While Nike was thinking and asking unproductive questions, Pryce was keeping a close eye on his log. He saw Nike was pursuing EMOTION as a topic line. He knew he should have acted on this immediately but something stopped him. If he gave Nike some rope, if he could get into the kid’s mind, work out what made him tick… Pryce had a myriad of justifications ready. Really however, his own emotion was ruling his judgement. Along with Nike he viewed the definition on the US™ screen.
DEFINTION: EMOTION - 1. A mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes; a feeling: the emotions of joy, sorrow, hate, and love. 2. A state of mental agitation or disturbance.
Pryce pondered on the combination of conscious mental effort and physiological change and what this meant. Nike was more interested in the immediacy of the words: joy, sorrow, hate and love. These were words which were foreign to a Project Kid’s working vocabulary. There was no profit in emotion for ULTIMATE®. They, after all, had worked very hard to stop their citizens experiencing mental agitation or disturbance of any kind. Virtuality might seem individualistic but actually there was nothing individual, nothing private about it. Thought and feeling were risky concepts and as such, very appealing to the likes of Nike. Confusing, but appealing. But mostly Nike wondered why the definition he’d got here had been so different to the one he’d got at Helen’s. That didn’t seem right. Surely a definition was by definition a definition….
As for Pryce, he just wanted to work out why his emotions were so close to the surface all the time. It was something that could seriously compromise his promotion prospects, although he was beginning to feel he had no prospects, no future, no real life. Pryce remembered when lack of emotion was imposed on depressives through prescription drugs. So surely, what he was experiencing was not depression. He had too many emotions, not too few. Did he need a dose of Habit∞? No, that would be an admission of failure.
Far from ridding the world of depression, it seemed to Pryce that ULTIMATE® had effectively visited the state on the whole population through a virtuality more powerful than any medication. Yet in their emotional apathy, everyone else seemed content. Only he seemed depressed. How could that be? And more importantly, what could he do about it? How could he prevent people from seeing the weakness in his soul? The soul after all was no longer a viable entity in the ULTIMATE® world. Even ULTIMATE® couldn’t commodify the elusive soul. Pryce laughed, remembering his early Catholic upbringing and the notion of ‘wrong thoughts.’ It was so, so long ago. Like a story that had happened to another person. A life that was not his. His present worry was that if he knew his own shortcomings, so did someone else. Someone or something more powerful than God.
His musings were interrupted by the ringing alarms and flashing word INFECTION on his US™ screen. In the remarkably predictable world of The PROJECT⌂, something remarkably unexpected was happening. It took literally seconds before Graham was on the US™ and there was a level of concern in his voice Pryce hadn’t heard before.
‘What the hell’s happening in your Project House?’ Graham yelled.
‘I don’t know. Why? I’ve just got red alarms going off all over… we’ve got an infection.’
‘Shut them down.’
‘Shut down the systems feeding into your kids. NOW.’
Pryce couldn’t believe what he was hearing. There was no protocol for this. He vaguely remembered in his induction training programme something about major infection control, but like CPR, he’d never had to use it and he’d paid little attention. Infections were unheard of. Even minor glitches were not common but when they happened you just contacted technical services and they were sorted. The ULTIMATE® system was remarkably stable. And The PROJECT⌂ had up to the minute hardware supporting it. It was not like at the VCC Homes where they struggled with out of date equipment and people who didn’t know how to use it. The PROJECT⌂ was different. Such problems didn’t occur. Until now. Pryce would have to find instructions and quick.
‘Shut the systems down and get round to your kids to make sure they’re safe.’ Graham was seriously panicking.
‘Okay. I’m on my way,’ Pryce replied, no time to enjoy Graham’s uncharacteristic lack of control.
However, he didn’t know how to ‘shut the systems down’ comprehensively, so he interfaced with a techie and left him to do the work. Thus buying The Immortal Horses valuable time. It was another mistake. Pryce was getting a reputation for making mistakes and Graham would make sure he paid dearly when the time came.
It couldn’t have been more than five minutes later that Pryce entered The Project House. He went to Nike’s room first. Even though he had been watching Nike’s screen live.. well maybe he’d taken his eye off it for a moment while he was thinking… It was natural to assume that Nike would be the root of the problem. Entering the room, without knocking, he found Nike was staring at a blank screen.
‘What happened?’ he asked Pryce with a butter wouldn’t melt tone.
‘I thought maybe you’d be telling me that,’ Pryce replied.
Nike shrugged. ‘No idea. But how can I get on with ‘productive’ work when…..’
Cute. But Pryce wasn’t in the mood for cute. There would be time to discuss the ‘productivity’ of emotion later. For now he moved on to Omo’s room, just as Flora came out of her own.
‘My screen’s gone blank,’ she said, surprised.
