Old Year's Day by John Holland by John Holland - Read Online

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Old Year's Day - John Holland

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In the first half of the twenty-first century, society on Earth imploded and the world was plunged into a battle for power between forces representing the world governments, the churches, and the corporations.

At the end of this bloody series of conflicts the population of Earth had been reduced to a mere 400 million individuals and one great corporation now controlled all aspects of human life.

The Corporation decided that Earth had been damaged so badly that it was dying. Using new technology developed during the big troubles they migrated everyone to other sites in the solar system and eventually to systems revolving around other stars. They also took seeds and genetic material from a wide range of surviving flora and fauna. Earth was abandoned.

Nuclear warfare did not take place during the conflicts because the corporations had become strong enough to eliminate that threat worldwide before it was used. They did this because a corporation needs customers and killing everyone would be bad for business. The widespread use of chemical and biological weapons caused enormous damage to human life and to the environment, however.

The passage of time was still based on the duration of the Earth year. By the year 2199 the corporation had settled a vast area of space that became known as the settled universe. It was in that year the corporation decided there had been enough expansion by humanity and halted all further exploration. They also decide to stop time. Every year the clocks and calendars would be reset and each January 1st would start the new 2199. January the 1st became known thereafter as Old Year’s Day.

Around 1000 generations after the mass migrations from Earth, The Corporation rules an empire of 400 billion individuals spread across the many hundreds of planets which comprise the Settled Universe.

Chapter One

I’ve never seen a real ocean, but sometimes I go swimming in one. My eyes close and I dream I’m somewhere deep down in strange water. When my mind decides to come back up, it is a long journey through a strange place. I see blue crystals of light swimming around like single celled animals viewed through a microscope. I move upwards through the swarm. Next I see a cloud of pink. It sweeps down upon the blue lights and a million pink tongues lick the blue lights from my knowing.

I continue upwards and through the pink cloud. The sensation I feel as I move through it is not a pleasant one. Once I break through the pink I find myself in glistening black water. I keep moving upwards. I’m starting to panic about never surfacing into a world of air again.

Suddenly my head breaks water and I realise I’m in my prison cubicle and I can breathe again even though the air is cooled and filtered artificially by machines I can’t see, but only hear the hum of. As I become fully awake I realise time has passed and I’m no longer in my sleeping cubicle, with its narrow bed and small table. I’m out amongst the chill rooms and halls of the prison wing that is my home.

I can hear the faint whine of machines in the distance. Domestic cleaning equipment is carrying out its automatic chores. Even muffled by walls and doors it makes plenty of noise and my already jangled nerves cringe from the unnatural sounds. A long hallway stretches out forever on both sides of me. So far does it stretch, I can’t see either end. I’m shivering, sitting on this metal seat, and I think I can see ice silvering my arms, hanging off the curly brown hairs, on arms left bare by the short sleeved prison wear. The cold doesn’t come from outside, it is hot and humid out there; it is manufactured in the big air conditioners on the roof and piped in here. There always seems to be a faint chill breeze, even though the doors are shut.

The voice inside my mind is insistent. Jones wants to be heard. I concentrate on the words.

The hunters had us trapped between a high bluff and a cold lake. There were three choices. We could try and scale the bluff, which was an unpalatable option, as we had no climbing equipment. We could take to the lake, but that was just as bad an option as the bluff. The water was cold and we would be exposed to gun fire from the shore. The last option was to just wait for the hunters to kill us where we stood.

I think I was ready for the third choice. I was too weary to climb or swim. The hunters were going to get us sooner or later, so it might as well be here.

I stood up from where I’d been crouched behind a tree stump and walked to an open area. My plan was to stand there until they dropped me. I wanted to see their faces, if I could. I wouldn’t plead for mercy. That was a commodity the hunters had nothing of. Besides I wanted my end to be standing up and facing the death collector. I had run so far it wasn’t funny and if they hadn’t cornered us here, I’d be still running, but a man has a right to die the way he wants to.

The ice isn’t real. I just feel cold is all, and that causes my brain to throw up images in front of my eyes that relate to how I’m feeling. But knowing the ice is an illusion doesn’t stop the cold. Besides it is always hard to tell what is real, or even if anything actually is real, inside this prison. They keep it cold in here so the prisoners don’t feel too comfortable. After all we aren’t here for rest and recreation. We are criminals who broke Corporation laws.

