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.

Panoptica Chapter 10

Well, it seems Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard from Star Trek) has declared that the next series of Star Trek will cover both Brexit and Donnie the Trump.

That’s going to send it into the same ratings tailspin as the nonsensical politically correct lecturing of the latest Dr. Who. Another programme I used to like, gone. No point having a TV these days. There’s nothing left worth watching.

Star Trek is set so far in the future that both Brexit and Trump would just be footnotes in history books. Furthermore, at the time of Star Trek, there is one world government on Earth and even that is superseded by the Federation of Planets. Nobody in that fictional world is going to give the tiniest spatter of shit about past presidents of a country that used to exist, nor the separation of a country that used to be part of the EU but is now, like every other country on a whole load of planets, subsumed into the Galactic Union.

Bringing modern politics into that far-future fiction will kill it stone dead. I’ll re-watch the Kirk years on DVD, I think. I was so desperately disappointed in the political crap they injected into Dr. Who, I am not even going to try watching the new Star Trek.

Still, there’s always Panoptica. That’s only a generation or three into the future. And no, I am not going to add in Trump or Brexit or the EU because they are all dead by the time 10538’s story happens, and nobody in that world is taught any more than they absolutely need to know. A part of the story that is already here, for many people.

So, 10538 already has doubts about what he’s seen on TV. Let’s give him a bit more reality to consider…

Panoptica : Chapter 10

Click-clack. Click-clack. The train made an odd noise that cut through 10538’s muddled thoughts. Retirement. Pensionville. 11712. The cold grey warm colourful room with no windows and windows and hard seat, soft seat, the bus… 71556. Why was that unit’s designation drifting in the mess in his head? They could never have met.

Click-clack. Click-clack. The train shifted to one side. 10538 grabbed his seat on either side, his eyes wide.

71556 turned to face 10538. “Something wrong?”

“That noise. The clacking. And it felt like it was going to fall over.”10538 swallowed. “Is something wrong with this machine?”

“You’ve never been on a train before, have you?” 71556 stared at the window again. “It’s perfectly okay. Safe, at least until we get to the end of the line.”

“Pensionville? You’re going for retirement too?” 10538 blinked rapidly. Something in his head had linked 71556 and retirement but it tried to tell him that was in the past. It made no sense. He pushed the thought away.

“You could call it that, I suppose.” 71556 sighed. “It’s the end of the line, that’s for sure. You won’t know what’s coming, of course. Just as you never connected what you saw outside the train with what you’ve seen from inside it.”

Puzzled, 10538 stared at the window. The city limits passed, the red flashing lights warning of crossing into the deserted lands ran into the distance, along the tops of the fence they had just passed through. He shivered. He knew Pensionville was a long way off, of course, but it had not occurred to him they would have to cross the ravaged lands to get there. He hoped it wouldn’t be too long before the train crossed another, similar fence and returned to civilization.

What had 71556 meant about him not connecting outside and inside? He had seen the platform pull away, and now seen the edge of his city as the train passed it. What could be different outside? The sevens were scientists, he knew that. Although a seven-one was not a high-ranking scientist, they would still be able to understand things that a one-zero could never hope to grasp. 10538 shook himself. Such matters were above his rank and he had enough confusion in his head already. No sense adding to it.

Outside, the world was a bleak and horrible place. Twisted stumps of trees, smouldering grasses, decaying animals. Just as the TV had shown him. The sun beat down through a red haze, the flames on its surface licking at the sky. He had seen this on TV many times, but faced with its reality he found it hard to bear.

10538 stared at his hands. He saw faint red bands around his wrists and wondered where they had come from. His brain tried to tell him but could not, as if some ethereal hand covered his brain’s mouth. They told him this would all pass in Pensionville but how long would it take? How long before he felt normal again? How long before the thoughts in his mind could connect rather than bounce around aimlessly?

He stared at the window but found no comfort in the twisted stumps and decaying animals. He glanced at 71556 and wondered why his mind pushed and pushed at that designation as if trying to warn him of something. The train. The bus. Running. Movement. Trapped. Noise. Silence. Windowless windows. Inside and outside. Something was trying to get through but something else swatted it all aside. Click-clack. Click-clack.

Perhaps if he talked, perhaps the sound of his voice would silence the roar of his thoughts.

“I guess you took retirement too. Isn’t it great? We get to do whatever we want for the rest of your lives. Although…” 10538 licked his lips, “I’m not really sure what I want to do. My job was pretty much everything. I guess yours was too.”

71556 leaned back on his seat and closed his eyes. 10538 tried to ignore the obvious snub.

“I’ve been granted early retirement. I’m going to Pensionville. No more work for me. It’s all because I can read barcodes, well it wasn’t hard, I’ve been a camera watcher for so long now, I started to recognise the patterns and how they fit with the numbers. I have a special talent. So I get early retirement.” 10538 bit his lip. It was clear 71556 was ignoring him. One more try.

“I can read your code. You’re 71556. So you’re important. I can understand why you don’t want to bother with me.” 10538 lowered his head. It seemed he was not going to make a new friend today.

71556 opened one eye, then the other. “I can’t read barcodes. Who are you?”

Elated at getting a response, 10538 grinned. “I’m 10538. I’m amazed that a Seven-One can’t do what I do. So did you get retirement too?”

“Same as you.” 71556 turned his face to the window.

10538 followed his gaze. “It’s awful out there, isn’t it? Global warming has destroyed the planet.”

71556 snorted, then pointed at the scenery. “See that tree? The scorched one, twisted over? Look hard at it.”

“I see it.” 10538 shook his head. “What about it?”

“We’ve passed it many times on this trip already.” 71556 half-smiled. “You’ll see it again in three minutes.”

“Oh come on.” 10538 leaned back in his seat. “You think we’re just going in circles?”

“Wait three minutes,” 71556 stared at the window. “Also take note of that pattern of five blackened stumps.” A minute later: “See the way that decayed badger lies? Remember it.” Then: “The smoke from that smouldering grass. Remember the shape it makes.”

The twisted tree came into view. 10538 blinked. It couldn’t be the same one. Five blackened stumps. The badger. The shape of the smoke from the smouldering grass.

