I looked out through the smeared windows of the Bexley charging station on the A2, waiting for my car to chime. Less than an hour from Victoria and the battery had packed in again.
More than ninety consecutive days of rain – the most since records began, the screens were saying – had left the landscape sodden. Beyond the deserted road, rows of allotments sprawled like debris from a shipwreck, a few tiny figures picking their way through the remnants of another winter’s growth. Behind them, ranks of concrete tower blocks marched off into the mist, merging into the heavy sky.
My ear drum buzzed and a name blinked up on my left retina; Forrester.
It took the car’s AI two seconds to reply to the query I flashed across, and I sent a visual back of the answer: 2200hrs. I would make north London in time. She wanted my answer in person.
The battery bleeped and I slid into my seat, relaxing into the memory foam as the autopilot took over and swung me into the inbound lane, picking up speed as the Secure Wall at Greenwich loomed closer.
A flick on the ceramic ring on my left hand and music came on, filling my head with soft sounds that blocked out the thrumming of the rain. The incessant noise drove many to the edge of sanity; cochlear implants spared the few. Save the environment? Save us from it.
The rain had worked a terrible change on people. The realisation that it was something immense and other, outside our control – anger, hatred and a sense of loss directed at an abstract. How can you fight the weather? The answer all too often had been to take it out on our fellow citizens. Only mass unrest on the scale we had seen had made our current way of life possible. Out of the rubble and wreckage, we were building a new way. What I had seen – were we ready?
The car slowed as I passed the Bluewater memorial, allowing me to bow my head in respect. The memorial was many kilometres inwards from the site itself, still irradiated and out of bounds.
I could measure my life in tragedies; from the Olympic bombs in 2012, my first clear childhood memory, through to the closing of the border after the Channel Tunnel explosion of 2041. Bluewater seemed distant, the image of the mushroom cloud rising from the quarry that had filled screens across London already something of the past, sad and iconic.
I was in a reflective mood, hitting 50 this year. I was halfway through my career, only 30 more years until retirement. I had to decide now if this programme was right.
Forrester was a tough person to work with. Her manner was abrasive, but she was brilliant; a true visionary. The sheds would be unthinkable to most people, but Forrester had developed them as a solution to the single biggest problem facing London in the 2050s – where was the food coming from? The last three days in Kent had given me plenty to think about, and I had little more than an hour to decide what I would say.
Hard to believe that I had set off for Dartford just 72 hours ago. The rain had seemed lighter as I queued at Security Exit East on Blackheath, and a quick scan suggested the greyness had dropped to just 20 per cent – the lowest level for more than a week. The assignment was simple, nothing difficult to do; only to see if I could stand it.
Forrester had briefed me in her office in Islington the day before, rightly guessing that I would be impressed by how high up her building was. The view was the best I had seen, ranks of islands and towers jutting up from the central basin, black-sided tube boats of the Northern Line steering their way down the Holloway Road, steering gear and props dropping down to engage as the wheels hit the water.
“Understand? Decision time.”
These were the first words she had sent since I had arrived half an hour earlier. On reaching her room, several megs of documents had landed on me and it had taken me time to sort and archive them into any sense.
I had needed to sit down; some of the data was startling. I knew the food supply programme had improved, but the screens had suggested improvements in lighting techniques, vitamin sprays, better control on seed strain mutations, rather than this.
Now she was asking me to commit to something utterly rational, but troubling at the same time. It made sense from my research, but to make the leap to this – I needed time.
“Visit?” I sent.
She stared at me for several seconds. Word was you did not question Forrester, did not seek to understand what she did or why. She was brilliant; being alongside her was its own reward. But I had done well, discovered some significant links between atmospheric conditions and the development of the central nervous system. If she wanted me to buy this, I needed to see them for myself.
“Benefits clear?” She sent this and dozens of associated reports, the reduction in food riots, improved health in zones five and six, imports of several core items cut to sustainable levels.
“Visit.” This time I spoke out loud, withered vocal chords choking slightly on the v. She stared again for a second, her pupils abstracting themselves a little, clearly reviewing my file one last time.
She gave me the courtesy of a nod and I left, taking a last look at the shattered pools and towers below.
Then, a day later, the pyramid of Canary Wharf had dipped over the Wall in my rear view as I drove out towards Dartford, the broad dead reach of the Thames spilling out alongside me. I had considered Forrester’s work, but something more than the logic still troubled me.
Soil needed nutrients, that was true; human resources were cheaper than fuelled machinery; and gene screening meant that there was a growing body of the population that simply could not be allowed to reproduce. Why invest so many millions of hours to eliminate cancer, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, only to allow people to breed them back in?
“Resolve,” she sent, more data, more background.
Stopping cross border movement, then freezing access to London, meant we at least knew the pool we were working with, but it was ridiculous to think that we could guarantee health outside the thousand families allowed to live and breed inside zones one and two. Those families, selected for their genes, had put an end to the old order, leaving us to create our magnificent and living works of art.
A good inheritance these days meant a mix of the best of dozens of different racial backgrounds, the strongest of each contributing to a golden multicultural thread of health, intelligence, adaptability. For those who failed to make the grade, extinction was inevitable. Forrester had found a way to give this extinction purpose.
But was I ready to buy into the programme? As my car crested a rise on the elevated road and the sheds of Dartford opened up ahead of me, each a thousand feet high, vanishing into the rain clouds, I had to wonder.
These things were staggering, a pure synthesis of function and concept. Storey upon storey of plant beds, producing wheat, maize, potatoes, fruit and vegetables, piled high; fibre optic membranes reproducing sunlight, spraying concentrates of vitamins and minerals into the depleted, sodden air. The stacks meant each level allowed its waste to run into the next, until the very lowest level, on which pigs and other omnivores thrived, finally available as part of the food chain after near dying out.
And Forrester’s brain wave soared above it all, her gift for thinking the unthinkable, the link in the chain that meant the thousand families left in London would not starve while the rain lasted, giving us time to plan some way to turn back the ice fields in the north.
Forrester’s viscous spray of nutrients, of organ matter and ground bone, of hair and skin, wasting not a single cell of the tens of thousands of genetic dead ends, bringing them to a close before they starved what was left of England and brought down the wonderful new world we were building in our capital.
Now I could see the elevator tubes making their way up the sides of the sheds, carrying their drugged and listless passengers up to where the machinery ground and thrummed, open to the incessant drumming of the rain.
As I stepped out of my car, only three days ago, and the vivid, animal smell of the air around the sheds hit me, she sent me something to stiffen my reserve, stretching her language to emphasise how important this was.
“They give their lives – and London lives. Decision?”
I had less than an hour to decide.