Excerpt for Old Year's Day by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Old Year’s Day

John Holland

Published by:

Copyright 2017 John Holland

Smashwords Edition

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Table of Contents

Preface

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Three

Chapter Twenty Four

Chapter Twenty Five

Chapter Twenty Six

Chapter Twenty Seven

Chapter Twenty Eight

Chapter Twenty Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty One

Chapter Thirty Two

Chapter Thirty Three

Chapter Thirty Four

Chapter Thirty Five

Chapter Thirty Six

Chapter Thirty Seven

Chapter Thirty Eight

Chapter Thirty Nine

Epilogue

Other Titles by John Holland

About John Holland

Preface

In the first half of the twenty-first century, society on Earth imploded and the world was plunged into a battle for power between forces representing the world governments, the churches, and the corporations.

At the end of this bloody series of conflicts the population of Earth had been reduced to a mere 400 million individuals and one great corporation now controlled all aspects of human life.

“The Corporation” decided that Earth had been damaged so badly that it was dying. Using new technology developed during the “big troubles” they migrated everyone to other sites in the solar system and eventually to systems revolving around other stars. They also took seeds and genetic material from a wide range of surviving flora and fauna. Earth was abandoned.

Nuclear warfare did not take place during the conflicts because the corporations had become strong enough to eliminate that threat worldwide before it was used. They did this because a corporation needs customers and killing everyone would be bad for business. The widespread use of chemical and biological weapons caused enormous damage to human life and to the environment, however.

The passage of time was still based on the duration of the Earth year. By the year 2199 the corporation had settled a vast area of space that became known as the “settled universe.” It was in that year the corporation decided there had been enough expansion by humanity and halted all further exploration. They also decide to stop time. Every year the clocks and calendars would be reset and each January 1st would start the new 2199. January the 1st became known thereafter as Old Year’s Day.

Around 1000 generations after the mass migrations from Earth, The Corporation rules an empire of 400 billion individuals spread across the many hundreds of planets which comprise the Settled Universe.


Chapter One

I’ve never seen a real ocean, but sometimes I go swimming in one. My eyes close and I dream I’m somewhere deep down in strange water. When my mind decides to come back up, it is a long journey through a strange place. I see blue crystals of light swimming around like single celled animals viewed through a microscope. I move upwards through the swarm. Next I see a cloud of pink. It sweeps down upon the blue lights and a million pink tongues lick the blue lights from my knowing.

I continue upwards and through the pink cloud. The sensation I feel as I move through it is not a pleasant one. Once I break through the pink I find myself in glistening black water. I keep moving upwards. I’m starting to panic about never surfacing into a world of air again.

Suddenly my head breaks water and I realise I’m in my prison cubicle and I can breathe again even though the air is cooled and filtered artificially by machines I can’t see, but only hear the hum of. As I become fully awake I realise time has passed and I’m no longer in my sleeping cubicle, with its narrow bed and small table. I’m out amongst the chill rooms and halls of the prison wing that is my home.

I can hear the faint whine of machines in the distance. Domestic cleaning equipment is carrying out its automatic chores. Even muffled by walls and doors it makes plenty of noise and my already jangled nerves cringe from the unnatural sounds. A long hallway stretches out forever on both sides of me. So far does it stretch, I can’t see either end. I’m shivering, sitting on this metal seat, and I think I can see ice silvering my arms, hanging off the curly brown hairs, on arms left bare by the short sleeved prison wear. The cold doesn’t come from outside, it is hot and humid out there; it is manufactured in the big air conditioners on the roof and piped in here. There always seems to be a faint chill breeze, even though the doors are shut.

The voice inside my mind is insistent. Jones wants to be heard. I concentrate on the words.

The hunters had us trapped between a high bluff and a cold lake. There were three choices. We could try and scale the bluff, which was an unpalatable option, as we had no climbing equipment. We could take to the lake, but that was just as bad an option as the bluff. The water was cold and we would be exposed to gun fire from the shore. The last option was to just wait for the hunters to kill us where we stood.

I think I was ready for the third choice. I was too weary to climb or swim. The hunters were going to get us sooner or later, so it might as well be here.

I stood up from where I’d been crouched behind a tree stump and walked to an open area. My plan was to stand there until they dropped me. I wanted to see their faces, if I could. I wouldn’t plead for mercy. That was a commodity the hunters had nothing of. Besides I wanted my end to be standing up and facing the death collector. I had run so far it wasn’t funny and if they hadn’t cornered us here, I’d be still running, but a man has a right to die the way he wants to.

The ice isn’t real. I just feel cold is all, and that causes my brain to throw up images in front of my eyes that relate to how I’m feeling. But knowing the ice is an illusion doesn’t stop the cold. Besides it is always hard to tell what is real, or even if anything actually is real, inside this prison. They keep it cold in here so the prisoners don’t feel too comfortable. After all we aren’t here for rest and recreation. We are criminals who broke Corporation laws.

The hallway I’m sitting in with the small group of prisoners doesn’t go on forever either. That is also an illusion fabricated by my drugged and confused mind. I got a good look at this prison complex while we were coming in on the Transport Cube. The modular boxes of the prison complex buildings huddle on a great concrete pad 1200 metres by 1200 metres. The buildings are set squarely in the centre of that box. A high fence rims the concrete pad. The buildings are constructed of many stories, but I couldn’t count them easily. I’ve since learned that there are many underground levels as well. It’s a big place.

