Dawn has yet to break. My progress through the night is marked by the sliding across my window of the 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 case. 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 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 evidence, 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 think 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 from. 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 would be. 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 exactly how best to proceed. How to handle 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 money which James was directing to the NRP. 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 the party 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 it was the right time for a regime change.
Yes that 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 them 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 I think if I did so I'd 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 may equally risk missing out on 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 of the early morning. 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 "watch out! 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 and tear gas spray in case they're needed, transfer the emergency cash stash from my Zone case to an inner jacket pocket, and 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. 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 abandoned. Exiting through a strangely unstaffed ticket barrier and out on to the concourse the early dawn streets are deserted 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 has 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. "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; it's 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 could've been a Community Support 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!"
After driving for a couple of minutes the truck screeches 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 unintelligable 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 loudhailer 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 that 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 alighted from the bus several streets away in order to choose my own approach route.
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 that area, at a Community Canteen on a narow street named Broadway 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.