Pryce filed his report with Graham. Technical support were running every diagnostic and corrective test known to man on the system. It would take a couple of days. Which left Pryce with a problem. What could he do with the kids for a couple of days? They couldn’t remember a life without US™ at the centre of it. It would be disorienting and disturbing for them. Pryce’s job was to keep them on an even keel. Keep them out of trouble. Graham didn’t exactly use the outmoded word ‘babysit’ but this was what Pryce was detailed to do. He would become less a surrogate father and more a surrogate US™ until the system was fixed and foolproof again.
‘You wanted kids,’ Graham smarmed, ‘now’s your chance to try it out.’ His tone clearly said, ‘Good luck with that!’
Pryce wondered for just an instant how Graham knew he had wanted kids. He didn’t remember ever telling anyone but Angela that. How could it be on his files? He hadn’t used it as a reason in his interview. Angela had suggested it might make him look too desperate. It might threaten their place on the 3∆G programme. So how did Graham know?
But he had many more pressing issues to deal with, so he filed that query away in what was left of his memory and turned to the present crisis. Pryce knew his new role would mean answering a lot of questions he was not prepared for. His heart sank as he returned to The Project House where Nike, Omo and Flora were neatly sat on the sofa, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for an interaction.
‘So who are The Immortal Horses?’ Nike asked.
Nothing like hitting a man when he’s down.
‘A terrorist organisation,’ Pryce responded. Hoping it’d sound boring enough to leave it there, but knowing it wouldn’t.
‘What’s a terrorist?’ Nike pressed his advantage.
‘Okay, Nike, now remember I’m no match for a knowledge bank. I can’t give you a definition, only my opinion.’
‘Sure. Whatever.’ Nike could see Pryce was uncomfortable.
‘It’s just… well, what else are we going to do?’
‘Play charades?’ That was Flora. Where did they come up with this stuff from?
‘Charades?’ Pryce echoed, astonished.
‘Yes.’ A pause. ‘Pryce. What is charades and how do you play it?’ Flora asked.
‘What is the definition of play?’ Omo added.
This was all getting out of control. Pryce felt his head spinning already. He’d never survive this.
‘Okay. Hold it right there. We’ll have to have some kind of structure here,’ Pryce pointed out, ‘I can’t deal with all these questions at once, I’m only human. And we’ve got plenty of time, so let’s just take our time and talk about things one at a time.’
The art of conversation had somewhat died after the introduction of US™. It wasn’t something that people did, sit and chat together. All the questions and answers and interactions were virtual, via the screen. Pryce didn’t remember just sitting talking being so hard, but then he’d not done it to any degree in years. Maybe that was the problem with him and Angela. They didn’t talk. No one talked any more. Not really talked. What was there to talk about in the ULTIMATE® world?
And here he was, trying to interact with a generation he knew nothing about, despite having worked with them for the last fifteen years. He’d been bogged down in logging and admin and constructing suitable ‘productive’ programmes all that time. He realised he knew nothing practical about adolescents. Certainly not ULTIMATE® adolescents. Where did he begin? Pryce decided to try and recreate the sort of seminar feel he vaguely remembered from University. Not a father figure exactly, not a role model exactly, but a sort of mentor. Someone they could trust and rely on. Someone who occasioned respect. He had to try something. And it was the only thing he could think of.
‘Okay. Playing was something that children mainly did in History, to pass the time, to entertain themselves. Several theories of play developed which suggested that children learned through play and what kind of adult you would become depended on your play engagement as a child. In fact ULTIMATE® used some of these theories in the early days to develop our own systems. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries game playing became big business and this brought about the development of many of the ‘games’ you engage with today.’
‘History, history,’ Omo yawned.
Pryce pushed on, regardless. ‘Charades was known as a parlour game…. a game people played in their homes, in rooms like this.’
‘But what was it?’ Flora was getting impatient, trained as she was to the superfast US™ system.
‘It’s pretty hard to explain. It was a sort of guessing game where for example I would think of a word and you’d have to guess what it was.’
‘What’s the point of that?’ Nike asked.
‘How could we guess?’ Flora asked
‘I had to mime…. To pretend to do the word without speaking…. And you’d guess from that.’
‘Sounds hard,’ Omo observed.
‘Sounds stupid,’ Nike responded.
‘Can we play it?’ Flora asked.
Pryce shook his head. ‘Not now. Maybe later.’
‘Okay.’ She smiled an accepting smile.
‘So who are the Immortal Horses?’ Nike hadn’t forgotten.
‘I told you, terrorists.’
‘You didn’t give us a definition of terrorist,’ Nike pointed out.
‘History, history,’ Omo observed again.
‘Not history if they’ve hacked into our system and shut it down,’ Nike replied.
