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HOMELAND

Chapter One

The man woke up and stared into the bright glare of neon lights on a white ceiling. For a long time he lay there, not moving, not even thinking. He simply existed, blinking up into the whiteness. Slowly, as the minutes crept past, he became aware of himself by degrees. He became aware of the touch of the firm mattress beneath him and the crisp, white sheets covering him. He became aware of a sharp smell in the air he felt he should know but could not place. He became aware of his arms and his hands. He stretched his fingers, rubbing them against the sheets, feeling the fabric.

He noticed his body ached and a dull stiffness tugged at every muscle. How long was it since he had moved? Could he even remember how to? He did not like this feeling.

Machinery hummed around him and, as soon as he became aware of it, the sound became an acute and intrusive din. He wished it would stop. Other noises imposed themselves on his consciousness, little staccato calls that rose and fell in pitch and urgency. He concentrated on these. They were important, he should know what they were. Then he remembered that he did know. They were voices.

Then he remembered his name. Tracy Higgs. A feeling of mild disappointment came over him. Tracy was a perfectly good name for a boy, he told himself. Many great men had been called Tracy. The author Tracy Kidder, awarded a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam. The basketball player Tracy McGrady. A perfectly good name. Nothing wrong with a man being called Tracy, nothing at all. He had other names, yes, middle names. Dwayne. Jocelyn. Tracy Dwayne Jocelyn Higgs. He paused in his thoughts for a moment. My friends call me Higgs, he decided.

He remembered then that it had been difficult being a boy called Tracy at boarding school. What was his mother thinking when she named him that? She would do embarrassing things like come to visit, call him Tracy and insist on kissing him in front of all his friends. Higgs shuddered at this memory. The only way he could get his friends to shut up about it was to beat the crap out of them. Sometimes, he had to beat the crap out of them for weeks.

He was amazed. Memories flooded into his head as if from nowhere. Yes, he had been at boarding school. His father and mother were always moving around, following Father’s job in the military. He had a younger brother too. A deaf-mute brother called Rufus. A deaf-mute brother who always got on Higgs’ nerves—Rufus always got the sympathy, he always got away with things. Higgs had no choice but to talk to Rufus on his terms, in sign language and, though Higgs was good at it, he was no match for his brother’s swift-fingered insults. Suddenly, Higgs felt alone. Where was his brother? Where was Higgs? He tried to move but the sheets had him pinned. They were tucked in too tight. He couldn’t breathe.

A man leaned over him, a man with a long, thin face which seemed to be lacking a chin. A mass of tight, blond curls clung to the top of his head. His eyes seemed altogether too broad for such a narrow face and they straddled an equally long, thin nose, which had been broken once and not set straight. He scrutinized Higgs for a few moments. Higgs struggled against the heavy sheets but they had him pinned. He wanted to lash out, to stop the man from gawking.

The thin-faced man spoke, his voice trained at some English public school. “Ah, Tracy, you’re awake. Good. I’m Information Officer Simms. I am not, I repeat not, a terrorist.”

Higgs stared at the man. He looked very earnest and appeared pleased with himself for having said his lines with such aplomb. The word twat came into Higgs’ head. He couldn’t recall exactly what it meant but it seemed appropriate.

Higgs struggled to turn his head to see where he was. The movement triggered a wave of dizziness and nausea and he screwed up his face until the room stopped spinning. He was on a bed. A hospital bed, he could see that. In a windowless ward of sorts but he was the only patient. Computers and equipment crowded around the bed, humming in that intrusive, painful way. He realized that wires, hundreds of wires, spewed from the machinery and wormed their way into his flesh. A knot of anxiety gripped his stomach and he tried to struggle again. A tall, thin, red-headed woman in a white doctor’s coat came into view and looked closely at him. Her name was printed on a badge on her coat—Medical Officer Jodi Francis. She had green eyes that, for a moment, filled his consciousness. Then he noticed she had biscuit crumbs all down her front.

