Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: A New Entrance


A New Entrance

The car moved away from the hospital. Max was fiddling with the bag, wondering if he had brought enough food. He was hungry, could do with a snack now but probably he should wait. He was feeling better now, more like his old self. Things had become exciting again, rather than scary, and it looked as if his plan was working. He had rescued his father, done what he came for. He grinned, contented, and glanced at his father, Den.

Den was watching Max. It was so good to see his son again. Den felt as if he had been in the hospital for an age, had lost all trace of time. Walking had felt strange, it was a while since he had done any. He enjoyed the novelty of being able to move freely again, to leave that room, to not wonder who was about to enter, with food or an injection, or a move to a treatment room. He stretched, pushing back against the seat. It was so nice to be free from the hospital, to feel weather again, to see colour. The hospital had been very white. He felt hungry for colour. It was so good to feel some control seeping back, to feel human again, to be a person not a patient.

Den felt slow, fuzzy, as if he was slightly drunk. He had been told that would pass, his mind would eventually clear again. He hoped so. He understood everything, knew what was happening, but speaking was an effort, he could form the words but actually saying them was difficult, as if there was a link missing. Luckily no one seemed to be expecting much conversation, Max seemed lost in his own thoughts.

The car moved almost silently, a gentle purr, for which the father was grateful. There was something wrong with his ears. His ears or his brain, he was not sure which. All sound caused a vibration, it was uncomfortable. When people spoke, it sounded as though their voice was computer generated, like a machine talking through a voice box. It was unpleasant and he was glad that his son was now silent, fiddling with the bag and looking out of the window.

Den turned and watched the houses and buildings as they passed. Roads lined with trees, houses nestling together, the solar panels used for emergency power glinting as they faced the sunlight, each tile mounted so that it could swivel to follow the path of the sun throughout the day. Meeting places, lined with benches that were sheltered from the weather, areas of grass where people could meet, chat, children could play, practice sports. They were passed by a luxury car, fashioned like one from centuries before, a long bonnet, a low roof, tinted glass in the windows hiding the occupant.

Their own car slowed, allowing other traffic to pass. They were level with the old school and memories flooded back—arriving in the school bus, jostling with the other boys as they fought to get off, their bags snagging on the seats and each other. Walking up the driveway, fearing detention because his homework was not completed. The smell of the corridors, the hard plastic seats, the sarcastic teachers standing in front of black boards.

“I remember going there,” Den said, turning to Max, “I hated it. Always seemed to be in trouble for something”. He laughed, remembering.

Max looked at him for a long moment. When he spoke it was slowly, as if to a child.

“What do you mean Dad? When did you visit there? It hasn’t been a school for centuries, about two hundred years I think.”

Den frowned, confused. He could see that what the boy said was correct, could tell from the age of the bricks, the renovations that were looking dated themselves, that it was an historical site, preserved but not functioning, had not functioned for many, many years, possibly centuries. Yet he remembered.

He could have told Max which classes where taught behind each window, the name of the head teacher and what they called him behind his back, who his friends were, who used to wait by the corner where the school office was and try to trip people up as they passed. He knew the smell of the locker room where they hung damp coats and rummaged through wooden cubbyholes searching for books. Yes, books, pages folded in the corners, ink seeping through from where his pen had leaked, heavy hardback science manuals and thin paperback novels. Reams of paper trapped in plastic folders with rings that snapped shut. He remembered. He remembered as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Which was clearly impossible because he also remembered his remote learning as a boy, the lessons online, the occasional school sessions in a stuffy room with a teacher when they had already understood everything from the computer tutor. The two memories did not tally, and yet each was there. Each was real. Den frowned and was silent. He could not explain it to the boy, feared he might be going mad, though he felt sane. It made him feel insecure, vulnerable. If you could not trust your own brain, what did you have as a point of reference, what could you trust?

The car had moved past the school now and was gathering speed as it left town and joined one of the main arteries eastwards.

“Are you hungry?” asked the boy, pulling out some crackers. Den shook his head, still reluctant to speak, wanting to avoid those strange echoing vibrations in his head. He wanted to ask how his wife and daughter were, to explain to the boy what had happened to him. But it was too uncomfortable, and the effort of forcing words out was too tiring. Instead he merely smiled, gazed out of the window as the scenery whizzed past.

