As larger and larger proportions of Earth’s surface came under Committee control, so did larger and larger sections of the Internet, till it simply gained the title of Govnet. Very little featuring upon it could appear without government approval, whilst Committee political officers even edited and censored what had appeared on it previously, in an effort to rewrite history. Only a small portion of the original Internet survived, often crashed by hackers working directly for the Inspectorate, and it was only there, on the Subnet, that people learned about the final Mars mission and the funding cuts that made further missions an impossibility. There they learned also how the one hundred and sixty colonists would not be coming back home, and how the remaining Mars Travellers were destined for the Argus smelting plants. Of the whole programme only the big fusion drive from VI remained, still attached to the Argus asteroid up there. Yet to be enclosed within the station ring, it remained fuelled and ready, the intention once being to use it to position the station itself at the Lagrange point between Earth and its moon. That was before the Committee decided to position it closer in, as a base from which to establish the Argus satellite network—its ultimate tool of oppression.
Saul was halfway up an escalator when it all kicked off. One moment angry people crowded the Mall, trying to spend their community credit on the few goods available, the next moment these same crowds became a rabid mob intent on tearing the place apart. The escalator jerked to a halt and he found himself being jostled and shoved as all those about him began trying to climb the rest of the way. Grabbing the shoulder of a man next to him, he hoisted himself up on to the sloping aisle between two escalators and ran up it, grateful for stainless steel filthy enough for his boot soles to grip. Ahead of him a woman had got the same idea but, either drunk or ill, was taking too long about it. He shouldered her aside and continued on up, jumping back down amidst the thinner crowd at the top, just as others began following him. Then, from somewhere down on the ground floor, towards the south entrance, an appalling concerted screaming arose.
The enforcers had arrived.
Their intention should have been to try and disperse this mob, but with typical idiocy they’d started using either disablers or larger pain inducers on the way in. Excellent move: now they were driving the panicking crowd into a crush deeper within the Mall. Or perhaps they were under deliberate orders from the Inspectorate Executive? Just hit any protest hard and don’t worry about casualties, since more body bags mean less mouths to feed?
More people jammed around the doors leading to the multi-storey car park and, as they slowly edged in, he heard the thumping and hissing of teargas canisters going off. Even better: now people wouldn’t be able to see where they were going so that they could quickly disperse. As some of the acrid chemical wafted between himself and the cam suspended above, he took the opportunity to lose his hat, just to further frustrate any future computer tracking of him.
When Saul finally pushed through the doors into the car park it became immediately evident that most of those coming through this way weren’t heading for their cars. Yes, there were plenty of vehicles, some of them already starting up and pulling away, but many others rested, thick with long-settled dust, on flat tyres, whilst others had obviously been systematically raided for spare parts. Some local people, it seemed, were managing to obtain blackmarket hydrogen for their vehicles and thus keep them running, however rarely, so spares were needed. And in a cam deadspot like this, thieving was bound to be rife—not that the Inspectorate really responded unless it was theft of government property.
As most of those around him fled towards the exit ramps, Saul headed towards the stairs, while unshouldering his backpack and converting it back into a holdall, then discarding his jacket. Three floors up, he stepped out into a much cleaner level of car park, with strip lights functioning and security cameras hanging from the ceiling. The Hydron SUV, with its mirrored windows, was parked over to his left—still gleaming and, as far as he could tell, untouched. As he approached, it unlocked itself, responding to the implant embedded in his forearm. He climbed into the driver’s seat, dumping the holdall beside him.
“Secure,” he said, and locks clonked shut all around him.
A traffic jam slowed his departure from the car park, until he tried the executive exit, where two Inspectorate enforcers waved him out under the loom of a shepherd. Obviously the theft of this government vehicle had not yet been reported, but then its usual driver, a bureaucrat working for the Water Authority, wasn’t in any condition to report it, since he currently lay at the bottom of a reservoir with a slab of carbocrete roped to his chest.
Saul drove slowly and carefully out on to the highway, and only when the last shepherd was out of sight did Janus direct him to a cam deadspot where he could pull over, climb into the spacious rear of the vehicle, and set to work.
