The day after Graham gave him the clear instruction not to, Pryce took Omo to visit Helen. He didn’t know what Graham’s plan for him was, but he knew he was running out of time. And he wanted to meet with Helen. Omo didn’t question why he and Pryce walked the fifteen minutes from the PROJECT⌂ House to the ULTIMATE® Home, along streets that had once been wide, leafy, middle-class aspirational, but now just looked tired, empty and a bit grimy. They passed the landmark buildings of the Scottish Parliament and the Commonwealth Pool, both long since no longer used for their original purposes, and had Pryce but known, they also passed the Trading House before stopping in the Park, outside the ULTIMATE® Home. Their walk was mostly in silence, neither of them knowing what to say.
‘I might not be with you that much longer,’ Pryce had initiated.
Omo had not known how to reply, and so had not replied.
‘I think this will probably be your last visit to Nike’s nan,’ Pryce added, as they stood outside the lobby. ‘I’ll give you half an hour, then I’ll come in. I’d like to meet her.’
It was true although Pryce had no idea what he would say when he did finally come face to face with Helen. That was one reason he gave Omo the half hour start. He needed time to prepare both himself and Helen for what was to come. Meanwhile, he sat in the park, trying to make sense of it all. Wondering how he would bring up the topic of The Immortal Horses with her.
As it happened, circumstances took over. Pryce might have been unaware how close to the hub of The Immortal Horses he was as he marched Omo past the Trading House, but Troy had Pryce and Omo under surveillance all the time. And as much as Pryce wanted to find out about The Immortal Horses, Troy wanted to meet with Pryce. It was not so much a meeting of minds, nor even a meeting of opposites. It was more a meeting of random elements. A meeting of the true father with the surrogate father. One man with another.
A clandestine meeting in a park was of course standard practice for the outdated thriller genre of Pryce’s youth, so perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised when a man wearing an outmoded trenchcoat approached him.
‘Troy wants to see you,’ the man said.
Pryce looked around. There was no one out in the park, as usual. He had no idea who ‘Troy’ was and of course he was suspicious, but he decided to take the risk.
‘Follow me,’ the man said.
Pryce followed. He was taken, as Nike before him, to the Trading House. It was reminiscent of his father’s place of work and brought back memories of a world which, on reflection, hadn’t been so bad after all. In the days before the ₲₨ΩHist. Pryce’s father had worked in an institution exactly like that which the Trading House had housed. But he had worked for a rival investment banking firm. They’d all gone under or become subsumed or, as Pryce now reasoned, consumed by ULTIMATE®. His father had taken early retirement and had lived out his days golfing until golfing gave way to virtual golfing and he died of a massive stroke, brought on Pryce had assumed, by lack of exercise. His mother had suggested it was because of a broken heart, because he couldn’t get used to not spending his life out on the golf course.
Pryce’s mother, like Helen, now lived in an ULTIMATE® Home but unlike Helen it was a privately paid for one. Pryce paid. Pryce always paid. Her place there was part of the perks of his job and he paused, for a moment to consider what would happen to his mother if Graham got his way? His father hadn’t had the opportunity to speak last words to Pryce, but Pryce knew those words would have been ‘look after your mother.’ He’d done his best, although he had to admit he hadn’t seen the woman face to face in over five years. He interfaced with her once a month on the US™ though. And kept his family bank updated with lies about how happy he and Angela were, how busy they were, how successful they were, how great life was.
The familiarity from his own childhood, days spent in his father’s office drawing pictures, meant that unlike Nike, Pryce recognised the board room into which the man took him for what it was and he noticed the two way mirrors. He smiled at the old-fashioned surveillance techniques. Still, somehow they seemed fairer than the all-encompassing ULTIMATE® alternatives. How life had changed. He didn’t have to wait long before Troy entered and shook his hand.
‘Do you now believe in The Immortal Horses?’ Troy asked.
‘What can you tell me about Nike?’ Pryce rejoined, trying to keep his cool.
‘I can thank you for doing a father’s job,’ Troy replied.
There was a moment’s pause.
‘Nick was my son,’ Troy continued, ‘so you see, we have something in common.’
‘I’ve got something for you,’ Pryce said, reaching in his coat for the list and handing it over. He had been carrying the list in his pocket since he’d printed it, and this seemed the appropriate place and time to offload it. He had no reason to doubt Troy’s assertion. Only a sorrow that these were the circumstances under which they met.
‘I’m sure Nike would have wanted you to have this. Do you know who killed him?’
Troy took the list, said nothing but signalled Pryce to follow him. They walked along a corridor into another room, reminiscent of a scene of crime room in a police detective series from the TV shows of his childhood. The walls were covered with pictures. A hundred of them. The faces of the hundred men.
