Tags: Assassins of the Free, chapter, combined military force, contestant, democracy, dissident, Game Day, game show, molecular tracking device, MTD, novel, personal risk, politics, science fiction, social stratification, speculative fiction, technology, television, The Game, totalitarian
Gregor Klimt did not feel bad about Jody’s murder. The act had granted catharsis from his gruelling struggle to Comfortable Status. Though the switch from disfigurement to death had been forced, it had come easily.
Gregor was adamant Jody had deserved to die. Greed had passed her sentence; he’d merely executed it. Had she been satisfied with her lot, she’d have lived to enjoy it with her lover. The New Deal had brought unprecedented social order, but it protected humble and greedy alike. The arrangement was technically efficient, but morally bereft.
Gregor saw a mission; something worth pursuing now his material quest was over. He had the training and resources to discourage avaricious citizens from seeking Free Status. He liked the idea of being fate’s instrument and started scanning the Internet for others like Jody. Part of him wasn’t serious about being a vigilante. It went along for the ride, convinced this was a phase.
Ever since The New Deal’s prospectus had appeared five years earlier, a rumour had circulated. Six months after the cut-off date, it was confirmed. ETAT had classified all its Members as Free – including those whose net worth qualified them for lesser classifications only.
Most Members thus promoted were technically gifted. Their motive to join ETAT hadn’t been fiscal and they’d fallen far behind their mercenary peers. But ETAT needed technocrats as much as the rest of its diverse membership. So it raised them beyond their means to vouchsafe their loyalty.
The public outcry triggered The New Deal’s first significant opposition. Citizens hitherto content under the new order were enraged at the exemption of poorer ETAT Members from Game participation. Relative inequity exploded perceptions of absolute equity. People were as reluctant as ever to give anyone a free ride.
ETAT had believed society’s enthusiasm for The New Deal had earned it a degree of policy latitude. This was a serious underestimation of human nature. At least the damning revelation had been suppressed until after The New Deal became universal law. Surely dissension would not bring calls to dismantle the system?
Action groups formed within days of the inequity becoming known. Like rain down a window, cells linked and gained momentum as they hurtled to a showdown with their flawed government. ETAT’s greatest crisis imperilled decades of concerted effort.
In breach of their classification contracts and in spite of the heavy punishments prescribed, citizens began to barter for and consume higher-echelon goods. MTD data sites reported an alarming jump in Rich Class food going down Poor and Comfortable Class throats. The Combined Military Force was soon awash with cases.
At an ETAT crisis summit, a solution was tabled that moderate Members feared most: the full use of ETAT powers to quell the uprising. The resolution carried. Those advocating restraint were forced to concede that totalitarianism trumped democracy at enforcing humane policies. Despite its failings, ETAT was still humanity’s best chance of living in harmony with itself and the planet. It was too late to abandon the means with the great goal so close.
The Combined Military Force had never been so well-funded, nor enjoyed such a diverse career structure. Though the former police, army, navy and air corps staff still mistrusted each other, none could deny the colossal benefits of their amalgamation. They had status formerly accorded only by war. If ETAT fell, so would their privileged position.
ETAT ordered the CMF to arrest every citizen conclusively proven to have breached their classification contract. Case priority was assigned according to level of political activity. Resistance leaders went first. In opposing ETAT verbally, most had also undertaken civil disobedience. Their punishment was therefore legal. In a brilliant coup over public hearts and minds, however, ETAT did not arrest even the most vocal leaders who’d protested within the terms of their contracts.
ETAT thus emerged from the fracas with its corporate image intact. It had kept its own laws – though it had patent power not to. This, coupled with the diminished supply of leaders, made people reconsider their rage. The New Deal had been a good thing. Punishment for crime was now established as a sure thing. Perhaps it was wiser to forgive and forget.
ETAT sped the healing with another brilliancy. Without revealing the nature or distribution of the Molecular Tracking Device, ETAT published samples of evidence used to convict those it had arrested. People close to the offenders saw that ETAT had disciplined only the guilty. There was nothing to pin on the party. No one had been punished who hadn’t first broken their written promise to ETAT. By all accounts, ETAT had acted swiftly, fairly and with absolute accuracy. What previous government had ever done likewise?
ETAT’s mysterious power to glean explicit truths became the stuff of urban myth. Citizens saw the cartel as omniscient, just as Neville Major had predicted. Yet the demise of the resistance had established ETAT as a benign force. Only the wicked would ever taste the iron fist; the law-abiding would stay snug in the velvet glove.
A paradoxical spin-off from the quashed rebellion was a dramatic increase in Game contestants. It was as if society had suddenly accepted that ETAT was in power for good and that The Game was the only path to significant self-advancement. While most people toiled for minor increments in their stratum, a significant proportion leapt for the one above. And when several citizens made multiple jumps to Free Status, the flow of hopefuls swelled even more. The term ‘Freedom’ gained a new financial meaning which dictionaries soon picked up.
ETAT, badly shaken by the uprising, was keen to enhance its image. But the growing number of contestants posed a problem. Too many were making it through. Especially alarming was the ingress into the Members’ own echelon. ETAT wasn’t prepared to finance so many reckless winners. The Game and its related industries were critical to the economy. It was the sole legal outlet for dissidence – the solution when all else had failed. It was a self-funding crime deterrent and a means of execution. It couldn’t be tampered with lightly.
ETAT discussed the issue at length, goaded by each new intruder into Freedom. Finally, consensus was reached on a bitter solution: the odds of meeting death on The Game would have to be raised.
Game Day was introduced as a sweetener. Few saw it as more than an ersatz public holiday. ETAT waited for a backlash that never came. Those disenchanted by the reduced chances of success failed to fire those not intending to use The Game. For the latter, the altered odds simply meant spectacular television deaths more often. The flow of contestants eased in close accord with ETAT modelling. People enjoyed their annual day off. Life went on.
Gregor was one citizen who couldn’t forgive ETAT’s reclassification of its own Members: his own struggle had been too desperate. His hatred of the Free deepened with ETAT’s every move. The shortening of odds he found doubly offensive. First, he saw it as a blatant ploy by the government to insulate itself from the masses. Second, he was nauseated by the citizens who continued to strive for Free Status despite the greater risk. To Gregor, they’d devalued their lives beyond comprehension. He quickened his search for someone to set as an example.
His name had been Pablo Guano. Before escaping Comfortable Status, he changed it to Nimon Freemon. Nimon had made three successful jumps, rocketing to Free Status. Fans worshipped his home page. He was a symbol of fearlessness and success; the patron saint of Game contestants.
What set Nimon apart from other social climbers was his prior statement of intent. A year before his first jump, he announced his plan to make all three jumps in three months. Surrounded by the drivel of thousand other Game hopefuls, his manifesto attracted little interest. On achieving his goal, however, his dated Net entry proved he’d foretold his destiny. Eschewing the lure of interim achievements, he’d spent barely a month at the Rich and Superrich strata before moving to his ultimate goal. His sheer determination made him an icon – both for people too frightened to make their first jump and for one-time contestants unwilling to risk their lives again.
Fascinated with Nimon’s instrument choice, Gregor had watched all his Game appearances. Very few contestants selected the Mincer. When a punter chose to risk the spiked rollers and flailing knives, it was always a big deal. Gregor, with his deep hatred of all Game participants, derived great satisfaction from watching them reduced to pet food when their luck failed. To him, the Mincer was the only instrument that dealt a sufficiently painful death to grasping punters. Not surprisingly, he was furious when Nimon Freemon defeated the Mincer three times running. Nimon further enraged Gregor with his behaviour on becoming Free.
It was a classic case of wealth exceeding class. Nimon discarded the modesty and self-restraint he’d displayed during his quest for Freedom and surrendered to conspicuous consumption in a self-engineered publicity blaze. Though alienating some of his early followers, he attracted many more. He became their hero for snatching a perfect life from the jaws of death. He was Midas without the catch. And he was hell-bent on letting everyone know how very good it was at the top.
He bombarded the media with infomercials celebrating his success. ETAT permitted the indulgence, since it focused public attention on The Game’s upside. Nimon’s tacky narcissism made Gregor want to rip his heart out and puke into the cavity. Yet he forced himself to watch everything Nimon put out. He conceded that they had one thing in common: they could both see the future. In Gregor’s version, Nimon’s boundless happiness would be terminated by a little-known but highly motivated Comfortable Class vigilante who also posted his thoughts on the Internet.
Gregor’s desire to liquidate Nimon was tempered only by his determination to get away with it. He realised he’d been freakishly lucky with Jody’s murder. It had been a botched act of rage, riddled with danger. Though he knew nothing of MTDs, Gregor shared the growing feeling on the streets that ETAT had a data network second to none.
Of the many chance events that had aided his escape, only the thunderstorm was obvious. He reasoned that other factors must have thwarted the detectives, but couldn’t imagine what they were. Wary of underestimating the system, Gregor became fanatically conservative in his movements. Though only a fraction of his security regime reduced his exposure to MTDs, it was enough for the moment. ETAT had yet to consolidate its power base. Until then, Gregor was a hard citizen to trace.
He began a coded dossier on Nimon Freemon. To minimise risk of detection, he copied information long hand, rather than print downloads. It was tedious work. Nimon was a prolific consumer with no pattern to his movements. To set up a kill, Gregor needed to identify in advance an event that Nimon would be sure to attend. For months he tracked his target in vain, purging his frustration with ever more punishing workouts.
Nimon’s life was one long party. Wherever he went, fans used their precious recreational leave just to be near him. The New Deal prohibited them from consuming higher-class goods, even as guests of a Free citizen. So those at Nimon’s table were unable to dine. The only taste of Freedom allowed by law was Nimon’s body. And according to Gregor’s research, Nimon distributed a great many samples.
After yet another month of watching Nimon grow fat, Gregor was ready to abandon him as too unpredictable to target. Then came a breakthrough.
In addition to his infomercials, Nimon posted stories, essays and letters. Permanent idea storage was an easy form of immortality – one of the few things he couldn’t buy. Invariably, the stories described his adventures as a Free man, the essays dealt with what it took to become Free and the letters encouraged fans to follow. It was self-indulgent dross, but the fans loved it. Many tried Nimon’s recipe for success. Their deaths boosted Game ratings, earning Nimon continued ETAT tolerance.
Gregor, bucket at the ready, studied everything Nimon wrote. He thus quickly detected the change of tone of an essay marking Nimon’s half-year anniversary at Free Status. Gregor noticed a dilution of enthusiasm with which Nimon described his earthly pleasures. He was vague and wistful. His love of Freedom seemed to have waned and his concluding remarks were ambiguous. Gregor sensed he was on to something and waited for Nimon’s next offering.
It was another story. This time Nimon was a ‘handsome pauper’ – fighting a medieval battle against poverty and oppression, with The Game a fearsome three-headed dragon. As usual, the hero succeeded in his quest and began to enjoy the good life. Gregor was discouraged; he’d hoped for something different. He waded through hunts, feasts, jewels and dancing girls – all metaphors for Nimon’s real-world exploits. Only at the last page did Gregor’s pulse quicken.
The story ended on a speculative note that presaged a sequel. Or three. It seemed to Gregor that Nimon was starting to foretell his own destiny again. Only this time his goal was to become an ETAT Member. All the wealth and pleasures of the world weren’t enough. Nimon wanted to push the buttons of power and, by the sound of it, give his fans a leg-up into the good life.
Gregor hefted the large kettle bell he used when musing. ‘If that little shit’s going into politics, he’ll have to attend ETAT functions. And if he gives any clue in his putrid stories … I’ll be waiting.’
Read Chapter 24.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by David Reeves.
Tags: contestant, food, game show, novel, personal risk, science fiction, social stratification, speculative fiction, television, The Game, TV
Bernie Plimpton’s henchwomen ushered Penny Travis, Mika Komatsu and Eva Sorensen from the Good Morning Everyone Game stage. They met up with the other six winners and the group was manoeuvred into a hospitality suite. Chattering and laughing, the women so recently reclassified to Comfortable Status eagerly surveyed the trappings of their new lives.
A table groaned with sponsors’ supplementary prizes – mainly ‘health and beauty’ products. It was widely rumoured that these goods were all Poor quality and that higher-echelon versions differed only in packaging. Yet the winners seized them with glee and delighted in pointing out the ‘Comfortable Class and Above Only’ labels on each. A new universe of consumption had opened to them.
Beyond the table stood racks with brochures on every aspect of Comfortable life. The New Deal had been universal law for eighteen months. Purveyors of all goods and services had had plenty of time to tailor their advertising to each of the five new social strata. Recently reclassified consumers had a higher marginal propensity to consume than any other demographic; it was crucial to get them early. Each publication was an adventure waiting to be enjoyed. The television station made tidy commissions from allowing them in the hospitality suites.
Mika scanned the titles avidly. With a cry of pleasure she retrieved a real estate brochure; it interested her more than the rest combined. For the first time in her life she’d have her own space, untainted by dysfunctional family. She rotated the stand and chose four more publications. Sensing her new home in the pages against her heart, she moved to her next priority.
