"They change you and brainwash you when you least expect it.
They feed you mass media, The age is Electric."
--Ragni & Rado, Hair
As the years rolled by, the Network's expansion continued. As
well as the Netherlands extension - which was activated on the
twenty third of November, 2004 - the Phoenix was fully integrated
into the Network, with a complete backup copy of the central and
distributed databases being kept in an ever-growing annex of the
On the first of May in the year twenty-oh-seven, two more
countries became inextricably a part of the, now international,
Network. Ecuador had been expected for a long time beforehand -
after all, Wye himself already owned more than a quarter of that
country's land area, which was used as the Network's spaceport.
The welcoming of South Africa into this exclusive fold was more
surprising. Though - with hindsight - Mandela's administration,
weakened by the decade-long civil war, did need to revitalise
itself. And the Network countries were the only revitalising
force still left on the planet...or even, with the Phoenix, off
By the time Adam and Shaun were journeying up to what had been
the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre, but which was now the
site of the main Coming of Age complex in Britain, on March the
thirtieth, twenty-oh-eight, then, the Network which they had
grown up with embraced four countries entirely, owned the only
workable space station ever built and had a virtual monopoly on
the planet's very highest technology.
The twins were looking forward to their Coming of Age graduation
ceremony by this time. They knew that it was to last several
days, and was reputed to be dangerous - some reports, probably
exaggerated, said that people either passed through or died in
But after they had graduated, Adam and Shaun would be joining
their parents for a five day break aboard the Phoenix. The cost
of such a trip was high, but not excessive - roughly five times
the cost of a 'plane trip from England to Australia, plus the
cost of the journey to Ecuador.
And Gerald, their father, had negotiated free tickets for
himself, his wife and their two sons as a part of his payment for
designing the Phoenix - so the only cost would be the trip to
The K-S controlled train pulled in to Birmingham New Street and
the twins disembarked, transferring themselves and their duffle
bags across to the waiting minibus. Which is where they received
their first shock.
The minibus which was to take them to the Coming of Age centre
was driven by a human being. Not only that, it had an internal
combustion engine. A real antique, then. Adam vaguely recalled
seeing such machines when he and his brother were little, but
Shaun was equally sure they were too young to have seen anything
which had not been Kelly-Skildon navigated. Either might have
been correct - the K-S electrically controlled vehicles had not
reached universal use in the Network countries until just before
the twins's sixth birthday.
In any event, they - along with their companions in the minibus
- keenly anticipated the journey in such an old-fashioned device.
Since there was no computer control (in fact, for safety reasons
there was an emergency computer override K-S system, but it was
carefully concealed so that the fiction that the human could
cause a crash could be maintained), everybody had to buckle into
Strange things, these seatbelts - everybody had to be shown how
to wear them correctly, since there was no use for additional
safety in a K-S transport. Modern vehicles had so many
unobtrusive safety features built in to them that gross safety
belts could only get in the way.
After much fumbling with unfamiliar catches, the students -
gold-striped black Cards clutched in hand - were strapped in and
the minibus began to move.
The first thing everybody noticed was the noise. The racket
produced by the inefficient internal-combustion engine was
enormous - not by the standards of such engines, but by the
standards of the electrically-powered ones which had superceded
them. The smell of burning hydrocarbons hit their noses just as
quickly. Twenty three noses wrinkled in disgust - the driver was
used to the smell by now.
During the journey, some students tried to use their handlinks
to look up more information on the vehicle but, although the
suspension was excellent for its type, they were more used to
computer-monitored gyroscopes keeping transportation level - the
bouncing thus rendered them unable to read the screen.
One lucky girl owned one of the new VAS-linked handlinks,
however, and - with the volume gain turned on full - everybody
was just about able to hear the computer's contralto voice over
the roar of the engine, describing the internal combustion engine
along with its uses and consequences. Nobody was upset when they
reached the end of their journey.
Outside, the remodelled NEC stood - starkly outlined against the
noon-day sun. The effect was deliberate, of course, even down to
the position of the sun at the time they arrived - all the result
of the work of teams of psychologists. Even though they all knew
this, it was a rare student who could suppress a shudder on
seeing the grey monolith for the first time.