Everything inside the complex is sterile and utilitarian. The Corporation wants us to feel we are in a sombre place of healing and punishment. The business of readjustment is not something to be taken lightly.

The whisper breaks into my train of thoughts again.

The hunters came out of the cover of heavy timber in a tight group. There were six of them, big men with their faces covered by khaki material. They wore camouflage clothing and heavy boots. They all carried the latest assault rifles, and grenades and other killing tools hung from their belts. No wonder we often outpaced them and got away. All that killing stuff had to be heavy.

One lifted his assault rifle and aimed it at me. I clenched my teeth hard and waited for death. Each heartbeat took a century of extended time. Then I heard the burp-burp of automatic rifle fire. I confess my courage failed me then and I could no longer stare back at the killers. I screwed my eyes shut and waited for the hot bullets to tear through me. It took me a few moments to realise nothing was hitting me! I opened my eyes and most of the hunters were on the ground. Two turned and ran for the trees, but they never got there. They died no more than a dozen paces from their friends.

It must have been some of Valdez’s fighters who saved us. I’m not sure though, as we never did see who had killed the group of hunters. We were mainly concerned about the fact we had cheated death again. The unknown shooters had granted us gifts of time. We didn’t waste those gifts. We went past the fallen hunters at a good clip and by nightfall we were mountains away.

We had learned to put as much space between us and events like today’s as was possible. Today’s killings would draw the hunters out in force, once they were aware of what had happened. They would be even more trigger happy than usual.

I ignore the thoughts that always run through my head and think about my own situation. I understand the need for such places as this prison. I even understand why I’m here. In the words of my first Trainer at the Sales Academy, I had bit the hand that fed me. He was always saying it. I asked him what it meant, but he didn’t know. It was just an ancient saying he’d picked up somewhere. He told me to work it out for myself. I think I have. Maybe not what it meant long ago, but close enough to what it means now.

The Corporation had fed me and trained me and in return I had been disloyal. It was foremost in my mind that it was my own fault I was locked up here. My mind had been disloyal and my flesh had proved weak.

They must never have made it through the mountains. I had told them I’d be waiting, but they never came. I had told them to look to the bare hill at the south end of the lake. Where the big jumble of rocks smudges the face of the hill, they would find the opening to a cave. I waited until the first frost came and then moved on alone.

Days later I caught up with a group from the early days. Caroline was with them and a great weight lifted from my heart. I had thought she must be dead by now. However there she was, all smiles and gladness and soft strong arms that pulled me so close and gripped me so fiercely I could barely breathe.

Shush, voice. I need to think!

I check out the Minders positioned on each side of where we sit in the hallway. The one to my left is the huge square-faced man Jones calls the knuckle-dragger. He looks evil and short on fuse, but I’ve never seen him do anything much to the prisoners. On the opposite side of the corridor stands the short Minder. She’s very short, but no one messes with her. She has pure hate in her eyes that one. She’s always fingering the stunner on her belt and glaring at you with black eyes that seem to dare you to do something she can zap you for. I’m afraid of her, so I’m cautious how I speak, or even how I move, when she’s on duty in my wing.

You have to be careful with your interactions with the staff. The slightest thing that might indicate you are not grateful to the Corporation for locking you up here will be noted and the consequences won’t be pleasant. I try to get by with slight nods and brief shakes of the head. Being careful not to mix up the context where a response is required. The only staff member I have actual verbal interaction with is Wilson.

Walls and ceilings of silver metals reflect the spotless white floors where the automatic cleaning machines have been. The tables and chairs are made from the same silver metals as the walls and ceilings. They always smell chemical clean. Jones says, why clean ordinary food and bodily substances from something and replace them with chemical residue that is probably a damn sight more injurious to our health than anything honest like spit or urine? Jones often makes such observations. I just accept things are how they are for a good reason. I broke the rules and now I have to pay the penalty. That’s the way of it.

I have been here a long time. However I have no way of knowing just how long. We have no clocks here in the prison wings. There is a digital calendar in the TV room. However that calendar only tells me which day and month it is. It doesn’t record the passage of hours or the passing of years. We prisoners only know our days are spent in blocs of time. Periods when we sleep, when we eat, when we sit in communal rooms. There is a bloc of time when we go through the exercise machines too. It is one of my favourite rituals, because I come out of it with a pleasant ache in every muscle and for a time my mind is clearer.

Most time is drab and colourless here. One bloc of time just rolls after and into another and there is no day or night here, inside this place where we exist.

A small number of us, one in a hundred, have seen the outside. I made it out once. The small group of us, who were chosen because of our good behaviour, were led out of big thick doors on to a concrete field. In the distance 400 metres away was a high wire fence, electrified of course. A cool pink sky arched overhead and wisps of white clouds floated across it. I hadn’t seen many skies since I was a kid on the home planet. It rocked me hard to see a green wall of trees beyond the high wire fence. I had never seen trees before, other than on TV. Sure there had been some grass and shrubs around buildings in the old place, but no trees.