The Permissible Occupation Register was an ETAT-issued directory, not a piece of advertising. Mika scanned the index for ‘poet’ and was referred to ‘writer’. Then, the datum she sought lay before her. ‘Writer’ was still a permissible occupation for Comfortable Class citizens. Mika’s eyes shone. She had a week of ETAT-funded leave and accommodation to arrange her affairs. Now she was in the right stratum, nothing would stop her realising her dream. A waiter approached with a tray of glasses. Mika took one and sipped happily. It wasn’t a patch on the wine she’d tasted when her family had been Rich, but to her it was nectar.
Penny and Eva sauntered over. Both were glowing after two drinks apiece. Penny retold snatches of her ordeal, phrases jumbling in a confused rush. Eva smiled and nodded, too excited to take in a word. She did a circuit of the stands and tucked a few brochures under her arm for later perusal. Penny trailed after her, babbling and gesticulating. Ever protective of her space, Mika moved to the rear of the suite. There she beheld a lavish spread of foods she’d not tasted in years.
Soon the nine winners were half-smashed. For the serving staff who hadn’t shared their ordeal, the boisterous bonhomie and repeated declarations of eternal friendship seemed a bit much. Yet for the women, the world was utterly wonderful. Their death gamble had paid off; their desperate motives were appeased. They’d every right to rejoice with their soulmates. Eva’s ‘Three Witches’ call was hailed as the day’s defining moment. It seemed appropriate that she, Mika and Penny should end up together at the dining table. As the feasting progressed, even Mika felt better about being part of the clique.
Penny had no such inhibitions and hadn’t left Eva’s side since her deliverance. Eva was everything she wanted to be: cool, strong, charismatic. In her unstable frame, Penny would gladly have become Eva on the spot. She still felt rage toward the men who’d tried to destroy her: her brutish boss, Harry Gutton; her manipulating recruiter, Nils Muller; and her swinish guard, John Jefferson. Against the odds, she’d defeated them all.
Perhaps this qualified her to be like Eva. Penny felt she needed to stay close to this powerful woman to make the transformation. She wanted to leave the old Penny behind, along with her miserable flat, job, clothes and food. But she wasn’t strong enough to do it alone.
After lunch the party held a minute’s silence for Soula, then broke up. The audience had gone. The hospitality given to the winners was partly to shield them from anger and jealousy. The disgruntled could take revenge, but not on studio premises.
Eva looked to Penny, then Mika. ‘Do you two have anyone waiting for you?’
‘Not me!’ said Penny brightly. ‘I’m leaving it all behind.’
Mika spoke softly, looking down at her plate. ‘There are two people waiting for me, but not to offer congratulations. I also hope to begin again, without them in my life.’
Eva laughed heartily. ‘I’ll be damned; we’ve more in common than I thought! None of us has anyone. It seems the way these days. Well I’m blowed if I’m spending the rest of this day alone. Why don’t we go out?’
‘Great!’ enthused Penny.
‘Where?’ asked Mika uncertainly.
‘Why, to a Comfortable Class bar, of course!’ cried Eva, thumping the table. ‘You know the deal: our accounts will have received three month’s base Comfortable pay. Never again need we revisit the shit holes that pass for Poor Class entertainment. We can go out! And get pissed in Comfortable Class sunshine!’
‘Unreal!’ yelled Penny, knocking over a glass.
‘What do you say, little one?’ Eva asked Mika kindly. ’Will you come with us?’
Penny felt a ridiculous twang of jealously.
Mika bit her lip. Being in a group was strange and new. But a whole new life was hers to explore. How better to start than with two who’d crossed with her? ‘OK. I’ll come.’
‘Wonderful; I’m so pleased!’ Eva waved to a Poor Class waiter. Already she was getting the hang of her new status. ‘We want to shower. Please direct us to your facilities.’ The young man pointed Eva to the change rooms and she strode off purposefully with Mika and Penny in tow.
The showers reminded them fleetingly of the Tank, but the water was hot and the soap fragrant. It took little effort to slough an old life in favour of one so much better. In a truly kind gesture, the television station had laundered the women’s old clothes and provided complimentary replacements rendered in Comfortable Class fabric and style. They had the option to abandon their old garments and depart in clothing of greatly superior quality. They all took it, resolving to buy a whole new wardrobe at their earliest opportunity. They threw their hateful orange straitjackets through a recycling chute and exited the building, laughing and shielding their eyes against the sun.
Eva led the way to a nearby hotel, explaining that she’d passed it on her way to signing up. Prohibited from entering the higher-echelon establishment, she’d promised herself a drink there if she made it. She was delighted to be sharing her ritual of passage with the other two.
Cosily ensconced in the beer garden behind potted shrubs, the women revelled in ordering that which had been forbidden only hours earlier. Then they pooled their brochures for a communal browse. Penny and Eva lit defacto cigarettes and exhorted Mika to do likewise. After a brief period of indecision, Mika joined in and the three picked over their dreams beneath a drifting haze of smoke. The wine and sunshine loosened their tongues and they began to speak of the circumstances which had brought them together.
It seemed natural that Eva should go first. She tousled her straight, neck-length hair as if to clear her head. Then she took a sip of wine, lit a fresh defacto and began in her deep voice.
‘My parents had me as teens. I was obviously an accident. They managed to screw up every level of protection that should’ve been in place. Anyway, they were in love and they told each other it didn’t matter. They cut a partnership agreement and decided to make a go of family life. For a while, they did pretty well. I realised at twelve that I was gay. Once my hormones kicked in I was hot for anything in knickers. I had some interesting experiences at school. Ivanka, my mother, soon guessed my inclination and I confirmed it. She was fine. Dad seemed a bit hurt, but he was travelling a lot with work then, so I didn’t see his full reaction.
‘I’d always been keen on fitness so I looked to physical education as a career. We were Poor long before the official stratum was invented, so I had to work and study part time. I was still at home aged twenty-four when ‘Lars-baby’, my dad, decided to have his mid-life thing.’
‘What did he do?’ asked Mika, wondering if it were anything remotely like her father’s neurosis.
‘Nothing special; he just started screwing another woman,’ Eva replied flatly. ‘He had his forty-third birthday with us, then raced off with a bit of fluff he’d met in his sales territory. She was a carbon copy of a younger Ivanka: what a slap in the face! Mum was devastated. Lars-baby left us with nothing but a large dose of sexually transmitted debt.’
‘That’s terrible,’ murmured Penny. ‘Why are men such arseholes?’
‘I don’t like to generalise,’ replied Eva. ‘I’ve met plenty of female arseholes, so to speak. I think men are just more … obvious when they’re shafting someone.’ She took another sip of wine. ‘Ivanka lost the plot after Lars-baby left. She became bulimic, which is unusual – and pretty damn dangerous for a forty-four year old. She figured the thinner she was, the more chance she’d have of winning her husband back. I tried everything to stop her, but she was too cunning. I deferred my course, but couldn’t afford to stop working to watch her all the time. She became very demanding … and manipulative. We got into a rut and the years just flew. The New Deal came in when I was twenty-seven. Ivanka had plateaued at one of her higher levels of misery and I’d been able to snatch enough time to finish my studies.’
‘What did you think of The New Deal?’ asked Penny.
‘Pretty good. I liked the certainty and security it promised. If it’d been in place three years earlier, Lars-baby would never have escaped with our money. The only real downer was that it made me realise how damn poor we were. I mean, we were a dead cert for classification from Day One. We had no savings and no capital, and my physical education diploma was hardly a ticket to riches. The New Deal confirmed what I already knew. I simply looked forward to having my meagre income protected. It was nice to know that if I had an accident or something, there’d be a safety net. Ivanka still depended on me, you see. ETAT was not about to give her a pension for a self-induced illness.’
‘You were very dedicated,’ said Mika.
‘Thanks. I think it was more a case of having the resistance slowly beaten out of me. Anyway, to answer your question Penny, I dug The New Deal so much that I had us classified shortly after it came in. Toeing the line early helped me secure a job in my preferred field. ETAT did alright by me on that score. I spent the next four years as an aerobics instructor and played nurse to my mother at night.’
‘Then what happened?’ asked Penny.
‘Ivanka bought the farm.’
‘She killed herself. With Draino. Last year.’
Mika and Penny stared at each other. Eva continued before they could muster the usual pleasantries. ‘Ivanka went on a rare supermarket foray but spotted Lars-baby with his younger model. She followed them back to their love nest, then stood in the street and told the neighbourhood what kind of man was living among them. Lars-baby came flying down the stairs. But before he got to Ivanka, she pulled out the Draino (which she’d bought at the supermarket) and emptied it down her throat. It was the first thing she’d kept down in seven years.’
Mika and Penny waited for each other to speak. Eva lit another defacto, inhaled deeply and glanced at them. ‘Chill out kids; there’s a happy ending. I tried to grieve for Ivanka, but it was over in a month or two. I was thirty-one. My life had suffered a major setback from her neurosis. I still loved her, but I’d suffered too much daily drama to freak out when she bit the big one. Her death meant my freedom. That feeling of release was too strong to be compromised by grief.’
‘Did you ever write down what you were feeling at this time?’ asked Mika. ‘It’s very powerful.’
‘No. I had too much catching up to do to bother with “dear diary”. I celebrated as much as my means permitted. Obviously I couldn’t paint the town, but I’d learned how to make money go far. So I didn’t miss out altogether.’
‘I don’t know how you did it,’ said Penny. ‘I could never get enough together for a good night out, no matter how I tried.’
Eva examined her glass. ‘Well, it helped that some the wealthier women I went out with used to pay the tab. That worked fine until ETAT busted one for gift giving. The rest froze up after that. It was amazing: the chances of getting prosecuted were tiny, yet the punishment was so severe that everyone became law-abiding. Anyway, after my good times dried up, I looked around and saw I had nothing to lose except a pathetic lifestyle. I was going to have to move fast if I wanted to enjoy my thirties, so I did some research and decided to take a punt on The Game and … ‘ Eva refilled her glass and raised it. ‘Here I am! Cheers!’
The Three Witches clinked and drank to their success. Mika told her story next, then Penny. Having shared histories, the women went on to outline their plans.
On finishing her turn, Mika began to fidget. Talking about her perfect space made her hanker for it all the more. Though enjoying the company of the other two, she was even keener to search for her new home. At the first polite opportunity, she excused herself. Eva took her details and asked if she could visit when she was settled. Mika agreed, thanked them for a lovely afternoon and hurried to the nearest ETAT centre.
Read Chapter 22.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by lotusutol.
Tags: chapter, contestant, molecular tracking device, MTD, novel, PC, personal computer, personal risk, science fiction, social stratification, speculative fiction, The Game
As Wu Chen writhed on the ETAT information centre’s floor, a bouncer squad materialised to seize Gregor Klimt. They knew their stuff and were supremely fit. Gregor was strong, but badly out of condition. They dragged him to a service lift.
Two minutes later, he sat in a restraining chair in the centre of a windowless room. Ruing his throbbing hand, Gregor mused that his rapid removal suggested a well rehearsed contingency plan. He wondered how many other citizens staged similar ‘protests’ to his.
A tall woman entered. Her grooming was immaculate and her fine black suit expensive.
‘She could be Rich or even Superrich,’ thought Gregor. ‘I wonder where she got her wealth.’
The woman sat at the table in front of Gregor. ‘Good morning Mr Klimt. My name is Dawn Abdullah. I’m the manager of this centre.’
‘Hmmph,’ replied Gregor.
Abdullah took a defacto cigarette from a gold case in her jacket, lit it with a matching lighter and exhaled. Crossing stockinged legs, she pointed a patent toe at Gregor. ‘You seem … unhappy with our Mr Chen’s service. Would you mind telling me what the problem is?’
Gregor glowered. ‘Would you mind removing these restraints?’
‘I’m not sure, Mr Klimt: do you plan to smash my teeth in as well?’
Gregor flushed. ‘It depends what you … no, of course not.’
‘Very well; I believe you.’ Abdullah gestured. A bouncer re-entered the room and swiftly unmanacled Gregor, who flexed his arms and surveyed the room.
‘Now,’ said Abdullah. ‘What happened with Wu?’
‘And you saw fit to protest via assault?’
‘I admit it was an extreme response, but he was so damn smug and inflexible about his decision. I didn’t know what else to do.’
‘Did you consider talking to me? We do have an open-door policy here.’
Gregor shook his head. ‘From the way Chen was carrying on, I got the strong impression ETAT’s position was non-negotiable.’
Abdullah tapped ash to the floor. ‘Technically, that’s correct. Wu’s been trained to adhere to ETAT policy. It appears, however, that he may have been a shade too … zealous in dealing with you. It’s not always enough to be right.’
‘You call your policies right?’ retorted Gregor.
‘They’ve been developed with majority interests in mind. In terms of creating the world’s first fair and stable social order, they’re as right as the finest brains on the planet can make them.’
Gregor reddened. ‘So you think they’re right for me too?’
