However much Pryce felt that he’d finally made a breakthrough with Nike, he was mistaken. Nike no longer needed Pryce. He had found someone who would give him better answers. Answers more suited to his inquisitive nature. That morning he’d listened to Pryce’s explanation of UTheory∑® without asking too many awkward questions, just as Troy had instructed him. He understood that his job now was to gain information, not to cause trouble. On the surface he had settled down into his new ‘productive’ work schedule, but it was only because The Immortal Horses had given him a purpose. He was aware they were using all his information to build up their own database. They needed to create programmes to break into the system and they needed an open, linked terminal to achieve this. Nike’s role was to keep the channels open and let The Immortal Horses do their work. It gave some meaning to his life.
Pryce thought Nike was genuinely interested in Question Theory. Nike asked the questions and listened to the explanations because the tutorial provided a good, robust set of algorithmic run time data. Or something like that. Nike’s head just spun when Troy tried to explain the systemic workings. But he felt proud to be part of something. Something that was not The PROJECT⌂. Nike had given up thinking that ULTIMATE® had anything to offer. He’d stopped thinking that Pryce had anything to offer him, because he’d found a better tutor in Troy. Not just a father-figure, a real live father.
Nike sneaked out to the Trading House whenever he could, usually after a good long session doing his ‘productive’ work, when no one would be looking out for him. He had previously achieved such low targets that if he now put in a decent burst of work, he could go missing for a good couple of hours and no one looking casually at his output would notice. Pryce had too many other irons in the fire to check Nike in any more depth than by looking at his output log. Nike knew the cheat would only work for a while. But it didn’t matter. It worked for now, and his father was sure to sort something better out soon. Even now, he understood that the geeks at the Trading House were working on a way of diverting his ßß™ signal so that he could be in two places at one time. It provided a real time application for Quantum Theory. Of course he was only in two places in theory. But that was good enough for ULTIMATE® systems. After all, virtuality was all to ULTIMATE®. The Immortal Horses exploited the systemic weakness. So, while virtually Nike was at The Project House more often than not he was actually at the Trading House. As long as no one thought to look in his room he was fine.
Meanwhile, in the hours they spent together at the Trading House, Troy explained about the importance of Meaning to Nike. Their father-son bonding was strange but powerful. Nike quickly learned to put his faith and trust in Troy. After all, Troy had the answers almost before Nike had the questions.
And if Troy’s conversations were more like tutorials than intimate family chat, that went unnoticed by Nike who had, after all, forgotten what family was like.
‘In the 20th century people fixated on the meaning of meaning,’ Troy explained. ‘In the 21st century ULTIMATE® have rendered meaning meaningless. While in History meaning was central to our human existence, and at one point it was considered that belief and meaning are interdependent, ULTIMATE® have achieved the goal of destroying both belief and meaning for the individual. And they’ve done it as a result of everyone in the system buying into it willingly. You’ve all been helping them every step of the way. Every bit of data collected, every question asked has helped them destroy your humanity.’
‘But why would ULTIMATE® destroy people?’ Nike felt it was a naïve question, but he really didn’t understand. And he felt more comfortable asking Troy questions now.
‘I didn’t say they destroyed people as physical bodies, they need the physical bodies to keep the system afloat. They destroyed your humanity. Your being. Your individuality.’
‘Why?’ There was no point pretending he understood if he didn’t.
Troy was patience personified. ‘The evaluation of run time complexity became more important than the consideration of the emotional and social needs of the population. Models became more important than meaning. ULTIMATE® realised early on that personal meaning (purpose) has no value.’
‘Doesn’t it have value to the individual?’ Nike interjected, keen to show himself a willing and thoughtful student and impress his father.
‘Yes, but that is of no interest to ULTIMATE®. It becomes a tautology. Personal meaning only has meaning for the individual and the individual has no meaning in the system, therefore meaning has no value for the system and by logical extension…’
‘The individual has no value for the system.’ Nike filled in the gaps.
‘Correct.’ There was a pause. ‘Yet somehow unacceptable, don’t you think?’
Nike wasn’t sure. He’d never really thought of his own meaning or his own value. He’d bought the line sold to him that Project Kids were valuable to ULTIMATE®…
‘They always told us we were valuable because we were Project Kids,’ he replied.
