Time for a scare

I write horror fiction. Usually with not too much gore, I prefer to get into some really scary things. More psychological horror than plain old slash and burn. So let’s play with an idea.

The premise is, the bad guy wants to wipe out a large chunk of the population. But he doesn’t want to be Vlad the Impaler. He doesn’t want to get any blame for this at all. How could he arrange that? The absolute best scenario is a large chunk of the surplus population wipe themselves out, while everyone thinks he was actually trying to save them. Better yet, that they never know he exists at all.

Save them from what? Well, a virus is a good, scary thing. Especially one that spreads really fast. It doesn’t have to be too deadly, it just needs to be scary. Maybe he can get one bioengineered or just wait for the right kind of flu to appear on its own.

So he has them all scared of this invisible monster. What then? The virus won’t wipe them out. Remember, he doesn’t want to be held responsible for wiping them out. In fact, he need not appear on the scene at all. He doesn’t need to be in government. Government responses are entirely predictable. He just needs to leak certain rumours.

First of all he wants to turn many people’s homes into death traps. He needs them filled with highly flammable dry goods. Like, say, toilet paper.

All he needs to do is let the press get hold of some photos of empty toilet paper shelves. That is really no problem at all. All shop shelves are emptied and cleaned periodically so a photo of the toilet paper shelves during this process is easy. Then sit back and wait for them to panic-buy it. The idiots he wants to get rid of will soon have floor to ceiling fire fodder.

But what will light it?

Well, the government is certain to close the pubs as part of their quarantine measures. People will fill their houses with alcohol, get drunk, and eventually – foosh!

Didn’t work though. They mostly bought beer and wine which doesn’t burn, in fact it would put out fire. Have to try something else.

Tell the press there might be power cuts. The loonies who bought all that toilet paper will have a load of candles. That might set off a few, but one more thing just to make sure.

Ah yes. Perfect.

Soon there will be houses filled with paper, alcohol, candles and stacked up petrol cans. None of the shortages are real. They are caused by the first round of hoarders and exacerbated by following rounds. Yet the shelves and pumps are always restocked, so the hoards get ever bigger.

All it takes then is a power cut. They light the candles, drink the booze, and sooner or later… Every one of them should take out a few neighbours too. A whole street of hoarders would go up like a giant firecracker.

In all this, my bad guy will have done nothing but give the press a few stories. His name is never mentioned. Nobody knows who he is, nor even suspects that he exists. They just follow what the news tells them and react in entirely predictable fashion. The resulting firestorm is blamed squarely on the hoarders.

Well, that’s an outline for a horror story. It’s fiction, of course. What do you think? Is it plausible? Will it work?

I have a feeling it might, you know.

(The petrol station story, like the banning-booze stories circulating today, might be an April Fool joke. If it is, it only proves that the news is staffed by utter fuckwits with no idea what effect they have just had). Oh, and it further separates my hypothetical bad guy from the consequences of his actions 😉

Anthology 11

Should I call it ‘Legiron’s 11’ I wonder? Or maybe just ‘Quarantine’. I’m really just getting into the editing after the events of the past month or so. Just to add to the mix, my uncle (Dad’s brother) has been diagnosed with cancer. It hasn’t spread, so normally it could be excised, but it’s a big operation and the risk of catching the Coronavirus in hospital is pretty high. So he has to endure radiotherapy.

I have to get back to real life. We’re going to be locked down until the end of April at least. Lifting the restrictions too soon will just make the thing surge again. I’m still seeing ‘oh but the flu kills more people’ coming up online and yes, it (so far) does. But it is not about the kill rate.

I don’t know if this is an escaped bioweapon, but if it is, it’s a good one. The kill rate is just enough to be scary, but its real damage is to infrastructure. You can be spreading it for up to 14 days before you know you have it. Everyone you infect will do the same. Unlike flu, which does hospitalise and kill a lot of people over a period of months, this one can lead to a massive surge in hospitalisations in a week. So businesses are shut down and everyone is scared of each other. People are afraid to leave their homes. Economies collapse, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. It’s the perfect Blind Assassin.

It still could have arisen by chance, but I think China is going to suffer for this either way.

My uncle cannot now get that surgery because of the virus. Many, many others cannot get treatment for a wide range of other illnesses because of the virus. All GP surgeries are closed here, this is no time to get sick with anything at all. You will not be listed as being killed by the virus but you may well die as a result of its existence.

