading them both.

"As we approach the English coast near Lowestoft, we can see no sign a war is in progress. We have yet to see any aircraft, or be intercepted by the coast guard. We have not even been interrogated by radio as we enter UK territorial waters. Everything seems so normal. We hope to dock in-".

Suddenly a flashbulb pulse of intense blue-white light fills the screen, bleaching out the picture. The fact it happens so silently is the most unnerving thing about it. The stunned pause is broken by Babette's scream of pure terror and string of shocked oaths as she realises what is happening; as well as the howl of pain from cameraman Peter Stecker: He was looking in the direction of the flash and has been blinded.

Van Oort shouts for them to dive to the deck and beware of the blast wave, which arrives with a thunderous clap soon after. Stecker, still unable to see, puts down his hand-held camera and the screen is filled with nothing but a view of the deck; but it is what we can hear which is compelling. There is more Dutch swearing, Stecker screaming "My eyes! I can't see! I'm blind!" and Babette calling out "Is anyone burned?"

Captain Van Oort, himself suffering visual impairment, turns his vessel hard about and heads for home at top speed: He radios a mayday. Veljdans leads Stecker below decks where a crew member gives him first aid.

The Zeemeermin was far enough from the detonation to avoid serious damage, and the team's satellite gear is unaffected by the electromagnetic pulse so Babette is heard calling the studio and demanding to be put on the air at once. She gets her way. As she awaits her cue she picks up the camera, sets it up on a mini tripod, and points it toward herself. Now we can see her reddened face, as if she's suffered a bad case of sunburn. In the moments before the short countdown to going live Veldjans retrieves the footage of the airburst and transmits an impromptu report along with it, speculating - correctly as it turned out - the Secessionist conflict had just gone nuclear.

Her breaking story electrified the world. The fact of the detonation was quickly confirmed by observers on the north-western continental coasts; then by the governmental civil defence services. Across Europe air defences were scrambled in fear another errant missile may come their way.

A Dutch rescue helicopter was rushed to the crew's aid. All aboard were evacuated. A Koninklijke Marine radiological protection unit dressed in full hazmat suits took over the ship and sailed it to the navy base in Den Helder.

Everyone rescued was flown directly to a military hospital and subjected to exhaustive medical examinations before being discharged. The Zeemermin was scanned for signs of fallout contamination but none were found. Astonishingly all those aboard escaped with just minor injuries, apart from Peter Stecker who suffered longer term sight loss. They were just far enough away from the hypocentre to escape with superficial burns and minimal radiation exposure.

More images of the Sizewell flash were later recovered from various surveillance cameras and other sources which happened to be pointing in the right direction at the right time, but it was the on-the-fly "Nueken de hel!" report which became iconic and would go on to win Babette Veldjans numerous awards.

Yet even as they were being released from hospital, the remarkable story of the Zeermeermin and her crew was being eclipsed by the collapse of the United Kingdom. 

Chapter Eleven

The Crises - Part Five. Already there had been nervous undercurrents stirring. Something wasn't right; things can't have been going as well as we'd been led to believe for Our Boys fighting for the right of our fellow Britons to remain in the Union. It all should've been dealt with by now: There must be something going on that weren't being told about... Then the brilliant flash which was visible from across much of the Fenlands starkly illuminated the whole shaky edifice of propaganda and outright lies for what they really were, and the last few flimsy ties binding the government and its people together finally snapped.

There was no way this event could be denied; or those in power escape from the accusation they had deliberately misled the people about the gravity of the situation. And no way to disguise the fact the state had proved utterly incompetent in its most fundamental duty of defending the people it was supposed to serve. As its last shreds of legitimacy were stripped away by the distant thunder of the blast wave the government of the United Kingdom descended into panic.

Despite the attempts to jam its transmissions and destroy its facilities, Rèidio Alba triumphantly announced the explosion of one of the many nuclear weapons it claimed the scessionists had access to. It warned unless Westminster announced a ceasefire within two hours and a total withdrawal of all armed forces from Alban territory within a day, further strikes would be launched, and this time cities would be targeted. The inhabitants of Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool, Cardiff, and London were warned to evacuate while they still had time.

Those who learned of the threat took it to heart, dropped everything, and fled for their lives. The government tried to forestall the chaos that a mass panic was bound to provoke, but they hadn't a hope of stopping hundreds of thousands of people from stampeding away from the potential target zones by any means. Unprecedented and unpublicised, the internet and mobile networks were shut down in a vain attempt to prevent news of the Alban ultimatum from becoming more widely publicised. Those not in the know thought their connection problems were just a result of local overdemand, rather than a deliberate policy decision. The Raidió Teilifís Éireann long wave service, which had boosted its signal to broadcast accurate and impartial reports of the war to the many Irish nationals living in the UK, was jammed with a roar of static. They tried changing frequencies but the jamming followed them. All public transport services leaving the threatened cities were shut down, and major road junctions were blocked by the army with light tanks.

Still the mass flight spread and intensified. On secondary roads cars and buses were commandeered; even trains were hijacked as well, but they didn't get any further than the next signal set against them before the passengers used the emergency override on the doors and disembarked whether they were at a station or a busy junction. Risking electrocution or being hit by another train out in the countryside was better than being near Ground Zero if the Bomb fell.

The army were ordered to maintain the cordons thrown up around the major cities by any means. Control of the population had to be maintained whatever the cost. The troops opened fire on the crowds of would-be escapees; first over their heads, and then directly at them. Scores of people were killed but there were many more who avoided getting shot and kept on coming. The soldiers soon ran out of ammunition, yet the desperate people kept pushing toward them; an unstoppable surge of panic. In the end the forces resorted to bayonetting or clubbing the fearful crush with their empty weapons but were eventually overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers, and according to some reports torn limb from limb by the enraged mob. The military vehicles were moved aside and the breakout from the threatened areas continued unchecked.

Some of those fleeing for their lives by any way out they could find fell victim to a new breed of instant highwayman, while others - proving there were two sides to human nature - give lifts, aid, and shelter to the refugees. A few local authorities acting in ignorance or open defiance of the central government 'stay put' directives set up Rest Centres for the displaced. The leisure centres or budget hotels situated in the run down retail parks of towns far from the Alban target list soon became overcrowded and their supplies ran out.

Other evacuees, seeing the squalid conditions developing in the reception centres and not trusting their lightweight construction to absorb fallout radiation, left and kept going as far away as possible, seeking their safety in distance. With them spread the news and the contagion of anxiety. Depart quickly; travel far; tarry long had been the admonition which had saved many lives during the mediaeval Black Death. The advice was just as relevant when facing a 21st century nuclear threat.

The official news outlets continued to repeat there was no reason to believe the Alban ultimatum to be genuine; it was by no means certain the explosion was nuclear in nature, and panicking wouldn't do any good in any case. Faced with such obvious lies wild rumours again took the place of facts. For a few minutes the BBC showed two of the series of decades-old Protect and Survive films explaining how to select a safer Fall-Out Room in your home; and take shelter within it if warned of a nuclear attack. They were only shown the once. The further episodes dealing with how to construct, provision, and live in an Inner Refuge didn't follow. Whoever had taken the initiative to broadcast the advice had either been suspended or thought it was the best they could do under the circumstances. There was no time in which to do; and no point in doing anything more.

Whether they had planned it this way, or if their plans worked far better than they expected, the Alban scare tactics proved remarkably effective. Having demonstrated one bomb, the threat of an attack with more weapons they must be certain to have was enough to terrorise the entire nation into a paralysis of disruption. Britain was nolonger the nation which had once stoically endured the Blitz, and hadn't been for a long time; there was very little in the way of Keeping Calm And Carrying On to be seen.

In London the sight of a swarm of helicopters over Westminster, swooping down for a moment to pick up their Very Important Passengers, then climbing away at high speed to the north-west prompted another rush to the suburbs. Those wealthy Londoners who'd bought well-provisioned houses in the country just in case this sort of thing ever happened began to wonder if they shouldn't have left the city far sooner. They and many others stormed the underground network in the hope of finding shelter. Such was the crush of people the network was forced to close; already there were reports of deaths and serious injuries coming from the tunnels.

London was; and remains, one of the most intensely surveilled places on earth. Most Londoners had become used to hearing spy microdrones buzzing above their heads, so the slightly different engine note of what they thought to be just another aroused little notice until it flew to Hyde Park and exploded, killing five people. When the bomb squad arrived at the scene they examined the wreckage and discovered a number of titanium plates engraved with messages designed to survive the blast. They explained the autonomous drone had been launched from Alba, and guided itself all the way to the capital. Even if the UK air defences were able to intercept a medium range missile, they couldn't detect - let alone shoot down - a stealthy dirty drone.

The Albans had shown they could attack any target of their choosing, and there was no way of stopping them. It appeared they held the whip hand; if the ship which fired the original missile were to be destroyed there were other ways with which the Albans could continue the war using drone delivered chemical or radiological weapons. In any case, with the Scottish people being used as unwilling human shields there was no hope of being able to target the secessionists without inflicting horrendous non-combatant casualties. For all of its armed forces the Westminster government had been rendered impotent with a single well-planned strike.

London and the other major English cities were now defenceless hostages, while the political class who had the means to do so were abandoning the people to their fate; ratting out to real or imagined safety elsewhere. Though most communications were suspended there were still enough satellite phones and secure internet connections to foreign embassies for some news to get out. And the word was some great changes were in the offing. Suddenly all the mobile networks and internet connections were restored, but with one telling difference: An emergency messaging programme, designed for eventualities such as this, had been activated.

Every UK based mobile device, social media account, and email address received a priority message announcing a UN brokered ceasefire was in operation, and His Majesty would make a broadcast of national importance at six pm this evening.

The nation came to an apprehensive halt. The battling factions tearing at each other in the inner cities, the footsore refugees heading for hoped for rural safety, and the wider world waited expectantly; wondering what the King would announce.

There were no advance leaks of the contents of His speech: Only He, personally drafting his statement, knew from moment to moment exactly what He was going to say, and He was constantly rewriting His address in response to the changing situation, even as the time for transmission approached. When He finally spoke to the nation what He announced was completely unexpected.


Back in our hotel room we watched the speech carried live by all the international news networks. This was the breaking news. The broadcast begins with a shot of the Royal Standard flying atop the flag pole of Buckingham Palace, and the subdued playing of the national anthem which has become a convention since the death of Queen Elizabeth. Then the scene shifts to show His Majesty, dressed in His full dress uniform, sat in His state office at Buckingham Palace.

"My fellow Britons." He says in a sombre tone. "Today has been one of the gravest days of peril our United Kingdom has ever faced. Though we are not yet completely out of danger, this evening I can share some more hopeful news with you. Thanks to the good offices of the United Nations and the European Union I can announce a ceasefire is in effect between the armed forces of the United Kingdom and the Scottish secessionists. Given the risk of an exchange of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction it was the only course of action available to both parties to prevent a further escalation of the conflict with the consequent horrific loss of life, and the mutual ruination of all involved."

"But let me make this clear." His voice takes on a steely tone, and something flashes in His eyes. "This is not an acceptance of the illegal seizure of power in Edinburgh by a clique of unrepresentative outlaws. Scotland is and remains an integral part of the United Kingdom. It is my goal; a goal I will constantly pursue with the assistance of our international allies, to return the legitimate government of Scotland to power as soon as practically possible, and I make this personal pledge as your King to the Scottish people: You will not be abandoned or forgotten. Scotland will be returned to the Union.

But when legitimate government is returned to Scotland, and the Scottish people again safely reunited with us, I want the Union to be in a fit state to receive them. As recent events have so clearly proven the United Kingdom has suffered a fundamental crisis of confidence, and many people have asked: How could things have ever have gone this badly wrong?

The answers are complex; the debate about how our nation has fallen into this state wide ranging. But in my view it is clear that for decades the people of the United Kingdom have been badly let down by the political establishment. A political class has arisen who have grown ever more detached from the people they were supposed to serve. They have become arrogant, corrupt, uncaring, and above all, incompetent. It is their collective failure which has been the major contributory factor bringing us to this point.

Over the past few years, as Prince of Wales and then as your King, I tried to make my concerns known to those who wield the powers which I as Sovereign vest to them. But I found myself being fobbed-off with the same weasel words and slippery arguments; the same excuses they constantly gave to you. As a non-political Head of State I was able to offer them my opinions and advice, but I was unable to influence their policies and actions. However I did not simply wring my hands and abandon all hope.

During that time I gave a great amount of consideration as to the direction in which the UK was heading; and how we might avoid the dread future we all feared lay in store for us. One of economic ruin, grinding poverty, social unrest, authoritarian government, and environmental destruction. I was concerned enough to confidentially seek advice from a number of well-respected and apolitical experts in economic, social, spiritual, and environmental matters as to what might be done to save our nation from this fate. As a result of their counsel I asked them to develop a policy programme for a sympathetic government of goodwill to implement.

Though much progress has been made by those experts and myself in drawing up such a strategy, it is as yet incomplete. But events have moved on so swiftly, and our situation degenerated to such an extent, that the time has come when this plan for reconstruction - such as it is - must be enacted at once.

Our nation's constitution is an unwritten one. It has evolved over time to adapt to the changing circumstances of the political system. At its heart is the institution of the Monarchy, in who all state power is vested, and in whose name the government rules.

Most of the time the office of Monarch is an apolitical and ceremonial post, as it should be: Yet the Monarch remains an integral part of the governmental process as they give the Royal Assent to all of the government's laws and actions. It is part of the series of understandings upon which our constitution is founded that there are times when the Monarch, as the ultimate guarantor of the state, is entitled and compelled to act beyond the scope of their usual role. I believe this is such a time, and I feel I must act in the interest of the nation.

Some may consider the measures I am announcing extraordinary, but these are extraordinary times. As Monarch it is both my right and my duty to act to save my kingdom from ruin.

I have signed a number of Royal Decrees to be published once this broadcast is over. They include the dismissal of the government, and the Dissolution of the House of Commons; as well as the House of Lords. There will be no general election as would be customary in such an event. Given the circumstances in which we find ourselves with a part of our Union under criminal occupation, and a widespread civil insurgency in progress, organising an election is impracticable at this time.

In any case, under measures to become effective immediately; all political parties and associated organisations will be suspended until further notice. As they have been integral components of, and contributors to the current crisis I believe they have absolutely nothing to offer us at the moment; and it is in the national interest they are stood aside until they have undergone a long-overdue process of cleansing and reform.

Instead, the immediate day to day government of these islands will be undertaken by myself in consultation with the armed forces, the civil service, and a Transitional Council whose members I will initially appoint. Once a measure of stability has been restored the armed forces will withdraw from public administration but continue to aid the police in maintaining public order for as long as they are needed.

In due course the Transitional Council will be able to co-opt people of good standing to assist them in their task of national reconstruction. The Council will be charged not only with the day-to-day running of the nation; but also the radical reform of our political, economic, public, social, spiritual and moral spheres of life.

To this end I am also establishing a Royal Commission to investigate the underlying causes which have led our nation to this sorry state of affairs; and to advise the Council on what needs to be done to remedy the situation. Once the Commission's inquiry into the causes of our national malaise has been completed and its conclusions published, the Council will have the authority of my office to put into effect those measures which are needed to halt, and then reverse our slide towards the abyss.

The road to recovery will take some time to travel; so the Council's initial term will last for five years, and will be extended to ten years if required. But I am confident by the end of that time ours will be a better nation. One reconstructed; fit once more to resume our democratic traditions, and eager to embrace a future of renewed hope. A nation reinvigorated and reunited.

Today many of us, myself included, suffered the apprehension of wondering whether we would live to see this evening. We have at least achieved that goal. From this point on I am determined we shall never suffer such fear again.

Working together we can make our common dreams a reality. Let us go forward as one from this moment and grasp a new future! One of optimism, not of despair! I have every confidence we as a nation shall together rise to this challenge, and prove ourselves worthy of taking it on."

He pauses for a moment. "Immediately after this address there will be a number of Public Service Announcements regarding the State of Emergency, and the National Curfew which will remain in force until the situation has stabilised sufficiently for the measures to be lifted. You must continue to obey these instructions. The locations of Aid Centres will be announced for people who have evacuated themselves from their residences and lack the means to go back to obtain assistance to do so: I urge you to return to your homes as soon as possible."

Another pause, and this unscripted. "I want everyone to understand I have not taken these measures lightly. At all times during these recent crises, my overriding concern as your King has been your welfare. You are all constantly in my thoughts, especially those of you in Scotland." He looks as if He is about to burst into tears, but swiftly regains His composure. "May God bless all of us tonight, and in the difficult times which lie ahead. Good evening, and my best wishes to all of you."

Then it is back to a proudly flying Royal Standard and God Save The King plays once more, but this time it is a proud, stirring arrangement. As it finishes the scene fades slowly to black.

There are no crowds near the cordoned-off Buckingham Palace to respond, but after a few stunned seconds of silence the microphones of the live reporters elsewhere in the capital pick up faint cheering, which begins to grow in volume, along with sustained applause. Then comes the sporadic popping of distant gunshots in celebration. The single shots become crackling fusillades as whole magazines are emptied skywards. A relieved nation erupts in joy, forgetting for the moment their King has just announced a part of it has been abandoned to a criminal clique for the time being; and democracy as we knew it - as well as the democratic institutions - remains suspended for the foreseeable future in favour of a monarchical technocracy.

The studio pundits are dumbfounded. No one expected this; least of all the politicians who with the stroke of a Royal signature are declared redundant. As the media struggles to come to terms with the new reality, constitutional experts are rushed into interviews to explain that yes; His Majesty is perfectly entitled to do as he has just done. After all the UK is a constitutional monarchy. There is no codified, written constitution; just a series of informal understandings as to how a Monarch should act.

Nor is this latest turn of events unprecedented. In 1834 King William IV dissolved Parliament, and as recently as 1975 Queen Elizabeth II's appointed representative in Australia dismissed the Whitlam government there. Despite the widespread belief to the contrary, the Monarchy still holds absolute power as all state power is vested in the Monarch; and all laws passed by parliament have to receive the Royal Assent. The Monarchy over time may have allowed governments to rule on their behalf, but that is a concession which can be - and just has been - revoked.

What do you mean you didn't know? You really should have paid more attention! You should have agitated for a real democracy and a constitutionally founded government which would have been resilient enough to cope with this crisis. Well it's too late now...

An astonished Downing Street put out a holding statement pledging its full cooperation with His Majesty's plans to get the UK back on an even keel. It was all they could do for the moment. Perhaps there would be ways of changing His mind later... A couple of junior ministers and a handful of republican MPs expressed their concern at the turn of events but their voices were drowned out in the ecstatic celebrations. The hated political class had been sacked! At long last someone was finally going to do what needed to be done to sort this country out once and for all! And, unlike those cowardly politicians, the King hadn't run out on us when we were in peril. He'd shown true courage by staying put and remaining at His post. A modern day King Arthur had arisen to save His nation in its time of need.

And so what had passed for British democracy - supposedly envied and emulated around the world - died not with anger, but with jubilation at its passing. The majority of the population uncritically embraced the 'temporary' reversion to mediaeval governance in the hope things would at last begin to improve. If only they knew what their future held they might not have been so sanguine.


A week later, once the situation had stabilised, Karen and I were escorted from our hotel by a pair of gendarmes. As we spoke reasonable French and made it clear we wanted to return home they treated us well. After sixteen hours waiting in the departure terminal at Côte d'Azur airport while the knock on effects and the recent disruption were still being worked through, we were allocated a flight. I'll never forget speaking to the Scottish couple who were sat next to us in the slowly moving queue. Both were in tearful shock at the events which had taken place.

Although they were both in favour of Scottish independence, neither of them wanted it to happen in this way. They were flying back to an even more uncertain future than we. What sort of reception awaited them on their return? Would they be considered refugees or potential enemy sympathisers? Would they be allowed to cross the de-facto border to return to Motherwell or be interned for an indeterminate time? No one could say.

We couldn't return via Stanstead for 'operational reasons'. I think those in charge of UK airspace weren't entirely sure the smouldering conflict wouldn't reignite at any moment with the Albans taking the Sizewell Option again. For the same reason Manchester airport was closed and the airspace to the north restricted.

Eventually we landed at Bournemouth and returned to a country so very different from the one we left only a few days before. Hamish and Kirsty were taken aside at passport control. I've no idea what happened to them since; my blurts to the address they flicked me remain unanswered.

Chapter Twelve

The Crises - Interlude. It all seemed to be going well for a while. Within days the King's Council composed of the non-political Great and the Good, was up and running. Soon it subdivided into further committees, each one headed by a member of the Royal family. In general people welcomed a life without politicians, and as the first decrees of the Economic Reconstruction Directorate began to show results - for example the first tranche of construction jobs to make a start at rebuilding the riot-torn hearts of the inner cities - a mood of relative national well-being began to arise.

As planned many of the junior Royals were able to withdraw from their positions on the Council as more public figures were co-opted as committee members. With the hated government dismissed the insurgents lost much of their raison d'être. Soon the streets calmed to an uneasy peace and the army were able to return to their barracks, leaving a paramilitary National Police Force in control of public order.

Once the initial framework of the Council had been established it began to make its presence felt. The UK was for the time being renamed the Federation of England, Wales, and Ulster to recognise the current reality of the situation. It would revert back to the United Kingdom when Scotland was reunited with the rest of the Union.

The Union Flag was retained in its current form. Partly as a practical economy measure, to save the costs of making new flags, but also as an affirmation Scotland remained an integral part of the Union - even if it was under an illegal occupation for the time being - and one day it would be returned to the fold; though no one explained exactly how or when it would be achieved.

In an attempt to further solidify national cohesion Wales was granted increased but limited autonomy to defuse any possibility the Nats there might decide to follow the Alban example. The worst excesses of the social security cuts were suspended pending a reorganisation of the entire system.

Other measures to foster national reconciliation and ameliorate the worst of the hurt which had been inflicted were promised. There was no formal ceasefire in the class war, there being no official leadership of the insurgents to negotiate with. But it was made known to influential community leaders that the new government wanted peace, and a break from the policies of the past they tacitly admitted had gone too far. A Partnership For Peace was available for those willing to lay down lay down their arms. It would be a new dialogue between the government and the governed, but in return a halt to the violence and an acceptance the areas under rebel control must revert to the law of the land was expected. By and large the informal and unpublicised peace accord was agreed.

With the civil war all but ended and the risk of a nuclear strike reduced for the time being the new Council could concentrate on fixing the dire economic situation. For a while everything seemed to go as well as could be expected for an organisation thrown together under the stress of an emergency. With widespread support and the goodwill to make the best of it there was no reason why a cautious optimism shouldn't be justified.

Over the next seven months a hybrid economy based on a contingency plan for recovery from - ironically of all things - a nuclear attack was implemented, with the state taking 'temporary' control over those sectors deemed vital to the national interest. The Royal Decree gave the Council sweeping powers to requisition the necessary labour, materials and funding for their national reconstruction projects. They weren't too fussy about whose resources they used or how they obtained them. Anyone who tried to obstruct them was dealt with in a peremptory manner.

State planning and direction, absent for decades, were once again in evidence. This time, we were promised, the lessons had been taken to heart. The state would never again allow the core industries and services upon which the nation depended to become worn-down through privatisation, underinvestment, short-term thinking and rampant profiteering on essential services. It wasn't a case of back to the post-war 1940s, because the Federation was relatively in a greater need of reconstruction now than it was then; but forward to a new society in which the state would provide the secure basis upon which the private sector could build. This was the model which had until recent times kept mainland Europe prosperous; and if any evidence was needed as to how badly unrestrained free-market policies had failed, well; just look around you...

But as well as the creation of a 'temporarily' state run economy, a bold gamble was placed with the creation of a London Economic Zone. Stretching all the way from an enclave in the City of London and further east down the estuary towards Thamesport, as well as being planned to eventually cover much of southern Essex, it was hoped that the LEZ - able to set its own economic policies, and create many of its own laws under the nominal supervision of the Council - would do for the UK what Hong Kong had done for China in the last century.

But not everything was rosy; Scotland remained under the control of the Alban junta. During the first weeks of the occupation there was talk of the international community organising a sea blockade, but the talk soon fizzled out when the Albans demonstrated a North Korean copy of a Sunburn missile fired at an old hulk towed out to sea especially for the display. The newer Chinese versions of the missile were said to be stealthy enough to evade detection by even by the latest generation of naval radars. Perhaps the Albans had been able to get hold of some of those as well, or maybe not. No-one knew for certain, or was in any hurry to risk a high-value capital warship to find out.

The UN agreed to an arms embargo, financial sanctions, a prohibition of importing Scotch whisky, and a total ban on flights to and from Scottish airports. Apart from the flight ban the measures were soon circumvented, and in time even infrequent long-haul charters to Alba from Russia and China began to take to the air. Money trumps principles every time and there was plenty to be made dealing with the Albans. Within days of their successful seizure of power, cargo ships supposedly en-route to other ports diverted to Alba to join the missile launching freighter which had anchored in the Firth of Forth for safety. If there had been a window of opportunity for a decisive strike against the Albans it had surely closed by now.

Their stocks of food and materiel were quickly replenished with a seaborne supply line becoming established. Occasionally, and well out of range of the Alban missiles, a ship was intercepted and impounded at the nearest port; just to show willing. But to the scowls of those who still cared, the majority of the deliveries remained untroubled.

Soon even the issue of Scotland receded from the forefront of the public mind. We had a nation to rebuild, and truth be told many people were only too pleased to be rid of the squinnying Jocks. They'd agitated for their independence long enough, and now having made their bed they could lie in it for a while. It'd serve the buggers right and teach them a lesson. The fact it had happened this way was a humiliation for us, but let's face it, the country had been allowed to get rotten to the core, and at the moment we were in no fit state to reclaim Scotland. But when we'd rebuilt Britain we could see about regaining what is rightfully ours, and on our terms. Then the ringleaders of the coup would hang for their treason... But until then the Scots would just have to wait and suffer.

And suffer they did. Within days refugees began to arrive by sea in Ulster and the northern coasts in whatever craft they could lay their hands on. Others took their chances by land. Before the Albans completed their 'protective border defences' there was a reasonable chance of getting out providing that you didn't meet a mobile patrol; that soon changed once the Alban militia had established themselves.

People wonder how a ruling group numbering no more than a few thousand can impose their will on a population of millions. In the first couple of years of the Consensus the question could equally have been asked of us, but in Scotland's case the answer was cold-blooded, brutal terror. All it takes is the example of seeing someone who refuses to cooperate being publicly maimed or shot, or threats made against your family, and suddenly everyone obeys. The Albans introduced a form of conscription, and one of their first acts was to create a border patrol force, as well as land mining the area north of Hadrian's Wall. The fences, barbed wire and concrete watch towers soon followed.

A compulsory biometric identity database was introduced. This became the basis of a sophisticated rationing and control system; the state's electronic leash around everyones' neck. Yet more people, seeing the way events were heading, risked everything to escape. Others, especially in the moderate nationalist movement, decided their best hope of survival lay in active cooperation with, and declaring their loyalty to, the New Order.

Given a free vote now there would never be a hope in hell of a legitimately founded independent Scotland being approved, so they may as well throw their lot in with the new government. Safe behind their fortified border, with their position assured by the threat of nuclear force, the Alban junta and their North Korean backers were free to pursue their project of creating an authoritarian criminal state who's main industries would be drug trafficking; money laundering; a secure data haven; and a centre of cyber warfare, spamming, scamming and hacking. If you wanted your dirty deeds done dirt cheap then Alba was your place to do business.

The international community didn't like it but there was little that they could do to change it. So soon after the events in the Gulf and off Sizewell no one was eager to go to war again. The Albans were canny enough to keep the oil and gas flowing  - provided they were paid for it - so against the backdrop of a world of disrupted energy supplies, far out of the public gaze, a little publicised grubby compromise was struck. The Albans got their Danegelt in exchange for not rocking the boat.

The tacit recognition of the regime extended further. Exchanges of people who found themselves trapped on the 'wrong' side of the border at the "Partition' - as the subtle airbrushing of history began to rename the coup - needed to be arranged. And talking to the 'other' party, even through intermediaries, implied a status quo was becoming tolerated if not accepted. Quietly, some academics and diplomats discussed if Alba was any less a legitimate state than the scraps left of Israel; itself founded on the basis of terrorism and forcible seizure. Or if their involvement in criminality was any worse than the Swiss banking sector. The realpolitik of international relations began to soften the harsher rhetoric. Alba existed, and for the sake of regional peace it would have to be engaged; however unpalatable that may be for some members of the European community.

In any case, the Federation was itself a source of contention in the European Union. Some EU states blamed the 'difficult' member for our own demise and for being so negligent as to allow the Alban crisis to develop as it did. Some of the more Machiavellian tendencies considered that Alba with its energy reserves would be more of a valuable trading partner than the broken, bankrupt Federation. And there was a continuing irritation with the erosceptic direction the Council was taking within the Fed, as well as the manner in which the Transition had occurred.

The Europeans felt the UK should have asked for EU peacekeepers to be deployed in her cities; and if only the UK had agreed to deeper economic and political integration rather than constantly trying to frustrate the inevitable progression to an ever closer union, perhaps this crisis might not have occurred?

On top of that there was the way in which the King had directly intervened in the affairs of state: There was no precedent for this. Constitutional Monarchs were supposed to stay non-political figureheads and confine themselves to opening prestigious projects; not get involved in politics and worse, threaten to reconstruct the entire state apparatus into a more democratic form. The horror of it!

The people of the former UK had always been deeply eurosceptic; there was a widespread feeling within the Fed that the EU hadn't given us the support we were entitled to expect during the Secession War, and they'd stabbed us in the back over the Alban issue by dealing with the Scots. It was clear we were steadily growing further apart from our European neighbours.

The complaints from other members about the effect that the Fed's neo-communist reconstruction policies would have on their economies by undercutting them with cheaper labour was the final straw. To public acclaim, the EU were told by the Council that if they had any problems with the direction that the Fed was moving in, they could just hold their peace, and watch us get on with it. Complying with a stream of ever more ridiculous EU directives had hindered the Federation's economy and helped get us into this mess. Now we were trying to drag ourselves out of it by our own efforts, interference by the EU would not be tolerated. A sovereign nation would decide its own laws. If Europe couldn't accept it then it was time to arrange an amicable distancing; with some economic ties being maintained but no further participation in the political project.

In the end the hastily drafted arrangement codified in the Treaty of Ravenna suited everyone. A new category of 'Associate Member' was created for the Fed. In exchange for the economic freedom of becoming a semi-detached member of the EU, the Federation agreed it would continue to abide by most of the principles enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights and some decisions of the European Court, but would be exempted from any further political integration. In addition, the Federation undertook to hold binding referenda every ten years as to whether it would maintain its associate status, or seek a return to a fully-integrated membership once more.

With the European issue resolved for the time being the Fed was free within limits to do as it wished. Fuelled by state spending the economy began to stabilise, then very slowly to recover, though it would be a long way back to even the level of the previous year. If we weren't a nation at peace with ourselves there was at least the realisation if we didn't take this final chance to make this work we really would be doomed.

If the future wasn't hopeful at least it was tolerable. For a few short months it really seemed possible we could finally sort out the nation's deep-seated problems at long last. Then came the shock news from Buckingham Palace; and worse still, Lloyd Farrell felt himself receiving another Command from the Lord.

Chapter Thirteen

The Crises - Part Six. The news His Majesty had been taken critically ill stunned the nation. The former UK, even more so the Fed after the monarchical intervention, was besotted with the Royal family with a near cultish worshiping of them arising in the wake of the Dissolution; so the news breaking early that Thursday morning unleashed an outpouring of royalist emotion. Despite the prohibition of unannounced large gatherings, crowds of well-wishers held vigil outside the hospital where the King had been admitted.

Larger crowds grew in the London parks waiting for news; as if some critical mass of people could collectively will their King a recover, or learn some snippet of information that they couldn't as an individual. Impromptu prayer services were held in the hope of invoking divine intervention to counteract the effects of a severe stroke.

All the Fed waited expectantly for the next medical bulletin. At noon a statement was issued; it gave no new information about His Majesty's state of health but it didn't need to. The fact the Crown Prince had for the time being assumed the powers of Regent in his father's stead spoke volumes.

The overwrought crowds broke into unashamed weeping as the implications began to sink in. The Saviour Of The Nation was unlikely ever to be the same man as He used to be, even if He did survive; and at this moment it was touch and go. He'd pushed himself too hard and paid the price of doing so for our sakes.

As the days passed it became clear  the Regent wasn't cut from the same cloth as his father. He'd make a good King of course, but he was a more 'hands off' person. He preferred to stand back and delegate more; he didn't share so many of his father's beliefs, nor was so passionate about his father's causes.

It was understandable he should be preoccupied with his father's health for the moment, and so revert from the role of Executive Monarch back to the traditional sovereignly detachment in regard to the day to day running of the Fed; but many people believed it was from this pivotal moment the dream of a Camelot Albion began to turn sour.

Given the concern about the King's health and the saturation coverage about it which fortuitously eclipsed the latest statistics showing the pace of recovery had 'slowed', it came as no surprise that international news, and news about Alba, barely rated a mention.

There were occasional items about exchanges of displaced people and harrowing tales from the latest successful refugees. Some people, drawn by family ties or fears of their property being sequestrated by the Alban state, returned to their homeland to face an uncertain future. But the flow of refugees from Alba decreased as the number of available boats to flee on diminished with no-one wanting to make a return journey, and the 'boat season' weather window closing for the winter. Trying to cross the Irish Sea, or hugging the west or east coasts in a home-made raft or stolen dinghy was hazardous at the best of times, but almost certain suicide during the stormy winter. In any case the Albans had converted some surplus fishing trawlers into gunboats and constantly patrolled their border waters; woe betide anyone they caught trying to leave without the correct permit!

All it takes is a quick search and you can find the video taken at long range by a Red Cross ship specially chartered to provide aid and rescue to any craft reaching international waters of an Alban patrol boat riddling a yacht of would-be escapees with heavy calibre machine gun fire, as well as firing rocket propelled grenades at it until it sank - just to be sure - and not bothering to recover the bodies. The Albans would have fired at the mercy ship as well, but it was out of range. The occasional outrage aside Alba was left to itself. Like its unpredictable protégé North Korea, Alba was best steered well clear of if at all possible.

The one person who was not prepared to accept the Alban status quo was Lloyd Farrell. He believed he felt the Power of the Lord move within him once more; this time directing him to strike at North Korea. Their wrongfooting of the Union Treaty Organisation - as NATO had renamed itself to reflect its eastward spread - and Pyongyang's attempt to extend its troublesome influence into Europe could not be tolerated: The North Korean state would have to be not just punished, but annihilated. With their protector, ally, and military supplier decapitated in a surgical strike, the Alban client régime would soon collapse in on itself .

Farrell had learned his lesson from the Iranian débâcle: This time there would be no threats; no ultimatum. The Lord's Justice would descend upon the godless communists in one mighty stroke of surprise. He ordered his most trusted confidents in his 'reshaped' command to make the plans for the divine retribution in the utmost secrecy. Using the annual Pacific Guardian military exercises with South Korea as a cover he assembled his forces for a lightning strike.

But something went wrong. We don't know whether word leaked out, or the North Koreans suspected an attack was planned. Whatever the reason, the effect was still the same.

The North Koreans had always expected they would fight the United States again at some point in the future. They had prepared for the inevitable conflict for decades by building an ideologically committed army and digging deep into the earth. Their bunkers, weapons factories, and command systems were difficult to reach using even the most powerful conventional penetrating bombs. They'd studied their enemy intently, knowing the US' motivation and strategy almost as well as the American generals. They had plenty of time in which to develop counter strategies and create weapons which, although they weren't up to the cutting edge standards of the US, were good enough to do the job. As events were to prove an over-reliance on technology was as bad as not having enough of it when the fighting became confused and visceral.

The North Koreans Kept It Strictly Simple whenever they could; partly out of necessity, partly due to ideology. Though they knew they couldn't win a full-scale war against the United States, they hoped their reliance on simple, robust weapons would keep them fighting long beyond American expectations; and so threatening such heavy losses as to deter the imperialist aggressor or blunt their attacks if that were at all possible.

The DPRK were also fortified by the realisation if - or when - war started, it would be a fight to the death. This fatalistic belief underscored their war planning. With everything to lose and nothing to gain from holding back the North Korean military was a booby-trapped bomb, primed to explode when the fuse was triggered. And detonate they did.

As soon as the DPRK general staff were warned of the United States' intentions, they launched an all-out pre-emptive strike in an attempt to destroy as many of the forces they expected to be used against them. At once, the South Korean capital of Seoul came under pulverising attack from the 10,000 mortars which were ranged against it. The port of Pusan, through which the American war effort would be resupplied, was destroyed by a low-yield nuke.

As the airbases in Osan and Wusan scrambled planes into the air they came under short-range nuclear missile and chemical drone attack. From tunnels stealthily dug under the DMZ, the North Korean army burst out into the south with frightening speed.

The Republic Of Korea forces had been at an increased state of alert as a result of the Pacific Guardian exercises, but because they and the South Korean government, had been kept in the dark about Farrell's plans they were caught off guard by the swift ferocity of the North's riposte. They quickly regrouped but found themselves facing not only the regular North Korean army, but teams of special sabotage forces disguised as civilians.

The nuclear decapitation attacks Farrell had ordered struck home almost without interception, but too late; the enraged tiger which was the DPRK army had been turned loose. Though The Great Marshal, Kim Jung-Un, had been successfully eliminated, this too had been anticipated and planned for. With no Supreme Command to issue orders, the lower echelons fell back on their sealed contingency instructions; to go on an all-out rampage of destruction, regardless of the cost. They duly obeyed with enthusiasm.

It was the crew on board the International Space Station, preparing for an emergency return to earth, who first noticed what had been unleashed by those posthumous orders. As soon as the news of the war broke; Ground Control, correctly anticipating that the conflict would reach into space, ordered the astronauts to prepare for an emergency evacuation.

As the emergency power down protocols were being implemented, prior to boarding the Crew Return Vehicle for re-entry and landing in Kazakhstan; an astronaut monitoring a screen displaying the fast approaching Korean peninsula for any possible danger saw the scale of the war's insanity. On the night of the war much of the north and east of Korea was covered in cloud. This was illuminated from below by the lightning like flashes of the ongoing battles. But it was the intense intermittent pinpricks of light in the cloudless part of the country which attracted his attention.

He had no way of knowing, because it was a secret which had been well kept, that he was witnessing the operational debut of North Korea's arsenal of micro nukes.

The Red Hornet was the North Korean version of the American Davy Crockett nuclear mortar. Man portable; with a range of two miles, and a selectable yield of up to the equivalent of twenty tons of TNT, it was a way of putting usable nuclear destruction in the hands of an infantry unit. Though each unit was only issued a handful of the weapons, those few were all they needed. The US and ROK armies found themselves facing fast moving special forces, eager to engage their enemy with nuclear force at extremely close range: To 'grasp them by the belt buckle' so closely that providing air or artillery support risked horrendous friendly casualties. Wherever the defending forces tried to consolidate themselves they were wiped out by fanatical shock troops heedless of their own lives.

Despite the US having air superiority and the aid of drones, Red Hornet detachments were hard to locate or engage until it was too late. The DPRK forces swept south knowing the more territory they gained now, the greater their advantage in destabilising the defence, and the stronger their bargaining position in any peace settlement. Not that the war was likely to end in a ceasefire and peace talks; things had already escalated way beyond that.

American missile strikes had reduced North Korea's main cities to a radioactive shambles, while the DPRK forces were taking their berserker nuclear, chemical, and biological revenge on the south. The North Korean retaliation extended as far as Japan, with a salvo of ten missiles launched against her. Two failed during their boost phase due to technical problems; three others were shot down, and fortunately for Tokyo the warhead meant for the city centre failed to detonate. But south-western Tokyo, as well as the port of Kobe suffered direct hits; and the island airbase at Okinawa a near miss, though still striking close enough to render the base usable.

The remaining missile struck the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station complex, unleashing a nuclear disaster which would make Fukushima seem insignificant by comparison.

The conflict spread up into outer space. The GPS satellites the US military depended on were far too high in geosynchronous orbits for the North Koreans to destroy. But they targeted, and in one case succeeded in destroying the lower orbiting reconnaissance satellites, creating a cascade of space debris which endangered more satellites - military and civilian - as well as the ISS, though by then its crew had managed to safely escape back to earth.

While all this was happening a 'failed' North Korean satellite which had been launched many years ago reappeared as expected on the US Space Command's tracking screens. What wasn't anticipated was instead of one object, it had now split into three, and all of the vehicles were deorbiting, heading for widely spaced impact points over the western United States. Two of the  warheads were intercepted and destroyed by SpaceCom's orbital weapons systems. The third, aimed at California, got through and detonated in the upper atmosphere.

The EMP the explosion generated was severe, but not as bad as been feared in the pessimistic speculation of the worst case fear mongering. Over the preceding years enough EMP-resistant equipment had been installed to soften the worst impacts of the attack, but large sections of the power grid were knocked offline, and it would take days if not weeks to repair the damage. For a people unused to living without electricity the outages would prove hellish and often fatal.

At about this time the first Black Dragon attacks were noticed. They were initially dismissed as the North's feeble attempt at a cyber weapon; a nuisance but nothing more. Some of the more supremacist elements in the Farrell junta openly mocked the Dragon, claiming its initial ineffectiveness as proof decades of conformist thinking had left the hidebound communists mentally unequipped with the imagination only a free society could provide to create an effective virus. Only later, as the Dragon evolved into potency, were they to realise what had been unleashed.

But problems with the interconnected computer systems the world depended on were the least of our worries at that moment; for China was becoming involved in the Korean conflict.

As surprised by Farrell's attack as the rest of the world China's reaction soon changed to one of anger. How dare the US act in such a provocative way in her sphere of influence! Though Farrell's military cabal were sensible enough to route their attacking aircraft as far away from Chinese airspace as possible; inevitably that amount of air movement near to the Chinese border with North Korea was bound to provoke a response either by error or design.

When the Chinese air defence command detected an elderly B1 bomber with a malfunctioning radar jammer on a high-speed course which would soon take it into their airspace they didn't wait to see if it was en-route to a target in Korea or was about to extend the attack to the territory of Pyongyang's greatest ally and protector. They dared not wait to be sure, because by then it may be too late to act, and who knew what that lunatic in the White House had planned? The Chinese shot the plane down and so joined the war against the United States.

Here in the Fed, news of the attack broke in the early morning as many people were travelling to work. While commuting we watched with incredulity the live feeds of the war from surveillance cameras, or the panicked phone videos of the destruction half a world away beamed to our mobile devices before the Korean networks broke down. We were stunned and frightened by Farrell's crass stupidity: The crazy bastard had gone and done it again! We didn't know the full picture of what was going on, but immediately our concerns turned to the Albans and how they would react to the attack on their Big Brother.

Fortunately they didn't open a nuclear second front as we feared, but instead - seeing the way the war was likely to go - took the opportunity to quickly and brutally purge their Korean 'advisors'. The technical specialists were given the option to stay in Alba and lend their expertise to the regime, or to be interned pending their return to Korea - should that ever be possible - or join their senior officers in a mass grave they were forced to dig themselves. Unsurprisingly they chose to work for their new masters. As the Black Dragon virus became established and grew in power, the problems with live news feeds became ever more common. But what was becoming evident was the remains of North Korea were winning a kind of pyrrhic victory.

The second half of the Korean War was far from being over. The UN desperately tried to arrange a ceasefire; not between the remaining North Korean forces and the United States, but between the United States and China. The Chinese were so enraged by the US' conduct they put their strategic nuclear forces on red alert with a view to publicly naming American cities for destruction; aiming to prompt a Secession War style panic if Washington refused to back down. In addition they also began to ready an even more destructive weapon; the US Treasury Bond.

All it took were a few semi-official whispers China was planning to sell some of its holdings of the incalculable American debt for confidence - what confidence was left - in the dollar to evaporate. The financial noose China had around the neck of United States was pulled ever so slightly tighter, and the effects were immediate.

Thanks to President Farrell's edicts what had once been one of the more open and transparent governments in the world is now one of the most secretive. Anyone who leaked or talked out of turn knew the fate that awaited them. So everyone was caught by surprise when in an address to the nation due to be made by President Farrell; Vice-President Victor Hernandez appeared instead.

He announced former President Farrell had been taken gravely ill, so he was assuming the office of President. Lloyd Farrell's state of health was critical, and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future, so Hernandez's elevation would effectively be permanent. The new President also explained the North Korean regime had been successfully dismantled at some considerable cost, but the world was now a safer place without that rogue state in existence. At this time most military operations in Korea had now ended; and in discussions with China it had been agreed a joint resolution would be put to the UN Security Council. The motion would place the reunified Republic of Korea under a 'temporary' Chinese protectoracy, with international supervision of future disarmament, decontamination, and reconstruction.

The world sighed with relief. A wider nuclear war had for the moment been averted. Then the questions began as to what had really happened to former President Farrell, his family, and many members of his staff. The official explanation was his family wanted to withdraw from public life while they supported him during his illness; and the missing staff members were being detained indefinitely while investigations into allegations of corruption in public office were pursued. None of the unaccounted for have been seen or heard from since.

There are various theories as to what became of them. Some say Farrell is still alive and living in a secure mental institution or black hole of a secret prison. Those who believe him to be still alive are in a minority. The more credible view is the gunshots heard in the White House grounds at the time weren't those of a secret service bodyguard shooting dead a Korean sympathiser who had broken in ntending to assassinate the President, but the long overdue and necessary executive ending of a threat to global peace. There is speculation it was President Hernandez who personally put the Mad Dog down in response to a private message sent to him by the Chinese: Farrell's removal from office by any means being the quid pro quo demanded for a peace settlement.

With Farrell removed from the world stage both America and China stepped back from the brink. The dumping of US bonds ended, the markets stabilised, and humanitarian aid was rushed to the Korean peninsular. Meanwhile analysts took stock of the most disastrous of any American presidency. Farrell's legacy was a ruined Arabian Gulf with many of the oilfields still burning and too dangerous for anyone but the suicidal to consider trying to re-enter. The remnants of both the Palestinian fighters and the Israeli Defence Force were engaged in vicious hand-to-hand battles over the remains of what had once been Israel. Korea was reunified but ruined; Japan suffering from the after effects of multiple nuclear strikes.

As for the United States, it was poorer in both monetary terms and international influence. The west coast was struggling to overcome the effects of the EMP strike, as well as expecting the radioactive fallout from Japan to arrive on its soil within days. The Black Dragon was growing in strength despite all efforts to contain and destroy it. Oh, and not forgetting the extinction of the founding democratic principles of the nation. Truly the presidency of Lloyd Farrell would go down in history as an unmitigated catastrophe.

Yet from the Crises a bizarre optimism began to emerge. The world had faced down Doomsday not once, but twice. The worst had happened, yet we'd survived. Things couldn't get any worse now. The future, if not bright, had to be better than this. The only way from here was up.

That may have been true for the rest of the world; but we in the Federation were yet to experience an insidious problem of our own creation.

Chapter Fourteen

The Connies. When, or if critical histories are written about these times they will most likely date the time the King was taken ill as the moment the Consensus as we know it began. In reality though, the strands of Consensus thought far predated the Crises. It was in the post-Crises power vacuum that the movement transformed itself; beginning as a woolly-minded Royal vision of the disparate elements of society being united by circumstance into an apolitical government for the common good, before mutating into the hard-edged nastiness we know today.

It would be churlish to blame the King or his Regent for the direction their well meant idea would ultimately take. How could they have possibly foreseen it would all go so terribly wrong? But with politics and the political class as we knew it suspended, those who sought to run - and ruin - the lives of others were waiting for the opportunity to worm their way back into power. The King's incapacity was just the chance they needed.

As the Regent wanted to be a more distant, disinterested national figurehead he made no objection or paid too close attention when some sympathetic members of the Council suggested they could make use of the experience of a very few carefully selected individuals who were familiar with the principles of organisation, and knew intimately how the mechanisms of government worked. The civil service had been rather bereft of direction recently; they really weren't as enthusiastic as they ought to be about carrying through the King's grand vision. They were a bit too institutionalised; used to a particular way of doing things. Perhaps some new faces at the helm would reinvigorate the process of creating a new society from the top down?

The overworked committee members were only too pleased to accept the help volunteered in the spirit of the times; and so the political class began to insinuate themselves stealthily back into public life. Along with them came a new wave of fellow travellers from varied backgrounds.

There were the health campaigners and members of the medical professions who believed their qualifications also gave them the right to dictate how others should eat, drink, and exercise. The authoritarian social workers who daily used their powers to make arbitrary life-changing decisions regarding those in their care. Head teachers involved in the administration of education rather than teaching, who - perversely for those in their middle age - obsessed to an unhealthy degree about what the pubescent children in their charge wore; down to the exact length of their skirt hems, their hairstyles, their socks or stockings and their shoes. They were used to being obeyed without question, and meeting out punishments to the disobedient.

Joining them were a whole raft of dirigiste environmentalists, convinced that if people wouldn't voluntarily comply with their prescriptions for an ecologically 'correct' way of living, they should be coerced into doing so. In addition came the public sector bureaucrats, for whom every problem could be solved by stricter rules and a more stringent enforcement of them. Also the Law and Order lobby; and the Sunday afternoon pub bores, who alone knew how to set the world to rights.

The Consensus as it came to be known wasn't exclusively left or right leaning. Instead it garnered support across the political spectrum from the hidden legions of would-be dictators and curtain twitching nosey parkers. Anyone who displaced their lack of social skills and psychological deficiencies by seeking to impose their values upon their fellow citizens; those whose lives revolved around making plans for and the didactic regulation of the lives of others; all now found with the sweeping away of the old order - along with its last remaining checks and balances - a fresh canvas on which they could paint their vision of a perfect world.

To begin with the members of the Council were unused to being in such a position of authority, but they soon began learning their way around their new roles; tentatively pulling on the levers of power.

At first there were easy decisions to make. They issued populist snap proclamations concerning - among other things - the regulation of 'lawless' cyclists with their having to obtain licences, registration tags, and compulsory insurance. They all but instantly wiped out the payday loan and pawnbroking industries by imposing stringent lending conditions as well as limiting the interest which could be charged on loans to a non-compounded 2% per annum. With the easy credit industry effectively hamstrung it was hoped from now on people would learn to live within their means.

The Council quietly set aside their new green ethos long enough to set in motion another mad frenzy of state subsidised fracking; the Albans couldn't be trusted to abide by their promises, so every drop of onshore oil and puff of gas left to us had to be wrung dry. We were assured, as we always are, that the environmental impacts were nothing to worry about; just remote possibilities whose effects could be easily mitigated. By the time we learned the truth the hard way it was too late...

As well as those measures they announced their intention to finally enforce an outright banning of those infuriating junk sales calls and texts - something the failed politics had never been able to get around to doing; as well as the shutting down of the No Win - No Fee legal claims industry. They even had plans to finally crack down on email and blurt spam; though their campaign against using text speak, or transliterating - the substitution of for example, the letter z in place of an s or the -a ending to a word in place of -er in an attempt to reverse what they considered to be the vulgarisation of the English language - proved less popular.

These gimmicks won them initial public support: Even if they weren't urgent concerns, they were evidence of intent and action. The deeper societal reforms would of course take longer; but they would come in due course.

The Council members grew in confidence, then became intoxicated by their new power. Encountering little opposition they became bolder. Food Points were introduced: Not rationing you understand, even though the Fed was in an even worse state as far as food supplies were concerned than the UK had been in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. No; this was a commonsense way of making sure that everyone got a fair share of what little there was. Eventually this system would become the genesis of Community Credit.

There were other edicts as well; purely temporary but necessary for the emergency care of a fragile nation. Some of the measures we were told had been introduced with regret; they were not what we would have wanted to do had better circumstances prevailed. Some might even be considered abrupt or harsh but all were being implemented for the greater good. The slogan had been sullied in recent years but we really were 'All in it together' now and the Council would see that we were all taken care of, no matter what it took.

As the King had promised, an interminable series of hearings took place in Westminster Hall. The proceedings of the Royal Commission focused not on the events just passed and the former government's handling of the Secession Crisis, for those wounds were still painfully raw, the information too national security sensitive to be heard in the public domain; the issues not to be disturbed until much later. Instead it was to be a more general discussion about what over time had led the nation to this sorry state of affairs.

As was to be expected a wide spectrum of views were presented by an assortment of eccentric characters. They addressed the Commission for their allotted five minutes or blurted their submissions in; were politely thanked by auto reply or the human chair, and having had their moment of publicity their views were entered into the record and promptly forgotten. But not all of them. Some were granted an extra ten minutes to answer questions from the panel; others invited back to expand upon their arguments in greater detail at a later date.

Selected people - sharp suited, well spoken, persuasive sellers of ideas - found themselves being heeded, and even co-opted into the nascent Consensus government. Conversely being slightly deranged, having outlandish ideas, poor standards of personal hygiene and grooming, or wearing aged musty tweeds smelling of dried cat's piss was often, but not always a barrier to being taken seriously. Sometimes those people succeeded in getting their point across beyond their wildest expectations. These were indeed strange and novel times.

But the idealism wasn't to last for long. Once the professional politicians  insinuated themselves into the process they began to manipulate the naive assembly of well-meaning but inexperienced worthies back to more traditional ways of thought and action. Soon the tenets of what would become the Consensus' core beliefs were established.

The Commission would continue to sit and take evidence for some time to come but the conclusions which were to be drawn had already been decided well away from the chamber by those with predetermined prejudices. The more sensible analyses of what had gone wrong with the nation the Commission had heard would be marginalised in favour of the explanation the politicians wanted to hear, and go on to become the assumptions upon which they would base their radical 'solution'.

It was determined it wasn't the fault of those who ruled us we'd got into this mess: Instead it was we the people who were collectively to blame for our own misfortune. Over the years we had become soft; lazy; obsessed with the pursuit of undeserved luxury and celebrity. We were slothful and brazenly promiscuous; predestined to take the easy option. We had become scruffy, benefit dependant, workshy, uncouth, lumpen, badly-behaved slobs grown grotesquely obese on our own indulgences among many other sins. A moral slackness had perpetuated through several generations; aided by a permissive state and the services it provided. This in turn had reverberated back to produce an administration that reflected the people it served, so it was no surprise such a morally bankrupt system collapsed so easily.

In the past some far-sighted politicians had tried to force through the long overdue but unpopular reforms which were needed, but their efforts had come to naught when faced with such a headwind of opposition. But now things had reached this point and the political landscape had changed so radically this unhealthy state of affairs could no longer be permitted to continue.

The solutions the Commission proposed were just as simplistic. In order to regain our status in the eyes of the world and begin the process of national recovery we would have to collectively change our outlook. The Victorian values of hard work, thrift, volunteerism, communitarianism, more unspecified hard work, obedience, servility, deference, self-improvement, sobriety, exercise, self-sacrifice, modesty, chastity, and yet more hard work would once again be the moral compass by which we would steer our way to a brighter future. The Council, operating with the imprimatur of the King, would ensure it happened.

They set about their task with the revolutionary enthusiasm which only the truly demented can muster. A modern version of the Reicharbeitsdienst was created. In the manner of all centrally planned economies - be they fascist or communist - everyone, no matter what their ability, would have to contribute something to the common good. If there wasn't sufficient work to go around then it would be created or what there was available would be shared out; for everyone must work. This new regime would be character forming; it would inculcate some much needed discipline and the right attitudes into the workforce, as well as ending the criminal waste of human resources which was the enforced idleness of unemployment.

