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 with nothing manmade in any direction. It had to be Utah.

On the first day he’d only flown for a few hours before landing and sleeping 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 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 like some cosmic sculpture.

He glided through them with ease, each one placed hundreds of yards away from others. 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. The compound consisted of one main building, dark in color, with extensions added around it. Two other structures stood 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 sloped gently down on to the plain with a flattened apex he could use to land. He could easily take off again by running down the incline.

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 short, flat 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 as he turned. Oddjob ran 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 he carried a weapon. 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 casually secured with one hand.

He was old. Maybe seventy. It was hard to judge because of his thin frame, his face lined and weathered.

“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 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. Thinking of the remoteness of the place he wondered if he lived here in the middle of nowhere.

“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 with 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 many 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 of 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 unfamiliar. 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 approved 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 before they could cure it, 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 breaks 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 doers in society 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.”

Frank seemed to be an inexhaustible source of knowledge about the past. Things he’d never heard of or read online.

“How do you know all this?”

“My father was a historian. He even wrote books. He taught me a lot when I was growing up. He wrote journals too, which I read after his death. He died of pneumonia. That was the official reason anyway, but it was probably VAIDS. They don’t talk about that any more either. The only thing left from those times are the respirators. Too useful to ditch. My father talked a lot about the need for visual symbols to maintain narratives. That was one one of his books. The authorities were always using invented threats to keep themselves in power. A scared population is easily controlled. His journals were full of that.”

John was relieved when Frank moved on to other subjects. There were no more revelations while they ate. The food was unusual. More time consuming to eat 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 despite his disturbing comments. The decline and how it had come about. Frank had lived through some of it but it troubled 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 unusual 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, insisting 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. The device indicated 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. He experienced a flash of panic. 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 on the table 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. 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 before 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,” said Frank.

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

☉ ☉ ☉

©2022 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

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