Max munched his way through a packet of crackers and some cheese. The cheese was hard, had possibly been in the fridge for too long. He was worried about his father, wondering why he had said that strange thing outside of the school. He could tell it had worried his father too, had noticed the look of panic in his eyes when he realised that he was talking nonsense. Max was not sure how well he was going to cope if his father was now insane. He needed him to help, to sort out the sleeping arrangements on the island, to tell his mother that Max needed to continue with his school sessions and his contact with his friends. He would like to start discussing that now really, but probably it was inappropriate, probably he should wait for a while, until his father looked less tired. He could do that, he was not a completely self-absorbed child, he could behave like an adult, bide his time.

The car slowed again as it entered another town. Max looked at his father. He had fallen asleep. Probably for the best, they had a long walk ahead. He looked at the houses as the car followed the main roadway down a hill which curved between buildings. Old towns were always like that, the older the place, the more twisted the roads. There had been plans once to demolish great swathes of building and re-plan towns with straight roads, like the grid system that some other countries had adopted. Of course, too many people objected, no one wanted to lose their house, and the historians had hurriedly put preservation orders on too many buildings to make it practical. That was the trouble with England, it was too proud of its history, too unwilling to destroy things for the sake of improvement.

Max could see the holy place from the very edge of the town. Just as the nurse had said, the tower could be clearly seen from a long way back, growing ever taller as they wound their way towards it. When they eventually reached it, it seemed less tall than Max had expected and he realised that some of the perceived height was because it was set on a slight hill in the centre of town.

The car stopped next to a low wall surrounding the garden area of the holy place. Once it had probably been a graveyard around a church but the graves would have been cleared long ago, the remains cremated and disposed of. Now it was a garden, filled with trees and flowers, with a stone path leading to the arched entrance.

Max shook his father awake.

“Dad, we’re here, we’re at the holy place that nurse sent us to. Are you alright? Can you walk? Can you carry the case?”

His father nodded, climbed out of the car, lifted the case and put it on the path next to him. Max led the way into the building, through the wooden side door and into the main sanctuary.

Their eyes took a moment to adjust to the gloomy interior of the large space inside. There were stone pillars holding up the arched roof, the beams centuries old, wooden, and beginning to crumble in places. Max could see the signs that showed it was constantly being renovated, nearly matching shades of paint, the odd wooden beam not blackened with age. He guessed it was one of the town’s treasures, there would not be any suggestion that it might be allowed to fall into decay. It smelt of dust and old wood and was filled with pews, covered in multi-coloured cushions, all facing forwards. The front was a series of arches, the central one had a pulpit for the speaker to stand in and a large blank screen, where visual aids could be programmed. There was a raised section beyond, Max guessed that musicians and choirs would perform there, adding mood to the services.

Around the walls were symbols from most of the major religions. Max had learnt them all during school sessions, had been taught that it was important to respect all beliefs, that none was more important, more right, than any other. This had been strongly denied in the privacy of his own home, his father had frequently, strenuously, fought to uphold his own faith over all others. But there was no place for such unrelenting belief in today’s society. It was divisive, in a world that valued unity.

They stood together for a moment, man and boy, gazing at the symbols on the walls. There was the curved Omkar symbol, looking almost like numbers, representing the three elements of the Hindu Om: Brahma Shakti the creator, Vishnu Shakti the preserver, and Shiva Shakti, the liberator. There was also the Hindu swastika carved into the pillar next to it.

On the next pillar was the Islam star and crescent and the word for Allah written in curvy script. Beyond that was the Star of David and there was a seven-branched candlestick, the menorah, standing on a table at the front. Islamic and Jewish symbols were often placed together, as they were considered religions so similar that they almost blended into one.

There was an image of Deg Tegh Fateh and the symbol of Khand, showing the sword, chakkar and kirpans that were important to the Sikh religion.

Next to them, painted in heavy black paint onto the stone wall was an imposing Torii gate, marking the entrance to the spirit world for those following Shinto. Next to that, nearer to them, was the black and white Taiji, the Yin and Yang of Taoism. Right beside them was the Buddhist Wheel of the Dharma and a lotus flower of purity.

In the corner was the pentagram of Wicca. Next to it was the nine-pointed star of Baha’i.

