Ember’s address had changed again, which wasn’t all that surprising since he did it every few months. With the general information of everyone stored on the national database, your address, contact details, recent check ins, birth date, blood type, relations, marital status and all other official data was fully accessible to anyone who knew your full name. Nicknames or only going by your first name came into fashion as instinctive security, and only those you really trusted knew your full name. But it didn’t stop the government. They knew everything about you, no matter what you did. It was for security, of course. The safety of the people. If they know everything about you, then in an emergency they can help you quickly and effectively. A quick retina scan can tell them who you are, and from there who to contact, where you live, where you’d been and who had also been there, what allergies or disabilities you have, or medication you were on. Lives had been saved by the easy access of knowledge. Crimes had been stopped or criminals caught by being able to track and locate them. Life was safer now. It just cost you your privacy. Ember still moved around, but these days it didn’t make any difference. If they wanted him, they’d find him. Just like they found me.
His latest place was a small block of flats a little way off Mile End Road, most of the windows blocked by either boards or faded, patterned material strung up against them from inside. It had a certain bohemian charm, I supposed. The door was off its hinges, propped up against the wall inside and with a tired sag in its wooden body. From the look of the fixtures it’d been smashed in. If this was his official residence, he must be paying something for it. However much it was, it was too much.
I made my way up the stairs to flat four. This door was at least intact, and closed, which marked it apart from the others I’d seen on my way up. Alan had given the impression things had improved while I’d been in the Mute, but this place told a different story. I knocked. The spyhole went dark, and Ember’s voice sounded through the door.
“Oi Pen! Just a sec!”
It took him a moment to get the door open, but he eventually swung it wide, a grin stretched across his botched face. His trademark tangle of orange hair was fading, slowly bleaching itself with age, but the glint in his eye was still there.
“Get in ya bastard, ya shoulda called! If I’d known ya comin’ I’da put the kettle on!”
“Says on your sheet you don’t have a number.”
“Don’t have a kettle either, but get in and siddown!”
He slapped the door frame and turned back inside, propping the bat he’d been carrying back up against the wall. I followed him in, closing the door behind me, only to find tangles of wires strewn up around black packages taped to the walls around it. This was new, Ember had always been paranoid but explosives were something else. I couldn’t help but wonder just how much of the hallway it’d destroy if it were set off.
I walked through into the main room, which I took to be the only real room considering it consisted of a sofa, old cooker, fridge, a desk, and a mattress tucked into the corner. Another door suggested a separate bathroom, at least, but I didn’t dare to imagine the state of it. Squat hopping had been Ember’s speciality, but this wasn’t pretty, even for him. The sofa springs whimpered as I sat down on it. He opened the fridge and tossed me a beer. It was chilled, at least, so something worked.
“Interesting place you’ve got here, bit of a downsize for you though, isn’t it?”
He fell back onto the sofa next to me and cracked his beer open, gesturing for me to do the same.
“Cops ‘ave been crackin’ down on everyone. You see flat two? Just last week that was. Some Hep junkie, musta done somethin’ to get their attention, but flat three right? That was them too. Same day. Made a big ol’ fuss about takin’ down this junkie while two other cops came up, took in the door, and bagged flat three. Wrapped him up, took him downstairs like nothin’ happened. Hardly made a sound.” He shook his head, and knocked back the beer “Ain’t gonna sneak up on me all quiet though.”
“Right, the door charges.”
“Hah! Yeah! If the door opens too much when it’s armed, the whole fuckin’ hallway goes with it.”
“Why the hell are they having to cover up their own arrests?”
“They been cleanin’ house is why. You’ve been gone what, a year? Since then Pauly’s gone, Hull’s gone, Junk, Des, the entire of the Clapham Culprits, you remember them?”
I nodded, “But, gone, what… like, in the Mute?”
“Nah nah. Gone. Like, erased. Like, their whole sheet is gone, all record of ’em. Just wiped clean. Never existed. Dunno how they even know who to go for, but one by one mate, people are disappearin’.”
I took a drink. I needed it. The beer was cheap, but the chemicals in it burned away the bad taste in my mouth. Alan had said they were ‘making Britain better’ just this morning. Is this what he meant? They’re cleaning the city, but that didn’t mean just the pollution, did it?
Ember’s question made me jump, and I spilt my beer.
“Huh? What? How’d you… Alan’s my PO, how’d you know his name?”