‘They killed him. They will kill us all. They have killed us all,’ Troy stated. Then added, after a moment’s pause, ‘Welcome to the cause.’ Troy knew he didn’t have to worry about Pryce. He’d been watching him closely for a month after all. He knew more about Pryce’s motivations than Pryce did himself. He knew how Pryce had been affected by Nike’s death and how he was being affected by Graham’s attitudes. He knew the fate that Graham had in store for Pryce. He knew everything. Troy knew Pryce’s strengths and weaknesses. And how to play them. Pryce wasn’t the first man who had stood before him ready to betray ULTIMATE®. And he wouldn’t be the last. Despite a system which promised everything to its citizens, there would always be people who saw through the promise. Pryce had become one of these people. ULTIMATE® had made him that way.
‘I’m glad we had the opportunity to meet,’ Troy said. ‘ I think we can help each other.’
‘How? Why?’ Pryce asked. He was totally out of his depth.
‘As to why, because you looked after my son. As to how.. do you know where your wife is right now?’
Pryce didn’t have a chance to answer before Troy had flipped the large US™ screen (yes, Pryce was amazed to see that Troy used the US™ screen and could hack into it when and wherever he chose) and showed him the one thing he didn’t already know. The one thing he’d suspected but hadn’t dared to think about. The affair between Graham and Angela. Happening right there in front of them in real-time. It was the last time, but that made no difference to any of them.
‘Is this Memory Bank?’ Pryce asked, choking on the words. Was it possible it wasn’t true?
‘No, it’s a live stream,’ came Troy’s inevitable reply.
There they were, Graham and Angela, naked and writhing in front of his very eyes. Pryce couldn’t bear to look. But he couldn’t bear not to look either. After the inevitable climax, which Pryce somehow found unbearably, unutterably difficult to watch sitting beside Troy, the substance of the event was that Angela was getting a promotion.
‘You deserve it, after that performance,’ Graham leered.
Pryce thought he saw just a touch of hatred in Angela’s eyes, but maybe that was just the way she looked at everyone. Disdain, distance, insolence. Graham might just spectacularly have had Angela, over his own desk, but he didn’t own her, that was certain.
In the age old way of shifting difficult personnel, Graham had got Angela ‘promoted’ to a research position out of his immediate department. From his point of view, the frisson was over. There were no regrets or recriminations. No words were wasted between them. Their relationship, after all, had been founded on self-interested pragmatism. They had almost perfected the ULTIMATE® affair. Almost, because they were both still motivated by an individualism that ULTIMATE® could not approve of. They both thought they’d won. They would move on without a backwards glance. The interaction was archived and stored. Used to refine UTheory∑® even further. With ULTIMATE® nothing was ever wasted.
‘Why show me that?’ Pryce turned to Troy.
‘I understood you were a man who wanted to know the truth.’ Troy replied. ‘Here we deal in truth, no matter how unpleasant. And I thought you needed to know. To help you make decisions about your own future.’
‘What future do I have? What choices can I make?’ Pryce spat out the words.
‘There’s always a choice Pryce,’ Troy replied. ‘And if you want, we can help you.’
‘How?’ Pryce asked, knowing he’d say yes to anything Troy offered him now.
‘You’ve seen what Graham has in store for Angela. Do you want to see what he has in store for you?’ Troy asked. It wasn’t a question.
Troy showed Pryce the fine detail of the plan Graham was even now constructing for Pryce’s future. It made Pryce even more angry than watching that debauched liaison between his wife and his boss. It was enough to ensure that Troy and Pryce cut a deal.
The plan Troy sold Pryce was the infiltration of the Project House. It would be effected by placing Griff in there as counsellor, alongside a ‘new’ Project Kid, who in fact had been groomed for the role over several years by the Immortal Horses. If, as Troy showed Pryce, he was about to be sidelined, he could have one last, lasting impact on The PROJECT⌂. The plan was well worked and ready to roll out. It just required Pryce to play his part. Troy was insistent that this should be Pryce’s choice. So Pryce looked at all the documentation. The forgery was of such impressive quality he found himself forgetting it was all a fiction. He was sure Graham would buy it. The plan was elegant and simple. Having Griff and Bose in The Project House would give The Immortal Horses an unprecedented level of access to the US™ system, through which they could monitor and plan the undermining of the PROJECT⌂ spreading dissent and unrest over time amongst the generation destined to be ULTIMATE®’s most valuable citizens. And Pryce would have been instrumental in achieving this. He would also have the personal satisfaction of having duped Graham. And it would be Graham who would carry the responsibility if it was ever discovered. It was what they used to call a win-win situation. Only Graham and ULTIMATE® wouldn’t win. Pryce was satisfied. It seemed like a great revenge. A risk worth taking. The perfect murder. He agreed to the plan.