“Hello?” Simms was talking again. “Are we paying attention?”

With some effort, Higgs turned his head back to face Simms, and this time the dizziness was less. He did, however, become aware of Simms’ halitosis, which didn’t help to lift Higgs’ mood.

He opened his mouth to speak but he breathed in as Simms breathed out, the exchange of exhaled air sending Higgs into a brief fit of weak coughing. Simms backed away.

When the coughing subsided, Higgs lay and stared upwards for a moment as a fresh wave of memories bulldozed through his consciousness. Where was his broom-broom? Where was Mummy? Ooh, there was that funny feeling again.

“I want my potty.”

Simms rolled his eyes and looked across at the red-headed woman.

“Not altogether there yet I fear, Medical Officer Francis.”

She held a hand up impatiently to Simms.

“Give him time.”

She turned and adjusted one of the drips feeding into Higgs’ skin and bent back over him. “Come on, Higgs, talk to me.”

“Bub bub bub.”

Simms sniggered and nudged Jodi hard in the ribs. She ignored him.

“I,” said Higgs.

Both Jodi and Simms leaned forward excitedly. This was some progress at least. Higgs struggled some more, his mouth opening and closing. Jodi willed him on.

“Yes, come on, Higgs, you can do it.”

More memories flooded into Higgs’ head and suddenly he felt he knew where he was.

“Mummy,” he gurgled.

Simms and Jodi looked sideways at each other.

“Traybe wanna biscuit.”

“What?” Simms frowned.

“Traybe wanna biscuit. Now,” insisted Higgs.

Jodi smiled and adjusted the flow of one of the drips leading into his arm.

“Traybe go sleepies.”

In seconds, Higgs descended back into oblivion.


The next time Higgs awoke, he felt less stiff, less detached, but a wave of panic flooded over him as soon as he remembered where he was. Drips still fed their cocktail of drugs into him and the machines hummed intrusively. All his senses were acute, the colors intense, the sounds deafening. He could taste the air and the sheets felt like sandpaper. He wanted to run, to escape but he was so weak.

Jodi’s voice came from nearby. “Good.”

Higgs turned his head and saw Jodi adjusting one of his drips. Behind her stood Simms, a thin plastic clipboard tucked under one arm. He wore a green jumpsuit, which was far too short for him. He stepped forward and sniffed. “Is he conscious?”

Jodi looked wearily at Simms and opened her mouth to speak but she didn’t get the chance.

“Yes. Where the hell am I?” shouted Higgs. Simms pushed past Jodi and leaned over the bed, the reek of his foul breath making Higgs wince.

“Right, let’s try again, shall we? I am Information Officer Simms and I am not—” Higgs grabbed Simms by the collar. “Where am I?”

He tried to pull himself up on Simms but succeeded only in dragging the startled information officer’s face down to touch his own, nose to nose. Simms dug his fingers into Higg’s knuckles, trying to pry his hands free but Simms could not get Higgs to release his grip.

Jodi adjusted one of the drips and an irresistible calm flooded through Higgs. His hold on Simms loosened and Higgs sank back to the bed. Simms staggered away, gasping for breath and floundering for his dropped clipboard.

Jodi leaned forward. “It’s okay, Higgs, it’s okay. You’re safe, I can explain everything.”

“What?” Simms stepped forward angrily, trying to wave her away with his hand. “Ah, excuse me. Who’s the information officer here? Eh? I’ll be doing the explanations, thank you.”

Jodi gritted her teeth and straightened up.

“He is disoriented,” she hissed. “He needs to be treated gently. God, whose bright idea was it to send you anyway?”

“She sent me, you doubt her judgment?”

Jodi bit her lip. Higgs was taken aback by the hatred in her eyes.

“No, of course not, Officer Simms,” she managed at last. “Forgive me, Officer Simms, I’m concerned merely for the welfare of my patient.”

Simms snorted haughtily. “That’s Information Officer Simms.”

Jodi struggled with herself. “Sorry, Information Officer Simms.”