10538 sniffed. “Coincidence.”

“Keep watching.” 71556 waved him back to the window.

The twisted tree. The five stumps. The badger. The shape in the smoke.

10538 slumped in his seat. “We are going in circles.”

“No.” 71556’s voice was gentle. “Those are not windows. They are screens, like the ones on your buses and trams. They show you what you are supposed to see, not what’s really out there.”

“So what’s really out there? Something worse?” The chaos in 10538’s head intensified. Tears of confusion and terror welled in his eyes.

“Something better.” 71556 inhaled sharply as the train wheels squealed and their movement slowed. “Something I might not see again, and something you’ll probably never see. I think we’ve arrived at the end of the line.”

“I don’t see a platform and we haven’t passed an environment fence.” 10538 looked at the window. “We’re still in the ruined lands.”

“I told you, those are screens.” 71556 rolled his eyes. “Nothing to do with what’s out there. End of the line. It’s time to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye? Aren’t you going to the same place as me?”

“Yes. And that’s why—” 71556 froze, eyes wide, as the door opened.

“Are we there? Is this retirement?” 10538 pulled his onesie tighter at the neck. “They didn’t say it would be cold.” All he saw was white outside and little white flakes drifting in through the door.

A voice shouted from the white void beyond the door. Mary. Run. This won’t work for very long.

“That’s Terry.” 71556 stood and grabbed 10538’s onesie at the chest. “You want to live? Come on, this is your only chance.”

“But… Retirement.” 10538’s mind filled with contradictions. The warm place. The cold place. Noise. Silence. Did he retire twice? 11712. The one-way window. The twisted tree. The badger. Red marks on his wrists. The ghost. The ghost!

“There is no bloody retirement. You are an anomaly. You showed initiative and you learned to do something beyond your station. They will take you apart, analyse you, and whatever’s left will go into the power station furnace. If you’re lucky you’ll be dead by then.” 71556 pulled 10538 to his feet. “You want to see past those screens you call windows? Come on then, let’s go look.”

“It’s all burned out there. Nobody can live there.” 10538 struggled but 71556 pulled him towards the open door. “It’s all blackened and dead and…” They reached the door.

Green shoots through a white landscape. People, living people, not wearing barcodes. The sun, a gentle yellow orb with no flames. The sky, blue not red and with white patches moving over it. No blackened stumps. No smouldering grass. No badger.

It was impossible to deny this. It was impossible to correlate it with what he had been shown his whole life. Impossible to make it conform. Impossible to adjust this sight to reality. He could not achieve CCC no matter how he tried.

His mind overloaded with contradiction, 10538 passed out.

Panoptica Chapter 9

I’ve been distracted by a short story idea concerning Annunaki, Neanderthals and the ‘replacement of Europeans’. This will not take long and I’ll be back to Panoptica as soon as I have the other story drafted.

As for the news, I’m finding it hard to get worked up about any of it. The Labour leadership contest – meh. I’m not a member of any political party so won’t have a say and frankly, don’t give a damn. The candidate lineup looks like the starting line of a window licking competition. I don’t care which one they pick.

Apparently it’s ‘racism’ to criticise Meghan Markle, or Meghan Windsor as she is now. This is playing a full deck of race cards all at once, and what for? What does it matter if a minor royal decides he doesn’t want to be royal any more? He won’t be the first to abdicate his royalness. There are no examples of racism in any of the criticism I’ve seen and I don’t care enough about another family’s issues to comment myself. This is for Mrs. Queen and Wrinkled Phil to sort out. Not my business.

I’ve given up arguing with global warmers. There’s no point and it’s too late anyway. Climate change has arrived and is killing people in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan because they aren’t used to experiencing that much cold. Countries all over the world are seeing cold records fall every day – and the Church of Climatology focuses on arsonist-set fires in Australia. Even though much of Australia is also recording record low temperatures in what, for them, is summer. When I say ‘low’ I mean low for Australia, so pretty much British summer temperatures. They aren’t under glaciers and probably won’t be. There’s too much sea between Antarctica and the next land for effective glacier formation. The North doesn’t have that buffer. Maybe Australia will eventually have low enough temperatures for normal people to visit without having to wear stillsuits and a Meccano framework of fans and ice.

We have several years’ worth of firewood, we have well water and septic tank sewage. I just need to get a generator, ideally steam powered because the idiots are likely to push fuel prices into daft levels soon. I doubt they exist but I’m sure a petrol one could be modified with maybe an old railway tank engine to drive it. Yes, I am looking for an excuse to get one. Let the warmers keep pretending it’s getting hotter, and that CO2 is the only thing that matters. The game is over. They’re just hiding in that global warming jungle, pretending the war is still going on. I’m happy to leave them there.

Brexit – will it happen? I’m not going to hold my breath. Boris might actually come through on this or he might be a jolly Santa-like version of Jackboots May. We’ll get a better idea on the 31st January but we won’t know for sure until December. Either way, there’s sod all I can do about it so I’m not going to worry about it.

Enough gloom – I’m obviously spending far too much time with Gloom Dog lately – and on with the jolly tale of Panoptica. This’ll cheer you up. Comparatively.

Panoptica: Chapter 9

46110. 46826. 46053. The onesie patterns were unmistakable. 10538 stopped moving when he saw the unit marked as 93224. This rail station was under heavy security. Ghosthunters and a Coalition advisor? Something important must be happening, so what was he doing here? Surely he didn’t merit such a high-ranking sendoff party?

“Something wrong? Why have you stopped?” 18823 nudged him forward.

10538 took hesitant steps. “There are very important units here. A lot of security. What’s that for?”

“Have you ever been to a train station before?” 18823 moved in front of 10538, smiling.

“Well… no. I only ever needed the bus.”

“Trains are for longer journeys. The higher ranks need to get to distant places quickly. They’ll be waiting for trains going to their own destinations.” 18823 took 10538’s arm. “Come on. The train to Pensionville is already here. It has to clear the platform before other trains can arrive.”

