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.

Panoptica chapter 15

Well, here’s another shot. I can’t hurry this up too much because they’ve taken an awful lot of chips out of 10538 and healiing from that much surgery takes time. There is a way I can skip a lot of time though, as you’ll see in chapter 17.

Better get moving before coronavirus really takes off. Apparently Canada’s public health thinks a virus that has covered most of China and surrounding countries in a couple of weeks is not very contagious, and they also have no understanding of the air recirculation in aeroplanes. With that lot in charge, Canada is going down fast. So I’d better finish it while there are a few left to read it…

Panoptica: chapter 15

The grass in Pensionville turned yellow before his eyes. Smoke rose as a red flaming sun scorched it. Identical dead badgers rotted in rows next to identical twisted tree stumps. The sky flashed red then blue then red. The sun was a gentle yellow and a fiery red ball. Smoke dissipated into clear air and then reformed.

11712 stood at his stop as the bus approached. All smiles, but with a dagger in his hand. The bus stopped, the door opened and 11712 stabbed the robot driver in its camera-eye. Then he ran. Through the streets. He jumped a fence into Pensionville and the rocks ate him.

10538 stood beside his bed in his familiar, comfortable, compliant home. Conformity will save me. The television showed nothing but a slavering mouth, perfect teeth mocking his own.

You have associated with terrorists and smokers and drinkers. You are evil. He was strapped to a cold steel table looking into flaming eyes and pointing fingers.

Then free, in a comfortable chair in a light and pleasant room. A friendly face with flaming eyes said he could go to Pensionville. No! The rocks will eat me too!

The ghost train screamed through. 10538 woke to darkness and cold sweat. A question occurred to him that he had not considered before. Who are these people really?

“You’re awake?” That deep voice belonged to a short fat man who had been dozing in a chair beside 10538’s bed. The fat man struggled to his feet, yawning. “I’ll get you some sedation.”

“No.” 10538 had no wish to return to the chaos of his dreams. “I can’t see you. You have no barcode. Who are you? Where am I? What are you doing to me?”

The fat man stood still for a moment, then turned to face 10538. “I’m called Doc. I’ve been fixing you physically. There is a lot to do to fix you mentally. Sally – I mean, the one you call Three – has been doing her best to help you.”

“Doc is not a designation. You have no barcode, no rank, nothing to identify you. Are you a ghost?”

Doc laughed. “No. I’m as real and human as you are.” His face switched from laughing to sad in an instant. “More so, really, but let’s not dwell on that right now.”

Somewhat disconcerted, 10538 switched subject. “Why are we in a big cage?”

“It’s called a Faraday cage. It blocks most electromagnetic signals.” Doc’s new smile was lopsided. “It didn’t block the one that woke you on Earth Day. You told us Santa was coming.”

“I heard the bells in my dreams but they weren’t coming for me.” 10538 stared at the fat man. “They didn’t come for you either.”

“No.” Doc looked at the floor. “Santa took two of us.” He pulled a chair close and sat next to the bed. “We know it wasn’t your fault. We don’t blame you. We really are trying to help you.”

“Help me to do what?”

Doc snorted. “Stay alive.” He inspected his fingers. “What has been done to you is not your fault. You must remember that. Keep it in mind at all times as we strip away the blocks in your memory. It was all forced upon you. It was not your fault. Do you understand me?”

10538 thought of TV and of what he had seen. “I’m not sure I understand anything. I’m scared.”

“You have every reason to be.” Doc picked up a syringe. “If they could, they would kill you for escaping their world.”

“Kill me? Why? How?” 10538 tried to raise his hands but they were tied to the bed. “Why am I tied down? I’m not going to hurt anyone.”

“No, I know.” Doc filled the syringe from a small bottle. “You’re restrained because you have undergone several operations, some of them extensive, and still have an open wound in your forehead.”

“The brain chip? Are you going to take it out?”

Doc sighed and lay the syringe on a small metal tray. “I’m not sure I can. Its wires run deep into the cerebral cortex. I can’t just pull it out. It’s been in there a very long time, probably most of your life, and your brain has grown around its connections.”

“What does it do?” 10538 lifted his eyes but could not see his own forehead. He almost smiled at the stupidity of trying.

“We know it can block memories and we know that it’s controlled remotely. We suspect it can also be used to insert memories of things that didn’t happen. I think it was contacted on Earth Night, when you woke up and told us Santa was coming.”

“So my memories might not be real?”