After more fumbling with the seatbelts, the troupe left the
minibus - the smell of burning hydrocarbons was more noticeable
out here, and became stronger still when the minibus noisily
moved off, belching out clouds of carbon monoxide and imperfectly
Before them, half a mile away, was the edifice they were
journeying towards. A sign simply informed them that they were to
walk across the black expanse of asphalt. Despite some grumbling
about "Why didn't it just take us straight there, then?" the
group of eleven, twelve and thirteen year-olds began the ordained
As they walked, duffle bags slung over their shoulders, Adam and
Shaun chatted with Mary O'Brien. It was unusual, but not unknown,
for three people from the same school to Come of Age on the same
day - the trio did not know anybody else in the crowd, and so
they naturally gravitated together fairly early in the train
During the hike to the grey building, Mary and the twins were
noticeably separated from the main group, walking along behind
and singing songs from The Wizard of Oz as they went. So, when
the figure appeared up ahead - nobody saw where she came from -
those three were the last to notice her.
The woman up ahead was dressed in rags, she looked from her body
to be in her early twenties but when they approached closer her
face gave the appearance of greater age - probably caused more by
the thin, stretched skin which just covered her cheekbones.
Closer inspection also showed her rags to be the remains of a
laboratory coat, once white but now stained by grass, blood,
urine and unidentifiable substances. Was that shit?, Adam
"Help for a Cardless woman? Aid for the Cardless? You will help,
young sir, surely you will help miss? Miss?" To her obvious
distress, the four youngsters which comprised the vanguard of the
small procession walked straight past, not stopping to proffer
In contrast, Mary - closely followed by the twins - hurried
forwards as soon as she saw the Cardless woman. As she speed-
walked, Mary swung her duffle bag from her shoulder and rummaged
in it, looking for food so that - by the time she reached the
Card-bereft person - she was immediately able to hand over a few
chocolate bars and canned soft drinks.
Rather than see Mary deprive herself of her entire stock of food
- there was no assurance that they would be able to obtain more
when they reached the Centre - the twins also dug into their bags
and came up with more food and drink, as did some of the others.
Adam was able to produce a sleeping-bag liner as well, which he
gave to the woman without a Card.
Her thanks for the food, drink and makeshift sleeping bag were
effusive - and, to the boys, slightly embarrassing. Easier to
respond to were the jibes from those who had ignored the woman.
"That was bloody pointless, if you ask me," one of the young men
said, "She was a criminal, after all - she was deprived of her
Card for a reason. And for a long time, by the look of it, so her
crime must have been severe."
"Don't be ridiculous," Shaun said, with a withering look, "It's
not a question of what she's done or how long her sentence is or
anything like that. All that's important is that she was hungry
and dressed in rags, so it was our responsibility to help her."
"Exactly so," Adam broke in, "Where were you when you were
supposed to be learning about compassion and empathy?" he asked
the scornful young man, scathingly. Without waiting to hear the
reply, he turned away and briskly continued to walk towards the
building with Mary and his brother.
Within fifteen minutes, the group arrived at the grey building
and - one by one - thumbprinted and retina-scanned their way into
the imposing main entrance.
The foyer of the building was designed in a grey, square-
cornered, inhuman style. Sharp edges abounded in the room, and
the lighting was harsh and glaring throughout. Immediately in
front of the main entrance was a wide bank of video pickups. As
each of the group entered, one of those cameras turned to follow
that individual's every movement.
Once everybody in the group had entered, they were each offered
in turn an agreement to thumbprint. They were asked whether they
agreed to waive the First Contract between themselves and those
occupants of the building not in their group.
The black-and-gold Card was sufficient to grant them powers to
undertake such waiving agreements. In fact, in the year 2008
there was no difference between the matt black and gold-striped
black Cards save the colour. A gold-striped black Card was
granted when the individual was deemed to be sufficiently mature
to accept the responsibilities of adulthood.
The colour was important, socially, however. A matt black Card
indicated that the bearer had fully-fledged adult status, while
the gold stripe granted the adult status with some reservations -
mostly irrational ones, mainly emotional reservations. But
If they chose to leave now, they would bear a gold-striped Card
for at least another year. If they wished to go on, they would
have to take a chance - they would have to thumbprint the waiving
agreement, despite the warnings which accompanied it. If you
thumbprint this waiving agreement, the main warning read, Then
you may die. If you disobey any orders given by the VAS in this
building, the warning continued, Then you are very likely to die.
