HomeNovelInvisible Hand – Chapter Twenty-Eight: Sent to the Office

      Click here for MP3 of this chapter

 

In which Niall vicariously visits the Old West, meets some new friends, and has to go to the Principal's office.

Niall could hardly believe his eyes as the bus pulled into the station. To begin with, the bus had horns. Not the kind that warn other motorists but the kind that grace the heads of big, bad bulls of Texas extraction. These were longhorns with a spread of over six feet from pointed tip to pointed tip. Along the sides of the bus the color scheme was a mural of the Texas prairie with sage brush and the occasional antelope in the distance. The bus itself appeared to be quite old-fashioned, harkening back some thirty years to the age when diesel buses ruled the road. Of course the bus was quiet and smokeless, as were all the other vehicles Niall had seen, but it looked old enough that one expected to see a plume of black smoke billowing at the back such a behemoth.

The door of the bus slid smoothly back to reveal a second apparition that somehow suited the exterior of the bus exactly. The driver was wearing a black sombrero decorated with what appeared to be endless star fields twinkling in the subdued lighting that brightened immediately as the passengers rose to disembark. Beneath the gaudy hat, was a serape-clad individual of swarthy visage and a prominent, hawk-like nose above a gold-toothed smile.

“Adios, amigos,” boomed a voice with a pronounced drawl which seemed drawn directly from the Hollywood studios of the 1930’s. Before the brightening lights caused the image to fade, Niall could have sworn the interior appeared to be a saloon. Niall knew it must be only a simulation, because there was no way the bus was as wide and deep as the inside had looked.

As the last passenger descended the stairs, the driver rose and clanked down the stairs himself. He was wearing high heeled boots that any cowboy worth the name would have been proud to keep in his foot locker until he was ready to celebrate reaching the end of the trail with a huge herd by hitting every saloon in Dodge City. They were decorated with flowers and horns of their own and a shine that was dazzling. They even had small spurs attached at the back, which gave a cheery jingle with each step.

Niall was surprised again when the driver thrust out his hand and almost shouted, “Howdy, pardner.”

“Ah, howdy, yourself, pardner,” Niall replied.

“You goin’ on to Albuquerque, pilgrim?”

“Yes, sir, I believe I am.”

“Well step right into the Last Chance Saloon and make yourself comfortable. We’ll be headin’ out just as soon as I get finished talking to the trail boss, yonder.”

“Thanks. Don’t mind if I do.”

Niall’s escort to the bus station was grinning from ear to ear at Niall’s expression and said, “Don’t mind Tex. He just likes to pretend that he’s still in the Old West. He’s really a Greek from New York that came out here to retire several years back and took up driving this bus as a hobby. Fixed it up right nice, he has. Well, good luck at Payer School.”

Niall shook hands with the deputy and turned to climb aboard the bus. It looked little different from other buses inside at the moment. The seats were arranged so that every other row faced the back of the bus with tables between the facing seats. Niall liked to ride facing the front of the bus, so he swung his small suit-bag into the overhead compartment and sat on the aisle facing the driver’s control console. At least that looked modern to Niall. There was a wrap-around screen behind the steering wheel that appeared to have all the status information and nothing much else.

After a few minutes some other passengers began to board. Most of them were in small groups, but there were a few singles. One of the singles placed a briefcase in the overhead and sat opposite Niall.

“Going far?” broke the conversational ice after a few minutes of trying not to stare at each other.

“I’m changing buses in Albuquerque for a little town named Golden.”

“You must be going to the Payer School. There’s nothing much else out that way. As it happens, I’m headed that way myself. Wellman’s the name, Darwin Wellman. Just call me D.W., everyone does.”

“I’m Niall Campbell. Good to meet you.” And they shook hands.

D.W. was what might be called an average 68-year-old white male who had been able to avoid both success and manual labor all his life. He was of average height, say, perhaps about five feet, ten inches tall and about 175 pounds with a small paunch. His hair was thinning on top, and toward the front there were now only a few strands left to justify DW thinking of himself as ‘not one of those bald guys, thank goodness.’

“So you’re going to become a payer, right?” D.W. commented, nodding yes as he did so.

“Perhaps. I haven’t decided quite yet.” Niall didn’t want to go into his reasons for attending Payer School and hoped his answer would deflect attention from his situation.

“Well, no doubt about it in my mind. I know what I want and I know how to get it. The Payers have all the real power in this country and I mean to straighten out a few things when I’m a payer. Know what I mean?”

“Not really. What did you have in mind?” Maybe this would distract D.W. from questioning Niall about his recent past. It wasn’t that far to Albuquerque and Niall figured he could tolerate whatever his seatmate wanted to talk about so long as he didn’t have to pay close attention.

“You know. There’s lots of people who don’t get the credit they deserve for what they’ve done. I could tell you stories. But never mind. Let me just say that…”

“Head ‘em up and move ‘em out” boomed the now familiar voice of the bus driver. The lights dimmed and suddenly they were in a Hollywood version of a Western saloon of the 1880’s. There was the sound of a piano and a babble of voices. Several cowboys sat at a table playing poker. A long, polished bar had several patrons and two bartenders pushing large mugs of foaming beer down the bar. At the back of the bus there was a small stage but no show girls, at least not yet. Niall could still see out the front window of the bus and he could see that they were leaving the bus station, but the motion was gentle. An older bearded man dressed in shabby clothes and worn out boots approached across the sawdust covered floor of the saloon and asked, “What’s fer ya?”

If Niall concentrated, he could see the side of the bus, but the illusion of the somewhat soiled old waiter was quite well done. He even seemed to be looking Niall in the eye as he asked. D.W. ordered a small beer and before Niall could think what to say, the waiter spit a stream of tobacco juice into the spittoon located near the table.

“Nothing for me thanks.” Niall managed to get out. He didn’t know whether to laugh or vomit at the seeming reality of the expectoration.

