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HOMELAND

Chapter Two

Milo Bonaparte sat on the lavatory with his notepad. He was safe here. Cameras in the lavatory were considered quite unnecessary even by the most security conscious because the security conscious also tended to be rather prudish. No, he could scribble away here as much as he liked and, provided these sessions did not stretch out to the extent someone might worry about his health, he was safe.

Everything about Milo was terribly ordinary. His kind, hazel eyes sat in a well-proportioned face that had no real distinguishing features. Straight, mouse-colored hair, neatly combed and cut to an entirely sensible length, concealed a completely unremarkable pair of ears. His casual clothes were neither too new or too worn and did nothing to enhance his unprepossessing five-foot-ten frame. Even his close friends had trouble describing him.

He loved writing. Poems, jokes and essays poured from his pen in profusion, decorated with little caricatures and cartoons. In a different life, so long ago, he had been a teacher and had tried to write a novel. Using a word processor package on the computer, he set out with high hopes of a bestseller but had not gotten much beyond the first chapter. It wasn’t the same. He liked the process of pen on paper, the smell of the ink, the fussy, disordered freedom of scribbling. To Milo, writing was an organic process a computer could not capture.

Paradoxically, he had left the classroom behind in favor of working with electronics and computers for a living. He enjoyed the chaos of wiring, circuit boards and networks. They appealed to him in the same way his scribbling did. He liked the way something coherent could be pulled from an apparently formless mess. Yes, he liked computers, just not for writing.

Unfortunately, these days a notebook could get you into trouble. Milo had to be careful. He had been in here for nearly ten minutes now and would have to get going. Grinning, he took one last look at his latest creation, a caricature of a short, mean-faced, bald man burning an American flag.


The room was tiny, not much more than ten feet square and made all the more close by having a low ceiling. In one corner, a single bed with grey blankets nestled beneath a small window, recessed into the wall and shut off with louver blinds. Lines of sunlight streamed in between the slats, picking out the dust as it fell lazily through the air. A large, plain mirror hung next to the window and opposite the bed stood a wide-screen television and a small wardrobe. In the corner next to the television, a doorway housed a smooth, featureless door.

A low, hissing sound broke the silence and the door slid quickly upwards, revealing Higgs at the threshold, staring up in amazement to where the door had disappeared. Behind him, Simms nudged him gently forward into the room. “Well, here you are.”

“I thought you said that you were taking me home?”

“This is home, thanks to the watchful vigilance of Homeland.”

Higgs sagged. “Excuse me, sir, but this is not my home.”

“All will be explained, Tracy.”

“Higgs.”

Simms tutted. “Higgs is too formal.”

“It’s Higgs.”

“Can I call you Trace?”

“No.”

“Tray?”

“No.”

“Oh, very well. Officer Higgs. Things have…happened. You’re disoriented. You need to be treated gently.”

Simms pushed past Higgs into the room and walked over to the wardrobe. Simms opened it and pulled out a jumpsuit of identical design to the one he wore, only red in color. He held it up for a moment and then turned back to Higgs, offering it towards him with a smile.

“This is your uniform, soldier, wear it with pride.”

Higgs reluctantly took the jumpsuit and inspected it closely. His name was on the breast pocket—”Security Officer Tracy Higgs”. He looked up at Simms.

“Listen, Simms, I don’t care what sort of security officer, soldier or whatever you think I am. I want to go home, Simms, do you understand me?”

“All will be explained in due course. Just relax.” Simms gestured to the television. “Take in a film.”

Higgs was at a loss. None of this made any sense. He had no recollection of this place at all, let alone it being his home. His gaze came to rest on the uniform again. He noticed three stripes on the shoulder. He looked over at Simms. He only had one.

“Simms, I outrank you.”

Simms jolted involuntarily. “Well, technically, yes, but we hang off different parts of Homeland’s mighty apparatus.”

