It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were all receiving the speed up signal from CLOKSAT during morning rush hour. Nextel Sprint Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Homeland Security Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of fried frijoles and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of an androgenous he-she of about fifty-five, with a heavy black moustache and white pasty features. Nextel Sprint made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Green Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Nextel Sprint, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG SISTER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the trading of pork futures. The voice came from a flat plastic plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Nextel Sprint turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the smartscreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a smallish, frail figure, the meagreness of his body merely emphasized by the thin chinese gause overalls which were the clothes available for less than $1000. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.
Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The blackmoustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG SISTER SAYS SEE SOMETHING SAY SOMETHING, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Nextel Sprint’s own. Down at streetlevel another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word FEDRESERV. In the far distance a fleet of drones skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like bluebottles, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Smart Grid Police mattered.
Behind Nextel Sprint’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pork futures and the overfulfilment of the Federal Reserve Four-Year Plan. The smartscreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Nextel Sprint made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be recorded by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the smartscreen commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Smart Grid Police monitored any wireless device was guesswork. It was even likely that they watched and recorded everybody all the time. But at any rate they could monitor your device whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every movement you made was tracked by their GPS. Every sound you made was overheard, and, even in the darkness, every movement scrutinized.
Nextel Sprint kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer, though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometre away the Fusion Center Database Complex, his place of work, towered vast and reflective above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste — this was London, a chief city of NATO, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Unied Nations. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting mcmansions, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites near the ring of cameras where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willow-herb straggled over the heaps of rubble; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger patch and there had sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken-houses? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux occurring against no background and mostly unintelligible.
The Fusion Center Database Complex — FCDC, in Acronymspeak — was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous beltway structure of glittering mirrored concrete, soaring up and all around the downtown 360 degrees, identical building after building, 1000 feet into the air. From where Nextel Sprint stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the latest slogans of the Alliance:
THE WAR ON BAD TERROR YIELDS A NEW KIND OF GOOD TERROR
TAX SLAVERY AND GOVERNMENT COUNTERFEITING BRING FREEDOM
TRIVIAL FACTOIDS AND ROTE REGURGITATIONS ARE KNOWLEDGE
PUSH BUTTON CUSHION SITTING AND PASSIVITY ARE STRENGTH