Authors: Jude Fawley
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
THE KARMA TRILOGY
Copyright © 2015 Jude Fawley
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover by Karl Pfeiffer
This book is specifically not for Elizabeth—if you see her reading it, I would appreciate it if you removed it from her hands, and replaced it with a book she is allowed to read. I will leave the choice of what that book is to you
A prequel to a book that you shouldn’t read is most likely itself a book you shouldn’t read.
Through the course of two years and three books I’ve written specifically not for you, Elizabeth, I’ve had a lot of time to think. And a question occurred to me, one that I think I should have asked myself long ago—do you even read? If this hasn’t been a punishment for you, there was never a point.
Books by the Author
The Man in the Newspaper
The door of
the grocery store opened automatically in front of Aaron, letting out a breeze of air conditioning. A couple was leaving at the same time, and greeted him with a smile as they passed. He always forgot how warm it got outside recently, even in the winter. The seasons were evening out at an alarming rate, he noticed. It was just three years before that they seemed passably different from each other, snowing in the winter and raining in the summer, but lately it always seemed to be somewhere in between, which would have been enjoyable had it not meant that the world was probably ending. The newspapers agreed.
A man was standing by the grocery carts, bodily preventing anyone from taking them without his consent. He didn’t work there. As Aaron tried to discreetly grab a handbasket from their stack beside the long rows of carts, the man stepped forward to intercept him. “Here, let me get a cart for you.”
“I don’t want a cart,” Aaron said. “In fact, I was trying to get one of these baskets over here. So if you would please.” He meant to imply that the man should step aside, which he felt to be obvious, but the man was strongly insisting.
“You can’t fit as much in a handbasket,” he said good-humoredly, and let out a coarse laugh. “You don’t want to go hungry now. Or hurt your back.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“Here, let me get one for you then,” the man said, adapting. Still firmly blocking Aaron, he turned around to address the stack of baskets. Instead of just taking the one from the top, like a decent human being, the man inspected several, apparently for quality.
Aaron nearly pushed him aside in a fit of impatience, but, after taking a deep breath, was able to just let it happen. When the man finally handed one over, Aaron smiled with thin lips and moved on.
He only needed a few things, a loaf of bread, some cereal and butter. The cheapest things a person could reasonably live on. All of the people he passed on the way seemed to be well on their way to poverty as well, although it might have only been his own perspective. Their clothes were lightly fraying, and their hygiene was a little lacking, but it was mostly the wariness he sensed behind their smiles that made him see poverty in every face. They were always smiling, every one of them—the couple leaving the store, the man trying to offer him a cart, the man that was currently helping Aaron to reach the cereal he wanted on the top shelf.
Admittedly, Aaron had a smaller stature. The top of his head only came to the shoulders of the man who decided to help him, and all that was left of the cereal he wanted was on the very top shelf, since it had sold out below. But normally he would have just stood on the bottom shelf and reached it on his own. The man had seen Aaron making preparations for the climb and walked over, towering over him and putting his hand on one of the boxes before speaking. “Did you want one of these?” he asked. And he smiled sweetly, so sweetly.
There was no point in Aaron declining his offer at that point. “If you would please.”
The man brought it down, put it into Aaron’s basket himself with a quick, confident movement, and then continued down the aisle. Before he rounded the corner to the next aisle, Aaron could see the man reach into his pocket and quickly glance at his Karma Card.
Those were the people that Aaron hated the most, with a sincere, unhealthy passion. The type of people that couldn’t wait longer than a second to see how much their charity had earned them. While he, the supposed benefactor of their kindness, was still recovering from the embarrassment of receiving their help, from being in an inferior position to them, what concerned them most was how much it had benefitted them.