D.W. said, “It doesn’t really serve a beer but it does put the illusion of a mug on the table and if you act like you are grabbing the handle it will even make it look like you’re drinking from it. It’s kind of fun, in a way. It sure keeps the kids quiet and entertained. It’s all run by computers, of course. It must have cost the driver quite a bit to have it installed. This is all luxury stuff, you know. One of the regular passengers was telling me that the driver must have spent over $10,000 in getting it fixed up like this. Of course, I admit that he does get more passengers this way but this is luxury stuff and he doesn’t charge a thing for it. He should make this a luxury ride so people would have to pay for it. Clearly, he’s an idiot but it’s his money and if he wants to waste it this way we can’t do anything to stop it.”

Niall noticed that a girl of about four years was staring raptly at the head of a horse which had just poked its nose in a window of the saloon near the girl’s seat. Within a minute he could hear giggles and squeals coming from her direction as the horse seemed to be talking to her.

Niall directed his attention to the driver who had his feet up on the dash of the bus and was talking to the people at the table nearest the front of the bus. From the inside, the door of the bus appeared to be the swinging doors of a saloon and over the top of the doors one could just make out a dusty street with wooden sidewalks and the fronts of several stores across the way.

“Who’s driving this bus, anyway? The driver isn’t paying attention at all.”

“The computer, of course. It isn’t legal for commercial passenger vehicles to have human drivers when underway.” D.W. responded. “They had a bus wreck about 8 years ago when a driver fell asleep at the wheel and killed over 20 people.”

“Isn’t legal? I thought they didn’t have laws regulating businesses any more.” Niall said.

“Oh, the legislatures still pass laws like that. It’s just that nobody pays much attention to them. The folks that make buses and trains and planes for passengers make them so you can’t drive them without using the computer. Now this is an old bus, but nobody would work with the driver if he actually tried to steer the thing with passengers on it. So one of the first things that they did to it when Tex had this old crate fixed up was to install the computer controls. He could grab that steering wheel right now and try to turn it but it wouldn’t do him any good. The computer does the actual controlling of the bus.”

Niall and D.W. continued their conversation for most of the trip with D.W. explaining how he had become a great success in business, several of them, in fact.

Upon reaching the bus terminal in Albuquerque, they stayed together while D.W. got his suitcase. Then D.W. asked a nearby TV which bus would take them to the Payer School in Golden. It seems they had a two-hour wait, so they had time for lunch. There was a fast-food type place in the station but it was too soon to eat, so they looked around for something to do. The magazine rack held little attraction for Niall, and D.W. said he wasn’t going to do any more reading than he had to since he figured that they’d be doing a lot of reading in school. Niall finally suggested asking Jeeves what there was to do. D.W. thought it was a stupid idea but said to give it a try.

“Jeeves?” Niall said to a kiosk phone terminal.

“You rang, sir?”

“We’ve got a couple of hours to kill here. What is there for us to do?”

“Perhaps you’d like to meet some of the other members of your class at school, sir?”

“What do you think, D.W.?” Niall asked.

“It’s okay with me, I guess.”

“Let’s meet them, then, Jeeves.”

“I shall inquire as to their preferences, sir.”

There was a brief pause after which Jeeves intoned, “They are approaching from your left, sir.”

D.W. looked one way and Niall looked the other, since they were facing and each looked to his left. Niall couldn’t tell at first who they were, but then saw two women and a tall, handsome man coming toward them.

“There they are, over toward the buses,” Niall said.

D.W. turned and stared for a moment without picking them out but soon it was obvious that three people were looking at them and walking briskly their way. Well, two were walking briskly. One limped slightly as she moved. This detracted not at all from her obvious grace and classy demeanor. Her face had an exotic cast, not only in complexion (flawless) but also in a slight difference to the eyes and cheekbones from classical English beauty. Her clothing complimented her breathtaking beauty to perfection, emphasizing her best features and concealing any flaws that might exist. Such clothes were far from standard issue. Clearly this woman had considerable wealth in her background in addition to that which she wore on her back. She didn’t look anything like one expected a payer to look.

Niall’s attention did not get back to the others until they had come quite close, and the limping beauty was still some steps behind them.

“How do you do? My name is Oscar Prudeaux. I’m pleased to meet you,” the tall man said extending his right hand. He wasn’t quite so handsome up close, because the lines in the face and the thinning hair were unmistakable to one nearby. The throat was getting a bit of turkey wattle when his head was held a certain way. His hands, though still able to deliver a firm, man’s handshake, were beginning to show the ravages of age in the parchment quality of the skin and some age spots. His jacket and tie were in very good taste, but not at all flashy. Though of luxury quality they did not indicate great wealth, only great comfort. Niall found himself beginning to like Oscar already.

“Hello, my name is Niall Campbell.” Niall said to Oscar and to the lesser of the two ladies.

“Hello, I’m Natalie Carraway,” she said giving a handshake of surprising strength. But Niall’s attention was already being diverted to the beauty.

“My name’s D.W. Wellborn. Glad to meet you,” D.W. got in quickly and by taking a couple of steps and extending his hand, he was the first to be acknowledged by the regal one.

Stopping at a little distance from the others to avoid being rude to D.W., the lovely lady accepted his handshake and said, her glance taking in the others, “I’m Leyden Rutledge.”

There were traces of an English accent mixed with other elements. It was clear Leyden had been many places in her life. Her face bore the closer scrutiny much better than did Oscar’s. But then she was probably 15 years his junior, if not more… or looked it at least.

“Are we all going to the Payer School at Golden?” Oscar asked with a warm smile. There were general nods of assent and a variety of smiles of varying qualities. They fell to talking, with D.W. doing a little light bragging about his past, while looking mostly at Leyden. Oscar seemed to want to engage Niall’s attention and after a few comments began gently probing into Niall’s past. Niall’s paranoia immediately kicked in and he excused himself to go to the men’s room. When he returned, he discovered that the women were gone.

“Where are the ladies?” he asked with raised eyebrows.

“They seemed to think you had a good idea,” Oscar said laughing slightly.

“It’s nearing lunchtime. If we’re going to eat before the bus leaves…” D.W. observed.

“We can’t abandon the ladies,” Oscar said. “One of us should go reserve a table while the others wait here to be found.”

“I’ll go,” Niall said, much to D.W.’s relief, which showed, and Oscar’s relief, which didn’t show.

