This story is dedicated to everyone who has selflessly given their time to make institutions like the NHS work and offer hope to people in their darkest hours. Soon it will be all too missed. The story doesn’t have a title so if anyone wants to think of one, that would be spiffing.
Ed’s communicatorlobe gave off a high-pitched shrill to inform him that one of his three trusted contactors on his list urgently needed to speak to him. Wife, son and work. He only had those three. His son, Tim was just fourteen and only recently been fitted with his, he was touched that he had included him on his list so felt duty-bound to do the same. This time it was work. He had only got in off the night shift three hours before and was hoping for a day in the sack before trusted contactors two and three returned home around five.
It had been a quiet shift. And yet those were the ones that caused him greater difficulty when he made it to his bed. As if doing nothing was more tiring than fighting fires. Not that Ed was about to complain. Long gone were the days of risk after risk, night after night. Now, the drones could be sent in to do most of the dangerous stuff. The downside of this was cutbacks, Ed was continually having to justify his own worth as to avoid the ongoing staff culls that were becoming an endemic in the industry. Sometimes, mechanical failures were almost greeted with cheers (as long as no harm came to anyone) as it proved that real firefighters were still needed.
He connected the device via his glasses and greeted the Station Master.
“Hey, Chief.” Ed managed to say, still half asleep. He was waiting for the request that would inevitably accompany this call. The Chief is not big on social calls.
“I hate to do this, Ed. But there has been a bomb in a primary school. Ward 13, did you hear the explosion?” The Chief asked.
“I was dead to the world.” Ed replied.
“Well sadly, so are a number of children. I’ve called everyone in. You know you don’t have to, but… Well.” The Chief pleaded.
“Chief! For the love of God, you think I am going to tell you I need my sleep when a bomb has gone off in a school. Locatialise me via the lobe and give me ten minutes. Will I need clearance?” Ed responded.
“You’re a good man, Ed.” The Chief said.
“I’m a father. Once you’re in that club the rules change.” Ed quipped.
“I know.” Replied the Chief. “I’m on my way, too. Mark is waiting at your door.”
“Sounds almost planned!” Ed made his last joke of the morning.
Ed put the uniform he had only just taken off back on went to the door via the kitchen. Grabbing a shift meal, he expelled the contents into his mouth. The equivalent of a three-course meal without any effort or pleasure. Sea bass with broccoli, chicken soup and pineapple for dessert. He activated his internal sleep debilitator and made his way outside. Mark beeped to attract Ed’s attention despite the fact that he knew he was there, and he was in a regulation fire service vehicle blocking the entire street.
“Have you heard?” Mark asked as Ed entered the vehicle. Careering off before he could even put his seat belt on.
“Bits.” Ed replied. “Terrorists?”
“You would not believe it. Former pupil. Captain of the cricket team. Home-made bomb on family sports day. What is going on with the world?” Mark answered.
“Casualties?” Ed asked.
“Unknown so far. Went off in a class full of seven-year olds though, they were getting changed with their parents for the sack race or something. Looks pretty bad. Main crew has arrived, all the back-up, including us should get there in about, well, now.” Ed smiled and brought the vehicle to a halt.
The area were the emergency services entered had been cordoned off, meaning that the streams of people fleeing the scene blocked by the hordes of idiots trying to a catch a glimpse of it were sent the other way. Their kits were laid out waiting for them as the Deputy called them over.
“Chief should be here in a bit. In the meantime, well, you know the drill. Unfortunately, we always thought it would only ever be a drill, but this is real. Too real. You’re gonna see things in there that might stay with you forever. Be strong. We’re all going in. No excuses and no ranks. Let’s get those kids out.” Deputy Andy said.
It was hard not to get caught up in the emotion of it all, but Ed knew this was a time for heroes with heads, foolhardy actions could cause more damage than good. Firstly, they needed to get the drones in to survey the situation.
The drones merely confirmed the gravity of the scenario before them. All the technology in the world was not going to be much use now. The drones relayed images of charred bodies on the floor. Heart-breaking scenes that caused more than one firefighter to rush in without the proper equipment. Seconds later, one of them returned, empty-handed and as a result of the lack of vision inside the building, after crashing into a wall that hitherto had threatened to collapse, and now went through with the threat. The falling wall was accompanied by screams. Screams that became silent as the intense heat stifled them.
