HomeNovelInvisible Hand – Chapter Thirty: Return of Jean

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In which Niall and Jean are together again and Niall discovers a new lead on what might be behind the computers, and where.

For a student, the day is organized around the class schedule. Niall had several classes, each with a different subject. He learned, he disputed, he came to terms with that which seemed silly when he first heard it. But he began to understand. Niall was studying all these subjects mixed together. He would get a little here and a little there. After classes and the evening meal, the students gathered in the lounge and discussed what they were learning in class. For some it was old hat, common knowledge in the groups in which they lived before they came to the school. For others, this was their first contact with the rationale behind their economy. Sometimes the conversations were almost like tutoring. In other cases the discussions were almost bitter political debate over deeply-held beliefs. But in every group the topic was always how the new money worked, how it functioned, how it provided the medium of exchange for the society, its consequences, and, most of all, paying.

Part of the reason for this was that there was no other entertainment. There was no entertainment TV, no movies, no radio, no plays, and no parties. No one wanted to be seen drinking or smoking, since that would indicate failure. If one stayed with the others and got involved in conversation, it was easier to avoid thinking about what one did not have. They were all here (with a few notable exceptions) to become Payers. This was a major change in their lives, so they thought a lot about paying. Since they shared all these characteristics, regardless of their other differences, there was no one who wanted to change the general subject of the conversations. The outside world, which they were preparing to influence by their decisions, was lost to them for this timeless time, since their contact with it, via the ubiquitous TVs and news media, was cut off.

In this tiny world in which all the other people accepted what Niall could only doubt, he naturally felt a pressure to conform to their way of thinking. There were only two possible reactions in such a situation: he could change to think as they did, or he could rebel and reject everything they stood for. Niall was still not completely over his traumatic experiences of the last 15 years; and the paranoia that would have been debilitating to most people had they not had access to the healing drugs, was still present in his psyche, though to a very small degree. Niall rebelled. He did not become violent. He didn’t appear to lose his temper. But he did refuse to accept as valid what the other students believed so easily. Niall was able to find interpretations of his experiences that denied the validity of what he was being taught. Many of his arguments with his instructors took place in his mind. He would not allow others to know the intensity of his disagreement, that is, until he found a friend.

It was 11 days after Niall’s arrival that one Jean Baudin descended from a bus in front of the administration building with a disgusted look on his face. One of the first people he saw was Niall walking between classes. Here was a possible ally against a most unreasonable world. At the least it was someone who might know a few angles to take advantage of.

But Niall was hurrying away without having seen Jean, so Jean had to put off the reunion. But by some not-so-subtle questioning, Jean was able to discover the barracks where Niall lived and managed to “happen to run into him” at the cafeteria.

Niall was glad to see Jean because Jean had been an ally when they were in jail. He knew that Jean disagreed with the general way people looked at things in these parts.

“Do you know what that crazy judge did?” Jean sputtered when Niall asked what he was doing in Payer School. “She told me that I had a choice of banishment or coming to Payer School to learn how things work around here.”

“I had something of the same alternatives given me, except that I also had the choice of wearing a collar that would drug me to keep me calm and probably to serve as a warning to others that I was psycho.” Niall laughed.

“How does she get away with giving sentences like that?” Jean wondered. “I’ve been before judges in several countries and they hit you with a fine or some days in jail, but that’s it. There’s none of this giving you a choice of sentences and exile, for goodness sakes. They haven’t done exile in two hundred years.”

“Oh, they explained that in one of my courses,” Niall said. “History, I think it was. When judges couldn’t use fines any more because nobody can take money out of your account except you, they started to have to use other means of punishment. The Payers were paying for consequences and keeping a person in jail who isn’t dangerous is expensive for the judge who keeps him there. Then, too, the number of crimes and criminals dropped to very low levels and there were no more lawsuits, so there was a lot more time for the judges to consider what would be the best thing to do in each case. As if that weren’t enough, some people started setting themselves up as judges without having any connection with the State or local government. People who wanted a judgment would agree on a judge, state their cases before whoever they had agreed on, and accept the determination of the judge. Those who went back on their agreement to abide by what the judge decided had that added to their reputation in a Declaration. It wasn’t long before people found that it didn’t matter much whether the judges were official or not.”