So as the party rejoined for the noon meal, Natalie and Niall sat rather quietly while Oscar and D.W. carried on a mild competition for the attentions of Leyden.

Finally it was time to meet the bus for Golden and school. The bus was a small one that would only comfortably hold about a dozen people, hardly more than a large van. It was nothing like the “Last Chance Saloon.” There were no illusions and no fancy paint job. The driver wore ordinary standard clothes except for a fancy belt buckle, two gold rings, and the seemingly obligatory decorated boots. This driver was bored, since his route was a local one and, though the passengers kept changing, the scenery did not.

There were several other passengers on the bus besides the Payer School party, but none of them looked to Niall as if they were prospective Payers. Some of them were obviously too young. The only two older passengers were a black woman of indeterminate, though advanced, age… who somehow seemed to belong in the desolate landscape outside – and an older man who sat in the back and looked ordinary. He seemed to lack the outgoing, people-oriented personality that Niall associated with Payers.

“Does anybody know when we get to Golden?” Leyden asked of the passengers. The stolid back of the driver seemed to reject questions.

“It’s just down the road here a piece. We should be there in ten minutes or so,” a young cowboy type replied.

“Thank you,” Leyden smiled at him warmly, instantly earning him the animosity of at least two of the male passengers.

The school at Golden was about 20 miles Northeast of Albuquerque. It was in the middle of nowhere so far as Niall was concerned, but he had been in nowhere before and at least this nowhere had some trees. The school, composed of barracks similar to a military base except there were no fences and no guards, seemed to be about the only reason for Golden to exist. There were also no cars and precious few parking lots, which had an assortment of pickups and SUVs baking in the early afternoon sunshine.

The bus pulled up in front of one barracks that looked a little more prominent than the others. It also had a sign saying “Administration.”

The bus stopped near the sidewalk and the driver, sighing deeply, opened the door and descended to give the departing passengers access to their luggage. Heat boiled into the interior, meeting halfway the seven persons who rose to leave the bus. To Niall’s surprise, both the black woman and the ordinary-looking man from the back of the bus also got off.

There was competition between Oscar and D.W. to be the first to carry Leyden’s luggage and D.W. accidentally picked up one of Natalie’s bags. Upon discovering his error, he hastily dropped the bag and secured the correct one.

Niall noticed and laughed, looking at Natalie. “Here, let me get that for you. I seem to be the least burdened of all the passengers.”

“I don’t need the help. I have only two bags and I don’t have a limp,” she replied with just a little edge in her voice.

“Yes, but I need the practice being a gentleman. You see, I haven’t had any practice in doing so for the last 15 years and I’m sure I’ve accumulated quite a bit of rust and lost a lot of hair since then.” Niall replied, still grinning.

“I really don’t need the help.”

“Of course not. It would be you doing me a favor to let me carry at least one of your bags. Couldn’t you take pity on an old man?”

“Oh, all right,” she said, finally breaking down and returning at least a part of his smile, “but only the smaller of the two. We don’t want being a gentleman to be too much of a shock to your system.”

The ordinary-looking man from the back of the bus, almost without being noticed, quietly asked if he could assist the black woman with her bag. She smiled at him and accepted his courtesy with little show but a gentle smile and nod of her head.

The party was strung out toward the entrance of the administration building led by the limping Leyden looking like a safari crossing the plains of Africa with memsahib Leyden bravely leading her party of bearers and beaters to the front door of the administration building.

D.W. and Oscar tied in their race to open the door for Leyden. This resulted in a conflict resolved by Natalie who had a free hand (thanks to Niall) to open the door for the rest. She and Niall shared a secret laugh at the situation and he gallantly stayed behind to bear her company in the painfully bright sun, while the old black woman and her helper entered.

Inside, the air conditioning was raising goose bumps on the exposed skin of Leyden’s arms, a fact that was noted carefully by Oscar and D.W. The dim lighting within after the brightness of the sunlight caused a general pause while sight returned to the party.

“Welcome, welcome. I see we all made it this time.” The greetings came from a short woman of middle age whose personality was obviously belied by her clothing. The clothing said she was strictly professional, cool, efficient, and all business. Her voice said she was cheerful, kindly, and warm.

“Are we everyone you expected?” Oscar asked, flashing his practiced smile.

“Well, we were expecting seven and you are seven. We were expecting four men and three women and that matches. Are any of you here for some reason other than to attend our Payer School?”

Their demurral was enough to start the welcoming rush again. “Now you all are just as welcome as you can be. We have a nice set of rooms just for your class. You will all be bunking in number 23, which is just down the road to the left there,” she swept her arm in a quick little arc toward the white gravel road that could be seen out the window. It looked blinding even through the tinted windows.

“I’m Brenda Thompson, the chief administrator, paper pusher, and maintenance worker around here. If you have a problem here you should tell me because I can probably do something to help. So if you’ll just come over to the desk and sign in and get your packets of welcome, we’ll get you all settled and comfortable in three shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

“Packets?” D.W. said.” It ain’t on the computer?”

“Of course, it’s on the computer. How do you think we printed it? But we find that people like to have it written on paper and some of them even like to carry it around with them.” She smiled, “Of course you can just ask the computer here in the office whenever you like if you want to see the information.

“Here in the office? Why not in my room?” D.W. asked in surprise.

“Because there are no terminals in your rooms nor in your barracks at all,” she said with a hint of a smile as if she expected a response.

“No computers?!?” several of the trainees said, clearly quite surprised.

“But how will I…”

“My shows, I’ll miss my…”

“My grandchildren…”

“Calm down. Calm down. Let me explain,” the now brisk administrator said in a sharp tone.

With that the group quieted but there were still some agitated movements of hands and blinking of eyes. Niall was as surprised as the others but, perhaps, for different reasons. First, he was surprised that anybody would be allowed out of the view and hearing of the central computer system. Second, he was surprised at how dependent the others in the party seemed to be on the omnipresence of the computer.