The term 'employment' was dropped in favour of the word Assignment to reflect the changing nature of work for most people, from being employed full time to a combination of part-time employment, state mandated 'voluntary' work in order to 'earn' any top-up benefit, and the obligation of Community Credit. From here on everyone would be Assigned to do something. Whether the work was productive or not didn't matter; just the act of doing something would be edifying in itself.

For a short while the Council even considered a literal interpretation of Keynes' suggestion of forcing people without jobs to dig out and refill trenches to 'work' for their benefit; but a squall of protest against the proposed Outdoor Relief soon made them back down. In any case, once the economic reforms gathered pace there would be more than enough to be done.

In addition to opportunistically pitching itself as an entrepreneurial low wage zone for industries relocating from the ruins of the Korean peninsula (and for many years real wages in the UK had been lower than those paid in Korea) the Fed would show its best face to the world by ensuring that every unkempt or derelict area was tidied and every piece of litter picked. It was to be another example of the Council's determination to address the underlying causes of the national malaise. In a reversal of the 'broken windows' syndrome the Fed would be spruced-up, its people kaizened to be malleable, even willing participants in the transformation. This would become the new state religion and no apostasy would be tolerated.

This then was their bizarre vision of our future. What was surprising was how this fantasy of the ruling elite came to be shared by the wider population, and how over time it would develop into a messianic quasi-religious social movement.

History is replete with examples of mass acceptance, even enthusiastic approval, of ideologies directly contrary to the best interests of the people supporting them. In the case of the former UK the most recent examples of this collective masochism were during the Thatcher years, and again during the Cameron Coalition.

There must be some fundamental predisposition to subservience in our genetic make up which leads so many economic victims to further abuse themselves by putting up with being lectured about 'unsustainable' living standards by multi-millionaires; without those wealthy moralisers fearing for their own safety: Let alone give serious consideration to the obvious nonsense we were 'paying ourselves too much' or not working hard enough. To uncritically accept being told that 'Hard Choices' must be made by those whose idea of a Hard Choice is whether to send their children to Eton or Harrow. Or think it right and proper those who profited so much from the fact they alone had the money to make money were in any way fit to tell those without a job that they were getting 'something for nothing' and so must perform meaningless displacement activities to justify their existence in the eyes of the maliciously prejudiced wealthy. Nevertheless, this tendacious interpretation of the facts became the accepted dogma and the ideologues continued to shape society to reflect their warped vision of a new nation.

In addition to work, discipline would be the Council's preoccupation. The prison service was to be remodelled into a 'Rehabilitation' system, with the process going beyond mere incarceration, but to include the erasure by brainwashing of criminal tendencies.

In newly constructed centres (and of course there would be a great increase in the number of people 'needing' to be Rehabilitated thanks to the creation of plenty of new 'offences'). Offenders' anti-social personalities would be systematically dismantled by exhausting work and conditioning before they were reconstructed back to being productive, law-abiding members of society. As with the worst prison state regimes of the past, the Council decreed they should be open and transparent about their new brainwashing camps - at least to begin with. There would be no attempt to hide them in out of the way places: Instead they were to be a publicly visible deterrent to socially destructive behaviour; and a means of intimidating any potential dissenters.

The people of the Fed were also to become responsible for policing each other. A new Community Police drawn from the citizenry would relieve the police of the burden of dealing with low-level crime and anti-social behaviour. They would be able to fast-track cases through a revised Community Court system weighted against the defendant thanks to sweeping changes in the law and rules of evidence. There would be many cases for the new courts to hear, thanks to a populace encouraged to inform on each other for minor rewards, and provided with many new ways with which to do so.

Legal challenges by civil rights groups would in time limit the scope of action of the ComPol, but equally the Council were adept at oozing their way around most of these temporary difficulties. All of this was achieved with remarkably little opposition. Some people spoke out against it, but speaking out was all they could do and their voices were duly ignored by the relentless process.

Despite the raft of police state legislation bequeathed by the Blair governments the Council felt it needed still greater powers of control. The dour civil servants in the Home Office duly obliged, pulling out folders of preprepared bills from their grey filing cabinets they never in their wildest dreams thought they'd see passed and sending them for the royal hand to sign. Most of the instruments were approved, though the Regent baulked and refused the assent to a few of the more outrageous drafts.

As many of the more aware people of the time were, I was astonished at how quickly and easily most of the measures were allowed to pass. I suppose that it was a case of 'boiling the frog'.

You don't understand the analogy? I'll explain it. If you were to heat a pan of water to boiling point and then drop a frog into it, the unfortunate amphibian would realise its peril and leap out. But were you to start with the frog sitting in a pan of cool water, then slowly raise the temperature degree by degree it wouldn't comprehend the danger it was in until it was too late. Until you look behind you you can't see how far you've been driven in the wrong direction, how much your world has changed, bit by barely remarked upon, hardly noticeable bit until it became this waking nightmare.

It was the same with the people of the Fed. For years before the Crises administrations of all parties had been routinely granting themselves powers no government should ever have under the guise of protecting the people from terrorism, crime, or their own self-destructive tendencies. Most people carried on with their lives with their minds dulled by soap operas or sports and celebrity 'news'; completely oblivious to what was taking place. Some of those who realised what was happening actually thought it a good idea for the state to have still greater intrusive powers over their lives. So it can be argued the process had been well under way long before the Council took charge.

If ownership is defined as the ability to exercise control or enforce modifications in an individual's behaviour to a form deemed more 'acceptable' in the eyes of the state, then people had become acclimatised over the previous decades to the state in effect owning them by deciding - among other matters - the narcotics adults could ingest into their bodies; what they could view in cinemas and online; or what was regarded as illegal 'extreme pornography'.

Previous administrations had thought it acceptable to interfere with personal liberty by pricing people into giving up smoking - making the habit prohibitively expensive if people chose to ignore its advice - as well as determining that alcohol could only be drunk in the strengths and amounts it deemed 'safe'. The insistent official nudge was felt in regard to travel choices by the imposition of extortionate taxes on fuel despite the fact alternative means of transport were often impractical or unavailable.

Then there was the constant official preoccupation with individuals' weight and state of health; as well as the ever-insistent evocation to exercise. The state even considered there was nothing wrong in regarding everyone as a potential criminal or threat and surveiling them accordingly in a myriad of ways; the obsession with gathering information about citizens' lives as if they were inventory items to be catalogued and tracked also promoting the subtle but incremental change from the state being the collective property of the people to the people becoming collectively owned by the state.

Over the years a citizenry who thought themselves free had become unknowly bound by a growing body of restrictive laws and petty rules. Once the Council assumed power, the process accelerated and intensified.

As What Could Never Happen Here began to happen here, the insurgency which had sprung up in opposition to the old regime might have been able to do something to stop or at least slow down the inexorable construction of an open prison state; but by the time the direction in which the Council was heading became clear too much of their momentum had dissipated. The insurgency's decentralised nature and lack of a decisive leadership; one of its strengths, was also a weakness. There was no unifying force to hold it together and so it began to fragment.

Many had joined the insurgency out of a sense of self-preservation; fearing what the previous government had in store for them. With its dissolution they thought their pleas had been heard and acted upon. Some of the soft-core supporters were persuaded to join the Social Reconciliation Programmes; pledging to give up violence and hand in their weapons in exchange for an amnesty as well as extra Food Points. Others honestly believed the Consensus was working in their best interest; that it represented and would be responsive to them. Soon they would come to realise how mistaken they were.

Meanwhile, the hard core insurgents, realising what was going to happen, suspended their struggle, cached their weapons, and dropped out of sight. They knew that resisting a popular polity at this moment would only lead to their ostricisation. Apart from sporadic action to maintain their proficiency, to remind the people they still existed in the shadows, and in the hope that an occasional rap across the knuckles would dissuade the Council from going too far, they would have to bide their time until the moment was right again. They would be needed once more; they could be certain of that. But until such a time, any opposition to the Connies would remain largely ineffective.

If there is an afterlife, and famous dead leaders from the past can see the world they have passed on from, they would recognise exactly what was happening. The ghost of Hitler would approve of the recreation of a state obsessed with making its citizens work at any cost; as well as the concept of a people moving together as one under the direction of the will of those who led them. The communist revolutionaries would see much of their pitiless ideology reflected in the Council. Mao especially would endorse the minutiae of individuals' lives being subject to government scrutiny, the emphasis on Re-education Through Labour for 'anti-social' elements, and the Red Guard zeal of some of the more extreme Connie elements.

Erich Honecker and the central committee of the former German Democratic Republic would applaud the creation of a society where, in addition to the pervasive but sometimes incomplete or unreliable electronic surveillance methods, an intimate network of human informants was constructed. Robert Mugabe might regret the initial lack of opportunities for bribery, corruption and cronyism in the new regime, or bemoan the lack of violence employed against its enemies when other means failed; yet these were early days; that rot would set-in later.

But surely it would be the members of the Kim dynasty who would observe with wry irony, if not laugh out loud with maniacal pleasure, to see how much of their ethos had survived the destruction of their Korea and been transferred - adapted to the local conditions - to both Alba, and to a lesser extent the Federation.

History also has many examples of utopian visions turning sour: Eventually the inescapable realities of the situation intrude into the collective delusion. But while a people brutalised and emotionally damaged by recent events suspended their critical faculties in favour of the false hope offered to them, the Council would have things mostly their own way: The inevitable disillusionment could be postponed for a while longer.

 Meanwhile it was a case of waiting and enduring; seeing how long it would take, how much damage the Consensus would do, and who would suffer the most until we as a nation came once more to our senses. A decade on, it appears that we are still far from doing so.

Chapter Fifteen

 

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.

Chapter Sixteen

October the 1st.

The insistent beeping of my alarm rouses me from my alcohol-addled slumber. It's been quite some time since I had such a good session! I'm suffering the after effects of it as well. After washing and shaving in the stainless steel sink I'm feeling a bit less furry mouthed and remote from myself. I'm even feeling hungry so I ask the Zone sprite for its recommendations as to where a good and cheap breakfast may be found. At first it is less than obliging; trying to direct me to a Fair Food. But when I persist it relents and sullenly informs me about a nearby cafe; the one I'd been told about.

I didn't know breakfasts like this were still available: I'd heard tips and rumours of course; but there on my plate is the greasy proof the Connies haven't been able to completely wipe out our traditional cuisine in favour of 'healthy' austerity meals. A hearty cholesterol-filled fried full English breakfast with all the trimmings, and no Health Tax payable or Food Points required within the Zone: Delicious!

The staff have that knowing look about them: Obviously I'm not the first ravenous-eyed Osti they've seen. Once I've washed it down with a couple of mugs of properly strong tea I'm ready for the business of the conference.


In the meeting room I'm not the only one who seems a bit pasty faced and bleary eyed. But there's business to be done so I shake off the lethargy and try to concentrate on the matter in hand. After James' mercifully short welcoming address we break up into the usual mini-symposia related to our specialties. I'm pulled into one about what we can do to counter or at least delay the OMS' latest edicts on increasing the amount of PushCred we're obliged to 'cast. We know the Connies and their stooges in the OMS are trying to undermine any opposition to their rule in the independent media: Forcing us to accept more of their propaganda as news-leading 'public information' items is an insidious way of boring our audience into turning off before they can find out what's really going on. If that doesn't work they can object to our licence renewal in three years time, but we expect that from them in any case.

We're appealing against it of course; even planning to take it as far as Europe if necessary, as we're arguing it impinges on our right to free expression. But the process is grindingly slow; especially when Connie sympathisers in the judiciary drag the hearings out as long as they can in the hope of draining both our finances and resolve. If all else fails we'll just have to ignore the edicts and see how far they'll push it...

At least their plan to try and draw some of our 'Cred away by allowing the BBC (or the Bullshitting Bunch of Connies as we call them) to advertise appears to have flopped; probably because we offer better viewing figures cheaper, but mostly because there isn't that much to advertise these days. Though the thing we'll have to beware of is their push to compete by aiming at - nay, creating - a stupefyingly dumbed down audience. No matter how you sigh at what you see, and wonder how much further standards can slip, there is always further to fall.

Still, at least for the moment we are just about holding our own. We break for another buffet lunch. The afternoon session is a more generalised comparing of notes about how we'll be able to cover current and near future events.

We're aware of a growing increase in low-level civil unrest; largely unreported and unnoticed by the general public as yet due to the OMS' guidelines about what we may report, but there are devious ways of getting around it.

If you want to report an arson attack on a Community Support Office you can't do so directly; for that may be seen to be giving the fire setter the attention they crave, and the fact someone has made an incendiary stand against the assignment system is an inflammatory notion in itself; it might in turn might embolden others to do the same... But you can say services are unavailable from that particular office as a result of a fire: That is a perfectly legitimate Public Service Announcement. Some of our few attentive viewers may recall there have been quite a few fires in Community Support Offices recently and draw their own conclusions. It isn't journalism, but it's the best we can do given the constraints we're working under.

We swap successful countering strategies, while at their appointed times people drop out to have their audience with James. Most emerge from his office with expressions of relief; those not merely relieved have smiles on their faces. The conference seems to be permeated with an atmosphere of positivity tinged with a nagging concern about the future; but for the moment's all seems well and we are at our ease.

As the day ends we're caught off-guard by a surprise announcement: Tonight there will be a reception held in the London Column, and we are all invited.


After a final filling from the plentiful buffet I walk back to the Perch to catch up on a couple of hours rest before tonight's big event. The Column often hosts receptions to boost its profile, so this isn't anything particular to IMS; but you still have to be well connected to get an invitation. James' standing must be growing.

I smarten myself up; and meeting with some of our northern colleagues who are also staying in the Perch, together we walk to that dominating eminence of a building. It's rather disturbing how the lobby's Artificial Intelligence recognises us and directs us to a lift already informed as to which floor we will be alighting at.

As soon as our group is on board the lift climbs with knee-buckling speed to the assembly area of the entertainment floor. There our company will assemble en-masse before entering the reception as a body and being announced by the toastmaster; it's the Done Thing here apparently.

All assembled at the prearranged time with James leading us, a liveried Social Assistant gives us our cue and we walk through expansive heavy oak doors sliding aside to a fanfare. Yes a fanfare! The Zoners like their ceremonies; the pomp and this newly built, sumptuously decorated banqueting hall harking back to past times of grandiosity.

I'm dazzled by the glare of spotlights trained on us as we enter, the toastmaster's voice thunders with well-modulated basso profundo clarity from the many hidden speakers of the PA system; "Ladies and Gentlemen! Introducing Independent Media Services! Providing news and entertainment across a wide variety of media!" The rather naff tagline, or maybe it is us, gets a polite round of applause before the gathering of several hundred people resume their celebratory hubbub. More Social Assistants greet us and show us to our tables.

Sat down and recovering from that pompous introduction I can begin to get my bearings. Flicking onto my scroll the Column's sprite informs me I'm on the hundredth floor. This reception is being held to welcome Mr Yu Hong-Do of Aurora New Dawn Industries to the Zone. His company - one of the leading manufacturers of personal electronic devices - was reconstructed from the wreckage of a formerly great South Korean conglomerate which suffered so badly during the second Korean War and its aftermath.

At present ANDI has its Euro-African regional headquarters in Nigeria; one of the vibrant African Lions who seized the opportunity the Korean diaspora offered to kick-start their economies. The company announced this week their European headquarters and concept development centre will be relocated to the Column and plans to open here within three months.

The good news doesn't end there; for they are also going to construct an R&D facility in Colchester, as well as a greenfield factory on the outskirts of Royston. IMS' connection is tenuous; just being a provider of the content for Mr Yu's devices, but that is considered reason enough to be invited to the party; and it gets bums on seats. An only partially-filled reception would be seen as something of a disappointment; perhaps even a sign of disrespect, and that couldn't be allowed to happen. Still, with free food and drink on offer there's little chance of this feast falling short of expectations.

Another timed geoblurt pops-up from James. He obviously wrote this earlier because at this moment I think I can see him in his guest place at the top table, deep in conversation with some important looking people; I can't recognise who. Yes, it is James. He looks over and briefly gestures over to the IMS tables as if explaining something before facing back to his dinner companions and continuing his discussion.

I wonder what they are talking about? Is he trying to put a refinancing deal together, or organising a buyout of IMS? Apparently, and I'm not supposed to know this or pass it on; there have been rumblings of discontent on the board. In the opinion of some people too much time and money is being lavished on James' pet political project, not to mention the rumoured cashflow issues... Anyway the message is a repeat of what he told us earlier. It is expected we hang around for the speeches at 21.30. After the cermonies are over we're free to do as we please, although there'll be complimentary admission to the Column viewing gallery from 22.00.

Right now, 22.00 seems a long time away. I must be getting even more jaded as I get older but I really don't want to be here. I think I might even be developing a nasty case of moral scruples because I'm annoyed and sickened by what I'm seeing.

Don't get me wrong; I'll partake of the plentiful food and drink on offer, but I'm irked by the blatant class distinctions on show. They at the top tables raised on a wide semicircular dais above we underlings, with roped off steps and discreet but obvious security personnel to ensure no-one from the lower floor goes where they shouldn't. They have a better quality of gourmet meal than the acceptable fare doled out to we proles, though even it is luxurious by Fed standards. They also have separate bogs so they don't have to mix with the hoi-polloi.

Perhaps it's the drink affecting me but I'm beginning to resent the sight of the men in their penguin suits and cummerbunds, or their women dressed in shimmering evening gowns showing way too much of themselves and their sparkling jewellery while we look uncomfortable at such a reception in our functional Fedwear. It could be the live combo playing mellow jazz numbers on a stage over in a corner who are starting to get on my nerves (apparently Mr Yu is quite a fan of it) or possibly the sight of so many provocatively dressed young teenage girls mingling with the Social Assistants at the edges of the room. Some of them are barely past pubescence. I don't think they are all the guests' children.

In the Zone almost any service is available to those who can afford it; one merely needs to know who and how to ask. But it's one thing to know it goes on but quite another to see it made so conspicuous. In any case I've no proof of what I suspect may be happening; and were I to be so crass as to begin overtly 'cording with my scroll I'm sure my evening would come to a polite, but firm end.

I've eaten as much as I can cope with and drunk as much as I dare. This is not the place to show oneself up with a vulgar display of public excess. So I'm facing a boring evening, given I've been seated with the same people I've been talking to most of the day. I'm actually relieved when I see two chairs to my left Ellison Clarke from Head Office; a man who should be able to hold his drink given his easy access to it working in the Zone, looking a bit the worse for wear.

It's not just me who notices; one of the ever-vigilant social assistants has spotted him as well and is moving in for a "Can I be of assistance Sir?" pounce. Quickly I intervene and offer to see him to the gents' to 'freshen up' for a while. It's best to keep these matters 'in house' rather than attract unwanted attention from the party's organisers and it'll be a welcome break from the soirée. Supporting Ellison, I follow the lead of the assistant to the nearest gents' while aiming to avoid a collision with the stream of constantly circulating servers and preserve as much of our dignity as possible. Just hold it all in for fuck's sake man... don't embarrass us all by throwing up in public!

I note we're being shadowed by two of the well-built gentlemen in identical black suits who are also sprinkled around the edges of the function; unobtrusive but ready. Keeping it calm and quiet I manage to guide him through the door held open for us. We've made it! One of the goons follows us in just to make sure all is well.

Ellison busily turns his insides out in one of the cubicles: Better out than in moosh, eh? We've still got twenty-five minutes to go before the speeches are due to start so I hope I can get him emptied, revived, cleaned up and back at his place at the table before our absence is notice and noted. Fifteen minutes later all is mostly well. Ellison still looks a bit pale and shivery but he's getting himself back together. A quick splash of cold water; a tidy up and a cup of revival drink thoughtfully supplied by the other bouncer and he'll be fit to be seen in public again. We're back in our places in good time for the proceedings to begin.

Exactly on time the band comes to the end of the piece they were playing as the hall lights begin to gradually dim. The top table is highlighted by a low-power spotlight and the red-coated toastmaster opens the proceedings. There are the introductory remarks; the chairman of the LEZ officially welcomes Mr Yu to the Zone; then the giant wallscreen that was showing an enlarged view of the top table plays a video.

I'd heard about this; it's not something that IMS usually does, but we won't turn away good business. I think it was produced in our Brum studios, not that I'm at all bothered; but I can cast a jaundicedly critical professional eye over it. An opening thunder of drums issues from the sound system and the film begins.

I hope Mr Yu has seen and approved it in advance because it's not how I would have chosen to make it. Or maybe nostalgic reminiscences of the past Korea are the images ANDI want to project. There are montages of industrious looking Asiatic people all in identical company uniform overseeing automated production lines; constantly alert for the first signs of a Dragon attack.

A visualisation shows a gritty moncohrome urban ghetto being demolished and replaced equally quickly with brand new workers' accommodation: Colour reappears; trees and greenery sprout by magic from nowhere, while happy, well-behaved children enjoy themselves in an adventure playground: No cliché is left unused.

The scene changes to a featureless but recognisably sited in the Fed dull brown field of mud which rapidly acquires concrete foundations, a steel framework, and a mirrorglass cladding. The design is suggestive to me of a dead beached whale; I'm not sure if the architects had that in mind. Oh, lucky Royston! Behold your future!

The narrationless soundtrack - a predominantly male choir enthusiastically singing what sounds like a Korean work song to a martial orchestral backing - swells before reaching it's climax as the final scene shows a scroll unrolling with vibrant streams of colour indicating connectivity to the world. Images, videos and logos are twisted into those pulsing, writhing streams and just for a moment I thought I spotted the IMS logo in one of them, or was it a subliminal effect? The choir reaches and holds the peak of their final note before the presentation closes to a triumphant final tympani of drums. It was all a bit too much like 'The East Is Red' to me, even though it wasn't the song. The Democratic Peoples' Republic of North Korea is dead: Long live the North.

At least it's all over quickly. There's the expected polite applause, and then the spotlight focuses on a lectern which has appeared as if by magic from the dim light. A fanfare sounds and it is time for Mr Yu to say his piece. He speaks good English, but has an accent that sounds as if he is keeping a gobstopper in his mouth and is trying to speak past it. Fortunately subtitles appear below his enlarged bean-shaped balding head on the wallscreen as he speaks.

After spinning out the usual anodyne pleasantries about this investment marking an exciting moment for Aurora; and it being a vote of confidence in the people of the Federation (I note how he used the word people, rather than Consensus government) for the required minimum time he finishes his short speech and steps down - seemingly relieved that his duties are over for the night - to a warm and genuine round of applause. His English is better than our Korean, and the efforts he made to communicate are appreciated.

I sense however the ceremony is not yet finished; my instincts are proven right. The organisers have decided the formalities must end with a tingle of excitement which not even Mr Yu, no matter how earnestly he may try, can provide. The chairman of the Zone takes the limelight once more.

"Ladies and Gentlemen: Please show your appreciation for Mr James Purvis; CEO of Independent Media Services!" There's another fanfare along with the applause; James rises from the table and makes his way to the lectern. As the clapping fades it's replaced by an atmosphere of electric anticipation. Is he going to throw caution to the wind and announce the launch of the NRP tonight? I hope not! We've barely had a chance to get anything organised! And in any case it would be a serious breach of the electoral law.

So what exactly is he going to say? Will he incorporate any of the suggestions I made late yesterday afternoon when our conversation was steered by him to the possibility of him needing to make a speech of this kind tonight; and did I have any ideas about what he should say? If he does use any of my phrases I hope they get a good reception. My career could do without James' first big speech falling flat on its face.

He walks confidently to the rostrum. That's a good sign, no indication of him being slightly unsteady on his feet because he likes a good drink now and then. But not tonight; he's professional and focused enough not to let it go to his head.

He pauses for just a moment to compose himself; allowing a total silence to settle upon his audience. It's a subtle way of establishing his dominance. For that pregnant moment James is caught under the downward facing spotlight beam: Average height; stockily-built, but muscle not fat: A well-hewn, tanned and handsome face which women seem to find irresistible, along with his money. He has kept a full head of cropped natural hair; greying at the temples as he reaches his mid-fifties. He looks, and is, supremely sure of himself.

"Esteemed members of the Board; Ladies and Gentlemen." He begins in his best business voice, all traces of his Cockney roots erased by coaching. "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you tonight." He pauses for effect.

"Looking around me, I have to pinch myself to remind me I'm not dreaming; surrounded as I am by some of the most respected members of the business community, and me only in charge of an up and coming media company! I'm still waiting for someone to realise their mistake, and to be asked to leave!" (Polite chuckles.) A bit of false modesty in the right place can work wonders. "But as no-one has yet I may as well make the most of it while the going is good!" (More polite laughter.)

"To be serious though: It means a great deal to me for my company to be considered worthy by people such as the regarded Mr Yu of Aurora Industries, to be a trusted provider of content for his company's cutting edge products. I am honoured by his faith in our values and programming; as we as a community are honoured by his faith in our future. Such is his belief in our potential that he has chosen to link his future with ours." (Louder and longer applause.) "And I for one thank him for his farsighted optimism!" Yes, he's got them all on-side with him now.

"What Mr Yu has seen and chosen to express his confidence in are the possibilities existing within the London Enterprise Zone and the areas governed by our own unique legal framework. He sees what could, and will be; given the creation of the right environment for industry and entrepreneurship to thrive.

In this respect the London Enterprise Zone is a beacon of hope, but its light serves to illuminate the darkness the wider Federation still labours under. The Consensus government may have succeeded in drawing the nation back from the brink of anarchy and destruction, but they have yet to re-energise the economy.

The reason they can't do anything to spark the renaissance we all want to see is because they lack the expertise, the skills, the driving force; and above all the ideology to progress any further. And while the present Council are in office, we can expect to see any revival confined only to the Zone and those areas associated with it.

But the Council's remit will come to an end next year; and there will be - at long last - a chance for the people of the Federation to decide which direction they should take next. This choice will be an crucial one, and as such it must be a choice informed by a wide variety of opinions, and not just the narrow range of views heard on the state controlled media.

We at IMS have a proud record of resisting the attempts by the Consensus to restrict our right to free speech: We have stood firm against their bullying tactics!" (Applause.) "And we remain committed to being at the heart of the campaign for national renewal!

When the election is called we will be at the forefront of putting the case for a break from the past. It is a campaign which we can, and must win! The year to come will be an exciting and eventful one for us all, and we at IMS will relish being at the heart of the action!" So keep watching; I'm sure you will find what you are going to see remarkable!"

With that he finishes his speech to a reception which eclipses that given to poor Mr Yu; not that he, or anyone else seems to mind. It wasn't a bad speech James; even if I do say so myself.

Yes James, you did allright. You got them aroused, gave them some excitement, dropped a big hint about your intentions (though it's an open secret anyway), and left them wanting more. I'm pleased you took onboard some of my suggestions, and they went down well. I feared for a moment you might get carried away and announce the launch of a party which as yet only exists in your imagination, but you kept yourself under control. He's not one to lose his temper in public is our James. In private, well that's another thing so I'm told. I've yet to see it happen; nor would I want to see it, or be the object of his rage.

The chairman concludes the ceremonial part of the evening; the lights gradually brighten, the band strikes up once more, and at last I can get out of here.

The night is still young but I've had enough of this place and I don't fancy going off with some of the others to a nightclub - yes an actual nightclub! - or down the road to the Fishporters' Arms. The pub looks as if it's a hangover from the days when the docklands really were docklands, but I reckon it's a very clever ploy to entrap Osties such as we on a night out in the Zone with its carefully contrived authenticity. No, themed bars aren't for me. Instead I think I'll have a glass of that revival drink at the discreet stall by the door, go up to see the viewing gallery; then depending on how I feel either go back down to the reception or to bed at the Perch.

Another knee-stressing lift takes me to the viewing gallery on the highest publicly accessible floor in the Column; some five floors below the roof. I sync the guide sprite to my scroll and allow it to tell all about the building.

It's the usual uncritical tourist spiel. It explains how the Column is the biggest building of its type in the world. It is a marvel of engineering; and contains one of the world's greatest concentrations of computational power within it. There's a potted history of its construction as well; describing how it provided an economic stimulus when it was most needed, transforming the run-down area of Canning Town which was cleared to make way for it with the consent of those who used to live and work there: Not that they had any choice in the matter; they were told to pack up and leave for the flats or premises they were compelled to accept in lieu of compensation, whether or not what was offered to them was suitable for their needs or equivalent in value; a fact conveniently overlooked by the guide. The laws  regarding property rights are different within the Zone.

The story moves on through to the heroic effort to build the Column against the very worst that the Feddish weather could throw at the project. There is of course no mention of the untold history; the exploitation of the workforce, the dangerous working conditions, poor health and safety practices, and widespread sub-standard workmanship. All of the information is available on the dark web if you search hard enough, but absent from the commentary over the scenes of cheery workers indomitably getting on with the job despite the many and varied challenges.

Also ignored is the fact the architect chosen to realise the design was the third choice. The two others previously approached wanting nothing to do with a concept they regarded as obscene in its excess. The fact the Column was never shortlisted for any award is another awkward fact airbrushed away. Proudly the guide informs me this behemoth is of such a scale that its weight is enough to permanently anchor it to the foundation London limestone bedrock.

The Column is a symbol of the resilient nature of the Zone; and as such its uninterruptable power supply needs are provided by two self-contained mini nuclear reactors, of the type successfully used for decades past in nuclear submarines. They have so much power to spare they can even export it to the Fed; along with their four sister reactors contained in a floating pontoon power station moored in Bow Creek. A visualisation shows the dustbin-sized reactor drums being craned out of their silos at the end of their estimated twenty-five year life, and substituted with identical replacements. Just pop one out and drop one in, and don't forget to find a place to store the spent reactor where its contents won't leach into the environment for the next 250,000 years...

The Column's unsophisticated brutalism also extends to its structure. Most tall buildings sway slightly in high winds, but not so this Goliath: The wind must defer to and flow around this immovable thug of a building. So far the record gust resisted at altitude is measured at 263.7km/h. The Column is designed to shrug off a direct hit by an airliner or drone. Even the blast of a near-miss low-yield nuclear explosion shouldn't trouble its autochromatic armour crystal windows; nor chemical or biological agents be able to penetrate the advanced air filtering system in emergency mode. If the Fed and Alba were really to go to war again, the Column would be the building of choice for the Zoners in which to weather the storm and emerge unscathed, ready to do business with the winning side as if nothing had happened.

Thanks to its microlocation system the Column's sprite can tell me exactly which parts of London I am overlooking; the city's panorama is spread far below me this clear evening.

I remember a similar evening before the Crises when Karen and I took an evening trip on the London Eye. Back then we were both enraptured by the remarkable views of the capital, and the sight of the city lights; we both imagined it to be a science fiction fantasy cityscape made real.

So much has changed since then. It's not only the increased elevation which lends the vista I can see now a subdued air; the change in the type of lights we are allowed to use now, the move toward more energy efficient sources, and the high cost of electricity leading to as much economisation as possible paints the scene with a fainter, more anaemic light.

The Lilliputian veins of the city's major roads are still well lit, though there are far fewer vehicle headlights to pulse along them; and there are still strings and patches of the old-style dirty orange lights to be seen, but those are being phased out. Looking carefully enough it is still possible to spot small pockets of darkness where the post-Crises reconstruction has yet to erase the wounds of the past. The overall effect of this real-life future city of light is like looking down on a fallen sprinkling of weak electric snow. I find the effect captivating.

When there aren't too many people in the gallery, as now; it is possible to take control of one of the many roof mounted telescopic cameras and have the image beamed to your scroll. At this time of night the images are in night mode but these days the quality is so good it's hard to notice that much difference. I become engrossed, looking down with a detached godlike gaze upon the tiny Olympic Park, or watching tiny cyclists riding on the cycle path running alongside the river Lea.

My reverie is broken by a group of people behind me. Startled I look round and find myself facing the diners from the top table. James takes instant charge of the situation before I've even time to speak.

"Gentlemen; I'd like to introduce you to Richard Davies. He's Director of News and Content for our South-Central region; his suggestions were a major part of my speech this evening." There are murmurs of approval. "He'll also be playing an important role in our forthcoming campaign." More affirmative noises. Not wanting to be seen as a dumb serveling I speak up.

"Good Evening Gentlemen! It's a pleasure to meet you, and an honour to have been invited to your reception." At least I didn't stammer nervously: Showing self-confidence is vital in making a first impression to people such as these.

"What do you think of what you've seen so far?" asks Stephen Montague, the Chairman of the Zone Board.

"I'm impressed." I reply. "It's heartening to see a real economic revival in motion!" Yes, I can spout the corporate bullshit with the best of them. They seem to like that answer.

"I see that you enjoy using the gallery" says another person who I don't recognise. "When you look out over the city, what do you see?" Another subtle test.

"I see potential; and a lot that needs to be done. We'll be making a start to that tomorrow." There are more nods and noises of agreement; but my brief audience with them is at an end. It's time they moved on with their tour of the gallery; a minion such as I merits their cursory attention but for a short while. At least I appear to have been passed as acceptable.

I'm granted the honour of handshakes all round, and I give a nod of a bow for Mr Yu, then once the parting niceties are said and done I'm left to my own devices again.

It is only as the group and their voices fade into the distance that I quite realise what has just happened. I've met with a group of the most powerful non-Connies in the Fed. I really hope I've made the right impression with them. If not I'm sure to find out soon enough. Suddenly wearied by the day's conference and the effects of the evening's indulgences catching up with me I decide it's time to go to bed.

As the express lift drops with a stomach lurching acceleration I'm glad of the revival drink I had earlier. Watching the lift's display counting down I wonder what really goes on in those floors I'm streaking past. I'd love to be able to stop the lift on a whim and just look around; you can learn a lot that way. But I'm certain the lift wouldn't allow it. Whilst inside the Column you go exactly where you are permitted access, and no further. There are no exceptions to the rule.

My slightly addled journalistic brain is curious as to who occupies those levels, but the Column's management jealously guards their clients' privacy. Unless they specifically choose to announce their residence their anonymity is ensured. Even on in the dark web there is only speculation as to the identity of the tenants, and what they get up to.

There are other rumours as well: The anti-aircraft missiles and Metal Storm guns mounted on the roof, controlled by the building's AI; primed to shoot down anything about to venture within a one kilometre exclusion zone. The discrepancies - obvious to even those without specialist architectural knowledge - between the publicly viewable spaces and the Column's internal dimensions. All manner of critical national infrastructure and data storage is rumoured to reside within that even tougher inner core, along with a secret holding centre, extensive S&M dungeons, and all manner of heinous sins; real and imagined. There are also the estimates of how much the Column really cost, and how unpayable the debt raised by its construction is. It would appear that fantasy economics aren't confined to the Fed...

Whatever the truth is, it slides past the lift doors unseen, unknown. At the ground floor at last the lobby wishes me a soft goodnight as I leave. Outside I pause on the plaza for a moment to breathe some fresh air, but only for a moment as another observant Facillitator approaches and asks if I need directions or a taxipod. I'm still 'mildly disorientated' so I gratefully accept his directions back to the Perch. One is not entitled to loiter hereabouts.

Passing one of the large concrete cubes on the plaza - some of the many of them scattered around must be the carefully hidden access points for the column's reactors - I feel a prickling sensation on the back of my neck. It's the skin crawling sensation I get whenever I feel I'm under surveillance by someone - or an automatic system - that doesn't have my best interests at heart. This vestigial instinctive sense of wrongness rarely fails me.

I quickly turn around, but all I can see is the Column's chitinous facade rising into the night, absorbing any light which falls on it. Am I being observed with interest from somewhere within? I can feel a malevolence emanating from the hulking tower.

Suddenly I shudder. Is it the evening chill or a confirmation of my hunch? Well standing here won't solve the riddle of who may be watching me, but only attract more unwanted attention. I walk back to the Perch, and once a-bed allow the walls to spin slowly around, drawing me down into the whirlpool of oblivion.

 

Chapter Seventeen

October the 2nd.

Swimming slowly up from the depths of sleep back to consciousness, I can feel a thumping dehydration headache developing. Easing myself carefully out of the bed my legs don't feel as if they are quite my own. Too bad; I'll just have to tough it out and get myself going, for today is the day when we take the first steps to shaking ourselves free of the Connies. Feeling shivery and not fully connected to the world I clean myself up, but I can't quite scrub away the effects of last night. This is what drinking Fed piss does to you; it renders you unprepared for proper alcohol.

I pick up my scroll - thank God I remembered to drop it onto the wirefree recharging mat before I turned in - and find there's a priority blurt demanding my attention. A last minute change of plan has seen the planning caucus for the launch of the NRP moved from IMS' head office to the Column. The location makes little difference to me, but it's good to know a breakfast buffet will be provided. I don't think I could handle another Full English at the moment, but I know I'll get ravenous later; probably by the time I arrive there.

The fresh morning light does nothing to improve the appearance of the Column. It is still an eyesore, and fills me with a sense of uneasy foreboding. I sense a pent-up, potent evil latent inhabiting the very fabric of it. I'm really tempted to turn around, grab my things from the Perch and catch an early train back home, joining those braver than I who've politely declined James' invitation to become involved and make my excuses. But it's too late now; I've made a commitment to his Project. If I just do my best to blend into the background I can probably get away with doing as little as I need to do to keep my career on track, and honour will be satisfied all round.

The conference is held on a different floor this time. The sprite guides me along several corridors to a large windowless room, then informs me I am in a screened, highly secure zone and though my scroll will be still be able to trickle charge from the electromagnetic field in the area, it won't be able to make calls, connect to the HyperFi or make recordings. I think this is paranoia gone mad, even if we are setting ourselves against the Connies; but if it's what James wants, or has been advised to do, I'm not bothered.

He's already here; along with a handful of early risers. He looks disgustingly healthy considering the partying he's bound to have been involved in the night before. I suspect he woke early and sweated out his excesses in a gym somewhere. What it must be to be so driven, and to have the energy to spare! There are still gyms in the Fed of course; but the days when people drove cars to them to exercise have long gone. Now you do your best to stay well clear unless you are compelled to go to one in order to satisfy any conditionality related to your Annual Health Assessment, or work off part of a community punishment. Being healthy is to be aspired to; narcissism is yet another socially undesirable vice.

After a quick bite and a couple of good cups of strong coffee I'm beginning to feel human again. James opens the conference, then has to leave and finalise another deal somewhere. Instead Charles Bennett will preside over the meeting.

The morning is taken up by a seminar covering the framework of the new electoral rules and how the planned transition back to a revised form of the democracy we once knew is supposed to take place. Then we're given a talk by a well-known professor of politics at a leading university. He's sympathetic to our cause but here in a personal capacity and would prefer his involvement remains confidential if we please. He fears, probably with good reason, that were his support for us to become known his life may be made 'difficult'. The malign influence of the Consensus is making itself felt in academia as much as the rest of life.

He cites case studies from the past of similar organised transitions from states of emergency rule back to democracy, and explains in only about half of the cases was the process successful without either violence or a reversion back to the previous regime. This is followed by a session devoted to a summing-up of the history and likely future direction of the Consensus; as well as an outline of possible strategies which may be successful in defeating them.

After a break for lunch the proposed organisation of the NRP is sketched out, and there's an informal discussion as to who will play which roles in the running of the campaign. The conference decides to divide itself into two task forces: One will deal exclusively with the setting-up and organisation of the party, while the other will concentrate on electioneering and propaganda. I manage to get myself assigned to the second group.

By mid-afternoon we've achieved all that we're going to today, and everyone is anxious to go home; as am I. We're thanked for our contributions, told that we will be contacted as and when required, and warned above all else to maintain absolute secrecy. Then we are free to leave. Pausing only to collect my bag and check-out of the Perch, I ask the sprite to organise my way out of the Zone.


It being a Sunday the tubeI planned to use is unavailable due to the Canary Wharf station being closed for preplanned maintenance, so instead of reversing my route here I have to take the replacement bus.

From my top deck seat vantage point the contrast between the Zone and the Fed is marked. Where in the Zone the pavements are swept with motorised street sweepers or by robots; in the Fed credders do the same job using brooms and long-handled dust pans. Those ineffectual petrol powered leaf blowers are never seen on the streets now; I think they may even have been banned.

This may be partly due to the shortage of fuel, and concerns about what there is being used inefficiently; but also there is an ideological Connie opposition against any form of laxity; with them regarding it as morally uplifting to labour by hand. Some of their extremists even object to the 'unnecessary' use of power tools, but then they aren't the ones who have to use their hands all day long.

Apparently, during the Fuel Crunch serious consideration was given to the idea of reverting to human powered farming; with teams of people undergoing Rehabilitation pulling ploughs and harvesting by hand, but even the Connies had to give up on the idea as impractical. Nevertheless a grudging acceptance of the advantages in productivity conferred by mechanisation doesn't stop them wistfully hankering for a return to a romantic age, and a rediscovery of the dignity of human labour; providing someone else does it.

Until you see something different to compare it with you don't realise how stark, grey, and bare the Fed has become; it's as if you are viewing the world through a darkening filter. I also notice how so much of the public space has become dominated by Connie propaganda, be it the large filmscreens advertising the latest anti-ComCred fraud drive and the various ways which the upright citizen can report their suspicions; or the inevitable health promotion messages. If not those, the slogan of the month is repeated ad nauseam. COMMUNITY CREDIT: FOR EVERYONE being the latest. But most of all I'm made aware by it's reappearance after its absence in the Zone of the ubiquity of the Consensus' symbol.

It reminds me of the old trademark of a 1980s Japanese computer game and hardware company - Atari I seem to remember - I saw when I once filed a report about the opening of the Museum of Electronic Technology. Of course the Connies would claim their logo symbolises the many different groups of society coming together for the common good, but I can't shake that black image against a white background out of my head. Whatever the inspiration for the design was, it seems to crop up everywhere.

We've become used to it to the point where it has become a subconscious fixture of our everyday lives. It reinforces one of the points made by our professor today about how we're really in an unprecedented  situation: Never has an organisation such as the Consensus relinquished its hold on power without a struggle. They are so deeply institutionally entrenched now it'll be one hell of a job to dislodge them.

The bus arrives at Waterloo. For a change the train back to Pompey actually runs to its scheduled timetable without any problems, though my attempt to have a nap is disturbed three times by the same ticket inspector who despite having checked my ticket before insists on scanning it again. There are times when I wish James' NRP wasn't an exercise in futility; that there really was some hope of it winning and freeing us from this sort of officiousness. But even in the remote event of an election victory it's one thing to win power; but erasing a decade of these sort of ingrained social attitudes will be far harder.

I get off at Petersfield, and take a bus back to the 'Ville. Tomorrow will be a well-earned day off to recover from this weekend.


October the 3rd.

When I have a day off I mean a day off! I spent the day doing some easy clearing up in the commonhold's allotment; then stood a guard shift in our comfortably converted shed just to make sure none of the local garden grubber scrotes had away our produce. I kept my scroll switched off and didn't watch the news at all; it's better for your mental health not to these days. I certainly felt my mind was improved by avoiding a day's pollution by the media. I needed this free time to recover from the weekend.

It's a good thing my Annual Health Assessment isn't due as I would be certain to 'fail' the blood tests after that weekend of indulgence. It'd be a near-certainty my insurance group would be raised to a higher contribution level and I'd be given some stern lifestyle adjustment instructions. But the day has to end, and on Tuesday I'll be back in the groove again.

 

October the 4th

On my return I learn a lot has changed in my absence. It appears James has been very persuasive in selling his NRP to the Zoners. Overnight a deal has been struck between Aurora New Dawn Industries and the various collective funds who owned IMS. Mr Yu made them a generous offer they couldn't refuse, and as a result IMS is now jointly owned by an ANDI subsidiary, Charles Bennett, and James Purvis. It explains the deal James was finalising, and what Ellison was trying to tell me between bouts of retching on Saturday night about everything changing. The poor sod was trying to drown his insecurity in alcohol. Well it turns out he'd nothing to worry about; IMS continues as it is.

A restricted list blurt from James explains the reasoning behind the deal was to forestall any attempts by any Connie elements there might have been on our now previous board to stop IMS backing the NRP. The Connie media are bound to object to this latest development, but they can't say too much against a new major investor into the Fed. The OMS aren't happy either, but there's nothing they can do about a Zone deal. No doubt they'll continue to do their best to make our life awkward, and we'll have to come up with a counter to the inevitable charge we're just a corporate mouthpiece. Well talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

These could be interesting times to come. It appears the relationship between the Consensus and the LEZ; never that harmonious in any case, has broken down to the point where the LEZzers have decided to get seriously involved in Fed politics. I don't think the Connies were expecting this sort of intervention! Still, they can count on their deep-rooted support, and the undecided voters' fear of the unknown. In any case the Consensus Party's expected victory will be rendered more legitimate by a properly contested election.

Meanwhile in other news I, and the rest of the NRP Campaign Group have been summoned back to the Column this Thursday: The preparations appear to be gathering pace.

Chapter Eighteen

October the 6th.

On my way back from the Zone I'm at a loss to make sense of the day I've just had. I thought it was just going to be a round table kickabout of campaign strategies, but once I was back inside the Column's secure area I realised things had become far more serious.

It began with the downloading of a new, and apparently cutting edge encryption wurdle to our scrolls. The MaggieSist has been updated to use it as well so our terminals should be just as secure.

From what I understand of it, the application constantly generates a constant stream of uniquely encoded blurts into which parts of our messages are inserted. Only the recipient should be able to separate the content from the background chatter. Any surveillance system would have to constantly decode the entire stream before it could even begin to read the blurts; and then it must defeat a very slippery encryption algorithm in advance of any attempt to piece together the fragments of an individual communication. This should supposedly overload any eavesdropping system with more work than it can handle. We were told that while it is theoretically possible to read a blurt, the chances of it happening are infinitesimal. Nevertheless, we shouldn't rely completely on it. Some things are only to be spoken of in person in this room.

I was amused by the thought of those deep bunkers full of hypercomputers in Utah, Düsseldorf, or Cheltenham overheating under the strain; but we were informed in no uncertain terms this technology is on the very edge of legality, so it's really not a good idea to boast about it or be caught using it. It being covert it is designed not to show on system logs, but this kind of thing is always a leap-frog race. At the moment the lead has shifted to us, but at some point, and no-one knows when; we may find ourselves on the back foot once more.

Then we were instructed as to the security protocols we must use when communicating with each other. If that wasn't startling enough, the briefing on personal security which followed soon made us realise we were no longer involved in a polite contest: This is now a deadly serious affair.

We didn't get involved in any real hand-to-hand fighting but our instructor - a man who radiated the understated self-assurance and quiet authority of someone who had spent his career doing this, and untold more for real - gave us some eye-opening theory lessons about situational awareness, counter surveillance, and threat identification; along with a few easily remembered basic self-defence strategies. If it ever comes to the point where we are under direct physical attack from the organised Connies the game is lost, but it's still useful to know how to deal with a lower level goon trying to throw their weight about.

Then, after lunch, we were armed.

They are known as non-lethal weapons but as our anonymous teacher explained, in the wrong hands they could cause a great deal of harm, and not just to the intended victim. Micro sprays of tear gas and electric stun pens have been around for decades, though they are illegal to own or carry. But what really caught our attention was being shown how to use a pen torch sized Blinder.

These are a new development, though the principle behind them is an old one. A capacitor delivers an intense pulse of energy to one of the new generation of light emitter chips, with the result anyone looking at the wrong end of it suffers an extremely painful and temporary blindness. Extremely painful as defined as having a red-hot poker thrust through your eye socket and into your brain, and temporary as not being able to see much for several hours, and "severe loss of visual acuity" for a number of days.

There are anecdotal reports of longer term and even permanent eye damage in cases of people exposed to Blinder flashes. Needless to say we are instructed only to use them in situations where we believe ourselves to be in imminent danger, as they are to the old laser pens what a flintlock pistol is to a modern assault rifle. A point further reinforced when we watched a vid of them being used on a live subject. This film was used in the immediate post-ceasefire stage of the Second Korean War to frighten the few North Korean officers who were captured alive into cooperation.

It opens with a shot of a bare room and what looks like a DPRK prisoner of war strapped into a stout metal execution style frame chair with his head clamped into immobility. Another man wearing a white medical coat and dropdown welder's visor walks into the bare room. Then without any preamble he pulls down his eye protection, points a Blinder at the captive's eyes and triggers it.

The flash knocks out the fixed camera for a few seconds but the sound continues to record perfectly. I don't think I will ever forget that animal shrieking; nor - despite the chair being fixed to the floor  - how the prisoner's pain-frenzied thrashing nearly tears it from its mounting.

The victim rips his arm out of one of the leather restraints, leaving much of his skin behind. After a minute of inhuman screaming and teeth grinding to the point of pulverising some of his molars, as well as biting off a part of his own tongue; our instructor stops the sequence; although it's too late for one of the female members of our group who is unashamedly vomiting into one of the bags we were thoughtfully provided with just in case.

We're told the test subject continued to spasm for another ten minutes before exhaustion claimed him. Apparently it's not just the intensity of the flash which is effective, it's also the way the pulses of light encoded within it interact with and overload the optic nerve which causes the pain and disorientation.

Think of it as an optical bastinado. The pain isn't too bad to start with but the cumulative effects of the stimulation make all the difference; within a few milliseconds in most cases. So remember: Only use it if you absolutely need to; keep your eyes tightly closed and turn your face away from the target, shield your eyes with your free hand if you are able to; and don't forget you have no more than a few seconds of use if you need to sweep a group or room.

Being caught with a weapon like that during a routine stop and search would lead to a long trip to East Anglia, but there's a way to sidestep the law. Though we've not done the training required for the post we're marched through a confusing route of corridors to another set of rooms where we are enrolled as Zone Messengers. Even in these digital days there are still paper documents and contracts which are too sensitive to be sent online, or extremely valuable consignments which can't be trusted to normal couriers. The Zone has created their own corps for these special deliveries.

I'm relieved to find the uniform doesn't date from the 18th century as with the Facilitators, but is an unobtrusive variation of the standard business suit; though still styled to be recognisable at close range. We're issued with permanent Zone accreditation which grants us a wide range of immunities, though it doesn't entitle us to live there; as well as the standard secure briefcase containing everything a Messenger would ever be likely to need. Also included is a discreet messenger lapel pin, as well as rolls of the special tape and seals which will render any package as Zoned, hence immune from search or seizure by Fed law enforcement personnel, except under specific, very limited, circumstances.

The protection extends to the messenger and also the messenger's home address: I'm issued with a plaque to mount on my front door declaring my tiny flat to be under LEZ jurisdiction. After another briefing explaining the rights of our new status, as well as what we should do if we run into trouble; we were each given a food parcel of little luxuries from James - to be kept in our secure bags - and allowed to leave.

 

As the train leaves London, the light of the setting sun falling on the ever dominating Column lends it a baleful aspect. I'm beginning to wonder what exactly it is I've allowed myself to be drawn into. This is no longer an amateur dabbling in politics by a minor, but rising player in the media world: Now James has managed to recruit some powerful allies to his cause; people who can pull strings and get things done by the recent evidence I've seen. They're not the sort who waste their time and money sponsoring or tolerating failures.

Ranged against them are the Consensus, as keen to hold on to what they have as those backing the NRP are to sweep them out of power. It's going to be a bitterly fought struggle, with no quarter asked for or given. Despite my position in the campaign and the privileges I have as a result I'm still a lowly rank; one of those in the front line likely to be an early casualty when these two implacable forces clash.

The thought of the coming battle prompts a bout of stomach-gnawing anxiety. But it's not only the thought of the election which is making me uneasy; it's worrying about the effect just the thought of power is having on James.

Twice recently I've spotted something - I can't quite put a word to it - flashing in his eyes. Once during his speech last Saturday and later on the Column's viewing gallery. The second time it was longer lasting; I noticed it as he was looking over the cityscape below and saw a ravenous, predatory, almost repillian anticipation in his gaze. I might be imagining it, or seeing more than there actually is, but I feel something has changed within him. Power is an addictive drug; just look how it has affected the Connies these past few years! I fear James is becoming hooked on it as well; and who knows what effect it may have on him; how it will change who he is, or the way he acts. My train of thought is interrupted by the guard asking to check my ticket. It's the same jumped-up little squirt as last Sunday evening; only this time as he notices my Zone badge he seems taken aback by my change in status and is far more deferential.

I suspect he's well aware of the rules: He's entitled to check my ticket card once, but more than once would constitute Harassment of a Messenger in the Performance of their Duty, and would be grounds for filing a complaint against him. The sort of complaint which would get him a retraining course at best, and a Reassignment at worst.

I don't think he wants to be wearing the luridly yellow and purple uniform of an NRA draftee at the beginning of the autumn/winter alert season so I expect I'll be left alone for the rest of my journey. Equally so could I wave away the attention of any nosey Transport Police who might want to try their luck with a random search to see what they could confiscate for themselves. My accreditation gives me that power, but it's a power I hope I don't have to use. I might get too arrogant, and let it go to my head. It's such an easy thing to allow to happen...

Which reminds me about James, ANDI, the NRP, and the Zone. My journalistic instincts are telling me I should conduct some discreet dark research on them all. It's not the sort of thing it's wise to do on a company scroll on a public HyperFi network at this particular moment, but I'll get around to it. Given the recent turn of events it would be wise to find out a bit more about the people I've become involved with.

 

October the 18th.

Another day, another PushCred. But this time it's one we can live with. Mid-October marks the start of the Winter Preparedness Campaign. Ever since we as a nation were caught out by the Hard Winter, the first of many; the NRA have organised an annual awareness campaign.

I'm laying out my winter clothes and making sure any mending they may need is done now, rather than later. Sew and Sew have got in on the act by offering pre-season special offers on replacements for worn zips or fastenings; and why not ask about our special deals on additional insulation added at the same time? Just visit your local branch.

We didn't get this kind of prolonged cold before; but it's something we've had to adapt to. No-one these days dreams of Christmas card scenes of snow. Instead we dread the coming of winter as a time of discomfort, disruption, and extra expense.

We all know by now how to dress for the weather, but that doesn't stop the piercing arctic winds from knifing through your often inadequate clothes, or the penetrating cold from seeping into buildings which were designed with a different climate in mind. As for preparedness, it all boils down to grabbing your Ready Bag, and going to your nearest (Connie run) Warm Centre if the temperatures fall dangerously low.

Beyond that there is little else you can do. Stockpiling food, if you could afford to do so or find any spare supplies, is frowned upon as being too selfishly individualistic. And 'hoarding' is an offence in any case. Instead the good citizen should join with their fellows in a spirit of community resilience, trusting their local Connie organisation and the NRA to come to their aid in time of need.

Which sounds fine in theory, but the institutionalised incompetence pervading the Fed also extends to its civil preparedness organisations. They've let us down in the recent past, and despite all the reassuring noises about Lessons Being Learned I suspect it will happen again this winter if it turns out to be as severe as feared


October the 25th.

Things certainly are moving now IMS has got some heavyweight backing. At long last I've been able to schedule the company tuk in for a proper servicing - almost a remanufacturing - and a new battery pod should finally be available.

That's not the only thing which is getting improved. Our Anchorage Park resilient node is getting a comprehensive upgrading: Today I have to be there to supervise and sign for the delivery of some special supplies.

True to their word the Zone liveried van arrives on time, and we receive numerous crates full of what we'd need to keep us 'casting in the teeth of adversity; though I'm not sure how realistic a plan it would be in the event of the Fed nodes being shut down; given how unreliable satellite links can be post-Korea. I wonder if the international community would even respond to our cry for help if the Connies decided to close down the free media, but at least trying is better than conceding defeat without even fighting.

There are the standard, unsecured boxes full of spare parts, memory storage, and rechargeable batteries; cartons with tamperproof seals containing tinned food and bottled water; not to mention a new generator with its fuel supply. But the ones which concern me the most are the alarmed crates that will transmit a satblurt to the Zone if they are opened.

