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 alright 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 business of the day is over and beyond much of the Connie surveillance in the enclave of relative freedom that 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 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 motionss 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 that 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. 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 got 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 throwaway degré suit. Nevertheless, that invisible mote which had settled on me had been irradiating me for at least a couple of hours; I still go cold inside thinking about it. That occasion was more than enough for me so I'm glad to be allowed into the station without any problems.
According to the real-time displays I've got 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 see those 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 don't notice them anymore. 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 that 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 look out for. 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.