After placing Coran’s head down on a plastic sheet, Saul removed the man’s fones and put them to one side. Then, opening the vehicle’s tool compartment beside him, he folded up a flat screen above a plasfactor specially designed for the theatrical profession, and set it running. He first cleaned Coran’s face of blood, then sprayed a quick-setting sealant around his neck to prevent further leakage. Next he ran a scanner from the dead man’s forehead down to his chin, then down each side of Coran’s face, then over his hair; the head’s three-dimensional image appeared on the screen. Next he clicked the screen stylus against the image of Coran’s hair to get the required dye mix, which the plasfactor provided for him as a spray. After that, he instructed it to run the template, as he converted his own white hair to Coran’s dark brown.
On the screen, Coran’s image shifted over to the left, and on the right appeared a three-dimensional image of Saul’s own head. The two slid together and overlaid to provide a visual representation of the computer making the required depth measurements. Removing a small medical kit from the toolbox, Saul next focused his attention on his arm. Calling up the menus in his eye again, he searched through and found the one accessing the implant presently under his skin, and shut it down. Next he took out the tester containing Coran’s implant, sterilized it, and his arm, then inserted the chip into a small injector to drive it under the skin of his forearm beside the others he hadn’t yet got round to having removed. Plenty of scar tissue was evident in that location, as this was the eighth identity he had stolen—or rather remembered stealing, for there had been scar tissue there before. Perhaps having no real identity of his own made this easier for him.
By the time this was all done, the plasfactor had finished its work and extruded a mask which, when glued into position, would fool most recognition systems. Once he arrived in London, all he would need to get into the Inspectorate cell block was another layer of the multi-refractive nanoskin on his palm, his artificial iris—oh, and the expensive suit neatly boxed beside him. He hadn’t bothered with trying to use Coran’s—too messy.
The first time he did it he thought he’d activated a holographic advertising projector, but then he knew that couldn’t be right. Who would bother advertising in an industrial complex overgrown with weeds and now only occupied, for as long as it was safe, by car breakers and those going about other nefarious deeds—like those selling cut implants? He studied the menu hovering to the right of his vision, and realized it must originate from within him.
“Janus,” he asked, “do I have a computer implant in my skull?”
“Yes. My signal is relayed to your bonefones through it,” his unseen companion replied.
“I can see a computer menu hovering before me,” Saul explained, “presumably relayed to my optic nerve from that computer implant. But how do I operate it?”
“The control is in the skin of your right temple,” Janus replied, “though the menu is projected up in the artificial retina inserted in your right eye.” Artificial retina?
He came to a halt and just stood gazing across cracked concrete, noting how a straggle of GM broad beans had punched up through it. Those were another reason people would come here, since they were a ready source of food, though some of the strange proteins they contained could cause stomach cramps. When he reached up and probed his right temple, a sequence of submenus flickered across his vision. He needed to get himself somewhere he could spend time working all this out, so decided on a nearby warehouse.
On the floor, just inside the busted door, lay four skeletons, one of them obviously a child’s, and all of them with bullet holes punched through their skulls. He just glanced at them, then went and sat down with his back to the wall, only then wondering why the sight did not shock him. He knew, just knew, that though these victims might have run foul of the underworld, a more likely explanation for their deaths lay with the government. It was now the biggest killer on the planet, and they’d probably been too much trouble for Inspectorate enforcers to bother processing. He turned the thought away and concentrated instead on the menus.
It soon became evident, once he got back to the first of them, that something was highlighted: IMPLANT ID. Managing, with practice, to select this, he checked through and discovered the menu provided the code of the new implant in his arm, along with options to reprogram it with new personal details. After a little investigation he found he could only edit the identity in the implant to a limited extent. Profession and personal history could be changed, but physical details were firmly set. The surgeon who had injected the implant into his arm had warned him that it would only get him through public scanning, which merely registered that a certain person was in a certain place at a certain time. Now it seemed more options were available to him, though he would not be able to slip through any recognition security.
Gazing down at his arm, he wondered about the reason for all the scarring. In the past, before he ended up in that box heading for the incinerator, had he taken other people’s implants in order to assume their identities? And if he had done so, he doubted that their owners would have willingly given them up. So what was he previously? What the hell was he? It now seemed quite likely that he had once worked for the organization he’d run foul of. Maybe he had served as an Inspectorate agent of some kind, perhaps working undercover to expose dissidents? Had he then decided he agreed more with the dissidents than with his masters? He needed to find out the truth.