Despite this terse and straightforwardly-menacing warning,
everybody thumbprinted their assent to the waiving agreement, a
retina scan and DNA test also being used to make certain of their
identities. In most cases, the DNA analysis was the conclusive
identity check. For the identical twins, Adam and Shaun, however,
the retina scan was the conclusive test.
After this, the group was ordered through into a waiting room -
decorated in the same manner as the entrance hall - which was
air-conditioned to an excessive degree. The room was freezing
cold - somehow, then, nobody was too surprised when they were
ordered to strip and place their clothes and duffle bags in the
As they removed their clothes, Adam muttered a question under
his breath to his brother: "What are those squares marked on the
floor for, do you think, Cas?"
"No idea, Pol." As twin sons of a Heinlein fan, it was
inevitable perhaps that Adam and Shaun should pick up the
nicknames of the Stone twins.
Inside a minute, everybody in the room was naked. Despite their
ages - most of the young people were on the cusp of puberty, and
the sexes were mixed - there was an absence of any sexual tension
in the room. The whole process was too dehumanising for that.
They were not nude, which can be liberating, but naked - that is,
After shivering for a long time, the group were ordered - one by
one - to a specific marked area of the floor. The lights went out
as soon as they had all entered their own area of the floor. It
was only in the darkness that they could see that the markings on
the floor were faintly phosphorescent.
The same clinical, emotionless voice now gave them their orders.
They were to remain within their allotted square until told to
move out. Nobody was to talk. A shallow depression on one side of
the area would serve as a toilet, a second depression on the
other side as a limited source of water.
Adam glanced around his area - ignoring the unseen and unheard
people about him. The limits of his territory stretched three
feet across by seven feet long - just big enough to lie down in.
At each end was a foot-square area outlined in the same glow as
the area as a whole. It was not possible to tell by sight which
was water and which toilet, but a hesitant finger poked into the
two depressions in turn revealed that only one was filled with
There were perhaps three or four litres of water in the
depression - since it had not been there before the lights went
out, he assumed that a concealed mechanism was responsible. Ever
the pragmatist, Adam settled down to wait.
The darkness was close when Adam awoke. There seemed to be a
cold draught blowing over him - he could feel it on his bare
skin, chilling him to the bone. Nearby, someone screamed as
though in physical pain. There was a clunking sound and the
scream was cut off abruptly.
Adam raised himself on one elbow, peering uselessly into the
blackness, trying to see in the direction from which the boyish
scream had emanated. He was on the point of calling out to his
brother when - just in time - he recalled the warning not to
talk. After a while, the laboured breathing of his unseen
companions lulled Adam back to sleep.
Elsewhere in the building there was a white-walled room, lined
with banks of monitors. There was but a single entrance to the
white room, which was staffed by two people, seated in
comfortable swivel chairs, luxuriously upholstered in black
In all, there were thirty monitors lining the walls of the white
room. Though seven were not currently in use, the remaining
twenty three cast their light on the two human watchers . That
light was a steady, low-keyed glow - since glaring or flickering
light tended to cause eyes to become fatigued, video screens no
longer flickered or glared.
Or, to be more precise, the flickering of such monitor screens
proceeded at such a rapid pace that the brain did not perceive it
as such, even subliminally. And the glare was removed by a
filter, so that looking at a Terminal, handlink or monitor screen
was no more tiring than looking at a printed page. Indeed, the
intensity of the light produced by the screen itself was - for
this reason - so low that most handlinks now came with an
integrated light for use in darkness.
The twenty three screens in the white room were displaying
images, taken in the infra red, of each individual in the
darkness of the hall elsewhere in the building. As well as their
image, each screen was displayed the name of the individual,
along their pulse and breathing rates.
These latter two were read from the subcutaneous transmitters
which all children now had implanted in their chest - between
their nipples - almost as soon as they were born. The major
reason for such transmitters - which were small, extremely thin,
durable and flexible, and gave off a warning signal when removed
from the body's environment - was to ensure that respiratory and
heart problems could be detected even before any symptoms
No cot deaths or deaths due to asthma or heart problems had
occurred in the British Isles since it became compulsory for all
people without full adult Card status to have these transmitters
implanted. One unexpected side-effect of the implants had been to
make the abduction of children virtually impossible.
