Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Altered

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .


Lena walked slowly to the kitchen. That conversation had not gone well at all. The children had announced that they wanted to keep their barcodes, like everyone else, and what would happen to them anyway now they had left? They didn’t even have their computers, had left them in the guesthouse. How could they contact their friends, what about schooling? Why had she brought them here?

It was Max really, Lucy would have agreed to anything. He was only being difficult because he was tired and found new things disturbing, Lena knew this but it did nothing to make her own task easier. She wound her way back to the kitchen, past the vegetable patch and the neat flower beds, over the lawn and along the small stone path that curved under trees and led to the kitchen door.

Agnes was in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. She smiled when Lena walked in. Lena picked up a knife and sat next to her. She watched as Agnes held the vegetables firmly with one hand on a wooden board, slicing quickly with the other. Lena had never cut vegetables before, and she watched Agnes, wondering if it was difficult. Lena ordered all her meals, like everyone else, scheduling them all to arrive at set times throughout the week. She had a coded cold storage box next to the door and, if she happened to be out, the food was left there for her to collect when she got home. It arrived ready to microwave or reheat, unless she ordered ready-eat food, which arrived hot. That didn’t happen very often, not on their budget.

“Do you want to help?” asked Agnes.

“Yes, but, not entirely sure I’ll be much use,” admitted Lena. “Cooking was never really a hobby.”

“No, I was lucky, I learned to cook when I was young,” said Agnes, resting her knife on the table. “Most people still did at least some cooking then, even if it was only for special occasions. Now people only really cook for fun, if that’s what they enjoy doing.

“We don’t get deliveries on the island, obviously. Since we’ve been here I’ve had to do all the cooking. John grows most of the vegetables and we have some fishermen who will deliver orders for us, keep our stores topped up—tea, coffee, that sort of thing. I don’t really enjoy it, but needs must. We don’t use drones for deliveries because of the cameras.

“Here, why don’t you peel these carrots? Like this, you just run the peeler along the edge. That’s it.” She moved the onions to a large pot and put a pile of carrots next to Lena, placing an old bowl below to catch the peelings.

“I never learned to sew though,” Agnes continued, pulling potatoes from a large sack, showering dirt on the tiled floor. They sat on the table, muddy and smelling of earth. Agnes began to slice off the peel, exposing their moist white insides.

“My Grandmother sewed a little, when she was young,” explained Agnes, “but by the time I was born everyone bought all their clothes. It was a bit like cooking is now, a few people still sewed, for fun or to save money, but very few. It was so much easier to order them online.

“So, I’m afraid we’ll have to order you and the children some clothes,” she said, looking at Lena. “We can give a list to the next fisherman that stops here, ask him to send some. They won’t mind. We never go to the mainland now, obviously.”

“Do they know that you’re here?” asked Lena, thinking that actually, it wasn’t obvious, but not liking to say. She was not sure how much information she should ask for. Not sure how much she wanted.

“Oh yes, of course; you can’t hide a whole island. They seem to have decided to leave us alone though, as long as we don’t cause them any trouble. To be honest, I think they are relieved in a way, it solves a problem for them when the altering doesn’t work. It doesn’t sometimes, you know. Not that they like to advertise that.”

She pulled another potato from the bag. It was soft and smelly so she threw it in with the peelings and selected a new one.

“What do you mean?” asked Lena. She had stopped peeling and was staring at Agnes, not sure if she would cry or be sick. Or maybe this would be good news—so long since she had heard any of that.

Agnes looked up from the potato, paused, put it down and reached for Lena’s hand.

“Oh, my poor girl. You don’t have a clue, do you.” She stood, brushing specks of dirt from her apron. “Let’s have some tea and a proper chat. We need to sort out what’s going to happen anyway, but maybe you need to understand a few things first. Information on the mainland is so very controlled. Are you feeling up to it?”

Lena nodded. Better to know, to stop guessing, wondering, being lost in a maze of confusion. You could prepare for what you knew, fight back if needed. Not knowing left you helpless, in a chasm.

Agnes filled the kettle and set it to boil. She pulled two china cups from the cupboard, added tea, sat back down.

“You know why you were sent to the hospital? What they were looking for?”

Lena nodded.

“You know about the alterations?”

“A little. Only what has been announced. And rumours, lots of rumours. I’m not really sure what’s true.”

She felt nearer to tears now, not sure if she could have this conversation. She had spent so much energy not thinking, not letting herself consider possibilities. Was it really better to know?

Agnes stood and made the tea, put a steaming cup in front of Lena, then sipped her own, as if ordering her thoughts, deciding what to say.

