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 the before they can find out what is really going on.
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.
There is a growing but largely unnoticed increase in low-level civil unrest; unmentioned 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 arsonist the attention they crave, and the fact someone has taken a fiery 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 attentive people 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 time 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 permeated with an atmosphere of positivity tinged with a nagging concern about the future; but for the moment 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 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 hark 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 economy. 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 is little chance of this feast falling short of expectations.
There's another timed geoblurt reminder from James as well. 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. 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 blatantly obvious. 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 seen 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 noticed 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 that 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 a 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 quicktime visualisation shows a gritty moncohrome urban ghetto being demolished and replaced equally fast with brand new workers' accommodation: Colour reappears; trees and greenery grow 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 rendition of 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 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; Chairman 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 his position. 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 myself that I'm not dreaming; surrounded as I am by some of the most respected members of the business community, and me only the chairman 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.
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 that 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 that 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 that 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.
You did alright. 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 that they went down well. I feared for a moment you might get carried away and announce the launch of a party that 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 one of the world's greatest and densest concentrations of computational power is located 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 it 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 supplied 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 reactor drums being craned out of their silos at the end of their estimated twenty-five year life, and replaced 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 that 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 lends the scene 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 see 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; one may 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 microscopic 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 were 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 wonders 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 that is 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 seems 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 that 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, and myself to be drawn down into the whirlpool of oblivion.