“Good, order is re-established. Let’s put this little disagreement behind us and move on.”

With some effort, Higgs pulled himself up onto his elbows. Whatever sedative Jodi had put into him was now reaching its full effect and he felt calm, distant. All his senses seemed more restrained than before, his vision, his hearing, his touch, they were all more bearable. His questions weren’t answered but the panic…the panic was not gone, merely gagged for the time being.

“Where am I?” he managed weakly.

Simms smiled patiently at Higgs. “All in good time, Tracy. You’re disoriented. You need to be treated gently.”

Higgs lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. His efforts to throttle Simms had left him exhausted and the sedatives were not improving his ability to think straight. He tried to recall if he knew Jodi or Simms, especially Jodi, but he could not place them.

After a while, he turned his head and watched as Jodi busied herself with the mountains of equipment wired up to him. Simms had retreated to the far side of the room and was preoccupied with whatever was on his clipboard.

Something about Jodi was utterly captivating. She was so animated, her expressions as she examined a reading, the way she did a subdued little dance while waiting for a machine to turn on. Higgs found he couldn’t help but smile as he watched her. If he had to be sick, confused and bedbound, he was being so in the best of company. Slowly, he drifted into a warm dream of obliging, dancing nurses.

Over the next few days, Higgs existed in a semi-conscious fog within the confines of the ward. Different parts of his life kept asserting themselves at random, so one minute he was at college, the next he was in nappies. Jodi kept an ever-watchful eye on him and Simms forever hovered in the background. Higgs decided he did not like Simms. For one thing, his breath was smelly and he always leaned too close when he talked.

“What can you remember today?” Jodi asked Higgs when she visited on the third day.

Behind her, sitting in the corner, Simms looked up from his clipboard where he had been furiously typing. Typing? On a clipboard? Something was definitely not right about that. Higgs made a mental note to investigate further when he could get a look at the clipboard without Simms noticing. Higgs returned his attention to Jodi.

“My father always wanted more from me,” he said flatly.

Jodi rolled her eyes sympathetically. “Ah, they always do, these pushy parents. Did he love you?”

Higgs felt embarrassed by the question. Of course his father had loved him, you just didn’t talk about that sort of thing. Not men loving men. He blushed. “My mother did.”

Jodi smiled. “What else?”

Higgs thought. “I have killed a man.”

Simms leaned forward, listening keenly.

“Go on,” said Jodi.

“At least, I think I have. I can feel the sensation in my hands. There’s a space. I can’t explain. There are holes in what I can recall.”

Jodi patted him reassuringly. “It’s okay. You’ve suffered a massive loss of memory. Things will come back to you. Think of something else.” Higgs lay silent for a while.

“I was at the military academy,” he said at last. “My father pulled a few strings to get me in I think. He was in the military. I’m a pilot. I flew airplanes. It was great.”

Jodi beamed. Higgs found her smile fascinating. He searched for more memories of his career.

“We did all sorts. Parachuting, abseiling.”

Jodi nodded encouragingly. “Yes, go on.”

“Surveillance techniques, martial arts. How to load and fire an assault rifle.” Higgs’ body tensed, his fists clenching, the words tumbling out. He couldn’t stop himself.

“Interrogation techniques, espionage, poisons, how to kill a man from behind with a penknife, seven ways to break a man’s fingers without arousing suspicion.”

Jodi adjusted one of the drips. “Time to change subject, Traybe.”

The drugs flowing into Higgs brought him up short and he gasped, his eyes crossing.

“Ooops, sorry.” Jodi frantically readjusted the flow of drugs. “Wrong drip.” She grimaced apologetically.

A sense of calmness came over Higgs. After a few moments silence, he spoke again.

“I remember up to graduating pretty well but then…” Higgs shook his head. Everything after that was a lot hazier. “Was I in the security services?”

“Ah, I think that’s quite enough for today,” cut in Simms.

Jodi straightened.

Higgs knew he was onto something. “I was, wasn’t I? I love my country. I would die for my country.”