Forget the bloody kill rate of the virus. It is much more serious than just some body bag numbers. If it spikes like in Italy, you won’t get treatment for anything at all because if you have an underlying condition this thing could finish you off.

Take it seriously. It is not a hoax. It is not a game. It is not, in itself, a power grab although every vested interest out there is using it to try for one. It probably won’t kill you. 80% of cases don’t even need to go to hospital. But if you’re involved in an accident or have a stroke or heart attack, the fast response you need is not going to be available – and that may very well kill you.

But back to the point. I am getting myself motivated again. The official closing date for Anthology 11 is Tuesday and I have enough stories in to make it worthwhile – and there is still time for more. I will have to check with authors that I have received everything they sent and haven’t lost anything because of the chaos in February and March. Publication is still set for mid April.

I have also reduced the price of all 10 anthologies to 99p/99 cents. Just waiting for Amazon to update them all before spreading the word. Parity is because the pound is low against the dollar and the remaining difference is removed because the UK has a tax on eBooks while the USA doesn’t. Non-US prices might change, but 99-cents is the base price. They will stay that way throughout lockdown.

I will price the next one the same, even though at £12 per story it’s going to leave quite a hole to fill. There’s no point trying to break even on these when everyone has all the time in the world to read books but no money to buy them. If it gets the Leg Iron Books site noticed and sells some of the other authors’ books too, it’s worth it.

There is, still, the omnibus edition of last year’s anthologies. I’ll still do it but while the originals are 99p it really doesn’t make much difference. So that’s not a priority.

I’m considering doing the same for my own eBooks. It won’t make me any money but it might get the books noticed. If any of the other authors are reading, would you consider it too? I’m not dropping any prices without author consent.

I cannot cut prices on print books. Those are already to the bone. I can cut them on eBooks but it does mean pennies per eBook for any author who agrees to it. It would be until the end of lockdown, likely to be until the summer the way things are looking. I will contact all the authors who don’t respond here over the next week and see how they feel about it.

Back to work. It’s not like I can do much else, is it?

The Mouse War

Living in the country, you get mice coming in every winter. Never fails. We’ve even had a shrew in the living room. Gloom Dog dealt with it.

We also get very high humidity in summer. Weeks of rain, saturated ground, then one warm sunny day and you can hardly breathe. It’s even worse outside than inside. For this reason, as well as the annual mice, anything that can be affected by humidity or mice is in plastic, glass or metal containers. Sugar, rice, flour, pasta, anything like that.

This year the little hairy bastards have been especially persistent. Every one we kill is instantly replaced. I’m really glad we don’t have a hoard of flour or pasta, nor a hoard of lovely nesting materials like toilet paper. We’d be overrun, as the hoarders will be soon. We have just enough to store safely.

This is the first year I’ve caught them running across the kitchen worktops. So this year, the Mouse War has gone nuclear. I have seven traps and eleven bait stations around the house. It’s a big house and we rarely use most of the upstairs rooms anyway – especially in winter because there’s no heating up there. All of them are now death traps.

The only food available to the mice (aside from the Death Blocks and Springy Head Smashers) is Gloom Dog’s dry food supply. Gloom Dog does not appreciate her food being stolen so she has stomped a few – and has become better at it since she’s realised she gets rewarded with bacon for every stomping. Since Gloom Dog has her nose in absolutely everything (painting skirting boards is a nightmare) all the Death Blocks have to be encased in the Boxes of Doom that only the mice can get into. Fortunately these are cheap, I bought one big one in Home Bargains and a pack of 10 smaller ones on Amazon. The Death Blocks are cheap too. I’m currently using Roshield which is working.

Gloom Dog has been ill recently. The vet has her on four medications at once so she’s now Stoner Dog. She’s a less effective mouser after she gets her daily dose of painkiller and then just lies around watching the rainbow dragons dance. She’s recovering though, she’ll be back on stomping duty soon.

I handle the Death Blocks with latex gloves on – one of many recent benefits of having all my lab stuff here now. I don’t know if mouse poison can be absorbed through skin and I’m not willing to chance it. This isn’t a suicide mission.