Andy was somewhat direct in his appraisal of the unprofessional nature of the first reconnaissance mission and made it patently clear that everybody would follow his orders. Four seconds later, the actual Chief arrived and made it patently clear that everybody would follow his orders.
The drones were capable of locating movement and determining were the survivors could be found. Once they were located, it was down to the firefighters to extract them safely. Their suits could withstand the temperatures inside, but all knew that the clock was ticking as those inside, could not.
Ed followed the drone and received the information on the airscreen that it provided him with. The scene inside was not a pretty sight. The drone’s progress stopped by bumping into charred bodies that littered the floor. Ed knew that an application of dousefoam would have this under control in no time, but that had never been tested when there were potential casualties still inside. This would have to be an old-school rescue in a new-school that was supposedly fireproof. Ed had been in so many fireproof buildings that he wondered just who was in charge of the racket selling the stickers. The temperature in the room was well over 200ºc, the drone indicated two people moving to his right and was informed that their estimated survival duration would be less than one minute.
The drone found them and told him they were kids, youngsters caught up in the midst of something they could not comprehend and might prevent them from ageing a day more. Ed was the second, as far as he knew, to break protocol. He got to them in twenty seconds, giving him forty to extract them, maximum. Forty-five total would be better.
The kids were too scared to move and there was no time for explanations. Ed grabbed them in a manner that would lead to social services’ intervention under normal circumstances and dragged them the best he could towards the door way were dronestrechers were in position to remove them to intensive care. He had to shake one of them who was so panic-stricken that he could not move, just to assure himself that he was still alive. His eyes seemed to have left the building before he did, as if he had accepted his fate. On the second shake he stirred and lashed out unwillingly at Ed. With the same action, the boy disconnected the oxygen strap that was protecting Ed from the fumes.
“The dosage will be negligible.” He thought to himself as he made his way out, ensuring that the kids were on their way to care, he checked the drone one final time. Then he heard a sound. He was not protected, but he was much more protected then the child whose sounds were uttered. Half-holding his breath, he rushed in, sensing that his equipment was decomposing as he worked, desperately, perhaps even dangerously, he searched for the body that was making the noise. He found him, pulled on his cindered leg and shuddered as chunks of skin and bone came away in his hand. The screams loudened, he managed to get hold of an unburnt part and load the kid onto the drone crudely, there was no time for etiquette. His mask was now burning and would melt his skin. He had no choice but to remove it and make for the door the best he could.
Once outside, he was hosed down and taken into an ambulance. Removing the rest of his equipment, how many times? He tried to utter. How many times had he told them that the equipment was not up to the job. Our trading partner for fire products now was Bolivia. Hardly a nation at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. But since the changes in the trading regulation and the ban imposed by the EU on sales to the UK, we have had to look elsewhere for our suppliers. Gone is the state-of-the-art German equipment and we can’t afford the American or the Japanese equivalents. So, Bolivia it is, and the name of the firm is Quemachungo, which basically translates as something like shitty burns.
The kids were incapable of speech, gazing at the burning building with a mixture of fear and longing to return. Ed knew something was wrong. Ed knew the drones had missed something.
The girl managed to utter, at a reading that troubled the decibel meter, “Baby Gary”.
“Fucking second-rate machinery.” Ed screamed. “There is a baby still in there.”
“Leave it. It’s too dangerous.” Another said.
“Don’t ever refer to a baby as it in my presence.” Ed barked, and before anyone could respond, he was inside and unprotected. Without the drone’s assistance, he was unable to locate any lifeforms, but assumed that the baby would be close to the place where he had rescued the others. He began to feel light-headed but remained steadfast in his quest, until he saw a tiny hand jutting out. The creature was still alive, barely, as he rushed to the exit that used to be an entrance with him in his arms. As if his miniscule frame had adapted itself to survival in such harsh conditions, the relatively clean air of London seemed to trigger a reaction that caused liquid to seep from his mouth, liquid that soon became blood as baby Gary turned lifeless.