‘There’s an infection,’ Pryce retorted, not giving himself time to reflect on the combination of mental and physiological effects seeing Flora had on him, as they piled into Omo’s room just in time to see his screen reading
YOU HAVE BEEN HACKED
THE IMMORTAL HORSES
Nike didn’t react. Outwardly. He’d sort of expected this, but he wasn’t going to own up to anything.
Omo turned round to Pryce as his screen went blank. ‘What does it mean?’ he asked.
‘We have to shut the system down,’ Pryce replied matter of factly, ‘there’s a system malfunction.’
‘You said infection.’ Flora was puzzled. ‘What infection? How?’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ Omo said, ‘I was in the middle of my work and it just came up.’
‘And you?’ Pryce quizzed Flora and Nike, ‘Did either of you get any message?’
‘No,’ Flora replied. ‘My screen just went blank.’
Nike shook his head. ‘Mine too,’ he lied.
The evidence suggested that the infection had most likely come in through Omo’s screen, and this was where Pryce would have to start investigations. Without all the facts. Because no one else knew that Nike had seen the infection message before, and not just in Helen’s room.
‘I didn’t do anything.’ Omo was getting worried. He was going to be the centre of attention and he didn’t like that. ‘When can we go back to work?’ Flora asked. Ever the optimist. Or pragmatist.
‘My ‘productive’ schedule hasn’t been updated,’ Nike grumbled. ‘What’s wrong with the system these days?’
Pryce called them all into the common room. Time to sit down and calm down and try to work out what to do. The techie guy had obviously got the screens shut down, which itself was enough to disturb kids for whom constant online access was as vital as breathing. He sent Flora off to make them all an ULTIMATE® coffee, and buy himself some time to think how best to approach this. He had started off certain that Nike was behind this, but Omo seemed to be reacting badly and Nike surely wasn’t that good an actor. Well, vactor. Actors had been done away with some twenty years before when ULTIMATE®’s virtual system of VACTOR’S came into their own. They made the 3d Avatar animations of the early 21st century look pitiful. They were more convincing and a lot cheaper and less temperamental than the 20th century Real Thing, and they were all these kids had ever known. But Pryce was digressing. No time for that. He needed to focus on the task in hand. Ask the questions. Answer the questions. Resolve the situation. But how?
‘Okay. Let’s look at this logically,’ Pryce began.
The facts, such as they were known, were as follows. Nike, Omo and Flora had been going about their usual ‘productive’ work schedule. Pryce had got infection alarms and five minutes later the first thing the kids knew about it was that their screens stopped working. Apart from Omo’s, which was obviously the last to be shut down. He’d got that HACKING warning from The Immortal Horses. Pryce meticulously checked what each of them was doing leading up to the infection. Flora was completing an interactive survey on the relative merits of ULTIMATE® clothing brands. Omo was contributing to the ULTIMATE® discussion on how best to improve theories of choice. Nike claimed to be gaming, though Pryce of course knew he was seeking definitions for emotion. He let that pass for now though. He didn’t want Nike to think he was spying on him after all. He’d logged that question too. And Pryce could see no way in which Nike’s activity would be relevant to an infection. Irritating, off topic, but not an infection threat. And after all, Omo’s was the computer which carried the infection message.
Pryce had no idea how anyone would hack into the system, but he’d have thought it would be through games. He wracked his mind for the dim distant past of his youth when viruses could be downloaded in software or through opened e-mails. There would be no point him mentioning any of this to the fresh faced, puzzled kids in front of him, because they had no idea what viruses, emails or even software downloading meant. All were terms ‘in History’ which you didn’t have to bother about, because the ULTIMATE® system was so transparent, immediate and ubiquitous that you didn’t need to have any idea what you were actually doing in computing terms. This was part of the problem with the older generation. Those who had grown up with computers had expectations of an interaction with them where computers were tools which went wrong and they, as humans had to fix them. This was no longer the perception. The US™ just WAS. Remember, there is no Us and Them, only US™. It wasn’t just catchy marketing speak. It was as fundamental a truth as could exist in the ULTIMATE® world. You didn’t question it. You didn’t ask yourself if you believed it. You just accepted it. ULTIMATE® would keep you safe. Except now, they hadn’t.
‘So, it looks like the infection came in through your terminal Omo,’ Pryce stated. He looked at them all to gauge reaction. If it had been Nike, surely he wouldn’t let Omo take the rap? The kids all knew that Pryce would have to report that back to Graham. Omo would have to be assessed at a high level to see where he might have compromised the system. Pryce found three blank faces staring back at him.
‘Any ideas?’ Pryce threw that one out. From reaction, Flora and Nike obviously knew nothing about the whole thing. Omo looked uncomfortable.
‘Could it be connected with Nike’s Nan’s screen? That was playing up too,’ Omo offered. He, like Pryce wanted a solution but he wanted one that let him off the hook.