I know, there are humane mouse traps that let the hairy ninjas live but once you’ve seen one run out from behind the bread bin and dive behind the cooker, you can forget humane methods. These things have got to go.

In summer I have to find out where they get in. That won’t be easy, there is one hell of a perimeter around this place and parts of it have been losing mortar since the 1700s. I suspect the utility room, since it has the walls built in 1830 still as exposed stone on the inside. There are bound to be holes in there. They don’t need to be very big holes. If you can poke a pencil through, a mouse can get through.

I have considered offering my cousins a free holiday, the ones who are in the building trade. They’d have that room fully pointed and rendered in no time. Unfortunately they live in Wales, they are always busy, and travel is going to be restricted this summer. My mother had planned to visit next month for my 60th birthday but that’s out of the question now. I might not even be able to see my kids by then.

I was lucky to get to my father’s funeral which was very well attended. Funerals are now restricted to immediate family only and all the churches are closed. I read out a version of this at my dad’s funeral. It didn’t seem real until the curtains closed around the coffin at the crematorium. The only shaft of sunlight that whole day rested on the curtains as they closed. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but my son built the casket for my father’s ashes. He learned his woodworking skills from my father so it was very fitting indeed.

So, I am engaged in a war on the mice. Not a war on the Chinese virus (Oh yes it is) because self isolation is no issue for someone who hasn’t even bothered to get dressed for the last few days. The mice, for me, are a more pressing concern right now.

Also the eleventh Underdog Anthology. It is going to be delayed but it is going ahead. As it’s all online there are no contamination issues. Payments will be PayPal or bank transfer. I’m uninfected but I’m not sending cheques because that would force people to go to the bank which will be full of potential plague carriers. Bank branches are likely to be closed soon anyway. Within the UK I can get Amazon to send books directly to those who prefer to be paid that way.

Gradually, life is getting back up to speed. Although I might yet have to spend a night in the kitchen on a swivel chair, holding a crossbow, if the poison doesn’t get the little buggers.

Book stuff

Author payment time has been calculated and it’s not great this quarter. With all that’s happened it’s not too surprising, I suppose. It does need to boost and that will need some author activity. I cannot market all the books alone and to be honest, with my policy of not taking a cut from low royalty returns, if the authors want to get anywhere they really have to do something to achieve that.

One author gets it and is doing well, within the limitations of this tiny publisher. I am going to copy this approach with my own books and see how it works out. Remember, we are not in competition here, we are each chasing a different market, so sharing ideas is not disadvantaging anyone.

It doesn’t have to cost money and the scare on Coronavirus could indeed help.

We make more per sale on ebooks than on print copies anyway 😉

Virus science

Tomorrow, midnight, is the end of the quarter at Leg Iron Books and author royalties (if any) will go out on time. The anthology is going ahead too, it will close for submissions on March 31st although editing and publication will be delayed because of my father’s funeral. The delay on that has also put a complete stop on my own writing and on any kind of marketing.

I’m estimating mid to late April for publication on Anthology 11. It doesn’t affect this one too much since it’s not tied to a specific event like the Halloween and Christmas anthologies. It will be the Spring anthology, just a little later than usual. Spring is going to be delayed too, if there is any accuracy in the weather forecasts.

Anyway, science. I am/was a bacteriologist, not a virologist. I specialised in intestinal disease, pro- and prebiotics and in developing farm animal feeds mainly. Also, intestinal simulations, so I could run experiments on gut contents without animals messing it all up. So this is going to look a bit simplistic to a virologist who will have studied this in far more detail than me.

The current coronavirus is generating all kinds of conflicting reports, from ‘oh it’s just the flu’ to some serious tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theories. I read one that claimed the Spanish flu was bioengineered, some 30 years before Watson and Crick and around 70 years before DNA sequencing became a viable lab procedure. This somewhat dented the credibility of that story.

First, it is not the flu. The first round apparently has mild flu-like symptoms and will kill maybe 2% of those it infects. I have seen heartless bastards on Twitter type ‘yeah, but it’s just the elderly and the sick who die’. Will they say the same if their parents get it? Oh, and the doctor in Wuhan who died was 33 and in fine health.

The problem with this one, as compared to flu, is that it has a long incubation period where an infected person can shed the virus for around two weeks (or possibly more) without showing symptoms. Flu doesn’t do that. It also seems to have a gene or two from HIV which means it’s much more likely to infect anyone it comes in contact with.

