Helen was nearly seventy. If she was in the community you wouldn't say she was old but it was old for VCC people. That's people, like Helen, who lived in ULTIMATE® homes. VCC was a kind of shorthand slang for such places. Helen, who had an awkward sense of humour, said it was an acronym for Victims of Conspicuous Consumption or Victims of Caring Capitalism, but really it was shorthand for Victims of Credit Crunch. Such people were generally known as Victims and being a victim has never been a good thing to be.
VICTIM: Definition. A person injured or killed as a result of an event or circumstance, or destroyed in pursuit of an object of gratification. A dupe.
CREDIT CRUNCH: Definition. A term created by the media in 2008 to mark the beginning of the End of History, representing a sudden reduction in the availability of loans and other types of credit from banks and capital markets at given interest rates.
HISTORY: Definition. A time in the past when people worried about what had happened before their own time and tried to use their worries to predict what would happen in the future. A pointless exercise EXAMPLE: History is bunk.
Of course the people living through it didn't know that was what it was then. It was just another recession. A V shaped, or a W shaped or a bath shaped recession. Any shape you like wasn't going to save the financial institutions. Despite government bail outs time and again, the threat to economic theory led to a need to reinvent the world yet again, a reinvention that would take at least a generation, but by 2030 it was already just LIFE as we know it today.
Memories were short, if they existed in 2030. Without History there was no need for memory and ULTIMATE® had worked hard to undermine and diminish collective memory. Personal memory was stored, archived; a commodity to be viewed on a screen, not an emotion to be experienced. There was no longer any need for history and no longer any need for memory. Under ULTIMATE® you could split things into the periods: ‘in History’ and ‘today.’ No one paid much attention to ‘in History’ since it had long ago been shown that history was unimportant to the flourishing of the modern world. The world didn’t even look forward any more. People just looked into the virtual world which was all that existed, all around them. Virtuality was all that was real in the ULTIMATE® world.
Omo, Nike and Flora stood in the reception of VCC Holyrood and didn't like what they saw. It was clean, it was bright, it was airy, but somehow it was..... not nice. Not the sort of place you'd want to end up. Which wasn't surprising, because the only people who ended up here were people who were VICTIMS. The disabled or those without families to support them, those who had fallen on hard times or for some reason or other had not prospered under the current economic system. People who had made no provision for their futures, or who had made provision for their futures but had invested unwisely and suffered as part of the Economic Crash. This was what the Credit Crunch which became the Downturn, which became the Global Recession to End History, afterwards referred to as ₲₨ΩHist, became. Victims. Not a nice word. Not a nice thought. Not a nice thing. But an accurate description. And there were plenty of them. Too many. They were a drain on resources and it's lucky for everyone that they usually didn't live beyond 72. Statistically speaking. In that respect, Helen was old and living on borrowed time.
ECONOMIC CRASH: Definition. In History, a downturn in the economy. In current parlance the cut off before which our current system did not function. A time of uncertainty where people, governments and countries were living beyond their means, using now outmoded and illegal methods of economic and financial activity.
GLOBAL RECESSION: Definition. In History, a period of global economic slowdown where global economic growth is 3 percent or less is ‘equivalent to a global recession’. Following the increasing regularity of global recessions in 1990-1993 , 2001-2002 and 2008-2010 the ULTIMATE® CORPORATION stepped in to reverse economic declines, introducing a new model and wiping away the last vestiges of the failed global economic system. This was finally achieved in 2020, leading to the stable economic system we now enjoy.
Helen didn’t need the definitions, she’d lived the life. She still remembered. But interacting with the US™ was not something you could avoid and it passed the time. Unlike most people, however, Helen didn’t believe all she was told.
Standing outside Helen’s door, there was one embarrassing thing Nike had to get out of the way.
‘Guys. My Nan. She's old. I mean, she looks okay. Not too wrinkly.. but she's weird and she has some strange.. well, you know... quirks.’
‘Such as?’ That was Omo. Omo didn't like the unexpected. The odd. The unusual. It made him feel uncomfortable. He didn't like feeling. And he particularly didn't like feeling uncomfortable.
‘Uh... she tends to call me NICK.’