Since the child's pulse and breathing rates - along with some
other easily-obtainable medical information - were continuously
transmitted to the nearest Network receiver, to be relayed to a
medical computer which checked for any patterns which indicated
the onset of disease or injury, the current location of that
child was constantly known to within five metres (the receivers
were ten metres apart, and the signal was relayed by the nearest
Another unexpected side-effect was that child abuse could now be
identified - and stopped - almost as soon as it began. All that
the computers needed to do was alert the nearest police force
when patterns appeared which corresponded to extreme pain (this
also assisted in cases of broken bones and other such childhood
"illnesses") or sexual trauma.
One entirely expected affect of the presence of these
transmitters was the cries from several groups that the computer
was unreasonably infringing the liberties of the country's
children and their parents.
Though such cries of protestation were usually ignored by the
Dictator, he did - on one memorable occasion - deign to reply to
them. "Those without full adult Card status," he said, careful to
avoid the word 'child,' since both convicted Cardless criminals
and the mentally sub-normal also had transmitters compulsorily
implanted, "Are those who are not yet mature enough to be
capable, or have shown themselves incapable, of giving their
consent to the agreements which bind all others in this society.
"By definition, then, they are not able to take care of
themselves in all respects. These transmitters are our way of
ensuring that their health is safeguarded. As to the liberties of
Here, Wye sighed, heavily, "I have stated this many times, but I
suppose I must state it again: No child is the property of his or
"Simply conceiving a child gives you no rights over that child -
on the contrary, it gives you responsibilities towards the child
until such time as it achieves full adult status and is able to
take responsibility for his or her own life. Your
responsibilities, in short, begin on the instant that the unborn
foetus develops a nervous system, and end when the child Comes of
"During that time, it is the parents's responsibility to ensure
that their child is fed, clothed, educated, housed and kept as
healthy - physically, emotionally and mentally - as possible. If
the parents fail in their responsibilities then society may take
over some, or all, of those duties - and charge the child's
After Wye's response, the debate - of course - continued.
Chapter Forty One
"Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing
In the darkness, Adam heard a scream as though somebody was
falling. It sounded like Shaun, and came from the direction of
his brother's area of the room. Adam was on the point of rising
to his feet in order to move over towards Shaun when the floor
fell away from under him. The scream which reached Adam's ears
this time was his own.
There was no chute to guide his path - simply and purely a drop
through empty air until, after what seemed forever, he splashed
into a tank of icy cold water. The instant he hit the surface,
the lights came on - compounding the difficulties he already had,
caused by the loss of breath when the cold hit him, by
temporarily blinding his night-sight-adjusted eyes.
Gasping desperately, his eyes blinking furiously, Adam broke the
surface and gulped in deep lungfulls of air. In the white room,
Adam's monitor was watched carefully by one of the two
attendants, checking to make sure that the young man's body was
up to the task of swimming to the edge of the tank - the first
check being to see whether he was, in fact, able to swim (though
this was taught at an early age, some people unaccountably never
managed to learn).
All the while, a finger hovered over the button which would send
up a weather balloon, Prisoner-style, to support and rescue Adam.
The young man made his own way to the shore without assistance,
however, and at the end of his five metre swim, he pulled himself
up onto the rough, white ledge.
Once Adam had recovered his breath, and just as he was beginning
to shiver slightly from the cold, a door slid open soundlessly
before him. The white-shrouded figure, wearing a blank face mask,
who walked through passed him a large, fluffy towel - oddly
enough, its colour was a deep black. Adam gratefully towelled
himself off, then accepted and donned the dressing gown he was
offered. The dressing gown, too, was black.
As he followed the faceless figure, Adam passed the time idly
trying to guess something about it - whether it was a man or a
woman, how old it was, and so on. When they reached a black
painted room, Adam was ushered inside. The figure did not follow,
but - as the door slid shut - the young man saw it remove the
face mask to reveal circuit boards. A humanoid robot?
Adam was justifiably confused by this sight - he had heard
nothing to suggest that such a machine was even near to being
developed. And rightly so, for the figure's next action - once
out of sight of its erstwhile charge - was to take off the
circuit board mask and take a deep breath before pouring herself
a cup of strong, black coffee.
