9. The Cell

by key stakeholder

The overhead gantries of the VaMix System stood; muscular sentries on guard duty surveilling the town centre. Their oblong obsidian slabs trestled the full width of the carriageway and a bit more beside, it was no longer possible to drive into the town centre without passing underneath one of their gantries. They occupied the eyeline seven metres above the road, blotting out the skyline, vigilantly overseeing and algorithm-efficiently directing traffic flows to the carparks of the town’s retail and leisure destinations. Destinations like The New Centre.

It was in The New Centre I’d found myself that Xmas ShopDay. I hadn’t really wanted to go to the region’s premier deluxe retail destination and consumer leisure experience, but for some of the studio supplies stuff I needed to get there was now no other option. Occupying the historic site of the town’s drained tidal estuary, the vast ultra-mall shopping arcade with its covered simulated streets hadn’t started out naming itself “The New Centre”, that was just what people had begun calling it and it had stuck. The town’s other, older, shopping malls had been busy trying to reinvent themselves, rebrand and relaunch in the face of the worldwide economic funk which characterised the age, but they simply couldn’t compete with savvy consumers’ constant craving for novelty; a craving more than satisfied in branded bagfuls at The New Centre.

The Variable Matrix messaging system for traffic management had been inaugurated with great civic fanfare some years earlier, and had been on a steep upgrade path ever since. “Driving into the future for County and Burgh” as the municipal Chief Executive Officer had been quoted, trumpeting in the local advertising freesheets and non-independent blogs. “Going down the right road for risk-reduction, public safety, optimised traffic flow, assurance of consumer choice and enhanced motorist convenience, the VaMix cells we have installed around our retail hubs are a world-leading system. It is modern, best in class, state of the art, and – for any visitor arriving in our central retail zone – demonstrates that our burgh is very much on the up and up. A burgh with the courage to prioritise traffic flow. And what with our thrilling new bypass motorway project in the pipeline and everything, we are the burgh with the bold vision to willingly put more cars on more roads and openly admit that that’s the way we want it, that’s the way we like it and that’s the way it’s going to be. We are the burgh that not only knows where it’s going, but knows how it’s going to get there too!”

Drawing consumer demand away from the existing shops both in the other, older, covered malls and the much much older again traditional open streets, the new shopping centre with its vastly convenient and superiorly vast multi-story car-park had indeed become the de facto “new centre” of the town. Old, tired, locally-owned independent shops, pubs and restaurants elsewhere in the town just couldn’t compete – they closed down for want of custom, for want of convenient and inexpensive parking options. The novelty-mongering shiny shops and entertainment venues of The New Centre – multiples capitalised by access to globalised long-term multi-currency finance – mopped up the demand.

That was the moment, then – when the incrementally-installed public-private-partnership now running the civic sphere in the town had re-defined municipal responsibility to be the same thing as the maximisation of motor traffic flow only and exclusively to the willful derogation of all other priorities – that I knew that my cherished way of life was under threat. A decade and a half earlier I had (I thought), with the new millennium jumped on a new paradigm, joined a new way of working and living. The net-enabled new economy meant that I could go freelance, work at home and run a virtual enterprise. The reality of this meant that, living as I did close to the town centre, I no longer really needed my car. It sat outside my apartment gathering moss and a funny sort of yellowy dust, and the sap which dripped from the leaves of the avenue’s trees in the late summer trapped fat angry dying wasps in a sticky stingy layer on the windscreen and roof. But I became fitter, younger-looking, thinner, happier. And just by walking about as much as I’d begun to do, I started for the first time to learn about the town that I’d lived in all my life – I began to appreciate its beauty. I began to appreciate its geography, its topography, its heritage. I began to actually live in the town, rather than just inhabiting it as I had done up until then. Then one day, walking home from the single remaining local shop in my neighbourhood, I realised it had been six months since I’d even opened the door of the car. I cleaned it up and sold it. I really considered myself to be in the vanguard; I and others like me thought we were leading the way with this car-free life and the freedom it brought. Little did we realise the levels of hostility, suspicion, willful misunderstanding and fake condescension that making this car-free choice would bring…

Seeing me arriving on foot: “So, is your business not going too well, then?” asked a cousin I visited.
“And you traipsed all the way round here?”- that was another.
“Are you not cold?” – common.
“Were you to shy to ask me for a lift?” – aaaaargh!