I had been afraid to walk on that grass because it was alive and must feel pain if you stepped on it. But people did step on it and I winced in sympathy for it. When the mowing machines cut the grass I locked myself inside, to keep the screams of the grass from piercing my eardrums.

Now here, only a few hundred metres away was a wall of trees. From what I could see, it looked like the trees completely surrounded the prison compound. How did the Corporation keep the trees from marching in and taking over? It seemed to me they could do that if they wanted. But maybe they were happy to just keep this place surrounded and watch what happened here. I had known I was a prisoner of the staff and the white and silver, but now I saw the staff and the buildings were prisoners of the green. The green had given them a square to live on and to perform their rituals on. They could stay as long as they behaved.

This planet is called Renod, originally a tiny lifeless, dry brown planet, not much bigger than Earth’s moon. It was terra-formed back in the days of the Mass Migration. If I remember my Corporation geography and history properly, Renod quickly became a jungle planet. The board of the big Corporation that runs all things probably hadn’t meant to go so far with the plant growth, but it got out of control, and instead of a nice residential planet they ended up with pole-to-pole rainforest.

They had seeded the rainforest with insects and animal life from old Earth too, and when the new rain formed rivers that flowed into the lower areas, they had introduced fish and aquatic mammals into the rivers and into the lakes that had formed in depressions. Now there were two main lakes, dozens of rivers and many smaller lakes. They had accidentally created a kind of alien Eden. But people had become too afraid of wild things by that time to live there of their own free will, so Renod became a prison planet. Wilson, the blond Mind Nurse, says there are 44 prison areas dotted over the planet. Some are twice as big as this one. She says the population of Renod is around 400,000.

Jones is still talking in my mind. He isn’t talking to me this time. It is more like he is talking at me, delivering a message in the form of a statement.

Oil burns black and heavy. When they burned it to keep it from the hands of their enemies, it formed a black plume that circled the earth. From my vantage point high in the mountains I could see the prevailing winds carry it west. I swear I saw the tendrils of it masking the rising sun in the mornings.

My days were spent lying low. Nights were for searching for food, but that meant leaving the cave and walking the night. Walking the midnight was scary, but I had no choice. I had to check my snares and traps. There was usually little in them, but I caught enough to survive.

This must have been something like how early man might have lived. Except I think he would have hunted by day and laid low at night. His main predators preferred to hunt at night. The people who hunted me preferred to hunt by day, but you couldn’t always rely on that. Some liked to walk the night too.

I feel the jolt as I come back to real time. It is almost always something like this when he talks. Some of his memories seem sweet and sad, but mostly Jones’ memories are like an icepick on a chunk of ice. He continues on and I shiver from the horror of it all.

I had barely escaped the killers. They drove the villagers towards the sea, while I lay in the long grass on a treeless ridge and watched as well as I could.

These men wore all black from their uniforms to their berets and boots. Even their assault rifles were black. There was a tiny white logo on the berets, but they were too distant for me to tell what it represented. I didn’t really need to see. They would be from some private army, a team of corporate killers, serving a hydra-headed master.

They drove the villagers ahead of them. It was as if they were herding cattle. Once the people were on the shore, the firing started. Men, women and children died on the water’s edge or ran out into the sea to try to escape the bullets. Many were shot out in the water and the little bay turned red with blood.

It may have only lasted minutes, but it seemed hours to my tortured mind and eyes. When the killers had made sure no one was left alive, they turned and vanished back into the forest. The scene below me filled my heart with horror. What had we become?

After an unmeasured passage of time, all became quiet, and I should have gotten up and run away quickly, but I couldn’t drag my eyes from the grotesque bodies sprawled on the ground, or those floating in the water. I’ll never forget the crimson waves washing the pebble beach.

My heart felt filled with shards of glass and my dry eyes burned with the need to shed tears that did not come. Surely this was the lowest point? Surely humanity could sink no further into depravity?

When I met up with the others and told them what I had seen, there was stunned silence. Then one older woman, I’ve forgotten her name, said that the killing must stop soon. Soon there would be no one left to kill.

I did not answer. I kept my thoughts guarded, and let her hold onto that slim hope. I believed that when the innocent were all dead, the monsters would turn on each other. The killing had only just started.

I’m glad to say I was partly wrong. Some of the innocent did survive. My own daughter died of natural causes and at a good age. The rest was true enough though. The monsters turned on each other eventually and the blue planet turned red with blood.

Most of Jones’ memories hang heavily on me. However even though he had known horror and death, he had thankfully also known love.

I’ve always loved women. A bit like my mother loved men. The only difference, and it’s a big difference, is that I was always faithful to one woman at a time.

Caroline thought I’d been with Jenny. I hadn’t, but Jenny didn’t deny it, so Caroline believed I had. I think she took off with Marcus to make me suffer. She got her wish, I suffered greatly. However it was Caroline herself who suffered most.

I remember following their foot prints in fine powder snow for hours, but I lost the trail further down the mountain, where the snow line ended and the rocks started.

How many generations of lying semi-dormant in a blood line does it take to stop loving someone? It must take a very long time, because I still love Caroline, just as much as I did then.