I don't know what is in those heavy duty shrink-wrapped plastic boxes marked with conspicuous warning labels; nor do I want to know; but judging by their dimensons I've a good idea. They could be just the right size to hold AK12 assault rifles or their ammunition; or maybe even grenades. I'm not going near them; won't even touch them, instead instructing the delivery people to stack them out of sight and out of the way in the inner vault. They can even cover them with a plastic sheet: I don't want my DNA to be found on them.

As far as I'm concerned they are just items I signed for; I had no knowledge of the contents inside. I doubt if such a defence would hold any water, and if things ever reached that point then we've probably had it anyway, and the building's Zoned status won't matter. But I can still grasp at straws.

There are times when I wonder if we aren't getting just a bit too paranoid. Yes, the Connies aren't the sort of people you'd invite to dinner, and they may have a few occasionally thuggish elements within their ranks; but I don't think even they in their desperation would go to the extremes that our new reinforced armoured doors, or rolls of monofilament amourtextile glued to the inside of the breeze block walls - proof against most small arms and RPG fire - would imply.

To be utterly cynical I doubt they would have allowed the Reset to take place if they weren't absolutely confident they would win the election with a comfortable margin. But all of this still really disconcerts me. I hope this is just a case of over preparing for events that will never happen, rather than any naiveté on my part leading me to underestimate a potential threat. Are the Zoners expecting trouble to come? If so, what do they know that we don't?

I sign to accept everything via a live link pad, and the van departs. Making very sure that the node's doors are securely locked - both physically and digitally - and the alarms are set, I have to kick start the reluctant hire tuk to get me away from here as quickly as possible

Chapter Nineteen

November the 4th.

I should have done my dark web research while I had the chance, but I've been busy and my eyes have been feeling strained recently. Now I've finally got round to it, I find the entries in DarkWiki as well as the usual rumour mills regarding James and Mr Yu have been systematically edited. So we're left with the 'official' biographies of both of them.

Sadly I deleted the background research I'd done on IMS and James as part of my interview preparation long ago, but something is nagging at my brain; some all but forgotten facts. The trouble is they are staying all but forgotten. If I don't think about it for a while perhaps my subconscious mind will keep working on it, and the answers suddenly become apparent. Or maybe not, as they appear to stay unremembered for the moment.

I knew neither of them was spotlessly clean, but such a thorough cleansing implies a fear the Connies might go trawling in the dark world as well (if they haven't gone dredging already) and drag up something embarrassing. Given the rumours I've heard about James' past it would be understandable; but surely his Zone backers would've done some investigation before they threw their weight behind him? So why the sudden action now? Have they discovered something compromising and decided to bury it so deep it could never be uncovered?

I'll have to try some of my more dodgy frazzling contacts and see if they can access the earlier records. No doubt if they are able to then there will be Connie sympathisers who can do so as well. If there is a skeleton poised to fall out of the cupboard, we who are helping to run his campaign ought to know about it if for no other reason than to try to plan an advanced response if the Connies do have some dirt and decide to dish it.

I spend the rest of the day trying, and failing to think of a way of asking James about it in a chary manner without getting fired, or worse.

 

November the 7th.

Today I spent a fruitless hour in the Portsmouth Central Community Support office trying to renew my cycling licence. It should've been a straightforward process but in the Fed you can't take anything for granted. After waiting for my number to be called I'm told I can't get it renewed here. Apparently I should've gone to my home office in Waterlooville, though it's the first time I've heard of that rule being applied.

November the 8th.

So, today, before I head for Portsea Island, I visit the Waterlooville office, only to find after a thirty minute wait there they can't process my renewal and being told I should go to the Portsmouth Central office

After explaining testily the problem I had yesterday I ask them to put their interpretation of the rules down in writing; this takes another forty-five minutes to obtain. I can see where this is going to lead; I'll be forever ping-ponged back and forth from office to office. So once I reach Media House I outfit myself with some of our covert 'cording gear and head back to the Central office once more.

Community Support Offices were another of the Council's money saving bright ideas and the replacement for the Crown Post Office network and Job Centres, now combined and renamed. They are the first - nay the only - physical point of contact for citizens to access government services. From Reassignment to obtaining the many different cards you must have to get by in the Fed; the CSO is where you have to go. If you're not feeling suicidally depressed when you enter, you will be by the time you leave.

I think there must be a deliberate policy to put people off using them. How else can the dismal, unwelcoming interiors, the overbearing entry checks, the constantly prowling security staff, the armoured glass partitions at the counters, the few uncomfortable seats, and that particular quality of the lighting which seems to stop time in its tracks be explained?

After getting a number I wait for another tedious forty minutes before being seen. This member of staff must be new, or absolutely clueless, or enjoy making her clients' lives a misery; perhaps a combination of all three, because once again she refuses to accept the letter from Waterlooville. She won't even contact them to check when I ask.

This isn't helping me get a renewed licence but it will make a tasty lead tonight. A couple of Pieces To Camera outside the office; a bit of fill-in and some background research which proves that yes, a cycle licence can be renewed at any CSO, subject to the office's discretion; and the story exposing their incompetence is ready to 'cast.

Soon comes the usual flood of indignant blurts from our local monitoring group, and we receive notification of a complaint having been made to the OMS. They don't like the truth being 'cast as it hurts; but why they so vehemently support the indefensible is something I don't think I'll ever understand. Apart from the work involved in fending off this abuse it's water off a duck's back to us; we're that used to it.

Among all the antagonism I'm heartened to get quite a few supportive blurts as well; many of them describing the very same, or similar problems  they've experienced with the CSO. I'll look through those more carefully later; there may be more stories to be mined there. The report filters up to James who sends his congratulations on a job well done. Additionally he arranges a way out of my bureaucratic impasse. As a Zone messenger I can take advantage of my status for the Zone to issue me a new licence. It should arrive within 24 hours.

Relieved by that news and bouyed by a successful day - journalistically at least - I decide rather than ride back tonight, as I'm not keen on riding in the dark unless I have to due to my poor night vision, I'll leave the bike in my office overnight and take the bus home.

 

November the 9th.

This morning I find a reception committee waiting for me. About ten Young Communitarians with a filmscreen banner reading STOP THE LIES! are picketing the entrance to Media House. When they recognise me they start chanting the same slogan in the same shrill robotic sing-song tone of voice which they use against those who disagree with them.

I don't know where that peculiar affectation originated from, but it reminds me of youthful Maoist Red Guards holding public criticism meetings. At least I think that was it; I must have heard it in a documentary about those times shown many, many years ago, or something else learned but then forgotten from my school years resurfaced. What they think they'll achieve with that strange intonation I don't know; they must believe it will unnerve their opponents. It only serves to irritate me further.

Not wanting to waste my breath getting into a pointless argument I ignore them and walk on past. A cycle Compie rides by every now and then but I suspect that he's there as much to protect the demonstrators from us as to prevent any disorder on their part. Not that we're at all bothered about them: If any of them tried breaking their way in Gavin would soon sort them out. An hour later they are gone; bored probably. It's been a while since we last had a demonstration outside our door. Is this resumption of their low-level, pathetically ineffective attempts at intimidation is a sign we're getting under their skin and they don't like it? I hope so!

By all accounts our report last night has caused quite a stink. The Connie supporters are still deluging our inboxes in the hope of overloading the system, but Bippin anticipated this sort of thing when he designed Maggie, so we're able to cope. The ripples from this stone we tossed into the pond have also spread so far and wide that the local Community Support Office Administration have issued a 'clarification', not an apology; in their statement they explain the staff in the Portsmouth Central office will be given 'new guidance' in the application of the rules.

It remains to be seen if they will follow through on their pledge. No doubt someone will find out when the time comes to update their Food Points card, or ComCred card, or TransCred card, or Clothing Credit card, or any of the portfolio of documentation you can't seem to do without these days.

The Council have made no secret of their intention to replace them all with an all-encompassing OneCard, but they have several significant obstacles in their way. The first hurdle is the landmark judgement of Chakarabati v Rex.

Shortly after the Dissolution and the creation of the Council, a human rights group took a case to the Supreme Court. They argued that while the King may be empowered by right and custom to suspend the political system, His Royal Prerogative did not extend to the existing body of the law of the land and the legal system, which should remain unaffected by any decree. This was held to include the Fed's adherence to the existing European and international legal conventions. Surprisingly, the judges largely agreed with them.

Thanks to that ruling the Council's powers were circumscribed and they were forced to abide by the legislative process set down by the court in order for them to be deemed as compliant with the verdict. To complicate the issue still further, by the time the judgement was issued the King was incapacitated, and so unable to issue any decrees amending the law.

In any case a proposal to reintroduce a National Identity Register had been vetoed by the King a month before His stroke. He was mindful how in the past the Royal Assent had been given to many repressive laws which should never have obtained it, and didn't want His legacy to be so tainted. The fact He as a Monarch remained alive, but unable to carry out His duties; and His son and Regent didn't want to be seen to be usurping his father's power to any greater extent than necessary also muddied the legal waters, with there being no precise delineation of the powers and responsibilities of the Monarch and their Regent. This situation was unprecedented, and as with so much in the new Fed, coping mechanisms were improvised on the fly.

Another objection came from the EU. Despite the agreed distancing of the Fed for the time being they weren't keen on that temporary state of affairs acquiring a degree of permanence. The EU negotiators were far more wiley than the naïve Council delegation, even when advised by the diplomatic service; and so were able to word the small print of the Treaty of Ravenna to include a ten year prohibition on the introduction of an independent Fed identity database with different technical standards from that proposed as part of the EU Joint Citizenship Register. There was a hope such a ban would ensure a smooth reassimilation of the Fed back into the fold given a Yes vote when the first referendum as to the Fed's status vis-à-vis the Union took place.

A more practical problem in selling the OneCard is seeing how the Albans were abusing the idea in practice. Despite the new obedience to authority which the Council wanted to inculcate in the population, the practical example across the border of how an identity register could be misused by the state as another tool of power over the individual, and a residual dislike of the abortive scheme that messers Blair and Brown once tried to impose made any prospect of a reintroduction unpalatable. It is all just a bit too 'Scottish' to carry off for now.

But by far the greatest challenge that any system would face would be the Black Dragon. For as long as the virus exists and is able to create or delete identities at its whim, or subtly render the system unworkable in a myriad of ways a multifunctional national identity database will remain impractical: There is just too much at risk. So for the meantime the multiple databases which exist - with their time and labour consuming files of resilient but cumbersome paper backups - will have to do. There are rumours that if, or rather when the Connies win the election they'll use the result as their mandate to push through the OneCard, no matter the difficulties it may cause or the expense involved.

But there is no overwhelming need to have OneCards: In fact it would be far easier to relax the bureaucratic stranglehold on our lives and remove the need for any of these pointless bloody cards; but with the Connies in charge that won't happen. In the meantime, all that prevents our partial ownership by the state becoming total are a hastily negotiated, badly drafted treaty; the garbled wishes of a slowly dying king; and an artificial form of cyber life which is still trenchantly fighting a long finished war. Such are the times we are living through.

 

November the 16th.

The paperwork has finally come through formally declaring Media House to be a part of the Zone. As such we're now largely exempt from most local police powers of entry and search, and entitled to require Compies to leave our premises on demand, with the power to remove them - using 'reasonable' force if necessary - should they fail to comply. I bet Gavin or Terry - our other guard - would be only too eager to enforce that provision.

So another small piece of former Federation territory becomes largely free again. I wonder if it isn't a surreptitious plot by the Zoners to annex the Fed one piece at a time? The thought of the diehard Connies being squeezed into ever decreasing parcels of land is one which pleases me.

 

Chapter Twenty

November the 22nd.

I'm back within the inner core of the Column as part of a group discussing the best means of attacking the Connies' record in office. Our professor is again here to advise us, but it is we who need to come up with a strategy to defeat the buggers; and it won't be an easy thing to do. The prof's analysis may well be correct, but those of us who aren't university academics have a hard time grasping the complex sociology of his reasoning. I'm not dumb but it is quite a mental exercise to understand his argument. If I've got it correctly it runs something like this.

The Connies actually have a considerable support base. Yes it's crazy, but it happens to be so. By now many people have a vested interest in the Consensus government continuing; the system they have created ensures power and pelf from those sitting on the Council all the way down to the local Compy who supplements their meagre income with the ComCred they receive as a result of issuing on the spot fines or items 'confiscated' in random searches.

Not only have people become accustomed to living this way, they are so conditioned to it they can't imagine any alternative; in fact there are many who actually derive a perverse pleasure in seeing the lives and bodies of others bent to their will. It has become more than just a struggle to survive and prosper within the system; it is now a way of life. But how could this have happened in what was - at least in theory - one of the more liberal countries in the world?

The answer is rooted in the ante-Crises culture which predated the Federation and Council; one of economic insecurity as well as a snide jealously inflamed by the many diverse fears concocted by a sensationalist, judgemental media. This led to a people feeling so anxious and fearful they judged the quality of their own lives in regard to that they perceived others to have; whether those perceptions were accurately based on first-hand observations, or influenced by the constant hatemongering propaganda.

Over the years this bred a culture where not only was it considered socially acceptable to inform on a case of suspected wrongdoing - jumping to conclusions before knowing all the facts. It became actively encouraged with grass-in TV programmes not only providing prurient entertainment but hotlines to do so, giving those with a generalised or specific grudge an easy outlet to anonymously express their suspicions. Snitching was not only an exciting and satisfying way of enhancing your self-perceived status by doing your fellow strugglers down; it could on occasions be lucrative.

With so much of the work having already been done in advance the Council found it easy to shape the pliant clay of the populace to their design. Divide and Rule had always been a favoured means of control with the psychologically shocked, disoriented and malnourished people of the immediate post-Crises Fed being prime subjects for manipulation.

They wanted relief from the poverty; the conflict; the uncertainty. They wanted someone with a vision to lead them along a route out of this mess, and the Council offered them one. The radical communitarians in the vanguard of the Consensus movement being most in agreement with the hijacked views of the Royal Commission were used to acting assertively and taking leadership roles, so they were the first to insinuate themselves into the new power structures. As a result they were able to direct the policies of these new organisations to their way of thinking.

With increasing rapidity the state has ingratiated itself into peoples' lives as a result of the work and social services it dispenses. A thankful nation now conflates the Council as well as the organisers of those semi-voluntary services driven by the new ideology of collective self-improvement and reform into a single entity.

Given a sense of purpose again; goals to aim for; some sort of hope for the future; and a sense of self-worth, a new social movement has emerged from the state organised reconstruction efforts. Just as puppies eager to receive rewards and favour, a servile public delivered from a far worse fate are keen to do their masters' bidding.

Totalitarians of every hue have dreamed of an indivisible fusion of state and people. In the creation of the Fed their vision finally appears to have been made real and workable. There is a place for everyone, and everyone in their place; whether they like it or not; with just the right combination of carrot and stick to sustain the system. In this brave new market collectivist world we all move forward together - well, most of us - while occasionally jostling against or trampling each other in our struggle to get slightly further ahead; to be seen to be doing that little bit more in the eyes of our new overseers. With the new state having greatly increased powers and control over the distribution of the means of life, as well as the will to use that leverage against its new serfs it has been easy to lead, and occasionally prod, a bovine public on to their new pastures.

Or to sum it up bluntly: Feed someone who is hungry and they will be thankful enough to love you, as well as doing what you tell them to do.

This 'Stockholm Syndrome' in which those held hostage begin to submissively adopt the views of their captors is the underpinning of the Fed: A Consensus of Council, state, and people in a newfound unity of purpose.

We'll have to confront and defeat this culture in order to win the election. Given such a legacy of doe-eyed, fawning gratitude for what the Consensus has done in dragging a broken nation back - but not as far back as they would have us believe - from the brink of disaster, and an organisation which has had the best part of a decade to become such an integral feature in the fabric of most peoples' everyday lives; breaking the Connies' stranglehold on the electorate is going to be difficult.

At the end of his lecture there is a silence of contemplative thought and an awkwardness of not knowing how to respond. But a half-thought out idea of mine wrestles it's way to completion, and I speak.

"So if I understand you correctly, we're trying to defeat all that the Consensus is, and ever has been; their legacy in fact. That's a lot of a point to get across in one go, and perhaps it isn't possible to do." That prompts some startled looks. "But maybe we don't need to. Perhaps we're going at this the wrong way? If we can't attack the Connies and their record as a whole, then we can identify specific issues to target - such as that hassle I had in the CSO - and use those as touchstones of discontent. I had a lot of positive feedback from people who suffered the same problems as I did, and I believe there is a lot of unexpressed resentment at the way things are.

If we could somehow separate the Connies of the past and their legacy - put it to one side - then we can concentrate on attacking their recent record. I believe they are vulnerable on that score, and we can really hammer them in the here and now while they try to bask in their past glories. It's what people remember at the moment which will make the difference. We have to concentrate on the reality of the mess they've made of our lives now, and if we do then I think we have the basis of a winning strategy."

A light of hope and understanding shines in the faces around the table. Something has clicked and once it does the mental block we had been labouring to move out of the way vanishes, leaving our road clear. Of course it won't be that easy, but I feel as the meeting winds to its close I've been able to contribute something constructive to it.

While my stock is high I think now would be the time to broach that delicate matter to James. As the session breaks up I manage to arrange a few private moments with him in another office and as diplomatically as I can, explain my concerns.

"There's something on my mind I need to discus with you. As you may have noticed this afternoon, I'm taking my work on this campaign very seriously. As part of it I've been trying to put myself in our opponents' flacks, and consider the strategies they might use against the NRP in general, and you in particular as its leader. I think if they could dredge up any personal dirt to use against you then they wouldn't hesitate to use it; moralistic bastards that they are. So I followed that line of thought, and went trawling through the rumour mills of the dark web to see what they might find.

Whoever has been cleaning up behind you has done an impressive job; but what struck me is the extent of the sanitising. It's so large and widespread that I can't help but wonder what exactly has been erased. I know your private life is private, and none of my business, but those people in that room are devoting a  deal of their time and energy to your campaign; not to mention putting themselves at some personal risk. It would be a shame to see all that good work come to nothing because we were blindsided by a Connie ambush."

James looks temporarily taken aback but instantly regains his composure. "I appreciate your candour Richard, but I assure you, everything has been taken care of. All you saw is my legal team making sure all the false rumours and slanders were removed. We don't want to waste our time in the heat of the campaign dealing with nonsense and falsehoods so we're acting on it now. You've got a train to catch soon haven't you? I wouldn't want you to miss it."

The way he answers, and attempts to dismiss me begins to raise my hackles; but it would be extremely counterproductive for me to have an argument with him.

"Well as long as you're happy. I'm still concerned they're probably several steps ahead of us, and been anticipating your moves in advance. Let's face it; they're holding all the cards at the moment, and if I were them I'd have begun digging a long time ago. Any recent whitewashing won't have affected what they may have been able to find and archive in the past." Again a flicker of uncertainty, or is it guilt? flashes across his face. "All I'll say is that if there's something that may compromise the campaign, and you don't want to tell us, which is quite understandable; at least consider how you will respond if it does go public. You owe us that much. We're all putting in a great deal of work on your behalf, and we don't want to see it all blow up in our faces." I see annoyance flash in his eyes. "But as you say, I've got a train to catch so I'd better leave now; all I'm asking is that you consider what I say." And with that I turn and leave as calmly as possible: There's no point in riling him any further.

I think I've given him pause for thought. I hope his annoyance will pass, and he'll understand my reasoning; I'll be deep in it if he takes permanent umbrage. But my overriding thought as the lift takes me down is his lack of denial, and the tacit admission of the clean-up. I wonder what exactly is it he felt he had to bury? I'm even more curious to find out now.

 

November the 23rd.

I was off duty when the Battle of the Boot Sale took place; but I heard all about it.

The Connies had always hated boot sales. They considered them to be merely a means of quickly disposing of stolen goods and laundering undeclared income. With state community shops to which surplus produce could be sold at fixed prices; and Xchanges where household goods and clothes could be bartered or valuables pledged as collateral for short-term microcredit they considered there really was no need for these unregulated, beyond state control, slightly shady enterprises.

As with so many other things they disapproved of, the Council and their army of willing accomplices tried to make life difficult, if not impossible for the booters.

There were many and varied means of doing so. Road checks and shakedowns on the routes leading to known sale sites; ambush inspections of goods and demands for absolutely ironclad proof of ownership by Compies and local authority trading standards officers, with confiscation of any goods which couldn't be validated. Food items were scrupulously examined for suspected 'risks to health' and a blanket ban on the sale of just out of date items rigorously enforced, despite the fact the food was still perfectly good to eat.

Their attempts to strangle the boot sales with a garrotte of red tape were largely successful; forcing much of the trade which used to be done at the sales onto the dark exchanges; but there were a hard core of determined, independent people who would not be cowed into submission. They would arrive at their chosen sites in tuks, or pedalling cargo bikes, or spill, backpacks and bags overloaded with goods, from buses. Even though there were a declining few traders left, they were still too many for the local Connies who were affronted by the very existence of the sellers and their openly anti-authoritarian freewheeling attitudes. Why they even publicly displayed; nay proudly flaunted, their disgustingly obese bodies and tattoos!

These final few tough nuts would have to be cracked once and for all; their sales finally curtailed. So mid-way through the foreshortened chill summer booting season the authorities pounced.The NatPol and CityPol tend to concentrate only on issues of serious criminality, so it was the ComPol who planned and undertook the raid. The may have thought they were being clever in arranging for the local infogrid to be shut down in order to prevent news of their operation from spreading, but it was that, or the lack of their usual presence which must've alerted the booters to the fact something was up.

Rumours of a raid spread by word of mouth. Some people turned around before reaching the site, others frantically repacked their goods and were about to leave when the Compies arrived, swiftly and quietly en masse.

People can be forced to put up with a lot before their sullen resentment flashes into righteous anger; this was the moment when their rage erupted beyond containment. From hidden places an assortment of weapons suddenly appeared, while others improvised with whatever they could find. The ComPigs found themselves facing a tooled-up mob intent on resisting them and teaching them a bloody good lesson in the process, no matter what the later consequences.

The Compies were well prepared with body amour, riot shields, wands, tasers, pepper sprays and CS gas. They found they needed them all when they became embroiled in vicious close quarter combat with the booters. It should've been a rout with the Pols steamrollering any resistance but the word had got out, and reinforcements had been called in. Even the local gangs wanted a piece of the action. The result was an all-out war.

As with everything these days it was filmed, and later blurted when infogrid connection became possible. There is plenty of material to be found in the dark if you know where to look, and it is these vids which I'm editing into a documentary, and a short election blurt for the NRP.

The Compies thought they had any trouble contained within their contracting cordon, but when a mass of hastily mobilised boot sale supporters from outside turned up it was the Pols who found themselves surrounded and under attack from all sides. They weren't expecting their tuks and paddy wagons to be hijacked and driven at high speed into their ranks from their rear, mowing many of their number down, before being set on fire. They were unpleasantly surprised by the Blinders, the stun guns, the machetes, or even the occasional gun shots. Nor did they think a shotgun blast could bring down their low-level surveillance drone. Surprised at the scale of the resistance they were swamped by a human wave and given a traditional Pompey shoeing; with at least two of their number being kicked into a permanent vegetative state. After ten minutes they had to concede they were losing the battle and called in reinforcements from the CityPol.

By the time additional forces arrived it was all but over. The Compies had formed themselves into a tight defensive formation backed up against a club house wall to try to fend off their opponents, while a few bewildered prisoners were held in the middle of the group; but by them the majority of their attackers had fled realising extra police would soon be on their way. The area around the sports club car park was left a shambles of debris, blood stains, and immobile bodies; while Compy tuks still burned fiercely. More police and emergency services arrived, and some sort of order was restored.

The professional CityPol chased the few remaining stragglers down the streets, firing baton rounds at them and getting involved in fast-moving skirmishes; but the squall had blown itself out. The repercussions would last longer. There were many immediate arrests, with more to follow when the video from the body worn cameras was examined. Not all of the cameras which were torn from vehicles, police uniforms or taken along with the helmets were ever recovered; some left behind were too badly burned to be used: People had become wise to those means of evidence gathering.

More than a hundred people were injured to various degrees; sixteen of them seriously, five with life-threatening stab wounds and head injuries. Four Compies were so badly injured they would never be able to resume their duties, while others suffered severed fingers and deep machete cuts.

The reprisals soon followed. There's no love lost between the CityPol and the Compies but such a violation of public order could not go unpunished; even if it was prompted by the ComPigs' insensitivity. Widespread follow-up raids and shakedowns took place. All of those arrested and convicted (these days the conviction invariably follows the arrest, whatever the circumstances of the case) were sentenced to lengthy Rehabilitation terms. In addition, for weeks afterward the area was blanketed with a heavy-handed police presence just to make absolutely sure the lesson had been learned.

But the retaliation can't erase the fact that once again a community had stood up against the overbearing regulation of their lives; and even after order has been restored those jobsworths inspecting even the smallest charitable jumble sales for the slightest infractions of the law are still inhibited by their nervousness of sparking another outbreak of disorder. The local ComPigs still patrol in pairs or groups; ever fearful of being ambushed and 'spazzed' - attacked with the intent of inflicting a permanent disability.

Beneath the facade of calm the resentment still simmers. Anonymous dark blurts promise the old scores aren't forgotten; notes have been made about informers and Street Wardens; and come the time the accounts will be settled.

Of course little of this was reported at the time. Even we at IMS were served with an immediate Section 38 directive by the OMS severely curtailing how we could report the events. A week later when the courts began to pass sentence we were only allowed to mention the offences were 'anti-social activities' without giving any details of the specific charges or context of the cases. For all intents and purposes, the riot never happened; such is the Connies' dread of an example of resistance inspiring others to do likewise.

Yet the riot occurred; and the smouldering resentment remains. When the electoral process officially starts, and we're able to 'cast with fewer restrictions as part of the campaign, we hope to capitalise on these undercurrents of discontent.

I make a final check of the edit, making sure the script reads smoothly for the narrator to voice. Then I run some of the more sensitive sections of the documentary through a facial pixilation wurdle; and just to make absolutely sure the faces can't be identified I use a one-time algorithm which should render the vid useless to anyone trying to use it as evidence in any further persecutions. It's best to err on the side of caution in case anyone who darkblurted had been careless in disguising themselves. I do the same to any non-voiced over clips with a voice changing wurdle. I owe them that much at least. The shorter campaign blurt on the subject is far easier to create, and soon I have both of them ready to send via our secure link for James and the rest of the campaign group to look at.

Maybe I'm getting older, or my eyes are beginning to go; or perhaps it's both of those things plus added stress, overwork, and tiredness, but after a session like that I notice quite a diminution in my vision. If it goes on I'll have to see a doctor about it. I hope after the campaign is over my efforts are appreciated.

November the 24th.

The feedback is good. A prime-time slot will be set aside for national 'casting across the IMS network once the campaign is underway. It will be an ambush last-minute change to the scheduled programme with follow-up repeats for those who miss it. I doubt the Connies, the OMS or the Election Commission will be best pleased, but that's just too bad.

November the 25th.

Over the years we as a people have had to toughen up. We've been impoverished and half-starved; having to adapt to a life without many of the comforts we once took for granted. We've been irradiated and suffered the debilitating effects of the epidemics of biological weapons liberated in the aftermath of the Crises Wars (though fortunately the Doomsday Virus fears proved groundless.) On top of that we've had to cope with regular extremes of appalling weather. But even so I draw the line at cycling to work through squalls of sleeting rain. Instead I decide to take the bus through the late November morning gloom, only to find there's been a minor Grid-Down, as Black Dragon attacks have euphemistically become known.

We've been promised again and again the former DPRK's final weapon was on the point of being contained or defeated for good; yet still it pounces from out of nowhere to inflict yet more inconvenience upon us. This time it appears to have targeted transport, with buses and taxis reporting problems with their ticket card systems thanks to the Dragon infiltrating via the real-time links between vehicles and their control centres. What it will do from there is anyone's guess. It may harvest account details so the unfortunate cardholders find themselves bankrupted or sudden temporary billionaires: It's always best to pay in cash if you can to avoid those sorts of risks. Or the Dragon may fool the tracking systems into thinking a vehicle is off its route.

At least PortsBus are used to this by now. This attack seems to have been going on long enough for them to  post extra staff on their buses with card readers and ticket machines which are independent of the grid and so isolated from this particular attack. The transactions can be reconcilled with their integrated system once this particular dragon hatchling has been slain, or more likely decided to vanish of its own accord as quickly as it arrived.

There's a national task force dedicated to countering Dragon attacks, and they have plenty of work to do. The Dragon is notoriously difficult to counter or kill due to its constantly evolving nature. It attacks with sophistication in many different ways;varying its tactics and degrees of severity; seemingly able to nonchalantly brush aside the levels of cybersecurity put in place to stop it. Some experts believe it may have swapped digital DNA with the venerable Sword of Jihad virus; while others class it as a sentient form of malignant artificial intelligence; warning it has become so deeply entrenched within the nodes of the infogrid it may never be possible to erase it.

There's a growing fear those gloomy experts may be right. Some of the most pessimistic caution attacking the Dragon too aggressively would risk it retaliating by permanently shutting down the entire interconnected structures on which modern life depends, with all the apocalyptic disruption that pushing society suddenly back into the pre-digital age would entail.

So it seems we'll have to live with North Korea's legacy for the time being. But it is an ill wind that blows no good. Many people dreaded the future which was predicted before the Crises: One ever more automated and integrated, where technology was advancing faster than people could adapt or understand it: A world in which people were being rendered increasingly redundant. It seemed at the time that everything would soon disappear up its own backside in a singularity of incomprehension. Thanks to the effects of the Dragon, at least for the moment there is an increasing need for human minders to continually monitor automated systems for the first signs of an attack; though sometimes the attacks aren't so easy to notice.

The Dragon has learned subtlety. It will make undectably tiny updates to automatic programmes; altering dimensions or thread pitches in a way that won't become apparent until hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of useless components have been manufactured. Sometimes it will lurk invisibly in operating systems changing just one line of code at a time; but that one line can make all the difference.
We've learned to be more resilient in the face of it. We've had to relearn to do by hand or brain those processes we used to unthinkingly trust to computers; just in case... Though it may have ruined our productivity, and absorb an estimated four percent of our annual GDP to combat it, the money isn't wasted we're told; as it is recirculated back and around the economy. So says Hazel Dunn, one of the more la-la Connie leaders; the same dinny bint who publicly rejoices how the Albans appear to suffer as much as we do from the brainchild of their former mentor.

There have been plenty of cost-benefit analyses done about the Second Korean War, most of them concluding in retrospect it was a really bad idea. You don't say... It's a shame no one was able to point that out to Mad Dog Farrell before he went off his rocker. They also say in relative terms of damage done the North actually won in the long run. I'm sure the dead of Pyongyang, Chongjing, Hamhung and Kaesong; those slowly dying in the 'treatment centres'  from the effects of radiation poisoning, or the wretched people in one of the relatively unpolluted 'Resettlement Areas' will draw scant comfort from the fact.

The bus reaches the city centre, and it's obvious the attack has spread further than the bus network. There are CityPols on manual traffic duty instead of the traffic llights; with many street lights and buildings darkened. Reaching my stop I hunch down further within my poncho and walk to Media House without getting too badly pelted raw. After a quick cup of hot tea I'm eager to find out how bad this attack has been: Fortunately it doesn't seem to have been too widespread if you can believe the official reports.

Speculation about what the Dragon will do next is officially discouraged. It's understandable, given how unpredictable it is. No-one knows if it is hiding, licking its wounds from the latest battle against the Global Counter-Dragon Task Force, or just lying low before doing something spectacular. The unspoken fear is that one day it will attack a nuclear power station and bypass the failsafes. Many believe the only reason it hasn't as yet is because it understands its continuing existence depends on electricity; but if it felt itself in mortal danger then who knows what it might do? I wonder if it isn't a question of when rather than if it happens.

Chapter Twenty One

November the 26th

I'm putting together a PushCred for the NRP. In doing so I realise I've got a Connie earworm gnawing away at, and stuck on a repeating loop in my mind. If it isn't that song then it's an obscure 1970s hymn, "Everybodys' Building". Both must have had a profound impact at a young age on at least one of the Connie leadership to be chosen among their hymns; they're certainly having an effect on me! They crept into my mind as I'm viewing some covert video taken inside a private inner meeting of a local Consensus group. We've been wanting to find what goes on behind those closed doors for a long time, but it's only now we've been able to get someone who has become disillusioned with the movement to secretly 'cord one of their sessions. What I see is indeed stranger than the speculation.

The general public are encouraged to get involved in the organised community bonding singalongs; and just like any other religious service, one or two may be curious enough to want to find out more. Free food and ComCred grants whet their interest further. Once they are vetted, indoctrinated, and considered to be committed enough to the cause; only then they are allowed into the private rallies.

All the rumours we've heard about these gatherings are true, and then some! Imagine if you can a surreal combination of a motivational sales conference, but held in the atmosphere of a Communist Party meeting from the Mao era. Add to it the fervency of a religious cult service blended with an exercise class and self-help therapy group, and that barely comes close to describing all of what goes on. It seems scarcely believable consenting adults of sound mind would put themselves through this sort of bizarre spectacle and willingly return for more; yet they do. It just goes to prove how effective the conditioning is.

This footage will be a boon to the NRP. Everything, from the impassioned pseudo-sermon by the neighbourhood leader on the redemptive qualities of work and the sin of idleness; to the self-criticism session - where blubbing members stand in front of their fellows and confess they've not been able to do enough for the movement recently, but stammeringly promise to make amends in the future to rapturous applause - is ready made for ridicule.

The team-building exercises involving playground clapping games couldn't have been dreamt up in even the most imaginative flights of fancy of our campaign group. There's also a venting session where, in true Orwellian style, members of the group express their loathing for those they see as the villains of the moment; I'm so pleased it is we in IMS who feature so prominently this time.

But the highlight has to be the exultant close to the meeting marked by the singing of a karaoke version of 'The Family Of Man'; their adopted anthem. The lyrics of the old 1960s pop-folk standard have been slightly adapted to reflect our times; for no-one now would refer to "the miner in the Rhonda, the coolie in Peking", no matter how well meant the sentiment. Those words were changed to "the miner underground and the worker in Beijing".  It's open to question what The Spinners would have thought of their tune being appropriated by the Connies and sung with such glazed-eyed gusto by blissed-out congregations; assuming they could ever have imagined such a deranged organisation could ever exist outside of a drug addled nightmare. Might they have  cringed at the misuse of their song? I hope so.

As the introductory notes begin, the lyrics are displayed on a large filmscreen, though they are largely redundant; Connies take particular pride in learning their songs by heart. Watching the joyful tears trickling down the faces of the hundreds of our would-be saviours as they recharge their vigour for the missionary quest to save us from ourselves, I know these images will do us no end of good, especially those of the clapping along and synchronised clumping of flacks in time with the music lending an air of barely restrained fanaticism to the proceedings.

I wondered if this wasn't just too good to be true. I suspected a deliberate attempt by them to pull a fast one on us, and so discredit our newsgathering reputation. But having met the source - while wearing covert 'cording gear just in case, so we could turn any attempt by the Connies to dupe us back against them - I'm convinced he's genuine.

He wouldn't be the first person to be hoodwinked by the Connies: Back then we were all only too willing to give them a chance to sort out the mess we were in. Like him, those of us who understand what is really happening are much wiser and bitterly cynical now. He wants to get away from the movement as quickly as possible, fearing his disloyalty may be exposed.

I had a tough job persuading him he'd be able to do more for our cause by remaining within the group for the time being. Ideally I'd like a vid of one of their rumoured glutton parties; now that would make some explosive copy! He's heard of them, but hasn't advanced enough within the organisation to be invited to one yet, though he'll do what he can to try to gain access as a server. A few goodies from the Zone helped win him over to my way of thinking. It's amazing what people will do for a little luxury these days. But I still can't get that bloody song out of my head!

But isn't all evangelistic workism, insistent tambourines, and charismatic tough love though. Judith Hall can testify to that; or at least she could before her stroke.

Up until the time of her arrest she had led a blameless life. She was a model citizen; a devoted wife to Laurie until he passed on, and a good mother to Lindsey. She'd contributed to society through her career as a doctor's receptionist, then latterly an administrator before her retirement. She weathered the storms of life and even faced her failing sight with uncomplaining stoicism. She adapted as best she could to it, in part by using a powerful light to read by; and that's when she fell foul of Mark Lowe's Young Communitarian group and the law.

In the times before the Crises and the advent of the Consensus, people such as Lowe would be found dressed in hi-viz tabards, pointing hairdryers or police supplied cameras at motorists driving through '20 is Plenty' zones in an attempt to intimidate them into slowing to a crawl despite the road conditions being perfectly safe for higher speeds. Or they might have been old-style Neighbourhood Watch coordinators; now renamed as Street Wardens and given enhanced powers.

As such,  Lowe and his ilk acquired even greater authority - and the ability to abuse it - than they ever would have been granted in more rational times. Now these busybodies are to be found leading local YC groups on activities such as rubbish rummages. It was on such a patrol the heinous crime was discovered.

One of the indoctrinated youngsters - they didn't realise what they were doing - discovered a box from an outlawed incandescent light bulb in Judith Hart's recycling box. Further examination of her non-recyclable waste revealed a used bulb with a broken filament. If only she'd had thought to mix her rubbish in with the community bin, or just thrown the offending articles away somewhere else she might not have been discovered. But she didn't, and even if the bulb had been disposed of in the community waste the chances are the rummage would have continued anyway until some offence had been detected. The communal bins would have been checked and the whole street have fallen under suspicion.

A ComPol search of her home revealed that out of sight of the street and any patrolling wardens she had obviously been in possession of, and using a non-compliant bulb in defiance of the Energy Act. She was arrested, and under severe questioning admitted she'd more bulbs stockpiled out of the way; kept since before their sale had been prohibited in 2012, and the later retrospective law which made it an offence to even possess an incandescent bulb.

The investigation didn't end there. An examination of the gooseneck lamp revealed it would have been nearly impossible for Judith to remove the broken bulb and replace it with her arthritis-weakened hands. Someone else must have done it for her. Suspicion fell on her daughter Lindsey, who was also arrested.

The case was dealt with in the usual brusque manner. Both mother and daughter were brought before the Community Court the next day. Judith Hall was charged with Possession of an illegal item; Failure to surrender the aforementioned Item; and Failure to inform the Police an Offence had been committed - Namely her daughter had installed a Device prohibited under the Energy Act.

Lindsey Barnes was charged with Installing a item prohibited under the Energy Act; and Failure to inform the Police an offence had been committed - Namely her mother had been in possession of articles prohibited under the Energy Act. As the bulbs in question had obviously been stored there for a considerable time the prosecutors couldn't prove any complicity to traffic them, or intent to supply others with prohibited items. Though they would have loved to add those indictments to the list there was no chance of getting those charges to stick even in these times of rough justice. In any case, the prosecution as rested would be more than sufficient.

In the hour they were allotted with the duty defence advocate before their hearing they were advised that given the facts of the case there was no chance of them defending themselves, so they shouldn't contest the charges, but hope the tribunal would show leniency given Judith's disability as a mitigating factor. It was a forlorn hope.

The hearing didn't take long, it being more of an administrative process than an inquiry into the facts of the case or the culpability or otherwise of the defendants. In summing up and passing sentence the chairman of the tribunal said they had taken Judith's disability into account and concluded though her motive for using a banned light bulb wasn't criminally minded, but it could not be used as an excuse for breaking the law. There were other ways of having books spoken to her despite her difficulty in using modern technology, so her refusal to use alternative means of reading and continuing as she had was evidence of an antisocial stubbornness which could not go unpunished.

Judith was sentenced to six months living in supervised accommodation, a fine of two thousand New Pounds plus court costs, a Lifestyle Audit, and a two year Lifestyle Control Order. Lindsey received six months Rehabilitation, a one year Community Supervision Order, a two year Lifestyle Control Order, and was ordered to pay her court costs.

Word of the case didn't reach us until a week afterward. Lindsey's distraught husband was bound by the same standard injunction which applies to everyone, prohibiting them from revealing the fact of a hearing has taking place, or its verdict for a week after the event. The official reason given is to prevent protests from being organised and to preserve the 'integrity' of the court process. As with so many other aspects of the Connie system, it is a  lie.

The reason reporting of the secretive Community Courts is delayed is so all those involved in the injustice factory can be well distanced from their acts when the truth finally emerges. By the time we heard about the case both Judith and Lindsey had disappeared into the rehabilitation system, not to be seen or heard from again until they had been sufficiently conditioned to be trusted to write and say the right things about their incarceration; if they had behaved well enough to earn the privilege of communicating, or a rare family visit.


Even though Judith was given a more leniently 'soft' punishment than the norm for this sort of offence it proved too much for a confused seventy eight year-old. It was Russell; Lindsey's husband, who learned  Judith had been admitted to the basic Rehab area hospital suffering from the symptoms of a stroke via an impersonally terse message. In no uncertain terms he was informed visitors were not permitted.

It wasn't clear whether Lindsey had been informed of her mother's illness. In any case there would be no chance of her being granted compassionate leave to visit Judith. Prompted by this callous treatment Russell wrote to the King begging Him to grant a pardon for his wife and mother-in-law, taking into account their current circumstances. There was little point in applying for mercy using the token appeal mechanism; the process would often take longer than the remaining sentence to be served - a deliberate policy - and would invariably be rejected: The System did not make errors. When he received no reply Russell contacted our office and cried for help.

Realising we could have a major story on our hands and one which would need careful handling as well as expert legal advice, we brought our London office in on it; they took over. The King was asked to grant a Royal Pardon on compassionate grounds, but it was unlikely the petition got further than a junior member of staff in the Office of the Regency before being passed back to the Department of Rehabilitation. Russell received a stern reply from the DOR, scolding the appeals procedure and the existing legal mechanisms should be exhausted before a petition to Their Majesties could even be considered. It seemed no matter how heartfelt the pleas for mercy, the implacable system wouldn't be releasing its grip on Judith and Lindsey any time soon.

But the furore hadn't been entirely in vain: It had caught the attention of the insurgents. They judged the Connies had overstepped themselves and the time was long overdue for those responsible for this miscarriage of justice to be taught a harsh lesson.

It isn't known how the insurgents were able to breach the security of the Community Court database and use it to trace the personal details of the tribunal members; the hardcore insurgents are a very professional operation who cover their tracks well. They chose the chairman of the tribunal on the day of the womens' trial - Ron Holloway - to be their unfortunate victim.

Believing himself to be safely shielded from any reprisal by the anonymity of the system, he was picked up by a prebooked taxituk to take him to a meeting. He never arrived at his destination. Instead his life was to change dramatically from that point onward.

A 999 call alerting the emergency services to a fire on the Farlington marshes resulted in he and the still sedated taxi driver being found near to the burning 'tuk. The driver was unable to tell the police anything about what happened; nor was Ron Holloway. But an anonymous, untraceable blurt 'cast from a disposable address soon after the discovery explained everything in graphic detail.

We can only imagine how Holloway must have felt as he regained consciousness to find himself gagged and tightly bound to a metal bed frame above a large plastic sheet in some poorly lit anonymous place; a small lock-up garage or industrial unit by the look of it. As none of his mask wearing abductors speaks on the blurt we can only guess at his initial confusion, then terror as two of the the gang hold his head still while another pulls back his eyelid with a protectively gloved hand and drips liquid from a glass bottle into his eye. A helpful subtitle explains the liquid is industrial strength sulphuric acid.

Ron's screams are muffled by his gag as first one eye, then his other are dissolved by the stinging acid; but his ordeal is far from over. The captions go on to say that in order to ensure he is never able to pass another judgement again he must be rendered incapable of both reading testimony, and hearing it. His head is roughly twisted to one side and the acid dripped into his auditory canal; then the process repeated with the other ear.

By now Ron's thrashing subsides due to shock and exhaustion. He's shit and pissed himself - the camera zooms in triumphantly to show it - and he has screamed himself hoarse; but just to be absolutely sure he is made completely incommunicado the gag is removed, a wooden chock is used to force his mouth open and with a crude sawing motion his tongue is cut out. After being proudly displayed to the camera the severed organ is thrust back into his mouth in order not to leave any forensic traces at the scene. The final caption informs us this completes his punishment for picking on a defenceless, disabled pensioner, and it should serve as a warning to anyone else who thinks they can impose harsh punishments with impunity on anyone who breaks an unjust law. There is no escaping the retribution of the insurgents. His torture concluded Holloway is repeatedly punched in the head until he is unconscious again. The blurt ends. The insurgents returned to the shadows of obscurity, covered by their usual high standard of frazzling to defeat any attempts to trace them.

Once it was realised what had happened Jeffery Wilson and Katherine Brown, the two other members of the tribunal; as well as Mark Lowe were taken into the witness protection programme. They and their families were moved out of the area; first to safe houses, then to new out of area addresses. They were provided with new identities, but still they would spend the rest of their lives in a perpetual state of anxiety; wondering if a system which had been hacked once could ever be considered secure again; their new aliases exposed once more, and they to suffer a flidding as well.

There was nothing that could be done for Ron Holloway. Surgery has advanced a lot but by nowhere near enough to be able to repair the horrific injuries inflicted on him. He has some vestigial hearing in his left ear, but only enough for him to make it clear that he has heard something. He will serve the brutal sentence of traumatic sensory deprivation for the rest of his natural life without any hope of remission.

In a high profile case such as this the NatPol Special Investigation Unit came charging in with typical armoured thuggishness; raiding, arresting, interrogating anyone they thought may be even remotely involved. Even we at IMS were paid a visit by some thickset gorillas in suits who weren't best pleased by my protestations we received our information on this case from the same sources as everyone else. They were convinced we had a dark contact to the perpetrators, and hence a possible means of tracing them.

I invited them to bring in experts to examine our systems, confident as I was they wouldn't find anything. (We do have a contact, who knows someone else, who may be able to get a message through to the insurgents; but we don't dare use the link than on those very rare occasions when we feel impelled to communicate, for fear of being detected despite our security and cutouts. If there is a message to be passed; and then only when we have to make contact; the process is initiated by them. We do the minimum we must to reply, and are only too pleased not to hear any more from them. We'd never be stupid enough to have the details stored on any of our registered gear.)

After an hour of being grilled in my own office they decided they weren't going to learn any more and left; promising a very unpleasant return visit if they found I'd been holding out on them. Despite their bluster I felt they were just going through the motions; the trail had long gone cold and they wouldn't pick it up again.

After making themselves as obnoxious as possible for a few days the NatPol returned to London, leaving the CityPol to get on with the random reprisals. They don't like being shown up on their own patch so someone had to pay for their embarrassment; even if those arrested had nothing to do with the original crime. Lessons had to be taught and learned: It was as simple as that.

Things quietened again. The vague, carefully phrased, OMS compliant reports hinted at Holloway's "injuries"' without going into specific details, or mentioning the link to the Light Bulb Case; instead playing up the appeals for witnesses. The blurt was never mentioned of course; but it remains available on DarkTube for anyone who wants to see it. The casual inhumanity which is shown, even to a Connie bastard like Holloway, leaves me feeling cold and sick inside watching it.

We don't know how far the news of the attack affected the closed society of Community Court judges and if it has made any difference to their verdicts or sentencing. That is just another thing we in the media are not allowed to know, speculate about, or report. Now Connie functionaries won't use taxituks, prebooked or otherwise, and they never travel alone: Instead they travel in private transport, armed and in pairs at least; better still accompanied by trusted bodyguards.

No one iexpects the early release of Judith and Lindsey as a result of the Farlington incident. They remain incarcerated in Rehabilitation; the effects of it upon them will be as permanent as the maiming of Ron Holloway, or the lifetime of unending worry in prospect for the other protagonists in the case.

Even when they are released they won't ever be free of the system. Judith will need full-time care in a supported home: Bizarrely that may well be the best thing for her, as she won't be able to return to her previous address having forfeited her tenancy rights upon her conviction, and her flat already being reoccupied. Lindsey and her family will face even greater challenges. In addition to having to comply with the strict conditions of the non-custodial part of her sentence she'll struggle to be reassigned as a teaching assistant again given her conviction. She'll also find herself coming under the indefinite scrutiny of the local Social Support Service, and we all know how keen they are to separate children from 'problem' parents. Even Russell might find himself tainted by association. The chances are at the very least they'll fail their next housing assessment on the grounds of social delinquency, and be forcibly moved on to the downgraded accommodation they are then deemed to deserve.

All of those lives so adversely affected for the foreseeable future; and all for something which wouldn't have been considered a crime not that many years ago: Such have times changed.

If there is a small mercy it is the insurgents didn't hold the children in the Young Communitarian group as responsible as the adults. They made it clear that as long as that particular group was disbanded and the children withdrawn from all other YC activities, no further action would be taken against them. Despite the difficulties and repercussions involved in not participating in the YC all the parents complied. They knew they were being watched from afar. An invisible area of influence has altered slightly in one place; one of many unreported shifts of power in the rare skirmishes which the civil war has wound down to these days.

The local YC group may be no more, but the children are still exposed to the conditioning of the Connieformed education system. Lenin once said "Give me just one generation of youth, and I'll transform the whole world." It's a message the Connies have taken to heart.

They have often made it clear the changes they have enacted so far - even though they have been so profound and achieved over such a remarkably short time - are only the start of a transformative process they see continuing for generations. Already, and despite the historic examples which are a sinister portent; a generation of children are being brainwashed into becoming emotionally detached from their parents, even to the point of informing on them. I dread to think of the society those children will create as they grow older.

Chapter Twenty Two

  

 November the 28th.

The old adage relating to the Atlantic hurricane season runs in part; "October: It's all over." It will need to be amended to reflect our changing climate because I've just seen the latest weather forecast and it doesn't look good. Another vigorous low-pressure system which should have become a Category Three hurricane and made landfall in Florida, instead ran parallel to the US east coast before recurving to the north-east. It became entangled with the Atlantic jet stream, running almost permanently on a more southerly latitude now, so it hasn't weakened as much as expected; and now the densely-packed swirl of isobars which resembles the close contours of a mountain drawn on an Ordinance Survey map is predicted to hit the southern Fed tonight. It's time to go into emergency public service broadcaster, batten down the hatches mode.

At a conference call of all our offices I remind them of our, not the OMS' guidelines. "Remember; I don't want to see and I won't use any feet-wet or windblown breathless reportage, no matter how dramatic it may look: Not from us or any of our stringers! Don't stand out in the middle of it like a dinlo when you're 'casting! Yes, we know the weather is bad without you pratting about in it up to your knees! We're not NewSkyNews or the Beeb! So stick to the facts, taking no-one's word for anything without corroboration, and that goes especially for blurts. You all know your jobs, so do what you do well and keep safe!" The advance warnings have been issued, we'll continue to update them as the storm approaches, and we're ready to cover any of the usual problems in the usual places.

Stronger storms are another thing we've had to get used to over the last decade. There was a time just a few years ago when we hardly ever had a decent winter gale; it was said this was the effect of climate change, with an overall warming lessening the contrast in temperature gradients which leads to storms. But now the weather seems to be making up for lost time and it's a rare winter month which doesn't have a Force Eleven gale smashing into the south coast. The sea defences have been reinforced as much as the straitened finances will allow but; as the residents of the Manhood peninsula coast will tell you, sometimes it just isn't enough. I must remind myself to commission a follow-up programme on the Selsey floods soon...

The other problem we'll probably face will be an overspin of the Éireaan wind farms. Wind energy sounds fine in principle but the practicalities let it down. Trying to balance so many variable inputs into the grid; especially during stormy weather, usually leads to the network going into a failsafe shutdown. The Crises set back the power station modernisation programme so we're still using many of the same generating plants we were two decades ago, and most of them are operating way beyond their designed lifespan.

Across the southern Fed conscripted National Resilience Agency staff will be called to duty; wind-up lanterns and shakerlites will be brought out from Ready Bags, local emergency plans activated, and Rest Centres readied for the displaced. We've been fortunate so far, but with the intensity of the storms increasing each winter sooner or later we're bound to be hit hard.

With a few hours to go before the storm is forecast to arrive we're as ready as we'll ever be. The dedicated weather stream is up; waiting to show in real time the inevitable huge waves crashing ashore, thrashing trees, and NRA personnel in their rain-slicked waterproofs doing what they can; but at the moment it's on a repeating loop of official preparedness blurts, the same ones which are Pushed to all personal devices flicked on in the projected danger areas. It's an easy way of fulfilling our Public Service Quota, even if we don't get any 'Cred for it. We've also got live links from the Rest Centres should we need them for the human interest angle to the evolving story, but we won't be allowed to show the body and bag seaches for 'prohibited articles' which anyone seeking shelter there must submit to; apparently to preserve the personal dignity of those involved.

I'll also be keeping a particular eye on the feed my father is 'casting from his park home located on the coast near Bognor Regis. At present it shows the seas a-building, with the occasional wall of spray blown over the top of the sea defences there; but the waves are being held at bay for the moment.

So now we must wait and hope this storm passes through without being too much of a disaster. It's going to be a long night.

November the 29th.

Early morning. We seem to have got away lightly this time. There were the usual power problems of course, but we only suffered some minor sea surge flooding in the most vulnerable areas. There are a few reports of stripped roofs and collapsed scaffolding but nothing unexpected. Some windows in the Lipstick Tower were blown out, but no one was injured. There were fewer trees blown down, as those which were weakened enough to fall had already done so: Even so there's quite a bit of windblown mess for the credders to get started on. Most importantly of all the caravan park where Dad lives avoided being flooded; but it seemed touch and go for a while.

Apart from that there's only the usual round-up reportage of the damage to be done. Ever since the infamous episode when an insensitive NewSkyNews reporter got chinned live on air for asking a flood victim how it felt to lose everything they had, media coverage of disasters has been much more respectful of the victims. These days the emphasis is on sympathetically reporting the straight facts of what has happened and not stooping to gratuitously voyeuristic calamity porn. Frankly, people have had quite enough of that style of news by now.

November the 30th.

St Andrew's Day is whenthe Albans celebrate their independence. As usual both they and the Fed have their propaganda machines poised for action. The Fed gets their shot away first with a PushCred report from a strategic think tank speculating how Alba is long overdue for a social, economic, and military collapse. Some of our viewers may be dumb enough to believe it, or forgetful enough not to remember the same organisation issued a similar report this time last year; but so far those stubborn Albans have refused to behave as forecast.

We can't 'cast from Alban territority without falling foul of the Media Act and the OMS, so such feed as we're allowed to see from Edinburgh comes from international sources. Despite all the talk of the Alban Typhoons being unflyable due to lack of spares, maintenance and technical support; or a shortage of competent pilots, three of the jets circle above the renamed Alban Mile (the 'Royal' having been dropped.) We're informed the remaining aircraft in the squadron are being 'held on alert'. It may be a bluff, but obviously at least three of them can fly, and it only takes one to get through... The sight of saltaire roundels painted on their wings still irks we Fedders like having a broken tooth you can't keep your tongue away from, even after this amount of time has passed.

The march past parade features the expected polished troops, road-mobile medium range missiles, light tanks and associated pomp rumbling through; but what is noticeable is President McClellan isn't there to take the salute. Perhaps those long-standing rumours about his health are true, or he doesn't dare risk exposing himself to a possible drone attack on his way to or from the armour crystal protected viewing gallery. He wouldn't be the only leader paranoid about such a threat to his safety.

Of equal interest to the analysts as the President's health are the Alban drone displays flying with precision between the buildings just above the heads of the spectators. The battle 'droids bringing up the rear look impressive; and even appear to be completely autonomous rather than teleslaved to a remote human operator in an exosuit; but when all is said and done, 'droids are only legged tanks. It is the drones which give us the greatest cause for concern.

