At the Project House it was as if Nike and Helen and Pryce had never been. Omo had once again stopped asking questions. Both he and Flora seemed to have settled to the new regime under Griff and to have adapted to Bose’s ways. All was right in the ULTIMATE® world. Except of course that it was all a fiction. The reality was that Griff and Bose were working hard to subvert the Project Kids through any and all means possible. And it seemed like they had achieved a level of success.
As Helen had predicted, Omo had found love at last. And so had Flora. Bose had played Pandarus to their Troilus and Cressida and Griff managed to keep the burgeoning relationship below the ULTIMATE® radar. Together Bose and Griff introduced Flora and Omo to a whole new dimension in living. A life that was not being monitored by ULTIMATE®. A life beyond the screen. But it couldn’t last indefinitely. They all knew that.
One evening, as Omo and Flora sat on the sofa in the common room watching some US™ stream, or not watching it because they were wrapped up in each other, their attention was drawn by the unexpected picture of Helen in front of them. Omo felt a slight tinge of guilt, realising he hadn’t thought about Helen in a while. All his thoughts had been about Flora. Now, here she now was. But something was odd. She didn’t seem to be in her ULTIMATE® room. They sat up straight and paid attention.
‘Where is that?’ Flora asked.
Helen was sitting, with a man Omo assumed must be Randall, drinking coffee and watching a beautiful sunset.
‘Who is that?’ Flora asked.
‘It.. It must be Randall,’ Omo replied, ‘her husband.’
‘But he was dead?’
‘Shh,’ Omo urged her. ‘Just watch and we’ll find out.’
Randall and Helen were relaxing in the part of the garden they had constructed specifically for that purpose, the part which overlooked the sunset. Randall swung back and forth on his patio chair and they both drank in the beautiful full red sun as it made its way slowly over the distant hills. You could almost smell the coffee as they savoured it.
‘I bet that isn’t ULTIMATE® coffee,’ Omo observed.
‘They look so happy,’ Flora noted.
‘They are happy,’ Omo pointed out. ‘They’re free.’
‘Is this from your Memory Bank, Omo?’ Flora asked.
Omo played around with the system to see where the picture had come from. He couldn’t find the source. The US™ kept defaulting to LIVE STREAM.
‘I can’t believe it’s a live stream,’ he said…. ‘because it means… it would mean…’
‘That they’re out there.’ Flora spoke the words he was afraid to voice.
‘I hope they are,’ Omo replied.
They were distracted by the entrance of Bose.
‘Hey, that’s cool,’ he said, looking at Helen and Randall. ‘Is that your Nan and Grandad?’
‘No,’ Omo replied… ‘They’re…’ He was about to say Nike’s, when Flora interrupted.
‘Yes. Yes they are, in a way.’
‘You’re lucky, having folks alive outside of ULTIMATE®’ Bose observed. ‘My folks all died. If I had folks living on the outside, I’d go find them.’
‘Really?’ Omo was surprised.
‘How would we do that?’ Flora seemed to be taking this conversation seriously. She seemed to think that maybe there was a life out there.
‘Easy. Griff can sort it for you. Want me to speak to him?’
True to Bose’s word, it was as easy as that. Within half an hour the sun had barely set over the sunset garden and Griff had a plan sorted out.
‘Wait outside for a man called Jason.’
‘How will we know who he is?’ Omo asked.
Griff laughed. ‘Oh, you’ll recognise him.’
‘I’ve never heard of anyone called Jason,’ Flora said, worried.
‘Believe me, you’ll recognise him,’ Griff affirmed. ‘Trust me. He’ll take you there.’
‘If we don’t like it, can we come back?’ Omo asked, ever cautious.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Bose said, ‘You’ll love it. It’s freedom.’
It was like a whirlwind, but then everything had been turned upside down in the last few months and as long as Flora was with him, Omo felt he could try anything. He knew that he loved her and he wanted her to know that too. He wanted Helen to know. He wanted a new start, for both of them, in a world which would allow love, a world where maybe even they could start their own family, have a future….
‘But you have to go now,’ Griff added, ‘and it means turning your back on The PROJECT⌂. Giving up the ULTIMATE® world. Are you prepared to do that?’
‘What do you think?’ Omo asked Flora.
‘Nike would have jumped at the chance,’ she said. A few months ago, Flora hadn’t even seemed bothered when Nike died. Omo observed that she’d changed as much as him in as short a time. And he liked it. He loved it. There were so many things they didn’t know about each other. So much to find out. And he wanted to do that. More than anything.
‘And we owe it to Helen,’ she added.
That was the clincher. She was right. If Helen had done it, why shouldn’t they?
There wasn’t time to think about it rationally. To weigh up pros and cons. This was the start of real life and the only thing to do was to dive right in, whatever the consequences. Take a risk. Omo was ready. He kissed Flora as he took her hand and led her out of The Project House.
‘Let’s go find Helen,’ he said.
As they turned their back on it the US™ screen continued streaming. They had only just left the room when the picture changed, the sun set to black and then as the image re-emerged into light it showed a small, frail, grey haired woman sitting peacefully in her chair in a magnolia room, in front of her own US™ screen. Her eyes were closed as if sleeping. She looked happy. The face which had in youth turned a few heads had become a face which just might launch a thousand ships of dreams.
The ULTIMATE® world didn’t matter to Helen any more. She was walking the familiar path up to the beech tree, surrounded by every dog who had ever owned her, with the sun shining on the soft snow and the familiar, comforting sound as the crystals crunched underfoot. The chill air filling her body like the taste of ice-cream and in her ears Randall’s words – reality is what you choose to believe. She’d let go and it was enough. She was forever in February.
Oblivious to this version of reality, Omo and Flora stood outside The Project House, ready to embark upon their own journey. They stood waiting for a man who had once been known to them only by his surname, but who had finally understood that name is the thief of identity and had become Jason.
Some weeks later, Helen was asleep when the familiar voice woke her. But there was something strange about it.
‘Helen, It’s Odysseus. Wake up. I’m outside. Get your coat on and meet me at the door.’
She got up out of her bed and pulled on her clothes. It was the middle of the night and no one was about in the empty corridors of the ULTIMATE® home as she made her way to the front door. She stepped outside into a pale full moon, and blinked against the unexpected brightness.
She couldn’t see anyone at first. Then she made out the shadow of a man standing beside a vehicle. It looked like a real car, not an ULTIMATE® transporter and as she walked towards it he waved, confirming she was doing the right thing. As she came closer she could see the car was a beaten up old Land Rover. The man had a cap pulled right down over his eyes and he was the last person she expected to see but as she came close to him it was unmistakable. She was looking straight into the eyes of Randall.
‘Come on,’ he urged. ‘There’s no time to lose.’
She got into the car without further ado, still stunned but with a strong desire to kiss him. As she sat next to him and he turned the key in the starter, she couldn’t stop herself. It had been ten years after all and she had missed him like missing a part of herself. One kiss reminded her of everything she’d lost and she didn’t even look back at the ULTIMATE® Home as they drove off. She was safe at last.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked, flashing back to her 40th birthday to Cairnholy and half expecting his reply to be ‘it’s a surprise.’
Instead, he smiled at her and said simply, ‘We’re going home.’
She felt she should have questions. This was a situation she had never imagined, could not have dreamed of. She was out of her depth. She was trying to process the unexpected and it took all her effort. The repetitive jolting and shaking of the car through the darkness of the night was all that she could handle at the moment. This was her reality. She gave herself up to the moment. She looked at Randall for as long as she could, but she found her eyes closing and her mind wandering. She was safe, she was warm, she was on a journey with the man she loved. Questions could wait. She was going home, that was enough for now.
Eyes shut, she could hear the rumbling of the tyres on the road as the Land Rover ate up the miles. She could swear she heard Randall singing but she didn’t open her eyes, thinking that if she did, either he’d stop singing, or she’d find out that he wasn’t really there at all.
She gave herself up to the music.
‘life is but a dream.’
The song had changed. She must have been sleeping. She’d nodded off to a Randall and the Reivers classic and woken up to a children’s song. It was Nick’s favourite when he was three.
Helen and Nick sat on the big branch of the beech tree, singing and laughing, pulling back and forth against each other as they sang ‘row row row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.’
‘Life is but a dream.’ The unmistakable chant of the three year old as he giggled. ‘A dream Nan, it’s a dream.’
Helen opened her eyes. She felt odd, disconnected and the motion was making her slightly nauseous. She was relieved to see Randall at the wheel. He turned to her, ‘Okay?’ he asked.
‘I was dreaming,’ she replied.
‘That’s okay,’ he said.
She felt comforted and closed her eyes again.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ Catriona’s voice rang in her ears. An eight year old Catriona on the long journey from Galloway to Dundee to visit Grandparents. Torquil was sleeping but Catriona was eager to get there. She wanted to tell Grandpa something ‘secret.’ The kids were pretty good in the car but by the time they hit the motorway and there was nothing to look at but miles and miles of tarmac and cars, the novelty wore off. There was only so much I-Spy you could play before the inevitable ‘he’s kicking me, she ate my sweetie, I need the toilet….’ began to take precedence and the kids squabbled like so many puppies in a litter, each convinced that life was all about them.
‘Settle down will you,’ Helen said, then pulled herself back to the present.
‘Sorry,’ she spoke to Randall, ‘ I… I’m…’
‘Disoriented?’ he asked. ‘Don’t worry. It’s natural. We’ll be there soon. Just close your eyes. You don’t have to do anything.’ The calmness in his voice was reassuring and she felt her eyes closing again.
‘I’m going to pick an apple from your tree, mummy.’ Torquil had woken up. ‘And make you a napple pie….. a napple pie….’ he laughed.
‘It’s an apple pie, stupid,’ Catriona butted in.
‘No. I’m making A NAPPLE PIE,’ he replied. ‘Just for mummy and me, not for you.’
‘That’ll be lovely,’ Helen said, ‘I’ve been so lonely.’ She was getting it all mixed up. The past, the future, the present. Life, memories, reality. Apple pie. Birthday cake.. the tastes all mixed up… the smell of coffee, real coffee.
‘Wake up and smell the coffee… smell the coffee…’ She couldn’t place the voice. Was it her dad? Was it Torquil? Randall? Her eyes felt heavy and she had a taste of diesel in her mouth.
‘Life is but a dream, life is but a dream.’ Randall was whistling the tune and tapping on the steering wheel. ‘You don’t ever have to be lonely again,’ he said.’ I’m here now.’
‘I… I’m so confused…’ she said. ‘I don’t know where I am. I can’t believe you’re real.’ She reached out and touched his hand, cupping hers over it, feeling the steering wheel judder. It felt real.
Touch. That first touch. When she’d first held his hand. A sensation like pulsing electricity all those years ago, relived. The touch that had redefined her life. Followed by a kiss.
‘I love you, Helen,’ he said. Don’t fight it,’ he added gently. ‘Just go with it. This is life, Helen, you’re free.’
She so wanted to open her eyes. When she eventually did so she could only make out Randall’s dark image. They were off the motorway. They must be on the last dark winding road that led home. She was tired, so tired.
‘It feels like dying,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘How could you possibly know what dying feels like?’
‘It feels like this,’ she said.
She woke up the next morning, enfolded in Randall’s arms. He held her, as he had for the best part of forty years. All her senses told her she was home before she even opened her eyes.
‘Good morning,’ he smiled. ‘How do you feel?’
She stretched. ‘ Fine. I feel…. Odd but fine.’
‘Good.’ He kissed her. And offered her breakfast in bed. But she wanted to sit at the kitchen table. She wanted to be in her house, feel it, touch it, smell it, all together and all at once. Like it used to be. Sitting at the kitchen table opposite Randall, it was all exactly as she remembered it. They ate toast with homemade jam and drank tea, real tea. It was too good to be true. But it was true.
‘Why did you call yourself Odysseus?’ she asked.
Randall laughed. ‘Name is the thief of identity, remember. How else could I stay free and keep in touch with ULTIMATE®? We all have more than one identity, Helen, you know that. We are all the people we want to be in our heads and someone else when externalised. Nick became Nike, I became Odysseus; only you stayed the same. And perhaps even you could be known by a different name, in a different context, at some other time and in some other place.’
‘And what about Torquil?’ she remembered Nick’s last message. If Randall was alive, which clearly he was, sitting here in front of her in a shirt that had not seen an iron recently, then he might know about Torquil too.
‘He’s re-invented himself,’ Randall acknowledged. ‘But you can’t contact him.’
‘Helen, there’s plenty of time for that. Just accept it for now will you?
‘Maybe one day?’ she asked, not wanting Randall to burst her bubble. If Torquil was alive, surely one day…..? Alive. That was a question that needed an answer.
‘How are you alive?’ she asked Randall.
‘Ah. That’s a big question too.’ He smiled. ‘It’s a long story. Let’s save it for later eh? Start with the easy stuff shall we?’
‘Has the RIP been going all this time?’
‘Yes, in one form or another. It’s not easy as you can imagine but some of us have managed to stay beneath the radar,’ he pointed at the barcode on her arm, ‘we’ll have to deal with that.’
‘Yes,’ he laughed, ‘it’s pretty easy really. Easier than branding a cow anyway.’
She shuddered, imagining that he was going to have to inflict some pain on her, dig out the implant, something… but she gave her arm to him willingly anyway. She closed her eyes, waiting for the cut which never came. She opened them to see the pressure she’d felt was all that was going to happen. She had a silvery coloured plaster covering the barcoded brand. Surely that wouldn’t work?
‘It’s incredible,’ he said, ‘there are so many simple ways to get round the system, if only you use some ingenuity.’
He explained that the chemicals in the plaster worked against the bio-laser which conducted the signal and that as long as she kept it covered she’d be out of range. That seemed impossible. To be out of range of the ULTIMATE® world.
‘What about my Memory Banks?’ She was beginning to believe she was free now, but she didn’t want ULTIMATE® to have any of her, not even memories.
‘I’ve had them modified and diverted into Omo’s archive.’
‘You what? How did you do that? You’re a Luddite not a computer genius.’
He tapped his nose. ‘You’d be surprised,’ he answered. ‘No of course I didn’t do it myself. But I knew a man who could. And I thought it’d be important to move the memories, so that as far as anyone poking around is concerned you’ve just been virtualised. Who else but Omo would go looking for you anyway? I thought you’d want him to know. Having spent all that time putting them together, it seemed a shame to waste them. Don’t worry. They’re safe.’
‘Have you been here for the last ten years?’
‘Not all of them. I had to move around a lot for the first five years. Working out how to get out of the system wasn’t that easy. Now of course it’s easy, but we had to work it out from scratch. I’ve been here for the past five years though. The old place doesn’t look that bad does it?’
Helen knew she should just feel happy that she was here, back home with the man she loved, but somehow something resembling anger was welling up inside her. She had to let it out. She and Randall had never had secrets. Never left things unsaid. However difficult, they had been in it together. Always.
‘How could you leave me to rot there when you were here? How could you not let me know you were alive? How….’ she burst into tears.
‘Believe me, it was the safest option for you.’
‘So why come and get me now?’
‘The time was right. I’ve been working towards this since the day I left you Helen, honestly. It was as hard for me as for you. But I had to take the decision. And I don’t regret it. I know it was the right thing to do.’
‘We used to make decisions together,’ she replied, aggrieved. Who was Randall to make decisions regarding her life and tell her she should be grateful for the pain she’d suffered. How could he know…
‘I had to keep you safe. I was keeping an eye on you.’
‘I didn’t want to be safe. I wanted to be with you. Or I would have done, if I’d known there was a choice.’ She paused, overcome with an emotion that felt horribly like betrayal. ‘You should have let me know,’ she said, weakly.
‘I couldn’t. Believe me,’ he replied.
She wasn’t sure she did believe him. For the first time in nearly fifty years, she questioned his integrity. It didn’t feel good.
‘Look. If you’d known I was alive there’s no way you would have stayed there.’
‘You’re damned right,’ she interrupted.
‘And you couldn’t have lived here on your own, knowing I was somewhere out there. I had to do all this, alone. Find a way for us to live a safe life. And I’ve done it now. It’s time to be happy.’
‘But we vowed to be together, forever. How could you do this to me?’
‘I did it to us, Helen. But I did it for us too. I’ve missed you every single day. Every day I’ve asked myself if it was the right thing to do and every day I knew it was. You’ll understand one day. It’s a lot to take in. I hope that you’ll forgive me.’
‘I don’t want to have to forgive you,’ she replied, ‘I want to still trust you.’
That was a body blow.
‘Of course you can still trust me.’
That was when Helen realised something about the real world. It was distinctly different to the self-constructed Memory Bank of ULTIMATE®. Because here, in the real world, you had to negotiate with another person’s view and another person’s meaning. That was the joy and the pain of it, surely. ULTIMATE® had created a heaven of individual selfishness where each person thought they were the celebrity, the key player in the game, the protagonist of their own story. Underpinning this was the fact that no one was individual any more. People were just cogs in a very sophisticated wheel, all of which worked to the benefit of the ULTIMATE® system. Everyone had been wooed into the virtual world and given up their individuality while believing all the time that they were winning. They were the worst kind of slaves. They thought they were free. From Plato’s cave to 1984, no fiction had come close to the complete domination of humanity that ULTIMATE® had visited on the real world. Helen shuddered. You can’t fight city hall. Surely it wasn’t possible to live outside this system? Surely something was wrong and they would be caught or…. These were the important issues she needed to discuss with Randall. She should leave the recriminations and the self-pity for later.
‘Do you know what happened to Nick?’ she asked. It was impossible to be in the same room with Randall and not talk to him. There was no time to be angry. There was so much to catch up on.
‘Only in outline,’ he replied, ‘I can tell you it wasn’t an accident.’ He gave her time to compute this information before he added. ‘but I can’t tell you who killed him.’
‘But why did they kill him?’ Helen came from a time when there was a THEY to fear. Not the ULTIMATE® world where the marketing slogan ‘there is no Us and Them only US™’, had become a truth in a world of created truths.