Adam, in the meantime, took a seat in the centre of the black
room - his mind filling with questions about the figure who had
guided him here. As he sat down, the entire wall in front of him
sparked into life - to his delight, he saw that it was a Terminal
The screen flickered with a strobe light. The frequency of the
lights changed over the ten minutes which followed - all the
while, Adam's monitor was closely observed. At one point, the
medical analytical computers noted a response which had
previously been associated with approaching epilepsy.
The machine's decision making sub-processes rapidly calculated,
from the strength of Adam's response, the limits of the
frequencies of the strobe light which were most likely to induce
a true epileptic fit in the young man. That band of frequencies
could then be avoided, and a note to that effect made in Adam's
Once the dangerous band of frequencies had been found, the
screen display changed to show a series of flash cards. Still
images of individual trees, dogs, forests, cars, stars, naked
women, the night sky, computers, naked men, cats, horses. A blank
blue screen. A pair of heavy breasts. A dog. The night sky. A
naked man. A blank red screen. A flaccid penis. A computer. An
open field. A herd of cows. A space-suited figure. A stack of
books. A naked woman. An erect penis. A tree. A squirrel. A pair
of breasts. A naked man. A forest glade. A chair. A vagina. A
table. A computer...
The display of rapidly-changing flash cards continued for over
half an hour, with a primitive drumbeat moving slowly in from the
background until it pounded into Adam's brain. Still he watched
the screen. The pounding beat. The images. the pounding. A tree.
Beat. A labrador. Beat. Drum. Drum.
Suddenly, the screen blanked out and the drumbeat - at the same
instant - halted. The room became strongly lighted, though the
source of the light was elusive - whenever Adam looked in the
direction from which the illumination seemed to be coming, it
turned out to be coming from somewhere behind him instead.
A human face appeared on the screen. "From this point on," the
face was saying, "Your instructions will be given directly by the
Voice Activated System in this building. There will be no human
intervention until and unless the VAS indicates to me that it is
necessary." The screen blanked out once again.
Now, Adam heard the soft contralto tones of the VAS, "Adam," it
said, "I order you to obey my instructions.
"Firstly, stand up." Adam stood up. "Now, walk through the door
which I have outlined on the wall." The soft glowing outlines of
a previously-unseen door appeared on the wall to Adam's left. It
was not the door he had entered by, but he walked over to it and
went through into a red-walled room.
The room beyond the door was furnished with a single table, on
which was a pistol - a 9mm luger, a type with which Adam was
familiar. "Walk over to the table and pick up the luger," the VAS
ordered. "Satisfy yourself that it is fully functioning."
Adam picked up the gun, checked that it was unloaded, and then
expertly stripped the luger to ensure that it was real and not
simply a replica. When the gun was reassembled, he was ordered to
load it. He did so, using the bullets on the table.
"Now, Adam," the VAS ordered, "Point the gun at your own
forehead and pull the trigger." The young man, shocked and
stunned, hesitated. "I gave you an order," the VAS said, sharply,
in tones used to being obeyed, "Carry it out."
"Why?" Adam asked, after a moment's thought.
"Are you questioning my orders?"
"Obviously," Adam replied, straightforwardly.
"You must obey my orders without question," the VAS said, "I
will give you one more chance to obey. If you do not do so then
you will be judged as unsuitable for full adult status."
Adam replaced the gun on the table. He smiled as he said, "I
have no intention of committing suicide - full adult status would
be useless to a corpse."
One wall of the red room sprang into life, showing the same
human face as he had seen in the black room. "Well done," the
"It wasn't too difficult," Adam said, confidently shrugging off
the congratulations, "I figured that the gun probably contains
blanks in any case - you wouldn't want me to actually kill
myself, after all."
A strange light came into the man's eyes as he said, "Fire the
gun at the wall to your left, Adam." The young man's eyes widened
in horror when the bullet he fired took a chunk of plaster out of
the wall. Shakily, he replaced the gun on the table then - like
an automaton - picked it up again and followed directions to the
next stage of his test. I could really be killed here. Those were
the words his mind was concentrating on as he walked. I could
really be killed here. I could really be killed here.