Beyond that, on the far side, was the Christian cross, made from wood and fixed to the wall opposite the door. It looked new, and Max wondered what had happened to all the Christian symbols that must have originally festooned the walls. Only one stained-glass window remained, the light filtering through images of Jesus and disciples.

Max had come to one of these holy places a few times, had sat with his parents and sister. Most people chose to sit near the symbol that represented their own religion but Max had been told that it did not matter, that they believed that God surrounded them, that emblems were of little significance. Max was not sure what he himself believed. He rather liked the holy places, with their eclectic mix of symbols, places where people could go and celebrate all the festivals that they had enjoyed for centuries, could listen to an interesting lecture given by a different religious leader in turn, each one careful to not say anything that might be offensive to another religion, all talking about peace, unity, being generous and kind. Things that no one would dispute, would deny were important.

They had not attended recently though. Max’s father had held secret meetings in their home for the last few years. Max and Lucy knew that these were not allowed, had been declared unhealthy by the Council. They did not discuss them with friends or at school sessions. Max’s father was a music tutor, it was not unusual for a variety of people to enter their home, to receive tuition on an instrument. It was thought that those in authority either did not know or did not care that they were holding religious meetings, gatherings where it was stated there was only one God, that only the Bible was a holy book. Saying things that were banned, considered divisive and unhealthy for society.

They turned away from the symbols on the walls and walked to the Wheel of the Dharma. The floor was raised slightly at the rear of the church, with a stone walkway leading to the very back. The lotus flower was etched into a wooden door. They turned the ancient latch and found themselves in a small hallway. To one side was a notice, advising them that it was permissible to climb the tower, there were one hundred and seventy-one steps and that there was no elevator, so they needed to be capable of walking both up and down. The Global Council would take no responsibility for the health of anyone taken ill during the climb. There were stone steps leading up, winding round and round a central pillar, each step dipped slightly in the centre where a million feet had worn them away.

On their left was a small green door. It was unlocked, and ignoring the ‘Private’ sign they pushed it open. There were more steps, this time leading downwards. They looked at each other for a moment, then Max led the way down.

***

After they had gone, the old woman waited for five minutes. Then she rose from her place kneeling beside the cross, hidden from view by the high-backed pews. Her knees were stiff and she rested for a moment, leaning against the pillar that had the pentagram etched into it, before moving to the back of the church. In her hand she carried a large metal key and she used it to lock the small green door. Then she pulled her phone from her pocket and ordered a car to take her home. She was a link in a chain. Her job was done.

To be continued on Wednesday. . .

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Discharged


Chapter Four

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

Discharged

When Max woke the sun was streaming through the cracks in his black out curtains, reaching out to find a way inside, piercing holes through the darkness. He pressed the ‘open’ button from his bed and shielded his face as the sunlight rushed in, bruising his eyes. For a moment, he forgot why he was there, assumed his parents were in the house with him, Lucy in her room across the hall. Then he remembered the island, and his father in the hospital, and the heavy knot came back into his stomach.

He reached for his computer, saw he had messages. They were all from the nurse. There was a list of clothes his father would need, like Max was too stupid to do that on his own. There was a reminder to meet her at 10 o’clock. He glanced at the time, no need to hurry.

There was also a certified report, for which Max was suddenly grateful. It was backdated, and verified that Max had been absent from both school sessions and learning experiences due to ill health. He would be well enough to recommence learning next week, though would continue to be absent from school sessions. This was a huge help. A copy had been logged with the central computer. Things went astray all the time; they would assume the delay was either human error or technological malfunction but no one would question its validity. It meant two things. Firstly, Max could legitimately use his own barcode, he had a reason for having not studied, no one would try to trace him. Secondly, most importantly, it meant he could continue his learning on the island. He would have his computer with him.

He should probably take his sister’s computer too. He swung out of bed, used the bathroom then plodded across to his sister’s room. Pink and white. Seemed to him completely unnecessary for girls to be quite so girly. Even her spare computer was pink. He found it in a drawer, under a heap of beads and bracelets. His image watched him from a dozen mirrors around the walls. It was weird, like being in a room of himself multiplied many times. As a whim he grabbed one of her toys, a rabbit, its fur almost completely worn away, the limbs hanging limply where the stuffing had compacted. It was one of her favourites. She was annoying, but she would like to have it. He stuffed it into the bag, next to one of his father’s shoes. Then he went in search of food, feeling like a hero. Nothing more he could do until he had eaten.

