22. The headache

I wake up with a massive headache. And then, almost immediately, it hits me: I don’t know where I am. At all.

I’m in a small room, lined with shiny, white tiles. It’s like the photos I’ve seen of subway stations in places like New York and Paris.

There’s a thick, grey, metal door with a square metal sheet where a window should be, and what looks like a letterbox halfway up.

What now?

Sal is nowhere to be seen. Last thing I remember, we had our arms around each other and we were watching the landscape as we flew to Menlo Park. I can’t hear anything beyond my own breathing, but she’s not here.

I’m not in pain and there’s no sign of my being assaulted in any way. I seem fine. Just trapped, apparently.

There is something else odd, and it takes me a few minutes to figure out what it is. It’s the air: it feels a bit heavier, somehow, and maybe a little bit humid. It’s nothing like the dry heat of Arizona or the canned air in the copter. It’s not particularly unpleasant, it’s just … different.

I open the little flap over the letterbox in the door and look out. There’s a corridor outside, which stands to reason, and a few more grey doors that seem similar to mine. There’s no writing anywhere, and no features that would give me any clue as to where I am. It’s all pretty featureless - and, once again, deserted.

“Step away from the door,” a voice says. I think there must be a loudspeaker somewhere, but I don’t see it. After a few moments of confusion, I finally realize that it’s probably being beamed to me via my lens. Even though I switched it off. There really is no escape.

I step back from the door.

“Thank you,” the voice says. “Please wait for personnel to collect you for interview.”

“What interview?” I say, but there’s no response.

I sit down on the tiles and lean back against the wall. I don’t particularly like complying with whatever was beaming orders to me, but the truth is, there’s nothing to do but wait.

It takes hours before anything happens.

Anxiety takes me. I’m worried about where I am; I need the restroom, and try to think about anything else; I wonder if my poor cat is okay; I think about Let, and whether he’s long gone; and a hundred other things that become less relevant as time goes on. Just as your brain fills complete darkness with color that isn’t really there, the complete lack of activity forces my inner monologue into overdrive.

Then, finally, just as soon as I’m wondering if I should smash my way out, the door opens. Behind it are two of the soldiers from Sal’s house: dark figures with an organic-looking array of lenses of differing sizes where their faces should be. Guns protrude from their arms, and their armor runs head to toe.

They speak to each other briefly in their encrypted language: just modem screeches to me.

Then: “Come with us,” one says, in a deep, electronic baritone. Its voice seems clearer than it should be, and I realize that it, too, is coming through my lens.

I walk with them, out through the door and down the corridor. There seems to be an endless number of doors, and I now see that the corridor itself is also lined with the same white tiles as my room had been.

The corridor seems to go forever; we wind through corner after corner. Each new stretch is more of the same: doors and tiles. There are no other soldiers that I can see, and I don’t see or hear any of the other people behind the doors, if there even are any.

Finally, after one last turn, there’s a different kind of door at the far end. Where the other doors are grey, this one is a stark orange. It has no handle, window, or letterbox space: it’s simply flat. And as we walk up to it, it swings open automatically.

The “interview” is obviously an interrogation. I saw that coming, but I wasn’t expecting the comfort of the room we’d do it in: it’s all soft furnishings and standing lamps. In contrast to the tiles in the cell area, the walls here are covered in wood and concrete. There’s a lot of bold color and striking angles. In the middle of it, there are two bright yellow armchairs facing each other. And on one of those armchairs is me.

The soldiers stand behind me, which I find unsettling. They put my in the chair and just moved there, and I find myself turning around from time to time to make sure they’re not trying something. They’re not: they’re just standing there.

I’m once again waiting quietly until, without warning, a man walks in from a door I hadn’t noticed at the other end of the room. He’s wearing jeans and a black polo-neck shirt. His close-cropped hair and beard are fairly severe, but he’s got a smile on his face as he walks over and sits on the chair opposite me.

“Hello,” he says, offering out his hand to shake mine. “You must be Var.”