“What does all that have to do with anything?” Jean interrupted. “This judge is still crazy.”

“No, really. The only judges who could get cases were those who were impartial and treated everybody fairly because both parties had to agree on who the judge would be. The best would find solutions that made both parties happy.”

“Well that stupid judge we got sure didn’t make me happy. If I had known what the sentence would be I’d have demanded another judge. But that attorney I got. They must have some sort of sweet swindle going where the attorney recommends the judge and then gets a kickback. He told me she was the best in the State.”

“At least you aren’t doing jail time,” Niall said soothingly.

“I think the whole setup is a conspiracy. They have to be making money off this thing somehow,” Jean maintained stoutly.

“Okay, so there’s a conspiracy. I haven’t been able to spot it. Every time I think I have it figured out, there’s some twist and I realize that isn’t it. Have you got any idea how they’re pulling it off?” He wasn’t expecting Jean to really know, but Niall had been without someone to confide in for a long time and the temptation slipped up on him without his realizing it. He was also no longer so conscious of the computer hearing and seeing everything as before, since the computer was only part of his life while in class. Naturally he suspected that there were hidden cameras and microphones and who knew what else in the barracks but since they were not obvious and no one acted as if they were observed he stopped being conscious of its presence.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Jean said in a low conspiratorial voice, “I think these Payers they got all over the place are what’s doing it. I think they got something up their sleeves. I know some of these guys around here are sincere and really are giving up luxuries and all that, but I bet there are a bunch of Payers that have all the luxuries they want. I think those guys are the ones that are in control. What do you bet that there are some Payers that can pay themselves? They can go around looking like rich guys and then in secret they pay themselves as much as they want.”

Niall said,” I thought of that, but how do they fool the computer?”

“They don’t have to fool the computer, they control the computer. It does just what they tell it to,” Jean maintained. “These courses they teach here are for these suckers who’ll do the work for the secret guys. Just because they tell you there’s no way to both pay and get paid, don’t you believe it.”

“Okay. Okay. So what do we do about it?” Niall asked.

“Why should we do anything about it?” Jean asked, surprised. “They got it made. I just want to get in on the good deal. I figure that if I can figure out how they control the computer they won’t miss a few million dollars.”

“Do you think the secret’s to be found here?” Niall asked.

“No. This place is for suckers. I think the Payers who can pay themselves have to have some place where they can hide out to enjoy their luxuries. They have to have some place where regular folks don’t go. And they’d have to defend their hideouts from people who just wandered by,” Jean paused and looked at Niall expectantly.

Niall looked back and raised his shoulders in a shrug.

“The POM colonies, man. It’s obvious,” Jean finally continued. “Remember how they ran out all the Payers when they took over? They claimed to have bought all the land around those towns, but I bet they got rid of the folks that objected.”

“POM colonies? What are they?” Niall asked. This was something that they’d not covered in any of his classes.

“The way they tell it,” said Jean, “there were a few folks who didn’t want the new money. They distrusted the whole thing. So some groups of them got together during the last two years of the old money. They came together around charismatic leaders, mostly, and colonized towns in the backwoods. New Mexico had quite a few of those groups because of the mountains and the independent attitudes of the folks out here. Anyway, they kept the old money and set up their own economies. Of course, they had a bunch of farms around each town and stocked up on food, figuring that everything was going to collapse when the new money came in. Most of them expected a small war in the U.S. with riots and starving mobs going about the countryside looking for food, so they about made fortresses of their towns and they picked places back in the hills which were easy to defend. You’d have thought that they were preparing for the end of the world.”

“So you call those towns ‘POM colonies?’” Niall asked.

“Yeah. But I think it’s all too pat. I think those places all fell apart in the first year or two after the transition. I think the rich Payers took them over and use them for their playgrounds. I mean, why else would they let them continue to exist when the army could take them out with no trouble?”

“I don’t know.”