“First, I must point out that Payers may have no luxuries, at all, ever, for the rest of their lives. Living without the computer to meet your needs will bring home to you what you are giving up. Before you make your first payment, an irrevocable step from which there is no turning back, you must be certain in your own minds that you will be able to stand living without luxuries. The six-week course of study here is as long as it is in part so you can thoroughly test your state of mind.”

“Second, as a Payer, you must be sensitive to the people around you. They are your responsibility and your rewards. You must notice them. You must hear what they say rather than what you expect to hear. You must read their body language to see if it matches their words. You must be able to empathize with all kinds of people. The computer takes your attention away from others. You depend on it to tell you what happened rather than trusting your own senses.”

“Third, you feel watched when around a computer. This reduces your feelings of temptation when you have an opportunity to do something you would feel embarrassed for other people to know. In our situation, you will find yourself with opportunities to use and consume luxuries. If you knew the computer would observe that behavior, you would very likely restrain yourself. But with no computer, you can get away with secret consumption. No one will necessarily know if you cheat and use luxuries. We want you to find out how you will react to temptation, because you will be tempted if you become Payers.”

“Therefore, you will not have the computer available in your barracks. You will not have it available in the recreation rooms or in the cafeteria. It will be available in the classroom and here in the offices. But nowhere else. Naturally, this does not extend to your payer phone. When carrying that phone, you will have contact with the computer but it is a limited contact.”

“Is that clear to everyone?” Nods and murmurs of agreement followed.

“All right, then. Get your copies of the handouts and check into your barracks. That’s number 23. It’s your choice of the rooms. None are very good,” she finished with a grimace.

They took their turns picking up the handouts and turned toward the door in a straggling column once again. Niall and Natalie were once again near the back of the column. As Niall got his papers, the administrator said to him in a quiet though not secret way, “Please come back here as soon as you’re settled. There are some things we have to go over.”

Niall thought, “Boy, here we go. She’s going to read me the riot act.”

So it was a quiet and surly Niall who carried Natalie’s suitcase the several hundred yards of blazing heat between the oases of the air-conditioned barracks. Since they brought up the rear, they found all the more convenient rooms were already taken and of the five rooms that were left, one didn’t have a functioning toilet and another looked like the painter had stopped half way through the job. Rejecting these impossible rooms made the resultant choice simple if not a pleasure.

Having minimal belongings, Niall found himself back in the heat and then back in the administration building within 15 minutes. He brought something of a mood with him. He was ready to bite nails and was disgusted with the whole situation. It’s wonderful what fifteen minutes in the New Mexico sun without a hat can do for your mood when it looks like your next six weeks will be spent living in a dump. Of course, he had spent most of the last 15 years living in an environment that was far worse, but we human beings get spoiled really fast.

Once again it took his eyes a little while to become accustomed to the dim lighting of the room. But this time he was more attentive to his surroundings. The walls were beige with two windows on the front wall and one to each side wall. The back of the room had two doors, one to either side of the receptionist’s desk. This time there was a receptionist, sort of. An old cowboy was sitting in the chair with his boots (none too clean) on a corner of the desk. His hat, which was tilted down over most of his face, had seen better days and was sweat stained and frayed around the edges of its highly curled brim.

Niall approached the desk and cleared his throat… Nothing.

“Excuse me, please,” he tried. Still no effect.

Finally, his mood beginning to boil over, Niall gave the bottom boot a strong shove forcing it to the floor with a crash as the cowboy hit the floor with the flat of both feet. It was then that Niall noticed the badge that had been concealed by a fold of the loose shirt on the slim-figured man.

“Well, well, well. You are something of a violent cuss aren’t you?” the deputy said, frowning. “Judge up in Santa Fe warned me that you were a little quick on the trigger. I guess she was right. Mister, I don’t know what’s eatin’ you but you better get it outta your system now or I’m gonna escort you to the State line one way or another and I’m comin’ back alone. You got that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Niall said.

“Judge told me I should cut you some slack on accounta you been out of the country for a time. So I’m gonna tell you this once. Folks from ‘round here don’t touch strangers without asking permission first. They don’t hit, shove, push, or act disrespectful. Now you’re going in to see Ms. Thompson. I got a lot of respect for Ms. Thompson. I won’t take it kindly if I hear you didn’t show her the greatest respect. Now you get your attitude in a respectful place. You put a polite smile on your face. And you use your Sunday manners every second with her or you may not even make it to the county line.”

By this time the deputy was about four inches from Niall’s nose and though they were about eye to eye, Niall had the feeling that this man was able to back up his words with actions.

“She asked me to come see her when I was settled in the barracks. I’m settled, so I’m back. Just now this is about the best I can do for a smile. If it isn’t good enough, you better show me a place to sit and wait.” Niall put on a smile that, though obviously not heart-felt, was a decent effort.

“Her office is there,” he said indicating the door to Niall’s left.

Niall nodded, said “Thank you,” with a small bow and turned away from the deputy. He approached the door with some trepidation, squared his shoulders and knocked.

“Come in, it’s open,” from behind the door.

Niall opened the door and stepped through.

“That was quick. You got settled in good time. I hope you got a comfortable room. Please sit down, Niall.” Brenda, a cheery smile on her face, had risen to her feet behind her desk and was pointing to a comfortable chair to the right of her desk.

“Thank you,” Niall said, and took the offered seat.

“I understand you’re here as a part of a sentence by Judge Blake.”

“Yes, ma’am. They hustled me on the bus right out of the courtroom. They even had a bag of toiletries ready to give me. I guess they had a pretty good idea what was going to happen right from the beginning.”

“Judge Blake is usually pretty well organized,” Ms. Thompson laughed. “First off, did you get a chance to glance over those booklets to get acquainted with our campus and how we do things?”

“I’m afraid not. I just dropped my bags and the handouts in my room and came right back here.”

Brenda nodded. “That’s all right. You can look them over later. There isn’t really much in them since we have very few rules here.”

“But you’re a special case,” Brenda said sitting up straighter and leaning forward. “I understand that you’re not really intending to become a Payer. You’re one of Judge Blake’s rescue attempts. We don’t mind her using us as a half-way house, but we make no attempt to give you any special treatment just because you’re not really intending to become a Payer.”

‘Okay,’ Niall thought. ‘Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.’