I shake his hand, not knowing what else to do.

“You’re probably wondering what’s happening,” he says, never dropping his smile. “I’ll explain in a moment, I promise. But first, are you comfortable? Do you need to eat, drink, have a bio-break?”

I shake my head. “I’m fine. What’s going on?”

“My name’s John Holmes,” he says. “I’m one of the Experience Managers around here. I’m afraid you’ve stumbled across one of the security measures we’ve put into place to protect our little community. We’ll set it right, but in the meantime, I’m here to answer any questions you might have.”

I don’t even know where to begin.

“Normally, here’s how the process works. We do get visitors here from time to time, and we generally assess whether they’re a threat. If they are, we may convert them, which is the process you saw the beginning of with your friend Sal. Otherwise, we’ll simply erase their memory and pop them back where they came from.”

“Where is Sal?” I realize now that this is the most important question I need to be asking.

“Sal is safe,” John says, “but they’re not here anymore. We returned them home and reset them back to before you contacted them. There will be a little cognitive rippling but nothing too bad. We also took the liberty of resetting their changes. So they’re back to normal, as they were before you put them in danger.”

Shit. Sal. Everything that happened is gone for them. At least, hopefully, they’re safe.

But what about —

“We also have your cat,” John says. “We couldn’t leave him with Sal. I promise he’ll be back with you soon.”

“Why didn’t you bring me home?” I ask. I don’t know why I’m still here, and I’m dreading finding out.

“One thing at a time. First, an introduction: you’re in the main product of the Menlo Park Corporation. We’re in an ark of sorts, in the sense that we’re providing shelter for a great many people and animals. But whereas Noah constructed a great ship, we’re under the sea.”

“Where?”

“It varies. Our hubs move depending on the quality of the water, magnetic changes, and a host of other factors. Right now we’re in the Pacific, because that location made it more convenient to bring you here. But it depends.”

I shake my head. “I don’t understand. What do you want from me?”

John’s smile widens. His teeth are the whitest I’ve ever seen; I think he looks like a shark. “We need your help. Let me explain.”

“I’m listening.”

“We constructed this product for the most deserving in society: entrepreneurs, philanthropists, the people who create culture and make the future. As resources became scarce, we built our own community out of sight, and allowed others to join us.”

“You created a private member’s club while people were dying on the surface.”

John shrugs. “That’s not how we think of it, but sure. We think of it as a new kind of society.”

“And you own it.”

“Not exactly. The way it works is this: whereas the surface has reverted to using the barter system, we’ve begun to use our own currency down here. Anyone can buy some of this currency; if you own more than a certain threshold, you can take your place among us. Matters that pertain to governance of the community are put to a democratic vote. The more of the currency you own, the more of a say you have. Your participation is proportional to your ownership.”

“But you happen to own the most.”

“This is true for now,” John says, “but over time we’ll share more of it with the community. The most important thing is that we don’t make unilateral decisions. And if the community wants to, it can delegate all its votes together and outvote us.”

I stare at him. On the surface, we got rid of currency for a reason. Here, those underlying imbalances seem to be considered desirable.

“That’s how, for example, we decided to maintain our zoo community, saving some of the most endangered species on Earth. We’re able to do a lot of good, without any real central control.”

“But on the surface,” I say again, “people are dying.”

“Yes,” John says. “It’s an unfortunate fact that there aren’t enough resources for everybody. There just aren’t. So we made the decision to enforce scarcity for people who did not have the characteristics we wanted to perpetuate in our new society. But we do need people on the surface to grow food and do the good work they’re doing. So we created the King’s Soldiers, for example, to ensure that they would continue to do those things. A bit more carrot than stick, if you will.”

“You take our resources and bring them below.”

“We do. But we barter for them, as is your system. We’re just looking out for ourselves; it’s simply the free market at work. The Menlo Park Corporation works through enlightened self interest. And let me say, we are so enamored by what you’ve been able to do on the surface. People are so resourceful when they have so little.”