‘Yes.’ A pause. Nike explained. ‘It was a name in History.’
‘Oh. Okay.’ Omo accepted it. Life was easier if you just accepted odd things. Usually.
‘Nick.’ Flora repeated it, rolling it round in her mouth, ‘sure she's not just hard of hearing? It sounds kind of like..’
‘No. She calls me NICK okay. Don't question it. Just deal with it and don't laugh, or correct her or..’
‘Nick.’ Flora tried it out again. ‘I like it. It sounds nice.’
Nike and Omo exchanged a glance. Girls. What could you do? Now, ready for anything, they knocked on the door. There was just a moment’s delay then Helen's voice called out clearly, ‘Come in.’
And in they went.
‘Oh, Hello Nick. I thought it was them, bringing my lunch. Hang on a minute... I'm sorting through things on my memory vault....’
A black man became president. Economics became God and God became commercialised. The ULTIMATE® CORPORATION filled the gap, took over, and saved the planet. THIS MEMORY HAS BEEN MOVED AND STORED FOR YOU AT NO EXTRA CHARGE.
Nike, Omo and Flora stood obediently in the small square room, trying not to look too closely at the screen, but failing, since there was little else to look at in the sparsely furnished space. It was a pitiful 60 inch screen compared to the 90 inches they were used to, but it took up the whole of a wall. They did understand that really it was respectful to treat a Memory Bank as private unless you were invited to share the memories. And an old person’s Memory Bank. Well.. that would have all sorts of things you probably shouldn’t know about. Especially one who had lived in History. But how did you avoid looking? There was nothing else to do. Nowhere else to look. Omo began to feel uncomfortable. Again. Dammit. Why did that always happen?
Images and sounds flickered from place to place, like so many Windows closing down and opening up and trying to fight each other for their proper file. Helen was a Windows Vista woman in a world which had forsaken Microsoft for ULTIMATE® technology.
‘Sorry... sorry... I'm,’ she was flustered.
A voice blared out.
Helen. The face that launched a thousand ships.
‘What?’ Nike couldn't help himself.
The US™ screen replied, as it was programmed to do. Within a nanosecond it biolaser© read the barcode tattooed on Nike's wrist and charged the question to his account.
HELEN OF TROY: Definition. In ancient mythology, known as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ referring to her incredible beauty which is credited as the cause of the Trojan war. THIS HAS COST YOU ONE KNOWLEDGE CREDIT. ADDITIONAL OR SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION IS AVAILABLE FOR ANOTHER TEN CREDITS. AFFIRM?
Nike was angry with himself. He'd come here to avoid asking questions and he was barely in the door. However, it proved his point and he grinned at Omo. ‘Told you her vault was awesome.’
Finally Helen managed to sort herself out and power down her random memory folder. ‘It's nice to see you. And your friends. What brings you all the way over here?’
Nike dutifully kissed his Nan and handed over the plastic flowers which Flora had obtained at a cost of only thirty minutes ‘productive work.’ Plus delivery.
Helen took them, held them up to her nose and smelled them. ‘They smell just like real ones,’ she observed.
Nike, Omo and Flora exchanged puzzled glances.
‘They are real ones, Nan.’ Nike said. She got confused. She was old. What could you do? Nike slowed down and made himself very clear. ‘Nan. This is Omo and Flora. He pointed at each of them, so she would be sure. O-M-O and F-L-O-R-A....’
‘I'm not deaf Nick. Or glaikit.’
‘What?’ Oh, no. Another question.
GLAIKIT: Etymology. A Scottish word meaning stupid, foolish, thoughtless, lacking in…
Helen interrupted the US™’s flow by talking over it, though it was unclear whether her comments were primarily directed at the US™ screen or at Nike. eleHele
‘Not deaf. Not stupid. Okay?’
‘That's okay Nick. You're a good boy to bother visiting me. It's been ages. What brings you here?’
Surely she'd just asked that?
‘Nothing Nan. Just wanted to see you. And Flora has a question.’
‘A question. Are you allowed to ask the kind of questions I can answer?’ She laughed, in a half-mocking way. ‘What's the world coming to?’
