‘He wouldn’t have felt a thing.’ Pryce realised how ridiculous this comment would seem to the Project Kids for whom feelings were no longer a reality. But surely, this news would have some effect.
Project Kids, like most new millennium people, didn’t have what Pryce would consider a real concept of death. They’d grown up with so much killing in their gaming, and with so much virtual living, that the reality never hit them. If someone was killed in a game, no problem, you just started over. If someone died in reality, they lived on through the US™ Memory Bank, the ULTIMATE® equivalent to the social networking sites which first gave people a kind of virtual immortality. In History, immortality had been for the few who had been painted, photographed, filmed or in other ways recorded. Social networking sites offered a more interactive experience. The US™ system was so ubiquitous that it blurred the boundaries even further. People spent so little time with other people interfacing in actuality, that death rarely touched them. But surely, Nike had lived with Omo and Flora for over five years. That must mean something. Pryce looked at them to gauge their response.
Omo was silent. When Pryce had come in, stony faced, instructing them to go into the common room, Omo had been convinced it was to challenge him regarding his affair with Angela. He was convinced he would be exposed. While his face remained calm, he was feeling an emotion, but the emotion wasn’t sorrow, it was guilt. He wasn’t used enough to emotions to be able to feel grief at the same time. It would take some time to sink in.
Flora was trying to compute the information. What did it mean?
‘Will we get a new flatmate?’ Was all she was able to ask. The girl who had cried watching the death of the last tiger, could not shed a tear over a real boy with whom she’d shared her space for the last five years. Of course, she hadn’t really shared her life, that was lived online and Nike was just someone who was ‘around.’ He would presumably be replaced. And with someone less annoying, hopefully.
Omo brought himself out of his stupor. ‘What about his Nan?’
‘What do you mean?’ Pryce was confused by Omo’s behaviour and this response didn’t make any sense to him. Was this shock?
‘Who’s going to tell her. She’ll be….’ Omo couldn’t find the word to describe how Helen would react. Devastated was not in his vocabulary.
‘She…. Well, she loved him,’ he managed. That was it. Love. Something Omo thought he was learning about. At that moment he realised the person who would know about love was Helen. He started to formulate a plan. It was uncharacteristic, but his experiences with Angela were changing him in all sorts of ways.
‘We should tell her,’ Omo continued.
Pryce was really out of his depth here. But if that was what it would take to get the Kids back on track, fine. Where could the harm be?
‘Uh, Okay. I’ll sort out transport for you to go there this afternoon if you like.’
‘Sure.’ Omo felt just another little bit guilty now that he realised his main reason for going to see Helen might not be to tell her about Nike’s untimely death, but to find out what she knew about love. That he wanted to take from her, not to give.
Helen was unaware of the horror that was about to face her as she opened the door to the unexpected visitor. She was greeted by Omo and Flora, who looked, to put it mildly, uncomfortable.
‘Nice to see you. Nick not with you?’
Omo and Flora looked at each other. They didn’t know what to say. They hadn’t thought this through. Hadn’t thought how they would tell Helen and now here they were, unprepared.
‘Uh…No..’ Omo struggled for words.
‘Can we come in?’ Flora asked.
‘Surely, surely,’ Helen ushered them into the room, ‘please, sit down,’ she added.
They had to sit on the bed. There was nowhere else to sit. Only Helen’s chair, facing the US™ screen from which she had risen to answer the door.
‘It’s about Nike.. Nick… that we’ve come,’ Omo finally managed to get out. He had never believed it possible to experience this level of awkwardness.
‘He’s not in trouble is he?’ Helen asked, not expecting what was coming next.
‘He wouldn’t have felt any pain,’ Omo added, parroting Pryce’s statement. What else could he do? He didn’t know how you told someone that another person was dead. He certainly didn’t know how to tell an old lady that her beloved grandson was dead. That was far beyond him.
