Paddy O’Donnell stood motionless in the dock, his hands cuffed together at his waist, a scornful look of indifference etched on his scarred face as he stared fixedly at the judge who sat before him. His arms and neck were covered in a sprawl of black ink, his skin a patchwork of intricate Celtic symbols, murals of fallen comrades, and various words and phrases scrawled in old Irish script. Somewhat incongruously, he also bore quite a detailed tattoo on his forearm of Irish actor Colm Meaney as Chief O’Brien from Star Trek. The magistrate’s officious voice echoed around the grand chamber,
‘Mr. O’Donnell, you have been found guilty of each of the charges levelled against you. You have not shown an ounce of remorse for your heinous actions…’
As the judge continued to address him, O’Donnell’s lips curled into a sinister smirk.
‘…hereby sentenced to life imprisonment at the Royal British CryoPrison. You will be eligible for parole only after serving no less than fifty years in cryostasis.’
O’Donnell did not react but maintained his leering glare as the judge looked down at him over the rim of his glasses.
‘That is the judgement of the King’s Court on this, the third day of September 2029.’
As the judge’s gavel fell and the guards began to escort him out of the courtroom, O’Donnell turned to look at the magistrate once more.
‘He’s not my King, your honour,’ he spat contemptuously at him, although unfortunately this venomous riposte was negated slightly by the fact that the judge had already left his seat. As O’Donnell was led away he raised his head and crowed to the assembled masses, ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’, his face still contorted in a fiendish grin as he was taken from the room.
Constable Jessica Phillips stared distractedly out of her hovercar window as the buildings of London rushed by in a glistening blur. It was early still, the roads almost empty and awash in a bluish neon haze of artificial light. As the car steered itself around the corner onto Simon Cowell Square she noticed a car that had been pulled over by two traffic drones. The driver had clearly tried to make a run for it, since he lay prostrate and unconscious on the kerb as the drones processed the vehicle.
The radio hummed quietly as the car glided towards its destination.
‘This is 20FM, your only station for non-stop 20th century music. That was I Will Survive, a huge hit for Gloria Gaynor in 1979. A hundred years old folks, and still a great tune. Stay with us, coming up after these short messages we’ve got a classic from Will Smith…’
‘Radio off,’ muttered Jessica as she continued to gaze out the window. The Captain’s phone call half an hour earlier had unsettled her. He was not a man given to panic, yet his voice had betrayed an anxiety that troubled her as the car cruised towards the imposing Metropolitan Police complex. Newer Scotland Yard was an impressive feat of architecture, its glass edifice shimmering in the dim morning light as the sun crept over the horizon.
She had met the Commissioner only once, briefly, at a fundraiser for the Science Academy a few years earlier. Something about cloning worker bees as part of their Pollination Project to alleviate food shortages. She remembered he kept making awful jokes about stinging and honey and hive minds, at which she had laughed heartily of course. Not that such fulsome indulgence had furthered her career in any way. Her superiors had always seemed wary of her obsession with the culture and history of the 20th century, as though she was somehow infected with the barbarity and lawlessness of the period. Eight years on the force and still a Constable. Perhaps this impromptu meeting was the opportunity she had been waiting for. This thought lifted her spirits, and she skipped up the marble steps to the entrance as the attendant drone guided her hovercar to its parking space.
The Commissioner’s office was, like that of most professionals, purely functional; all austere minimalism, white walls, straight lines, and gleaming chrome surfaces. The shelves were neatly stacked with masses of colossal grey volumes – legal reference material, political polemics, that kind of thing. She scanned some of the titles: Order from Chaos: Before and After the New Constitution, Civil Liberties: Bane of a Unified Society, Zen and the Art of Drone Maintenance. The only colour present in the room was the deep crimson in the swollen jowls of the man himself, a look of flustered anguish greeting her from behind an enormous desk as she entered. The Captain was already seated in front of him, and nodded curtly to her as she sat down.
‘Thank you for coming at such short notice Constable Phillips. Time is of the essence here so I’ll get right to the point.’
