The year is 2033 and the world as mankind knows it is about to end. No amount of recycling, alternative energy sources or carbon footprint reduction is going to save humanity from what the sun has in store.
The Sun has always taken a keen interest in the worlds that orbit it. Watched like a proud parent as gas giants blossomed and the icy worlds at the edge cooled. The solar system may be only a small speck on an outer spiral arm of the galaxy, but that was no excuse for slipshod behaviour. It had watched the inner most planets with interest, the creation of a carbon based life form being the ultimate prize for any dedicated Sun. In the billions of years since its birth the Sun had watched as atmospheres had been blown away by its own solar winds. The embarrassment was acute but as the third planet began to cool and turn green and blue, the Sun reflected, it was all worth it in the pursuit of life.
The Sun had never heard the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ but if it had it would have understood all too well. In the cosmic blink of an eye life on the blue green world had started to think too much of itself and the Sun was not amused. In the dark there were little suns of their own making, no longer did the Sun have the absolute power over light and dark. What was perhaps an even bigger embarrassment were the objects being blasted off the world and into space, strange looking comets would fly away in all different directions and orbit the Sun’s own worlds.
Well the Sun knew nothing good could come of that, space was its dominion and there was no place for life out here. The Sun knew what needed to be done; it could feel a big storm brewing on a sun spot, which would be made to do its bidding. With one almighty heave the Sun sent a huge solar flare racing toward the blue and green world that would show them who was boss.
The mass of super-charged particles, the largest single flare ever produced, flew on their deadly course. As the flare wrapped around the world like a blanket in an instant the lights went out and order was returned to the Sun’s solar system.
The real story begins over 500 years later.
His heart pounded in his chest. Alex was sure the guards would hear it and arrest him. Life in the big city was turning out more complicated than he’d ever imagined, which may help to explain why dressing up as a woman seemed like a sane suggestion.
Looking back on it, Alex wasn’t sure how he’d ended up being the leader of the rebellion to overthrow the Presidency of England, and it certainly wasn’t what he’d imagined he’d be doing when he left his village a week ago. Sure he’d wanted excitement and adventure, but overthrowing a political system hadn’t been quite what he’d had in mind. And then there was the cross-dressing. If his parents or, heaven forbid, Doris could see him now with a blonde wig, sparkling blue dress complete with plunging neckline and four inch stilettos on, they definitely wouldn’t recognise him.
But not believing in something had ceased to be a defining factor in what he actually did some time ago, which is why he was creeping along a dark corridor at four in the morning with six other men dressed as women, trying desperately to stop his heart exploding out of his chest.
The mission had sounded simple when Alex was cosily ensconced in Rodney’s front room. Infiltrate the palace and dig up information on what was happening. Information, which Rodney had reminded them, it was the public’s right to know. But now, standing huddled in the dim light of a single torch, Alex was questioning Rodney’s wisdom. The figure at the front of the huddle raised his hand and they all stopped. Alex could hear footsteps getting closer. They seemed to be coming from the corridor which ran across the far end of the corridor they were in, like the top to a capital T. They waited, breathless for a moment, until the footsteps receded. Alex looked to the figure at the front of the huddle. Sid had stopped them just in time. Sid nodded and they slowly continued down the corridor until they reached the T junction. He peered round the corner, quickly looking left and right, before leading them to the left and towards the office of the Personal Assistant to the now deceased President.
Alex was sure he could hear something behind them. He stopped and spun round quickly, but there was nothing there. A hand tugged at the sleeve of his dress and Alex turned back, trying to quiet the voices in his mind that were saying they were being followed. Ahead, the main group had turned a corner. The torchlight fading away, leaving Alex paralysed in the darkness.
"Come on," a voice hissed by his ear. It was Rodney. Together they hurried round the corner and joined up with the others who were standing outside a small door. According to the layout they had been given this door led to the private offices of Diaz, the late President’s PA. If anyone knew what was going on it would be Diaz. Information was what their entire mission was about. The last President had died with no heirs, leaving the city and the country at large in turmoil. Sid knelt down by the lock and soon had the door open. They all hurried in, closing the door behind them.
It was a small room, in which the seven of them only just fitted. Rodney turned on a small desk lamp and Alex took in the room. He’d never seen so many books in one place before. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with huge bookcases, each filled with dusty tomes. A large oak desk stood by the window, with a comfortable chair beside it. On the desk was a computer, Alex knew nothing more about it than that and could only recognise it as his landlady had something similar in her parlour. A computer seemed such a common-place object in the city that Alex hadn’t dared ask about its purpose, in case people laughed at him. In that moment his old life in the village, with no electricity, seemed so remote, so alien that Alex was filled with a surge of homesickness.
There was a polite cough from Sid, and Alex realised the others were all looking to him for further instructions. He marvelled at how easily he had become their Leader with absolutely no effort on his part. They saw him as a fresh face with an un-muddled view of the city, when in reality Alex had no clue what he was doing. Outside politics had never concerned the people in his village; just surviving from one season to the next was enough excitement for them. Maybe Doris had been right, maybe he should never have come.
“We should check the computer first, don’t you think, Alex?” Sid asked. Sid had been the brains behind Alex’s recent promotion to leader. Alex was someone you would follow into battle, which was just what the movement needed.
Alex nodded. “And the desk drawers too.” He watched as the others busied themselves with the computer, trying to peer unobtrusively over Sid’s shoulder to see what was on the screen.
The search of the drawers turned up nothing of interest. Sid was muttering to another man whilst tapping on the keyboard, then suddenly he exclaimed, “Yes! Got it.” He produced a stick from his pocket and Alex watched, amazed, as it was slotted into the computer. There was silence as writing flew across the screen. It was in this silence that Alex heard footsteps rapidly approaching.
“Sid!” Alex whispered pointing frantically to the door. Sid understood straight away. He turned off the lamp, and pressed a button on the side of the screen which turned the screen off too. Alex was trying to think of somewhere to hide when the door handle began to turn.
SOME MONTHS EARLIER...
A large crowd of people stood on the steps of Londinium’s town hall, many of the upper town citizens venturing dangerously close to the lower city to do so. It wasn’t every day that a man like Herman Irvine came to give a lecture; the famous historian’s visit was the highlight of Londinium’s cultural month and had been sold out within days of it being announced. The Town Hall itself was a grand old building; at the time of construction it had been seen as a lynch-pin between the two halves of the city, and although its walls had darkened with age it was still the closest most upper town people got to the lower city. As the clock tower struck the hour, the heavy wooden doors swung open and the crowd was ushered inside.
The ballroom had been turned into a makeshift lecture hall, with padded chairs lined up on the parquet flooring; a stage had been constructed, on which stood a podium with a microphone and table complete with laptop. As people filtered inside, the large domed ceiling, painted like a summer sky, echoed with their chatter. The lights dimmed as the last people took their seats, and everyone fell silent. A small man wearing a nondescript suit and large round glasses walked up onto the stage and blinked owlishly in the spotlight as he stood behind the podium.
“Good morning,” His voice was thin and reedy, “As some of you may know I am Charles Thomas, president of the Londinium Historical Society.” He paused; there was a polite coughing in the silence that followed. “This lecture marks the end of the cultural month, and thanks to people like yourselves it has been one of the most successful to date.” There was a small sound of applause from the die-hard society members in the front row. “Now without further ado it is my pleasure to welcome on to the stage a man who has single-handedly brought history to a new generation, with his shows ‘Londinium - a phoenix rising’, ‘2013 - was technology really to blame?’, and my personal favourite ‘Founding Families – Founding Trouble’. I present to you Herman Irvine!”
A thunderous applause greeted Herman as he stepped up onto the stage. There were a dazzling array of camera flashes as he smiled and waved to the crowd. He was a vivacious man in his early fifties, with salt and pepper hair and a naturally handsome face. He wore a well cut and expensive suit and oozed charm and respectability.
“Thank you,” he began after a moment, quietening the crowd. His voice was rich and strong. “It is an honour to be here today.” He turned his attention to the laptop for a moment and a slide show appeared on the white canvas backing behind him. “This city of Londinium has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the 2013 Collapse. Built on the sound principles of togetherness, trust and technology control.” There was a brief flutter of laughter and Herman smiled. “Those first two principles may seem to be lost to the ages, but technology control and regulation is very much in evidence today. As I inquired in my work on ‘2013 - was technology really to blame?’, is the worldwide ban on inventing new technology really needed? Can humanity not be trusted with its own future? The devastating solar flare of 2013 brought the world to a standstill, electricity transformers exploded around the world, planes and satellites fell from the sky. Power, gas and water mains ran dry as anything with even the smallest microchip fizzled and died that day. Was it right of those in power to blame the resultant plagues and loss of life on the technology that had been designed to save us? Is the creation of new technology really going to cause our downfall again? These are all questions I have looked at during my career, but today’s talk is about Londinium the largest city to rise from the ashes of our old society and one of the few places on Earth where we can use the technology which was so abundant before the collapse.
Out of all the cities in the world, Londinium is the most fascinating, both in its present state, with its unique arrangement of the upper town and lower city, and in its past.” He pressed a button on the laptop and the slide behind him changed. “Follow me now on a journey into Londinium’s past.
“The year was 98PC (post Collapse), and Londinium was a very different city to the one we see today. As you all know, Londinium was originally founded by five families: the Pattersons, the Camerons, the Bransons, the Mitalls, and the Greens. They came down, along the river Thames, to the ruins of the old city of London. Their goal was to create a new capital of the world, a place where not all of the pre-Collapse technology was forsaken.”
“By 98PC this small community had grown into a bustling city, contained within its circular wall. The wall was supposed to protect the country villages from the technology, but it couldn’t protect the city from the unrest within it. The Founding Families were fighting for power and things turned ugly in that year.”
“It had been a long hot, dry summer and tempers had frayed. To this day there is still a mystery surrounding the great fire that raged at the end of that summer. No one has yet to determine how the fire was started, or who set it, but as the Greens’ family home was one of the first to succumb to the flames, many cried foul play. It was in this very building that a secret council was held and the decision was made.”
Ten hooded figures met in the foyer of the Town Hall, the air still hot from the fire even though it had nearly been extinguished. As the tenth man joined them they turned and headed down a dark corridor, at the end of which was a small staircase leading down to the basement. As they descended the air became cooler and each man sighed in relief. Candles had been lit around the room, and a circle of chairs had been placed in the middle. Each man took a seat and removed his hood.
“Good evening I am glad you could all make it at such short notice.” An eleventh figure stepped from the shadows and addressed the council.
“Such an urgent summons is hard to ignore,” Councillor Mitall remarked.
“This is a very troubling time for our city. I am sure you agree, Councillor?” the Speaker said.
“Certainly, although I cannot see why we needed to meet tonight.”
“All will become clear.”
“Do you have any news on how the fire started?”
“Not as yet, Councillor Green. I trust your family are well?”
“Luckily we were unharmed, but our house has been destroyed, and I want the culprit brought to justice.”
“Justice? I am surprised you know what it means,” Councillor Branson remarked.
“How…” Green began, but the Leader stopped his protest
“This is not the time for your petty squabble’s gentlemen, we have the future of Londinium to discuss.” There was silence, “Public opinion is changing and the sympathy for your families dwindles whilst you ignore your duties to Londinium. This fire, it is rumoured, is the latest ploy to increase power and standing in the city.”
“That…” Councillor Patterson began outraged.
“Ahh, no interruptions. I am not presenting this as fact, but it is what the public believe. They see you as destroying half the city in this fire, a fire which has claimed many lives.”
“I have heard this also,” Councillor Bates added. “There is talk of little else on the streets. I fear for your family’s safety.” He looked in turn at the five councillors from the five founding families.
“If this news is correct we will take steps to ensure our own safety.” Councillor Green said.
“That will not be sufficient,” replied the Speaker. “You need to show the city that things have gone far enough, that you will stop competing for power.”
“You said yourself how public opinion shifts. We need to make sure that one family does not have more control than another,” Councillor Cameron argued.
“You have a valid point, Councillor,” agreed the Speaker. “I propose we appoint an outside party to take that control and run the city.”
“What! I will never allow it,” Councillor Mitall shouted, the other members from the founding families agreeing with him.
“It is the only way for you to save face. You risk losing all your influence; the public will not stand for your behaviour anymore. Without action you may lose all you have.”
There was a thoughtful silence. A loss of standing and power was unthinkable.
“The council went on until the following morning, but it was obvious that there was no other way forward. It was later that year that Aloysius Smudge was appointed hereditary President of England, and things finally began to settle down.” There was a wild round of applause.
For Alex Winthrop the big city, Londinium the biggest city on Earth, was something akin to Babylon. Tales of beauty and adventure surrounded it. Those lucky enough to live within its hallowed walls were a chosen few of legend. Londinium symbolised danger and excitement, it was a glamorous place where interesting things happened to ordinary people. It had helped that he had never visited it.
Alex was a farm hand working in a small village. It was a village in the sense that a small smattering of farms and a post office had to be called something. Alex’s father, Tom Winthrop, had found him the job when he turned sixteen. He had assured young Alex, with dreams of being a somebody in the city, that this was a temporary measure. Something that had to be done in order for him to save some money. As there was no way that he, Tom Winthrop, could afford to send Alex anywhere but the post office.
So Alex had grudgingly accepted that things weren’t going to be as easy as he had presumed they would be. Ten years later he had come to think that what had once been only a temporary setback had become a fully fledged problem and that no matter what extra jobs he had done on the farm he never managed to amass enough money to leave.
What Alex found particularly galling was the fact that his elder sister Bridgee had gone to Londinium a year ago with the family’s blessing. He wanted to shout at the unfairness of this, why did his father insist he stayed close when she had been allowed to follow her dreams. He had found little sympathy from the other villagers, his sometime girlfriend Doris had made it clear that she had no intention of leaving her family to follow Alex on his adventures, and talk of the city was why she was his sometime girlfriend and not his steady girlfriend or even wife.
Dirk Smudge was an elderly man. He had lived a long and, for the most part, pleasant life. Oh, sure, he’d had his fair share of setbacks, fires, floods and riots among them. But when he looked around he could see how much better things were because of him, and as old age had crept upon him that was the thing that really mattered, leaving a legacy, a way to live forever.
“Do we have to? You know how the lads feel about binary.” Technician Winter asked.
“Yes, and they are Technicians not LADS!”
“Sorry, but the binary code, the L... the Technicians did ask me to...”
“The code stays, now get back into that mystic circle and stay still.”
“Yes, sorry.” He carefully backed away. The Master Technophile steadied his breathing. ‘Idiots.’ He thought ‘they have no clue about all this stuff; I should have got proper electrically minded Technicians.’ The laws surrounding technology had made recruitment difficult, the punishment if they were found out would be severe. But he had to admit there was something nice about their unquestioning obedience. He stalked towards his circle of followers. He stood and looked around the slightly oval shaped circle.
“Ahem.” He shook his head; this was going to be a long night. “Hoods, gentlemen, hoods.”
“Oh sorry Bob,” said a man to his left, and the Technicians raised their hoods. “It’s just that we can’t see.”
“Master Technophile!” He was barely able to contain his anger. The circle shrank back. “And the hoods stay, just like the codes.” He looked around as the Technicians stared at the floor. “You do know the codes, don’t you?” There was shuffling and murmurs. Technician Winter gave Technician Fisher a push. The Master Technophile stared at him.
“Well umm,” he began, unhappy in his new role of group spokesman. “They are a bit hard to learn, we umm couldn’t understand a lot of it.”
“What!” he exploded. “They are written in plain binary.”
“We do know the chorus,” Technician Viner joined in. “Well, bits of it,” he conceded, under the Master Technophile’s hard stare.
“We could make them up,” Technician Hammer said.
“Make them up!” the Master Technophile roared. “Do you not think that it would be noticed in the dimensional void if we went around making up the words willy-nilly?”
“The mystical book of technology states, and I quote, ‘It is essential for the successful completion of all forays into the technical world that a string of specifically pre-determined binary words to be chanted’. That is not something I am willing to fake.”
“Okay, okay” The Master Technophile said taking deep breaths and getting his anger under control. “What about the dark electrical objects of legend?”
“Oh I got them alright, but...” Technician Plasterer began.
“But the wife said I wasn’t keeping things like that in her house, and made me put them outside, and in the morning they were umm...gone” he finished sheepishly.
“Gone?” The vein on the Master Technophile’s head pulsated hard over his greasy brow. “What do you mean, gone?”
“Well, I reckon someone ran off with them during the night.”
“Then perhaps it is time you found yourself a new wife, someone who values the importance of what we are trying to do here.”
“You know that’s funny,” he replied conversationally, “her mother said the exact same thing, but only about her finding a more understanding husband.”
“Enough.” He snapped. “Is there any more bad news you would like to share before the meeting gets under way? Any more nuggets of misfortune?” Technician Winter gingerly put up his hand. “What?” the Master Technophile asked.
“Well I was just going to say...it’s not that important really.”
“Oh no, do go on, we are all dying to know what was worth interrupting this sacred meeting for.”
“Well it’s just that my mother...in...law...” he stopped wishing desperately for a hole to come and swallow him up. “She umm says the exact ...same things...to...err...”
“Yes I think we all get the picture, thank you Technician Winter for sharing,” he spat. “Now can we begin the 45th meeting of the enlightened and liberal Technicians of the mystical book of technology, the first people in over a thousand years to uncover the power and glory which is hidden within its splendid pages?”
“Yeah, my mother-in-law keeps going on at Betty to leave me,” Technician Viner added.
“What is it with mother-in-laws anyway? Mine keeps telling me that personal hygiene is important, what’s wrong with them?” Technician Hammer said.
“Technicians, the meeting.” The Master Technophile tried in vain to redirect them.
“At least yours doesn’t live with you.”
“She might as well, she’s always round complaining about this and complaining about that.”
“My mother-in-law shares our bedroom, to make sure we don’t get up to anything.” Technician Plasterer added.
“Well,” Technician Winter took a deep breath, “My mother-in-law shares the bed with us, and she smells.”
“Well my mother-in-law has been dead for fifty years, but that doesn’t stop her trying to tell me how to clean the dishes,” Plasterer said again. There was quiet for a moment.
“Hang on,” said Technician Viner, “didn’t you just say that she...”
“Well I got two ‘aint I?”
“Two, how the hell did you manage to get two?”
“One’s hers and one’s mine.”
“Your mum don’t count, you bloody idiot.”
“Ahh, but she’s not my real mum is she, hey.”
“Oh, well yeah I suppose. Anyway, mine makes me eat greens.”
“Oh she never does!” Technician Hammer cried.
“Well mine don’t let me eat at all.” Technician Winter said proudly.
“Well not till I’ve done ... chores.”
“Not chores!” they cried in unison.
“QUIET!” The Master Technophile bellowed. There was such a silence that a cockroach ceased its crawling in case it was heard. “Good. Now, back into our circle.” The cockroach sighed in relief and carried on. The Master Technophile waited for a moment. “No, a circle doesn’t have corners, do you remember us covering that last time?” There was more shuffling, “That’ll do.” Some shuffling continued. “I said that’ll do, stop it.”
“’Ere Bob you should calm down, that vein’s going on your head again.”
“Out.” A bony hand flew out and pointed to the door. “Out, now.”
“Now there’s no need to be like that,” Technician Fisher said, raising his hands and backing away.
“I was only looking out for your best interests.” He muttered as he left.
“Can we start now?” The assembled Technicians nodded silently, “Good.”
“Hey ya sugar pie.”
Alex had been about to step into the post office, the social hub of the village, when a dark haired, busty woman had called to him.
“Hi Doris, I wasn’t expecting to see you around for a bit yet.”
“I got done milking early and decided not to let old Harris know, so if you see him...” She trailed off not looking remotely guilty.
“Yeah, yeah. I know I haven’t seen you.”
“Oh you are a doll, thanks babe.” She looked down to the package Alex carried in his arms, “What you got there? I thought Jones didn’t trust anything other than carrier pigeons with his mail?”
Alex looked guiltily at the parcel in his arms. “He doesn’t, and I swear if he asks me to muck those damn things out one more time I am going to use force to make him see the error of his ways.” There was a moment’s silence.
“The package?” she prompted.
“Ahh,” So much for side tracking her. “I am sending off some stuff to the city.”
“Oh Alex sweetie, tell me you’re not sending off for more brochures?”
“Oh but Doris, you know I can’t lie to you.”
“I’d kinda hoped you might of changed your mind about the whole city thing.” Alex shook his head and she continued, “You and me, we were good together once...” she let her sentence trail off.
“I know,” he replied, unable to look her in the eye. “My offer still stands. You could come with me.” Alex wasn’t too hopeful; they had been down this road many times.