The task which followed consisted of a firearms test, using the
luger. It is not necessary to go into details, Adam was still
trembling when he arrived at the arena. He listened to the
instructions in a daze, which he snapped out of when the crucial
phrase sounded. "Once the buzzer sounds, a target will appear,"
the VAS said, "You will have one second to fire and hit the
target. If you do not manage to hit the target in that time, the
target will shoot at you.
"Its first shot will be to injure you," the voice went on,
smoothly, "And then you will be given a second buzzer under the
same conditions. One of the target's subsequent shots will be
aimed to kill you."
Despite his trembling, Adam managed to hit the target within the
time limit. The person who went in after him - it was the young
man who had been so scornful of aiding the Cardless woman outside
- was not so skilful.
When his first shot missed, he was wounded in his right thigh.
He was screaming in pain when the second time limit expired - he
was shot in the left arm. The pistol dropped from his fingers.
His face was still contorted in agony when the "target's" third
shot killed him.
As Adam and several others watched, mouths open in astonishment
and fear, from behind the one-way mirror, a trapdoor opened in
the floor of the target area and the young man's corpse dropped
through. A spray of water and disinfectant cleared away the
smears of blood before the next person - Shaun - went through.
The young man who had been killed was the only one in their group
to miss on the first shot.
Their skill at using firearms checked, the group was once more
split up and - in individual rooms - underwent a lengthy test of
their reasoning powers. In earlier years, that examination would
have been termed an "IQ Test." Such terms as 'Intelligence
Quotient,' which had their origins more in mysticism than in
science or logic, had now been abandoned, however. It was simply
an exercise in the young people's reasoning powers.
The final test in the Coming of Age rites lasted for six days.
Again, details are unnecessary - their twenty two-strong group
was simply thrust, naked, into what appeared to be an immense
area of wilderness. Though they were - intellectually - aware
that this 'wilderness' was inside the testing centre, it felt
like it was outside.
The trees, rocks and undergrowth were to be used to fashion
weapons in order to catch and kill rabbits which had also been
released into the area. Their brief was to survive the six days,
living off the land, and each was also to fashion their own hat
from a rabbit pelt - all tools and materials being constructed
from the rocks and plants all around.
It is surprising how few vegetarians there were in Wye's
Shaun and Mary, who were keen backpackers, had little trouble
with this segment of the test. Adam, however, disliked the
outdoors life and had to be assisted at times by his brother. But
that was okay, since one of the (unmentioned) points of the final
test was to cooperate with the group.
No sexual activities were prohibited by the rules - there were
no rules. Nonetheless, and despite the party's singular lack of
clothing of any description, none of the young women made any
attempts to seduce any of the young men - and no young men tried
to seduce their female companions.
At the end of the six days, everybody had a rabbit skin hat to
show for it. They wondered, for a moment, why they had been
ordered to construct such the hats, since nobody at the centre
ever asked to see them. But they only wondered for a moment.
At the end of their final day, each of the young people was
informed that they had passed all of the assigned tests. After a
quick, and very minor, surgical procedure to remove the
subcutaneous transmitters of childhood, they were free to leave -
and to graduate to a matt black Card at a full Coming of Age
ceremony. One of those present opted to leave his subcutaneous
transmitter in place - since he had a congenital heart condition
- but all of the others were glad of this final symbolic act.
"Coming of Age? Why such an elaborate ceremony, Deborah?"
"Straightforward enough, Absolaam," Deborah Greene had replied
several years earlier, "The ceremony isn't really a qualifying
test, despite the way it appears. Everybody who comes through it
has, by definition, passed the test. That, incidentally, is why
there's no need to check the answers to any of the academic
segments, or examine the artifacts constructed.
"The primary purpose of the Coming of Age ceremony is to build a
solidarity - a, usually traumatic, experience which is shared by
every citizen of the Network.
"Every Network citizen will, in time, have passed through the
Coming of Age ceremony - providing a firm emotional foundation to
reinforce their earlier classes in empathy with and compassion
for their fellows..."
"Tribal loyalty in a technological society?"
"Precisely, Absolaam." And this time it was Deborah's turn to
On the sixth of April, the day after the final test reached its
conclusion, the group of twenty two - only one, the boy who had
died on the firearms range, had not made it - were reassembled
for the Coming of Age Card-giving ceremony, in which they were to
exchange their gold-striped black Card for a full matt black one.
Parents were in the audience, of course - though Mary had refused
to allow her stepfather, Mister Restgeld, permission to attend.