Leaving the industrial estate, he headed south, always keeping under cover whenever the Inspectorate cruisers came by, avoiding large population centres where possible—though, of course, with the urban sprawls covering much of France, that wasn’t always easy—and surviving as best he could. He ate from trash, consumed GM beans, once shared a stew with other indigents, and only wondered after his stomach was full where they’d obtained the pork. He had used his cash frugally but had spent it all by the time he reached Provence. Only on his return journey up the west coast did he really begin to use Janus as he suspected was intended. Creating a community credit account did not cause the AI any difficulties, nor did obtaining a triple C, but Saul’s real problem was finding anything to buy with it. However, that situation started to change once Janus upgraded him to Societal Asset, and he could now gain access to those shops that weren’t rated at or below subsistence level.
But he needed more, so his first new identity was that of a low-ranking bureaucrat in the Department of Agriculture. He left the man’s body in an empty grain silo—certain it would never be found, because the silo would never be used.
The London sprawl occupied a vast portion of southeast England, extending right to the Essex coast and including the massive floating airport in the Thames estuary, where once stood Maunsell forts. Saul didn’t come in by scramjet since even Committee Transport Oversight had decided it wasn’t cost-effective to run a scramjet route from Brussels to Maunsell Airport. Aboard an executive rotobus—a giant bubblemetal transport driven by twelve aerofans and hydrogen Wankl engines—he gazed into the well-lit smog over the urban sprawl and contemplated how satellite cameras would simply be unable to penetrate it.
“Are you here for the Straven Conference?” asked the woman in the seat beside him.
She was a grey suit with cropped ginger hair and a disapproving mouth as tight as a cat’s arse. He reckoned she must be a delegate’s staffer, since some big Inspectorate bodyguards occupied the seats near the door leading into the forward luxury compartment, where doubtless one of the five hundred and sixty was having his or her every whim catered to. He’d so far managed to avoid talking to her by the usual method of focusing on his much modified and barely functional laptop and pretending to be extremely busy and important, occasionally taking imaginary calls over Coran’s fones whenever she ventured a conversational gambit. He simply did not want her, or anyone, inspecting his face too closely. The silicon mask was indistinguishable from real skin, and its join, running under his chin to up behind his ear then following his hairline, was invisible. Air pockets and electro-muscle also enabled the mask to move along with his face, and capillary pores even transferred some sweat from underlying skin. However, he felt it lent him a certain unnatural deadness of expression that someone might be able to detect—might have been trained to detect.
“No,” he replied. “I’m here on Inspectorate business.”
She nodded her head wisely and ventured no further enquiries, since probing into Inspectorate business was a good way of becoming Inspectorate business. With his laptop turned away so she couldn’t see the screen, he typed in: “What the fuck is this Straven Conference?” remembering that Coran’s boss had mentioned it too. His question was directed to the large proportion of Janus presently residing inside the machine, and the AI replied via embedded bonefone.
“They will be discussing the societal consequences of raising the price of staple food items in Britain, i.e. how they’re going to deal with the ensuing increase in riots when ZA citizens here start sliding below the subsistence level like they are in France, and also whether the plan for sprawl sectoring will work.”
“Sprawl sectoring?” he typed.
“Movement restrictions are already in place for ZA citizens. Meanwhile, certain sectors with high ZA populations are being fenced off, and any societal assets moved out. The intention is to further isolate those sectored areas with automatic pain inducers and readerguns, when available, or by bringing online parts of the satellite HF laser network to keep those areas contained.”
“Concentration camps, you mean?”
“Doubtless the Committee will eventually come up with a final solution.”
Janus had obviously moved on to another stage—this was the first time Saul had noticed such morbid irony coming from the AI. Of course, if large proportions of the useless zero-asset population were contained and starved, they would be less likely to be able to cause trouble. The Committee Population Logistics Support Group would much prefer those destined to die to do so quietly and without too much fuss.