It also appears that you don’t develop immunity, as with the common cold. You can catch it again. This means that even if someone does develop a vaccine it will be irrelevant. You simply do not develop immunity. The vaccine will achieve nothing. Or… it could make things much worse.

This one seems to do most of its killing on the second round of infection. It seems to be able to use antibody-dependent enhancement which means that the second time it infects, your immune system can’t kill it even though it’s trying to. This might or might not be the case, there is still a lot nobody really knows about this thing.

As Delphius says, it is possible that the first ‘infection’ was really normal flu or a cold, misdiagnosed. That would be understandable. The Chinese medics are overwhelmed and the authorities are dragging anyone with a temperature or a cough into the coronavirus hospitals. So, maybe they only caught the coronavirus after they arrived. The deaths could then be due to already-sick people getting stuffed in with those infected with coronavirus, and simply being overloaded with two respiratory infections at once.

So it is not flu. It has a remarkably long incubation period during which it is infectious and it is much, much easier to catch than flu. If it is true that you cannot develop immunity and that the second infection is far more serious than the first, then it really is nothing at all like flu. It’s too early to be certain on those last two points.

So, is it a bioweapon? Well it would be a really good one but only an idiot would release such a bioweapon in this age of global travel. You could get several times around the world before showing symptoms. Bioweapons are not going to stay where you put them, that should be obvious. There is a very good chance it will come back to bite you.

A bioweapon should not have a high kill rate. Your victims would simply bury or cremate the bodies and move on. A bioweapon should debilitate, while killing just enough to scare the crap out of everyone else. Loads of sick people will have exactly the effect we are seeing – medical facilities overwhelmed,infrastructure collapsing, travel and supply chains shut down…

The theory that it is a bioweapon comes from the HIV-like genes in it. Could that have been made in a lab? Oh hell yes. Building a strand of viral DNA or RNA is no problem. There isn’t much of it and we have machines that can do it overnight. It has in fact been done – poliovirus has been created in a lab. But that doesn’t mean someone made it, only that they could.

The other option – could it arise naturally? Viruses do not mate within their own species, much less with other species. They only reproduce within a host cell. They change due to mutations and errors in copying their genetic code and in assembling new viruses.

When a virus infects, it dumps its genetic code into the cell. That code, DNA or RNA, then uses the cell’s own mechanisms to read its genes and assemble new viruses. It’s like someone getting into a factory with a set of blueprints and making their own stuff using the factory’s tools.

The thing is, they are idiots. They have the blueprints to make new copies of themselves but the mechanisms they are using are not set up to make viruses. Oh each cell might make hundreds of viruses, in an infection there might be billions of new viruses produced but a lot of them will be wrong.

In the case of this Coronavirus it will create protein coats and stuff RNA into them. Some of them will be missing genes and won’t be viable. Some protein coats won’t have any RNA in them. Some will be filled with RNA from the host cell. Some will have a mix of virus and host RNA. These will attach to other cells and inject whatever they have inside, which will do… nothing, usually. This happens with all viruses. They make loads of copies in each cell but a good proportion of those copies are failures. Doesn’t matter, as long as they make enough good ones.

This has actually been considered as a treatment for some genetic ailments, such as cystic fibrosis. Create viruses containing the host’s missing gene and hope the cells take it up. I haven’t heard any more on that for years so I don’t know whether it progressed.

Right, so how does it get HIV genes?

HIV is a retrovirus. It contains RNA, but on entering a host cell it uses an enzyme that’s only found in retroviruses, called reverse transcriptase, to turn its RNA into DNA.

I should digress a little here… Living cells above viruses store their genetic information in DNA. The proteins it codes for are made on little machines called ribosomes. The cell has to get copies of the blueprints (DNA) to the machines (ribosomes) without using up its only original copy, and if it wants to make a lot of one particular protein it will need more than one copy anyway. This involves an enzyme called transcriptase which makes RNA copies of the DNA blueprint. The ribosomes use the copies, not the original, to make proteins. There’s a lot more to it but I’m retired from lecturing 😉

So, HIV gets its RNA in, turns it into DNA and now it has a master copy to make multiple RNA copies for the ribosomes.