“Quote,” she said in a sing-song voice, “A Payer is not allowed to have money or anything that money can buy unquote. That means that you’ll have to do without alcohol and nicotine and any other recreational drugs you may be taking. Coffee and tea are considered necessities for some reason, so those are permitted.” A look of disdain crossed her features. Clearly she was someone who either had never used caffeine or was a recent addict just coming off the stuff, and, complete with evangelical surety, enjoyed a heartfelt obligation to nag others into compliance with her new life, Niall mused.

“I see that you’re wearing a wrist watch that seems to be a luxury model and your jacket’s not standard issue. You’ll report to the laundry and get two sets of yellows. One you will wear while the other is in the laundry. Each evening you will get a clean set of clothes from the laundry and each morning you will return to the laundry the clothes worn the day before. Should your clothes become soiled, you may go to the laundry at any time and exchange them for clean clothes.”

“What’s wrong with these clothes?”

“Nothing at all. You can continue to wear them if you like. It’s your choice. But the other students here all wear the yellows as part of their training. Before becoming a payer, they need to really know what it is to live without luxuries. Therefore, we have adopted the yellow standard issue clothes as a means of identifying the students from the actual Payers among us. It would not do to have some Non-payer use a luxury and be thought to be a payer. So you can wear what you like, but if you want to be comfortable around the other students you should look like them at least.”

“Okay, that makes sense,” Niall nodded.

“You will eat at the mess hall. Do you have any special dietary requirements?”

“No. Nothing special. Just lactose intolerance. I can’t digest milk,” Niall answered.

“You’ll have the infirmary available if you have any medical difficulties. A lot of our students are old enough that we often need medical treatment nearby. Do you have any medical conditions that we should inform the doctors about? They can get your records, of course, if you ask for treatment, but if there’s some condition that would require special equipment or medications that they don’t have on hand, we can make arrangements with the hospital in Albuquerque.”

“I have a bad knee but there’s nothing special that it requires. I have a prescription for malaria medication that I’ll need to get filled in a couple of weeks. Usually it’s no problem.”

“While you’re here you’ll get a taste of doing without luxuries. If you can’t go without them, you need to find out now, before you become a Payer. Once you become a Payer, once you make that first payment, there’s no going back. You can never again have money or luxuries for the rest of your life. There are no exceptions. You are completely identified as a Payer when you make a payment and your identity is indelibly marked in all the computers in the system on every screen of information about you. I cannot emphasize too strongly that it will do you no good to plead or say you were not in your right mind. There will be nothing anyone can do for you. The computer will not even be able to indicate that you own any luxuries and it will not have any account for you.”

“We do frequently lose some of the students who cannot do without cigarettes or beer or some such.” Again her mouth pursed with disapproval. “To find out whether they can resist the temptation, we make alcohol and tobacco freely available in the mess hall and in the dorms. It will be there within reach whenever you are at your weakest. If you succumb to the temptation, you are the only one who needs to know. We will not check up on you and will not expel you if we find that you’re using the drugs. But you will know and you will know that to use those luxury items after you become a Payer will expose you to being ejected from the payer organization. Once ejected, you will no longer be a Payer and will be branded as a failed Payer on all information about you in the computer. For all anyone knows you will be a Payer who accepted a bribe. No Payer will acknowledge you. You will have lost any respect that you may have earned. This condition is also irrevocable. If you are found guilty of taking a bribe, you can never be a Payer again unless your conviction is disproved beyond a shadow of a doubt. Proof of having consumed a luxury is all the evidence necessary to convict you. Is this point clear?”

“Yes ma’am, but I’m not going to become a Payer.”

“So long as you’re here, everyone will treat you as if you were intending to become a Payer anyway.”

“Now… because we believe that the Payers are the heart and soul of what makes our economy so successful, we make every effort to prepare each student to be an effective Payer. But we cannot and do not succeed with everyone, by any means. There are some who just seem to lack the personality to be a good Payer. We recommend and sometimes plead with those students not to become Payers. But whether to become a Payer or not is their choice and we may not make it for them, no matter that we feel their decision will be a personal tragedy for them. They must be allowed to become Payers if that is their decision. Also, if they decide they don’t want to make the commitment to become a Payer for life, we don’t make any attempt to change their minds. A reluctant Payer cannot be a good Payer. Do you understand that whether you become a Payer is your choice and no one may require that you become a Payer and no one may prevent your becoming a Payer, not even a judge.”

“I understand. The choice is mine and mine alone.” Niall was becoming a little impatient with the conversation. What did she think he was, a first grader?

“And that it is irrevocable if you become a Payer?”

“I understand that once I am a Payer I can never return to my former status and consume luxuries,” Niall nodded, sheesh.

“Mr. Campbell, in your case the judge has requested that we inform her if you consume any alcoholic beverages or if you lose your temper or both. You understand that these requirements are those of the judge and not our requirements. But we will cooperate with the judge in this matter. We will honestly report what we observe. Therefore, please be above suspicion. Do your best to avoid even the appearance of anger and avoid any mouthwash or drink that might be mistaken for alcohol. We don’t want any suspicion and we don’t want to have to make any difficult decisions. Because, rest assured, you will not get the benefit of any doubt. Think of yourself as having two strikes on you, so don’t take any pitches that are close to the plate.” Brenda smiled at her masculine analogy.

“I understand. I’ll be like Caesar’s wife,” Niall soberly replied. “Maybe this is a prison after all,” he thought.

“Good,” she said. “I understand that you’ve been out of the country until recently so you don’t have some of the knowledge that most of our students arrive with. Therefore, I’m going to give you some material that I’d like you to read in the other room. It’ll take less than a minute to read, but it’s the basis of everything we do here, so give it some thought and then come back and we’ll discuss it. Shall we say 10 minutes?”

She took a single sheet of paper from her desk and handed it to Niall.

Niall rose, thanked her, and went into the waiting room to read.

Damnedest school I was ever in Niall thought. The subject matter all on one sheet of paper? They have got to be kidding me.