Higgs grimaced at the mental image Simms’ innocent comment summoned in his mind. The lights suddenly dimmed and then flickered back on again.

“What was that?” asked Higgs.

“What? I didn’t notice anything.”

“Just then, the lights flicked out, like a brownout or something.”

“You must be mistaken, Security Officer Higgs, there are no brownouts in the mall. Only a subversive would suggest otherwise.”

Higgs opened his mouth to speak and then thought better of it.

Simms drew himself up importantly. “Well, make yourself at home. I’ll come for you in an hour or two once you’ve rested. Cheerio.”

Simms turned and walked from the room, the door sliding down behind him. Higgs stood for a moment, staring at the door. Then, flinging the uniform onto the bed, he pulled up the blinds on the window. Beyond was a scene, which, for a second at least, made his heart leap with hope. The window looked out on a woodland of broad-leaved trees, fresh green with new spring growth, the ground beneath them a haze of lazy bluebells. The sun shone down in dappled patches as the leaves swayed gently in a light breeze. But the view was fake, a repeating video loop played on a screen and not even a very good one at that. A distinct jump occurred in the playback when it reached the end and began over again.

Higgs stepped back from the bed, sighing deeply with disappointment. He caught sight of himself in the mirror and realized he was still barely dressed. The hospital smock only reached down to his knees and gaped at the arms. Higgs' hairy shins descended into the embarrassment of a pair of checkered slippers his grandfather would have been ashamed of. He looked at the uniform and sighed. There was nothing for it. He found underpants, socks and shoes in the wardrobe and then took off the smock and put on the uniform. It fitted him perfectly and he begrudgingly admitted something about it seemed very familiar.

He checked himself in the mirror and then crossed the room to the door. The door itself was featureless but to the side of the doorway, at shoulder height, was a small panel. The bottom half of the panel was taken up with a small numeric keypad, the sort typically seen on a computer keyboard with the numbers zero to nine. Adjacent to the zero was a button labeled “Enter”. In the top half of the panel was a single round, green button. Higgs leaned forward and pushed the green button. The door slid up and he flinched back. Tentatively, he pushed the button again and the door slid down. He pushed the button a few more times until he was satisfied that nothing else unexpected was going to happen and then he turned his attention to the numeric keypad.

He keyed in a few random numbers and hit the “enter” button. The room suddenly filled with a voice, a calm, female voice that reminded Higgs of his mother. “Incorrect code. Higgs, please desist from interfering with the door keypads. This is a serious offense punishable by termination.”

Higgs’ jaw dropped and his body tensed. He suddenly had the feeling he was being watched. Turning around slowly, he saw the camera, there in the corner of the room above the television, a little red light flashing lazily on its top. Small, unobtrusive and easy to miss, it was trained on him and followed as he moved. Someone, somewhere, was watching him.

Higgs stepped backwards, bumping into the wall. He felt dizzy, his legs weak. He had to get out of this place, this madhouse. He thumped the green button and stumbled from the room.

Outside was the corridor that led back to the mall. He had come this way with Simms, passing many, many doors like the one that opened into his room, each one with a number on it. But this time he saw the cameras, every ten or fifteen meters, tucked away near the ceiling. They followed him as he half walked, half ran towards the mall. He could not escape their gaze. A hot, breathless panic welled up within him, a knot tying up his stomach. He was being watched.

Finally, the corridor brought him onto one of the balconies overlooking the mall. He was on the third level now, the entrance to the hospital way up above him some two hundred meters to the left. He glanced away to his right. An escalator led down through the remaining two levels between him and the ground floor. He pushed his way through the throng of shoppers, looking anxiously for cameras. They were everywhere and they seemed to be homing in on him, following him as he struggled through the crowd.

