It is 2051 – and a very different England.
Following a cataclysmic financial meltdown in the early 2020s, the country has disintegrated into The Pale – poor wastelands where the only jobs are in soul-less Gozoan1 fulfillment sheds – and the mega-city of London, dominated by Historyland, a giant theme park built to entertain swarms of affluent Chinese and Indian tourists.
This is where Rob Lyttleton, a geeky young history PhD from the provinces, has just arrived for his first ever job as Historian-in-Residence. With a somewhat over-enthusiastic interest in the English Civil War, his authenticity obsession soon brings him into conflict with the park’s Disney-Las Vegas way of staging historical spectacles.
Things will go a bit awry, but he does get to meet some interesting women and in this extract, he meets the one who will change his life.
Rob had been dozing for hours when his messager alarm sounded at 7.30 a.m. His room had been so warm that he’d thrown off the duvet after waking up in a horrible sweat. At home in Armitage, once famous for its lavatory porcelain, the room he shared with his brother Seb had no heating apart from that provided by Thucydides, the family cat, and the electricity was intermittent and unreliable.
He jumped out of bed and started to perform a number of pike-man lunges as specified in the Bagot’s Regiment of Foote training manual. Rob had learned the hard way that handling an ash pole eighteen feet long required stamina and fitness. Stretching enthusiastically, he tapped the messager screen and mirrored it to the huge vistel display on the wall of his room. A Consortium news briefing was being streamed.
‘A truce has been called today by Russia and the Ukraine in their conflict over water supply. Meanwhile Princess Diana and her husband Alexey have returned from a working holiday in Shanghai and will be hosting a royal garden party later today for Historyland competition winners.’
He had seen enough and tried to switch channel.
‘Can I help you with something, Rob Lyttleton?’ said a female voice that took him by surprise. ‘Rob, I’m here, on the display. May I give you a simple advice? Just ask me something and I will do what I can to assist you.’
The voice belonged to a near-full-size avatar of a woman whom Rob estimated was supposed to be aged about twenty-five.
‘Well, you could start with your name, I suppose.’
‘My name is Alicia Zachary. I am your in-room assistant and IT valet. I am configured by default to be friendly, straightforward and submissive. Is that to your liking? Other personality archetypes are available to download.’
‘I see. Okay, we shall talk about this later, Alicia, but for now can you give me an idea of the weather outside, please?’
‘Absolutely, Rob Lyttleton. We are blessed with a dry, sunny day but it will be very cold, and out of the sun you may need a scarf and hand-wear. May I also recommend for your short walk to Historyland HQ a place to stop off for a breakfast pause?’
‘No thank you, Alicia; I’m sure I’ll find my own way to breakfast!’, and muttered to himself: ‘Breakfast pause and hand-wear indeed!’ as he headed towards the bathroom.
Moments later, Rob was revelling in the heat of the shower and, afterwards, feeling terrific, was even beginning to think that the shoddy Puritans–in-Prada extravaganza he’d witnessed the previous night perhaps wasn’t all that bad.
Exactly as Alicia suggested, it was a marvellously crisp and sunny November morning. Walking first through the Cast Zone, there were American Indians eating sushi with Roman gladiators. Egyptian New Kingdom medjay warriors were limbering up with a Historyland fitness trainer. In the Grand Piazza, with its arcaded forums, guest families were taking breakfast and checking Tabs. All routes in Historyland were named after the great ruling families of England, and Rob followed the Plantagenet red route to the HQ building where he was to receive his Historyland 101 induction. From the exterior Rob thought Historyland HQ, with its chimneys, turrets, and crenellations, was like Hampton Court. Inside, was a vibrant lobby with cafe bar, ticket office and waiting area. He walked over to the reception desk to check in. The receptionist was a friendly but formidable woman in her late forties. Her holobadge bore the name Prudence Pieton.
‘Good morning. My name is Rob Lyttleton,’ he told her. ‘I’m a new Cast member. I’ve come for my orientation session.’
‘Thank you, Dr Lyttleton. I see from today’s blogdate that you are our new Historian-in-Residence?’
‘Welcome. I’m sure you will find it very interesting to work here. Please take a seat over there; your group will be called very soon.’
Rob waited nervously, and was beginning to regret his decision to ignore Alicia’s breakfast suggestions. Then, as if taken in some bold ambuscade, his attention was captured – no, stormed and overwhelmed completely – by the young woman he saw walking towards the elevator.
It was the copper hair and cobalt eyes, then the freckles, and that scarf poised so elegantly. He didn’t know about scarves but it looked expensive and was a proper Roundhead orange; happily, he thought, the rest of her uniform said Cavalier. Under her arm she carried a messager cased in bronze. He also noticed her delicate ivory hands with nails the colour of fresh lime. Then the elevator door closed and she was gone.
He was still thinking about her when a lobby announcement told him to make his way to the Livingston room on the first floor. It was time to be inducted.
1 The monolithic company formed by the merger of Google and Amazon