Sighing, Niall sat down to read on one of the vinyl-covered chairs next to a reading lamp that looked like a failed high school shop project. He was relieved to see that the paper had only a few lines of writing on one side. This is what it said:

The Ten Principles of the New Money

The Computer Accounts

1. Money exists only in the computer accounts of individual people.
2. Only the individual owning an account can have money deducted from that account.
3. Money cannot be transferred from one person’s account to another person’s account.
4. Purchases are made by having the amount of the purchase deducted from the account of the purchaser.

What Money can Buy

5. Money can buy only goods and services designated “luxuries.”
6. Goods and services designated “necessities” are free to all, as needed.

The Paying Profession

7. It is the duty of a profession (to be called here “Payers”) to evaluate each person’s actions and to pay them accordingly by increasing the amount of money in their accounts.
8. Only Payers can increase the money in an individual’s account.
9. All Payers must be volunteers and all volunteers must be accepted unless and until evidence of their biased or dishonest payments is produced.
10. Payers can never have money or luxuries for themselves, even if they stop being Payers.

As she had said, it took him less than a minute to read the page. These must be the Ten Principles that Jean mentioned, Niall thought. Yes, there it was in number 6.”Goods and services designated ‘necessities’ are free to all, as needed.” It sure sounded like propaganda right out of the Communist Manifesto.

Then he remembered Jean quoting this principle as his justification for moving into someone else’s house without permission. It seemed that private property still existed, since in any “everybody is equal” system either the house would belong to the community or everybody would have only one house. The judge certainly seemed to have little sympathy for Jean’s attempt to take over the house.

Wait. Be systematic. What about the first principle? Money exists only in computer accounts of individuals. Yes, I understand that. That’s pretty simple. I remember getting my account at the airport. I guess I have nothing to ask about that one.

The second principle is “Only the account owner can spend the money in it.” That’s pretty simple, too. If it’s my money, it makes sense that I’m the only one to spend it. I don’t think I’ll need any questions on that one, either.

Third is that the money can’t be transferred from one account to another. That doesn’t make sense. How can they put it in your account in the first place if it can’t be transferred? Where does the money come from if it can’t be transferred? That one she is going to have to explain.

Fourth, when you spend money it goes out of your account. That makes sense. Of course, it conflicts with number three. Maybe she can explain that one also, fat chance.

Fifth is money can only buy luxuries. Okay. But what’s a luxury? Who says what a luxury is and what isn’t? Sounds like a lot of power in the hands of whoever does. That’s a definite question right there.

Sixth is that Communist one.

Seventh is just saying there are Payers.

Eighth is that only Payers can put money in your account. That seems simple enough.

Ninth is that anybody can be a payer and you can’t force anybody to be a payer. She already went over that with a steam roller.

Tenth is that Payers can’t have luxuries no matter what, for life. She pretty well rode that one into the ground as well.

Okay. I’m ready. Let’s see if she has any good answers.

Niall rose to his feet and knocked on Brenda’s door. He was soon back in the comfortable chair and some of his attitude, the one so thoroughly squashed by the deputy, was seeping back.

“Do you have any questions about what the first item means?”

“No, it seems pretty simple,” Niall replied and was about to go on when the administrator asked him a question.

“What does that mean for a corporation?”

“What do you mean?” Niall asked.

“If money can only be in the accounts of individuals, what does than mean for a corporation? Can a corporation have money?”

Niall paused. “No. I guess they can’t.”

“What about a government? Can this county have money?”

Niall paused again. “No, they can’t either.”

The administrator said, “Go on.”

Niall paused and said, “No organization or group or church or family or anything can have money except individuals.” He paused again. “Payers can’t pay an organization or a group or a business. Payers can only pay individuals.”

The administrator nodded.” That’s correct. Do you have any questions about the second principle?”

Niall looked down at the list again and read “Only the individual owning an account may have money removed from that account.” Maybe there was more here than met the eye.

“Can the judge impose fines?” he asked.

“No, she cannot. She cannot have money removed from anyone’s account but her own.”

“Can the government take any money from my account for taxes or any other reason?” Niall asked.

“No, the government cannot have money removed from anyone’s account regardless of whether they have a reason. Only the individual who owns an account may have money removed from that account. That is literally true. It means exactly what it says. That is why every time you buy something, you must explicitly tell the computer to debit your account in the amount of whatever.”

“About the third principle. That doesn’t seem possible.” Niall declared, deciding to take the initiative.

“‘Money cannot be transferred from one account to another account.’ That seems to be a simple statement. Can you explain what you mean by saying it’s impossible?”

Niall sat forward, his elbows on the desk, with his fingers forming a steeple and explained. “Money is no good unless it can be traded for something. Something which cannot be traded cannot be used as money. Therefore, it is impossible to have a money which cannot be transferred from one person to another.”

The administrator allowed a brief smile to break the even line of her lips, slightly touched with what Niall took to be a shade of burgundy gloss, and leaned back in her chair. “Mr. Campbell, you have money in your account. I believe that you have bought luxuries. Therefore you have experienced what you are describing as being impossible. Step one: you have had money placed in your account. Where did it come from? Did a payer put it there? Yes. Did that money come from somewhere else or did the numbers in your account just get bigger? The numbers just got bigger. No other account got smaller when yours got bigger. When you spent money, the numbers in your account got smaller. No other account had its numbers get bigger just because yours got smaller. In other words, your money comes into existence when you are paid and your money ceases to exist when you spend it. Do you agree that this is what happens?”

“Yes, but that isn’t a trade.” Niall defended, warming to the challenge of the debate.

“Then let’s try another tack. Do you give up money when you buy something?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you get something when you buy something?” she persisted.

“Yes.”

“That sure sounds like a trade to me. You give something and you get something or am I missing something?” she added, again with a brief smile playing across her mouth.

“No, but the guy who I got the thing from didn’t get my money. Therefore, there was no trade.” That should hold her, Niall thought to himself. I’ve got her on that one. Then unbidden and at the moment unwelcome, the image of Enid Lee flashed in front of him; he had been wiser than she as well, correct?

“Who said you were trading with the guy who gave you the item you bought?” Brenda countered. “What was it, by the way?”

Niall said, “I bought a car. Let’s use that example.”

