2036 - The Metropolitan, Birmingham.
Verrick leaned over in front of Isobel and tried to look into her face. She had been seated on the low white couch in the Japanese area of the director's suite. It would have been a long way to look up, so she stared at the top button of Verrick's jacket.
“Been a long day, Sir.”
He straightened up and walked casually over to a small wooden drinks tray on a lacquered oriental cabinet.
“Oh yes. Tidying up loose talk, that seemed so casual and throwaway at the time. Don't you just hate it when that happens?”
He stood in her line of vision and lowered a small decorated cup held on the tips of his fingers.
“Saké? Excuse fingers.”
Isobel stared at the cup. She'd never been offered a drink in a director's suite. It was a signal of great privilege and not one to decline.
She took the cup and watched the clear liquid tremble with her nerves. Her voice was almost a whisper.
“Thank you, Sir.”
Verrick sat at the end of the couch, deliberately leaning back to force her away from the ramrod position on the edge. Isobel dutifully turned, but Verrick was staring into space.
“Yes, Isobel, it's all a bit of a storm in a... well, an ochoko actually.”
He smiled at her and raised his cup in salutation.
They both sipped and Isobel let the sour, dry taste pervade her throat and nostrils. It warmed her to her stomach. Verrick seemed very pleased with himself.
“You're not still upset about that live feed, are you? Stupid reporter should have briefed you first. But you understand why it's best not to speak off the cuff?”
The saké seemed to be clearing her thoughts, rather than clouding them. It helped her to find her voice.
“It's a subject that's coming up more frequently. I really don't know how much longer the media can put out programme after programme of positive spin and ignore the inevitable issues.”
“Inevitable issues, Isobel, have usually been solved with an adjustment of the allowances system. Do you remember the public disquiet after the unfortunate shooting of Nathaniel Amschel? Did you notice how just a twenty minute extension of the Dreemfeelds' allowance cleared the streets before curfew until everybody had forgotten all about it? People can be persuaded to trade in their outrage, you know? Your Prime Minister knows how to work his public.”
“Not everyone is content to sacrifice their free time to fantasy games on the internet.”
Verrick waved the cup in small circles.
“When professionals reach your pay grade, Isobel, a world of otherwise forbidden entertainment opens up. Music, drama, a whole art world that the general public are denied. It's to stop them harbouring dangerous thoughts. Thoughts that can be shared as common cultural artefacts based on erroneous thinking. They don't enjoy music, or art or drama. They just want to pick it up and use it as a blunt instrument. If they didn't have the Dreemfeelds with which to work out their... urges, to posture and brag to one another about their virtual lifestyle, they'd be back out in the streets, demanding pubs and ghastly social clubs. The only thing between your pay grade and theirs are the junior professionals. Granted, they may not all use their Dreemfeelds allowance, even turning down social evenings in an exclusive company Deck. So, what do they do, these mavericks who eschew the television and social media? They just go and work at home. Just like you used to, before you had a life. They're very content working their way toward a new grade, or crossing over into another career, because their allowances go up. See? It's those allowances again. It's only when they're stirred up by irrational rumours that the old insecurities return and they think the world is ending.”
The saké was having its effect on Isobel's mind. Verrick's words seemed to be very clear and, in this atmosphere, very true. She saw no good coming from civil unrest. The media's job was to promote a peaceful perspective.
“You see, Isobel, whatever this incident was about, it's really for ChemKraft International to deal with. A matter of internal discipline. If we keep amplifying it on the news, it gives the impression that it's more than an isolated experience. It's very important that the public thinks it's all over and done with. We don't want people going around convinced that there's a fire down in the engine room while we set a course for uncertainty. There must be no talk of insurrection, no credibility for Luddites and a smooth transition between the necessary steps to achieve progress.”
Verrick's voice had gradually become slower and deeper. Isobel took a long breath and exhaled saké fumes through her nose and mouth. A voice in her head was saying that when you just let go of an impossible struggle, you're free to move on to more profitable pursuits.
“Yes, Sir. We... we need to move on...”
Random Skies: Heng is the sixth episode in a series of speculative fiction set in a parallel world where the surely unthinkable has already started to happen.