The writing was on the wall for Pryce and he knew it. Even before the inevitable meeting with Graham, he knew it. And he’d had enough. He was tired of constantly running to keep up, only to find out that he was way behind the action. More and more he found himself yearning for a long gone past, for the dimly remembered world before ULTIMATE® had taken over everything, including his own life. He wondered where it had all gone wrong? Where did our priorities change from sex and holidays and family life to the easy life of virtuality, a life without responsibility or guilt or feeling of any kind?
Losing himself in his own Memory Bank, he spent his days re-living a past which seemed like the story of someone else’s life. He wondered if other people felt like him. He couldn’t stand the pointlessness of it all. He immersed himself in his Memory Bank, spending all the credits he’d amassed over a careful number of years, like an addict who’d been clean for so long he was convinced that first hit wouldn’t affect him. Pryce saw his teenage self, obsessed with playing psychological thriller games online, pitting his wits against systems which always promised that if he was just smart enough he’d work out the answer, but which, like one armed bandits, made it impossible for you to win so that the game could squeeze every ounce of time and money from you before finally giving you the answer. From this perspective it all seemed so pointless. Yet he’d never stopped pursuing the quest – like Nike, he’d kept asking questions. He realised that was what they’d had in common. So when had he, Pryce, stopped asking questions? When had he started to find Nike’s questions irritating rather than inspirational. When had he stopped seeing youth as optimistic hope for the future and instead seen it as a manifestation of a troublesome present? When had he changed and become what ULTIMATE® wanted?
Pryce felt like he’d betrayed himself. At some unspecified point, he’d lost sight of what had once been important to him. People. Life. Meaning. And he wanted to get it back. He didn’t want the death of Nike to mean nothing. By extension it would mean that his life was meaningless. And more than that, Pryce could not deal with the fact that Nike, annoying as he had been, could die and no one batted an eyelid. It was no more than a transfer of data and a set of interviews and assessments for a replacement. Had people really become so unimportant, so interchangeable? It seemed so.
But work wouldn’t wait. He was still responsible for Omo and Flora, though he’d kept his distance from them. He’d told them to go and see Helen it was true, but that was really to shift them from asking him awkward questions. He hadn’t even bothered to ask them how things had gone. At the time he didn’t care. Now he realised he should have. But there was no time. In the moments when he wasn’t stealing ULTIMATE®’s time to revisit his own past, he was undertaking the task Graham had set him of making a comprehensive report on the past month. At first he’d thought Graham wanted to make sense of Nike’s death as well, but it pretty quickly transpired that Graham only wanted data to be able to close off the file. That’s all Nike was. A file. A data set. To be archived. His life meant nothing. His death meant nothing.
Pryce tried to lose himself in his work, but in essence his interest was in trying to find answers – answers beyond the US™ system, in order to make sense of it. And the system didn’t want to give up the answers. For the first time in his life, Pryce felt he was fighting against the system and it only served to show him how little in control of his own actions and mind he had become. He wanted to regain a personal perspective not mediated by Memory Banks and knowledge banks and UTheory∑® and US™ screens. But he quickly found that even in order to challenge the system he needed its help. He couldn’t gain any information any other way. His depression deepened as he realised that it was impossible to live in this ULTIMATE® world without using and indeed relying on its resources. So, reluctantly, he logged into the analysis bank. It was a level deeper than the knowledge bank used by the Project Kids and not available to the population at large. It was reserved for employees of ULTIMATE® responsible for The PROJECT⌂. You had to be very carefully vetted for this information. But you still paid for it. Pryce was prepared to pay. It would be worth the cost and worth the risk.
‘Who are The Immortal Horses?’ he asked. It was the question Nike had been burning to have answered, and eventually had found out – to his cost.
‘This is beyond your authorisation limit. Refer to your line manager.’
As expected, the system shut the door in his face. For once Pryce experienced the same level of annoyance that Nike had always exhibited at the US™ system and finally thought he had gained some understanding of the boy. Too late. Pryce reasoned that if the system didn’t want to give him the information, it was information he needed to know. He was wondering what to do next, when the call he had been dreading, and expecting, came. Graham summoned him to a meeting.
For a thoroughly modern man, Graham still employed some shockingly traditional methods of exerting control over his subordinates. As Pryce lowered himself into the chair opposite Graham’s overlarge desk, he noted, not for the first time, the pathetic tactic Graham employed of making sure his own chair was substantially higher, so that Pryce had to look up at his boss. Pryce had always privately ridiculed this tactic but today, for the first time, he really noticed how effective it was. It was clear to them both that Graham was in complete control of this situation. Pryce considered handing his resignation in then and there, it being the only thing he could think of to regain the initiative. But something stopped him.
‘How are you?’ Graham’s comment disarmed Pryce.
‘Fine.’ If it was going to be a game of verbal chess, he’d play through the opening gambit.
