Oddland

Adventures in a post-rational world

Chapter 2

Frank Discussion

John soared above the endless plain below. Over the last five days it had changed from Colorado’s relatively cluttered surface to empty landscape. He had to be in Utah by now.

The propeller was barely needed. At its default setting it whizzed away, pushing him along. The hexpanels had kept up with minimal effort. If this continued he could probably make it all the way to California with few problems. Given he had built the gliderwing himself he was amazed how well it worked as it sailed through the clear sky.

He hadn’t seen any sign of the salek after the first day. He had been conscious of it the first night in the tent and had ordered Oddjob to scan all night. But it hadn’t reappeared.

The ground below was giving way to empty desolate rock formations. He couldn’t see anything manmade in any direction. It had to be Utah.

On the first day he’d only flown for a few hours before landing and slept in the tent. The evening sun was almost enough to recharge Oddjob. Even after a full day running the battery often only used no more than ten percent of charge from the efficient batteries in the chest cavity.

Oddjob could sprint all day, only stopping for obstacles, which he always managed to circumvent. His gait was the same steady, relentless rhythm unlike the way a person could run. Looking down he could see the bot maybe a quarter of a mile behind, the distinct white of his casing easy to spot against the sand-colored terrain, a light trail of dust whirling behind him.

Looking ahead the landscape lay before him for miles. No one lived here. The birdseye view made it peaceful to fly like this.

After several hours he noticed the first unnatural object he had seen for days. Tall poles standing in the middle of nowhere, straight ahead. Only as he approached the first of them did he appreciate the scale. They had to be a thousand feet in height, and they were scattered everywhere.

Each pole had a kind of propeller attached at the top, with three massive blades standing still in the warm air. Ahead thousands of them littered the landscape all the way to the horizon, placed seemingly randomly.

He glided through them with ease, each one placed hundreds of yards away from others. Looking up as he sailed past the thick metal poles some lacked the propeller units. Looking down they lay on the ground, sheared off and lying smashed near the foot of the poles, partially buried in the dust as they slowly became part of the landscape.

Focusing on the tall poles he almost missed the structures over to his left some distance away. Pulling on the handlebars the gliderwing tilted, drawing him closer to the unexpected feature. It looked like a cluster of small buildings, their manmade design strikingly different from the eroded forms of the ancient rocks all around.

Pushing down on the handlebars he leaned forward, the gliderwing picking up speed as it descended. It consisted of one main building, dark in color, with extensions added around it. Two other structures were a short distance away with a vehicle parked in front.

He must have been less than a hundred feet from the ground when he flew over it, the gliderwing cruising over the largest structure.

He noticed a ridge maybe a quarter of a mile away, a triangular wedge of rock emerging from the ground, the near side a long slope down on to the plain. If he landed there he could easily take off again by running down the sloped part.

Pushing down he shot beyond the rock formation and slowly circled around. He descended further, the ridge rushing towards him at alarming speed. He had improved his landings in the last few days, but he was going much faster here.

As the landing spot rushed towards him he just had time to see Oddjob appear in the distance, pausing as he approached the buildings, observing. He’d automatically catalogue everything new he found in his path.

The top of the ridge sped towards him. As he approached, less than six feet from the ground, he pulled back on the handlebars. The front pulled up, catching the air as he slipped out of the seat, his bodyweight pulling the harness taut. This helped dip the rear of the wing, increasing the surface area exposed to the oncoming rush of air.

His speed slowed dramatically as his feet touched the ground. Running, he quickly came to a full stop, the air heavy with heat after the cool rush while landing.

He placed the rear of the wing on the ground and unclipped the harness. He was lowering the front of the gliderwing to the ground as he detected movement in his peripheral vision. Turning, he saw Oddjob running towards his position, his tall form rippling in the heat.

John inspected the wing for damage as it rested on the ground. The hexpanels looked in perfect shape, their reflective surface unmarred despite several days use.

Oddjob had run all the way up to the ridge and stopped next to him, the white chassis now slightly discolored. A thin layer of dust dulled the formerly gleaming appearance.

“Charge?”

“Ninety-three percent.”

He marveled again at the efficiency of the batteries. Only seven percent drain after almost six hours of energetic activity.

His inspection complete, he stood and looked over at the buildings he’d spotted from the air. They seemed much further away from here, a testament to how fast the gliderwing could carry him. It wasn’t easy to judge speed when he was flying high. Peppered all over the landscape behind stood the giant poles with the propellers stretching to the horizon. Nothing registered on the hudspecs, not even data from the nearby structures.

A figure walked from the buildings to the ridge. Oddjob turned his head to look, then shifted position when he spotted the man, his whole body turning around as if to greet the stranger walking towards them.

As the man reached the shallow climb up the ridge John noticed the weapon held casually over his shoulder. It looked like a rifle or maybe a shotgun.

The stranger never hesitated. He walked straight up to them, the gun resting on his shoulder and secured with one hand.

He was old. Maybe seventy. It was hard to judge because of his thin frame.

“Hello,” said the man halting while looking down at the gliderwing. “Quite a contraption you have there.”

He didn’t seem threatening as he inspected the glider lying on the ground.

“I built it myself. I got the schematics online. People used to make these all the time.”

The man indicated his respirator.

“You don’t need that here.”

He reached up to pull it down, the thick elastic strap resting on the back of his neck. It was easy to forget he had it on.

“Where did you come from?” said the man.

John hesitated. Should he tell the stranger he lived in the Institute?

“East. I live near Boulder.”

“Thats over four hundred miles. Where are you going?”

“West. California eventually.”

The man walked around the gliderwing to look at the wing component at the rear, crouching down to inspect the surface closely. A slight sheen almost obscured the tiny hexagonal pattern.

“What are these?”

“Hexpanels.”

Each panel was tiny, less than half an inch wide and only a millimeter thick. Thousands covered the upper surface of the wing component.

“Solar power? Where did you get them?”

“From the buildings where I live. There were tons of them.”

“I didn’t know. I thought we used nuclear everywhere.”

“We do. But when my place was built they still used solar.”

“I remember that from school,” said the man standing up. “And they still work?”

“Yes. Only a few duds. They are efficient. I use them to charge everything.”

He indicated the slim black rectangular box at the center rear of the wing, its edge resting on the ground, the propeller gleaming in the sunlight.

“I can charge Oddjob as well as the propeller.”

“Oddjob?”

“That’s the bot’s name. That’s what he, it, responds to.”

The man looked at the bot.

“Is it a medbot?”

“Yes. I adapted him. It. I adapted the processor and routines. He is designed to cover long distances.”

The man didn’t offer any comment as he inspected Oddjob who stood motionless as ever

“Do you live out here?”

“Yes. Always have done,” said the man turning back to him.

“Alone?”

“Yep. Just me,” he said, bringing the gun down from his shoulder, passing it to his left hand then extending his right. “My name’s Frank. Frank Harris.”

John took a step forward and shook his hand, the grip surprisingly strong. Not what he expected from such an underweight person.

“John Smith.”

“Well, John Smith,” he said, looking back at the buildings in the distance. “Why don’t you come in. I don’t often get company these days.”

The kitchen area was spartan and functional with an unfamiliar array of implements on the worktop. Quite different to his own tiny kitchen back at the Institute. Frank directed him towards a large table with six chairs as he looked around. He couldn’t see a food dispenser anywhere. A pot sat on a flat shiny square on the worktop, vapor rising lazily into the air. An unfamiliar odor filled the room.

