I remember one of the school history lessons that 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 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 LEZ I feel like Alice of the children's 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 was like this. Well, not quite like this; the changes we've been through have manifested themselves here as well. But look around!
It's the small things I notice: For example the hawkers at the portal looking happy, unworried 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.
That's one of the reasons for having an outer buffer zone between the LEZ 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 certain virility.
The other thing that I notice, and it has me choking back tears, are the shops; both those that 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 have been around for way before the Crises, but they suffered a downturn as business and holiday travel fell back, and 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 painful 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 needing a reason, and they can call in some heavy reinforcements if they need to. 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; and I really think I'd be more use to you in a supporting role. I'm think running the media relations backup; 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 are 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 that the humbler Zone workers 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 that you deal with remotely in the 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.