Nike’s trip out was not, as Omo thought, to see Helen. Instead he took the quick walk to the Trading House. Every step of the way he wrestled with the conflicting emotions of fear and excitement. Last time he’d been taken there. This time he was knocking on the door. He was making a choice. Acting independently. And acting against ULTIMATE® with every step and every thought.
Of course they had known Nike would be unable to resist coming back. No one could resist the pull of The Immortal Horses. It was like Habit∞. After being greeted at reception, this time Nike was ushered into a smaller room, an office which would have overlooked the street, had the blinds not been down. He hardly had time to wonder if he’d made a bad choice when the man he’d spoken with before entered the room.
‘Glad you chose to come back. I hoped you would. Have you got more questions?’
Nike couldn’t believe someone was actually encouraging him to ask questions. Whatever he didn’t know about the Immortal Horses, he did know that they were quite unlike ULTIMATE®. No one was making him pay credits for questions. Ask, and he got. It was simple and yet….
‘So Nick. What can I tell you?’
‘It’s Nike.’ Nike decided he’d better correct the man. After all, Nike was his name.
‘That’s Nick to us.’
‘It’s just my Nan calls me Nick.’
‘Because Nick is the name you had before ULTIMATE®. And we aren’t part of ULTIMATE® here. Nick is your family name. We’re family. So here, to us, you are Nick.’
‘Okay.’ He wasn’t going to kick up a fuss about it. Nick, Nike, did it really matter?
‘You can call me Troy,’ the man volunteered, answering Nike’s first unanswered question.
Nike took a deep breath. How far into his mind could this Troy read?
‘I’ve got so many questions. I don’t know where to start.’
‘That’s fair enough. This has all come on you as a surprise after all. And you’re not properly trained in asking questions..’
Nike smiled at that one. Pryce would be livid. It was Pryce’s job to see that he was trained in questioning, but he guessed that The Immortal Horses and ULTIMATE® had different views on what a good question really was.’
‘Listen Nick. I’m going to tell you the History of ULTIMATE®. There are things you need to know. You need to understand the enemy before you can understand yourself. Okay?’
‘Stop me at any point. Interject or ask for a more specific, detailed explanation. I want you to really know what’s going on by the time we’ve finished here.’
That was a first. ULTIMATE® questioning never seemed to be about actually knowing anything. It was about fulfilling your ‘productive’ work quota. Questions were currency, not a means of gaining knowledge.
Troy began. ‘Let’s start with the HISTORY OF ULTIMATE®. We could call it the information transformation. Or the destruction of life as we knew it. Whatever. The title isn’t important. We’re looking for meaning not names. I know that you’ve asked questions about history before and I realise that you’ve got a basic picture of how things were ‘in History’. What you don’t know is the significance of that. Of how we moved from History to the ULTIMATE® present. You know, I think, about the ₲₨ΩHist?’
‘Yes,’ Nike nodded, ‘but it’s never really interested me.’
‘It should. It’s your history after all. It’s all of our histories,’ Troy continued, ‘okay, well you know that at the beginning of the 21st century things were very different. Branding was a concept where people chose between alternative companies, alternative ideologies, but big business meant that convergence became the only viable financial state for a capitalist system under threat and huge scale take-over’s and buy out’s began. People didn’t realise it at the time of course. They still believed in their brands as independent. Even when companies merged they didn’t see the bigger picture. They didn’t realise that with the global marketplace taking over, in fact their geographical set of choices regarding branding was getting ever smaller. Fewer and fewer companies, and fewer and fewer people had the real power. Branding was a smokescreen, but a comfortable, familiar state which people bought into. People don’t like being challenged, especially when things are changing rapidly, as they were in the early twenty first century. They like to hold on to what is familiar, even if it isn’t real. Follow me so far?’
Nike nodded. He couldn’t see what this had to do with him, or his history, but he was hopeful Troy would come to a point sometime soon. And he realised how much more enjoyable live conversation was compared with the US™ screen.
‘At the beginning of the 21st century people got used to the idea that their Tesco clubcard held details of all their spending patterns and could be used for marketing purposes to target their shopping. That Amazon could suggest books to you based on your previous purchasing choices. Some people even found this distasteful. Some were cynical. Some predicted the death of civil liberty. But people are remarkably indiscreet, especially when faced with new technology which makes life more interesting or just more ‘fun.’ People didn't think too much about what was happening with the information they were exchanging about themselves on Facebook or Myspace or in Second Life. These were the brands which dominated everyday life between 2000 and 2010.’