Max dug into the freezer and pulled out some bacon panini sandwiches. They were hard as stone and the cold numbed his fingers. He put two in the microwave and set the time, returned the others to the freezer and slammed the door, hearing his mother’s voice in his head telling him to close it gently. He put his mouth under the juice tap (another banned activity) and took a swallow. It tasted bitter after cleaning his teeth and he spat it into the sink. He looked at the splattered yellow droplets for a moment, then sluiced them away. He took a mouthful from the water tap instead. Much better. He forced it between his teeth, puffing out his cheeks, rinsing his mouth. Then he reached for a glass and filled it.

The water on the island tasted weird, he did not like it all (there was not much on the island that he did like.) He had asked Agnes about it and she said that it came from a well, was pumped straight to their tap with nothing added. Max was not sure if that was legal, but maybe laws were different if you did not live on the mainland. Here they added all sorts of things to the water, stuff to clean your teeth, vitamins and a low dose of hormones. He knew (from science sessions) that the hormones were to eliminate unwanted pregnancies but had also helped to make males generally less inclined to fight.

If a couple wanted to have a child, they had to apply for permission to drink bottled water, which arrived in large vats every week. Max had seen them being delivered to other houses and his mother had explained what they were. The authorities first checked your health status, ensuring you did not carry any inherited defects. They also checked your income, to ensure you were able to support a child. You had to pay quite a large tax, which increased drastically with each child you had, before you were allowed the hormone-free water. Apparently, this also helped to improve the general intelligence of the population, as only high intellect professions were paid well. People with lower intelligence had jobs which were less well paid, so they couldn’t afford to have children. The Global Council valued intelligence.

There were no set rules on how many children a couple could have if they were both healthy and financially sound, but most families only had one or two children. Many had none, preferring to travel, or live in a better street, or take a higher promotion. One parent had to agree to forego certain job levels when a couple had children, agreeing to input a certain amount of time and energy into raising them. In his own family, his mother had taken this role. Until her youngest child was aged sixteen, she would not be eligible to apply for any promotion that involved more time or responsibility. Some people, those who were already in senior positions when they decided to have children, were actually required to take a demotion. The Global Council only granted parenting permission to those people willing to make these sacrifices.

Max had a friend who was the third child in his family and he said it was annoying, the best cars only carried up to four passengers, they always had to order the cheaper ones. Three children in a family was unusual. As the more senior positions at work were held by childless couples, this was seen by many to be a desirable state. The population was naturally decreasing.

Max finished drinking and prepared to leave.

By 10 o’clock, Max was back at the hospital and walked slowly back towards his father’s room. The brightness of the harsh overhead lighting was annoying, uncomfortable on his eyes. The bag was heavy, and as he pulled it along the floor he could hear the wheels grinding.

There were lots of people, all hurrying to visit relatives or be on time for appointments, checking their online maps, following signs that flashed overhead. The staff bustled around in their white uniforms, holding computers or medical equipment, looking cross behind their surgical masks. He passed the infections ward, saw suited relatives, like men from outer space, going in to see their loved ones. The outfits rustled as they walked, looking clumsy and uncomfortable as the visitors peered out from behind visors. But at least they were protected from germs.

As he neared his father’s room, Max slowed. He felt uneasy about this, there was something he did not understand, something that felt wrong. He knew nothing about this nurse, and yet had obeyed her instructions without question; perhaps he was as naive as his mother. Or as desperate. His footsteps slowed, his mouth was dry and he could feel the tension knotting his stomach. Would he be met by guards with guns, or medical staff waiting to tranquilise him? The case seemed even heavier now, pulling it was an effort, and his shoes squeaked on the floor, marking each reluctant footstep.

Max reached the doorway and peered round, tensed to flee if he saw anything untoward, anything that seemed like a trap.

His father was sitting on the bed. He still wore his pyjamas, still had bare feet. The same nurse was there. No one else. The nurse stood to one side, checking something on her computer, not looking at his father, not speaking, absorbed in what she was doing. Max considered whether he could get his father out without her seeing, decided it was impossible, he would have to trust her. He pushed open the door and entered the room.