In return, Troy offered Pryce a place within The Immortal Horses. An alternative identity. A chance for a future outside the living death of ULTIMATE®. Pryce didn’t need time to think about it. He agreed. But wanted to know how it could happen. It sounded a bit like the old-style witness protection schemes he’d read about as a boy. He’d never imagined such a thing to be possible even then. That a person could just take on a whole new identity. Troy had no such problems.
‘You’ll cease to exist, to ULTIMATE®,’ Troy stated. ‘You’ll lose access to your Memory Bank. You’ll become someone totally different. Everyone here has done it. Can you handle that?’
Now he thought about it, there didn’t seem to be anything to lose, if Pryce was honest. He agreed wholeheartedly to Troy’s plan. He would defect because only in losing his ULTIMATE® identity could he truly live.
‘It’s not without cost,’ Troy stated, ‘I lost my mother, my son.. everything that meant anything to me. Although ULTIMATE® was taking them all away from me anyway. But I did it because I believed there were things more important than my own life. I became a different person, but with the same aim. To overthrow ULTIMATE®. I’ve dedicated my life to doing that. Whatever the cost. But I can tell you about the man I used to be.’
Troy’s face softened slightly as he went into his own memory – memory without the help of the US Memory Bank system.
‘I used to be a farmer. My wife took that from me. And then ULTIMATE® took it from me. I used to be a father. My wife and ULTIMATE® took that from me. We are very much the same, you and me. I decided that I wouldn’t let ULTIMATE® take my identity. My father used to say that name is the thief of identity. So I changed my name and my identity. Look.’
He rolled up his sleeve to show Pryce that he had no brand on his wrist.
‘How?’ Pryce marvelled.
‘Torquil Christie had a brand.’ Troy stated, matter of factly. Torquil Christie no longer exists except in the Memory Banks of my mother and the archives of ULTIMATE®. Troy doesn’t exist at all. I can offer you the same choice. You can be who you want to be. With us. If you want to be.’
‘Can you remove…?’ Pryce looked at his own brand.
Troy laughed. ‘Of course we can. I won’t say it’s painless, but it’s a lot less painful than the alternative.’
‘And Nike?’ For one brief moment, Pryce wondered whether Troy had saved Nike. Whether the death had been an illusion and the boy was now living here, amongst The Immortal Horses.’
‘Nick is dead,’ Troy replied, crushing his hopes. ‘Nothing can bring Nick back,’ he added bitterly, ‘and though I can see her whenever I want, I can’t talk to my mother. You’ll be the same. Can you handle that?’
Pryce flinched slightly at the realisation that he really didn’t care if he never saw or spoke to his mother again. He had no one in the world who meant anything to him. If life was lived through social interactions, he was dead already. Troy was offering him a chance for a life, a meaning, a new start. He would take it. Of course he would take it. It was a way out of the ULTIMATE® depression. All he had to do was trust Troy and wait for the sign.
‘There’s one other thing you could do for me,’ Troy said.
‘What?’ Pryce replied.
Troy flicked the US™ screen and showed Pryce how, oblivious to the plans going on round about him, Omo was sitting enjoying (if that’s the right word) a cup of tea with Helen. She had been surprised to see him, but pleased. He’d explained that this would be the last time he could visit, because Pryce was being replaced and there were specific instructions for him NOT to visit Helen again. But he’d wanted to see her once again. If only to thank her for the wise words she’d given him about love.
‘Did you ask her?’ Helen asked.
‘Yes. She laughed in my face,’ he replied, surprised he could be that frank with Helen.
‘Then it wasn’t love,’ Helen observed, sympathetically.
‘No. It was infatuation,’ he replied, matter of factly. ‘I’m over it.’
‘Never mind,’ Helen said, ‘You’ll find love with someone, one day, I’m sure you will Omo.’
‘I hope so,’ he said. And he meant it.
Troy closed down the screen. It was too painful to watch.
‘Tell my mother I love her,’ he said to Pryce.
‘I will,’ Pryce replied.
The meeting with Helen was nothing like Pryce had envisaged it when, ten minutes later he sat on her chair in her magnolia room.
‘I wanted to come before,’ he said ‘to say how sorry I was about Nike.’
‘Nick,’ she corrected him.
‘Yes, of course, Nick,’ he replied. He should give her that. It was her grandson after all. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t save him from…’ he wasn’t sure quite what or who he might have saved Nike from. That was the core of the problem of course.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Helen replied.
‘Well, I suppose we should go.’ Pryce stood up and motioned to Omo who uncharacteristically gave Helen a hug.
‘Thank you and I really hope we meet again,’ Omo said, Pryce noticed there were tears in his eyes. ‘Nick was lucky to have a grandma like you. And he knew it.’
‘As far as I’m concerned,’ Helen replied, ‘you’re my grandson now, and if there’s ever anything I can do…’ she petered out, emotion getting the better or her.
As they left the room, Pryce remembered his promise to Troy, and gave Helen an embrace and a kiss. As he did so he whispered into her ear.
