Euro-police, in their fluorescent yellow romper-suits and fluorescent lime-green smash-helmets with black, one-way face-visors strode the streets, their hands never far from their nerve-guns. There was little point asking them the way. It was a Euro-Union regulation that police should not work in their own country of origin. They looked at once ridiculous and menacing; but neither as ridiculous as most of the population that milled past, nor as menacing as a small but significant proportion of them. People wore clothes in every shade of fluorescent plastic, usually either advertising some product of the multi-national corporations or displaying some obscene picture or joke. The latest craze was for the head-to-toe display of the name of some soft drink or other commercial product--for this the wearer was paid nothing, but seemed to take a slavish delight in advertising the products of the rich, powerful and faceless multi-nationals. Perhaps it gave a sense of some vicarious power, of being linked with some force that mattered rather than being a directionless, impotent atom whose voice could never be heard over the endless, pre-packaged chaos.
On street-corners and around the virtual-reality arcades loitered the rat-packs--young men and a few women (you couldn't tell which were which any more than you could with the police) wearing hideous rubber masks or with grotesquely tattooed faces, often horribly scarred with viscoburn. Viscoburn was illegal, but the rat-packs knew where to get it and would spray any one for a few ecus. They were universally hated and feared, but more than half the population had regular dealings with them as they were the main source of bootleg cigarettes, alcohol and other commodities prohibited by the Union.
"Sometimes I wonder where it ends," said Allie.
"Where what ends?" asked Sue.
Allie thought. She couldn't answer. What was "it" that must end somewhere? People had been asking the question in ones and twos since at least the '80s of the last century. Now more and more people were asking it, but there was never an answer. Therein lay the secret of the whole system. You could never pin it down. You were free, weren't you? You could do what you liked, couldn't you? Society wasn't controlled by any one as it was by the Communists. It was a free market. What people got was what they wanted, what they paid for. No one was making them have anything or do anything or be anything. People could have any opinions or none. So what was "it" that made them all seem so much the same? Wasn't it just reality? Just life as it is? There could be nothing beyond this, now or ever. It just was. Could you revolt against it? Of course you could. Every rock-group promoted by the multi-national virtu-disk companies was screaming rebellion and revolt. Every other television programme was tearing down the system. But they were all part of the system. Revolt and rebellion was an integral part of the mechanism; part of what kept people perpetually unbalanced and deprived of the emotional security that even the love of a tyranny can provide. But how could you revolt against the whole thing? Escape from it all? You couldn't--because you were told there was no "whole thing", and even if your eyes told you otherwise, you could never quite put it into words. Vocabulary is the necessary tool of thought, and vocabulary was monopolised by the media.
Without the words to diagnose the problem, one was impotent. How could you revolt against a tyranny whose existence you could not define? How could you be against "reality" or "life as it is"?
Allie struggled. "But don't you see, it's horrible."
"Well--everything. It must end somewhere."
"What, everything? The end of the world, you mean?"
"No, just the end of all this."
"But what do you mean?"
"I mean--I mean that." Allie pointed up ahead. There was a tremor in her voice, for what she saw was a sort of living representation of what she had in mind. It seemed incredible, but there it was--`the end of all this'. About a hundred yards up the street was a high iron railing--something like a park railing, only perhaps twelve feet high or more. It ran right across the road, cutting it off. Here populo-transports ran up and down the street, plasticated hordes perambulated, garish litter eddied in the breeze leaving scarcely a single bright-yellow thermo-paving-block undecorated with commercial debris. Beyond the railing none of this existed. The street continued, but the road was no longer dayglo-tangerine nor the pavement yellow; there was no litter, no fluorescent crowds. There was--Allie could not quite see what there was, but there was a clear sense that the street, as it continued beyond the railing was normal--not good especially, not bad, just sane. Precisely what this part of the street--this whole world--was not.
Yet it was all very odd. Quite difficult to see what exactly was happening. The populo-transports drove toward the railings without slowing down. The fluorescent mass walked up to them. They did not pass through them or crash into them. They did not stop. It was just that their world seemed to finish there. Perhaps it continued elsewhere. Perhaps they just `jumped' from there to wherever it continued without knowing. All that was clear was that the railing was the end of this world, that this was "the last street in Babylon"--A curious phrase that entered her head unbidden and yet seemed to make perfect sense of everything.
"What are you talking about?" asked Sue.
"Look at those railings up ahead."
"What railings? I can't see any railings."
"I mean straight ahead of us. Right across the street."
"Is this some kind of joke? There are no railings across the street."
"Yes there are. Right across it, blocking it off. There. Can't you see?"
"Don't be stupid. How could there be anything across the street? Where do you think that transport's going?"
"Well, it's just coming up to the railings now and--there you are! It's disappeared!"
"What do you mean disappeared? I can still see it. You either need your eyes tested or your head tested."
"But look--we're coming up to the railings now. You can't tell me they aren't here. You can't walk through them, can you?"
But she did. Sue walked into the railings and disappeared. Allie tried it. Just ignored them and tried to walk through them as if they weren't there; but they were there and very solid, too. People were passing her, jostling her, cursing her for standing still in the middle of the street; all this was going on behind her and beside her, but in front of her were the railings where--for her--everything stopped. It was very curious. She was up against the locked gate. The railings were composed of quite thin square-cut iron bars set some six inches apart. They presented no barrier to vision, and yet she could only half-see what was beyond them. She had more an idea than a clear view of a much quieter street: tall, black cars with shining chrome bumpers, women in tailored coats or flared skirts with white gloves; little girls in straw hats. She was not sure, but it seemed almost to be in black and white, like an old film, rather than in colour.
"Git outta the way yer *$[[questiondown]]%[[questiondown]][[yen]] little [[Sigma]][[yen]][[section]][[questiondown]][[Delta]][[Omega]]!" A weasel-faced little rat-packer kneed her hard in the thigh, expertly hitting the spot which made her whole leg feel paralysed.
"Moof alonk zitizen before I plaze you unter arrest." Alarmed by the harsh, guttural voice, she looked up into the blank visor of a Euro-cop. The plastic gloved hand was drawing the nerve-gun. Allie looked harmless enough, but she was behaving oddly, refusing to move, and you couldn't tell what any one might be carrying these days--besides it would be 'sexist' to treat small frightened girls in any way differently from loud thuggish males. The Euro-police zapped your nerves first and asked questions afterwards--if you ever learned to control your facial muscles enough to talk.
Suddenly the gate swung open. Allie had the impression of a tall woman in a gleaming silver helmet, erect and formal, yet gentle, brave and kind. She gave a strange salute, her arm across her chest, her right hand touching her left shoulder.
"I think you had better get in here quickly, miss," she said.