There are various stories and speculation doing the rounds about what the Albans are capable of. Their former North Korean masters were late in catching on to the military potential of Uncrewed Autonomous Vehicles; but once they understood what they could offer they soon became proficient in their construction and deployment. In the absence of their mentors the Albans have created a knowledge and manufacturing base almost from the ground up, despite the international sanctions.

In fact the removal of the leaden influence of their North Korean patrons appears to have done the Albans no end of good. Their products are as good as those of the major weapons producing nations, and being competitively priced they sell well with buyers unconcerned about the origin of their purchases. In reality the arms and trade embargo exists in name only. Alban 'droids have proven so reliable that they are used for continuously patrolling the northern side of the border; escapes over the Wall having all but halted since the 'bots were introduced.

Just as the public of the 1930s lived in fear of the unknown potential of strategic bombers to launch apocalyptic air raids, our generation dreads robot wars involving cunning cross-country hedge hoppers, high-speed roadrunners, spiderbots, and slow missiles camouflaged to look like innocuous everyday objects delivering warheads of mass destruction.

Undetectable, uninterceptable, amphibious 'bots are said to be under development; able to sneak ashore and wreak havoc on coastal nuclear power stations, gas or oil terminals, ports, or any other riverine targets. No place, however well protected, can be considered safe anymore. Even an individual can be selected as the sole target for one of these relentlessly efficient assassins.

The war machines are developing exponentially; becoming smaller, smarter, more capable. So far mass swarm weapons are still only a theoretical possibility, but for how much longer? The next Secession War, if there is one, will be far different from the first. I pray we never have to fight it.

The land and air displays of the morning are finished, but there is still the naval display to come. Further out in the Firth of Forth a small flotilla of coastal patrol frigates are arrayed. The Alban feed splits into a double screen; one side showing a close-in of a ship, the other a deserted speck of a Hebridean island with an unpronounceable name. Suddenly there is an eruption of smoke and flame from the ship as a cruise missile is launched; it flies away north-westward to the horizon tracked by the camera as it shrinks into invisibility. In a moment all there is left is the ragged dispersing of the exhaust trail.

The screen now reverts to a single shot of the island with an elapsed time display counting. Nothing seems to happen for an interminable time; then there is a bright flash, a rising sphere of roiling orangey fire and a visible shockwave expanding away from the explosion, shaking the aerial camera when it reaches it. Did the Albans just conduct a public live fire test of a micronuke tipped missile? Apparently not; it was a conventional explosive, but quite a powerful one by the looks of it.

As impressive a demonstration as that was, it appears not to be the climax of the display. The slightly delayed English translation of the official, compulsory Gaelic explains we should concentrate our attention on a vividly red buoy on the horizon; the camera zooms on to a patch of hammer beaten steel grey sea around it. Suddenly from an explosion of spray and steam bursts a missile, a gush of fire belching from its base. It accelerates into the low arc of a depressed ballistic trajectory and vanishes from sight far more quickly than the first shot.

The screen returns to the island again; its heather turf still smoking from the previous strike. The camera helicopter has quickly flown much further away from it. There isn't long to wait for this missile to hit, and it does so with far greater force, creating an incandescently bright bubble of a conflagration. Once the juddering picture has stabilised and the smoke blown aside by the wind it is clear to see the second strike has riven a hefty slab off a granite cliff at the end of the island. That must have been one hell of a powerful blast. We're told we've just seen the latest generation of conventional thermobaric warheads in action. The scene changes to the celebratory crowd who have been watching the test on a big screen applauding its success.

The submarine; streamlined hump of a conning tower low to the water, surfaces to acknowledge the ovation before slipping back beneath the waves. So that explains what the Albans have been doing inside the giant sheds they built over the Clyde shipyards! From beginning with a rag-tag navy of converted trawlers they've progressed to the construction of one or more micro boomers: Small, stealthy and very capable diesel-electric missile submarines designed to be used in the shallow seas which surround these islands. The fact they feel confident enough to reveal their existence, and have a public test firing of one of their weapons is an unanswerable rebuttal to the Fed's propaganda about theirs being a failing state.

If anything it appears we are the ones who are struggling to avoid being left behind. We won't be told of course if our military intelligence services knew of this development in advance or if they were as startled as the rest of us; nor how our more northerly focused navy of coastal patrol craft based in Barrow-in-Furness and Tynemouth will respond to this development; but I suspect this latest demonstration has shaken a few people out of their complacency.

I wonder what effect this news will have on the upcoming election? Will it show up the Consensus to have fallen asleep at the wheel? Or will this latest shock prompt a jingoistic anti-Alban rallying to the government flag?

December the 1st.

A supplemental PushCred was issued today. It was the usual 'intelligence sources' speculating yesterday's demonstration wasn't all it appeared to be. In their judgment the island had been preprepared with powerful explosives to simulate a successful strike, and the missile - though launched successfully from a pressurised launch tube towed out to and anchored at that point with just enough buoyancy to keep it just below the sea surface - had been aimed at a remote patch of empty sea; such was the concern about its accuracy. Even the oft-repeated slow-mo shots of a blurred object streaking down on to the target were merely manipulated images.

As for the submarine; it is only a short range vessel, designed for use near the Scottish mainland. They are still in the fitting out and sea trials stages of development. The navy was aware of them and has already put in action counter strategies to deal with the threat; but considers those badly constructed death traps pose a greater risk to their crew than to the Fed. So all in all there is no cause for alarm.

We're informed grand deceptions such as these are what can expected from an insecure nation looked down upon by the rest of the world; a military and economic paper tiger which keeps its controlled population stupefied with such blatant propaganda. But is it a truthful view of the situation on the other side of Hadrian's Wall, or our reflection in a mirror held up to ourselves?

Chapter Twenty Three

December the 23rd.

Though they'd love to get the annoying holiday of mass idleness out of the way, even the puritan Connies don't dare kill off Christmas. They understand there needs to be an occasional escape from the spirit crushing routine of daily life in order to keep things going, so they allow the temporary indulgences of Christmas and Easter. But that doesn't stop them from doing what they can to suck all the anticipation and excitement out of the festival. It's still the time for families to be reunited, and modest celebrations are permitted, with a very limited selection of Christmas specialities made available in the fortnight before before the event; but that is it. There are few if any public displays of Christmas lights; no week-long shutdowns; no queues for the post-Christmas sales. All is calm; all is dull. The holiday begins on Christmas Eve, and the day after Saint Stephen's day - Boxing day - it's back to business as usual.

I drew the short straw of the holiday shift last year, so this year it's my time off. For my festive break I'll be travelling away by train but rather than going all the way to Barnham, and then changing for Bognor before trying to hail a taxituk, I'll get off at Chichester; then catch a bus down to the coast near Pagham to spend Christmas with Dad. We get on well, and we see each over regularly both on link and in the flesh, but visiting him is always a poignant, bittersweet experience as it is a reminder of what life has done to him. Still it beats spending Christmas alone.

Dad's journalistic career started out in the national press. He was lucky enough to leave university and walk straight into a post in one of the broadsheets, but after a while he realised it wasn't for him so decided to move to the relative tranquillity of the south coast and the editorship of a stable of local papers.

It was while he was covering a protest against yet another new town planned to smother a swathe of irreplaceable countryside he met Mum. The unstoppable suburban blight duly covered the prime agricultural land, but meanwhile love had blossomed and I was soon on the way.

As the digital revolution affected every aspect of our lives, including the way we received and interacted with the news, Dad adapted and managed the transition of the business from print to multimedia formats. He even dabbled in 'casting for a while; but then Mum's cancer was diagnosed, and his priorities changed.

The thunderbolt which struck Mum and Dad's world happened just before the advent of the latter Crises. Fortunately there was still enough of a specialised health service then, before the rationing of Balanced Resource Allocation began to bite, for Mum to get the best treatment they could give her, but it wasn't enough.

Dad sold his house, bought a park home and used the surplus to send Mum to Germany for some experimental treatment. She got an extra eighteen months of a reasonable quality of life as a result but after the remission her cancer returned with a vengeance, seemingly intent on making up for the time it had been held at bay. At least her final weeks were relatively easy and painless.

Being broke, and having had to take an early semi-retirement to claim an advanced lump sum on his pension as well so that he could look after Mum, Dad now finds himself stuck precariously out on the coast living in a worthless caravan on a neglected site at ever greater risk of being swamped by the sea. He ekes out his miserly pension with some freelance writing and by being as self-sufficient as psssible. As far as Community Support is concerned he's sufficiently provided for, so any claim for additional income or housing will be automatically rejected barring a major change in circumstances, such as his home floating away. But Dad is too proud a man to abase himself pleading his case before an indifferent CS clerk. He'd rather forage for food and sleep under a tarp than complete an intrusive lifestyle questionnaire. He'd refuse point blank to live in a single bed cubicle with common facilities barely a step up from a Slop N Drop; subject to the new feudalism which are the conditionality clauses of a Connie tenancy. If the worst ever came to the worse he's welcome to stay with me and he knows it. But he's just too determinedly independent to consider it.

Pagham was once a desirable seaside retirement village for the upper middle classes. Then came the Great Gale and with it the tidal surge which rendered the resort, as well as much of the Manhood peninsular coast uninhabitable. The innovative Medmerry tidal wetland scheme; designed to allow the sea to reclaim some of the coastal land as a 'soft defence' in the hope of saving the area from the threat of flooding, instead became the weak point through which the storm-pushed sea surge funneled behind Selsey, turning the town into an island. The Pagham Harbour nature reserve and the western parts of Pagham village found themselves threatened by the waves from a totally unexpected direction.

After the event there were promises of improved sea defences and better drainage, but beyond the talk nothing more ever materialised. By then the East Coast flood scare had monopolised all of the reserves of labour and machinery to protect the Fenlands should that worst case scenario of a North Sea storm surge go the whole distance the next time; rather than fortuitously abating at the eleventh hour enough to prevent a cataclysmic loss of the Fed's most fertile arable land. With any hope of large-scale future sea defence works quashed, the planned 'managed retreat' from the Manhood peninsular became a a slow motion rout. Those who could left, leaving the cussed hold-outs like Dad behind. The end of the known world now lies at the intertidal zone some fifteen kilometres to the south-southeast of Chichester.

Despite its reputation for being a jewel of Georgian architecture, Chichester looks as blighted by modern buildings turned seedy as so many of the south coast towns are. In the past the city's residents thought they were aloof from the rest of the area and immune from its problems. The coming of the Crises soon disabused them of their haughty airs and graces. They learned even their precious little boutiques could close; nor were restaurants and coffee shops the foundation of a resillient local economy. With the Festival Theatre closing for longer periods leaving only the College, the University and Saint Richard's Hospital keeping the city going, Chichester is not a place which invites you to linger there.

Crossing the road from the railway station to the diesel soot stained, squalid brick lump of the bus terminal does nothing to improve my mood, or perhaps it's the weather; a closed in sullen grey drizzle. A couple of bored TransPols cast curious looks at my holdall but are dissuaded from demanding a speculative rummage through by the prominent Zone ribbon seal. A good thing too as I've got Dad's presents and some supplies for him inside; I wouldn't want to lose them to their sticky fingers. After a half hour of boredom only partially relieved by the terminal's painfully slow FreeFi, the bus arrives.

This minibus must have been remanufactured several times with the last time being once too many. As it lurches away from the stop the gearbox sounds as if it is full of loose parts and the suspension wallows with wear, yet the bus moves. These days that is enough.

As we labour our way out of the city I notice even here where once the strict planning regulations were enthusiastically enforced, things have been allowed to slip in a haphazard anarchy of mediocre architectural styles. More houses have grown extra stories or have the windows of an attic conversion poking their way through the roof. Some have pushed their frontages forward to consume the little handkerchief sized spaces of what used to be concreted front lawns: Now their front doors open directly onto the pavement.

Garages, strips of back gardens, even passageways alongside houses have been walled and roofed over. Almost unliveable 'linear accommodation', as it has been euphemistically named has become accepted, even sought after. In these times of severe housing shortage anything goes. What used to be tiny grassed over verges, small car parking areas, or even large enough traffic roundabouts have had buildings shoehorned in. With just a little imagination some more precious space - perhaps just enough to allow a property to be subdivided into two - can be conjured from nothing. All of these alterations lend the city a narrowing, darkening, almost mediaeval aspect.

As we cross the A27 bypass I note the road is underwater as usual, with workers clad in dirtied yellow and purple NRA uniforms tending the large truck mounted boxy pumps straining to keep the flood at a manageable few centimetres. Chichester has always been a victim of its position at the base of the South Downs. The rain falling on those low chalk hills to the north always flows down to the sea and pools where the artesian geology meets the coastal plain: The city is built on top of that spot. As what once used to be once in a generation extreme rainfall has now become routine, keeping the main coastal road open is a constant struggle.

This December has been particularly rainy up to now; everyone is hoping that the forecasters are right and the wet spell is over for now, even if the lingering effects and the clear up will last for a few weeks yet. Leaving a wake behind the bus shrugs the water aside and fords along the B2166 to North Mundham. The road dries slightly, the gears can at last change up to a slightly quieter ratio, and we pick up speed.

Approaching the coast the lines of trees marking boundaries begin to thin; not that its possible to see more than a few hundred metres in this depressingly murky cloud. After winding through a dismal winterscape of bare hedges and saturated fields of large tea coloured puddles it's almost pleasing to reach Nyetimber. But any relief is short lived.

The community has the air of living on borrowed time about it: So much so it's not deemed worth the effort to bodge extra space here to lodge the industrious migrants brought in by the Council to teach we indolent Fedders the skills and work ethic which we once had, but then lost. The quality of life in this formely pleasant village has long gone, replaced by the impermanence of improvised building repairs. Broken windows are replaced with plywood, polyglass or transparent plastic film; sheets of scavenged solarfilm aged to a milky opaqueness battened down onto roofs provide a trickle of power. Weathered tarpaulins prevent the rain from leaking through, while walls of stained sandbags piled against doorsteps stand ready to stop sudden flash floods from entering the houses. Everywhere there is the pervasive rotting smell of damp or mould, and an occasional nose catching whiff of raw sewage.

Following the Great Gale and the battering of the storms which followed it, the south-western end of the Bognor conurbation was evacuated and declared uninhabitable; yet the stubborn residents returned. They had invested everything in their homes, and would rather risk living here than stare at the pattern of the wood chips showing through the thin paint on the walls of a shoddy emergency resettlement camp prefab thrown up on the disused hard standings of the Tangmere or Ford airfields.

Paradoxically the stay-puts were joined by an influx of new residents; those seeking an escape from the attentions of local Connie groups in an area officially declared abandoned and so excluded from their targets; along with a new breed of pioneer escaping the constant press of the cities for space to breathe, as well as the risky adventure of life on the coast. Joining them came grey haired, pot bellied, veteran extreme watersports fanatics for whom the weather forecast isn't a source of fear but a hoped for opportunity to push themselves and their faded, much-repaired equipment to the limits. All living as invisibly as possible for fear the ComPol will decide to clear them out again. The Goons run a sweep from time to time but they daren't push their luck too far or too often. They're aware the area remains inhabited but as long as it remains calm, and things don't get out of hand they're prepared to tolerate it. After all, at least this anarchic bunch are all together in one easily observable place; and it saves having to accommodate them elsewhere.

Still further to the southwest are the real gamblers against nature; and Dad is one of their unwilling number. I've suggested to him he squats further inland, but he won't give up his legally held share of shrinking salt marsh: In his mind he intends to cling on to his little scrap of land and what dignity he has left until the bitter end.

The bus takes me as far as it can but still stops a kilometre away from Shorehaven Park. After the lurching potholed ride down I'm quite relieved to get off it and let the walk settle my nauseous stomach. The bus turns east towards Rose Green and disappears, tail lights shrinking into the gathering gloom of the mid afternoon twilight.

As the sound of the bus' engine fades a stillness closes in. There are sounds to be heard if you listen hard enough for them; the faint mournful caw of a gull or the distant putter of a tuk, but I'm struck by the lack of wind and wave sounds. There are days like this sometimes; though they are fewer and farther between than they used to be. Heading towards the Park I notice how, just as the trees thin out in favour of scattered salt tolerant bushes as I draw nearer to the shore, so do the inhabited bungalows. This sense of abandonment and the lack of signs of humanity in the direction I'm walking unnerves me. Not even the sea can soothe my unease with the eternal sighing of feeble waves breaking over the beach; the muffled clacking of shingle the snoring of a behemoth which will inevitably awaken fierce and ravenous.

A street light is trying and failing to flicker into life. I pass a small homemade wind turbine mounted on a low salt burned mast; it won't be producing any energy from its stilled, condensation dripping blades this dead calm evening. A rusting hulk which was once a van, long stripped of anything useful, is a reassuring landmark that I'm not lost and I've not got far to go now.

There are the gates to the Park looming out of the drizzle which has thickened to a sea fog. I'm about to call Dad to let him know I've arrived and to let me in when I see the door of the guard shed open.

Dad; Dave; a park resident on gate rota, and Cushie, a foundling mongrel stray adopted as the Park's communal guard dog come out to greet me. Then leaving Dave behind and Cushie eagerly sniffing around us, Dad walks me to his trailer.

The site appears deserted but there are still a good few elderly occupants left, though at this time of the evening there is little sign of them beyond weak lights showing through curtained windows. Their numbers are dwindling as people die or become so aged they need full-time care. But this is a resillient, strongly bonded community of dogged individuals, so they just get on with the day-to-day business of surviving, and tough it out as long as they can.

With the sea lapping still closer to the southern edge of the Park, the residents have moved their vans as far to the north as they can, and used the vacated ground to throw up as good a levee as they can make. Dad promises to show me their handiwork tomorrow.

Now the layout of the park has been completely rearranged I'd be lost trying to find Dad's trailer without his guidance, but as the last dregs of daylight disappear we reach his door and I'm welcomed into my lodgings for the next couple of days.

What strikes me as I enter is how chilly it is inside. Of course these days few people can afford to heat their homes to anything like the 15°c recommended minimum, but I'm seriously concerned about Dad and his persistent dry cough which never seems to clear. He laughs it off; saying it isn't as cold as it feels, then sets about making the fire in his home made stove. The park dwellers collect the driftwood from the beach, and once it dries out it burns well. Nethertheless I feel uncomfortable about this; I suspect Dad has been hoarding his share and delaying using it just to ensure I feel comfortable.

My guilt is eased by Dad's thankful reaction to the supplies I've brought with me. Being able to shop in the Zone is an advantage, and though the prices may be high there's no reason to try and save money: Experience has taught us all that you might as well spend it while it is still worth something. The gammon joint - yes, a small one, but real meat! - goes into the sparsely filled fridge, along with a vacuum packed tub of butter and shrink-wrapped rashers of bacon. The tins of processed meat go into his larder or Ready Bag.

Dad cooks a meal of his allotment grown vegetables, a tin of the ham I brought, and some of today's eggs. We wash it down with cans of beer and a bottle of wine I humped all the way here, before we get started on his home brew. We swap our recent stories, yet I sense Dad is still being guarded about his real situation here; but what can I do? Then, before he gets maudlin about passing another Christmas without Mum, we turn in for the night.

Chapter Twenty Four

Christmas Eve.

A slow, throbbing headache awaits me as I claw my way back to consciousness. That must've been one of Dad's most potent batches of hooch yet! When my eyes are able to blink back into focus I find myself in the trailer's small bedroom. Dad is up already by the sound of it, probably rising at the crack of dawn as he usually does. By the sound and smell it seems he's got breakfast on the go so I quickly pull on my clothes and join him.

We eat a mumbled, bleary-eyed breakfast of eggs and bacon; washed down with some of the proper instant coffee I brought along yesterday. It's far better than the ersatz stuff which is all he can get down here, or worse still the roasted acorn dust. It revives us and before long we're both ready to see the park in daylight.

The fog is lifting and the sun rising above the mist paints the predominantly biege trailers with a peachy glow. "It won't last." says Dad. "There's more fog due to roll in around lunch time." I suspect he's right. The residents always have an eye on the weather; they are constantly updated from all the various internet data sources as well as using their knowledge of the sea and the sky to predict what may be coming. They are usually extremely accurate: With what is at stake they have to be.

We walk over to the northern extent of the levee the Parkers have constructed with the aid of machinery when they could get the fuel; by hand when they couldn't. "We got the Travellers to help while they were here. They came barging in thinking they owned the place, but we told them that if they wanted to stay here they had to become a part of the community and abide by our rules."

"Did they give you any trouble?"

"Only a couple of them. But we soon made them see sense." I can imagine they did. They may be getting on, but people who face down the sea are not to be crossed lightly. "After that they all mucked in. It speeded things up but after a while they decided they wanted to move on. God knows where!"

"D'you think they'll come back?" I ask. I'm surprised there are any Travellers still around. I thought by now they'd all gone permanently back to Éire; it's safer for them there, and they wouldn't get the constant official hassle that nomads do here. Dad shrugs his answer.

Leaving the question hanging we walk along the top of the levee to the southwesternmost point looking out on the Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve. The stunted trees at the entrance appear more windblown and splintered than the last time I was here. The sunken Mulberry Harbour caisson which used to be a landmark is now a silt covered hump.

"It was that last storm. It nearly overtopped us. We had 10cm to spare by my reckoning. I was worried of course, and we had the wind carrying the spray over, but it held!"

"But for how much longer, Dad?"

"Long enough for us to get some more hardcore and clay for our bank. We might even be able to find some more impermeable geotextile. I'm looking into binding it all together with one of those new mango and marine oak hybrids: Apparently they grow a dense root network really quickly. I'm trying to get that coastal engineering group from the University of Southampton to test them here."

"You think they would?"

"Why not? Where better?"

I've heard all this before. Dad is becoming almost delusional in his obsession to save the Park; he's continually thinking of ideas involving scrap shipping containers or even unoccupied park homes packed with builders' rubble buried into earthen banks. He doesn't consider the cost or the practicality of the ideas. But how do you tell him he doesn't have any hope of succeeding against the relentlessly patient waves? No doubt he'll find out the depressing truth in due course.

As we turn the corner and walk along the top of the bank running parallel to the beach, a figure wearing a salt bleached orange life jacket pushes a small dinghy into the gently lapping waves and begins to row quickly out to sea. "That's Derek. One of our newer residents. He's a bit... eccentric. He's just going out for a bit of cheeky hand line fishing. If he spots the CoastPol he'll dump the gear and claim he's just checking for pollution. He even carries some sample bottles and a fake sample log, the mad bugger! I don't know if he'd ever be able to carry it off if it came to it."

"Do the Pols hassle you much?"

"No, our fence keeps the Compies out and they're busier over in the reserve or on the beach; they've got a better chance of getting a result there. We've 'persuaded' them to stay away."

"You pay them off?"

"Christ no! The last time they pushed their way in and left their tuk unattended while they went random searching it 'spontaneously' burst into flames. After that they didn't come back: Too much explaining and form filling to replace destroyed equipment."

I've seen some of the weapons and know of the plans the Parkies have to defend themselves if push comes to shove. I think the ComPigs got away lightly.

We spot Jean, a bent bean pole of a woman in her seventies, struggling to move a portable pen along to a new patch of ungrazed salty turf. After helping her do so we're promised a bottle of milk from one of the small goat herd contained inside. Then we walk to the northern embankment where I'm shown the piece de resistance; the storm shelter.

A shipping container has been buried lengthwise in the berm and covered in a thick layer of compacted earth, bare for the moment. It is accessed by a man-sized dog leg of a tunnel on the leeward side, itself earthed over.

"The storm gave it its first test last month, it worked perfectly! Not a leak; not even through the ventilation pipe!" Dad unlocks the home made heavy steel door and I follow him inside through the tunnel. "Jim our handyman made it, and a bloody good job he did of it too!" He picks a wind-up lantern off a hook and switches it on. The dim glow reveals an interior finished in uneven white paint, the better to make the most of any available light; a floor of wooden pallets raised above any possible water seepage, and a framework of wooden bunk beds built along the long sides of this claustrophobic box. There are crates of supplies, and plastic drums of drinking water. A curtained-off area in one corner hides a crude chemical toilet. Dad's voice booms with a slight echo, "It can get a bit close in here, and we need to do more to stop the toilet from stinking, but we were safe. We hardly heard the storm. So you see there's nothing for you to worry about! We could even hole up here if the Jocks ever drop the Bomb on Pompey. I reckon the Protection Factor must be around one hundred."

"Rather you than me, Dad! Let's get back outside."

There's one final thing that I must be shown before we leave. Securely tied down under a tarp are a number of upturned nested flat bottomed plywood punts. "Just in case the storm surge overwhelms everything. We can float on these with the tide to the north until we reach some higher ground, or the force of the surge is spent." Considering their potential escape routes and the rusty fences of wire strands strung across them I'm not convinced. They may believe they've thought of everything, and have their contingency planning well in hand, but they're ignoring the fundamental issue of not putting themselves in danger in the first place by living here.

There's only so much survivalism I can stand. I suggest it's time we take the bus into Bognor.

I want to get Dad away from the Park, if only for a short while. I doubt if he's gone outside or too far away from it for quite some time. It can't be good for him staying confined in such a small area for so long. At least I have a reason to take him out, it's a tradition we've established; the Christmas trip into Bognor town centre.

The watery sunlight does nothing to improve the area around the Park. At least yesterday's fog hid the sight of the houses closest to the beach which are being slowly dismantled by the weather or people salvaging materials to repair their own places further inland. Even the sight of the deep blue winter sky, streaked with translucent streaks of cloud, does little to lift the air of melancholy.

I walked past it yesterday evening without noticing, but somehow the shop selling seaside tat is still open. To an outside observer how it manages to stagger on is inexplicable, but one of the roller shutters over the wire reinforced glass has been pulled up, declaring it to be open for business.

In truth the place is very rarely closed; the right style of knock on the heavy door while it is still light enough to see by prompting a curious eye through the peephole and an ushering in if you are known to the proprietors. The shop exists in the dreamy nostalgia of the personal service of the past; exemplified by the unchanging window display of faded plastic seaside toys set against a picture card beach background bleached into shades of cyan by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Were I to enter no doubt I'd find the brown coated nameless owner, or his even more decrepit wife waiting to sell me exactly the same things as last year, or the year before. Time seems to have stopped inside the poorly lit Aladdin's cave crammed full of incorruptible stock. Along with the eternal buckets, spades, flip-flops and inflatable toys awaiting children who will never come, there are items which might have been last seen in the long-gone corner stores of the mid-last century. There are tools; along with boxes of nails and screws, dating from before we outsourced our manufacturing industry to the far east before bringing it home again. New and salvaged bicycle spares; but with many sizes no longer seen on the roads. Brushes and cleaning products of various types in archaic packaging. Candles and ageing bubble packs of weak batteries with long expired best before dates: All manner of household essentials. I'm sure if you were to ask, a brand new cellophane wrapped VHS or cassette tape would be produced from behind the counter.

Of course it is an illusion; the shop has had to move with the times. If it hadn't it would've joined the other ghosts of the tiny shopping parade long ago. But in addition to selling ancient PVC jackets still sealed in their pouch bags and a smattering of marine chandlery, the real business of the shop is done further along the dark corridor leading to the rear; up some stairs and past the shopkeepers' first floor flat to a back storeroom where no one not in the know would think of looking.

There; beyond the suspicion of any inspector, and if you are allowed in on the secret you will find a portal through which it is possible to step back into a lost time of abundance. Under the dim pink light of a ancient energy saving bulb, opened dun cartons reveal near forgotten treasures. Packs of exotic biscuits out of date long enough to begin going hard or soft. Pouches of flavoured dry pasta and instant noodles. Dusty old tins of processed meat. Small cans of fish in oil. Packaged dried ready meals awaiting the boiling water which will make them blossom into edibility. Spices; and strange vacuum sealed microwaveable boxes with multilingual instructions written on them in print so small as to be unreadable. Multipack bags of crisps which breach both the Health and Obesity Control acts. Sachets of instant dehydrated soup. Assorted confectionary along with bars and boxes of chocolate just beginning to develop a musty white patina. Bottles of soft drink concentrate. Recognisable products of our past but in foreign language packaging. Forbidden products and artificial flavours which will leave your teeth stained, gums tingling, a furry feeling on your tongue, as well as a chemical aftertaste in your mouth. The food of the Gods!

Up until recently the troubles of today rarely impinged on this time out of mind bubble There were always more stocks to be found, somewhere, somehow. At a price of course; the costs soon add up. It isn't cheap bribing customs officials to look the other way: Nor is paying the chance taxation of random checkpoints, or the sweeteners given to Compies to see and know nothing; easing the path of least resistance. These stale luxuries are expensive, but still they sell to nostalgia junkies who will pay handsomely to be transported back to their warm and fuzzy memories of a better, innocent past.

But even here the realities of dwindling supplies are beginning to become apparent. Once those little factories hidden in sprawling edge of city industrial estates close for good, the brutal economics of supply and price assert themselves. Some commodities - Mexican fajitas kits or Southern Fried Chicken cook-on seasoning - have become so rare they are traded as objects of speculation. People are paying ridiculous prices and risking long Rehab terms for food trafficking for the sake of items which may be inedible, possibly hazardous by now; yet their madness continues. If the shopkeeper's son, who does much of the dealing and his parents were to be caught they'd be sent down for a long, long time.

I must admit now and then I indulge myself of these proscribed delights. Iced Gem style micro biscuits are my weakness; though I've not seen them at any price for a long time now. The company who made them either closed down or moved abroad to escape the stifling regulation of the Fed. They tried producing an OCA compliant version for a while, but those never had the same taste. Some vital, but unhealthy essence which made them what they were has lacking.

I suppose I could go in and ask just on the offchance; but we've a bus to catch, and Dad doesn't seem to like the place much for some reason. Perhaps it's a personal thing, or he regards the proprietor as a price gouging bastard. I don't know and don't ask.

I'm concerned Dad seems to walking more slowly, and breathing with more difficulty than he used to. I'd call a taxituk but there's no guarantee one would want to come out here for a fare. Eventually we reach the bus stop with plenty of time to spare. If you can't rely on the timetable these days, you can at least count on the bus being late.

 

Looking out of the bus window in one direction you could believe the sea had never swamped parts of Bognor; you might even think the formerly well-to-do suburbs were as they used to be all those years ago; still doing their best to ignore the sleaziness spreading outward from the town centre.

However once you arrive at the decaying heart of the town your illusions will be shattered. It's not that the Great Gale storm surge ruined a previously thriving place; more it was just another nail in its coffin.

King George the Sixth's dying words - "Bugger Bognor!" - now appear to have been a effective deathbed curse. Since the early-1960s when the historic town centre was demolished in favour of a characterless red brick shopping precinct there has been an air of decay about the place. Over time the small engineering companies and the famous refrigerator manufacturer which were the town's lynchpin industries closed; leaving nothing but the ever expanding holiday camp on the east side of town as the major employer. Eventually even the camp began to struggle. It was taken over; first as a temporary Rehabilition centre for minor offenders; then as an emergency housing project.

The sturdy but mouldering town houses, which had already been subdivided into flats for students, the poor, and the eastern Europeans settlers, were redivided once more; this time to accommodate the new wave of migrants from the ruins of the Crises conflict zones who arrived seeking a better life. In retrospect they would've been better off staying put in their home countries and waiting for things to improve there.

The flyblown gentility of 'God's Waiting Room' became 'Suicide-on-Sea'. Like so many other formerly prosperous southern seaside resorts on the Rotting Coast, Bognor became a relatively cheap gathering point, then dumping ground ghetto for the deprived. Then, when it seemed that the town couldn't suffer any further indignities, came the storms.

At its worst the sea didn't penetrate more than 450 metres inland, but that was enough to deliver a near knockout blow to the confidence of the area. But the people of the coast are resillient; they have no other choice but to be, so they cleared up as best they could.

A low sea wall was hurriedly thrown up along the edge of the beach. It was the best that could be done for now given the circumstances. The stump of the decrepit pier was finally given the bulldozing it should have received years ago, and the ground floors of those properties deemed to be at risk of repeat flooding were abandoned; the tenants moved out or allowed to build an extra story higher to compensate.

Bognor still bears the scars of its ordeal. It has a damp post-flood ambience of waiting about it; as if it expects at any time another frothing storm surge to overwhelm the feeble sea defences and inundate the town again before retreating, scouring more of it away to the depths; which is probably the best place for it.

The remaining high street shops - the few who survived - chose to avoid any future flood by either moving upward a storey or joining the takeover of what used to be a centrally located supermarket and multi-storey car park complex; adding an extension to it on concrete stilts. The building isn't pretty; in fact it makes Protsmouth's long-demolished Tricorn look like an architectural jewel by comparison; but it works.

It's to that mezzanine arcade I suggest we go for a Fair Food meal, but Dad will have none of it. "Overpriced bloody rubbish! If I want a meal I can cook it myself at home! It's kind of you to offer, but you've brought plenty of food with you, so you don't need to give me anything more." Old people, eh? The older they get, the more stubborn and miserly they become. There's no arguing with them, and maybe I'm beginning to get a bit that way myself... Suffering long-term poverty forges your thinking into certain ways. You don't spend money unless you have to, and when you do you make it go as far as possible

Still, it wasn't the reason we came to town. Instead we follow a growing stream of people to Hotham Park and the Redemptionist Brass Band Christmas Concert.

 

Under a different name the Redemptionists in their black serge uniforms, playing open air brass band concerts, were an evocative staple of countless Christmases past. Their charitable work was also  welcomed by those in the direst of straits over the Yuletide festivities. Nor were they the only ones who were thankful for their efforts. Previous governments; especially the Second Coalition, were only too happy for the charitable sector to take on as many of the functions of formerly state funded social security system as could be dumped on them.

Typically the Connies took a far more radical approach to the issue. They wanted not only to have their cake but to eat it as well. Such was their obsession with the control of others, especially the poorest, that the thought of people having their needs met by other means and so escaping the all-encompassing strictures of state relief was anathema. It could not be tolerated.

To ensure no one they considered undeserving received sustenance, the Council decreed all voluntary and charitable organisations should henceforth apply the same eligibility criteria as Community Support. If someone was deemed not fit to receive state aid as a result of their failing to adhere to the rigorous conditions imposed upon them in order to qualify for it, then they shouldn't expect to find alternative support from the charitable sector. The only way to salvation would be by the Consensus' route, and no other. The punishment for not complying was set at a minimum of six months Rehabiltation and an unlimited fine.

The decree unleashed a storm of protest, yet the Connies were implacably set on imposing their will; even if to do so would be in breach of the human rights undertakings they had given to the EU. The Council thought by the time any case reached the European courts they would be presented with a fait-accompli, so the word was passed to their ever-obedient ComPol lackeys to enforce the law, and that's when it all began to go wrong.

The Redemptionists had seen a lot in their more than a century-and-a-half of existence; they were used to operating under difficult conditions and dealing with those who were actively opposed to their aims. They'd had the time, the resources, and the organisation to prepare for resistance.

Their first protective strategy was to set up a quagmire of legal entities to frustrate any attempts to seize their assets. Part of the plan was the creation of a shadow Redemptionist organisation; ready to take over if or when the need arose. The movement's traditional name was rested for the moment. Shell companies bearing that name were placed in a state of protected limbo, awaiting a more enlightened future.

The second bulwark was to become more like the army they sought to emulate. Real life examples of the biblical Mighty Men of Power from within their ranks were given martial arts training to the point where they were more than a match for any ComPig trying to storm one of their citadels or arrest a caregiver. Though they didn't turn the other cheek they were mindful to cause as little injury as necessary while resisting the 'Pols. That couldn't be said for the Redemptionists' client base who were only too eager to get stuck in and give the Compies a good scragging on the few occasions when they tried to enforce the law.

Those incidents had the potential to turn really nasty: The ComPols could count themselves lucky to get away with only the two serious stabbings and one life-threatening head injury their number suffered during those first few skirmishes. When they called on the higher levels of the police hierarchy for help they were told in no uncertain terms they were bloody fools for trying to force the issue. No assistance would be forthcoming, as the professional police feared imposing the edict by force risked reigniting the civil war.

Their final line of defence was unexpected. This was one of the few times when international opinion had any sway over the Consensus. The fact the Council had been forced to go cap in hand to the international community for loans to support the economy -  which they belatedly admitted hadn't performed quite as well as they predicted - meant the Connies had to present the Fed's best face to the world. This was a hard thing to do when the EU's Human Rights Commission, and international human rights monitoring groups were protesting about the Fed's civil liberties record.

Eventually the People's Bank Of China came to the Fed's rescue, but in return for buying Fed bonds they imposed their own conditions. The Universal Eligibility Criteria Act was to be suspended, as the PBOC didn't intend to see its funds put at risk of being lost in a nation at war with itself again. The Council had no choice but to agree.

The Act remains on the statute books, but for the moment the Redemptionists are free to continue their good works. There is talk that after the Consensus wins the election they will seek to impose themselves once more, perhaps by using a revised instrument; so for now the organisation continues to use its new name, just in case...

In the meantime the Consensus watch and wait. They absorb these occasional setbacks for the moment in the hope of getting their way again in the near future. To them it matters not what an individual believes, just as long as while in the earthly realm they abide by the commandments of the Consensus. The disposition of your soul is your affair; but your body, and the work it is capable of performing, is theirs.

 

A sizable crowd has already gathered around the bandstand, with good-natured Redemptionist stewards ensuring things don't get out of hand. There are a few Compies at the park entrance but they seem to be in a indifferent mood, though appearing mildly disgusted at what they are about to witness. I don't think there will be any trouble, Christmas being a time of peace and they not being stupid enough to pick a confrontation with a crowd of this size. There are no uniformed Young Communitarians to be seen; hopefully they'll have the sense to stay well away.

Just in case anything should happen I'm wearing an unobtrusive button cam; even now I'm thinking about potential stories. This job is starting to get to me. I ought to let it go for a while, but of course I can't.

Leaving Dad to his spot at the outer edge of the crowd on a firm piece of path, I decide to ease my way in toward the bandstand. I want to make contact with the people in charge; you can never have too many contacts or spend too much time networking.

A good five minutes of "Excuse me!" sees me through and I start talking to one of the stewards. An IMS business card from the pack I always carry does the trick and I get a quick word in with the bandmaster. They have someone on hand to 'cord the concert, and hopefully just the concert; but my invitation to them to blurt it over to us for broadcast gets an enthusiastic response. We exchange blurt addresses, then I leave them be for their final warm-up.

It's not so easy to get back out again; for a start all of those feet are beginning to churn the grass into a slippery mire, but what is really slowing me down are the people who've overheard my conversation with the conductor and now want to shake my hand and congratulate me on the good job that IMS is doing. I'm astonished by the genuinely warm response I'm getting. Yes we know from our statistics that IMS is popular; it's not surprising given the dire state of our competitors. But it's one thing to know it, and another to see it in real life. One person even told me I was doing the Lord's work in speaking the truth. I replied that many Connies thought I was one of the Devil's imps, but they insisted that a Higher Power was working through me, and I should allow it to guide my actions. I wasn't sure what to say to that. I made my excuses and set off to find Dad. His forecast is correct; the cloud has returned and the first chill tendrils of sea mist are snaking into the park. As we're reunited the band strikes up.

I didn't think I'd get emotional, but the toasty sound of the brass playing traditional carols touches something deep inside. It could be the resonance to festivities past, or the first time that the concert took place here following the park's reopening after the flooding. Then it was a symbol of hope and solidarity in the wake of disaster, but now a tradition has been established, both the growing number of converts and the more agnostic but once-a-year waverers gather here to huddle for spiritual warmth. Or could my fan be right and a greater force be at work? Whatever it is, I'm not the only one affected.

As the band softly blows 'Silent Night', people are quietly singing along or humming to the half remembered lyrics. I find myself profoundly moved in a way mere words can never adequately describe. Some reservoir of spirituality has been tapped here, and the tears I see streaking the cold-ruddied cheeks of the crowd come from a far deeper source than the superficial rapture of the Connie rallies. Throughout the Fed there appears to be a minor religious revival underway at the moment. As yet it doesn't have the potential to change society; but seeing this I can understand how having a faith can help people through the hard times we are enduring, and why the growing support for the Redemptionists makes the Connies edgy.

The performance finishes with a rousing version of "Oh Come All Ye Faithfull" to heartfelt applause and the spell is broken. A group of Men of Power escort the heavy collection buckets safely away from any potential problems. It's also time for us to join the streams of people leaving quickly to beat the rush for the bus home.

Dad and I are both contemplatively silent as we walk the final kilometre back to the park. After speaking to each other constantly for most of the day we've temporarily run out of things to say to each other; and we're both overwhelmed by the concert. I'm a right mess of emotions at the moment, trying hard to keep from crying, struggling to understand what I'm feeling. But then I'm like this every Christmas. It's just that this one is so... No, there's no way I can describe it.

The cool mist has stilled the air. There are a few weak strings of solar powered Christmas lights to be seen hung around some of the front doors, and even a colour-changing LED tree in one of the windows. It must be thirty years old or more! But the days of lighting up your entire house or littering the lawn with nodding wireframe reindeer or tawdry inflatable snowmen are long past; probably never to return. It's all so different now to when I was a kid; back then we went on night time tours of our local streets to see the displays. Now those few old, dim lights trying to hold at bay the darkness which draws in so quickly at this time of year assume an added poignancy, and I feel myself welling up once more.

Past those scraps of festivity and back to the gatehouse we find Jean swaddled in a blanket, knitting while standing her turn on watch. A wood stove burns weakly in a corner, providing more fug than warmth. I doubt if she could do any more than press the alarm button or flip aside the safety cover and flick the switch to fire an emergency maroon from the pipe fixed to the back of the shed. The flash-bang would alert the rest of the park to rally with whichever of Jim's highly illegal improvised weapons they could lay their hands on.

An ancient LCD TV relays some grainy closed circuit images of the fence but with only four cameras quartering the screen there are bound to be plenty of loopholes. To be honest Jean may as well continue to concentrate fully on crocheting her bedspread.

"You might as well pack it in, love." says Dad soothingly. "I don't think there'll be any trouble tonight." Jean agrees, so we damp the stove and turf Cushie out of his corner before shutting up the shack.

Twilight has reduced the site to dark shades of grey as we walk back to Dad's 'van. Once inside and the stove lit, we cook a quick dinner of tinned sausages, chips and baked beans, before going to the Christmas Eve get together in the Park Centre.

The centre used to be a combination of administrative offices, small supermarket, and social club before the leisure group who owned the park decided to sell up and get out of the holiday business. Few people were coming down all this way to rent a caravan for a week or two; there was more money to be made in long-term residential lettings. That side of the business grew, and more of the park was turned over to it, before the company offered the residents the chance to buy out the site. It was then that Mum and Dad arrived; three years before the Great Gale.

Stopping by the vacant caravan which serves as the community still we pick up crates of Dad's latest lethal brew and wheelbarrow them over to the Park Centre where the evening is just getting started. About thirty or so of the residents are sitting down to a buffet while watching a Christmas film from the last century; one of the Home Alone franchise I think. Of course the film isn't the reason for their gathering; everyone has seen this or any of the other seasonal films so many times before that they have become part of the clichés of Christmas. The reason they are here is to provide a bit of company for each other, and those lonely single people for whom this time of the year is a time of heightened melancholy.

They being mainly elderly people and the effects of the homebrew becoming increasingly apparent, the party breaks up by midnight. We grope our way back to the trailer by torchlight and stagger into bed.

Chapter Twenty Five

Christmas Day.

The morning is already well under way when I wake. Dad is up already, seemingly unaffected by last night's session and busy preparing some goat's milk porridge; it's just what I need. He's also made a start on preparing the Christmas dinner. The electricity can't always be relied upon here; as part of the harassing of the residents to leave the supply is often reduced or arbitrarily cut off, but only for as long as it takes for the geriatric rascals to work out an illegal way of getting around it. The Park's renewable sources are depleted so Dad is forced to use his gas oven to roast the gammon. Again I get the impression he's been economising, saving it for now, and I feel another guilty pang. Those cylinders are expensive, and not so easy to get refilled these days.

After a cup of coffee it's our turn to go out and move the goats along to some new pasture, before checking on the Park's chicken coop. That too is as mobile as the goat pen, so it can be rolled along for the birds to peck at fresh ground.

Back inside with the dinner on the go we exchange presents. Dad gives me some of his best sloe gin, and I give him a bottle of proper Zone whisky as well as two pictures of Mum I had printed onto a near-indestructible scroll of plastic the last time I went to London.

"You shouldn't have!" He says, looking as if he's trying to fight back tears. "You've already brought plenty with you!" I demonstrate how to unroll it and make it stay flat, then how it can snap back into a tube. "Just in case... It'll hardly take up any space in your Ready Bag." Dad nods an understanding.

For all their determined resistance the Parkies know one day the sea will have its way; the only questions are when, and for how long te inevitable may be delayed. When it happens there may not be much time to evacuate; maybe not even enough time for Dad to take down the large portrait of Mum from the living room wall; perhaps barely time to grab the Ready Bag kept in a cupboard by the door before fleeing for his life. Though he's got the family album as well as his records digitised and backed-up on chip along with copies lodged with me, I hope having some palpable thing he can keep with him will reassure him; hopefully stopping any foolish last minute delay or return to salvage something.

As we wait for the dinner to cook we flick around the streams to see what is happening. As ever there are the usual Christmas Day church services. The Church of England as it is still known is very subdued these days; riven by schism and unable to take a stand on anything for fear of alienating any faction of its remaining flock. It doesn't help that the latest Archbishop of Canterbury is a cowed little sniveller, hoping if he stays uncontroversial and out of the way the church won't get the sort of hassle the Redemptionists suffered; ignoring the fact the Redemptionists are actually winning converts as a result of their social engagement.

The mass in St Peter's Square is live on another stream, and the new Pope, settling in to his papacy, is made of sterner stuff. His homily about the rights of man is bound to ruffle some Connie feathers, and his blessing in which he mentions the people struggling with poverty in the world, specifically mentioning the Federation, will hit a raw nerve. Not there's much the Connies can do about it; they've enough on their hands in the run-up to the election without picking another fight.

After our dinner we watch the traditional Royal Christmas message. As usual the majority of it is spoken by the Regent. His father, obviously given a cocktail of drugs to animate him for the occasion, mumbles a couple of subtitled sentences. It's all very sad. I don't think the poor sod should be put through it; but that's the way it is. His Majesty is apparently compos mentis enough to indicate He doesn't want to abdicate; such is His sense of duty to see His reign through to its conclusion, at whatever the cost to Himself

The rest of the day drags slowly by, as Christmas always seems to do, until it's time for another party in the Social Club. It seems we weren't the only ones to turn up early in an attempt to escape the boredom of the day; the other Parkies are already here, hanging up their aged outerwear to reveal their best suits and dresses, long out of style and aired only on special occasions such as these.

The power is back on again after being temporarily off during the afternoon. For a change it wasn't a physical disconnection, but one done remotely; probably pre-programmed to happen at the time when the Christmas dinners were part-way through being cooked. I wonder which little wanker thought of doing that on Christmas day of all days and ordered it to happen? I'd like to get my hands on them and make their season anything but cheerful. Whoever they were they hadn't counted on Joyce, who made a dark call to her son, who knew someone, who knew a frazzler, who soon managed to crack their way into the control system and revoke the command. Just in case they try it again Jim has an emergency generator ready to go if required. He must be in his late seventies but he seems sprightly and quick witted; he has an instinctive ability to make or fix just about anything, given the time and means to do so.

The days of being numbed insensible by scheduled Christmas programnes passed many a year ago. Now with the resources of the (approved) internet at your disposal you can get numbed into stupefaction by any number of Christmas packages of your choice; IMS produce several of them. This far out on the edge of civilisation what you can do online is constrained, but the link is still more than adequate for someone to connect an old video projector to a stream and so we can watch a double-header of The Italian Job and The Great Escape while partying. The ladies can watch the festive Eastenders or Corrie on a smaller screen in another room if they so choose.

The home-made buffet is running short, as would be expected, but there is still enough moonshine to keep the party going. Standing at the bar drinking a real pint of proper strength lager, and looking around the lounge I notice a large map of the immediate area hung on the wall next to the artificial Christmas tree which has seen better days. Underneath a sorry looking strand of tinsel it shows the inexorable progress of the sea. Dad and Jim join me; at the sight of the map both of them take on a serious air.

Dad explains; "I made GPS surveys of the shoreline. The red line is one year ago, and the black line is last month." The area in between the lines has been shaded light blue, covering the former Pagham Lagoon. "The black hatched strip is where I hope we can make a stand with the embankment; hopefully we can begin raising it further and bulking it up once Christmas is over."

"If we don't get another bloody storm!" says Jim. "I reckon another one like last month could probably break through, and then we'd 'ave to scarper!" Dad nods sadly in agreement.

It strikes me then, the reason for the Parkies partying on despite their predicament. This could be the last time they have the chance to get together before they are cast apart by the sea and fate, so they might as well celebrate the fact they've managed to stay together as a community for another year despite everything which has been thrown at them. For them this is a real achievement. I'm handed another glass of artisanal lager, and soon my depressive thoughts are obliterated for a while at least.

Some time later, after my eyes refuse to focus properly, a collective decision is taken to finish for the evening. We split into small groups to help each other home through the close velvety opaqueness of the night.

 

Boxing Day.

The typical yuletide anticlimax has set in and I must be leaving. It's a good thing I don't have catch a specific train back as I'm sure I would miss it. I feel utterly wrecked; in fact I can't remember getting into bed. Dad appears to be suffering the after effects of last night as well. Fortunately I've not much to pack or carry so I can be away as soon as my wobbly legs feel up to the walk to the bus stop. Before we part there are just the formalities of updating each other on our emergency contact details, as well as our outline escape and evasion plans just in case the Connie attack dogs are let slip from their leash. Both of us being journalists we know the importance of having alternative means of communication. We both maintain the insurance of cheap and unregistered dark slates which can be discarded if we believe them to be compromised.

We also exchange chip backups of our files. It's as we do this Dad remembers he might have a biography on James Purvis archived before the cleansing. "Just a bit of background research when you started work there; I was curious." Well done Dad! And why didn't I think of that? I must be losing it! I'll search for the file later.

Also stored on the chip is the latest instalment of the documentary Dad has recced about the struggle to save Shorehaven Park. It's both an archive and a testament; ready to be edited into a programme should the site be forcibly cleared or the sea break through. I'm trusted by him and the others not to use any of it until they allow it, or necessity impels its publicity. From the copy I've seen so far it will make poignantly compelling viewing.

 

Our goodbyes said it seems like a very long walk on unsteady legs to the bus stop. The shop has the roller shutters down so I don't think I'll bother asking about any Iced Gems. It being Boxing Day the services are reduced so I have to walk closer to the town centre and wait a while longer before a bus finally hoves into view. That gets me back to Chichester where I find the rail services suspended for line maintenance. As there is a Southsea bound 700 waiting I take it in preference to the rail replacement bus as far as Havant.

As the bus stop-starts along the A259 my mind swirls with the emotions of the last few days. It really is gut-renching seeing Dad and his fellow Parkers in the state they are in; living in raddled layers and ancient quilting; trying Canute-like to hold back the waves. As his son I feel guilty, whether justifiably or not, but powerless to deal with his stubbornness in wanting to stay put. The least I can do is try to help them some more. I wonder if I can't be a bit creative with the expense accounts we use to keep our sources going. As long as you don't abuse the system it's an accepted part of journalism. It wouldn't be stretching things too far anyway. One day Shorehaven Park will be a story; it's just no one knows what sort, and how big it will be yet.

What also continues to make a surprisingly powerful impression on me is the reaction of the people at the Redemptionist concert and their faith - be it naive or not - a change for the better is coming. That given the chance to do so, and the truth to inform their vote, the electorate will do the right thing and kick the Consensus out of office: As if it would be that easy! Yet I'm still affected by the trust in, and appreciation they showed for IMS.

I started off as a reluctant, cynically indifferent recruit to James' NRP; I'm by no means a convert now. But I've progressed from just doing what is required of me in order to keep my stock high; to doing the best job I can on this project in order to demonstrate my organisational and creative abilities to a prospective employer; through to genuinely wanting it to succeed in order to get some kind of revenge for everything the Connie bastards have done to us. By the time the Coastliner reaches Havant bus station I'm desperate to get off and relieve myself. Having done that, at least I don't have to wait too long for the next 39 to take me back to the 'Ville. Once home I crash out for an early night. It's nose back to the grindstone tomorrow.

December the 27th.

Porridge made with powdered milk isn't the sort of breakfast I would want, especially after eating some for dinner last night, but it's all I have left in my larder. I deliberately used all the perishable goods in advance of my Christmas trip away. These days, despite the uncertainty of resupply, you don't keep too much stored. You either can't afford to, or risk it being confiscated if you fall foul of the arbitrarily flexible definition of 'hoarding' or 'spivving'. I'll have to do some shopping today or grab a meal in a Community Canteen. Getting back into a routine after a break always feels strange, but I sense that something isn't right. I didn't notice it last night in my eagerness to get some sleep but I'm sure someone has been in here while I was away. I've looked carefully all over but have found nothing. The little telltales I left set seem undisturbed, but there's just... something awry; I can't say what, but I'm sure of it.

Whoever might have been in here was unconcerned about the consequences of being caught on Zoned property without authorisation; and they were professional enough not to leave any obvious traces, which most likely rules out the local filth or Connies. I check my hidden stash places, and nothing appears to have been disturbed, but how can I be sure? I sweep the place with my scroll's suite of detection programmes but they find nothing. But my hunch is still telling me something is amiss, or else this cloak and dagger campaign organising is beginning to turn me paranoid. Am I beginning to lose it? I don't know. But there are protocols for reporting this sort of suspicion to the NRP's security consultants, so that's what I'll do.

The officially sanctioned Yuletide celebrations are over. The bus to work is full of drawn faced, skinny, subdued people who don't look at all relaxed or as if they've just had an enjoyable time. Our collective mood isn't helped by the weather; suicide inducing leaden skies leak a fine rain which would turn to sleet if it were a tad colder. The relatively warm Christmas period is at an end, and winter proper is about to begin. Everyone dreads the thought of it.

It hardly seems I've been away from work; it's the same old same old all over again. Frankly I'm sick of it all. When this election is over I'll think about moving on, because I can't imagine doing this for even another year. Despite my job title I'm just another peon; overworked and underpaid to the point of having to wear shoes which have been into FixIt too many times; so impoverished I'm barely able to keep up the payments on my poxy little flat and eat or pay the bills. I'm sick of it all. Is this all there is to life? Wasting my time in this shithole; being continually ground down by the stress of coping? Yes I know  there are plenty of people whose wildest dreams would be to have my problems; but knowing that is no fucking help to me, and doesn't change a fucking thing. I need to get out before I burn out or break down.

True to form my terminal rings. It's James as expected; no doubt trying to micromanage everything as usual. My pissed-off mood must be obvious because straight away he asks me what is wrong. I don't tell him everything, of course, but I explain about my concern for Dad and the other Parkies.

"You should use some of our source maintenance account to help them!" he says. The trouble is I don't think it would stretch to buying a new plot further inland, but the thought is appreciated. I'll ask Dad if there's anything they need.

The reason for James' call soon becomes apparent. The worst kept secret in Federation politics is about to be made public. The Electoral Commission will shortly announce the start of the Democratic Reset campaigning period will be advanced from the beginning of March to January the second. No doubt they've made this decision in the hope it will startle the opposition and aid the Consensus.

At long last the timetable to resumption of some form of democracy as we once knew it will begin: The General Election is due to be held as tradition dictates in the first week of May, so from now on I can expect to become even more busy; beginning in a couple of days time with a short notice meeting of the campaign group. We thought this might happen and had outline plans for dealing with it; now we need to get things running. It's one thing to wait expectantly on the start line, but another to hear the crack of the starting pistol. Me, I'm eager to get this race run.