Frank sat the shotgun on the floor leaning against the kitchen units and began clearing the utensils away. The very presence of the weapon rattled him. He had never seen one up close, only online.

“So did you fly all the way here in your machine?”

Frank’s question broke the silence.

“Some of the way. I walked the rest.”

“No one bothered you?”

“No. We haven’t really met anyone.”

“And it’s just you and the bot?”

“Yes. Although we came across a salek.”

Frank turned to look at him.

“The police dogs? Where was this?”

“In Colorado.”

“I didn’t realize they had made it this far south although I’ve heard rumors.”

“Well it was there. The bot picked it up.”

“How did you get away?”

“Using the gliderwing.”

“I’ve heard they are lethal. They reprogrammed them to attack the police in Chicago. That’s why they were withdrawn. Although they were a foolish idea to begin with. You are lucky the bot spotted it. Where did you get a medbot anyway?”

“I just found it and reprogrammed it.”

Frank said nothing although probably didn’t believe him.

“I take it you are traveling without permission?”

“Well, we didn’t see anyone. I mean in Colorado.”

“Good for you,” said Frank. “They can’t police it any more.”

Was that true? He had escaped the supposedly secure facility by walking out via the broken fence that ran for miles around the campus. No one stopped them. Maybe it wasn’t just the Institute.

“Do you live here on your own?”

“I do now,” said Frank. “My wife died four years ago. Since then it’s just been me.”

Frank lifted a large jug from the worktop and picked up two mugs, then came over to the table.

“Coffee?”

John looked at the large jug.

“I’ve never tried it.”

“Coffee? You’ve never had coffee?”

“No.”

The old man laughed then proceeded to pour the dark brown liquid into the two cups.

“Well there’s a first time for everything.”

A strange aroma arose from the cup, its unusual smell not unpleasant.

John wondered how Frank survived out here on his own. He was old but he looked strong despite being thin.

“So are you just here on your own? No one else?”

“Just me,” he said, passing the cup. “It’s better that way.”

John said nothing. The coffee tasted bitter and acrid.

“It’s an acquired taste,” said Frank noticing his reaction. “If you are in no rush you can stay a while.”

Frank stood again and went over to the pot. He removed the lid and stirred the contents.

“How long have you been here?”

“A long time,” said Frank, not turning around. “Over fifty years.”

“Do you have any children?”

“Two sons. Both of them went south years ago. We keep in touch though. Things are different there.”

Did he mean Jesusland?

“How did you get them in?”

“I have a few friends there.”

“Why didn’t you go yourself?”

“We liked it here. We had been here a long time. Maybe if I had been your age I might have.”

He thought about the homestead and everything he had seen from the air. Nothing for miles except the propeller poles. Why would anyone stay in a place like this?

“What do you do here?”

“I recycle the turbines mainly.”

“The propeller things outside?”

“Yes. They are wind turbines. They used them to generate energy. A long time ago. Some of the components are worth something.”

“Do you sell them to people?”

“Yes, there’s always demand. Mainly the rare earths. They used neodymium and dysprosium in these old turbines, in the magnets. You can’t get those anywhere these days.”

“Is anyone else here? I saw nothing on the way over.”

“There are people everywhere. But this place is isolated. Cut off from most of it. No one bothers me here.”

He remembered everything he had read online. The way everyone lived together in communities. And yet this man lived here alone.

“Why do you live out here? Away from others. Away from services.”

“To stay away from the madness.”

“Madness?”

The old man turned to look at him.

“It wasn’t always like this,” he said. “The way people live today is not how it used to be.”

He looked around the kitchen at the manual stove, the knives and other utensils. There wasn’t even a food dispenser. He hadn’t seen any bots outside either.

“You mean before automation?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“But you reject automation?”

“No. I reject everything that comes with it.”

“What do you mean? Don’t you have dispensers or bots?”

“No,” said Frank. “Nothing like that. It’s just me here.”

“How do you survive all alone?”

Frank paused then came over and sat down opposite him at the table.

“What do you know about how all this came about? How we lived before.”

“You mean before post-scarcity?”

“Ha!” said Frank. “Post-scarcity. I’ve not heard that in a while. But no. We don’t live in a post-scarcity world. A lot is scarce. All the wrong things are in short supply.”

“Well I’ve read about things. Online.”

“Then maybe that is a problem. Remember, the victors write the history books.”

Victors? Did he mean the corporations? Before he could ask Frank carried on.

“It started a long time ago. Before I was born. In the nineteen-thirties in some ways. Everything got bigger. Everything became centralized.”

“You mean the government?”

“I mean the federal government. Our system was meant to be decentralized. Everything local and within reach. But over time bureaucrats took over. They took over everything. They governed everything. Institutions ran the country. All of them controlled far away.”

Frank looked lost in thought. His mind wandering.

“I remember when we started using self-driving cars,” he said. “That was a typical example.”

“Cars? What do you mean? We’ve always had cars.”

“Not self-driving cars. Which is a nonsense term. Centrally-controlled cars is more accurate.”

“What other kind are there?”

“We used to drive them ourselves. Go wherever we liked. Some of us still do. Like you in your flying machine.”

“You mean manual cars? No guidance systems?”

“No guidance. No control. No nothing.”

Was that true? People could just go anywhere they liked?

“At first the regulation was just transponders. The car manufacturers included them anyway. But then the government regulated that and took control. The hardware, the software and all that. Then you needed a license for it. They soon got used to tracking everyone.

“Once they had that they controlled everyone. All it took was one law passed and they could deactivate your car whenever they liked. You then needed government permission to travel anywhere. Implicit permission. They could literally stop your car from starting.”

“What did they do before that though?”

“Nothing,” said Frank. “Or at least they had limited options. In principle they worked for us, although that was never really true of course. But that kind of direct control is attractive to governments. Once the technology existed it didn’t take them long to control it.”

Why didn’t he know this? Kainzow was critical of how the country was run but claimed it was the corporations who had hijacked democracy, usurping the will of the people.

“Of course,” said Frank. “The real damage was to the next generation. They grew up used to this central control. It became normalized.”

“What happened next?”

“Nothing. That is the point. At least nothing visible. An entire generation never questioned how a government could control your movement. So they never questioned why a government can control anything. Restrictions on freedom became normal.

“In time government made more and more decisions. People became ever more dependent on the federal government, on central decision-making bodies. All of it felt normal.”

He thought about his own explorations. How radical it felt even questioning things. Leaving the Institute without permission.

Then he remembered all that Kainzow had taught him.

“But what about the corporations? Big business. Weren’t they to blame?”

“The government is the ultimate corporation,” said Frank. “It was the other way around. Businesses became co-opted by government. Corrupted by it. A lot of people are quick to blame big business, and they are not innocent. But all the ruin is because of centralized power not commerce.”

He felt lost. But before he could say anything Frank continued.

“It is power that corrupts. Having the power to force people to accept your vision of society. Businesses don’t have that, not even now. A good example is universal basic income.”

“You mean standard income?”

“That’s what they call it now. But it used to be called UBI.”

“What is wrong with it? I was told that was one of the concessions the corporations made to governments to get their way. That it helps people. No one goes without. No one starves.”