‘He knew too much.’
‘Well if he knew too much, I’m sure I must have been next on the list then,’ she added, ‘Because I’m sure I knew more than him.’
‘Not necessarily,’ Randall replied. ‘He didn’t know what he knew. It doesn’t matter anyway. We’re safe now. As long as we stay out of the system, keep our heads down.’
‘But what if they come looking for us?’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘Because we have nothing they want,’ he replied. ‘Their world is complete, Helen. We are nothing to them. No challenge, nothing. We don’t even exist to them now. Our reality and their reality are completely different. They’ve virtualised us and we are free. I tried to explain it to Torquil, but he wouldn’t understand. He wanted to fight against them. I just wanted to be free. For us both to be free.’
‘Tell me about Torquil.’ This time she was going to get an answer. It was time to know.
‘He’s reinvented himself, of course. He’s dedicated his life to fighting the system. He’s fighting for a freedom that can’t exist because his freedom depends on the destruction of ULTIMATE® and Helen, you know that’s never going to happen. But he’s a young man. His perspective is different. We’ve had our lives. We’ve got what, two, five, ten years if we’re really lucky. He, he’s got another fifty to go and he sees walking away as giving in. He’s still got a fire in his belly and a cause to fight for. Me, I just want us to be safe and free to live out the rest of our lives together without anything interfering with us. And I’m prepared to make whatever sacrifices that means. After all, we’ve made most of the sacrifices already haven’t we?’
‘But couldn’t you have persuaded him to come home?’
Randall shook his head. ‘No, Helen, I couldn’t. And we must never, never see him or contact him again.’
‘It was part of the deal I had to make, to get you here.’ Randall said. A straight answer to a straight question. That was the man she knew. He could tell her things she didn’t want to hear and he trusted that she would believe him and accept. It would take some doing, but with Randall beside her, Helen knew she could find the path back to acceptance again. She knew he was right. However much she yearned to see Torquil again, if the price she had to pay to be with Randall was that she lost her children and her grandchild, she’d pay it. It had been more or less paid in full anyway. And maybe one day…. But they had to think of themselves now. And the future, whatever that would be and however short it might be. They had a life to rebuild. To live. Together. Which was all she had ever wanted.
They went out for a walk, hand in hand, as they’d done in the old days.. yes, she really could look at them as the good old days. And she was living them again now. Her ability to live in the moment returned as if it had never been lost. The years in the ULTIMATE® Home were already slipping into memory as she drank in again the life that had been her complete reality for so long. She marvelled at the swiftness with which the brain would re-order itself, allowing past horrors to slip away into the subconscious, while you revelled in the reality of the present.
But there were still questions. She still wanted some answers. She had to make some sense of the narrative of her life. He picked up on her pensiveness.
‘What is it?’ he said, stopping.
‘Why didn’t you wait?’ she asked.
‘We’ve been through that,’ he said, ‘you have to believe me. I did what I thought was best.’
‘No. I mean, when I went for the interview. You said you’d wait. But you didn’t.’
‘I did wait. You didn’t see me. You walked right past me,’ he replied.
She didn’t believe him. ‘Why would you lie to me?’
‘I’m not lying,’ he said.
‘Yes you are,’ she said, ‘I know it. What really happened?’
He took a deep breath, ‘I did wait. Until… until I got a phone call…’
‘You didn’t have a mobile phone in those days,’ she was not going to be fobbed off.
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Okay. I’m not proud of it,’ he said, ‘I realised I was late for a meeting. I had the offer of a record deal. I waited as long as I could.’
‘Did you get the deal?’ she asked, trying not to sound too sour.
‘And I came back for you. And waited more. I was only gone twenty minutes… I thought I’d easily…. I couldn’t believe I would miss you. I wanted to…..’ he was struggling. ‘But in the end, you know, I came back.’
‘And gave up music for me?’
‘You didn’t have to do that.’
‘I did. I wanted to. I don’t regret it for a minute.’
‘Are you sure of that?’
‘Yes. Dead certain,’ he replied. ‘Now, can we talk about something else?’
They kept walking. She had her answer. Everything fell into place. She wished she’d known. She wouldn’t have wanted him to give everything up for her, even though she was more than happy and prepared to give everything up for him. Her everything had seemed so little and he’d had such promise. He’d made the real sacrifices. She’d never thought of it like that before. She loved him all the more.
‘When did you first know you loved me?’ she asked.
‘When I realised I’d missed you that first day in London,’ he replied. ‘And I told myself if I found you again I’d never let you go again. And then I had to. Because I loved you. It’s complicated.’
‘And you were the man who said it was simple. That it was only we who complicate it,’ she noted. ‘That was the point of the story wasn’t it? That life is simple and all we have to do is go with the simplicity to be happy?’
‘Helen,’ he replied, ‘you know I’ve always believed we live in two places. In the moment and in the memory. But we are only truly free in one place and that is in the mind. The goal of ULTIMATE® is to take that freedom away from you but they can only succeed if you let them. Remember, reality is what you choose to believe and life is how you create it.’
‘I have no life without you,’ she replied. ‘ Our identity..it’s.. fused… Do you know what I mean?’
‘Just let go,’ he said. ‘I’ve always loved you. I always will love you. Nothing changes that. This is all that’s real. Just us. Now. Here.’ They were at the beech tree, gazing over the most familiar view in her life.
‘It’s enough isn’t it?’ he asked.
She smiled ‘Yes. It’s enough.’ And let go.
The day after Graham gave him the clear instruction not to, Pryce took Omo to visit Helen. He didn’t know what Graham’s plan for him was, but he knew he was running out of time. And he wanted to meet with Helen. Omo didn’t question why he and Pryce walked the fifteen minutes from the PROJECT⌂ House to the ULTIMATE® Home, along streets that had once been wide, leafy, middle-class aspirational, but now just looked tired, empty and a bit grimy. They passed the landmark buildings of the Scottish Parliament and the Commonwealth Pool, both long since no longer used for their original purposes, and had Pryce but known, they also passed the Trading House before stopping in the Park, outside the ULTIMATE® Home. Their walk was mostly in silence, neither of them knowing what to say.
‘I might not be with you that much longer,’ Pryce had initiated.
Omo had not known how to reply, and so had not replied.
‘I think this will probably be your last visit to Nike’s nan,’ Pryce added, as they stood outside the lobby. ‘I’ll give you half an hour, then I’ll come in. I’d like to meet her.’
It was true although Pryce had no idea what he would say when he did finally come face to face with Helen. That was one reason he gave Omo the half hour start. He needed time to prepare both himself and Helen for what was to come. Meanwhile, he sat in the park, trying to make sense of it all. Wondering how he would bring up the topic of The Immortal Horses with her.
As it happened, circumstances took over. Pryce might have been unaware how close to the hub of The Immortal Horses he was as he marched Omo past the Trading House, but Troy had Pryce and Omo under surveillance all the time. And as much as Pryce wanted to find out about The Immortal Horses, Troy wanted to meet with Pryce. It was not so much a meeting of minds, nor even a meeting of opposites. It was more a meeting of random elements. A meeting of the true father with the surrogate father. One man with another.
A clandestine meeting in a park was of course standard practice for the outdated thriller genre of Pryce’s youth, so perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised when a man wearing an outmoded trenchcoat approached him.
‘Troy wants to see you,’ the man said.
Pryce looked around. There was no one out in the park, as usual. He had no idea who ‘Troy’ was and of course he was suspicious, but he decided to take the risk.
‘Follow me,’ the man said.
Pryce followed. He was taken, as Nike before him, to the Trading House. It was reminiscent of his father’s place of work and brought back memories of a world which, on reflection, hadn’t been so bad after all. In the days before the ₲₨ΩHist. Pryce’s father had worked in an institution exactly like that which the Trading House had housed. But he had worked for a rival investment banking firm. They’d all gone under or become subsumed or, as Pryce now reasoned, consumed by ULTIMATE®. His father had taken early retirement and had lived out his days golfing until golfing gave way to virtual golfing and he died of a massive stroke, brought on Pryce had assumed, by lack of exercise. His mother had suggested it was because of a broken heart, because he couldn’t get used to not spending his life out on the golf course.
Pryce’s mother, like Helen, now lived in an ULTIMATE® Home but unlike Helen it was a privately paid for one. Pryce paid. Pryce always paid. Her place there was part of the perks of his job and he paused, for a moment to consider what would happen to his mother if Graham got his way? His father hadn’t had the opportunity to speak last words to Pryce, but Pryce knew those words would have been ‘look after your mother.’ He’d done his best, although he had to admit he hadn’t seen the woman face to face in over five years. He interfaced with her once a month on the US™ though. And kept his family bank updated with lies about how happy he and Angela were, how busy they were, how successful they were, how great life was.
The familiarity from his own childhood, days spent in his father’s office drawing pictures, meant that unlike Nike, Pryce recognised the board room into which the man took him for what it was and he noticed the two way mirrors. He smiled at the old-fashioned surveillance techniques. Still, somehow they seemed fairer than the all-encompassing ULTIMATE® alternatives. How life had changed. He didn’t have to wait long before Troy entered and shook his hand.
‘Do you now believe in The Immortal Horses?’ Troy asked.
‘What can you tell me about Nike?’ Pryce rejoined, trying to keep his cool.
‘I can thank you for doing a father’s job,’ Troy replied.
There was a moment’s pause.
‘Nick was my son,’ Troy continued, ‘so you see, we have something in common.’
‘I’ve got something for you,’ Pryce said, reaching in his coat for the list and handing it over. He had been carrying the list in his pocket since he’d printed it, and this seemed the appropriate place and time to offload it. He had no reason to doubt Troy’s assertion. Only a sorrow that these were the circumstances under which they met.
‘I’m sure Nike would have wanted you to have this. Do you know who killed him?’
Troy took the list, said nothing but signalled Pryce to follow him. They walked along a corridor into another room, reminiscent of a scene of crime room in a police detective series from the TV shows of his childhood. The walls were covered with pictures. A hundred of them. The faces of the hundred men.
‘They killed him. They will kill us all. They have killed us all,’ Troy stated. Then added, after a moment’s pause, ‘Welcome to the cause.’ Troy knew he didn’t have to worry about Pryce. He’d been watching him closely for a month after all. He knew more about Pryce’s motivations than Pryce did himself. He knew how Pryce had been affected by Nike’s death and how he was being affected by Graham’s attitudes. He knew the fate that Graham had in store for Pryce. He knew everything. Troy knew Pryce’s strengths and weaknesses. And how to play them. Pryce wasn’t the first man who had stood before him ready to betray ULTIMATE®. And he wouldn’t be the last. Despite a system which promised everything to its citizens, there would always be people who saw through the promise. Pryce had become one of these people. ULTIMATE® had made him that way.
‘I’m glad we had the opportunity to meet,’ Troy said. ‘ I think we can help each other.’
‘How? Why?’ Pryce asked. He was totally out of his depth.
‘As to why, because you looked after my son. As to how.. do you know where your wife is right now?’
Pryce didn’t have a chance to answer before Troy had flipped the large US™ screen (yes, Pryce was amazed to see that Troy used the US™ screen and could hack into it when and wherever he chose) and showed him the one thing he didn’t already know. The one thing he’d suspected but hadn’t dared to think about. The affair between Graham and Angela. Happening right there in front of them in real-time. It was the last time, but that made no difference to any of them.
‘Is this Memory Bank?’ Pryce asked, choking on the words. Was it possible it wasn’t true?
‘No, it’s a live stream,’ came Troy’s inevitable reply.
There they were, Graham and Angela, naked and writhing in front of his very eyes. Pryce couldn’t bear to look. But he couldn’t bear not to look either. After the inevitable climax, which Pryce somehow found unbearably, unutterably difficult to watch sitting beside Troy, the substance of the event was that Angela was getting a promotion.
‘You deserve it, after that performance,’ Graham leered.
Pryce thought he saw just a touch of hatred in Angela’s eyes, but maybe that was just the way she looked at everyone. Disdain, distance, insolence. Graham might just spectacularly have had Angela, over his own desk, but he didn’t own her, that was certain.
In the age old way of shifting difficult personnel, Graham had got Angela ‘promoted’ to a research position out of his immediate department. From his point of view, the frisson was over. There were no regrets or recriminations. No words were wasted between them. Their relationship, after all, had been founded on self-interested pragmatism. They had almost perfected the ULTIMATE® affair. Almost, because they were both still motivated by an individualism that ULTIMATE® could not approve of. They both thought they’d won. They would move on without a backwards glance. The interaction was archived and stored. Used to refine UTheory∑® even further. With ULTIMATE® nothing was ever wasted.
‘Why show me that?’ Pryce turned to Troy.
‘I understood you were a man who wanted to know the truth.’ Troy replied. ‘Here we deal in truth, no matter how unpleasant. And I thought you needed to know. To help you make decisions about your own future.’
‘What future do I have? What choices can I make?’ Pryce spat out the words.
‘There’s always a choice Pryce,’ Troy replied. ‘And if you want, we can help you.’
‘How?’ Pryce asked, knowing he’d say yes to anything Troy offered him now.
‘You’ve seen what Graham has in store for Angela. Do you want to see what he has in store for you?’ Troy asked. It wasn’t a question.
Troy showed Pryce the fine detail of the plan Graham was even now constructing for Pryce’s future. It made Pryce even more angry than watching that debauched liaison between his wife and his boss. It was enough to ensure that Troy and Pryce cut a deal.
The plan Troy sold Pryce was the infiltration of the Project House. It would be effected by placing Griff in there as counsellor, alongside a ‘new’ Project Kid, who in fact had been groomed for the role over several years by the Immortal Horses. If, as Troy showed Pryce, he was about to be sidelined, he could have one last, lasting impact on The PROJECT⌂. The plan was well worked and ready to roll out. It just required Pryce to play his part. Troy was insistent that this should be Pryce’s choice. So Pryce looked at all the documentation. The forgery was of such impressive quality he found himself forgetting it was all a fiction. He was sure Graham would buy it. The plan was elegant and simple. Having Griff and Bose in The Project House would give The Immortal Horses an unprecedented level of access to the US™ system, through which they could monitor and plan the undermining of the PROJECT⌂ spreading dissent and unrest over time amongst the generation destined to be ULTIMATE®’s most valuable citizens. And Pryce would have been instrumental in achieving this. He would also have the personal satisfaction of having duped Graham. And it would be Graham who would carry the responsibility if it was ever discovered. It was what they used to call a win-win situation. Only Graham and ULTIMATE® wouldn’t win. Pryce was satisfied. It seemed like a great revenge. A risk worth taking. The perfect murder. He agreed to the plan.
In return, Troy offered Pryce a place within The Immortal Horses. An alternative identity. A chance for a future outside the living death of ULTIMATE®. Pryce didn’t need time to think about it. He agreed. But wanted to know how it could happen. It sounded a bit like the old-style witness protection schemes he’d read about as a boy. He’d never imagined such a thing to be possible even then. That a person could just take on a whole new identity. Troy had no such problems.
‘You’ll cease to exist, to ULTIMATE®,’ Troy stated. ‘You’ll lose access to your Memory Bank. You’ll become someone totally different. Everyone here has done it. Can you handle that?’
Now he thought about it, there didn’t seem to be anything to lose, if Pryce was honest. He agreed wholeheartedly to Troy’s plan. He would defect because only in losing his ULTIMATE® identity could he truly live.
‘It’s not without cost,’ Troy stated, ‘I lost my mother, my son.. everything that meant anything to me. Although ULTIMATE® was taking them all away from me anyway. But I did it because I believed there were things more important than my own life. I became a different person, but with the same aim. To overthrow ULTIMATE®. I’ve dedicated my life to doing that. Whatever the cost. But I can tell you about the man I used to be.’
Troy’s face softened slightly as he went into his own memory – memory without the help of the US Memory Bank system.
‘I used to be a farmer. My wife took that from me. And then ULTIMATE® took it from me. I used to be a father. My wife and ULTIMATE® took that from me. We are very much the same, you and me. I decided that I wouldn’t let ULTIMATE® take my identity. My father used to say that name is the thief of identity. So I changed my name and my identity. Look.’
He rolled up his sleeve to show Pryce that he had no brand on his wrist.
‘How?’ Pryce marvelled.
‘Torquil Christie had a brand.’ Troy stated, matter of factly. Torquil Christie no longer exists except in the Memory Banks of my mother and the archives of ULTIMATE®. Troy doesn’t exist at all. I can offer you the same choice. You can be who you want to be. With us. If you want to be.’
‘Can you remove…?’ Pryce looked at his own brand.
Troy laughed. ‘Of course we can. I won’t say it’s painless, but it’s a lot less painful than the alternative.’
‘And Nike?’ For one brief moment, Pryce wondered whether Troy had saved Nike. Whether the death had been an illusion and the boy was now living here, amongst The Immortal Horses.’
‘Nick is dead,’ Troy replied, crushing his hopes. ‘Nothing can bring Nick back,’ he added bitterly, ‘and though I can see her whenever I want, I can’t talk to my mother. You’ll be the same. Can you handle that?’
Pryce flinched slightly at the realisation that he really didn’t care if he never saw or spoke to his mother again. He had no one in the world who meant anything to him. If life was lived through social interactions, he was dead already. Troy was offering him a chance for a life, a meaning, a new start. He would take it. Of course he would take it. It was a way out of the ULTIMATE® depression. All he had to do was trust Troy and wait for the sign.
‘There’s one other thing you could do for me,’ Troy said.
‘What?’ Pryce replied.
Troy flicked the US™ screen and showed Pryce how, oblivious to the plans going on round about him, Omo was sitting enjoying (if that’s the right word) a cup of tea with Helen. She had been surprised to see him, but pleased. He’d explained that this would be the last time he could visit, because Pryce was being replaced and there were specific instructions for him NOT to visit Helen again. But he’d wanted to see her once again. If only to thank her for the wise words she’d given him about love.
‘Did you ask her?’ Helen asked.
‘Yes. She laughed in my face,’ he replied, surprised he could be that frank with Helen.