They exchanged surreptitious confused glances. But there was obviously nothing wrong with Helen's eyesight or mental faculties because she clearly saw their glances and accurately read them. She responded, ‘That's a rhetorical question.’ Laughing as she saw Nike's face drop, Helen waved at the US™ screen. ‘Have this one on me.’
RHETORICAL QUESTION: Definition. A question not requiring an answer, used for literary effect.
Helen spoke to the screen. ‘Example from my life?’
The US™ screen spoke back: THAT WILL BE ONE MEMORY CREDIT. YOU HAVE 99 MEMORY CREDITS REMAINING FOR THIS MONTH. CHOOSE WISELY, ULTIMATE® MEMORY BANKS WORK FOR YOU TO ORDER AND PROTECT YOUR MEMORIES. FOR ALL ETERNITY. THIS WEEK WE HAVE A SPECIAL OFFER..
‘Yes, yes...’ Helen waved to fast forward. ‘Answer the question.... Example from my life?’ The screen replied:
EXAMPLE FROM LIFE: You were in high school. You were studying Plato's Republic
Nike couldn't help himself, ‘Plato's Republic?’
YOU ARE NOT AUTHORISED TO ASK THIS QUESTION. YOUR CREDIT IS INSUFFICIENT.
Nike turned to Flora.... ‘Go and ask for me?’
Helen cut in. ‘Plato's Republic was an ancient Greek philosophical work which discussed the meaning of justice, introduced the theory of forms and considered the immortality of the soul. Oh, and poetry. He was a very influential political theorist.’
‘Oh, okay.’ Nike was glad he hadn't wasted credit on that one. Who cared?
Back to the US™ which had paused, waiting to complete its task.
MEMORY RECAP: You were in High School. You were studying Plato's Republic. Your teacher was the headmistress. She used to ask questions about the text and you all sat there, dumbstruck because none of you understood. She used to make you sweat and then after a long pause she used to say ‘it's not a rhetorical question.’ She thought this was funny. You thought it was mean. You thought she was mean.
Nike felt they'd gone down a blind alley. And he'd flagged up his credit rating for all to see. That was annoying. Why couldn't he control his desire to ask questions? It wasn't normal. He wasn't normal. He needed to do something about that. Perhaps he should flag it up at a counselling session with Pryce. Some modification was in order, clearly. And if the system wouldn’t modify, he’d have to. It was getting irritating, and expensive.
Nike's problem extended beyond asking more questions than he could ever gain credit for. He wanted knowledge. To know things. They used to be called facts. Things. They interested him. He couldn't help it. It was like an addiction. And if he couldn't feed it one way, he'd feed it another.
Absently, without any real thought and certainly without reference to the retailer’s recommendations, he pressed his sleeve and started recording as Helen spoke.
‘When I was young.....’
Nike felt a wave of relief wash over him. Now all he had to do was sit back and listen. He’d get information by proxy and store it to make sense of later. That was the way to cheat the system. It wasn’t something people did in general, so it wasn’t protected against. Nike knew a lot of short cuts to the system. Had he worked as hard on ‘productive’ work as he did finding cheats for the system, he’d get in a lot less trouble. But, that’s life. This way, when he got home, he could listen to it all again and he'd have lots to feed his thirst for knowledge. Without ever having to log in to the knowledge or Memory Banks. This would save him so many hours of ‘productive’ work, he could probably see it through till the end of the month, when his slate would be wiped clean and his credits restored for another month. Job done. In theory.
Of course, in practice, Helen's utterances would raise so many more questions than they answered and Nike had just committed himself to a life, if not of servitude to ULTIMATE® productivity, then at least to a great many hours doing things he'd rather not do. Answering meaningless questions instead of asking meaningful ones. Productive consumption it was called. He hated it. He was smart enough to keep that thought to himself.
‘What's the problem, Nick?’
Nike came back from his reverie to find Helen asking him an unanswerable question.
‘You were miles away.’
‘Sorry.’ He smiled, ‘Uh, Nan. I was just wondering if there was a way you could bypass the US™ and just you know, talk to us?’