‘Good.’ Graham affected a smile but it came out much more like a smug leer. Pryce wished he had the good old fashioned guts to hit Graham. But he didn’t.
‘How is your report shaping up?’ Graham asked.
‘Okay.’ A taciturn Pryce was giving nothing away.
‘When can I expect it?’
Pryce decided to employ one of Graham’s own tactics. The long silence. And he thought it must have worked because Graham broke it.
‘I know you’ve been under pressure..’ he began.
This wasn’t what Pryce wanted. This was putting him back on the spot. But Graham continued ‘And I’m concerned about the amount of credits you’ve been using up on your Memory Bank. It’s a sign of a troubled mind.’
Another long pause. Pryce was not giving in.
‘I’m here to help,’ Graham added. Like Pryce would believe that, ‘is there is anything I can do?’
Pryce had had enough of this. He was a drowning man. He was going down for the third time. What did any of it matter now? He had nothing to lose.
‘Do you mean it?’ he asked. It was an opening move, not a cry for help.
‘Of course,’ Graham responded. He had his man where he wanted him now. ‘If you have any unresolved questions, issues I can help with, just ask.’
He was not expecting what came next.
‘Who killed Nike?’
There was just the briefest of pauses. Graham had not got to the position he held without being able to analyse situations on the hoof and regain the high ground.
‘The Immortal Horses,’ came the surprising reply.
Pryce didn’t know whether his surprise lay in the response itself or in the fact that Graham had made it without batting an eyelid. But in for a penny…
‘Why did The Immortal Horses kill Nike?’
The pace of the game was picking up.
‘He had information which might prove dangerous to ULTIMATE®.’ Graham responded without a blink. ‘Is that all?’
‘Uh…’ Pryce couldn’t think as fast as Graham.
‘Because I really think that you need to get away from worrying about all this,’ Graham continued, ‘ maybe…’
This was it. He was about to retrench Pryce, fire him, move him somewhere even worse… Pryce braced himself.
‘..maybe you should have some time off?’
‘No, it’s okay.’ Pryce responded through gritted teeth. ‘ I was really only asking because I felt the report would be incomplete without a resolution.’
Neither of them believed that, but what could Graham do?
‘Still, maybe you should…’
‘I’d rather work to a finish on this,’ Pryce stated. ‘With this information, I’m sure I can get the report to you completed by the end of the week. And after that…?’
‘It depends on the quality of the report,’ Graham sounded sharp. Maybe there was more to Pryce than he’d imagined. He hadn’t thought he would put up this much of a fight. He’d need to think of another plan. Because Graham was determined to win in the end. And Pryce, like Nike, was just an impediment in his progress.
‘Is that all?’ Pryce asked, standing up and preparing to leave the room.
‘Yes. That’s all for now,’ Graham replied.
Pryce started on his way out the door.
‘Don’t let me down,’ was Graham’s parting gesture to Pryce’s back.
Pryce returned to his room fuming. He wasn’t sure what it was that annoyed him most. The dismissive way Graham had treated the matter of Nike’s death, or the thought that he was being played like a cat played with a mouse. He knew his time was limited. He knew Graham would come up with something, but in the time he had left, he was determined to find out all that he could. He went back to Nike’s logs with renewed vigour. There must be something…
He wondered whether what Graham had said was true. It seemed too convenient. It was the answer one would anticipate if one was dealing in conspiracy theories. But Pryce knew the obvious answer was rarely the right one. It had come too glibly off Graham’s tongue. Like it had been rehearsed. He was sure it bore no relation to the truth. Though what chance did he have of finding a truth outside the system? One thing Pryce knew was that the death of Nike had not been an accident. The ULTIMATE® system had factored out accidents after all. Random actions were controlled within UTheory∑®. Pryce scratched his head. He didn’t know what to make of this. But he did know that Graham was rattled. That was enough to start with.
He needed to get his brain working. Pure thought. The kind of thought which ULTIMATE® had rendered unnecessary. He took a deep breath. Firstly, why would it matter to The Immortal Horses that Nike’s information could hurt ULTIMATE®? Surely that was the aim of their organisation. They were the bogey man who frightened children. Not Project Kids of course, they were kept in a bubble away from the seamier sides of the ULTIMATE® world. But the ordinary population still needed something to fear and if they didn’t have The Immortal Horses they would probably have feared ULTIMATE®.
Until now Pryce had never really been sure whether The Immortal Horses existed in actuality or were an ULTIMATE® virtual construction. If they were a construction the analysis system could logically give him the explanation that The Immortal Horses killed Nike because he threatened ULTIMATE®. It was a good scapegoat. But there might be more to it than that. It might just be possible that The Immortal Horses really did exist. It might be possible that they had killed Nike, though what their reason could be eluded him. In the case that they didn’t exist, it might equally be possible that ULTIMATE® killed Nike. How could he ever know?