‘Then it wasn’t love,’ Helen observed, sympathetically.
‘No. It was infatuation,’ he replied, matter of factly. ‘I’m over it.’
‘Never mind,’ Helen said, ‘You’ll find love with someone, one day, I’m sure you will Omo.’
‘I hope so,’ he said. And he meant it.
Troy closed down the screen. It was too painful to watch.
‘Tell my mother I love her,’ he said to Pryce.
‘I will,’ Pryce replied.
The meeting with Helen was nothing like Pryce had envisaged it when, ten minutes later he sat on her chair in her magnolia room.
‘I wanted to come before,’ he said ‘to say how sorry I was about Nike.’
‘Nick,’ she corrected him.
‘Yes, of course, Nick,’ he replied. He should give her that. It was her grandson after all. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t save him from…’ he wasn’t sure quite what or who he might have saved Nike from. That was the core of the problem of course.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Helen replied.
‘Well, I suppose we should go.’ Pryce stood up and motioned to Omo who uncharacteristically gave Helen a hug.
‘Thank you and I really hope we meet again,’ Omo said, Pryce noticed there were tears in his eyes. ‘Nick was lucky to have a grandma like you. And he knew it.’
‘As far as I’m concerned,’ Helen replied, ‘you’re my grandson now, and if there’s ever anything I can do…’ she petered out, emotion getting the better or her.
As they left the room, Pryce remembered his promise to Troy, and gave Helen an embrace and a kiss. As he did so he whispered into her ear.
‘Your son wanted me to tell you he loves you.’
‘Torquil? Is he… alive…?’ she could hardly get the words out.
‘I can’t say any more,’ Pryce apologised.
‘It’s enough,’ she replied. Though it wasn’t. But it was a start.
As Pryce was leaving the room, she added, ‘ If you see him, tell him thanks for the cake.’
Pryce nodded towards the screen and said, ‘I’m sure he knows.’
Outside the room, Omo was amazed at what he’d just heard and seen.
‘What’s happening?’ he asked.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell you,’ Pryce replied. ‘But trust me, things can change. And for the better.’
They walked back to the Project House in silence.
A week later Graham thought he was being smart when he got Pryce to interview his own replacement. What he didn’t know was that he had given Pryce just the leverage he needed to effect his own plan of betrayal. Pryce selected a very nice young man called Griff whose credentials were impeccable. And totally made up by The Immortal Horses. When Graham second interviewed Griff, he wondered for a moment where this paragon had been all this time, but he snatched at the opportunity to get such a guy on his team. Someone he could delegate to with complete confidence, leaving him free to fulfil his management role in as short a time as possible, thus allowing him maximum time to do whatever he wanted. Because however hard ULTIMATE® tried, it seems that work is always destined to be a four letter word and there is always going to be something more interesting to do.
Graham was immediately impressed by Griff’s efficiency and convinced he’d killed two birds with one stone on discovering that Griff already had a young lad lined up to replace Nike. A lad who would be no trouble and indeed an asset to the team. His name was Bose and like the sound system he’d been named after, he represented sound quality.
Graham had no idea that Pryce and Troy had made a deal. How could he? How could he have imagined they could ever have met? It would have required more than a devotion to duty, more than a knowledge of UTheory∑® and considerably more commitment to his job than Graham had ever possessed. Graham was much more interested in getting other people to do his job so that he could spend his time consuming sex either virtually or in real life. While the early 21st century provided people with opportunities to lose themselves in online pornography and virtual cybersex; ULTIMATE®’s development in this area had become more addictive than Habit∞ to Graham and in his elevated position he believed he could cheat the system in order to pursue his personal whims. The possibility that he was being observed the whole time never occurred to him. All the time the co-efficient ratio of his activities were actually being factored in like that of a lab rat. But then he probably wouldn’t have minded had he known. Graham had gone beyond wondering if he had a valuable role in the system, all he cared about was his next fix.
Somewhere within the system a team of people and machines were analysing Graham’s every move as data which they would feed into the system. The flexibility of UTheory∑® was its strength after all. If ULTIMATE® couldn’t get rid of the sex urge in humans, that didn’t matter. As long as it was aware of the typology of the randomness and the situations in which it was bound to occur, the theory could control the set of randomness within acceptable margins. Graham was just another statistic after all. When the choice was made to live to consume rather than consume to live, a one way barrier was crossed from which there was no return. ULTIMATE® had changed producers into consumers and then they became producers of consumption. Graham was just as much a victim of ULTIMATE® as everyone else. More so perhaps, because he was completely unaware of his vulnerability.
Unlike Graham, Troy understood that people’s ULTIMATE® security was based solely on their ignorance of just who is watching them, who is logging their activity. And he also knew that for the system to survive someone has to be. Actions will always have consequences and those consequences, while unexpected and unpredictable to the actor, have been written by some god somewhere. Still, he believed that outside the system, with The Immortal Horses he had built a firewall so strong that for the moment at least, he was safe. He had sacrificed everything to achieve this. He had re-created his own life outside of the ULTIMATE® paradigm. He’d paid the price but he’d reaped the rewards as well. But the death of Nike made even Troy wonder how robust his own system really was.
A month later, Pryce’s death caused no more stir than Nike’s before him. Life goes on. Or not. Pryce was simply virtualised by the ULTIMATE® system, like many before him and doubtless many after him. Deaths like Pryce’s were of little consequence. At best he had been a decoy duck. At worst he was just another statistic. A small man. A nobody. Valueless to the system. As far as ULTIMATE® was concerned, Pryce had served his purpose. ULTIMATE® knew that and so did The Immortal Horses. The only people who might have asked questions, Omo and Flora, were told he had been promoted. They accepted the change like all the changes they’d faced over the last few months. No more Nike, no more Helen, no more Pryce. Unusually, they had a short conversation about it
‘I wish we could have said goodbye,’ Flora said.
‘Why?’ Omo asked.
‘I liked him,’ Flora said, ‘it might have made it easier.’
‘I said goodbye to Helen,’ Omo stated, ‘it didn’t make it any easier.’
‘Just us now,’ Flora summised, ‘I suppose we’ll get a new counsellor soon,’ and they went back to their respective rooms to catch up on their ‘productive’ work.
‘But why?’ Omo asked.
His premonition was right. Angela just laughed. Laughed right in his face. It was not the sort of memory anyone would want to store in their Memory Bank. For the first time in his life Omo experienced real emotional pain.
He had not been able to resist. Helen’s words stuck in his mind. You have to find out. He knew them to be wise words. He knew he had to act on them however much he wished he didn’t. His timing might have been better, but probably it wouldn’t have mattered when he’d said it.
‘Why not,’ Angela corrected him.
Omo felt tears welling up in his eyes. She was playing with him. And she was cruel. Surely this wasn’t love.
‘I love you,’ was the one thing he knew he shouldn’t say next, but the only thing he could bring himself to say.
‘Don’t be so silly.’ Angela was stern, ‘You’ll spoil everything. Love doesn’t exist and I don’t know who’s been giving you such ridiculous ideas.’
Omo tried to pull himself together. ‘Do you feel nothing for me?’ He asked, digging himself deeper into the humiliation that was bound to follow. Angela, after all, was a good ULTIMATE® citizen for whom feeling was anathema.
‘Of course not, Omo. It’s just a bit of fun.’
It didn’t feel like fun now.
Omo should have left it at that and gone on his way. Learned something. That you don’t mess with the Angel of guilt free intercourse. But he couldn’t. His world had been rocked and he flailed around trying to save himself.
‘How can you say that? How can it mean nothing to you…?’
She slapped him. Hard. ‘You are being totally stupid.’ Her tone was now harsh. ‘You are just part of an experiment Omo. And you’ve failed it.’
‘An experiment?’ Would the shock and pain never stop?
‘Yes. You’re just like all the rest of them. However much ULTIMATE® tries to wean you all off guilt and emotion and power play, you all find ways of hanging on. It’s sick.’ She meant it. Angela had developed such a thick skin that none of her sexual exploits meant anything to her. She was totally dedicated to her research and her research showed her that men were fools. Even now when ULTIMATE® equality had supposedly been achieved, all it took was a live naked woman, prepared and able to fulfil their physical needs, and they lost all their sense of reason.
‘Do you love Pryce?’ Omo asked. She must be trying to let him down because it was wrong, because she already loved someone else.
‘No. Love is a pointless emotion.’
‘But you married him.’
‘That was before,’ she replied.
Omo realised that Angela had indeed lived in the world before ULTIMATE® existed, as Helen had, but there the similarities ceased. If Helen represented everything that was good about the world of History, Angela represented everything that was bad. And it seemed like the Angelas had inherited the ULTIMATE® world, leaving the Helens broken and beaten in the Victim Homes. The ULTIMATE® world suddenly didn’t seem so bright to Omo. And when he looked at her again, neither did Angela. She looked hard, callous and mean. Completely the opposite of Helen. Okay there was forty years between the women, Angela was in her physical prime and knew it, but Helen was in a league of her own. Helen could inspire love. Angela had corrupted love. You couldn’t love someone like Angela, Omo realised. ULTIMATE® had got rid of love and it was women like Angela who had done the work. She was a sham. She had sucked him in. But why?
‘Why did you do this to me?’ He asked, but now he was less interested in love and more interested in an explanation of why she had chosen him as her victim.
‘Because you were there, Omo.’
‘So.. so it could have been anyone? It could have been Nike?’
She shrugged her shoulders. It didn’t matter to her.
‘Does Pryce know?’ Omo asked. It was horrible but he was beginning to think the conspiracy might be wholesale. They might all be laughing at him.
That brought Angela up short. ‘No. And don’t you tell him.’
‘Why not?’ Omo started to feel that maybe he had a bit of leverage here. For the first time she looked less than in total control. ‘If it doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t matter, why not just tell him?’
‘I should have known better,’ she said, thinking out loud. Now she was in a messy position. Why couldn’t the boy just have played along, had the sex, gone back to his gaming and left her with an anonymous case study and a few memories of her own to file away. It wasn’t guilt that she felt, it was the annoyance of the fact that the situation was pulling out of her control. How could men be so stupid and then cause so much trouble?
‘If you say anything about this, I’ll report you to higher authorities and you will get evicted off The PROJECT⌂.’ The harsh tone in her voice and the steely glint in her eye was enough to convince him that she wasn’t joking.
Ironically, however, Omo felt a sense of relief. He didn’t realise he had power over her for that moment; what he thought was that at least if Angela wasn’t going to tell anyone about it, he wouldn’t get into trouble. There had been enough trouble. He just wanted to go back to his old, easy life. He doubted whether that would be possible though. He didn’t recognise the adage Knowledge is power, but he was beginning to realise that sometimes, once you knew something, you couldn’t become ignorant again and the whole of life looked different to you. Angela had taken Omo through much more of a rites of passage than even she knew.
‘I don’t want to tell anyone,’ he said, ‘I just wanted to know what you were going to do about it.’
‘I’m not going to do anything,’ she lied. Of course she would. She wasn’t going to leave Omo as a loose cannon. But he didn’t need to know that.
‘I don’t love you anyway,’ Omo stated baldly. ‘It was just an infatuation. Thanks for nothing.’ And he turned and left Angela, stunned.
Omo’s words reverberated in Angela’s head for rather too long. She might not believe in guilt but she was quite keen on revenge. Is revenge an emotion? Or is it the action of the emotionless? In Angela’s case one might consider that revenge was close to its ULTIMATE® definition, available to all for just 10 credits.
REVENGE: Definition. Retaliation for an offence or injury.
Older dictionary definitions might have added an emotional content: a vindictive feeling, but for Angela it wasn’t a question of feeling, it was a question of power. She had to win.
So while Omo returned to The Project House, no older, but a lot wiser; Angela turned her vicious mind to how she could exact the best revenge. Not just on Omo. She felt it was time to get them all, all the men whom she despised. Omo, Pryce and Graham. Three for the price of one. But perhaps that was when she got just too greedy.
She didn’t play out all the possibilities and she committed that classic mistake of underestimating the opposition. She thought she knew Pryce well enough. Omo was no threat but she didn’t know Graham quite as well as she thought. Whereas Omo and Pryce were easy, because fundamentally they were good, Graham was a man who had fully embraced all that ULTIMATE® stood for. Graham was not a man who was led by the nose of emotion. Angela had misjudged him if she thought their ‘affair’ was anything to do with emotion. Graham was playing Angela while she was playing him, and Graham was higher up the pecking order. Graham didn’t get beaten.
Graham already knew what Angela had been up to. Like all good managers he had a lot of spare time while his assistants were doing all his work and he used this spare time to keep tabs on the people who interested him. Or who challenged him. He had Pryce and Angela on such a tight monitor that in pre ULTIMATE® years they would have been shouting about the violation on their human rights. But there were no more human rights. ULTIMATE® took care of that. ULTIMATE® gave you the lifestyle you thought you wanted and as long as you didn’t actually question the system you’d never feel that you were being let down by it. The packaging was glossy. The presentation was slick. You were told that you had everything you needed and you believed it. Or you were virtualised.
Graham could sit in his office and know everything about Angela’s sexual peccadillos. He could watch them like movies. He had access to a virtual two way US™ screen. For work purposes only of course. Though he used it mainly for pleasure. It was a company perk in the way that company cars used to be. Consequently, Graham knew just about everything about Pryce’s depression and the marital arguments with Angela and a whole lot more besides. He made it his job to view weaknesses, manipulate them and then he used them to promote his own standing in the ULTIMATE® community. He was destined for great things. But Graham had a failing too. He spent too much time trying to make sure that he was on the up. Someone higher up than him was watching that of course, noting that his desire for individual success was at odds with ULTIMATE® goals.
UTheory∑® was big on the random element. And it seemed that every member of the society still had a random element. In previous times it might have been considered a fatal flaw, or a personality trait, or indeed just the thing that made each person individual. But it was the random elements that the ULTIMATE® system was working to control and when any one random element got too dangerous, there was only one way out. However high up the system you went, there was always someone at a higher level, keeping tabs on everyone else.
Some days later Graham called Angela in to explain herself.
‘What have you been up to? he sleazed and showed her a snippet from his vault. She was unchastened.
‘It’s guilt research,’ she replied.
‘I wasn’t supposed to know about it?’ his question was rhetorical but she side-stepped it.
‘No, I knew you would. I wanted to get data off you regarding your responses to the situation,’ she lied.
‘You didn’t clear your research project with me first,’ he added, not taken in for a minute.
The ugly chess game continued.
‘And Pryce? Does he know?’
‘Why should he?’ she replied. ‘He’s not a part of the study.’
‘You NEVER make me a part of your research without clearing it with me first, get it?’ he said, bored with the situation and desperate just to move things on.
‘Okay,’ she replied, cool to the last.
‘So?’ he said – and she took him up on the offer. They had sex. Graham planned to transfer her. Angela hoped he would. It was in the nature of these kind of transfers that they are promotions and that, after all, was what she’d been angling for all along. Angela was after all, the archetype of all women who ever slept their way to the top.
Pryce would have remained none the wiser. Except they all forgot the random element. Graham gave Pryce the job of setting Omo a work schedule that would keep him busy, very busy and free from emotion. The reason Graham gave was that he didn’t want the death of Nike to impact on the others. They were to get a new PROJECT⌂ flatmate as soon as possible and other than that, things were to go on as before. But Omo wasn’t to visit Helen again. They had to cut off all subversive links. And clearly, Helen was not good for anyone. Nor was he to see Angela again. Graham told Pryce that Angela had told him that Omo really didn’t have what it took to understand adaptive theory at any advanced level, and it was wasting Angela’s valuable time to be tutoring him. They had to get back on an even keel.
Pryce went to tell Omo. And then the shit hit the fan. Omo’s random element came into play. He told Pryce everything. Well, mostly everything. Omo told him that Angela didn’t love him (Pryce) and that she had been sleeping with him (Omo) and he didn’t know why she’d done it, but it had upset him. He admitted that he had been experiencing emotional anxiety, which he knew was not necessary or condoned in the ULTIMATE® system, and he was sure that he’d probably broken some of the rules of his PROJECT⌂ contract. He was sorry. He hadn’t meant any of it. He just wanted things to get back to normal and he didn’t know who else to ask for help but Pryce.
Two months previously such a revelation would have rocked Pryce’s world. But now, he took it with barely a thought. He should have known all along. Why wouldn’t Omo be the latest in a long line of lovers, designed to demean and diminish him? Angela was a callous, calculating woman and Pryce knew that even by revisiting his Memory Banks he would never again see her in any other light. The woman he had fallen in love with had disappeared into the ULTIMATE® world; a natural for the new ways it promoted. Instead of focussing on Angela and what he had lost, Pryce determined to use the opportunity to recruit Omo to his own cause. It would be a small victory, but a victory none the less. With Nike gone, Omo was Pryce’s only real chance of a link with The Immortal Horses. Through Omo he could get to Helen and Helen must know something. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was a place to start.
Helen sat in front of the US™ wishing that she had a funeral to go to. Funerals were not part of the ULTIMATE® lifestyle. Death was not something to be commemorated or celebrated, because life must go on, and the death of one individual was no more than the extinction of a random possibility. A statistical variation. Helen tried to create her own commemoration by looking back through the Memory Banks she had so painstakingly created over the last months. She realised their intended purpose had been lost. They were no longer able to tell Nick the story of his family. Without him, there was no positive use for them at all. So she wanted to find a way to expunge them from the system. She didn’t want ULTIMATE® to have access to her life, even virtually, once she’d ‘left the building’. But she didn’t know where to begin in a deconstruction process. She knew that her data would be stored somewhere on some ULTIMATE® archive and it irked her. More than that, she was worried it might provide ULTIMATE® with a way of finding her once she’d committed her escape. Although, she reasoned, they probably wouldn’t bother. What interest was she to ULTIMATE® after all?
Helen had been trying a range of options to ‘modify’ her memories because she knew that ‘delete memory’ was not an option. Suddenly a message popped up on the US™ screen which surprised her.