‘People didn’t think about the giant databases in the background, churning out algorithms for the purpose of understanding and then controlling the choice patterns of the entire world population. That's the stuff of conspiracy theories. People, even intelligent people, shrugged it off. Some of them even worked on the false belief that with so much information bombarding back and forth through cyberspace, they were actually safer, because who could actually ‘look’ at what any individual was doing. Who would be interested? They believed that the more information that was out there, the safer the individual would be. They comforted themselves in the belief that as long as the IRS was incompetent, how could or would any organisation actually get their act together to gather or use this information. They ignored the obvious signs that Amazon and Facebook were NOT the IRS. They saw Google as a ‘cool place to work’ staffed and run by people with a hippy/liberal view of business and this comforted them. They didn't look to the power behind the throne. As we came out of ‘history’ people stopped looking at historical trends. So historical ‘truths’ became unimportant and nothing could be learned from such statements. It was easy for ULTIMATE® to do away with history. Contemporary studies became more important. History told us nothing in the face of an exponentially speeding up future.’
Nike wasn’t really following now, but he didn’t like to stop Troy in full flow. He had never seen a person speak so passionately, or with so much authority. And Troy seemed to know so much. Even Pryce had to refer back to the US™ screen all the time when he gave them study sessions. And here was Troy, speaking from his memory. Nike couldn’t fail but be impressed.
‘ULTIMATE® knew that he who controls the past controls the future. ULTIMATE® knew that knowledge is power. No one else cared any more. Everyone was too busy getting their kicks from the virtual world which offered them an escape from the real world which was, economically speaking, going down the tubes. And by 2013 ULTIMATE® was there, a real alternative. At the time, no one even questioned how it came about, it was like it sprang, fully formed, from the minds of the economic gods. People thought it was to their benefit, so they accepted it, largely unquestioningly. Anything that made life better must be good. ULTIMATE® played on the shallow concerns of the individual. While all the time working to destroy individualism.’
‘Of course during the transitio
n time which we now refer to as The ₲₨ΩHist, life changed radically. It was a time when people couldn't afford to eat out any more. Couldn't afford foreign holidays, lost their jobs, lost their cars... but it became easy to compensate for these losses. ULTIMATE® made it easy. For example: first they made food really expensive. Then they had numerous food scares, till people didn’t feel safe eating anything. The combination of price and fear pretty quickly made eating out a less appealing concept. And you don't need to eat out when you can get cheap food delivered to your door by the ULTIMATE® delivery system. You just shop online and say what you want and they bring it to you, pre-packaged, precooked and tasting wonderful. You don't have to worry any more about free range chickens because all the food is genetically created, never mind genetically modified. And if you had concerns about this in the past, hey, ULTIMATE® have done a good job in convincing you that no animals were being harmed any more in your food production. That your ‘meat’ now tasted better than ever and it didn't harm animals, didn't ruin the economy and it actually protected you from cancer and heart disease and you would never become obese as long as you purchased from the ULTIMATE® range. And no one in the world is starving any more. Everyone has enough to eat. You've got to buy into that. ULTIMATE® are making the world a better place to be. I bet you’ve never even thought about it, have you?’
Nike shook his head. Then said, ‘But I have tasted real food,’ He paused for effect. ‘at my Nan’s.’
‘Yes?’ Troy was giving nothing away.
‘Yes. She had a birthday cake. A real one.’ Nike wasn’t sure if he should mention the RIP inscribed on it. He did realise he was in a new world with The Immortal Horses and he didn’t want to get any deeper into trouble than he felt he already was. But he was curious, wondering if there was a link between The Immortal Horses and the RIP. However, he didn’t feel he could ask Troy the question outright. He wanted to find out about RIP and he thought Troy might be the man to tell him, but he hoped maybe Troy would volunteer the requisite information. He did want to protect his Nan if possible. If Troy was interested in this information he certainly didn’t express it.
‘They did the same with transport,’ Troy continued, ‘first they made it really expensive. Then they piled on terrorist threats. Then they provided a virtual alternative. It’s the same modus operandi, and the effect was the same. Whereas in 2000 people worried about personal transport and public transport and motorways and holidays and the cost of fuel and diminishing oil stocks and the like, by 2015 these things were more or less outmoded and by 2020 they were part of a History which people had already abandoned in favour of the ULTIMATE® alternative. And this was all planned. All part of ULTIMATE®’s social model. And The PROJECT⌂ is the core of it all.’
‘Why is the PROJECT⌂…?’ Nike couldn’t help himself. ‘I mean.. what is it for?’
‘The big question should be: how did a bunch of kids surfing the net and living online change the world? The answer is simple. Because knowledge is power and information is a profitable commodity. ULTIMATE® took the idea of the ‘information’ age to its logical conclusion. At the turn of the 21st century they developed a means of analysing and eventually of controlling the population. ‘Productive’ work was the means to achieving this and The PROJECT⌂ was the place where they could really develop and perfect the concept, ’ Troy explained.