“As we shut down the layers of programming in the chip, real memories will come back and the false ones should – we hope – disappear.” Doc lifted the syringe and tapped it to remove air. “But yes, you have to be skeptical of what you remember. Be cautious.”

Doc rubbed something cold against 10538’s arm. “This will help you sleep without dreaming. Next time you wake up you’ll feel a lot better.”

“Can’t we talk some more?” 10538 felt a connection with this fat man, even though his extra weight must kill him soon.

Doc shook his head. “I’ve probably already said too much. I shouldn’t be interfering with Sally’s – Three’s – treatment protocol. Listen to her. She will help you through this.”

Her? She? A tiny stabbing pain in 10538’s arm was followed by a quick descent into oblivion. True oblivion. 10538 stared into the blank abyss and welcomed it.

Panoptica, chapters 13 and 14

I’m catching up with myself here, I’m only on sixteen in the real world but I have to accelerate this before it comes true. Thirteen is small so here’s fourteen too. I’m aware there is a lot of repetition and that this will need heavy editing but let’s get it done first. Fix it later. Attempts to fix it while it’s running will cause a break in the telling and I might spend weeks sorting a chapter that ends up getting deleted anyway.

Panoptica: Chapter Thirteen

The thinnest obese person on the planet. Medics faced him with screenpads and strange devices in their hands. They looked at the devices and tutted their disapproval. It was all so very wrong. So much smoking and drinking and overeating.

But I didn’t do any of those things!

Running through the streets while the bus shrank into the distance. His chest constricted, 10538 leaned on a bus stop pole. The cameras at the top stared down at him with human eyes and their mouths laughed and chanted ‘Fatty smoky alkie’. Fingers formed in the air to point at him and prod at him, giving little electric shocks that built into agony.

He was in the grey room, this time with no comfortable overlay. Voices came from behind.

Does he know?

He cannot know or we risk noncompliance.

There was a face smiling and another grinning. The grinning one held a syringe and the smiling one disappeared in a cascade of light.

The same faces in the warm room. The same offer of retirement. Double retirement must be double-good. The train, the little sealed box with windows on the inside. Going in circles. Screens, not windows. There were no windows on the outside.

Then cold, in the wastelands. People with no designations.

The dream ended there. 10538 felt his dream had ended in many ways, but could not define how.

Fourteen

His eyes flickered open. Three smiled down at him.

“Hello again, 10538. How are you feeling?”

10538 licked dry lips. “Okay, I think.”

Three held a straw to 10538’s mouth. “Drink a little of this. It will help you relax.”

The water tasted strange. It had a bitter taste and there were bubbles in it. 10538 smacked his lips. “This water might not be good.”

“It’s not water.” Three grinned. “We call it beer. It’s better than water. Take another drink. It will help you relax.”

10538 tried again. The bitter taste was not unpleasant and the bubbles gave the drink a pleasing texture. He sucked harder at the straw until Three moved it away.

“Not too much, not until you get used to it.” Three placed the cup on a table beside 10538’s bed. “So. Are you ready to unlock a little more of your memory?

“I think so. I’m still a bit confused though. I don’t understand why they risked noncompliance.”

Three raised one eyebrow. “Who risked noncompliance?”

“One of the prison medics. They could not tell me something in case of noncompliance.”

Three leaned in closer. “Couldn’t tell you what?”

10538 managed a lopsided smile. “They didn’t tell me. It was just before they put in the retirement chip and I passed out from the pain.”

Three looked up at someone past 10538’s line of sight. “Retirement chip?”

“No idea.” That deep voice again. “I took out a lot of chips, half of them unknown to us. None seemed to be recent though. They were all healed over.”

Three rubbed his face with his hands. “Okay. We’ll have to find out about that. For now, we’re going to take you back another day. Are you ready?”

10538 took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Ready.” I have to know why they thought I was obese.

Another load of memories were dumped in his brain. Bus ride home. 11712 missed the bus. Tomatoes – tomatoes? Television news. A ghost, a terrorist, a running man. 11712! He was a terrorist!

10538, eyes tightly closed, tried to order the memories and fit them to the newly-revealed ones from the previous session. He opened his eyes to see Three leaning over him.

“You’ve gone quite pale, 10538. Was there something disturbing? We can shut those memories down and try again later if it’s too much.” Three seemed genuinely concerned.

“Tomatoes.”

“Huh?” Three glanced up, over 10538’s shoulder.