10538 looked around. There was a concrete floor, a thing like a little room with a door, the concrete floor seemed to fall away on either side of the little room. Baffled, he turned to 18823. “I don’t know what a train looks like. Is it around here?”

18823 laughed. “Of course. I’ve never ridden in one but I’ve brought others here. So I know how it works. Let me show you.” He led 10538 to the edge of the concrete floor, just beside the little room, “Look down there.”

10538 peered cautiously over the edge. About a metre or so down lay steel bars, linked together at intervals, that ran under the room and off into the distance.

“Those are rails.” 18823 pointed into the distance. “They lead to Pensionville. This—” he indicated the little room “—runs on those rails so it can’t ever take a wrong turn. You sit inside and it will take you to Pensionville safely. That’s all there is to it. You just sit inside and wait. You don’t have to do anything.”

“Just like the bus?” 10538 looked over the little room. It had no visible windows, just the door.

“Even better. Because it’s on rails it can’t go the wrong way. It’s a lot faster too.” 18823 patted 10538’s back. “Come on, let’s get you on board.”

They stood before the door to the little room 18823 had called a ‘train’. There was a hiss and the door moved forwards, then sideways along the side of the train. 10538 was aware of movement around him – the ghosthunters had tensed, the advisor took a step back. He glanced at 18823, whose smile was tight and who appeared to not be breathing.

10538 stepped through the door. Someone sat in there, someone who looked up at him with one raised eyebrow. The onesie identified them as 71556. 10538 raised his hand in greeting to show his designation. 71556 snorted and looked away.

10538 turned to 18823. “Seems I’m not travelling alone.”

“Anyone you know?” 18823 spoke through gritted teeth.

10538 felt a little taken aback. It felt as though there was another overlay to this whole situation but he just could not grasp it. “No,” he said. “Never seen this unit before.”

18823 blew a long breath, as though relieved about something. He raised his hand. “Well, 10538, this is goodbye. I hope to join you in Pensionville one day but until then, be compliant, be comfortable, and conform.”

“I will. Be happy in your important job.” 10538 raised his hand in response until the door hissed closed. Once it had, he took a seat opposite 71556 and wondered if he should start a conversation. It seemed presumptuous to insist on conversation with a higher rank so instead, he stared out of the window.

The empty platform slid away as the train pulled out of the station.

Panoptica chapter 8

There isn’t much to say about current world madness. Apparently Harry and Meghan are going to leave home. Well they are in their thirties, old enough to make their own choices. I rather suspect they’ll leave behind more than they think they will, and that there’ll be no way back, but still the choice is theirs. Nobody can or should make that choice for them.

Iran has admitted that they shot down the passenger jet in a massive cock-up by the missile crew. I suspected that would be the case. Nothing underhand here, it was a cock-up that resulted in a lot of deaths. Not the first in the world by a long way and it won’t be the last.

The people of Iran are protesting. They want their oppressive leaders ousted. I hope no other country interferes – ‘regime change’ is best done from within and with no occupying forces left behind afterwards. Meddling in other countries’ governance has never ended well. Let them sort it out themselves. The turning point will come when the security forces realise they are shooting at their own families. That’s where the change happens.

So, people out there are making changes in their lives. I say, leave them to it. It’s nobody else’s business unless they ask for help. If they don’t ask, don’t force it on them.

Well, Leg Iron Books is off to a busy start. Thanks to Gastradamus for deciding to delay the release of his book while he perfects it to the absolute best it can be. It took a lot of pressure off over Christmas, but that’s still moving forward. There is a collection of short stories from Justin Sanebridge in the early stages of assembly and more stories in from a new author, Jude Wanderer, who you’ll be hearing more of. In March, we’ll have Underdog Anthology 11 (Legiron’s Eleven?) starting up and I have promised to do at least a chapter a week on Panoptica. It’s the only New Year Resolution I ever made that I had the slightest intention of keeping.

So here’s chapter 8. I’m still seven chapters ahead. The frequency might decline to one a week if these other books take up much time but I am determined to finally finish this thing.

If you think this one is confusing, try to imagine how 10538 feels…

Panoptica: Chapter 8

“10538. Are you ill?” Someone shook his shoulder.

10538 blinked his eyes open. He sat on a soft chair in a brightly lit room with a window. Seated opposite him, behind a wide desk, was 86929 – no, the barcode read 20929. How could he get that wrong? And yet the face…

“Sorry.” 10538 shook his head. “I feel a little strange.”

“The doctors did say you were stressed and overworked.” The voice came from the one who had shaken his shoulder. 10538 looked up.

Standing beside him, grinning, was 84823 – no, the code read 18823. Wrong again! Was he losing his touch? Reading the onesie barcodes had become easy, perhaps he was taking it for granted and getting lax.

“It’s okay.” 20929 leaned forward. “We understand. The doctors explained everything.”

“Doctors?” 10538 raised his hands and stared at them. Weren’t these tied or something? He looked around the room. How did I get here? Where am I? “What doctors?”

18823 glanced at 20929 before speaking. “The ones who visited you at home this morning. They diagnosed you with stress, and they called to say you would be late for work. They also recommended a reduction in your workload.”

“I don’t remember any of that.” 10538 felt panic rise. “Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Stay calm. There is no cause for alarm.” 20929 moved a glass of water towards 10538. “The doctors advised us that occasional memory loss and,” he lowered his head to stare at 10538, “sometimes even a short loss of consciousness are normal for the overstressed. Don’t worry, the effects can be cured.”

“They can? Will I get my memory back?” 10538 picked up the glass and took a long drink.

“Sure.” 18823 patted his shoulder. “Everything will be fine. This interview is to decide how best to cure your stress. It’s pretty severe and we really want to help you.”

“You have been an exemplary worker, 10538.” 20929 tapped at his screenpad. “Never late, no complaints at all, diligent and conscientious. You have put so much into your job it seems you have left little for yourself.” He put his elbows on the table, clasped his hands and looked at 10538. “I think we can offer you an early retirement. How would you like to go to Pensionville, where you can relax and recover at leisure?”

“I…” 10538 realised his mouth hung open. He closed it. Didn’t I just go through this same scene, but a little different? Did I dream that? The memory floated, distant and elusive, just like a dream. “I don’t know what to say. I had no idea I was overworked. I love my job, it’s important, it makes me feel wanted and useful.”

