As Nike left Helen’s to make his way back to Angela’s office he had it in his mind that she, or her systems, might help him find out about RIP. Nike had great confidence in his own ability to use other people’s knowledge, and if necessary knowledge bank interfaces, to his own advantage. And he had seen enough of the system Angela had access to, to know it kicked serious ass over Pryce’s. Angela was much further up the ULTIMATE® food chain.
Angela was a puzzle. Nike had never met anyone like her before and so she interested him but it was what she represented that interested him more. Which was a bit frustrating because in the office Angela had seemed a lot more interested in Omo than in Nike. Nike found this unusual. In his previous admittedly limited social experience, when he and Omo were in a room together he was the ‘interesting’ one, the centre of attention, whereas Omo was the sidekick. He’d never questioned it before. He’d always just accepted it. But it wasn’t like that with Angela.
It was Angela who had suggested that Nike leave them and go see his Nan. He’d jumped at the chance, not given it a second thought, but now that he was on his way back he kept wondering why it was that Angela had wanted to be on her own with Omo. He was sure he’d noticed something between them. And Omo had been acting really strangely ever since Angela had pitched up in The Project House. What Nike hadn’t spotted was Angela suggesting to Omo that maybe he’d like some practical experience of ‘real’ sex. Nike had been too busy in the depths of Angela’s highgrade US™ system, the likes of which he’d never seen before, to notice what was happening right behind him. Lucky Omo was so dark skinned or the blushes would have given it away.
Nike never heard Angela’s offer, or Omo’s response. All he knew was that suddenly, Angela suggested that he go and visit his Nan. It was less of a suggestion, more of an instruction. She promised him she’d tell him about The Immortal Horses at a later date, ‘when I’ve got the up to date accurate data collated.’ It felt like he was being palmed off but he’d bought it because he had to. But Nike was sure of one thing; Angela was the kind of person who only ever did anything with a reason. She would not act randomly, or on a whim. He’d seen in The Project House that she could run rings round Pryce (not that that was hard) and now he wondered if perhaps she’d run rings round him?
He shrugged. He’d get his own back. He was going to get an answer for his Nan. He wouldn’t let Angela put him off. He’d get her data off her. He was so absorbed in the thought that he wasn’t watching what was going on around him. And so he didn’t see the man until he was right upon him, speaking to him.
‘Hey. You want to know about The Immortal Horses?’
Nike looked up. The voice belonged to a man about his own age, slimmer but taller, sporting a sort of goatee beard and wearing a hooded top which covered most of his head. He couldn’t help but look intimidating. Nike realised all too late that he’d been approached by what might be considered an ‘ordinary’ person. He didn’t have a term of reference for dealing with such a person so he didn’t know what to do. But he wasn’t going to run. Or look scared. Or be scared.
‘I said, d’you want to know about The Immortal Horses?’
This was a high risk strategy, Nike knew. People didn’t usually like you answering questions with questions but he didn’t know what else to do. For the first time in his life that he could remember, he felt vulnerable. But also excited. Because of COURSE he wanted to know about The Immortal Horses.
‘I’m not playing games here mate. You want to know or not?’
‘Yeah. You going to tell me?’ Nike sounded as cool as he dared.
‘Come with me.’
It wasn’t a command. It was only a statement. He could have walked away. He could have turned round, or pushed past the guy, or simply stopped the interaction. There was no gun, no knife, no threat, no coercion. Just an invitation. Come with me. It was enough. Nike went.
He entered the erstwhile Trading House, where The Immortal Horses had been tracking him from, trying to look unconcerned. He couldn’t believe he’d never noticed the huge, glass fronted building before. In the extensive marble lobby he immediately began to attract attention from all the people who seemed to slip past in a blur as he tried to keep up with the brisk step of his contact. They went into a gleaming elevator and emerged some flights later. Nike was in sensory overload and didn’t have time to take in the detail of their clothes and hair but he did notice that they were different. Very different. Except of course, since he was the odd one out, it was he who was different. It felt strange.
‘Hey, it’s a Project Kid,’ some random guy spoke right to his face, as if he wasn’t real.
Nike had never had the experience of standing out like a sore thumb. He was attracting all kinds of attention and it felt most uncomfortable. Of course he couldn’t know that the main reason for the interest being displayed in him was that most of the people he was passing had been involved in the tracking process which had led him here. To them, he was the ‘game’ come to life. He was a living, breathing success. He was an object of pride and curiosity.