Other than these slights, which had soon become like water off a duck’s back to me, the policy of traffic flow prioritisation had led to some small inconveniences for habitual pedestrians like me. The stanchions of the VaMix gantries themselves took up a good deal of pavement space, for instance. But more than just that – the re-phasing of traffic lights and pedestrian crossing controls in favour of motorised traffic, the abandonment of pavement maintenance programmes in favour of carriageway remediation, the installation of long-radius bends to speed cars round corners at T-junctions and crossroads, the deployment of barriers to keep pedestrians in their place – fouling desire lines and herding those few increasingly rare people on foot towards specified light-controlled crossing points; all these things emboldened the drivers. They could now see that what had once been known as “The War on Motorists” was finally and definitively over. Thus fortified, and understanding the entreaty for “more cars on more roads” as a call to arms, they had license to ignore the needs of other road users and other forms of transport. Cycle lanes were used for extra parking, some folk even started called them “parking lanes”. Bus lanes were first denounced, next ignored, then removed. Parking on pavements was excused as a means of ensuring swift and efficient traffic flow into the town, that swift and efficient flow itself in turn being conventionally (if not logically) regarded as the only possible way to ensure economic security in a time of global financial collapse.

I had stumbled in the street on my way towards The New Centre, tripping on something. Looking down I’d noticed that the sole of my newish boots was peeling away from the upper at the toe. Goddammit I’d only had the boots for about a month or so. They looked the part, for sure – great sturdy things through which you would assume a firm grip on the landscape would be assured, and they for sure cost what you would expect to pay for something real and fit for purpose. I remembered that it had troubled me when I bought them – that faked-up dusty dirty (yet clean) patina on some of the shoes and boots for sale in the shops. Shoes which have been manufactured to a minimum standard of merchantability, but which the manufacturers do not expect the wearers to use for walking journeys. Shoes which they have made to look as if they have been used. The wearer, presumably, is assumed to aspire to projecting the image of leading an active outdoorsy lifestyle, and the boots help create that impression, all without the bothersome actual necessity of really going outside or walking anywhere. And, if you do, the boots just bloody fall to bits, almost immediately. I tried to remember where the premises of the last cobbler in the town had been located – an independent who had closed down a handful of years back – but then I thought: Ach, why torture yourself? My foot began to get damp and cold as wet from the seasonal snow which had been lying uncleared on the pavements for a week or so began to insinuate itself through the gap between sole and upper.

As I’d crumped along through the snow my footprints had broken the greyish-yellow crystal-dust layer of sulphurous particulate crust to reveal the pristine white below and a fresh flurry of big creamy flakes had begun to fall, deadening the roar and swish of the motor traffic and lending the scene a more festive atmosphere than I had been feeling up until then. I continued walking through the gently-falling snow towards the centre of town, and I noted that the character of the houses along the once-stately and mannered Georgian and Victorian and Bauhaus boulevards had changed subtly, incrementally over the years. The front rooms of the townhouses were now hardly used, the people preferring to live in rooms which did not face the noise of the busy streets. The front gardens, once ornamental prim with buzz-cut lawns and pansies and roses in ranked parade, now all gone to lock-block driveway. And the trees! Oh the trees had all but disappeared from those once-leafy avenues. Said to be inconvenient and dangerous to the motorists, petitions were organised street by street as the residents requested – no – demanded the removal of the kerbside trees. The delighted burgh corporation was happy to comply. Cheaper by far to remove a tree once than continue to maintain and pollard it annually. Another responsibility extinguished. Anyway, some of the trees obscured sitelines to and – all the more critical – from the VaMix gantries.

Initially, as well as serving as a platform upon which video cameras, microphones and other surveillance sensorium paraphernalia were mounted, the VaMix system had given out rather civically stolid non-dynamic information: The location of scheduled road-works, pat re-iterations of those same road-safety messages which were transmitted via broadcast media during low-value airtime moments, worthy communitarian anti-litter exhortations. All that sort of boring stuff. Then, when the Global War on Dissent started up, the VaMix began displaying the regional threat level and messages from the Burgh Corporation Standing Committee on Public Safety. Advice about remembering to have your ID with you at all times. No hats or hoodies within the Central Retail Cell. That sort of thing. The sort of thing that if you’d nothing to hide, then you’d no legitimate reason to object to. Then came the dynamic upgrades hooked to those fast auto-evolving artificial intellegence fuzzy-logic autonomous algorithms.