The hallway I’m sitting in with the small group of prisoners doesn’t go on forever either. That is also an illusion fabricated by my drugged and confused mind. I got a good look at this prison complex while we were coming in on the Transport Cube. The modular boxes of the prison complex buildings huddle on a great concrete pad 1200 metres by 1200 metres. The buildings are set squarely in the centre of that box. A high fence rims the concrete pad. The buildings are constructed of many stories, but I couldn’t count them easily. I’ve since learned that there are many underground levels as well. It’s a big place.

Everything inside the complex is sterile and utilitarian. The Corporation wants us to feel we are in a sombre place of healing and punishment. The business of readjustment is not something to be taken lightly.

The whisper breaks into my train of thoughts again.

The hunters came out of the cover of heavy timber in a tight group. There were six of them, big men with their faces covered by khaki material. They wore camouflage clothing and heavy boots. They all carried the latest assault rifles, and grenades and other killing tools hung from their belts. No wonder we often outpaced them and got away. All that killing stuff had to be heavy.

One lifted his assault rifle and aimed it at me. I clenched my teeth hard and waited for death. Each heartbeat took a century of extended time. Then I heard the burp-burp of automatic rifle fire. I confess my courage failed me then and I could no longer stare back at the killers. I screwed my eyes shut and waited for the hot bullets to tear through me. It took me a few moments to realise nothing was hitting me! I opened my eyes and most of the hunters were on the ground. Two turned and ran for the trees, but they never got there. They died no more than a dozen paces from their friends.

It must have been some of Valdez’s fighters who saved us. I’m not sure though, as we never did see who had killed the group of hunters. We were mainly concerned about the fact we had cheated death again. The unknown shooters had granted us gifts of time. We didn’t waste those gifts. We went past the fallen hunters at a good clip and by nightfall we were mountains away.

We had learned to put as much space between us and events like today’s as was possible. Today’s killings would draw the hunters out in force, once they were aware of what had happened. They would be even more trigger happy than usual.

I ignore the thoughts that always run through my head and think about my own situation. I understand the need for such places as this prison. I even understand why I’m here. In the words of my first Trainer at the Sales Academy, I had bit the hand that fed me. He was always saying it. I asked him what it meant, but he didn’t know. It was just an ancient saying he’d picked up somewhere. He told me to work it out for myself. I think I have. Maybe not what it meant long ago, but close enough to what it means now.

The Corporation had fed me and trained me and in return I had been disloyal. It was foremost in my mind that it was my own fault I was locked up here. My mind had been disloyal and my flesh had proved weak.

They must never have made it through the mountains. I had told them I’d be waiting, but they never came. I had told them to look to the bare hill at the south end of the lake. Where the big jumble of rocks smudges the face of the hill, they would find the opening to a cave. I waited until the first frost came and then moved on alone.

Days later I caught up with a group from the early days. Caroline was with them and a great weight lifted from my heart. I had thought she must be dead by now. However there she was, all smiles and gladness and soft strong arms that pulled me so close and gripped me so fiercely I could barely breathe.

Shush, voice. I need to think!

I check out the Minders positioned on each side of where we sit in the hallway. The one to my left is the huge square-faced man Jones calls the knuckle-dragger. He looks evil and short on fuse, but I’ve never seen him do anything much to the prisoners. On the opposite side of the corridor stands the short Minder. She’s very short, but no one messes with her. She has pure hate in her eyes that one. She’s always fingering the stunner on her belt and glaring at you with black eyes that seem to dare you to do something she can zap you for. I’m afraid of her, so I’m cautious how I speak, or even how I move, when she’s on duty in my wing.

You have to be careful with your interactions with the staff. The slightest thing that might indicate you are not grateful to the Corporation for locking you up here will be noted and the consequences won’t be pleasant. I try to get by with slight nods and brief shakes of the head. Being careful not to mix up the context where a response is required. The only staff member I have actual verbal interaction with is Wilson.

Walls and ceilings of silver metals reflect the spotless white floors where the automatic cleaning machines have been. The tables and chairs are made from the same silver metals as the walls and ceilings. They always smell chemical clean. Jones says, why clean ordinary food and bodily substances from something and replace them with chemical residue that is probably a damn sight more injurious to our health than anything honest like spit or urine? Jones often makes such observations. I just accept things are how they are for a good reason. I broke the rules and now I have to pay the penalty. That’s the way of it.