“OK. Nobody said that the trade was with the guy who gave you the car.”

“It was a woman who gave me the car.” Niall paused.” No, you didn’t say that the trade was with her. But then who was the trade with? It wasn’t with the guys who made the car. It wasn’t with the guys who brought it to the lot. It wasn’t with you. So who was it with? I say there was no trade at all.”

“Let’s take those people one at a time. From your point of view as an individual, you gave up something, your money, and you got something, a car. Right?”

“Right.”

“From the point of view of the woman who gave you the car, she gave you the car and she got paid for her helping you by a payer giving her money. Therefore she gave up something and she got something, right?”

“Well I assume that she got paid something for that.”

“Right. She probably got paid something for giving you the car. Now what about whoever brought the car to the dealer. Did they give up anything?”

“They worked and they had wear and tear on their truck and they burned gas.” Niall could have gone on but thought that was enough.

“And did they get paid for the net benefit of those actions?”

“I guess so.”

“What about each of the individuals who participated in or contributed to the manufacture of the car? Did they each give up something? Did they each get paid for the net benefit of the consequences of their actions?”

“Okay. I get your point. Each person involved in this whole affair both gave something and got something. So what? I didn’t trade with any of them.” Niall felt triumphant. Her whole case was falling apart.

“Mr. Campbell, is a trade an exchange?” she just would not give up and admit he was right.

“Of course.”

“When all those people who got money for helping benefit you with the car spend their money, will a lot of goods and services have been exchanged?”

“They will have been given to other people but not exchanged. In no case are two people exchanging items.” Niall was shaken a little but still felt he had the better of the argument.

“Mr. Campbell, what you are describing as exchange is called ‘barter.’ There is no money, no medium of exchange, involved in barter. When you use money, even a POM, you are not directly exchanging items but are using a medium so that you don’t have to directly exchange item for item with other people. When you use a POM you may, under some circumstances, actually give up a physical object such as the currency form of that money, but the person you’re giving it to only values it because it can be traded in turn, not for its inherent usefulness, such as was the case before the transition.

“Speaking of which, at one time all money was commodity money. Then the money itself had value to the individuals in and of itself. But few monies have been of value in and of themselves for the last 100 years in any economy I can think of. The essence of what money is comes from its being a medium of exchange. Money makes it easier for people to exchange goods and services. In many ways it’s just another kind of accounting system.”

Niall considered something, started to speak, hesitated and then said, “So what you are saying is that because people want this account money they give goods and services to each other and that is the exchange.”

“Yes Mr. Campbell. The money in these accounts serves as a medium by which goods and services are exchanged. This is true even though the money in these accounts is never transferred from one account to another, even though the computer program will not allow money to be transferred from one account to another. Do you understand what that means?”

As Niall thought of the implications, they seemed to multiply, tumbling one over the other in a multidimensional kaleidoscope of relationships until he had to order them in his mind. “It means, for starters, that you can’t give your money to anyone else. It means no one can take your money, even by force. After all, what is there to take? It means that you cannot loan money to someone else. It means that there is no insurance, since there is no way one could pay a claim. I guess maybe it also means that when you buy something no one has a reason to cheat you. Of course that last one is a little tenuous, I suppose.”

“Ready for the fourth principle?” Brenda asked, her voice prying into his reverie.

“Fourth? Okay. This one seems the most obvious to me,” Niall said.

“Yes it is mostly just a description of the mechanics of how money is spent. What about the fifth principle? Here we describe what money can buy.”

“Glad you asked because I have a lot of questions on this one. First off, who’s to say what is a luxury and what is not a luxury? I should think that would vary from individual to individual. What’s a luxury to one person would be called a necessity by another.” That seemed obvious to Niall and he thought it was the strongest objection yet to the system, and so naturally he thought it should be obvious to everyone else.

“You’re quite right,” Brenda responded, continuing; “That which is a luxury to one person may seem a necessity to some other persons. But what has that to do with the fifth principle?”

“Hold on a second. What do you mean what does it have to do with it? Read it yourself. It says that money can only buy goods and services that are luxuries.”

“No. It says ‘which are designated luxuries’ which is altogether different. I can designate anything as a luxury. It doesn’t have to actually be a luxury in reality.”

Niall was a little disgusted and, truth be known, slightly let down at this seemingly feeble turn in the debate. “So all this says is that money can buy anything since anything can be designated as a luxury.”

“Not quite. What it says is that money should be able to buy only some things, not everything,” Brenda emphasized, with a slight arching of her neatly plucked auburn eyebrow. “Now it does not say what should be included as things that money can buy. It also doesn’t say how the decisions should be made, that is, which people or what group or what individual should make that decision. Given that some group has to make those decisions, it does not say how that group should reach a decision. It is left completely up to those who implement such a form of money.”

“Well, that answers my next question, too, then. I was going to ask who decides,” Niall laughed.

“Oh, we let the Payers decide,” she said.

“The Payers?” Something about that simple answer struck Niall as logically dubious. “Begging your pardon, Ms Thompson, but isn’t that like asking the fox to guard the hen house? I mean why wouldn’t they just make everything necessities so that they can have everything for free?”

“Oh, no. If they did that, then money wouldn’t be able to buy anything and the Payers would have no power to influence anything. No one would care about the Payers. The Payers want the desire for money to be a powerful motivation for people. The more powerful that motivation, the more important Payers are to the people who work to produce everything. Therefore, they are more motivated than anyone else to have as many things as possible be luxuries.”

She stopped for a moment, as if this point was a regular one for newcomers to ponder, and walked to the window, staring toward the distant hills, shimmering in the convection mirage of the heat.

“There’s a certain balance there, don’t you think?” she continued, noticing that Niall seemed more reflective than puzzled or panicked, the two major reactions to this point. “On the one hand, Payers want more things to be necessities so they can have them, but on the other hand, they want fewer things to be necessities so that they’ll feel more powerful. A self-correcting balance, don’t you think?”

“I guess that you’ll give me a similar answer if I ask about the sixth principle.” Niall said.