“Those places are the only hidden places around. I mean, I’ve gone all over and those are the only places you can’t get in.”

“Why can’t you get in? Are they castles or something?” said Niall just stringing Jean along by now.

“They might as well be. They have roadblocks and armed guards. They also have these fences with barbed wire on the top,” Jean replied.

“Have you seen these with your own eyes?” Niall asked skeptically.

“Yes, I have. They threatened to shoot me if I didn’t go away. I was just asking for something to eat and a place to sleep and you would have thought I was the devil himself.”

“And they had guns and barbed wire on the fence?”

“Damn right they did. Guns with a big clip sticking out the bottom. You know, military guns. They’re trying to hide what they have up there.”

Now Niall was interested. He hadn’t seen any place barred by guards in all his travels since he had returned. Of course he hadn’t been to any of the army bases, but the airport only had police types sort of keeping the peace, not barring entrance. This did look like it might be the kind of place he was looking for. It was worth investigating at least.

Niall first tried the local library. They did have some books on local history, but they were more about Billy the Kid and ranchers than about things since the transition.

Niall could have used one of the library computers to explore the issue, but he felt that would just be inviting trouble. Such inquiries would be bound to bring him and his suspicions to the attention of the very people he most feared.

He did ask some of the other students about places to go fishing in the area. He got several long detailed answers to that question. They eliminated quite a few places as possible POM colonies but didn’t actually say anything about local places to avoid.

He did manage to bring up the subject in a cafeteria discussion. He had chosen his group carefully. He wanted people who were from the central New Mexico area (which most were anyway) and who lived away from the cities. He also wanted hunter and fisherman types who might have actually had contact with a POM colony. He didn’t dare risk bringing up the subject more than once, since that would be suspicious. By being from out of State and even, in many ways, from out of the country, he felt that natural curiosity would account for asking his about them once.

“What happened to the people who wouldn’t accept the new money at the transition?” Niall said hoping to edge gradually into the subject of POM colonies.

“Some of them just left the country. But that was a tiny number. Most just said, ‘You’ll be sorry’ or ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you’ but really didn’t do anything in particular,” a student said.

“There wasn’t any organized resistance? I would have thought there would have been groups that would have resisted with more than ‘You’ll be sorry,’” Niall probed.

Another said,” You better believe there were. There were some criminal gangs that practically went on a rampage for a couple of weeks after transition day. They thought there wouldn’t be anybody to stop them. Got shot to pieces for their trouble, too.”

“Wasn’t there any organized opposition out here in New Mexico?”

“Oh, sure. But they just hid up in the hills. They were no bother.”

“What ever happened to them?” Niall pushed ever so gently.

“They pretty much kept to themselves around my place. You have any trouble with them out your way, Marty?”

“No, Jack. We don’t bother them and they don’t bother us. They come out to trade sometimes.”

What do they do back up in the hills?” Niall asked.

“Well, I don’t know for sure. They make some craft work jewelry from silver and pretty stones. They also do some pottery and wool blankets,” Jack said.

Marty said, “I got my wife some bead work from one of them once. But usually I just traded for the jewelry and blankets.”

“You’ve actually traded with them?” Niall asked, delighted.

“Yeah. I was a farmer and rancher over near Manzano,” Marty continued. “There’s a pretty big colony up in the hills around there. Most years I could do quite a good business with them. Of course I have to barter with them. The other farmers round there and I keep each other informed as to what we ask and what deals they offer so we can generally keep the prices reasonable. And with Albuquerque so close, we don’t have any trouble finding some place else to take our crops.”

“What are they like?” another student named Steve asked, taking the burden off Niall.

“They’re just really poor folks trying to squeeze a living out of the ground. I think they keep their women working year round on those blankets and pottery and stuff. It’s all hand work and it must take a lot of time.”

“Do they have electricity?” Steve asked. “I wonder why they stay up there if they see on TV what the rest of us live like.”

“I don’t know. They really hardly talk at all except to dicker. Lots of the stuff they want I don’t have much of. They’re always asking for medicines and ammo and metal tools, even stuff like nails. I did trade them a sports bow a couple of years ago and a few arrows, but I don’t feel good about giving them ammunition.”