Back to Nike’s logs. It was clear, on close investigation, that Nike had both the motivation and the opportunity to contact The Immortal Horses. And that he had done so. A pattern began to emerge. Every time the logs drew a blank, Helen seemed to be involved, so Pryce reasoned that maybe Helen was a key to the mystery. But he couldn’t just go in and ask her. He would have to come up with something smarter than that. And time was against him. He knew that once his report was on Graham’s desk things would change. He quite expected all his access privileges to be withdrawn, even if it was just done with the excuse of moving him on to another counselling role. Nike and his stored information would be deep archived. So Pryce had to move swiftly. He went through Nike’s logs with a fine toothcomb. He had to use all his old psychological skills to come up with intuitive possible alternatives. And, after several hours, he came up with a hypothesis worth testing.
What if Nike had been taken on by The Immortal Horses as an operative? What if he had been at the centre of the infection, the compromised system and The Immortal Horses had used him as a cuckoo in the nest?
He went back through the logs again, to test the plausibility of the thesis. He held focus and stuck with it to the end. Right to the very end. And then he discovered what Nike had found…… it was the last entry. It had happened as he’d been on his way to The Project House. It was the list of the 100 men.
The log entry showed simply that Nike had asked the question
‘Who are the 100 men?’
And this list had been the response. There was no explanation, just a list of a hundred names. Pryce looked at the list carefully. And then again. He saw names that he hadn’t seen, or thought about for many, many years. Names of people who used to be important before the ₲₨ΩHist. Names of business men and world leaders and economists and scientists and financiers…. CEO’s of every description rubbing alongside Nobel prize winners and the occasional sporting or creative professional. The human equivalent of the FTSE 100. The people who had banded together to change the world. To create what was laughingly referred to in 20th century conspiracy theory as THE NEW WORLD ORDER. The fictional bogey man in the days before The Immortal Horses took up that role.
Pryce hadn’t believed in the New World Order any more than he had in The Immortal Horses. But somehow, looking at the list, it all fell into place. Things like the New World Order had been a smokescreen. But they hid something in plain sight. They hid the fact that there were people, important people, who were using globalisation to take control. These men were the ULTIMATE® shareholders. The power behind the system. The ones who were responsible for the way life had turned out. Throughout the history of the world people had lived with conspiracy theories and secret societies as explanations for the ailments of all. The men who had constructed ULTIMATE® had known that. They had been responsible for the economic collapse and they had rebuilt society, outwith and beyond history, to suit themselves. Between them they had decades of understanding how and why people acted and how and why societies worked and failed. And they had quite callously used all their combined knowledge to create the ULTIMATE® system.
They sat like 100 gods, controlling everyone and everything below them. They had built up the brands and they had built up Brand Loyalty. They had been the movers and shakers, the war mongers and the bringers of peace and as they destroyed history, they made history by signing a secret millennial pact, to privatise the world. It was the most daring, most complete act of corporate imperialism, beyond imagination. And it had worked. Of course it had. They had made people fear the future and then they had saved them. The whole world was built on a pack of lies. But nobody cared because ULTIMATE® used the power of the system to generate the hype that told people that their lives had improved immeasurably. They had achieved a bloodless revolution. They had achieved through capitalism what communism had never managed to achieve – total world domination of a compliant populace. They had drugged them and duped them and turned work into consumption and reality into virtuality and the end result had been slaves who believed they were free. People for whom fulfilment simply meant more and more consumption with less and less responsibility. People who were happy to be told what to do and to do what they were told.
Pryce finally understood why the list had been so valuable. Whoever knew these names, knew who they were up against. The security of the corporation was compromised when you could convert it to actual individuals. You might not be able to knock out ULTIMATE® wholesale, no one could destroy a system that huge and all-encompassing. But you might be able to destroy the individuals who were responsible for that system.
He wondered if Graham knew about this. Had that been the reason he was so keen to get the thing done and dusted? No, surely if Graham had known he wouldn’t have left the information there for Pryce to find. It would have been easy enough for someone with Graham’s level of authority to remove this last entry. So Pryce had the advantage for the first time. He knew something Graham didn’t know. Something dangerous. Something Graham wouldn’t want him to know.
Hw H \he
And now Pryce knew he had a choice. A real choice for the first time in years. He could ignore this information, go back about his work and carry on within the system, taking whatever shit Graham dealt down upon him. Or he could use the information, transmit it to the enemies of ULTIMATE® and play his own small part in dismantling a system which, though on the surface offered humanity everything it had ever wanted, did so at the price of their personal freedom and robbed them of their individual humanity.
When it came down to it, it was an easy choice. Pryce still knew what the right thing to do was, despite years of ULTIMATE® training. And he had no reason to uphold ULTIMATE® values, especially now he had a list in front of him of the men who were benefitting from his life as a bird in a gilded cage. He made a conscious decision to go in search of The Immortal Horses. He had found a meaning to his life. He would finish off what Nike had started. It might be the last thing he did, but he would do it, in memory of a boy who had dared to ask questions. He would bite the hand that fed.