“Similar in some ways,” she said.” The principles don’t specify how we’re to designate necessities. Also, as you mentioned in regard to luxuries, what seems a necessity to one person may not seem necessary at all to someone else. But then, we can designate anything as a necessity whether it’s actually necessary or not. And, yes, we do let the Payers make that designation for us and for the same reason as before: a balance of opposing forces that should prevent extremes in either direction.” She paused for a moment, cast what seemed to Niall to be a wistful glance toward the hills and said, “Any more questions about the sixth principle?”

Niall thought of Jean and decided to go ahead, though the particular language was not to his liking. “This principle is clearly Communist,” he said with a rise in his voice approaching an accusatory tone. “How do you justify that?”

If the charge bothered her one whit, Brenda didn’t let on to that effect. “Okay,” she began, her elbow on the window sill and her body facing him at an angle that made Niall re-evaluate his earlier impression of average looks. “You had better tell me what you mean by ‘Communist’ so I can understand your comment.” she said, clicking the index fingers of both hands in an act of forming parentheses. Niall hadn’t seen that one in years.

“You know,” he began, searching his memory from his Foreign Service training for the verbatim expression, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, that sort of thing.” The last he added as a tribute to Derrin and his endearingly stereotypical English manner. “Pure Communism.”

Seemingly amused at this somewhat unexpected turn of the topic from the decisions she had made about Niall (layabout, surly, argumentative), Brenda began her argument as she sat down opposite him in one of the comfortable chairs on Niall’s side of the desk. “Shall we start with Socialism, then?” she asked.

“You can start with anything you like, but you are going to eventually end up admitting that it’s Communist.”

“We shall see. Socialism is government ownership and control of the means of production, correct?” Her tone was even and objective, neither threatening nor encouraging.

“Close enough,” Niall replied.

“You’ve been in this country for over a month now. Have you seen any government ownership or control? Have you even seen any government other than the police? Anywhere?”

Niall reflected for a moment and then realized that he was stalling for time, as he knew the answer intuitively as soon as she had put the question to him. There was no representative of government at either of the places he had worked. There were no rules that he knew of which had come down from government. There certainly were no government guys there checking to see if they were following the rules. Hell, he couldn’t even remember anyone bitching about the government, which had been a favorite topic of pointless griping when he had left the States. Of course there were Payers around from time to time, but that wasn’t government, if he was following Brenda’s train of thought.

“Okay,” he responded, slightly irritated at the fact that he was unable to successfully suppress the silly grin that moved across his face. “I agree that I have not seen any government control and all the property I have known of was not owned by any government.”

“So can we rule out Socialism for our society?”

“Yes. Agreed, not Socialist.”

“The Communist nations of the 20th century were all Socialist, so, though they called themselves Communist, they were really Socialist, right? What I mean is that they used the term Communism to personalize their form of State Socialism, would you agree?”

“Yeah, sure,” he allowed. “They lied about a lot of other things, too,” Niall said. Sure as hell lied about other things, he thought, half hoping they might continue this skewering of the Eastern Nations Group, – one of his favorite whipping boys, for obvious reasons – but she was already moving on.

“Okay, but on to Communism,” she began. “In a commune, by definition, most things are owned in common. Have you seen any property that was owned in common since you’ve been in this country?” she asked, eyebrows raised. Niall again lingered on the pretty auburn glint off her eyebrows, and then rejoined the conversation.

“No, okay, but how could I tell?”

“For one thing, you’ll notice that when you buy something all the money comes out of your account. How could the computer register the ownership of something which you own only half of? Which half would be owned by which person? Just like there cannot be joint accounts, there cannot be joint ownership. Therefore, no property is owned in common. Therefore, no communes.” Now she was sounding like a lecturer and Niall immediately wanted the warmer Brenda back, the one who had him thinking of her, but most definitely not in the role of lecturer.

She continued, “Mr. Campbell, how does a Communist State acquire the goods it gives to all? What motivates the producers of those goods to work?”

“If they don’t work, they are jailed or shot. That seems like ample motivation to me,” Niall added, with more than a healthy dose of sarcasm. It occurred to him that Brenda would have only minimal knowledge of his past, whatever was in the envelope from the court, and that he might get to explain it in depth, more casually, if…

“What motivated the people who gave you food?”

“Sorry. Say again?” He hoped that she had not been able somehow to divine what he was thinking. He didn’t know how, but damned if some women couldn’t do it.

“What motivated the people who gave you food?”

“They’d get paid for it.”

“All right. Would somebody shoot them or put them in jail if they didn’t give you food or a place to live?”

“Uh, no,” Niall was beginning to feel trapped.

“In a free market economy, say, what is the motivation of those who work?”

“They want to trade what they produce for other things.”

“What was your motivation for working this last couple of months?”

Niall was almost squirming. “I wanted to better myself. I like being usefully employed.”

“Was anybody forcing you to work? Was anybody forcing you to give your property to someone in need?”

“No.”

“Then in what sense is the economy you’ve been living in Communistic? I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she added, almost gratuitously, it seemed to Niall.

“None, I guess.”

“Mr. Campbell, my point here is not to make you admit that you’re wrong, it’s to point out to you that there are all sorts of ways to be sure everybody gets whatever they need to live, in the sense we have been discussing these last few minutes. The way we’ve chosen is to pay anybody who gives someone else what they need. It doesn’t matter whether we call what is given a luxury, a necessity or what have you.”

“The Payers pay for the consequences of the action, not the morality or virtue of the action. If you need food and someone gives you food, they get paid. We don’t have to force anyone to do this, since there’s almost always someone at hand willing to do it for the money.”

“Okay. So it’s not Communistic or Socialistic. It still sounds like welfare to me.” And speaking of me, Niall thought, when is she going to call me Niall and leave that Mr. Campbell behind? Probably when I call her Brenda and not Ms. Thompson.

But something told him not to just yet.

“You may call it what you will.” she said, as if she had, once again, been reading his mind. “Now let’s get to the part that is important for us here at the school, shall we, Niall?”

He could only look at her and hope that he didn’t look as surprised as he felt.


Comments

Invisible Hand – Chapter Twenty-Eight: Sent to the Office — No Comments

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar