‘Thank you for your time’.
The automated voice chirped as the tube doors slid open at Shoreditch High Street and she allowed herself to be swept onto the platform by the heaving mass of Pinstripes, as she called them. With their eyes down, the crowd shuffled towards the stairs like a groaning mammal just woken from hibernation. It was 7am and the panic of being late for work rose slowly from her stomach to her sternum. The tunnel clicked with heels and brogues as the highly esteemed trotted to the surface, the harsh artificial lights glancing off the women’s nylon legs and attacking the pale pores of the clean-shaven men who could have all belonged to the same family.
Her ponytail swung at the nape of her neck keeping her steps rigidly in time with the other feminine pendulums around her. On her first day of work she had played a game and tried to step out of time to the brunette arc, but the man behind her had trod on her high heel, which she lost in the regimented sea. Her new boss had been disgusted when she approached him one arch gently raised in black leather and the other flat against the floor.
‘You’re one bend of the knees from returning as a prodigal daughter,’ he had said, scanning down her body and quirking an eyebrow at the ladder at her big toe exposing a naked nail. ‘Some people seem hardly worth their own DV.’ She wore her hair in a bun for a month after. She later found out he was known for terrorising his staff over their Death Values.
The screens lining the escalator tunnel flashed with advertisements for tablets and credit, creams and E-clothes, cars and surrogates. The headlines flared intermittently, as did the numbers depicting Britain’s market value that morning. She made some mental calculations quickly deciphering which stock she would sell before lunch and which she would sit on. She dropped her eyes when five half-naked models morphed into being on screen, the lone woman in a corset and heels pinned down by one of the oiled men as the other three stood guard. Around her, the animal raised its chins in unison to drink in the bright fashion campaign but she kept her eyes on the sweat patches on the trousers of the man in front, unable to see anything in the photo except violence and a gradient of grey.
Swiping her thumbprint on the barrier she swung right out of the station and then left onto Quaker Street, before taking the second right onto Brick Lane. Her office sat in the middle of the lane and divided what she assumed had once been one long road considering the other side of her work was also called Brick Lane. It was as if the building had been dropped in the middle of the street by a giant crane, crushing any existence that came before it under its polished steel belly.
Ahead, she saw a woman standing in an office doorway using her phone screen as a mirror to hastily apply mascara. The woman pulled her eyes away from her reflection long enough to frown, aggressively plunging the wand back into the tube to retrieve more of the black gunk. Popping the collar on her trench, she stared back at the woman, eyes narrowing as they became level with each other. She passed by, turning her head forward for three steps before sharply looking back over her right shoulder and grinning widely at the frowning woman, who promptly dropped the wand on the concrete pavement with only one eye coated. She walked on, sighing quietly to herself, occasionally glancing up at the grey clouds impressing upon the glass and steel buildings. It wouldn’t matter even if the sky was clear because the sun could only crack through the branches of the office jungle at midday, bearing down on empty streets while the shadows remained inside, chained to the same desks as their bodies.
Approaching Spitalfields Market Exchange she slowed to join the queue processing through the security scanners. The grey bushes placed on the right side in front of the glass walls of the building stood sentinel with their perfectly formed black leaves gently overlapping one centimetre from each outside edge. She moved forward achingly slowly and a premature crease appeared next to just one of her eyebrows as the time flashed above the doors. She swallowed once and tongued the back of her bottom teeth thinking of the bag of tobacco strewn over her dining table. Morning cravings probably qualified her as a smoker, now.
The man in front of her had his head turned to the left and she watched him knot his tie a little closer to his Adam’s apple, eyes flickering to keep up with the numbers dashing across the glass wall of the building that stretched for ten metres before bending and running perpendicular to itself, the first curve in the bottle-shaped building. There was only one entrance for security purposes and she normally gave ten minutes to get through the scanners on the side of the bottleneck. She looked past the profile of the man, watching the market numbers on screen be replaced by a news bulletin detailing the terror threat of each neighbouring state on a scale of 1-10, 1 being a blissful Utopian ideal and 10 the bloody apocalypse.
As the voraciously attractive and muted female news anchor mouthed ‘four’ when reading Britain’s score she felt the man in front of her stiffen slightly. The flushed cheeks and blonde halo of hair had gained the anchor a cult online following when she was a student and began posting joke news bulletins, frequently featuring her in yoga pants and a sports bra. By the time she had finished her Media and Communications degree she was driving a brand new Mini and had the best of British journalism begging her to join them. She accepted Sky’s offer and had been their poster girl for the five years since, all legs, pearly whites and corsets, rumour had it. To this day, her 1.2 million followers loved her daily selfies and reminders to ‘tune in’. The anchor was applauded for making news accessible to the youth.