“We all have important jobs.” The two units recited the mantra.

“There comes a time, for all of us,” 20929 became serious, “when we hand over our important job to the next in line. Then we can relax, retire, take it easy for the rest of our lives. You, 10538, by virtue of your diligence and your special skill of reading barcodes, now have the chance to take that retirement. To relax, to spend your days any way you choose, to recover from the stress your work has imposed on you and to be happy all the time. Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t it what we all want?”

“Yes.” I suppose. “But my job. My cameras.” 10538’s head spun. Were there doctors at his home this morning? There was a faint recollection, a hint of memory but it slid away when he tried to focus on it. Something else too. Something about a bus.

“Oh don’t worry about your job. It will be reallocated. It’s time to think of yourself now. You have worked so hard, you have earned this.” 18823 squeezed 10538’s shoulder, gently. “You can relax now. Take the train to Pensionville and retire in the knowledge you have done well.”

20929 nodded his head. “We are all very proud of you, 10538. You have worked so hard. Too hard, really. You have earned this reward.”

Reward. I was rewarded for something else. Wasn’t I? 10538 could not remember any other reward. Maybe this was his reward. Maybe he dreamed that too. He put his head in his hands.

“Aren’t you pleased?” 18823 placed a gentle hand on 10538’s shoulder. “You’ll spend the rest of your life in warmth and comfort, doing just as you like.”

“It’s just—” 10538 licked his dry lips. “I can’t seem to tell the difference between reality and dreams. I feel like I’ve forgotten something but when I try to remember, it just fades away.”

18823 squeezed 10538’s shoulder. “That’s the effect of stress. Those feelings will fade in Pensionville. You’ll be surprised how fast you’ll stop worrying when you get there.”

10538 pursed his lips and considered his options. There was really only one option. The stress he was under was affecting his mind. He could insist on staying and perhaps go insane and end up in New Bedlam, or he could take the easy, comfortable conformity of retirement. He decided to comply. “I accept. When do I leave?”

20929 leaned back and spread his arms. “At once. Your retirement, once accepted, is effective immediately. 18823 will take you to the station, and the train is ready to leave.”

“At once?” 10538 was taken aback. “But I need to change. This onesie feels like I’ve been wearing it for days. And I would like to tell 11712 about my good fortune. Is there time?”

20929 and 18823 exchanged a glance. 18823 left the room.

“There’s no time to see your friend. We will convey your good news for you. However, there is time to change your clothing. 18823 is fetching you a fresh one now.” 20929 nodded and smiled then leaned forward, his elbows on the desk. His face became serious. “Tell me, 10538, did you ever see a ghost on your monitors?”

Ghost. Wasn’t there one, once? Was it a dream? A wishful thought? 10538 closed his eyes and tried to recall, but the memories flitted out of reach as if taunting him. He took a deep breath. “No. Nothing but comfortable compliant conformity. I never saw a terrorist on my screens.”

20929 seemed to relax. He moved back a little and smiled again. “That’s a good thing. You watched over everyone, and just because you didn’t see any threat doesn’t mean that your time was wasted. You have spent your time here doing a very important job and now it’s time for your reward. Peace and contented conformity.”

Reward. That word again. It echoed in 10538’s brain as if trying to connect with something but at last, finding nothing, it faded.

18823 returned with a folded onesie and placed it on the table in front of 10538.

“We’ll give you privacy to change. Only the cameras will be watching.” 20929 rose and headed for the door. 18823 followed.

The door closed. Alone, apart from the ever-present cameras, 10538 stared at the folded onesie on the desk. His head swirled. Retirement. Reward. 11712. Ghost. Terrorist. The words bounced inside his skull looking for a place to connect but every connection was blocked. Stress, they had said. Just stress and overwork. 10538 sighed and reached for the fresh clothing.

Panoptica chapter 7

Currently on a tough patch in chapter 14. 10538 is recovering blocked memories. It’s hard to do from the POV of the one recovering them but I think I have a plausible way to do it without killing him with the shock. Anyway, here’s chapter 7 for those with nothing to do at the weekend.

Panoptica: Chapter 7

The room had no clock. No TV. Nothing to mark the passage of time. Cold grey walls, ceiling and floor.

10538 shivered. The silence was beginning to drive him mad. At home, the TV’s muted murmur helped him sleep. At work, the hum of machinery comforted him. Here, there was nothing. Silence, a total absence of sound, something he had never experienced.

He tapped his fingers on the cold steel table. He hummed. He shifted in his seat. Anything to make a sound. Any sound, anything at all, just to keep his connection with reality.

What was reality? Was this it? Strapped into a chair in a grey silent room, accused of being a terrorist? How could that be real? Yesterday he was a hero, a lone, unknown catcher of terrorists. Here he sat in the dim grey light of silence, arrested and accused of terrorism himself.

What would they do to him? Demotion? A zero-nine or zero-eight, working at the cleaners where he sent his onesies every evening or maybe in the kitchens that prepared food? Zero-seven, dealing with the recycling? There were even lower ranks, and 10538 had no idea what kind of work they had to deal with. He shuddered.

Were there worse punishments? Maybe. Cast out into the wilderness, to try to survive in the devastation of global warming? The TV sometimes showed the outside world. Seas rising over ancient cities, burned lands, dead vegetation, decomposing animals. The terrorists survived out there somehow. Could he, with no city to support him, no job, no home?

“I didn’t do it!” The sound of his own voice startled him. “It’s a mistake. I was just trying to catch the bus.”

The walls seemed to close in, the silence disapproving of his outburst. 10538 closed his eyes. How long have I been here? Hours? Days? How long must I stay? What will they do to me?

Behind him, the door opened. A snippet of conversation came to his ears.

“Does he know?”

“He cannot know or we risk noncompliance.”

“It’s unethical.”

“But necessary. Quiet now, he can hear us.” The door closed.

86929 came into 10538’s field of view, smiling. He took a seat at the desk. The other unit stayed out of sight, if he entered the room at all.