With me in an arsey post-Christmas mood and James' call I'd almost forgotten about the Redemptionist concert. A blurt of it arrives in my inbox, so I quickly scroll through it. Whoever did the post-prod has made a very good job of it, so it only takes a couple of minor tweaks and polishing before it's ready to go live. I make it available immediately to anyone who wants to venture beyond our scheduled streams; then, with a bit of time juggling, flick some nondescript programme off an evening slot and drop it in there as a spontaneous seasonal offering. It'll be interesting to see how it is received.

December the 28th.

Well who would have thought it? The concert led our ratings last night, and after word of blurt spread it was soon picked up nationwide. I'm getting overwhelmingly positive feedback from our audience, and James is well pleased.

New Year's Eve.

I'm on duty: More or less alone apart from a couple of other skeleton staff elsewhere in the building. I feel resentful having to sit here minding automatic systems which wouldn't be affected in the slightest by my absence; just in case of the remote chance something were to go wrong. Should IMS' output suddenly drop out then it would either be a simple matter to fix the problem, or so catastrophic it would be beyond my ability to do anything useful. Feeling superfluous I have plenty of time for retrospection, and I've little doubt I'm not the only one who can find fuck-all to celebrate in the year about to pass, and bugger-all to look forward to in the year to come. Unless of course you believe the forthcoming election really will be free and fair.

Time ticks slowly toward the midnight hour and seems to slow as the night draws on: God I'm bored! After a while there is only so much monitoring of the New Year's eve concerts and countdown programming you can do before you can't take any more.

Now and then the monotony is broken by a Happy New Year blurt sent in by a friend, or colleague, or even the occasional member of the audience. How sad must their life be to be blurting to us on New Year's Eve? Apart from that our inbox is as subdued as the celebrations.

Up in Alba I'm sure they are getting utterly paralytic, as they do. But here in the Fed you'll have a hard time getting shit-faced on what officially passes for alcohol. Not that you dare risk getting caught being drunk in public: It's a minimum three months Rehab plus a Lifestyle Control Order for a first offence. No, if you're going to get out of your head you do it quietly, away from public view with some homebrew hooch that could quite possibly cause permanent blindness. Speaking of which, I brought along a small bottle of Dad's Deadly to help pass the time. A gulp of that from time to time certainly helps the evening pass more quickly.

Midnight sweeps on invisibly across the globe. On international feeds I can see fireworks displays and celebrations from where it is already next year. Even in the less fortunate places they seem to be having a better time than we will. I have another slug of throat burning liquor to try to keep the boredom at bay. I don't know exactly what Dad made this batch with but by fuck it works! After updating my blurt, and even watching James' New Year address to our audience - a variation on his Column speech, and he really shouldn't try writing his own material; I'll have to have a chat with him about it - I find at last it's ten to midnight.

As ever the New Year's coverage concentrates on Trafalgar Square, the Thameside embankments, and Big Ben, so our London centre handles it. All I need to do now is stay alert in case anything goes wrong or the Albans decide to throw something in to liven up the insipid fireworks display we can expect. We have contingency plans to take over and run an emergency 'cast in that eventuality; not that we are ever likely to need them.

Big Ben chimes his sonorous notes and incongruously the Scottish Auld Lang Syne is sung by well ordered, sober crowds. The word Hogmany is seldom spoken south of Hadrian's Wall these days, but the traditional sung lament for the passing of the old and greeting of the new has yet to be affected by the Partition. Midnight has passed and that's it. Now return to your homes and get plenty of sleep in preparation for another industrious year of toil ahead.

Christ this 'shine is fucking potent! I'd better stop drinking or my relief will find me slumped in my chair, dead to the world, and that would never do. Or maybe just one more... Well cheers! And a happy fucking new year to you all!

Chapter Twenty Six

January the 3rd.

I'm back in the Column for the final meeting of the campaign group before the official launch of the NRP. Typically the Consensus Party have scheduled their launch the day before ours. They have to be first in much the same way as they try to push in to the front of any queue or hog the best seats on public transport, contrary to their supposed communitarian ethos. It's a practice which has somehow become established over the years without anyone realising. Our petty seigneurs view such behaviour as a perfectly justified reward they are entitled to as thanks for the work they do on our behalf. Though whenever some little snot in a ute-suit asks me to vacate my seat for them I tell them in no uncertain terms what they can do with themselves; but many weaker-willed passengers get browbeaten by their attempts to assert their position of supercilious privilege.

Their arrogant insistence on trying to push into the lead so quickly may paradoxically be a small part of their eventual undoing. By going first they are giving us something to respond against. For example their easing of Hazel Dunn from the lead spokespersonship - their equivalent of a party leader - in favour of Lois Merck.

Yes the bitch is back. Unapologetic, unrepentant, still as bitter and twisted as ever she was, if not more so. She's spent quite some time learning to adapt to her disability, her position in the Consensus ensuring she has had the best surgical treatment available for her condition. Even so, she only has limited control over her bladder and bowel; being able to urinate or defecate at the touch of a switch thanks to a remote controlled implant. Barring a miraculous advance in medical science she will never regain any feeling in her lower body, or be able to use her legs unaided again. She can walk after a fashion with the aid of an experimental exoskeleton, which by reading her brain translates her thoughts into commands to the servocalipers strapped around her withered legs; but the process is painfully slow, and she finds it tiring to use for more than a short time.

Psychologically she has retreated into a defensive mental construct which has made her the ideal Connie representative. Rather than her direct experience having taught her about the realities of a life lived with a disability; leaving her humbled and better informed, it has instead only intensified her prejudices. Her insistence that everyone, no matter what their circumstances, is capable of overcoming what life throws at them and bettering themselves not only remains, but has been reinvigorated. No better example can be found than the cover image of her autobiography showing her back with the deeply indented scar just above the base of her spine: The book's title; Unbroken.

Yet she has been deeply mentally as well as physically wounded; and she copes with her loss by displacing her anguish against people who she has never met and have done her no wrong. Her philosophy of militant self-improvement is in accord with Consensus policy, so since her re-entry to public life she has been a member of the Council with a specific brief to advise on social policy.

Against such an assertive, forcefully intense personality such as Lois Merck's, Hazel Dunn didn't stand a chance. Dunn is a mousey, characterless, starchily authoritarian technocrat; perfectly suited to be one of the collective leadership of the Council. She is one of the beige people in an amorphous group who realised that regularly changing their figurehead denied the opposition the ability to personalise the movement; so providing a focus for their resentment - nay hatred - of their policies.

Dunn's short-lived student radicalism and limited experience as a Parliamentary Private Secretary; the most junior of government posts during the dying months of the last of the old-style governments, was something which could be overlooked and quietly downplayed during the mandate of the Council; but now such a record would be an obvious liability in the rumbustious politicking which is bound to come. Her links - however distant - to the discredited politics of the past fail to reflect the radical aspirations of the Consensus Party, and it was whispered that not only under her chairpersonship had the Consensus begun to drift slightly, but she was beginning to lose her grip on reality; though that isn't unusual among Council members.

Merck however, is exactly what the Connies want. Her life story will mirror that of a nation rising above its challenges thanks to the hard work of the Consensus. She'll play the part of an elfin beauty whose body was broken but spirit unbowed by the regressive forces in society for daring to speak out against welfarism. A reminder of where we have come and how far we have travelled from the past; as well as a warning of what awaits us should we stray again from the path of Consensus righteousness. No longer a political dilettante - juggling family life, smug domesticity, and a part-time career of inciting bigotry - she is now totally focused on leading the Consensus to victory and beyond.

The fucking cow will milk her martyrdom for all it's worth; her return to the limelight an open defiance of the shadowy forces of the insurgency who warned if she continued as she had, the next time they caught up with her they'd make sure she lost the use of her arms as well. I'm sure the people who flidded her now regret their cruel mercy, and wish they hadn't just murdered her to shut her up for good. Well they had the chance, they let it slip, and it's too late now.

Protected by constant heavy security she feels emboldened to speak out in support of Consensist principles. As her reward she'll be guaranteed a parliamentary seat under the deliberately confusing proportional representation system the Electoral Commission has devised; an obfuscating combination of indirectly elected members chosen from party lists in proportion to their party's percentage of support, and directly elected constituency representatives; with an automatic grant of extra seats to the largest party to avoid yet another damaging coalition. No doubt she'll quickly assume the primeministership and as part of her reinvigorated vision set about imposing a collective punishment of revenge against the groups in society she holds responsible for encouraging the attitudes which motivated the gang who so grievously crippled her.

It's a bold but risky strategy, yet it has worked in the past. Putting up a strong-willed, charismatic leaderenne with radical policies that appeal to the most mean-spirited instincts of the electorate was successful back in 1979; but many will argue it was the lasting effects of Thatcherism which set us on the road through hell leading us to this point.

Merck will be a difficult, dangerous opponent to beat, and we'll need our wits about us to counter her. Sat in our conference room, watching the BBC PushCred 'cast from the Consensus Party launch conference, we're about to find out what we're up against.

The event begins with the chairman making only the briefest of opening remarks. Nothing can be allowed to dissipate any attention away from their star speaker. On cue the heavy anti-insect drone drapes covering the doors are swept aside and Lois Merck wheels into the hall.

She could have driven in on electric power but canny politicienne she is she uses her well muscled arms to propel her chariot onto the speaking platform; a move bound to resonate with the work ethic of her  audience. She's flanked by her two children, Arabella and Horatio; their excruciatingly upper middle class names evidence of their mother's pretentiousness. Again it's another less-than-subtle reminder of her victimhood. Her children; toddlers at the time, were in the house when the maiming happened. They too were severely traumatised by it and its subsequent effects on their parents.

Lois difficult convalescence proved to be too much of a strain on the Merck's marriage, and they divorced three years after the attack. Nor was that the only problem with their relationship. Having lost all sensation below her waist, Lois' sex life came to an abrupt end. Being unable to have had a good shag for more than a decade it's no wonder she's so resentful and frustrated. Both of her now adolescent children are wearing Young Communitarian ute-suits; they have become leading figures in the YC hierarchy.

The faithful, deliberately over packed into the hall, give her a sustained standing ovation; one which increases in intensity as Merck slowly heaves herself out of her chair and uses her exoskeleton to walk the few awkwardly stiff paces to her seat; again she could have just rolled herself into position but she knows how to make an impression.

She sits down and the camera closes-in to frame her against the dark purple backdrop the Consensus Party have chosen as their campaign colour: It is supposed to represent the merging of the formerly antagonistic red and blue factions of politics into the one unified Consensus. The omnipresent symbol and FORWARD TOGETHER! slogan contrasting with it in large golden yellow lettering.

The years of disability have left their mark on her. She looks pinched and gaunt, all her heathy subcutaneous facial tissue emaciated; her expression is ingrained with permanent stress creases which not even officially discouraged botox and cosmetic surgery can smooth. Some vitality seems to have left her skin tone; age seeming to settle with a particular cruelty on those who are already impaired. Her once flyaway fine blonde hair has greyed to a platinum ash, and has been cut in a boyishly feminine New Modesty crew cut; the easier for her close fitting sensory hair net to pick up her thoughts. Something has changed in her drained expression as well. She looks haunted, yet her eyes stare out with an inner fervour. It's as if she sustains herself purely by the strength of her will and obsessive. The audience settles into a reverent silence and she begins to speak. We're not expecting the speech to be revealing any detailed policies; but it should more set the tone for their campaign. I'm not going to bother transcribing it in its entirety here but fucking hell! It's as if the civil war, the Crises, and the decade of Connie rule since didn't happen! She's harking back in time, aiming to inflame the prejudices of her supporters and going for the jugular of any opposition; namely us. In the lilting tone we've come to expect we're brought back to basics and lectured on thfacts of life according to Lois Merck.

She tells us we've come a long way since the dark days of the Crises. We'd still be wallowing in the depths of despair had it not been for the Consensus movement grabbing us by our collective lapels and shaking some sense into ourselves. It has been this radical, tough, but fair discipline which has pulled us up by our bootlaces from the moral cesspit we inhabited, and raised us to where we are now; a united, cohesive nation; forging ahead in the world, providing a shining example of what could be done when we really put an effort into finding a solution to our problems.

It is the Consensus party who can take the credit for these achievements and should reap the rightfully earned reward of a renewed mandate at the forthcoming election. Though elections are traditionally a time to make a choice about the direction in which we want to go, in reality there is no choice in our decision; we have to continue along the Consensus road or lose everything we'd struggled so hard to attain..

Then she really gets stuck in. Though we have made such transformational progress over this last decade the attitudes of moral faineance are still latent; just waiting for the chance to re-emerge. Were anyone but the Consensus Party to be elected those socially destructive mindsets which have been subdued with such difficulty would soon be running unconstrained once more.

With an effort she levers herself to a standing position with jerky exoskeletal aid and shrills, almost shrieking. "We must never allow them victory! For what they did to the United Kingdom and to me they will do to the Federation and you! They say the Devil makes work for idle hands to do. It must be so, for look at the difference we made; see the improvements we wrought, when we forced the shirkers to become productive citizens!" The hall erupts in applause. Slowly, point made, she eases herself back down.

More calmly now, she continues. "We have done such a remarkable job in turning the nation around, but there is far more yet to do. This is why the Consensus Party has been created. Not only to safeguard the Council's legacy, but to continue and increase the tempo of reform. With a renewed mandate we will be free to make the irreversible change to a system beyond ideology and politics. A communitarianism which will not only transform the Federation, but will inspire the world to follow our example!"

Only just preventing herself from sounding overzealous she concludes. "We've all struggled so hard to reach this point where we can truly begin our transformation. There is an old proverb which says a long journey begins with a single step. I'm going to make that step, even though it is difficult for me. Won't you join me on the way there?" With that she rises; lurches robotically back to her wheelchair, and slumps exhaustedly back into it having given her all.

The rapturous applause was inevitable having been choreographed in advance, but I suspect even the organisers were taken by surprise at her reception. The crowd stands and applauds for at least four minutes and are still going strong when the first unaccompanied chorus of 'The Family of Man' breaks out. At the point where the spontaneous rhythmic clap-along and ecstatic long drawn-out whooping begins, fearing the swaying delirium is going to get embarrassingly out of hand, the lackeys in the BBC swiftly cut away to the preprepared studio discussion of the speech and its import. This being the Beeb it is certain to be a nauseatingly sycophantic faux debate between the Connie supporting pundits. James switches off the feed in disgust, his action breaking the stunned and thoughtful silence. "Right people: There's the challenge; let's rise to it!"

A few hours later we've dissected her speech, anticipated the Consensus Party's likely policies, and discussed strategies to counter them. We break up for the evening. Some of we Osties are going to hit the town, but I'm won't be joining them. Instead I'll be working here in the Column in a complimentary office suite the LEZ have lent us for the duration of the campaign. I'll be having a healthy light buffet and staying off the drink while I work on some ideas to add to James' address tomorrow. He seems to like what I do so I've been attached to his personal speech writing corps. It's a promotion of sorts; certainly something prestigious to add to my CV, though whether it will prove an advantage or handicap to my future career prospects is something which only the future can know.

I wouldn't mind being able to go out on the lash but I need to keep my body purged and fit to undergo my compulsory AHA (a fee of N£50 is payable and the cost of a subsequent retest increases if you 'fail') in a few days time. So once my work is done it'll be a sinless early night for me in the Perch.

Chapter Twenty Seven

January the 4th.

I'm up bright and early this morning. The NRP launch conference is today and there is plenty to be done in advance. I manage to snatch a bite from the Colum resteraunt's breakfast menu, then it's an early meeting of the campaign group to finalise the speeches and deal with any last minute snags before I take my place in the media centre we've set up next to the hall where the Aurora New Dawn Industries welcome reception was held last year.

My place isn't to produce our feed; our London office will take care of that, but to lurk near the BBC contingent and make sure that the Connie luvvies don't try to bugger us about. Just to be absolutely certain the launch doesn't suffer from any 'technical issues' we've arranged multiple streams running through varied and resilient nodes and even have some standby equipment available, so there can be no excuse for our message not getting through.

I wander around, greeting the crews from the international broadcasters, making sure all is going well for them. We want to keep them onside with us and I particularly want to network as widely as possible; I may be asking them for a job soon. Other of my colleagues in the campaign group are giving background briefings in advance of the launch but from the rising hubbub it seems it won't be long before the event begins.

The audience are reminded the banqueting hall's HyperFi blocking field is in operation in order to ensure the speeches remain uninterrupted by irritating ringtones. Some leading Zoners are first on the platform to lend their endorsement to the Party; then it's time for James to speak.

The lighting changes to the light turquoise the NRP has chosen as its hue; not so much a reflection of the NRP's ideology but because it was distinctive and had yet to be earmarked by any other party. James makes his entrance through a side door but unlike the Connie event there is no need for anti-micro drone drapes; this being the Column the lobby and major areas such as this are equipped with the latest detection systems and laser defences so nothing untoward should get through. A smattering of applause provides a polite welcome; then an expectant hush falls over the audience of lower level Zoners filling the floor below the rostrum. James pauses for a moment; then begins.

"For the last decade the people of the Federation have suffered greatly. We've suffered an economy trapped in a permanent standstill, an ever increasing bureaucracy, and a cloying, obsessive, intrusive state intervening in our personal lives where it has no business to. We've seen that same incompetent state watch impotently as our United Kingdom remains broken up by nuclear blackmail, with Scotland her people living under the jackboot of a piratical junta who care nothing about those they claim to represent and everything about their own privileged positions.

We've seen the Federation turn upon its own citizens; condemning those in the greatest need to a miserable life of unending and pointless effort, just so that they can be seen to be earning what was rightfully theirs in any case. We've laboured under the ridiculous and totally unecessary modern day rationing; the state slavery which is Community Credit. A regressive system which is literally wearing people down to exhaustion so they may obtain those things we once took for granted, but are now described by this all-wise state as 'luxuries'.

And what have these last few years of us all being - in the words of the song the Consensus tried to ban - "Busy Doing Nothing" got us? We have wind energy which overloads and breaks down whenever we have strong winds! We're told that our agricultural sector is the world's most ecological and sustainable, yet we are all constantly hungry because there isn't enough food being grown; or if the food is available we can't afford it! Supposedly we have almost everyone fully assigned and industriously beavering away but few people actually producing anything of any value! We have an ever-increasing number of people taking the train to Paris, or the ferry to Dublin and seeking asylum in the EU of all places! The Federation has become a living hell of austerity and drudge for its citizens; a laughing stock as the world looks on and wonders why we put up with it! Why are we putting up with it? Especially as there is no inevitability we have to live this way!

The world, the Federation, and we the people have been through a lot this past decade. We've been forced by events to make painful sacrifices and radical changes to the way we live. We were told we had to do so in order to secure the present and safeguard the future. But after this much time has passed we're entitled to ask "Where is this future we were promised?" Now that the situation has stabilised enough for us to resume our democratic traditions we demand those who have acted on our behalf account for themselves.

When the Crises showed the previous political establishment to be unfit to govern it was understandable the King felt impelled to act as He did. It was His wisdom which saved us all from the horror of a civil, and a nuclear war. We can all agree He acted with the most noble of intentions, but it must be said that when He set up the Transitional Commission and Consensus government I'm sure that He intended it to operate in a very different manner to the way it actually has.

He intended a far-reaching series of reforms to the way the the Federation is run; far different to the squalid rebranding of the existing political system under a new identity and a perversion of the environmental agenda we all wanted to see. When He called for a consensus He meant a wholly new relationship between the people and their goverment; not an agreement within the political class to put aside their differences in a Consensus of mutual self-interest. They have abused His trust in order to separate themselves still further, and impose their will more harshly upon us. That wasn't what He wanted; He envisaged a real national reconstruction, not a process sabotaged by the very people charged with seeing it through.

Now those same people believe they can stand for re-election with the expectation of certain victory. They arrogantly believe the electorates' will has been so broken by complying with their diktats that any alternative to their misrule is now inconceivable.

Well they are wrong! There is an alternative! Across the Federation people of goodwill from a wide variety of backgrounds are joining together in a movement for national renewal. We believe an alternative to the failed policies of the Consensus is not only possible, but vital. We have formed the National Renewal Party to put our case at the coming election, and I am proud as well as humbled to have been chosen to lead the campaign.

I believe we have the right people and the right policies to wake the Federation from its nightmare. I am certain with your support we can save ourselves from the future of never-ending austerity the Consensus have planned for us. All I ask from you is your confidence and we will undertake a genuine national renewal. We promise to make real His Majesty's vision, to see through to the finish the process He set in motion. We shall grasp the future we deserve!"

I'm sure the apologists for the Consensus will accuse us of offering wild promises which can't be fulfilled; but I say this to them. Liberalisation isn't an empty promise; it is a fundamental necessity for society to function effectively. The proof of it is all around us, for it is only within the London Economic Zone that real progress has been made. The Consensus know this to be true, for this was the reason they set up the Zone in the first place; to kick-start their stalled economy!

The Zone is living proof our policies are successful and that is why the Consensus fear us; why they spend their time trying to deny the irrefutable truth: Our policies work - theirs don't! And they know it as well as we do!

The NRP believes the advantages we have within the Zone shouldn't just be confined to one small part of the nation; it is our credo that everyone in every part of this land should have the freedom to make the best of themselves! Yes, freedom! It's a concept that's not been heard much of recently; yet it is fundamental to our beliefs. Freedom from the bonds of state control! Freedom from pretending to work in order for the state to pretend to pay you. Freedom to use your time as you wish, not as the state compels you to. Freedom from want and hunger. Freedom from the fear of the arbitrary and routine miscarriage of justice that our legal system has mutated into. Freedom to make your own choices, not have them decided for you.

Freedom: It's an empowering force and that's why the Consensus fear it; because they know a well-informed people given the ability to choose will make the right choice. They know people will realise the Council have been leading us up a cul-de-sac for the last decade, and they have nothing to offer except more stagnation; yet more pointless and inefficient toil for nothing.

They know their time is up; we know they're finished; and if you, the people of the Federation have the belief in yourselves to agree with us then they will be history! The forthcoming election must be more than a mere rubber stamping process to validate the status quo. It is our chance to pass judgement on those who have scrutinised us so closely for so long; and judge them we shall... So let this day go down in history as the day we began to reclaim our lives and our nation from the Consensus! Let our recovery start here and now! People of the Federation, and the wider world watching; I declare the National Renewal Party to be in business, and hopefully soon, in government!"

The applause is as we planned it to reflect the image we want to project; sincere but businesslike in contrast to the overblown staging of our opponents. The gauntlets have been thrown down; let battle commence! Though in reality it's more like the struggle between David and Goliath but as yet we've not even got a sling or a decent stone. Much of our party organisation exists on paper only, with about half of the candidates still needing to be appointed. James has realised he's wrung IMS dry of all of those who are inclined to stand so he's turned to the Zoners and some minor celebrities to swell the ranks.

This still being the phoney war before the real hustings begin in early April it doesn't matter too much that we're still getting ourselves organised. With the resources of the Zone behind us, and the capable people they can provide it should be easy for us make up the ground quickly. But that's what we will be doing from now until polling day; running hard just to stay in contention; just as the Consensus Party and their allies planned it.

It will only be a two horse race. There will be other parties contesting the election; vehicles for those few figures from the past who remain untainted by any connections with the Consensus; trying to revive the old political parties under a rebranded image and slightly changed names. They'll be launching in the next few days or weeks to come. We may have some organisational issues but ours are as nothing compared to their problems.

They'll say they've taken to heart the lessons of the past, and a Reset to the way things once were should encompass the return of our traditional allegiances, but they cut sad, egotistic figures, deluding themselves they still matter; unable to come to terms with the fact the landscape has permanently changed beyond what people could possibly have imagined back then. They're bound to find out the hard way they're no longer kings across the water, awaiting their peoples' call to return. No, the old politics have gone forever; they'll do well to collectively pick up even a few tens of thousands of votes.

They are dinosaurs who haven't realised they are extinct; for the truly smart politicians are those who've sought their safety within the Consensus. Even in the old days politics had become less about ideology and more about how to manage the commonly agreed upon authoritarian corporatism. There are still disagreements within the Consensus of course; and some times they get given a public airing, just to give the impression of difference and debate. But in reality those minor quibbles are soon resolved in the spirit of these consensual times, with all of the various factions getting most of what they are seeking; everyone involved realising any minor discordances are as nothing compared to the need to maintain their marriage of necessity.

So it'll be either Us or Them victorious in May. We're not starry-eyed idealists: We know only too well how the process is weighted against us. Yet we're equally not so cynical as to treat it as just a career development project. At least if we can't win we can give a good account of ourselves and putting up enough of a fight, raising public consciousness enough to make the Connies realise they can't go on as they have been might just force them to moderate their policies. It's a forlorn hope, but it's the only one we have. The thought of an unconstrained, reinvigorated Consensus in power indefinitely is one which chills my spine.

Well that went off without a hitch; even the BBC behaved themselves and didn't try anything; at least not from this end... We'll check on the entire downstream later on, just to be sure. Rather than my brooding presence ensuring they did as they were supposed to I suspect they'd been told not to throw any spanners in the works. Better to let us have all the publicity we're due for all the good it will do us, this new-found tolerance being highlighted as an example of how the Consensus are misrepresented in the world media. Still it's best to be on your guard, and let it be known you'll be keeping an eye on them...

After another round of glad-handing and media liaison duties followed by a quick committee debrief - there were no problems - my work here is done for the day. Then suddenly I find getting home will be far more problematic than I anticipated.

While we were busy making sure that our 'cast was distributed as it should have been, the news agenda was monopolised by a number of security alerts which have caused a great deal of disruption around central London. We didn't realise until our event was over and people flicked-on their scrolls once they'd cleared the blocking field of the hall. Not surprisingly the media and the general population are more preoccupied with the ongoing effects of that story, and far less interested in our launch conference.

It doesn't take much to spark an alert in these jittery times; just a holdall of old clothes left at a station or on a bus. Each alert has to be taken seriously though, with the consequent inconvenience for everyone affected. By the time I'd left the Zone the worst of the disruption was beginning to clear, though the knock-on effects would last for some time yet, and there were still some exclusion zones in force.

I become caught up in one. Suddenly the tube train I'm on stops at the next station with the announcement by public address system and PushBlurt telling us we should all calmly disembark and leave the station by the green-lit emergency exit routes. We do as instructed, expecting this only to be another drill, only to find ourselves at a pop-up ID check as we reach the surface ticket hall. That's typical Fed security incompetence for you; delaying an emergency evacuation from a potentially dangerous area. The TransPols seemed to be in a particularly officious mood as well, brusquely detaining anyone they regard as being insufficiently verified. My Zone card and IMS credentials get me through reasonably quickly, but no doubt logged on yet another database, the information held in perpetuity, to be used or interpreted in which ever way those in control of the system see fit. I make it back up to street level, free and safe for the time being but without any transport.

Arse! I'm not going to waste more of my time waiting for the All Clear or a replacement bus to be organised, and it's not worth trying to hail a taxi or a dodgy tuk (at least those death trap rickshaws were banned from the capital's streets many years ago). Instead I'll walk to Waterloo from here; it can't be more than a couple of kilometres and I've got a rough idea of the way. I can read the signs and be guided by my scroll map if they've shut down the HyperFi network for 'security reasons'. I may even get there more quickly on my own two feet.

It's not until I'm a vulnerable pedestrian I realise just how many police of different sorts have been mobilised; they seem to be everywhere! Twice more I'm stopped and checked, but I'm allowed to pass on unlike some of the other poor sods I see being taken aside for a shakedown and further interrogation. There on the other side of the road a tuk has been pulled over by the ComPol, and it looks as if the driver is going to be lucky to get away with just a good grilling and multiple tickets. Having noticed it I don't make it obvious I'm looking in that direction. You don't see it, you don't get involved in it, you studiously look the other way if you've got any sense...

Where did all these police come from so quickly? And how did it ever come to this? How did we ever allow it to come to this? Can we even stop it now? These questions are put to the back of my mind as I reach Waterloo. There crowds of disgruntled commuters are being held back by lines of aggravated looking MetPols in full riot gear who look as if they're about to enforce their authority with wands and truncheons. There's an angry, frustrated atmosphere brewing; I can tell from the tone of the hubbub. I think I'd be wise to get out of here before the annoyance boils over.

Something catches my ear. It's an announcement distorted by being shouted through a police loudhailer. Parts of it are lost in the swelling uproar but I'm sure I heard this station and others on the line will remain closed while they are given a thorough searching as well as something about an alternative bus service. Just at that moment a convoy of three double deckers arrives with SPECIAL SERVICE written on their displays, and as luck would have it I'm well placed to be one of the first to board and be seated before the rest of the crowd swarms - nay runs - across the street, hotly pursued by the pols and FedRail employees vainly attempting to regain control of the heaving mass of people who are trying to force themselves aboard. Some of the pols have their wands drawn.

They don't mess about. Barking orders they roughly shove the outraged, complaining people into line. Once organised they are counted onboard as quickly as possible. There are more people wanting to embark than there is capacity for, and the potential for a full-scale riot seems to have only been delayed, certainly not defused. As soon as our bus is crammed full the driver wastes no time in closing the doors and driving away as urgently as he can; like us he seems relieved to be out of there.

We arrive at Surbiton station and are hustled off the bus so that it can make another round trip. The platform is crowded and the confused travellers milling around are harangued by incessant emergency public service announcements telling us nothing we don't already know. At least there is a train waiting for us and the station 'Fi is working. I might be able to flick on and find out what's been happening, or  what the media are trying to pass off as the truth. The nodes here should be able to handle the expected demand upon them with ease, and have an excess to spare, but for some reason the network is running very slowly. I don't know if this due to over demand or as a result of a deliberate decision to restrict the capacity, and hence the access to information.

On board the train and waiting for more fractious passengers to be ferried here before it can depart I, and just about everyone else are trying to find more; either online or by word of mouth. No one has heard of any explosions actually happning, just an endless series of alerts; some of which are bound to have been caused by a perfectly innocent unattended bag; others the result of malicious false alarms or even spontaneous rumours. From what I can gather from the uninformative news programming - at present PushCredded and subject to direct state editorial control under the provisions of Section 38 of the Media Act - much of the Greater London area is affected to some extent by the alerts or the disruption they have created.

Duplicating the announcements bombarding us from the train's public address system we're told by the emergency 'casts we should continue to watch or listen to this service for further information: At present there are no reports of explosions or casualties. Remain calm, and obey all orders given to you. You are legally required to do so and liable for severe penalties if you refuse to comply with any instruction. We are working to mitigate any disruption as quickly as possible.

I feel an increasing undercurrent of uncertainty, or is it anger? developing, the anxiety fuelled by the lack of information. Another bus load of passengers brings new rumours: Someone got zapped with a wand just for asking to see the commanding officer to find out what was going on; Connies were given exclusive access to their own buses, or a special train had been set aside for them. It was the bloody Albans or the insurgents again, the bastards!

Even using my scroll I can't flick on to the IMS confidential streams so I'm as much in the dark as everyone else. Under a Section 38 you have to 'cast the officially-approved BBC stream, or your output has to be compliant with the emergency guidelines; and woe betide you if you're not! The OMS are becoming increasingly intolerant of even minor breaches of their Guidelines and the Rehabilitation centres can always find some more pointlessly exhausting work for newly-arrived miscreants to do.

Exasperated I roll my scroll closed. I'm getting desperate for a slash and my legs are getting cramped in the ridiculously small amount of legroom they consider sufficient now. I'm only too happy to get out of my seat and let someone else have it; good luck to you! Squeezing my way through the you breathe in and I'll move my elbow crush I manage to reach the bog just as the the train lurches into motion. However my relief at finding it is short-lived; someone is using it as a seat! Grudgingly they move out and allow me to use it for its intended purpose. I think the flush is broken or the toilet blocked judging by the unpleasant sight I see floating in the stainless steel bowl and threatening to slop over its sides, and of course there is no paper to cover the sight; there never is. I'm relieved to get it over with, and to leave the disgusting cubicle with its thick, foul smell. The original occupant seems only to eager to resume their position.

Eventually I manage to work my way to a spot where I can stand near to a door. The fresh air I'm able to breathe every time the train stops is a welcome relief from the malodorous press of humanity. Two hours later than planned, thanks to the emergency timetable which stops at every station, the still overcrowded train reaches Petersfield. I get off here and catch a bus home. There's no point going all the way to the office to try to catch up on what is happening; it will all become clear in due course.

Chapter Twenty Eight

January the 5th.

This morning no-one is any the wiser. The media is still under OMS emergency reporting strictures, but as I expected there were no explosions, and the disrupted timetables were reset to normal overnight.

Under such restrictions the PushCred is unashamedly propagandised. There are reports of how Londoners and commuters remained defiant in the face of the terrorist threats; calmly working together to make the best of the temporary inconvenience. The Regent has added His congratulations on a job well done to the fulsome praise for the police and armed services who responded so well. At this very moment our diligent protectors are sifting through all the surveillance data they have

Lois Merck, speaking on behalf of the Council, said the cowardly terrorists would never defeat a people united with their Consensus government. Their attempt to paralyse the capital had been defeated thanks to the resolute action of the public security forces and the people they serve, but as these unknown criminals may try again it is vital we maintain our vigilance. Citizens should obey without question any instructions given to them, and expect extra, random security checks. Cut to shots of the Palace of Westminster, St Stephen's tower, the usual London tropes, and a vox pop of a variety of people all agreeing we'd shown the terrorists they wouldn't beat us as well as praising the official response. The capital was almost back to normal again. Proof - were any needed - of the resilience of the people of the Federation.

In other news the United Nations Security Council will convene today to discuss the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Partitioned Territories. The UN peacekeeping fo-. I flick of in disgust. There are times such as these when as a journalist you feel utterly superfluous. We can expect to have some restricted ability to stream our own content from noon onwards, but even then the OMS will be keeping an even closer eye than it usually does on what we 'cast. But what really rankles is having to watch impotently as the Consensus effectively takes over our network for their use. PushCreds are bad enough, but this is just taking the piss!

This was no coincidence. It must have been deliberately planned to happen at the same time as our launch conference and have the effect that it did; to relegate the NRP to a barely watched side channel story. In addition it had the fortuitous effect of creating fear among the populace, as well as providing a pretext for a practice widespread mobilisation of the police and armed forces (the report inadvertently let that little morsel of information slip which it shouldn't have done. What were the army doing getting involved in a supposedly civilian policing operation?)

The Consensus will make the most of their false flag terror scare. In such times of make-believe peril the sheeple cleave to their government and don't complain if a few people get pushed around and reminded who's really in charge as happened yesterday. It's only a matter of time before we hear about how all the crimes which might have been missed were instead detected as a result of the intense policing, and how we're all safer as a result of those criminals being caught.

All in all it's been a shitty start to our campaign; news ambushed by the establishment, our message marginalised by their display of intimidatory force. What makes it worse is knowing they can repeat this tactic at will within reason; though trying it on too often might just make even the most uncritical people wonder who are these extraordinary terrorists who can get clean away time after time without getting caught or leaving any clues or leads behind them; oh yes, it happens all the time! Do I sound sarcastic and cynical? That's because I am. No; this tactic has to be used carefully for fear of showing up the institutions which are supposed to be aggrandised as incompetent.

I've no doubt these imaginary foes will remain ever present; observant and threatening from the shadows of the paranoid imagination, just waiting for the chance to strike again but not actually getting round to doing so. The fear of them revived as required as a reminder of risk we must all guard against; the unspoken subtext that only the Consensus can guarantee your security. Vote for the Consensus Party

Even if by some miracle the NRP were to win the election we can expect determined opposition from the forces of this militarised state which were so ostentatiously deployed yesterday. All in all things don't look too hopeful for us. May now seems a long way away; no longer a date to be looked forward to but one to be anticipated with dread.

 January the 6th

Exhausted and relieved at belatedly getting home I didn't realise until I awoke the next morning my sixth sense was telling me someone had been in here again while I was away. But now I know my suspicions are more than paranioa thanks to the two barometric sensors I was given to hide in my flat in response to my previous concerns. On checking the data from both of them via my scroll I get a graph - adjusted to compensate for the normal fluctuations in atmospheric pressure - displaying the slight changes in air density in my flat as a result of the opening or closing of a door. There are fluctuations indicating activity here during the time I was away in London.

I should, and probably will report this latest intrusion to our security team. But will it do any good? I wouldn't put it past James to put his 'trusted' employees under surveillance, just to be sure they're not Connie double agents, though if I ever found that to be so he'd get his campaign thrown right back into his face! I refuse to be treated as a suspect!

I could ask my neighbours if they'd seen anything. I think they are apolitical enough to be trusted; as yet none of them have openly come out as Connies but these days you can never be entirely sure... The trouble is that like all of us these days they're out for long periods of time working or credding, so a roundabout question if they'd seen the maintenance engineer go in as arranged while I was out would be unlikely to tell me anything. So I'll just have to take the advice of the consultants; continue to regard my flat as being compromised and act accordingly. Whoever is doing this must beba professional with access to state of the art equipment.

I've been told not to make it obvious to the surveilling party I'm aware of being bugged; or install microcams in a bid to catch them at it. A skilled operator would be on the lookout for them, and their discovery would give the game away. It is best just to carry on as normally as possible but do any sensitive campaign work from my screened office. Perhaps overconfidently thinking I remain unaware of their interest, the buggers will get too cocky and make a revealing error later... All the same, it's unnerving to know someone, somewhere has a beady eye on you. The fact things have been this way for so long that surveillance is regarded as a given doesn't make it any more acceptable. I'd just like to know who is so interested in me, and why.

January the 10th.

Another day; another dose of paranoia. This morning I received a confidential blurt explaining how in advance of the election a part of a vacant floor of the Column will be converted into a temporary dormitory for the use of any IMS staff and their families who want to avail themselves of the relative protection of the LEZ.

Though the offer is open to all employees to take up if they choose, I am to personally approach certain members of staff in my region and encourage them to go there in order that they may assist the London office in providing an emergency 'casting service should our provincial offices be occupied, or the links to them interrupted.

In addition, arrangements have been made for Zone security personnel to be deployed to our offices and resillient modes in the days before the poll. Most of the supplies they are likely to need will be delivered in advance of their arrival; just in case that mountain of crates which arrived at Anchorage Park proves insufficient. I am to liaise with them and do whatever is required to aid them in their duties.

January the 12th.

Well the good news is I passed my AHA, so I only had to endure the standard healthy living lecture. My ongoing eye problems remain unresolved though. I'm being referred on to the local eye clinic for further examination and have paid the appointment broker for a 'priority' service; the sooner the date comes through the better!

In the meantime I'm handed a worthless chit recommending I refrain from excessive amounts of screen focused work; as if that would be possible in my position! The doctor told me that as I enter early middle age I can expect some changes in my vision, and it's a perfectly natural part of the ageing process. My symptoms may even be anxiety related; I should consider strategies for dealing with workplace stress or consider changing my occupation. Yeah right! As if it were that easy!

I had to work like a fucking Trojan to get where I am now. I may be having a difficult time of at the moment but there are plenty of people who have it far worse; if I have apply for Reassignment due to health reasons I'll quickly become one of them.

There are no allowances made; no mercy shown to People With Disabilities these days. In a grotesque perversion of the ideal of equal opportunities they are expected to work equally as hard as anyone else, despite any problems their handicap may cause them. It has been decided by those who have absolutely no fucking idea what living with an impairment is like there is always some sort of work which can be done with whatever adaptations are practical; so work or get Rehabilitated.

I can't ask for help in mitigating my problems until it is known exactly what is up with my eyes; in the meantime I have to cope as best I can and hope  I'm seen as quickly as possible. At least knowing for sure what is wrong would be better than this interminable uncertainty.

January the 19th.

At long last I finally remembered to find out what it was in James' murky past which he and his backers wanted to keep so well hidden. I kept putting it aside, or forgetting; or after a long day my strained eyes weren't up to it. But eventually that partially formed thought floating around in the bottom of my mind coalesced into action.

My dark trawling and a couple of files from Dad's chip helped; but the whitewash has been so thoroughly done there are only hints and innuendoes left. Even my usual contacts could come up with little more than scraps. Whatever wurdle they used must have been exceptionally powerful; enough so to backtrack and alter even dark and cached data. This in itself is evidence of how powerful James' new friends are; that sort of frazzling is only available to a select few.

So what is there beyond James' public bio? Not much it would seem at first glance, but as ever there is always another story behind the headlines for those who take the time and effort to look.

By now the basic facts of his life are well-known. James Purvis learned his business skills from his father Michael; a street market trader working in the East End of London. But James had loftier ambitions than just taking after his Dad. By dint of hard work and shrewdness he was able to be at the right place at just the right moment to multiply his money into quite a tidy sum. Then he decided to make a leap of faith by investing in the media while it was going through such a turbulent time. His boldness paid off handsomely and the rest as they say, is history.

It's when you begin to delve a bit deeper you start to get the feeling that all is not as it is told. For example his early partnership with Mehmet Yılmaz when they were both involved in property rental. How did the son of a market trader - no matter how good his ducking and diving skills - and a second generation Turkish immigrant ever get the money together to get started in the sector, even in the small way they did? It wasn't that easy to do back then, even before the Credit Crunch. No, they must have had 'alternative' streams of income in addition to the takings from market stalls, rents, and the profits from a dry cleaning business...

And then there was the falling out between James and Mehmet. Officially it was about the direction they wanted their joint holding company to take; in reality their dispute was about how far they would go in getting their hands dirty. Both agreed they weren't getting rich quickly enough; the question was how to solve that problem.

Mehmet Yilmaz was a wrong 'un for sure. He didn't care what he got involved in; extortion, drugs, people trafficking, pimping, paedophilia... James may like them a bit young but compared to Mehmet's lusts, James' conquests are old age pensioners. Our James was astute enough to realise that while things might be going well for them at the moment, in the end it would all go badly wrong: Eventually Mehmet would get caught with his trousers round his ankles and bring them both down.

Their relationship began to get acrimonious and then, just as it looked as if they were about to split-up their little empire, one of those fortunate happenstances which always seem to favour James occurred.

Suddenly Mehmet the drug dealer developed a liking for the product he sold; and not just any old dope, he dropped out of sight for a while and went straight on to Wreck. Now you may not know what Wreck is; it's probably been long supplanted by something even more potent by now. Suffice it to say it's named Wreck because that's what it does to you. There have been other derivatives of Krokodil, but they are as mere aspirins compared to Wreck.

Most users last about nine months from their first hit to when the multiple organ failure kills them; not that they're bothered by then because their minds are already so far away in another place they'll never be coming back. But there are always exceptions; Mehmet took the fast track and blazed his own starry trail across the heavens in a mere three weeks, before being found floating in the Thames near Halstow Marshes. At the inquest the coroner, in declaring an open verdict, said he had never heard of such a high concentration of drugs being found in a person's bloodstream before; but although foul play might well be suspected, nothing could be proven.

Being the main beneficiary of Mehmet's demise by inheriting his share of the company, James immediately fell under suspicion but there was no conclusive evidence against him. Nor was that the only time he'd appeared on the police's radar; both he and Charles Bennett had come to the attention of the Operation Heron ll task force; but being more circumspect than he average nonce, again there was nothing which could be acted upon. Yet it has to be asked; how else would the likes of James Purvis and Charles Bennett - two very different people from backgrounds so divergent - have met? What else would they have had in common

Maybe given enough time and more resources, a bit more diligent digging might have yielded something more substantial. But with nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on, and the Insurgency gathering momentum, all available police resources were concentrated on countering that threat. Even if the enquiry was reactivated now the cases are too cold; too many trains of thought have been dropped; for the likelyhood of anything to come of it.

So the image we get of James is far from the whole story. Instead we have his self-written narrative; he the street savvy barrow boy made good by his own honest efforts. A respectable member of society; patron of the arts; (in reality he's got the aesthetic sensibilities of a house brick: He has someone on his staff to take care of his acquisitions) and now an aspiring populist leader.

You won't hear of course about how he takes out most of his pent-up rage on his punch bag (He was quite a good teenage amateur boxer.) I say most of his anger... or of his constant need for a new 'younger' woman; or of all the other issues spanning the course of his career which might have been stumbling blocks but suddenly resolved themselves in his favour. Neither will the backhanders, the back room deals, the discreet strong-arm tactics, the dalliance with the wrong side of the law and the careful meeting out of violence if required as a last resort be exposed to scrutiny. His instincts may be to only go as far as he has to in order to get what he wants, but he can be as much of a cunt as anyone who fights his way into the exclusive circles of hidden power.

No, the James you'll see now has spent a long time cultivating his business accent and entrepreneurial image; now he considers himself suave enough to have earned himself a place at the high table. He may imagine himself worthy to be thought of by the real powerbrokers in their Zoned home counties mansions as a suitable foil to reflect their ambitions; but do they only regard him as a disposable warning shot across the bows of the Consensus, to be dispensed with once their point has been made and his usefulness at an end? Whatever the truth of the relationship between James and the Zoners, both share a determination to get what they want; no matter by what means and regardless of the consequences to others.

Working for him, and knowing what he's really like, I find the outside chance he may be our next Prime Minister disconcerting until I consider the alternative... There are few perfect choices in politics, especially in our world, and there are no innocents in this dirty business. But I have to wonder how things ever got to the point where James and his NRP became our last great hope?

Chapter Twenty Nine

February the 2nd.

Last month it was the undefined 'shirkers' who were the subject of public opprobrium; now it is the turn of the spivs, despite it being nearly impossible to obtain certain things without their pricey help. "Spivving's not a living - it's a crime!" runs the latest official campaign. The slogan appears nearly everywhere you look; as well as being the subject of numerous PushCreds; a constant reminder of the near dominance of the state in all areas of life and its one-way communication with its subjects.

There is bold talk about how "Together we'll smash the spivs!" along with reminders of the many and varied ways of grassing them up. In reality the junior players trying to climb the slippery ladder of the black economy will continue to lurk near store entrances; waiting with practiced patience for the doors to open. They probably don't know what they are going to rush in for the chance of getting; just a rumour of something temporarily available, or even the rumour of a rumour is enough. They gamble the long wait is worth the risk of a speculative shakedown by bored or curious ComPigs; that at the end of it there might be something worth buying and selling-on at a premium.

It's almost become a full-time way of eking out a living. Almost; but not quite yet, though it is bound to become so as the supply chain problems and shortages worsen in what used to be one of the most advanced global economies. We're promised once the OneCard system is in operation it will provide the means to eliminate the practice once and for all; but with the opposition it faces, and the inevitable technical problems I don't see it happening anytime soon. And wasn't ComCred supposed to stop spivving and hoarding? Yeah, right!

Though few people will actually realise it, this campaign is in reality an admission of failure. After all, if the 'temporary' problems with our semi-planned economy have been fixed as has so often been claimed there would be no space or rationale for the black marketeers.

Give it a month and the focus will move on to another marginalised group deemed deserving of the state's focused hatred. Meanwhile the dodgy geezers will continue their business as usual out of sight of the dim-witted pols, if a bit more carefully for a while.

February the 5th.

I always run out of food just when I need it most or feel even more peckish than usual. No, there's no avoiding it; I'll have to go shopping.

I hated shopping before the advent of the Crises; now I dread it. The local Community Co-ops aren't too bad; though they are quite expensive, and my local one knows me well enough to barter if needs be; but it's the larger stores that do my head in.

Shopping, like so much of our lives, is very different now. The majority of the supermarket chains we knew before the Crises survived in some form, but they had to radically alter the way they did business.

As part of the Consensus' unremitting obsession with reducing peoples' non work related travel, they began to pressure the supermarkets to close down their larger, more distant stores and instead continue further along their path of wiping out any independent competition by opening smaller stores in almost every neighbourhood.

At first the mega grocers were reluctant to do so; but given the stick of nationalisation and the carrot of cheap assignee labour, vacant high street or corner shop units at knock down rents, as well as a virtual monopoly they soon came round to the Connies' way of thinking. Besides, they realised that with so many products banned for health reasons, declared to be unnecessary 'luxuries', or likely to be unavailable for the forseeable future due to the ongoing effects of the Crises, their big shed stores were redundant; there would be so little stock left to fill them. So the deals were done, properties swapped, a cosy relationship re-established, and everyone was reasonably happy; apart from the employees who as so many others before them were quietly dismissed and re-employed into the permanence of inescapable benefit slavery, and we the consumers who - as usual - had been stitched up.

Yes, there are state price controls; though it seems to be easy enough to get approval for a price rise, but going to a local mart makes me feel as if I've been robbed by the time I leave. At least you don't have to endure piped music any more; in one of their more rational moments the Consensus banned it. Now and then even they do something right.

These days you don't just go in and pick what you want off the shelves. No; with so many people with so little do around and available for peppercorn wages the stores now resemble the grocery counters of yesteryear. Now you queue and ask the assistant for what you want; they either weigh out the amount or hand the product to you. It's eliminated a lot of shoplifting at a stroke.

A shopper from the past would be astonished at how little there is available now. With us all being so much poorer and unable to afford frippent luxuries, the shops sell only the basic food related fare. The frugality also extends to the packaging; the sly little tricks the manufacturers used to make their products look bigger now rendered obsolete in these asetic times. What you see in the plain, minimalistic wrapper is what you get; and you don't get much of it for your money.

Once you've toured the various departments and been served, you'll need to pay for your goods. Those fantasies of checkoutless shops full of RFID enabled products paid for by a wireless deduction from your account as you walk out of the door remain just pipe dreams; the Dragon saw to that. And fortunately those irritating self-service checkouts which addressed you in the same patronising tone a parent uses to their young child are also things of the past, it being cheaper and more resilient to have humans ringing-in your purchases as well as checking your Food Points card; despite it having been checked before when you were served.

This time the shelves appear to be reasonably full, with fewer out of stocks or yawning empty spaces;, even if there are only the usual limited variety of items available. This relative bountifulness is just another aspect of the cynically planned temporary bubble of munificence in advance of the election. Though I think I'll pass on the limp looking veg and tiny roots which seem to be all they have in stock at present; especially at those prices. I also wonder if my eyes haven't taken a sudden turn for the worse because the packages seem smaller and further away than I remember. I'm concerned for a while until I realise the portion sizes have shrunk yet again.

Having bought only the essentials I can afford I leave. One of the ever hovering security guards looks as if he intends to pull me aside for a bag search, despite him having seen me go through the checkout, but I give him one of my 'just don't try it...' looks and he thinks better of it.

February the 7th.

All day we've had to run an annoying PushCred explaining how well the economy has been doing. Obviously the thinking is if the Big Lie about the Recovery is pushed often enough, eventually the dolts will believe it to be the truth. And of course there are the statistics to prove it...

They are freely available to anyone who can be bothered to look them up, though few take any notice of them, and fewer still believe them. As with all official Fed statistics they are utterly meaningless. The New Pound has been 'revalued' so many times as to render any comparison with the statistics of twenty years ago - dire even then - null and void. Instead of concerning themselves with figures which are a combination of lies and wishful hoping, most people are too preoccupied getting by from month to month. Only the Connies are convinced not only has the situation stabilised, but based on the new foundations they have laid things are poised to really take off.

Such delusions are powerfully infectious; we had one of these short-lived outbreaks of optimism last year. Somehow the idea emerged the Council planned to ease the regulation of the housing market; controls on rents and house prices would be lifted with costs being allowed to find their own market level. Anyone with a basic understanding of fedonomics should've realised the idea was a non-starter, but that didn't stop some starry-eyed would-be capitalists investing in property Ponzi schemes which promised to make them rich overnight - and losing what little they had when reality finally broke through into their dream world. House price speculation was one of the reasons the pre-Fed economy crashed, not just once, but many times over when the inflation it generated ran out of control. More former greenfield sites may now be covered in homogenous swathes of impermanent looking housing, but everything is kept firmly under state control. No one, not even the more woolly Connie elements, would allow themselves to fall for the siren calls of those claiming the economy can be reflated on the back of a property bubble. We've all been stung too often before to allow it to happen again; haven't we?

The cynical exploiters of the would-be entrepreneurs - smart enough to start the speculation or jump off the bandwagon in time - did well enough collecting the small amounts of money pledged in hopeful expectation to emigrate to the EU or beyond. The mugs who fell for the scams still plaintively call for the state to investigate and pursue the guilty parties abroad; as well as expecting to be compensated for their stupidity: Dream on suckers!

You'd think people would've learned their lesson by now, but give it time and there'll be another brief burst of speculative optimism. It might be growers' co-operatives next time, or investing within the Zone, or the latest renewable energy scheme, but the result will be the same depressingly predictable bust. In a stagnant, hopeless economy all people have left are their fantasies of joining the elite either by finding that one niche opportunity, or winning the lottery.

Though I'll be glad when we can delete thae 'Cred, it has inadvertently given me an idea for a means to attack the Connies' record: If things are going as well as they say, then why is it so many people are still going through the Assignment system; having to top up their meagre part-time earnings with an even more risible partial dole and credding in order to reach their subsistence level? Explain your way out of that one!

February the 16th.

I came close to resigning from the campaign group today; nearly chucked-in the whole fucking job I was that angry. I'm still feeling resentful about it now.

It all started with a confidential blurt from James describing some of his policy proposals. Far from the sensible libertarian ideals I thought he and the NRP stood for, these latest notions apear to be only a mildly watered-down version of Consensism. I didn't find them in any way at all inspiring and told him so. By return blurt I was told in not so many words to hold my peace and just get on with the job I was doing.

That to me was like a red rag to a bull, so I called him and let him know I wasn't happy being treated this way, and maybe the time had come for him to look for my replacement on the campaign group. It was the closest I'd come to having a steaming row with him; that fact alone seemed to startle him; in fact he began to row back a bit suggesting his proposals were a only a basis for discussion, a possible way of transitioning from Connie rule back to a free society and economy in stages in order to minimise any disruption whch a sudden change would cause. I remained unconvinced, not least by the lack of reform envisioned for the OMS, and it must have shown because in a marked change to his usual 'my way or the highway' demeanour he almost pleaded with me to take some time to think about it before making a final decision. Things would all become clear soon enough he promised.

My curiosity whetted as to what was going on, I agreed to delay making up my mind for a few days. Not that it took that long for James' ulterior motive to become apparent; a day later the story broke.

It emerged I wasn't the only one to get a provocative blurt from James; everyone in the campaign group did, but not everyone kept the contents to themselves. One of the draft policy documents was leaked, and the Connies made hay with it. They claimed the NRP's timidity in proposing so few changes to the system the Consensus had put in place was an inherent admission they had been right all along. Their glee was cut short when James revealed his real motive behind the proposals.

It turned out to be a cunning plan to expose the Connie agents James suspected had infiltrated IMS. By giving each member of the group their own individualised document it would be possible to find out by our reaction who was true to the cause, and who; given a plum story to leak and discredit the NRP, couldn't resist breaking cover. Once James publicly announced his turning of the tables the Connies at first denied infiltrating IMS, then went silent with embarrassment.

The next meeting of the campaign group was strained, to put it mildly. In addition to the two former employees who had been found out and summarily dismissed, another committee member decided she'd had enough and stepped down from the group. The rest of us were in a mutinous mood as well; we made it clear if James ever tried a repeat of that stunt we'd resign en-masse. Faced with a tide of resentment he apologised for going too far, and promised if any further security issues arose he'd deal with them in a far more conciliatory manner. That got him off the hook for the moment, but the ill-feeling remains and I must be one of the most aggrieved people still working for him. He knows that the next time - if there were to be a next time - would be the last time; I won't have my integrity questioned in such a manner.

The upshot of it all was by the time our ruffled feathers had been smoothed the day was wasted. I'm sure the Connies would be pleased if they could only see the self-inflicted damage just the fear of their pervasive espionage has caused. As for the public impact of all this; who can say what effect it will have? Ten years after politics as we knew them were officially abolished a lot of people have no interest in them at all and don't want to see them return: They'd rather watch the latest heat of Dance Together!