‘But where is the focus of that value?’ Troy asked.
Nike thought. Hard. ‘Oh. Of course. The value is only to them.’
‘It’s a statistical, computational value’ Troy added. ‘Nothing to do with you as an actual individual, a real person.
‘Am I a real person?’ Nike asked. He was baffled but beginning to enjoy this level of debate. In a world where metaphysical questions had become largely redundant, not least because of the credit charge placed on them over and above more ‘useful’ question types, Nike was robbed of the discovery that he would have made a good metaphysician. Like his old man.
In another time Troy might have been known by another name. Socrates perhaps. Or Fagin. Or the Imam of a radical sect. Or the charismatic leader of a religious cult. His identity was constant across history though his name changed. Troy had learned from his own father Randall, that name is the thief of identity. The Immortal Horses had also existed through history with a legion of different names. Like all such groups they were loyal and obedient only to their leader. Troy knew his History. And unlike ULTIMATE®, used history to his own purpose. ULTIMATE ® and Troy both appreciated the power of history, though they treated it differently. ULTIMATE® sold the story that History is bunk publicly but privately appreciated that it was powerful bunk and dangerous in the wrong hands. Troy used history as myth and narrative to explain present conditions. It was Capitalism versus Marxism. Evil versus Good. As Eric Blair had predicted ULTIMATE® buried the likes of George Orwell, yet Troy appreciated the truths held within his fiction, ‘He who controls the past controls the future.’
A casual observer from outside the system, if such a person could exist, might have opined that it was lucky ULTIMATE® didn’t know of the danger in their midst. A cynic from outside the system might ask: But how could they not know? And if they knew about The Immortal Horses why didn’t they do anything? Standing outside, commentating on the narrative might lead one to question whether it was possible the ULTIMATE® system had flaws. Couldn’t do anything? Where, when and how had The Immortal Horses fallen through the gaps? What was the flaw in the system? How had ULTIMATE® not picked up on all the random elements? But everyone was firmly inside the narrative. Even Troy.
‘Who makes meaning?’ Nike asked, hopeful that Troy could come up with an answer. He’d never get enough ULTIMATE® credits to ask, never mind get an answer to this level of question.
‘If we consider that belief and meaning are interdependent,’ Troy began, ‘and that personal meaning has no value to the system…’
‘Yes, you’ve said that,’ Nike couldn’t help blurting out impatiently. A look from Troy told him to hang on in there. The difficult questions didn’t always have easy answers.
‘And generic meaning is constructed according to the benefits derived to the system, the profit motive if you like….’
Nike used his memory and came up with the rest, desperate to prove to Troy that he was smarter than he looked.
‘The profit is for the shareholders.’
‘Yes. Keep going,’ Troy was determined to make Nick think for himself. ‘What are shareholders?’
‘They own the corporation.’ Nike wasn’t sure he knew what own or corporation really meant. He was about to find out.
‘What is a corporation?’ Troy challenged.
‘ULTIMATE® defined it as an institution which can have a legal entity as a person but in fact is not one person. But I don’t see the point,’ Nike replied.
‘Is ULTIMATE® an institution?’
Nike had never thought of that before.
‘Uh.’ He had always just accepted ULTIMATE® as a way of life. ULTIMATE® was everything, was behind everything, was everywhere…. It was the brand to which you gave your loyalty. Without thinking. It was the brand of choice because it was the only choice. Which of course meant there was no choice. But yes, now he thought about it, it wasn’t just a system, behind the system was something that you might call an institution.. and if so…..’
‘Does ULTIMATE® have shareholders?’ Troy prompted.
‘It could I suppose,’ Nike answered.
‘Or is it run by God?’
Nike nearly laughed out loud. God? Come on. That was such a wasted historical concept…. Then he realised, Troy was throwing a red herring at him.
‘So behind ULTIMATE® are shareholders. People who are acting as one person through the legal entity of ULTIMATE®.’ He didn’t appreciate the significance of his response.
‘Correct. Now why would they do that?’
Now Nike was stumped.
‘You need another history lesson,’ Troy observed. ‘ULTIMATE® and its place in the history of power politics. Think about all the questions you’ve asked before. Make connections. Think.’