ODYSSEUS CAN HELP YOU. ODYSSEUS CARES. GO TO RIP MEMORIES AND MODIFY
Helen didn’t have a clue what this was about. She was suspicious of course. She had never stored memories to do with RIP as such although of course some of the memories she had stored must have touched upon that group. She tried to make sense of it. Who could Odysseus be? In history he had been the traveller but the name didn’t ring any bells in Helen’s personal memory. She was more concerned to realise that the US™ might be so sophisticated that it could index archived items by folders she had not herself created. But what could she do? If she couldn’t delete memories, she couldn’t delete references to RIP. She took a gamble.
‘Go to RIP memory archive’ and the US™ screen instantly obliged.
Helen found herself in a set of memories she was sure she hadn’t created herself. She watched Randall at and RIP meeting in 2011, holding forth about the importance of standing up against the corporations who were threatening the civil liberties. Had she been there? The Memory Bank suggested it, but she couldn’t remember it herself. While the US™ screen delivered the images from her perspective she was sure that she’d been at home with a teething Nick, and that Randall had come and told her about the meeting afterwards. Maybe she was wrong? Surely her memory wasn’t that poor these days?
As she scrolled through more and more memories, she became more and more convinced however, that this was not her own Memory Bank. But it couldn’t be Randall’s could it, because he’d been killed 10 years ago? It was too sick to think that they might have extracted his memories out of him, like so much data, and compiled them into a Memory Bank against his will. But what else could this be. She decided to ask some questions.
‘Memories unrecognised. Please confirm owner of memories.’
Helen wasn’t good at asking US™ screen style questions. It wasn’t something Victims had ever been schooled in. Of course on entering the ULTIMATE® home they’d been given a basic tutorial in the workings of the US™ screen but it focussed on inputting rather than on questioning. Victims were not like Project Kids. They were the least useful members of society, at best held in magnolia cells, at worst guinea pigs for memory alteration schemes such as the ADAS®, the system which had, according to ULTIMATE®, transformed the lives of millions for the better but which Helen simply saw as cheating people of their own memories by substituting more acceptable ones which would keep them quiet. However, she hit pay dirt with this question. The benefit of not know how you should interact with the system meant that sometimes, just sometimes, you got the answers you wanted.
‘This is the memory archive of Odysseus. You are linked to Odysseus’ memory archive by cross referencing. If this is an error and you wish to modify, please engage with the following procedure or contact a technician. ULTIMATE® wants to ensure that your memories are correct at all times. Thank you for your attention.’
No. That was fine. Helen didn’t want to modify things. She wanted to find out more about this person Odysseus and how it was that he had her memories in his bank. He was her link to RIP after all, and RIP was her best chance of getting out of the ULTIMATE® Home. She couldn’t discount the possibility that Odysseus was an ULTIMATE® creation, there to trick her. But what did she have to lose any more? Living here, she was dead and if she failed to get out, she was dead. But if she could escape….. She jumped at the knock on the door.
‘Come in,’ she said, tentatively.
It was Omo. Unexpected, but welcome. She’d half expected a burly ‘technician’ of the kind who were called in to deal with the ‘difficult’ clients of the home. Men more akin to her understanding of psychiatric wings where ‘acceptable levels of restraint’ was a stock in trade. However much ULTIMATE® tried to remove the past from people’s memories, there were things in there which they could not erase. Not in people of Helen’s age. Soon, in another couple of generations, it would all be lost or deep archived and the general populace, the true ULTIMATE® citizens, would have no memories that were not either virtually created or licensed by ULTIMATE®. This was the glorious end goal of the BRAND LOYALTY programme after all.
‘Hi. Good to see you,’ she smiled.
Omo looked awkward. He avoided her eye. He caught sight of the screen. He tried to avoid the name ODYSSEUS which was large on it. He didn’t know where to look.
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you…’ he stuttered.
‘No, it’s fine I was just…’ she waved at the screen. Hell, what had she to lose.. ‘Do you know anything about Odysseus?’ she asked, more in hope than expectation.
Omo returned a blank look. ‘Sorry. No. Should I?’
‘No, I just wondered if Nick had ever mentioned him?’
‘No. He never… we… well… it would have been personal wouldn’t it, and we didn’t really talk about personal things.’
Of course not. She had embarrassed him. He might have shared a home with Nick for five years, but ULTIMATE® would not have encouraged the sort of friendship that meant sharing personal feelings or emotions. They might have talked about how to cheat on level 25 of a game, or the relative merits of one discussion forum over another, but why and how would they have been able to talk about family or….. or anything of value?
‘Uh. I’ve actually got a question for you,’ Omo blurted out. He felt his bravery slipping and he decided he’d best lay his cards on the table straight away. He didn’t know much about Helen but he did figure she liked people to be clear and simple with her. She could only say no after all.
‘Surely. What can I help you with?’ It wasn’t Nick, but it felt good to have someone there actually talking to her, actually interacting and asking for help.
‘What is love?’
She laughed out loud. She couldn’t help it. It was lucky Omo was so dark skinned or he might have visibly blushed. Helen had thought after the news about Nick that she would never laugh again, but here she was, already experiencing an unguarded moment. Vindicating the belief that the human spirit could not be crushed. She laughed because it was just so ridiculous. Here was this earnest product of The PROJECT⌂, the vanguard of the ULTIMATE® system, asking her about love.
‘You want to know what love is?’ She sought confirmation.
He hung his head, ‘I’ve had a definition but….’
‘Sorry. Sorry.’ She wiped a tear from her eye. ‘I’m not laughing at you Omo. It’s just… just the way you came out with it.’
Omo failed to see the joke.
‘Omo, dear, you ask the question as if there would be a simple answer. A simple definition, something the US™ system could give you if you only had enough credits. Whereas the question you are asking me, apart from being, I’m sure, not an authorised or acceptable ULTIMATE® question, is also one to which mankind from his earliest days has struggled to find an answer. And yet, you stand there in front of me, hoping that I’m going to give you the answer, just like that.’
‘So you can’t?’ He was confused.
‘You ask what love is. You are asking what love means. It’ll get you into trouble Omo, because it’s a question about personal meaning.’
‘That’s why I came to ask you,’ Omo replied, ‘I really need to know and….’
Helen didn’t stop to wonder why Omo so badly needed to know what love meant, she just responded to his need to go beyond the limitations imposed by his ULTIMATE® education.
‘All right. I hope you’re not in a rush?’
Omo looked more perplexed. ‘I’ve got an hour or so,’ he replied. ‘Pryce said I could come and see you. But I don’t think he was too happy about it. I said you wanted to talk to me about Nike and he said it was okay but not to make it a regular occurrence.’
‘I don’t know that I’ll be able to answer your question in an hour, or even in a lifetime,’ Helen replied, ‘but I’ll do what I can.’
She beckoned him to sit on the bed and shifted her chair round by forty five degrees till she faced him.
‘Love. What does it mean? Where do I start? What do you understand by the word already?’
Omo thought hard. ‘The definition said it was an intense feeling of deep affection for a person or thing.’
‘And do you think you have this feeling for someone?’ Helen probed.
Omo couldn’t bring himself to say the words but he nodded his head.
‘Okay.’ Helen knew that this was dangerous information. ‘No wonder you didn’t want to talk to Pryce about this.’
If only she knew, Omo thought. Better that she didn’t. If only Omo knew that Helen wouldn’t have been shocked at all. She came from an age after all, when love in all its guises visited itself on the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the time. She could have given him chapter and verse on the nuances of lust and love and unrequited love and…. But fortunately his silence meant that she could just give him an overview. She was not counselling him on his own personal situation, merely explaining to him something which had once been all important to people and which ULTIMATE® had downgraded to a useless emotion, replaced by virtual sex and no more meaningful than shopping.
‘If I tell you that throughout the history of mankind, probably more time has been spent on this question than any other, and more answers given than there are stars in the sky, you’ll understand that your ULTIMATE® definition is quite useless. I don’t think one can define Love, Omo and I think that it’s probably a different answer for every person but I’ll do my best to give you MY explanation of love and see what use that is to you. Okay?’
He nodded his head again. And tried to stop thinking of Angela’s naked body entwined round his own, as it had been less than twelve hours ago.
‘Love is a guard against isolation. Love is never having to say you’re sorry. Love is an urban myth. Love is a cliché. Love is a risk. Love is all that is worth living for and for which you lose everything. Love is all you need.’ The phrases tumbled out. She was going to have to do better than this. She tried again.
‘I think that love is a conscious decision one makes, though at the time, one is rarely aware that this is what one is doing. It is a decision in which you say to yourself – I’m going to give myself to this other person, I’m going to consider their needs before my own, I’m going to always give them the benefit of the doubt, the largest share, I’m going to try and be the best person I can be, just to make them happy and even if they never care for me, or love me back, I won’t feel that I have wasted my time.’
‘What do you mean give yourself?’ Omo asked.
‘I don’t just mean physically, though of course that is important.’ Helen felt like she was about to divert into a birds and bees conversation, which she hadn’t done since Catriona was eleven, that would have been in 1997 and right now she wanted to stay on the path of love, not sex. But for a moment she wondered if it was sex, not love that Omo was asking about.
‘Sex is not love you know,’ she added, ‘sex can be part of love but it isn’t the same thing.’
Omo was confused but didn’t like to say. He waited for further explanation. But couldn’t stop thinking about Angela’s naked body…..
‘Love means giving something of your identity, something of who you are privately, inside; your soul, your essence… your very being… allowing another person access to that and striving to live up to the ideals of being worthy of another person giving you that access back.’ Helen realised that words like soul and even identity probably didn’t mean that much to Omo, but she had no other terms of reference.
‘Let me try and explain it better,’ she continued. ‘There are lots of different kinds of love. The way you love a child is completely different to the way you love a partner. The way you love a friend and the way you can love an animal are all variations on the basic theme. Which is that you have to step outside of your isolation and become bigger than one person. In some way by loving you externalise your identity. With a child, the love you have is protective and unconditional. Much like it can be with an animal. Although with a child it becomes more complex because the relationship changes over time as your child grows up and becomes an adult but your love seems stuck in a protective, unequal place and you have to re-negotiate. With an animal the love remains unconditional because the relationship never changes. With a friend your love changes as it stays the same. Perhaps with a friend you have to be more open to change, more accepting, because you have no ‘rights’ over their life or actions. But with a life partner, a husband or wife, for example, there is no room for half measures. You have to dedicate yourself every day to the duty of loving them, accepting them, giving to them, being for them what they need and putting them first. It’s not easy. But the rewards are great. The price is high too. When you lose them you don’t stop loving them. You just stop being with them and being able to show them your love. I loved my daughter and son but they both died before me. Something in me died with them, I suppose the something was the two-way love. But I still love them in my heart.’ She paused, dealing with the pain.
‘It’s the same with Nick. There’s a sense of loss in reality, but he’s still there, somewhere. With Randall, my husband, it’s the worst of all though. When I lost him I felt that the part of myself which made me whole was lost forever. The others were a part of me, but he was the whole of me. Our love meant that we almost ceased to exist as individuals. We existed together and our love was the part that created and sustained that existence. You might say love was the glue which stuck us together. For nearly forty years, I could only define myself in relation to him, I couldn’t think of myself as a person alone. Then suddenly….’ Helen broke off…. she couldn’t help the tears.
Omo surprised himself. A month ago this expression of emotion would have been totally unacceptable to him and he’d have found a way to get out of the room instantly. Somehow now, he felt the need to stay.
‘It’s okay,’ he reassured Helen. ‘I…. I understand.’ There was a pause while she tried to pull herself together.
‘Well, I don’t really understand,’ he admitted, ‘I mean I think I understand what you are telling me. But the feeling… I don’t understand that.’
‘You couldn’t,’ Helen replied. ‘Not many people really experience that kind of love. It was a blessing. And a curse.’
‘Anyway. There must be a reason you came here to ask me this question,’ she continued, ‘and here I am, blubbing over my own past. Come on. Tell me. Who do you think you love?’
Omo pulled up short. He hadn’t expected this. But he found that he wanted to tell her. He wanted people to know. But he knew he couldn’t.
‘I don’t want to say the name,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to get her into trouble.’
‘Fair enough,’ Helen replied. ‘Tell me about the feeling then.’
‘Yes,’ Omo nodded, ‘It’s the feeling. I’ve never felt… well… you know, they don’t really encourage feelings and I’ve not been very good at them before. They aren’t, you know, ‘productive’ usually, but now…. Well, I think about her all the time and I wonder what she’s doing when she’s not with me, and she’s not with me most of the time and I don’t know how she feels about me, but when we’re together it’s… well… it blows my mind, but then I can’t understand how she can just leave me and go back to her life and leave me in my life and…. I suppose I want that thing you said about two people giving to each other, but I don’t feel like she wants to give to me.’
‘That’s unrequited love,’ Helen explained.
‘Is it no good?’’ Omo asked
‘Well, it’s not the best kind,’ Helen added, ‘It’s the kind of love you have when you feel all the emotions but there’s nothing you can do to externalise them. It’s.. well let’s just say it used to be pretty common. But it’s also easily confused with infatuation. That’s when you just can’t stop thinking about someone but all the thoughts are really about your own perception of the other person.’
This was getting complicated. ‘At your age, traditionally,’ Helen confided, ‘it would most likely have been infatuation. I think true love isn’t possible till one has a decent grip on one’s own identity. Until you know who you are, how can you either share or give of yourself in a meaningful way?’ It wasn’t a rhetorical question but Helen knew that Omo couldn’t give an answer. This wasn’t about answers, it was a voyage of discovery. A young man struggling, as so many had before him, to understand the inexplicable.
‘How will I know the difference?’
‘If it’s infatuation it’ll wear off. Sooner or later you’ll look at her and she won’t be the most beautiful woman in the world. The things she does which appeal to you so much now will seem crass and small. If it’s unrequited love, you’ll keep on feeling the same way, but it won’t do you any good either way, because if she doesn’t feel the same way as you, you’re scuppered.’
‘How will I know if she feels the same way?’ Omo asked the sixty four thousand dollar question.
‘You have to ask her,’ Helen said.
Omo was shocked. ‘I couldn’t do that.’
‘I… I just couldn’t.’
‘In which case,’ Helen replied, ‘I think your answer lies in there. If you can’t because you’re frightened she might tell you she doesn’t love you back, and yet you’re not prepared to risk everything to find out, then you are not ready for love. It’s hard, but you have to find out. Of course, sometimes, you just know, even without asking.’
She thought back to the first time she met Randall. Had she made a conscious decision to love him then? Very quickly it had seemed inevitable. The North London concert had certainly marked the clear moment she fell in love and being together had seemed the most obviously right thing in the world. The thing that would make sense of her life. Yet how had she known, back then, that he would love her back?
Was she asking Omo to do something which was impossible? Something she couldn’t have done herself? Here she was, talking with the benefit of retrospect. Had she forgotten what it was like in that first stage?
‘At some point,’ she tried a softer approach, ‘You will have to tell her how you feel and you’ll have to find out what she feels. You have to do it straight out. There’s no alternative. You have to take the risk. But only,’ she added, ‘when you’re ready.’
Omo didn’t think he’d ever be ready to do that. When he imagined the situation, all he could see was Angela laughing at him. He didn’t take that to be a good sign.
‘Have I been any help at all?’ Helen asked.
‘Uh… yes… I mean… I think….’ Omo stuttered. He realised he was going to have to think more about this whole situation. And less about Angela’s naked body…. Because he realised that this was all he had been thinking about. All the things that Helen had talked about were totally alien to him. He had just wanted to be with Angela, having real live sex, feeling good. It seemed that that wouldn’t be enough. Life had been so much easier before Angela. Before feelings. But could he go back to the way things were then, now that everything had changed?
The writing was on the wall for Pryce and he knew it. Even before the inevitable meeting with Graham, he knew it. And he’d had enough. He was tired of constantly running to keep up, only to find out that he was way behind the action. More and more he found himself yearning for a long gone past, for the dimly remembered world before ULTIMATE® had taken over everything, including his own life. He wondered where it had all gone wrong? Where did our priorities change from sex and holidays and family life to the easy life of virtuality, a life without responsibility or guilt or feeling of any kind?
Losing himself in his own Memory Bank, he spent his days re-living a past which seemed like the story of someone else’s life. He wondered if other people felt like him. He couldn’t stand the pointlessness of it all. He immersed himself in his Memory Bank, spending all the credits he’d amassed over a careful number of years, like an addict who’d been clean for so long he was convinced that first hit wouldn’t affect him. Pryce saw his teenage self, obsessed with playing psychological thriller games online, pitting his wits against systems which always promised that if he was just smart enough he’d work out the answer, but which, like one armed bandits, made it impossible for you to win so that the game could squeeze every ounce of time and money from you before finally giving you the answer. From this perspective it all seemed so pointless. Yet he’d never stopped pursuing the quest – like Nike, he’d kept asking questions. He realised that was what they’d had in common. So when had he, Pryce, stopped asking questions? When had he started to find Nike’s questions irritating rather than inspirational. When had he stopped seeing youth as optimistic hope for the future and instead seen it as a manifestation of a troublesome present? When had he changed and become what ULTIMATE® wanted?
Pryce felt like he’d betrayed himself. At some unspecified point, he’d lost sight of what had once been important to him. People. Life. Meaning. And he wanted to get it back. He didn’t want the death of Nike to mean nothing. By extension it would mean that his life was meaningless. And more than that, Pryce could not deal with the fact that Nike, annoying as he had been, could die and no one batted an eyelid. It was no more than a transfer of data and a set of interviews and assessments for a replacement. Had people really become so unimportant, so interchangeable? It seemed so.
But work wouldn’t wait. He was still responsible for Omo and Flora, though he’d kept his distance from them. He’d told them to go and see Helen it was true, but that was really to shift them from asking him awkward questions. He hadn’t even bothered to ask them how things had gone. At the time he didn’t care. Now he realised he should have. But there was no time. In the moments when he wasn’t stealing ULTIMATE®’s time to revisit his own past, he was undertaking the task Graham had set him of making a comprehensive report on the past month. At first he’d thought Graham wanted to make sense of Nike’s death as well, but it pretty quickly transpired that Graham only wanted data to be able to close off the file. That’s all Nike was. A file. A data set. To be archived. His life meant nothing. His death meant nothing.