“No one ever starved in America. We’ve always been able to feed ourselves. UBI was about control not starvation.”

“I thought it helped. That’s what I read.”

“It helped the Fed,” said Frank. “But no one else. Productivity dropped. America lost its place while it celebrated its greatness. No one went without, that was the idea.”

“Isn’t that a good thing though?”

“When the cure is worse than the disease, then no. It’s not a good thing. The goal was to help people but they became enslaved instead. And once that happens it is hard for people to escape.”

“Everything I’ve read online said it was to help people live better lives.”

“No it was to avoid hardship. And that turned out to be a mistake. People need obstacles to overcome if they are to grow. For most, destroying adversity kills any incentive they have.”

Frank’s statements contradicted everything he had heard.

“That was all driven by the federal government,” said Frank. “Private companies had nothing to do with it, no matter what you’ve read. I mean, they did some of the dirty work, especially the media corporations. They got people used to the idea. But it was all driven by government. It was about consolidating their power.”

“If that is true then why didn’t people protest?”

“They did. All the time. But they’ve been controlling people for a long time. They encouraged docility as they have always done. Sheep do not run away from shelter. The one thing the big corporations did help with was everything going virtual as it is now. Lots of changes happened at once. Jobs, entertainment, everything. No one left home. That atomized us, isolated us. We were easy prey by then.”

John had read about that. People used to travel more, especially to work. They even had communal working spaces.

“That helped a lot. When so many people were always plugged in they had to do very little to monitor and control them. People installed their own surveillance equipment at home. Their jobs required it. And people seemed willing to immerse in their social platforms, throwing away their lives. It was easy. So in a sense, yes, the corporations were in lockstep with them. But never forget who drives it all and what their goal is, total control.”

The kitchen was darker now the sun was going down. Frank got up and went to the stove.

“Hungry?” he said.

The strange smells from whatever he was making lingered in the room.

Frank used a ladle to measure out two portions of the food into bowls and sat them on the table.

John looked at the strange food. It looked like dark soup.

“What is it?”

“Stew,” said Frank. “Venison.”

John looked at him.

“Deer meat.”

Frank went to a cupboard and brought out a large loaf. He at least recognized that. As he placed it down on a wooden board and began cutting slices he noticed it was darker than the bread at the Institute.

He looked again at the stew in the bowl, unsure what to do. His sense of revulsion competed with the inviting aroma. Not at all what he expected.

“You eat meat?”

“Always,” said Frank. “We are designed to eat meat.”

“I’ve eaten protein but not this.”

“I’m not surprised. The last thing they want is young men who are fit and strong. Go ahead and try it. You’ll like it.”

As Frank placed some slices of bread on a side plate he picked up the spoon and took a small amount. He couldn’t see if there was actual meat there or just other stuff. The thick liquid disguised the contents.

He took a mouthful, the textures odd. Surprisingly it tasted good.

“See what I mean?” said Frank. “Another revelation for you.”

“I thought meat was dangerous.”

“No. The effects of meat are dangerous. For the government that is. But human beings evolved to eat it. You need it. Especially at your age.”

He tried some more. It was odd eating such a mixture of sensations. He had to chew some of it. Presumably the bits of animal flesh. But it was not unpleasant.

“The vegetarianism is difficult to explain,” said Frank while eating his own stew. “Lots of things came together at once.”

“What do you mean?”

“Years ago, when they still talked about climate change, there were a group of anti-meat people who wanted everyone to be a vegetarian. It didn’t work. People like their cheeseburgers.”

He wondered what a cheeseburger was. Wasn’t cheese meat free?

“But as the government and its minions took control over everything farming became a problem. Farmers themselves became a problem. They used to call it the beef lobby. But in time the government regulated everything they did until it became too expensive to farm animals. Some of them were corporations but they didn’t survive. Government is always in charge.”

“And we became vegetarians?”

“Not overnight. But protein substitutes for meat were cheaper thanks to government subsidies. They initially called it lab-grown meat. Much easier to control. Governments can’t cope with variety and diversity. A central bureaucracy likes standardization, homogeneous things. They produced standard food pyramids. Everyone fell into line. No one noticed the farmers dying off. That’s why they control minds. It is cheaper than taking on industries. Not that there are any industries left.”

Had all this really happened? John had never given any thought to the food he ate. It was all prepared by the units back at the Institute or by bots.

“And it had a useful side effect,” said Frank. “It keeps you docile. I mean, Christ knows what chemicals they put in slop these days. But even without them their approved diet wasn’t healthy.”

“But it is designed to offer a nutritional balance.”

“Spoken like an obedient drone. On paper, yes. Everything is there. But that’s not how real life works. You need a variety of things. That’s how we evolved. More to the point it is a vegetarian diet that uses stodge as filler.”

“Stodge?”

“Carbohydrate foods. Bread, pasta, rice. That kind of thing. High carb and low fat.”

Fat was dangerous. He knew that much at least.

“They even convinced people fat was dangerous,” said Frank. “But look at me. I eat animal fats and butter. Yet I’m a lot fitter than you despite being forty years older.”

Frank was thin. He remembered looking at pictures online of cancer victims, their emaciated forms difficult to look at. And yet, despite his obvious age, Frank looked vigorous and fit. Strong.

He looked down at his own girth. The weight around his waist.

“You see the point,” said Frank. “Bulking up on crap makes you feel full. It feeds the body with sugar. But you are not designed for that. You are designed to move and for that you need fuel.”

They continued eating. Was all this true? It wasn’t the way Kainzow had explained things.

“I remember when my sons were young,” said Frank. “Other people thought them half starved. By then everyone was fat and sick and had fat kids. It seemed normal. It probably seemed even more normal when the government made statins and insulin medications free. I remember that happening. Everyone saw it as a great leap forward. An enlightened thing. Only a handful challenged the actual food we were eating, and they were easily dealt with.”

He thought about all that Frank had said as he ate the strange food. If what he said was true it was disturbing. It seemed to make little sense.

“Why did all this happen?”

“Why does anything happen?” said Frank. “Life is what it is.”

“But it doesn’t make any sense they would want to destroy America.”

“They didn’t. They wanted control. The kind of people who crave control gravitate towards government power. Their only goal was power. But the very nature of power corrupts. As rules are imposed they gradually destroy the conditions that make prosperity possible. Innovation needs freedom, not rules. Innovation by its nature is disruptive, it break all the rules. But the control freaks live for rules.”

“But it seems so extreme. No middle ground.”

“The productive are always a threat to the powers that be. A bureaucratic elite produce nothing. The productive produce everything and they resent control. The two are mutually exclusive. The decline was nothing more than that. Productive people are always a threat.”

“So what do we do?”

“Be productive. Produce things. You built your flying machine. Not everyone has that impulse. It is the one thing despots cannot do. They imagine themselves planners and strategists. But that is just a way of avoiding the fact they cannot make anything. Those kinds of people are the product of a society that has lost its way. When we find our way again there won’t be a place for them.”

John was relieved when Frank moved on to other subjects. There were no more revelations while they ate. The food was unusual. The sensation of it more time consuming than normal food. But it wasn’t unpleasant.

Frank explained how the homestead worked. He learned about Frank’s neighbors, all of whom lived miles away even though he called them neighbors.

As it slowly grew dark outside he enjoyed listening to Frank and learning about his life. Sitting with him at the large table felt comfortable.