The nurse looked up and smiled as he went in.

“You are on time, well done. Did you manage to collect his clothes okay?” she asked, as if it was a difficult task, as if he were a young child.

Max nodded.

His father looked up, smiled.

“Hello son,” he said, as if he had been expecting him. Perhaps he was less confused than Max had thought. At least he seemed less emotional today.

Max unloaded the clothes onto the bed and his father started to dress. Max turned away slightly, uncomfortable with his father’s nudity. The nurse began to give him instructions.

“You should go straight to the island, don’t go back to your own house. I can change your father’s records temporarily, showing him as discharged, but when the next nurse arrives she will probably cancel that and they will start to search for him. When you are on the island we think he will be safe, it will be too noticeable to get him back and the authorities would rather not advertise some things. They will accept he has gone, and as long as he does not try to make a fuss, to cause any trouble, they will be happy for him to go. At least, we hope so…” she paused.

Max wondered what she was talking about, it made no sense to him. But he understood that he needed to get his father to the island, which had been his plan all along, so he let her talk.

“Don’t go back to the guesthouse. It is not the best route now. There is another tunnel; it joins the one you used. You can enter it in the designated holy building in the town. You can’t miss it, it is right in the centre of the old part of town, not far from the cliff. It used to be a church and it has a tall tower, which you can see from miles away. I have sent the address to your computer so you can program the car. When you get there, go to the back of the hall, as though you are going to climb the tower. Instead, go through the small green door on your left. It will be unlocked. You will find steps leading down. If you follow them, they will take you to the tunnel.

“It would be best to not leave your father alone at all until you are at the island. He might be confused and wander off. You will also find that he gets very tired, especially after he has used his brain, watching things, listening to something, things like that. Not so much physical things, so the walk should be fine, but the journey there will tire him, lots of visual stimuli, even though he will just be sitting. Remember, it is his brain that needs time to heal, not his body. Anything that uses his brain will exhaust him. Let him rest, have a nap if necessary. He is strong enough though, so don’t worry.”

Max was frowning, he was not sure how difficult this would be, not sure if his father was up to it. What exactly had they done to him? The nurse was still speaking but he interrupted her.

“What’s wrong with his brain? Will he be alright?”

“Yes, yes,” she reassured him quickly, glancing at the time. “His memories will be a bit off, that’s all. Plus the tiredness. He’ll mend.”

“What memory things?” asked Max, worried. “Will he remember my mum and sister? Does he know who he is?” He looked at his father who was dressed now and was sitting on the bed. He looked confused and was holding his shoes, one in each hand. His feet were bare.

“Oh, I forgot socks!” said Max and felt giggles bubbling up inside.

“Never mind, he’ll have to wear just shoes; there’s no time now,” said the nurse.

“His long-term memory is fine. More than fine. You’ll find out about that, ask John. No, it’s short term stuff—you might have to say things twice, things like that.”

She was moving towards the door, peering into the corridor, trying to hurry them, to usher them out.

Max’s father pushed his pyjamas into the bag, then looked confused.

“Will I need these?” he asked his son.

“You might,” said Max, who also wanted to leave now. “Come on Dad, let’s get a move on.”

His father attached his barcode to his sweater, then lifted the suitcase easily and turned to the nurse. He didn’t seem able to hurry, each action was very deliberate, one thing done at a time, as if it needed all his thinking capacity to do that one action.

“Thank you. For everything,” he said to her. Then he followed Max out of the door.

Max was walking quickly. He felt in control again, he knew what he needed to do. He slowed his pace when he realised his father wasn’t keeping up, not sure if he could tell him to hurry. As he walked, he was checking his messages, entering the code the nurse had sent to the car order, using his mother’s barcode to pay.

No one looked at them as they left. They could have been anyone, a boy and his father leaving hospital, carrying a case—maybe one of them had been a patient, maybe they had been delivering items for someone else. Max felt safely anonymous as they approached the waiting bay, walked under the flow of safe bacteria, found the car Max had ordered with its number flashing on the roof. They climbed inside, and Max checked the internal camera was off, checked the destination code was the one the nurse had given him, strapped himself in. His father was gazing out of the window, watching people arrive. The bag was stowed on the back seat. The car moved away.

***

Neither man nor boy noticed the man watching them from the entrance foyer. Nor did they see him enter the car number into his computer and press send.