Chapter Thirty

February the 27th.

Traditionally January may have been 'the cruellest month' but recently it seems February and March are trying to claim the title as well. Since the really cold weather arrived in mid-January the Fed has been struggling to shrug off the sub-arctic conditions with mixed success.

Everyone hoped by now the worst of it would be over, but the winter and the problems it causes continue to persist. The latest blizzard warning nearly caused our campaign group meeting to be cancelled, but in the indomitable spirit of our times we set off when James decided we had to meet in the secure environment of the Column. The news of my surveillance perhaps convincing him collaborating here face to face is the wiser option rather than a videoconference, despite the latter being the more sensible option at this moment. As a result I face a difficult journey to London. In spite of the best efforts of the FedRail and NRA staff, this winter is pushing a network adapted from one built to withstand far different conditions to the limit.

These days we don't cower under the stairs surrounded by piles of sandbags at the first hint of severe weather as we used to. Now the past advice to stay at home and out of any potential danger would be laughed down as an example of the effete people we had become. The more masculine nation we are now does not believe in tears: Undaunted by the weather, with outward bound boy scout brio we bravely sally forth to battle the climate.

From prepositioned camps and lodgings heroic NRA conscripts are called out to engage in a constant struggle to keep everything running. Given their lack of specialist equipment and inadequate clothing they do remarkably well, often shifting great quantities of snow by hand if no mechanical aid is available. But they do so at great cost to themselves. They suffer from cold injuries, often severe ones. Earlobes, fingertips, toes, and patches of skin are routinely sacrificed to the ferocious cold; yet still they selflessly go out into the elements to carry out their social obligation. Many of them have little choice because if they don't perform satisfactorily they get sent straight back to Rehabilitation. Some may suffer or even die in the course of performing their duty but for the greater good their work; whatever it may be, must go on. In our harsh new world some people are expendable.

The train stop-goes-stops all the way to London through the grubby twilight of a marshmallow world, the flourescent overalls of the lineside workers the only vibrant colours to be seen in the monochromatic landscape. The carriage display says the wind chill adjusted temperature outside is a relatively balmy -19°c. Any Ferals who've not been able to dig themselves an insulating burrow into a secluded earthern bank or gather enough wild foods in advance to see them through this bitter spell are certain to die. To add to the misery the train heating and HyperFi are restricted to the absolute minimum; people are swathed in warmsuits layered on top with any items of winter clothing they can lay their hands on, or wrapped in musty FedRail emergency blankets. At times of such heavy demand on our straining power systems, we're told every little economy helps. I don't believe a word of it, but the illusion of a collective sacrifice to see ourselves through this difficult period must be maintained.

Such is the state's organisational capacity and concern for our welfare we're served tepid degréplastic cups of watery powdered soup whenever we're held up at a station. It tastes an artificial cocktail of indeterminate flavours but no-one refuses it.

I reach Waterloo only two hours late. Finally reaching the Zone I'm relieved to find I'm not the only one in this predicament; most of us are held up so the start of the meeting will be delayed. A couple of our people from the north-west found themselves unable to travel any further and decided to turn around. Once most of us have arrived at the secure inner conference suite we can begin reviewing our progress to date.

It's been as good as we ever dared hope, but still we don't appear to be making enough of an impact on the Connies' lead; although it's difficult to know exactly as opinion polls are banned: The Electoral Commission regards them as psuedoscientific at best; a distraction which prevents people from considering the issues for themselves instead of running with the herd of perceived popularity. At worst they regard them as opinion forming polls.

I suspect the real reason the Connie-leaning Commission prohibited the publication of opinion surveys under any circumstances during the campaign is they're aware the Consensus Party's lead isn't as great as they would have anticipated at this point and don't want to encourage any groundswell of opposition support: The best way of sapping the will to fight of a likely protagonist is to convince them they have no chance of winning, and so any struggle is a pointless effort. Lacking any hard evidence we're groping around in the dark, as was intended. Our latest projections gathered from an aggregate of informal sources still show us some ten percent or so behind, and I consider that estimate to be overly optomistic.

We need a breakthrough of some kind; a knockout blow to land on the Connies' jaw, but what? All the strategies we have seem to fall just short. There are some good ideas; the blurt made by our Birmingham hub lampooning the Connie housing policy for example. It's a parody of an old sixties Pathé newsreel about The Home Of The Future, but instead of the white heat of technological optimism, the viewer is given a lingering tour of some of the worst accommodation which could be found. Apparently there was no shortage of suitable locations. The voiceover concludes in a cheerfully optomistic tone "...and you too could be living in a place like this in the near future!"

That and my video of the Connie gathering, edited to lend their rythmic clapping and foot stamping a menacing air, are approved to be 'cast on our allocated PushCred slots. With James' collection of credder videos and my Battle Of The Boot Sale documentary we have a good arsenal of propaganda to launch at the Consensus Party but honestly, will any of it make a difference? How many of the electorate will be influenced or actually give a toss about it all? I wonder if our slickly produced vids aren't just too sophisticated for them.

It seems I'm not the only one with misgivings. Without mentioning specifics, James ask pointedly if there isn't anything else we can do in the way of exposing the Connies; providing a simple and direct issue with which to hit them hard and repeatedly. Though his question is posed to the whole meeting I know it is directed at me, and exactly what he's implying. The answer is no; the covert 'cord of the Connie meeting is all I've been able to coax out of my source so far, and I'm not expecting him to come up with any more soon. The Consensus Party are running loyalty audits of suspect members at the moment, so not surprisingly he's laying low for a while; I don't blame him.

So sorry, I don't see any hope of us being able to get hold of a glutton party vid soon, no matter how desperately we want one. The undeniable proof of higher-ranking Connies stuffing themselves to excess with luxury foods we'd have no chance of either finding or affording; so much so they vomit it back up as if they were at a Roman orgy, and doing so just because they can would be certain to turn public opinion against them. It's one thing for the average prole to shrug their shoulders at injustices done to others, but on an issue as directly relevant to them as food policy, such flagrantly wasteful behaviour would touch a raw nerve, especially given the non-stop drizzle of appeals and coercion to economise in their daily lives. Sadly an exposé of the wantonly arrogant privilege of the Connie class is something we can only wistfully dream of having.

Then Fordson Roberts, that obnoxious, ambitious little scrote from our Bristol hub comes up with an idea and says what everyone else seems to be thinking. "Look, we all know that it goes on, even if we've no images of it, so why don't we stage a reconstruction of a puking party?" I'm astonished by his brazenness but the notion appears to be gaining support.

"How do you mean?" asks Alice Hughes from our Leicester office. "Are you going to make it clear from the outset it's a reconstruction or just let people think it's a real 'cord? Would you pixellate the actors' faces for a bit of authenticity?"

I can't believe what I'm hearing. Yes this is electioneering, and all may be fair in war, but this has the potential to backfire on us and I tell them so.

"You're not thinking this through, are you? What exactly are you proposing? If it's a reconstruction then it'll just look like desperation on our part and the Connies will laugh at us. If you're trying to pass off something we've made as original then you're asking for trouble! If the actors' faces aren't pixellated it'll be easy to FacePop them and find out who they really are, and if they're wurdled we'll face an access demand to see the undisguised images. The Connies will put in a formal complaint to the Electoral Commission and we'll all be deep in it! We'll blow any chances we have of winning and end up in Rehab before polling day!"

I stop. There is a pregnant stillness in the room. Then Roberts comes back petulantly. "Have you any better ideas then?" God I'm really beginning to take an active dislike to the little shit! Someone else is just about to speak but before they can utter a word it happens. All of the sights and feelings I've experienced today; waking up in my frigid shoebox of a home, the rush to put on my many layers of clothing before I start to shivver; leaving for Petersfield on a poorly heated bus; enduring the brass monkeys train journey here; seeing people walking bundled and bulked up in insulation; being reminded of what adequate heating is once I'm within the Column, so much so it's a constant struggle to ward off the drowsiness tugging at me: All of this coming together and crystalising in a single thought which I blurt out as it forms.

"Why are we freezing?"

There's another silence of incomprehension. "Care to explain?" says James, weighing in.

"We're looking for an issue to beat them with; well we've got one! It's right in front of our noses but it's so big we've not been able to see it! The winter! and the way it's been handled! Think about it: Here we are in the 21st century in what is supposedly an advanced society with all our problems solved, yet we're still shivering as we were 250 years in the past! It's a reflection of the state we're in now; cold fingers and toes; always ill with something; raw air and condensation inside most buildings... Pull on this thread and it all unravels: The Connies claim to have worked miracles, but this is the reality of our lives; pissed on, pissed off, poor, permanently cold and hungry! Yes, the weather will have broken by election day but the memories will still be fresh, especially if we keep reminding people; Why Are We Freezing? or Why Did We Freeze? Oh, they may have some ready excuses to hand, but they won't wash. There's no way they can wriggle their way out of it. If we hammer-hammer-hammer them with this I believe we can have them. Don't you see it?"

All of my thoughts having gushed out in a torrent of words the pause which follows is a stunned one as everyone digests what I've said. Even Roberts is dumbstruck. Then James delivers his judgement. "Yes... I think you're on to something there! Let's explore it a bit further..." I can't remember the rest of the meeting and how it went, I was concentrating hard on not nodding off, but any thoughts about faking a glutton party vid vanished in the enthusiastic discussion which arose from my idea. We Want Our Lives Back! was one of the better slogans I remember being adopted. We have a strategy now; hopefully a winning one.

The meeting ends. Those of us not attempting to make it back today are going to stay overnight at the Perch. The rest, Roberts included, are going to risk travelling through the worsening conditions. The PushCred 'casts displayed on the large screen in the conference room show workers valiantly struggling against the drifting snow. Despite the attempt to spin the heroism of the NRA units striving to keep the Fed moving against the extremes of nature, it is clear they are losing the fight.

Sod that for a lark! I don't fancy spending the night stuck on a stalled train so I'll crash in the Perch; at least it'll be reasonably warm and the expense will be covered by IMS. I'll try to catch a return train later in the morning, when things may be moving again.

Were this weather to continue up to the time of our next meeting we'd be able to use the new dormitory being constructed for us; but if things are still this bad by then I think our sleeping arrangements will be the least of our worries. Such a hard and late lasting winter is bound to play havoc with agriculture; which means reduced yields, more imports, smaller portions, and still higher food prices.

Once I reach the Perch the effects of my chilled day begin to catch up with me, so I take an early nap. As I drift in and out of conciousness my last thought is a fervent wish Fordson Roberts spends a miserably cold evening stranded somewhere. The wanker deserves to suffer.

February the 28th

When I finally get home and check the sensors it appears that no one has been in while I was away. Hopefully they've lost interest in me.

March the 28th.

I've let my dairy writing slip. I've been so busy with work and electioneering I haven't had the time for writing, and frankly I've not felt up to it. I've had my first stage eye test; so far they've detected nothing obviously wrong which is a good sign, but they've not classified me as a potential malingerer and warned me against presenting myself with the same symptoms within a year or risk a Community Court hearing, which makes me wonder... I've been given some eye drops to use; what they're supposed to do or how effective they are I don't know. I've also discovered how much I hate self-administering them.

There's also a second stage examination due, whenever that happens. In the meantime I'm trying to use as many eyes-free solutions as I can, but coping that way isn't as easy as it's made out to be. Despite those measures my eyes often feel tired after a long day; as if they've been filled with hot sand, or poked with knitting needles, or my vision goes through blurry spells.

I have good days and bad days. But if it gets any worse I'll have to see if it's possible to be treated in the Zone under the IMS health plan. The trouble is that would mean me committing to staying here, losing whatever theorectical freedom I have to move on. But then who'd employ someone with a possibly degenerative sight problem?

The tears of eyestrain running down my cheeks are telling me this is getting too much for me. I'd better stop for now.

Chapter Thirty One

April the 7th.

Shit! Pompey's Division Two promotion push has derailled. The 0-1 loss against Blackburn Rovers making it impossible to reach the playoffs now. Sport, as everything else in life, was hit hard by the Crises. During those turbulent times the upper class events, Henley, Wimbledon, the Ascot races, and suchlike were held behind a wall of security. Now the security, as well as the events themselves are far more discreet; the reduced sponsorships and wealth far less ostentatiously flaunted, though still very much in evidence.

It was football, the most noticable and popular sport, which was chosen to be 'democratised' after the collapse of the Premier League. Formula 1 also had financial problems, but it was allowed to fail. Our national game couldn't be allowed to fragment so the Sports Commission oversaw the reintegration of the traditional four division structure with most of the previous teams involved; though not all of the them survived the Transition.

We were so close to getting a draw which could have kept our hopes alive if other results had gone in our favour; but we didn't hold out and the other scores didn't go our way. If our season hadn't been so disrupted by weather related postponements and the team worn down by playing so many catch-up games in such a short period of time in late April, perhaps things may have been different.

As Pompey fans we ought to be well used to disappointment by now; but needless to say some of the natives weren't happy. But instead of taking their frustrations out on the few away supporters who could afford to come down to Fratton Park, the disgruntled fans went out after Connies, Compies, and any buildings connected with them they could find. It was just a minor bit of aggro; a couple of windows broken, a few running scuffles, and then a quick exit: Nothing to report or be reported; the local OMS saw to that. As yet there are no reports of any arrests being made. I wonder if is this another straw blown along by the gathering wind of discontent? And might a disintegrating haystack be heading our way?

April the 10th.

I spotted another one today on the ride home. When I first saw the crowd I thought a tuk had ran off the road and crashed; they may be more economical than the cars they supplanted but despite their supposed safety features I still regard them as bloody death traps. Then I realised what was going on. It's something to do with one of the large billboards mounted on a high wall; self-powered, wirelessly updated solarfilm screens which are cheaper to produce than old-style paper posters. With there being so little to advertise these days, and the promotion of unnecessary consumption officially discouraged, they spend most of their time displaying uplifting inspirational slogans, public information, or health promotion messages. So what has caused this knot of bemused people to congregate there, watching the board? And why are others quickly walking away as if frightened? Hurrying away from a possibly infected place, or not wanting to be seen near a crime scene.

The Consensus propaganda vignette begins again. It shows scenes of happy, industrious people; many dressed in the Connie uniform of ute-suit and flacks engaged in various busy community activities ending with the ubiquitous FORWARD TOGETHER! Then a molten red weal of a slash rips down from the top left of the picture, carving its way to the bottom centre before rising at another 45° angle up to the top right. Some people may not understand the connotations of that animation, but the frazzler who had wurdled it obviously knew the symbol resonated through the popular culture of the past, in both a vintage science fiction series and the fact of a real-life resistance against an occupying tyranny.

Such fiction wouldn’t be made or 'cast now, and the factual use of the symbol in the occupied europe of World War Two would be ignored as a mere historic detail, if remarked upon at all. Yet there is still a residual cultural memory left, and enough people remain aware of its meaning, for the fact of its appearance now, of all times, to cause a stir.

I'm certainly aware of its significance: Jolted out of my stunned surprise by the sight of someone else 'cording the scene and the realisation I'm missing an opportunity to video this act of protest before the local Compie Media Crime Squad arrives to shut down or remove the offending screen, I fumble for my scroll and vid several minutes of the billboard running through its cycle; ending each time in the livid ripped scar of a defiant V.

April the 19th.

With two weeks to go until polling day James literally trips up. Well it's his own stupid fault, him wanting to be seen as more athletic than Lois Merck. The day before she'd had a media-op demonstrating her proficiency at the rehabilitative wheelchair fencing she does; and she is very good at it: She's not quite competition standard but is close enough to it to have given the Fed paralympic team she was duelling with some hard fought bouts.

Her determinedly predatory quality shone through as intended; some inner vril energising her sinewy form. Such was her relentlessly aggressive style her opponents appeared to be quite relieved when it was all over. As soon as James saw her in action he felt he had to respond with his own projection of vigorously healthy athleticism, so he invited the media in to view one of his punishing sessions in one of the Column's gyms.

It was all going well until the moment when he lost his footing while trying to max-out on a treadmill; his trip had him slamming face first into the floor in front of everyone. He wanted to get up again and keep going but it was clear that he had rattled himself. The gym's first aider insisted James was checked out in the building's medical centre.

It turned out banging his face against the edge of the treadmil had fractured his cheek bone near his eye socket. It wouldn't need corrective surgery but it would be very painful for a while; that side of his face would be swollen and bruised for the next couple of weeks. Yes it can be concealed to a certain extent with make-up, but despite the campaign being ostensibly about policies rather than personality or image, having your leader looking as if he'd been the loser in a sparring match doesn't help the cause. At least there isn't an eve of poll leaders' debate scheduled for this campaign; that notion never really took off, so at least he won't need to worry about not looking very telegenic.

Once the alarm of the first reports of his mishap had passed we had to think of a way of minimising the damage to his image; that's not easy when your man is doing his best to come across as a buffoon. In the end we used the line he'd been pushing his personal limits, and as you do sometimes while doing so, had come a cropper. It may win him some sympathy, and the Connies can hardly condemn him for striving to improve himself. He should be allright by election day, but that black eye of his will still be yellow by then.

April the 26th.

One week to go until polling day. For those of us involved in the election it is a nerve wracking time. Those uninvolved could be forgiven for wondering if there was anything happening at all as it's all very low-key. There are no candidates out on the streets glad-handing people; after opportunistic physical attacks on politicians became a trend in past elections, none of them are prepared to take the risk; even when surrounded by a ring of bodyguards. Instead there are only the party PushCreds and the occasional frazzled public screen to be seen - which the Connies are still unsuccessfully trying to blame us for. The election features in the news of course; but many people are choosing to ignore the whole event as much as possible.

There's a feeling of ennui about the process, a weariness of hearing about it. People are fearful of confronting the facts of our predicament now or thinking about what the future is likely to hold. They dread the proposals any government is likely to have in store for them. It is far easier to try to put it all out of mind; to allow those who are interested to campaign and argue online.

Most of our meeting today is taken up by a report from the Organisation Group. While we've been dogfighting up in the creative blue sky they've been involved in the pitched battle below, a long, dragged out slugging match against every bureaucratic obstacle the Consensus Party can throw in our way.

For example it's been a never-ending struggle to get our supporters registered to vote. The local Connie groups have taken a perverse delight in challenging many voter registrations, so much so we suspect the process is not only routine, but it has been automated. The NRP have had to devote a great deal of time and resources to countering those objections. No doubt the diversion of effort was what the Consensus Party had in mind all along. But with voter registration now closed the Organisation Group can concentrate on anticipating which other spanners might be thrown in our works between now, polling day, and the immediate aftermath of the vote. We've been going through various scenarios and developing counter strategies.

But despite it all James remains unperturbed; exuding his same unruffled confidence that it will all come good on the night. He seems buoyed by the whispers all is not right in the enemy camp, their underperformance to date prompting a undeclared rearguard leadership struggle by supporters of Hazel Dunn. It isn't admitted of course, but Dunn is being seen more often as the face of their campaign, with Merck less so; she being thought too intensely shrill for the public mood of the moment given our progress. James is cock-a-hoop about it but I find his attitude more and more irritating. Yes we are closing the gap, but not quickly enough, and I'm still concerned the Connies will throw in a last minute surprise. Even if they decide against a spoiler I still predict James will be feeling crestfallen a week tomorrow.

May the 1st.

There are just thirty three hours to go until the start of polling. At the final speech of the NRP's campaign I'm sat at the back of the Column's Great Hall; James deciding to close the circle by finishing where we began. Had circumstances been different I might have been on duty with the wurdling squad, responding to blurts and forum comments, countering the Connie smears and misinformation. I've spent plenty of time online in recent days doing just that as things have come to a head, and I'm on standby now should I be needed. But I also need to consider my eye health. James insisted I had some downtime.

In any case it would appear it's all winding down as the time counts down the official midnight deadline for the end of electioneering. From then on it will be Reflection Day. The idea is a common one in european elections and has been adopted by the Electoral Commission. The day before the polls open being set aside from politicking so people may pause and consider the issues before they cast their ballots. From midnight on there will be no further debate on the open web, with the ripping and snarling continuing in the dark; as if it will make much difference at this late stage. In any case the 'sist seems to have it all well under control, judging by the last quick update I saw before arriving here. Sometimes it appears our Maggie is engaged in a constant wrestling bout with Lois, as we've named the loose agglomeration of Connie wurdles; both Artificial Intellegences hissing and scratching in a titanic but ultimately futile cat fight; ignored by the majority of any human spectators who appear put off by it all. So I don't feel as if I'm burdening others by not being there; I've done more than my fair share, and suffered as a result of doing so.

We spent the early evening thrashing out James' final speech. It'll be a short one, as much the ostensible thank you to everyone who helped with the NRP campaign as a final rallying call. It's a difficult tone to set, neither being presumptuous or conceeding, too low-key or too much of a final triumphallist flourish. It'll finish on a high note, but not a bombastic one.

For a change James seems to be taking notice of our suggestions; even adopting most of them without question. Is he already learning to delegate decisions to others in advance of taking power? He appears to be preoccupied by something, though what it may be he's not said. He seems to be more subdued, contemplative even; overawed by what he has achieved, turning what was planned to be a shoe-in into a close run contest. The advantage still rests with the Connies, but it's not beyond the bounds of possibility he could be Prime Minister in less than sixty hours time. Maybe that thought is what is weighing on him; the fatigue of responsibility already settling on to his shoulders.

So now to see how well he delivers what we've written for him. There are points during the speech where he can ad-lib though I've been firm with him to keep it to a minimum, and to use only those preprepared forms of words which have been fully checked out. Once the final text had been agreed James departs to his private soundproofed office to practice his delivery. He's strange like that; doesn't want anyone to hear it until he comes right out and says it for real. Fortunately his approach has worked for us up until now. It needs to work just one more time and then he can make as many faux-pas as he wants to. My only concern is if the Consensus Party decide to try and wrong foot us with a last minute smear to which we must respond. We stand ready to put out a rebuttal statement as required; but what might not work so well would be James sounding flustered, unprepared, and scrabbling to get a grip.

We know Lois Merck is due to begin her wrap-up speech at the same time as ours, and we have a team monitoring it. So far there are no indications there will be a last-minute grenade thrown; they probably considering it would do them as much harm as we; but you never know... I'll feel happier, come the stroke of Big Ben's midnight chimes, when it is all over.

The ceremonies are about to begin, so now would be the ideal time for me to avoid the inevitable boredom for a while and give myself another dose of eye drops in the gents'. That's my reason and I'm sticking to it. Besides there's no excitement in it for me; I know what is going to be said. Once my eyes have stopped their watering and my vision cleared I can always slip back in to the hall for the final hurrah, after travelling by way of the media terminal located in the antechamber just to be sure nothing has arisen.

My eyesight temporarily restored, the monitoring guys give me the thumbs up as I pass them. There's nothing happening as of yet, and if something which needs to be responded to does then they know where to find me. The knot of security staff hanging around outside the impressive banqueting hall entrance take a cursory look and wave me on, knowing me well enough by now. An usher quietly opens the massive door just enough for me to pass through; I retake my seat in the dimmed room just as James is reaching the crux of his address.

The spotlight is shining on him, and he's just getting into the meat of his speech; I notice at once he's departing from the script. "...we've been so successful it's even been said by some of their tame commentators that the scope of action of the next Consensus government will be limited as a result. I wonder if these pundits have the keys to a time machine? Because as far as I'm aware the election hasn't been held yet! Nothing has been decided, and won't be until Thursday!

But doesn't that show what contempt they have for you? They still expect you to vote for them, even after all they have done to you. That's how little your opinion matters to them; how much they take you for granted! Now of course you can docilely line up and vote for them if you choose; it is your right to after all, but you'd be bloody fools to do so when you consider the alternative on offer!

Unlike the Consensus Party, we in the NRP don't take your support as a given. We don't regard you as a form of state property; constantly at the Council's beck and call. We respect you as free individuals, capable of making your own decisions and not having them dictated to you by the nanny state.

We believe the right - yes the right! - to live as you choose extends to not being forced on pain of starvation to perform make-believe work for make-believe wages! Community Credit isn't a new idea; long before the Consensus imposed it on us it existed in another form. Back then the autocratic coercion of an individual's labour by the state was known as Communism. Our forefathers fought to keep it at bay; they even risked an all-out nuclear war to do so! When it finally collapsed under its own weight they thought it was dead and buried for good. What would they think now if they could see how that zombie ideology has crawled out of its grave and sneaked up behind us while we weren’t looking!

It was then and it is now a cruel, wasteful, inefficient, destructive system. It wastes resources, wastes effort, and now it and the Consensus are wasting your energy; your lives! You all know only too well that there aren't enough hours in the day to earn the ComCred you need for a reasonable quality of of life, yet you are expected to do, compelled into doing more purposeless make work!"

There's a charged atmosphere now; a trembling anticipation his next words may have a decisive impact.

"A reasonable life... Yes it seems hard to remember such a thing, especially after a decade of Connie rule; but we used to live them once, and we can live them again! And central to that ideal is the NRP's ironclad commitment to abolish Community Credit. Instead our vision is of a future where you can work in real jobs creating real wealth and not be forced to waste your time being Busy Doing Nothing for a measly state dole! Dignified, productive lives not squandered on humilliating drudge! (sustained applause.)

Lois Merck yesterday said quite openly and without a hint of shame that if the Consensus' modern day serfdom were to be abolished it would be a gift to the lazy and the Fed would grind to a halt. I say this to you Ms Merck: You are spouting a load of utter drivel! There are other more accurately descriptive words I could use, but I'd best refrain from saying them in public!" (The hall erupts into a spontaneous roar of encouragement; James is flying right on the ragged edge of what we've written for him, but so far it seems to be working. Don't fumble it now man...)

He resumes twisting the knife in. "She makes a great deal of how she has overcome her physical disability; but she's yet to surmount her mental handicap of bigotry. Who is she to judge others? How dare she condemn everyone except herself and her Connie partners in crime as slackers who constantly need to be goaded to work lest they fall into slothful ways? Who are they to tell you, whatever your situation, that you're not doing enough to justify yourself in their eyes? What have she and her ilk ever done apart from ferment ill-feeling and dictate to others what they should do? What have these parasites ever done apart from being the problem holding us back? (His words are all but drowned out by the cheering. He's going solo now, no notes, no key points, but a speech straight from the heart. Had this speech been delivered earlier in the campaign I'm sure the Consensus Party would've made numerous complaints to the Electoral Commission, but now it's too late.)

He pauses to allow the quiet to return. "So rather than put up with a constrained Consensus goverment, why not get rid of them once and for all? Because you don't have to live this way! Just have faith there is a future for you beyond a constant struggle to keep existing in a grotty little box and ever working yourselves into exhaustion. And on Thursday that future will be yours to grasp! All it takes is for each of you to find the confidence within yourselves to throw off the Consensus yoke; so have the courage once you're in that voting booth to reclaim your lives

I know after all this time of having someone else making most of the decisions about your life, the thought of being in control of your own destiny may be daunting for some of you; but I tell you this: The day after tomorrow you will find yourselves in a unique position of authority. You may never find yourself so powerful again if the Consensus have their way. So don't let the opportunity slip from your grasp. Seize it! And together we shall awaken from this nightmare!

This Thursday you will face an uncompromising choice. The Consensus Party can offer you nothing more than what you are enduring now; quite possibly even a further fall in your standard of living as they grind even further up their narrowing dead end at full speed. Isn't that something to look forward to? Spending the rest of your lives grubbing away for a mere subsistence! That's not living but a living hell! You can opt for that or the future of limitless potential we offer! The decision is yours; and I'm confident you will make the right one.

So clear your desks Council, we're on our way! Your day is past but ours is just beginning! We're taking our lives and our country back! And there'll be no stopping us! With that, James finishes to a thunder of support.

I wasn't expecting what happens next: As the applause continues, instead of leaving the stage by the expected route, James jogs down the steps leading to the floor from the dias. He starts shaking hands with and embracing the IMS employees sat around the tables with their families. Light turquoise glittery striplets flutter down from the darkened heights of the ceiling, spotlights begin to twirl, and from the many speakers of the sound system issue the opening chords of a rock song. It takes a moment for me to recognise it, then of course it becomes obvious what the record is: It's 'Word Of Mouth' by Mike and the Mechanics; the song adopted as an unofficial anti-Connie anthem; the soundtrack seeping from many a frazzled public loudspeaker.

What in hell is James doing? I wish the stupid git had consulted us before he approved the song and the cringeworthy tickertape. And what was he thinking with that contrived dive into the audience? There's no better way of alienating potential voters, especially impoverished potential voters, than indulging in such a gross display of wasteful, excessive, exuberant hubris. Didn't he or his other advisors ever study the 1992 election campaign when the Labour Party snatched defeat from the jaws of victory?

There were many and various reasons why Neil Kinnock didn't get his hands on the keys to Downing Street, but one of them was the election rally held in Sheffield shortly before polling day. In surveys taken soon afterward potential supporters said they were put off by Kinnock's performance because he appeared to be arrogant, assuming the election was all but won. The meeting came across as too swaggering, too Americanised, and far too removed from the people the Party claimed to represent.

Psephologists were later to calculate that if just five thousand undecided voters in the most marginal constituencies had voted Labour then John Major would've been moving out of Number 10. Such is the narrow margin dividing success from faliure. Just a few votes changed here or there in certain seats have the power to swing an entire election.

It can never be known whether a humbler, more low-key approach might have made a difference to Labour's chances; the question will have to be left to the What If? of speculation. Now I'm beginning to wonder if these last moments of the NRP campaign aren't history repeating itself. Has James made the same mistake, tripping at the very last hurdle by making an utter prat of himself?

I can see the reasoning behind the selection: The clapalong pounding beat, the subversive but safe lyrics about not trusting sources of official information, though it's a slightly incongruous song for a campaign run by a wannabe media mogul, but yes, I can understand the thinking. But though it may be a good upbeat anthem to finish with, it's still the the wrong choice setting the wrong tone. Not least because despite tomorrow being Reflection Day with its pause in campaigning, somehow the meme will spread  that the song chosen should have been more aptly, "All I Need Is A Miracle".

At least we can be thankful for small mercies, it could've been worse; James might have chosen 'Silent Running' or even Genesis' 'Land Of Confusion'. Nice sentiments about working with the hands we're given and a passable rallying cry, but a crap song nonetheless.

James is still busy congratulating everyone in sight but I'm in the wrong frame of mind to wait for him to work his eventual way over and give me one of his celebratory back slaps. In any case I don't want to watch it all unravelling. Some sections of the audience don't know whether to clap along in time with the music or just applaud; it's making the proceedings look slightly disjointed, disorganised, and worst of all, amateurish. I've had a couple of drinks too many, I'm feeling grouchy and my eyes are still giving me gyp. I've got a lot to contend with in the next few days and I'm travelling back to Pompey tomorrow, so I think it would be a good idea to finish what I'm drinking then head for my bed in the emergency dormitory.

Pausing at the media desk to get the first reaction it appears James' speech has at least had the desired effect. The Consensus Party's initial response is one of dumbstruck shock and anger at the sentiments James articulated. All Lois Merck had said up to this moment in reply is to describe the NRP as James' vanity project. No doubt they'll respond more specifically to his barbs when news reaches them, but by then it will be too late. I just wonder how much of the good work his speech did is being undone in the hall right now. I consider trying to contact James and tell him to cut it before he makes a complete plank of himself but there's little chance the message would get through in time, or of him taking much notice anyway. Sod it; let him get on with it!.

Undressing in my hastily constructed cubicle the melancholy is already settling on me like an invisible leaden blanket. Perhaps it's the drink affecting me, or the thought of being used as a human currency; the victorious Consensus bargaining with the Zoners about how many and who among us are offered as an appeasing sacrific; a preliminary to a resumption of businesslike but strained relations.

No doubt James has escape plans in hand, just in case Prime Minister Merck is in one of her really nasty moods; but the rest of us probably won't have the luxury of being able to choose exile. If we're really lucky the NRP will be allowed to function as a rump, ineffectual opposition just to keep the illusion of a democracy alive; but the cost will be a clipping of IMS' wings, and some of the lower level employees facing spurious charges of breaching electoral law. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself one of those unfortunate staff.

I suppose I should wait for thirty-six hours to pass and the official results to be declared before becoming depressed but I can't see the point in delaying the inevitable; I might as well begin the post-election blues now.

We were so close; yet that remaining gap might as well have been a chasm. For a short time it seemed as if we might reach that bit further to briefly touch what we had been trying to grasp, but in the end weren’t we all just deluding ourselves? It was after all just a process; one choreographed from the beginning by the Consensus with their inbuilt, unfair advantage. Still, we put up more of a fight than they expected. I wonder though if all we've really done is inadvertently provided them with an endorsement of their all but certain to be gerrymandered election?

For a fleeting moment even I thought there was a hope; the slight possibility we might actually prevail, squeaking in with the narrowest of margins despite the odds stacked against us. But just as it seemed his final emotional address of the campaign - the speech I helped write for him - was about to make the decisive impact on the wavering voters he goes and blows it all with that stunt at the end. The stupid, complacent, overconfident fucking idiot!

Still what is done is done now. Collectively we in the campaign group gave it our best shot, and I can add this to my CV as an example of my creative faculties and organisation ability, though it will do me little good when I'm knee-deep in the water of a stagnant East Anglian ditch! Still at least I can take some measure of comfort and pride that I gave it my all.

As I sink into the dark morass of sleep a final thought flares into life and is blown out like one of those old-style matches. James' ad-libs tonight; his choice of language, the general tone of his speech and his demeanour all seemed as if he was absolutely certain of winning the vote. But then aren't all politicians full of themselves? Time will tell if his faith is misplaced. Or it could be me reading more into it then there actually is. I feel so tired...

May the 2nd.

08.04 on Reflection Day morning: Waking up in strange surroundings always disorientates me. Or I could be disturbed by the fact only a handful of people have taken up the offer to move here for the duration; instead choosing to stay where they are and take what comes after polling day there. I'm not sure if that's a sign of bravery, confidence, or a resignation to a predetermined fate.

After cleaning myself up in the temporary washroom I'm still feeling down and irritated. Fuck it! I've had enough of this! Back in my bed cubicle I check my scroll to find not only is the battery running low, but there's a priority blurt regarding a final meeting of the campaign group to be held later this morning in the usual place. Fuck that!! I've had my fill of electioneering. I send a reply telling them I'm feeling unwell, and in any case I've got to get back to Pompey; they can blurt me the summary of the meeting. What they think they're going to achieve today is beyond me; it's all over and done with now, there's nothing anyone can do to make a difference. Now we must wait and watch history being made.

My scroll beeps another more urgent low battery warning so I shut it down. I don't want people ringing and blurting me anyway; not today. On what could be my penultimate day of freedom I want some time to myself, just to consider where I'm going. Though in a couple of days I suspect the decision will have been made for me...

Leaving the Column for what may be the final time I feel a weight lifting from my shoulders. My immediate future may be grim but like someone suffering a terminal illness I can look it defiantly in the eye and laugh in its face. I must have passed beyond the final stage of fear, or maybe it's the wan, watery sunlight raising my mood. Hoo-fucking-ray! It's all but over! Fuck James! Fuck the NRP! Fuck the Connies! Fuck the Zone! Fuck the Column! Fuck all of it! Fuck all of you! I'm finished with you all!

My scroll is powered down. It will dutifully report the fact and its parlous battery level to anyone with the required authorisation to ask it. It's so liberating not to be at risk of being bothered until I recharge it again, and just too bad I won't be able to do so on the train back due to a faulty charging point, nudge-nudge wink-wink.

It's such a relief to get my life back, if only for a short while. I wonder how I ever allowed myself to get suckered into that endless grey tunnel of overwork? I decide that if by some chance I make it through the next week without incident then I'm really going to make a major change in my life; I'll either go all-out for a new job, or finally take the plunge and go indy. It won't be easy of course, but I can daydream; at least until the day after polling day when the world will come crashing back in on me again.

Twice on the way back I've overheard people softly humming 'Word Of Mouth' to themselves. Yes it's a catchy tune, but I don't think it's going to be the soundtrack to a revolution.

Home at last! Relieved the commuting to London is finally over. I cook myself a pasta meal and then have an early night. It'll be a long day tomorrow.

Chapter Thirty Two

May the 3rd.

Polling day; mid-evening. From this momentous day forth we're supposed to resume a semblence of the lives we had a decade ago; but with some 'minor' changes.

Earlier I cast my ballot on one of the touch screen electronic voting machines before taking the bus into town. The were plans to make voting compulsory but the Electoral Commission decided against it; probably because leaving the issue to an individual's choice would help the Connies. They will of course go and do their civic duty as well as encouraging their sympathisers to do the same; such participation on the part of our opponents will be just another hurdle the NRP will have to overcome, and most likely trip over.

Beyond the closure for the day of those parts of the schools and public buildings given over to be polling stations there are few signs an election is being held. The official signs outside the polls, written in that same unchanged for decades large lettered font, remain as they always have been; but apart from that all is new. No longer will the traditional representatives of the old parties who used to count people as they entered or left the polling room be found camped outside; they have been prohibited from besetting the polls, rendered as obsolete by the new modernity as the battered old ballot boxes. Instead the parties will be updated as to which voters have cast their ballots - but not for who - in real time.

This being a far more streamlined process the results should begin to come through shortly after the polls close at 22.00. I imagine all those millions of votes being stored on the machines' hard chips suddenly migrating en-masse when they are transported to the counting centres and downloaded. That tradition has survived at least, thanks to the fear of the Black Dragon corrupting a more open network; though the virtual emptying of the electronic ballot boxes and counting of the digital votes should be much faster than the labourious hand counts of old.

Also gone is the election night drama. Anyone who believes that the NRP can somehow gather enough of a late surge of momentum to overturn the Consensus Party's advantage is deluding themselves: Once shrouded in the privacy of the voting booth the years of propaganda and those old prejudices are bound to come to the fore again; and though it is obviously against peoples' own self-interest to vote for the Consensus, that is exactly what the lemmings will duly go and do.

By this time tomorrow we'll know what the new lie of the political landscape is; and how far the new Consensus goverment will choose to push its mandate. My guess is as soon as Lois Merck has installed herself in Downing Street she'll leap straight into delivering everything she promised, and then more, as quickly as possible. If we thought we'd seen things we'd never have thought possible happen in the last few years, I think our senses will be sent reeling still further by what the new government will do. God help us all.

That's probably why I'm swamped by a wave of dejection as the countdown to the end of polling approaches. Despite being involved in producing the election 'cast tonight, I've still got plenty of time for introspective moping. The team running The South Decides can look after themselves and the low level media speakers the various parties have put up to comment on the events of the evening as they unfold. I'm in place only to provide remote supervisory guidance from our office in Portsmouth to the bigger studio complex in Southampton if required, and I doubt if it will be. Despite our recent history of civil war our elections are still held under Queensbury rules of gentility; in the new Fed the unpleasantness occurs largely out of sight... At the very worst it will be harsh words rather than punches thrown across the set tonight.

All day the news, produced under strict OMS and Electoral Commission guidelines, reports polling has been steady. A projected turnout of 80% or greater is expected. Following that lead story there are the inevitably airbrushed retrospective pieces about the Dissolution and its after effects. On the surface they appear to be impartial but Connie supporting journalists have become very adroit at getting their point across while making it seem otherwise; a loaded word here, a nuance there... Apart from that the news today is dominated by the latest outbreak in fighting between the Israeli and Palestinian enclaves. Despite permnent UN peacekeeping forces being deployed there, both sides can't pass up any opportunity to add to the death and destruction the region has already suffered, and maybe grab another few square kilometres of tolerably radioactive land for themselves; and so the tragic history continues. This also is subliminal propganda; contrasting the continuing aftermath of the Crises in the rest of the world with the relative stability the Council claims to have brought to the Federation.

The bulletins end with a typically uplifting report. Yesterday it was about plans to use robots to mine landfill sites for scrap metals; humans would be needed to sort through it all once extracted of course, but these days there is always plenty of labour to be found, willing or otherwise. Today the story is about the first trials of some new genetically modified decontaminating bushes. Apparently their quick growing root stock has been altered to draw pollutants out of the soil and concentrate them within the plant itself, ready to be easily harvested and contained, leaving the ground suitable for reuse. A former industrial site in the midlands will host the first practical experiment. If sucessful it is hoped the technology can be used to remediate peripherally contaminated areas around the world, earning the Fed a great deal of money in the process. Oh yes, it's very subtle, but such a constant drip of optomistic news might have a slight effect on the outcome of the vote. We should know very soon.

The historic hour arrives and passes. So here we go. The South Decides begins, but no sooner has it started there are a few glitches, though as yet nothing I need to become involved in. Almost at once we're told the announcement of the first results will be delayed by half an hour. The studio panel will need to fill-in for a while. I can hear the frantic calls put to the reporters at the counts; rushed cues to report live the building anticipation of the declarations, but as yet not the results. There is only so long you can report that as yet there is nothing to report; this might turn farcical. The production team are about to go back to another rehash of the discussion the studio guests have just had when at last there is a development, and this time it merits my attention.

The first exit poll projections have been released but they don't make sense. Something must have gone wrong with their compilation because they're showing the NRP substantially ahead of the Consensus Party. What do we do? Do we use them? Yes; we won't be breaking any regulations, and as long as we stress the fact such polls can often be inaccurate we won't look like fools if - or more likely when - they are revised. At least it will give the panel something to talk about. Through my loop I monitor the producer updating our presenter via his earpiece, and he introducing the breaking news along with the caveats about the estimates needing substantiation. That sets the cat among the pigeons and a lively debate ensues. At least it's filled some time before the real results start to flood in. Checking the BBC feed I find they're running with the polls as well, but giving them a jovial spin; an election night quirk, prior to the real nitty-gritty being decided.

Then the first results begin to be announced. These few first straws in the wind give the expectant backroom number crunchers something to work with, and yes they seem to confirm to some extent the initial projections. It appears there may yet be some excitement tonight, but I expect the results and predictions will converge over time to an adequate rather than a emphatic win for the Consensus; a sufficient, rather than overwhelming majority. Given the rumours about the Regent giving any bills passed some long and hard scrutiny before putting his signature to them, prior to the second chamber taking on a moderating function once it is elected in two years time; the Connies may find find parliamentary government more difficult than they anticipated.

More results come through confiming the trend. This is beginning to look as if it could be a proper shock in the making. In a stunning reversal of what few illicit opinion surveys were doing the rounds, the NRP appears to have won a surprise landslide victory. The Consensus Party representative in the studio is looking pale with shock; she's utterly dumbfounded by the news, trying to maintain her composure while choking back her tears: I don't think she'll succeed for too much longer. Already the rump parties which used to represent the pre-Crises factions; the Social Party, the Democrats, and the Conservationists are alleging a massive electoral fraud. I suspect it won't be long before the Consensus Party add their voice to the call for a comprehensive recount or an investigation; not that I think it will do them any good.

Once again the world is being turned upside down as we watch. Something is definitely going on, and we in the media - supposedly with our finger on the pulse - can't work out what is happening. The election feeds are becoming more erratic, prone to dropping the moment any sort of disturbance occurs at a count. It appears widespread scuffles and protests are breaking out all over and being uncompromisingly brought under control out of sight of the cameras. It's becoming more difficult to go live to our correspondents, the links keep dropping out. Is this a Dragon attack on our system at the worst possible moment? Or is this frazzling being undertaken by someone attempting to edit this history in the making as it is being recorded, and powerful enough to ensure it happens? Our Anchorage Park node is on an open line; Nate is there holding it all together and he reports all is quiet; the guards remain watchful, but untroubled as yet.

Monitoring the growing hubbub of the developing story I feel strangely calm, though maybe numbed or stunned would be a better description. From the atmosphere I sense around me I'm not the only one to share this consternation. The last time we in the media were collectively flailing to understand what the fuck had just happened was immediately after the King's Dissolution 'cast. Just as then this new world we find ourselves being thrown into is unnervingly different to the one we knew.

Amid the chaos of crashing and cut-off feeds the Portsmouth South declaration is streamed live. Apart from some boos and catcalls it passes off peacefully. In the latest tremor of this ongoing political eathquake Neil Moore has just been elected as the Member of Parliament. It's now the significance of the events really hits home; I'm beginning to feel a bit light headed as I realise we've fucking well done it! We've beaten the Connies! We're free of the wankers at last! And my old friend Neil is one of the new guard who'll be going in to fix the damage they've done; to give us our country back! Well done moosh! I take a moment out from my duties to blurt him congratulations, and propose we meet for a serious drinking session when - if - he ever gets the time; the chances are he's going to be a very busy man for the time being. Still it will be nice to celebrate his, no our, victory. Yes it's fair to put it that way; after all it's the fact he acted upon my suggestion which has just landed him this plum little earner, and not forgetting the work I put in on the campaign group helped get him where he is now.

The news continues to come in: Lois Merck has been elected, but with less of a majority than expected. Still she has just scraped through, and should lead a very denuded opposition. Again we get just the bare text of the result, no live 'cast. We've not heard anything from the Consensus Party's national office for more than half an hour. They're not responding to any questions, leaving their shocked and stranded spokespeople out in the field to try to come up with a response to their unexpected setback. Everyone is wondering what is going on inside their headquarters, and what they will say or do when they eventually break their silence.

More blurts are clamouring for my attention. London will be taking over the majority of the 'casting, with regional hubs contributing as and when they can. Under the circumstances that sounds like a good idea. It's someone else's problem now and we were shuddering to a halt on The South Decides anyway. In retrospect we might have coped better, especially when the Connie spokesperson could no longer contain her emotions and burst into a full-on outbreak of blubbing tears as another NRP victory was announced; but hey, that's live media for you and I felt the unpolished rawness added a certain something to the spontaneity of the 'cast. Shortly afterwards she excused herself and left the set, nay the building. The final sightings had her nearly running streamy-eyed out of the door with her rolled scroll clanped to her ear like an old style telephone handset, obviously involved in an important call. A blurt arrives from James; I can imagine what that will be about so I'll open it later at my leisure; when I've had a chance to find a quiet spot, de-stress a bit, and decide how I'm going to respond to his offer.

But that will have to wait for a while. I get a call from Lisa Burrows who is running our infeed control. She's sounding flustered. "Richard, is there anything you can get Bippin to do about the inputs? They're starting to lag."

"I thought he'd fixed that problem earlier! Are you sure it's not a remotely instituted delay from London? They may have invoked Section 38 again but if they have they've not informed us"

"I don't think so. He had a go at it about an hour ago, and that worked for a while, but now it's as bad as it ever was. I rang him ten minutes ago but he's set his 'sist to hold all calls..."

"OK, I'll get on his case."

"Well please make it fast! Everything's been crashing or hanging all the time since he installed those last updates!"

"OK! I'm on it!" I reply testily before hanging up.

Yes, I'm stressed as we all are, but this isn't good enough and I'm going to tell him so. Bippin may not officially be responsible to me any more but I'm sick of this; especially on this of all nights! I'm going to see to it that he sorts this mess out once and for all. I'll pay him a visit and tell him personally to pull his finger out.

As I approach I hear the sound of snoring from Bippin's office. Quietly I push open his partly ajar door. He's slumped back in his seat; balding head lolling, mouth slightly agape, sleeping the deep sleep of the exhuasted. Pity be damned! He's not the only one who's been working hard recently; it might be hard to cope with it all at the moment but we've all got jobs to do, especially now!

I'm about to shake him awake when the display on his terminal draws my attention. It takes a moment to understand what I'm looking at, but when I realise what it is I'm stunned. I have to look again just to convince myself what I'm seeing really is the Electoral Commission's electronic voting system administration screen.

If you have access to that, and the right authentication - which wouldn't be difficult for a wurdler of Bippin's calibre to create - you have the ability to change with a few keystrokes the result of the election. Now it is all becoming clear; James' irrationally optomistic confidence, and Bippin's long periods 'working' on Marggie, an autosist which has never worked well despite consuming so much time and effort. With a start I realise they've only gone and secretly frazzled the fucking election for fuck's sake! This is the biggest story of the post-Crises Fed and I've literally walked in on it by chance: I'd not even realised what was going on under my own nose! Bippin's screensaver cuts in, fortunately without a warning beep to wake him, thank God! He's still fast asleep; all those weeks of long hours finally catching up with him.

Silently I sneak out and pull the door to. Jesus Fucking Christ what have I stumbled on to? Heart pounding, almost shaking and feeling chilled inside I return to my office and after locking the door, log into my access to the supervisory system. Using my authority I copy all of the files which Bippin was working on. Then I cover my tracks as far as I am able. He and whoever put him up to this may - probably would - have installed tripwire alarms but it should be too late for them to do anything by the time they realise the secrecy surrounding their plot has been compromised. At least I should be protected by my next steps. I copy the files onto some old memory chips, as well as cacheing multiple copies in darkspace set to massblurt and repeat at preset times unless instructed otherwise. I do the same thing from my scroll and slate, just to make it that much harder to locate every file and delete it.

Feeling more secure thanks to my distributed insurance policy and a pocket full of flash media I ponder what I should do now? Should I confront James about it? Or break the story and risk reigniting the dormant civil war as such a revelation is bound to do? Could I live with myself if I kept quiet and became complicit? Perhaps I might be able to use what I know to my advantage? But who is behind this and how far will they go to protect their dirty little secret? I doubt that it is only James and Bippin's work, they're probably but minor actors in what is a long-planned and well executed palace coup, and if that is the case I'd be a bloody fool to cross the people behind it. Besides I don't think I'd make a good blackmailer. No, the more I think about it the more I realise what I know now can't be forgotten or covered-up, and that assumes the people in charge of this subterfuge would be prepared to live with the risk of their plot being exposed. Given what I've learned of James' past ways of dealing with his problems, I think I'd be wise to assume the worst and act accordingly.

But that still leaves me in a quandary. What am I to do? Staying in the Fed at the moment is a risk so leaving the country seems to be my best, no safest option; but how? In theory it shouldn't be too hard, but in practice it will be far more difficult; thanks to the reduction in the means to travel beyond the Fed the darker green elements of the Consensus insisted upon. Their radical 'Predict and Restrict' aviation policy - pricing air fares way beyond the means of most people in an attempt to reduce the demand for air travel to balance the available capped capacity - certainly worked; not that it was that difficult to achieve given the collapse of flying in the immediate wake of the Crises. Now flights are available only to those who really need and can afford them, while few people want to come here from abroad unless they are on business.

In fact the measures were so successful the Fed now has a surplus of airport capacity, with some of the smaller regional airfields closing or being mothballed due to lack of demand. Still it wasn't all bad news; the quality of life for people living under the now quieter flightpaths was improved, and not building extra capacity, as well as the infrastructure links to it we once thought we couldn't do without saved plenty of scarce resources which were urgently needed elsewhere. The international environmental organisations even lauded the Consensus for its 'blue sky thinking'. I recall the Fed was even granted some extra international carbon credits to trade as a result.

So leaving by air is out; there's no chance of me getting a seat this close to the time I need to travel. These days you have to book weeks or longer in advance and then I'd have to provide a good justification for my journey. So with that option unavailable I'm left with the choice of the less frequent ferries or the Channel Tunnel.

As the Fed sank further into its insular destitution the Chunnel became more prominent as a way of entering or leaving the country. Hundreds of people still travel to mainland europe every day, and not all of them return. With my IMS or Zone accreditation I could catch a train to France or Belgium without arousing undue suspicion; the fare and TransCred paid out of a company account. I could be free within hours. Though it is possible, I doubt if I'd appear on a watch list just yet. It sounds like a plan; but what then, once I break the story? Maybe I could work for one of the international newscasters or get a job somewhere as a Federation studies analyst?

Whatever my poorly thought through plans they won't be advanced by my staying here in this office. I need to get a move on and leave while I still can.

Suddenly it seems as if I may have left it too late; it's Gavin calling from the reception desk to warn several amoured vehicles have arrived outside the office; they look like NatPols. A scan of the exterior cameras confirms it. Do I want he and the Zone guards to stall them? No; thanks for the offer, but you'll only get yourself hurt for nothing: If the paramilitary NatPol want to barge in they'll do so; and won't care who's in the way or gets hurt while they're at it. I check the CCTV covering the rear entrance and the fire exits. Bugger! The pols dressed in their full combat gear are already there: All exits covered; no way out; we're trapped here. I thought this might happen, but so soon? Is this the Consensus' response to their defeat; to rip up the rule book, send the game board flying in a fit of pique, and call in their tame police?

What can I do? What do I need to do now? There's nothing on the official IMS system which should be incrimminating, not that it matters one way or the other: It'd be no problem for them to fit you up for whatever charge they wanted. My scroll and slate are protected so that anyone other than me - or I acting under duress - trying to access them will instantly blank them. The colleagues I'd need to warn are all here anyway, and I've got an automated massblurt set to alert my circle of friends ready to be launched in an instant, though if it's a large-scale round-up I don't know how much use it would be. It might at least give some of them a warning to grab a Ready Bag and enough of a head start to go to ground and stay hidden. If I have enough time I'll call Dad to let him know what is about to happen to me. We've prearranged plans just in case...

With a depressive downward lurch in my stomach I hear the sound of heavy booted footfalls approaching with unhurried confidence along the corridor. Shit! There may not even be enough time for that! Without even a knock the door opens abruptly. The NatPol officer is wearing body armour but his weapons are holstered, and he's taken his helmet off.

"Mr Richard Davies?"

"No point in denying it." I say, with my finger on the touchscreen, just a twitch away from an emergency wipe and blurting a warning.

"Mr Davies; I am sergeant Harman of the National Police Public Order division. By the powers vested in me by the Electoral Commission under the Election Act I am hearby placing these premises and the people within under the protection of my unit. Please continue about your normal business, but for your own safety I'd strongly advise you or any of your staff not to leave the building until the situation has been stabilised."

"What?"

"We have intellegence there are credible threats made against your organisation by elements disaffected by the result of the election. We're here to ensure your safety."

"Oh!"

"We'll do our best to keep out of your way, but we will need to stop and search anyone entering the building. And it would be for the best if no-one left the site without checking with us first"

It's hard to take it all in. I'm not going to get arrested for the moment, and the NatPol are even being polite to me! Things have changed!

"Mr Davies?"

"Uh, sorry; I've had a long night! Yes, I understand."

"We all have, but my shift should be finishing in a few hours. It won't be long before we've rounded up the Connie leadership. Once they're out of the way we can get back to some sort of normality."

"Do you really think it will be so easy? Do you think it's only a few of them? They've ingratiated themselves so far into society, you know; you'll have to do a hell of a lot of arresting to do to get them all!"

"That's not for me to say, sir. I'm just following my orders. I'll be down in reception if you need me." He turns and leaves; I have to resist bursting into tears of relief.

So the NatPol heavies are out in force, but whose orders will they obey? At the moment it's the newly-'elected' NRP but given an effective counter-coup in the next few hours the tables may be turned again. The blurred line between policed state and police state was crossed long ago; but at this moment the police literally are the state, with everything dependent on their loyalty. There's no point in hanging around here and making myself easily available for anyone who wants to lift me; I really must be going.

I call Lisa and tell her Bippin is spark out for a while. There's not much point in trying to wake him so she should carry on as best she can and let London cover as much as possible. If all else fails she should try him again later. She doesn't sound best pleased to hear it. That done I decide to open James' blurt, just in case it throws any light on the situation: Unfortunately it doesn't. As I was expecting it to be it's an invitation to come up to London and join the NRP Transition Team in their takeover of the new government. There's a hint my longer-term future lies in the reorganisation of the OMS. That's typically James for you; he always remembers his allies and never forgets his enemies. One thing I notice about it though, is that it must have been recorded before James' fall; there's no sign of any injury on his face. I could take as a compliment; him thinking of me so far in advance as part of his plans for a future government and feel flattered; but instead I sense it's more a case of allocating a junior, insignificant post to a potentially difficult character. An easy choice of little consequence; one to be filed and forgotten about.