The dots are beginning to connect for me. The things I knew about the world were just a shadow of what was going on. The nationalists were a planned way to maintain control of the population above and keep our resources in check without raising suspicions. The soldiers are an overt way for them to keep control when all else fails. And the lenses, and the lens network, similarly, are about manipulating our decision-making and how we interact with the world for their benefit.

Let figured this out a long time before I did, I realize.

But this has been going on for a long time. Why did he think I was in danger now?

“Why are you telling me all this?” I ask.

“Because,” John says, “I need you to understand. We’ve built an ecosystem. Yes, we have more resources down here, but we need them. We’re entrepreneurs; business leaders; creatives. We’re going to transform the world. But you have resources, and your resources depend on materials that we provide.”

“And your materials and well-being depend on the crops we grow,” I say.

“Exactly. It’s symbiotic. We’re looking after each other.”

“But you have the upper hand. You designed the ecosystem. You have all the information. You have the power.”

“We are more capable of handling power,” John says.

I look at him, unable to muster the words. Despite the soldiers with guns on their arms and everything I saw during the rise, this smiling man is the closest to evil I’ve ever encountered.

He sees my expression and his smile fades. “Look, like it or not, we all depend on this ecosystem now. If it breaks, people will die. And I assume you don’t want people to die.”

“Just tell me what you want.”

John’s smile returns. “Your brother,” he says. “Let. He wanted to undo our ecosystem. He still does, I’m afraid. He’s out there trying to undo it right now. Your brother will kill people.”

“Why did you make me think he was dead?”

“I didn’t,” John says. “He did. He did that, I assume, to protect you. And now it’s your job to protect him.”

“*What do you want?*”

“I want what you’ve already wanted for some time. I want to find your brother. And I believe there’s no better way to find him than to entice him in with the thing he cares about more than anything else in the world.” John pauses for a moment, as if waiting for a reaction. “I want you to bring Let to us so we can save lives, Var.”

It’s dawned on me. “I’m bait,” I say.

“If you want to put it in those terms, sure,” John says. “Bait. Whatever you want to call it, I don’t think he’s going to come to us on his own, and we need to stop him now. He’s a terrorist, Var. An extremist. And we need to make sure he’s brought in.”

“Are you going to hurt him?”

“He’s a terrorist, Var. I don’t want to hurt him; none of us do. But if it means saving a lot of people from dying, we might have to. For the greater good. I know he’s your brother, and I promise you, we will do everything we can to keep him safe. But he does need to be stopped, Var. He just does.”

“Over my dead body.”

“I understand. So,” John says, still smiling, “be it.”

There’s a strange word that used to be used in popular culture a lot: mainstream. The things that are considered to be normal or conventional. The ideas, the modes of behaving, the identities that are considered to be acceptable.

When one entity controls what’s acceptable, the mainstream is just marketing. It’s just a manipulation of culture in service of their own ends.

I see that’s what the Menlo Park Corporation has been doing all this time - not for itself, as such but for the people who hold the currency. The people behind the scenes who call the shots through the Corporation. It’s simply providing a service for people who want to retain power without drawing attention to themselves. The more currency you have, the more influence you can wield over the entire culture; the whole of society.

As the soldiers return me back to my cell after my conversation with John, I reflect that this is what Let was trying to undo. He saw that all this centralized power and wealth could only be used to commit violence against people who had much less. There was no other use for it.

He must have learned that the Corporation was behind the lenses; that they were manipulating all of us to preserve their wealth. He must have set out to do something about it.

I know that because he’s my brother, and that’s my reaction. As the grey metal door slams shut and I find myself surrounded once again by cold, white tile, I resolve to bring these people down. There’s no freedom for the people living on the surface until they’re unchecked from the wealthy people manipulating their realities. There’s no more important thing to be doing.

Yes, I need to find Let. Yes, I want to see my brother. But more important than that, I want to continue his work.