But wait – HIV has another trick. Once it’s turned into DNA it can get into the host DNA and hide there. It can then send out a few copies as RNA to make just a few viruses at a time. The host doesn’t get sick, doesn’t even know it’s there, possibly for many years.

Now, if a coronavirus infects a cell that’s already infected with HIV, and the HIV is currently making a few copies to send out into the world, it is possible that a few of the protein coats contain full coronavirus RNA plus a few genes from the HIV RNA. Most of them will contain genes that don’t help but a few might contain the genes that give it a new site of attachment to the host cell.

Attachment is coded into the protein coat, how it sticks to cells depends on the proteins on its surface. If it picks up the right HIV genes, its next infection will produce protein coats with the HIV attachment sites built in.

It really doesn’t need more than one per billion to get this new virus going. Out of the billions sneezed out, only one single enhanced virus needs to get into a new host and the new host will sneeze out billions of the new virus. It has an advantage over its ‘parent’ in that it is now better at attaching to host cells.

Yes. It could have arisen naturally. Mutation and development of any creature is simply a numbers game and viruses produce numbers that will make an astrophysicist’s head hurt.

That just leaves the long incubation period.

The classic school-level teaching of viruses is very basic. Virus gets in, makes loads of copies of itself, bursts the host cell and infects other cells. Many viruses do this.

Not all. Some viruses ‘bud off’ their copies from the host cell so the host cell stays alive longer and therefore makes more copies of the virus before it dies. A HIV virus hiding in the host DNA will do this for years, and we already know the new coronavirus has acquired some HIV genes.

So – and this is pure theory – suppose it’s budding off viruses but not killing cells for a few weeks before it goes – ahem – viral. You don’t get sick yet. It doesn’t have all of HIV’s genes, so it can’t do this for years, only weeks. It has the gene that makes it a more efficient infector and maybe a gene or two for the slow release mechanism. That could have been engineered without much difficulty using modern equipment but it could also have arisen by pure chance.

If the chance of it arising is one in a hundred billion… that’s one infected HIV patient. Just one.

It’s not flu. This is far more dangerous.

The biggest problem is governments. Governments are fixated on money and viruses don’t care about money. Governments have no idea at all how to control a new virus, they only know about ‘the economy’. I am not talking about any particular government. I’m talking about all of them.

There is much wailing and gnashing of wallets over stock markets plummeting. The virus does not care. You can’t bribe this thing any more than you can bribe the climate. Oh they’ll try throwing money at it. It will achieve nothing at all.

If it has a reinfection level like the common cold then vaccines will not work. If second infection is really worse than first infection then vaccines will kill you. The vaccine counts as the first infection.

Nobody cares as long as they make money.

I wonder what they think they’ll spend it on?

Panoptica chapter 17

Well, I’m still on a chapter a week. I have one more week to finish 18, shouldn’t be too hard I hope. The story finally leaves the cage soon because 10538 is needed for something.

Panoptica: Chapter 17

Something rose through his throat, something slid through his nose. 10538 tried to swallow but the upward motion continued.

“Try to stay calm. This won’t take long.” It was Doc’s voice.

The movement passed his throat and he felt he was going to throw up for a moment, then it was gone. 10538 became aware he was sitting up and tried to open his eyes.

“Don’t force it. Take your time.” Doc’s voice again. “You’ve been under very heavy sedation. You’re going to feel strange for a while.”

“How long until she’s ready?” Another deep voice, a new one.

“Ideally another three or four weeks.” Doc sounded angry. “This is far too soon. She’s still healing.”

“I know, Doc.” The second voice mellowed. “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. You know that.”

“She needs to heal. Then there’s a lot to do to get her used to this new world. She won’t understand much, if any, of it. You can’t just dump her into a mission. She won’t understand the dangers.”

“She’ll be safe. I guarantee it.”

Doc sighed. “You know perfectly well that none of us are ever safe. Especially not now. Derek, you have access to all the data we have. More than I do. You know exactly how bad it’s getting.” Doc paused, then coughed. “Okay. Just leave me to it and I’ll bring her round properly. Then you can talk to her.”

10538 opened his eyes in time to see a blurry shape leave the cage. Another blurry shape resolved into the face of Doc.