I no longer have blood and flesh to warm me, but the memories of Caroline are no less vivid for that. The material that my memories are constructed from seems to be effective enough for the purpose. True life is optional when it comes to memory. It exists outside of it, but still needs a connection, a host, to allow it to live its strange half life.

Dowling’s mind and body allow me to experience a kind of self-awareness that is not unlike the awareness I had when I had my own body to live in.

A man is a man if he can think and remember even if those capabilities are assisted by a living proxy he resides within.

Caroline lives inside me, but in a different way. She exists in my memories, but has no self-awareness such as I do. It is possible that her self-awareness might exist inside some other host, but somehow I don’t believe that it does.


Chapter Two

My awareness of the presence of Jones has caused me to spend long hours pondering the reality of him.

Is he a dream of mine or am I a dream of his? I put this question to Jones and he replied in his usual somewhat convoluted way.

He told me about the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke and found out he was a man again he posed the question, “Am I man dreaming that I am a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”

I took that answer to mean that no one can tell for sure what is real and what is not real. Once again I find myself faced with the notion that reality is constructed from the most brittle of building blocks.

Reality I believe is our way of trying to find a solid place in time and space that we can occupy. We then become the centre of our own unique universe.

To feel grounded within the vastness of time, space and circumstance we must first create reality. However reality is not a concrete commodity. How can it be when everyone’s reality differs from another’s?

This is why my universe is different from your universe and anyone else’s.

In my own personal universe Wilson is the closest thing to a friend I have. She talks to me and tells me things she knows I shouldn’t know about. She seems to find more in me to relate to than she does in the Minders, as the prison guards are called.

We are all colour coded here in this grim penal outpost of the Corporation. The Minders all wear grey boiler suits. The Medicos, of which Wilson is a part, all wear white. Prisoners wear lime green, with different coloured piping to denote our status. The ones with red piping are considered dangerous to themselves and others, so they are watched closely. The ones with blue piping are your average prisoner. The ones like me who have orange piping are Trusteds and we get a lot more freedom to roam the place. It was Wilson who got me designated as Trusted. Really I should have been a blue, because I had committed a financial crime against the Corporation and that made me the worse kind of prisoner. But Wilson had got me my orange piping. Somehow!

Jones says Wilson does all that because she loves me. I’m not so sure. I think she looks out for me and protects me because she thinks I’m someone, or something that I’m not.

Today I meet with the Panel and that’s why I’m sitting here in this long hallway waiting to be called into the room where the Panel does their interviews. There are six other people waiting too. I know three of them. There’s big Smidgen sitting across from me. He is in here for murder. The panel believe he’s fixable, so he might even get sent home today. Bright is another I know. He’s a little fidgety man who can’t sit still and whose sharp dark eyes dart everywhere at once. The Panel don’t like fidgety. They’ll increase the drug additives in his food and drink, I think.

Parkinson is the third of the men I know. Parkinson looks fine from the outside. He has that quiet dreamy expression The Panel likes. He sits pretty still and waits patiently. But he isn’t a complete success. Not yet! You see Parkinson isn’t toilet trained. Even now I see he has wet himself, and is sitting in a pool of his own urine. They’ll ramp up his dosage for sure. Wilson says they’ve gone too far already. Wilson has to watch what she says though. She’ll quietly disagree with the Panel but then eventually have to pretend she is happy with their wishes.

Jones is talking in my head again.

Down in the delta, the soil was deep and the farmer’s licked their chops as the produce grew like wildfire. It was a kind of agrarian paradise that everyone should have been happy about, but in my time it became a human boneyard. Blood takes longer to seep into damp soil than it does into the ground of the dry dusty places. I remember thinking that as we tried to get out of there. I guess it has returned to nature by now. Probably even more fertile than ever, given all the human compost deposited there.

Before the main troubles, Caroline and I lived on a farm there for a few months. The farmer was a quiet hardworking man. His wife had once been a jazz pianist. Her name was Dolly and she used to invite us into her home on weekend nights and play piano for us.

For a few hours we could forget about the falling sky, and act like normal people. Those are good memories to carry. Did you know good memories are lighter than bad ones, Dowling? Bad memories will break your back.”

A light flashes red near the door and Smidgen gets up and stands in front of the door. Something sinuous and metallic comes out of the door and shines a light in his left eye. When that action is complete, it withdraws into the door again and the door slides open. As Smidgen eases his big bulk through the opening, I read for the thousandth time, the lettering above the door. IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS CHAOS. THEN CAME THE CORPORATION. The door closes behind Smidgen and the rest of us go back to looking at the blank walls and floors.

All of us except Parkinson. He is carefully studying his hands, back and front. He looks surprised at what he sees. Like there is a really profound truth to be read in those hands, but he is just too tired and confused to figure out what the truth is. A sharp smell like that of ammonia drifts across from him and my nose wrinkles at the sting of it. I wonder what he sees in those hands. Maybe just the red blood flowing freely beneath the white wax his hands are made of.

We all do things like that. With me, it is to remind myself that I actually do exist in a real sense. It is good to check myself out and get a sense of being there in the moment. That’s very important, because sometimes when I look for my reflection in the polished metal walls, I’m not there at all! Worse than that is sometimes the image looking back at me is a stranger. Then I have to quickly check my left wrist, to see if the small scar is there. So far it always has been there. But one day The Corporation might switch me for someone else. Then where will I be?