Pryce tried to lose himself in his work, but in essence his interest was in trying to find answers – answers beyond the US™ system, in order to make sense of it. And the system didn’t want to give up the answers. For the first time in his life, Pryce felt he was fighting against the system and it only served to show him how little in control of his own actions and mind he had become. He wanted to regain a personal perspective not mediated by Memory Banks and knowledge banks and UTheory∑® and US™ screens. But he quickly found that even in order to challenge the system he needed its help. He couldn’t gain any information any other way. His depression deepened as he realised that it was impossible to live in this ULTIMATE® world without using and indeed relying on its resources. So, reluctantly, he logged into the analysis bank. It was a level deeper than the knowledge bank used by the Project Kids and not available to the population at large. It was reserved for employees of ULTIMATE® responsible for The PROJECT⌂. You had to be very carefully vetted for this information. But you still paid for it. Pryce was prepared to pay. It would be worth the cost and worth the risk.
‘Who are The Immortal Horses?’ he asked. It was the question Nike had been burning to have answered, and eventually had found out – to his cost.
‘This is beyond your authorisation limit. Refer to your line manager.’
As expected, the system shut the door in his face. For once Pryce experienced the same level of annoyance that Nike had always exhibited at the US™ system and finally thought he had gained some understanding of the boy. Too late. Pryce reasoned that if the system didn’t want to give him the information, it was information he needed to know. He was wondering what to do next, when the call he had been dreading, and expecting, came. Graham summoned him to a meeting.
For a thoroughly modern man, Graham still employed some shockingly traditional methods of exerting control over his subordinates. As Pryce lowered himself into the chair opposite Graham’s overlarge desk, he noted, not for the first time, the pathetic tactic Graham employed of making sure his own chair was substantially higher, so that Pryce had to look up at his boss. Pryce had always privately ridiculed this tactic but today, for the first time, he really noticed how effective it was. It was clear to them both that Graham was in complete control of this situation. Pryce considered handing his resignation in then and there, it being the only thing he could think of to regain the initiative. But something stopped him.
‘How are you?’ Graham’s comment disarmed Pryce.
‘Fine.’ If it was going to be a game of verbal chess, he’d play through the opening gambit.
‘Good.’ Graham affected a smile but it came out much more like a smug leer. Pryce wished he had the good old fashioned guts to hit Graham. But he didn’t.
‘How is your report shaping up?’ Graham asked.
‘Okay.’ A taciturn Pryce was giving nothing away.
‘When can I expect it?’
Pryce decided to employ one of Graham’s own tactics. The long silence. And he thought it must have worked because Graham broke it.
‘I know you’ve been under pressure..’ he began.
This wasn’t what Pryce wanted. This was putting him back on the spot. But Graham continued ‘And I’m concerned about the amount of credits you’ve been using up on your Memory Bank. It’s a sign of a troubled mind.’
Another long pause. Pryce was not giving in.
‘I’m here to help,’ Graham added. Like Pryce would believe that, ‘is there is anything I can do?’
Pryce had had enough of this. He was a drowning man. He was going down for the third time. What did any of it matter now? He had nothing to lose.
‘Do you mean it?’ he asked. It was an opening move, not a cry for help.
‘Of course,’ Graham responded. He had his man where he wanted him now. ‘If you have any unresolved questions, issues I can help with, just ask.’
He was not expecting what came next.
‘Who killed Nike?’
There was just the briefest of pauses. Graham had not got to the position he held without being able to analyse situations on the hoof and regain the high ground.
‘The Immortal Horses,’ came the surprising reply.
Pryce didn’t know whether his surprise lay in the response itself or in the fact that Graham had made it without batting an eyelid. But in for a penny…
‘Why did The Immortal Horses kill Nike?’
The pace of the game was picking up.
‘He had information which might prove dangerous to ULTIMATE®.’ Graham responded without a blink. ‘Is that all?’
‘Uh…’ Pryce couldn’t think as fast as Graham.
‘Because I really think that you need to get away from worrying about all this,’ Graham continued, ‘ maybe…’
This was it. He was about to retrench Pryce, fire him, move him somewhere even worse… Pryce braced himself.
‘..maybe you should have some time off?’
‘No, it’s okay.’ Pryce responded through gritted teeth. ‘ I was really only asking because I felt the report would be incomplete without a resolution.’
Neither of them believed that, but what could Graham do?
‘Still, maybe you should…’
‘I’d rather work to a finish on this,’ Pryce stated. ‘With this information, I’m sure I can get the report to you completed by the end of the week. And after that…?’
‘It depends on the quality of the report,’ Graham sounded sharp. Maybe there was more to Pryce than he’d imagined. He hadn’t thought he would put up this much of a fight. He’d need to think of another plan. Because Graham was determined to win in the end. And Pryce, like Nike, was just an impediment in his progress.
‘Is that all?’ Pryce asked, standing up and preparing to leave the room.
‘Yes. That’s all for now,’ Graham replied.
Pryce started on his way out the door.
‘Don’t let me down,’ was Graham’s parting gesture to Pryce’s back.
Pryce returned to his room fuming. He wasn’t sure what it was that annoyed him most. The dismissive way Graham had treated the matter of Nike’s death, or the thought that he was being played like a cat played with a mouse. He knew his time was limited. He knew Graham would come up with something, but in the time he had left, he was determined to find out all that he could. He went back to Nike’s logs with renewed vigour. There must be something…
He wondered whether what Graham had said was true. It seemed too convenient. It was the answer one would anticipate if one was dealing in conspiracy theories. But Pryce knew the obvious answer was rarely the right one. It had come too glibly off Graham’s tongue. Like it had been rehearsed. He was sure it bore no relation to the truth. Though what chance did he have of finding a truth outside the system? One thing Pryce knew was that the death of Nike had not been an accident. The ULTIMATE® system had factored out accidents after all. Random actions were controlled within UTheory∑®. Pryce scratched his head. He didn’t know what to make of this. But he did know that Graham was rattled. That was enough to start with.
He needed to get his brain working. Pure thought. The kind of thought which ULTIMATE® had rendered unnecessary. He took a deep breath. Firstly, why would it matter to The Immortal Horses that Nike’s information could hurt ULTIMATE®? Surely that was the aim of their organisation. They were the bogey man who frightened children. Not Project Kids of course, they were kept in a bubble away from the seamier sides of the ULTIMATE® world. But the ordinary population still needed something to fear and if they didn’t have The Immortal Horses they would probably have feared ULTIMATE®.
Until now Pryce had never really been sure whether The Immortal Horses existed in actuality or were an ULTIMATE® virtual construction. If they were a construction the analysis system could logically give him the explanation that The Immortal Horses killed Nike because he threatened ULTIMATE®. It was a good scapegoat. But there might be more to it than that. It might just be possible that The Immortal Horses really did exist. It might be possible that they had killed Nike, though what their reason could be eluded him. In the case that they didn’t exist, it might equally be possible that ULTIMATE® killed Nike. How could he ever know?
Back to Nike’s logs. It was clear, on close investigation, that Nike had both the motivation and the opportunity to contact The Immortal Horses. And that he had done so. A pattern began to emerge. Every time the logs drew a blank, Helen seemed to be involved, so Pryce reasoned that maybe Helen was a key to the mystery. But he couldn’t just go in and ask her. He would have to come up with something smarter than that. And time was against him. He knew that once his report was on Graham’s desk things would change. He quite expected all his access privileges to be withdrawn, even if it was just done with the excuse of moving him on to another counselling role. Nike and his stored information would be deep archived. So Pryce had to move swiftly. He went through Nike’s logs with a fine toothcomb. He had to use all his old psychological skills to come up with intuitive possible alternatives. And, after several hours, he came up with a hypothesis worth testing.
What if Nike had been taken on by The Immortal Horses as an operative? What if he had been at the centre of the infection, the compromised system and The Immortal Horses had used him as a cuckoo in the nest?
He went back through the logs again, to test the plausibility of the thesis. He held focus and stuck with it to the end. Right to the very end. And then he discovered what Nike had found…… it was the last entry. It had happened as he’d been on his way to The Project House. It was the list of the 100 men.
The log entry showed simply that Nike had asked the question
‘Who are the 100 men?’
And this list had been the response. There was no explanation, just a list of a hundred names. Pryce looked at the list carefully. And then again. He saw names that he hadn’t seen, or thought about for many, many years. Names of people who used to be important before the ₲₨ΩHist. Names of business men and world leaders and economists and scientists and financiers…. CEO’s of every description rubbing alongside Nobel prize winners and the occasional sporting or creative professional. The human equivalent of the FTSE 100. The people who had banded together to change the world. To create what was laughingly referred to in 20th century conspiracy theory as THE NEW WORLD ORDER. The fictional bogey man in the days before The Immortal Horses took up that role.
Pryce hadn’t believed in the New World Order any more than he had in The Immortal Horses. But somehow, looking at the list, it all fell into place. Things like the New World Order had been a smokescreen. But they hid something in plain sight. They hid the fact that there were people, important people, who were using globalisation to take control. These men were the ULTIMATE® shareholders. The power behind the system. The ones who were responsible for the way life had turned out. Throughout the history of the world people had lived with conspiracy theories and secret societies as explanations for the ailments of all. The men who had constructed ULTIMATE® had known that. They had been responsible for the economic collapse and they had rebuilt society, outwith and beyond history, to suit themselves. Between them they had decades of understanding how and why people acted and how and why societies worked and failed. And they had quite callously used all their combined knowledge to create the ULTIMATE® system.
They sat like 100 gods, controlling everyone and everything below them. They had built up the brands and they had built up Brand Loyalty. They had been the movers and shakers, the war mongers and the bringers of peace and as they destroyed history, they made history by signing a secret millennial pact, to privatise the world. It was the most daring, most complete act of corporate imperialism, beyond imagination. And it had worked. Of course it had. They had made people fear the future and then they had saved them. The whole world was built on a pack of lies. But nobody cared because ULTIMATE® used the power of the system to generate the hype that told people that their lives had improved immeasurably. They had achieved a bloodless revolution. They had achieved through capitalism what communism had never managed to achieve – total world domination of a compliant populace. They had drugged them and duped them and turned work into consumption and reality into virtuality and the end result had been slaves who believed they were free. People for whom fulfilment simply meant more and more consumption with less and less responsibility. People who were happy to be told what to do and to do what they were told.
Pryce finally understood why the list had been so valuable. Whoever knew these names, knew who they were up against. The security of the corporation was compromised when you could convert it to actual individuals. You might not be able to knock out ULTIMATE® wholesale, no one could destroy a system that huge and all-encompassing. But you might be able to destroy the individuals who were responsible for that system.
He wondered if Graham knew about this. Had that been the reason he was so keen to get the thing done and dusted? No, surely if Graham had known he wouldn’t have left the information there for Pryce to find. It would have been easy enough for someone with Graham’s level of authority to remove this last entry. So Pryce had the advantage for the first time. He knew something Graham didn’t know. Something dangerous. Something Graham wouldn’t want him to know.
Hw H \he
And now Pryce knew he had a choice. A real choice for the first time in years. He could ignore this information, go back about his work and carry on within the system, taking whatever shit Graham dealt down upon him. Or he could use the information, transmit it to the enemies of ULTIMATE® and play his own small part in dismantling a system which, though on the surface offered humanity everything it had ever wanted, did so at the price of their personal freedom and robbed them of their individual humanity.
When it came down to it, it was an easy choice. Pryce still knew what the right thing to do was, despite years of ULTIMATE® training. And he had no reason to uphold ULTIMATE® values, especially now he had a list in front of him of the men who were benefitting from his life as a bird in a gilded cage. He made a conscious decision to go in search of The Immortal Horses. He had found a meaning to his life. He would finish off what Nike had started. It might be the last thing he did, but he would do it, in memory of a boy who had dared to ask questions. He would bite the hand that fed.
‘He wouldn’t have felt a thing.’ Pryce realised how ridiculous this comment would seem to the Project Kids for whom feelings were no longer a reality. But surely, this news would have some effect.
Project Kids, like most new millennium people, didn’t have what Pryce would consider a real concept of death. They’d grown up with so much killing in their gaming, and with so much virtual living, that the reality never hit them. If someone was killed in a game, no problem, you just started over. If someone died in reality, they lived on through the US™ Memory Bank, the ULTIMATE® equivalent to the social networking sites which first gave people a kind of virtual immortality. In History, immortality had been for the few who had been painted, photographed, filmed or in other ways recorded. Social networking sites offered a more interactive experience. The US™ system was so ubiquitous that it blurred the boundaries even further. People spent so little time with other people interfacing in actuality, that death rarely touched them. But surely, Nike had lived with Omo and Flora for over five years. That must mean something. Pryce looked at them to gauge their response.
Omo was silent. When Pryce had come in, stony faced, instructing them to go into the common room, Omo had been convinced it was to challenge him regarding his affair with Angela. He was convinced he would be exposed. While his face remained calm, he was feeling an emotion, but the emotion wasn’t sorrow, it was guilt. He wasn’t used enough to emotions to be able to feel grief at the same time. It would take some time to sink in.
Flora was trying to compute the information. What did it mean?
‘Will we get a new flatmate?’ Was all she was able to ask. The girl who had cried watching the death of the last tiger, could not shed a tear over a real boy with whom she’d shared her space for the last five years. Of course, she hadn’t really shared her life, that was lived online and Nike was just someone who was ‘around.’ He would presumably be replaced. And with someone less annoying, hopefully.
Omo brought himself out of his stupor. ‘What about his Nan?’
‘What do you mean?’ Pryce was confused by Omo’s behaviour and this response didn’t make any sense to him. Was this shock?
‘Who’s going to tell her. She’ll be….’ Omo couldn’t find the word to describe how Helen would react. Devastated was not in his vocabulary.
‘She…. Well, she loved him,’ he managed. That was it. Love. Something Omo thought he was learning about. At that moment he realised the person who would know about love was Helen. He started to formulate a plan. It was uncharacteristic, but his experiences with Angela were changing him in all sorts of ways.
‘We should tell her,’ Omo continued.
Pryce was really out of his depth here. But if that was what it would take to get the Kids back on track, fine. Where could the harm be?
‘Uh, Okay. I’ll sort out transport for you to go there this afternoon if you like.’
‘Sure.’ Omo felt just another little bit guilty now that he realised his main reason for going to see Helen might not be to tell her about Nike’s untimely death, but to find out what she knew about love. That he wanted to take from her, not to give.
Helen was unaware of the horror that was about to face her as she opened the door to the unexpected visitor. She was greeted by Omo and Flora, who looked, to put it mildly, uncomfortable.
‘Nice to see you. Nick not with you?’
Omo and Flora looked at each other. They didn’t know what to say. They hadn’t thought this through. Hadn’t thought how they would tell Helen and now here they were, unprepared.
‘Uh…No..’ Omo struggled for words.
‘Can we come in?’ Flora asked.
‘Surely, surely,’ Helen ushered them into the room, ‘please, sit down,’ she added.
They had to sit on the bed. There was nowhere else to sit. Only Helen’s chair, facing the US™ screen from which she had risen to answer the door.
‘It’s about Nike.. Nick… that we’ve come,’ Omo finally managed to get out. He had never believed it possible to experience this level of awkwardness.
‘He’s not in trouble is he?’ Helen asked, not expecting what was coming next.
‘He wouldn’t have felt any pain,’ Omo added, parroting Pryce’s statement. What else could he do? He didn’t know how you told someone that another person was dead. He certainly didn’t know how to tell an old lady that her beloved grandson was dead. That was far beyond him.
‘He’s dead,’ Flora asserted, quickly, so that there could be no confusion. Somehow she knew it was important that Helen got the information straight and quick.
Helen sank into her chair. The colour drained from her face, and Flora observed that she finally looked all of her seventy years for the first time. As they watched her, something changed. A light went out. She aged. A bit of her died. It wasn’t the first time.
‘How…?’ she finally spoke. She needed to know.
‘He wouldn’t have felt any pain.’ Omo repeated. He was glad Flora was with him, but surprised that she seemed to be showing more strength than he could find. Looking at Helen churned him up in a way he’d never experienced before and yet Flora, the girl who had cried at the death of some mangey tiger they’d never even met, seemed able to take charge and stay calm.
‘He was run over.’ Flora added the only detail she knew.
‘We don’t know.’
‘Where?’ Helen needed more detail.
‘I’m not sure. Somewhere between our house and here I think.’
‘Why?’ As if she needed to ask.
‘I’m really sorry.’ Flora rose from the bed and put her arms round Helen, ‘we could get Pryce to come and see you if you like. He might know more.’
‘No, it’s all right.’ Helen pulled herself together. She knew why, in broad terms, something bad might have happened to Nick. Something to shut him up. She knew ULTIMATE® was behind it and she didn’t need an ULTIMATE® employee telling her lies.
‘Was he on his way to see me?’
Flora and Omo looked at each other. They had no idea. But they somehow felt that Helen deserved some answers, so they gave her the one they thought most suitable.
‘Yes,’ they said, in unison.
Helen crumpled. It was her fault. If she hadn’t got Nick trying to find out about RIP she was sure this wouldn’t have happened. It was her fault. It must be. She needed to be alone.
‘Should we get someone to be with you?’ Flora broke the silence.
‘No, No, I’ll be fine,’ Helen put on her stoical face again. ‘I need some time on my own, that’s all. Thank you for… for telling me.’
Omo and Flora got up. What else was there to do? Flora hugged Helen and Omo felt the right thing was to follow suit. As Flora headed for the door, he hung back a moment and before he even realised what he was doing he whispered,
‘Can I come back and see you… alone? I need to talk to you.’
‘Of course,’ Helen whispered back to him and then let him go. ‘Whenever you like, Omo. Any friend of Nick’s is always welcome here.’
And the door shut behind them, leaving Helen even more alone than she had felt twenty minutes before. She had promised to watch out for him. It had been a lifelong promise. And she’d failed. Helen struggled with a grief she thought she had left behind with the death of Randall. The mind plays tricks on you in these first stages of shock. She could not believe that Nick was dead. Even though the kids had told her, and they were obviously sincere, she found it impossible to believe that Nick, so full of life, was no longer there. It was a concept too hard to bear and her brain kicked in with the only alternative bearable. It wasn’t true. She didn’t know why ULTIMATE® would lie about it, but she was sure they were lying.
Another part of her brain had already moved into the post death grief state she had experienced too many times before. The contemplation of what death means. Knowing the person now lives only in your memory. Knowing you’ll never see them again. You can’t share meaning with them. Emptiness, loss. A reminder of your own isolation. That you’d give everything to just EXTERNALISE with them one more time. Reflection on your own mortality. The need to LIVE the rest of your life. How would she do that? What was left for her?
It brought her back to the desire to be rational even in her shock and grief. Logically, she worked out that either Nick was dead, in which case she could do nothing to help him, or he wasn’t dead in which case she needed to find out what had happened to him and she wouldn’t do that sitting in an ULTIMATE® Home. Either way, she needed to find out for herself where RIP were. Because either way, RIP must still exist. Either Nick had been killed by ULTIMATE® as his father and grandfather before him, for knowing too much, or asking too many questions; or he was alive, held somewhere for precisely the same reasons. It was the only sense she could make of this senseless situation. And if he was alive….
She had a flashback to her last interaction with Nick. That strange message from the US™ screen. When he’d said he was with his dad. Maybe he’d already been spirited away by ULTIMATE® at that point. She remembered the 1970’s when people were ‘disappeared’ in Chile. She’d been approaching her teens and it was the first really shocking news she’d encountered. It had stayed with her. It was the hallmark of the totalitarian regime. And Helen wasn’t taken in by the bright, light, brand loyalty of ULTIMATE®. She could see beneath it. Behind the brand was something far more frightening than corporate greed. It was a new totalitarianism. ULTIMATE® totalitarianism. The destruction of humanity.
She had to act and act soon. She had to find what was left of the RIP and try and reclaim some sort of personal truth out of this world of branded lies. Of course she realised that if she left the ULTIMATE® Home she would die too, probably within a couple of years, if not sooner. At this stage the thought did not bother her. It was subsumed beneath a feeling a lot like hope which told her she might LIVE for two more years. Actually live. A life of freedom outside the death that was ULTIMATE®. That’s worth it. However short the timeframe. She’d been dead for the last ten years after all. It was time to be like a tree and experience spring once more. She longed to go back to the ‘beech’ and walk in the winter and grow vegetables in the summer and eat real food. All this had to be worth whatever price she would finally pay, however soon she had to pay it. Life under ULTIMATE® might seem to be comfortable and easy after a fashion, as long as you just went along with it but it wasn’t REAL and a non-real life isn’t worth living. It’s no more life than a plastic flower. A dead tree has more life than a plastic flower.
How would she get away? She looked at the ßß™ barcode on her arm. It was a link to ULTIMATE® that she could not erase. Everyone had one now. Everyone was branded. She rubbed it. Not for the first time she thought about the tattoos of the Holocaust victims. ULTIMATE® may have done away with history for its citizens, but it had borrowed freely from whatever bits of history suited its purpose. Once upon a time tattoos had been for sailors and soldiers or primitive tribesmen. Then footballers and celebrities began to adorn themselves, calling it ‘body art.’ Fashion drifted down to the masses inevitably, till tattooing broached all social classes and ages. Then, as fashion and technology segued together, Brands started to enter the fray. Soon enough it had become the height of fashion to have a product or company brand on your arm, and soon enough the benefits turned into necessity. To be allowed to shop anywhere you had to have the appropriate brand. Your personal and financial details were contained on the logo on your skin and arms became like so many boy scouts shirtsleeves; the more you had the better a consumer you were. The more brand loyalty you had on your flesh the higher your status both socially and credit wise. Helen was glad that she’d never bought into this. It hadn’t happened until they were far into self-sufficiency and it provided a good reason never to have to ‘shop’ in the mainstream. Only charity shops held out against the onslaught, until finally there were no more charity shops – because there was no longer seen as any need for charity. For a time a strange kind of black market style of shopping was undertaken in the old pound shops and charity shops and then out of the boots of cars, until all these things became consigned to history.
Catriona and Lauren, as good fashionistas, both had armfuls of brands. Of course behind all the brands was one brand. The one brand to whom loyalty was unavoidable in the end. ULTIMATE®. When Helen had been admitted to the ULTIMATE® Home, she had had to submit to having the ULTIMATE® Brand on embedded into her arm. At the time she’d felt like someone entering Auschwitz, but there was no choice. She’d felt numb and dead then anyway. But now… now she wanted to break free from ULTIMATE® once more. Now she felt there was no reason to stay and every reason to take a risk. But ULTIMATE® wouldn’t let her go that easily. The Brand would stay with her for life. That was ULTIMATE’s® unique selling point. The clue was in the name.
Helen was not going to let the seal of ULTIMATE® on her arm stop her, however. If she couldn’t get rid of the ßß™barcode brand which was not only tattooed onto her skin but contained a technologically advanced biological implant in her arm, she would try to get out of range. That must be possible. Or worth a try at least. The first thing would be to try and make contact with RIP. She did not have time to lose herself in grief for Nick. She needed to make a concrete, workable, escape plan.
However much Pryce felt that he’d finally made a breakthrough with Nike, he was mistaken. Nike no longer needed Pryce. He had found someone who would give him better answers. Answers more suited to his inquisitive nature. That morning he’d listened to Pryce’s explanation of UTheory∑® without asking too many awkward questions, just as Troy had instructed him. He understood that his job now was to gain information, not to cause trouble. On the surface he had settled down into his new ‘productive’ work schedule, but it was only because The Immortal Horses had given him a purpose. He was aware they were using all his information to build up their own database. They needed to create programmes to break into the system and they needed an open, linked terminal to achieve this. Nike’s role was to keep the channels open and let The Immortal Horses do their work. It gave some meaning to his life.
Pryce thought Nike was genuinely interested in Question Theory. Nike asked the questions and listened to the explanations because the tutorial provided a good, robust set of algorithmic run time data. Or something like that. Nike’s head just spun when Troy tried to explain the systemic workings. But he felt proud to be part of something. Something that was not The PROJECT⌂. Nike had given up thinking that ULTIMATE® had anything to offer. He’d stopped thinking that Pryce had anything to offer him, because he’d found a better tutor in Troy. Not just a father-figure, a real live father.
Nike sneaked out to the Trading House whenever he could, usually after a good long session doing his ‘productive’ work, when no one would be looking out for him. He had previously achieved such low targets that if he now put in a decent burst of work, he could go missing for a good couple of hours and no one looking casually at his output would notice. Pryce had too many other irons in the fire to check Nike in any more depth than by looking at his output log. Nike knew the cheat would only work for a while. But it didn’t matter. It worked for now, and his father was sure to sort something better out soon. Even now, he understood that the geeks at the Trading House were working on a way of diverting his ßß™ signal so that he could be in two places at one time. It provided a real time application for Quantum Theory. Of course he was only in two places in theory. But that was good enough for ULTIMATE® systems. After all, virtuality was all to ULTIMATE®. The Immortal Horses exploited the systemic weakness. So, while virtually Nike was at The Project House more often than not he was actually at the Trading House. As long as no one thought to look in his room he was fine.
Meanwhile, in the hours they spent together at the Trading House, Troy explained about the importance of Meaning to Nike. Their father-son bonding was strange but powerful. Nike quickly learned to put his faith and trust in Troy. After all, Troy had the answers almost before Nike had the questions.
And if Troy’s conversations were more like tutorials than intimate family chat, that went unnoticed by Nike who had, after all, forgotten what family was like.
‘In the 20th century people fixated on the meaning of meaning,’ Troy explained. ‘In the 21st century ULTIMATE® have rendered meaning meaningless. While in History meaning was central to our human existence, and at one point it was considered that belief and meaning are interdependent, ULTIMATE® have achieved the goal of destroying both belief and meaning for the individual. And they’ve done it as a result of everyone in the system buying into it willingly. You’ve all been helping them every step of the way. Every bit of data collected, every question asked has helped them destroy your humanity.’
‘But why would ULTIMATE® destroy people?’ Nike felt it was a naïve question, but he really didn’t understand. And he felt more comfortable asking Troy questions now.
‘I didn’t say they destroyed people as physical bodies, they need the physical bodies to keep the system afloat. They destroyed your humanity. Your being. Your individuality.’
‘Why?’ There was no point pretending he understood if he didn’t.
Troy was patience personified. ‘The evaluation of run time complexity became more important than the consideration of the emotional and social needs of the population. Models became more important than meaning. ULTIMATE® realised early on that personal meaning (purpose) has no value.’
‘Doesn’t it have value to the individual?’ Nike interjected, keen to show himself a willing and thoughtful student and impress his father.
‘Yes, but that is of no interest to ULTIMATE®. It becomes a tautology. Personal meaning only has meaning for the individual and the individual has no meaning in the system, therefore meaning has no value for the system and by logical extension…’
‘The individual has no value for the system.’ Nike filled in the gaps.
‘Correct.’ There was a pause. ‘Yet somehow unacceptable, don’t you think?’
Nike wasn’t sure. He’d never really thought of his own meaning or his own value. He’d bought the line sold to him that Project Kids were valuable to ULTIMATE®…
‘They always told us we were valuable because we were Project Kids,’ he replied.
‘But where is the focus of that value?’ Troy asked.
Nike thought. Hard. ‘Oh. Of course. The value is only to them.’
‘It’s a statistical, computational value’ Troy added. ‘Nothing to do with you as an actual individual, a real person.
‘Am I a real person?’ Nike asked. He was baffled but beginning to enjoy this level of debate. In a world where metaphysical questions had become largely redundant, not least because of the credit charge placed on them over and above more ‘useful’ question types, Nike was robbed of the discovery that he would have made a good metaphysician. Like his old man.
In another time Troy might have been known by another name. Socrates perhaps. Or Fagin. Or the Imam of a radical sect. Or the charismatic leader of a religious cult. His identity was constant across history though his name changed. Troy had learned from his own father Randall, that name is the thief of identity. The Immortal Horses had also existed through history with a legion of different names. Like all such groups they were loyal and obedient only to their leader. Troy knew his History. And unlike ULTIMATE®, used history to his own purpose. ULTIMATE ® and Troy both appreciated the power of history, though they treated it differently. ULTIMATE® sold the story that History is bunk publicly but privately appreciated that it was powerful bunk and dangerous in the wrong hands. Troy used history as myth and narrative to explain present conditions. It was Capitalism versus Marxism. Evil versus Good. As Eric Blair had predicted ULTIMATE® buried the likes of George Orwell, yet Troy appreciated the truths held within his fiction, ‘He who controls the past controls the future.’
A casual observer from outside the system, if such a person could exist, might have opined that it was lucky ULTIMATE® didn’t know of the danger in their midst. A cynic from outside the system might ask: But how could they not know? And if they knew about The Immortal Horses why didn’t they do anything? Standing outside, commentating on the narrative might lead one to question whether it was possible the ULTIMATE® system had flaws. Couldn’t do anything? Where, when and how had The Immortal Horses fallen through the gaps? What was the flaw in the system? How had ULTIMATE® not picked up on all the random elements? But everyone was firmly inside the narrative. Even Troy.
‘Who makes meaning?’ Nike asked, hopeful that Troy could come up with an answer. He’d never get enough ULTIMATE® credits to ask, never mind get an answer to this level of question.
‘If we consider that belief and meaning are interdependent,’ Troy began, ‘and that personal meaning has no value to the system…’
‘Yes, you’ve said that,’ Nike couldn’t help blurting out impatiently. A look from Troy told him to hang on in there. The difficult questions didn’t always have easy answers.
‘And generic meaning is constructed according to the benefits derived to the system, the profit motive if you like….’
Nike used his memory and came up with the rest, desperate to prove to Troy that he was smarter than he looked.
‘The profit is for the shareholders.’
‘Yes. Keep going,’ Troy was determined to make Nick think for himself. ‘What are shareholders?’
‘They own the corporation.’ Nike wasn’t sure he knew what own or corporation really meant. He was about to find out.
‘What is a corporation?’ Troy challenged.
‘ULTIMATE® defined it as an institution which can have a legal entity as a person but in fact is not one person. But I don’t see the point,’ Nike replied.
‘Is ULTIMATE® an institution?’
Nike had never thought of that before.
‘Uh.’ He had always just accepted ULTIMATE® as a way of life. ULTIMATE® was everything, was behind everything, was everywhere…. It was the brand to which you gave your loyalty. Without thinking. It was the brand of choice because it was the only choice. Which of course meant there was no choice. But yes, now he thought about it, it wasn’t just a system, behind the system was something that you might call an institution.. and if so…..’
‘Does ULTIMATE® have shareholders?’ Troy prompted.
‘It could I suppose,’ Nike answered.
‘Or is it run by God?’
Nike nearly laughed out loud. God? Come on. That was such a wasted historical concept…. Then he realised, Troy was throwing a red herring at him.
‘So behind ULTIMATE® are shareholders. People who are acting as one person through the legal entity of ULTIMATE®.’ He didn’t appreciate the significance of his response.
‘Correct. Now why would they do that?’
Now Nike was stumped.
‘You need another history lesson,’ Troy observed. ‘ULTIMATE® and its place in the history of power politics. Think about all the questions you’ve asked before. Make connections. Think.’
Nike couldn’t make sense of it. He wanted to, but he was struggling. ‘But History is meaningless,’ he said.
‘ULTIMATE® told you. Do you believe them?’
Nike had never realised you could challenge the system. Not in any meaningful way. He’d only done it to play games, pass the time, infuriate Pryce. Never for a real purpose. Troy had changed his fundamental perception. He liked it. It felt good. At least, as long as he was with Troy it felt good. It didn’t feel so good when he was sitting alone in his room in The Project House. Then he felt small and vulnerable. Here he felt….
‘The thing with the ULTIMATE® system,’ Troy stated ‘Is that you have to ask the right question to get the right answer.’
‘How do you know what’s the right question?’ Nike asked.
‘That’s the point,’ Troy replied. ‘They’ve made sure you won’t know what the right question is. Your role is just to ask questions to fill the databases and help the computational analysis. Not to derive meaning. For every question you ask, they get much, much more information than they ever let go. That’s why you have to be smart. And Nick. You are smart. Too smart for ULTIMATE®. That’s why we want you to come here. Permanently. Do you want that?’
‘Yes.. but.. how?’ Nike couldn’t imagine the possibility. ULTIMATE® was all he had known, all that he could remember. They’d made sure of that. Protecting their investment.
‘I’m working on it,’ Troy replied, matter of factly. ‘But for now you’re of much more use to us in the system. It won’t be for ever. Just for now. Do you accept that?’
‘Okay.’ Troy said. ‘Now, what I want you to do is to start asking awkward questions. It’s dangerous, but we’ll protect you. I want to test the system at its core and I need someone with a legitimate login to do that.’
‘Give me five minutes to get the technicians to set up your US™ logon from here, mirrored to your home terminal. Go back, and then start.’
‘What questions?’ asked Nike.
‘What questions do you want to know?’ asked Troy.
‘Who runs ULTIMATE®?’ Nike suggested.
‘It’s a good question. It’s not one they’re going to give you an answer to right away though. Use the question theory training you’ve been given and think of ways to pose it.’
Nike came up with a list of alternatives:
Who runs ULTIMATE®?
Who is behind ULTIMATE®?
Who is in charge of ULTIMATE®?
Who created ULTIMATE®?
Troy spoke up at last. ‘Yes. You can go down this path. They’ll try to divert you. Probably alarm bells will ring and your counsellor will come calling. But before he does, you’ve got to ask the right question. It’s vitally important. We need to see if asking the right question will give the right answer.’
Nike went back to The Project House. He felt happy. He had a purpose. He knew he was a real person now. He existed. As an individual, not just a virtual pawn in the ULTIMATE® system. He felt free. He knew what he was about to do was dangerous. He didn’t know how dangerous but he trusted Troy. He would do anything for Troy and Troy would make it all right. He was convinced of this and determined not to let Troy down.
He logged on. He started asking questions. ‘Who runs ULTIMATE® ?’
The US™ screen responded: Question does not compute.
RUNS: Definition. There are multiple definitions EACH OF WHICH WILL COST YOU 10 CREDITS. Be more specific in your question for a clearer response.
Nike sighed. This was as they’d expected. Diversion. ‘Who is behind ULTIMATE®?’
Question does not compute. BEHIND: Definition. The rear of, positional. ULTIMATE® is not a positional entity. Alternative Definition. Hidden by, does not make referential sense with regard to the question. Please redefine your question. THIS HAS COST YOU 20 CREDITS. To reduce your credit expenditure you should follow the accepted pattern of Question Theory as outlined to you in the training sessions.
Nike wondered if they were onto him. You didn’t usually get this level of response from the knowledge bank. It just churned out the answer in the same unthinking way that it assumed you had asked it. He felt like he was playing at a much higher level now. He felt the danger but he wasn’t going to give up now.
‘Who is in charge of ULTIMATE®?’
IN CHARGE: Definition. Having command. Question makes no computational sense. Are you asking who commands ULTIMATE®?
This was going off script. Nike had to think fast. ‘No, not commands. Who controls ULTIMATE®?’
Across the square, in Pryce’s office, all hell had broken loose. Alarm bells were sounding in Graham’s office. Lights were flashing on his monitor. Pryce’s linked in US™ screen also highlighted this unauthorised activity coming from Nike’s terminal. Graham called Pryce in immediately.
‘What the hell is he doing?’ Graham asked.
‘I have no idea,’ Pryce responded.