“How come they need medicine? Don’t the doctors get it sent to them for free?” Niall asked.

Jack said, “They won’t let the Payers in and they won’t let the computer make accounts for them and if the Payers can’t see the benefit, they can’t very well pay for it, so none of the pharmacies sends any medicine up there. I suppose they come to town to the hospital sometimes but I can’t remember ever hearing of anyone who did.”

Niall asked, “Why does the government tolerate them? Why don’t they go in and get them out of there?”

“Why should they?” Marty asked.

Niall started to answer and then stopped. “Because they are using a POM?”

“What makes you think it’s a crime to use a POM?” Steve asked, laughing.

Niall said,” I thought Congress passed a law changing us over to the new money.”

“They did,” Steve said.” But they didn’t make anything else illegal.”

“I don’t understand,” Niall said.” If the government made a new money didn’t that make the old money illegal?”

“No. Just irrelevant,” Steve said. “Look, if you have something that you want to trade with someone else and they want to trade with you, whose business is it except the two of you? Nobody’s.”

‘If you’re a businessman and want to accept some currency for a loaf of bread you own you can do it. But if that loaf benefits that other guy then you and those who helped you get that loaf will be paid by the Payers anyway, whether you accept his currency or not. So if giving that guy a loaf of bread gets you money anyway, he doesn’t need to pay you, does he.”

“So let’s assume that he doesn’t really need the loaf. He is just going to feed it to the seagulls. So he gives you currency and you give him the loaf and he feeds it to the seagulls. You got the currency but the folks who helped you get the bread aren’t getting paid anything. They won’t like that, will they? So they stop helping you get bread. If we assume that you want to continue to get bread, then you’d better give your bread to people who’ll benefit from it so that those who helped you get the bread will be paid also.”

“Now, given that situation, what good would the currency be to you? Who would want to accept it in trade? Nobody. Therefore it’s not a temptation to anybody with half a brain. The old POM just became irrelevant. It wasn’t a medium of exchange any more. Why should the government care what you do with it any more than they care what you do with the pretend money in a table game or Confederate money from the Civil War?”

“So,” Steve concluded, “why should the government drive the POM colonies out of the hills?’

Niall tried again, “Because they’re probably not getting the medical treatment they need. Marty did say they wanted medicine.”

“If they choose to not come out for medical treatment, we have no right to go in and impose it on them,” Marty said.” How would you like to be seized, taken to the hospital, and have some doctor treat you when you didn’t want to be treated?”

“But I’m not sick,” Niall countered.

“That’s what you think. When was your last checkup?” Marty asked.

“None of your damn business,” Niall shot back.

“Precisely,” Marty said.

“Well perhaps there are some children there who need medical attention,” Niall said.

“We don’t know that, do we? You want someone breaking into your house because you might be neglecting a child there?” Jack put in.

“Maybe they’re damaging the environment by cutting down all the trees or polluting the streams.” Niall was running out of ideas.

Marty said, “I live down stream from them and I haven’t seen any pollution. If they’re ruining the land up there, they’re being very subtle about it. But if there was a big surge of mud or something like in the water, we’d be up there in a hurry. We all depend on that river.”

“I guess it wouldn’t do any good to say they might be plotting or something up there.” Niall was conceding with humor.

“Just because you can imagine something bad someone else might be doing doesn’t give you the right to barge into their lives and take over. Besides, what would happen to the pay of a policeman who barged in and didn’t find anything wrong? He’d lose pay for months over something like that. In fact, there’s a good chance he would be up on charges himself,” Jack finished.

So Niall now had a focus for his suspicion. Nobody bothered the people in the hills. They did some trading, but they didn’t need medical care from the hospitals. That in itself demonstrated that they had all the doctoring they needed right there in the hills. They also must have their own hospital facilities and some source of the medications that modern science had made available. It was clear that there was more behind these POM colonies than met the eye. Jean’s flight of fancy and wishful thinking may have hit closer to the truth than Niall had suspected. The trick would be to find some way to investigate without being found out.


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