‘Any reason why it should?’ Pryce asked.
There was a long silence. Then Omo admitted
‘She asked me to look at it.’
‘And did you?’
‘Well, I touched it, but I didn’t do anything to it.’ Omo felt like he was about to be caught up in something he knew nothing about.
It seemed unlikely that touching the hardware would bring about an infection but Pryce had nothing else to go on. This would have to go in the report too.
‘And you, Nike?’
‘I never touched it.’
‘No. But you’ve been back there since…’
‘The techies were there all the time. We weren’t even in the room with it.’ Nike replied. Cast iron alibi eh?
‘Okay. Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now.’ Pryce stated the obvious. ‘I’ll get back to my boss with my report and we’ll get things up and running again as soon as possible. We’ll need to run diagnostics, and probably change all your schedules and the like… in the meantime, you’re on holiday.’
‘What’s a holiday?’ Flora asked. People didn’t take holidays now. Not real holidays. If you wanted a break you took a virtual break, via the US™. And clearly they couldn’t do that, not with the screens off and the systems down. It was one of the key social transformations brought about by ULTIMATE®.
Omo had at least a partial answer to Flora’s question.
‘Don’t you remember the tenets of social transformation?’ he asked her.
Flora shook her head. Her mind was full of the immediate present, not with how we’d got there. Omo explained.
‘In History, people used to travel. It used up precious resources. It took time away from ‘productive’ work and they used to save up MONEY to do it. They used to go abroad…
‘What’s abroad?’ Nike asked. Even though he knew.
‘The world was split into countries, not regions and people would travel from one to the other to experience different ways of life.’
‘How primitive,’ Flora noted.
‘Yes,’ Omo agreed, ‘But it’s what they did. In History. Then things changed. They were changing before ULTIMATE® transformed the world actually. Travel became hard work. People had to queue at airports, there were terrorist threats at every step of the process of travel. There were ash clouds and freak storms and it was really dangerous. Anyway, everywhere became like everywhere else and the sun tan you got would most likely give you skin cancer.’
Omo reported all this like a story he’d learned, with no sense of meaning, feeling or irony. It was just something he’d learned along the way. Not something very interesting. Just another reason to be grateful that he lived in the ULTIMATE® world.
‘Then ULTIMATE® developed the virtual experience which means that you can travel anywhere you like through the US™ system. It cost credits instead of money. It happened in real time with no wastage so you could have virtual mini-breaks anywhere you wanted without leaving your room. It was so much better that pretty soon people stopped going on real holidays. ULTIMATE® resolved the problems of carbon offsetting, time off work, the need for cars and caravans as personal possessions and ULTIMATE® even developed a way of giving you a healthy tan without ever having to expose yourself to the harmful rays of the sun.’
‘How?’ Nike asked.
‘How what?’ Pryce responded.
‘How did they do it?’
Pryce sighed. Nike could never let well enough alone. What did it matter how it had been done? Any of it. It had been done.
Omo was on a roll now though. ‘The information was gathered by ULTIMATE® through the sites people loved to interact with, and as the virtual holiday experience was developed, within twenty years the complete economic and social human genome was mapped, trademarked and owned by ULTIMATE®. Everyone played their part. Every time anyone interacted with technology they were part of it. ULTIMATE® made good on their statement. There is no Us and Them, only US™. Am I right?’ Omo asked, bright eyed, looking to Pryce for confirmation. He was, after all, just reciting information he’d learned. But he was trying to prove to Pryce that he was a conscientious citizen, not the sort of person who would get involved with infections. Omo did not want to lose his place on The PROJECT⌂. He had nothing else after all. No family, nothing. This was everything to him.
‘Yes.’ Pryce couldn’t decide whether to be proud of Omo or worried by him. He’d never thought Omo capable of such feats of memory or recitation. He’d have to report this as well. It probably wouldn’t go in his favour. The pertinent question would be: Why did Omo need to remember such things when he could find the answers afresh on the US™? A retentive memory was not a plus in the ULTIMATE® world.
Omo had given a decent appraisal of the social transformation of holidays, but realising that Pryce had a real life perspective, with Omo spent, Flora picked up the baton.
‘Did you ever go on holiday?’ Flora asked Pryce. It was unusual of her to ask such questions, but then it was an unusual day. She caught him off guard.
‘Tell us about it,’ Nike pressed him, ‘After all, there’s nothing else to do.’
Pryce tried to think what he could tell them. Tried to remember a holiday he’d enjoyed since the childhood trips to the country with his grandparents. Sliding down haystacks and fly fishing in rivers wouldn’t cut it with these kids. He had to think of something else. He thought back to 2016. The last time they’d been on holiday, him and Angela.
‘It was 2016,’ he said.