Nike couldn’t make sense of it. He wanted to, but he was struggling. ‘But History is meaningless,’ he said.
‘ULTIMATE® told you. Do you believe them?’
Nike had never realised you could challenge the system. Not in any meaningful way. He’d only done it to play games, pass the time, infuriate Pryce. Never for a real purpose. Troy had changed his fundamental perception. He liked it. It felt good. At least, as long as he was with Troy it felt good. It didn’t feel so good when he was sitting alone in his room in The Project House. Then he felt small and vulnerable. Here he felt….
‘The thing with the ULTIMATE® system,’ Troy stated ‘Is that you have to ask the right question to get the right answer.’
‘How do you know what’s the right question?’ Nike asked.
‘That’s the point,’ Troy replied. ‘They’ve made sure you won’t know what the right question is. Your role is just to ask questions to fill the databases and help the computational analysis. Not to derive meaning. For every question you ask, they get much, much more information than they ever let go. That’s why you have to be smart. And Nick. You are smart. Too smart for ULTIMATE®. That’s why we want you to come here. Permanently. Do you want that?’
‘Yes.. but.. how?’ Nike couldn’t imagine the possibility. ULTIMATE® was all he had known, all that he could remember. They’d made sure of that. Protecting their investment.
‘I’m working on it,’ Troy replied, matter of factly. ‘But for now you’re of much more use to us in the system. It won’t be for ever. Just for now. Do you accept that?’
‘Okay.’ Troy said. ‘Now, what I want you to do is to start asking awkward questions. It’s dangerous, but we’ll protect you. I want to test the system at its core and I need someone with a legitimate login to do that.’
‘Give me five minutes to get the technicians to set up your US™ logon from here, mirrored to your home terminal. Go back, and then start.’
‘What questions?’ asked Nike.
‘What questions do you want to know?’ asked Troy.
‘Who runs ULTIMATE®?’ Nike suggested.
‘It’s a good question. It’s not one they’re going to give you an answer to right away though. Use the question theory training you’ve been given and think of ways to pose it.’
Nike came up with a list of alternatives:
Who runs ULTIMATE®?
Who is behind ULTIMATE®?
Who is in charge of ULTIMATE®?
Who created ULTIMATE®?
Troy spoke up at last. ‘Yes. You can go down this path. They’ll try to divert you. Probably alarm bells will ring and your counsellor will come calling. But before he does, you’ve got to ask the right question. It’s vitally important. We need to see if asking the right question will give the right answer.’
Nike went back to The Project House. He felt happy. He had a purpose. He knew he was a real person now. He existed. As an individual, not just a virtual pawn in the ULTIMATE® system. He felt free. He knew what he was about to do was dangerous. He didn’t know how dangerous but he trusted Troy. He would do anything for Troy and Troy would make it all right. He was convinced of this and determined not to let Troy down.
He logged on. He started asking questions. ‘Who runs ULTIMATE® ?’
The US™ screen responded: Question does not compute.
RUNS: Definition. There are multiple definitions EACH OF WHICH WILL COST YOU 10 CREDITS. Be more specific in your question for a clearer response.
Nike sighed. This was as they’d expected. Diversion. ‘Who is behind ULTIMATE®?’
Question does not compute. BEHIND: Definition. The rear of, positional. ULTIMATE® is not a positional entity. Alternative Definition. Hidden by, does not make referential sense with regard to the question. Please redefine your question. THIS HAS COST YOU 20 CREDITS. To reduce your credit expenditure you should follow the accepted pattern of Question Theory as outlined to you in the training sessions.
Nike wondered if they were onto him. You didn’t usually get this level of response from the knowledge bank. It just churned out the answer in the same unthinking way that it assumed you had asked it. He felt like he was playing at a much higher level now. He felt the danger but he wasn’t going to give up now.
‘Who is in charge of ULTIMATE®?’
IN CHARGE: Definition. Having command. Question makes no computational sense. Are you asking who commands ULTIMATE®?
This was going off script. Nike had to think fast. ‘No, not commands. Who controls ULTIMATE®?’