“Well, 10538, you have caused us something of a problem, it seems.” 86929 placed his screenpad on the desk and steepled his fingers, his smile unwavering.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” 10538 pressed his knees together, This new terror might make him soil himself.

“Oh no, it’s not your fault.” 86929 placed his palms on the desk. “It seems we have made a mistake. We know now that you are not a terrorist. However, we cannot simply let you go.”

“Why?” 10538’s surge of relief faded as fast as it had risen.

“Well, you see, this evening’s news has already reported your capture and congratulated the camera watcher who reported you. This means that your home, job and bank account have been reallocated to 10643. We can’t just take it all back. Imagine how 10643 would feel.”

Imagine how I feel! 10538 bit his lip. He could never go home now, he was marked as a terrorist even though the authorities knew he was not. His life, given away, could not be retaken. He took a breath and tried to keep his voice steady. “So what happens to me?”

86929 stared at his hands for a moment. “There is no punishment for you since you are innocent. However, the police have a reputation as never making a mistake and your life has been reallocated. Therefore we have only one solution to offer you.”

“What is it?”

86929 looked directly into 10538’s eyes. “Retirement. Early retirement, sure, but you can go to Pensionville and relax for the rest of your life.” 86929 leaned forward. “You are not the first mistake and you won’t be the last. In Pensionville you can meet your friend 11712.” He winked. “The news will say you were found on the rocks too.”

“That’s…” 10538 struggled to assimilate this new information. “I… I get early retirement? I can go to Pensionville? Won’t they recognise my designation from the news?”

From behind him came a snort. “The ones in Pensionville don’t get to see the news.”

86929 shot a warning glance over 10538’s shoulder, then his smile returned. “It’ll be fine. Let me introduce someone, or rather I’ll let you surprise him.” He waved the other unit forward.

10538 watched the other unit come into view. “84823,” he said.

84823’s eyes widened. “He really can read barcodes!”

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” 86929 leaned back in his chair. “Well, 10538, 84823 is going to give you a retirement chip and then it’s off to Pensionville for you.”

84823 rolled his eyes. “Retirement chip. Sure.” He reached behind 10538 and brought a tray with a large syringe into view. “Okay. This one goes into your spinal column at the base of your skull. I’m going to need you to tense every muscle and stay very, very still. Can you do that?”

“I’ll try.” 10538 swallowed hard. “Will it hurt?”

84823 lifted the syringe, checked it was clear of air bubbles, then faced 10538 with a wide grin. “Yes. A lot.” He disappeared behind 10538’s chair.

“Don’t worry. It’s worth it.” 86929 smiled. “We will have to wipe a few recent memories from your mind of course. So that you don’t accidentally incriminate yourself in Pensionville. That doesn’t hurt though. We can do it through your brain chip while you’re unconscious.”

“Brain chip? Unconscious?” A brief moment of puzzlement was replaced by bright flashing lights and searing pain in 10538’s head. It felt as though his neck was being severed. 86929’s smile was surrounded by bursts of light and colour, obliterating the face until only the smile remained.

Then it all went dark.

Panoptica chapter 6

I have finally completed my tax return. If I discount the lab rent for 2018/19 (there won’t be any for the next one because I closed down the lab at the end of 2018), Leg Iron Books made a loss of around £45. It is entirely possible that the business will reach break-even next year – maybe even (dare I say it) a profit! I’m still well within the personal allowance so it’ll take a few years of building up profit before I pay any tax, but at least it’s going in the right direction.

Still, I am worn out after finding and adding all those little bits together so here’s another bit of Panoptica. Note that the restraining method described is actually in use in Chinese police stations now. I didn’t invent it.

Panoptica: Chapter 6

10538 woke to stark grey concrete. Gradually he became aware that he sat in a small cage, his wrists bound by metal hoops to the metal table they rested on. The dim lighting was just enough to allow him to make out a desk and chair opposite. The room, as far as he could tell, contained nothing else. No window and no door that he could see.

“Where am I?” His voice came out as a croak. He pulled at the bonds on his wrists but all that did was make his medichip beep. Behind him he heard the sound of a door opening. 10538 relaxed. Resistance is futile and only makes things worse. He recalled being arrested after running for the bus and felt confident that it was all a mistake. It would be sorted out soon. Although he had never heard of the police making a mistake. Everyone they arrested was always guilty. This must be their first ever mistake.

The unit who entered the room passed 10538 without looking at him, placed a screenpad on the desk, sat, and considered the screen for a time. 10538 licked his lips. The unit’s barcode identified him as 86929, a very senior unit in the medical ranks. This did not look good at all. He decided it was best to remain silent.

After several minutes, 86929 looked up. “10538. You have not asked why you are here. Do I take it that you already know the reason for your arrest?”

“I…” 10538 swallowed and tried again. “It’s a mistake. I was running to catch the bus. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Catching a bus is not a crime.” 86929 sniffed. “You were tasered for resisting arrest after you were seen running. Who were you going to meet?”

“Meet? Nobody. I was just trying to get to work. This is all just a misunderstanding.”

“That’s what they all say.” 86929 tapped his screenpad. “The police do not make mistakes, 10538. You were arrested because you are guilty. This interview is to determine exactly what you are guilty of.”

“Nothing! I just wanted to get on the bus.” 10538’s medichip beeped furiously.

88929 tapped a few times on his screenpad. 10538’s medichip stopped beeping.

“I have disabled the warning signals on your medichip for now. No sense in wasting our overstretched health service’s time on a criminal.” 86929 leaned back in his chair. “You were an associate of 11712. You became obese. You partook of alcohol and tobacco. And you discussed private information with 11712 after you deliberately walked to his bus stop, from your allocated stop, to speak with him. So, what was the plan?”

10538 tensed against his restraints. “I don’t know anything about any plan. I hardly knew 11712. We just talked. I had to walk to his stop because I was overweight. The bus wouldn’t let me on. I… I was the one who reported him when I saw him running. I can’t be a terrorist. How can I be a terrorist when I reported two of them in two days?”

“Two?” 86929 tapped at his screenpad. “Ah yes, the ghost. Well that one had clearly messed up whatever was planned by losing his chips and was therefore expendable—a liability even, for your insurgency. As for 11712, well, there is no honour among criminals. You could have reported him to raise your own credibility. Going deeper under cover, maybe?” He fixed 10538 with a hard stare.

“I didn’t. I’m not.” 10538 slumped in his chair. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “I was just running to catch the bus.”

86929 snorted. “That’s what they all say. 11712…” He paused and pursed his lips for a moment. “Well, no doubt you saw last night’s news.”

“He jumped the safety fence.” 10538 stared at the restraints holding his wrists to the table. “He fell onto the rocks. So he must have been guilty. But I’m not. I’m not a terrorist. I was just running for the bus.” He blinked a few times, trying to dispel the doubt entering his mind. Why was 11712 running? Was he running for the bus too? No, no, then why would he jump the fence?

“If the police had not tasered you, would you have jumped the fence too?” 86929 raised his eyebrows. “Would you be willing to die for your treasonous cause, 10538? Is it really that important to you that our comfortable, compliant conformity is destroyed?” He leaned forward. “Why do you hate our way of life, 10538? What would you put in its place?”

“I don’t.” 10538 looked into 86929’s eyes. “I am happy in my life. I don’t want it to change.”

86929 sniffed. “Overeating, tobacco, alcohol… these are rebellious acts. Nonconformity. Noncompliance. You have been reckless with your health and happiness and with that of those around you. You are in very deep trouble here and it would be wise for you to be truthful with me. It would be much better for you in the long run. You don’t want to be deleted, do you?”

“No!” Tears blurred 10538’s vision. “Please. I’m not planning anything. I’m not a terrorist. I don’t know anything. I just want my life back to how it was. Safe. Compliant. Comfortable. Conforming. I just want to do my job and be happy again. Please. I’ll do anything to go back there.”

“Going back is not possible.” 86929 narrowed his eyes. “However, there are options to how you go forward. I will consider those while you consider your crimes and how best to make amends for them.”

“I’ll do anything. Anything.”

“Yes, I’m sure.” 86929 stood. “One more thing, 10538. Do you know who I am?”

10538 dared not even raise his head. “You are 86929. Please, I’ll do whatever you say. I don’t want deletion.”

“Hm. So it’s true.” 86929 pushed back his chair. “I will leave you in this period of self-reflection on your guilt, 10538, and will return with options for your future. I’m afraid none of them will be painless.”

His body shaking with sobs and fear, 10538 heard the door behind him open and close.

___________________

Panoptica 4 and 5

I have completed chapter 11, now past the ‘out-take’ that was a separate story, ‘Santa is Coming’. I want to stay maybe 3 or 4 chapters ahead so I have a bit of leeway if things get busy here. I’m also working on images for Gastradamus’ book and still picking up the tiny bits for the tax return (doing the next one at the same time so it won;t be last minute!) and there are more books coming. There’s also Anthology 11 on the horizon, in March…

Anyway. Chapter 5 was a small one so I’ve added it on to this post. Remember it’s all still first draft so criticisms are welcome. After this it starts to get a little darker.

Panoptica: Chapters 4 and 5

Voting day. 10538 cast his vote by pressing the appropriate button on his TV control, secure in the knowledge that he was hurting nobody because no candidate would lose. They would all be elected to the Coalition. The vote determined how much power they had in lawmaking and their effect on the lives of citizens, but no politician would be left behind.

It was always a difficult choice. All their policies were the same. It really was a matter of who the voter liked best and the tattooed one-armed unit ticked all the right boxes for proper political correctness. So 10538 cast his vote this time, as before, for 98014. One day his choice of candidate might be Prime, and he could feel that warm glow that said he helped put him there.

His vote cast, he dressed and prepared for work. The bathroom wall scale declared him five grams underweight when he stepped into the little room. 10538 grinned. Underweight meant a little extra breakfast.

Not very much extra, as it turned out. The breakfast flakes portion didn’t look any larger than usual. It must be in there, he thought. The coalition won’t let anyone starve. He crunched his way through breakfast, once again trying to suppress the memory that told him it used to be served in milk.

Just as he was ready to leave, his front door opened and three units entered. Clad in white onesies apart from the barcode lines, they were immediately recognisable as medics.

The first of them smiled and said “Greetings, 10538. I am 84—”

“84227.” 10538 raised his right palm in greeting.

84227 blinked. “Have we met?”

“No, I read your barcode. It’s easy.” 10538 felt a slight confusion. Weren’t the barcodes clear to all? The other two were 83619 and 83388, high level nurses. 84227 was the doctor in charge. Their codes were as visible to him as their faces.

“You can read onesie codes?” 84227 motioned to the nurses. 83388 made a note on his screenpad.

“I look at them all day, every day. It’s my job. We all have important jobs.” A creeping unease entered 10538’s thoughts. Had he said something wrong?

“We all have important jobs,” said the three medics in unison.

“Hm.” 84227 assumed a serious expression. “We received a stress call from your medichip two days ago. It was aborted, but then last night there was another silent alert. There was a bloodstream anomaly. We are concerned about your wellbeing, 10538, so we arranged a house call. Your employer has been notified so your late arrival at work will not be questioned.”

“I’m okay. I don’t need to waste medical time. I know how valuable your time is to those who really need it.” 10538 resisted the urge to wipe the sheen of sweat that formed on his brow. A house call was always a risky thing. One word, one movement out of place could get him sectioned. The medics had quotas to fill, just like everybody else. If they were low this month they would be looking for any excuse. He had to be careful not to give them one. Spending the rest of his life in New Bedlam held no appeal at all.

“We just want to be sure. The safety and wellbeing of all our citizens is important to us. The individual is part of the whole, and the whole cannot function without the individual.” 84227 smiled his doctor smile.

“I know.” 10538 struggled to keep his fear out of his voice. “What do you need?”

“Only your compliance.” 84227 maintained his smile as he waved his two nurses forward.

10538 put up no resistance as 83619 pressed him into his chair while 83388 rolled up his right sleeve and pressed a scanner to his arm. There was a small stabbing pain that made 10538 flinch, then the two nurses moved away from him.