Frank’s comments reverberated in his mind. The decline and how it had come about. Frank had lived through some of it but it disturbed him that he had such a different perspective from Kainzow. He didn’t know what to make of it all.

Frank suggested he stay the night. The homestead had numerous rooms spread out inside, the layout seemingly following no plan. It was a lot different from the uniformity of the Institute.

The room had been one of Frank’s son’s. It was mostly empty, just a bed. The room was clean though.

The homestead seemed to sprawl in many directions. Frank mentioned he had added to it over the years. It had originally been what he called a maintenance shed for the engineers who worked on the wind turbines. John wondered how anyone added to a building. The Institute had been made of a series of uniform units built in a factory and shipped to the campus. But Frank’s place did look home made, quite different to what he was used to. It didn’t have traditional lighting. You had to flick a kind of switch on the wall near the door when you entered a room.

Frank wasn’t one for smalltalk. After his revelations at dinner he left him to it once showing him to the room.

Looking outside the tall window the sun had fallen below the horizon, the orange sky bleeding into black. He could just see Oddjob standing motionless in the distance next to the gliderwing as the sun set.

He looked like he was guarding the gliderwing. It made him wonder what the medbot would do if someone tried to steal or damage it. Would he react? He was adapting to his surroundings but it was doubtful he could show that kind of initiative.

He turned and sat on the bed, remembering the meat he’d eaten. Venison. Deer meat. What might it be doing to him? Everything he’d been told about animal flesh. But he felt fine. Although he didn’t feel full yet didn’t feel hungry either, an odd sensation.

Digging through his bag he found his meds. Taking the pills he wondered if the meat he had consumed would somehow react with the drugs. But he dismissed the idea. He did normally eat protein. Surely it would be fine.

As he lay on the hard bed he thought more about everything Frank had said. He always did this. His psychiatrists had called it rumination. Turning things over in your mind needlessly. But he was used to it. It was lying awake at night when he’d had the idea to reprogram a medbot. Over two years ago now.

Frank’s revelations rolled about his mind. Was he telling the truth? Had America really developed that way? Kainzow hadn’t mentioned any of it. The HEF taught him how the big corporations had used capitalism to enslave everyone for profit, including governments throughout the world.

He wished he could talk to Kainzow. He retrieved the medscreen from his bag and activated it, but there was no signal. It automatically scanned for something to connect to but nothing appeared. Frank’s place seemed totally primitive.

Thinking about what Frank had said about travel no longer being policed he wondered about the elaborate steps he had taken to avoid detection when accessing the deepnet. Maybe that wasn’t policed either. Maybe nothing was any more.

He lay back on the hard bed, the tiredness overtaking him despite his normal habit of ruminating. A brief moment of panic gripped him. Was the sleepiness some reaction between the deer meat and the meds?

Despite the unusual surroundings and the faint sounds from around him, he drifted off almost immediately, quickly lost to a deep, satisfying sense of tiredness.

Oddjob stood in the distance, in the exact same position from the night before. John could see him clearly while sitting on the front porch. The morning sun was bright although the porch itself was shaded.

He had woken at dawn and stayed in the room until he heard Frank moving around. Despite the early hour he felt refreshed and energetic. His worry the night before about eating the meat had proved ungrounded.

Frank had directed him to a large shower room. He was surprised to see it. He had somehow expected something more crude given the kitchen didn’t even have a dispenser. Although the shower didn’t respond to voice commands; he had to turn a manual wheel-like thing to make the water start.

Frank appeared on the porch with two plates. Setting one down in front of John he looked at the contents. Strips of meat with eggs.

“It’s bacon,” said Frank.

He looked at Frank as he began eating.

“That’s pig meat. One of my neighbors breeds them. Has done for years. Thoroughly illegal, which makes it taste even better.”

He cut a small piece of the meat and tried it. It tasted great. Unlike anything he had eaten before, the richness unexpected. Frank watched him closely and smiled.

“Everyone loves bacon.”

He looked at the eggs. He knew they used them as a constituent element in many foods, although he had never eaten real eggs before. The yolks were a deep orange color, bursting when he dipped in a piece of the bacon.

The egg yolks tasted amazing when combined with the bacon.

“I think they use eggs in food. The protein foods anyway.”

“That stuff isn’t food,” said Frank. “It’s made in a chemical plant. Chemicals masquerading as food. It’s practically soylent green.”

Frank could see the confusion on his face.

“Before your time,” he said. “An old joke. But they worked hard to control the food supply. It took them a long time, but they got there in the end.”

“Why did they control food? Is it so bad? I’ve eaten it all my life.”

“I can tell,” said Frank looking him over. “You’re fat, unlike me. That’s just one of the effects.”

John looked down at his body. He’d always been like this. At least he couldn’t remember being different.

“The diet most people are suited to has no sugar and limited carbohydrates. We are designed to eat vegetables, meat and fats. Healthy fats like butter or olive oil. Not that you can get olive oil these days.

“Even long before they actually manufactured their fake food the government doled out advice. An approved diet. It was all nonsense. It made everyone fat and sick eventually.”

“But how? I mean, why would they do that? Make people sick. Surely people would notice?”

“Conditioning is powerful. Everyone, including the doctors, all played along. Breaking out of that mindset takes more effort than most people possess. People like being led. Thinking for yourself is frightening to most. Plus it has the useful side effect of making people ever more dependent on government. Most governments in the west eventually realized they could keep themselves in business by creating these kinds of problems then selling people solutions to the problems they themselves created. Like a perpetual money machine.”

He said nothing as he ate the breakfast, troubled by what Frank was saying.

“Government loves dependency. They always want people more dependent not less. And they learned long ago as people embrace dependency they quickly lose any sense of initiative.

“When they controlled diet, which took them a long time, the problems it created were solved with drugs. When I was born statins to manage the damage caused by poor diets were the norm. Once you get people hooked on drugs they will never rock the boat. They have too much to lose. And drugs are everywhere.”

He thought of his own meds. He had taken them every day since his diagnosis. But surely that wasn’t what Frank meant. He needed them.

“What do they have you on?” said Frank, clearly reading the look on his face.

“Double A. Atomoxetine and Adhansia.”

Frank looked confused.

“Adhansia is a stimulant.”

“And the other thing isn’t I take it? Presumably some kind of depressant?”

“Yes.”

“So they are giving you drugs to compensate for the drugs they are giving you?”

He didn’t know what to say to that.

“Well I have oppositional defiant disorder. They’ve tried different meds over the years. I do alright on these.”

Frank looked unimpressed.

“I have no idea what oppositional defiance is but I’m sure it is normal behavior they cannot stand. When I was younger barely a week went by they didn’t create some kind of new problem inside our heads. Psychiatrists were everywhere.”

Frank paused, lost in thought. Then something seemed to come to him, as if remembering from long ago.

“I remember when they first started appearing on TV.”

“TV?”

“Television. Wall screens. Before headsets and rigs. Shrinks were everywhere. Being asked to comment on everything. They already had hate crime laws. But then racism, sexism and homophobia were reclassified as mental illness along with anything else they didn’t like. And it didn’t take them long to come up with a mountain of evidence to support their ideas. You can find evidence for anything if you look hard enough. After that the government had the weapons it needed.