“What, and leave my family and a regular handful of coins to follow you off on some mad adventure in the city.”
“You know I’d take care of you.”
“I don’t doubt that, sweetheart.” She sighed, long and heartfelt. “But hey, once you’ve made your fortune you be sure to give me a call.”
“Are you saying you’d only want me for my money?” They both smiled and the tension was gone.
“Hey, a girl likes pretty packaging. I’d better get back.” She leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek. “You got a partner for the barn dance?”
“I was thinking of giving it a miss.”
Doris nodded, expecting his answer. She started to walk away, then she stopped and turned.
“If you care to join us country folk then I’d love to go with you, but a girl like me gets lots of offers and, well, I can’t wait around forever.” She waved and walked away.
Alex watched her leave. He knew that she was a good match for him but he just couldn’t give up his dreams, not yet. He looked to the package in his arms and resumed his path into the post office to send his precious parcel on its way.
Bartholomew Smudge nodded his head sadly. A young man covered the corpse of Dirk Smudge and stood back, allowing him some space. Bart wasn’t really sure why he had needed to see the body of his father; he knew that he was dead. Hell, Dirk had been living on borrowed time for years. He just needed to be absolutely sure. He took a deep breath and walked from the room along a dark corridor and into the waiting elevator. Or he nearly did.
It was as he took a step through the metal doors that things began to go wrong for Bartholomew Smudge. The basement was rarely used, and with budgetary cuts being what they were things like elevators weren’t maintained as well as everyone would like. The elevator car had trundled upwards before Bart had a chance to get into it, and instead of stepping on to the worn carpet of the car he stepped out over the abyss of the elevator shaft. Here is the life and death of Londinium’s shortest reigning President ever documented. Also, quite rightly, the unluckiest President ever to reign.
Bob looked furtively up and down the Lower City street from the shadowy alleyway he was hiding in. The thought of anyone recognising him in this rundown neighbourhood was too terrifying to mention. As he stepped out into the street he spotted the house he wanted and made his way towards it. ‘I need to find better-off Technicians,’ he thought grumpily as he stood in front of where Technician Fisher lived. It was a small two-storey building sandwiched in between two taller buildings; it looked as if the builder had squeezed it in as an afterthought. He knocked on the door hoping he didn’t draw attention to himself whilst trying to decide which was the worse scenario, Fisher being home or not. He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“Oh, hi Bob,” Fisher said upon opening the door. They both stood there uncomfortably for a moment.
“Can I come in?” Bob asked, desperate to get in off the street before someone came along.
“Oh sorry, yeah, sure.” He led Bob into a tiny sitting room in which there was barely room for them both to sit, but they managed it.
“Is this about last night?”
“Look, Fisher, when you signed up I never said it would be easy doing what we do. Things got a little heated last night, we are after all under a lot of pressure, angry words were said that shouldn’t have been. I can’t take them back.”
“It’s okay Bob, I thought about the whole Technology thing last night and I’ve made a decision.” Fisher paused and Bob waited with baited breath. “I didn’t take things as seriously as I should have, and I wanted to ask you for a second chance. I know I can be a proper Technician if you give me another go.”
Inside Bob smiled. He’d never dreamed it would be so easy. Now finally things could get back on track. “I see,” he replied. “Well, the Book does teach us that everyone deserves a second chance. Isn’t that right, Technician Fisher?”
“It sure is, Master Technophile.” Bob smiled at Fisher’s usage of his self appointed title. He must be really hooked.
“How about we try again tomorrow night, codes included?”
“I think I can organise that.”
“Great,” Bob said, standing; Fisher followed him to the door. “Same time same place,” Bob said, and left quickly, checking that the street was still deserted.
Alex’s parcel had its own exciting adventure just making it from the tiny post office to the bustling metropolis of Londinium. It was picked up by a man on horse- back the following morning and nestled safely inside a leather carrying bag. It was sped on its way along the winding country roads, all of which led to one place only, or away from one place only depending on your point of view. As the crow flies Londinium isn’t that far from the village; however, as the road goes, making the journey in one day was some feat. Therefore it was during that night, when the rider stopped to rest, that Alex’s parcel, still tethered to the horse, got wet in a sudden downpour of rain. The address that Alex had so carefully written in ink was smudged beyond legibility, which is how it ended up in the President’s Personal Assistant’s office.
Diaz stared at the tatty envelope with a mixture of distrust and indifference. He tilted it one way and then another, but still wasn’t able to make out the blurred scrawl on the front. Without a second thought he sent it to be destroyed. Why sorting through undelivered mail was his job Diaz had never been able to fathom. He had far more important things to do, like, for example, arrange the funeral of their unluckiest President. Even more pressing was the need for a successor, as Bart had died without producing an heir.
Unable to concentrate on the mail, Diaz rose and began to pace restlessly. He didn’t know what to do. The lack of an heir was unprecedented, and he knew that once the word got out to the general public about the end of the Smudge lineage there would be uproar, panic and even riots. A thought tickled at the back of Diaz’s mind. It was important, a fragment of memory, but the more he concentrated on it the less tangible it became, like a wisp of smoke crumbling around his fingers. With a frustrated sigh he returned to his desk. No doubt that he would remember.
As far as he was concerned, the most important thing was to prolong the announcement of the President’s death for as long as possible. In the meantime he had to scour the Smudge family tree for some lost descendant, although he already knew it was futile; he had given experts the job hours after Bartholomew had his unfortunate accident with the elevator. But Diaz was out of options. He just had to find someone.
City is in disarray as Bartholomew Smudge dies.
The announcement of the sudden and tragic death of Bartholomew Smudge has caused widespread panic to grip the city. For the first time in Londinium’s three hundred and fifteen year history there is no heir to the Presidency. In a statement earlier today P. Diaz, personal assistant to the late Dirk Smudge, said that ‘There is no need to worry as the city’s best experts are searching the Smudge family tree for descendants.’ He expects an heir to be found within days. The association of family historians refused to comment this morning on the important task assigned to them.
Is there an heir?
The arrival of the two week anniversary of Bartholomew Smudge’s death brings a new sense of fear to the citizens of Londinium today as the palace still refuses to be drawn on the issue of an heir. Since his announcement over a week ago, P. Diaz has yet to update us on this most important matter. Conspiracy theorists across the city believe that Diaz is seeking a way to become President himself.
Public anger mounts.
Diaz publicly attacked media outlets across the city this morning, claiming that ‘You’re stirring up trouble when there is none.’ Yet the P.A still seems unable to find an heir although he has conducted an extensive search of family records. His attack is yet more ammunition for an angry public, who refuse to have the wool pulled over their eyes by this pretender to the throne.
Riots cause chaos!
An armed mob of irate citizens tried to storm the palace late last night after the three month anniversary of Bartholomew Smudge’s death came and went with no further announcement from the palace about the state of the Presidency. There has been no further information provided as to the whereabouts of a distant Smudge relation, and people are starting to believe that there is no such person.
Civil War is brewing.
The city is being divided over the issue of the heir to the Presidency today. Two distinct camps are emerging, one counselling patience and the other demanding answers of the government. The city’s elite were being drawn into the battle yesterday, Stephan Patterson clamed that ‘As the descendants of our founding fathers we can no longer ignore the turmoil that the city is floundering in.’ He was just the first of many of the families to speak out for the first time during this crisis. As the trouble mounts there are calls from both sides for Diaz to allow an independent enquiry to look into how the palace went about trying to find an heir. Although in a statement last night Diaz was remaining optimistic (‘We are closer than ever before in resolving this matter’), his critics believe that the P.A is trying to save face in a last ditch attempt to quell public outcry. We will look nervously to the next few days for the resolution of this dark time in Londinium’s history.
“Don’t you think you are over reacting, Tom?”
“No, it’s been months since we’ve heard from her.”
“But Bridgee is resourceful.”
“She might be in danger Mary we can’t let anything happen to our daughter just because ...” he trailed off and hugged his wife.
“Why does it have to be Alex? He’s our only son.”
“I know but we can’t send one of the other girls they are too young.”
“It just he was never supposed to leave us.”
Tom and Mary’s voices floated down the garden path as Alex strolled towards the family home.
“Hello?” Alex called loudly as he stooped to get through the low front door. It was a small house; the ground floor was little more than a big kitchen. A large worn table was surrounded by a scattering of mismatched chairs. A fire flickered in the blackened hearth. Alex looked around before walking through the kitchen and out through the back door. There was a small garden beyond with Tom Winthrop’s workshop, a glorified shed really, sitting at the bottom, dirty smoke rising through the open doorway.
“There you are, Alex,” Mary said, turning to her son.
“Yes, let’s put the kettle on, shall we?” She dragged a reluctant Tom behind her and they went into the kitchen. The men sat quietly at the table whilst Mary busied herself at the fireplace. Once she had finished she put a mug of tea down in front of them and joined them at the table. Alex had been getting worried as he watched his mother. Something in the way she was fussing with her apron set Alex on edge. There was silence for a moment.
“Tom,” Mary prompted, and Tom looked up from studying his mug.
“It’s about Bridgee lad.”
Alex frowned, “has there still been no word from her?”
“No, nothing now for over 6 months.”
“Its not like her, she knows how much I worry,” Mary said trying not to cry.
“I ... that is we ... we want you to go to the city.”
“To look for her?” Alex asked.
“Yes, we need to know that she is ok.” Tom put his arm around Mary
“Mum?” Alex hated how sad she looked
“Your father’s right, Alex. You are the only person we can spare, your sisters are too young.”
“Of course I’ll go; it’s just that well the harvest is coming….”
“I know son I’ve had a word with Jones and he understands.”
Alex was filled with conflicting emotions; on the one hand he was so excited about the chance to finally see Londinium for real. On the other hand however, he was worried about his sister. He tried to reassure himself that she was fine, just caught up in some adventure and she’d forgotten to write, but there was a nagging voice in the back of his mind that doubted it.
Alex had left the very next day, a heavy pack on his back and the road to Londinium underfoot. It had taken him several days to reach the city, and as he crested the last hill he could see it laid out before him in all its glory.
There was Upper Town with its glittering skyscrapers made of glass, Lower City with its narrow streets and grimy buildings. There was the Trade Corner, a massive L-shaped structure which housed all of Londinium’s industry sector. Alex watched, mesmerised, as small wisps of smoke escaped, creating a haze which enveloped the building. He could see the grand houses of the city’s rich and famous dotted on the edge of the skyscraper district. The view stole his breath away. The sparkling jewel in Londinium’s crown was the palace which sat directly in the centre of the circular city. Alex had to shake the sensation of finally being home.
