Greg was quite alone in the Plaza. At the sound of the Für Elise melody, he stopped instantly, conditioned by his childhood experience. Then, he put down his case and stood quite still. The low guttural rumble of a heavy vehicle’s fossil-fuelled engine told of its slow, ponderous approach towards him across the Plaza, the music growing louder. Afraid to turn, he stood dead still. No Departmental instruction covered such a situation, because this did not happen to Co-Workers. In the fading twilight, a pool of bright light from the vehicle’s spotlight bar flowed forward like some viscous liquid around his feet. Greg watched his own shadow split the growing pool of light on the ground in front of him as it crept forward on the slow approach of the large vehicle.
The machine stopped. Greg could feel the vibration of its idling engine through the ground no more than a couple of metres behind him. He could smell its noxious, antiquated exhaust fumes. A loudspeaker crackled.
“Stop,” said a voice superfluously over a loudspeaker. “Do not move. Drop your satchel. Reveal any weapons slowly and place them on the ground in front of you. If you attempt any form of violence we will Retire you without further warning.”
The voice was dark and metallic, the antithesis of human. Greg Complied, his feet motionless, his body shaking.
“Remove your clothing starting with your jacket and shirt. Make no fast movements.”
Greg’s teeth began to chatter. With shaking hands, he unzipped his jacket and began to remove it, followed by his shirt.
“No sudden movements,” the loudspeaker reminded him. “Now, your lower garments.”
Greg unfastened his belt, allowing his trousers to fall to his feet. He began to lift his right foot in order to step out of them when the voice interjected sharply. “You have not been instructed to reposition. Do not reposition unless instructed. A moment’s silence followed then, “Remove all clothing,” said the voice.
As Greg’s hands slid his underpants down his legs, he discovered he had wet himself. Finally, he stood naked. “Raise your arms to 450 below horizontal,” instructed the voice. “Spread you fingers apart, palms facing behind you.” Greg Complied instantly as the sun began to drop behind the Transport Link Terminal.
“Reposition and turn,” said the voice.
Greg stepped from the bunched trousers at his feet and turned round.
He was confronted with the sight of a matt black angular vehicle, the size of a small refuse cleanser. But this was no sanitation vehicle. Its front windows slits were protected with a mesh screen, its wheels covered with protectors. A long barrelled-gun protruded prominently at the top and was pointing directly at him.
“Lower your head,” instructed the voice. He Complied instantly. A laser scanned him slowly from foot to head, pausing for several seconds at the embedded barcode on his forehead.
“Gregor Workman, 4978” read the voice from some screen deep inside the vehicle, “Suburbia sector 88, LivUnit 915689734. Is this you?”
Greg nodded, his voice failing him.
“Is this you?” the voice demanded louder.
“Yes, yes, it’s me, Greg Workman, 4978- 88-915689734” he yelled back in genuine terror.
“You are not registered as a permitted presence in this public place at this prohibited time. Why are you here? Are you a terrorist? Are you a vagrant? On your knees, now.” The last word was shouted, almost spat out.
Greg dropped where he stood, the belt buckle from his trousers penetrating his right knee. He did not notice the pain. He did not notice that he had involuntarily defecated.
“No! No! I’m a Co-Worker. You can check with my parents. They’ve thrown me out. I’ve got nowhere to go.”
“Then you are a vagrant, former Co-Worker Greg Workman 4978- 88-915689734. Retirement will follow in 15 seconds.”
“No please, no! You don’t understand. They don’t mean it. It’s just to scare me.” Greg had his arms extended in front of him and his palms raised in an instinctive gesture of self-protection. He glanced behind him at the setting sun. “Look, it’s not quite curfew yet. It’s not illegal to be out yet. I’m sure I can get home in time if you let me go. Please. Please, let me go.”
The voice was silent for a moment. “We have checked with Central. You are authorised to attempt to reach your LivUnit by Curfew, Co-Worker. We will follow. If you do not reach your LivUnit by Curfew or if the LivUnit does not admit you will be Retired. Leave now. You have 2 minutes 58 seconds. You will be followed.”
Picking up only his satchel, Greg turned towards the LivUnit and, by virtue of adrenalin, ran faster than he knew he was capable of running. He arrived on the doorstep, fell to his knees and slammed his palm repeatedly on the lock. Behind him in the street, the headlights of the Neighbourhood Watch’s armoured car lit up two bright pools on the street, while its searchlights turned the doorstep area to near daylight. The searchlights remained trained on the door…