‘He’s dead,’ Flora asserted, quickly, so that there could be no confusion. Somehow she knew it was important that Helen got the information straight and quick.
Helen sank into her chair. The colour drained from her face, and Flora observed that she finally looked all of her seventy years for the first time. As they watched her, something changed. A light went out. She aged. A bit of her died. It wasn’t the first time.
‘How…?’ she finally spoke. She needed to know.
‘He wouldn’t have felt any pain.’ Omo repeated. He was glad Flora was with him, but surprised that she seemed to be showing more strength than he could find. Looking at Helen churned him up in a way he’d never experienced before and yet Flora, the girl who had cried at the death of some mangey tiger they’d never even met, seemed able to take charge and stay calm.
‘He was run over.’ Flora added the only detail she knew.
‘We don’t know.’
‘Where?’ Helen needed more detail.
‘I’m not sure. Somewhere between our house and here I think.’
‘Why?’ As if she needed to ask.
‘I’m really sorry.’ Flora rose from the bed and put her arms round Helen, ‘we could get Pryce to come and see you if you like. He might know more.’
‘No, it’s all right.’ Helen pulled herself together. She knew why, in broad terms, something bad might have happened to Nick. Something to shut him up. She knew ULTIMATE® was behind it and she didn’t need an ULTIMATE® employee telling her lies.
‘Was he on his way to see me?’
Flora and Omo looked at each other. They had no idea. But they somehow felt that Helen deserved some answers, so they gave her the one they thought most suitable.
‘Yes,’ they said, in unison.
Helen crumpled. It was her fault. If she hadn’t got Nick trying to find out about RIP she was sure this wouldn’t have happened. It was her fault. It must be. She needed to be alone.
‘Should we get someone to be with you?’ Flora broke the silence.
‘No, No, I’ll be fine,’ Helen put on her stoical face again. ‘I need some time on my own, that’s all. Thank you for… for telling me.’
Omo and Flora got up. What else was there to do? Flora hugged Helen and Omo felt the right thing was to follow suit. As Flora headed for the door, he hung back a moment and before he even realised what he was doing he whispered,
‘Can I come back and see you… alone? I need to talk to you.’
‘Of course,’ Helen whispered back to him and then let him go. ‘Whenever you like, Omo. Any friend of Nick’s is always welcome here.’
And the door shut behind them, leaving Helen even more alone than she had felt twenty minutes before. She had promised to watch out for him. It had been a lifelong promise. And she’d failed. Helen struggled with a grief she thought she had left behind with the death of Randall. The mind plays tricks on you in these first stages of shock. She could not believe that Nick was dead. Even though the kids had told her, and they were obviously sincere, she found it impossible to believe that Nick, so full of life, was no longer there. It was a concept too hard to bear and her brain kicked in with the only alternative bearable. It wasn’t true. She didn’t know why ULTIMATE® would lie about it, but she was sure they were lying.
Another part of her brain had already moved into the post death grief state she had experienced too many times before. The contemplation of what death means. Knowing the person now lives only in your memory. Knowing you’ll never see them again. You can’t share meaning with them. Emptiness, loss. A reminder of your own isolation. That you’d give everything to just EXTERNALISE with them one more time. Reflection on your own mortality. The need to LIVE the rest of your life. How would she do that? What was left for her?
It brought her back to the desire to be rational even in her shock and grief. Logically, she worked out that either Nick was dead, in which case she could do nothing to help him, or he wasn’t dead in which case she needed to find out what had happened to him and she wouldn’t do that sitting in an ULTIMATE® Home. Either way, she needed to find out for herself where RIP were. Because either way, RIP must still exist. Either Nick had been killed by ULTIMATE® as his father and grandfather before him, for knowing too much, or asking too many questions; or he was alive, held somewhere for precisely the same reasons. It was the only sense she could make of this senseless situation. And if he was alive….
