As Nike walked from Helen’s to The Project House, a walk of some ten minutes, he was entirely unaware that his every move was being monitored. He had grown up, after all, in a world where everything you did was subject to US™ technology. It was a combination of CCTV and wireless access monitoring of the ßß™ barcode embedded in his arm which held all his individual (we might say personal if such a thing didn’t appear so totally impersonal) information. He didn’t look up at the cameras or the hoardings which, while boasting of various ULTIMATE® products and triumphs, could interface with him constantly. He was more concerned with the walking aspect.
Walking the streets was alien to Nike. Project Kids tended to stay in the compound. Why wouldn’t you? Within the compound, there was everything you could virtually need in the perfect world that ULTIMATE® had virtually created. Or created virtually. Or both. Project Kids were specially chosen and specially protected. The street was where the ordinary people hung out. The streets were dangerous. And in 2030 they tended to be pretty vacant most of the time. People didn’t go out that much any more, unless they had to. Most people worked (or consumed) from home and there was no real community transport system. That had died after nationalisation turned to privatisation turned back to nationalisation and then became redundant as a consequence of OIL PRESERVATION measures along with a restructuring of the workplace in late 2016. Some people had seen it coming, but no one expected it to hit as quickly as it did. In 2010 people enjoyed complaining about the trials of travelling. In 2020 no one really travelled any more, except virtually.
If Nike had bothered to ask Pryce, he could have expected to be transported to the VCC home in a licensed fuel efficient pod (a type of electric car dreamed about since the 1960’s) But he couldn’t be bothered with the interaction. It might raise issues. Of course, Nike didn’t need permission to leave the compound. The PROJECT⌂ wasn’t a prison. It was just that he wasn’t really expected to need to leave and for that matter to want to leave. ULTIMATE® expected he had been better trained than that. If he had thought about it, Nike would have realised there was no freedom of choice in the matter. Even if he did leave the compound, they could still keep tabs on whatever he was doing, so it didn’t really matter. But Nike didn’t think like that. He just did it. His brand suggested his nature. As far as ULTIMATE® systems were concerned his unusual action merely substituted one set of statistical information for another set and gave psychological profilers something different to do. It would all be logged and passed on to Pryce one way or the other.
Nike had his excuse all ready should Pryce pull him up. He’d run out of gaming credits. He hadn’t got his new ‘productive’ work schedule so he thought it didn’t matter what he did. Throw it back at Pryce. Attack is the best form of defence. It’s all a game. He pretended to himself that he was free, in control, but deep down he knew that as a Project Kid he was never free to do what he liked, if what he liked wasn’t authorized by ULTIMATE®. They owned him body and soul. Nike was beginning to resent that but didn’t know what to do about it. So he did what he could – tested the system. He appreciated that there might be consequences to his current actions but right now he thought the consequences might at least be more interesting than the usual routine. At least it wasn’t ‘productive’ work.
Nike remained oblivious to the fact that it wasn’t ULTIMATE® who were watching him right now. It was The Immortal Horses. Both Nike and ULTIMATE® were unaware that there was a serious crack in the system. As Nike walked past the big glass fronted building on the corner of the main road, he didn’t give it a second glance. Yet inside that building was a room which looked like an early 21st century trading room in a major banking corporation (because that was what it had formerly been) with bank upon bank of computers. The terminals were worked mostly by dishevelled teenagers who looked out of place and certainly nothing like the high powered traders they’d replaced. Their heads were down, their eyes totally focused on the screens as they collected data; although to them it was like playing the mother of all games. It was a game to them. But it was Nike’s life. He was the character of their game right now. He was the protagonist they were pursuing through the streets. It was actually the game of all of their lives, if only they knew it.
The ‘floor’ of this unusual Trading House was being run by a man who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of them. Known as Troy, he looked like a throwback to the twentieth century. Nike might have called him a hippy if he’d known what hippies looked like. But his attitude was all clued up. He hadn’t been around in the “tune in turn on and drop out” 1960’s and he was more guerrilla than beatnik. More Che Guevara than John Lennon. But he came from a later generation entirely. He was a child of the millennium. His childhood had straddled centuries. He had given up looking backwards for looking forwards. He was targets oriented and goal driven. The immediate target was Nike, the current goal was surveillance. The prize was a live link right inside The PROJECT⌂ Compound. The ‘gaming’ team had been trying to achieve this goal for months, if not years, and Nike was the latest in a long line of prospects. This time however, Troy was determined nothing was going to screw up the opportunity. This time it was different. As he watched his ‘gamers’ in action he realised he needed to take the mission away from the HABIT∞ kids who made up most of the ‘workforce’ in the building and give it to the few really trustworthy members who, like him, were motivated by ideology not by where their next fix was coming from.
HABIT∞: Definition. In History, a settled or regular practice that is hard to give up. ULTIMATE® introduced HABIT∞ in 2013 in its attempts to deal with the out of control drug and alcohol dependence issues.
Pryce had explained the HABIT∞ to the Project Kids in one of their sessions when Nike had queried the definition. It was the parental ‘drugs’ talk ULTIMATE® style. Pryce was determined to be up to the ‘facts of life’ section of his contract.
‘There used to be drugs. Heroin that made you sleep, Speed that made you live life in the fast lane, Cocaine that made you confident. Cannabis that made you laugh. Ecstasy that made you dance all night with a feeling of love in your heart for the whole human race. In History most drugs were illegal. There were legal drugs too. Alcohol being the most prevalent. They had similar effects; to mask pain, to make you feel better, to make you feel happier, to stop you feeling at all. They cost a lot of money, they caused untold pain and suffering, they unstabilised the people who used them and destabilised the economy they lived in. ULTIMATE® has done away with all that. Saving countless lives and making them so much better lived. So much more productive. In 2013 ULTIMATE® legalised and regulated what might be called the drug to end all drugs. We know it as the HABIT∞. It’s administered by counsellors to those in the population who need it, freely available and doesn’t stop them from undertaking ‘productive’ work.’
Nike had wondered if they could try it. Pryce shook his head. Had he oversold it?
‘No. You kids don’t need the HABIT∞. It’s for people who aren’t as lucky as you. It’s one of the differences between you and ordinary people. ULTIMATE® have constructed your lives so that you will be able to live without needing the HABIT∞. It’s what they want for all people in the end. You are the vanguard. ULTIMATE® aspire towards true freedom for all the citizens. And you will be the first to achieve it. That’s why it’s so important for you to be ‘productive’. Your productivity has so much more depth to it than that of an ordinary teenager on the HABIT∞. The assessments made from your actions, from your lives, will shape generations to come.’
Thus ended the ‘drugs’ talk. Like generations of parents before him, Pryce felt he’d done a good job. Omo bought it. Flora bought it. Only Nike felt like he might be missing out on something. He determined that one day he’d get out on the street and find someone to give him a practical demonstration.
The thought came back to him as he walked the empty street back to the compound. If only he could meet someone out here, he might find out something more about ordinary life and be able to compare it with the so called privilege which felt like a prison to him. It was frightening, but it was also strangely compelling.
PRISON: Definition. In history, a place where criminals were kept in confinement. In contemporary society there is no need for prisons. ULTIMATE® has done away with crime and with it the need for prisons.
Nike had only recently spent his credits on the definition, but he still had a nagging doubt in the back of his mind that somehow the compound was a kind of prison. The VCC home seemed like a prison too, and he was beginning to wonder if the whole world had become some kind of large prison. Were The Immortal Horses fighters for freedom as Helen had suggested?
At the precise moment Nike had this thought, Troy achieved the direct connection to his ßß™ barcode. Chance or fate? Neither of these were ULTIMATE® concepts of course. The Immortal Horses technology was sophisticated, but it could not read thoughts. Troy was hopeful that Nike was going to provide him with a real insight into The PROJECT⌂. If Nike was valuable to The PROJECT⌂, he’d just become even more so to The Immortal Horses. Troy knew that Nike was an investment. The trading floor analogy was a pretty good one. Nike had just become not just an ULTIMATE® commodity but the ULTIMATE commodity.
Troy let go of the controls, returning the surveillance of Nike to a man in his early thirties who looked like he’d never seen the light of day.
‘Keep the good work up, Griff.’
Griff smiled. He was enjoying himself and he was doing something which might be considered ‘productive’ if he wasn’t part of a counter culture. Therefore, by definition he was doing something counter-productive. He’d only been on the surveillance an hour and look what he’d achieved. He was one of Troy’s ideological converts, much more useful than the Habit∞ riddled adolescents who made up the bulk of The Immortal Horses workforce. As Troy left the room, the music went back up to full blast and the room rocked to the beat of a long forgotten music. Before the mind-numbing ULTIMATE® digitised mantra music, there had been live music. Music with melody and meaning. And it played constantly in the Trading House. Everything from Elvis to the Manic Street Preachers. From Ska to Heavy Metal. The Immortal Horses embraced music as revolution. It was a world away from the ULTIMATE® created mono-pap which was now considered music and had evolved out of a combination of dance music, elevator music and Nintendo style gaming tunes. While from an outside perspective it might be hard to spot the difference between the ULTIMATE® and The Immortal Horses lifestyles, to those who lived them there was all the difference in the world.
Back at the compound, Nike let himself into The Project House. He breathed a sigh of relief. He couldn’t help it but feel, if not safe, then relieved that nothing had happened. He’d got away with it. Again. However, he realized that he should keep his head down now, do some ‘productive’ work and take Pryce’s spotlight off him for a bit. Because if anyone found out about the trouble at his Nan’s with the infected US™ screen, he was sure to be implicated. And that could bring nothing but trouble.
He sighed. He waved his arm at his screen to log in and looked at his options. His ‘productive’ work schedule still hadn’t been changed yet. But somehow he’d got another 100 credits. Pryce must have put them on. Nike reasoned that he’d better start spending them. Act normal. Look like he’d been here all the time. That would mean asking a lot of questions to get his production tally up on his daily log. The best way to do that would be to ask quick questions, not putting any real thought into either the question or the answer. Questions he’d asked before. Boring. But necessary.
Nike was like a gambler who really thought he had a system on the fruit machine. ULTIMATE® let him think that, because that way their psychological profiling was all the more effective. They got right into his motivation. Nike had no idea how many games he was a pawn in, but like all gamblers he mistakenly thought he retained some level of control.
So he settled down, and started asking questions. Not expecting any real answers. Of course before long he had lost the will to be ‘productive’ and asked the most dangerous question he felt he could get away with at that moment. After all, it was all a game, wasn’t it?
‘What is emotion?’ he asked.
He’d already had this definition at Helen’s, so he wasn’t expecting there to be any interest in the answer. But it would give him time to think how he could ask the question he really wanted an answer to: ‘Who are the Immortal Horses?’