‘I guess terrorist isn’t really a good word,’ Pryce agreed. ‘It is a concept from History, not really applicable to our situation now.’
‘But who are they?’ Nike knew he was getting to Pryce and he’d push home the advantage.
‘I don’t really know,’ Pryce admitted, ‘a group of people, well, I thought they didn’t really exist to be honest. And maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s a virtual virus simulation…’
‘So why would ULTIMATE® create and use such a simulation, infect us and shut us down?’ Nike asked ‘It doesn’t make sense.’
‘You’re right. It doesn’t make sense,’ Pryce acknowledged. ‘Maybe it’s a way of testing the system, to see how robust it is.’
‘Maybe it IS real people. People out to destroy ULTIMATE®.’ Nike challenged.
Omo and Flora looked at each other. They both remembered the birthday cake. The RIP inscribed on it. But no one wanted to say anything now. It was too frightening.
‘I don’t think so,’ Pryce replied, sensing their unease.
‘But there are people outside ULTIMATE® aren’t there? Ordinary people. In the street?’ Nike was giving it his best shot.
‘I think you’re getting confused,’ Pryce replied, trying to calm the situation. ‘Just because people aren’t part of The PROJECT⌂ doesn’t mean that they aren’t part of the ULTIMATE® system. It is an all embracing system, not something you choose any more than you choose to be a human being rather than… a… a….’
‘A tiger?’ Flora was starting to wake up.
‘A tiger?’ Pryce was surprised.
‘Yes. We saw the death of the last tiger. It was sad,’ Flora replied, reliving the experience. ‘Why did it have to die?’
‘What’s the point of tigers?’ Omo wasn’t asking a question so much as offering a response to Flora’s question. ‘ULTIMATE® doesn’t need tigers in the system any more than we need to play charades or ride on trains. We have to get rid of the pointless things from history to preserve the ULTIMATE® way of life.’ Omo was pleased with his answer.
‘But what if The Immortal Horses are real people? What if they do really exist? And live outside ULTIMATE®. What then?’ Nike relentlessly brought things back to the central point. If only his skills could be harnessed properly, he could have a bright future.
‘No one can challenge ULTIMATE®. Don’t worry about it.’ Pryce replied, less than convinced. For some reason the phrase ‘for your comfort, but primarily for your safety.’ resonated through his mind. It was the thoughtless mantra given out by air-stewardesses. Meaningless but potentially vitally important information. ULTIMATE®’s stock in trade. Was he just acting the part of an air steward here? Was the plane about to crash? He didn’t know the procedure. He was shaken. And he realised he had to keep the kids from asking difficult questions. He had to divert them. And not by playing charades. He succumbed to an earlier line of questioning and called for back up.
‘Would you like to meet my wife?’ he asked.
A quick interface on his personal mobile US™ ( a perk of the job) and twenty minutes later, Angela appeared at The Project House. Pryce hoped the diversionary tactic would work. He was amazed she’d said yes actually. He didn’t expect her to help him in his hour of need. Especially not with her previously expressed views on children. But she’d been quite animated about the possibility. It certainly was a strange day all round.
Omo and Nike weren’t in the slightest bit interested in marriage. But when Angela walked in the room, she proved she still had that something. She managed to exude that avatar-like sexuality which appealed to them in virtuality and stunned them when it was standing there in front of them. A lesson in the difference between reality and virtuality they wouldn’t forget. Most people of course had no reason to make themselves look stunning in real-time. Most people didn’t do that much interfacing. But Angela, even though she worked in pure theory, had hung onto the hair and makeup virtual plasticity of her generation. It was part of her reality. Part of who she was. Pryce couldn’t remember if he’d ever seen the ‘natural’ Angela, so he didn’t question it any more. He might, had he been unkind, have reasoned that the ‘real’ Angela was so well hidden because she was so ugly, inside and out. He wasn’t unkind though, he’d just given up noticing. Seeing the looks on Omo and Nike’s faces, made him look at her again though. Trying to see what they saw. What he’d seen himself. Because Angela had barely changed in looks over the last twenty years. ‘Age shall not wither her’ was her motto.
‘You’re married,’ Omo observed, trying to sound disinterested. He was disinterested, in marriage. But Angela was like nothing he’d ever seen. If this was a wife…. Life certainly took on a different dimension without the US™ around to keep you occupied.
Flora found Angela another revelation in an extraordinary day. And she was interested in the concept of marriage. She knew about it in theory of course but ULTIMATE® didn’t really need weddings or nuclear families, and the Project Kids had all signed, or their parents had signed on their behalf, a contract which waived their rights to engaging in marriage or parenthood. It was part of the 3∆G scheme. The same scheme Angela had signed herself and Pryce up to.
Like Pryce, Angela was not used to dealing face to face with young people. But unlike Pryce, she was used to taking charge. She took charge.