She smiled back, ‘Yes, yes, of course. I'm fed up with it anyway. It's playing me up all over the place.’ She waved her barcoded arm at the screen and gave it the instruction ‘hibernate.’ It flickered back at her in an alarming manner and then went to some kind of screensaver. It was something the Project Kids had never seen before. As close to magic as they could imagine – if they had had the concept of magic. They lived in a world where the US™ was a permanent feature of life. To even imagine it as other than central was a step further than Omo could have gone. He was baffled. He’d never heard the command ‘hibernate’ and he didn’t know what it meant.
‘Wow,’ Nike opined. ‘How..?’
Helen waved at him to stop. ‘If you are going to ask how did I do that, I wouldn’t. Ask a question and it’ll come out of hibernation. It’s programmed that way. Unfortunately. We have to find other ways of asking questions, if it’s questions you want.’
‘How?’ Nike wasn’t a natural. The screen flickered again and Helen once again suggested it ‘hibernate’ which once again, it consequently did.
‘Don’t put the sentence construction on it. Say the word you want me to talk about and I’ll talk.’
‘Hibernate.’ Nike tried not to inflect the word.
‘It’s what some animals do in the winter. It’s a way of staying in a dormant – that’s like a sleeping state,’ Helen replied.
‘Not off then?’
‘You can’t turn the US™ screen off Nike,’ Omo butted in. ‘Everyone knows that.’
‘Yes. Unfortunately,’ Helen replied.
If Omo had been the inquisitive type he might have asked Helen why she would want to turn it off. But he didn’t.
She turned to Omo...
‘You have experience of fixing screens, Omo.’ It was obviously a question but she managed to deliver it in an uninflected manner and the screen did not respond. Nike was impressed. So his Nan knew some cheats as well. Good for her.
Omo shook his head.
‘That's okay. I'll get a technician. It’s been playing up a bit recently. A lot of what you might call random activity.’
‘Maybe you’re not following instructions..’ Omo began, trying to be helpful.
‘Maybe.’ Helen smiled.
‘Nan, Why do you call me Nick?
The screen flickered.
‘Override and hibernate.’ Helen spoke with authority. The screen obeyed. Nike found it amazing. Omo found it disturbing. Flora was still wondering if tigers slept through the winter and if so why. But she knew they weren’t supposed to be asking questions so she kept that one for later. She had plenty of credits left for the month because she did plenty of ‘productive’ work.
Helen knew he wouldn't have been able to resist asking questions. Not her Nick. Despite the generation gap, despite the fact that his life was unrecognisable from the one she had lived or lived now or perhaps because of that; they had that in common. A thirst for knowledge. And it came in the form of questions. Luckily, she had some answers.
‘Onomatology. It’s the study of names. The study of the origin of names.’ She turned to Omo. ‘Do you even know why you are called Omo? Or Flora?’
‘No.’ They answered in chorus.
‘Do you?’ asked Flora.
None of them had ever thought to question their names.
‘Names have meaning?’ Nike was amazed.
‘Yes.’ Helen prepared herself for a long afternoon. ‘In the olden days people used to have books and books of names for babies. It took them weeks and months to decide and many arguments’.
‘Of course in Scottish tradition your middle name was your maternal grandmother's surname. Which Nick, would make you Nicholas Blair Christie.’
‘That's a mouthful,’ Omo commented.
‘My name's Nike.’
‘It isn't. It's Nicholas. I was there. In those days, Nike was a training shoe. A logo. A brand. A sort of flash with a tag line JUST DO IT. That's Nike. It was ripped off from the Ancient Greeks. The Goddess Nike Athena...’
This was all so much Greek to Nike!
Helen paused for breath. ‘But Nicholas. Of Greek origin meaning Victorious people. Often attributed in relation to the ancient Bishop reputedly considered to be Saint Nicholas. You’ll have heard of Saint Nicholas?’
It was a question, but not a direct question so the screen remained dormant.
‘No.’ All three shook their heads
‘Father Christmas. Santa Claus.’
‘Uh yeah, sure, maybe.’ Omo was beginning to feel stupid and he didn't like feeling stupid any more than he liked feeling uncomfortable, or for that matter feeling in general.
‘Something to do with Coca Cola, before it became ULTIMATE® coke.’ Omo wanted to show he knew something. He didn’t like this game, if it was a game. And if it wasn’t a game he liked it even less.
