Equipment purred, clicked.
The room stayed warm.
The dim light - always on.
She couldn't move.
With so little sensory input, her memories were vague dreams. She was no longer sure of anything and mostly slept. The one thing she clearly remembered was her first sight of the outside world.
She'd hidden from the family's security squad - she was just five and saw it as a game - then had slipped out with her Huggie doll through the food machine waste chute.
She'd emerged on a stinking, littered street. People stumbled along carrying bundles as if escaping some disaster. All had filthy faces. Some had missing limbs.
A ragged man crouched by a wall was tending a fire in a tin drum. Beside the drum was a machete, stained with blood and rust. He called, 'Come here, little princess,' and held out a black hand like a claw.
Then she saw what he was doing.
He was cooking a severed arm.
She'd dropped her doll and run shrieking back to the house.
She clung to that memory now like someone dangling by a rope from a cliff.
There was one more thing she was sure of. The number 2081. It blinked on a digital wall display that showed monotonously changing numbers. A long time ago, she'd tried to work them out. Time, date, humidity, temperature, BP, heart rate, blood count...?
But the number 2081 remained constant.
It had to be the year.
And when she looked far left, she could half-see the next one along. The next whatever-it-was. A pale oval on a complex stand.
A technician sometimes came to adjust tubing, electrodes, readings. His steps and the times he stopped meant there were five of them in the room.
The man would work down the row until he stood in front of her, then lean forward. His white smock would snag and his smell foul the aseptic air. His gloved hands would probe beneath her. He'd shine a light into her eyes.
She had no breath but tried to cry out, 'Please switch me off.'
A buzzer would sound below her and something glow red.
The man would glance at the glow, lines deepening near his mouth.
He'd say, 'Fat chance, rich prick,' and move off.
It was all that ever happened.
The Land Rover hummed along the access road, its studded tyres chipping the black ice. On each side, the sea of garbage rippled with rats. Far off, abandoned excavators formed mantis-shapes against the bleak Welsh sky.
Rat-catchers, filthy and in rags, pelted the vehicle with trash. They carried glue-traps and batteries linked to bare-wire grids. Catching rats, West thought, was more honourable than flogging long pig. On a good day these noble scavengers would sell enough low-carbohydrate mince to patch their sores and perhaps buy oblivion with drugs.
'Looks more like a shit pit than methane plant,' Clapton said, arms behind his head. He'd ordered the driving seat to lounge position because even this track had a guide-strip. He belched, then took his last antacid tablet. 'They're really going to fire this up again?'
West nodded automatically, fretting about the faulty circuit on his bathroom's security shutter. These days he went through the house checking everything three times but, as soon as he got out the door, was unsure he had. The way he was going, he'd need a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. A degree in Medical Sciences taught you how much could go wrong.
Then he thought about his row with Vita and their wreck of a marriage. Life sucked.
They reached the reclamation area. Clapton told the vehicle to stop and checked the scene through his viewfinder. 'The money shot here's a one-eighty pan from the crap to the covered shit.'
West said, 'Right.' It was hardly mesmerizing stuff and such pretension was absurd. Clapton was a director/cameraman who cranked out corporate docos. And he wrote scripts for the poor bastard - soul shredding but he needed the dough.
He stared at the wasteland. 'At least you Poms had a bash at alternative energies.'
'Fat lot of good with Asia still pumping fumes. In a world like this, recycling should be a sacred act.' Clapton signed at the window to lower three inches then tossed out the antacid packet.
Not a person, West thought, skilled at leaving a shallower footprint on the earth. Admittedly, the man's heart was in the right place. But, like most people with appropriately positioned hearts, he had the clout of a testicle in a mincer.
Besides, it was too late for crusades. Opportunity's window was bricked up. When nature became Cronus it took every skill just to survive.
Governments and corporations did nothing. Just put out spin. And fought like the now extinct Tasmanian Devil over the few resources left. That was why, near the Thames, they were marking tide-lines on the buildings. And why tourists saw much of Venice and Amsterdam from glass-bottomed boats.
They reached the plant- a group of vast rusting sheds. He stared at the ruin. So many projects like this - wrecked! He said, 'We should do a ninety-minutes for Channel Four on the Yellow Sea algae farms...' Once he would have meant it. The comment was wistful, now.
Clapton rubbed thumb on Levantine forefinger. 'Show me the money, my son.'
They reached the security compound. The guards who checked them through had antiquated tasers and staggered. They had ataxia - the symptom of Zom addicts. One couldn't stop blinking, as if he had a sister to sell.
Clapton told the car to park and make an infrared sweep. The screen showed just one man in the admin block. Clapton instructed the wagon to let them out but to stay on alert. It replied, 'Yes, Mr Clapton. I will relay any further heat signatures.'
In the drab office, they met a caretaker with thick red braces. He handed them interactive brochures blotched with age. He explained that the plant had once generated half a million tons of methane yearly. That it had heated 250,000 homes - until pressure from petro-chems had forced it to shut.
Typical, West thought. Few groups were as ruthless as the anti-alternative energy lobby. He said, 'What was the spin?'
'Leachate! Total beat-up.'
Clapton scratched his arse thoughtfully. 'What's leachate?'
'Chemicals and heavy metals that dissolve in rainwater and leak into rivers and soils. But there's no leak here. We've got synthetic and clay liners, storage tank, monitoring well - total containment. The sods just wanted to shut us down.' The man's chuckle sounded like a dead branch scraping the rusty iron. 'Now I'll show you over the compressor and generator buildings.'
As West made notes and fretted about his life, he glanced at his colleague who was self-importantly checking camera angles. The guy was a threatened species - only scored low-budget jobs. What was next? A semiconductor smelter? A sewerage bottling plant?
On the drive back through the wasteland, he ordered his seat to 'recline' and listened to the lulling sound of the hub motors coping with the potholes. Each unlucky dip sent them out of phase - a metaphor for his life - because his British excursion had failed. He'd started at the bottom and stayed there. He was homesick for the relentless sunlight and shimmering droughts of Oz.
He was shocked back to the present by shrill electronic Bach from his Mypo. He switched the small device to receive and the display unfolded to wide-screen.
It showed the face of a gaunt man against a wall of interactive kits and vidbooks. 'Donald West, I presume?' The manner and accent were Establishment. 'Stanley Masters here, publishing director of Brandt and Blaxford...'
West tried to look equally nonchalant, aware his face was being transmitted as well.
'...and I haven't had the pleasure of meeting you but Figgis suggested we speak.'
'Really?' He felt a trickle of hope. Brandt and Blaxford had published both his vidbooks, promoted e-sales and cracked the netversities. He'd worked with their commissioning editor, Roger Figgis, but hadn't met the publisher.
'We're developing a concept that could have significant sales.' The man gave a condescending smile. 'It requires a scientific mind and the ability to synthesize strands. I know it sounds a bit top down. But we're wondering if it might interest you?'
'Very much.' Right now, anything would interest him.
'Good. Now it's sensitive so I can't reveal specifics on the phone. But just to whet your appetite, it involves one Alexander Logos.'
Logos? Christ! The tycoon was the Architect of the Age. A universal brand. A technological colossus.
'So could we possibly have a chat here on Wednesday? Say about ten?'
'That's fine. Wednesday. Fine. That's fine.' He didn't have to check his organizer.
'Excellent. Be good to meet you.'
As the screen folded, Clapton said, 'You look like you've won the pools.'