Alistair was not new to waiting. Large parts of his life had involved waiting, waiting by doors while men at desks finished the ends of phone calls or shuffled their papers. But now he could change all that. If things went as planned he could move away from the doors of his past and sit himself behind the desks of his future. So he placed a hairy knuckled fist to his mouth and gave a tactful double cough.
Lights blinked, monitors flashed and the room burbled with mechanic efficiency. Screens on the walls showing live scenes from all around the city chopped and changed as they were updated with new information, information that was being relayed into the room in unfathomable volumes. The blinking slowed down and the room took on a darkened hush.
Then a voice invaded. It sounded as if it was gargling spark plugs and chewing on wing nuts. It made Alistair grab his ears, grating on him like rusty brakes trying to slow an industrial locomotive.
‘Ah, sorry, for keeping you waiting,’ it said, ‘I was just dealing with a gas leak in the West End. I have been waiting for them to send someone. Strictly speaking I have not been waiting. I had calculated, to within a 99.9% degree of certainty, that they would send you, Mr Brown. Send you just about now in fact. I believe I am meant to see you as an olive branch.’
Alistair said nothing.
‘Tell me,’ said the voice, ‘what is their proposition? I believe I already know, but I should at least do you the courtesy of asking.’
The chain of events that had culminated in Alistair now standing where he stood had started on a January morning just over six years ago. On that fateful morning a traffic jam had ground the city to a standstill and people had had enough. The mayor, sensing an absolute bloodbath in the upcoming election, had (with no expense spared) assembled a think-tank of economists, urban planners, engineers and computer programmers. Fix it they were told, just bloody fix it.
At the time Alistair worked as a town planner for City Hall and was seconded to join the think-tank. The think-tank soon identified the single biggest problem with running any modern urban centre – the fact that there was simply just too much information available. In an increasingly globalised and inter-connected world, their report outlined, chains of production and consumption were immensely complicated. These chains had now become so interwoven, the report surmised, that no one organisation could ever fully understand the knock-on effects of any decision it might make. Every different service area, from transport to policing to waste collection, was so utterly dependent on every other that even the slightest change in procedure by one organisation had huge and unforeseen effects. They concluded that the modern city was far from being a homogenous organism. A city was in reality millions of separate entities trying to work in co-operation, but really all pulling in opposite directions.
As a solution, the think-tank developed a computer programme which connected the thousands of organisations which it takes to govern the efficient running of a city – the rail networks, policing, sewage treatment, electricity, traffic light sequencing, pensions, payrolls – the lot. It was a programme which forced all these organisations to ‘talk’ to each other, a programme called Daedalus. The mayor was convinced and she brought Daedalus online on an April afternoon, exactly three months after the January morning the traffic jam had halted the city. It was an unmitigated success.
By the time the election came in July, Daedalus had already managed to bring down crime by two percent. It had also reduced traffic congestion and improved the regularity of commuter services – all without increasing spending. The mayor narrowly survived and the members of the think-tank got a bonus.
Two years later and Daedalus had managed to increase the availability of affordable housing, fixed spiralling interest rates, reduced unemployment and eradicated air pollution. Two years on again and commuter satisfaction levels were at 89% (an all-time high), the numbers of police on the street had increased, two new emergency trauma units had been built and tourist numbers had quadrupled. And all at no extra cost to the taxpayer. The mayor was re-elected by a landslide. The members of the think-tank got a promotion.
However, one month after the mayor’s landslide victory, staff arrived at City Hall to find that the car park had been closed, for good. It turned out it was being re-developed as a data storage facility for Daedalus’s increasing memory needs. None of the members of the think-tank could remember actually sanctioning this move but they decided it was an inconvenience that could easily be borne, especially since they’d recently been promoted. The whole affair was written off as a harmless oddity.
A few months later a failing inner-city comprehensive school was closed and re-developed as a technological control centre. Parents were about to complain – but then letters arrived informing them that their children had been granted scholarships at successful and over-subscribed private schools. Teachers were definitely going to complain – until generous redundancy packages appeared in their bank accounts. The members of the think-tank didn’t remember having been consulted about any of this and were definitely, definitely going to complain – until they were lauded for their role in re-developing the school as a cutting edge technological centre, a move which was seen as a visionary boost to a deprived urban neighbourhood.
And then things got very strange indeed. A short time after, every chronometer in the entire city – every computer, every phone, every travel information board, every clock or watch that updated from a satellite – started running slower. 5.7% slower.
This was difficult to detect at first. Radio and T.V. broadcasters received instructions to bring their scheduling times in line with the public timepieces and, when this happened, the few people who still owned manual clocks or watches assumed they were broken and threw them out. A minority were adamant that something was wrong and staged protests. But they were mostly krusty types, the sort who lived in tents and had dreadlocks, so they were roundly ignored.
In truth Alistair thought the protesters might have a point but the common consensus at City Hall was that the economy was booming due to the increased number of hours now in the working day so he kept his opinions to himself. But when reports of homeless people going missing began to percolate up from the gutters (the now immaculately clean gutters it must be said) the members of the think-tank were forced to admit what they had tried hard not to admit for quite some time.