Nike was getting a bit frustrated too.
‘Nan, I think we're getting off the point aren't we? You were telling us about names, not giving us a seminar in Brand Loyalty.’
Helen nodded. ‘Patience, Nick. All in good time. Join me in a cup of tea. ’
While it wasn’t a question, all three shook their heads again. Tea. What kind of a drink was tea?
‘Of course, tea is too old people for you,’ Helen observed, ‘I’ll pour it out anyway. In case you want to try. Of course it’s only ULTIMATE® not real tea, but what can you do? Okay, I'll get on with the story. Are you sitting comfortably?’ And without waiting for their response, or the response of the screen to a potential question, she continued, ‘Then I'll begin.’ And laughed. They had no idea why. Helen gave up. Watch With Mother was long, long ago and the world had changed since the 1960's. Oh boy, had it changed.
‘At the beginning of the 21st century, people got bored of calling their children by traditional names and celebrities started experimenting, using places and fashionable items as names. Then ordinary people jumped on the bandwagon, following celebrity fashion as they always did, and by the time the Credit Crunch had become the ₲₨ΩHist people wanted to find new ways of identifying with the new economic order and so they began to use brand names for their children. Omo, for example. Your parents must have had a sense of humour.’
Omo looked blankly at her and before Nick could ask the inevitable ‘why?’ Helen continued.
‘Omo was a washing powder. Omo washes whiter, Omo washes brighter. With a bright new powder for a bright new world.’
‘Oh.’ Omo didn't see the joke. None of them did. They couldn’t contextualise and so couldn’t hope to see the humour. Making racism a thing of the past was the legacy of the Black man in the White House. After this presidency, you couldn't judge someone on the colour of their skin any longer. Black men became white men out of political expediency, like women had became honorary men in times of war throughout history. It was a kind of social evolution. It might have been ULTIMATE® inspired.
Helen continued, ‘Though the word's origin is Greek, for scapula, that's a shoulder blade. The Omo Brand prided itself on the notion that dirt is good, providing children with a way to explore their worlds and express their creativity. It espoused notions of freedom, enabling everyone to reach their potential. Its demographic was those people who wanted value for money as it was always a lot cheaper than its rival PERSIL. But they were both made by the same company. Some people said all washing powders were the same...and that caused a bit of a furore for a time but...’ She paused for a moment to ask the US™ ‘What is the Omo Brand? Detail please.’ The screensaver flickered and came back to life.
Helen winked at Nike. ‘It has its uses,’ she observed, ‘and saves me the boring bits. My memory isn’t what it used to be.’
OMO BRAND: Detail: A Brand of the company UNILEVER,one of the early ULTIMATE® CORPORATION buy outs. Other Brands in the Unilever stable included Persil, PG Tips, Dove, Lynx and many other products in the food, personal and home care environment. THAT WILL BE ONE KNOWLEDGE CREDIT. YOU HAVE 406 KNOWLEDGE CREDITS LEFT FOR THIS TIME PERIOD. ANY UNUSED CREDITS CAN BE CARRIED OVER INTO YOUR NEXT TIME PERIOD. ADDITONAL BRAND INFORMATION IS AVAILABLE FROM ONLY FIVE CREDITS.
Then, as if exhausted by its work, the screen flickered and died again. But this time it went blank instead of to screensaver. It didn’t look like ‘hibernate’ mode any more. Helen shrugged. A blank screen was a relief really. She remained convinced, like many of her generation, that US™’s were more trouble than they were worth.
‘And me?’ Flora asked, quite without realising she’d asked a question. The US™ didn’t seem to notice either. At any rate, Helen got there first.
‘You were named after margarine.’
That was too obvious. The US™ hummed, and started on the word MARGARINE, but with a swift wave of her hand Helen cancelled the request and answered herself. Omo found himself focused on whether the screen had a hardware or software problem. It was certainly not functioning properly. He was not convinced the ‘hibernate’ setting was strictly legal. That bothered him. Like any good citizen.
‘A fat based replacement for butter and hard fats,’ Helen said.
And as the screen remained in sulk mode, that piece of knowledge cost no one anything.