The city was encased by a high wall, which looked in several places to have been enlarged as the city grew to house the ever increasing number of people who felt drawn to her. The road he was walking on had crossed the river Thames and now curved its way down towards the large gate set into the wall. With a smile and a skip in his step, Alex continued to walk towards his destiny.
The Personal Assistant to the late president hurried across the large ballroom of the Palace, his footsteps echoing on the marble. He was heading to the formal dining room which had become the base of operations as the crisis had begun to spiral out of control. Diaz had assembled a team of high level civil servants to try and steer Londinium through the panic.
“What’s the latest?” Diaz asked briskly as he entered
“The media are now claiming that there is no distant relation.” Sarah Lovely, the minister for public relations, said.
“How do they know, it’s supposed to be a secret.” He sat at the head of the table and looked mournfully at the newspapers scattered in front of him. One headline jumped out at him.
“It looks that way I’m afraid, Sir. I’ve had the undercover division on it and, well, there is a lot of unrest at the moment, particularly amongst the Lower City residents. It seems they feel threatened by the stance we have taken,” Cyril Hedge, Minister of technology control, said matter-of-factly.
“Are we going to have another riot on our hands?”
“I fear, Sir that this time it will be much better organised.”
“I’m not sure. I have lost several informants of late and that is all I have been able to gather.”
“Lost?” Diaz’s day was going from bad to worse.
“They … umm.” It was the first time any of the assembled party had heard Cyril stutter. “They have defected, Sir.”
There was a moment of complete silence.
“I see. Do they pose a security risk? The last thing I need is for the public to know just how totally screwed we are.”
“No, I never divulge information.”
“With all due respect…” Diaz winced inwardly as Ted Bundy spoke. He hated the phrase ‘with all due respect’ because it usually meant that what the person was about to say was disrespectful. “Whilst this is an unfortunate turn of events, surely we need to approach the founding families and discuss the issue of electing a new ruling family.”
“Is there no other place we can look?” Diaz looked around the table, desperation edging his voice.
“There is a three times removed cousin of Bart’s we haven’t heard back from yet.” Sarah replied.
“Isn’t that a bit of a long shot?” Ted asked, appealing for reason. Ted Bundy was minister of foreign affairs.
“Well, Ted, we have to do things by the book. God knows there will be some sort of enquiry at the end of this, we have to do everything properly.” Diaz replied.
“What do you think will happen?” Sarah asked.
“They wouldn’t dare fire us!” Cyril half shouted.
“We could be relocated outside the palace, there are plenty of ways to fire us without actually firing us, Cyril.” He paused. “Where is this cousin, Sarah?”
“The last known address was Berlin.”
“A German! Bugger.”
“Enough of that, Cyril, we may hear from them yet, and anyway we have to give them the statutory eighteen month reply period.”
“You can’t let this go on for eighteen months!” Ted cried, “The city is on the brink of war.”
“Cyril, you need to use your undercover division to infiltrate the Lower City community and to identify any possible threats. We need to nip this civil war nonsense in the bud FAST. Ted, get on to the German government, quietly, and try to find any more recent information on this cousin. And Sarah, prepare a press statement. We’ll tell them that we have found someone and they will be coming to the city in due course, say … I don’t know, that they have unfinished business to attend to before they can make the journey. And don’t mention that they’re from Germany, we’ll cross THAT bridge when we get to it.”
“Yes Sir, if you think it will help,” Sarah replied doubtfully.
“That’s enough. I don’t want any of this negativity. We’ll find someone and keep our jobs, I promise.”
The large stone gateway was not as Alex had expected. For one thing it wasn’t a gateway; the old opening had been bricked up quite a while ago by the look of it. In front of where the wooden gate would once have stood was a staircase descending underground. Alex followed the stairs down and emerged into a large, bright room. At one end was a big stainless steel desk with two guards standing behind.
On the walls were adverts for local businesses and upcoming shows in the city’s theatres. People milled around with purpose. Someone bumped into him from behind where he had stopped at the bottom of the stairs, staring in disbelief at the sight in front of him. There was a white hallway beyond the desk, and occasionally the floor shook as a loud roar passed along. A tannoy system announced that ‘Except for designated areas this terminal is a smoke free zone. You can breathe easy with Patterson’s recycled air. Patterson’s: life with the bad smells taken out.’
He cautiously made his way towards the desk. Standing behind it were the two guards. One was nearing retirement and his large beer belly strained within his uniform; the other was his complete opposite, a young man with shiny shoes.
“Excuse me?” Alex asked as he stood before the desk.
“Citizen’s pass if you please, sir,” mumbled the older guard.
“We need to see your Londinium Citizen’s Pass before we can allow you onto the platform,” the younger guard explained.
“Platform?” Alex asked, bemused.
“This is The Hub, the central SVTS station.”
“ST… what does that mean?”
“SVTS, it’s an acronym, it stands for Subterranean Vehicular Transport System. It’s a network of trains which run under the city. From here you can get to anywhere.”
“Not without a pass you can’t, so have you got one or not?” the older guard asked.