He hadn’t always felt that way. He used to believe strongly in the importance of everyone helping each other, in times of need and even when there was no need at all. He enjoyed the sense of community that it brought, that everyone was there for each other, able and always willing. It had never made him feel inferior to receive help, he had felt instead like he was part of a long chain of benevolence, like he could pass forward that charity and soon it would come right back to him—there was no above and below, no inferior and superior, just a circle. And when he had felt that way, the Karma Card made sense to him. If everyone was to be directly rewarded every time they helped someone else, that was just one more good thing that it brought.
Over time that feeling had sickened, though. And he wasn’t quite sure why. It was something like cynicism. There had always been an economic reason for the Karma Card, and he had always known about it, but lately he felt like it was the only reason, like the kindness and Good Works everyone had been inclined to do had never really meant anything at all. It was true that there were far too many people on the Earth, and that their consumption had to be limited somehow. With the sheer productivity of the machines that ran their lives, humanity would have consumed the entire world in a matter of years without a limit of some sort. It was the fact that the limit was chosen to be human kindness that bothered him, that kindness was turned into a job simply because ninety percent of the world would have been unemployed otherwise.
And in purely practical terms, it made sense to him. If it was the case that so many people were to be given an arbitrary, meaningless job to keep them occupied and financially restricted, then why not give them a job that ensured that they all treated each other decently. But by doing that they cheapened the value of decency, they had everyone doing it for the wrong reasons. He felt.
He stood in the frozen-food section for a while, his head in one of the freezers, just to try to remember what a real winter felt like. It smelled stale. When people began to stare—most likely considering to themselves how they could help—he decided that it was probably time to leave.
He looked at his Karma Card as he waited in line at the cashier. In the top left corner was a dollar amount, three thousand dollars. The things in his basket would lower that number to twenty-nine hundred. If he could just bring himself to pick up someone’s dropped hat, the number would go up and he could buy more and keep living as he had done before, content enough to get by. But the number had only been going down for quite a while, because he couldn’t bring himself to do any of it. The cashier robot scanned his items and then he left.
On the subway home he glanced around the car at all of the faces of the people onboard. There was a mother and her child, the child sitting on her lap. The child had a balloon in her hand that she kept letting go of, and an elderly man adjacent to their seat would always grab it and return it to her hand with a fatherly smile. Aaron knew that the man was just a stranger to them, that by luck he found a seat next to a child so young and was taking advantage of every moment he could. Further down an older man was smoking, looking out the window at the tunnel walls as they passed by smoothly. A great time to smoke, Aaron thought, but he couldn’t afford the luxury.
Suddenly his Karma Card began to ring, and he pulled it out of his pocket. On the screen was a picture of his wife, and two buttons to either accept or ignore the call. He answered it and put the Card up to his ear. “Hello?”
“Aaron, I thought you’d be home by now. It’s almost dinner time.”
“I had to go to the store to get things for dinner, I told you.”
“But that was hours ago, I really thought that you would have gotten back by now. I’ve been waiting.”
“Well I’m on the subway now,” he said a little impatiently while looking at the elderly man, who was currently tying the string of the balloon around the child’s wrist. Apparently he’d cashed it in for everything it was worth. “I’ll be home in five minutes, promise.”
When he hung up the Card, he noticed that the call had cost him three dollars. “You just keep going down, you stupid number,” he said to all the wealth he had in the world, that number in the top-left corner of his Card. “Until I find a way around you.”
The problem with his apathy, and his decision to let it take over, was that he had his wife Sam that depended on him at least some of the time. She easily made money at a far quicker rate than he did, but it wouldn’t be enough to support two people, because no matter how charitable a person might be, the system was designed to never let anyone get too far ahead. Soon their rent would be due, and the Tax, and there would be more groceries the next day, and every phone call, every subway ride, everything everywhere was slowly draining the little money he had left.
A teenager seated across from him was playing a video game on his Karma Card, and the stern concentration on his face amused Aaron. “Are you winning?” he asked, which was very unusual for his normally shy behavior.
The teenager was reluctant to relax his focus. “This isn’t the kind of game you win,” he said, without breaking eye contact with his Card.