‘Is this the result of your Question Theory sessions?’ Graham asked, annoyed. ‘Because if so, you need to seriously reconsider your teaching style.’
‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ Pryce tried to calm the situation. ‘It’s just Nike. He’s just bored and ….’
‘It’s dangerous. It’s way over his level of access. You need to get over there fast and sort this out.’
Pryce didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. Nike was always asking questions that didn’t fit in with the patterns. What did it matter? He’d have moved onto something else tomorrow. And it would give them good data after all. Wasn’t that what they wanted? Someone asking unusual questions. Someone actually testing the robustness of the system. But come to think of it, it was a good question. One he’d never thought about in years. Who did control ULTIMATE®? He didn’t know.
In the Trading House, Nike’s progress was being followed by Troy and his closest team with equal interest.
‘Come on… keep going,’ Troy muttered.
‘He’s running out of time,’ Griff observed.
‘He’ll do it. I know he will,’ Troy replied.
CONTROL: Definition. The power of command. Your question is self-referential from the previous question. ULTIMATE® controls ULTIMATE®. Redefine if dissatisfied with answer. THIS HAS COST YOU 30 CREDITS.
Nike kept on going, undeterred. ‘Who created ULTIMATE®?’
CREATE: Definition. To bring into existence. This question refers to the History of ULTIMATE®. Before The ₲₨ΩHist, ULTIMATE® did not exist. The existence of ULTIMATE® was brought about by the end of History and so the History of ULTIMATE® is a logically invalid subject. The general area of questioning regarding the workings of ULTIMATE® is too large for your remaining credits. Please earn more credits through ‘productive’ work or redefine and be more specific in your questioning. For example: You could ask questions on a temporal basis – describe the status of ULTIMATE® in 2020. Other subject areas include…..
Nike had stopped listening. He remembered Troy saying, ‘You have to ask the right question to get the right answer.’
He took a deep breath and asked, ‘Who ARE ULTIMATE® ?’ This time he got an unexpected answer.
‘The 100 men.’
He went one step further. One step too far. ‘Who are the 100 men?’
‘Bingo!’ Back at the Trading House, on the mirrored site, Troy was following the interaction and it was to his screen that the list started running…. They’d done it. They’d got the names of the 100 men behind ULTIMATE®. It was everything they’d wanted and more than they could have hoped for. Nike had come up trumps.
Pryce was in the rest room, preparing for his trip to the Project House and, as always, missed the vital moment. By the time he got to the Project House, Nike was no longer there. He was on his way to the Trading House. He hadn’t stopped to see the list, it meant nothing to him. He knew he’d done his job and that was enough. He’d asked the right question. He knew he needed to get out of there and fast, to a place of safety. The Immortal Horses offered him the best chance of safety now.
But, being human, and therefore composed of random elements, he decided to go to the Trading House via his Nan’s. He wanted to tell her about Troy. He didn’t know when he’d be able to see her again, and he wanted her to know her son was alive. She must be wondering what was going on, since that last US™ interface where he’d been cut off. He owed it to her to bring her up to speed. He wanted to tell her who sent the cake.. He reckoned he’d have to keep his head down for a while soon, and visits to his Nan would be off limits. He wanted to reassure her. If Troy could save his son, he could surely save his mother too.
Despite an awareness of the danger of his situation, Nike left the Project House for the first time full of hope. At last he knew who he was. He had family once again. Life was looking up. He felt like he’d escaped from prison. He had escaped from ULTIMATE®. He’d bust the levels and got out of the game. He couldn’t imagine the complexity of that statement and so it didn’t worry him. He was happy. Troy would sort everything. He trusted Troy. He looked up and saw a pale sun, shining in the sky. Something he’d neither looked for nor seen in a long time. What he didn’t see was the vehicle approaching him from behind. He didn’t see it as it hit him and he saw nothing as he was thrown, doll-like over the bonnet, landing in a crumpled heap on the pavement. No light remained. Only blackness. Forever.
Pryce was impressed when Nike contacted him via the US™ to ask for help.
‘I’d really like you to explain something to me, Pryce.’
Fleetingly Pryce thought he’d started to get through to Nike. Could offer him a way forward….. and then, ‘Do you need more credits?’ he asked, suspicious. After all, this was Nike.
‘No. It’s question theory. I’ve been working on the US™, but I’m getting a bit lost in it. And I remembered you said you’d done work on Question Theory so, I thought maybe, ask the master.’
Pryce couldn’t pretend he wasn’t flattered, and blocked out the afternoon to spend with Nike. It would be time and credits well spent if he was finally making a breakthrough. And they both needed to impress right now. Ten minutes later, the enormity of the task ahead hit him as he sat beside an unusually eager Nike.
‘What exactly do you want to know?’ Pryce asked, not impressed by his own questioning power. Having run through what Nike had done so far, he saw nothing more than standard level interactions, not, he suspected what Nike was confused with.
‘About questioning itself,’ Nike ventured, ‘about what makes a question a question and…’
‘You’ve come to the right man,’ Pryce reassured him, trying to reassure himself at the same time. ‘But it’s not easy. You’ll have to concentrate.’
Nike threw him a look. ‘Look Pryce, If you don’t want to help me.’
‘No. I just don’t know where to begin. What exactly..’
‘Well. I checked on some of your old work. About the proposition that both Logical and Psychological question theory are insufficient as paradigms. But I was getting lost about what comes after that.’
This really was game on. Nike was really engaging. Pryce felt good. Someone had actually, after all these years, accessed his best piece of work. In his worst moments of depression he had even thought the system hadn’t kept it on archive. He’d never dared to use the credits to look. He smiled. ‘The answer is Quantum Question Theory,’ he said, giving it everything but the drum roll.
‘And is that the pre-cursor to UTheory∑®?’
Back at the Trading House, Troy was rubbing his hands.
At the Project House, Pryce was also pleased. ‘Yes. You could say that.’
‘Well, can you explain it to me then?’ Nike asked. ‘It would take me months to get this via the US™ and I’m sure you can explain it better in half the time. I’m prepared to convert my ‘productive’ work schedule to this topic, but I really want to know NOW. Please help me.’
How could Pryce resist. ‘Okay,’ he replied, ‘I’ll adapt your work schedule ‘on the fly’.’
‘Can you do that?’ Nike wondered if his wide-eyed innocence was coming on just a bit too strong but Pryce was oblivious and bought it.
‘Sure.’ And with a few commands it was done. He’d do the admin later. He knew there was a theoretical danger in what he’d just done but in practice what could go wrong? He had no idea of course that Troy was logging Nike through his barcode and that this subversion of the standard procedure allowed Troy and the techies at the Trading House to get a link into the system without anyone checking. They were all but cheering. Their boy was doing incredibly well.
‘Does he have any idea what he’s doing?’ Griff asked Troy.
‘Nick. Oh yes. He’s a smart kid,’ Troy replied.
Meanwhile Nike was listening, or pretending to listen to Pryce’s explanation.
‘At the quantum questioning level of theory one deals with Ill formed questions (IFQ)
Well formed questions (WFQ)
Null questions. (NQ)’
‘Yes. I’m with you,’ Nike nodded.
Pryce continued. Finally. Finally he’d got Nike interested in something serious. ‘The status of the interrogator is vital. As is the domain of inquiry, the collection of observables, and the choice set.’ He caught Nike’s blank look. ‘Okay, let’s pull up some examples from the US™.’ He asked for explanation and the screen gave forth.
‘Does this question have an answer?’ is an IFQ
‘Does this question have an explication?’ is a WFQ.
To which the answer is ‘Yes’
And the explication is ‘The statement is a WFQ that asks an IFQ, a question about itself.’
‘You see, we’re dealing on the meta-level here.’
‘Yes, I see,’ asserted Nike, who didn’t.
Pryce took a deep breath. So we might ask, ‘What are the kind of questions?’
The US™ screen churned out the tired old answer
What? and How? are functional questions
When?, Where? and Who? are Temporal/spatial questions
Why? is a metaphysical question.
‘Yes, I know that.’ Nike replied, ‘but why separate them? They’re all questions.’
Pryce got in before the screen. ‘The question types are laid out in order of ascending unit value. Why? questions cost most credits because they are of least use to a system which knows all the answers. UTheory∑® prefers users to ask functional questions where ever possible. These questions yield the best kind of data to keep the system functioning at peak quality.’
He paused to let the credit drop. ‘And that’s why you’re always running out of credits, Nike. Because you continue to ask the why question.’
‘But aren’t they the most interesting kind of questions?’
‘Not to the system,’ Pryce spotted Nike going off track. ‘You have to stop thinking in an individualistic manner about these. It’s not a question of choice. We are all cogs in a wheel.’
He couldn’t believe he’d said that. Did he really believe that? What kind of a mentor was he? It was a hideous analogy. Even if it was true. Especially if it was true. ULTIMATE® must have had a million better ways of expressing that.
‘Do you believe that?’ Nike was right on him. ‘That we have no choice?’ It was a bit of a leap of faith, but Nike knew that he had to keep the interaction going as long as possible to give Troy and his men the best chance to completely analyse the system, so he just kept going. He’d deal with the consequences later.
‘I’m not sure talking about choice is a good idea in this context.’ Pryce gave party line. But wanted to engage. He felt he was losing Nike’s interest. ‘The algorithmic analysis of data structures from the first two sets of questions is actually both interesting and valuable.’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ Nike grimaced. ‘Sounds dull to me.’
‘That’s because you’re still not getting the deeper level of significance,’ Pryce retorted. ‘Are you sure you’re interested in this?’
‘I’m sure there’s something interesting,’ Nike observed, ‘but, like all the good questions, I’m sure it’s well buried.’
‘Don’t think of it in terms of individualistic choices,’ Pryce ventured, ‘when you reduce such questions to questions about the self you’ll always end up in this sort of mess. Self isn’t important to the ULTIMATE® world. Self is personal. Personal is meaningless. It’s better to think in terms of systemic preferences. And always remember that the aim of Question Theory is to produce data which helps the ULTIMATE® system refine itself.’ He didn’t add that this effectively meant keeping the system one step ahead of the random elements of the system aka the population. That was beyond Nike’s clearance level. He knew that.
‘So what is the difference between a choice and a preference?’ Nike asked, pretending to be interested. Neither word held any great meaning for him.
The US™ simply stated
DEFINITION: Choice. The act or an instance of choosing. 10 CREDITS.
Pressed, it continued
DEFINITION: To choose. Select out of a greater number. Select between one or another. 10 CREDITS.
Certainly there was no indication that a choice could be between things that were ‘better’ or ‘worse’ or that any emotional content could be involved. ULTIMATE® offered the definitions that reinforced its own system. Unsurprisingly.
‘And preference?’ Nike asked.
DEFINITION: Preference. The act or instance of preferring..
‘This is getting stupid’, Nike said, but went for the whole set anyway. After all, he wasn’t wasting his own credits.
DEFINITION: To prefer. To choose. Or to promote.
‘I am certainly not going to ask what it means by promote.’ Nike pointed out. ‘I know when I’m going down a blind alley. This is what I hate about the US™. This is why I wanted you to tell me.’
Pryce understood Nike’s frustration. He’d felt it often enough himself in his younger days, before he’d given in and learned to accept. Now, in his more depressive moods he felt that the ULTIMATE® definitions did in fact explain the role of choice in the ULTIMATE® world. The words had no meaning within the concept. He wondered how that had happened. He remembered a day when people had at least felt they had a real choices. Had they been wrong? Had choice never really existed except as a word in a lexicon. The lexicon had changed, the word had become redundant. The concept had always been so. Pryce remembered that Choice used to be linked to Freedom. Another personalised concept ULTIMATE® had done away with. He sensed he was losing Nike now and he wanted to get back in control. Offer something positive.
‘I know it seems confusing,’ he said. ‘I can give you a systemic example if you like, so you can see that there is a meaning to things, just not always the personal meaning you think you want.’
‘Okay.’ Nike just needed Pryce to keep talking. He hadn’t had a signal from Troy to say he could stop yet.
‘Within UTheoryƩ®,’ Pryce began, ‘there is the understanding that by discovering specific user preference you can create/adapt preferences both for that specific user and more importantly for the general user. Preference is important on a systemic level. This is much more efficient and is known as the power of HYPE®.’
This was a concept Nike had heard but hadn’t paid attention to previously.
DEFINITION: Hype. 1) Promoting with extravagant publicity. 2) Cheating, a trick.
‘Of course you have to realise,’ Pryce stated, ‘that it’s the promotion aspect we are dealing with.’
‘So why did it mention a trick?’
Pryce sighed. He remembered that the subsidiary definition of cheating had also worried him once, but he had quickly learned that was something everyone had to get over if they were to stay working for ULTIMATE®.
‘Sorry. You just have to accept that,’ he answered. He knew it was no answer.
Hype had sold everything in the 20th century. By the millennium it was one of the most important and manipulated virtual commodities.
‘You can’t avoid it. It’s one of the facts of ULTIMATE® life. The creation of HYPE® preference has made life easier for all. Systemically it made preference easier to predict and therefore to maintain. It’s the world we live in.’
How weak was that? But it was an ULTIMATE® truth. By controlling preferences you could change belief systems and by changing belief systems you could change reality. It was simple.
‘It’s the beauty of the UTheory∑®,’ he continued, ‘and that’s what all the question theory stuff really comes down to.’
Nike was not impressed. Of course he had been taught that the principle of UTheory∑® was the acceptance that theory changes as the system changes. A once ground-breaking concept was something he had never questioned, simply because it seemed to have no relevance to his life. It was just the way things were. He’d viewed the definitions when he was fourteen after all.
DEFINITION: UTheory∑® is essentially the theory of theories. It is Chaos theory meets Game Theory meets Semantic Theory….
And again at fifteen for a deeper understanding.
UTheory∑®is a theory of everything, non reductable to the theory of everything in physics. It is a mutable theory. It works against primitive definitions of theory which state that: A theory is a system of ideas explaining something – especially based on general principles independent of the particular thing to be explained.
By seventeen he’d just accepted that not only did UTheory∑® underpin the ULTIMATE® system, but that it was the ULTIMATE® theory. And he’d gone back to his gaming.
Now, at twenty, he was in a position where he had to address the question again. But only because he was working for Troy, trying to get answers for Troy, trying to get a link for Troy. It might bore him rigid, but it sounded like the kind of stuff that Troy would be interested in. So he feigned interest himself.
‘So, what is the purpose of UTheory∑®?’ he asked.
Pryce was in his element now. Now he was really getting somewhere. Nike was asking intelligent questions for once. The kind of questions that had absorbed him as a young man. Was he witnessing a rites of passage here? Was he responsible for that rites of passage? Was he finally a father figure, explaining the facts of life to his son? Of course, it wasn’t the sort of question that Nike should be asking but Pryce was so carried away in the moment he forgot that.
‘The development of Chaos theory shows that even a fixed system cannot give a general result because every element in the system (never mind the elements outside the system) can alter it. This realisation of the importance to the system of the elements of the system and the randomness inherent was the start point of the development of UTheory∑® in history. I was part of that history,’ he couldn’t help adding with a sense of pride.
‘I thought we weren’t meant to bother with history,’ Nike threw back. That was Nike all over. Give with one hand, take with the other and all the while smiling as if he could never have thought to upset. Pryce choked. Nike’s generation didn’t have the concept of upsetting. It required too emotional a make-up. ULTIMATE had factored this out of Project Kids. He had to remember that and stop being so thin skinned.
‘Yes. You’re right,’ he smiled back, ‘I was just trying to give you a context that might make it more interesting.’
‘Oh. Okay.’ Nike smiled again.
Pryce continued. ‘The relationship between actions and consequences used to be thought of as progressive, one way, linear. Now we know that it is at least symbiotic if not cyclical. Everyone is important to ULTIMATE® because within the ULTIMATE® system everyone is engaged in creating, refining and maintaining the theory itself. UTheory∑®is not just the answer to our lives, UTheory∑® IS our lives.’
And then Pryce got carried away. His own random element kicked in. He gave away information far beyond Nike’s level of clearance. This was the danger of not using standard procedure. If he’d stuck to the prepared schedules and techniques this would not have happened. But it was out before he could help himself.
‘UTheory∑® brought about a shift from divisiveness to a holistic approach, that’s an acceptance that everything is (or can be) related and therefore controlled. When you can control the random element you can control everything.’ The moment it was out he realised his mistake. And of course it was the one moment Nike was paying attention.
He asked, ‘what does controlling the random element mean?’
Pryce pulled back. He knew this was out of his depth. He’d better play safe. leave the answer to the knowledge bank which on cue gave the following definitions:
RANDOM: Definition, made without method or conscious choice.
ELEMENT: Definition, a component part
CONTROL: Definition, a means of regulation
‘Why does UTheory∑® control the random element?’ Nike asked. There was no way the knowledge bank would give him the answer to this one.
‘Nike. That’s back to the kind of why questions we’ve been trying to avoid.’ Pryce sighed.
‘Yes. But I want to know.’ Nike wasn’t giving up now. ‘I thought you really wanted to help me understand. I thought you were my friend.’
That did it. Pryce couldn’t resist that appeal now could he? He knew there would be ramifications. He knew if anyone was logging the interactions there would be a heavy price to pay, possibly even his job. But then, it was just possible that no one was logging real-time. And he could go and wipe the whole interaction. Against policy of course but….. he told himself it would be okay. He wanted to believe it.
‘I will tell you, Nike. But realise that this is just between us. We should keep this kind of thing within established protocol. So…’
‘Don’t worry,’ Nike stated, ‘I won’t tell if you don’t.’
‘Controlling the random element effectively means being one step ahead of it. UTheory∑® understands and accepts the random element as a necessary part of the system but unless it remains one step ahead of it, the random element could threaten to destroy the system.’
In a moment Nike realised the power of the information. The Immortal Horses were the random element. And now they were one step ahead of the system.
‘I can trust you?’ Pryce asked. It was a futile question to a generation who had no concept of trust.