‘Your son wanted me to tell you he loves you.’
‘Torquil? Is he… alive…?’ she could hardly get the words out.
‘I can’t say any more,’ Pryce apologised.
‘It’s enough,’ she replied. Though it wasn’t. But it was a start.
As Pryce was leaving the room, she added, ‘ If you see him, tell him thanks for the cake.’
Pryce nodded towards the screen and said, ‘I’m sure he knows.’
Outside the room, Omo was amazed at what he’d just heard and seen.
‘What’s happening?’ he asked.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell you,’ Pryce replied. ‘But trust me, things can change. And for the better.’
They walked back to the Project House in silence.
A week later Graham thought he was being smart when he got Pryce to interview his own replacement. What he didn’t know was that he had given Pryce just the leverage he needed to effect his own plan of betrayal. Pryce selected a very nice young man called Griff whose credentials were impeccable. And totally made up by The Immortal Horses. When Graham second interviewed Griff, he wondered for a moment where this paragon had been all this time, but he snatched at the opportunity to get such a guy on his team. Someone he could delegate to with complete confidence, leaving him free to fulfil his management role in as short a time as possible, thus allowing him maximum time to do whatever he wanted. Because however hard ULTIMATE® tried, it seems that work is always destined to be a four letter word and there is always going to be something more interesting to do.
Graham was immediately impressed by Griff’s efficiency and convinced he’d killed two birds with one stone on discovering that Griff already had a young lad lined up to replace Nike. A lad who would be no trouble and indeed an asset to the team. His name was Bose and like the sound system he’d been named after, he represented sound quality.
Graham had no idea that Pryce and Troy had made a deal. How could he? How could he have imagined they could ever have met? It would have required more than a devotion to duty, more than a knowledge of UTheory∑® and considerably more commitment to his job than Graham had ever possessed. Graham was much more interested in getting other people to do his job so that he could spend his time consuming sex either virtually or in real life. While the early 21st century provided people with opportunities to lose themselves in online pornography and virtual cybersex; ULTIMATE®’s development in this area had become more addictive than Habit∞ to Graham and in his elevated position he believed he could cheat the system in order to pursue his personal whims. The possibility that he was being observed the whole time never occurred to him. All the time the co-efficient ratio of his activities were actually being factored in like that of a lab rat. But then he probably wouldn’t have minded had he known. Graham had gone beyond wondering if he had a valuable role in the system, all he cared about was his next fix.
Somewhere within the system a team of people and machines were analysing Graham’s every move as data which they would feed into the system. The flexibility of UTheory∑® was its strength after all. If ULTIMATE® couldn’t get rid of the sex urge in humans, that didn’t matter. As long as it was aware of the typology of the randomness and the situations in which it was bound to occur, the theory could control the set of randomness within acceptable margins. Graham was just another statistic after all. When the choice was made to live to consume rather than consume to live, a one way barrier was crossed from which there was no return. ULTIMATE® had changed producers into consumers and then they became producers of consumption. Graham was just as much a victim of ULTIMATE® as everyone else. More so perhaps, because he was completely unaware of his vulnerability.
Unlike Graham, Troy understood that people’s ULTIMATE® security was based solely on their ignorance of just who is watching them, who is logging their activity. And he also knew that for the system to survive someone has to be. Actions will always have consequences and those consequences, while unexpected and unpredictable to the actor, have been written by some god somewhere. Still, he believed that outside the system, with The Immortal Horses he had built a firewall so strong that for the moment at least, he was safe. He had sacrificed everything to achieve this. He had re-created his own life outside of the ULTIMATE® paradigm. He’d paid the price but he’d reaped the rewards as well. But the death of Nike made even Troy wonder how robust his own system really was.
A month later, Pryce’s death caused no more stir than Nike’s before him. Life goes on. Or not. Pryce was simply virtualised by the ULTIMATE® system, like many before him and doubtless many after him. Deaths like Pryce’s were of little consequence. At best he had been a decoy duck. At worst he was just another statistic. A small man. A nobody. Valueless to the system. As far as ULTIMATE® was concerned, Pryce had served his purpose. ULTIMATE® knew that and so did The Immortal Horses. The only people who might have asked questions, Omo and Flora, were told he had been promoted. They accepted the change like all the changes they’d faced over the last few months. No more Nike, no more Helen, no more Pryce. Unusually, they had a short conversation about it
‘I wish we could have said goodbye,’ Flora said.
‘Why?’ Omo asked.
‘I liked him,’ Flora said, ‘it might have made it easier.’
‘I said goodbye to Helen,’ Omo stated, ‘it didn’t make it any easier.’
‘Just us now,’ Flora summised, ‘I suppose we’ll get a new counsellor soon,’ and they went back to their respective rooms to catch up on their ‘productive’ work.