I see myself reflected on the shining wall beside Parkinson. There are no real mirrors in this place, but the walls are shiny enough to make a good substitute. I know I’m a bit above average height. My brown hair is cropped to only a few millimetres in length and my face is beardless. My name is Dowling and I’m in about my mid-thirties in Earth years. I look tall and strong, but I know that is an illusion. I’m as tough as tissue paper. My muscles are frauds, and my mind is weak.

I can sense Jones mumbling in my mind again, and I try to keep him down and out of sight. He lives in there you see, but he isn’t me. Jones never showed up until I got put in this place. Wilson says the heavy doses of mind altering drugs probably brought him up from where he was buried deep within me, buried deep back there, behind countless generations. Wilson says I better not let The Panel know about him, or they’ll max up the meds and I’ll be left here forever.

Forever is a concept I never thought about until Jones arrived on the scene. But now I get a faint inkling of what the term might mean. Jones thinks of time as linear. I think of it as circular. To me it is days, weeks and months, spinning around a central pin that has 2199 printed on it. That was the year The Corporation stopped time. They, The Corporation, figured out things were just about perfectly as they wanted them right there and then, so they stopped time and now the settled universe is forever 2199. Wilson says the milder drugs they use on the public ensure that nothing new happens anymore, anywhere. The Corporation likes things just as they are.

A little more of Jones’ thoughts filter through.

Crazy place it was, all steel and glass and men in suits. The women wore suits too. They all looked like bright people going about the business of business. But they were monsters in disguise. Once they had you in one of their interrogation rooms, they started to look different, real quick. I remember they all had reptile eyes and sharp too-white teeth. They tortured me for seven days. I screamed through most of those seven days, but told them little. You see I didn’t really know anything much at the time. I was fresh in from the sticks and still not trusted with much information by the activist group.

When they let me out, the first thing I did was find a mirror. I was sure the mirror would show me as having been through a meat grinder. Instead, I found I didn’t have a mark on me. The people in the suits were experts. They knew how to take you for a trip to hell and bring you back without a telltale mark on you. None that you could show anyone! However if there had been some kind of scanner that could look into the core of the mind, they would have been able to see many open wounds that festered with the injustice of it all.

Anton didn’t have a scanner, but he had a sharp mind. He only had to look at me and he seemed to know. He just put a hand on my shoulder, looked into my eyes and nodded. There was no need for either of us to verbalise what we were feeling. After that I became a full member of the group and Anton became my friend. He was a born leader, and I would have followed him anywhere, even followed him back into that steel-and-glass skyscraper where the people with the reptile eyes waited.

Jones’ thoughts go up and down in their intensity. It is like he thinks louder some times more than others. However that has to be an illusion. Can a thought be turned up and down?

When I met Caroline she rocked my world. She was from the better part of town and her folks had money. She dressed in the same jeans and t-shirts the rest of us did, but she wore hers with panache. The rest of us just looked messy and unkempt.

She had long blonde hair and blue eyes. Her body was slim and she was all that and a bag of chips. I fell head over heels for her. She was a poet and she’d read her work to us in the smoky evenings, while we huddled in the rat and cockroach infested rooms we lived in. Huddled together for warmth and fearing the sirens that screamed past our door, on their way to the latest death.

She made me feel inadequate. I remember I used to try not to cross my legs, so she wouldn’t see the soles of my shoes. Those were worn so thin that bits of dirty sock could be seen through the worst places.

I loved her desperately. The rest liked her, but they loved she brought coffee and whitener from home with her. When one day she said she wasn’t going home again, the others were disappointed about the coffee. She moved into my room with me and we made technicolour love in that grim dank cave with its musty smell and scatterings of tiny feet.

A woman can make the least of men feel like he’s a king in a crystal castle. She did that for me. What I received from her, I took out onto the killing streets. It was an aura that I believed the fists and boots of our enemies could not penetrate.

She wrote a lot of our slogans too. Her way with words sharpened the edges of our painted truths. Sometimes they made the crowds quiver with the simple logic they carried, so they were effective in that way. But our enemies hated us more because of the truth and logic.

It had been like this since first a tadpole of man dragged its body ashore on some primordial coast and let its mind fill with the noise and colour of the air world. Truth is a formidable weapon. It drives your enemies insane. They, who control your world, will shut down the truth, however they can. They can’t exist in the face of it, so they destroy the speakers of truths and turn the truths into lies.

The voice drives on, vibrating the fibres of my mind.

The spotlights would split the darkness. The chopper pilots flew their craft in a formation where spotlights overlapped and nothing moving would be missed.

The men manning the guns were trigger happy. The slightest hint of movement would bring forth a burst of .50 calibre slugs. That didn’t bother me much, as I was well hidden and had good cover. It didn’t do much for the emotional state of the nocturnal animals though. Here they were foraging and snuffling through the undergrowth, just minding their business, when beings from the sky suddenly shone bright lights on them and fired at anything they saw move.

The men in the choppers also had imaging technology which showed heat sources, but here in amongst the tangle of exposed roots at the butt of a huge tree, I was pretty much invisible to them.

My five companions had taken cover too, except for poor Winona. She panicked and tried to run. The bullets found her easily then and chewed her up and spat her out. After the choppers were gone we found her body and carried her to a quiet place and returned her to the soil.

She must have had fifty wounds all over her skinny body. I offered up my trench coat, and we rolled the body into it. The big black man and I carried her. She was as light as a small child.

Before she re-entered the soil, I retrieved the blood soiled coat. It would get even colder here, before it got warmer and I would need the protection.

Every time I wore the coat after that, I also wore the woman in my head. The blood stains faded to rust in time, but still they burned me. Burned down deep into my inner being and kept my anger hot and my fear real.

I even called my coat “The Winona Coat”. I guess the madness was already twisting my mind into unfamiliar shapes.

I break into his recollections.

“Your world was a dark terrible place, Jones. I’m glad I wasn’t alive in those days.”

You are entitled to your wishes Dowling, but you don’t know all the facts. I was born a little too late. Right on the tail end of an age that should have been the greatest age of enlightenment man has ever known.

We had it all. We could have eliminated famine, poverty and inequality, but we chose to squander our resources on the weapons of war.

War was all about oil and power and making big money for the arms makers. The countries that made most of the arms were already the richest, so the divide between the rich and the poor grew like a cancer. The poor countries became lands of death and famine. It was a recipe for trouble. When the big trouble did come, many of the citizens of the rich countries couldn’t understand why.

Of course they had been fed a steady diet of misinformation for years. The governments, and the corporate media giants who propped those governments up, had painted a picture in the minds of people that was as false as the institutions were.

We had teetered briefly on the bright edge of a rare period of enlightenment. But the grimy hands of greed reached out and snatched it away. That was what my group fought against, just as the armed groups did. But darkness overtook the light eventually. The blood storm raged for many years and your precious Corporation was the last man left standing.

The Corporation had to stop killing then. For all their inherent brutality, they knew they had to have consumers to survive. But if they had to have consumers, it would be better if they were as mindless as possible, and as placid as possible.

Your world is just as rotten as mine was, Dowling. One day you will understand that.”

I dull his words. I have to go in to see the Panel soon. I know what I have to do. I’ll tell them I am doing really well and all I want to do is go back to Taurus and fulfil my obligations to the Corporation. I’ve bought nothing new for a long time and I know I have to consume to help the Corporation thrive. No sir, I haven’t forgotten how bad I was in forging a false income record so I could buy that airkah for the girl on Europa. Yes sir, her name has been erased and I can’t remember what she looked like.

When it is my turn to face the Panel, I enter the room and take my seat facing them. Wilson is there but off to the side. She is not part of the panel.

The thin man who is in charge of this Panel has dead eyes. They don’t even reflect light. I look into his eyes for a little longer than I should. I see through them to the clever configuration of springs and gears he carries where his brain should be. I cast my eyes lower. I don’t want to cause offence. I focus on a button on his middle-management shirt. The button winks at me and I almost lose my composure.

It takes me a moment to realise the button is a camera, or some other sensing device. I also realise the man hasn’t got a head full of springs and gears. He probably has a brain that works like clockwork though.

The man speaks and his voice is thin. It barely makes it from his narrow lips to my ear.

“Dowling, you are aware that you are responsible for paying back the credits you foolishly stole from the Corporation?”

I look up briefly and keep my response to a short nod. He continues.

“You don’t have enough saved credits to pay off your debt. So in addition to accessing your savings, the Corporation feels it will be necessary to take possession of your apartment and sell it. That will pay out your outstanding debt, but you must remember that institutions like the one you are currently residing in take money to run. You will incur a debt for every day you spend in here.”

I nod again. Of course I know all this. I also know that even if I get out of here soon, I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life.

Apart from that, the Panel is happy enough with me, so they leave my meds alone. They don’t think I’m ready to go home though. I thank them and leave, taking care not to look at Wilson. The Panel doesn’t like the staff getting too close to a prisoner.

I’m glad they didn’t increase the meds. They confuse me. My brain won’t work properly. I have to drag out every thought I have and examine it closely before I can see it clearly. Not when Jones is about though. Oh no! Thoughts toe the line then. But are those ready thoughts his or mine? It is getting harder to tell.

I go out past another group of waiting prisoners. I wish them luck, but I don’t verbalise the thought. You never know who or what could be listening and feeling sorry for other prisoners is another thing frowned upon.

Jones says one time there were different classes of prisoners. But now it doesn’t matter if you are guilty of breaking Corporation law, insane, or too sick to work. All of us are just classified as Maladjusted.

The Corporation tries to mend and rehabilitate the Maladjusts, in places like this. They are only 99% successful. The other 1% are helped to pass away quietly in their sleep. It is all very civilised and humane.

If my mind wasn’t full of these cotton wool clouds I’d probably be horrified by the casual cruelty of such a system. But the best emotion I can muster most times is a sick disinterest. And a dark hole of denial to hide in.

Denial can be a good place to escape to, but it is always only a temporary refuge. Reality always comes knocking on the door and eventually you have to open the door and let it in. However, even then, you are not sure about the identity of your caller. Reality wears a million different masks and you can never be sure which alternate of reality you may be seeing at any given time.