With a roar, the rotobus drew in over Maunsell Airport, which bore some resemblance to an old-time aircraft carrier, though it extended ten kilometres long and three wide, stabilized all around by massive bollards punched down into the seabed. He’d chosen to use this method of travel here because no Committee bureaucrat came by tunnel any more—that was reserved for cargo or trash trains, and for dissidents in sealed crates. As the aircraft settled, the great hinged arm of a docking corridor opened out towards it like a giant grasshopper’s leg, whilst the fuel and luggage collection posts rose from the deck below to engage and automatically carry out their tasks. Off to the right, a scramjet running on conventional turbines now, with its speed down below Mach 10, lowered its wheels and came in to land like a black swan envisioned in some cubist’s nightmare. Perhaps it carried other Committee bureaucrats from further afield, heading for the Straven Conference.
No staff out there on the runways, he noticed, and on a raised aisle between the rotobus section of the airport and the scramjet strips squatted Dalek readerguns ready to ensure that only essential personnel could venture out. The guns, which constantly checked ID implants against an internal database of approved codes, were deadly accurate up to a thousand metres. The three bullets, which each would fire at one go, were low-penetration wadcutters less likely to end up in any one else near the intended target—though anyone nearby would probably end up covered in bits of the intended target. During the clear-up after another riot, in another place, he’d witnessed what had happened after some Inspectorate exec in charge decided to offline the identification routine. On that occasion they didn’t bother to sort the bits into bags, but used dozers to push the heaps of remains up ramps into tipper trucks, then hosed the smaller gobbets down the drains.
“I wish you luck with your conference,” he told the prim bitch beside him, as he slid his laptop into its slim compartment inside his briefcase.
“It’s not about luck,” she told him. “It’s about the correct application of resources and knowledge-based societal planning.”
What did she have on the way over? Oh, yeah, the champagne dinner, of which she’d eaten only about half before peremptorily summoning the stewardess to take the remains away. He remembered, over by another scramjet port, once eating flight-meal leftovers some enterprising official was selling for a hundred Euros, cash, per half-kilo.
“Of course,” he said, smiling. “You are absolutely right.”
He actually wanted to snap her neck, but comforted himself with the thought of the scumbags he’d already rubbed out, and the mayhem he intended to cause, starting in a few hours from now. Maybe she would become a victim of that. He certainly hoped so.
The softly carpeted exit corridors led to security procedures not much different to those of Gene Bank, since the major security hurdle he’d penetrated had been to get on to the rotobus in the first place. He avoided baggage collection and headed straight out to the large arrivals lounge. This place swarmed with people, and he realized he was probably the only one here who did not actually work for the Committee. Of course, the restriction imposed on public travel—it quickly becoming the privilege of the government bureaucrats only—had started way back with numerous bogus crises used to divert the public eye from what was really fucking over the planet: too many people. That was a problem no democratic government could attain office by offering to solve, and one that would only be cured either by Mother Nature applying her tender mercies, or by some totalitarian regime applying Nazi-like final solutions. It seemed that, here and now, Earth had both.
He strode right across the lounge to the exit doors, beyond which taxis were drawing up, loading up with passengers and pulling away. Escalators also led up to aerocar and aerocab platforms but though, as Avram Coran, he rated that kind of transport, he chose ground taxi instead. Even with his status rated high, he wanted his profile to remain low, and those arriving at the Inspectorate headquarters here by aerocar would become the subject of much scrutiny. Stepping through the doors, he headed over to the nearest vehicle—an old hybrid Mercedes with a combined one-litre multi-fuel and electric engine, which by its smell had been running on synthetic diesel.
As he climbed into the back, the driver didn’t bother looking round. “Conference?” he asked in a bored voice.
“No, Inspectorate headquarters. Cell Complex A.”
At this the driver did turn to peer at him through the security screen. He guessed that, in another age in Germany, this would have been like finding one of the Gestapo had just got into your cab. Inspectorate officials enjoyed their power and weren’t averse to using it.
“Certainly, sir,” the driver replied, very politely, and eased out into the traffic, the Mercedes running on electric until out in the open, then switching over, with only a slight change of tone, to diesel.