I need a new television, he thought suddenly. I will be the envy of my friends with the new Panoramovision Widescreen Home Entertainment System, just five-hundred-and-ninety-nine dollars, ninety-nine, while stocks last. He stumbled on. Do I suffer from the embarrassment of nasal hair? The thought flooded into his mind uncontrollably. I need worry no more with the Bogeymatic Nasal Refiner, just ten dollars, ninety-nine. He clutched his head. What on earth was he thinking?

He made it to the escalator and got on behind a large lady with many shopping bags, hoping she might provide some cover from the prying cameras. The escalator descended painfully slow. He wished now that he could push past the woman and run, but she was too large. Do I suffer from embarrassing flatulence?

“No,” he shouted. People stared. He looked down.

Doctor Popgone’s One-A-Day will sort me out. Only one dollar, ninety-nine for a month’s supply.

The escalator took him to the second level and he barged past the fat lady to get onto the next downward escalator in front of her.

"Hey, excuse me," she yelled, quickly followed by an apologetic "I'm sorry, officer, I am not a terrorist!" But he was too far gone to reply, running down the escalator, pushing past the people in his way. Finally, he got to the ground floor. Away to his left, the android guards stood on their pedestal. One scanned the crowd, looking in Higgs’ general direction but seemingly not paying him any particular attention.

Higgs started to walk as nonchalantly as he could away from the hospital end of the mall, heading for the opening he had seen earlier, which led to the next precinct. As he reached it, the passage seemed a very restrictive exit for such a large mall, more of a tunnel, perhaps ten meters wide and six meters tall. It certainly formed a bottle-neck for shoppers passing from one side to the other. Higgs impatiently made his way through with the flow of the crowd, counting his strides—six meters. At the far side stood another mall, if anything larger than the one he had just been in. Nine levels of balconies stretched up its sides but, unlike the first mall, this one seemed to be a giant crossroads. At the far end, an opening led to yet another precinct. At the center of the crossroads, Higgs could see a sign labeled “Information Point”.

His head crowded with a cacophony of thoughts. He needed a new suit, his breath smelled, his bed linen was out of fashion and always, always one of the shops nearby could solve his woes for just a very reasonable fee. He clutched his head.

“Shut up,” he whispered. “Shut up.”

He pushed his way through the crowd towards the information point. He had hoped for a map but when he reached it, he was disappointed. The notice board was covered in posters urging citizens to be vigilant in looking out for suspicious packages, to report any subversive behavior to the security services and not to panic in the event of a terrorist incident. Higgs leaned against the board heavily. At least out here in the middle of the mall, the voices in his head telling him he would be the envy of his friends with Toepure Verruca Remover (just five ninety-nine a bottle) were gone.

There had to be a way out somewhere. He stared at the sea of faces sweeping past him. An overweight man in his twenties approached. Higgs leaned forward to try to talk to him.

“Ah, excuse me, sir.”

“I am not a terrorist.”

“Sorry?”

But the man had gone. Higgs scanned the crowd for another passerby to talk to. A woman struggled past in the opposite direction, weighed down with bags of electrical goods.

“Hello?” Higgs tried hopefully.

“Greetings, Officer. I am not a terrorist.”

The woman did not seem to want to stop, so Higgs let her go. In fact, he realized, she didn’t even want to look at him. The red jumpsuit, his uniform, was the problem. Everybody else wore civilian clothes. He noticed a space around him too. The mall was crowded but nobody bumped him, nobody looked at him. His uniform commanded respect. No, not respect. Fear.

While he searched for a third person to try talking to, something else dawned on him. Women and men peopled the mall in roughly equal numbers and they were all shapes and sizes. Some of them were overweight, some fit, some counted themselves amongst the beautiful people and some were ugly enough to curdle milk. But they were all, without exception, of the same age group. Higgs saw no children, no pensioners. Everyone was firmly in the twenty-something age bracket. Including me.

Higgs stepped in front of another man, forcing him to stop. “Excuse me, sir.” The man looked up. His face betrayed the guilty nervousness even the completely blameless feel when they are spoken to by a policeman.