She had a flashback to her last interaction with Nick. That strange message from the US™ screen. When he’d said he was with his dad. Maybe he’d already been spirited away by ULTIMATE® at that point. She remembered the 1970’s when people were ‘disappeared’ in Chile. She’d been approaching her teens and it was the first really shocking news she’d encountered. It had stayed with her. It was the hallmark of the totalitarian regime. And Helen wasn’t taken in by the bright, light, brand loyalty of ULTIMATE®. She could see beneath it. Behind the brand was something far more frightening than corporate greed. It was a new totalitarianism. ULTIMATE® totalitarianism. The destruction of humanity.
She had to act and act soon. She had to find what was left of the RIP and try and reclaim some sort of personal truth out of this world of branded lies. Of course she realised that if she left the ULTIMATE® Home she would die too, probably within a couple of years, if not sooner. At this stage the thought did not bother her. It was subsumed beneath a feeling a lot like hope which told her she might LIVE for two more years. Actually live. A life of freedom outside the death that was ULTIMATE®. That’s worth it. However short the timeframe. She’d been dead for the last ten years after all. It was time to be like a tree and experience spring once more. She longed to go back to the ‘beech’ and walk in the winter and grow vegetables in the summer and eat real food. All this had to be worth whatever price she would finally pay, however soon she had to pay it. Life under ULTIMATE® might seem to be comfortable and easy after a fashion, as long as you just went along with it but it wasn’t REAL and a non-real life isn’t worth living. It’s no more life than a plastic flower. A dead tree has more life than a plastic flower.
How would she get away? She looked at the ßß™ barcode on her arm. It was a link to ULTIMATE® that she could not erase. Everyone had one now. Everyone was branded. She rubbed it. Not for the first time she thought about the tattoos of the Holocaust victims. ULTIMATE® may have done away with history for its citizens, but it had borrowed freely from whatever bits of history suited its purpose. Once upon a time tattoos had been for sailors and soldiers or primitive tribesmen. Then footballers and celebrities began to adorn themselves, calling it ‘body art.’ Fashion drifted down to the masses inevitably, till tattooing broached all social classes and ages. Then, as fashion and technology segued together, Brands started to enter the fray. Soon enough it had become the height of fashion to have a product or company brand on your arm, and soon enough the benefits turned into necessity. To be allowed to shop anywhere you had to have the appropriate brand. Your personal and financial details were contained on the logo on your skin and arms became like so many boy scouts shirtsleeves; the more you had the better a consumer you were. The more brand loyalty you had on your flesh the higher your status both socially and credit wise. Helen was glad that she’d never bought into this. It hadn’t happened until they were far into self-sufficiency and it provided a good reason never to have to ‘shop’ in the mainstream. Only charity shops held out against the onslaught, until finally there were no more charity shops – because there was no longer seen as any need for charity. For a time a strange kind of black market style of shopping was undertaken in the old pound shops and charity shops and then out of the boots of cars, until all these things became consigned to history.
Catriona and Lauren, as good fashionistas, both had armfuls of brands. Of course behind all the brands was one brand. The one brand to whom loyalty was unavoidable in the end. ULTIMATE®. When Helen had been admitted to the ULTIMATE® Home, she had had to submit to having the ULTIMATE® Brand on embedded into her arm. At the time she’d felt like someone entering Auschwitz, but there was no choice. She’d felt numb and dead then anyway. But now… now she wanted to break free from ULTIMATE® once more. Now she felt there was no reason to stay and every reason to take a risk. But ULTIMATE® wouldn’t let her go that easily. The Brand would stay with her for life. That was ULTIMATE’s® unique selling point. The clue was in the name.
Helen was not going to let the seal of ULTIMATE® on her arm stop her, however. If she couldn’t get rid of the ßß™barcode brand which was not only tattooed onto her skin but contained a technologically advanced biological implant in her arm, she would try to get out of range. That must be possible. Or worth a try at least. The first thing would be to try and make contact with RIP. She did not have time to lose herself in grief for Nick. She needed to make a concrete, workable, escape plan.