Then I get a priority blurt. That gets my attention because I allow only a few people that status and one of them is Dad. But this isn't from him or anyone else I know. Instead this originates from a blanked address. It reads "Now you know the truth about the election. If you agree it should be publicised I can help make it so. Meet me as soon as possible at this place. Act quickly; the window of opportunity is short. Good luck." Then the message self-destructs, leaving just a stripped attachement behind.

Quickly I run a reverse scan but there's no record of the blurt stored on my scroll, terminal, or anywhere else on the IMS system. The only evidence the message wasn't a figmant of my imagination is the link to the meeting point. On opening it appears to be a Community Canteen in Vauxhall.

Now the fact I have discovered the secret is no longer a secret: An unknown other, or others know I know as well, and I have no idea of their motives in contacting me. I realise any hopes I might have had about sitting tight on the information have gone.

So what now? With control of the situation beginning to slip out of my grasp it seems there is only one thing I can do. I must travel to London while a renewed civil war appears to be breaking out in order to suss out whoever is able to infiltrate our supposedly secure systems with such ease. It's one hell of a leap into the unknown, and I've no idea how I will land.

Chapter Thirty Three

May the 4th.

There are smiles beamed and congratulations backslapped to me as I make my way through the offices; along with a few knowing looks. There he goes, off to claim his reward... If only they knew what was really going through my mind; the fear and uncertainty, the moral dilemma I'm wrestling with even as I smile back at them. No doubt some of my colleagues are already eyeing my post when it becomes vacant as a result of my moving onward and upward.

I suppose I ought to appreciate all the warmly meant good wishes but instead I have an air of numbed detachment; as if this is the last time I'll see this place or these people. To be honest I don't think I'll miss any of them; I hope my feelings don't show, for they might raise suspicions. With any luck any preoccupation on my part will be mistaken for the effects of tiredness, or the haughty separation of the powerful from those they have power over already setting in. I should be back soon I tell them; we'll sort out any reorganisational issues out then. Who am I kidding? Neither myself or them but we all know the score; or at least they think they do.

In the reception the few NatPols and Zone security staff loitering there watching the election news on the large wall screen are hopefully thinking much the same thing. The NatPols are still politely deferential which is a good sign but their new commander, one I've not seen before, insists on calling his patrols in the nearby area just to be absolutely sure there's no risk before allowing me out.

I'm offered a ride in one of their armoured urban battle trucks the short distance to Portsmouth and Southsea station, which I decline as politely as possible. I say I'd prefer to walk, and I could really do with some reviving fresh air. Call it paranoia but once inside one of those dark grey brutish vehicles with its complement of uniformed thugs I'd have no control as to where it was driven, or what might happen next. Well-learned habits die hard; you don't get involved with the pols unless there is no alternative.

My new found authority appears to get him to relent, but he insists he and two of his officers escort me to the station; I agree to his suggestion. It's best not to push it too far yet for fear of arousing suspicion, but I have to ask.

"Isn't the city centre secure?"

"We're patrolling the area and a selective curfew is in force, but it's best we accompany you just to avoid any problems. We managed to nip what little local dificulties there were in the bud; and now we're in control we're not expecting any further trouble, but it's always best to be sure."

"Indeed!"

"We've been ordered to look after you, and that's what we'll do!"

"Very well then; let's go!"

At this time of the morning, even in the busy all hours Fed, the city centre is quiet. Given the situation I expected to hear some distant sounds of commotion or celebration, but there is nothing to disturb the calm underneath the milky streetlights. It makes my nervously vigilant minders in their robotesque equipment look even more incongruous. Wanting to break the awkward silence and pump them for as much information as possible, I ask the commander what has happened so far, feigning I've been too occupied in directing the technical aspects of the night's 'casting and trying to bypass the effects of some hostile frazzling to get a comprehensive view of the situation.

"The Consensus supporters were intent on causing trouble, but we managed to arrest most of them at the count at the Guildhall; a good thing we arrived when we did as a number of them were trying to break into the office where Mr Moore was taking shelter. It appears they'd decided on that course of action even before the Consensus national office ordered their supporters to physically disrupt the electoral process." His use of stilted police language and that particular tone of voice unique to the force irks me; attempting to beat someone up, especially a friend of mine, amounts to quite a bit more than 'physical disruption'. I wonder if Neil is a knowing party to the great fraud? I conclude he probably isn't. A secret of this magnitude would be restricted only to those who needed to know it.

"Their national leadership did that?"

"Yes sir, it was that action which prompted the Electoral Commission to order us to preserve the integrity of the process." If only he really knew what was really happening! I could tell him now of course; even show him the data. He'd probably be surprised, startled into action maybe, but I doubt if much would come of it, save for any investigation being closed and my arrest being ordered when word reached those in charge of this electoral coup. It would be best to find out more, get to a safe place, and then break the story as large as possible.

"So you were on standby, and didn't think you'd be this busy until this all blew up?"

"That's correct, sir." He might be telling the truth; I suspect the NatPol were anticipating making plenty of arrests this night, but weren't expecting they'd be detaining the Connies instead of the NRP. For them the only surprise was the difference in the detail of their orders; given a task to perform the pols are only too happy to unquestioningly get on with the job.

We reach the station. There are a few CityPols standing about instead of the Compies who habitually lurk here at this time of the morning, just waiting to pounce on any easy ticketing opportunity. The sight of my escort is enough for me to be waved through their loose cordon to the platform where I thank the pols for their assistance, wave my travel card near to a ticket machine which works for the moment, and then board an early train which draws in from the nearby terminus of Portsmouth Harbour; destination Waterloo. So far so good but I still feel vulnerable; I'm sure my safe arrival here and the details of the service I've caught will have been noted by the hovering police. Should anyone decide it were necessary it would be easy enough to make the arrangements to nab me while I'm confined on board this train. I'll be a lot happier when I'm able to disembark and create a bit of uncertainty regarding my whereabouts. With a smooth acceleration and whirring hum of electric motors the train moves off. My journey to my uncertain destiny is underway.

 

Dawn has yet to break. My progress through the night is marked by the sliding across my window of streetlights marking the roads and towns I pass by. This early in the morning, even on a commuter train to London, I still have plenty of space to myself in this sparsely occupied carriage. This may be my last chance to think through my plans before they are put to the test.

I anticipated I might have to leave the office quickly for whatever reason and prepared in advance to do so. The only surprise is it's the people I supported who I'm now trying to evade and bring down. Along with a nondescript business style backpack containing my Zone messenger uniform as well as some energy bars and bottled water I've also got my secure briefcase. Inside are my old company slate and another disposable burner of a device. In a situation such as this you need to be able to communicate and receive information anonymously. They have the necessary wurdles downloaded which should hide my ID from all but the most determined attempts to unmask it and trace me. I've got a small amount of Fed cash, along with a couple of the alternate IDs and smart cards which any journalist worth their salt, or anyone who is wise, maintains.

To anyone looking at me I'm just another long-distance assignee on their way in to work. My discreet Zone badge is pinned on the inside of my lapel, ready to be shown if required. Any electronic tracks I may leave should confirm I'm a junior media executive who played a minor role in the surprise win on my way to the capital to join in the celebrations, though I suspect the victory party in the Column will be winding down by now. With the sleepless dawn beginning to break, thoughts will turn to the task of reoccupying the iconic seats of power. No doubt some obsequious senior civil servants are briefing Prime Minister elect Purvis at this very moment on the mechanisms for assuming his dishonestly won office.

So let them keep believing I'm still onside for as long as possible. It will be such a sweet irony when the great deceivers discover how they themselves have been hoodwinked when the story breaks.

As the train passes through Guildford I'm flicking on to the dark web to see if I can make any more sense of the news. There are plenty of contradictory rumours and uncorroborated reports flying around as you might expect, but one thing is becoming undeniably clear; there is a major round-up underway. The latest evidenc - a grainy, spliced CCTV feed - shows a group of Connies dressed in their best election ute-suits being pushed none too gently by some grim looking NatPols onto a fleet of commandeered buses outside their election HQ. Where the main A3 road to the capital is visible from the train I see the emerging situation confirmed by at least three distinct convoys of military style trucks or buses - I can't see too much detail in the early light - moving north at high speed, escorted by police vehicles, their blue and red lights strobing brightly. So this is the long-heralded New Dawn for the Fed... I feel sickened, dirty, guilty by association with it; complicit in making it possible for this to be happening even though this operation was obviously preplanned in absolute secrecy and I had no knowledge of it.

Don't get me wrong; I've no sympathy for the Connies and I'm certain they'd be implementing similar plans for us if they had won. Call me idealistic and I probably am, but it wasn't supposed to be this way; it isn't morally justifiable or sustainable in the long run. Any government which begins with such a cavalier dismissal of the will of the people it is supposed to serve by falsifying its own election is certain to become even more contemptuous of them as time passes. Am I really being unrealistically naive, or hoping for too much to hope it is possible to go back to living the way we used to; but without the taints, corruption, and excesses of the past?

Flicking on to the BBC for another take on the situation it is clear they are busy rowing for the shore, uncritically reporting the 'unprecedented' and 'unexpected' NRP triumph. The weathervanes know from which direction the new wind is blowing. There are hints of 'discontent' at the result, but no more detail at the moment; certainly no mention of any trouble at the counts. The usual fatuous talking heads are flapping on and filling the time with nothing when there is nothing to say, or you are allowed to say. We call it 'mushroom news' - being kept in the dark and fed a load of shit. To those who know how the media operates this vacuousness speaks volumes in itself.

Despite my searching I still feel as much left in the dark as the average Fedder. I too feel just another insignificant observer of great events taking place, but utterly powerless to influence them in any way. Except this once I might just be able to make a difference... Every journalist dreams of that single big story which will make their reputation; the one that will set them up for good. Yet here I am on the brink of being able to launch such an exclusive; yet not knowing how best to proceed. Handling potentially nation shaking scoops weren't a part of the syllabus of my journalism course.

To work out where you are going sometimes it is helpful to look back and see where you have been. So let's go back to some first principles of journalism. What do I know? I know and can prove the election has been hacked. There can be no other explanation for Bippin's access to the Electoral Commission's systems. To what extent he infiltrated it will be revealed by a forensic investigation of the files I've copied. Though he is an expert wurdler I doubt if he could have cracked the system's security without help; that implies both conspiracy and collusion. Given IMS provided the time and resources for him to work on the frazzling without question or complaint it is resonable to conclude his activities were sanctioned at the highest levels of management, so that brings James into the frame; not forgetting he has an obvious motive in gaining so much from the shenanigans.

Yes it's all beginning to fall into place, but there's more. Aurora New Dawn Industries taking over IMS at the time it did, with our company starting to run out of money and a number of board members expressing concern at the amount of time, effort, and resources James was directing to his fledgling party. Coincidence? I think not. Some strings were pulled by unseen black-clad puppeteers to ensure the NRP had the funding stream it neded to contest the election; nor would the Zoners go to all the trouble of 'investing' in such a project without a very good - nay certain -  payback of 'guaranteed' success.

Then there:s the reaction of the security forces to consider; the fact of their uncomplaining obedience in following their orders to swoop on the Connies. Though the lower level commanders obviously aren't privy to the plot, the national leadership must have been aware of and complicit in it. How far does this culpability extend? I wouldn't be surprised to find it reaching into or maybe even eminating from the Office of the Regent; the Royals belatedly cleaning up a mess of their own making.

That supposition holds together in a credible way but how do I explain the mysterious person or people who invited me to a rendezvous? What's their involvement? My guess is they could either be an individual such as I who wants the right thing to be done; someone on the inside who wants to expose the whole nasty business, or else they are another part of the conspiracy. If the latter is the case the chances are they are agents of the EU or the United States.

I can't see the EU getting involved in a plot to undermine the Consensus. Of course they'd like to have the Fed completely integrated with the rest of the Union once more, but James is even more eurosceptic than the Council. Back in the pre-Dissolution days he was a supporter of the old UKIP before the party turned on itself in a self-destructive series of splits, so it's unlikely they'd actively support him. Better the devil you know... So I think it is more likely to be the US with their electronic espionage capabilites who are riding shotgun on the putsch. Having learned through their monitoring of IMS the secret has been discovered they'd want to contain the leak if at all possible, either by threat or inducement. The location proposed for the meeting also supports the theory; it's not too far away from the relocated American embassy, or the not so secret headquarters of our own security services. It's quite possible either one of those sets of spies were bugging my flat.

After a decade of licking its self-inflicted Crises wounds a slowly recovering America, still led by Life President Hernandez, is once again looking outwards to the world and attempting to regain some of its lost power. The US could live with the Consensus as it used to be, with it at least being a stabilising force within a major ally; but recently some of the more radical Connie elements have begun to question the continued presence of American air bases and the unpublicised surveillance nodes which the United States maintains in the Federation. This may well have convinced Washington the Connies were beginning to get too dangerously independent in thought; and now was the right time for a regime change.

Yes it all makes sense; A palace coup, organised from within the non-Connie establishment, funded by the Korean diaspora, using the NRP as it's front, all given the covert blessing of the United States. Every element in this unholy coalition benefits from the NRP 'winning'. The Zoners gain lucrative free market policies introduced throughout the Fed, with ANDI bound to do well in the resulting boom; short-lived though it may be. The Americans get a restabilised ally, and no doubt a renewed pledge of adherence to the treaties allowing their bases here; the terms of which have never been made public even now, decades on from their agreement. James becomes Prime Minister, and the people of the Fed have a few more scraps thrown to them. As for the Connies? Well they get royally shafted, but few people will weep many tears over them.

But this means I'm setting myself in opposition to some powerful forces. What can my revelations possibly do to derail their scheme? What do I have have in mind in regards to changing the outcome? I've not given it much thought beyond "This is wrong and must not stand" but a reasonable objective might be to get this fraudulent result annulled under public pressure and have the vote re-run; this time under the international scrutiny the Election Commission dismissed out-of-hand before.

Given what could be at stake I'll need to be careful in my approach to this meeting. I doubt if any hostile party would be crass enough to assasinate me in public, but I wouldn't rule out my abduction and being held incommunicado while my fate was decided. If I were able to contact the anonymous blurter I'd arrange a last minute change in venue and time in an attempt to disrupt any carefully planned set up; but I don't have that option. I only have the coordinates of the meeting and the choice of going there or not. This is a very good way for however it is to keep the initiative and maintain their element of control over the encounter.

Should I even bother going there? It wouldn't be essential to my breaking the story: I could ignore it and go ahead with my as yet unthought through alternative idea of walking into the London office of one of the world news organisations or an embassy and telling all. But if I did so I could be missing out on an important element of the story. If it turns out to be an attempt at a hastily put together silencing operation I'll have some circumstantial corroboration, and my hurried escape, if I am able to effect it, would make some exciting covert cam video. If my suspicions turned out to be no more than my hyperactive paranoia and my contact was sympathetic to my point of view I could obtain some vital supporting testimony. Besides, seeking shelter in a foreign embassy in London turned out to be a bad move for Julian Assange; I'm not going to copy his mistake. No, I need to gather what facts I can and get out of the Fed as quickly as possible

Giving the issue further consideration I decide I'll go to this meeting, but I'll be wary and ready. As the train is reaching the suburbs of London I think it's about time I acted more cautiously. If my opponents were expecting me to stay on board and remain HyperFi connected; an unwitting dupe who'd allow himself to be carried unsuspecting right to a possible reception commitee at Waterloo, then I'll show them otherwise. I'll disembark a few stops earlier and flick off my scroll, storing it in it's screened tube just to be sure, then stash it in my Zone case. Let's see them try and track it then! I'll complete the rest of my journey by bus or taxi, if I can find one. But first there's something else I must do.

I've held back from alerting Dad because I wasn't sure exactly what was going on, and even if I had sent a warning text earlier he wouldn't have been able to get away from Shorehaven Park. Now with the early morning public transport services up and running Dad, if he believes he has reason to leave, can blend into the crowd rather than standing out by travelling at a strange time. He'll be able to convincingly play the part of an impoverished elderly worker trying to eke-out his insufficient pension by journeying to some far-flung assignment; so common a sight nowadays as to be unremarkable. I haven't asked him about his plans in detail but he knows that Kevin and Rosa Ford would always find a place for him in their welsh smallholding to lie low for a while, and from there he'd be well placed there to catch a ferry to Érie should he need to leave the Fed.

This being such an unexpected development there is no exact message code we've agreed in advance I can send to explain the situation. The best I can do is use my rarely used and unregistered old 2G phone bought long ago at a boot sale to send a text, inane in itself, which equates to "Beware! All is not as it would seem and you might be in danger" in the hope Dad is astute enough to get the idea, grab his Ready Bag, and get going. I'd be happier knowing he's on the move and so less likely to be arrested and held as a bargainning chip who's freedom can be used as leverage against me.

The text sent, the phone is switched off and put in my case. If the message got through then the chances are Dad will go off the grid for a while as well; blurting only when he feels secure enough to do so. That done all I need to do is pocket my Blinder, stun pen, and tear gas spray in case they're needed. Once I've transferred the emergency cash stash from my Zone case to an inner jacket pocket, I'm as ready as I'm ever likely to be. The train slows prior to stopping at Clapham Junction; it's time to get off here and choose my own way of getting to my destination.

Something is very definitely amiss here. Even at this early hour there ought to be at least some people about with the rush hour gathering pace; yet the station appears to be deserted. Exiting through a strangely unstaffed ticket barrier and out on to the concourse the early dawn streets are empty as well. There doesn't seem to be any sign of a bus I can catch so I'll start walking until I begin to see signs of life and catch one there. I sense an uneasy atmosphere or maybe it's the occasional distant statacco of gunshots, a faint shrill of sirens, and the nose wrinking smell of something burning somewhere. Or it's more likely to be the still congealing large drops of blood on the pavement I'm trying to avoid treading in which have me on edge. Walking further on I see more blood, this more of a drying stream running toward the gutter. I wonder if it really is a good idea to continue in this direction.

Pausing at a junction I stay close to the buildings and look nervously around. Off to my left in the mid distance I see a hump of a shape lying in a dark reddish fringe of a puddle. It's a body. Maybe I'm in a callous survival mode but I've no inclnation to go over and see if I could do anything for them. Besides, they appear to be beyond help. Instead I decide to walk away in the opposite direction.

I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising; a palpable sense of anarchic danger. It's as if this empty road is in a restless limbo; neither entirely under the control of the authorities or the Connie rioters.

The question of who controls the area and why there is no one to be seen around is resolved soon enough. I hear the grumbling note of a large engine approaching and around the corner turns an intimidating armoured vehicle, mottled in the greys of urban camouflage, its gun turret traversing in my direction and targetting me; oh shit!... Just one twitch of the gunner's thumb and enough heavy calibre rounds would burp from the stubby barrel to turn me into a splattered pulp on the pavement. I come to a stop; not even twitching for fear of startling those inside that behemoth.

"YOU!" bellows a harsh metallic voice through an external loudspeaker "STAY STILL - DONT MOVE! WHO ARE YOU! AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? THIS IS A PROSCRIBED AREA!" At least they are asking questions rather than shooting first: Obviously I don't look too much like a Connie rioter.

"I AM A ZONE MESSENGER!" I shout in reply with as much non-stammering authority as I can muster "I WANT TO LEAVE THIS AREA; CAN YOU ASSIST ME?" There is a tense pause from the urban tank, then an exasperated "ALRIGHT YOU STUPID BUGGER! GET IN THE BACK! WE'LL TAKE YOU SOMEWHERE SAFE..." A door at the rear of the vehicle springs open. "WELL GET A BLOODY MOVE ON!" Shocked into action I jog across to the hatch and am roughly pulled inside, just avoiding cracking my head as I duck through; the door is slammed rudely shut behind me and the battle truck lurches forward once more.

I find myself face to flushed angry face with an obviously stressed NatPol. He seems displeased to be dealing with me. "What were you thinking being out there! You could've got yourself killed!"

"I... uh, got rather caught out by the changing circumstances..."

"Fucking right you did, sunshine! We'd have been within our rights to shoot you on sight! It's a good thing you froze and you were carrying that Zone case! It is rightfully yours; isn't it?" he says with a disbelieving inflection to his voice. I flick over my lapel to show him my badge. "This is no time to be going around incognito, sir." he replies, regaining some measure of his composure at the sight of it "There are riots breaking out all over. You really should stay inside the Zone until it's all been brought under control. Your messages can wait for a while!"

"How bad is it?" I ask, as we drive by what might have been a Consensus Party office seething with turbulent orange flames. The roaring, crackling sounds of burning and throat catching opaquely grey acrid smoke issuing from the conflagration begin to permeate the interior of the truck as it passes through the cloud.

"Bad enough!" The NatPol replies, thumping a large red mushroom of a button labelled INT AIR prominently mounted on the cream painted bulkhead. A hissing sounds and a fan begins to hum. "Positive pressure air; it keeps the smoke and the gas out" he says choking back a cough. "Right! It won't be far now to the perimeter; we'll drop you off at the control point. Then get yourself on the first tube back to the Zone and stay there!"

"OK."

While the NatPol calls for a water canon to tackle the blaze we just passed, the truck drives on for a few moments before screeching to a halt. "Out here!" says the NatPol thumping another oversized button with his gloved fist, the rear door springs open. Eyes still watery and gritty from the smoke I stumble out disoriented as I hear an unintelligible radio message fizzing from the driver's console, I've barely enough time to say a thank you before the truck roars away at speed again.

"GET OVER HERE!" Roars another loud hailer held by one of a cordon of robocops who look even less happy to see me, so much so that one of them is aiming an ugly looking gun at me. Obediently I trot to their barricade to answer further harsh questions as to what the fuck I was doing there. Unlike their colleagues they seem less molified by my badge and my explaination events had moved faster than I did, but eventually they send me on my way; probably because I'd have been too much trouble to arrest, or their improvised jail is already full, or else they have other things on their minds; such as suddenly losing the datalink to their microdrone. The operator can't tell if it's a case of frazzling or the saucer being shot down.

Bizarrely, just a few metres beyond the perimeter the traffic is flowing as smoothly as it ever will, and life appears to going on much as normal. The morning rush is underway and there in the distance is a bus stop which is actually served by buses. At least I don't have long to wait for one going in my direction.

I'm not too far away from the rendezvous now. I alight from the bus several streets away in order to choose my own approach route.

Chapter Thirty Four

Vauxhall has changed out of all recognition in the years since I was last here. It and the Thames frontage as far west as Battersea were one of the last areas to be comprehensively redeveloped as the Crises took hold. Though the area is now dominated by new high rise towers, closer to the east and the railway line the older brick built back streets and arches remain largely untouched. It is in this area, at a Community Canteen on a narow street named Broadway, where I'm due to meet whoever it was who blurted me. The more I think about it the more I'm sure I'm putting my head in the lion's mouth. Once there it won't be easy to get away if I need to, and if I have to escape my room for manoeuvre will be limited by the Thames to the west and the busy roads which surround the area.

These days there may be far fewer cars on London's roads, but that hasn't made them any safer. Paradoxically the reduction in traffic has allowed the remaining vehicles to speed up. Though the 50 kph urban speed limit is still in force it is all too often ignored by people desperate to get somewhere and get on with their jobs. The average speed cameras often fail due to Dragon or frazzling attacks and there are 'journey optimisation' wurdles available which allow you to drive right up to the average speed limit without falling foul of the cameras known to be working. Anyone who uses or crosses one of the capital's roads still takes their life in their hands.

Not attending this rendezvous would be the sensible choice, but it seems the reckless abandon gripping the nation has affected me as well; I'm going to go through with it.

The chances are my face is known to them, but on the off chance it isn't I'll do a walk by just in case I can spot something obviously amiss. If it is a rapidly organised set-up those who planned it may have overlooked a vital detail; one which may be a warning to me. Before gettting any closer I check my button cam is recording, then adopting the head down, world weary air of a typical Fed-ped on their way to work I take a circuitous route to the ComCant.

I turn left into the Broadway from Parry Street; surreptitiously noting every detail of the scene. At once my hackles rise: All is not right here. My attention is drawn to a credder gang working further along the road, nearer to the rendezvous. Could they be the problem? Taking a closer look I see they've set up some plastic barriers out on the pavement next to their van as well as a pop-up shelter, but they've not actually begun to do whatever it was they were supposed to be doing. That's strange; most credders - especially those involved in lower value grunt - are in a hurry to get their task finished, no matter how adversely that affects the quality of their workmanship, and be credited for it; so why are they just standing about doing nothing? And what exactly are they supposed to be doing there? It isn't immediately obvious; again that is unusual. Most credding is low skilled and has an obvious purpose. Here they just seem to be waiting for something to happen or someone to arrive...

Yes; at least one of them appears to be a look out and suddenly they all seem to be taking an interest in me. As I look again at the lead watcher and our eyes meet I notice he and the other credders are wearing brand new uniforms, unmarked and devoid of insignia; not of the usually issued type. There could be a logical explanation for that but they appear to be too well fed, too well built, for your average cred serf; they seem to lack some intangible authenticity. That, as well as their almost identical military style haircuts and obvious unity of purpose are telltale signs. With a sinking feeling I realise I'm walking into a trap.

A mnemonic from my security briefing comes to mind; "If in doubt, get out!" I turn to leave only to see two more burly men in identical overalls walking toward me. One of them is reaching inside a pocket for something...

There can be no doubt now. Time seems to slow to an eternal crawl as it does in the moment when you realise you're about to have an accident and there's nothing you can do to stop it. It's during moments like these your mind feels like a passenger within your body while your subconscious survival instincts take over.

How I manage it I don't know: I suppose the times spent practising as had been suggested to me on the security course helped prevent any panicked fumbling, but I find myself beating my would-be assailant to the draw. There isn't the time to shield my eyes with my other hand, so I'll just have to fire my Blinder as best I can. The rest of the drill kicks in; slide the safety off - aim and close your eyes - turn you head away and PRESS!

Fucking hell! Suddenly I know just how Babette Veldjans must have felt when the Alban nuke detonated nearby. I was expecting it, yet it is as if a silent, blastless bomb has exploded right next to me. My slight disorientation and vision partially obscured by throbbing purple patches must be as nothing compared to what those two heavies must be feeling now. They're howling in pain and writhing around on the pavement, no longer a threat to me unlike that group who must surely be approaching from behind. It seems ages have passed since I fired the Blinder but in reality I've already turned around to meet this new challenge. As I expected they have already run half the distance separating us towards me, spread out in a line which will encircle me before attacking from all directions. One of them is drawing a boxy looking device fused to a pistol grip - a taser! I need to shoot again before he's able to target me.

I squeeze my eyes closed, turn my head away, and sweep my weapon in an arc across them. A satisfying chorus of agonised screams reassures me I'm on target. A crack and swishing sound off to my side tells me I fired just in time to put the taser man off his aim.

I open my eyes again but even I am having trouble in seeing. I can make out five of the six are incapacitated for the time being, but that leaves the other one to my left to deal with. Either he realised what I was about to do and managed to get a hand over his eyes in time or my sweep only partially affected him: Though visually impaired, shocked, and obviously suffering some pain he's not only on all fours groping around for his dropped taser, but he's still crawling toward me.

I'm not going to wait around for him to find it and learn the hard way if it can fire more than once as I suspect it can. It's time for me to leg it before they get themselves together enough to summon reinforcements, or more trouble arrives.

I'm off and running back the way I came, giving the two toughs sprawled convulsing on the pavement a wide berth. I hear a shout behind me along with the unsteady beat of heavy boots running; obviously taser man has found his feet, if not his full vision, and is following me. Behind him I can hear what sounds like two extra pairs of lightly shod feet giving chase. Shit! There are more of them!

I'm running as fast as I can, pure fear lending me speed, but I seem to be moving so slowly! I know like most Fedders I'm probably undernourished and not as fit as I could be; and keeping hold of my case must be slowing me down, but even so!...

My problems keep coming: Rounding the corner into Parry Street I collide with a pedestrian, sending her sprawling. I've no time to stop and apologise despite her accusatory curses, instead running on right under the railway bridge. I get wary looks from the few other peds about, but their suspicions are of no concern to me; I have other things on my mind right now, such as how to cross the South Lambeth Road and live to tell about it.

This particular stretch of the route is three or four lanes of one-way traffic as far as I can make out, busy even at this early hour; pulses of trucks, vans, buses, tuks and cyclists created by traffic signals elsewhere all moving at speed with few gaps to be seen. I can't wait for a safe moment to cross because there won't be one - at least not before my pursuers catch up with me. I need to throw caution to the wind and go.

Horns blare, brakes screech, tyres squeal in protest. A cyclist swears at me and bunny hops his bike onto the pavement. The light van I ran out in front of only just misses me; I'm buffeted by its slipstream. Another larger van swerves into another lane in an attempt to avoid rear-ending the one in front which has slammed on its brakes, but in so doing it is now aimed directly at me.

Putting on an extra spurt of speed I didn't believe I was capable of I manage to get out of its way, the van's worn tyres slithering as they struggle for grip, the driver wrestling with the steering wheel in a vain attempt to keep it from slewing across the carriageway and being hit side on by the following traffic. I'm most of the way across now but just as I think there's a chance I might reach safety a moped appears from nowhere, arrowing at high speed straight at me and I can tell at once there is no way its startled eyed, shocked faced rider has any chance of avoiding me.

So this is what it's like to know you're about to die; these last interminable moments experienced by your hyper-aware senses in such exquisite detail. I feel no fear, no regret; only a numbed peace of desensitisation as my body and mind make their final preperations to ease the shock of the inevitable. I don't even see images from my life flashing before me: With the disconnected gallows humour of the condemned I wonder if the totality of my life really was so dull that it couldn't even be bothered to make an appearance at its own end.

The moped clips me; the impact sends me spinning. The isolation suddenly lifted I'm reconnected with the world, a confusing, painful, tumbling perspective of sensory overload: Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The moped, unbalanced by the collision, wobbles uncertainly across the road before the inviolable laws of physics reassert themselves. The bike flips sideways, jettisoning its rider who rolls along the tarmac limbs flailing; hopefully protected to some extent by their airbag jacket which has automatically inflated. A speeding tuk on the furthest lane trying to avoid my sprawled body bounces onto the pavement suspension wallowing wildly, but then loses the struggle to stay upright. It tips on to its side, scraping along while straddling the road and kerb.

For a moment I lie where I've fallen, winded and groggy; but then the sight of some well-meaning witnesses rushing through the stopped traffic toward me and the sprawled motorcyclist reminds me of the danger I'm still in. My befuddled mind clears and impels me to get going again. Ahhhhh shiiiiiit! That was not a good idea! My leg seems to have got the worst of it, it's gone numb and stiff; but I have no choice but to move. Pausing only to grab my case which was knocked out of my hand by the impact I set off like a frightened rabbit, jarring my injured leg: Fuckit!

As well as the sounds of the accident I've just caused I can hear those rapidly clumping boot sounds getting louder: For fuck's sake the bastards are catching up with me!

I need to get out of here and lose them. The first turning to my right - Vauxhall Grove - is a through road if it bears any resemblance to the street map I tried to memorise on the train here, just in case something like this actually happened. Well it happened allright, but my local knowledge appears to have evaporated under the stress of the moment.

The narrow street brings me into the solidly built terraces of Bonnington Square, a final stiff-necked glance out of the corner of my eye as I round the corner doesn't reveal anyone following but I couldn't be absolutely sure in the split-second view I had. I'm not exactly sure where I am. I hope I've not run myself into a square with only one way out - the route I came in.

I've a choice of two directions; I turn left in the hope of getting myself out of the line of sight of my pursuers; increasing their confusion as to which direction I've taken. If I can jink left-right a few times and put some distance between myself and them; far enough away for me to go to ground without the risk of being discovered in a search of the immediate area, then I can stop for a moment and think of a plan to get me out of this mess.

Running painfully along the northern edge of the square I wonder if I haven't made a fatal error, there ought to be a road leading out of here, shouldn't there? Yes! There it is! Relieved at finding my escape route I follow it, leading me out on to what must be the A202 Harleyford Road. I turn to check I'm not being followed but there, rounding the corner at an uncertain jog, is the man in the credder suit.

The nearside lane of Harleyford Road is filled with stationary traffic; no doubt stalled by the accident I caused but the farside lane is still busy. Without thinking I rush across using a gap in the traffic not even the most seasoned jaywalker would consider in one of their most reckless moments, but it will have to do.

Maybe it's the shock from the collision but my mind still seems detached from my predicament; swirling with thoughts, and some of them are verging on the unrealistic considering the situation I'm in. Despite just having been roughed-up in a road accident I still feel pumped enough to consider making a defiant stand against my pursuers if, as seems increasingly likely, I can't outrun them.

After an unpleasant encounter with a few YCs a couple of years ago I vowed I wouldn't get caught at a disadvantage again and had some basic judo training. I may be a bit rusty but I won't go down without a fight. If I can cause enough of a ruckus to get the MetPol summoned I could possibly escape abduction or worse by holding out long enough for the coppers to arrive; but having to explain myself out of this situation isn't my goal; it's just the best of the unattractive options available to me at the moment.

In any case it's all academic right now with an articulated lorry bearing down on me, its driver leaning on the horn and braking hard: I need to worry about surviving the next few seconds.

With a slam of air and the Doppler stretched fading of its horn the truck just misses me, I'm sure I felt its side give me the very slightest of brushes, or it might have been my imagination. In the relative silence of it's wake the more remotely observational part of my brain registers the footfall of work boots catching up with me. The fucker won't give up!

Half running, half limping to the safety of the far pavement, I turn in an awkward pirouette to face him, reaching into my other pocket for the gas spray: Shit! It's gone! It must have been lost in the collision. I also realise I must've let go my grip on my Blinder and left it back there as well; not that I was likely to get much of a chance to replace it's spent cell with the spare in my case in the the next few moments, but it might have come in useful; if only as an empty threat.

Taser man has almost made his way over; he's unarmed now, his semi-blinded movements still hesitant. I decide to wait until he's almost reached the pavement, then I'll throw myself at him with my secure case held in front of me as a ram. Body checking him back into the traffic will give him something to think about, and with any luck he'll get run over. Or maybe slamming the case hard against the bridge of his nose with enough force might break it. The move may just buy me enough time to pull out my stun pen.

He runs toward me, but then the sight of his fluorescent overall is eclipsed by the movement - edges blurred by speed - of a double-decker bus as it passes across my field of view; its mournful big beast in pain howl of brakes punctuated by the solid thud of metal hitting flesh. I hear a woman's screaming, and that's enough to re-energise me into moving again. Whatever has happened to Mr Taser - be he knocked flying or dragged under the bus - his two soft shoed friends might still be after me. I'm not waiting around for the emergency services and their awkward questions to arrive: I need to get out of here and quickly.

Jogging again I can feel my knee stiffening further and my back is beginning to ache; I feel as if I'm the slowest wilderbeast in the herd; ungainly, vulnerable; about to feel the lion's teeth. I have different predators to evade; though as yet I can't hear them chasing me. They might have got caught up in the hiatus surrounding the accident, or abandoned their pursuit and dropped back out of sight when they realised the situation had blown up in their faces with their team either incapacitated for the time being; and in one case badly injured, possibly dead. Nevertheless I must continue to act as if they are still after me and have only been temporarily delayed.

I flee along Harleyford Road towards the Oval cricket ground. My escape would be aided by my being inconspicuous, but trying to run as I am with my clothes dishevelled I'm attracting some unwanted attention from the few people in the street. I need to do something about that. Jerking my thumb in the direction I've just come towards the distant stopped bus I breathlessly gasp, "THE BUS! CALL FOR HELP!" It seems to do the trick. Two peds run off in that direction while another makes an emergency scroll call. Further along a middle-aged woman in a ute-suit but no visible Connie insignia asks if I'm OK; I briefly flash her my wallet full of impressive looking credentials - too fast for her to read them - and tell her I have to organise an emergency aid point; where is the nearest Community Support Office to be found?

She seems unsure; not knowing the area too well, so I tell her to run after the others and do what she can at the scene. To my surprise she obeys, though given the last ten years of conditioning most people tend to unquestionably do as they are told by someone purporting to have authority so it shouldn't be so remarkable. Left unbothered for the time being I can lope around the road which circles the Oval to the north. It gets me out of sight for the moment. I need to put further distance between myself and the trouble, then do something about not looking like a road crash victim.

I can hear the first of the sirens arriving; the sound echoing off the buildings making it hard to work out from which direction the vehicles are coming: The last thing I need is to be noticed and thought of as a casualty needing treatment or perpetrator to be arrested. Looking around without trying to appear too furtive I spot a figure, or was it two figures? further back along the road just as I slip out of view. Were they the soft shoe duo following me? Did they spot me? I don't know.

With no certain signs of pursuit as yet I'm beginning to become more hopeful I've given them the slip. There are the sounds of more distant sirens, but I don't sense any threat from them. Just as I reach the junction where this road rejoins the A202 and start to relax I'm startled by the sudden approaching high-pitched rasp of a tuk being driven at speed; the weakly screeching electronic siren identifying it as a ComPol vehicle. Shit! It's coming this way! There's no point in trying to find cover to hide behind - there isn't any - so instead acting as naturally and innocently as posssible while trying not to wince in pain, I bend over and pretend to tie a shoelace as it passes. It gets my face out of the way of the onboard cameras and their live link to any facial recognition database; just in case.

The tuk passes without slowing; it must be heading toward the incident. At least while I'm bent over I can look between my legs for any sign of the soft shoe men, but the coast appears to be clear. Straightening myself - aaaaaaaaaaarrrghh! - No, I really shouldn't have done that! - I realise I'm injured, bleeding, aching, out of breath, flushed, sweating, and my heart is trying to batter its way through my ribs. The adrenaline rush has run its course, my limbs are feeling like stone, and my body has given me all it can. I'm a mess: I need to stop for bit. Crossing the road I'm tempted to go directly to the Oval Underground station and catch the tube, but from some of the suspicious looks I'm getting, I think it would be a bad idea.

From my map study I think there was a Fair Food located nearby, which is what I need right now. A short limping walk reveals my memory to be correct. It appears to have just opened its doors for the day. I hope it can be my temporary sanctuary for a short while because I'm in urgent need of some.

Chapter Thirty Five

The teenage female server vacuuming the carpet and her male supervisor who can be no older than his early twenties look startled when I enter; I don't suppose they get many early customers looking like me in the state I'm in. I flash them my Zone card and explain I was involved in a bus crash: I need to use the Gents' to clean myself up before completing my mission. I also warn them that a couple of opportunistic thieves may be out looking for me, so if anyone asks, they've not seen me; and if they can they should try to alert me without arousing suspicion. A couple of notes handed to each of them ensures their assistance.

I'm directed to the back of the restaurant, along a corridor near to the kitchen; the intelligent and friendly supervisor thinking on his feet following me to put an OUT OF ORDER sign on the toilet door handle in the hope of ensuring me some privacy. He offers to stand outside to make sure no one forces their way through without being challenged and so at least giving me some kind of heads-up. His assistance is welcome; though I have to persuade him I'll be able to clean myself up unaided. He also offers to call the police but I dissuade him, explaining we messengers don't get involved with them unless it is unavoidable; we prefer to keep ourselves unobtrusive, so he should only call them in an emergency.

The arrangements made I enter the restroom to get cleaned up. If one or both of the shoe men were to come bursting in now it would be bad news, there being only one letterbox of a high window leading to who knows where; and looking at it there seems no way I could wriggle out through it even if I was fully mobile, which I'm certainly not at the moment. If it came to it I'd have to try to fight it out here and hope the staff would call the pols. Bolting myself into a cubicle I reach for my first aid kit.

It is anticipated Zone messengers will find themselves running into trouble from time to time. They are expected to patch themselves up and continue on to deliver their consignment as far as is reasonably practicable. To this end every messenger case has a first aid kit. Opening mine I find a spray can of instant skin and some special pain killers among its contents; I think I'll need them both.

Gingerly I ease my trousers off; no easy matter given the state I'm. They're obviously ruined; a collection of rips and abrasions. Scrubbing away at my bloodied leg with some cleansing wipes I find I've suffered some severe grazing, especially around my knee which seems to have borne the brunt of the trauma. There's a deep slash of a cut welling blood as well; probably caused by the moped's front mudguard striking me. In addition it feels as if my kneecap might have been wrenched. My legs, never a pretty sight, look as if they've been in the wars; they're going to look a lot worse when the bruises are fully developed. The magic spray stops the worst of the bleeding and eases the pain; some absorbent self-adhesive hypercolloid patches take care of the rest. With my unobtrusive pants now unwearable I'll need to use my Zone uniform trousers - folded along with the jacket in my backpack - instead: They shouldn't stand out too obviously, though putting those on in the confines of a toilet cubicle so soon after being injured is going to be a difficult and painful effort. Doing my best to stifle the gasps of pain eventually I manage it.

My bag looks badly scuffed and torn; it's probably best to dump it and my holed trousers here. Checking my light jacket over I find it is badly rent at the elbow as well: There's no point in wearing it and drawing attention to myself so reluctantly it joins the trousers stuffed into the rucksack after I've transferred its contents to my Zone jacket or case. With my incognito wear dirtied and shredded, denying me the option of blending in with the crowd, my only hope now is using the authority my uniform confers to avoid trouble.

Leaving the cubicle I check my reflection in the mirror. I still look a bit pale and shocked, but my face is uninjured. A quick wash in one of the hand basins wouldn't go amiss though. Then I swallow a painkiller along with another stimulant capsule which should keep me going for a while with a cupped palmful of tap water. A slow turn of an inspection in the mirror reveals nothing too badly awry, though an examination of my shoes reveals some scratches which I do my best to rub invisible with a wetted finger and the polish stick in my Zone case. Messengers always take pride in their appearance.

A final check as I'm now no longer Richard Davies; minor media executive but Richard Davies; Zone messenger. Any smart cards I don't plan to use immediately are placed in the scan-resistant case. Oh, the case! Though built to withstand a lot of punishment it has picked up some noticable gouges scored deeply along one side. Providing I remember to keep the damaged side facing my body no one should notice.

Fifteen minutes have passed, and it's time I was moving again. At the end of the corridor the manager gives me the thumbs-up; I hope he's not been bought or threatened into doing that. Pausing only to thank him quietly, I hand him my ripped pack for disposal, and slip him two more notes - one each for he and the girl. Then, mustering as much of the dignity befitting my newly-adopted role as I can, I leave.

There are a few patrons scattered about the restaurant; none of them appears to be a threat to me. Looking over at the bar at the display screen for the surveillance cameras, which is split into quarters, I can't see anyone lurking outside but I won't be lulled into a false sense of security just yet; I'll go out braced ready to at least parry an ambush from someone hiding beyond the cameras' fields of view.

As I pass through the main doors I check both sides in preparation for any attack, but there's no one there. Adopting the least painful walking style which doesn't display my mobilty problems too obviously I make it to the relative safety of the tube station without incident. Below the city streets, out of sight of anyone prowling the surface. I can get further away from here, then work out what to do and where to go next.

The loud warbling tone of the radiation alarm startles me as I enter the Underground station. Fortunately it's someone else passing through a separate detector arch at the same time who sets it off and gets all the attention. Swallowing my heart back down I take the Northern Line to King's Cross. Disembarking there I go straight to the public toilets, and hide in one of the stalls. Flicking on my dark slate I quickly scan the local news feeds as well as the MetPol blurt; the first reports of the South Lambeth Road and Harleyford Road incidents are appearing. A man has been taken to hospital in a critical condition after being hit by a bus; police are appealing for witnesses. So far they're not linking it with me, nor have I appeared on the Fed's Most Wanted page. That's some good news at least, but I don't discount them not telling the whole story in a bid to lull me into a false sense of security.

The other news is inferred rather than reported. There are more than the expected usual number of traffic delays, checkpoints, and 'incidents' being attended: All is far from well on the first day of the Reset. The Connies aren't taking their defeat lying down, and their former subjects are taking out a decade of resentment on any members of the old regime they can lay their hands on.

I've one final thing to do before I flick off the slate and drop out of sight again. I'd more or less come to the decision anyway hours ago, but now's the time when I take a step closer to making it irrevocable. I couldn't afford the fare myself, so logging on to the Eurotunnel portal using my Zone travel account I reserve myself the earliest available seat to Paris, and take an option on a later train to Brussels, just in case I can't reach St Pancras in time for the earlier departure. Even as I confirm the reservations I notice how many of the available standby seats are being sold; there seems to be a rush on to leave the Fed.

Flicking off my slate I replace it in the secure case and take out the cards I'll need for my onward journey. My Zone ID should be sufficient to get me out of the country and into France. One final precaution before I go; I put on a pair of those neutrally glazed spectacles which are designed to defeat facial recognition systems. They are standard issue to messengers who may well have a very good reason to avoid being easily tracked while conveying extremely sensitive consignments. I don't have faith in the claims made for them, though introducing any extra element of uncertainty as to my whereabouts can only help at the moment.

I've spent more than ten minutes in the gents' and now I'm ready to move on. Despite me wearing my covert specs it wouldn't be a too much of a setback if my presence here was noted; just as long as I'm far enough away not to get picked-up if it is. I want to set a few false trails to confuse anyone trying to catch up with me. With luck anyone after me will think I caught a northbound train, and could be anywhere along the East Coast main line up until it terminates at Berwick-upon-Tweed. The track north of there is mothballed, and sections of it even removed closer to the Hadrian's Wall border zone; but were my false scent to be taken my pursuers would have a lot of places to check before there.

With some time to go before my scheduled departure I decide my best chance of staying free until then is to keep mobile. I plan on taking a taxi as far as Shoreditch, or maybe Hoxton, then returning to St Pancras via the underground. It should be easy enough to find my way around using my paper A-to-Z. With any luck my being tagged by other surveillance systems and being seen elsewhere might also make the Eurostar reservations seem like just another feint rather than my planned escape route.

Anyway, I daren't linger here for too long lest I attract the wrong sort of attention. Ready to go, I wave my hand in front of the flush sensor, unbolt the door and leave. At least I've had another stroke of luck; there's no inquisitive toilet attendant hovering around. Acting as naturally and as least like a fugitive as possible, I limp to the taxi rank and hail a cab.

"Where to Guv?" Despite Crises and wars some things endure; the London cabbie being one of them. These days they drive hybrid taxis, but they are still mostly coloured black and retain their unique shape. The drivers, now rarely the opinionated white middle-aged male stereotype of old, still have to do 'The Knowledge' even in these days of autonomous smart vehicles, satellite guidance, and Integrated Traffic Management. Ask a cabbie about taxipods and you'll get a litany of their faults and failures. If you want to get there safely you've got to choose a human driven cab; there's still too much that can go wrong with those bloody robots...

The driver asks me the question in the typical estuary gravelled growl, but looks as if he's several generations naturalised from his Caribbean migrant ancestors. His collar length dreads are a subtle sign of - I hope - defiance or indifference to the Connies and their New Modesty. I tell him where I want to go.

"Are you sure that's a good idea, Chief? Things are a bit tricky around there at the moment. I took a fare that way about a hour ago and it was all kicking off!"

"Just do what you can to get me as near as possible; that's where it's got to be delivered"

"Fair enough!" He sets off. "Mind you we might have to go round the houses a bit to get you there; though if I were you I'd get your secure division to take it in by armoured car; still it's your call. D'you mind if I keep the radio on? I need to keep up to date with the news and traffic."

"No problem, I could do with catching-up as well; I've been busy since early this morning. What's been happening?"

"Just about everything! The Connies have lost the election, they've been going mental as a result, and people are taking out their frustrations out on them. Can't say I blame them after all these years; the Council started off allright and some of their ideas were sensible, but then they just got out of control. But I don't approve of burning things down; it's getting out of hand now. James Purvis has got to put a stop to it. Have you seen much of it?"

"I nearly got caught up in an incident!"

"Yes, I thought so looking at you."

So my disguise may not be that convincing after all. If it can raise the suspicions of an observant cabbie than who else's attention might my appearance attract? I might have to play on my slightly dishevelled state for some sympathy. Though given some of nervously ruffled looking people I've seen so far this morning, my look might fit in perfectly.

We ease our way into the traffic. Despite the shortages and the cost of fuel, the state of the economy and the move from private to public transport, London's congestion seems as bad as it ever was. There are always buses, vans, taxis, tuks, and bikes zipping somewhere for some reason. It's the usual stop-wait-go flow at the moment but I sense a subtle pertubation in the rythym; a feeling confirmed by the cab's multisource radio interrupting the bass heavy booming of the constant traffic updates.

These days the cab's digital radios receive information from a number of different sources and blend them into an aural information stream of the listener's preference. But an emergency blurt from a cabbie in distress overrides everything else: We hear one now. I can hear the undertone of fear in her voice as she calls for help; she's found herself boxed in by the trouble, her position is around a kilometre to our north. Before my driver can offer assistance three others closer to her offer to come to her aid. In any case we may have our own problems to deal with.

At the moment we're stuck in a temporary hold up; the pavement alongside seems strangely deserted for this time of the morning rush. Suddenly a figure runs past; he appears to be fleeing for his life. With my journalist's sense of observation I notice the look of utter terror on his face in the fleeting glimpse I saw of it; that he's wearing a Connie ute-suit with insignia, and he's running wearing only one flack; he must have lost the other one while fleeing. Hot on his heels the reason for his fear is only too apparent; four men wearing improvised face concealing hoods, carrying an asortment of knives and tools are chasing him. With that same remote detachment I can see some of the blades are stained with the bright red of fresh blood. If that group catch the Connie who has just rounded a corner I can imagine what will happen next. So can the cabbie.

"Jesus Christ! I've seen a lot on my time on the job, but I never thought I'd see that! Pardon my language sir, but it's turning into a fucking war out there. I really think it would be for the best and your own safety if I dropped you somewhere secure and then pulled off the road until this is all sorted out. Where would you like to go? The nearest Zone portal, or tube station?"

I'm considering my reply when the traffic starts to move again and instructions are PushBlurted from the radio. All taxis and TfL buses are being withdrawn from service until further notice. Once the general order is issued our taxi is told by a different artificial voice to take the next right turn. Then comes another announcement: All networks will carry a live 'cast by Prime Minister Purvis from the steps of 10 Downing Street before he enters it for the first time. There is a short, silent pause followed by the ambient noises of the preperations just before the cue to go live. Then James' addresses the nation.

"Good morning everyone! This morning the Electoral Commission confirmed the National Renewal Party has won the election with a majority sufficient to form an administration in the reformed parliament. His Majesty The Regent has invited me as its leader to form the new government: It is an honour which I accept with great humility.

It's been a long night, but this morning is a good one for our weary nation. The NRP pledged to revive the Federation, and that is what we will do. There is much that needs to be done in a short time to ensure stability and revive the economy. So as a matter of urgency the new parliament will address the most pressing issues facing us with a fast-track legislative process which will include...

An orderly phasing-out of Community Credit within three years and a wholesale review of the Assignment system.

The Transport Credit Act will be reviewed, and consideration given to either its radical ammendment or abolition.

A wide-ranging study into a new Bill of Rights is to be set up. It will liase with the Constitution Commission we will create to enact an absolute garauntee of our liberties which have been so perniciously eroded over recent years.

With the agreement of The Regent and with immediate effect the Carbon Reduction Act is repealed. An emergency building and recommissioning programme of coal fired power stations will be authorised. It is ludicrous when we had ample coal reserves available to us we were prevented from using them because of alarmist Consensus dogma about climate disruption. This government will keep the lights on and the power flowing by whatever means it takes to do so!

In co-operation with the London Economic Zone a carefully considered programme of economic liberalisation will be introduced; spreading the success of the Zone throughout the Federation. At the same time we shall be mindful not to repeat the mistakes of previous administrations who allowed matters to get out of control.

We promised to see through His Majesty's vision of a revitalised nation, and so we shall. Following consultations with Their Majesties we have agreed the Transitional Council will be wound-up as soon as possible; once parliament and our traditional system of government have been reestablished. However there remains an urgent need for radical measures in order to build upon and enhance our renewed democracy. It is my intent the new Constitution Commision be set up as soon as possible, and when the Transitional Arrangements have been enacted by Royal Decree the elections for the Second Legislative Assembly will be held within two years.

In addition both His Majesty and His Regent have agreed that once the arrangements are in place, and an election for an Executive Head of State concluded - hopefully within three years - the Monarchy will be brought to a dignified end. It is only right and proper that after serving the Federation with distinction through these difficult times we should express our grateful thanks to Their Majesties for their efforts on our behalf by allowing them to divest themselves of their onerous duties. I am sure both of them will continue to make a valuable contribution to our future public life.

Now regrettably, I need to address the immediate danger posed to our nation by the Consen-" The digital signal dissolves into stuttering chirps. This probably isn't frazzling, but an inherrent problem with the technology. A digital signal is all or nothing; prone to dropping out completely, rather than fading in and out as an analogue signal does. Despite the promises the issues would be addressed, the signals only too often collapse into gurgling gibberish.

It is now widely acknowledged the enforced switchover to digital radio was a mistake, creating mountains of electronic waste from perfectly good analogue radios, and forcing the purchase of expensive but inferior replacements. The irony was after much protest the plans to reassign the analogue frequencies were modified so that a few local and national stations could continue to use them; just in case an emergency rendered the digital network inoperative. The signal returns.

"- the Consensus have wormed their way throughout society, and eradicating their influence won't be an easy, or painless task. Some may think the robust measures we plan to implement are harsh or unfair. Nevertheless we must - we shall - purge our nation of this bizarre cult who have brought us to the brink of ruin. Numerous National Police Force investigations have been opened into allegations of treason and misconduct while holding public office against leading members of the former Council, who are at present being held in custody.

In addition a Truth Commission will investigate Consensus activities dating from the beginning of the Transitional Council. Its remit will be wide-ranging and it will investigate any allegations of wrongdoing by Consensus officials at any level. Those who have acted in good faith will have nothing to fear from it. Those who have abused their office and the people they were supposed to serve will face the justice they deserve. As part of this reconcilliation process all members of the Community Police are temporalily suspended - effective immediately - pending vetting and revalidation. Once the bad apples have been weeded out it is hoped to bring a reduced in size force back to duty as soon as possible. Street Wardens are unaffected by this order at present, though they too will be reexamined in the fut-" More watery gurgling lasts a few moments.

"-rther six month extension to the Temporary State of Emergency. We hope to lift these measures as quickly as practica-" The driver tries switching to the AM band, but there is nothing but a harsh electronic buzzing. "Sorry Guv; it's a bad area..." He switches back to the digital signal. "-go about your usual duties, and obey any orders given by-" No sound at all now, only silence "-ether we shall begin to build a new future for ourselves. Again, I'd like to thank you all for your support. Your electing the NRP was the first step on the journey to recovery, but there are many more steps we must take in order to reach our goal, and the sooner we get started the better. So if you'll excuse me I have a great deal of work to be getting on with."

There's a faintly shouted question about the disturbances. James replies he expects the isolated outbreaks to be brought under control soon; then there are the sounds of him being ushered through the big glossy black door of his new residence.

"I'd better let you out here!" says the cabbie. We've travelled quite a bit further on, and now the taxi is being directed by a MetPol off into a side street.

"Keep the change!" I say, handing him a high value note. I doubt I'll end up having to account for it on an expenses claim. That will be the very least of my problems in the near future.

"Thanks Chief! Best of luck to you!"

"And to you as well! We'll all need some today!" He drives away, following the instructions to park for the moment in this improvised safe zone.