‘Hey man, check him out.’
‘Good job …’
Nike followed his contact in a daze through the building, trying to take it all in. They finally came to a halt at an office.
‘Wait in there.’
And Nike was left. Waiting in there.
He took time to look round the room. Nike had never seen anything like it, although it would have been recognisable to any person in the pre-ULTIMATE® world as a company boardroom. It wasn’t retro. It was antique. It was authentic in the true meaning of the world. It represented a haven of financial capitalism, re-appropriated by The Immortal Horses in a spectacularly bizarre example of the now obsolete doctrine of reduce, reuse, recycle. It was adapted to purpose. A large wooden table all but filled the room. Almost inevitably there was the ubiquitous US™ screen drowning one wall but it wasn’t switched on. There were banks of smaller screens on the opposite wall. There was a two way mirror but Nike didn’t know that. He wouldn’t have known what a two way mirror was whichever side of it he stood. Observational techniques had gone on leaps and bounds since two way mirrors were the must-have boardroom tool.
After enough time to realise how unfamiliar his surroundings were, just enough to make him realise he was really there, the door opened and another man came in. This guy was older, more impressive. He carried himself with authority. He stretched out his hand – a long outmoded gesture, but Nike stuck his own out in response and felt the firm grip. The man looked him firmly in the eyes, but didn’t introduce himself as an individual. Instead, he said,
‘So here we are. We are the Immortal Horses. What did you want to know?’
That was such a big question Nike didn’t know where to begin.
‘Uh… who you are… why….?’
‘Yes. I imagine it is overwhelming.’
‘We’ve been watching you.’ The man was still watching Nike. Closely. Gauging his response. It made Nike nervous.
‘Why?’ His question just slipped out. He couldn’t help himself.
‘That is a good question.’ The man’s stern face almost broke into a smile. Almost.
Nike found that strange. In his experience Why? was not a question he got praised for asking. Things here were different. Very different. In his dis-ease Nike rubbed his ßß™, a gesture which didn’t go unnoticed.
‘That’s no good in here. We’ve disabled it.’
‘Yes, they said you asked a lot of questions. They didn’t say you just uttered question phrases without meaning.’
‘Sorry.’ Nike was well out of his depth.
The man relaxed slightly. ‘Don’t worry. You surely don’t want the technical details, though I could provide them if you do. We’ve nothing to hide from you here. And anyway, we’re the ones watching you now, not ULTIMATE®. We can control the input and output from it. And we’ve commandeered your login. You belong to us now. One way or the other.’
Was there an implicit threat? Nike realised he was in very, very deep water without any idea of how he’d got there or how, or even whether he’d get out.
‘I’ll tell you what I think you want to know. Based on our profiling of you. If that’s not sufficient, just shout and I’ll fill in the gaps. Okay?’
Nike nodded. He felt every question he’d ever wanted to ask float out of his head which became filled with what he now vaguely recognised as an emotion. Fear. It was not pleasant. And he couldn’t shake it off.
‘As usual with you Nick, (Nike noticed that the man called him Nick) you ask the wrong question to get the answer you desire. You think you want to know about The Immortal Horses, but really you want to know about yourself. You want to know about The PROJECT⌂. Don’t you?’
‘Yes.’ Nike wasn’t going to argue.
‘Okay. I’ll tell you about The PROJECT⌂, Nick. The things they didn’t tell you when you signed up. The things they’ve never told you.’
And he began. The man told Nike about the formation of The PROJECT⌂. On the big screen he showed Nike his own introduction into The PROJECT⌂. Nike found it both uncomfortable and strangely nostalgic to see himself as a seven year old boy, taken into The PROJECT⌂ by a woman he vaguely recollected was his mother. It was strange to be looking at himself all those years ago, and even stranger to be looking at his mother. He’d forgotten entirely what she looked like.
‘She sold you. For Habit∞.’ The man sounded hard. Almost brutal. But Nike realised that his mother was the target of the harshness, not himself. It did have a nasty ring after all, sold. Helen hadn’t told him that. She should have. But he could understand why she didn’t. He wondered how The Immortal Horses had these images. He wondered why they had them too but most of all for right now, he’d ask how.