The first of these dynamic upgrades had been to enable VaMix to tell drivers (in thrillingly near-real time) where in the town centre they could find parking spaces. But the system had really come into its own, come of age, when its capabilities were put together with those of the satellite navigation and contactless financial transaction capabilities of everyone’s cellphones. The central servers (cloud-distributed, in fact, so “central” was a bit of a misnomer) of the system noted – in a completely anonymised way, of course – your vehicle type and the trajectory of your consumer expenditure envelope and credit curve. This was handled by a system called “Stock, Flow and Credo” – SFC for short – which had developed out of offset banking after every single one of the region’s retail banks (and so, everyone’s current accounts, savings, overdrafts and mortgages) had been nationalised, consolidated into a novel “arms-length” government department, then single-bidder re-privatised – palmed off to a private equity company which also (as it was generally understood but surprisingly difficult to officially confirm) handled a lot of the government’s dronewar obligations under distributed subcontract .

The SFC system calculated your “Stock”, which was a sophisticated basket-of-currency weighted computation of your net financial position. It reckoned your “Flow”, which was, simple enough, income versus outgoings – historically recorded and probabilistically projected. Most useful of all was your “Credo” score which was a complex multi-aspect reputational dynamics plot based on firstly, your Stock and Flow, but also on all sorts of other things – OgleRank and UniqueViews, socialnet “thanks”, medical background, line and staff corporate matrix rung, insurance cover and claim history, customer loyalty, family DNA profile, socialnet location checkins and on and on. As time had gone on, the “Credo” aspect had ramified to include ever more (and ever more probabilistically accurate) profile information and projections – and the more you used it, the better it became at fitting you to your place. So your Credo score, or – more accurately – the higher-dimensional hyper-curve it plotted in SFC virtual space, acted like a sort of social and commercial passport or private club membership card or funny handshake or old school tie or premium credit card or any of those old-fashioned badges of rank which SFC had rendered more-or-less redundant more-or-less overnight. Depending on your Credo’s profile, through it you had access to a variety of softwear agents, financial apps with AI which could on your behalf negotiate better terms for you during transactions at the point of sale. The multi-dimensional aspect of the maths led to a kind of metaphoric shorthand being used to describe aspects of your profile: If your Credo had “prestige” (often said as “handsome”), an AI app agent might be able to get you good terms by aggregating similar transactions for volume group discount. If your Credo was “wide” – you might be able to get savings by your agent app flash-trading currency or other fungibles in arbitrage-space. If your Credo was “high” or “long” – you’d probably get preferential borrowing rates and long payback terms on finance. If you were a sophisticated consumer with “good” scores in all categories, you were – of course – “High, Wide and Handsome”.

This is how the town’s VaMix expert system AI would, in wonderfully dynamically pre-emptive time, predictively plot you a route to the shopping destination best suited to your consumer profile – using the Stock, Flow and Credo system. The optimal route there would be instantly programmed into to your car’s nav system as you passed under the VaMix gantry – and all for free! Depending on what type of profile you had, you’d be directed to either the prestige-end high-added-value luxe retail experiences of the The New Centre or the quirky quaint mock-independent gift-shops and lifestyle practitioners of The Bohemian Quarter or the no-nonsense no-frills stackum high and sellum cheap box shifters in The Bargain Zone (for those with a downward trending Credo hyperblob plot). It worked both ways, of course – it being in the interests of the retail and leisure destinations to attract those with the more attractive Credo plots, their own corporate Credo profiles engaged their own AI virtual agents to bid for and negotiate preferential treatment from the VaMix AI agent apps, which sold speedier carpark uplinks and content-rich consumer-targetted personal adplotting on the VaMix screen real estate.

For the everyday consumer, of course, none of this was strictly obligatory – you could still apply to the city corporation for a unique number to dial which would let you opt out of VaMix leaving you to drive round and round trying to find your own way about the place if you really wanted. But – given that the VaMix CellNav Consumer Orientation and Optimisation System (it’s full ShopDay name) was so convenient – hooked as it was to Stock, Flow and Credo – frictionless – so much better than the way things used to be – it really did seem to know what you’re heart’s desire was (and if you didn’t know, it would tell you!) Who would willingly turn down such an convenient improvement, a lifestyle enhancer, a free premium upgrade? That would be perverse. Wouldn’t it?

Arriving at The New Centre, stamping the snow from my boots at the doorway and thinking again about their shoddiness, one of the many things which troubled me was the standard of product which was available from many of the retail outlets in The New Centre. It was a kind of inside out transaction, I thought. The appearance of sumptuous luxury and opulent prestige telegraphed by the surroundings was belied by the lack of choice and just-about-OK quality of the goods on offer. I sighed. I knew that this was the way of things; that the act of retail – the consumerist consummation, was now almost entirely about the experience of shopping itself. Products, once purchased, became almost irrelevant as the unsatisfiable shimmering simmering need to acquire more grasped the shopper and promptly pushed him through the doors of the next shop along. Inside out. Like the centre itself; concrete multi-level carpark and aluminium clad shed from most exterior views but the interior veneered with brass and oak, marble and crystal glass premium simulacra. I understood the need for the constant renewal of businesses – the creative destruction at the heart of capitalism – “all that is solid melts into air”. I appreciated the reasons for consumers’ constant craving for novelty. At the heart of the human condition was the need to seek out new delights; that was hard-wired into the brains of the nomadic hunter-gatherers which we had been until only ten millennia earlier – a mere eyeblink in the full sweeping arc of human evolution. Biologically and psychologically we remained hunter-gatherers, and that heritage was best and fully both expressed in and exploited by The New Centre. I didn’t know that I was frowning as I approached You Crafty Fox – a craft shop for hobbyists really, but it was also the town’s last remaining outlet where you could get artist supplies – paint, brushes, canvasses and the like, over the counter for cash. Catching sight of myself in a plate-glass window, I noticed my knitted brows and made the effort to clear my expression – adopting the neutral-skeptical-sardonic look – head forward a couple of degrees and canted over, half smiling and, (if you can manage it) a single eyebrow slightly raised. That was the public-place facefashion this season.

Leaving the craft shop with some new coachline brushes and some designer’s gouache (the last in the shop – they had it in the clearance-bin, alongside the last of the cartridge paper sketch books) I looked up to notice the shoe-shop – “BootUP” it was called – where I’d bought my boots the previous month. I went in. Not that I expected to get a refund or exchange – it had been just over a month, after all – but because I needed to get new footwear to see me home safe and warm through the snow. After the familiar rigmarole of selecting, sitting waiting, trying on, walking, looking in the mirror, untying and confirming to the assistant that yes, I’d have these ones please – I finally noticed that the shop didn’t seem to have a checkout any more.

The assistant was futzing about with the little tablet thing he’d produced from a sort of holster slung on his hip and said, using the upspeak form: “Oh my! You don’t seem to be Present?”
“Uh, no I’m not. I’ll pay cash? Like I just did in the craft shop?”
“No, sir, we no longer have the facilities or the necessary insurance to process cash transactions at BootUP. You can just register Presence?” Upspeak again. I hated that, but had long since stopped pointing out to people how much I hated it. In fact, I’d long since stopped rebuking myself for doing it, it was infectious.
“OK.” From deep in my tote, I fished out an antediluvian-looking cellphone (it had a keypad!) and unclipped its back panel. The assistant looked on, fascinated. Raking about in the bottom of the bag, I found the battery, clipped it into the phone and switched it on. A whole bunch of invisible things happened really quickly. Silent electromagnetic handshakes from my handset were pinged to at least two wall-mounted relays in the shopping mall. Then pings from those relays to at least two roof-mounted cellmasts and the whole net became uncomprehendingly yet intimately aware of my Presence. Propagating out at the speed of microwave, my Presence ticked-up counters and was assigned unique alphanumberic identifiers in concentric triangulated sequences from The New Centre to the cellmast grid; from the cellmast grid to the wider net cloud. My Presence (indicated by a code embedded in the identifier assigned by the wall mounted relays in The New Centre) triggered a ping 200 kilometres directly up to the LEOsat grid, which in turn established its own connection from at least two low earth orbit satellites direct to my phone and at least two of the nearest VaMix gantries out on the streets of the town. At that point, once my Presence was verifiably established, the shop assistant’s tablet and my phone founded their own p2p, virtually introduced their Credo plots and attendant AI agentswarm app armies to each other, and negotiated mutually advantageous terms in currency-arbitrage space. (The transaction was eventually consummated in Cape Verde Escudos, about the hardest currency of the hour, which one of my financial apps had optionreverse-bought at knockdown firesale rates during the AtlanticPanic a couple of weeks earlier and had been hoarding the options ever since.)

All this took place before the beeping-silly ditty of the startup sequence on my vintage cellphone had finished trilling. I could feel other shoppers and shop assistants looking round to see the source of the unaccustomed startup fanfare – for who ever turned their cellphones off these days?

