There isn’t much to say about current world madness. Apparently Harry and Meghan are going to leave home. Well they are in their thirties, old enough to make their own choices. I rather suspect they’ll leave behind more than they think they will, and that there’ll be no way back, but still the choice is theirs. Nobody can or should make that choice for them.
Iran has admitted that they shot down the passenger jet in a massive cock-up by the missile crew. I suspected that would be the case. Nothing underhand here, it was a cock-up that resulted in a lot of deaths. Not the first in the world by a long way and it won’t be the last.
The people of Iran are protesting. They want their oppressive leaders ousted. I hope no other country interferes – ‘regime change’ is best done from within and with no occupying forces left behind afterwards. Meddling in other countries’ governance has never ended well. Let them sort it out themselves. The turning point will come when the security forces realise they are shooting at their own families. That’s where the change happens.
So, people out there are making changes in their lives. I say, leave them to it. It’s nobody else’s business unless they ask for help. If they don’t ask, don’t force it on them.
Well, Leg Iron Books is off to a busy start. Thanks to Gastradamus for deciding to delay the release of his book while he perfects it to the absolute best it can be. It took a lot of pressure off over Christmas, but that’s still moving forward. There is a collection of short stories from Justin Sanebridge in the early stages of assembly and more stories in from a new author, Jude Wanderer, who you’ll be hearing more of. In March, we’ll have Underdog Anthology 11 (Legiron’s Eleven?) starting up and I have promised to do at least a chapter a week on Panoptica. It’s the only New Year Resolution I ever made that I had the slightest intention of keeping.
So here’s chapter 8. I’m still seven chapters ahead. The frequency might decline to one a week if these other books take up much time but I am determined to finally finish this thing.
If you think this one is confusing, try to imagine how 10538 feels…
Panoptica: Chapter 8
“10538. Are you ill?” Someone shook his shoulder.
10538 blinked his eyes open. He sat on a soft chair in a brightly lit room with a window. Seated opposite him, behind a wide desk, was 86929 – no, the barcode read 20929. How could he get that wrong? And yet the face…
“Sorry.” 10538 shook his head. “I feel a little strange.”
“The doctors did say you were stressed and overworked.” The voice came from the one who had shaken his shoulder. 10538 looked up.
Standing beside him, grinning, was 84823 – no, the code read 18823. Wrong again! Was he losing his touch? Reading the onesie barcodes had become easy, perhaps he was taking it for granted and getting lax.
“It’s okay.” 20929 leaned forward. “We understand. The doctors explained everything.”
“Doctors?” 10538 raised his hands and stared at them. Weren’t these tied or something? He looked around the room. How did I get here? Where am I? “What doctors?”
18823 glanced at 20929 before speaking. “The ones who visited you at home this morning. They diagnosed you with stress, and they called to say you would be late for work. They also recommended a reduction in your workload.”
“I don’t remember any of that.” 10538 felt panic rise. “Where am I? What’s going on?”
“Stay calm. There is no cause for alarm.” 20929 moved a glass of water towards 10538. “The doctors advised us that occasional memory loss and,” he lowered his head to stare at 10538, “sometimes even a short loss of consciousness are normal for the overstressed. Don’t worry, the effects can be cured.”
“They can? Will I get my memory back?” 10538 picked up the glass and took a long drink.
“Sure.” 18823 patted his shoulder. “Everything will be fine. This interview is to decide how best to cure your stress. It’s pretty severe and we really want to help you.”
“You have been an exemplary worker, 10538.” 20929 tapped at his screenpad. “Never late, no complaints at all, diligent and conscientious. You have put so much into your job it seems you have left little for yourself.” He put his elbows on the table, clasped his hands and looked at 10538. “I think we can offer you an early retirement. How would you like to go to Pensionville, where you can relax and recover at leisure?”