Ed looked at the two he had saved with a face that said he had failed them and fell to the floor, his body finally informing him that that was quite enough for one day.
Ed was taken to the nearest hospital that had activated the emergency protocol which meant that it could take patients irrespective of their insurance status for a period of seventy-two hours to perform services on ‘near-death cases’. Once their NDS (near-death-status) was below 50%, these patients would be sent to the billing department to view whether their stay could be extended, those with sufficient health insurance allowed to stay and complete their treatment, those without it, left to the acquiescence of what remains of the public health system.
The health system was just one of the aspects of British life that had taken a battering in the decade of the twenties. A decade most people hoped would soon be forgotten as the bright future they were sold nearly twenty years ago finally took shape. In the meantime, a series of draconian measures, initially put forward as necessary means to curb the tide of economic disaster, were put into place that in the long-term had the effect of curbing civil liberties, even more, and making people willingly surrender their remaining freedoms into the hands of the government through the agreement to terms and conditions hastily scrolled down to the bottom of in order to sign them and gain access to voting rights on the next singing sensation.
But it was not all bad news. Progress had been made in many spheres of life saw vast improvements that made life in the thirties much more comfortable. Great strides were made in the area of retro-active criminal proceedings on the breach of civil liberties in the past. The Department of Post Intentionality Denouncement made it possible for any work of fiction, piece of music or film to be tried in accordance with the standards of the day and sent for re-editing. This process meant that any mistreatment on the grounds of gender, sexuality, race or belief could be redressed and have the work updated to be more in line with the reality of modern Britain. Highlights of their work included the addition of a true ethnic picture of Paris and London into Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, the removal of any reference to homosexuality being a no-go area in the bible, and the inclusion of a representative number of toads in the ‘Frog Song’ by Paul McCartney.
Technology in this area had seen major investment, far more than any other item on the Government’s budget, which meant that leisure consumers were able to highlight violations deemed serious via Twitter and the Department would set to work on adapting it accordingly. The idea was that by 2040 nobody would be able to be offended ever again by anything in the Arts, but that was too good an idea to overlook and so all the rewrites and tweaks featured the new ‘third-level adverts’ which meant that a company was able to purchase a word and once the reader or listener came into contact with it, an image of the brand would be flashed into their consciousness. The more the companies invested, the common the word they could purchase. Coca-Cola owned the world ‘health’, McDonalds owned ‘walk’ and Apple, who refused to participate initially, were allotted ‘Android’ as a punishment. Google, the official cyber-partner of the Government, controlled every preposition in the English language and alternated their subliminal adverts in accordance with logarithms based on user habits.
At first, many people considered that the quality of entertainment suffered, but in the end the 2031 version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ featuring a black lawyer defending a white civil servant for cultural misappropriation of the standard blues time signature was eventually considered an improvement. Manuel was promoted to the post of hotel manager in the re-edition of Fawlty Towers, and the members of the 1966 England world cup winning side were ‘proportionally re-coloured’ to represent the current demographic of the nation.
Despite Europe being essentially taboo, a flourishing black market meant that those with enough financial power could enjoy their brie and Rioja still, while those who were forced to make their purchases at official ‘Britmarkets’, which only sold UK and Commonwealth products, made do with the consolation of doing their bit. Following the departure of the nation from the Union, the effects on agriculture were felt immediately, yield fell and with it quality standards. By 2028, the percentage of actual dairy product in milk, cheese or yoghurt had fallen by sixty-three percent. In real terms, skimmed milk in 2016 now seemed like gold-top in comparison.
Yet Europe and one of its success stories, IKEA, was responsible for Britain’s favourite gameshow. ‘IKEAWANG’ was a show in which contestants fought to put a product to the trade name of items for sale in the popular store, popular in the sense of technically contraband. Fierce battles took place as regular members of the public locked horns to compete for bookcases and dining sets that they could show off in their modest homes. If you wanted to win the star prize of a fully-furnished interior for a 42m2 flat, you really had to know your Färgrik from your Råskog unless you wanted to go home with just a Kallax.
Back on Ed’s ward, what he thought was the worst day of his life up to now, was about to get more than a trifle worse. The children that he had saved, and the one he failed to save, lost their parents in the tragedy. Under the terms of the Last Contact During Tragedy Act (2027), all three became the responsibility of Ed. This meant that he was responsible for organising (by that we mean paying for), first off, the funeral of baby Gary. Given the circumstances of his death, a full investigation and autopsy would need to be performed and these things do not come cheap. Ed was still in an induced coma, so it was his wife who was informed of this new state of affairs.
Any equity owned by the children’s parents may be liable for seizure should they be posthumously be deemed as having put their children at risk by entering a zone declared on the potential incident list. This list was far from exclusive and places as innocuous as primary schools regularly entered the list due to their location within the proximity of two kilometres of a known suspect. A known suspect did not actually have to have committed a crime, whistle-blowers were paid ten pounds for a positive denouncement, with this figure rising as high as twenty for suspects of an Islamic background.
In all likelihood, the children’s parents would be found guilty of misadventure and their remaining family members would have to nominate a person to serve the sentence on their behalf or pay the corresponding fine. As the school was in a Band C income bracket catchment zone, the maximum salary that they could earn would mean it would take eleven years to pay off the most lenient scenario. Unless they had a surprise millionaire sister (not that a million pounds was a big deal any more), this tragedy would have a long-lasting effect on those left behind.
Ed’s wife, Kate, looked on anxiously as the situation was explained to her. They would have to take charge of the surviving children in the scenario that there was a posthumous misadventure ruling, as this would mean the next of kin would be deemed unfit to care for the infants. The government official simply told her that the best scenario would be to hope the other two died as well, as three funerals would be vastly cheaper. At first, it felt like the words had not registered in her head, then they did, and she smashed a stool over the official’s head. Another charge to add to the list.
Kate was arrested and had the right to updates to her husband’s status removed. The kids, Paul and Sarah, got better, as did Ed, this meant that all three would be discharged at the same time. Having to house two more people in their dwelling meant that they would also be liable for an overcrowding fine under the terms of the 2030 Urban Dwelling Act. When Kate’s mobile infostation was reactivated, her first notification was the bank signing on their behalf the credit for costs of disposal for baby Gary, the repayment terms being eight-hundred pounds per month.
And so, Ed returned home. His actual son, Tim, having to share with Paul, his new state-assigned brother, and Emily on the sofa in the meantime. The loan covering baby Gary meant the idea of finding anywhere bigger was wholly unfeasible, as was the possibility of extra income while Ed continued to recuperate. His pay in the meantime was reduced by twenty-five percent still they struggled to make ends meet.
The Chief came to visit him two days later to assure him that the fire service would give him its full backing and that he needn’t worry. The only possible downside could be a police investigation into any negligence on the part of the fire service in response to the incident. The Chief, once again, gave him his utmost assurances that this was not even a possibility and bade him farewell, despite having sent a list to the newly-founded government inquiry of members of his team whose actions could be considered questionable, if not negligent, and with Ed’s name being top of the list.
The children never recovered. Asthma was the least of their health problems, and the unclassifiable psychological scars preventing them from sleeping and relating with other children. The loan was doubled as costs soared. Both Ed and Kate went to see the Borough Infant Office but were told time and time again that the children were their responsibility and that if they abandoned them they would be sent to prison. The children’s maternal grandparents tried to take them, or at least help financially, but now Ed and Kate’s bank account was monitored and any unauthorised payment would be diverted to the government and added to the total owing on the loan. The grandfather devised a plan to escape to France with the children but was detained at the border. Anyone over sixty-five could now be myocardically deactivated and the cost of the old guy’s deadly heart attack was now added to the bill.
It had been a tough six months when Ed was deemed fit to return to work by the medical commission. He looked forward to having a normal life once again. There had been the rigmarole of his public service award, a medal for bravery and recommendation for promotion in a Band B district. But that was just noise. Upon his return, he was told that he would have to perform office duties pending the findings of the commission, and that this meant his pay would be reduced. For the first time, their combined income would be less than the repayments of the loan. It was hard to put on a brave face.