“There were tomatoes in my evening meal. Three of them. I don’t know why.” 10538 furrowed his brow but relaxed it at once. Moving the skin of his forehead hurt. “And 11712 was on the news. He was a terrorist. A camera watcher caught him. I knew him. I never suspected a thing.”

“Don’t blame yourself.” Three patted 10538’s hand.

“But later, in prison, they said I would see 11712 in Pensionville. I guess he was arrested by mistake too.” The conversation as he left the train came back to connect with this new information. 10538’s breathing became shallow. “There is no Pensionville, is there?”

From behind came the deep voice he had heard before. “Heart rate and blood pressure rising. We have to make this a short session.”

“Don’t worry. You’re safe now.” Three kept on patting his hand. “Was there anything else on the news?”

“A ghost. One with no ID chip. They caught him too. But there was something wrong. I can’t place it. It was very wrong. It was so wrong I wanted to drink alcohol. What was it? I can’t remember.” 10538’s breath came in ragged gasps.

“Shutting this session down now.” The deep voice came again. “She’s struggling to put it all together. We have to do this in very short sessions now.”

Three nodded and moved back. “It’s not going to be easy, 10538. We’ll reduce the timespan of recovered memories next time. Sleep now.”

“But I—” 10538’s response was cut off by the mask over his nose and mouth, and he slid back into his dreamworld.

Panoptica, chapter 12

I have addresses for both competition winners and will be posting in a few days. Since they are in New Zealand and the USA, it might take a while to get there…

Okay, onwards. These next few chapters will need heavy editing as I try to keep track of what parts go where and have probably messed up a few times. Still, editing comes at the end, when it’s complete. I just hope I’ve remembered all the number/names correctly. If it’s a bit confusing in places, that’s okay. It’s supposed to be 😉

Panoptica: Chapter 12

“Can you hear me?”

10538 wandered through fog, the world around him indistinct. The voice came again.

“10538. Can you hear me? We met on the train.”

His head throbbed. Something touched his face. He tried to brush it away but his arms were immobilised. Am I back in the chair? Was I always in the chair?

There were hands on his shoulders.

“Please, 10538. You are under heavy sedation. We are trying to help you.”

He opened one eye. Leaning over him, someone held his shoulders. He scanned the onesie they wore. 71556.

10538 screamed. “Ghost! The ghost has me!”

“What the hell was that?” Another voice, off to the side. “She thinks you’re a ghost?”

71556 looked to the left. “She must have seen me on the screens or maybe on the news. This isn’t going to work. Sedate her and we’ll try something else.”

The plastic mask covered 10538’s nose and mouth and the gentle fog enveloped him once more.

***

They had used strange words. Her. She. What could they mean? Is it another language, another world? Maybe it was all just a dream. Maybe he was being deleted, still in the grey room, still fixed in his chair. Or in the warm room, offered retirement. Or in the cold room, offered retirement. Did he run for the bus or the train? Did the outside of the train not match the inside? Did he ride the ghost train? Maybe this was the end, maybe this was how a dying brain tried to cope. Confusion, denial, terror. It must end soon. The walls in his mind reformed and 10538 settled into comfortable compliant conformity.

***

“10538. Wake up. You have an important job.”

We all have important jobs.

“10538. We have isolated the signal from your brain chip. You can wake up now.”

Brain chip. Someone mentioned it once. I never knew I had one.

“10538. Wake up. This is Three.”

Three? 10538 blinked his eyes open. Sweat made his skin clammy and blurred his vision. A damp cloth passed across his face, gently. His vision cleared. He was still in the large cage he had dreamed about, the one with the fat man, and he was still tied to a bed. Wires still brushed his cheeks and his forehead hurt.

10538 licked his lips. “Where am I?”

“You are safe.” The smiling face hovered above him. The onesie below it showed a short sequence of bars that confirmed the designation. Three.

“Three? I was never sure if the Nine were real.” 10538 gaped in awe. “Am I dead? Dying? Am I imagining this?”

“You are safe and very much alive, 10538. We are going to disable your brain chip.”

“What? But I need it. Don’t I? I wouldn’t have it if I didn’t need it. What does it do? I didn’t know it was there.” 10538 strained against the restraints holding him to the bed.

“Do not panic.” Three put a hand on 10538’s bare chest. “We are going to liberate you, 10538. We are going to make you a free thinker.”