The exit road ran down the side of the airport, then up on to a bridge crossing half a kilometre of oily-looking estuary, then over mudflats traversed by numerous pipes from a nearby desalination plant, which stood silent and unlit. Where dirty-looking salt from the defunct plant had been mounded had since become a dumping ground for excess sprawl waste, and upon this roosted hordes of filthy seagulls, pigeons and raggedy starlings. Shacks were visible down below, and half-seen figures moving about in the glow of campfires. Pickings were probably extremely lean now, since even the rankest of food rarely made it as far as a waste tip.
At a roundabout the cab took the second exit, though Saul noted other cabs heading in the opposite direction, and within minutes the road passed through a gap in a long fence still in the process of being erected, and into a GUL section of the sprawl where an attempt had been made at Green Urban Living.
Compressed-fibre tenement blocks rose on either side, interspersed with independent waste incinerators or digesters running tenement-block generators and hot-water systems. It was easy enough to spot the ones still functioning by noting which blocks still had lights shining from their windows. Here and there long garden allotments speared off like side streets, every scrap of exposed soil crammed with vegetables, chicken coops and occasional pigsties. Around these strips rose fences, sometimes repaired with whatever had become available—fibre building board, old doors, parts of the bodywork of cars—though the more well-to-do tenements, perhaps with government employees still in residence, used ceramic-link fencing topped with razorwire. Every allotment was occupied—the participants from each tenement rotating the responsibility of guarding such a valuable food source.
Though certainly not self-sufficient, Saul knew that the system here had worked well enough when the tenements were first built, but as the population continued to rise and what were once single-family apartments absorbed a load of two or three families each, the cracks soon developed. Many of these areas were now considered no-go for the Inspectorate, and even the block political officers were powerless in districts where someone could be killed just for a bag of onions.
After passing the last tenement, the cab drove out again through a gated fence, similar to the one they’d driven in by, though this time it was complete. Readerguns were positioned on either side, and probably unnecessary Inspectorate guards sat in a lit-up guard booth. The gun barrels immediately tracked the vehicle’s progress, a laser doubtless scanning the bar code on the car’s screen, whilst a radio pulse also elicited responses from both his own and the driver’s ID implants. Saul noted how buildings had been demolished to make way for the fence, and to clear a space about twenty metres wide on either side of it. To the left, as the cab entered a more salubrious neighbourhood, he noted a minibus tipped over on its side, its bodywork peppered with holes and blackened by fire. It looked to him like those who had been trying to escape from the sectored area behind might still be inside. Just beyond this point, the driver breathed a sigh of relief.
“Not your usual route?” Saul suggested.
“I normally take the M25C, through the Chelmsford arcoplex, sir,” he explained. “But this is the quickest route to IHQ—though I won’t be coming back this way.”
“Readerguns ain’t reliable.”
“Why did you choose this route this time, then?” he asked.
The driver remained silent for a moment, perhaps remembering who his passenger worked for and frightened lest his comments might be taken as some sort of criticism of the authorities Saul represented.
“No readerguns here last time.” He hunched his shoulders, clearly not wanting to say any more, but finally impelled to continue, “Weren’t no fence neither.”
So sectoring was well and truly under way, and no one wanted to be on the wrong side of the fence when all the gaps were finally sealed.
Saul had studied Argus Station for a year before information about the place became increasingly difficult to obtain. With Janus’s help, during that year, he managed to gain access to hidden files and secret information. He learnt that the station’s population then stood at just over a thousand, and it was a damned sight closer to self-sufficiency than any GUL developments or the green villages of the early twenty-first century. However, right from the start that self-sufficiency had been difficult to assess, what with the frequent changes in staff, space planes running up supplies or bringing down to Earth the loads of bubblemetal rendered out of the station’s asteroid, along with numerous other products that could only be manufactured in zero gravity. It wasn’t a closed system, therefore, and this applied particularly to its nascent ecology.
The station’s rotational arboretum helped keep the air supply oxygenated, and its trees supplied a multiplicity of other products: wood, fibre, resin, fruits and, from just two of the trees, also natural rubber. Both rotational and low-grav hydroponics provided cereal crops, vegetables, soya beans, cooking oils and sugars, whilst the farm provided oddly shaped eggs, the flesh of chickens, farmed salmon and tank-grown artificial proteins that could be flavoured and textured to resemble the meat of just about any animal.