‘Before we came to The PROJECT⌂,’ Nike observed.
‘How did you travel?’
‘You flew?’ Nike was interested. No one flew these days. Not in reality. There was no need.
‘Wasn’t it very dangerous?’ Flora asked.
‘And environmentally unsound,’ Omo added.
They all knew about plane travel in theory. The ULTIMATE® version. Pryce thought back to the reality of plane travel.
‘Mainly it was just boring,’ he said, ‘a lot of waiting around and hours crammed into uncomfortable seats.’
‘But how was the holiday?’ Flora asked.
Pryce looked at her young, smiling face and remembered that last holiday. It had been marked by arguments. Over children. He’d always assumed they’d have them. And on holiday, he discovered that Angela had signed them up for the 3∆G project. Where you gave up your right to children in exchange for privileges. One of which was the holiday. He’d felt cheated.
‘That’s a decision for both of us,’ he’d raged. The Caribbean sunset didn’t look so beautiful when you stood next to a woman who’d betrayed you.
‘What about the woman’s right to choose?’ Angela retorted, bringing out of retirement a well out of date twentieth century argument. Typical Angela. She’d use anything to support her position. Smart, but not exactly principled.
She’d talked him round by promising that now she had taken the decision, now there was no chance of her falling pregnant, maybe they should start having sex again, something that hadn’t happened more than a handful of times since they were married. Pryce had given up wondering why she didn’t want to have sex with him, tired of all the excuses, and unable to truly believe that a fear of pregnancy had been the real fear behind the excuses. He was the one with the hangover Catholicism after all. But that night Angela had relented, almost convincing him that things would be different. They had made love constantly during the two week holiday and he’d begun to think that life would be better in future. That some hoodoo had been resolved. Then, on the last day, just before they headed off for the hell of the airport and the long flight home, she’d pulled the rabbit out of the hat.
‘Take the job at genetics counselling. Work with kids. Just don’t bring them home.’
With the enthusiasm of a man who thought life was about to get better, Pryce took the transfer. You couldn’t always get what you wanted in life after all, and this might well be more practical. Did he really want the burden of being a parent? Wouldn’t their relationship be stronger if they could devote all their spare time to each other without the pressures of bringing up children? But hardly was the contract signed when sexually, things went back to normal. Angela was too busy, too tired. She was insistent he should focus on his work. It had been a step down after all, working with children rather than pure theory.
‘Work comes first, remember,’ she chided him as she turned out the light and rolled away.
When he pursued her over the holiday activity, she dismissed it.
‘It was just a holiday thing. It’s over. Can you not find some virtual alternative. We’ve got all the privileges after all. It’s the 21st century for goodness sake.’
She was suggesting that if work wasn’t enough, he should find a hobby. Virtual sex would be fine with her. Any sex would be fine with her as long as she didn’t have to take part. Pryce took the rejection hard. They never had another holiday. The magic was well and truly over in that respect. But then, after 2016, no one took holidays any more. As Omo had explained, there was no need and a much better alternative was provided by ULTIMATE®.
Pryce came out of his reverie to see three sets of eyes watching him, waiting for something. What could he tell them?
‘It’s my private memories,’ he said, ‘not something to share with you. Best kept between me and my wife. There’s no meaning in the personal.’
‘Are you married?’ Flora asked, amazed. She’d never thought of Pryce being married. She’d never thought that much about him at all really, but certainly not about him having a wife.
‘Yes.’ Pryce didn’t want to pursue that line either. ‘Look, why don’t you three just relax and chat together while I get back to the office and find out what to do next,’ Pryce suggested. ‘We’ll find a way round it.’
He had to get away from Flora and her questioning. Retain a professional difference. The days of ‘my wife doesn’t understand me’ as a wooing tactic for a beautiful young woman were long gone. And precisely because of the way Flora showing an interest made him feel, he had to get some distance between them.
‘Will we get our credits re-instated for the time we can’t work?’ Nike asked.
Cute again Nike. Always cute.
‘I expect so. That’s not the priority at the moment,’ Pryce noted. ‘First we’ve got to work out what went wrong and then we’ve got to get things up and running again. And in the meantime…. Keep away from the US™.’
That was a command none of them had ever expected to hear.
‘One more thing,’ Nike ventured, as Pryce was standing up to leave. He could see that they had Pryce on the run. Weakened. Now might be just the time.
‘Who are the Immortal Horses?’
You could have heard a virtual brick drop. Nike knew how to ask them didn’t he? The most awkward question at the most awkward time.
‘Uh, we’ll talk about that when I get back,’ Pryce stalled, ‘I’ll be as quick as I can. Have lunch. Don’t worry.’
It wasn’t elegant. It wasn’t an answer. But it was all Pryce was giving out. He had to work out what he was authorised to tell them. He couldn’t afford any more mistakes.