The kids were young, but not too young to see what was going on. Tim rebelled and Paul and Sarah knew their presence was the reason for all this misery. Paul, still not even eight, decided to escape on his own during the night and made it one hundred metres before a tram ran him over. Once again, Kate and Ed were told that they had been lucky as only Sarah remained.
Tim’s rebellion culminated in an obsession with fire. Ed had never had to practice his trade at home but was awoken by a tell-tale aroma during the night as Tim set fire to all of Sarah’s possessions. They were forced into temporary accommodation in Band E.
By the time they got into Band E housing, the inquiry had found Ed to be negligent and dismissed him from the fire service. Forcing him to return his medal and with the Wikipedia entry on the event updated to enhance his culpability and that of his colleagues.
Dismissal meant that he was not eligible for employment for a period of six months and would then only be able to opt for menial Band E employment. The only thing Tim ever said to Sarah was that he hoped she would die soon too, and Sarah never spoke again.
She chose not to speak at first, then this decision was vindicated as her continually frail health took a tumble. Now there was no option to extend the loan, which was facing foreclosure on the next defaulted payment. First she sneezed, then she coughed, then she shook. Within minutes she was in a coma from which she would never exit. The doctors claimed on the medical certificate that the coma had been caused by insufficient parenting, which meant Ed and Kate were liable for the outcome of the scenario.
“Let’s run.” Kate said to Ed. The year was 2034 yet the Band E hospital would have made Florence shudder. Sarah had irreparable lung damage as a result of the explosion, along with inadequate care in the meantime. The latter was also the basis for charges against the couple. “Let’s take Tim and make it to France.” Kate begged.
“We’ll never make it past the border controls.” He responded with a tone of resignation.
“I’d rather die trying than continue living here.” She told him.
They said their goodbyes to Sarah and drove into the night. They had no money to pay the clandestine groups operating to remove British citizens to places like Syria and Libya, where they could live in peace. They would have to appeal to the benevolence of one of the few resistance groups still in operation that took it upon themselves to rescue people from the curse of Britain. The resistance had a panoply of scalps to its name, helping many liberals and intellectuals flee to continue their work in far-flung corners of the globe.
Following a series of fortunate circumstances that meant making contact was by far the easiest part of this story, they were taken to its headquarters just outside Dover from where it ran voyages across the Post Disattachment Straits.
There was not a dry eye in the house as the tale was told, Ed having to stop to cough little globules of blood into his last remaining handkerchief as his body continued not to allow him to forget that fateful afternoon. There was no doubt that they would be taken away from the United Kingdom, well, there was one doubt.
“Are you on the default list?” The Head of Operations asked Ed.
“What does that mean?” Ed responded.
“If you have suffered a foreclosure of a loan issued as part of a Last Contact During Tragedy Act event, then you will have been treated with a substance that potentially makes you allergic to salt water, a clever means of preventing people from escaping by sea. Once you come into contact with salt water, it is basically as if sulphuric acid had been thrown over you. Even minor doses in the air can be fatal and incredibly painful as it burns through your lungs and outwards. We have to get you back inland so we can arrange an airlift. Be patient, in France we can have the treatment reversed. The weather is on the turn, so we have to head back quick.” Came the explanation.
Kate and Ed looked at each other and tried to muster the energy to be disappointed once more. As they were taken outside for transportation (the good sort), the waves began to climb higher and higher. They were told to run for it. Ed took Tim in his arms and rushed towards the hill at the top of the road, but the wave was faster than them and knocked them off their feet.
The three of them lay on the ground as Ed lost his grip on Tim. The child turned around to look at his parents as he caught them writhing in agony. The Head of the Resistance asked Tim if he felt any pain and he said he didn’t. That meant Tim had not been treated. “Don’t look at them!” He was told as his parents screams were muffled by the acid eating away at their tongues and throats. Tim was shielded from the ghastly sight unfurling and taken towards the boat. “You will be looked after. There is nothing left for you here now. Don’t make their deaths worthless. Things will get better.” He was told. In the distance he could see them covering the smoking bodies of his parents as the rope was untied to set the boat to sail. All he could see was the black distance as he was informed he was sailing towards some semblance of freedom in Syria.