“By then they had immense power. Psychiatry was funded almost exclusively by the government. Before long our thoughts were no longer our own. They didn’t need to prove anything. Virtually anyone can be accused of unconscious bias. I remember my father commenting on that when I was a boy. It won’t be long before they just have to say you are dangerous since it comes from the subconscious. You couldn’t even argue against that once it became established as the whole point is the individual is unaware of their dangerous ideas.”

John remembered lectures years ago from the senior consultant at the Institute. Reminding him his behavior was not his own fault. It was all behavioral patterns buried in his subconscious. All they had to do was root them out.

“In the end they controlled our movements, the food we ate and even our thoughts. It just fell into place. Everyone got used to being tracked, controlled and monitored. They ultimately got used to other people deciding what was in their minds. True mental slavery.”

Frank looked lost in thought. He turned to John.

“The authorities were always good at labeling people they didn’t like or didn’t fit their neat plans about how society ought to work. If you want some advice I’d stop taking your mind-altering drugs.”

“Well, I’m not sure.”

“Of course you’re not. But doubt is part of life. Getting used to it I mean. Just consider not taking them, that’s all.”

It was a scary thought. No meds at all? He had no idea what that would do to him. Would it take him right back to square one?

“So you are going west?” said Frank.

“Yes. A place called the Orchard.”

“What’s there?”

“HEF. The Hackers for Equality and Freedom. An organization who are trying to change things. It is run by a guy called Kainzow.”

“And you’re going there to meet this Kainzow?”

“Yes. It was him who persuaded me to leave the place I was. An Institute in Colorado.”

“They had you locked up?”

“Well, not locked up. Not really. But it was a medical facility. The Federal Institute of Behavioral Therapy.”

“You’re not alone,” said Frank. “Hard to believe what we’ve done to this country. I take it that’s where you got the medbot?”

“Yes. Kainzow helped me upgrade it.”

Frank said nothing, lost in thought.

“Kainzow and others are trying to change things. Tackle the corporations and corrupt government.”

“The government is a corporation,” said Frank. “That’s the problem right there. Wasteful and hopeless. It’s the schooling you need to fix. Kids raised in this environment believe every word they are told.”

Frank stood up to clear the plates.

“Since you are going west,” he said lifting his plate. “I have something for you.”

He disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared a few minutes later.

In his hands were two guns. One was a large gun with a long barrel. The other was an automatic pistol.

“This,” he said holding up the bigger weapon. “Is a shotgun. Try it.”

John took it from him. It was heavier than it looked. He’d only ever seen them in movies and games.

“I’m not sure. I mean, I’ve never handled a gun.”

“Then get sure. The world is a dangerous place. Your brush with the K9 unit should have taught you that.”

John hefted the gun, raising it and placing the butt to his shoulder. He turned and pointed it out towards the ridge.

“That’s it,” said Frank. “Hold it steady, breath out and squeeze the trigger. It’s unloaded.”

He squeezed the trigger, conscious of the weight of the weapon. He lowered it and turned to Frank.

Frank handed him the pistol. It too was heavy.

“You’ll need more practice with this. You can’t miss with the shotgun. But you can easily miss with a pistol.”

John felt it’s weight. The gun felt dangerous.

“We can go out back. I have a small range where I practice. I’ll show you how to handle them safely.”

Part of him wanted to object but another part didn’t. Despite how illegal the weapons were they somehow felt right in his hand.

Once again Frank seemed able to read the doubt on his face.

“These are for defense,” he said looking at the shotgun. “People have forgotten the government want you dependent and these make you independent.”

“But they’re illegal.”

“Too much is illegal.”

He felt the heaviness of the weapons as he looked out to the distant ridge, Oddjob standing still in the warm air.

It took less than five minutes to pack away the gliderwing. They were getting faster and Oddjob needed no guidance.

He lifted his own pack while Oddjob effortlessly did the same with the heavier load. He had put the small pistol into Oddjob’s as Frank had warned him he’d need to practice a lot more. They’d spent almost two hours at his makeshift range as Frank drilled him on how to safely handle both weapons. It had felt disturbingly satisfying discharging them, although he struggled to hit the targets.

He turned to Frank who had walked up to the ridge with him and held out his hand.

“Thanks for everything. The guns I mean.”

Frank shook his hand, his grip still unexpectedly strong.

“Don’t mention it,” said Frank. “Remember to practice though.”

He promised to do so. The shotgun’s weight was apparent strapped to his backpack plus the boxes of ammunition were in there too. Frank had given him more than he’d ever need.

He indicated to Oddjob they were going as he looked out over the empty plains from the advantage of the ridge.

“If you are heading west,” said Frank. “Watch out for Aca.”

He turned to the old man.

“Aca?”

“A controlled area, west of here. Difficult to go round. It is well guarded.”

He had never heard of it but promised to be careful.

“Good luck.”

He nodded and got going, Oddjob catching up and joining him as they walked west leaving Frank and his homestead behind, the old man’s revelations still echoing in his head.

☉ ☉ ☉

©2022 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

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Oddland

Adventures in a post-rational world

Chapter 1

Escape

The truck looked like it had been abandoned years ago. John peered into the interior, the door wide open. Dirt and debris covered the seats and floor, the remains of an old bird’s nest scattered in the footwell. A stale odor lingered as if the vehicle had sat for decades, noticeable even through the respirator.

Stepping away from the rusted door he looked down the street into the town. He remembered Boulder from his childhood, although not like this.

Discarded cars littered the street. Tufts of grass sprouted at the edges of the road and sidewalk. It was more than empty. It looked dead. Even the hudspecs registered nothing, the vehicles long since drained of power. Intrastate travel was permitted in most parts of Colorado, yet no one was here.

Boards covered many of the store fronts as they walked down the deserted boulevard. Like the truck everything looked unused for years. Sale signs rustled in the breeze as if some cataclysmic event had frozen the town at a single moment in the past.

Oddjob followed silently behind. Whenever he stopped to peer through the windows into the stores the bot stopped too, never looking inside, his indifference the most inhuman thing about him. The sunlight reflected off the clean white fibroresin of the upper casing, its sterile surface peppered with green medical symbols. The large backpack with the gliderwing and the rest of the supplies caused the bot no problems as he stood perfectly erect in silence, the expressionless eyes never changing.

None of the stores had been looted. Most had merchandise sitting on shelves, clearly untouched for years. A visible layer of dust covered every surface. The hudspecs didn’t pick up any broadcasts from the vacant stores.

The signs had been apparent on the journey here although he had tried to ignore his mounting apprehension. They hadn’t seen another person since leaving the Institute. Now on the third day he no longer expected anyone to challenge them despite his fears before the escape.

He tried to calculate how long it would take to walk to his parents’ house but he couldn’t work it out. They’d taken him when he was fourteen. He remembered a brief journey to Boulder, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes in the car. What would that be? A few miles? The distances were vague in his mind.

There was nothing to see. Whatever had happened here it was dead. He took off down the long boulevard, heading for home.

The gate stood wide open in the distance as they walked past the derelict remains of a car, its tires flat. Reaching the entrance John looked at the weeds emerging from the edge of the thick posts holding the structure in place. Why was the gate open? It had always been closed, only unlocked briefly to admit cars and delivery vans.

They walked in to the estate, down the short road to the junction leading to the houses. The layout was a shamrock shape, the section containing his parents’ house off to the left.