To be continued on Sunday. . .

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Nurse


The Nurse

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

 

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Max was now alarmed. Why would they have been expecting him? How did they know anything about him? And why had she opaqued the glass, meaning that no one could see inside the room?

Max glanced at his father. His eyes were red with emotion, he had loosened his grip on Max but still rested his hand on his shoulder. It was very warm, very heavy. His father was not a man given to emotional expressions, he did not often hug Max, and Max had never seen him cry before. Ever. Max was aware that there was something weird happening, something which he had not suspected. His father did not look ill, other than wearing pyjamas, and having ridiculously short hair, so why was he in hospital?

People were rarely admitted to hospital unless surgery was necessary. Most illnesses could be diagnosed by the online doctor, using the health checking technology that every family kept safely in a drawer. They could monitor your heartbeat, your breathing, your temperature. Sometimes you needed to submit samples, and these tended to be couriered by the fleet of delivery services that swarmed around the town, bots and drones whisking packages to the hospital.

Of course, everyone did attend hospital once every year, for their annual health check. Anyone who wanted to undertake something considered dangerous, or risky to health, had to first receive permission from the authorities. This rule covered everything, from using thrilling transportation considered unsafe (like water cycle drones) to smoking or inhaling substances to change mood. Very little was illegal, the Council did not ban dangerous activities, but nor would they finance the consequences. Individuals had to show that they owned sufficient funds to pay for any medical bills that arose, that they were able to take responsibility for any consequences. The Global Council was hot on citizens taking responsibility—up to a point. The main control of a person’s health, like everything else, was under the jurisdiction of the government. This began at birth.

When a baby was born, the first thing they encountered was the inside of an imaging machine. After humans had thoroughly checked the outside for visual signs of health, a machine checked the inside. Any anomalies were recorded on the baby’s health register—but not revealed to either the parent, or later, the individual, unless it was thought to be in their best interest. Research had shown that when a patient was told what was wrong, their symptoms tended to increase, as although some were physical responses to the problem, at least half were psychological. This was especially true with certain benign tumours—if the patient never knew they were there, they caused no health issues. The health register was accurate, and accessed by medics, so if a patient complained of a symptom relating to an underlying health issue, their doctor could prescribe the appropriate medication. However, the patient was rarely informed of why they were ill, only how to combat the discomfort. The control was with the health professionals, only fitness was truly the responsibility of the individual, and even this was strongly encouraged by the government.

There was an exercise and health checking facility on level one of the hospital. They watched you exercise, analysed the results, decided if you were eating correctly, exercising sufficiently. If you failed, were found to be under or overweight, then you received salary reduction until you were back to your estimated full health range. They took into account if you had an illness, something that could not be controlled, but every citizen was expected to take good care of their body, to not waste the global community’s health resources through neglect or over indulgence. Keeping your body healthy was a duty, not an option.

Max had already had his first independent medical, attending without a parent present. He had passed easily, felt rather proud of himself. Had he failed, his parents’ salaries would have been reduced until a retest showed that he was at an expected fitness level. There would also have been restrictions on the food they could order, and Max’s own entertainment choices would have been limited.

However, to be an actual patient was rare. Max did not like seeing his father so weak and he had no idea what the nurse had meant. She was expecting him? She was busy now; unpacking her medical paraphernalia onto a trolley, there seemed to be a syringe involved. Max checked the door, estimated whether his body mass was sufficient to push past her if necessary, decided it probably was. He moved further from his father, freeing himself for a speedy exit. The nurse was now smiling. He did not trust her at all.

“You look worried, and there is not time to explain everything. Please listen for a moment, then you can decide what to do, I am not going to stop you leaving if that is what you want to do,” she said, as if guessing his thoughts, reading his plans to flee in his wild-eyed glances towards the door. She moved away from it, leaving his pathway clear, possibly hoping to calm him, alleviate some of his fears.

Max visibly relaxed a little.

The nurse continued: “We were told you had left the island, and have been monitoring your movements. We wanted to keep you safe. We need you to help us move your father, it’s very important for him to leave the hospital but it wouldn’t be safe for one of us to take him.

“Do you think you could do that? Could you take him back to the island?”