“Hey hey! There you go. Your Credo saved you twenty-eight and a half percent off the cash price with your Presence there, sir!” beamed the assistant, nodding and grinning. “You sure are High, Wide and Handsome! And you’d wanted to use cash?”
I smiled my thanks, hoping that none of the sets of eyes on me could detect the fact that I was really cringing. I asked if it was OK to change into the new boots. No probs, but the shop couldn’t take the old ones off my hands – no garbage disposal protocol associated with their lease or something – so I put them in the new box, put the box in the branded bag. As I was doing this, I heard other assistants hail other shoe-buyers at the point of sale: “Hey! Great Credo! High, Wide and Hansome! You’ve gotten eighteen percent off!” And another: “Thirty-two percent saving from the cash equivalent – High, Wide and Handsome!”. And so on… I had to get out of there…

I found an exit and went outside were it had turned into a most beautiful afternoon – the heavy fall of new snow had now passed and the sky was clear apart from some feathery cloud streaked very high in the atmosphere, catching the last pinky gold rays of the setting sun and suggesting vast altitudinal shapes, irrepressible forces and phenomenal velocities. Venus was chasing the sun down to the north-north-western horizon from where the Earth’s shadow was beginning to spread upwards into the purpling sky. The town was looking about as festive as it’s possible to imagine the town looking; the snow lying generous and soft on roofs and boughs. I allowed myself the luxury of beginning to feel all lovely and Xmas ShopDay-y, full of goodwill to all consumers and such. That was my first mistake.

I knew that the top-deck of the The New Centre’s multi-storey car-park was an interesting place: stunning panoramic views of the harbour and the town centre and even the hills a way off in the hinterland, nestling the town all round. The freezing temperatures had cleared all the water vapour from the air, and the visibility was amazingly crisp and sharp. Realising that I’d not had any lunch, I bought a sandwich and a can of some sparkling sarsaparilla and decided to go up on the top-deck of the car-park to eat them. That was my second mistake.

Finishing the sandwiches and the drink, I realised that I was completely alone. The top-deck was utterly deserted and silent. A strange feeling. There, on the busiest ShopDay of the year on top of the car-park of the most prime piece of retail real estate in the burgh I found solitude, quiet, space, peace and fresh air. I felt liberated. That was my third mistake.

The desertion of the car park in the mid-afternoon early-failing was light was intriguing; the emptiness, it seemed, was loaded with content. The vacancy itself created a sort of highly-charged negative space, with the broad arching sky above and the white-covered town nestling this vacancy at its heart. I guddled in my little tote-bag and fished out my old Praktica. Just a few frames of HP5 left on the sprockets. I snapped off a few shots of the sky and the snow and the town all around, which I thought might be good for my Liminal North collections. That was my fourth mistake.

After a few minutes and as I went to leave, a figure strode towards me across the deserted and snow-dusted concrete plain. Little did I think that, as I was up there on the top deck of the carpark – being; not buying – enjoying space and air and quiet and peace in the outside chill that I was being spied upon by suspicious eyes which had been peering at a bank of monitors in a small, hot, windowless room. A minion had been dispatched to intercept me… As we drew closer together, I greeted the figure: “Hello there, what a spectacular afternoon!” Then I noticed that the figure was wearing a uniform. A smart-casual one, right enough, but in the ubiquitous polyester of the corporate issue paradigm. Oh-o. Then I noticed the two-way radio. Oh-o.

My path was obstructed as the security-guy gruffly demanded to inspect my camera. I (knowing my rights) politely refused and tried to step around the guy. Obstructed again, I found my arm grabbed. Frog-marched to a stairhead, I saw four more security guards were waiting on the landing. The one-in-charge – a chubby, tall guy with a crew-cut to hide his premature male-pattern baldness, said there were orders to keep me there until the police arrived. I explained that all I had done was to take photographs of the spectacular location and conditions. I was told that I could “tell that to the police”. I asked why the police had been called. I was told that there “had been problems with this sort of thing before”.