Jones says that people can actually construct their own realities. They might build a whole universe based on nothing but the desire for the universe to be as they wish. To those people their false reality is a real place and many live a long life and die without ever knowing they’ve been living a lie all their life.

He says it serves a purpose for those folks. They find the tiny glimpses we are all afforded of what might really be reality as too scary to live with, so they make a happier and more predictable facsimile they can live more easily with.

I want my own universe.


Chapter Three

I’m sitting in my cubicle waiting for the door to open. Jones is holding forth again.

The number of my years, those that I remember, totalled 38. So 22 of those years were spent in the city and on the run. I ran through three different continents, trying to evade the hunters. One can only run so far, or so fast. I was always going to die young.

During my lifetime the world had become a place where tides of wretched humanity washed against fatal sands. War and famine forced people from their homelands and they wandered stateless, in search of that which the lands of plenty guarded closely.

There was nowhere to go home to and nowhere to go to, so they wandered. Tribes lost in the wilderness of the first world. To their eyes the lands they passed through had plenty to share, but they shared little. At first they just hustled the tribes across their borders into the lands of their neighbours. The starving and sick were not their problem. Let someone else deal with it.

Later, when borders everywhere were being closed by steel and gun, they filled mass graves with the unwanted wreckage that ran aground on their lands. The dead don’t eat and they don’t carry sedition in their hearts, or alien concepts in their minds.

I spent some time with one group of Africans. They welcomed me into their fold, and shared with me the tiny bit they had. I didn’t stay with them long. They were slow, hopeless wanderers. I was a runner. Speed was my tactic. We shared the same enemies though. We shared the same future as well.

I often wondered what had happened to the hearts of the people who refused these wanderers refuge. What had turned hearts to stone and minds to straw?

My belief is that it was the big media giants who helped the governments and churches shape the minds and warp the hearts of the masses. Humanity is gullible. No question about it! They have proven that, time and time again. A clever organisation can take control of everything. And an individual who knows how to fire up the minds of the gullible will find himself king in a castle built on lies and fears.

In such a world the greedy and cruel are granted the cloak of normality. Anyone else is viewed as an enemy who must be destroyed.

My guess is that greed and selfishness is probably hardwired into us at conception. It might stem from primitive survival techniques. So an individual who exhibits such traits is a survivor. He extends that greed and selfishness to include his community, race and nation. The individual knows he needs to be a part of his communal group to thrive. He knows if the group survives, then he too will most likely survive.

Don’t be fooled by the love he professes for tribe, race, or nation. He is mainly interested in his own survival, nothing more than that. Of course he will not always have enough insight to know that about himself. When someone sets out to deceive, the first person who must be deceived is the person in the mirror.”

“I find it difficult to believe any of this is real, Jones.”

What is reality, Dowling? What we think is real depends on our minds to a large degree. Reality is an outline sketched in charcoal on rough paper. We fill in the blanks with our own filtered perspectives, and colour it with our wishes and needs. So reality is maybe 10% of anything. The other 90% is a construct of our own making.”

“Do you believe you are real, Jones? Or do you think you are a construct of my scattered mind? Are you a ghost born of a mind warped by chemicals and twisted by the Mind Engineers of the Corporation?”

Touché Dowling! You hit upon a good question there. Well by my own theory, I’m 10% real at least. But did you add the remaining 90%, or did I? I think that’s where your question leads. It is a moot point at this stage of our shared story though. We must both trust the other to be real. I’ll throw the question back at you. I ask you, are you just a construct of my mind? Did the strength of what I believe throw you up in my dying mind as my way of ensuring my dreams didn’t die with me?”

“Don’t turn the question back on me, Jones. I am flesh and blood, bone and sinew. You on the other hand, are a shadow in the darkness of my mind. Logically I must concede you are the remnants of an intelligence that has somehow endured for a very long time, housed somehow within the minds of many generations. But does that make you as real as I am? I am more than just another man’s memories, surely?”

Just as I am more than simply an unwanted passenger of yours. I feel your blood flowing, I sense the play of muscles when you move. I know your thoughts while they are still unborn. We are each other, Dowling. If you want reality, then there it is in a nutshell.”

“You consider us as indivisible?”

I think so. We are each other’s reality. What percentage of that is perceived, we may never know. I’ll go along with Wilson’s theory on the reason we are both aware of each other, to a point. I think we do have a role to play in advancing humanity. Is this situation an accidental one, or is there an external force which guides our minds? Or is there an internal force for that matter? We have no choice but to play out this game and hope we aren’t playing with a marked deck.”

“Wilson says that it would be interesting to see what part of my brain is most active when you and I communicate. But she also says that might not be accurate because any brain activity might simply be a reaction to the communication and prove nothing.”

Wilson wants to know the nuts and bolts, Dowling. Perhaps we should not concern ourselves so much about why this situation has occurred. Instead we should be more concentrated on the potential our situation has opened up. Let the Mind Engineers worry about how it happened, and let us make use of it in the meantime.”

“It makes my head spin!”