“I’ll start with a little history. Bear with me, you’ll know some of it but maybe not all.

“Before the Global Council, before we got properly organised, if there was trouble of any kind: crime, terrorism, that sort of thing, society used to lock away the culprits. If you go back long enough of course, people were executed—they still were until quite recently in some countries; but in England that had finished a long, long time ago. Obviously, people who were a danger to society needed to be removed, but the only real option was to lock them in a secure place, a prison. Before my time, of course, but I heard talk of it when I was small.

“It didn’t work terribly well, there was not the funding for them to be very nice places, people were sometimes crowded together more than they should have been, and people who had committed minor offences were sometimes put with more serious criminals. It also didn’t work. Most people, when they were let out, continued to commit crimes.”

Lena nodded, she knew all this, had heard it at school during history lessons, and seen pictures of grim buildings that had served as prisons. She even knew someone who had toured a disused prison on the moors, during a holiday. A few were still preserved, a physical reminder of the past, museums. Especially those that had been in remote places, where the Council had decided to conserve the area, away from towns and cities.

Agnes swallowed her tea and continued.

“Now, a quick change of subject but it’s related. Alongside all the other developments we’ve seen recently, is an understanding of how the brain works.

“Brain surgery always came far behind all the other medical disciplines you know. Long after surgeons were operating on hearts, kidneys, things like that, they did not even begin to look at the brain, it was considered too difficult. So, when they did finally start to open up the skull and examine what was inside, it took them a little while to properly master what they could do. They learnt which different parts of the brain did what pretty quickly, and began to do surgery when it was necessary; but the technology to actually alter what was inside, to change the way a person thinks, is fairly recent.

“Of course, once they worked out how to start altering what was happening in the brain, to start changing a person’s reactions to things, the opportunities seemed boundless. The first thing they did was alter the way a criminal thinks. I don’t understand it, you’ll have to ask someone better educated than me, but they managed to change the way a person responds to certain things. They can basically take away a person’s desire to commit certain crimes.

“In many ways this was good, took away the need for all those awful prisons. But of course, they couldn’t always be sure what else might get altered. There have been a few sad cases, people being left with not much ability to decide anything. The part of the brain that controls decisions and desires is so close to the part that stores memory. Some people even lost the ability to speak, by the time they decided what they wanted to say, they forgot the beginning; they couldn’t hold the words in their head for long enough to say them. Though these mistakes are becoming rarer as the technology improves.

“The trouble is, who decides what needs to be altered? The Global Council have written some pretty strong guidelines but things get changed, individual countries’ governments decide how to implement the new policies. That’s where we’ve got to now; if someone is considered a threat to the peace of society, they get altered. We think that’s what has happened to your husband.”

Agnes paused, waiting for Lena to respond.

There, it had been said now. All those hidden worries had escaped, been let out in the real world. Lena breathed. She looked at the carrot lying forgotten on the table. She looked at the tea going cold in her hand. She heard the children, playing noisily outside, arguing about whose turn it was. The world was the same yet everything was different. She could not speak, did not trust her mouth to form words. So she nodded. She wanted Agnes to continue, needed to hear this, to know if there was any hope. Otherwise she might as well go back to the mainland, let them alter her. Maybe she would be happy that way.

Agnes glanced at her, and Lena nodded, a slight dipping of her head, indicating that she was ready—able—to hear more.

Agnes spoke quietly, her voice matter-of-fact, as though trying to normalise the immensity of her words.

“We were already living on the island when they changed who could be altered, when it became used not just for criminals, and so we stayed. There are a few routes here, the one you used but mainly the fishermen drop people off. We usually know when people are coming so can welcome them properly. Most people only stay a few hours and then we get them on a boat, send them off to Asia.”

“Asia?” Lena frowned. Why Asia? Was that any better?

“I think that’s enough for now, why don’t we talk again later?” said Agnes. Her tone conveyed that this was not a suggestion.

“Now, you write down the clothes sizes you need and we’ll see if we can get some things for you. Your little family will be different to most of our guests, because of your husband. We need to find out if we can get him here, and that may take a few days, so you’ll need to stay.”

Lena started, and she felt her eyes widen as the words began to register.

Agnes tilted her head, her expression kind.

“It may not be possible dear. We need to find out some information first, and that takes time. It won’t be easy—you will need to wait and see. If there’s anything that can be done, we will try. It may be too late.

“Now, I need to get this soup boiling and you need to spend some time settling those children. Why don’t you take them for a walk around the island? Everyone is friendly,” she paused, wanting to reassure,

“It’s safe here, no need to be afraid of people here. Everyone is on your side now.”

To be continued on Wednesday.

Thanks for reading.
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