“I…” 10538 smacked his lips. They felt dry. “I…”

“There’s no hurry.” Doc wiped something from 10538’s face. “You’ve been asleep for a long time this time. I’ve set up an outside connection for your brain chip so you don’t have an open skull.” He grimaced. “I’m afraid it doesn’t look pretty, somewhere between Frankenstein and Plughead, but it will mean you can move around.”

“Chip… still… in?” 10538 felt as though he had forgotten how to move his mouth. “What was… nose… thing?”

“You’ve been in an induced coma since you last woke. The tube was feeding you. Inducing a coma was easy, your brain chip can send you to sleep on command, so there was no need to risk using drugs. It gave me time to install an access port and gave you time to heal from the surgeries you’ve been through.” Doc looked away for a moment. “Do you know how long you’ve been here?”

“It must have been days. I remember maybe… five days?”

“More than three months.” Doc smiled at 10538’s confusion. “I know, you don’t measure time like that in Panoptica. About ninety days. I’ve taken so much hardware out of you in that time you’d probably register as severely underweight now.”

“Underweight?” 10538 stared at his hands. Were his fingers thinner? “I could get cancer or diabetes. Deviation from standard causes illness.” He ran his hands over his chest. “What’s this? There’s a thick line in the middle of my chest.” He prodded it. It hurt. “I’m dying!”

“You are not dying.” Doc put his hands on 10538’s shoulders. “You do not have diabetes nor do you have cancer. You are in fine health. I checked everything.” He shook 10538’s shoulders until their eyes met. “Absolutely everything.”

“I’m okay?” 10538 bit his lip. “You’re sure?”

“Sure.” Doc released his shoulders and moved back. “You should know about two of the things I took out of your chest. One was a band around your trachea – the tube in your chest you breathe through. It was designed to restrict your breathing so you couldn’t run for long.” Doc looked down at his hands. “The other was a bladed chip attached to your aorta, the artery leaving your heart. It could have killed you at any time if you posed a threat.”

10538 sat in silence for a while before speaking. “There are so many words I don’t understand. Artery. That tracky thing. She. Panoptica. What has happened to me, Doc? I just watch the screens. I don’t know how to do anything else. I was never a threat to anyone. All I ever wanted was to move up to the chip tracer screens, the one-ones, but I don’t think that can happen now, can it?”

Doc snorted. “It would never have happened. There are no promotions in Panoptica, only the promise.” He rubbed at the sides of his nose. “Derek and Mary want to send you on a mission. You aren’t ready for that. You have so much to learn about the real world. Know this one thing for sure though. Your government are not your friends. They will kill you if you step out of line, if they even suspect you have. Don’t try to rejoin the people you will see on this mission. They’ll kill you first, then the rest of us.”

“No. that can’t be true.” Can it? “The Coalition cares for us all. We vote for them so they owe us their jobs.” But they were sending me to be cancelled. 10538 frowned, but that made his forehead hurt. He put his hand to his head and felt a cloth of some kind, with a lump beneath it.

Doc curled his lip and shook his head. “The ones you vote for don’t do much. They pass down the laws to be enforced, that’s all. They are just administrators, they’re not in charge of anything.”

Still probing at the lump on his head, 10538 absorbed this new information – but was it new? There were still walls in his mind. Some were the chip, he now knew, but there were others. Not as strong. The memory readjustments he had applied to himself over his lifetime. He might be able to break those himself. “So,” he said, “who is in charge?”

“Don’t poke that.” Doc moved 10538’s hand from his head. “You said it yourself in conversation with Sally. When you first met and identified her as Three, you said you weren’t sure the Nine really existed.” Doc watched 10538’s face intently. “Do you remember when they were the Twelve?”

That one word Twelve – cracked one of 10538’s self-imposed mental blocks. “I…” He strained at the thoughts trying to form through the cracks. “They were Ten. They were Eleven. A long time ago, yes. There were Twelve of them. But they were always a legend, a myth. Nobody ever saw them. I don’t know why the number went down. I just remember TV changing that number and I had to readjust my memory.”

“There used to be more than twelve but that’s probably before you were born.”

“Born?”

Doc chuckled. “One thing at a time. You have a lot to learn about being human, and ‘born’ is one of the more complicated ones to explain. For now, let’s stick with the Twelve, or the Nine as you now know them.”

“Are they real? When I saw Three I thought they must be but it wasn’t really Three, was it?”