While she spoke his father just stood there, listening, but blankly, as though the words made no sense to him. He kept looking at Max, smiling at him in a vacant, confused manner.

“What’s wrong with him? Why is he here? And why is he wearing pyjamas?” asked Max.

The nurse smiled again. Max was unable to read her thoughts. She had slowed her speech; her body language was nonthreatening. She looked as if she was being careful to not scare him away. He wondered if that made her more, or less, of a risk to his plan. He glanced again at the door. Someone was passing, he heard the bubble of conversation grow louder as they neared the door, fading away as they continued on down the corridor. Max saw the nurse tense, an almost imperceivably tightening of the muscles around her mouth, a slight hunching of her shoulders.

“There isn’t time to explain everything, you can ask on the island, ask John to tell you. Your father has had his brain fiddled with, they tried to alter his beliefs. It didn’t work, it never does. But this time they want to try again, see if they can alter it using a different technique. We want to help him to leave before they can do that, before they cause more serious damage.”

She must have seen the horror in the boy’s eyes, because she quickly tried to reassure him, her words fast and urgent. “He’ll be alright, they just changed his memories. His brain will repair, it will find new pathways so he can think as well as he did before, but it will take time. He needs you now, needs you to help him. He will be very tired, thinking in a new way uses a lot of energy. He is getting better, he’s strong enough to travel, but he needs someone to help him with the thinking. Just until the brain has finished repairing. Can you do that? Can you take him safely to the island? They will help you when you get there, they can explain more.” She glanced at the door. “I am worried someone might come, you really ought to leave.”

“But he’s in pyjamas,” said Max. He could not take his father through the hospital wearing pyjamas. Everyone would stare. Someone might try to stop them, it wasn’t normal behaviour. It would be embarrassing.

“Yes, you need to leave on your own. I cannot access your father’s clothes, not without arousing suspicion. You need to go home now, come back tomorrow during visiting hours. Bring some of your father’s clothes. Can you do that or do you want me to send you a list?”

“Come back again? To the hospital?” Max had had enough of the hospital. He wanted to leave and never return. He certainly didn’t want to have to repeat the trip tomorrow. He began to search for excuses.

“And can he walk far? The island is a really long way,” Max said, not sure if this was possible. Now that he was here, now someone was actually asking him to do what he had always intended to do, he felt himself resisting. He didn’t feel in charge anymore.

“There is nothing wrong with your father physically, other than he will get tired so you might need to stop for rests.” She looked at the door again.

“You really do need to go now. I am worried they will find you here. Come back tomorrow. At ten o’clock, I can be here then.” She sounded worried, desperate even.

Max didn’t understand, but neither did he feel he had any option. He nodded and moved towards the door. Perhaps he would think of a better plan later, when everything was less of a rush, when he’d had time to recover. He nodded again, and turned to leave.

“Well done,” whispered the nurse as he walked past her, “you are a star”.

Then in one fluid movement, she lifted her computer, took a reading of his barcode.

“Check your messages later,” she instructed. As Max left, he saw her turn the glass back to clear and begin to busy herself with the syringe.

***

Max walked quickly away from the room. He felt light headed, and slightly sick, and very out of control. This was not at all what he had expected. He had planned to have a proper talk with his father, find out when he would be well enough to travel, explain about his mother and the island. Instead he had spoken only to a nurse, a stranger. One who seemed to know a lot about him. Who knew about the island, about John. As he walked, the worries drummed through his mind, keeping time with the rhythm of his footsteps on the hard white floor. Were they trapped in some dangerous web? Exactly who was involved? Did his mother have the first idea what was going on or had she naively led them all into danger?

Max passed the nurses’ desk, they were still there, discussing their computer records. They paid no heed to him as he hurried past. He arrived at the entrance, realised he had not ordered a car to take him home, and that he was hungry. He sent a message for a car and found a food dispensing machine near the exit. He sat on a plastic sofa within sight of the pickup point, munching something covered in chocolate and something salty. They tasted old, but he didn’t much care, the action of eating was comforting, helped him to feel in control, a little less like crying. He knew they were expensive; anything containing sugar was very expensive, reserved for treats and emergencies. This, he decided, came into the latter category.