Jessica listened attentively as the Commissioner outlined the situation. It transpired that yesterday evening, during a routine parole hearing at the CryoPrison, a convicted terrorist had somehow escaped. He had also managed to free several of his comrades, after which they took control of an entire wing of the facility and barricaded themselves in. This O’Donnell character was one of the leaders of the Actual IRA, a group of revolutionaries from the early part of the century, who were very sensitive about confusion with other contemporary factions such as the Bona Fide IRA and Seriously, We’re the IRA. These terrorist organisations sprang up after economic difficulties forced the Irish government to sign the Act of Union II in 2023.
The Commissioner continued, ‘Which brings us to why you’re here, Constable. The Captain tells me you’re something of an enthusiast regarding the 20th century.’
‘Yes Sir, I studied the history and politics of the era as an optional module during my Citizenry Training. But the 21st century IRA was quite different to…’
The Commissioner held out his hand to stop her.
‘It’s not an expert on the terrorists we need, Constable. We unfroze our own last night, after the escape.’
Phillips looked from the Commissioner to the Captain in confusion.
‘I don’t understand Sir…’
‘You’re the expert on our expert, Constable Phillips. You’re to be her handler for as long as this situation takes to resolve.’
With these enigmatic remarks the Commissioner pushed a button on his desk and addressed his secretary in the hallway.
‘Sarah, please send in the Baroness.’
Jessica turned to face the door as it slid open with a hiss. A figure she instantly recognised swept into the room, her beady eyes surveying the three of them with a slight hint of curiosity, and no little amount of disdain. Her hair was immaculately coiffed, her overcoat prim and pristine. Her frail hands, more bone than skin and practically translucent, were tightly gripped around a small brown handbag.
‘Well it’s about bloody time. Woken up after sixty-odd years and left sitting out in the hall with only a frightfully dull woman and a flying robot for company. It’s a long way from 10 Downing Street, I’ll tell you that much. If Denis were here, he’d tell you…’
‘Ah, Mrs. Thatcher,’ began the Commissioner hesitantly, ‘I do hope the security drone didn’t bother you too much…’
‘Infernal Japanese invention no doubt. Of course you know what Ronald always said about the Japanese…’
‘Baroness,’ he interrupted again, ‘I’d like to introduce you to Constable Phillips. She’ll be taking care of you while you’re with us.’
Jessica, still in shock at what was happening before her, stood up and extended her hand.
‘It’s an honour, Ma’am.’
Thatcher looked her up and down with a contempt that wasn’t so much thinly veiled as stark bollock naked.
‘A woman? Couldn’t you find someone more…senior, Commissioner?’
‘I assure you Ma’am, the Constable is an expert on…’
‘Yes, yes, alright, she’ll have to do’ she snapped impatiently.
‘Although if I may say so dear, you’ll never be taken seriously walking around with all that slap on your face. I told Edwina Currie the same thing. Edwina, I said, if you act like a whore then you can expect to be treated…’
‘Yes, well, no time to lose,’ interjected the Commissioner hastily.
‘We have a Situation Room set up at the prison. Let’s get over there and see if we can sort out this mess.’
Jessica sat in the back of the hovercar, nervously trying to answer Mrs. Thatcher’s incessant questions to the best of her ability.
‘These flying contraptions must cost a tidy sum, dear? I hope you’re not paying through the nose for labour costs, they seem quite flimsy.’ The Baroness was fidgeting with the video screen in front of her and had managed to break it cleanly off its mount.
‘Well Ma’am, we don’t really deal in money anymore.’
‘No money?’ she exclaimed, aghast at the notion.
‘Why if old Major heard that one he’d chase you round the House with his cricket bat. No money indeed. How on earth do your companies function?’
‘There are no private companies anymore. Everything is run by the City Authorities.’
‘Sounds a lot like Communism to me dear,’ replied Thatcher, and spat on the floor of the car.
A flat, monotonous voice buzzed from the speaker overhead, ‘Expectoration in a municipal vehicle is a crime. A civil obedience drone has been dispatched to your…’
‘Override dispatchment. Authorisation code Phillips Bravo Foxtrot.’
After a slightly awkward pause Jessica went on,
‘People need control. There’s practically no crime anymore; any that does occur is taken care of by the drones. They can be quite a deterrent.’
‘And the whole country is like this now?’
‘The major cities are. Some outcasts prefer to stay in the wilderness, but it’s total chaos out there.’
‘So there’s no crime, no resistance, no trade unions to be faced down, no foreign dictators to be put in their place, nobody protesting or clamouring for change?’