I was detained at close quarters by these men, pushed against the wall at the top of the freezing concrete stairwell, for about an hour. They refused to tell me what crime they suspected me of committing (one of them mumbled darkly of the Transnational Prevention of Dissension Protocol), they refused to tell me by what authority they felt they could hold me against my will and they refused to allow me to leave. So I was surrounded by four well-build and poor-smelling young men. The one-in-charge continually shouted provocative taunts directly in my face whenever I tried to speak. He threatened to report me for assault if I were to try to push past his guys. He refused to allow me to use my phone; he refused to allow me even to switch my phone off. They prevented me from moving more than ten centimetres in any direction. I asked again what crime they suspected me of committing. “You took a photo of one of our security cameras”. I asked whether that was a crime. I was shouted at and shouted down: “Everyone knows that urban photography is a sure sign of dissent. Are you a dissenter? Do you think we’re stupid? Do you? You dissenter! Oh, not a dissenter, you say? Where’s your car, then? If you’re so clever, where’s your car? What are you doing in The New Centre when you don’t have a car? What are you doing in a car park if you’ve no car? Dissenter! It’s a well-known fact that only dissenters don’t have cars.”

At length, the Burgh Police arrived, and were much more reasonable, allowing me to sit in the soft room of The New Centre’s interrogation suite and speaking to me – conversing, even – in measured tones. The BP’s came double-handed: a plainclothes and a uniform. The plainclothes guy was a detective sergeant who sat with me and chatted while the big uniformed guy patted down my pockets and searched my tote and stuff and did a full workup report on me – browsing history and psyche profile background check and Credo inspection and all that. Of course, nothing flagworthy came back in the report – I was perfectly “clean” as the uniform had put it – but the fact that this check had been carried out would forever be appended to my Credo, and so would affect my agentswarms abilities to strike favourable negotiating positions. It was quite difficult for me to explain why I had an old pair of boots in a new shoebox. And the paintbrushes and paint elicited rolling eyes and sniggers from both cops. But it was the old Praktica which most intrigued the plainclothes.
“Where’s the display?”
“It’s an old-style thirty-five millimetre film camera, so it doesn’t have a display”
“Are you telling me that you’re using this device for filming movies in the carpark?”
“No, no, you’ve misunderstood. The camera uses film, you know, like, rolls of film which come in canisters – used to come in canisters. The camera has a reel-to-reel mechanism and it records individual pictures – still photographs – on one frame at a time which you then use the mechanical arm – see…”
“Don’t touch it!”
“…ah, sorry, OK. Anyway you flip the mechanical arm, and that advances the film to the next frame, ready for you to take the next photo.”
“Huh? But where’s the electronics, the smartcard, the battery?”
“Oh there’s none of that. The film is coated in silver halide which…”
“Silver halide – is that some sort of chemical?”
“Yes.”
“You’re saying this thing is full of chemicals, and you took it here to the shopping centre on the busiest ShopDay of the year?”
“Em, ha, yes. It’s not dangerous, it’s just an old camera”
“Open it.”
“But…”
“Open it.”
“If I open it here, all the photos on the film inside will be destroyed – that’s my work.”
“Bullshit”
“No, it’s true, it’ll overexpose the frames – the photos – I’ve already taken, they’ll be wiped out by the light.”
“What a lot of crap! Techobabble crap! Either you open the device here, now – or we all go in special quarantine down to the station and we’ll get the hazmats to look at it. Could take a while… a few days in quarantine…”
“But… it’s just a…”
“Your choice.”
“OK”
So I opened up the back of the old Praktica, and pulled out the half-metre or so of exposed Ilford HP5, tearing it off the sprockets and laying it grey-beige curly-furly on the table in front of him. The policeman was quite satisfied by this, a broad smile spreading across his face. He laughed: “There then, that wasn’t too bad, now was it. Let this be a lesson to you. Old man”.

The plainclothes police detective let the shopping centre security guys know that the situation had been “dealt with to the satisfaction of the Burgh”, and that no further action was required. I was free to go. Furiously silent, the security-guys who had detained me accompanied me out the building and stood watching me until I was all the way off The New Centre’s zone of economic exclusivity.

Walking back home, I turned my head to look at the info on display on the face of the first VaMix gantry I passed under. Along with today’s minimum speed limits and parking info there was all the usual stuff: a silly reindeer graphic “Xmas ShopDay Best Wishes from The New Centre”; and the Public Safety Committee messages “Regional Threat Level = Moderate”; “Burgh Threat Level = Moderate”; “No Hoodies, No Running, No Shouting”. And as I watched, the Burgh Threat Level clicked up two notches through from “Moderate” to “Substantial”, then “Severe”, and a new line appeared: “Absolutely No Photography within the Central Retail Cell”.

I stopped in my tracks, turned round and started walking back towards The New Centre. I had to go back to the cash-clearance bins of You Crafty Fox, where I’d noticed those cartridge-paper sketchbooks for sale.

I’d be needing them.

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