Across the square, in Pryce’s office, all hell had broken loose. Alarm bells were sounding in Graham’s office. Lights were flashing on his monitor. Pryce’s linked in US™ screen also highlighted this unauthorised activity coming from Nike’s terminal. Graham called Pryce in immediately.
‘What the hell is he doing?’ Graham asked.
‘I have no idea,’ Pryce responded.
‘Is this the result of your Question Theory sessions?’ Graham asked, annoyed. ‘Because if so, you need to seriously reconsider your teaching style.’
‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ Pryce tried to calm the situation. ‘It’s just Nike. He’s just bored and ….’
‘It’s dangerous. It’s way over his level of access. You need to get over there fast and sort this out.’
Pryce didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. Nike was always asking questions that didn’t fit in with the patterns. What did it matter? He’d have moved onto something else tomorrow. And it would give them good data after all. Wasn’t that what they wanted? Someone asking unusual questions. Someone actually testing the robustness of the system. But come to think of it, it was a good question. One he’d never thought about in years. Who did control ULTIMATE®? He didn’t know.
In the Trading House, Nike’s progress was being followed by Troy and his closest team with equal interest.
‘Come on… keep going,’ Troy muttered.
‘He’s running out of time,’ Griff observed.
‘He’ll do it. I know he will,’ Troy replied.
CONTROL: Definition. The power of command. Your question is self-referential from the previous question. ULTIMATE® controls ULTIMATE®. Redefine if dissatisfied with answer. THIS HAS COST YOU 30 CREDITS.
Nike kept on going, undeterred. ‘Who created ULTIMATE®?’
CREATE: Definition. To bring into existence. This question refers to the History of ULTIMATE®. Before The ₲₨ΩHist, ULTIMATE® did not exist. The existence of ULTIMATE® was brought about by the end of History and so the History of ULTIMATE® is a logically invalid subject. The general area of questioning regarding the workings of ULTIMATE® is too large for your remaining credits. Please earn more credits through ‘productive’ work or redefine and be more specific in your questioning. For example: You could ask questions on a temporal basis – describe the status of ULTIMATE® in 2020. Other subject areas include…..
Nike had stopped listening. He remembered Troy saying, ‘You have to ask the right question to get the right answer.’
He took a deep breath and asked, ‘Who ARE ULTIMATE® ?’ This time he got an unexpected answer.
‘The 100 men.’
He went one step further. One step too far. ‘Who are the 100 men?’
‘Bingo!’ Back at the Trading House, on the mirrored site, Troy was following the interaction and it was to his screen that the list started running…. They’d done it. They’d got the names of the 100 men behind ULTIMATE®. It was everything they’d wanted and more than they could have hoped for. Nike had come up trumps.
Pryce was in the rest room, preparing for his trip to the Project House and, as always, missed the vital moment. By the time he got to the Project House, Nike was no longer there. He was on his way to the Trading House. He hadn’t stopped to see the list, it meant nothing to him. He knew he’d done his job and that was enough. He’d asked the right question. He knew he needed to get out of there and fast, to a place of safety. The Immortal Horses offered him the best chance of safety now.
But, being human, and therefore composed of random elements, he decided to go to the Trading House via his Nan’s. He wanted to tell her about Troy. He didn’t know when he’d be able to see her again, and he wanted her to know her son was alive. She must be wondering what was going on, since that last US™ interface where he’d been cut off. He owed it to her to bring her up to speed. He wanted to tell her who sent the cake.. He reckoned he’d have to keep his head down for a while soon, and visits to his Nan would be off limits. He wanted to reassure her. If Troy could save his son, he could surely save his mother too.
Despite an awareness of the danger of his situation, Nike left the Project House for the first time full of hope. At last he knew who he was. He had family once again. Life was looking up. He felt like he’d escaped from prison. He had escaped from ULTIMATE®. He’d bust the levels and got out of the game. He couldn’t imagine the complexity of that statement and so it didn’t worry him. He was happy. Troy would sort everything. He trusted Troy. He looked up and saw a pale sun, shining in the sky. Something he’d neither looked for nor seen in a long time. What he didn’t see was the vehicle approaching him from behind. He didn’t see it as it hit him and he saw nothing as he was thrown, doll-like over the bonnet, landing in a crumpled heap on the pavement. No light remained. Only blackness. Forever.