“I wasn’t told about a pass.”
“Oh yes, it is a fairly new system that the government has implemented. It is a small card which proves your identity, and…” the young guard enthused.
“You’ll have to excuse him,” his older colleague butted in. “He’s new.”
“It sounds like a good idea.” Alex thought identity cards sounded reasonable
“You’re new here too are you?” the old guard asked and Alex nodded. “Right, I’m going on my break, have fun won’t ya.” He grumpily wandered off, muttering something about young people today.
“So this is your first time in the city then?”
“Yes, it’s different to how I’d imagined it.”
“I don’t doubt that. You’ll be issued with a temporary card for the first six weeks of your stay. If you wish to stay longer you will have to go to the palace and apply for permanent status. I’m Luke by the way.” He motioned to Alex. “If you’ll just follow me and we’ll get you registered.”
Diaz looked around the empty room. Everyone had disappeared to carry out their individual tasks. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to get a monster headache to abate a bit. He knew that they all looked to him, even Cyril. They believed him when he said that they weren’t going to lose their jobs. If only he had someone to put his faith in. He had worked as Head P.A to Dirk Smudge for over ten years, he’d spent his whole life working towards getting here, it just wasn’t fair that matters so far out of his control could destroy everything he had worked for, and not only that but destroy the political careers of everyone on the team as well. He would do anything to make sure that didn’t happen. Ted was a worry though, too young and idealistic for his liking, that always led to trouble. There was a knock at the door and Cyril entered.
Cyril closed the door behind him and came and sat next to Diaz. “You wanted to see me?”
“I have a very delicate issue I need your help on. It’s something no-one else can know about.”
“I see.” Cyril’s chest puffed out in pride. “Discretion is my middle name.”
Diaz didn’t have the heart to remind him that his middle name was actually Lionel. “You must have noticed how … how eager Ted is to let the founding families in to this.”
“Say no more. I can have him rubbed out by morning.”
“No! I just want him watched. He’s an ambitious one and cunning too. I just need to know what he’s up to. It may be nothing, but I am not giving him the chance to stab me in the eye.”
“I will put my best man on it. If he so much as looks funny at a founding family member you’ll know about it.”
“Thanks Cyril, I knew you’d understand. Also could you do an extensive background check on him and, say, the last three or four generations of his family? Anything unusual I’d like to know about.”
“First thing tomorrow.” Cyril said, standing.
Alex followed Luke through a small door in the wall, and was led down a narrow corridor and into a cubicle.
“If you just stand here and follow the on-screen instructions I’ll be back in a minute.” He gave Alex a push so that he was standing on a red circle. Alex put his bags on the floor and looked up at the screen.
Welcome to ID-Registration booth, please speak your name once loudly.
“Alex Winthrop,” Alex said as instructed.
‘Alan Winson’. If this is correct please state yes loudly. If this is not correct please press no and wait.
Alex pressed no, and duly waited.
Welcome to ID-Registration booth, please speak your name once loudly.
“Alex Winthrop.” He tried again, saying each syllable of his name slowly.
‘Alex Winthrop’. If this is correct please state yes loudly. If this is not correct please press no and wait.
Thank you. Please place your hands, palms down in the designated places on the shelf below.
Alex looked down as a small shelf slid out from the wall. He could see two hand prints illuminated, and he placed his hands as instructed. There was a small whirring sound and then the screen changed again.
Thank you, finger prints recorded. Could you look directly into the screen. In 7 seconds there will be a bright light. Please press help if the light fails.
Alex looked up and was blinded by a bright light. He blinked slowly as the screen came back into focus. He could see that it had moved on.
Thank you, retinas scanned. Please repeat the following verse aloud.
A well of happiness found,
Stretching ever deep,
Soft arms embrace
And a tear fills my eye,
Threatening the peace.
Alex repeated the verse, becoming more and more confused. What were retinas, and why were his finger prints beings recorded?
Thank you, voice pattern extracted. Please place your left hand on the shelf once again. You should feel a small prick on the pad of your thumb.
Alex had little choice but to comply. He really wanted to get into the city now to find Bridgee. He placed his left hand where indicated on the shelf and felt a small prick, and then suction as some of his blood was collected.
Thank you, blood sample obtained. DNA testing will be conducted at a later date. Please look at the screen. In 7 seconds there will be a bright light. please press help if the light fails.
The light wasn’t as bright this time and after a moment a picture of him appeared on the screen. There was a quiet beeping and Luke reappeared.
“All finished, I see,” he said cheerfully. He swapped places with Alex and pressed several buttons on the screen. After a moment a small plastic card appeared, and he handed it to Alex. “Pretty painless, huh?”
“I suppose,” Alex replied, sucking his throbbing thumb for a moment. Luke just laughed.
They emerged back into the room. The old guard was back behind the desk. “Where are you heading?” Luke asked.
“I’m not sure. I need to find somewhere to stay.”
“There are some boarding houses you could try in the Lower City.”
“Thanks. How do I get there?”
“You want the green line. The last stop is Lower City Central.”
“Good luck, kid,” the old guard said as Alex walked away. He turned to his colleague. “Made a new friend?”
“You - it wouldn’t kill you to be nice to people, Kevin.”
“I don’t know, let people get too close and they’ll as soon stab you in the eye as be your friend. Especially in the Lower City.”