Reaching the junction they traveled the few hundred yards to the area at the end, each of the twenty houses in a loose circle. The monitor cameras at the top of the poles placed between every second property remained motionless, slumped forward in their protective housings.

In most of the houses curtains were drawn shut with several properties abandoned. In one case the front door was open to the world. Another had been destroyed by fire, the roof collapsed and the windows blackened by smoke.

Reaching his parents’ house he remembered it as bigger and more grand. Now it looked like a toy house, identical to all the others, tired and unkempt. Broken gutters hung from the edge of the roof, the front garden a riot of untended bushes and long grass.

At the sidewalk in front of the house the streetlights juddered into life, so something still worked. Most failed to light up. Oddjob looked up at the flickering light as if not sure what was happening.

It made him wonder how the bot processed all this, the environment far removed from the clinical predictability of a hospital. Oddjob’s adaptive routines aimed to accomplish basic interaction but that was primarily physical lifting and simple medical procedures. What would this much bigger world do to it?

Despite his desperation to get here he couldn’t shake his growing discomfort. The boulevard in town had been disturbing but for some reason he hadn’t really expected it here even though that was irrational. Why would it be any different? Yet the tension increased as he approached the house, the feeling of wrongness difficult to shake off.

Then he realized. The silence. His memory of living here was the noise. Cars, people, kids shouting. His sister especially. She never shut up, even as a baby. But now the whole area was silent. This is what he’d always had at the back of his mind, the memory of how it once was. That’s what he had clung to all these years while he had rehearsed what he’d say to his parents when he finally talked to them again face to face.

He had played around here on his bike as a child, long ago. But only now, looking at the familiar scene, did he remember the anguish and the confusion. At school, the rote learning, the way they wanted you to sit still and never ask questions. The hushed conversations with his parents. And the words, the terminology; disruptive, fidgeting, attention deficit. The boy is difficult, he is too disruptive, he is defiant. Then the diagnosis. His parents had been powerless to stop it happening, but he hadn’t understood back then.

It all came back in a rush as they walked on to the empty drive. His father had always been allowed a car, but it was absent. Weeds broke through the cracks in the concrete where he remembered it being parked.

Ahead of them, at the side of the house, stood a huge yellow tank, eight feet in height. As they came close to it the Nutrisource logo was the only clue to its contents. Why did they have a nutrient reservoir?

He looked at the door at the side of the house. His mother always called it the back door even though it was technically at the side of the house. The servant’s entrance as his father called it, the memory of him walking in to the large kitchen years ago vivid and real in his mind.

More real than all this, the neglect evident up close. The roughcast on the outer walls at the back door had all but disappeared, lying in uncleared heaps on the ground. Water stains discolored the exposed brickwork. It reinforced the sense of decay, adding to his nervousness.

A layer of grime partly obscured the panel at the side of the door. He tried to wipe it with his sleeve although it didn’t make much of a dent. Would it even work after all this time? Looking at his palm he wondered how much it changed. Did a palm print change at all?

He touched the panel, his hand trembling slightly. The muted thud of the locking bolts broke the silence of the quiet evening as he pushed open the door.

Dust covered every surface of the kitchen, their entrance causing a swirl of particles to catch the warm light through a gap in the closed blinds. A musty odor pervaded the room.

The emptiness clashed with his memory of living here. He remembered it as noisy and full. All four of them used to sit at the table. Like the rest of the kitchen it was clear of clutter, a thin layer of dust just visible.

Panic briefly overcame him as he walked further into the kitchen. What if his parents were no longer here? Had they went somewhere else? If they’d left they’d surely have told him.

He quickly walked into the hall past the mirror. He remembered it as huge but it was only about five feet high. He reached up and pulled off the respirator and hudspecs when he caught sight of himself.

It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dark living room. He immediately sensed the unexpected objects.

Light abruptly appeared, flooding the space. He turned to see Oddjob towering above him, the lamp embedded in his forehead ablaze.

Turning back, three rigs sat facing away from each other in a star formation at the center of the room. In each lay an unrecognizable figure, their faces obscured by full media masks.

He walked closer to the nearest one. A biosuit encased the corpulent body, the fabric stretched taut revealing its grotesque dimensions. Was it one of his parents? The body must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds at least.

The rig looked new, its distant origin as a dentist’s chair apparent in the long sweep of its cushioned surface. A single support stand held it a few feet off the ground as if hovering. Walking around to view the other bodies, both were smaller than the first, which had to be his father. These two must be his mother and sister, Claire. He couldn’t tell them apart. Both were overweight, the material of their suits straining to contain their obese forms. A series of tubes ran into their full masks and others exited their suits, presumably to carry waste. A soft hum emanated from the rigs, the only sound in the dark room.

He stood back, shocked at the sight of all three lying inert and silent. He had talked to them only a few weeks ago, their avatars betraying no hint of their true state.

Most people used avatars online, but he had assumed they’d base them on real life. He realized he hadn’t really given it any thought. His family were one of only a few people he himself used an avatar with. The deepnet where he’d spent most of his time online shunned them, preferring anonymity.

Walking back around to the first rig the only way he could determine it was probably his father was the relative bulk compared to the other two.

There had never been any hint they had immersed like this. His father occasionally used a rig for work, but the addition of units for everyone was unexpected. That’s why the Nutrisource tank outside was so substantial, it had to maintain three adults.

He turned to Oddjob.

“See if you can work out their status.”

The medbot moved closer to his father’s bulky form, looking down at the prone figure. He could just see the tiny indicator on Oddjob’s chest begin to flicker as the bot connected with the chair.

Looking around, they had stripped out everything except one bookcase. No couch or chairs. With the three rigs and now Oddjob towering above, his head close to the ceiling, none of it felt like home despite the fact he’d spent half his life here. The memories triggered felt alien, less like home than the Institute.

He walked over to the other rigs. He guessed the one on the right was his sister, although it was impossible to be sure with the mask covering the whole face.

Kneeling down next to her he noticed a tiny screen only a few inches wide embedded in the side of the head rest. Looking closer he fumbled with the controls and it came to life.

Expecting a bio readout it instead showed a confusing jumble of content. Much of it looked like moving images, difficult to make sense of with the small screen. Peering closer, the chaotic content flashed briefly onscreen, quickly replaced. The images lacked audio making it all the more difficult to understand. Was this the content she was consuming via the rig?

Standing up, the tiny screen still flickering, it struck him. Hypercomping, it had to be. Hyper comprehension, the technique used to layer multiple strands of information for a kind of accelerated method of consuming material. Hadn’t it been developed for military use, in intelligence? It was sometimes used in academia, but was she using it for normal consumption?

Critics called the technique enthrallment, claiming people struggled to cope with such obvious information overload. He had read somewhere the real danger was in the longer term changes it likely made to neural pathways. Normal information consumption became unbearably tedious and attention spans fractured over time. Why was she using it?

It had been banned at the Institute. No one was allowed to hypercomp and the equipment had been absent even for staff. He knew it would be absolutely lethal for someone with his own disorder so he’d never been tempted.

Looking down at the prone body it had to be Claire, her obesity disturbing to see. He couldn’t easily associate her bloated form with his most recent view of her, the avatar she used, and it was nothing like she was as a kid. He remembered her running around out the back years ago. She was three years younger than him so she’d be twenty-six now. Looking over at his mother’s form he struggled to tell them apart.