“They are real. And they were originally fifty in this part of the world. Worldwide, there were five hundred cities, originally called habitations, clustered into ten localized areas.” Doc forestalled 10538’s question by raising his hand. “Each of them was to preside over a city of less than a hundred thousand people. A lot of them failed early on – didn’t manage power or food correctly, pushed too hard on total control, diseases wiped out some of the concentrated populations and those diseases spread fast between cities because people were allowed to travel between them.”

“There are other cities? Are there really so many people?” 10538’s head swam with the numbers he was trying to grasp.

“Not any more. When it all started to fall apart, some people – like us, but long ago – left the cities to live outside. That’s no longer possible. You are no longer capable of living outside the city you were brought up in and none of you even consider it possible.” Doc closed his eyes. “There was a plan to reduce the entire world population to five hundred million. It worked, but then it failed. Now there are probably less than a million people alive on the entire planet.”

“That’s a lot of people.” 10538 tried to calculate fifty times ten thousand but the number made no sense. Surely that number of people would be impossible?

“Oh, no, it isn’t. It’s barely enough for humanity to recover.” Doc wiped at his eye. “Sorry, dust or something in my eye.” He took a deep breath. “Well, around ninety percent of the remnants of humanity cannot reproduce. In the cities even that part has been centralised. Genetic diversity is falling and really, one virulent disease can wipe out a city in a matter of days now. That’s what happened to Ten and Twelve a few years ago.”

“What about Eleven? What about all the others?” The concept of other cities fascinated 10538. Maybe he could get into one and go back to comfortable compliant conformity. Watch the screens, follow the routine, every day the same. He sighed at the prospect.

“The cities were renamed as their number dwindled. Yours is now Three but before that it was Nineteen. Before that it was Thirty-Eight. The remaining cities learned from the mistakes of the failed ones, or so they thought. They isolated their populations and relied entirely on computer analysis and pure-logic algorithms.” Doc paused. “We don’t know what happened to Eleven, or to several of the others. The records are sealed. We haven’t been able to break into them as far as I know. Derek might know.”

“But how do you live without cities? Without the Coalition telling you how to live? It must be hard.”

Doc’s laughter echoed in the room around the cage. “Hard? Damn right it’s hard. We think for ourselves, make our own decisions and try to avoid being killed for simply existing.” He coughed and took a few moments to compose himself. “It’s worth it though. It really is worth it.”

They sat in silence for a few moments. 10538 tried to assimilate all this new information. It did not match his experience, nor the things he had been told by TV. His mind tried to tell him to forget it, delete it, realign his memory with the truth, but he had lost sight of truth. There was more than he had been told. Other cities…

“Doc.” 10538 kept his eyes on the blanket over his knees. “You said my city was called Three. Is one of the other cities called Panoptica?”

“They all are. It’s a collective term from a distant history you won’t have been taught.” Doc patted 10538’s knee. “We’ll come back to that. Derek will want to speak to you. I don’t think you’re anywhere near ready for this but Derek says it’s important. I’ll get you some clothes.”

_____________________

The chapter break here is to avoid all the detail on getting 10538 into unfamiliar clothes.

Panoptica chapter 16

There have been delays. We’ve been dealing with a sick guinea pig, Missy, who sadly didn’t make it and is now in the first grave in our garden. There is a marker stone, uninscribed so far, and a large stone slab to deter foxes from digging up the corpse. The remaining guinea pig now has to face the night alone for the first time.

There were other delays but that was the most important one, I’d say. Anyway, work must continue and so, here is chapter 16 of Panoptica.

Panoptica: Chapter 16

“Okay, Doc, you can bring her out of it now.”

Doc’s deep voice held a hint of mirth. “She’s been awake for a few minutes already. She’s listening.”

10538 sniffed. How does he know? He opened his eyes. “I’m awake.”

Three Sally – looked down at him. “How are you feeling?”

“Rested. And confused. Why can’t I see Doc?”

Three looked up, a hard stare in her eyes.

Doc cleared his throat. “She woke last night, I gave her a sedative, but we did talk awhile.”

“This is delicate work, Doc. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her. None of us know what’s going to happen.” Three’s lips were tight. She seemed angry.

“Well anyway, she knows me now.” Doc moved into 10538’s line of sight. “She seemed to accept me.” He hoisted up his waistband. “Look, I took out a lot of chips. Like I said, we have no idea what half of them were for. I think we’ve removed a lot of suppressors of all kinds along with the ones we do know about.” He smiled at 10538. “I think she’s getting her own mind back.”

“I have questions.” 10538 licked his lips. It felt wrong, but he had to ask.

Three’s eyes widened. “Questions? One-zeros do not question.”

Doc laughed. “I think she’s gone way beyond her programming now. She’s coming out of Panoptica’s spell.”

Panoptica? Another question.

10538 took a moment to compose himself. “Doc is just Doc, with no designation. How do I determine his rank? And you, Three, are also called Sally. How does that work? Then you use words like ‘she’ and ‘her’. What does that mean?”

Three leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms over her head. “Those are complex questions, and it’ll take time to answer them. It’ll be easier when that chip is out of your head.”

10538 said nothing, just stared at the twin mounds on Three’s chest. Is that cancer? Can Doc fix it?

Three lowered her arms to her sides. “Doc, how long before you can take that thing out?”

“I’m not sure. Could be a long time, if I can ever fully do it. It’s really well embedded and it’s suppressing memories from her whole life. Taking it out will be a hell of a shock and could cause permanent damage.”

Three looked at the ceiling for a moment. “She can’t stay strapped to a bed forever. We have to get her out of this cage. She’s no use to us in here.”

“I know. I think I have a possible solution.” Doc moved past 10538’s head and out of sight. “We’ll talk about it after this session.”

“Okay, 10538.” Three clasped her hands and leaned forward. “I know you have a lot of questions and we’ll answer all of them, I promise. But first we’re going to take you back a bit further and see what you remember.”

10538 closed his eyes as more walls collapsed in his mind. The screens. His screens. Ghost! The bus. Walking then talking. The news… it all came together.

“I saw a ghost on my screens. It was… it was 71556. The one I was on the train with. How could I have forgotten? I was on the train with the terrorist.” 10538 strained against the restraints, then relaxed. “So it was true. The train wasn’t taking us to Pensionville. They wouldn’t send a terrorist there.” He stared into Three’s eyes. “Why were they sending me to be cancelled?”

Three’s expression was blank. “You were the one who reported 71556?” She blew a long slow breath. “You’ll need to be very careful around Mary, I think.”

“Yes. It’s why I had the tomatoes as a reward even though I was overweight and had to walk to the next stop. But it wasn’t like the news showed. 71556 didn’t fight the police, didn’t have a gun. That’s why it felt wrong. That’s why I had alcohol that night.” 10538 paused. “But I don’t understand the smokers part, even now.”

“Tomatoes.” Doc’s voice came from behind. “Tomatoes contain some nicotine. Enough to give a measurable cotinine trace and that’s all they need. The question is, why did they set you up like that?”

“Set me up?” 10538 blinked.

Three tapped his arm. “What else happened? Don’t break the flow.”

“Oh. Yes. I couldn’t get on the bus because I was overweight. I had to walk to the next stop. I met 11712 there and we talked. I told him about the ghost and he told me how he’d tracked a chip with nobody attached to it.”

Doc’s laugh filled the air. “There we have it. You discussed your work with your friend. That put you under suspicion because you might have told him what really happened and not what the news showed. So they set you up for a nicotine fall, just in case they needed to haul you in. Then the alcohol, which everyone dips into and everyone knows it. Add in the overweight episode and they can take you down any time they like.”

Three looked up. “That all seems a bit petty, doesn’t it?”

“It’s a petty and paranoid world in there. Mostly run by computers following algorithms designed by the petty and paranoid.” Doc came back into view. “When you ran for the bus they took you down because they’re more scared than you are. They’re scared of even the slightest deviation.”

“And the police cannot admit they are wrong, so you had to be disposed of.” Three squeezed his arm.

“What about 11712? The news said he was a terrorist. I was the one who reported him. They said he was found dead on the rocks. But the medics said he was in Pensionville.”

Three’s eyes closed. “I’m sorry, but your friend will be dead by now.”

“It’s my fault. I reported him. I could have just let him run but I called it in.” Tears streamed from 10538’s eyes as he writhed in the restraints.

“That’s it for now. I’m shutting this session.” Doc placed the now familiar mask over 10538’s nose and mouth.

The pain receded for a while.