I have been here a long time. However I have no way of knowing just how long. We have no clocks here in the prison wings. There is a digital calendar in the TV room. However that calendar only tells me which day and month it is. It doesn’t record the passage of hours or the passing of years. We prisoners only know our days are spent in blocs of time. Periods when we sleep, when we eat, when we sit in communal rooms. There is a bloc of time when we go through the exercise machines too. It is one of my favourite rituals, because I come out of it with a pleasant ache in every muscle and for a time my mind is clearer.

Most time is drab and colourless here. One bloc of time just rolls after and into another and there is no day or night here, inside this place where we exist.

A small number of us, one in a hundred, have seen the outside. I made it out once. The small group of us, who were chosen because of our good behaviour, were led out of big thick doors on to a concrete field. In the distance 400 metres away was a high wire fence, electrified of course. A cool pink sky arched overhead and wisps of white clouds floated across it. I hadn’t seen many skies since I was a kid on the home planet. It rocked me hard to see a green wall of trees beyond the high wire fence. I had never seen trees before, other than on TV. Sure there had been some grass and shrubs around buildings in the old place, but no trees.

I had been afraid to walk on that grass because it was alive and must feel pain if you stepped on it. But people did step on it and I winced in sympathy for it. When the mowing machines cut the grass I locked myself inside, to keep the screams of the grass from piercing my eardrums.

Now here, only a few hundred metres away was a wall of trees. From what I could see, it looked like the trees completely surrounded the prison compound. How did the Corporation keep the trees from marching in and taking over? It seemed to me they could do that if they wanted. But maybe they were happy to just keep this place surrounded and watch what happened here. I had known I was a prisoner of the staff and the white and silver, but now I saw the staff and the buildings were prisoners of the green. The green had given them a square to live on and to perform their rituals on. They could stay as long as they behaved.

This planet is called Renod, originally a tiny lifeless, dry brown planet, not much bigger than Earth’s moon. It was terra-formed back in the days of the Mass Migration. If I remember my Corporation geography and history properly, Renod quickly became a jungle planet. The board of the big Corporation that runs all things probably hadn’t meant to go so far with the plant growth, but it got out of control, and instead of a nice residential planet they ended up with pole-to-pole rainforest.

They had seeded the rainforest with insects and animal life from old Earth too, and when the new rain formed rivers that flowed into the lower areas, they had introduced fish and aquatic mammals into the rivers and into the lakes that had formed in depressions. Now there were two main lakes, dozens of rivers and many smaller lakes. They had accidentally created a kind of alien Eden. But people had become too afraid of wild things by that time to live there of their own free will, so Renod became a prison planet. Wilson, the blond Mind Nurse, says there are 44 prison areas dotted over the planet. Some are twice as big as this one. She says the population of Renod is around 400,000.

Jones is still talking in my mind. He isn’t talking to me this time. It is more like he is talking at me, delivering a message in the form of a statement.

Oil burns black and heavy. When they burned it to keep it from the hands of their enemies, it formed a black plume that circled the earth. From my vantage point high in the mountains I could see the prevailing winds carry it west. I swear I saw the tendrils of it masking the rising sun in the mornings.

My days were spent lying low. Nights were for searching for food, but that meant leaving the cave and walking the night. Walking the midnight was scary, but I had no choice. I had to check my snares and traps. There was usually little in them, but I caught enough to survive.

This must have been something like how early man might have lived. Except I think he would have hunted by day and laid low at night. His main predators preferred to hunt at night. The people who hunted me preferred to hunt by day, but you couldn’t always rely on that. Some liked to walk the night too.

I feel the jolt as I come back to real time. It is almost always something like this when he talks. Some of his memories seem sweet and sad, but mostly Jones’ memories are like an icepick on a chunk of ice. He continues on and I shiver from the horror of it all.

I had barely escaped the killers. They drove the villagers towards the sea, while I lay in the long grass on a treeless ridge and watched as well as I could.

These men wore all black from their uniforms to their berets and boots. Even their assault rifles were black. There was a tiny white logo on the berets, but they were too distant for me to tell what it represented. I didn’t really need to see. They would be from some private army, a team of corporate killers, serving a hydra-headed master.

They drove the villagers ahead of