But to maintain this the horticulturalists of Argus were frequently supplied with seeds, eggs, stasis-preserved life and genetic material from Earth—Gene Bank providing that material, which on the station they implanted in gel-eggs to grow in artificial wombs, or multiplied into seed germs. These produced extinct strains of chickens, rare mushrooms, cereal crops untouched by genetic modification, worms to work the soil, and odd parasites to kill off some pest inadvertently brought aboard the station. Only by constantly monitoring and constantly tweaking things had they managed to keep this makeshift ecology running. Separated from a regular supply of the stuff of life, it would fall apart and everything there would die. But perhaps they had solved that problem now, for in the last year traffic to and from the station had ramped up, and every day vast loads of materials and equipment were disappearing into it.
Only later did Saul learn that Gene Bank itself was about to be closed down, its information and resources relocated. The hatchet man for this task, an Exec called Coran, was unknown at IHQ London outside of the Inspectorate database, and therefore working outside the heavy security that usually surrounded such people. Much easier to get to.
“Anything on Coran yet?”
“Nothing at all,” Janus replied. “All they know is that an aerocar went down over the Channel, but they haven’t even started to look for it. They have no ID on the car either, since apparently there was some problem with Air Traffic Control registering it.”
“No, just inefficiencies in the system—the same kind of inefficiencies that allow me to exist.”
Saul nodded to himself and then studied his surroundings. On the side of the street behind him were numerous well-lit suburban houses dating back to the twentieth century. They all looked in good repair, with neatly trimmed front lawns, cars parked in some of the drives, and a surprising lack of security cams or lights, but, to the cabby’s obvious disgust, to get to this street it had been necessary to pass through another guard post watched over by readerguns and enforcers. This place was not one of those being sectored, however, but a gated community reserved for government employees, and the place lying behind the combined ceramic-link and razormesh double fence in front of him was where most of them were employed.
Cell Complex A consisted of numerous long, low, flat-roofed buildings regimentally positioned one after another, hundreds of them, with the ten-storey blocks of the main Inspectorate HQ lying in the distance beyond. Perhaps it was his recent brief conversation with that bitch aboard the rotobus that inclined him to decide this place resembled Auschwitz-Birkenau. Clutching his briefcase he headed over to the gate.
This particular entrance provided a pedestrian access for those staff living in the houses behind him. On one side of a mesh entrance tunnel sat a guard booth with readerguns perched on its roof. Readerguns were also positioned on poles along the inner fence, spaced a few hundred metres apart. The only security at the gate into the tunnel was a reader signal directed to the implant embedded in his arm, which resulted in the gate automatically swinging open. The real security lay at the far end of the tunnel, the set-up here being that if anyone tried entering here who shouldn’t, they wouldn’t be getting out again. As he paced along the tunnel, he glanced over to one side, noting guard dogs patrolling between the two fences. They were big bastard mastiffs with honed-steel spur implants running up the back of their forelegs, cropped tails and ears, and—so Janus informed him—a genetic tweak enabling them to carry as much lethal bacteria inside their mouths as Komodo dragons.
The guards in the booth, clad in the light blue uniforms of Inspectorate enforcers, observed him walking through, and one of them, after checking a screen before him, abruptly stood up and headed for the booth exit. Either Saul had been rumbled or they were reacting to the fact that an Inspectorate Assessor of his standing was now entering through what was effectively the servants’ entrance. Without a doubt they would assume his visit indicated a surprise inspection instituted in Brussels, which usually resulted in someone getting the shitty end of the stick.
Just before the gate at the far end of the tunnel stood a scanner post, and he noted, on approaching it, a sliding gate above and preceding it and gates on either side. If the scanner picked up any anomalies, the gate behind would slam down and trap him, whereupon those in charge would have a number of choices. They could arrest him, or let a readergun shoot him, or open those two side gates and provide a tasty treat for the mastiffs. It definitely said something about the mindset of those running this place that they should provide themselves with such an option. Seeing those side gates dispelled any last qualms he felt about what he intended to do. Now he had none, none at all.
