Pryce was having a bad day at the office. Pryce invariably had a bad day at the office these days. It made him wonder but not question (he was beyond questioning) why it was that his job was so aspirational. On the face of it Pryce had everything one could wish from the ULTIMATE® lifestyle he’d bought into some twenty years ago. But somehow, something didn’t fit. Perhaps it was because he was prone to question his own place in the order of things. Personal reflection was not part of the ULTIMATE® deal. Life was for living not for thinking about. But somehow Pryce couldn’t break the habit. And it made him depressed.
Depression of course didn’t exist in the ULTIMATE® world but that didn’t stop the feeling of pointlessness Pryce experienced on a daily basis. He was forty years old and felt his life had passed him by. He was going nowhere, his wife couldn’t stand the sight of him and his job took up all his time. Twenty years ago he’d wedded himself to Angela and to ULTIMATE® and the honeymoon was definitely over in both respects.
With nothing to look forward to, he allowed his mind to wander back to the twenty one year old man he had been nearly twenty years ago in 2011, when he'd made the life-changing decisions he now felt depressed by. In 2011 the ULTIMATE® Corporation had been cutting edge. Secret. Aspirational. A job with ULTIMATE® was a job for life in a world where nothing was certain. It had the mystique of the secret service with the security of the civil service and the pay packet of investment banking. Pryce shared the aspirations of his generation and had wanted some certainty in his life. Yes, it was a career he'd aspired to. Then. Not now. Now he knew better. Pryce wondered if he was the only person who questioned the ULTIMATE® world. Everyone else around him seemed happy, got on with their lives. No one else seemed to face each morning with a gloom in the pit of their stomach like he did. It made Pryce question where the problem lay. Was it with ULTIMATE® or was it with him? Either way, Pryce didn’t want to get up in the morning. He sometimes wondered whether he was that unusual. Whether everyone else felt the same as him but in the ULTIMATE® world everyone kept their emotions close to their chests, because ULTIMATE® had written emotion out of life. That had been part of the deal. And Pryce had signed the contract.
Pryce mused that maybe he was more representative of his generation than anyone would like to admit. He wondered if his peers felt, like he did, that they’d sold themselves to the ULTIMATE® way of life not realising the long term consequences of their actions. As people always did. They bought the pretty package and didn’t think of the payback terms. But how would he ever know? The beauty (if such you could call it) of the ULTIMATE® system was that no one ever expressed such feelings to one another even if they had them. Of course, Pryce might be the only one who felt like this. An individual in a world which had negated the value of individuality. That could explain his depression. He knew that if he presented his thoughts to his boss (as of course he should) he would be sent for re-training. Which would be even more tedious than the life he currently lived and would also probably result in a lack of privileges. And he couldn’t imagine that would make him feel any less depressed. Any change was likely to be a change for the worse, so he kept his thoughts to himself. He sighed. Perhaps life had been and was always like that. Perhaps reality never lived up to the dream.
It was 10pm. He was still in the office. Something was wrong. Angela, his wife, would be mad when he got home late again. She was always mad these days. Whatever time he got home. At least if it was 11pm he could just fall into bed and sleep and not spend three hours in pointless arguments, designed to disturb his sleep. Pryce often wondered whether Angela was at the root of his problems. Nothing unusual there for a married man. He couldn’t work out whether he had a problem with Angela or she had a problem with him or whether no one was temperamentally suited to be with the same person over twenty years. After all, people changed over twenty years. He wasn’t the same person he had been in 2010. Was it so surprising that Angela was also unrecognisable from that time? Was this the problem? ULTIMATE® reckoned so. It was, after all, the ideological basis of the social counselling section, where he’d worked for the last five years.
Pryce had become involved with work for The PROJECT⌂ at its inception in 2016, contemporary with the first “intake” and had stayed there ever since. He’d enjoyed it at first. It had been a change from the pure theory work he’d been involved with before that. It offered him a chance to work “with people” and more specifically with “kids”. Looking back, by the age of twenty five his relationship with Angela had already become rocky. He wanted children. She didn’t. Angela’s solution,
‘Get a job working with them. Just don’t bring them home.’