83388 showed the scanner to 84227, who pursed his lips in medical contemplation.

“There are traces of cotinine in your blood. Have you associated with smokers?” 84227’s expression was serious. “Also alcohol. There are no safe levels of either of these things, 10538. I am most concerned.”

“I’ve never been anywhere near any smokers.” 10538 cringed under the doctor’s glare. His eyes drifted to the drinks cabinet. Should he admit that transgression? It was less bad than the smoking accusation.

83619 nodded at him and opened a small case. He took small amounts from each bottle in the drinks cabinet and topped them up with bottles from his case. He smiled at 10538. “Nothing to worry about. Routine assessment, that’s all.”

10538’s eyes widened. That vodka bottle was probably almost all water by now and the whisky was several shades paler than it should be. He was definitely going to get classified alcoholic and that could mean sectioning.

“Look,” he said. “Okay. I dipped into the drink sometimes. It helps with memory reassignment when things get hard. My job is really stressful but I never binged. I was never drunk.”

“Calm down.” 84227 held up his hands. “We are here to help you. We want to be sure you can be the best you can be. We want to make your life better, not worse.” 

“I should get to work,” 10538 muttered. He tried to rise from his seat but 83619’s hands on his shoulders pressed him gently but firmly back down.

“There is no need for elevated stress levels.” 84227 consulted his screenpad. “Your medichip is reporting fast heart rate and elevated blood pressure. You were overweight recently, weren’t you?”

“Yes, but—”

“The effects of obesity can remain for some time after you lose the weight, you know.” 84227’s expression became severe. “Coupled with your alcohol problem and the cotinine, plus the stress of your job, all this could put you at high risk of sudden heart attack or a long slow death from cancer.” He put the screenpad inside his onesie. “I will be making a recommendation that your workload is reduced for a while. Perhaps even some time off to relax. Would that help, do you think?” His smile was tight and didn’t reach his eyes.

“Time off work? But who will watch the screens?” 10538 wrinkled his nose. “We have to watch for terrorists. We have to be vigilant all the time. You never know who they might be.” His shoulders slumped. He had never imagined 11712 could be a terrorist, but the news report could not have lied.

84227 laughed. “There are other one-zeros who will be happy to cover your holiday time, I’m sure, and we won’t keep you away from work too long. Just enough to let you recover. I’ll prescribe some relaxant pills for you. They will help you to sleep soundly and make you feel good.”

Don’t argue. 10538 realised he was getting off lightly. These medics could so easily take him off to New Bedlam with what they had on him. He was being offered a way out and he knew he should grab it with both hands.

“Okay,” 10538 forced a smile. “Thank you for your prompt and courteous treatment. I will comply with medical advice.”

“Good.” 84227 motioned with a small movement of his head and the two nurses headed for the door. “I will put my recommendation to your place of work today. You might find they will interview you before granting your time off. Don’t worry, just answer their questions honestly.” He winked. “They might have more than just a few days off to offer you.”

The medics left. 10538 stared at the closed door for a while then shook himself and headed out to catch the bus. It had just pulled away but he knew that in this part of town it took a circuitous route and would stop a few streets over in a few minutes from now. If he was quick he could still catch it. 10538 started running.

Five

Just as 10538 reached the bus stop, the bus appeared at the corner. Gasping for breath, he held on to the bus stop pole and watched it approach.

“10538. Do not resist arrest.” The voice came from behind.

10538 turned to see two units aiming tasers at him. Their onesies identified them as 33110 and 33517. Street-police designations. He raised his hands. “Am I under arrest? Why?”

“Suspicion.” 33110 moved closer, handcuffs at the ready. “You were running. The camera watchers reported you.”

The bus pulled to a stop and opened its doors. 33517 shook his head and waved to the driver to move on. The door hissed closed and the bus left.

“I was running to catch the bus.” 10538 allowed the officer to handcuff him. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just late for work.”

“Do not resist arrest.” 33517 aimed the taser at 10538’s chest, his fingers tightening. “If you were late you must have been doing something to have made you late. We will take you in for questioning.”

“No, I was just—” 10538 shuddered at the jolt from the taser and fell to the ground. The last words he heard before losing consciousness were 33110’s: You shouldn’t have resisted arrest.

Panoptica chapter 3

Yes, okay, it’ll settle down to a chapter a week when I catch up with where I am now (currently blending in the train scene in ‘Santa is Coming’ from 10538’s POV). Meanwhile here’s a little more of the happy life of Panoptica.

Panoptica: Chapter 3

He had been only forty grams overweight so was able to sit on the bus on the way home. 11712 had not joined the bus at his usual stop. Could he have really been the runner? Maybe he had been overweight and had to walk and catch the next bus. It could be just that. Could be.

10538 pressed his palm to the scanner on the doorframe, waited until his home recognised him and let him in. The door swung closed behind him.

Inside his home was the only place he could remove his onesie. He unzipped, stripped and put today’s clothing into the wash slot. Yesterday’s had already emerged, cleaned and ready to wear.

Naked, he took the few steps to the kitchen side of the windowless room and pressed the food button. Today’s evening meal was another low-calorie preparation. Biscuits and low-fat cheese. He still had forty grams to lose. 10538 stared at the contents of the paper bag containing his meal and almost squealed with delight. There were tomatoes in there! Three fresh tomatoes! It had been years since he had seen, never mind tasted, a fresh tomato. He picked one up and turned it in his fingers.

“I must be really in the Coalition’s good books today,” he said as he bit into the first one. Its juice filled his mouth with flavour and a sensation that he had thought gone forever. Savouring every bite, he finished the first tomato and reached for the second. He paused. Better to eat the boring part of the meal first and then take the time to enjoy the tomatoes afterwards.

His meal over, 10538 put the remains into the recycle slot. There were no remains of the tomatoes. He had caught every drop of juice. Feeling more satisfied than he had in a very long time, he sat on the bed and turned his attention to the television.

It was on because it was always on. There was no way to turn it off, only to reduce the volume to a subliminal murmur when it was time to sleep. 10538 turned it up and waited for the news.