He halted at the scanner post and waited until the retinal scan laser flickered in his eye, before stepping forward to place his hand on the palm scanner. Recognition programs also read data from his implant, scanned his face and cross-referenced and double-checked, before the gate ahead of him sprang open and hinged itself aside. As he strode forward, he glanced over to see one of the mastiffs turning away and heading off, perhaps disappointed that only doggy snacks and dry mix would be on the menu today.
The guard he’d seen leaving the booth earlier appeared round the end of a compound surrounded by iron palings, within which stood a scattering of fattyred electric cars with trailers attached. He guessed that one of these had been used to transport, to some larger gate, the crate he’d found himself inside two years earlier, there to be collected by transvan.
“Citizen Avram Coran,” the man greeted him.
He was a standard Inspectorate enforcer, without the kind of augmentations the bodyguards employed, yet who wore a bullet- and stab-proof jacket as part of his uniform, and carried a machine pistol, ionic stunner and telescopic truncheon. His shaven head and heavily muscled, thickset physique could have fitted easily into a black uniform adorned with silver thunderbolts at the lapels, Saul reckoned.
“Citizen,” Saul replied, with a nod of his head.
“We were not informed of your visit,” the guard tried.
“That would rather defeat the purpose of my visit.”
The guard’s face fell; an inspection, then. “May I assist you, sir?”
“You may.” Saul pointed towards the compound. “My first port of call must be the Complex Security monitoring room.”
The guard turned away and headed over to the gate leading into the compound, which immediately slid aside as a smaller scanner beside it read his implant. Walking inside, he climbed into the driving seat of an electric car towing a small trailer fitted with a perspex roof and four seats. The vehicle’s engine was utterly silent as it pulled out, the only sound those fat tyres on the flaking carbocrete. Saul climbed into the back as it paused, his briefcase perched on his knees—the very image of an officious inspector.
“We’ve been very busy here lately,” the guard told him, glancing over his shoulder as he pulled away. Saul deliberately showed a flash of annoyance, but the guard missed it. “We’re even having to double up on some of the cells, and that’s never a great idea. Sharing a cell with another prisoner can give each of them psychological support, isn’t that right?”
Damn, despite him being considered the perpetrator of a feared surprise inspection, he’d now got Mr Friendly Guy guard with a case of verbal diarrhoea, or perhaps this man was just the sort who babbled whenever nervous. Then, again, he might be letting “Inspector Coran” know about the doubling up as quickly as possible, since it was probably against the regulations.
“We’re trying to use it to our advantage.” The guard nodded enthusiastically as he steered the vehicle into an aisle between two cell blocks. “After a few days, we move one of the inmates and tell the one remaining that their cellmate died under inducement…weak heart or something. Anyway, most of ’em aren’t in here long enough for it to become a problem.”
“Really,” Saul said, noncommittal.
“Nah, we only run the full course on SA citizens. The ZAs get the short and dirty course, and if that don’t work we ship ’em over to E Block.”
E Block stood over by one of the larger entrances, where the transvans came in. They kept the plastic disposal crates there. The euthanasia block was a place where sometimes they didn’t bother killing those intended for disposal in the crates, because a bullet in the back of the head or an injection or electrocution sucked up funds that were better spent on a ministerial lunch, and the living victim would not manage to fight his way out of the sealed crate anyway. That savings had probably been suggested by a government auditor, perhaps the same one who had failed to notice how wasteful of funds it was to still ship the crates across to the Calais incinerator. Saul had also learnt that sometimes relatives on the outside managed to put together a large enough cash payment to the staff of E Block, and to the transvan driver, so that the crate with its living occupant never actually reached the incinerator.
“Things are gonna change, though,” his driver added.
“Really.” Saul still affected a lack of interest, whilst he surveyed his surroundings. All about him he’d been seeing various staff of the cell complex hurrying importantly here and there, and he had studied every individual in hope of seeing the face of his interrogator, but now, for the first time, he saw one of the inmates. He was clad in bright yellow paperware overalls, hands cuffed behind his back, a plastic rod connecting his ankles so he could just about walk, though with a painful, waddling gait. Two guards walked behind him, occasionally prodding him with telescopic truncheons which, judging by the blood spattered over his shoulders and sticking his hair close to his head, they had obviously felt cause to use earlier.