‘Any questions?’ she asked.
Omo and Nike wracked their brains to think of any questions they dared to ask.
Flora just asked. ‘Do you have children?’
Angela smiled and began to talk.
‘No. We are part of the 3 ∆ generation scheme. I’ll tell you about it if you like.’ And while Pryce went off to make them all a cup of ULTIMATE® coffee, Angela began:
‘The 3∆G scheme was set up as a response to world overcrowding. Following extensive research into chaos theory and various other things too complex for explanation to the general populace, ULTIMATE® revealed a scheme in 2013 which at first was voluntary, then became the norm; to instigate a moratorium on parenthood for 3 generations. There were benefits for people who chose not to have children. The population for 30 years was to re-balance with a 1% allowance for specially chosen breeding couples, to allow the gene pool to develop positively. The lack of wars and the curing of the devastating ailments of the early 21st century meant that something had to be done to contain the population of the world within the limits that could be sustained. It was a radical solution, but then radical solutions were commonplace as humanity dealt with the ₲₨ΩHist.’
Nike was impressed. This woman knew a lot of stuff. Omo was impressed, but mainly by the way Angela’s blouse was invitingly unbuttoned just one button too far.
Flora just wanted to know, ‘Didn’t people mind not having children?’ She had vague memories of her own parents and she was sure her mother had cried when she came to The PROJECT⌂.
‘Yes, people complained at first, but subsequently came to realise the importance, and benefit, to their own lives of this first major ULTIMATE® policy.’ Angela neglected to point out that most people didn’t even know it was an ULTIMATE® policy at that time. People still thought that their governments were in control. They soon learned.
‘But now, in the second generation of the programme, people realise that ULTIMATE® has ‘saved’ the world, so it’s not an issue of importance.’ Angela continued.
‘History, history,’ Omo muttered.
‘You’re right.’ Angela remarked. ‘We don’t have to worry about History now we have virtuality.’
‘So why are you married?’ Nike didn’t feel totally at ease with Angela and that made him want to ask questions. Difficult questions. See how she performed under pressure.
‘We were married before.’ Pryce stepped in. He didn’t want Nike to throw Angela off side. He didn’t want to be left on his own with them for the next 48 hours or however long it would take to get things sorted. So he covered for her. It was what you did, wasn’t it as a married man? Even if your wife was privately disappointing, you supported her in public.
‘Yes. It was before.’ Angela rolled her eyes, making it very clear to the kids that if she’d have had the option they wouldn’t have got married. Pryce regretted having tried to bale her out. She was poison. He made an excuse and left the room.
Angela upped the ante. Decided to have some fun.
‘Now,’ she said in her slickest tone. ‘Surely there must be other things you want to know. Things you’ve not asked – him?’
They took up the challenge. Angela was standing before them, sex on legs. What else would they ask?
‘What about real sex?’
Flora and Nike were amazed when they heard this question come out of Omo’s mouth. What had happened to him today? The Project Kids were not encouraged to think about such things. Of course they had access to the full range of virtual sex interfaces, but it didn’t count as ‘productive’ work and therefore they didn’t spend much time engaging with it. Virtual sex was considered something that only those outside the privileged world of The PROJECT⌂ needed to bother with. Like Habit∞. Project Kids didn’t need either. They were special after all.
Angela preened. ‘Let me tell you about sex,’ she said. And she proceeded to explain how after the ₲₨ΩHist, people got tired and scared and looked for the ‘easy’ way out. They were looking for a bit of fun, a bit of lightness, a new way of looking at the world. A new way to interact. Virtual existence merged seamlessly with ‘real’ life till you couldn’t tell the difference. There were precedents. When television got boring, the population had moved onto YouTube and Facebook. They found virtual friends with whom they had more in common with than the people you mixed with in ‘real’ life. ULTIMATE® updated and adapted the virtual social networks and ‘alternative world scenarios’, integrating them with the porn sites and creating a new and acceptable virtual reality. Real life itself shifted under the watchful eye of ULTIMATE®. Sex undertook a similar shift. It didn’t take people that long to believe, through personal experience, that Cybersex is better than no sex. Better than bad sex. Better than monogamous sex. If it's not harming anyone. There was no emotional come-back. No threat of disease and no danger of pregnancy. It wasn’t that hard to get used to, once it got really good. The shift from ‘safe’ sex to virtual sex was seen by most people, if they were honest, as an improvement. After having lived through a couple of decades of the seemingly innocent obsession with the ‘perfect’ celebrity re-touched created identity, which made people generally dissatisfied with their partners and themselves but unable to do anything about it, ULTIMATE® sex made it all so much easier for real people to give up their messy, awkward, unsatisfying real experiences for ones which made them feel like perfect, celebrity gods.