Well, that didn't go quite the way I planned it. My plan to scatter some confusing sightings appears to have backfired. Caught out by circumstance it turns out all I've done is wasted time and ended up far from where I wanted to be right now. I need to get back to St Pancras quickly or risk missing my train to Paris.

Following a crowd of people being disembarked off a bus I find myself at a cordon being hurriedly thrown-up. Fortunately the police are more intent on getting people out of the exclusion zone than they are on checking identities. Their haste in clearing the streets is explained by the sudden arrival of a phalanx of hard core riot police supported by a menacing looking riot vehicle. It makes the one I was given a ride in earlier seem cute and cuddly by comparison. We're directed into Moorgate underground station, waved through the open barriers - ticketing having been suspended for the duration of the emergency - and onto the crowded platform crackling with a brittle apprehension.

Chapter Thirty Six

Despite the disorder erupting above ground the tubes continue to run. Our train arrives and I cram aboard with everyone else. Squeezed up; painfully so in my condition against the carriage partition, I can pause for thought. Soon will come the moment of truth; a calculated risk, but one I must take. If I want to leave the country I'll have to do it soon before my window of opportunity closes; and that means checking-in at the Eurostar terminal. If I've been placed on a watch list I'll soon find out there.

I arrive with ten minutes to spare. The announcements are already warning of the train's departure. That's a relief; my plan appears to be back on track. I wanted to arrive here at about this time in any case, not wanting to hang around here for too long in advance and risk being tagged. The Eurostar embarkation process is very similar to entering the LEZ. In a moment I'll have passed through the smart tunnel without incident, or alarms will sound, barriers will close, and my goose will be well and truly cooked. Well here goes...

Much to my surprise I pass through without any drama; obviously the connections have yet to be made. There before me, standing poised at the platform, is my sleek, streamlined escape from the Federation. Suddenly from behind me I can hear a bustling commotion approaching. Fuck it! I was so close to getting away! Then I realise it's not a belated chasing after me but a flustered group; yes a family - two adults and three children - rushing through the portal at the very last minute before it closes.

There's something familiar about one of them. I'm sure I've seen his face before, but at the moment I can't put a name to it. I could FacePop him if I really couldn't contain my curiosity, but I don't want to attract attention to myself right now; and I suspect that the well-built man accompanying them - no doubt a minder - would take exception to my doing so.

No, this isn't a family priviliged enough to be able to holiday abroad rather than at one of the rejuvinated seaside resorts who have arrived at the last minute to catch their train. From the small, lightly packed bags each of them is carrying, their apparent unaccustomedness to wearing obviously new Fedwear in the hope of remaining inconspicous, as well as their uneasily furtive expressions I deduce this is a mid-level Connie functionary and his family attempting to avoid being interned by the new regime.

So it seems I'm not the only refugee making a hasty exit this morning. I wonder how many other seats on this train would have remained empty had circumstances been different? How many of these nondescriptly dressed passengers, like me, have secrets to hide?

Exactly on time the train departs. As it burrows underground into the tunnel which will take it below London and out into the Kentish countryside I can allow myself a slight measure of relief. But I'm by no means out of the woods yet. At least being French-run trains and mostly reliant on their nuclear energy there is less chance of the Eurostars breaking down or suffering a power failure. Even so I won't feel safe until the train has stopped at Ebbsfleet International station, then passed on into the French territory which begins at the mouth of the Channel Tunnel. Only when we're speeding through the Pas de Calais will I hook my slate on to the train's HyperFi. I'll know I've finally made it if I can pass through the portal at the Gare du Nord without raising an alarm. Once in Paris I'll withdraw what I can from an ATM; then find a cheap, anonymous hotel to go to ground in and prepare my story. But I'm getting ahead of myself: First I have to get out of the Fed.

Before I know it we're slowing and the announcements about our next stop being Ebbsfleet are broadcast. This is the first hurdle; then there are the stations at Ashford and Dover where the train may be boarded.

This doesn't look good. As the the train draws in I can see a host of Border Security Force officers waiting on the platform. The doors at the end of the carriage open and a squad of stern-faced guards file along the central corridor towards my seat, not stopping to check any other passengers as they pass... Well I tried. I wanted to do the right thing and now it seems I'll be paying the price for daring to expose the truth. I hope they've not been able to trace and delete all of my cached timeblurts; in theory that shouldn't be possible as I've lodged a few of them in some dark spaces only I should be able to find. All it needs is for just one of them to activate, and for only a few of the recipients to take the message seriously enough to forward it on for the rolling snowball to gather momentum and become an avalanche of truth which will smother this deceit in its tracks. That's my only hope now.

There's no point in trying to resist my arrest but I won't be a coward about it; I'll maintain whatever dignity I have for as long as possible. I won't show any fear, no matter how much my insides have turned icy cold. I'm not the villain of this story; just someone who - perhaps naively - believed this supposed fresh start really should be a clean break with the past and not the shoddy foundation of a corrupt future.

The file of stern faced police keep relentlessly approaching... and pass right by my seat. Evidently they have bigger fish to catch. Further behind me are sat the fleeing Connie family and it is they who are the BSF's objective. All of them - children included - are arrested, handcuffed, and frogmarched from the train. Once they have been removed another team go through the carriages checking anyone they deem to be suspicious. Remarkably I and my Zone card are given only a cursory examination. That done, the train is given permission to resume its journey, and I get the chance to get my heart rate back down. I need to go and relieve myself!

Sooner than I expect we're passing through the tunnel and into the freedom of France. Thank fuck for that! Flicking-on to the train's HyperFi the news isn't good from either the official sources or the dark world. The BBC reports the 'sporadic' outbreaks of disorder are being contained, and order will be restored soon. I note the choice of language; they must be operating under Section 38 by now but still some clever, subtle writers manage to hint at the truth they want to reveal. The phrases "being contained" and "restored soon" speak far more than those couplings of words imply to anyone who takes the reports at face value. I should know, having performed that linguistic sleight of hand often enough myself.

I don't have much time for the BBC or the Connie glove puppets within it, and I'm sure when James puts his people in charge of the OMS the corporation as well as its staff will be in for an uncompromising series of unpleasant 'reforms'. But I do have a grudging professional admiration for whoever had the courage to take the risk involved in pushing against the shrinking bounds of what is permissable. They may be belatedly doing the right thing - reporting things as they are, not as those in power want them depicted to be - as a last act of futile defiance for the wrong cause and their own personal ends but it still takes guts to put yourself in the firing line, even if you've nothing left to lose.

I'm aware the Beeb might be trying to exaggerate the scale of the disorder but from what I saw in London today and see now on the dark news it appears they have actually got it right for a change.

At this moment I can even agree with their self-censorship to an extent; there are some things I'm seeing which should never be 'cast. As a journalist I've developed a talent for spotting hoaxes or fabricated images; I know what's real when I see it, and these dark blurts I'm watching are only too real. In my job I've seen more violence and death up close than most people, but even so... I mean, how could anyone do that to someone else; even if they are a Connie? I have to swallow hard to stop myself from vomiting. Christ! I hope the poor buggers died quickly.

What worries me it that this, bad as it is, is 'only' the reaction to the Connies' defeat. I dread to imagine what would, or will happen if - when - my story gets out. Those destructive tensions within society which have only been suspended during the decade of Council rule will explode once more on to the streets, and I in breaking the news would be partially responsible for it happening. Yes that's one hell of a moral dilemma to grapple with... People are dying now, and who knows how many more will die in the bloodbath of a renewed civil war which is certain to break out once the cheating is disclosed. I could save the lives of untold numbers of people by keeping the secret. I could retract my timeblurts, stay over in Paris for a day or so, then return with a concocted story about how I'd taken fright when my mail was hacked and the meeting set up. I'd explain it was my spontaneous decision to investigate a suspected Connie plot, but when things got out of hand I decided to get the hell out until the state of play became clear. Yes, I could come back and claim my richly earned reward for my past work and my present complicity; a nice little earner on the reformed OMS, overseeing the replacement of one pliantly uncritical staff with a new influx of obedient lackeys. But the chances are good that in the not-to-distant future I'd be found floating face down in the Thames estuary or one of its creeks, veins shot full of Wreck or something even worse. Just another tragic overdose.

No, when I first saw the display on Bippin's screen I knew then the die was cast and there was no going back. My hand was forced from the moment I realised what was going on. People have the right to know the truth. What they choose to do as result of that knowing is entirely up to them; so I'm going to see this through to the end.

Now we're slowing down through the suburbs of Paris before arriving at the Gare du Nord. Only one invisible barrier remains between me and freedom; the exit portal from the Eurostar platform. Stiffly unfolding myself from my seat I disembark and limp through the checkpoint without any problems; it isn't even manned! I suspect it will be within a very few hours at the latest if there's a sudden wave of Connie refugees arriving here.

Now I can feel the weight lifting from my shoulders and a growing sense of elation: I've done it! I'm free! Well, for the moment at least... I flick on my disposable slate; my IMS scroll is staying off and shielded against any attempts to hack or remotely wipe it. Now James has the resources of the state at his disposal he and his backers will be even more formidable foes. One of the swarm of sprites at the station entrance tells me the location of the nearest cash machines so I go off to find them. Once I have some money I can postpone my timeblurts from going public for a while to give me some time to recover and think. That done I flick it off; I'll be silent running for a while.

I withdraw the maximum amount of cash I can from my meagre account, which isn't much, and sod it, I'll use the the Zone card as well at a nearby machine belonging to a different bank. Using a different cashpoint may confuse my tracks for a short while, but eventually they'll work out I've fled here anyway and suspend my access to it, so I may as well make the most of it while I can. Having taken out enough money to keep me going for a few days I've reached my daily limit, but I can always try again tomorrow; and who knows, tomorrow may well be a very different day.

Having lived so long in the bland sensory deprivation of the Fed I'm overwhelmed by the colours, sights, sounds, traffic and smells of the city; especially the smells of cooking! I'm feeling hungry now; in fact I can't remember when I ate last, so I find a convenience store and buy some snacks I can eat on the go. Then I search for a pharmacie; I need some more painkillers and bandages for my leg. I'll need to get it checked over later, but now I have more important things to do. My supplies bought, I take the Metro out of the city centre to a semi-industrial suburb where I check into a cheap chain hotel. It's almost a French version of the Perch which the sprite recommended, and that suits me just fine.

I prefer the anonymity of automated hotels, especially now. There are no awkward questions or curious staff. Just wave a standby prepaid debit card along with a false identity - one of a few I had a frazzler create a couple of years ago - near the portal and you're in. I've booked here for three nights, but I don't think I'll stay that long. Depending on how things go I might move tomorrow to another equally discreet equivalent if I feel being in one place for too long is too much of a risk.

Finding my room I collapse on the bed for a while. I'm tempted to take a nap but the clock is ticking. I need to think about how I package my story and who I offer it to. But all that can wait for a while; first I must clean up my leg.

The hot water fiercely jetting from the power shower stings as I blast away at the dried blood and scabs: By fuck it hurts! I've not felt water at so high a temperature for years, it being such a luxury in the Fed. Yet if I don't scrub away all the ingrained grime in my wounds I risk an infection setting in. I leave the shower cubicle with tears streaming from my eyes; any hint of tiredness has been swept away by the ordeal. Fully alert now, with my leg still throbbing under fresh bandages, I can consider what to do next.

Once my story is written I'll need to find a reputable organisation to 'cast it. There must be plenty of blurters in France who would relish the chance, or even the reconstituted Daily Post; but they'd be my very last resort.

The Post has changed a great deal from when it used to be a paper-based middle market tabloid. It was one of the most vociferous decriers of the insurgency and one of the Council's most ferevent supporters during the early days of the Transition. Over time though it began to disagree more with the Consensus policies it regarded as too socialist or statist; eventually falling foul of the newly passed Media Act and the OMS.

Banned from publishing and blacklisted by the all-ecompassing FedSafe web firewall, it's editorial staff set themselves up in exile in France. Their web site is still a popular source of Federation news for those who can access it; mostly the long established expat community who moved abroad before the advent of the Crises, paradoxically as they felt the UK was in danger of losing its way of life as a result of being swamped by too many migrants. The trouble is, with its sensationalist but never substantiated headlines about impending bad weather, the latest health scares, or the alleged Princess Diana conspiracy - yes, they're still going on about it, even after all this time - the Post has an air of hyperbole about it which leads most impartial observers to regard it as just a bit deranged and lacking credibilty. I'm sure they'd use my story, and I'd offer it to them if I have no other choice, but to have any chance of being taken seriously I need to find an outlet with a lot more gravitas; maybe one of the european state networks or a major international 'caster. As I'm in France I think I'll try the French media first.

A few hours later I've edited my blurt and gone through all of the files I grabbed from Bippin's terminal. My story is ready. Suddenly I'm overcome by a wave of tiredness; I need to lie down for a while.

Chapter Thirty Seven

Saturday.

Shit! Is that the time? It's early on Saturday morning. I wake disoriented by my strange suroundings. I feel fucking awful and hurting all over, which isn't surprising given what I've been through recently. My leg aches and feels overly warm to the touch; I think it might be infected, as if I didn't have enough problems to deal with. If it gets any worse I'll have to find a services d'urgences to take a look at it, and risk blowing my cover. I'll try to postpone it for a while yet.

My catch-up sleep ambush has thrown my plans into disarray as well. Even in the era of constantly updated news some habits from the past still hold sway. There is always less happening on a weekend, so there are fewer staff on duty and more autosists will be running the 'casters I'll to contact. It'll be much harder to talk to a human decision maker who can give my story the go-ahead, and I'll be at greater risk of just being bounced around from 'sist to 'sist.

The other problem will be the amount of time I've carelessly allowed to slip past. It's quite possible by now the plotters would've taken steps to create a wholly ficticious election record they would claim and verify to be genuine.

My leg has stiffened again, which makes getting across to the bathroom a slow agony. Once inside the shower cubicle and peeling off the bandages it's clear from the reddening, weeping edges of the wounds an infection has set in, and is gaining ground; I won't be shaking off this one without help. I give it another excruciating scouring before dressing it. It's clear I can't waste time playing around at being a furtive whistleblower; today's the day I'll have to get the news out and then get my leg seen to by a professional.

There's no terminal or filmscreen in this bare little box; only the standard LibriFi. Here you're expected to use whatever device you have brought with you to connect to the world. I'll wait until I'm in the relative obscurity of a public 'fi area before I flick on, catch up with events, and start hawking my story; it's best not to use this node as it would be easier to trace it back to this specific location. Anyway, it's high time I took the Metro into the city centre.

After a late breakfast-early lunch I'm feeling a bit better, but my leg is still tender and puffy. I've settled into to a coffee shop and am using it as a base from which I can reach out to the world. So far I appear to be banging my head against a wall of disinterest; I find myself either dealing with 'sists or being told outright by low-level editorial staff that without further evidence and corroboration my story can't be taken seriously. It may well be an opening negotiating gambit but I'm not daft enough to give away the whole narrative at once. This is a gun loaded with a single bullet I'm holding, so when I fire it I want my aim to be true. I also get the sense the election result is something the semi-official French media has welcomed; < Feds rejeter leur folie enfin!>> - The Feds reject their madness at last! is one of the more striking editorials I've seen today. If only it were truly so!

Catching up on the news it appears the attempted Connie insurgency has been brought largely under control, with few qualms about the mass arrests being voiced either in the Fed or here in mainland europe; it's just going unremarked as a something which needed to be done. Even after all these years and the erosion of so many of the liberties we once took for granted I find such a matter-of-fact indifference shocking. Am I the only one outside of the conspiracy who has any inkling of what is going on? Surely someone must have had their suspicions aroused, or some hint of what has happened have leaked out?

Further research discloses the person chasing me who was struck by the bus on Harleyford Road was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. I don't feel any emotion upon learning that news; it was his decision to chase me, and if he hadn't involved himself in my attempted abduction he wouldn't have put himself in danger. It was his own fault, not mine. I've more sympathy for the moped rider who is reported to be suffering serious injuries. He, like me, was a victim of circumstance; I hope he recovers soon. Police are still appealing for witnesses to the events surrounding the incidents on the South Lambeth and Harleyford Roads to come forward; there's no mention of my name in the public reports which means either I've not been connected with the events or I'm being airbrushed from history; becoming a non-person who can be easily dismissed or disappeared without undue notice being taken.

I'm sure that was my likely fate if those heavies had managed to catch me. From the accents I heard them grunting in pain when I used my Blinder on them I'm almost certain they were American; probably an improvised team formed from the embassy security staff. Had they been sucessful in taking me the chances are I'd have been thrown in the back of the van, drugged, and taken to either the officially US territory which is the embassy, or more likely one of the East Anglian air bases: There to be kept out of sight or flown out by military plane to another secret hellhole prison; possibly even jettisoned while I was still insensible somewhere over the mid Atlantic.

I think I've been here for too long. I should move just in case anyone is trying to locate me. Just before I flick off though I get a return blurt from Média France; at last I might have got some interest from a well regarded organisation! They want to know more, and would like to arrange a meeting. Quickly I reply we should meet, but at a place of my choosing, and according to my conditions. I'll advise them when and where soon, but I'll be flicking off for a while.

I've learned my lesson well; maintain your control over the encounter. Heaving myself out of my chair - shiiiiiit! - I leave the bar-restaurant and limp a few painful streets to another cafe where I order a coffee and flick on again. There's a message waiting for me. Yes, they're still interested so I tell them the details of our rendezvous. It will be at a bistro within sight of my table, just so I can be on alert for another set-up being arranged. If I have any suspicions I can just walk away as inconspicuously as possible with a gammy leg. I drop off the grid once more and keep observing the busily trafficked entrance area for signs of anything being amiss. So far I've seen nothing to raise my suspicions; nethertheless I wait a good five minutes after the arranged time before I finally make my move.

Ten minutes have passed since I sat down, I'm still waiting for my contact to arrive. Have they decided to blow me out? Or maybe they've baulked at my conditions? One person only to meet me; no 'cording. I'll give it another ten minutes and if no one shows by then I'll head back to my hotel and rethink my plans. But what's this? Through the window I spot someone who might very well be my contact approaching. If they look a likely prospect then I'll approach them, as they won't know my appearance. With my zone jacket slipped off and folded to cover my case I shouldn't stand out.

The man, dressed well in an expensive looking suit and shoes, enters. He doesn't have the air of a reporter about him; the way he walks unerringly to my table and without asking sits down opposite me leads me to suspect another set up. How did I miss the signs? How could this happen? The second question is the easier to answer; someone must have been eavesdropping on my contact with Média France, or an agent within the organisation provided the tip off. I grip harder the stun pen in my pocket; one wrong move from him and he gets it jabbed hard in his thigh.

"Good morning Mr Davies." He says quietly in perfect english, with only the slight hint of a French accent; he sounds well educated and confident. "I believe we are in a position to assist each other.

"Possibly so; but that depends on who you are and who you represent. You don't look like a media person to me." I fix him in the eyes impassively; the unflinching gaze I've learned to develop is a good way of asserting your dominance. Faced with such an obviously accomplished negotiator I'll need to make as much of my position as possible.

"You are very perceptive, Mr Davies. I am not a journalist; I represent the interests of the French government. As you may imagine we would be extremely interested to learn of any developments which may affect the stability of one of our european neighbours. IIf what you say is so, then we would share your concerns about the validity of the election. But handling such a revelation in the right way is something beyond the competence of a mere media organisation. Such an issue should be dealt with at an intergovernmental level where concerted action could be taken to force the Federation government into allowing an international audit of the voting records, and to rectify any malpractices-"

"Well Monsieur Anonymous - I don't want to know your name, and you've probably got several of them in any case - I think that frazzling the entire Electoral Commission voting system and altering anything from fifteen percent of the vote upwards constitutes just a little bit more than a minor malpractice; don't you?" I lean toward him, invading his personal space; I'm gratified to see him shrink back slightly. Good; I have him on the defensive. "Let's assume I agree to allow you access to the entire file grab, and your experts verified it as genuine, which they would; what would the French government do about it?

"That of course would depend on the circumstances pertaining at the time. As you can understand I am not able to make any commitments at this stage. What I would ask you to consider Mr Davies, is who else do you think would aid you? Let us assume for a moment your story is published; what then? You obviously want some action to be taken as a result of your diligence; who else but a government would be able to use your disclosures to effect the change you seek?" He has a point there. "And we may be able to help you in other ways as well..."

"How so?"

"The Metropolitan Police are eager to speak with you in regard to incidents in London yesterday; and the government of the Federation appear to be extremely interested to learn of your whereabouts. You appear to be quite high on their list of concerns. The French government have been asked for our cooperation in finding you and arranging your return as quickly as possible. Now normally such requests would be turned down, given the current concern here about the judicial processes within the Federation: However there are occasions when we might give a request for extradition a more sympathetic hearing; when more serious matters are involved, such as when someone dies for example..." He lets the threat hang in the air. "However if such a request was deemed to be politically motivated; an attempt to punish someone who had disclosed a wrongdoing, then of course we would be bound to refuse and to offer you asylum here."

So that's the deal. It's a tempting offer and I could probably wring some more concessions from him, but I'm still not sure. Something tells me that he, and the government he claims to represent, are untrustworthy: They may well decide to sit on the information, and use it for diplomatic leverage rather than make it public.

I make painfully to get up and leave. "I'll give your offer some consideration. I know hw to contact you; or it's more than likely you'll know where to find me anyway and be in touch again, won't you?"

"Mr Davies-" He begins to rise out of his chair.

"You'd best stay seated until I'm out of sight!" I growl quietly. My hand in my trouser pocket pushes the tip of my stun pen against the material; hopefully he'll mistake the bulge for a more powerful weapon. "It's not that I distrust you; it's just that right now I don't trust anyone. I need some time to think. And it would be a bad idea for anyone to try to follow me or do anything rash; I'm just not in the mood for it. Remember that unless I postpone them those timeblurts go live. Good luck if you think you can stop them all!"

He settles back down again but says more softly. "Mr Davies. You need help; you need friends. In fact, looking at you now I believe you are in urgent need of medical attention. For how long are you going to go on like this? Soon your money will run out, and then what?"

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it! A bien tôt!"

I'm wary as I leave, but there are no signs of any goons lurking around to sweep me away in the event of my being uncooperative. Either the man really did come alone; believing with typical French government arrogance I'd agree to his proposition, or any supporting agents are professionally invisible. Or as yet I don't merit an unsophisticated grabbing off the street. But the irritatingly suave bastard does have a point. I can't go on like this indefinitely. Either this story will break or I will. I don't feel in any immediate danger, but just to be sure I decide it would be wise to take the next bus or taxi I see into the city centre. In a crowded public area well patrolled by the gendarmerie I should be relatively safe from the risk of abduction for the time being.

The buses here appear to be fairly regular and reliable. Even though France didn't go through as much of the hair shirt austerity as the Fed, the French couldn't escape the worst effects of the Crises. There's less private traffic than I remember when I last was here; so long ago it almost seems to be a different era... As a result the buses move freely and quickly. One going in my intended direction pulls up as I shuffle past a stop so on a whim I board it.

Once moving I decide to flick on to see if there have been any further bites on the bait I've cast. Judging from the silence, apparently not. My hunch the French government wants to sit on the story seems to be confirmed; whatever pressure they've been applying against the local media appearing to have been effective. There are no takers. As if to emphasise the point a thanks but no thanks message arrives from the Daily Post; they too have decided to climb aboard the NRP bandwagon. Well it wouldn't be the first time they've supported a dubious cause... But with even the mouthpiece of the expat community choosing to ignore the obvious truth, I'm at even more of a loss what to do. It seems my immediate future is either a heroic destitution, or being kept on a close leash under the control of official minders while I'm debriefed in a safe house; waiting indefinitely for a breakthrough which will never come.

Something the anonymous man said to me is nagging at my mind; I need the resources of a government behind me. But how to achieve that? And which government? Not the French obviously. But this being a capital city there ought to be plenty of diplomatic missions to be found. Maybe one of them will be interested?

This sounds like a plan so I sprite the locations of the nearest embassies. As luck would have it one of the nearer ones is that of Éire. That'd be ideal; a nearby english speaking country with a fierce tradition of independence from the former UK; a far better exile than somewhere far away with an incomprehensible language and adverse climate. The only trouble being that they're closed on a Saturday. How can I get their doors to open for me?

As the bus slows for its next stop a plan comes to mind; all I need to do is stay free long enough to implement it. I decide to get off here and give it one last try before giving in and seeing what the French have in store for me.

I'm trying to be as inconspicuous as possible inside a touristy chain coffee shop; my unwanted drink cooling untouched by my side as I flick on to their 'fi: By now I'm sick of the taste of coffee; even the luxurious by comparison real thing available here! No doubt my modus operandi has become apparent by now; find a cafe, wurdle, flick off and move on to another. As a Person Of Interest I expect I'm a priority to be monitored and traced, but hopefully I'll have enough time to get what I need to do done before the inevitable catching up with me.

It doesn't take long; a blurt to the Irish ambassador, then another to as many Irish media outlets as I can find publicising my contact with the ambassador's 'sist and asking for an immediate response. That should wake someone up. Soon the replies come in; there are expressions of interest from RTÉ and a couple of the indies followed by a response from the embassy: In most cases such requests are refused, but given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding my case I have been granted an emergency interview.

Getting up from the table I feel light headed. Everything in colour appears to be bleached out and a lightning fork of pain shoots along my bad leg. I'm feeling a bit dizzy; more nauseous in fact, but I've got to keep myself together for just a short while longer.

The embassy is only a few streets away but I feel as if I'm limping an arduous, paranoid marathon. I'm fatigued, nervous; constantly aware of everything and every one around me: Are they the hidden threat which will prevent me from achieving my goal this close to doing so?

After what seems like the best part of the day I finally get to the corner of la rue Rude: At last, there it is! Walking those final few metres is becoming more problematic: It seems as if I'm wading through an invisible but extremely viscous fluid draining my energy with each jarring step taken by my heavy legs. I feel incredibly hot as well; breaking out in a flushed sweat.

My approach must have been monitored, for as I reach the imposing door it opens for me. Someone -  a man - is waiting just inside. For some reason I have trouble making out any details of his appearance; he appears to be all indistinct shadow.

"Mr Davies?" he asks in a politely soft, educated Irish brogue; his voice seems faint and far away.

"Yes!" I reply, though speaking, even breathing is an effort now.

"Please would you come this way. Are you all right Sir? Can I-"

I need to get the words out while I still can. "I have information of interest to the Irish goverment" I say; swaying. "I believe my life and safety are at risk from those who would prefer that information was suppressed." There's a roaring, rushing, pulsing sound in my ears, the room is beginning to revolve slowly. "Accordingly, I claim asylum." My blurt completed, the black mist clouding the edges of my shrinking vision rushes inward as the plush pile carpeted floor leaps up to slap the side of my head.

Chapter Thirty Eight

Sunday.

I awake gradually. I still feel groggy; slowed, detached from myself. I'm in what appears to be a dimly-lit private hospital room, the blinds covering the window are pulled down. As my bleary eyes focus they take in a well-built, suited man sat on a chair facing the door. He has the air of a minder about him. He notices my waking despite my attempt not to show it.

"Ah! You're with us again Mr Davies." My eyes can now focus on him: He's more middle aged than the person who opened the embassy door for me, his irish accented voice deeper, more gravelly, but with a kind lilt. At least he's not French.

"What happened and where I am I?"

"You're in L'hôpital Européen Georges-Pompidou. You collapsed in the embassy, don't you remember?"

"Yes."

"It was a good thing we got you here; you'd a very nasty infection set into your leg. If you'd not been treated within hours the toxic shock might have killed you. As it is they've given your wounds a good cleaning out, and put you on some strong antibiotics as well as shooting you full of vitamins." That would explain the drip feeding into my arm. "Apparently vitamin depletion, malnourishment and immunodeficiency are quite common among Federation asylum seekers, so I'm told. The doctor will be along later but they expect you to make a full recovery from your infection and your injuries."

"How long have I been out?"

"A good twenty hours or so."

"So this is Sunday morning!"

"It is. And you've missed out on the uproar your story has created."

"What's happened?"

"Well your timeblurts went out on time as you instructed, you not being in any state to rescind them, and they've been reblurted all over the place. Not that it's likely to make any difference. Prime Minister Purvis and the Electoral Comission still insist the election was free and fair, and they're refusing point-blank to allow an international independent audit of the voting record or the administration programme."

"Acting as if they've something to hide."

"Indeed. But the fact is there's little anyone could do about it now, or would want to do about it. You see this wouldn't be the first time that an election has been... 'adjusted'. It goes on more often than you might imagine; even in places in Europe where you'd never think it would happen, but oh yes, it does!

Did you never stop to wonder how it is that politicians can be so unpopular and yet still get reelected time after time? Now obviously there are plenty of guillible people about, but that's only a part of it. It's been going on for years you know, and electronic voting has only made it easier; why, you no longer need to stuff voting papers into a ballot box when you can be far, far away and achieve the same result with a flick of your finger; you're better able to cover your tracks as well. It's an accepted fact within the international community that it's the way things are done from time to time; and as long as it's not done too blatantly it's allowed to let lie. You don't go around shaking the skeletons in someone else's cupboard for fear they'll come and rattle the bones in yours."

I feel myself falling into a yawning pit of despair. "So you're telling me I've fucked-up my life for nothing!"

"Now I didn't say that! By making your story public you've performed a valuable service for which the Republic is extremely grateful. As you might imagine what affects our near neighbour is something we're extremely interested in. And it would seem that we're not the only ones concerned about your wellbeing; the French government are looking for you, as well as the Federation. Apparently they're seeking your extradition in regard to an unfortunately fatal road collision which happened in London on Friday, and the matter of embezzlement has been raised as well... So when all is said and done it's probably a very good thing we registered you here under a spare name we had going around; after all, we wouldn't want you lifted from under our noses before we've a chance to fly you to Dublin, get you debriefed and examine all of the records in detail, would we?"

"And how do you propose to get me out of here without the French intervening?"

"That shouldn't be too much of a problem: Our hosts aren't quite as clever as they think they are." He looks at his watch. "By now a chartered business jet should be landing at a small private airport not too far away from Paris. Unfortunately there's a grave family illness which requires the ambassador to fly home immediately; you and I will be accompanying her. It being a diplomatic flight there'll be no question of it being intercepted, and the identity you'll be travelling under will have diplomatic immunity as well. After a few days the health of the family member will take a turn for the better, the ambassador will return home after touching base with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and no one will be any the wiser. We'd prefer it though if the means by which you travelled to Dublin didn't become public knowledge, but we'll sort out the cover story for that later"

"And then?"

"After you've cooperated with us and we've fed you up a little you'll be granted extended leave to remain, or an Irish citizenship if you want it; and you'll be free to do whatever you choose. Your insight may be called upon from time to time as an advisor on Federation politics, for which no doubt a retainer would be payable."

"So what do you get out of it?"

"The genuine copies of your files, and the truth of the matter. There are numerous different versions of your blurt going around. Some of them are obvious forgeries or hack edits, others are more subtle. We'd like to see the source material before we come to any conclusion. We've left your case well alone for fear of triggering an autodestruct sequence; so we'd be opening it and your devices under shielded forensic conditions, so as to be absolutely sure they don't get remotely wiped when they are switched on, and there can be no allegations of our tampering with the data. After an examination of all the evidence the Éireann government will duly make its determination and act accordingly."

"How do you think they'd react?"

"I wouldn't know, but given all the condradictory blurts flying around I wouldn't be surprised if the government declined to express an opnion on the matter."

"So you'd sit on the story as well!"

"No, you'd be perfectly at liberty to say what you will, but the government is equally free not to comment."

Shit! I'd come this far, gone through this much, and still I'm thwarted by big politics. The Irish would know the truth after examining my evidence but they'd hold that card close to their chest as an undeclared weapon at the next set of negotiations between themselves and the Fed, whenever they may arise. James might suspect his opposite numbers were in the know, with me always available at short notice to be wheeled out in corroboration, but he could never be absolutely sure. Unsettling your adversary is always a strong hand to play in such high stakes games.

The man speaks again, almost as if he'd been reading my mind. "Worse things could've happened to you, you know. This way you'll be all right; you can be assured of that. And besides, you're out of options. For someone in your position you did the best you could, so I wouldn't feel too bad about yourself."

Still I feel an abject failure; blowing my one and only chance to change the world and prove what a journalist I am. Instead I'm laying in a hospital bed facing an uncertain future as a diplomatic poker chip.

A small, plain looking frump of a nurse enters the room without knocking. Noticing I'm awake she disconnects my drip before checking the data from my stick-on body sensors. She asks me a few questions in French to which I grunt a reply or answer far more haltingly than I need to; makes a few notes on her scroll, then bustles out again.

"Your body sensors must have alerted her." says the bodyguard "Now it's known you're conscious once more I wouldn't be surprised if the doctor looks in soon; and no doubt he'll be followed in due course by other people asking even more questions. For just a junior executive who is said to be suffering from delusional paranoia in addition to other mental health issues, quite a few people in London and Paris are taking quite an interest in you. Now I don't suppose that you'd want to wait here for them to work out what became of you and come visiting. Do you feel up to moving?"

"Not really, but I suppose I'll have to!"

"That's good enough! Here, put these on!" He hands me a bag full of nondescript clothes and my shoes. "Pull those sensors off as you go. If you need a hand, just say so. Hurry now; we don't want to be causing an embarrassing diplomatic incident, do we?"

While I'm dressing he makes a brief voice call on his scroll. "There'll be a car with diplomatic plates arriving shortly; it'll have your case on board. All we have to do is get in, and then it's a short ride to the plane. Lean on me if you feel unsteady, we'll just calmly walk out of here like a discharged patient and his helper; four hours from now you should be in the Emerald Isle." He helps me shrug on a jacket; my torso feels numb and my leg feels an unresponsive peg only partially my own. Then my nameless protector hands me an envelope.

"Here you are, Mr Callum O'Rourke. This passport and letter should see you through any problems you might encounter, not that I'm expecting any. Are you all right now? If so we'd best be going."

"Wait a minute!"

"What's up?"

"I want my father included in the deal: You get him out of the Fed and settled in Ireland."

"If that is his choice then we'll arrange it."

"Good! I'll be holding you to it. Now let's get out of here!"

Chapter Thirty Nine (Final)

Epilogue.

A year later I'm just checking to make sure the original content of this blurt remains unaltered. It ought to be given the hardlocking I applied to it, but you can never can tell... Even now there are still people who would try to discredit the facts of the story by altering the source documentation.

As you might imagine a lot has changed, yet paradoxically remained the same in the year which has passed. It still seems incredible to me it was I who experienced at first hand those events, and was for a short time at the centre of the controversy which followed. But as much of the contentiousness has subsided for the time being I think it would be a good idea to update what became of me and the other dramatis personae in the narrative.

The next few days were a blur with me being treated and debriefed in a luxurious government guest apartment before being let go. As expected the Irish goverment were publicly noncommittal about my exposé. My arrival in the Republic hadn't gone unnoticed with there being a short-lived media furore surrounding me for a while when I resurfaced into the public domain. For a short time I had the pro bono services of a professional media relations person, and I did the rounds of interviews with anyone who would listen; but eventually the fuss died down as interest in my story waned. News still ages as fast as it ever did and there being no impetus for any change, the story soon withered. Someone tried to identify the man who was run over by the bus, but there were no autopsy or mortuary records to be found; the data appears to have been lost as a result of Black Dragon activity, so we're told. Despite my button cam image of him and the other would-be abductors being run through multiple facial databases nothing came up. To all intents and purposes he and they never existed; sanitised as effectively as the plot itself. My footage was dismissed as a failed robbery attempt.

As expected the Fed sought my extradition on criminal charges but were given short shrift. The cheeky bloody Albans even offered me asylum but there's no way I'd ever go there, I'm not mad or masochistic! In any case it was all rather immaterial by then; the NRP had cemented itself in place as the de-facto adminstration and would remain so for the forseeable future. There was a slight counter-reaction against them when the second round of polling took place in October to fill the seats left unfilled by the Consensus Party whose MPs were by then languishing in Rehabilitation on remand. But who has any confidence in the result of a Fed election now? Quietly setting aside any scruples regarding their legitimacy, the international community recognised the new regime in London. Realpolitik triumphed again as it always does.

So I was alive, free, but broke and wondering what I should do with the rest of my life. As had been suggested I employed a professional writer to ghost my book, and supplemented my meagre income with engagements on the speaking circuit. The expat Fedder community here is split fifty-fifty between those who regard me as a hero or a traitor, but there was still enough interest and goodwill among them to provide me with the moral and material support which I so desperately needed then. I also have a small but vociferous international network of my supporters and they have proved more valuable than I could ever have imagined in defending my reputation and getting the word out. But I didn't want to spend the rest of my life as a failed whistleblower, I needed to move on.

It was during my settling in process I met Àine and moved in with her. So far our relationship is going well but she says I still act like a haunted fugitive; that's probably because I still consider myself to be one. My life isn't at risk; and why should it be as the Fed media have already done an excellent job in assassinating my character? No, killing me now would only lend a posthumous credibility to my story, but I know if I were to return to the Fed my life would be made an utter misery: There are outstanding warrants for my arrest in regard to the Vauxhall incidents, and though it should be technically possible to extract me from the Rehabilitation service within a few months I've no confidence in what passes for the justice system in the Fed. Besides, I've nothing to go back to. My pension and flat were sequestered to pay for the medical costs and compensation of the accident victims; and I was summararily dimissed from IMS. So what life I had there is gone for good. Lisa Burrows has taken over my post. I wish her well, but I think she'll find as I did that the job is a poisoned chalice.

At least she fared better than Bippin Swaroop who paid a high price for his carelessness. A 'preliminary investigation' of his files in response to my allegations found nothing as I predicted; but did reveal he was in posession of paedophile images on his scroll. No, of course he isn't a nonce, but being fitted-up on a charge that serious will keep him incommuncado for a long time.

He shouldn't have collaborated with the plot, but being treated in the way he has been is well out of order; especially as if he ever does get released he may well leave the Rehabilitation system somewhat less of a man than he entered it. Whether or not surgical castration is included as part of the sentence depends on how much of a future risk the tribunal regards each offender to be. There is an appeals proceedure; but once a decision in favour of the unkindest cut has been made the surgery is usually carried out promptly... My scrotum is shrivelling just thinking about it. No one knows as yet whether Bippin has suffered the most extreme punishment for his negligence or if he's being kept on tenterhooks just to prolong his anguish.

Neil Moore is an up and coming junior minister holding the Culture portfolio. It is widely expected he'll be promoted in the next cabinet reshuffle. I've not had any contact from him. I appear to have become a non-person in his eyes.

Once I was able to make contact with Dad and arrange the delivery of his diplomatic travel credentiatials he was safely able to take the ferry across and join me here. He landed on his feet and soon after his arrival put together the Shorehaven Park documentary. It won a couple of minor awards and made him enough money to set himself up in a warden protected flat on the outskirts of Tala. Yes I know; Tala of all places! But it's relatively affordable by Irish standards, and since the last Garda push into the area cleared the worst of the gang elements out it's a lot safer than it used to be. He's found a niche for himself teaching journalism and media on a part-time basis.

The Park itself was less fortunate. The day after Dad left the NatPol came crashing through the gates looking for him. Finding nothing they shook the other residents up a bit, but learning nothing more set his 'van on fire and left.

His departure was the final straw. Without his leadership and drive to hold it together the community fragmented. Some residents left of their own accord; the remainder were forced out when the sea finally prevailed the next autumn. Some of them may have scattered to the drier parts of Pagham, or else they're clinging on to a miserable existence somewhere in the as yet unreformed community care system.

After a scarcely decent few months' interval the show trials of Lois Merck and the other Council members began. It is a source of vengeful satisfaction to many - myself included - that they found themselves suffering the abrupt processes of the system they themselves set in place. What little evidence the closed tribunal chose to release about the hitherto undisclosed abuses of the Assignment system - especially the shocking images of conditions in one of the workhouse colonies for disabled people - was incontravertible; the defendents' sentences inevitable. All of the leading Council members will spend the next few decades of their lives subject to the inflexible travails of Rehabilitation with precious little chance of parole. They will live under ceaseless intimate scrutiny and be kept always busy just for the sake of it: Cudgelled between the narrow, non-negotiable goalposts of nearly impossible to achieve targets of compliance in order to complete their stressful 're-education': Constantly working or exercising to exhaustion and subject to the ever present threat of sanctions such as having their rations cut or losing what few privileges they have for even minor infractions of the rules: Living the same harsh disipline they were only too eager to impose on the rest of us for so long.

No, their trial can hardly be described as fair, but the outcome is a retributary justice of a sort, and few people feel sorry for them.

In a saner world that should've been the last we heard of the Consensus apart from our bewildered reminiscences and incredulous histories wondering how it was we let them pervert the values of communitarianism to such an extent with so little resistance on our part; or why we allowed ourselves to become our own worst enemies, putting up with their misrule for so long. But we don't live in a sane world. For even here, where the scandals of the Magdalene Laundries and the Tuam Home have such a raw resonance after so many years have passed, there are still some politicians who fall willing prey to the seductive idea that the solution to the problems of persistant un- or underemployment would be to emulate some of the 'less severe' Consensus policies. They obdurately ignore the hard learned warnings of the living example just across the water, preferring instead to stoke the fires of judgemental prejudice for their own ends. I need to be careful not to make too much of a nuisance of myself while I'm still officially a guest rather than a citizen here, but I do what I can to support the No Workfare State Here! campaign against these siren calls.

But it isn't just here in the Republic or other european states where the toxic ideology of Consensism has had a malign influence on mainstream political thought; it remains well ingrained in the mindset of the people of the Fed; many of whom ought to know better by now. Those years of brainwashing won't be so easily reversed because despite everything which has happened and the glaring failures of the system openly displayed to anyone who casts aside their mental blinkers to see the facts, people just refuse to stop believing the nonsense.

The DeConsensising Commission have held panels all over the Fed, and in the spirit of these new same old times people have been only too ready to rush forward in public dennouncation. Unsurprisingly the majority of the Connies have vanished deep into the woodwork, though some aspects of their ideology will persist as an indelible legacy. Few people now openly admit to having been a supporter of the movement, or having voted for them; yet many people were members; somebody must have lent them their support. The cleansing process, unpleasant though it is to watch from afar, is fraught with inherrent contradictions: You can't get rid of or jail every last one of them; they were too many and there aren't enough places to hold them all, even now. It may rankle with the victims but society just couldn't function with so many of the people it depends on incarcerated. A compromise had to be struck; it was the decapitation of the higher level leadership and the leaving the mass membership largely untouched, making examples of only their worst offenders. So for now the furtive Connies remain, largely untuched though leaderless and disorganised. Waiting impatiently for the NRP's promised free market miracle to stutter and their time to come again.

When I'm not busy trying to cram a Federation Studies degree into two years, or doing one of my increasingly infrequent media spots I'm sometimes consulted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or private interests who'll pay for my insights on Prime Minister Purvis and the Fed generally. My views often shock them but they did ask...

As far as the Fed is concerned I see only dark times ahead. Yes there will be an initial boom as the Zone ethos spreads throughout the Fed, but then what? The same factors which so hampered the Council's economic reconstruction efforts - expensive, unreliable energy supplies, the reliance on imported raw materials and food, along with the lasting effects of the workforce being Busy Doing Nothing for so long - will hamstring the NRP government as well. If James doesn't realise so yet, he'll soon find the limits of his ambitious plans for growth. I think though he already knows the truth, and that's why he's not been making so many exuberant promises recently. His legislative programme has been scaled back as well; the chances are he'll get his elected but pliant second chamber through; and the european referendum will go as he would wish by voting to continue the status quo, but that will mark the extent of his reforms. The majority of the Consensus' legislation will remain as it is with only the worst excesses amended; it suits the interests of the NRP's corporate backers to release the state's constricting noose around the necks of the populace, but not by too much.

The King still clings to life - if that's what it can be described as - but everyone knows His passing can't be long delayed. The Regent hasn't spoken about His long term plans for the Monarchy, but I suspect He'll go through with the plan to abdicate in favour of an elected Executive President and then go on an extended holiday abroad. Few would begrudge Him His release after spending so long in the netherworld of not-quite power.

The presidential election is still on track to be held in two years. As yet though it's way too early for potential candidates to declare themselves but it's a given that James will stand, calculating that he can vacate the prime ministerial hot seat, surf his temporary wave of popularity, and install himself in a superior position of power just in time to avoid the backlash when things inevitably turn sour. If all else fails he can always wurdle the votes again. But for now eveyone is awaiting the inevitable news expected soon from Buckingham Palace and the outbreak of mass grieving.

Meanwhile I predict the Albans will watch this all happening from across the Wall with amusement as the euphoria fades and those people who can still think for themselves realise they've just been taken in by the latest thinly disguised corporate takeover. History is bound to repeat itself with a restive people taking out their frustrations not on the goverment responsible for their miserable state, but against each other. Give it five or so years and the combustibly toxic social legacy of the noughties and teens will ignite again.

Yes, my predictions startle people; especially when I suggest in the longer term it will be Alba which will be the more stable nation. Not better off, not a nicer or more liberal place to live in; but their authoritarian, militarised, centrally planned economy should prove the more durable over time, there being no false hopes of a brighter tomorrow to be dashed.

I've had all sorts of reactions to my opinion: Disbelief; even being asked to refund my fee in one case, but I stand by what I say. That's probably why I don't get too much in the way of repeat business from either private clients or the increasingly rare summons from the government. As time passes my insights are seen to be more irrelevant. Not that I'm too bothered; consultancy is only a short-term way of tiding me through my studies.

Once I get my degree I'm sure I'll be able to find a post somewhere. If nothing else I'll be able to teach - adult students, not kids - I want a quiet life! I know I've had my fill of the media and won't be working within it again. It's taken me this long and my utter lack of success when I had my one big chance to realise I was never really cut out for it.

Though my exposé was nominated for a number of international prizes, I failed to win any of then; the indifference of my peers being the most telling epitaph for my failed career. I realised too late how I'd come to despise the job, and what it had made me; I now understand I did it only because there was little else available, and I lacked the self-confidence needed to make the bold leap across to a new career. Looking back the best than can be said for it was that it kept me fed and occupied; and the jaded drudgery was preferable to the alternative... Compared to most Fedders I had it good, but you don't fully realise your situation until you can look at it from a different perspective.

My future plans assume my eyesight dosen't deteriorate any further. Being better nourished has helped to an extent, and I'm on a six-monthly cycle of examinations; but as yet I've not needed specialist drugs or surgery. The new glasses have certainly helped but as someone new to sight loss I find it's a pain having to wear them. With each surgical proceedure comes an increased risk of postoperative complications, so I'll avoid having anything done unless I really need to. Like many other visually impaired people I'll just have to live with what I've got and hope things don't get any worse. My life here is no bed of roses, but at least it's tolerable.

Sorry; I was distracted by the clattering of a really strong flurry of hail sleet lashing against the window. Yes, it's been bad recently. We'd all hoped that once we were into May the belated spring might have begun, but no; not yet.

The recent run of bad weather should've put our economic woes into perspective, but if anything it just encourages more geopolitical speculation. How will the Fed react to the Republic keeping back more food for itself? Are the growls of our big neighbour merely bluster or will they actually try to coerce us? Don't they realise how our relative positions have changed for good? And how will the Albans react if the preoccupation of the enfeebled Fed armed forces switches from the north to the west? Can they be trusted to stay their side of the Wall and not attempt an impertinent grab of the warmer lands to the south?

All these questions are as unanswerable as the uncertainty regarding our changing climate. We know something has gone badly wrong with the weather, but we can't tell exactly what, or over what timescale the effects will be felt. There are still a minority who believe this is a but a temporary phase of global cooling caused by quiet solar cycle, enhanced by the aerosols of volcanic eruptions and the Gulf Crisis smoke cloud. They predict; or rather hope, the worst effects may pass within a decade and then a benign warming trend will resume.

Other more realistic experts contend we may be seeing the early stages of a new ice age. Opinions vary with the noticeable onset of glaciation being estimated from mere decades away to it being postponed by several centuries. Some mavericks even contend we're seeing the Sixth Winter theory - that six consecutive winters' worth of unmelted snow at high lattitudes would be enough to trigger a rapid reglaciation - being proved correct. Whoever is right it appears the old global warming doom stories are out of fashion. Now articles speculate with the same boundless optimism which pervaded the space travel futurology of the 1960s that within a few decades we'll all be living in nuclear powered domed cities rising bouyantly above the compacting snow or floating amid the icebergs on frigid seas; but those bullish articles don't explain what we'll be eating though.

Perhaps some of us will be fortunate enough to live in self-contained warm worlds and play with our children in glazed over parks, gilded in the golden light of a winter sunset. But for the majority of us the reality of a fimbulvinter will be very different from a smug isolation against the raw arctic chill. Instead there will be famine, slow deaths from cold weather maladies, and desperate mass migrations to the temperate climes of the equator. The unwillingly displaced people will face a hostile reception from the militarised North African coasts, deadly shots fired at their refugee boats, and minefields laid across land routes.

Assuming by some miracle the world can contract it's population and agriculture into the equatorial belt without prompting another nuclear conflict, or several; and if our civilisation can survive in the short term then our own toxic legacy will return to haunt us. Those unimaginably slow but remorselessly powerful glaciers will abrade their way through the very bedrock we think so permanent; bulldozing nuclear reactor sites out of their way and scouring up those supposedly out of sight and out of mind, safe for the forseeable future intensely radioactive waste dumps in deadly moraines before them. We may have thought we'd looked into the mouth of nuclear hell and seen all of the terrors it held, but we'll not see the true folly of our atomic hubris until the contaminants which should never see the light of day again have been liberated from their containment.

With such possible ramifications there's an urgent global effort to learn as much as possible about the destabilised climate, but observation isn't as easy as it used to be before the Korean dénouement went orbital. The hastily abandoned ISS was one of the first casualties of the newly created cascading scatter of space junk; the pieces of one destroyed satellite hitting another and in killing that creating more wreckage which in turn creates yet more fragments until the earth became encased within a deadly sphere of orbital litter... Ardous efforts were made to try to keep it out of the line of fire but there was only so much fuel on board which could be used to move it to a less dangerous orbit, and the constant evasive manoeuvres soon consumed it. The station was just too big a target, it suffered too many strikes from the debris to remain viable. I watched almost with a sense of grief the shaky images of the swarm of fireball debris plunging into the Pacific when it was finally deorbited; it was as if humanity had stretched this far, but our reach had exceeded our grasp and now we were being literally brought back down to earth by our failings. I wondered at the time if we would ever again reach as a united species for the stars or remain forever earthbound; mired in our conflicts.

But years on it would seem necessity has forced our hand. With low earth orbital space polluted by the detrius of the Crises, launching satellites is now a risky business. Sometimes it is possible to sneak one through if the orbital vectors allow a window of relative safety, but those opportunities are few and far between. Now we must rely on the fleet of ageing satellites in different, higher orbits for our earth observation, communication, and navigation needs. As they begin to fail we notice their loss only too well, just when we are in the greatest need of their data.

Still we need to know what is really happening, and that imperative outweighs the increased costs and risks of spaceflight in the orbital shooting gallery. We have to accept we're going to lose satellites and occasionally people out there as a result. The various space agencies are considering all manner of schemes to try and clear up the mess; launching 'cleaner' satellites which can extend large, strong parasols to catch the lighter, slower pieces is one idea mooted. Laser sats could zap the larger chunks, or the beam used to drive them off further into space; but that idea is harder to get support for in this war-weary world. But even if all of the various ideas actually came to fruition they would only be able to deal with some of the problem, by no means all of it; so as a consequence future spacecraft will all resemble the Chinese Phoenix being launched this evening.

The fragile insect shapes of satellites are a thing of the past. Now most spacecraft more resemble button mushrooms or shuttlecocks; the bulbous lightweight armour at the head hopefully protecting the ship and crew from chance collisions with those deadly fragments, as well as shielding the tail of solar panels.

In a world which has grown seemingly indifferent to suffering having seen so much of it, I - and those few others who care enough to nervously watch the various blurt feeds - feel as if we are somehow eccenctric in worrying about the two brave astronaut-scientists preparing to risk their lives in the cause of garnering more knowledge.

I hope their flight goes safely and after jinking their way through the flak cloud and steering their craft to where it is needed - the Flexible Human Response of the new jargon - they can return to earth safely in the esacpe capsule; leaving the Phoenix running autonomously for as long as it can last. If something does go wrong I hope the Chinese don't revert to abruptly cutting the feeds as they did before; the days of national pride should be far behind us now, we must work together to understand as much as possible about what is happening. No; that's not naiveté talking, but the cold reality humanity as a species is facing.

While this real-life drama is taking place, in the other room Àine will be watching the latest thrilling installment of the Éireann version of Dance Together! That dreadful Fed export has gone international, there always being a receptive audience eager to divert their attention away from the cares of the real world and immerse themselves in the bubble of falsity surrounding the competition. I've told her what goes on behind the scenes; how it really is fixed and it's a waste of time watching that dross but she refuses to believe me; preferring instead to ignore the truth in favour of fiction. She even cried when her home town of Athlone was knocked out last week. Women!...

I shouldn't be too hard on her; she's not alone in trying to turn a blind eye to the ugliness in plain view. Almost everyone is desperate for some escapism these days, but I can't bear to watch it; it's too redolant of all I want to put behind me. She understands, and doesn't push for me to join her for a cuddle on the couch while it's on. Maybe I'll see her once the excruciating results update is over, but for now I think I'll just do some online housekeeping and await the launch of the Phoenix.

I may as well finish here; the blurt appears to be unaltered and remains my perspective on what happened. I've not exaggerated anything and described the events which took place truthfully.

I doubt if this account will ever convince the skeptics, many of whom have a vested interest in defaming me. Nor do I care about their opinions; both they and I know the truth of the matter, whatever they say about me in public.

I've often been asked if I regret what I did; and if I were able to turn back would I do anything differently? My answer is as it has always been: No. Not that I really had any choice in the matter once I'd discovered the secret. My only regret is that my disclosure didn't prompt a re-run of the election; and looking back perhaps I might have done some things slightly differently had I known then what I know now. Of course I wasn't to know; and I neither had the luxury of time, nor was I in a fit state to consider other choices. But those details would be just minor deviations to a course which already had been set for me. I take my consolation from the fact I succeded in making the facts public, and if the world chose to shrug off the truth, well that was beyond my control.

Should I have just kept quiet and allowed the result to stand? The method of achieving it may have been wrong but the outcome - the removal of the Consensus from power - being an end that justified the means? Again I say No. I know politics can be a dirty business - especially now - but some things are just wrong whatever the intent. Whoever turns out to be behind the plot, I doubt very much the best interests of the Feddish people were the uppermost concern of those who corrupted the democratic process.

I did what I thought to be right at the time and still consider to be the correct thing to have done now. So rather then justifying my actions I turn the question around and ask why am I alone expected to account for myself?

The current mess we are in didn't 'just' happen; it was the deliberate outcome of decisions taken by people we allowed to get away with it. Equally our apathy and innaction in not holding them to account can be blamed as well, for we were also the authors of our own misfortune. The lead up to the Crises and the Consensus was decades in the making; and during all of that time there were countless numbers of people who could have - should have - seen where we were heading and done whatever they could to prevent their future nightmare from becoming today's fact. I would pose this question to them: You must have seen what was happening; where it was leading to, or at the very least had an inkling of what the future would be if things continued as they were: What did you do to stop it?

I often wonder if it were possible to send this blurt back through time and have it widely publicised, would the concrete knowledge of our certain future make those unknowing masses living in the past act any differently? I'd like to think it would, but in my more depressive moments I fear nothing would change.

So to finish; it is my hope you are reading this in far better times than those we are living through; and if that is not the case then I wish you the best of Irish luck. You're going to need it.

The

End.