The program currently showing was about some strange creature called a ‘penguin’. This fierce beast only appeared when deep snow covered the ground and it had a long hard mouth called a beak, which was filled with sharp spikes. Now mercifully extinct due to the utter destruction of their home by global warming, the creatures were once able to reach 100 metres in length, could both fly and swim and were able to run on land at twice the speed of the fastest human.

“Good thing we don’t have those any more,” 10538 muttered, then wished he hadn’t. Fearsome though the creatures might be, it was global warming that killed them and global warming was bad. It was the reason it now only snowed in winter and the cause of summer sweating, a human adaptation to the changing climate. It should never be considered a ‘good thing’ under any circumstances, and you never knew when TV was listening as well as talking.

Finally the monsters of the past left the screen and the news started with its fanfare of uplifting music.

“Good evening, citizens,” beamed from the mouth of the presenter with perfect teeth. As he did every time, 10538 ran his tongue over his uneven teeth and probed the gaps in them. The dentists had done what they could but he had eaten sugar in his months as a Feral and the damage was done. He had to live with his past sins.

“Welcome to the news show. We try to bring you good news but we have to face the bad. The good news is that we have had no terrorist attack for fifty-eight days now. The terrorists cannot defeat us!”

There were cheers from an unseen audience. 10538 managed a half-hearted cheer, more in case the TV scanner was pointed his way than from any heartfelt belief. He now knew the terrorists could be anyone, anywhere, any time. It was hard to feel as safe as he had felt before.

“Tonight we have news of two terrorists defeated before they could act. Both taken by our wonderful camera watchers. Of course we can’t give you the designations of our camera watchers for security reasons but they have been rewarded for their diligence, you can be sure of that.”

More offscreen cheers. This time 10538 cheered loud and long and punched the air. Three fewer screens to watch and tomatoes in his meal. What a fantastic reward! All the more delicious because nobody knew about it.

“When there is nowhere to hide, there can be nothing to fear.” The TV presenter intoned the words. The unseen audience and 10538 intoned them in response.

“Unless you’re a terrorist.” He winked and pointed his finger from the screen. The audience laughed. 10538 chuckled.

“First we have the ghost.”

The audience gave a long and faux-frightened ‘oooh’. 10538 snorted. If they only knew what ‘ghost’ really meant. Nothing supernatural. It meant someone on screen with no report from the RFID scanners.

“He was just strolling along, minding his own terrorist business, when our alert and ever-vigilant camera watcher saw him. This is what happened next.” The screen cut to a grainy CCTV clip.

A unit walked along an empty street. The ghosthunter van pulled up in front of him. Two ghosthunters emerged and pointed their tasers at the ghost. He pulled a gun – a live-round pistol, long since illegal – and fired at them.

The two ghosthunters stepped aside to dodge the bullets and fired their tasers. The ghost went down in a fury of twitching arms and legs, his gun flung aside. The ghosthunters dragged him into their van and drove off.

10538 watched in silence. That was not what he had seen on his screens. The ghosthunters had stopped the unit on a busy street. The ghost was unarmed and had raised his hands at the sight of the tasers. He had been handcuffed and had gone quietly into the van.

And yet, this was the news. The TV cannot lie. What has been seen is real. What has been imagined is wrong. 10538 considered the imperfect images his monitors showed him. He could not be sure the unit he saw running today was 11712 because the cameras couldn’t get a decent image of his barcode. Perhaps he was wrong about yesterday too. He felt so sure. The ghost had gone quietly. No tasers were fired. Could he be wrong? Every other citizen saw this report on the news. Only he had seen the event as it happened. Everyone but him believed the ghost had to be tasered into submission. Only he believed otherwise. Therefore he must be the one who was wrong.

10538 tried to adjust his memory as he had been taught as a child, to bring it into compliant comfortable conformity, the CCC of happiness. It had mostly been easy to do so far but today it just would not take. His eyes strayed to the drinks cabinet, a feature of every home, an exercise in self-control and restraint. Everyone had some alcoholic drink in their homes but nobody touched them. They were there to demonstrate the power of the individual will over the base instincts of the primeval brain.

Oh he had tasted alcohol before, a great deal of it in his Feral months. Almost everyone had. It left a sour taste and a sore head but it did bring forgetfulness. He rubbed his hand over his mouth. One little taste, just to take away the wrong memory…

“One terrorist taken down.” The news presenter grinned from the screen. “He won’t be terrorising anyone any more. He’ll be spending his days in prison and we will all be safe from him.”

Cheers from the audience. A confused silence from 10538.

“There was another today.”

The audience gave a collective ‘Aaah’. 10538 winced. This one used to be a friend of his.

“Running through the streets, an easy catch for our wonderful camera watchers. They watch over us everywhere, always, and they will catch every terrorist. We are safe in their eyes.”

“Safe in the eye of the camera,” intoned the audience. 10538 glanced at the drinks cabinet again.

“It was one we believed was a citizen. One who was trusted and loved by us all. He was designated 11712 and he turned out bad.” The news presenter shook his head in a slow, sad movement. “Anyone could be a bad one.”

It really was him? Up to that very moment, 10538 hoped it had been a terrorist using designation theft to imitate his friend.

“He ran and ran, right to the edge of town where the precipice is fenced off. You might think he would stop there, but he jumped the fence.”

A gasp of disbelief from the audience coincided with 10538’s wrinkling of his nose. 11712 would never do anything that stupid.

“He fell, onto the rocks below. We might never know his plans but we do know he cannot now carry them out.” The presenter’s grin widened. “Two terrorists lost the war against us today and while I cannot tell you who saved us, I can tell you it was the same camera watcher for both events.”

The audience exploded in applause and cheering. 10538 made abortive hand motions towards the drinks cabinet.

“Now we have a pattern in the paint on a door that looks like our dear leader.”

The audience roared with laughter. 10538 muted the TV and lay back on his bed. There was something very wrong. The ghost had not fired anything and 11712 would never have jumped the precipice fence. Not everything was as it seemed.

Perhaps if he just took a little from that whisky bottle and then topped it up with water. Nobody would know and it might let his memories comply with what he was supposed to believe.

It wouldn’t be the first time.