‘I said majority. The reason you’re here – instead of jail – is testament to our desire to help those who fall outside the norm. You could serve months for your tantrum. Should I encourage Wu to press charges? You’d be completely screwed then, wouldn’t you?’ She flicked her defacto into a corner and lit another.
Gregor was impressed; he hadn’t seen a woman act like this since the army. ’Alright; you’re being tolerant. But your New Deal is set to ruin me better than any prison stretch, wouldn’t you agree?’
Abdullah took a long drag. ‘That depends.’
‘On whether we can reach a compromise.’
‘We can do that?’
‘I run this centre. I can do pretty much as I please … within limits.’
Gregor sniffed with reluctant admiration and wondered if Abdullah would ever consider visiting his store for a ballistics lesson. He crossed his legs and leaned back. ’Alright, Dawn. Surprise me.’
Abdullah ran through Gregor’s spreadsheets and showed him how to raise the capital he needed in only two years and nine months. His corrected cash flow projection put him at the threshold of Comfortable Status seven weeks before The New Deal’s cut-off date. It was tight, and he’d have to live like a monk to make it, but Abdullah extracted his written promise to submit to Poor Status – without protest – if he failed. In return, Gregor left the centre with a four-year classification deferment in his satchel.
Having created yet another happy customer, Abdullah’s next meeting was with the whimpering Wu Chen. He quickly accepted her generous compensation offer in return for silence. After a week’s sick leave, he’d be back at work with new teeth and a more conciliatory attitude. ETAT left nothing to chance.
Gregor was delighted to have brokered a solution within the system. All around him, citizens were embracing The New Deal. It was obvious most people wanted it. Governments had long failed to provide security for ageing constituents. Saving was at an all-time low. Now a familiar, professional, global organisation – containing many of the world’s most gifted individuals – had offered to vouchsafe the future.
Relief and optimism pervaded the streets. Having mastered nature, humanity was finally set to control its own. Guaranteed income, personal safety, protection of property, law enforcement, freedom from fear. These had always been the dreams of ordinary citizens. Only ETAT had the clout to pull it off.
Gregor felt he’d gained a second chance at life. He was almost forty. It had taken him twelve years to get over the loss of his military career. It wasn’t too late to start again, as a Comfortable Class storekeeper. Who knew what the future held? Maybe he’d meet someone in his new echelon.
He showed his revised figures to the disposal store owner, who heartily endorsed his plan. Set for Rich classification, the owner opened a bottle of peach schnapps and toasted with his employee to ETAT and its legacy: The New Deal. It was Gregor’s last drink for a long time.
He became a merciless taskmaster, pushing himself in every aspect of life. His entertainment budget culled, he spent his days training. Ashamed at the pitiful resistance he’d offered Dawn Abdullah’s bouncers, he resolved to regain his army body.
Using odds and ends from the store, he rigged one of his rooms as a gym and spent hours driving his muscles back into shape. He also became fitness coach to a young Superrich couple. Thrice a week, he ran them through their routines. Not being qualified, he couldn’t command a high fee. Yet he treasured every cent that moved him closer to his goal.
Wu Chen had hit a nerve by flagging Gregor’s weakness on matters theoretical. In response, Gregor taxed his brain with free self-improvement programs on the internet. Though his mind responded slower than his body, he eventually detected improvement.
In the store below his rooms, Gregor became a selling dynamo. Already he felt a sense of ownership for the business. He polished every stock item until it shone. He convinced the owner to advertise and made it his mission to sell something, no matter how small, to every browser. After months of effort, he began to enjoy repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendation. His sales figures eclipsed the day manager’s, to the latter’s astonishment.
Two months ahead of time, Gregor had enough capital to buy the store. He celebrated quietly with a single bottle of beer: he wasn’t out of the woods yet. He was capital Comfortable but cash Poor. He needed a savings buffer. Though he’d gained time to grow it, he was determined to push himself to the end. That most of his customers were already classified added to his sense of urgency.
Ten months after Gregor bought the store, the Superrich couple he coached decided to try for Free Status together. Shop sales had plateaued and Gregor worried about losing his secondary income.
The Game was in its sixth season. Programs with a Game segment out-rated competing shows tenfold. Since the death of the first contestant, however, fewer people were signing up than the television industry had envisaged. With ETAT’s blessing, executives decided to keep the odds generous until numbers picked up after The New Deal’s cut-off date.
Gregor’s client couple told him they had ETAT sussed, and that Game odds would not remain good for long. They’d been summoning the guts to go for Free since the prospectus came out. They believed the months leading up to The New Deal’s implementation would yield their best chance of success.
Other than death, they had two fears: that the odds of success would worsen before they signed, and that the odds would improve after. They were eligible only for the odds current at contract endorsement. What if they signed for a one-in-five shot, only to find the odds had improved to one-in-three on the day of their bid? The thought made them quail. Yet The New Deal would be universal law in a year. They had to decide.
Gregor was disgusted by their deliberations. Arriving at their mansion for their regular run, he surveyed what the young women already owned. Their net worth was thousands of times greater than his. They had everything: land, furniture, jewels - even a vehicle each. They travelled, threw parties and donated. They enjoyed stimulating careers. What more could they want?
‘Freedom, darling!’ they told him gaily. ‘When you’re Free, your income is limited only by a committee of your peers. In other words, it’s practically unlimited!’ The girls giggled at Gregor’s stony countenance and jogged playfully around him, breasts and ponytails bouncing. Then they sang lustily, ‘We want it all and we want it NOW!’
Gregor despised their greed and secretly cursed their bid. It had none of the effort or nobility of his quest. In risking their lives for superfluous wealth, they surely deserved to die. While he struggled just to be Comfortable.
Later that month, Gregor saw the promo for the girls’ bid. In love with publicity, they’d done a photo shoot – modelling their chosen Game instrument in skimpy gym wear. They beamed confidently into the cameras, intoxicated by the excitement their twin attempt at Free Status was generating. They’d easily secured a spot on the Tonight Show, jumping the queue ahead of conventional contestants.
On the night of their attempt, Gregor saw them side by side on a specially modified Wheel. Vivacious, attractive lesbians, flirting with death. Ratings for Lester Rodrigues’ program went through the roof. Gregor shook his head and started cleaning another of the howitzer shell casings he was selling as umbrella stands. Not wanting to feel responsible for anyone’s death, he removed his curse before the spin.
Jody made it.
Pamela perished, ruthlessly impaled beside her lover.
Two days later, Gregor was stunned when Jody rang.
‘Where are you, he-man? Did you forget our run? I was looking forward to your congratulations.’
Gregor blinked into his monitor, momentarily speechless. ‘I … I didn’t think, I mean Pam … you … ‘
‘Oh, come off it, you old dinosaur. Pammy’s number was up, simple as that. Life goes on. Can you come over now?’
‘It’s so soon, Jody. I honestly thought … ‘
‘Cut the sentimental crap, Gregor. I’ve no time for it.’ Jody switched to a sing-song voice. ‘Especially since I’m moving into my new ho-ome!’
Gregor winced. Jody saw his distaste and flushed. ‘How’s the savings plan going, he-man?’
‘Shithouse. And you know it.’
‘Since you’re not classified yet, I could bail you out.’
Again Gregor was thrown by Jody’s change in voice. ‘Like hell.’
‘Yes, yes I could. Jody could make everything better for Gregor. She could, she could!’
‘Yeah, but she won’t, will she?’ Gregor recalled his recent night terrors about missing his target.
Jody twisted the knife. ‘You’re goddamn, motherfucking right she won’t! I hope your high horse kicks your fucking head off! Shit, you couldn’t even say, “Congrats, Jodes; top work, Jodemeister!” If you think I’m paying for last months’ sessions, forget it. I’m Free now. Free! Like it says in the brochure: all obligations pertaining to my previous life have been dissolved. You’ll have to chase ETAT if you want your pocket money. See ya later, Poor-man!’
Gregor stared at the blank monitor. He didn’t know whether to give into rage or despair. The two emotions fought it out. Despair had all but won when an email arrived.
There was an old fart called Klimt,
Who thought it was cool to be skint.
He ended up Poor,
All covered in sores,
And bitterly became extinct.
ps: Your fired!
Despair was distracted. Rage connected with a haymaker. Gregor resolved to temper Jody’s success.
He went downstairs and chatted with the day manager. Wishing him a good day, he announced he’d take his customary nap. Locking the door, he changed into his running gear. The window was a tight squeeze. Thankful to have shed his excess weight, Gregor dropped into the lane behind the store and jogged briskly along back streets to Jody’s home. A vain creature, she was unlikely to break her fitness routine for anything.
Gregor hid beside the path he’d traversed countless times – rage coursing unabated through his vessels. He and Jody were at opposite ends of the social spectrum, but being Free didn’t give her the right to cheat and insult an honest, hard-working citizen.
His heart leapt as he glimpsed her purple headband rising and falling through the leaves. He scouted the path again. They were alone. As Jody neared, Gregor’s heartbeat overtook her rapid footfall. He pulled the balaclava over his face and waited for her to pass.
Gregor leapt from cover, seized Jody from behind and swept her back into the undergrowth. Seeking to temporarily disfigure her pretty face, he clapped one hand over her mouth and made ready to punch with the other. But Jody was strong from training and twisted free like a cat. Gasping, she straightened up and backed away, fists raised.
The balaclava was a pitiful disguise for someone of Gregor’s singular build. Jody recognised him instantly. To his amazement, she burst out laughing.
‘Oh my God! It’s he-man the wonder killer, come to wreak terrible vengeance on poor Jodes. Just wait till they get their hands on you, boy!’
Gregor saw he was finished. He’d be apprehended and executed by that which he most detested: The Game. A red mist descended over his eyes and he sprang forward. Absorbing Jody’s wild roundhouse kick, he jabbed his palm expertly into her nose, flattening it against her face. The thin bones sheared and speared into her brain. Jody fell backwards, dead before hitting the ground.
Surrounded by mist, Gregor knelt and removed Jody’s gaudy diamond ring. He jogged home on autopilot, washing his hands in a creek and hiding the ring under moss-covered rocks. He scaled his back wall and put himself to bed. Minutes later, the day manager apologetically intruded with a customer inquiry. Gregor went downstairs and closed the sale. A thunderstorm broke as he returned to bed.
Jody’s nasty email made Gregor prime suspect in her death. When the detectives subjected Gregor to a gruelling round of interviews, he stuck rigidly to his story, omitting nothing but his movements between his two interactions with the day manager.
The investigators bemoaned the extraordinary circumstances. Klimt’s alibi was solid. His personal molecular signature was out of sync with ETAT records. Jody hadn’t been wearing anything containing an MTD. Nor had her attacker. Heavy rain had made it impossible to track anyone from the crime scene. Only the diamond ring offered any chance of a lead. The moment it came within range of an MTD, its signature would be flagged. Gregor was released, having already decided to leave the ring where it was.
In the following months, he pulled out the stops, working round the clock and abandoning all non-critical activity and expenditure. When The New Deal’s cut-off date arrived, he was classified as Comfortable.
He’d exceeded the threshold by a mere $116.
That evening, he bought a bottle of peach schnapps. Idly trawling the Net while waiting for customers, he found a murder mystery site. Something moved him to make an anonymous comment:
Beware the Assassins
of the Free.
Be true, do not
succumb to greed.
Gregor finished the bottle, closed his store for the first night in four years, and went to bed.
Read Chapter 20.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by mikebaird
Tags: chapter, contestant, execution, guard, novel, personal risk, science fiction, social stratification, speculative fiction, television, The Game, TV
The arrangement of the tanks gave Penny Travis a good view of her fellow contestants. Suspended in Tank Ten, she waited for the imminent demise of the luckless woman in Tank Two. This was preferable to closing her eyes and dealing with the demons. Penny worked her jaw, over which control was gradually returning.
In Tank Two, the water quickly covered Soula’s feet and soaked through her slippers and coveralls. ‘It’s … COLD!’ she cried, her voice picked up by ambient stage microphones.
The audience and crew, hitherto silent in face of the tragedy, burst into laughter at the incongruous comment. The catharsis was infectious. Even those sympathetic to Soula found themselves fighting a giggle. Penny watched the watchers rolling in their seats and slapping backs. Then she looked at the water already licking at Soula’s thighs and thought, ‘What will I do when I’m taken? Will I be as funny?’
Under guard in a hospitality suite, Soula’s small band of protesting supporters heard the raucous laughter above them and wondered what the hell was going on. Unable to resist, one of them snapped on a monitor.
Good Morning Everyone host Bernie Plimpton was well used to the timing of the indicator light. He’d stepped out of shot as soon as number thirteen appeared. He had no desire to be beamed round the world next to a dead woman. He felt even more aroused with two strikes against him and made a mental note to book Sonya for the evening. With her olive skin, thick lips and black mane, she’d pass for Soula in the dark.
A few steps away, the real Soula suffered her fate. The water had reached her breasts, outlining them under her straitjacket. When the water scrambled over the press stud at her throat, Soula drew breath to speak. The audience, recovering from its hysteria, fell silent to catch Soula’s parting line. But she misjudged the water’s rise and only managed ‘I … ‘ before the greedy liquid spilled into her near-horizontal mouth. Spluttering violently, she ejected a small fountain. It splashed feebly against the chamber door and was immediately reclaimed by the rising tide.
Soula’s coughing virtually emptied her lungs of air, right when she needed it most. She floated, but her reduced buoyancy allowed only the top of her head to break the surface. Wild eyed, she twisted like a caterpillar, striving with all her might to achieve vertical movement. But her tailored clothing, harness and restraining chains prevented violent or extensive movement. After rising only fractionally, she dropped back down exhausted.
Seconds later, the Tank was full. Looking for all the world like a mermaid, Soula slowly thrashed. Her hair spread out in a wide fan. The chains on her feet, now fully extended, held her half a metre below the limpid surface of the water. Her eyes pleaded with the blurred images beyond the glass to spare her.
After forty seconds, she could hold the remaining air in her lungs no longer. A jellyfish of bubbles plopped lazily. Her dying breath. With eyes screwed tight in terror and concentration, Soula breathed water.
Camera Three picked up her look of surprise. Clearly she’d thought her lungs would rebel against the intake of fluid. Owing to supersaturation with oxygen, however, the water tapped a primitive part of her brain to wake an ancient memory. Soula breathed deeply, perhaps thinking it had all been a big joke and that the Tank’s emergency floor panel would blow out any second to save her.
In all likelihood, Soula experienced many weird imaginings as she died. The oxygen content of the water was high enough to fool her brain, but not to sustain it. At last, her expression became fixed and she floated motionless.
Jeannette wept quietly on the winners’ couch. The audience fidgeted, keen for fresh spectacle. Plimpton caught the nod from the floor manager and threw to a break.
With Punter Two beyond resuscitation, the pumps gurgled into reverse and quickly emptied the Tank. The tireless roadies took Soula down like Jesus and laid her on a trolley to be wheeled out by the clipboard-carrying woman. The roadies wiped the Tank dry and resealed the door, sweeping the stage of spilled drops. On a command from the control booth, the Tank’s numeric display board retracted. Suddenly no trace remained of the drama so recently played out. The audience liked it that way. ‘Accentuate the positive’ was the studio’s unofficial motto.
Bernie Plimpton usually worked the audience at this time, signing autographs and lightening the mood with weak jokes. On this day he stood backstage, smarting from the floor manager’s reaming.
‘You look at me at least once every half minute, you fucking amateur! Do you understand?’
‘I’m not one of your bloody accessories; I have to run the whole fucking floor! I can not have you swanning around, milking your miserable fan club and getting the show off track!’
‘Now get your hand off your prick and on the tiller, or I’ll have you replaced with someone from this century.’
The floor manager stormed off. Bernie wondered if he should get Sonya to bring a friend. He was having a difficult enough day for it. He fled to his station next to Tank Three and shakily took his cue. ‘Le … led … ladies and … ge … gentlemen! Welcome back to … The Game!’
Penny had regained control of her fingers, toes and neck. Her restraints stopped her testing her limbs. Her sight had improved, but the neurone suppression drug still had firm hold of her muscle-rich tongue. She was impressed. By the time Plimpton got to her Tank, she’d look like any normal punter. There was no way, however, that she’d be able to describe her treatment at the hands of Nils Muller and John Jefferson, her Game consultant and prison guard.
Tank Three’s punter had chosen numbers meaningful only to her: birthdays, anniversaries and the like. When one of her numbers came up, there were scenes similar to those provided by Jeannette, the first contestant. Punters Four, Five and Six also had personal number selections. They too made it through. The five winners sat bright-eyed on their special couch, willing the others to join them.
The crowd was keen for another death. Each punter was taking a one-in-two chance. Probability dictated that Number Four should’ve died. When she, Number Five and Number Six escaped, the audience felt cheated. What was the point of state-of-the-art killing machines if their victims survived? Some spectators were particularly galled, having also attended the previous day’s event during which all ten contestants had walked.
It was therefore with great anticipation that Punter Seven’s turn began. People were certain the dark-skinned woman was history. Like Soula, she’d selected all the odds. In contrast, she’d included number thirteen, apparently unfazed.
When Board Seven’s indicator light ironically stopped on thirteen, the crowd became decidedly snaky.
Plimpton, incessantly darting glances at the floor manager, obsequiously acknowledged the break signal and introduced another set of commercials. The floor manager knew that with the chances of a kill so high in the last three turns, viewers would be riveted to their PCs.
The remaining three punters exchanged glances from their glass coffins. Mathematically, they were already dead. They had more in common with each other than with most of their acquaintances in the outside world. Penny Travis felt an urge to make contact with the other two before she died. She was also curious to see if the pricking sensation at the base of her tongue presaged release from the immobilisation drug. Carefully forming the words she slurred, ‘Peiiy Traaisth.’
Punter Eight was a diminutive oriental, twenty-two at most. She regarded Penny through her pretty fringe and said clearly and slowly, ‘I beg your pardon?’
Penny grinned blackly to herself, ‘She thinks I’m retarded; what a way to be remembered!’
She tried again. ’Pe-yiy Tra-yisth. I yam Pe-nyiy Tra-yist. Who aaaargh yew?’
The oriental looked puzzled and a little fearful. She smiled faintly then looked away, pretending to study the audience.
Punter Nine was an athletic, confident-looking platinum blond in her early thirties. She cleared her throat. Penny looked at her expectantly.
‘I’m Eva Sorensen. I didn’t quite catch your name.’
Encouraged, Penny focused all her energy, ‘Pe-nyiy. Pen-nyiy. Penn- niy. Pen-ny. My nay iys Pen-ny!’ The effort was exhausting.
‘Did you say … “Penny”?’ ventured Eva.
‘Yeys! Yeys! Pennny!’ Tears sprang to her eyes. ‘Iym sorreey. Dey jugg-ed mey.’
‘They jrug-ged mey!’
‘They … drugged you!?’
‘Yeys! Yeys! … Evar.’
Punter Eight looked at Eva Sorensen. ‘Did she say she was drugged?’
‘Yes. And pretty thoroughly by the sound of her.’
‘Why would they do that? The Game is voluntary …’
‘I can’t imagine. Shhh! Someone’s coming!’
A stocky female roadie strode over and stood before the three tanks, hands on hips. ‘Now ladies, what did your contracts say about talking on stage? I suggest you stay quiet, or our friends in the booth will pull the plug on all you. Seriously, it’s almost time. You’ve come this far; don’t blow it by having a chat.’
The three stared at her in silence. Eva had a glint in her eyes, as if she didn’t like being told. After the roadie had left, Eva hissed to Punter Eight. ‘What’s your name, little one?’
The fringe shook violently. Punter Eight had obviously taken the warning to heart.
‘Come on, just for the record.’ This is Penny and I’m Eva. We’re the Three Witches, about to be drowned at the stake. We’re all probably going down together, so what’ve you got to lose? Tell us!’
‘Mika Komatsu,’ whimpered the girl. ‘And I’m not going down anywhere!’
‘Gooj fr yew,’ mumbled Penny.
The lights came up and they were back on air.
Mika was on the block. Only her feng shui numbers stood between her and a watery demise. Without the benefit of a Bernie Plimpton get-to-know-you interview, the audience saw her merely as a component of Tank Eight. Well desensitised to live executions, they used her anonymity as an excuse to howl for blood. Without three straight deaths, few bets would generate a return. The Poor section of the studio was twitchy. Even small losses would be felt for days.
Plimpton picked up on the mood, having had an awful time on the previous death-free show. Eager for lunch, he set Mika’s ball rolling.
She made it.
Plimpton cowered before a phalanx of filthy looks. The sound of betting tickets being shredded by angry fingers unnerved him. Perhaps he was getting too old for all this drama. He unceremoniously introduced Eva’s turn.
Eva made it.
At long last, it was time for Penny. Eva and Mika, arms elatedly around each other on the winners’ couch, smiled and waved encouragement. Jeannette, worn out from channelling, gave her inner goddess a last, apologetic squeeze, while conceding that eight out of ten wasn’t bad.
With most of her faculties now operating, Penny took a last look at the world beyond the glass. She was terrified and didn’t want to die, but she was also resigned. The odds towered above her. She’d been betrayed and abused, and now all humanity wanted the pumps to finish her off. Let them.
The indicator light moved off its mark.
Only Penny knew the complete key to her number choice. Viewers tried to divine the relevance of her selection. The mathematically inclined spotted her primary criteria. But since no one remembered Xania Starwoman’s prediction for Virgo the previous Friday, the significance of the parameters eluded them. All were close on the remaining two numbers; they were date oriented. Twenty-three was Penny’s age; sixty-two was Xania Starwoman’s. Penny had looked it up, her formula having generated only thirty-eight numbers. What she didn’t know was that Xania had lied in her interview.
She was sixty-seven.
The indicator sped through its cycle. Penny closed her eyes, waiting for it to slow down. Her brain, intent on self preservation, forced her eyelids open.
Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. No. Yes. No. No. No. No. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No .. No … No …. No ….. No ….. No ……. No …….. No ……… Yes ……….
A chime rang thinly from somewhere above. Penny blinked, as if waking from deep sleep. She looked around groggily for the source of the sound.
In ultra-slow motion, a horde of people moved across a grey wasteland toward her. She couldn’t hear them; her whole body was numb. She let her eyes slither across the dreamscape. From the back of her brain came an authoritative: ‘Focus!‘
Penny felt like the lines to her eyes had come down in a storm. They lay strewn in a wet aftermath on suburban streets. To focus, she’d have to switch to manual.
Slowly she ascended a rickety wooden staircase and brushed thick cobwebs from an ancient iron handle. Grasping it with shaking hands, she began to turn. Rust flakes fluttered to the dusty floor or were crushed to powder by protesting cogs. With enormous effort, the mechanism gradually yielded and the heavy magnets turned reluctantly in their housing. A successful revolution was followed by another, and another, then more. Penny pressed on, increasing momentum. The magnets whirled faster, eventually blurring into a grey cylinder. Suddenly, with a deafening whip crack, a brilliant blue spark snaked off the housing and speared into the darkness. Stung by the strong, unfamiliar current, Penny’s irises brought the outside world into sharp focus. Directly in front of her, blinking yellow then … green was the number fifteen.
She spoke it aloud. ‘Fifteen.’ She tried something else. ‘Penny Travis.’ Finally, the big one: ‘I am … alive!’
Tank Ten rocked on its mountings as the roadies fought through the eight women pressed against it; laughing, crying, yelling. One by one, they were peeled away until only Eva Sorensen remained, her face laced with tears but wearing a triumphant smile. ‘We did it! Penny! You did it! We’re alive! We are … Comfortably well off!’
Eva was yanked away and the roadies set to work releasing Penny. As all but Soula had done, she held out her arms and her flesh was revealed for the first time since breakfast. Eva pushed forcefully past a hovering Bernie Plimpton to embrace Penny warmly and at length. Then she led her to Mika, who waited shyly behind the Tank’s open door. With a soul sister in each arm, Eva proclaimed, ‘We are the Three Witches. We survived drowning at the stake. And together we’re going up!’
Penny and Mika burst into laughter, their spells of terror broken at last. A ceiling cage opened and balloons, streamers and confetti rained down on the tanks and their unlikely survivors. The appalling comic relief band leader whipped his musicians into a frenzy and drew the segment to a close. Disgusted audience members fished under their seats for belongings. After Xania Starwoman’s segment, they were free to leave.
On stage, cameras cruised, capturing footage for the credit roll and promos. One was drawn to the three women cavorting together, wrapped in colourful streamers. A blond, a brunette and an Asian. Nice. Someone taped a brief interview. The blond did most of the talking. ‘The Three Witches’ she called them. The feed went to the control booth.
The station manger happened to be at the console talking to a technician and noticed the images. Pursing his lips he keyed up a contact. ‘Margot … Ivan. Good thanks. Look I’ve got something for you. Yeah, Game segment. Check it out; maybe you can use it. Sure, no worries. OK, here it comes.’ He rang off and punched ‘transmit’. A copy of the feed shot down the channel.
Downstairs, attention had shifted to the astrology segment. The Game stage and its players were moved out of the way.
Read Chapter 19.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by MrB-MMX
Tags: bamboo, chapter, family, haiku, housing, novel, PC, personal computer, science fiction, sister, social stratification, speculative fiction, television, The Game
For two years, Mika Komatsu enjoyed a rare form of happiness. Her circumstances let her pursue her dream of being published. Further, she felt she was moving closer to her goal. Her evidence was a growing folio of poetry she considered worthy of publishing. She was living the honeymoon of present and future.
She wove her days with threads of balance and peace, working hard at the restaurant and writing in her secret bamboo grove when it was sunny. She had acclimatised to Higuchi’s abrasive personality, and the two rarely fought. When they did, Mika invariably retreated. She despised conflict. Since Higuchi’s moods went as swiftly as they came, Mika viewed her repeated defeats as the price of domestic harmony.
Higuchi, seventeen and hell-bent on getting the best Poor Class job available, studied furiously. Her results had lifted significantly. She’d disciplined herself to begin as Mika left for work each evening. Sometimes, as a reward, she bought a bottle of cheap, thin beer and sat up watching the Late Show version of The Game, which she adored. She fantasised about working as a roadie, controlling the various instruments of death.
With all classification deferments expired, every citizen was now locked into The New Deal. After the axe had fallen, many had felt the sudden urge to jump just one stratum higher. Television programmers pulled reruns and populated the morning hours with fresh Game shows to cope with the surge of contestants.
The fact that The New Deal was universal law didn’t affect the sisters. Their father’s zealotry had committed them to a subsistence lifestyle long ago. Higuchi had ceased raging against the injustice and was focusing all her energy on making the best hand of an extremely rough deal. Mika had weathered the maelstrom with her hopes for the future. Her pain began the day she felt ready to seek a professional opinion of her manuscript. She was twenty.
‘Hello, Parmont Publishing. How may I help you … Mika?’
‘I, um. I have a manuscript. I was wondering if you might be interested in looking at it … and, um … giving me some feedback.’
Mika’s guts turned to water. ‘N .. no. Just haiku. I’ve been writing them for years.’
‘How many do you have?’
‘Um, about 300. Of course, you’ll want to choose just the best fifty or so for a book.’
‘Yes, yes, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Traditional or modern?’
Mika swallowed. ‘All traditional.’
‘Hmm. Send your best six to our website, attention Hayley Di Pietro. We’ll be in touch. Maybe.’
Mika saw with a shock that the call was about to end. She mustered every shred of courage she possessed. ‘Um … excuse me …’
The face looked up sharply. ‘Yes?’
‘Are you Hayley Di Pietro?’
‘Um, well, I just wanted to ask you something.’
The face registered annoyance and impatience. ‘What?’
Mika shook with the effort of asserting herself. ‘Um, well … err … Hayley. I just wanted to know if it would be alright if I didn’t send my poems to your … um … to your … err … w … website.’
Di Pietro’s mouth firmed to a slit. ‘Why’s that, exactly?’
Mika searched frantically for the right words to diffuse the explosives at the other end of the line. She was terrified of her work being pirated and didn’t trust the security of even the most confidential Net nodes. She’d rather hurl her poems into the sea inside a bottle. With Hayley’s thin membrane of patience nearly worn through, despair silver-plated Mika’s tongue and the perfect sentence came out. ‘Because Hayley, I admire your work enormously and would like nothing better than to meet you personally and have you sign my copy of your latest work.’
‘Is that a fact? If you’re such a fan, why didn’t you recognise me?’
Mika brought up splinters from the bottom of the barrel. This was her last shot before she crumbled. ‘Because Hayley, I prefer to appreciate literature without the encumbrance of judgements about the author. I always throw away the dust jackets and covering files of the books I purchase. Your photograph would only have distracted me from the treasure of your words.’ She winced at the schmaltz. But Di Pietro bought it.
‘Wednesday, 14:10. Alright?’
Mika’s eyes opened wide. ‘Y … Yes, Hayley. That would be fantastic! Thank you very much!’
‘Don’t mention it.’ Di Pietro thawed a tight smile. ‘Always got time for a fan.’
Mika slumped onto her desk. A bead of sweat dribbled down her spine. She was exhausted, but she’d won the round. Her dream was a step closer to realisation. She ordered her Net server to find out what on earth Hayley Di Pietro might have written recently; Mika had never heard of her. Then she crept into her bed and dozed off.
Wrenched from sleep by the call, Mika dragged herself groggily to her monitor. ‘Hello?’
‘Mika. Hayley. With a bit of advice. Keep in touch with the industry.’
Mika, half awake and completely in the dark mumbled, ‘wha … ? What’re you talking about?’
Hayley looked at her disapprovingly. ‘Have you been drinking?’
The accusation shocked Mika into full consciousness. She took hold of herself and sat down. ‘No,’ she said carefully, ‘I was sleeping. Please, I didn’t understand what you said just then.’
‘Let me spell it out for you. Literary careers begin at the Comfortable level. The threshold was raised two months ago. It was announced on the Net. Either you missed it, or you’ve deliberately tried to deceive me. Let’s take a test. Name my last book.’
Mika was too shocked even to maximise the blinking report icon. ‘I don’t know.’
‘As I thought; you’ve tried to scam me. Pretty stupid when you think about it. How did you plan to convince me you weren’t Poor, when your status appears on every file in the system?’
‘I wasn’t trying to scam you, Hayley; I had no idea the rules had changed!’
‘I don’t believe you; but that’s immaterial. Your deceit has undone you. That, and the fact you’re unequivocally Poor. Pity the trusting publisher willing to give you a go. You’re pathetic. I hope you don’t live with anyone; you’ve obviously no idea how to treat people with respect.’
‘Hayley … ‘ began Mika, but the line had gone dead. The dialogue box was replaced with the report she’d requested earlier. Mika saw the title of Hayley’s latest work and fainted from emotional exhaustion. Bathing her supine form with soft light was the epitaph: Hayley Di Pietro – Truth is Best.
Mika missed work for the first time that night. Her world had been smashed to smithereens. She vomited until nothing remained, then kept retching. Her temperature soared.
Higuchi arrived home and recoiled at the stench. ‘Jesus, Mika! What’s going on?’
Mika shuddered out the bones of her story.
‘Is that it? Is that all? You missed out on a job? Shit, Mika, you scared the crap out of me. Don’t be such a bloody prima donna. I thought you were the one who was supercool about being Poor.’
Mika blubbered her reason for ‘missing the job’.
Realisation gleamed in Higuchi’s eye. ‘Ahhhh, so finally we’ve hit the wall. Soulful Mika is not above the system after all. All those times papa shoved you in my face as a martyr to the Cause: “Observe, Higuchi; your sister has learned true humility and acceptance”. Ha! Well, how does the cap fit now, little sister? And what’s it like to have joined the ranks of Liars Unanimous? We’ll have to put your high horse in the classifieds.’
Higuchi’s darts lodged in Mika’s heart. With a wail of sorrow, she leapt from her bed and flew across the lounge. Breaking fingernails, she wrenched the front door open and disappeared howling down the stairs. Broken glass tore at her bare feet as she ran to the only thing that had never betrayed her.
Higuchi felt like she’d just enjoyed a large orgasm. She fetched her remaining beer and took a long draught. Burping loudly, she plumped on the couch and keyed a number into the kitchen PC’s remote. The long face of a young man appeared, anxiously searching the screen of the public booth for the caller.
‘Hiya, Ihara!’ said Higuchi casually.
‘Higuchi? Where are you? I’ve been waiting. Where have you been?’
‘I’m in the lounge, baby, out of your line of sight. There’s been a bit of drama here. Mika’s just left.’
‘She’s never been late before. I was worried.’
‘How sweet! Well, she’s gone. And I don’t expect her back for a while.’
Ihara Teika’s brows knitted. ‘You mean, she could return before morning?’
Higuchi examined a weather report on the lounge’s PC. ‘Yep.’
Ihara was confused. ‘But then … she’ll catch us … after all this time.’
Higuchi was enjoying herself immensely. ‘Relax, stud man, everything’s groovy. If she comes back, she comes back. If the worm was ever going to turn, it would’ve happened tonight. It didn’t. As a result, things are about to change.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Exactly what you want me to, baby. We’re getting you out of there and into my little nest.’
‘I’ll come right over!’ gushed Ihara.
‘Not so fast, bucko! I want you to pick up some booze as a housewarming present.’
Ihara ran a nervous hand over his shaved head. ‘Higuchi, you know I can’t afford it. They’re tracking my transactions. If I divert any more funds to intoxicants, they’ll spot it!’
‘Ihara, darling, are you not about to live rent free in a lovely flat with two lovely young women?’
‘Yes,’ replied the young man miserably.
‘And are you not betrothed to the world’s most fabulous and powerful sex goddess?’
‘And are you not eternally grateful to this goddess for draining your vital fluids every evening for the past two years?’
‘Well then, pull your bloody finger out, use some imagination and get some fucking PISS!’
‘But … ‘
‘And don’t DARE come here without it!’ Higuchi killed the link and rolled around on the couch, tears of laughter streaming down her hard, grinning face.
Outside, cold rain flattened Mika’s clothing to her thin, shivering body. She lay in mud, curled like an embryo. By now, even her tears had lost their warmth. From time to time, her mind’s eye glanced at the horror of her situation. Like peering under a scab, the act was repellent and painful, yet irresistible. Her two loves, life and poetry, were divorced. Her dream had been frozen. She could write until the day she died. But her precious words, crafted to warm the hearts of millions, were doomed to moulder forever under her bed.
The moon rose over the bamboo grove, casting its baleful light into the clearing. The wind gained enough strength to work on the grass. The blades fell, prevented from self actualisation as surely as the frail woman huddled among them.
Much later, Higuchi and Ihara lay among the detritus of a hard night’s drinking. Ihara had bartered a few of his meagre possessions for beer. As he dozed next to his snoring lover, he was visited by unsettling dreams of discovery and apprehension. His transaction had been highly illegal, smiting at the heart of enforced social stratification. He half expected an official to break in with evidence damning him for operating outside the system.
His only hope was that ETAT was too busy to notice his crime. He was indeed safe for now. He woke and turned his large, mournful eyes to the woman who’d goaded him to such folly. He was her prisoner, caught in a trap of sex, familiarity and emotional masochism. They fought with, connived against, lied to and betrayed each other, yet they’d stayed together for almost four years.
Ihara suffered delusions of creativity and refused to apply for conventional jobs. Unemployed since leaving school at sixteen, his attraction to Higuchi grew after she fled her dysfunctional parents to set up house with her sister. Here was a chance to escape the awful dormitory he was forced to occupy until he toed the line and took a job.
When Mika began work at the restaurant, Ihara’s hope was fulfilled. Higuchi rescued him nightly. He enjoyed a shower, a meal and a relatively undisturbed sleep. The few dollars he saved on food bought alcohol for Higuchi. She enjoyed nothing more than getting drunk, toying with his slower mind and repeatedly jumping his skinny bones. That Mika had never detected the arrangement was indicative of her naiveté and Higuchi’s clinical cunning.
Toward dawn, Mika rose painfully and stumbled home. She pressed her palm against the lock. Not recognising her rain-wrinkled print, the door asked for confirmation. Numbly, she punched in her password, her frozen fingers barely feeling the keys. The bolts withdrew and Mika slid inside, almost tripping over an empty beer bottle. She raised her throbbing head. More bottles swung into view, along with food wrappers, blankets and two bodies – one belonging to a stranger. A man. Fighting dizziness and nausea, Mika assembled a sentence for her swollen throat and cracked lips. ‘Higuchi. Who is this person?’
Ihara bolted upright, frantically slapping his lover’s rump and hissing at her snoring face. ‘Higuchi! Your sister has returned. Wake up! Wake up!’
Higuchi stirred leisurely. Yawning, she stretched luxuriously and turned to face Mika. Her eyes, soft from intercourse and sleep, climbed back into their pill boxes and took up their weapons. ‘Ahhhhh, the prodigal child returns. I never agreed with that parable, so you’ll forgive us for devouring the fatted calf last night in your absence.’
Mika pointed mechanically. ‘Who is he?’ Her voice cracked at the realisation that Higuchi was gearing up for one of her sessions.
Higuchi disentangled herself from bedding and boyfriend. Rising smoothly, she planted herself squarely in front of Mika. She was solidly built and now towered over her sister. ‘This is Ihara. He’s a friend of mine and he needs a place to stay for a few days. I told him you wouldn’t mind.’
Mika replied weakly, dreading what was coming. ‘How many days?’
On cue, Higuchi lost her temper. ‘Jesus, Mika, you are so fucking anal! What does it matter how long he stays? A few days is a few days. Christ, are you so tight you can’t even help out another human being? That’s it. That’s fucking IT! I’ve had it with you, you selfish, pious, finicky bitch!’
Higuchi continued her tirade; her proven way to get what she wanted. Installing Ihara was a career best. She slammed doors, gesticulated threateningly and hounded Mika into her room. Then she yelled through the door, grinding Mika into a paste with words beautifully picked and ruthlessly delivered.
Two days earlier, Mika might have resisted. But after a night in the rain and the onset of fever, she folded like a house of cards. Higuchi’s coup was complete. Ihara Teika returned to the dormitory for sign in, and made it back to the flat in time for breakfast.
In the weeks that followed, Mika’s spirit guttered in chill winds. Higuchi engulfed the flat. Under her protection, even the mealy-mouthed Ihara gained enough courage to assist in her methodical persecution of Mika. They ruled the flat’s common areas day and night. Mika retreated to the relative safety of her room, prevented both from sleeping and writing by venomous arguments, vigorous intercourse and violent Game telecasts. Too frightened to neutralise the disturbing sounds with her PC, she suffered terribly. Her energy drained away steadily.
Through strategic visits and phone calls, Higuchi soured Mika’s friendships at work. Colleagues began to avoid her, believing the slander of her convincing sister. Understanding Higuchi’s motivation did nothing to ameliorate Mika’s pain. She knew she Higuchi was punishing her for Otomo’s crime. Yet her attempts to discuss this transference were viciously rejected.
Mika’s sole comfort was that she’d be released from legal responsibility for her sister in three months, when Higuchi turned eighteen. Then, at least, she could leave the corrupted flat and seek solitude in a smaller dwelling. Of course, this promised no relief for her greatest heartache. Her dream of working as a writer was as thwarted as ever.
Beset by deepening depression and despair, Mika vainly sought peace in the bamboo grove. With the onset of winter, it had lost its magic. The clearing was more often a morass than a refuge. Mika had nowhere else to go. She surrendered herself to the elements, rocking herself into dark trances and struggling to suppress the ambition flailing in her heart.
On returning exhausted from work one morning, Mika entered the flat to giggles from Higuchi and Ihara’s room. Yet again, bottles littered the floor. This time the drunken pranks had included fire. A small altar sat awkwardly in the lounge. On and around it lay ashes and half-burned papers. They stirred in the draught from the corridor. Mika picked up a charred corner of familiar stationery. The first line of her earliest haiku stared up in mute appeal.
Higuchi’s door opened a crack and four eyes peered from the darkness. Mika looked up, dumbstruck by the enormity of her discovery. The door slammed shut and her tormentors burst into laughter. Mika tottered into her room. Her overturned bed and gutted storage bins bore witness to a drunken search. After confirming that none of her precious originals had survived, she slumped at her desk to weep. Before the fit could take, she saw the honey leaking from her PC.
Mika ran to the grey building and signed. In two days, she’d escape hell and recapture her dream, or die. Contrary to everything she’d ever thought about herself and the sanctity of life, she’d reached her breaking point. Mika had become a contestant – on the only game that mattered.
Read Chapter 17.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by farflungistan.
Tags: ceramic, contestant, correction, gaol, guard, jail, molecular tracking device, motivation, MTD, nanotechnology, prison, psychology, punter, science fiction, social stratification, speculative fiction
Adrian Storey arrived late at Prison 67. He was nervous, for on this day he was rostered in the Contestant Holding Wing — the facility purpose-built to accommodate Game participants. Shrugging into his jacket, he negotiated unfamiliar corridors to the site of his assignment.
Officially, duty in the ‘Sound Proof Booth’ promoted the ‘maturation and multiskilling of correction officers’. Rumour told a different story, that many punters, after surrendering to confinement, caused more trouble than death row inmates. Attacks, escape bids and suicide attempts all exceeded the statistics for the prison’s criminal population.
Adrian couldn’t figure it. Why would a contestant, having made an informed decision, lose the plot on signing? The most popular theories were religious guilt and ETAT coercion. Guards who had actually worked the wing held it was only disturbed people who signed in the first place. Adrian dreaded this opportunity to develop a theory of his own.
A set of Molecular Tracking Devices on the catwalk verified that he was alone, unarmed and Adrian. A second group in the portal recorded his tardiness while a thick window gave his first glimpse of the wing. A third set of MTDs confirmed that nothing unauthorised had entered the airlock with him and the inner door slid upwards.
The corridor was made of a seamless, white ceramic — the latest in human confinement and many times stronger than the toilet bowls Adrian searched for contraband in his regular role. The lighting was bizarre, with molecules aligned to let it pass through the solid material in thin, even sheets.
There were no shadows. Adrian felt flashes of vertigo and twice stopped to determine where the wall began. Each time his finger hit before he expected. ‘Jesus,’ he thought, ‘no wonder they freak out.’ To his relief, the unsettling corridor fed into a foyer whose colour scheme matched the rest of the prison complex.
Four people turned. Adrian nodded to his shift mate, John Jefferson, and was startled to see the Warden’s Number Two. The other men were unfamiliar, but their dress and bearing placed them in the correction industry.
‘Good of you to join us, Storey.’ The Number Two slitted terrier eyes. ‘We thought you’d declined your invitation.’
Adrian’s face burned. ‘Sorry Sir, I had a pretty late Game night. I mean I watched…’
‘Some of our internal customers?’
‘I did the same when we commissioned this wing, but I didn’t let it make me late. Don’t do it again.’
The Number Two glanced at his clipboard and gestured to the strangers. ‘Our friends from North Central have completed their rotation with flying colours. It now falls to you and Jefferson to carry on. I note your surprise, Storey, on seeing me here. Warden wants me to supervise hand-overs until the bullshit ceases. Certain people have been hearing rumours and we wish this to cease, understand?’
‘Yes Sir,’ said Adrian and Jefferson.
‘Good. Messrs. Jensen and Lowenthal, your debriefing is complete. Thanks for your efforts this month; you may return to your sector.’
Adrian noticed that Lowenthal’s tunic had a small tear, near the heart. His speculations were cut short as he and Jefferson were ushered into the control room.
‘This hand-over will be brief, since decisions in this wing are made by the remote team,’ said the Number Two. ‘Your contribution will be more hands-on. In a nutshell, you’ll provide concrete data for our virtual equation, ensuring our solutions are as practical as they are appropriate.’
‘I’m sorry Sir,’ said Jefferson, ‘I don’t understand what you mean.’
The Number Two sighed. ‘Let me put it simply. We push the buttons and watch everything, alright?’ Jefferson nodded. ‘You fill us in on the bits we can’t pick up, like: “Are they unconscious or faking?” You tell us what it’s like at the coal face; we factor that in and tell you what to do about it, OK?’
Jefferson looked happier, but now Storey was confused.
‘I don’t see why this wing isn’t run completely by Remote. There are sensors to handle every possible datum. If the facility is state of the art, why doesn’t it have the lot?’
The smaller man fidgeted. ‘Because, Storey, total remote simply doesn’t work. Remember your history: we trialled it thirty years ago and it turned H-Wing into a madhouse. Eleven certifiable fruitcakes, and that was according to our psychiatrists. The payouts were outrageous and the beat up nearly closed us. Our share options were ruined for years. And though your average citizen’s opinion doesn’t count for much these days, ETAT prefers to play it safe and employ people like us to provide… the human touch.’
‘People like us, you mean,’ said Adrian.
‘Correct.’ The Number Two activated a wall screen. ‘Since you two have such inquiring minds, I’ll reveal a piece of the big picture. As you can see from this elevation, this facility lies beneath the criminal wings. It is thus subject to more security than any other part of the prison. Reason one is that contestants are volatile. Warden knows you discuss this round the campfire. The cause of this volatility is not for speculation. That is both advice and a warning.
‘Reason two is the value of our guests. We can only imagine Game telecast revenue. Your tardiness, Storey, is testament to its popularity. Its attraction as entertainment, however, belies its pull on punters. The latest shortening of odds has led to a serious dearth of volunteers. If one of our internal customers escapes or dies and there’s no stand-in, the system is compromised.’
The Number Two rocked on his elevated heels. ‘Reason Three is ETAT’s reluctance to let contestants back into the community before they’ve met their instrument. Risking one’s life for a happier one has been found to create… tension. It is our task to ameliorate this tension. Unfortunately, this amelioration can at times be unpleasant. Once a punter’s on the set, he either dies or succeeds.
If he makes it, he invariably forgets his past trials in anticipation of a glorious future. Should he retain unpleasant memories, his contract dissuades him from sharing. Before competing, however, a punter with cold feet may think salvation lies in escaping and spilling his guts to the known universe. Such behaviour would threaten supply by giving potential contestants fresh fears to factor into their decision.’
Adrian’s mind reeled at the speech, unable to counter its brutal logic. Society revolved around The Game. But if ETAT were so paranoid about rumour and escape, why have such a high rotation of guards?
‘I’ll leave you to look around. Everything you need to know is on the computer. Remote is watching anyway, so there shouldn’t be a problem. Jefferson, you start on the console. Storey, you’re on cells. Enjoy your stay.’
The door sliced the Number Two from view. The guards stood in silence, then looked at each other.
‘What a wanker,’ Jefferson growled. ‘He must’ve been classified Rich up front. He’d never have the balls to take a shot himself.’
‘Damn right he was a shoe-in. I bet he’s never even been inside a Game device.’
‘Well Ade, one day I’m gonna piss this Comfortable life right off and scramble up there with him. I’d love to see his face across the bar of that kiss-arse club he goes to.’
‘That’d be nice. I think I’d even go tandem with you to be there on the night.’
‘No, John. I’d love to, but to be honest, I don’t have the balls either. I’ll keep my crap beer and lousy apartment. It’s not much, but it’s better than a bloody great butter knife up my arse.’
‘Yeah, fair enough.’ Jefferson’s face grew animated. ‘Hey, how was that zero guy last night? Copped it on the very last click.’
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying. He was Rich, right? He had heaps more than us, yet it still wasn’t enough. He gambled the lot and became a rotisserie. We’re hardly pigs in shit, but we’re much better off than those Poor bastards. If it weren’t for the money Mum left me, I’d be cleaning bins too. I was just nineteen hundred bucks over the threshold by the end of my classification deferment. Two grand away from being Poor — can you believe it? Scared the bejesus out of me.’
Jefferson crossed the room. ‘Yeah, we’ve all heard your skin-of-the-teeth story. You just wait till I front with a Rich bitch. You’ll be greasing up that butter knife before we make it to the bedroom.’
Adrian laughed. ‘We’ll see. Shall we look around?’
‘You go. I’ll suss out this console like a good little correction officer and check with you later. We’ve got plenty of time.’
Read Chapter 08.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Tags: chapter, Game Day, novel, personal risk, prison, science fiction, social stratification, speculative fiction, superstition, zodiac
Xania Starwoman appeared, as always, before the 10:00 news on Good Morning Everyone. Her format hadn’t changed in twenty years, save for the addition of Game prophecies. Millions habitually switched to her segment, despite the study which had proven her as psychic as a control rabbit.
‘Capricorn: beware of adhering too firmly to your principles, your tenacity may appear arrogant to some…
‘Aquarius: a large sum of money…
‘Pisces: travel is imminent, but look before you…
Penny Travis breathed in sharply and clutched her cracked cup.
‘You’ve been feeling vulnerable lately. Stop, unwind and centre yourself, for only in this space can you decide what is right for you. Concern for others must take second place as you confront a major decision with life-altering consequences.’
Penny reeled at the words.
‘Game indicators: water, blue, one, five, Tuesday. An especially good day for the journey to Comfortable.’
Penny sat trembling in her grubby kitchen, racing among the omens.
‘Physically vulnerable.’ She had never adjusted to the anti-depressants prescribed after her classification three years earlier. Daily headaches and nausea left her drained and fragile.
‘A major decision with life-altering consequences.’ What could this be but the question that had consumed her for months: whether to risk her life on The Game? Though her cleaning shift began in an hour, she remained in a trance.
‘Water.’ She’d always favoured the Tank. Death by drowning was definitely preferable to the invasive, bloody nature of other Game devices.
‘Blue.’ This was a Virgo colour and Penny’s favourite. In keeping with its purpose, The Tank was aquamarine. Penny stared at her brochure, also blue. A stylised albatross beckoned her to a new horizon, beyond which lay…
‘Tuesday.’ Tuesday was Penny’s twenty-fourth birthday. It was Friday, but being Poor she’d have to wait three weeks for her next weekend. She wouldn’t even have time to think it through. But what was there to consider that she hadn’t agonised over during countless broken sleeps?
She hated her shoebox unit, her dirty, no-brain job and her woeful spending power. Her glutinous breakfast mocked her senses and she pushed it away in disgust. She felt like an experiment. Question: How long can a human survive on food which is nutritious but utterly devoid of excitement? Answer: Until she goes insane. She was an insect. Worse than an insect. At least bees got to fly and eat pollen.
Transition to Comfortable would mean infinitely more than the name implied. Penny didn’t know how much longer she could stand her existence. Time, space, quality, choice; these were the halls of her paradise. Better to reach for them or die trying.
The shrill tone she’d set to cut through her tranquillisers shocked her. Mechanically she accepted the call.
‘Travis, what the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to be at Airport Five!’ The florid face of Penny’s team leader crammed the screen. The cut of his tunic was Comfortable, his brashness classic nouveau riche.
‘I’m not feeling well,’ said Penny, finding a new hole in her tracksuit pants.
‘Bullshit; you were fine yesterday. I suggest you get out there if you don’t want to lose another one of your precious weekends.’
That did it.
‘I’m taking my Game Day.’
‘Game Day? You don’t have the guts, Travis. You and I know…’
Penny keyed the brochure number before she could change her mind. A friendly-looking receptionist appeared.
‘How can I help you?’
‘I… I’m taking my Game Day today. I’d like to see a …consultant.’
‘Sure… Penny. I see this is your first time. I’ll fix you up with someone nice.’ He paused. ‘Nils Muller. Would 13:30 suit you?’
The question hung in the stale air. Penny gazed around the cell she’d haunted for nine years. The wallpaper stains stared back impassively. ‘Yes. Thank you.’
‘Great! Good luck!’
The dialogue box folded upon itself, replaced with a crude screen saver of Penny’s design. A figure labelled ‘me’ stood in a chamber which filled with water. The Game brochure albatross flew in, rescued the figure and carried it to a golden sunset. The water spilled out to become the sea and the sun sank beneath the new horizon as Penny prepared for her appointment.
All classes below Free were allowed one Game Day per year, on which they could forego a shift to discuss Game participation with an ETAT consultant. Though all potential contestants knew the various program formats, few committed themselves without a face-to-face discussion. Rigorously selected and trained, the consultants obliged their clients with as much data as they desired.
With current and projected statistics, footage of every past contingency and intricate models to explain the mechanics of death, citizens claiming to be ill-informed after their session were invariably rorting for a day off. Sham clients didn’t bother the consultants; rather they provided the chance to hone closing skills. A surprising number of citizens with no intention to play found themselves signed up in under an hour.
Nils Muller’s office was minimalist. A light well behind his chair held quartz chips and a cactus.
‘Can I get you anything, Penny? Tea? Coffee?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m too nervous to drink anything, um…’
‘Nils; Call me Nils. Please, have a seat.’
Muller assessed Penny as she settled. Young, pleasant looking, a bit thin, badly in need of a haircut. Her face suggested honesty and moderate intelligence, but her eyes spoke despair. He narrowed her likely punter profile to ‘Catatonic’ or ‘Dramatic Recanter’. Both were unpopular with audiences — the former boring and the latter casting doubt on the voluntary nature of Game participation. Muller set about confirming his suspicions.
‘How can I help you today, Penny? I see you’ve never taken a Game Day before.’
‘N..no, I don’t th..think it’s right, unless you’re serious.’
‘And are you serious, Penny?’
She bit her lip, brow furrowed. ‘Yes. I think I am.’
‘But thinking isn’t good enough though, is it Penny? One needs to know. Do you not agree?’
‘Well yes, I do agree. It’s just that…’
Muller leaned forward, sensing a quick victory. ‘Just that what, Penny? What is it? I’m here to help; you can tell me.’
Penny took a halting breath. ‘Well, just that… after watching the show a billion times, reading the brochure and agonising for months over the most important decision of my miserable life, I was really hoping for a nice consultant, like I was promised. I don’t mean to be rude, Nils, but you’re making me feel very rushed. I just got here and you’re acting really pushy.’ She blew her nose into a damp tissue. ‘I don’t think it’s very fair, given what I’m here to discuss. Do you?’
Muller’s pupils shrank to specks. He straightened slowly and pressed his fingers into a white-tipped pyramid. ‘You would prefer another consultant?’
‘No; I just need you to be a bit human, that’s all. I know this is your job and everything, but please try to see it from my side. I’m on the verge of a one-in-two shot at death. I have no living family and no real friends. I need to discuss my situation and make the choice that’s right for me. Couldn’t we just talk? I’ve been alone and at my wits’ end for so long…’
Muller toyed with the idea of freezing her out, but realised he was more interested in seeing how the session would end. He produced a box of large, snowy tissues and slid it towards her.
‘Penny, I’m sorry. I thought you were… a different sort of person.’
She sniffed and took a tissue, marvelling at its soft strength, wishing she could have the box. ‘Well, I’m not.’
‘I see that now and I was wrong. Please forgive me. Can we begin again?’
‘Sure. Um, I think I’d like that coffee now, if it’s still going.’
‘Of course, absolutely. Coming up.’
They adjourned to a small table. Penny’s uncharacteristic outburst had felt strangely uplifting. Being so close to her decision gave her a heady feeling of destiny. Muller was now completely attentive. The crisis over, she detailed the events that had brought her to his office. Food ranked high in her litany of complaints: gritty coffee, brackish butter, vascular meat; never enough for company unless she sacrificed something else.
Then she bemoaned her teeth; perfectly serviceable but crooked and stained. How she envied higher citizens their elective dental. And cosmetics! What sort of system could deny her this comfort? Not even a mask to shield her from herself and others during the unrelenting grind of her pathetic station. Her frustration poured like bile from a bladder. At last she summarised.
‘I hate being Poor; all I want is to be Comfortable. I don’t want to die, but I can’t keep living this shitty life. My only way out is through The Game. I need you to tell me about it.’
Muller picked up his tea. ‘Could I ask you to be more… specific?’
‘You mentioned you were once Poor; now you’re Rich. What was your first time like?’
Muller’s cup froze mid-way to his lips and he was back on the Wheel. Only after the locked shutter slid into place could he return to the present. ‘It was absolutely terrifying.’
‘Why’d you do it?’
‘I was twenty-two, immortal. The Game was new and exciting. The odds were completely different then and the prizes unbelievable. I didn’t think about it much, just did it. It was only when they strapped me down that I realised what I was doing.’
‘But you did it again, didn’t you?’
‘Yes; the same year in fact. Like I said, it was frightening, but it was also very hard to lose then.’
‘What numbers did you chose?’
Muller recited his selection from memory.
‘I don’t know, they just felt lucky.’
‘So you were superstitious?’
‘No, but I see what you’re saying; it looks like I was.’
Penny leaned forward. ‘Nils, I’m very superstitious. I know it’s crap, but I have to have something on my side. I’ve got this feeling, this sense that I have a winning combination. I want to go in the Tank and use all the numbers containing one or five or divisible by five. I can only make it if I play this Tuesday — my birthday. I need to know what you think. Am I crazy? Will I live?’
Muller looked at the eyes, now centimetres from his, and prised the careworn fingers from his sleeve. ‘I wish I could tell you, Penny, but I can’t. All I’ve got are stats, rules, toys and pictures. I’m not psychic. The only thing that matters is what you believe. Do you think you’ll die if you play?’
‘No. I don’t.’ Penny barely recognised her own voice.
‘Then go for it! And have a drink for me when you get there.’
Penny felt a sense of calm. She was ready. The meeting had merely confirmed what she already knew. Xania Starwoman, charlatan or not, would protect her in the Tank on Tuesday.
Muller saw his opportunity, tapped in her preferences and swung his monitor. ‘Read this very, very carefully Penny. Then if you’re absolutely sure, sign it.’
Already in her next world, Penny skimmed the contract and put her hand to the screen.
Muller witnessed the document, retreated behind his desk and touched a button. Four burly roadies entered through a sliding door.
‘Escort this contestant to the Holding Wing,’ Muller ordered. ‘Penny, I wish you all the luck in the world. I’ll be watching for you on Wednesday.’
Penny jolted out of her reverie. ‘Tuesday, Nils.’
Muller said nothing. The roadies closed; Penny leapt from her chair.
‘Nils, I asked for Tuesday; for Tuesday Nils.’
Muller realised he’d entered the following day by mistake and shrugged. ‘Once you sign, that’s it. There’s nothing I can do. Good-bye.’
Penny fought the men holding her. As she was manoeuvred through the door, she screamed at the inverted image of Muller placidly witnessing her departure. ‘Nils! What are you doing? You know I wanted Tuesday. That was my special chance; my birthday! You’ve killed me, Nils. Nils!
Muller advised Penny’s employer and creditors, noted that she had no emergency contact and opened the dossier on his next appointment.
Penny was gagged against further outburst and spirited to a processing area. Forced to surrender her belongings and don coveralls, she was bundled into a van and driven to Prison 67. A feeling of defeat overwhelmed her and things began to blur. By 16:40 she lay exhausted on a narrow bed in the Contestant Holding Wing. Eventually she fell into a heavy sleep, thick with dreams of drowning.
Read Chapter 05.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Tags: chapter, creativity, family, father, housing, mother, novel, recycling trigger, social stratification, toddler
A toddling Mika Komatsu stared at the bundle in her mother’s arms. Sei Komatsu had spent months readying her firstborn for the fall from attention. Now it was time.
‘Say hello to your sister, Mika. Her name is Higuchi, remember?’
‘No, darling: Higuchi. Hi-gu-chi.’
Sei smiled. ‘That’s good enough for now. Now say hello.’
Mika solemnly addressed the baby. ‘Hello, Hag-shi, hello. He-llo. Hell-o, Hag-shi.’ She gingerly stroked the cheek of the infant, who turned sucking towards the contact. Mika snatched her arm back and hugged herself.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ said Sei. ‘Higuchi is hungry. Will you help me feed her?’
Mika’s thumb slid into her mouth.
‘Alright, I’ll feed her. You can watch, or maybe you’d like to play with your colours.’
‘Yes Mama, Mika play colours.’
Sei produced a feeding bottle. ‘Off you go then.’
Mika trotted into the lounge, past a high-backed chair. It swung to reveal her father, blocking her path with his leg. Mika gasped and slid to a halt at his grey flannel trousers.
‘Observe, Mika,’ Otomo Komatsu commanded. ‘Your carefree progress through life has been arrested by chance. What do you do?’
A picture of concentration, Mika wrestled with the words. ‘Umm… hello Papa!’
Her smile vanished. She dropped her gaze and mumbled, ‘Hello… Papa?’
‘”Hello Papa”. That’s the best you can do? “Hello Papa?”‘
‘Yes Papa. Sorry Papa.’ She strove for the right answer. ‘Mika loves Papa?’
Otomo gave a loud sniff and dropped his leg. His thickly veined hands rubbed his face and tore at his cropped hair. Mika was still waiting for instructions when he looked up, as if startled by her presence. His scowl sent her scuttling to her room.
She arranged her paints with proprietary care, keeping the warmer colours close. Taking a calligraphy brush she savoured the easel’s pristine beckoning, then began with ferocity. Her first work was standard toddler fare with distortions. The crossed windows of the house drooped mournfully while Otomo loomed over the tree towards his family. Mika added beams to the sun and daubed an oversized ‘U’ on the giant’s crimson face for protection.
She tore the paper from her block and tossed it behind her, beginning again before it landed. In the next picture Sei cowered against the hall mirror. Otomo consumed the remaining space, his reflected circus leer bracketing her. ‘Kami’ the stray cat lived again in the third picture. Kindergarten featured in the fourth and from there, the scenes brightened. Each lofted Mika further away like successive gusts of wind. Painting after painting slid to the floor, drying quickly in an accidental circle.
Beyond it, Otomo rocked his chair in chopped movements; staring at the ceiling and muttering about the deceit of women, the futility of fatherhood and the meaning of signs.
Fourteen years later [YES, I KNOW THIS NEEDS TO BE FIXED! P.], Otomo sat in the same room, in the same chair. It was in tatters, the fabric brittle and the stuffing depleted. Each week Sei had watched the maid sweep up a pile of flakes — fragments of chair and dandruff — wondering which source would be first to expire.
Otomo was talking on his PC. A metal arm held the screen in front of him as he duelled with ETAT consultant Ron Potemkin. The topic was The New Deal. Otomo clutched the thick prospectus, to which he repeatedly referred.
‘So, according to Formula 3 on Page 132, my family qualifies for Rich status.’
‘And in Clause 47.9, you state that every citizen may apply for classification deferment, pending an effort to improve himself.’
‘That’s right, Sir.’
‘Then why have you not made arrangements for those who wish to be classified below their net worth?’
The face registered shock. ‘I… I don’t understand, Sir. Why would anyone do that?’
‘My point exactly. Your entire system revolves around greed. As if my worth could be calculated from what I own! I inherited my fortune; does that make me worthy? Yes, according to you. I cannot understand you people; one man seeks an alternative to avarice and the whole system seizes. It’s disgusting!’
Initially fearing a prospectus anomaly, the consultant settled down to weather his client’s ravings. He was surprised when Otomo cut short his diatribe and returned to his original question. This time Potemkin took no chances.
‘I’ll get my team leader, Sir.’
‘Do that. Let’s see how far the rot goes.’
At the break in background noise, Mika looked up from her homework. On impulse she crossed to the door and hunched listening, black hair falling to her ankles. A new voice filled the lounge.
‘Goran Peters, Mr Komatsu; Customer Service Team Leader. How can I help you?’
Otomo meticulously described his previous conversation while Peters made noises of understanding. Mika imagined him jotting down points with a gold pen. When Otomo finished, Peters explained that The New Deal did allow him to be classified below the stratum to which he was entitled. With the consent of his partner, such classification would also apply to his dependants. To effect the change, Otomo need only surrender his assets for auditing. A formula would then divest him of sufficient wealth to drop him to his stratum of choice. Mika was impressed by Peters’ command of minutiae and wondered if her father would be satisfied.
‘So, you’re saying I can do what I want?’
‘Yes Sir; that’s correct.’
‘And my decision is binding upon my children.’
‘Provided your partner agrees, yes Sir.’
‘Then why isn’t this in the prospectus?’
An edge crept into Peters’ voice. ‘Because, Sir, most people want the best for themselves. ETAT has gone to pains to address the welfare of everyone.’
‘Well, Gonad, or whatever your name is, my family does not subscribe to the mainstream.’
‘I see that, Sir…’
‘I’ve tried to raise them as decent, sincere citizens and your money-grubbing society has thwarted me at every turn.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Don’t condescend!’ Spittle flecked Otomo’s screen. ‘Finally you’ve admitted there’s room in your precious system for an ascetic. Further it seems you have the wherewithal to keep a man in his place once he’s found it. I like that. Your New Deal will give my family something I never could: a frugal life, rich with revelation.’
The chair creaked. ‘I want priority scheduling for my family to be classified as Poor.’
‘I can’t do that without your partner’s…’
‘Yes, yes, that won’t be a problem. Assume for a moment that I have her Highness’ approval. How soon can we descend?’
‘Tomorrow? Are you certain?’
‘It would be our pleasure, Sir, to expedite the realisation of your wishes.’
‘Well. That’s more like it. I’ll tell my wife and call back to confirm.’
Mika stole back to her desk as Otomo terminated the call. In his haste to get up, he leaned too heavily on the arm of the chair and its sun-weakened frame collapsed. He thrashed amid a cloud of fibres before setting off angrily in search of Sei.
Mika suppressed her laughter. Her father’s bitterness at not having sired a son had produced a range of eccentric behaviours, key among which was a refusal to replace anything retaining a shred of utility. The chair’s demise was a welcome respite to her bleak home life. Cocooned in study, she was oblivious to ETAT and the implications of The New Deal — recently proposed to every adult on the planet. Her slender fingers took up their pencil and she returned to her homework, chuckling occasionally until her concentration resumed.
Otomo swept through the apartment without locating his wife, then spotted her mobile still in the rack. He strode to the kitchen terminal and punched in his second daughter’s number. Her phone was off. Otomo keyed the emergency override and a flushed face appeared. Higuchi was in her car, which seemed to be in an empty lot.
‘Higuchi!’ said Otomo. ‘Where is your mother?’
‘Pa!’ Higuchi fought to regain her breath. ‘You scared the crap out of me. What’s wrong? Has something happened to Mama?’
‘Don’t curse and don’t question me! You should keep your mobile on always. Where are you?’
‘Mama’s gone shopping; she’ll be back for dinner.’
‘To make it or to eat it?’
‘I don’t bloody know.’
‘How dare you swear to me? When will you learn to honour your elders?’
‘Knock it off, Pa. You know I don’t buy that crap.’
Otomo’s eyes rolled and his mouth opened to deliver the one message Higuchi would respect. Almost fainting with the effort, he suffered her insolence one more time, rang off abruptly and clutched the sink.
Higuchi sighed with relief. From the rear seat, Ihara Teika inquired, ‘Is he gone?’
‘Yeah, but that was close. God, he’s got a nerve. He’s so full of shit.’
‘Sounds like it. Is he violent?’
‘He’s given Mama the odd tap. He sure knocked Mika around when she was younger. Tried it with me too, but I’d learned from the others. When I was five, he kicked me. I kicked him right back in the shin with all my might. He went down like a bag of shit, and hasn’t touched me since. I can tell he really wants to sometimes, though.’
‘If he ever harms you, I’ll kill him.’
‘Yeah, yeah; you and whose army?’
‘He’d better not try it, that’s all I’m saying.’
‘I feel safer already,’ said Higuchi climbing over. ‘Now, where were we?’
The Komatsus moved on Mika’s seventeenth birthday. So agonising was the wrench that neither Sei nor Higuchi remembered the occasion. Sei had realised with shame that she feared Otomo more than the disadvantage to which she was committing her daughters. But it had been close. She had resolved to carve a new home from whatever she was given, and prayed daily to her ancestors for her husband’s death.
Beset with applications for classification deferment, ETAT had been unable to process Otomo’s request as swiftly as promised. While he railed against the system, his family farewelled the rich lifestyle they had enjoyed.
Higuchi suffered most. At fourteen she was rebellious, hedonistic and immune to the spiritual transformation Otomo hoped to engineer. She spent hours in her car, alone and with her first lover. Of all her possessions, the vehicle would be hardest to surrender, though she’d only been driving a few months.
Her pleas merely strengthened Otomo’s belief that her values were in dire need of realignment. He countered her every approach with a sermon, enjoying his revenge. Desperately Higuchi scrutinised The New Deal prospectus for a loophole, only to discover the stinging irony of ETAT’s policy on self-determination. The age would drop to fourteen, but only for wards of the state. Higuchi realised her parents were not only redundant; their very existence had voided her right to early independence. For once she pitied her sister. Mika had been guaranteed a Rich Class ranking. Now on the threshold of her own life, her birthright was being usurped by a vindictive Zen vigilante.
Mika thought only of leaving. Unlike her sister, she cared nothing for material advantage. On learning that being Poor would still permit her to live alone on attaining her majority, she was happy. Food, clothing, employment and housing were nothing compared to the joy of writing free from distraction and abuse. About her mother, Mika felt ambivalent. It was hard to respect one so chronically disempowered. If Mika took only one thing from Sei, it would be the resolve never to submit to the tyranny of a partner.
In planning The New Deal, the founding ETAT Members realised that accommodation would be one of the chief public concerns over formal social stratification. With home size and quality solely dependent on classification, they had to get it right.
The key problem was the heterogeneity of existing accommodation stock. Though there would be only five social strata, there were innumerable types of dwelling. Permutations of site, size, age and design defied categorisation. The variety was a recipe for dispute and a stumbling block for The New Deal; citizens would never embrace a system with such scope for anomaly.
ETAT formulated a two-phase solution. A task force broke the value of existing dwellings into constituents and devised a formula to weigh them — thus enabling the value of homes to be ‘proven’ mathematically. The elegant model satisfied the learned and dazzled the ignorant. Housing allocation decisions could now be defended consistently and authoritatively.
The second solution was long term. ETAT resolved to build homes in sympathy with the proposed social strata. This was sound vertical integration. Since ETAT planned to control the allocation of housing, who better to build and lease it? Replacing obsolete dwellings with environmentally benign units also had significant public relations benefits and was a time-honoured way to stimulate the economy.
In processing Otomo Komatsu’s declassification request, team leader Goran Peters had a wide choice of dwellings. Otomo’s application was succinct: ‘a Poor Class home conducive to gaining a true understanding of humility’. Recalling Otomo’s abusive behaviour, Peters colluded with his subordinate to find a home that would deliver humility in spades. They agreed on a cramped, sunless flat in a block of two thousand. As Peters took a virtual tour through the mouldy rooms, Ron Potemkin called his counterpart in Employment.
‘Hi, Rita?… Ron here, buddy… Yeah, good thanks… Hey, do us a favour? I need the latest on application CA-004054. Komatsu… Got it?… Yeah, that’s right…. What’d they say?… Uh-huh. And when will he find out?… You’re not wrong; I wouldn’t bloody do it… That’s great; I owe you one… Thanks Rita… OK, cheers!’ Potemkin grinned at his superior. ‘Komatsu got the job he wanted. Parks and Gardens were a little surprised at his qualifications.’
‘I bet they were,’ Peters murmured, panning around the grimy bathroom.
Potemkin summoned an icon to the screen. ‘When you’re ready.’
The icon spread into a detailed relief map of the metropolis. Two diamonds twinkled in opposite corners. Potemkin highlighted one with his cursor. ‘This is where friend Otomo wants to play with the flowers. And this,’ he clicked the other point, ‘is where we feel he should live.’ A green line snaked between the two points, indicating the optimum public transport solution. Potemkin read the summary. ‘His commute will be a soul-cleansing… 142 kilometres, fifty-four minutes, two changes. How does that grab you?’
‘Oh, hang on,’ said Potemkin, ‘the girls’ schools; I didn’t factor them in. Damn, they’re also way across town. Should we do that to them?’
Peters pursed his lips. ‘What do you reckon?’
‘It’s a bit rough.’
‘True, but the older one’s almost eighteen. When she moves out, which will probably be on the dawn of her birthday, she can take her sister with her.’
‘And the mother?’
‘If she were going, she’d have gone. More fool her if she chooses to hang around with a prick. I say run with it.’
‘You know best,’ said Potemkin.
‘No, no… hell, fuck ‘em, eh?’
‘An understandable, though inappropriate response, Ronald.’
Potemkin smiled and began the allocation. ‘I sure do enjoy being on your team, Mr Peters.’
‘It’s good to have you aboard, son.’ He patted Potemkin’s shoulder and moved to another consultant signalling for his attention.
The Komatsu family hurtled silently through the underground to their new life. Mika took out her pad and composed a haiku as her sole birthday present.
Tomorrow I leave
This darkened place of hatred.
My pencil is sharp.
‘That should really read: “today I leave”,’ she thought, ‘but then I’ll have only four syllables. I’ll pretend I wrote it yesterday.’ She backdated the page and pocketed it. Haiku was her favourite form of expression. Though still searching for her perfect wave, she had improved steadily.
Mika next practised her dreaming. She had read that to realise a dream it was necessary to imagine it in detail — rehearsing the moment at which it came true. It had taken her time to master this, so chronically sapped of confidence had she become. Her favourite scene took place in a department store. She sat in a comfortable chair before a large desk, awaiting her next customer. From a queue that snaked into the street, another fan sat down proffering the volume of poetry.
‘Hello, Ms Komatsu, I…’
‘Please, call me Mika.’
‘Oh, you’re very kind. How do you do, Mika?’
‘Very well, and you?’
‘Fine Ms… I mean Mika. It’s such an honour to meet you. I adore your poetry and I saw you speak at the Southern Sector conference last year.’
‘Really? I’m flattered. Now, what’s your name?’
‘Um, actually, I already have my own copy… I bought this one for a friend.’
‘No, to inspire him. You see he wants to be a writer. He’s very unhappy where he is and his writing is really very good, yet he doesn’t have the confidence to make the transition. I was hoping you could write something inspirational, to… help get him started.’
‘I understand. You’re very thoughtful. What’s his name?’
Mika signed her message of support with a flourish. ‘Will that do?’
Mouthing the words carefully, the fan’s face lit. ‘Oh, Mika, it’s perfect! Thank you!’
‘My pleasure. Next!’
Mika hugged herself and smiled, renewed by the affirmation. Hers had always been a frail dream. Every second Net denizen fancied herself a writer and the system was awash with drivel. Now she was Poor — two enormous steps down the social ladder. Yet despite this and her father’s strident opposition, Mika believed she would realise her vision. In a year she’d be free to find her own little space, where she could gather her energy and work without distraction. But not even her dream could protect her from the shock of the family’s new home.
It was an absolute hovel.
Though the block’s dilapidated exterior had signalled a warning, the flat still managed to exceed the women’s worst fears. Otomo happily watched their faces fall, knowing he’d been right to deny them a virtual tour. The floor plan was a ‘T’, with the entrance in the middle of the cross bar. To the left was the second bedroom. In the centre was the dining/lounge area. On the right were the kitchen and bathroom. The stem of the ‘T’ was the master bedroom, which boasted only one small window. Low ceilings and dark walls completed a claustrophobe’s nightmare.
Sei’s tears cratered the dust. Higuchi sought the additional rooms which had to be there. Mika examined the smashed sockets, wondering if it were possible to run a home without a computer.
‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ Otomo chortled. ‘No more distractions; just clean, simple family life.’
Mika’s voice quavered. ‘How will I study, Papa?’
‘Yeah, what about our homework?’ Higuchi added.
‘Your first lesson in humility. You will use the facilities in the public library.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding! Those dinosaur shit boxes are riddled with viruses!’
‘You will adapt.’
‘Adapt? Adapt?’ Higuchi advanced. ‘Are you out of your mind? You’ve taken us back to the Stone Age! This is a bloody cave! Jesus, Pa, you’ve always been a flipper, but this takes the…’
Higuchi’s head shot back and she slid to the floor.
‘Things have changed,’ said Otomo. ‘You are all unforgivably spoilt. It is my duty to correct the corruption wreaked by our former prosperity. You can work with me or,’ he glanced pointedly at Higuchi, ‘against me. Our belongings will arrive shortly. I must report to my new employer. You will have this house set up correctly before my return. Understand?’
Mika nodded. Sei stared blankly and said in a hollow monotone, ‘Yes, Otomo.’
‘Good. See you tonight.’ He stepped into the corridor and closed the door with a snap as the women lapsed into shock.
Read Chapter 04.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by The Artist.
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- The Game – Chapter 23
- The Game – Chapter 22
- The Game – Chapter 21
- The Game – Chapter 20
- The Game – Chapter 19
- The Game – Chapter 18
- The Game – Chapter 17
- The Game – Chapter 16
- The Game – Chapter 15
- The Game – Chapter 14
- The Game – Chapter 13
- The Game – Chapter 12
- The Game – Chapter 11
- The Game – Chapter 10
- The Game – Chapter 09A
- The Game – Chapter 09
- The Game – Chapter 08
- The Game – Chapter 07
- The Game – Chapter 06
- The Game – Chapter 05
- The Game – Chapter 04
- The Game – Chapter 03
- The Game – Chapter 02
- The Game – Chapter 01
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