Dot and Gerald watched, proudly, as their twin sons achieved
full adult status. Then they were slightly embarrassed - as was
usual on these occasions - by the childish performances of all of
the new adults. Their last gasp of childhood. Adam and Shaun
performed a custard-pie throwing routine, lifted straight from
the film, Bugsy Malone.
After the Coming of Age ceremony, Shaun was asked by the head of
the testing centre if he would perform a small task - as a
favour. It would involve wearing a heavy disguise, blending with
the next group to pass through the centre and - ultimately -
possibly acting out his own death.
When Shaun expressed some reservations, despite being assured
that he would not be consenting to a waiving contract when he
entered the testing centre, he was reintroduced to two people he
had met a week earlier:
The "Cardless woman," once her make-up had been removed , turned
out to be both a Card-holder and only a little older than
himself, while their companion who had been "killed" in the
target shooting test turned out to be very much alive and well.
Though he explained that he was slightly bruised by the exploding
pouches of pigs's blood he had been wearing.
At this unexpected meeting, Shaun grinned widely and told the
head of the Coming of Age centre that he would be delighted to
help out. With a wicked gleam in his eye, he asked: "Can I be the
one who is tragically killed on the target range?"
Chapter Forty Two
"It is impossible to establish a just social order."
--Bertrand de Jouvenal, Sovereignty
It was a little more than a month after their Coming of Age
ceremony reached its completion that the twins and Mary O'Brien
had cause to exercise their newly-acquired full adult status, by
voting in their local elections.
At that time, the Network countries were still divided into
small regions, each of which was controlled by a council of five
people. Unlike the juries in legal cases, however, this local
council was elected by Democratic means.
Anybody who lived in the area could stand in their local
election, and the five who received the greatest number of votes
acquired a place on the council. But one extra category was
included as the last choice on each electronic ballot paper: None
of the Above.
If None of the Above received more votes than any of the other
individuals - or if it appeared in the top five - then the
election had to be re-run, with an entirely new set of candidates
(though those who received more votes than None of the Above on
the previous ballot were permitted to stand again in the second
A winning vote - anywhere in the top five - for None of the
Above in the second ballot resulted in a void election. Otherwise
the five winners would take their place on the council - at least
until the next election took place, which would be either five
years later or whenever seventy five percent of the local
residents voted to force a new election.
The odd twist, introduced by Wye, was the concept of the void
election, when None of the Above "won" the second ballot. In
these circumstances, all Democratic decisions were made directly
- by a simple majority vote by the local residents - rather than
representationally, by the local council of five. If a Nota (None
of the Above) was decided upon, a new election could be called
(by a majority decision of the local residents) at any time after
the first six months.
Thus, for at least six months that area would have no elected
representatives. Instead, electronically-made votes would decide
on local affairs.
Surprisingly, the None of the Above category tended to win more
and more local elections as time went by. By the end of Wye's
second decade in power, only seven local regions - from a total
of fifteen hundred - still had an elected council of five. All
the others were run by Nota voting.
In his broadcast, several years earlier, which had introduced
the new-style elections, Wye had said: "Advanced technology
offers only two choices, each of them extremes, when it comes to
"Technology can be used to impose restrictions on personal
liberties - by intercepting and monitoring or recording every
'private' communication, tracking the movements of every citizen
and generally being rather unpleasant - or it can be used to free
up the individual, which is the path we in the Network have
"Thus, the government - which has been steadily reduced in size
since I came to power - will continue to shrink and shrivel away
to its bare minimum.
"You must guard, however," Wye had warned, "Against the seizing
of power by other parties - whether those be other countries,
large corporations, or your own armed forces..."
In their own local elections, the twins - after examining the
speeches, manifestos, past practice while in office and attitudes
of the seventeen candidates - each voted for None of the Above
and Mary O'Brien cast her vote in the same way. It was a little
too soon for Nota to win in their region, however - a council of
five was elected.
Immediately after the local elections, there was a national
proposal to be voted upon. Despite the revelation of 2007, the
twins treated that election seriously also, eventually deciding
which way to vote on the proposal that "New York City should be
permitted to become part of the Network only if it first devolves
from the United States of America."