‘How do you have these images? They should be my memories. But I don’t remember them. Well… not till I see them happening, and not like that. I don’t remember it like that.’
The man replied, his tone somewhat lightened, ‘ULTIMATE® never lets anything go, they archive everything, but they think they have a much more secure system than they know. We’ve been cross-referencing and storing your memories, the memories of your family, ever since that day.’
‘Don’t run ahead of yourself, Nick. You’ll get your why. But you need context first or it won’t mean anything,’ the man continued to explain. ‘In 2016 The PROJECT⌂ started taking kids aged between five and eight with the aim of turning them into ULTIMATE® future citizens. Their education was an ULTIMATE® education and they learned the skills they needed to survive in the ULTIMATE® world. And while they were learning, they were teaching ULTIMATE® how to hone its own skills. The power of HYPE® was developed into an art form. Call it auto-suggestion or peer-group pressure, or marketing. Call it what you will, ULTIMATE® embraced all these concepts and manipulated the population mercilessly. These Project Kids were at the forefront of the creation of the UTheory∑™ without even knowing it. You know about UTheory∑™?’
Nike nodded. His knowledge was sketchy but…
The man continued. ‘You were sold by your mother in 2017 and the first thing they did was to remove you from your memories. But they didn’t wipe them they just archived them. You had so many new things to think about that you didn’t even miss them after the first week. Young children are very, very malleable. And they had so much exciting, fun stuff to offer you. ULTIMATE®’s aim was to make the rest of the population just like you Project Kids. You were HYPED® and repackaged and used as the carrot for a generation of people who wanted something better for their children. The last generation who had children. You know, that by 2020 getting into The PROJECT⌂ was better than getting into Eton. Or Oxford. And harder.’
Nike looked blank. He’d no idea what Eton or Oxford were of course. The man carried on regardless.
‘They didn’t have to pay people to put their kids in The PROJECT⌂ for long. Pretty soon, people were begging for it. Like all created scarce resources, a place on the ULTIMATE® PROJECT⌂ became the thing to aspire to. And the Project Kids were to be the leaders in utilising and shaping ‘productive’ work for an entire generation. The living embodiment of UTheory∑™. Did you know how important you are?’
Nike didn’t feel important. He felt scared. He didn’t know where this was going. The man seemed to read his thoughts.
‘You can trust me Nick,’ he said.
‘Trust?’ Nike echoed.
The man laughed. ‘Of course trust isn’t really an ULTIMATE® concept is it?’
Nike recognised the question as rhetorical, like the ones Helen was fond of asking.
‘You can believe that I have your best interests at heart. However important you are to ULTIMATE®, believe me Nick, you are more important to me and to The Immortal Horses. To our cause.’
Yes, that was the point. Why was he here? What did they want with him? Nike struggled to form the questions.
‘Look,’ The man saw his confusion, ‘It’s all pretty overwhelming to you at the moment, I understand that. You’ve just discovered your world isn’t what you thought it to be. You’ll need time to assimilate the information. I just wanted to touch base with you. You should go back to The Project House now, and just keep your head down. You can come back here any time of course. Now you know the way. ’
‘But what about….?’ Nike pointed at his ßß™.
‘Don’t worry,’ the man replied, ‘we can disable it at will. In fact we’re working on how we can send false readings from archive through to your local server, but it might take a week or two to get that up and running. We’ve broken the back of the work. We’ve made contact with you and we’ve got the information we need now to finish the job.’
He didn’t ask Nike if he was okay with that. It was implied. And Nike hadn’t considered whether he had any choice in the matter. Choice wasn’t something that he’d learned about in practical terms as a Project Kid. Choice meant ULTIMATE® coffee or ULTIMATE® coke; ULTIMATE® chocolate or ULTIMATE® chips. It wasn’t a practical concept and it certainly wasn’t a daily reality.
‘What do you want with me?’ Nike did manage to frame a sensible question as he was on his way out.
‘Do you know what a Trojan Horse is? ‘
Nike shook his head.
‘Or a cuckoo in the nest?’
‘Well, come back again and I’ll explain them to you. But don’t worry. Whatever we do, it’ll be in your own best interest, long-term. And it might just save the world.’
And with that, Nike found himself ushered outside the Trading House, back on the street, where everything looked the same as it had an hour ago, and nothing was. He didn’t go back to Angela’s office. There was no point now. He went straight back to The Project House.