“Well what kind of game is that.” Aaron noticed a patch of hair on the side of the teenager’s head that was slightly shorter than the rest, and realized that the kid probably hadn’t had his Card very long.
While children were still in school, usually around the age of fourteen, they were introduced into the economy all at once by inserting a chip into their head. A Karma Chip, directly connected to the neurons of the brain, which transmitted all of those random synapse firings to Karma itself, a large computer located in the middle of New York City, where the moral worth of all their actions was analyzed, assigned a dollar amount, and then transferred directly to the Karma Card of that person. Actions that were worth any amount at all were commonly referred to as Good Works. Aaron couldn’t stand it.
“Would you pass me one of those newspapers there, by chance?” Aaron asked the kid, changing the subject.
“Why don’t you get it yourself?” he responded, still entranced by the screen of his Card.
“How is it that you’re paying for that game right now?” was Aaron’s reply.
The kid hesitated momentarily, but then reached to a stack by the side of his seat and produced a newspaper, which he gave courteously to Aaron.
It always amazed Aaron that such an archaic tradition persisted so long, the printing of newspapers. It went all the way back to the sixteenth century, if he remembered correctly, and even though technology had advanced so far, they were still everywhere. Of course, they weren’t made out of paper, like they used to be, but the feeling was the same. He figured that they still existed because the Government wanted people to know at least some of the news, without the fear that they were being charged for it. Either way, he enjoyed reading through them on the subway.
The first page was a large picture of a man, smiling and apparently speaking to someone that didn’t quite make it into the shot. He was objectively handsome, middle aged, and seemed to talk with his hands, although the picture offered only one instant in time. Charles Darcy, the headline said. Aaron had never heard of him, and decided to take the time to read the thin column that bordered the picture.
A modern entrepreneur, it said. But not like the entrepreneurs of old, that made their money by deceiving and taking from the wealth of others, a primitive notion that had died a long time before. An entrepreneur of kindness. A man that had somehow, by sheer philanthropic willpower, raised himself into the upper class. It didn’t sound possible to Aaron, the system didn’t allow for it. The upper class was the sole property of the Government, and according to the article the man was just a common citizen. Yet there it was, on the front page of the official newspaper, a man of unquestionable affluence—Aaron could see it in his demeanor. How did he do it?
The full title of the article was “Charles Darcy: It Could Happen to You,” but Aaron didn’t understand how. The only quote from the man himself was pretty much what he expected from the kind of person the newspaper depicted Charles to be. It said, “I wasn’t even aware until recently that the money I was making was more than the average person. My only concern was the betterment of my fellow man, and I will admit that I’ve pursued it with all of my energy. Now that I know of my wealth, I will be sure to pay it forward, as I always have with all my resources, and always will.” An impossibly kind man. The rest of the article was about the peculiarity of the situation, and it also commented obliquely on the lesson that could be learned by everyone else on the matter.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Aaron said to himself. “Be really, really nice to everyone. Don’t even ever notice that you’re making money while you’re doing it. That’s the key, right there.”
It was only then that Aaron noticed that a pair of men, seated several feet away from him on his left, were discussing the same article. One of them was saying how he had always known that it was possible to escape the rut of poverty, and that Charles Darcy was the proof. He said he just needed to try a little harder, but he had always known that as well. The other man was nodding and staring down the long corridor of the subway.
“My God, it’s propaganda, isn’t it,” Aaron continued to himself. “They’re giving us something stupid to believe in, so that we’ll buy into the system even more, rather than rejecting it like we should. This Charles person probably doesn’t even exist, it’s easy enough to make up a story.” He had been speaking out loud, but then decided that he’d said enough, not because he was worried about the opinion of anyone around him, but because everything he said and saw was transmitted through his Karma Chip and stored on a hard drive somewhere, where it could be used against him if anyone ever found it there. A man as obscure as he was didn’t have much to worry about, but it was still best not to tempt fate by speaking poorly about the Government. So he stopped.