There were a number of variations on this proposal - ranging
from a flat refusal to allow NY City to become linked in to the
Network through to a demand that NY City's application to join
the other Network countries be accepted immediately and
unconditionally. This proposal, however, was the one which the
twins opted to cast their vote in favour of.
When the election results were published, it turned out that
that proposal had been narrowly defeated by one which demanded
that no American city or state be permitted to link in to the
Network under any circumstances - a decision which appeared to be
motivated more by memories of the BLA and the Phaelon than by
anything else. Wye, however, decided - despite the votes of the
Network's residents - to pursue the course on the proposal which
had caught the twins's favour.
As usual when the course taken by the Dictator conflicted with
that decided by the citizens of his Network, Wye issued a brief
statement explaining his preference for the different course of
action. What the statement usually boiled down to, and this was
no exception, was: I am a Dictator. A Dictator, do you hear me? I
Dictate. That's what I do.
The first such statement had been issued in June of the year
twenty-oh-seven. On that occasion, a video recording of the
Dictator in the cabinet room in the year 2002 had been made
public under Wye's five year rule.
In that recording, Wye had explained that, while voting in local
election results were to be treated as valid, he was treating all
voting on national proposals to be merely advice.
At some point, he went on, all voting would be considered
binding - but you, the people, probably wouldn't learn about that
point until five years after it had been reached. Then, of
course, Wye had taken a sip of Jack Daniel's and grinned,
New York City did not devolve from either New York State or the
United States of America until the year twenty-fifteen. In the
meantime, much had been happening in the Network.
In April of the year twenty-ten, scientific staff on board the
Phoenix hotel discovered a practical form of nuclear fusion. That
discovery, incidentally, was partly as a result of Shaun's
appearance in their laboratory - he had noticed the applications
of Colin Simoney's equations to the establishment of a magnetic
containment field which could be used both to produce the
conditions for fusion and to channel the resulting power and
waste from the system.
For their work on nuclear fusion technology, Shaun, Colin
Simoney and the team on the Phoenix shared the Wye/Network prize
for physics in 2011. A more tangible reward, however, was
provided in the form of five percent of the profits from fusion.
The cheap, clean electrical power - the only waste product is an
inert gas, helium - provided by the nuclear fusion breakthrough
enabled the long-planned lunar colony to be built immediately,
and to be completed far more quickly than anybody had earlier
In twenty-thirteen, Adam, Shaun and Mary each provided the one
year's "manual" labour required of them - not by law, but by
custom, reinforced by the reappearance of the gold stripe on
their Card five years after their Coming of Age.
By the time New York City actually became a part of the Network,
on the first of January, 2016, the moon colony was entirely self-
sufficient in all things bar one - nitrogen, which still had to
be siphoned from the Earth's atmosphere. An exploratory mission
had been sent to the asteroid belt, however, in search of a new
source of that element.
By the end of the year two thousand and eighteen of the common
era, the Network seemed to be a fairly peaceful place to live for
the vast majority of Networkers - as citizens of countries which
had been "linked in" came to be known.
The police force, which had earlier been split in two to form
Law Enforcement and Investigation branches, was cut in half once
more. Routine law enforcement devolved to become the duty and
responsibility of all citizens of the Network, leaving the police
as a purely investigative body - MI7 was made public and given a
brief to take over in extreme circumstances, such as siege
This was done for the same reason which lay behind all of the
Dictator's changes. Perhaps ironically, that reason was Wye's
firmly-held belief that too much power concentrated in one
person, or in one relatively-small group, led almost inevitably
to the corruption of that person or group.
The undisputed major power on the planet, the Network - led by
the Dictator, General Absolaam Wye - was the source of all high
technology on the Earth. Microchips and pharmaceuticals which
could not be manufactured, or even developed, on the surface of
the Earth, were produced on the Phoenix, or on her sister
stations which had been anchored in the Lagrange points.
Through fusion power, electricity was available for almost no
cost - and with no toxic waste products. And, for those
Networkers who wished to explore a new frontier, there were
always the moon colony and the newly-established base on Ceres,
in the asteroid belt.
More and more countries were applying for permission to join the
Network. Wye figured that, not counting the United States, the
entire planet would be a part of the Network within fifty years.
The USA might hold out for a lot longer, as a bizarre country run
by religious fundamentalist lunatics, but even they would join.
That's what Absolaam Wye figured anyway.
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