“I…” 10538 realised his mouth hung open. He closed it. Didn’t I just go through this same scene, but a little different? Did I dream that? The memory floated, distant and elusive, just like a dream. “I don’t know what to say. I had no idea I was overworked. I love my job, it’s important, it makes me feel wanted and useful.”
“We all have important jobs.” The two units recited the mantra.
“There comes a time, for all of us,” 20929 became serious, “when we hand over our important job to the next in line. Then we can relax, retire, take it easy for the rest of our lives. You, 10538, by virtue of your diligence and your special skill of reading barcodes, now have the chance to take that retirement. To relax, to spend your days any way you choose, to recover from the stress your work has imposed on you and to be happy all the time. Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t it what we all want?”
“Yes.” I suppose. “But my job. My cameras.” 10538’s head spun. Were there doctors at his home this morning? There was a faint recollection, a hint of memory but it slid away when he tried to focus on it. Something else too. Something about a bus.
“Oh don’t worry about your job. It will be reallocated. It’s time to think of yourself now. You have worked so hard, you have earned this.” 18823 squeezed 10538’s shoulder, gently. “You can relax now. Take the train to Pensionville and retire in the knowledge you have done well.”
20929 nodded his head. “We are all very proud of you, 10538. You have worked so hard. Too hard, really. You have earned this reward.”
Reward. I was rewarded for something else. Wasn’t I? 10538 could not remember any other reward. Maybe this was his reward. Maybe he dreamed that too. He put his head in his hands.
“Aren’t you pleased?” 18823 placed a gentle hand on 10538’s shoulder. “You’ll spend the rest of your life in warmth and comfort, doing just as you like.”
“It’s just—” 10538 licked his dry lips. “I can’t seem to tell the difference between reality and dreams. I feel like I’ve forgotten something but when I try to remember, it just fades away.”
18823 squeezed 10538’s shoulder. “That’s the effect of stress. Those feelings will fade in Pensionville. You’ll be surprised how fast you’ll stop worrying when you get there.”
10538 pursed his lips and considered his options. There was really only one option. The stress he was under was affecting his mind. He could insist on staying and perhaps go insane and end up in New Bedlam, or he could take the easy, comfortable conformity of retirement. He decided to comply. “I accept. When do I leave?”
20929 leaned back and spread his arms. “At once. Your retirement, once accepted, is effective immediately. 18823 will take you to the station, and the train is ready to leave.”
“At once?” 10538 was taken aback. “But I need to change. This onesie feels like I’ve been wearing it for days. And I would like to tell 11712 about my good fortune. Is there time?”
20929 and 18823 exchanged a glance. 18823 left the room.
“There’s no time to see your friend. We will convey your good news for you. However, there is time to change your clothing. 18823 is fetching you a fresh one now.” 20929 nodded and smiled then leaned forward, his elbows on the desk. His face became serious. “Tell me, 10538, did you ever see a ghost on your monitors?”
Ghost. Wasn’t there one, once? Was it a dream? A wishful thought? 10538 closed his eyes and tried to recall, but the memories flitted out of reach as if taunting him. He took a deep breath. “No. Nothing but comfortable compliant conformity. I never saw a terrorist on my screens.”
20929 seemed to relax. He moved back a little and smiled again. “That’s a good thing. You watched over everyone, and just because you didn’t see any threat doesn’t mean that your time was wasted. You have spent your time here doing a very important job and now it’s time for your reward. Peace and contented conformity.”
Reward. That word again. It echoed in 10538’s brain as if trying to connect with something but at last, finding nothing, it faded.
18823 returned with a folded onesie and placed it on the table in front of 10538.
“We’ll give you privacy to change. Only the cameras will be watching.” 20929 rose and headed for the door. 18823 followed.
The door closed. Alone, apart from the ever-present cameras, 10538 stared at the folded onesie on the desk. His head swirled. Retirement. Reward. 11712. Ghost. Terrorist. The words bounced inside his skull looking for a place to connect but every connection was blocked. Stress, they had said. Just stress and overwork. 10538 sighed and reached for the fresh clothing.