Sleep didn’t come easy that night, and as morning pushed its way through the smog I was already awake. There was little city noise this far up, but smaller, out of place sounds kept me awake. The hum of the fridge, the creak of footsteps through the ceiling, the gurgle of my stomach churning in search of food. There was none in the flat, and as the clock on the bedside table flicked to 8:00 I pushed myself up and out.
The meeting point was easy to find, and the hour meant that it was mostly empty, just a few breakfasting patrons keeping to the corners. It was a nice place, light, airy, but again they had pleasant little music humming out of the speakers. I grit my teeth, pushing ahead into the cafe to find him waiting in one of the booths with a plate of eggs, chips and beans. He looked up as I approached, and smiled, waving a hand at the seat across from him as he swallowed his mouthful.
“Ah! Robert. Can I call you Rob? Order yourself whatever you like, Rob, and we’ll get down to business, shall we? Don’t worry about it, I’m paying. The name’s Alan, but you can call me Al.”
He pierced his egg with a fork, and the yolk spilt out across his chips. He wasn’t dressed for business, a simple shirt and jeans made him look like a friend I was meeting for breakfast. I sat down, and tapped in my order to the menu. “Got a surname?”
He grinned, as if I’d just made a joke. “Sure do! How’re you finding your flat, Rob? Comfortable? I hear it’s quite a nice one, mid level, good view and all that. Must be a nice change to have a view eh Rob?”
“It’s nice enough. Bit difficult to see the view with all the smog.”
“Hah! Yeah.” He nodded, spooning some more beans into his mouth, “We’re dealing with that, though. The electrical roadways are finished now, cover almost all of London, as of just a few months back. Should take the pollution down a notch, at least. We’re working on it, Rob, give it a few years and they’ll stop calling London ‘The big smoke’ and start calling it ‘The big clean patch’! Hah!”
“It wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad if Solch hadn’t–”
“Now Rob,” He cut across me “First day out, let’s keep that talk to a minimum eh? We’re making Britain better, Rob, slowly but surely. We all make mistakes, but the important thing is we learn from them.” He dipped his chip in his yolk, and popped it in his mouth “You’ve learnt, right Rob?”
He held my eyes, and a soft, relaxed smile settled on his face. The cheerful, aimless music rang in my ears. I nodded. It was all I could do. Had he chosen this place on purpose? This entire meeting seemed to be designed to remind me that he still held all the cards. Even though I was out, he was here to make sure I didn’t need to be put back in. The tiny power plays were evident; similar music, using my name over and over, even buying me my first meal. And yet… some part of me was glad just for someone to talk to.
“You… you’re supposed to be giving me a job, aren’t you?”
“Mm, yes. Straight down to business eh Rob? You should get along with what we got you just fine.”
“What? Why? What did I get?”
He smiled again, nodding along to his own words “Well now normally you’d have had a basic desk jockey job like most of those fresh out of rehab, but well, with your talents Rob, I managed to get you something a little more interesting!”
“Well what is it!” My impatience to know startled even me, but after a night with little sleep, I found myself eager to get past the aimless chatter and find out just what sort of life they were giving me.
“Well our file on you says you had extensive experience with working on computers. Oh don’t look so surprised Rob, of course we know. But like we were saying, you’ve learnt, right Rob? Now we’re a bit low on people with your experience, so how does resident computer repair sound?”
“I… I don’t know.” I was shocked, not only because they knew about my involvement with the anti-information blackout movement, but because this wasn’t a small deal. Resident Computers were the central hub in a house, regulating temperature, internet usage and home networks, television, phone lines, wireless connectivity, electricity supply, emergency detection and, unknown to most, surveillance. This wasn’t just some disposable job I expected to be thrown into, left to be forgotten about, this was actually important.
Al watched me as I thought, before giving a little chuckle and shaking his head. “It isn’t actually a choice, Rob, I was just being polite. That’s your job. I thought you’d like it, you get to meet people, it’ll pay well once you’re off your parole restrictions, and you might not even spend the rest of your life in debt to us. You should be biting my hand off, Rob! I’m giving you a good chance here, don’t go messing it up eh?”
I nodded “Yeah, no, I… thanks but, why?”
“I told you Rob, we’re low on people who actually know how to fix them. They’re getting old now, getting bugs in the system, we’ve had the fire brigade called because somebody lit a match.” He posted the last of his chips into his mouth and pushed the plate away “And with degree level education being what it is these days…” He shrugged, and tapped his terminal before picking it up. “Besides, you’re good at it, from what I hear. The details will be on your system in a few hours, I expect. I’ve gotta jet, Rob, but it was good meeting you.”
I looked up at his smiling face and half nodded back at it. “Yeah.”
“Don’t let me down now. I have to keep an eye on all sorts, but you Muties? You’re all right. Not really criminals, right Rob? So lets not have anything between us. I’ll see you next week, Rob, but keep your nose out of trouble.” He grinned fully, and stood up, just in time to step out of the way of the waitress with my food. “And just in time too! Enjoy it, Rob! Bye for now!”
I watched him saunter off down the rows of tables, and back at the plate of food placed in front of me. A full English breakfast. Nothing left out. I had a decent job, a place to live, good food and, as the music reminded me, freedom. Not of expression, maybe, but everything else was provided for. And for the first time I had to wonder, in all seriousness, whether it was worth giving up this chance. The night before I’d been so sure, but as my stomach gradually filled, and I considered what I now had, my resolve began to empty. I’d always made this sacrifice before, the good fight in exchange for instability in residence, income, friends, life. It had been an easy sacrifice to make, then.
The details of my job popped up on my pocket terminal just as I finished my breakfast, earlier than expected. The system made it easy for me to become a part of society again. Somehow, for the first time, that only made it harder to give it up. I cleared my plate, hunger sated, and left the café. I needed a walk, but most of all, I desperately needed to talk to someone.