How had things declined so much? Thinking of the three-day journey here he hadn’t believed Colorado could be this bad. California and New York were famously lost decades ago. Whole sections of the country fully immersed. But he hadn’t realized things had degenerated here, and with his own family.

“Patient within expected parameters.”

Oddjob’s report broke the spell as he looked over at the medbot, still in the exact same position.

“Early indicators of metabolic syndrome,” said Oddjob. “But prognosis within expected parameters.”

He looked down at his mother and sister. Was there any point getting Oddjob to check them? What could he do? Short of shutting down their rigs he couldn’t even contact them. The hacked medscreen only worked to communicate with Oddjob and basic online content. He’d have to go back to the Institute.

Did it matter? He generally only talked to them every few months so they probably wouldn’t notice his absence for a while. He had expected to stay a few days to reassure them about his escape. But what now?

A flash of blue light caught his attention. He looked over at the far wall, everything in darkness. He’d need to get Oddjob’s light to see what it was.

“Look over there.”

Oddjob turned to where he pointed. The headlamp illuminated a connector near the floor. Moving around the rigs he made his way over. Oddjob followed without prompting.

Crouching down to inspect the section of wall, his body blocked the light. Before he could say anything Oddjob shifted position, aiming the light at the white box, a mid-capacity connecter attached to the wall just above the skirting board. The tiny blue light flickered at high speed.

They must have upgraded it at some point. They used to have one of the simpler gigabit connections, enough to run basic content. But the bulky unit suggested a more powerful connection needed for full-spectrum immersion. Probably a fifty terabit line.

Inspecting the unit he could not see any way to deactivate it. They must have plumbed it in when they installed the rigs. A thin film of dust covered the box. It must have been installed some time ago. Perhaps years.

Standing, he couldn’t decide what to do. He told Oddjob to check his mother and sister and then wait for him as he made his way through to his old bedroom.

It too was empty except for a single bed. A vacuum bot sat in the corner. He kicked it but it didn’t respond. It looked as if it had sat there for years. The room had the same musty smell as the rest of the house, the curtains shut tight.

He sat down on the bed and took off his backpack. Opening it he rummaged inside and retrieved a nutribar, spotting his meds. He’d need to remember to take them before too long. It made him realize how much he relied on routine. He should get Oddjob to remind him. Something to sort tomorrow.

Eating the nutribar he couldn’t help but wonder how things had declined here. Was he so cut off he had missed it? Or was everywhere the same now? He had been warned what to expect but hadn’t really believed it. Despite being online for years nothing had prepared him for this, not here in his own home.

Discovering the deepnet had changed his life. Despite all the restrictions at the Institute they didn’t have a clue how easy it was to circumvent their crude blocks. Every chalet had access, but only the occupied ones were actively monitored. It had been as simple as breaking into one of the many abandoned units and just going online.

When he had been approached by Kainzow when he found the deepnet he learned how to properly circumvent every restriction. And he hadn’t stopped there. Kainzow had taught him the world didn’t work the way he’d been told. He knew now the government didn’t really run anything. It was all controlled by global corporations behind the scenes.

Although Kainzow had warned him against visiting home the infamous hacker was responsible for him being here in a way. Kainzow’s abrupt disappearance almost a year before had prompted him to finally leave the Institute for good to seek him out in California, the corporations finally silencing him as he said they would.

It had taken all that time to plan and accumulate everything he needed. Despite the warnings he had always known he’d come here first.

Thinking about his parents and Claire next door just made him more determined to go through with it, to get to the Orchard. Kainzow would have the answers.

“Charge one hundred percent.”

Oddjob stood in the back garden, the grass reaching almost to his knees. The gliderwing lay sprawled out, its thirty-foot wingspan reaching to each edge of the lawn. The tiny hexpanels glistened in the bright morning sun, their repeating pattern just visible. He had been unable to find a power connector back at the Institute he could use with a domestic supply so he was dependent on the gliderwing to recharge the bot for now.

He looked at its triangular form, the saddle and controls folded away underneath. Building it had been key. He had no way to secure interstate travel even if he’d been able to steal a car. Finding the glider schematics online, he knew people used to make gliders all the time because of the travel restrictions. It had been difficult to test back at the Institute despite the extent of the grounds, most of it abandoned and never visited by the staff. But he had only really flown it ten or fifteen feet off the ground and had yet to take it up high. But he’d need it to get as far as California.

“Fold it away.”

Oddjob immediately responded, walking over to the gliderwing resting on the ground and began folding the shape back from the apex, the clicks from hidden switches audible in the still air. In less than a minute the triangular shape was folded down from the top to form a rough rectangle. The bot moved to the far side and began rolling the wing towards the center, carefully separating the telescopic rods that made up the frame. He marveled at Oddjob’s dextrous hands moving fast with no hesitation, the movements human-like.

He had worked extensively with the bot so he knew the mechanics worked. It was the bot’s sensors he needed since he didn’t know what was out there especially beyond Colorado. Kainzow himself had given him the firmware updates to access the array embedded within the skull.

The torso looked too short now he had lengthened the bot’s legs, the skeletal aluminum bones exposed along with the powerful knee joints. The replacement lower leg supports joined to the feet, which made the bot look as if it wore ankle boots. But it had worked, the extra eighteen inches to lengthen the gait ensuring the bot could keep up, elongating the normally squat five-foot-tall form of most medbots.

Oddjob soon rolled up the far side wing, attaching the now cylindrical shape to the slim power unit containing the batteries and driving the propeller. A telescopic rod was removed and attached flush to the rectangular power unit using straps.

It took less than a minute to complete the other side. The final form consisted of two cylinders about eight inches in diameter attached to the power unit, the folded assembly about three feet in height.

Oddjob retrieved a large green backpack lying nearby and in a series of fluent movements put the full gliderwing inside.

He reentered the house through the back door and took out the water canister from his own backpack and filled it at the sink. He spotted an array of knives held on the wall by a magnet. He took a small serrated one, blowing dust off its dull surface. It might come in handy and he had been unable to find any at the Institute.

That morning he had looked around the house for any method to interrupt the connection to the internet although found nothing. Maybe in the basement he could have unplugged the whole connection, but it seemed drastic, especially since they had all been fully immersed. Plus his sister was probably hypercomping. Was that even safe to do?

He put the knife and canister in his backpack. With one last look at the dusty kitchen he left, the door clamping shut behind him as he emerged into the sunlight. He had to go west and talk to Kainzow. Everything here at home would come as no surprise to him. The decline, the immersion, the capture of his family’s minds, all of them in the thrall of an inhuman force. The corporations everyone worked for and relied on.

When they had first talked online he had complained about his incarceration at the Institute. How he’d felt trapped. But it was Kainzow who taught him it was a blessing in disguise. His isolation had saved him from mental slavery. Now, having seen his own family fully immersed in a world he had been forcibly kept out of, he realized he was probably the lucky one.

As he looked up at the house, the signs of deterioration unavoidable, there had to be more than this quiet death. A more vibrant world had to be somewhere. Surely not everywhere could be as dead as here.

He lifted his own backpack and turned to Oddjob.

“Let’s go.”

They walked for several hours, eventually leaving the houses and suburban world behind and into open countryside. John spotted a hill from half a mile away that would have been a perfect candidate to test the gliderwing properly but decided to press on. He knew it was probably nerves at putting the gliderwing through its paces. Although he’d have to try it at some point.