“You just mentioned him mate.” His face wrinkled in confusion “You went ‘Alan said they were makin’ Britain better’ and started mutterin’ away.”
“I… I said that out loud?”
The people on the tube had kept their distance, the people I’d walked by on the street had stared as I thought to myself. I’d thought I looked different, but maybe I’d just been muttering to myself all this time?
“Ya still doin’ it.”
I looked up at him, and his paranoia seemed so sensible all of a sudden. I’d barely– no, I may as well speak aloud, now.
“I’ve barely been here two minutes and I’m already doing it. What the hell is going on Ember? I didn’t used to talk to myself, did I? I thought I was just thinking, I didn’t mean to… I don’t…” I pressed my fingers to my temples, head aching with the concept. “Do I say everything aloud?”
Ember shook his head, leaning back into the complaining sofa, and stretched.
“Nah mate, seen it once before. Karl had it too for a while. Don’t worry about it, I figure it’ll wear off when ya more used to being around people. Mute side effect shit right?”
“Karl? I thought you said the Clapham lot had vanished.”
“Well yeah. Karl was alright though. He prob’ly left ’em well enough alone after his stay in the Mute. Most do right? Which means I gotta ask, Pen. What about you eh? You gettin’ out?”
“I… I don’t know. They’ve actually given me a pretty good job, you know?”
“Resident computer repair.”
“No shit, really? How’d you land that? You could actually reduce debt with that, once the restrictions up.”
“Yeah, yeah I know.”
We sat in silence, at least, I presumed, and drank our beer. Both of us knew full well that if I went straight I’d never see Ember again. That said, the lure of being able to make money was tempting, no doubt about it. It was rare enough to be able to break even against the debt build up, but to actually have the chance to pay it off was an opportunity most couldn’t afford – literally – to turn down. With the economic collapse money became near obsolete, with most being in so much debt they had no choice but to become homeless. Jobs were practically non-existent for the average person, and the debt net was introduced. Debt became government property, with the state monitoring public finances so that they could accurately provide the support needed. All loans became tax-repayable, and when physical money was discontinued, any and all purchases simply became added to your overall debt. The towers were built to house those who couldn’t afford anything private, with rent simply increasing your debt. Jobs were provided by the state, the choice of what you did being a luxury few received. The city was not short on its supply of workers, and the government put them to good use. The city began to be reconstructed by armies of temp-workers. Rights were lost. Freedom was lost. But people had jobs to work and places to live, and refusing to be a part of it meant you lost both. Bit by bit, the government bought the poor, and slavery in the guise of debt became the norm. Now they’d handed me a key to the shackles they’d put on the country, in return for my compliance within the system I’d fought all my life.
“Ya gotta make ya choice, Pen.”
“It isn’t really a choice, is it?”
He snarled, standing up to throw his crushed can in a black plastic bag nestled between the fridge and cooker. “There’s always a choice. Remember? You’ve gone soft in the Mute mate. You’ve forgotten the most important fucking part of everythin’ we worked for. They don’t own ya. They never own ya. They don’t own anyone, they jus’ make ya believe they do!”
He shook his head, and pulled another beer from his fridge, cracking it open.
“The debt don’t exist. It’s not real. Ya play by their rules and you agree to their terms. It’s jus’ numbers on a screen tellin’ ya how much their bitch you’ve become cause of what they’ve given you. If ya don’t take what they give, ya don’t have to give what they take.”
“It… it’s not that simple.”
“It is that simple. Comfort, security, an’ lifelong slavery in a system that don’t let ya pay it off. An’ I bet ya won’t ever quite pay it off anyway, because as long as you’re in their debt, you’re in their power Pen, and ya fuckin’ know it.”
We were silent for a long moment, before I finally asked, “When’s the next meeting?”
“Three weeks, but if ya take that job then ya can’t come.”
“I have to take it! At least for my parole! If I don’t take it until that’s over they throw me back in and you know it! I’m not risking that Ember! Not for you, or any fucking moral guilt trip!”
Silence reigned again, and it dawned on me that until I picked a side, my friendship with Ember would never return to its original point. He turned to gaze out the grubby window overlooking the street, and downed the last of his can.
“Just remember that they don’t own you yet. Not until ya let ’em. Come to the next meeting, but make ya choice then. Thirty two years, and I thought ya’d already made it. I’ve made mine, but I don’t own ya either. You gotta make ya own choices Pen. Make sure ya make the right one, which ever it is.”