“Yes, Officer?”

“Look, could you just tell me the way out please?”

The man’s jaw dropped and an expression of horror spread across his face. His voice went shrill. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I am not a terrorist.”

Higgs held his palms up to try to calm the man down. “I just want to know the way out.”

The man dropped the shopping bags he had been carrying and backed away. “Get away from me. Help, I’m not a terrorist, help.”

Higgs noticed the space opening up around him. People backed away, leaving him exposed to the cameras. The cameras and the androids. Higgs quickly scanned the mall. Two androids hulked on a pedestal at one of the corners of the crossroads. They watched attentively.

Higgs turned back to the man. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I just want to know the way out, that’s all.”

“Help,” shrieked the man.

“Shut up.” Higgs tried to put his hand over the man’s mouth but he pulled away and fled. Higgs spun around again. The androids were off their pedestal and making their way towards him, the crowds parting before them eagerly.

Higgs turned and ran, pushing his way through the crowd towards the far exit. There had to be a way out of this damned mall somewhere. An alarm sounded over an unseen public-address system and as one, everyone in the mall lay on the floor and covered their heads. Now on the edge of panic, Higgs broke into a sprint. Behind him, the androids quickened their pace. They had a clear line of fire but they did not shoot. Perhaps they knew Higgs had nowhere to run.

He reached the opening that led into the third precinct. The alarms started going off in there as soon as he entered and the crowd all dived for the floor. He stumbled over the prone bodies, apologizing as he accidentally kicked and trod on them. Looking up, his heart leapt. There, some two hundred meters away from him at the far end of the precinct, was what he was after. The exit. The ceiling at the end of the precinct dropped down to around twenty meters in height and the end wall was made entirely of glass. Within this wall were a series of glass doors and beyond was a street. He couldn’t make out much from this distance but Higgs didn’t care. He needed to get out of the mall and then he could find out where the hell he was.

He ran with all his might towards the door. In the last fifty meters, the mall had no more shops and with less cowering shoppers to leap over, Higgs could run faster. But he was exposed, he had no cover. Why didn’t the androids shoot? He had to make it to the doors. Head throbbing with exertion, he reached the glass door closest to the left side of the mall and threw his shoulder into it. To his surprise, he bounced off, wincing with pain from the impact on his shoulder. Not only did the glass door not open, it didn’t even shudder or move in the slightest. Higgs looked back out. The deserted street beyond was hemmed on each side by featureless red brick offices and strewn with a scattering of parked cars.

Higgs spun around. The androids were past the crowds now and closing in on him in a leisurely way, the barrels of the automatic rifles pointing squarely at him. Looking around wildly, he saw a keypad and green button on the wall by the door. Of course, he cursed to himself and hit the green button. The door didn’t move.

“Come on,” he shrieked, hammering on the glass and then on the button. “Christ, come on.”

Behind him, the steady hiss of the androids’ movements ceased and the mall descended into a menacing silence. Slowly, Higgs turned around. The two androids stood yards away, guns coolly leveled at Higgs’ head. A flat, calm, synthetic voice came from one of them.

“You are a terrorist suspect. For your own security and well-being, you will now be terminated. Have a nice day.”

Higgs covered his head with his hands as the android prepared to fire. The public-address system drenched the air around them with the cool, calm female voice he had heard in his room.

She said, “Overruled.”

The two androids seemed to glance sideways at each other. Something about them suggested disappointment. They lowered their guns. Higgs breathed out heavily. He wasn’t dead. This was good. He heard a familiar voice and looked up as Simms came running across the mall.

“I say, Tracy, what on earth are you doing?”

“They were going to kill me.”

“I don’t know why they didn’t, behaving like that on your first day.”

Higgs’ feeling of relief gave way to anger.

“What? They were trying to kill me. Simms, where am I?”

Simms backed off. He whistled through his teeth for a few moments. “Look, there’s someone you need to meet.”

Chapter Three