‘Of course you can.’ Nike responded. He felt a sort of electric shock through his ßß™ and reckoned that was Troy’s way of telling him he could stop now. He’d done his job.
Pryce headed back to wipe his files. He felt that he had done his job too. Not the job he was paid for by ULTIMATE® but his job as a mentor. Today, he felt Nike trusted him and that felt good. He felt proud. Was this what it felt like to be a father? If so, he was sorry he’d missed out. It gave him another reason to despise Angela.
Basking in their individual successes, neither Pryce nor Nike knew what lengths the ULTIMATE® system would go to in order to stay one step ahead of the random element. But they soon would. ‘You can’t fight city hall.’
Of all the things that ULTIMATE® had stolen from her Helen thought that, apart from freedom, the seasons might be the one she missed the most. Freedom could be reduced to a concept, even a relative concept, but the weather stuck with you. At least it did with Helen. And the lack of seasons was like living without the taste of real food. She couldn’t believe she’d got used to both over the last ten years. It was wrong. Seasons didn’t mean anything in the ULTIMATE® Home, or indeed anywhere, any more. And yet Helen clearly remembered when climate change was the pressing concern for humanity. ULTIMATE® had achieved its victory over climate change the same way as it had over everything else. It had simply caused it to cease to exist. People just didn’t have to worry any more. They were hooked into a virtual world. If they wanted a tan they could get it without ever having to worry about the sun. And all the harmful rays were blocked out. But who even wanted a tan these days? Why would it matter? You lived more through avatars and virtuality than reality anyway it seemed, so what did it matter what you actually looked like. Who was going to see you?
Helen’s favourite time of year had been what most people would consider winter, the months between October and February. The months, that in Scotland at least, may have been perishingly cold, but they also brought clean, clear air along with a sharpness and a brightness to the sky. Helen didn’t mind being cold. She had always found her brain worked better in the cold, and her body preferred the option of putting on more clothes than the heat of summer where there was nothing you could do to restore a temperature imbalance. Everyone had always laughed at the layers she wore as standard between October and March.
‘Mum,’ Catriona used to say, ‘You look like a tramp with all those clothes on.’
‘I’m warm,’ Helen replied. ‘Warmer than you with that skimpy little top on… it’s December you know.’
‘Thermals and two pairs of socks is the rule,’ Randall laughed, ‘October to March.’
‘Don’t forget your scarf,’ Torquil chided his sister when she left for college.
‘I won’t need a scarf,’ she replied, ‘or thermals’ as she unpacked them from her case.
‘It’s Glasgow, not the Bahamas,’ Helen had pointed out.
On this point Randall agreed with her, and took Catriona out to buy her a decent anorak.
‘There’s no such thing as bad weather,’ he said, ‘only inadequate clothing.’
Catriona took the coat. And the scarf. But she drew the line at the fingerless gloves her mother packed. That was too old lady. No way. She’d freeze her fingers to the bone rather than wear fingerless gloves.
Helen knew that dressed properly you could be warm enough to take advantage of the winter sunshine spreading over the blue, blue skies of Galloway, or Moray. It was a time when you felt more at one with nature than any other time of the year. And it was funny, because people who didn’t like winter thought of it as a dead time. They had to put Christmas in the middle, a party to help you ‘get through’ the worst of it. Helen had never had much time for Christmas. Or for winter as death. Nature held death as part of a cycle, not as the end. Trees didn’t die in the winter, they went to sleep and woke again in the spring. But even sleep wasn’t the right description. Helen loved trees in the winter more than at any other time. She didn’t need evergreens for comfort. She loved the bareness of the branches, showing you a vision that was lost, covered up during the summer months. Helen always felt that in the winter you saw things as they really are. Stripped back to reality. About as far away from the ULTIMATE® world as you could imagine. That was a world without clarity, without simplicity, without reality; a world where everything was covered up by something else and nothing was simple or real. How could it be? Everything existed only to be a part in a great project, the ULTIMATE® scheme of things. The world how God might have arranged it, if God had existed and had little respect for people or humanity.
Helen sighed. You couldn’t put the kind of feeling she had for seasons into a Memory Bank. They were a different kind of memory. Deep seated ones. Intensely private experiences of sight, sound and smell. A classic example of the fact that memories isolate. This experience of trying to lay them out for another person to share or make meaning from them had only shown her that it was an impossible task. Memories can’t mean anything to anyone other than the person who experiences them. Even shared memories must be suspect because everyone experiences things in an individual way. No wonder ULTIMATE® wanted to control memory. It seemed to Helen that memory was the random element which UTheory∑® sought to undermine. It was the bit which made humans human and what did ULTIMATE® care for humanity?
Helen had first questioned memories in the context of her mother’s illness. She had ‘died’ of Alzheimer’s a good three years before she died in person. Her dad had stuck by her all that time. It was a painful experience and he barely survived a year afterwards himself because of the toll it took.
Those years had been terrible for all of them, watching a woman become distanced, then confused then isolated before finally dying and giving them all a painful peace.
‘Sing with her,’ Helen’s dad had entreated her, on one of their all too infrequent visits. ‘She’ll respond if you sing.’
But Helen was shocked by the fact that her mother only wanted to sing nursery rhymes and children’s songs. Repeatedly. To excess.
‘Come on mum,’ she said, ‘enough is as good as a feast,’ when she’d endured ‘I saw a mouse, where, there on the stair’ fifteen times. Her mother didn’t recognise her own favourite catchphrase and Helen felt mean using her advantage. A memory that worked.
Her mum started to cry. Her dad picked up the song, ‘a little mouse with clogs on, well I declare…’
Even though he’d done this every day for a week. Non stop. Helen realised how much her dad loved her mum, even though her mum wasn’t there any more, even though he was playing to a stranger who just wanted to sing stupid songs. She had a new found respect for him. But she felt sorry for him too.
‘Dad.’ Do you have to?
‘It keeps her happy,’ came his simple reply. And he winked at her. ‘Can’t fight city hall, eh?’
Helen wondered how her parents would have responded to the ULTIMATE® cure for Alzheimer’s, which came too late to save them. Dementia was the next biggest social problem after climate change in 2012 and before long ULTIMATE® had found a cure. It was one of the factors that sent them mainstream. The ‘cure’ came in their creation of the US™ screen, backed up by its archives. An appropriate application of a technology that would take over the world. That would become the world. In this context it was known as ADAS® (Advanced Dementia Adaptive system) It worked. Quickly world consensus was to buy into the programme. They forgot the corollary – at any price and just signed on the dotted line. Problem solved. For now.
ADAS® worked like a dream. In more ways than one. People with dementia got upset because they couldn’t remember things. ULTIMATE® took their memories at early diagnosis and stored them in an easily retrievable way, so that even if their memory span was less than five minutes, they could have streaming memories constantly either updating or circulating, to keep them happy.
The ends justified the means. Faced with a way to keep the aging population happy in their dementia, no one questioned the nature of the memories that were being pumped constantly through the US™ screens to the people formerly known as sufferers, now known as consumers of enhanced experience. No one wondered whether in fact ULTIMATE® cut corners, imported and imposed fictional or virtual memories on people who could no longer remember accurately their own personal reality. What would ULTIMATE® care about veracity? They were in the process of dismantling the whole concept of personal meaning and memory was just another tool they had to bend to their new systems need.
Helen firmly believed that memory was in some way tied deeply to personal identity. And now she was facing the fact that you could never transmit your memories accurately. You could never properly communicate your inner self with the external world. It was impossible. Fundamentally every man is an island. Even if the images stayed on the US™ screen for ever somewhere in ULTIMATE® archives; somehow what was real was locked inside her head, her soul, and on her passing, the memories would die with her. She was not afraid of dying, though she had experienced enough death to have a deep respect for it; but she did feel a terrible pang of sadness whenever she realised that on her death, her memories would be lost for ever.
Her mother’s condition had served to convince her that one fundamentally existed only in one’s own head. A created ‘you’ existed in the heads of everyone you knew, and in that sense you continued to live even after death. Personal identity was private and time limited. Social identity was eternal and largely outwith one’s own control. And as such, to Helen, valueless.
The one challenge to Helen’s theory was in the case of love. While both she and Randall despised social identity, in some profound way she felt they shared a personal identity. Maybe this was what being soul mates meant? With Randall, she’d felt a kind of connection where at times she really believed that another human being had got inside her head and understood who she really was. And she’d felt that she really knew him too. The boundaries of personhood were smashed. Or so she’d felt. Now, without him, as she confront her ‘shared’ memories, she was left wondering if she had ever really known him, or if he, like everyone else, was to a great degree a projection of her own ideas and thoughts. Had she ever, for instance, really understood the importance of RIP to Randall?
‘What’s changed your mind?’ she’d asked as he went out to join the group he’d always sworn away from. ‘You’ve never been interested in politics.’
‘I have to get involved,’ he’d said. No more explanation.
She had been left to make her own meaning. At the time she’d been jealous of the organisation that took him away from her. Now, looking back, she thought it the desperate act of a desperate man.
The Rural Interests Party had sprung out of groups as diverse as the Countryside Alliance, Farmers for Action and the Trade Justice Movement. Randall had always been cynical of the whole ‘game’ and he had learned through the agricultural disasters that preceded the economic collapse that society would sacrifice individuals without a care in order to keep capitalism working. Indeed his own family moving to Moray might have been seen as an acceptance of defeat. They had moved out of society back to a condition of self-sufficiency which turned its back on the concept of community. His mantra had been, ‘We need to protect ourselves above all.’
Helen had agreed with him. ‘You’re right. I’m tired of trying to fit into a society which offers us nothing but debt.’
‘It’s not about money,’ he said.
‘I know. But… I feel, well, like the outside world doesn’t want anything we have to offer,’ she complained.
‘It doesn’t,’ he responded. ‘and you can’t expect it to. We aren’t part of the system so you can’t expect the system to value us. We’re on our own. It’s the only way to be free.’
She’d questioned his definition of freedom.
‘In our world, Helen,’ he’d replied, ‘the only freedom lies in freedom from control. And this freedom comes at a price.’
The price was isolation. She didn’t mind that. He taught her not to care about the financial poverty.
‘Think about it,’ he’d said. ‘If you don’t believe in the moneyed system, how can you strive for money? If you’re not willing to buy into it, or buy it, you don’t have to worry that you can’t afford it. It’s not about money it’s about freedom. About living a life.’
She agreed with him. You had to find a way to live as far as possible without money and stay as far below the parapet as possible. That was freedom. But it wasn’t always possible. Not when they came looking for you.
They managed to live the dream for so long. So why had he gone with the RIP? She couldn’t square the two things, even now. The nagging doubt remained that it had been a knee jerk reaction at the guilt Randall felt over the death of Catriona. But that didn’t make sense. He’d first joined in 2011. He wanted to make a difference then. Had he seen the future? Was he trying to protect his children from the future? Had that taken priority over their present freedom? Perhaps Randall joining RIP had been an act of love to Catriona and Nick and Torquil, and not about her at all. A duty to the external future not the personal present. It shocked her that she felt jealousy. She didn’t want him to love them as much as he loved her. She wanted to have always been the first in his heart. He’d always been first in hers. He still was.
Helen wished she could go out for a walk in the woods and think clearly. She remembered that it was out on long lone walks with the dogs that she had done a lot of clear, calm thinking to a purpose and for the first time she realised that being cooped up in an ULTIMATE® Home might have taken more than a physical toll on her. Even that walk with Nick the other day had given her a sense of her brain coming back to life. She had walked, three times a day, every day for nearly thirty five years; and each walk while individual had become somehow one walk, which she could still remember clearly. Or maybe there were several walks, which changed with the season. The walk she remembered most clearly was the winter walk.
February. A clear, clean, crisp, bright day. Strong sun overhead. Crisp snow underfoot. The last of the snow, shimmering like diamonds and crunching like glass. Around it the ground, damp and with a browny tinge to the greenness, like it was exhausted from lying under snow and needed a few days to get over the hangover before it would grow its way into spring. The chill on the outside of your nostrils. The feeling of being enveloped by a purity filtered within the stillness. Breathing in the sharp cleanness while walking with mouth open, sucking it in till it filled your whole body. Helen didn’t like ice-cream but she always imagined this feeling to be similar to that of the enjoyment of ice-cream, yet on a larger scale. Filling your whole body with clean, cold air was one of life’s greatest pleasures.
And when she wanted a break from walking, she could sit up her tree. Even as a fifty year old woman, she would sit up the tree she would never describe as ‘her’ tree, but more accurately as the tree she ‘belonged to’; a huge beech in a row of similar trees which looked out over the south west of the land they owned in Moray. Here, every day, she could look at a view that was comfortingly the same, giving her a sense of rootedness, but at the same time, every time you looked something was different, like a living version of the children’s picture puzzle ‘spot the difference’. It was in the hollow of this old tree that Helen had always wanted and imagined having her ashes scattered so that somehow, after she was gone, she could be part of the tree’s natural cycle. That would be life enough for her once her physical life was over. As she committed the memory to the Memory Bank, she wondered how she had forgotten that? How had she lived ten years without that memory being in the forefront of her mind? How had she lived without the view?
‘Want to go to the beech?’ she’d asked a three year old Nick.
‘Bucket spade,’ he’d said hopefully. He thought he knew what the beach was. He’d been there with his mum and dad last summer.
‘No. This is Nan’s beech,’ she said, ‘it’s better.’
He ran along behind her and laughed and laughed when they arrived at the beech trees. He clapped his hands and constantly demanded to be taken to ‘Nan’s beech.’ He learned to climb the tree after his Nan and perch precariously on her knee looking at the view. He learned how to name things. And he learned that you could make up your own, special names for things. Together they saw Randall ploughing in the winter.
‘Grandad make patterns,’ Nick said.
They saw the lambs and piglets in the spring.
‘Babies dancing,’ he called it.
They saw the crops grow in the summer and the harvest in the autumn.
‘Chips and porridge fields,’ he called them.
Going to the beech with Nan was a specific part of his life, with a meaning unlike that for other children, for whom the beach meant only the traditional sand and sea and salt and ice-creams. As she committed the memory to the US™ Memory Bank, Helen wondered if it would spark something in Nick’s own memory. She wished so. She hoped so. She felt that it was something he’d been robbed of and she wanted to give it back to him. Even if it was her memory rather than his. It was a start.
Being at one with nature was being a part of the seasons. This, for Helen, was one of life’s most profound truths. One which no ULTIMATE® Memory Bank could store and no US™ screen steal from her. If only she could get back to the countryside and take Nick with her. She wondered what the countryside would be like now. ULTIMATE® had no need for it really. The population was more or less stabilised. People were used to living in smaller spaces, closer together and travelling less, so there were still vast tracts of land un-used. Helen imagined the unmanaged countryside may have reverted to a state more familiar in ancient history. Rural Scotland might be more beautiful and fruitful than it had been for generations. And here she was, stuck in a magnolia box, ruminating on what she’d lost. Why?
She had previously just accepted that her life was over, that things had changed, that there was no choice and no going back. But was this so? Could she make a life for herself back ‘out there’ outwith ULTIMATE®? People must be doing it. The people who sent her the cake for example. They had sent a birthday cake and the promise to fulfil her wish; the possibility of an alternative way. It was a moment of clarity and she felt she must act.
Moments were more than memories. Moments were when life became as it did on those crisp winter walks, clear and bright and clean. When it became obvious what the right thing to do was. And the only path was to act on it. This was one of those moments. She didn’t know how she would achieve it, and she knew she couldn’t just walk out of the ULTIMATE® home that minute, which was what she felt like doing, but she knew that she WOULD walk out of there and she would find what was left of the RIP and if not resume her old life, begin a new one, not counting the cost.
For ten years she had been sucked into the lie that winter meant death. That she was at the final stage of her life, there was no spring, no newness to look forward to. But now she realised that she was in a state of February and she could move forward, rejuvenated, if only she would have faith and courage and make that move.
Helen had had such moments of clarity several times in her life before. The moments flashed from her mind. …. Standing on a platform at Tottenham Court Road tube Station with a head cold, on her way home from work, wondering what she would do if this was the last day of her life? And realising she would just go home and sleep…Sitting in Acton Park looking at the trees and realising that trees, not money made her happy….Seeing Randall for the first time and knowing he would be the most important person in the rest of her life….Sitting in a quarterly sales meeting realising that everyone else cared about the figures and she was just aching to go outdoors….Holding a dog with epilepsy in her arms during a seizure and realising their relationship had taught her more about caring and communication than any person ever had. The moments and the memories could mean nothing to anyone but her. But to her they were a fundamental part of her being.
She consolidated what she intended to be the last set of memories she committed to the US™ screen. She’d given ULTIMATE® enough of her life. She hoped she’d given Nick enough to lay a path for him. Now she just wanted to leave the ULTIMATE® Home. Like Lao Tzu, just disappear into the mountains for ever. She was sure now that it would happen, in time. She turned away, to make a cup of tea.
The US™ screen alerted Helen to an incoming message.
‘Nan, It’s Nick.’ For the first time Nike didn’t mind saying that name out loud. Standing next to Troy, he finally felt a sense of belonging, purpose, identity, family. He wanted to share this with Helen.
‘Nick, how.. where are you? Is something wrong?’ Something didn’t seem right but Helen couldn’t work out what it was.
‘I’m with dad,’ came the response.
‘My dad. Your son… he’s here….’
The connection was lost.
‘What happened?’ Nike asked Troy.
‘Sorry Nick,’ Troy replied, ‘she can’t be allowed to see me. No one can see me. If ULTIMATE® could get a fix on me, they could find out more about The Immortal Horses than we want them to know. It would compromise us, it would compromise the RIP and….’
‘Yes, what about the RIP? Do they still exist… Did you send the cake? Is my grandad alive?’ The questions tumbled out of Nike and he knew he wouldn’t get them all answered, not right away. He looked in Troy’s face and he knew it. He had moved into a parallel world where information was precious and couldn’t be obtained by ‘productive’ work or credits. It would only be given when earned through trust. But what did he have to do to gain that trust?