The questions of existence, knowledge, and reality have made the heads of thinkers spin for many thousands of years. You are not alone in your dilemma, Dowling. Many have gone before you.

Anyway I’m not sure if knowing all the mechanics of these concepts would be a good thing. Humanity is still an infant learning how to manipulate its limbs. It isn’t anywhere near ready to learn all there is to know about the mind.”

“When will it be time for us to know these things?”

Maybe it never will be time. If everyone knew everything about all things, perhaps the universe would cease to exist. It may be the questions that underpin the psychical universe, not the answers.”

“The Corporation board would know the answers. I wish they would tell us.”

They might know some of the answers. But if they do, they are keeping such knowledge to themselves. Also how do you know they are real people Dowling? You might open the door to the great board room and find there is only a computer in an otherwise empty room. Or you might find a group of white mice or black cats.”

“That’s crazy talk, Jones. I think you just say things like that to confuse me even more.”

Perhaps I do a little of that. Oh yes, I forgot to add that the cats and mice would be wearing business suits!”

He is teasing again!

Did I tell you about the man with three eyes?”

“I don’t believe so, Jones.”

It was when I was a kid. I guess I was about 10. A new family came to live in our town. They were a pale family with white skin and whitish hair and eyes that were barely blue.

They had two kids. I liked the girl. She was older than me and had little bumps on her chest already. She was my first experience of sexual attraction. Not that I knew what was happening at the time. All I knew was that my body was acting in ways it hadn’t done before.

She didn’t notice me though. Not even when I went out of my way to befriend her rat brother.

I called him Rat because his name was something like Rack, but Rat suited him better. He had the see-all eyes and the quivering nose of a rat. He was always getting into some kind of mischief.

His dad always wore a brown cap pulled down low over his forehead. One day I was visiting Rat, hoping to catch a glimpse of his sister, when Daddy Rat took off his cap as he sat to have coffee at his kitchen table. He had the same whitish hair as the others. His huge forehead seemed to bulge out too much. As if there was something in there that was growing, and would one day cause his head to explode.

But it wasn’t the bulge of his forehead that shocked me. It was the big black eye right in the middle of it. I remember standing shock still and staring at it for a long time. Mother always said it was rude to stare, but I couldn’t help myself.

So I stood there, and the eye and I studied each other cautiously. Mr. Rat’s two ordinary eyes never left his coffee and cake, so he never saw my rudeness. Not with his two blue eyes anyway.

Later I asked Rat about his dad’s third eye. He chattered a rodent laugh.

That isn’t a real eye, stupid. It’s a tattoo!”

It had looked real enough to me.

Why has he got an eye tattooed on his forehead? I guess that’s why he keeps his cap on most times. It sure scared the bejesus out of me!”

Rat used a long finger nail to scrape some old food from between his gold tooth and a real one. Finally satisfied, he brushed the particle of food left on his finger nail off on his shirt.

It’s to do with dad’s religion. When we came to live here, dad wanted to get the tattoo removed, but it cost too much. So he just wears a cap instead.”

Later when I had time to think it through, I realised that Daddy Rat’s dilemma was a life lesson I could take something from.

Once you are branded as something, it is very hard to ever return to what you were. You can get the brand removed, or you can cover it up, but the shadow of it will always stay with you.

I wonder what happened to the Rat family. Unlike real rats I don’t think they were born survivors. They probably died early and badly.

“What is the big point to that story, Jones? Or do you just like reminiscing?”

Not everything has to have a big point to it, Dowling. Or rather, sometimes it takes a lot of small points to make a big one.”


Chapter Four

Jones:

My childhood was pretty typical of the time. I remember things being pretty good, most of the time. I was well fed and cared for. The only dark side was the tension I felt existed between the two big people who were my parents.

That tension eventually disturbed my days and played havoc with my nights. I took to having nightmares most nights. They were lurid dreams in which my Father was dead or in danger of dying. I became afraid to sleep. I’d lie in my bed and I’d think of all kinds of tactics to stop from going to sleep. But no matter how hard I tried, eventually my eyes would close and the nightmares would come galloping in, from wherever they spent the waking hours.

It was about that time that I learned about death. For the first few years of your life you imagine you are always going to be around. When you first find out about the concept of death, it comes as a rude shock. When I discovered mortality it shook me up real bad.

I figured on asking my dad about it, so I went into the big shed he called his workshop. He was using a chisel to make patterns on a wooden panel. I hung around near him for a few minutes trying to gather up enough courage. He must have sensed I had something pretty weighty on my mind.

What’s the matter, son? You look like a lost sheep moping around there.”

Dad, what is death? Is there a heaven? Mother says there is and all good people will go there and live forever.”

Dad put down the chisel, reached out, and tousled my hair.

Don’t fret about it, boy. Whatever comes will come when it is ready to. Worrying about it won’t help.”

Do you believe in heaven too Dad? You never come to church with Mother and me on Sundays. Mum says it’s because grandpa and grandma didn’t teach you right.”

My father’s smile faded from his face.

I guess I have to tell you something, boy. Your mother believes in a fairytale being that rules this wonderful place in the sky, where all the good people, and more importantly the right people, can live out eternity. I believe that is all nonsense. You are born, you live, you die. That is all there is to it. End of story.”


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