He’d bought it. Angela could be very persuasive. And now, the way things were, Project Kids wouldn't have to worry about marital relationships because ULTIMATE® had made marriage a thing of the past. The demise of the nuclear family (a concept that was bound to end in a cataclysmic explosion) was completed by 2020. In actuality, Brand had long since become the new family. And when globalisation took over, tribal branding became outmoded and all allegiance was transferred to the ULTIMATE® brand. You had to move with the times and the transition was seamless to most of the population. They just wanted the good times to go on indefinitely. ULTIMATE® delivered. Sign up and don’t worry about the small print. It was ever thus.
Pryce would have gone home right then, even back to another argument. At least it would be human interaction. And maybe, if he played it right, Angela would act like the lover she’d once been not the wife she had then become. Despite all the evidence, Pryce hadn’t completely lost hope. If he just did or said the right thing…. However, his boss Graham had been most insistent that Pryce did not leave for the night before they’d spoken. That was three hours ago. And Pryce was still waiting for the interface. So here he was, with time to kill, twiddling his thought-thumbs and trying not to get more depressed. His job as Project Counsellor was to manage other people's emotions not to have problems of his own, so his depression or mid-life crisis or whatever it was, had to stay bottled up inside.
Pryce decided to vent his maudlin mood by logging into his Memory Bank. Hang the cost, he had plenty of overtime due anyway. He knew it was pointless, he knew it was irrational. He knew it wouldn't change anything, but hey. The present was garbage, so maybe he could find some solace in his past.
‘MEMORY BANK RECALL: 2010.’ Pryce spoke to his US™ and up came the options.
Oh well, why not go back to the beginning? He chose GRADUATION. And in the blink of an eye, there it was playing out for him on the US™. He didn't pick the option of JOIN IN. He was above that after all. It was just for analysis. Just to make sense of the past, not to vicariously relive it.
There was Angela. As she’d been at his graduation. Attractive. Funny. In love with him. She was raven haired. He hadn’t known then that it had come out of a bottle and that her natural colour was mousy. He didn’t know then that Angela didn’t “do” natural. He bought it. Who wouldn’t? Angela was still the kind of woman who always got a response. Even fully clothed, she oozed a kind of sexuality that made a man feel somehow he was acting improperly. She always wore her blouse with just one button too many undone, a challenge NOT to look which made you look all the more. And made you feel dirty about doing so. It wasn’t that she had the best body in the world, but she certainly knew how to use it to the best advantage. Angela had caught on quickly to the Lara Croft Avatar style of plasticity. And rendered it human. You might well say her “graphics” were amazing. Yet she was real. In the days before ULTIMATE® shifted the reality goalposts, Angela was well on the way to becoming a mistress of the art of ULTIMATE® reality.
‘What’re you looking at?’ Angela had challenged Pryce on their first meeting. It was his twenty first birthday party. Somehow he’d managed to avoid her through three years of university and now, just before graduation, there she was. It was the first of many mysteries. He still didn’t know who’d invited her, and the US™ didn’t have that perspective on offer. Retrospectively he could see himself squirm. Yet at the time he remembered he’d thought he was so cool. How come if these were his memories, he looked totally different to how he had felt then? Just whose side was the US™ on?
‘I… sorry… I wasn’t looking,’ was hardly the response of a cool guy now was it?
That was followed by the laugh. Angela had a dirty, dirty laugh which haunted you for days. At least she had in those days. These days she didn’t laugh. All that came from her mouth these days, at least as far as Pryce was concerned, was cutting criticism.
Pryce sighed. He was using up credits here and it wasn’t making him feel any better. He backtracked the memory. It was more than he could bear to watch Angela like that. And himself. It had been a time that had promised so much. How had life got in the way and changed the story? What had he lost in this ULTIMATE® life which told him he was a winner?
Pryce took his Memory Bank back to before Angela. Before graduation. He had been a clever scholar. Gone to a good university. Studied psychology with information technology. He was mature for his age and determined to get a good job, not just loll around like a stereotypical student for three or four years. He’d had more motivation. More self-respect. He liked a good time, sure, but he was driven. Or so he’d thought. Pryce, like so many of this cusp generation, was able to remember that life had been uncertain, with the possibility for things to go very, very wrong. It was a perspective most people never visited in their Memory Banks, but Pryce couldn’t help himself. Call it nostalgia, call it what you like; from time to time Pryce went in search of meaning in the vaults of his Memory Bank. And his position as social counsellor allowed him access at levels which would have been questioned among people of lesser standing. Because he was supposed to be above the kind of wallowing that he was currently indulging in. Pryce was expected to be a fully signed up member of the ULTIMATE® reality, not a middle aged man putting rose tinted spectacles on a world which had collapsed. ULTIMATE® didn’t deal with dreamers. Not unless it was an ULTIMATE® bought dream. Pryce was putting himself in a compromised position. Of course he thought no one knew. But with ULTIMATE®, someone always knew.
Pryce fastforwarded the memory. This was the kind of time travel people would have wet themselves over in 2000. Now it was just so many taps of a keypad or touch screen and there you were, surfing through your life, back and forward at will. By 2030 most people didn’t bother with their memories because the everyday life experience contained more than enough to keep their unquestioning minds occupied. They favoured instant gratification which was paid for unwittingly through the very tasks which gave the gratification. This was the power of ULTIMATE® as it presented itself to the general population. You had to be pretty asynchronous in the pecking order to feel like you were being exploited by ULTIMATE®. And even if you did, a quick trip to your Memory Bank would remind you that things could and indeed had been a whole lot worse BEFORE.
Pryce went back to his graduation memory. He had been a young man full of hope, in a time of ridiculous uncertainty. It was the summer of 2010. Europe was in turmoil. Britain was in meltdown despite all calls for a “stable” government. Stability was far away from the reality of everyday life. Like everyone else in 2010, Pryce found himself smack bang in the middle of the ₲₨ΩHist, known then simply as the recession. When he'd started at University the Credit Crunch hadn't even been a reality but by the time he graduated in July 2010, jobs were scarce and beggars couldn't be choosers.
And Pryce, like everyone else, was up to his eyes in debt. His dreams of a stable, serious career were being hijacked by global economics so he took the first job the milk round offered him. He was lucky. A blue chip company with a decent reputation was prepared to take him on as a graduate trainee. He didn't feel lucky though because it was in Industrial Psychology. It sounded tedious as hell. It was tedious as hell. But it was a job. For a while. About six months.
Then things really began to bite. Despite the promise of the ‘new politics’, companies went down and businesses went bust and everyone was very, very scared. And Pryce was made redundant. At least that's what he'd been told at the time.
Now, looking back at it, something didn't quite add up. He played with the perspectives on the US™ and came to the conclusion that actually he'd been headhunted. He’d had his mind on other things at the time of course. He zoomed in on the conversation with Angela.
‘Of course you should take it.’ She was adamant.
‘I’m not so sure,’ he voiced his indecision.
‘That’s so typical you,’ she shifted her body so that he could do nothing else but look down her cleavage as she spoke.
‘You can never see an opportunity staring you in the face. You never make the right move.’
Had he misinterpreted her comments? Had they been deliberately provocative? Obtuse? Pryce watched the ensuing scene like watching a car crash, though it hadn’t seemed like that at the time. Life certainly changes ones perspective in memory as well as everything else, he reasoned.
He’d reached out for Angela. His “move” was obvious. She’d pulled back from his initial kiss. He was confused as to the signs. He was always confused as to Angela’s signs, but this time he thought he knew what she wanted from him.
‘Will you marry me?’ he asked, down on one knee, his face level with that bottom button, his mind more on the immediate possibilities of the next twenty minutes rather than the next twenty years.
She pulled him off his knees. Rolled him onto the couch. Got him into a position he couldn’t get out of and gave him what he thought was his reply through a physical rather than a linguistic response. Only once that was over did she speak.
‘If you take the job at ULTIMATE®, I’ll marry you.’
Twenty years on, re-viewing the memory, Pryce had to admit that it had been that way, but he really, really couldn’t remember things happening in quite that sequence. He’d been sure the seduction was Angela trying to give him confidence. Now it sounded like an ultimatum and accorded with his present feeling that he'd been sucked into the ULTIMATE® Corporation without ever knowing it. Three months later, Angela and he were married and Angela was working alongside him at ULTIMATE®. A year later, Angela was outstripping him workwise and he was no longer looking forward to undressing her at the end of a long day. Work came first. Work always came first. And from this memory, it seemed like work had always come first with Angela.
Pryce felt used. By Graham, the boss he was sitting here waiting for at 10.35pm, by ULTIMATE® who had bought his life and given him a virtual package in return and most of all by Angela, who seemed to have been manipulating him all along the line. Pryce realised he no longer loved Angela. His feelings for ULTIMATE® were more complex.
In 2011 he had been like everyone else. Aspirational. Earning money was aspirational in those days. And economic fear created a whole new set of aspirations. You couldn't say no to a career in the ULTIMATE® Corporation even in 2011. Even though you didn’t really know what you were buying into; if you got so far as to hear about them, to get offered a job, you knew you were going to be in on the start of not just the next best thing but the ULTIMATE® best thing. It was going to be bigger than Microsoft. Bigger than McDonald's. Bigger than Unilever and Levi's, GlaxoSmithKlineBeecham, and Monsanto and Coca-Cola and Mars and Tesco and Google and all those companies, brands and corporations ULTIMATE® inevitably swallowed up over the next, incredible decade when the world was re-inventing itself out of the ₲₨ΩHist. Had history not been eliminated, the period 2010-2020 might have been referred to as the age of recessions, mergers and buyouts. It was the journey from corporate imperialism to the new world. In the new world there was just one Brand Loyalty and it was to ULTIMATE®. Totalitarianism rebranded as consumerism. Wrapped in a pretty package and desired by all. Total global domination. Achieved through acquiescence.
Pryce had always thought himself lucky to be there or thereabouts at the right time. Just luck. Now he wasn't so sure. One way or another, his memory had cheated him. As he replayed the scene with Angela from twenty years ago again (telling himself he was doing so not because he wanted to remember their first sexual union but to make sense of his life – and not quite convincing himself on that point) he found there was an air of predictability about it all. An air of design. In the same way as it seemed unlikely that ULTIMATE® had got so big by chance, it seemed unlikely that he was just taken up in the Economic Tsunami that went with it.
One thing Pryce knew about ULTIMATE® was that nothing was left to chance. So why, then, had he foolishly held onto the belief that his part in the whole thing was down to luck. ULTIMATE® didn't do luck. ULTIMATE® did complete world domination. You only had to look at their slogan: ‘scientific advance and social development go hand in hand’ to realise that this was an all encompassing ideology. You could almost hear the ‘Have a nice day with that, sir.’
Back in 2011 when the phone rang and ULTIMATE® offered Pryce the job he'd been sceptical about, he was delighted. The first day sold him on the idea that a man with his qualifications would fit right in. His thesis on question theory impressed them – or so they said. And he had a wedding to plan. Of course he understood that he'd be a small cog in a big wheel and he didn't mind that. It would be better than Industrial Psychology. He felt for the first time that he had a future, a niche, that he was a stakeholder in life. He had no idea how big that wheel would get of course. No one did. Or did they? He was still wondering this when the US™ switched to INTERFACE mode. His relief was shortlived. It wasn't Graham. It was Nike, one of his protégés from The PROJECT⌂.
Pryce sighed. Nike was an all right kid, but he did tend to call at inopportune moments and with inappropriate questions. Particularly when he'd run out of his own question credits. You had to be on your toes with Nike, because before you knew it, he'd have stripped your account bare. It was nearly the end of the month and Pryce had been planning to carry over his credits. This evening had already given them a hammering, and no Project Kid was going to hijack what he had left.
‘Nike. You know my office hours end at 8pm. What is it?’
‘Uh... yeah...’ Nike was obviously thrown by Pryce's hostile reaction.
‘It's okay. I'm waiting for my boss to interface anyway. But I haven't got all night. Shoot.’
‘Uh. Well.. .it's... I'm not sure if it's all right, but I wanted to ask you..’
Pryce bridled. ‘If you've run out of knowledge credits Nike, you know what to do. Do some ‘productive’ work.’
‘No. No. It's not that sort of a question.’
Was there ever any other kind of question from Nike? Pryce doubted it.
‘It's kind of a protocol sort of thing.’
The kid was talking in riddles. Even though Pryce had graduated top of his class, he knew that twenty years on just about any snot nosed Project Kid could wind him round their finger. That was the way knowledge had changed. They had it all on a plate. They didn't have to learn it or work at it they could just flip it up any time they wanted. They knew how to manipulate systems he barely understood. He'd need to be very careful here; he sensed Nike was about to take advantage. And he didn't want to be robbed blind and then have to file a report about it too. That was too much.
‘Come on Nike. Just tell me what's on your mind.’
‘No. It's not my mind. It's just... well, Omo said I should ask, but I think I don't need to. But Flora said yes, maybe and so... I wanted to know if it's all right to go to my Nan's birthday party?’
Pryce nearly fell off his chair laughing. ‘Your Nan's having a birthday party?’
‘Yeah. She's seventy. Next week. She lives in an ULTIMATE® Home and she doesn't have any other family, so I was thinking....’
‘A birthday party? You want to go to a birthday party?’
‘Yeah. Well.. is it cool?’
Perhaps it was because it was late at night. Perhaps it was because he'd earlier been viewing his own 21st celebrations. Perhaps he was still ruminating on the confusion of meeting Angela for the first time. Perhaps it was because he was distracted, wanting Nike off the US™ before Graham came on. Whatever the reason, Pryce dropped the ball. Missed the point.
‘Yeah. Sure. I don't see why not.’
‘Cool. Thanks mate. That's all.’ And Nike was gone, leaving Pryce to pick up the pieces.
Which of course he didn't have time to do. That's the way mistakes happen though, isn't it? You're doing one thing, thinking about another, something else comes in from left field and before you know it the thing you were going to check on files itself away and you don't revisit it again till it rears its ugly little monster head as the problem it is. But Pryce didn’t have time to process Nike’s request because immediately, Graham came on the US™.
Graham was three rungs higher up the ULTIMATE® ladder than Pryce and ten years younger. He was smarter, he was ruthless and he certainly didn’t have depression. Graham would have been one of life’s winners in any society but he was lucky enough to be an ULTIMATE® winner and he intended to stay that way. He would do anything to climb the ladder. And did. Pryce knew this about Graham and was reasonably wary of him. What Pryce didn’t know was that Graham was currently having an affair with Angela, Pryce's wife. It was not the kind of question you'd think to ask the knowledge bank really is it? Or exactly the kind of question Pryce would have liked to ask, but not one he wanted the answer to. Like so many men before him, he shut his eyes to the signs and looked elsewhere for the root of his problems.
‘Hey. Caught up on things?’ Graham was cool and chatty and over-friendly in exactly the way that men are when they are having an affair with their colleague’s wife.
‘'Bout ready to call it a day, anyway,’ Pryce replied, hoping Graham might pick up on his tone. It just came across as weak. He realised he shouldn’t have bothered trying to sound cool, he was just giving Graham more leverage. Pryce never seemed to win where Graham was concerned. It irked him. But what could he do?
‘Is there a problem?’ Graham was digging for something. Graham was always digging for something. You'd have thought he had a PhD in undermining, as well as a Masters in thought control, if only Graham, at his tender 32 years had ever been to University.
It used to be that people went to University, or college or failing that the University of Life. ULTIMATE® changed all that. Using the McDonald's University paradigm before them, ULTIMATE® created their own, specific educational opportunities, and Graham had walked right in and sailed right through. Graham was an ULTIMATE® success. Ugly little bugger, but his liasion with Angela proved that success means more than good looks to a certain kind of woman. To most kind of women, probably. Graham was lucky enough to have been born in a generation where how clever you were at coding your avatar to look and act cool was more important than your own physical attraction. And power always sells product.
‘No problems Graham. No. I'm just tired. It’s been a long day.’
Silence. A classic Graham tactic. Pryce had said all he wanted to, but couldn’t bear the silence and had to give more.
‘I'm not sleeping too well at the moment,’ he admitted. Bang. Too much information.
‘Oh. Sorry to hear that. Problems with Angela? D'you want to book in a session?’ Graham did not sound sincere. He sounded smug.
‘No. It's fine. Just a lot on my mind.’ Pryce hated the likes of Graham to be aware he had any kind of problem. Far less talk about it, or see it. And he certainly didn't want a counselling session. With Graham or anyone else. Talking with Graham never made things any better and Pryce was usually left with the uncomfortable feeling that all he’d done was release information cheaply which could be used against him in the future.
‘I'm fine. Really.’
‘Oh, all right. If you're sure,’ the weasel Graham replied. The tone told Graham all he needed to know. He’d got to Pryce. Needled him. Job done. He knew fine what Pryce's problems were. He was most of them, after all!
‘But hey, let’s book in some time to check on your workload. Some time next week, eh? Fix it up with the secretary. Night.’
And that was it. Graham gone, Pryce in bits and Nike's request forgotten. Which was why it didn't get written down in the casenotes.