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.”
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.