***

When Max arrived home, the man watched him leave the car, unlock the door, hurry inside. He made no move, merely registered the facts in his computer, kept everyone informed. He watched the windows light up as the boy moved around the house, the hallway, the kitchen, up the stairs then down again, into the garden. That was surprising. But not important. As long as the boy did not leave the house again his instructions were clear, he was to remain where he was. He shuffled in his seat, watching the remote feed from the camera on the tree outside the boy’s house. It was mostly boring.

***

Max stood in the garden, looking up at the yellow sky. He felt suddenly very young, very small, very alone. Today had been too difficult. He had managed, he had found his father, and not been caught. But he felt exhausted, as if something inside had been used up, weakened. He wasn’t sure he could be brave anymore, wasn’t sure he could bear to return to the hospital tomorrow.

The garden was peaceful. It was tiny, but everyone had some kind of growing space, somewhere to plant things. It was considered healthy. His mother had planted theirs and the fronds of delicate leaves reached towards him, as though offering to hug him. It smelt green. Damp soil and humid air. There were great pots of flowering shrubs, baskets hanging from hooks with trailing leaves. He had never listened when his mother had told him their names, hardly even noticed them before. Now they felt very alive, an uncomplicated life form that didn’t threaten him, they seemed comforting.

Nearby he could hear water, he knew the people three units away had a small fountain in their growing space, and he stood and listened to the cascade of water as the tears streamed down his cheeks. He was very tired, he did not want to do this, it was too big for him. A great lump of fear and loneliness welled up from his chest, sliding down his cheeks as fat wet tears.

Then he wiped his face with his hands, sniffed loudly and went back inside. That was enough.

He went to find some clothes for his father and began to stuff them into a backpack. Shirt, sweater, trousers, underwear (bit odd to touch your parent’s underwear) shoes. The backpack was too small. He went into the basement, found a larger bag, stuffed the clothes inside. He rolled it to the kitchen. Added food and drink. Now it was too heavy to be comfortable but there was nothing he could do about that. He knew they were working on the technology to produce a bag with an air jet button in the handle, so when you reached terrain unsuitable for rolling, you could float the bag, it could hover over bumps and up steps. But that was for the future, Max wished it was available now but it was not. He heaved the bag to the front door and left it there, like a dog on sentry duty.

Eventually, Max went to bed. The empty house was filled with sounds, people moving around, monsters filling the dark corners, someone coming to find him. He kept the light on and a viewing experience flickered across his ceiling, distracting him, letting his mind wander. When he slept it was fitfully, full of dreams where people walked who had no brains, their bodies empty shells, living in white rooms with harsh lights. He did not see the light on his computer flash, telling him he had a message. He did not hear the cars that passed in the night. He slept the sleep of an exhausted boy.

To be continued on Wednesday. . .

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Three continued


Chapter Three Continued

.  . . If the guard turned around, he would see Max.

Max turned to look around the section of room where he stood, the part separated by the glass wall. He kept his movements slow, not sure if he would cast shadows that might cause the guard to turn. He hoped there were no motion or heat sensors. Whatever was in this room was important, of high enough value for a human guard to be used. Human guards carried live ammunition—they killed people.

Max was standing in a room, with three beds. Each one was covered in a plastic tent, tubes snaking into them, wires sliding out. At first Max worried he might be in a bacteria ward, may catch some deadly disease. He peered into the nearest bed, then stopped.

He knew that face. Had seen it many times. It was Midra, the main spokesperson on the Global Council. His face often appeared in debates, explaining new laws, on news programmes. That explained the human guard. Yet, it wasn’t him, it wasn’t Midra. Or was it?

Max bent closer. The same but not the same. No, he decided, it was not him, was too young. He knew that Midra was old, very old. He seemed to have been leading the Council for generations. Max had heard his father talk about laws that Midra had introduced when he was young, so this could not be him. It looked like him though. Very like him. Max supposed it was a much younger brother, weirdly similar in appearance, clearly very ill. He crept to the next bed, knowing he should leave, but curious as to who might be allowed to share a room with the relative of someone so powerful.

He stopped, frowned. This too was Midra. Except it wasn’t. Again. This person was even younger than the first, about the age of his own father, but with the features of the ancient Midra. Did all his relatives look identical?

******

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Three


Chapter Three

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

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Home


Home

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

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****

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Mission


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

Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Plan


The Plan

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

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********************

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Woman


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

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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. . .

Altered

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.

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