“I don’t want that.” 10538 struggled against the straps that held him. “I want to go home. I want my job and my life and my comfortable compliant conformity. I don’t want to think for myself. I want to be free.”

Three blinked as if confused. He withdrew his hand and looked to one side for a moment, his tongue between his lips. Finally he took a breath and faced 10538.

“It is important. You have an important job to do now. We had a task for you. Do you remember what it was?”

10538 shook his head, as far as the restraints allowed. “I am a camera watcher. I watch the screens. I report things if they are wrong. That is my job. It’s important. I watch for terrorists.”

“And did you find any? Think, 10538. Think very hard.” Three stared directly into his eyes.

Memories formed and burst. Flitted past his mind like bats on a summer night, silent, hard to see. 10538 closed his eyes. “No… I don’t think I did. I’m not sure any more.” He opened his eyes. “Why is this happening to me, Three? What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing. You are safe. We only want to help you.” Three nodded to someone out of 10538’s sight. “You have a chip in your brain, 10538, as everyone does. It closes down things you are required to forget. Now it is time to start remembering.” Three held up his hand to forestall 10538’s objections. “We need you to be clear in your mind for what is ahead so we will have to release those locked-away memories. It will hurt, but we are not doing it to punish you and we will be as gentle as possible. Do you understand?”

“I think so. I’m not sure. Are these terrible memories?” 10538 tried to relax and wondered why, under such stress, his medichip was silent.

“We can shut down your brain chip in stages. We will first restore your memories of the last day or so before you fell unconscious on the train.” Three held up both hands. “It will come as a shock, I think. Try to stay calm and rational.” He nodded past 10538’s head again.

A wall collapsed in his mind. 10538 gasped as memories formed – but they made no sense. Warm cold room. Bare grey concrete painted walls. High level medics and supervisor level units with the same faces. His hands were clamped to a table and they were free. He was accused of being a terrorist and then told his work was excellent. Gradually, his mind sorted the memories, yet still they made no sense.

“I was in a prison. Trapped in a cage.” 10538 blinked away tears. A hand came from behind to wipe his eyes, gently, with a soft cloth. “I was accused of being a terrorist. Then they said it was a mistake. They said I could not go back, I would have to take retirement. Then I was in a room with a comfortable chair and they told me I was overworked and they offered me retirement. I remembered that part before but I didn’t remember the cold grey room with the cage. Why did they think I was a terrorist?”

“They didn’t. They knew you were innocent but they could not admit they arrested you wrongly. That’s why they had to retire you.” Three inclined his head. “I know this must feel like living your life in reverse. Are you ready to go back a little further?”

“There’s more?”

“What’s the last thing you remember before the interview and the train?”

10538 tried to concentrate. “I think I remember voting. I’m not sure when. There was a day at work, nothing happened, I met 11712 on the bus on the way home, then the next morning I got up and went to work. Then I was in the prison.”

Three raised his eyebrows. “What was the date of the day you last remember going to work?”

“What’s a date?” 10538 blinked.

“Ah, of course. Never mind.” Three looked away for a moment, sniffed and turned back. “Do you remember how many days it was to Earth Day?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Three shook his head. “It’s not your fault. Okay, we’ll take you back a little further.” He looked over 10538’s head again.

Another wall crashed to the ground. He ran for a bus. Medics visited him. Police tazered him. Voting day! Provided with a location for the timeline, his mind rapidly ordered these new thoughts.

“I voted in the morning. Then I prepared for work. Breakfast was a little extra because I was a few grams underweight. Then the medics came.”

“Medics?” Three waved one hand. “Sorry. I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“They checked me. Tested me. They said I had associated with smokers and had a drinking problem.” 10538 wanted to lower his head but it was restrained. “I had taken a little from the drinks cabinet. Just a little, now and then. It helps with memory adjustment. But I’m not alcoholic. I’m not!”

Three laughed. “Oh everyone does that. Absolutely everyone. You don’t need to worry, 10538, we are not here to punish you for anything at all.”

“They said I was obese but I had just been underweight. I don’t understand.”

“We’ll come back to that.” Three looked up as a cough came from behind 10538. He nodded. “In a moment.” Turning back to 10538 he asked “What happened after that?”

“They said they would get me some time off work.” 10538 licked his lips. “Could I have some water?”

“Sure.” Three lifted a cup with a straw and held it up so that 10538 could drink. “Anything else?”