As they continued walking Oddjob suddenly stopped and turned around, scanning the landscape behind them.

“What is it?”

“I have detected a signal.”

“What kind of signal?”

“I am not sure,” said Oddjob, turning back to him. “I received only a fragment but it is now gone.”

He looked back but he could see nothing except grass and trees with Boulder just visible in the far distance. Everything was as desolate as it had been since leaving the Institute.

They resumed walking. He’d become less anxious over the last few days now he knew there were few people around. It made him wonder how many families were like his own, immersed online, losing their link to real life. Even though he had been reading about it for years the reality still shocked him.

Oddjob stopped again. He turned around but this time he walked back a few steps.

John turned towards the bot.

“More signals?”

There was nothing here except trees and grass. As he looked around himself he wondered if hidden in among the foliage lurked an old cell tower. Back in the day they’d been everywhere from what he had read online. He was just about to suggest Oddjob check when the bot turned to face him.

“The signal is emanating from a semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit.”

He froze. For a moment he thought he had misheard.

“What? Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

A rogue salek? Here in Colorado? He frantically scanned the area but could see nothing.

“Where is it?”

“I am unable to establish its current location but no further than five hundred meters.”

He turned and looked over at the hill he had spotted earlier. That would be their best chance. He frantically tried to remember everything he’d heard about saleks. Didn’t running provoke them? Their vision was excellent and his bright yellow jacket would be easy to spot. Should he casually walk to the hill? He looked again trying to calculate the distance. They could probably run it in ten minutes. Maybe a half hour walk.

“Let’s aim for the hill.”

He started walking and Oddjob followed.

He set a brisk pace as his nerves began to rise. How could there be a salek this far south?

After twenty minutes Oddjob remained silent. Maybe they had lost it and he wouldn’t have to use the gliderwing just yet.

“Any sign?”

Oddjob’s expressionless face looked down at him.

“We are being actively scanned.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“The semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit is scanning us.”

“You mean just now?”

“It has been scanning us since we began walking to this position.”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Do you wish me to provide an update each minute?”

“No. It doesn’t matter. How far away is it?”

“It is maintaining a distance of one hundred and fifty meters.”

“It’s following us?”

“Yes. We are being tracked.”

They reached the hill, the route ahead a steep incline from this angle. That might help. Off to the left the hill sloped more gently over a few hundred yards. He could use that to launch the gliderwing if they could get to the flat area at the top.

They scrambled up the side, Oddjob adapting well, almost on all fours as he used his hands and feet. They reached the flattened apex after a minute. Peering over the other side a sheer drop blocked any escape and to his left the hill gently sloped down for several hundred yards. Ideal to launch.

He instructed Oddjob to make up the gliderwing.

As the bot took off the backpack and began methodically unfurling the wings he looked out over the landscape at the path they had just taken. They must have been fifty or sixty feet up, but nothing was visible except the grass and clusters of trees. Where was it?

Once the triangular form of the gliderwing was locked in place, Oddjob lifted it up to rest on the rear edge, the apex several feet above his head. The bot leaned down to the rear of the spine and released a grid of supports made from the thin rods supporting the whole structure. It locked in to place with an audible click, the seat similar to a wide bike saddle. He then hinged down a shorter rod near the center with a straight handlebar perpendicular to the spine, a rubber grip on each end. It too clicked into place. Resting it on the ground two thick straps hung down from the frame with carabiners dangling at the end.

Oddjob stood back and put the backpack on.

He inspected the glider and lifted it up, marveling again at its lightness. Thankfully the salek was nowhere to be seen. Once aloft he could get away from here.

“I don’t see it anywhere.”

Oddjob stood at one side, ready.

“The semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 unit is at the foot of the hill. It has likely acquired you as a target.”

The bot turned and looked down the shallow slope of the hill. Ten or fifteen yards from the bottom stood the salek.

He’d seen them online. Thousands of hours of footage existed. They’d never been popular, even before they’d been hacked. He remembered they based them on dobermans. It stood looking up at them on all fours, perfectly still, it’s dark solarskin damaged and missing in places revealing the titanium structure underneath, dulled after years of exposure. It couldn’t possibly have any projectiles left after all this time but that would just make it more dangerous. He could see the vicious snout and understood what it could do. Even with only some of its solarskin intact the charge could be enough to kill him.

The other parts of the hill were too steep to launch from. He would have to run towards the salek to launch at all. Did it know that? He knew they weren’t intelligent but the reprogramming had famously altered their focus to physically attack and maim random people once they locked on.

Fifty-five miles an hour. For some reason that factoid came back to him. On flat, perfectly level ground they could get up to fifty-five miles an hour. The gangs in Chicago had programmed them to rush the cops whenever they ran out of ammo. They weighed more than twice the weight of a real doberman. At that speed they could kill just about anyone. He remembered seeing videos of them inadvertently wrecking police cars.

He slowly lifted the gliderwing, holding the handlebar with one hand and the saddle with the other. Then he remembered the straps. He slowly lowered the rear and used one hand to clip them onto the backpack straps then picked the gliderwing back up, all the time watching the salek.

“I’ll have to run down the hill. It should catch the wind quickly.”

“Understood,” said Oddjob.

“Will you be able to avoid the salek?”

“Semi-autonomous law enforcement K9 units are designed to attack humans only.”

“Well get moving once I’m up.”

He turned and looked down. The salek hadn’t moved, it just stood there looking at them. It was now or never. He knew he’d never outrun it anyway.

Gripping the gliderwing he started walking forward. The light breeze pushed against the wing, lifting it slightly higher as he walked down the shallow incline. When clambering up the side of the hill he had wondered if it was too slight an angle and maybe lacked enough height. But now, looking back down, holding the gliderwing aloft, the uneven ground seemed recklessly steep. The sight of the salek didn’t help.

As he walked a little faster the salek abruptly began running. There was no warning. From a perfectly still position it began sprinting straight towards him, thick tufts of grass and dirt erupting behind it. It looked unnervingly powerful, it’s gait fast and strong, coming straight for him.

Despite his instinct to turn and run he forced himself to run towards it. He took his hand off the rear support and grabbed the handlebars with both hands, running harder, the wing now supported by the growing rush of air.

The increasing lift raised the gliderwing off the slope. He felt the support straps tighten and his feet came off the ground, the harness easily supporting his weight. The salek was close now, hammering up the hill straight towards him.

The sloping ground fell away with agonizing slowness. The salek was almost upon him. As he drifted higher it was at full speed and jumped. The sharp jaws snapped shut only a few feet below his dangling legs as he shot past it, the crack of the electrified maw discharging in the air. It must have jumped over ten feet only just missing him.

The wind picked up, rushing in his ears as the wind lifted him higher and higher, the whine of the propeller straining behind him. He took one hand off the handlebars and struggled himself into the small saddle, his heart still racing. Looking down he estimated he must be over fifty feet up.

Behind his position he could see Oddjob running. The salek stood on the hill seemingly confused, ignoring the medbot. As Oddjob neared the bottom of the hill the bot began to pick up speed, his head looking up every ten seconds or so to track the gliderwing.

The ease of flying was helped by an unaccustomed sense of elation as he surveyed the clear, empty vista before him, soaring higher and forward to California.

☉ ☉ ☉

©2022 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

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