‘‘Productive’ work was born out of a combination of online elements which had become the forefront of the escapism from reality during the social transition period. It was Yahoo! Answers meets Amazon, meets chat-rooms, forums and social networking sites with a bit of online gaming and bingo thrown in. All developed by big business in order to increase their capital and dominance of the market. All used by individuals who the brands had convinced that these were must-have, lifestyle choices.’ Troy sounded bitter now.
‘The virtual life was easy to sell. And they sold to people who didn’t even know the price they were paying. They sold these ‘fun’ possibilities for spending your life virtually once they’d made real life almost unbearable for everyone. The alternative to the virtual life was a life in debt, with the worry of constant repossession and unemployment and no pension to look forward to after a lifetime of hard, boring, unfulfilling work. It was the time when people’s biggest dream was of a new conservatory, or a cruise and they realised they’d never afford their dreams and they’d still be in debt up to their eyeballs till the day they died. They realised that they’d never be able to retire till they were seventy and every day of life they’d have that sick feeling in their stomach that said you’re twenty grand overdrawn and counting. And if you fell ill..... don't even think about it. Believe me Nick. I know about this. I saw it. First-hand. And it was all lies. All lies perpetrated by the capitalist companies for whom the ULTIMATE® model was the answer to all their prayers. It didn’t need to be that way.’
Nike was a little bit frightened by Troy’s tone but he was learning in a way the US™ never taught him. He felt like he was experiencing real life for the first time. It felt scary but good.
‘But capitalism doesn’t exist any more,’ he said. ‘It’s part of History isn’t it?’
Troy laughed. ‘Nick. Thirty years ago you’d have been marching to MAKE POVERTY HISTORY. You’d have worn a white plastic wristband to show your allegiance. And a few left wing radicals subverted this in a postmodern/ironic statement, sporting a red plastic wristband stating MAKE CAPITALISM HISTORY. And no one believed it would happen and precious few wanted to make capitalism history. But then, the Capitalists didn’t really want to make POVERTY history either. Poverty was something they thrived on. And yet today, you sit here telling me that CAPITALISM IS HISTORY, and you probably don’t even know what POVERTY is. Am I right?’
Nike nodded. He felt stupid.
‘I’m here to tell you Nick. Capitalism is alive and well. It’s just ULTIMATE® capitalism now. Everything is subordinate to ULTIMATE®. Except us.’
Troy paused. ‘But I’m digressing. By 2016 ULTIMATE® overtly launched as the ULTIMATE® BRAND and revealed that they had the whole world all signed and sealed as participants. And people didn’t know, or didn’t care. They couldn’t see through the process and they didn’t understand the implications. Yes, they might remember a time when Mars wasn’t ULTIMATE® Mars, when Microsoft was Microsoft with Bill Gates at the head of operations. Before CEO’s were all discredited and went underground. By the time ULTIMATE® BRAND LOYALTY became obvious, ULTIMATE® made sure that individuals no longer ‘controlled’ brands. It was a key selling point. Individuals no longer had to take responsibility or blame. And people had become so fed up of the ‘fat cats’ that they were happy when they disappeared from view. Loyalty to the Brand became the important thing, not loyalty to people.’
He continued, ‘Anyway, people had got so used to all the big business buy-outs that they stopped questioning who actually OWNED anything. The power of the ULTIMATE® brand inspired unquestioning loyalty because it built itself on the accepted social fashions of the past while offering a new, improved version of the world. Whatever might have been considered a sacrifice was forgotten with the next ULTIMATE® improvement, because ULTIMATE® were seen to be working tirelessly to make each person’s lifestyle experience the best it could be. Individually tailored to your needs. At a tenth of the price of the old world. Which anyone in 2010 had to agree, was pretty second rate. By 2020 BRAND LOYALTY was born in the ULTIMATE® style. And the work of The PROJECT⌂ has been instrumental in bringing the world to an acceptance of the new ULTIMATE® model. Real choice had been eradicated, but no one noticed. And if they did, they’d probably consider it a small price to pay. ULTIMATE®’s greatest achievement was to make History HISTORY. Or to try.’
Nike’s head was spinning. He knew that he’d just heard something really important, but it was all so contrary to his previous lived experience that he just didn’t know how to compute the information. And he was struggling to see how any of this affected him, personally. Troy seemed to pre-empt his thought once more.
‘You’re wondering what all this has to do with you?’
Nike nodded. ‘Yes, I mean it’s interesting but it’s the way life is and….’
‘Did you want to ask me a question about your Nan’s birthday cake?’
Nike was amazed. How could Troy read his innermost thoughts almost before he had them?
‘About the RIP?’