“It’s starting to come together. I was late so I ran for the bus, I was arrested for running, put in prison and then they said it was all a mistake. I still don’t understand why I woke up again in an interview room, with supervisors who looked just like the senior medics from the prison.”

“Why did you—” Three was cut off by a pronounced cough from behind.

“We have to shut her down. Blood pressure is going too high. She needs to rest.” The deep voice came from a place 10538 could not see.

Three nodded. “This is going to take some time, I’m afraid. You need to sleep for a while, 10538. We’ll continue later.”

Once again, the plastic mask of oblivion was placed on his face. The world slid away, sounds became distant and the grey fog settled once more.

Panoptica chapter 11

Well the competition is over and winners emailed for details. Here’s the song that inspired this book, many years ago. Way back then I was disappointed to keep hearing the overture but not the rest of the story. In the end I decided I’d just have to write it myself.

This part of the story is proving difficult. Most of it takes place in 10538’s dreams as he recovers long-blanked memories. It spans several chapters but it has to happen gradually because if all those memories come back in one go… well, you’ll see.

This is a short one so it won’t take long. I’ll have to consider adding the short story ‘Santa is Coming’ somewhere in the book, perhaps as another chapter, in case nobody can figure out what’s happening here.

Panoptica: Chapter 11

It was dark and it was light. He was caged and free. Warm and cold, soft and hard. It all seemed the same.

A twisted, burned tree held five stumps of a badger in smoke. A train clickety-clacked through a bus that had to run to work. Street police tasered a ghosthunter who was clamped to a table. Screens of barcodes without people, white void of people without barcodes.

10538 drifted in a world of chaos. His mind, lost, took every thought and linked them at random because nothing else worked. There were walls he could not cross, nor see over. His thoughts bounced off them, his dreams tried to make sense of what they had.

Something picked at him. Crows or maybe rats. Winged rats or toothed crows. They tore his skin looking for silicon treats. Demons ripped open his chest and played with his heart.

In Pensionville he was happy with no reason to be. Manicured lawns and washing an immobile car every week. He cut the lawn with scissors to make the delight last longer. His neighbours smiled all the time, displaying teeth of impossible perfection and size.

Dark clouds gathered overhead. The red eyes and jingling bells came to his sight and ears. Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle… but they were not coming for him.

His real eyes opened to see a fat man bent over him in a cage. The fat man’s eyes went wide and he stepped back. 10538 sat up and smiled. “Santa is coming,” he said. Then he lay down and returned to his dream world.

His smiling Pensionville neighbours gathered around him and he marvelled at their dentistry. It looked like flames. Their mouths were on fire. Their mouths, shining teeth of fire, opened wider.

There was a ghost, a terrorist, a runner. A tree that never went away even though it was burned. A train with windows only on the inside. A bus he ran for and almost died for. A grey room. A light room. A window. No window. Retirement. Fire. Those in Pensionville never get to see the news.

The walls in his mind collapsed.

10538 opened his eyes and screamed.

The fat man from his dreams pinned him down on a soft bed. Something burned in his forehead. Wires stroked his face. 10538 writhed against the fat man and the pain.

“Sedate the bugger.” Fat man shouted to someone out of sight. “This is worse than I expected.”

10538’s mind screamed of betrayal and friendship and of TV and truth. Outside and inside. Windows that were not windows. Runners and ghosts. The bus. The train. Guilty even when proven innocent. Comfort and pain. Silence and noise. The horror of the creche he grew in. The deadly life of the Ferals. It flooded in, unhindered. All the horrors of reality, all the memories blanked out by Comfortable Compliant Conformity for all 10538’s life. All of it, in an instant.

“Shut her down. She can’t take it.”

Something hard and plastic covered his mouth and nose. The words from the pinched mouth of the fat man followed 10538 into the darkness.

Competition – Panoptica

Ten chapters posted so…

I wanna play a game

Up for grabs. Four books. Two of your own choice from the Leg Iron Books catalogue and two more random choices from me. If you’ve actually bought any of them and are a member of that elite group, let me know so I don’t send duplicates. Plus a Leg Iron Books mug.

Second prize is a Leg Iron Books mug and a random book.

Okay. So here it is.

10538 was not a random character. He was inspired by an old song. To win this, I need the name of the song, the name of the band, the album it first appeared on and the instrument Roy Wood played in its first iteration.

It’s easy if you google it. It’s easier if you own the album.

Did you see the man running through the streets today.

Did you catch his face, was it 10538? Ah!

If this song didn’t chill you, you’re already cold.