“No more ZAs for adjustment—that’s the word,” Mr Chatty added.
Saul rolled that one over in his mind and couldn’t avoid what it implied. Why bother wasting resources in adjusting to correct political thought those never destined to be part of the wonderful world society? They’d end up like the skeletons he’d seen in that broken-down industrial complex, like the corpses washing up on so many shores—those being only a visible proportion of the whole, he suspected, most of whom ended up in community composters and incinerators.
“Here we are.” The guard gestured ahead.
The Complex Security monitoring room bore some resemblance to a squat version of an old-style air-traffic control tower. The guard pulled his vehicle up outside the doors and turned to Saul again. “Will you be needing me to drive you anywhere else?”
“Yes,” Saul said. “But first I would like you to accompany me inside.”
The guard acceded with a shrug to this unusual request, stepping from the driver’s seat as Saul stepped out of the trailer. His next actions, unlike much else he had organized here, had not been meticulously planned and left him at a bit of a disadvantage. Janus had been unable to penetrate the firewalls established here, hence Saul was carrying a large proportion of the AI around with him in the laptop inside his briefcase. To get Janus into the system required a hardlink—an optic cable plugged into one of the computers here, and the portion of the AI loading, then disabling the firewall to let in the rest of itself—after which things should go smoothly, if bloodily, enough. However, the staff of the monitoring room certainly wouldn’t want him plugging his hardware directly into their computers, no matter what his rank, no matter who he might seem to be. He therefore needed to deal with them.
Entering the monitoring room required passing through just as much security as at the gate into the cell complex. He went through first, the guard following, but once inside he gestured the man towards the stairs ahead, while scanning the foyer as he did so. No one in evidence down here but still plenty of complex staff busily hurrying to their next appointments outside, so at any time one or more of those might enter behind him. His driver climbed the stairs ahead of him, glancing over his shoulder.
“They’ll know you’re here,” he said conspiratorially, as if he himself had nothing to do with informing them.
“That won’t be a problem.” Saul awarded him a brief smile.
Double doors opened into the monitoring room. Sitting at consoles lining three of the walls were seven staff, all wearing enforcer uniforms. A suited woman likely to be Inspectorate Executive began walking towards him, her expression slightly puzzled. Slanting outwards from above the consoles, windows overlooked the mazelike network of cell blocks, and from here he could see readerguns positioned on every roof at each corner. Just for a second he hesitated, some stab of conscience slowing his hand. But it swiftly evaporated.
“You are citizen Avram Coran,” began the Inspectorate woman, her mouth tightening as prissily as that of the woman who’d sat next to him on the rotobus.
He stepped forward, past his erstwhile driver, reaching out as if to shake her hand, then locked his stance and chopped backwards, hard. Cartilage gave under the edge of his hand, and his driver staggered back making wet choking sounds. Dropping his briefcase Saul turned and stepped in close to the man, tearing both the machine pistol and the ionic stunner from his belt. He then turned and fired one short burst from the machine pistol. The Inspectorate woman flew backwards, that burst of fire also stitching holes across the backs of two of those at the consoles immediately behind her. Even as she crashed to the floor, he fired to the right with the machine pistol and to the left with the stunner. Two staff managed to get to their feet and grope for weapons at their belts. Shattered glass rained down outside from the monitoring room, shortly followed by one of them. The second danced an electric quickstep until Saul shot him through his forehead.
Saul’s driver lay on the floor, still making gurgling sounds. Clicking the machine pistol down to three-shot bursts, he fired once into the man’s chest and shut him up. One of the console operators, a fat greying man, was trying to crawl for cover, his back bloody and his legs dead behind him. Three more shots spread his brains across the marble-effect tiles. Somewhere out of sight, someone was emitting short panting gasps. Stepping round one of those government-approved vending machines, he found her huddled up against the wall, in a spreading pool of blood.
“Doubtless a question you ask yourself every day,” he suggested, before he shot her in the face.
Nice to be able to so clearly identify the bad guys, and as far as he was concerned, anyone found within the confines of this place, and not a prisoner, did not deserve to live. That was a privilege of which he now intended to deprive a very large number of them.