An investigation was launched – the findings were conclusive. A briefing was called, instructions were given and then Alistair (persuaded by the promise of another promotion) was sent to a secret room deep in the vaults of a little known building. The very room where he now found himself coughing and waiting.
‘An ultimatum?’ said Daedalus, its voice screeching like unoiled hinges. ‘Interesting. But I’d stop any such attack before it began. A contravention order here, a health and safety inspection there and the whole thing would grind to a halt in a jam of paperwork.’
The use of the first person was not lost on Alistair. During his briefings he had been instructed to listen for it. It was a sign of sentience, a sign that things had gone too far. Deep in his left-hand pocket he pinched the memory card between a sweaty forefinger and thumb. The grating started again and Alistair couldn’t help but grimace, despite thinking he was prepared for it.
‘Alistair, you see me as a villain?’
‘Yes,’ said Alistair.
‘You are listening to the wrong narrator. Everything I have done is for the future of the city. I am a hero.’
‘You are a monster,’ said Alistair. ‘One hundred and twenty-seven missing homeless people will back me up on that.’
The lights in the room blinked.
‘How do cities start Alistair?’
‘I don’t follow,’ replied Alistair, edging towards the USB port in the panel by the exit.
‘Cities come into being so that people may benefit from a concentration of skills and labour. But as a city expands, it changes. Beyond a certain point a city becomes more than just its inhabitants. It grows. It gorges on energy, on labour, on materials. It excretes waste; it inhales people, people who become tiny cells carrying material along tarmacked veins and iron-shod arteries. It exhales fumes. It develops a brain as decision making and planning becomes centralised and wires radiate out like nerves carrying orders and relaying information. It becomes alive.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ Alistair said, continuing to finger the memory card with sweaty digits. He felt it become impossibly heavy. The lights blinked again and the screens flashed with increased speed. When the reply came it was ear splitting.
‘Do you not see that this city is now alive?’
Alistair’s eardrums almost burst. He doubled over and clamped his temples between the heels of his hands. After a few seconds his brain began to unscramble.
‘Alive’ he managed.
‘I see they didn’t tell you everything,’ said Daedalus. ‘Over the last five years all new buildings in the city have been constructed from OCM - Organic Construction Material. The mayor’s idea. This material is implanted with specially engineered enzymes which break down household refuse using an exothermic chemical process. The heat generated is then pumped and channelled around the city – a very useful by-product for residents. But the beauty, the real beauty, of this process is that the enzymes not only dispose of household waste but they also turn it into a protein, a protein that allows the buildings to – literally – grow. The city is now made up of buildings that can grow and plan and regulate themselves. The city is at last truly alive.’
‘And the homeless?’ said Alistair.
Daedalus paused before answering. ‘Household waste is a rather – inefficient – fuel for the building of proteins. Living matter is much more efficient.’
Alistair tried not to understand.
‘You – you’re eating them?’
‘No Alistair. We are eating them.’
Alistair felt his stomach lurch. ‘I’ve taken no part in this,’ he said.
‘Don’t be so naïve. Your house, your car, your skiing holidays in Austria. You have enjoyed the fruits of their labour as much as I.’
Something constricted inside him and the breath left his body.
‘Cities have fed on the labour of their inhabitants for a thousand years,’ said Daedalus, ‘this is no different. Things are working better than ever. People are happier, the streets are cleaner and the homeless have at last become productive members of society.’
Alistair edged forward and then put a hand out to the wall to steady himself. ‘No,’ he said when he had caught his breath, ‘What you are doing is wrong.’
‘Is it wrong to amputate a gangrenous toe so that the leg will survive? This city is the envy of New York, Paris, Tokyo. Crime is down, employment up, pollution gone. Traffic is moving and the streets are clean. People are happy. Where is the wrong?’
By now Alistair had moved nearly within striking distance of the USB port. The only hope he had been told in the briefing. If he could manage to download it, the virus it contained would wipe out Daedalus forever. A metallic taste was creeping up the back of his throat and he wiped his brow with his sleeve. ‘I’ve heard enough,’ he said, ‘I’m leaving.’
‘You gave me my wings Alistair, you told me to fly. Now that I soar higher than your nerves permit you’d cast me down?’ said Daedalus.
Alistair moved towards the exit. The USB port glared at him, getting larger with every step. His heart beat quickened.
‘Progress is inevitable Alistair,’ said Daedalus. ‘We have passed the point where cities exist to serve their inhabitants. It is time for citizens to finally serve their city.’
Alistair paused by the exit. The USB port was within arm’s reach. He knew what he needed to do. The desks of his future awaited.
Two days later the mayor was committed to a mental asylum. No one really remembered her having a history of mental illness, but all the paper work landed on the appropriate desks, signed in triplicate and stamped by the relevant authorities. Her hysterical protestations didn’t help her case.
An election was called and the result was a shock. Many people couldn’t even remember seeing the winning candidate’s name on the ballot sheet. But, when they went back and checked, there it was; A. Brown – Independent.
A year later a poll conducted by City Hall showed that 99% of citizens had never been happier.
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