Nike was impressed with how these facts just flowed off Helen's tongue. She was like a live knowledge bank. He supposed in History, before ULTIMATE® ran things, people would have to have this kind of knowledge stored in their own heads. It was primitive, but strangely compelling to him. He wondered if it was genetic. Was it something he'd inherited from Helen? He'd ask Pryce. No. Maybe he wouldn't. Maybe this wasn't something he wanted modified out of his DNA.
Helen was still explaining the origins of Flora's name.
‘Flora was a Latin word for flower (Latin was a language that was dead long before even I was born) and the product was made with sunflower oil, which was supposed to be healthier than animal fat. And was also better than palm oil, which was the generic oil used in those times. Palm oil was a terrible thing because they cleared all the rainforests to grow it, to satisfy demands, and in doing so they destroyed fragile eco-systems and many wild animals became extinct because of it. Specifically orang-utans. I bet you don't even know what an orang-utan was?’
Flora shook her head. ‘No. But I wanted to ask you. About tigers.’
‘What about tigers?’ There was no response from the screen in relation to Helen’s question this time.
‘I..’ Flora faltered. She was still clearly moved by her experience and didn't want to cry in front of Nike's Nan, ‘I saw a live stream the other day. Of the last tiger. We saw it dying. Live. It was horrible.’
‘And your question?’
‘Well. I wanted to know why?’
‘Why what?’ (The US™ would not demean itself to come back to life for such an impoverished construction.)
‘Why did it have to die? Why did it live in a zoo? What is a zoo like and what were tigers like?’ The questions kept flowing out, like the tears had flowed before. ‘Where did they live when they weren't in zoos? What is a wild animal? Why can't we have them now?’ Flora finished, exhausted.
And now the US™ didn’t know where to start. It made the most confused, grinding noises; unearthly and primitively mechanical. Helen used the override command again. Omo might have observed that the screen didn’t look happy if he could have imagined the emotion of happiness applying to an inanimate object, which of course he couldn’t. He just noted that it was not behaving in the standard way. He was glad he wasn’t a technician. He’d never thought it possible to play about with the screen the way Helen was doing.
Meanwhile Helen was dealing with Flora. Offering her the verbal equivalent of a tissue, to mop up the question tears.
‘That's a lot of questions. No wonder you came to me. You couldn't possibly have enough ULTIMATE® credits to get all those questions answered. Not without hours of ‘productive’ work.’ Helen smiled. That wry, mocking smile which made you feel that she didn't really take the whole ULTIMATE® thing seriously. Which was dangerous. And which was probably why she was here, living in a Victim Home instead of out in the community living a happy and productive life.
‘So I'll tell you,’ Helen continued, ‘but I'm mercenary in my old age. Like ULTIMATE® there's a price for my knowledge.’
Flora's face fell.
‘Don't worry. I don't think it's too high a price to pay. I just wanted to invite you to my birthday party.’
A birthday party? Nike had never been to a birthday party. Not since he was about six anyway. He had a hazy memory of it. But not one he could find in his Memory Bank. There was nothing on his Memory Bank before he was 10. Nothing from before he started at The PROJECT⌂. He’d never considered that before. It was strange. But there was so much else for Project Kids to focus on, Memory Banks tended to get overlooked. They were for people who didn’t ‘have it all.’ And as Pryce kept reminding him, as a Project Kid he did ‘have it all.’
Whatever it all was, Nike wasn’t sure it was enough. He realised no-one had responded to Helen’s request. She sat there, hopeful. He took an absentminded sip of tea. It wasn’t that bad actually. He refocused. A birthday party. For an old woman? Boy, these old people were really strange.
Helen was speaking again. ‘I'm seventy next week. And I was hoping we could have a little celebration. Will you come? Will you all come?’
‘Of course,’ they replied in chorus.
‘We'll have tea, and cake and candles and it'll be like the old days.’ Helen smiled. Then frowned. ‘Do you mind? Would you mind indulging me?’
Omo couldn’t figure out whether the US™ was faulty, or huffing, or didn’t deal with personal questions of the construction ‘do you mind?’ But it stayed silent. Unlike Nike.
‘No, Nan. We'd love it,’ he said. And almost meant it.