‘So you see,’ Angela opined, ‘what you call ‘real’ sex is more or less defunct for most people.’
She explained that ULTIMATE® had put a lot of effort into their virtual experience through the US™ and once people got used to good 3d graphics and avatars and the like... well, who could be bothered to sit in an overcrowded, overpriced pub with a bunch of folk you don't even know and with whose conversation you have no real interest in. When you could be home having virtual sex like a celebrity rock god. It was easy. And so successful that within the life of the 3∆G project there was a lot of evidence from ULTIMATE® consumer feedback that the project should be extended for at least another 2 generations. With special privileges for people who avoided real sex altogether. As a test. And it turned out that people did not miss having children, or having children around, when they had the ULTIMATE® virtual sex life. And the ULTIMATE® sex life was rated as better than “real” sex by 98 percent of the population.
‘And,’ she completed as Pryce re-entered the room. ‘For anyone who still isn’t happy there’s always Habit∞.’
Nike, Omo and Flora had all interacted with the data. None of them could see the point of families, marriage or children. But they’d never had this level of explanation. They were stunned.
Pryce watched Angela interact with the kids. They hung off her every word. What the hell had she got that he hadn’t? How could she effortlessly deal with them when he found it like swimming through treacle on a daily basis. Her work didn’t usually involve live interaction because she was involved in pure adaptive theory work. Yes, it was as boring as it sounds. It had its perks though and it certainly seemed that Angela managed to get what she wanted as a result of it. Yet now, as Pryce watched her interact with the kids, he thought he saw something of the Angela he’d known when they were both in their 20’s. A side he’d not seen for a good ten years. She seemed freer with them, happy to talk, to answer questions and tell them things. Perhaps she would have been a good mother? Perhaps she should have had a job that involved personal interaction not one where all interaction was virtual. But it paid well and she was good at it. Omo said something, Pryce wasn’t really paying attention to it, but he noticed that Angela laughed. He hadn’t heard Angela laugh in he couldn’t remember how long. It was attractive.
‘What’s it like being married?’ Flora asked.
Angela wrinkled up her nose. ‘That’s a hard question to answer,’ she said. ‘It’s an irrelevance to ULTIMATE® life really.’
Pryce wondered whether she was just very good at talking party line, or whether she really felt that way. He thought back to their wedding day in 2011 and to the vows they had made. Angela had not been sexually backward in the months leading up to their wedding and he had anticipated a honeymoon to remember. What he got was a wife who refused to leave the wedding party because she was having a good time, and then who sat up all night watching TV. It was the first of many times he’d felt used and cheated by her. He wondered if she’d felt marriage irrelevant all these years and if so, why had she married him? He’d asked himself this question often over the years and he never liked the answer he came up with.
‘It’s not really any different to the way you live here,’ Angela continued. ‘We rub along together and we share the things that it makes sense to share. But it’s totally different from what marriage meant in history. Marriage is really a historical concept and we’ve never really got round to…’
‘When we married,’ Pryce interjected, ‘you made a promise, to stay married for better or worse, until death.’
‘Or until divorce,’ Angela added.
‘Divorce being as outmoded a concept as marriage. ULTIMATE® phased both out at the same time,’ Pryce explained. He was sure he remembered some classic text which had stated similar, was it Hamlet? Those that are married should stay as they are, those who are not should not bother.. or something like that. This was effectively the ULTIMATE® policy.
However, it seemed that there was a limit even to Angela’s diversionary properties and Nike was soon back on his old path, asking Angela (since he’d got no answer from Pryce and since it was a question more immediate to him than sex) about The Immortal Horses.
Angela didn’t answer his question either. She did, he was sure, wink at him, however. And suggested maybe it was time to do something else.
‘Why don’t I take the boys to my office, to see the adaptive theory unit and show them something of the advances in question theory?’ she suggested to Pryce.
‘Flora too, if you’re interested.’ Delivered in the kind of voice that told Flora she wasn’t expected to be interested.’
‘That’s okay,’ Flora said, ‘I’d rather stay here with Pryce.’
‘I don’t know..’ Pryce wavered. He was a bit uneasy about this, but didn’t like to articulate his feelings. He was worried about Omo and Nike being out of his jurisdiction while the systems were malfunctioning.
As if she could read his mind, Angela pointed out they’d be as safe in her office as anywhere, because the US™ systems there were up and running, uncompromised, uninfected. It was only the look that she threw him as she said, ‘Any other reservations?’ that made Pryce determined to keep his second reservation to himself. He was worried about being left alone with Flora. He knew he shouldn’t be but… and now he wondered if Angela had… no… how could she have an idea of his private thought? His ‘guilty secret.’ So he acquiesced.
‘No, that’s fine. You lot go and have a good time. We’ll entertain ourselves here.’ And tried not to look too closely at Flora while he said it.