She heard a low murmur from the people around her and the herd tilted its chins up, eyes following a graphic on the glass wall she ignored up to the top of the thirty-storey building. The man in front of her smiled and squinted up at the sky. She supposed it was azure today, considering the nippy temperature. He glanced around at her before looking back.
‘Beautiful day,’ he said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen this shade before.’ She followed his gaze and saw the smog limply hanging around the eleventh storey.
‘Gorgeous,’ she replied. He looked back at her and dropped his gaze below her neck, pursing his lips slightly before catching her eye again.
‘Interesting coat,’ he murmured slowly, ‘Not sure if I’ve seen neon pink inside SM before.’ He smiled boyishly, turning to take one step forward as another body disappeared into the revolving scanners at the front of the queue.
Bugger, she thought, bugger bugger bugger! She mentally retraced her journey to work (now understanding the woman’s shock on the Lane and the occasional puzzled glance from commuters on the tube) back to her expansive flat in Hackney. She’d been in such a hurry this morning she’d forgotten to check for the ‘P’ marked on the inner label of the coat. She thought she’d picked up her beige trench that was identical for her in shape and colour to this one, which was wholly inappropriate for the office. Her shoulders sagged under the fabric sewn through with bright pink transmitters that everyone else could see. Her only solace was that at least she was the only one who could see the matching flush of shame on her cheeks.
The time flashed 7:30am when she placed her thumb in the centre of the scanner doors and stepped inside. The doors slid shut behind her and the earlier panic morphed into resignation. She blew out her cheeks waiting for the green light to appear in the second set of doors. She liked to imagine a bald man locked in a basement office loosening his belt buckle while staring at the naked image of her the machine produced, the harsh ceiling light bouncing off the top of his skull and refracted in the beads of sweat that would collect behind his ears. With her hands by her side she balled them into fists and gently uncurled her middle fingers so they grazed her thigh; she would rather a sleaze desperately fumbling with his crotch than the electro-magnetic waves that were scanning her for anything that could raise Britain’s terror threat.
The voice inside the scanner cheerfully chirped her Death Value estimate (£14 million) and reminded her:
‘Hey you, don’t forget - Annual DV tests are round the corner, starting in just 26 days. Stay well, stay happy, and stay working! Thank you for your time.’
The disembodied voice was deliberately designed to sound like a ‘pal’ with its casual lexicon and sliding intonation, but instead made her think of Santa’s elves, off-duty and wasted on the weekend. The green light flashed and the second set of steel doors opened silently, revealing the long and narrow reception of SM which made up the ‘neck’ of the bottle-shaped building. It was warmer than outside but the sterile nature of the building made it seem cold, as if the black marble floor was pulling each person’s breath through its hard pores and expelling it back into the outside world.
The glass/steel combination continued interiorly and the straight lines and hard surfaces were concurrent with the people marching across the black space to reach the elevator on her left at the end of the bottleneck. Straight across from the singular entrance she had just come through was a reception desk manned by straight-nosed, multilingual hospitality graduates. Flanking them were two security guards, and another three paced the long, narrow room like pitbulls. They were all over six and a half feet in their boots with barrel chests and arms the size of her thighs. Four out of the five guards had pierced holes lining their ears, lips or eyebrows, marking them as men who had grown up in the Outer Zones: Unable to afford bright E-jewels and unwilling to accept the old style golds and silvers that were indistinguishable to their eyes, their children who were streamed low and destined to stay ‘outered’ chose scars as their jewellery. The one guard whose skin was unmarked betrayed himself as someone whose parents had lived in a higher zone than the one he was fated for - the displaced rarely sought out the piercing ritual.
Just as she swooped round to the right to make her way towards the elevator all five guards simultaneously put their hands to the transmitters in their ears and began enacting invisible orders. Two ran down the bottleneck to station themselves by the lifts, halting the queue of people about to board. Another ran to the steel doors she had just come through, slamming an emergency button that locked the sliding doors closed before tapping on a monitor fixed to the glass on the opposite side to where she stood. He came closer to the screen and barked a message directly to the police force:
‘Zone 1, SM security. Cameras have caught a Zero-people on the South side of the building. North entrance is secure.’ He paused for a moment listening to the response before nodding. ‘I’ll send my boys out.’
His ‘boys’ were standing at the glass wall he had his back to, just to the left of the reception desk. They were poised in front of the security exit with bent knees, keenly awaiting orders, one grinning at their commander. They were slightly smaller and slimmer than the other three, which she supposed made them more agile, and both pairs of ears were almost feathered with holes. As the Head Guard opened his mouth to instruct them she saw a flash out of the corner of her eye that made her gasp audibly. About 200 yards up the lane a figure sped across the street, a bright yellow scarf streaming out behind him as he whipped around a corner. Her gasp alerted the guards who just caught sight of his heels as he disappeared and they sprang into action. The glass door shot up and the two men leapt through, playing chase as the sound of sirens filled the reception area for a moment before the exit slammed shut after them. She watched the guards sprint down the street, hurling their bodies left at the corner and almost skidding into one another as everyone in reception turned their attention towards the screen. The beautiful news anchor was already broadcasting the report of the ‘infiltration’:
‘Normally their migration is stopped before they sneak into the Inner City but just moments ago security guards from Spitalfields Market Exchange gave chase to a Zero-people who has invaded Zone One.’
The horrified face of the anchor disappeared as she began narrating live footage of the guards running down the street- cutting to a police car tearing down a side street- cutting to guards and police meeting in the middle.
‘Security at SM were alerted by their cameras and commendably logged a report to the police in under a minute, who you can see are also quick on the scene.’
Onscreen, one of the guards was bent over, panting, and pointing in the direction the police came from. The police sat in their car shaking their heads, elbows on the window speaking to the man-mountains and occasionally twisting back to look behind them. The second guard towered over the car, pacing up and down the passenger’s side before violently kicking the pavement. They had lost him. Twenty-six days before the Death Value Tests. He wasn’t just angry; he was frightened.
The footage then cut to different shots of the neighbouring streets as the anchor remotely searched the visuals for the miscreant herself. But despite London’s towering skyscrapers and bulbous architecture, the original city was founded on alleyways, shortcuts and shadowy corners; no matter how respectable and clean Zone One appeared on screen there were plenty of nooks and crannies to hide the filth in.
‘Thank you to everyone who connected to our server on their phones in order to stream the footage we just saw.’
Miss News promised an update on the report in under an hour and with that the guards removed themselves as human blockades from the steel entrance and the elevator, allowing the flow of human traffic to continue past reception into the rest of its day. As everyone expressed their annoyance at the disruption and existence of such a ‘waster’ she floated through the mob towards the lifts, mouth gaping open like a fish among sharks. Her heart fluttered in her throat polarised by hope and fear as she replayed the vision of the fleeing man. In the grey damp of the city the bright yellow scarf shone like a beacon straight through her pupils, searing itself onto the back of her skull like a tattoo. The image bloomed so fiercely in her mind she could almost feel the scratchy wool choking her as it spilled down her throat into her stomach, binding them tightly together as sweat broke out on her upper lip.
The small-talking man from outside was standing next to her again and, misunderstanding her shock, gently touched her on the shoulder, pressing with his thumb and middle finger.
‘Don’t worry, they’ll find him and send him on his way. Lucky little bugger getting this far into Zone One.’
The lift beeped and the doors parted allowing fifteen people to squeeze in uncomfortably breathing on each other’s necks and awkwardly treating contact with another person’s skin as they would 10,000 volts. The doors shut behind her and she sagged against the glass, closing her eyes to fully behold the totemic garment and its wearer, wondering where ‘his way’ was and if he knew just how bright he shone. He must - she had never seen anything like it.
She tongued the back of her teeth feeling Mr Tactile’s eyes on the top of her head waiting for a response or acknowledgement of his chivalrous act. She delicately placed her thumb and first finger on her brow to shield the two tears from him as they escaped her closed lids and slid silently down her nose.
Impatient, he cleared his throat before adding, ‘Of course, I think we should just cleanse the city of the lot of them!’
‘Hear, hear!’ cheered a woman in the middle of the group. Everyone laughed, heads bobbing in agreement.
She dug her nails into her temple to stop the automatic up-and-down jerk of her chin, wiping the tears with her pinkie and straightening up to look at the backs of the bobbing heads with disgust. She turned to face the man who shrugged, smiling at her.
‘That’s how I feel, anyway,’ he said.
‘You call that feeling?’ she retorted, turning away from him and the heads to stare through the glass so that he couldn’t see her bottom lip trembling.