Phillips shook her head.
Turning back to stare out the window, Thatcher muttered with a hint of sadness, ‘What on earth do you do for fun?’
The Situation Room bustled with activity as they entered, the Commissioner waiting for them in front of a screen that showed the interior of the prison wing. A breathless subordinate ran to greet them, evidently still finishing his lunch as he clutched a half-eaten sandwich and a glass of milk.
‘Mrs Thatcher, it’s an honour. It’s all go here as you can imagine. Anything I can get you?’
‘Yes, I’m thirsty,’ the Baroness replied coldly, and snatched the glass of milk from his hand. The Commissioner motioned to her and she strode across the room to where he stood, an audible hush having descended amongst the assembled crowd as every pair of eyes followed her regal march across the floor.
The Commissioner greeted her at the screen, ‘The leader of the terrorists is ready to talk, Baroness. As per your recommendation, we’ve disguised his real voice and replaced it with an alternate.’
‘Good. He’ll get no free publicity from me.’
‘Quite. We weren’t sure whose voice to impose on him, so we picked a prominent celebrity from your era. I hope you approve, Ma’am.’
‘Yes yes, let’s get on with it, shall we?’
She stepped up to the intercom and addressed the prisoner, ‘Mr. O’Donnell, this is Lady Thatcher. What exactly is it you want that’s so damned important?’
There was a short pause, then through the makeshift speakers that flanked the giant video screen came the unmistakeable voice of 1990s’ entertainment personality Mr. Blobby.
‘I’ve told your Commissioner what I want. I want equality. I want justice. I want…’
‘Oh shut up for a minute, you sound ridiculous,’ she snapped. She turned to the Commissioner and raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, what does he want? His country freed from oppression, I suppose. His children’s children released from the yoke of bondage most likely, yes? The lifeblood of his comrades in arms vindicated by the submission of…’
‘Eh, fag breaks,’ came the crackled voice over the intercom. Thatcher turned back to the microphone, a look of confusion on her face.
‘Fag breaks. Just a few a year or whatever. Gets bloody cold in that thing, you know.’
The Baroness swivelled and cast an accusatory glance at the Commissioner that would turn a lesser man to stone.
‘This…is what you brought me here for?’ she snarled at him. Before he could answer she turned on her heels and promptly marched out of the room, followed closely by Jessica.
‘Eh…is that a yes?’
The hovercar drifted through the evening fog towards the Citizens’ CryoFacility on the outskirts of the city. Phillips sat opposite the Baroness, who sat sedately silent in her seat.
‘You’re sure you don’t want to stay a few more days Ma’am?’
‘What’s the point? May as well get back to that blasted ice cube for another lifetime I suppose, until I’m needed again.’
Jessica sensed the resignation in her voice.
‘You might grow to like it here, after a while.’
‘I thrive on conflict dear. In a world without any, what good am I to anyone?’
Sighing to herself, she sat back in her seat, her eyes glazed and downcast. For the first time that day Jessica didn’t see a fearsome, indomitable force of nature, but a tired and lost old woman who felt discarded by the world.
‘Well there is one place I can think of Ma’am, but like I said, it’s total chaos.’
Thatcher looked up to meet her gaze, her wizened face betraying a trace of a smile.
When they reached the outer gate the Baroness turned to Jessica and shook her hand.
‘Thank you Constable. You’ve been very helpful. I shan’t imagine I’ll be seeing you again.’
‘You’re sure about this Mrs. Thatcher? Once you go out there there’s no turning back.’
The Baroness looked her in the eye,
‘Don’t worry dear. This lady’s not for turning.’
With that she shuffled through the gate and into the bleak terrain beyond. Leaning against her hovercar, Jessica watched the hunched figure disappear into the grey mist.
After a few moments she sat into the car and began her journey home. ‘Radio on.’
‘…back to 20FM folks, and here’s a song from the 1980s that captured the mood of an angry nation. I don’t know about you but I’m glad those dark days are behind us.’
As the car thrummed its way back along the grey highway into the sprawling cityscape, the opening bars of Ghost Town reverberated around the interior of the immense machine, and a tear rolled down Jessica’s cheek as she surveyed the dark, lifeless metropolis that awaited her return.