“Yes, Tracy.” Simms smiled nastily. “You would.”

“Please don’t call me Tracy. Call me Higgs like everyone else does.”

“Of course, Tracy.”

As time passed, Higgs pieced his memories together, bit by bit. He had holes in what he could remember, big chunks missing, but Jodi was always reassuring. His strength gradually returned and, by the fifth day after waking, Higgs had been disconnected from the wires and drips. He was able to walk, if a little stiffly, and his mind had settled down. He was not permitted to leave the ward and was still too weak to argue. He could not get any answers to the fundamental question of where he was. If he asked Jodi, she simply referred him to Simms and Simms fobbed him off with a cheery “all in good time.”

On the morning of the sixth day, Simms strode into the ward with an air of determined purpose. He held his clipboard to his chest and stared levelly at Higgs.

“Medical Officer Francis tells me that you are almost fully recovered, Tracy.” Higgs lay on his bed, wearing a white hospital smock. He swung his legs around, sat on the edge of the bed and looked Simms up and down. The man’s green jumpsuit was too damn short. Somebody ought to say something.

Simms quickly tapped something onto his clipboard then returned his attention to Higgs. “Good. If you’ll come with me, I’ll take you home.”

Higgs spluttered He had not expected this.

“Home?”

“That is what I said, yes.” Simms rolled his eyes. “Home. If you think you are fit enough, Tracy?”

Higgs jumped up from the bed.

Simms beamed. “Good. Follow me.”

He led Higgs through the hospital, passing other wards and operating rooms. Higgs saw few other patients.

“It’s marvelous, isn’t it?” enthused Simms. “All this wonderful technology. You know, they can inject nano-bots into people now and heal broken bones within twenty-four hours. What do you think of that, Tracy?”

There had been a great many advances in medicine over recent years, Higgs knew. In addition to the nano-bots, gene therapies had eliminated all the hereditary disorders and anti-bacteria and anti-viral medicines had become very effective. Disease had largely been defeated, at least from the developed world. Everybody still passed the hat around for the Third World.

“Why do you keep calling me Tracy when I’ve asked you not to?”

“Basic training, Tracy, don’t you remember anything?” Simms tutted and then continued with infuriating patience. “Befriending and Influencing People, day two, engendering a spirit of camaraderie by dispensing with formalities and referring to people by their familiar names. I think I’m doing rather well, don’t you?”

They walked on in silence. Higgs noticed the staff and patients they passed all seemed to be slightly in fear of Simms. Odd that such an irritating stick insect of a man in a bright green jumpsuit two sizes too small could inspire fear. But he did. Simms greeted each person with a cheery “Good morning, citizen” and they would mumble something in return but never, ever meet his gaze.

At last Higgs and Simms reached the exit of the hospital. Higgs was obliged to check out at the main reception desk. Simms hovered while Higgs studied the form. He printed his name and then added his signature but paused over the section requiring him to enter the date. He looked up at the receptionist.

“What’s the date please, sir?”

“The twenty-fifth, citizen.”

“The twenty-fifth of?”

“The twenty-fifth, citizen.”

Higgs paused and glanced at Simms for help. Simms reached over and took the pen from Higgs’ hand.

“Don’t worry, Tracy, it’s going to take you a while to recover.”

“It’s Higgs!”

Simms ignored him and carefully wrote “twenty-fifth” out on the form. He handed it and the pen back to the receptionist.

The receptionist took them and nodded gratefully. “Thank you, citizen.”

Simms took Higgs by the arm. “Come on, hopefully this will jog your memory.”

As they walked out the main entrance, Higgs was disappointed. He had hoped to feel some sunshine on his face, see clouds in a blue sky, feel a breeze through his hair. The air-conditioning of the hospital was stifling and he longed for fresh air. Even a grey, wet day would be acceptable after his long confinement indoors. What greeted him was a vast shopping mall, with nine levels of balconies looking over the main thoroughfare.

The hospital opened onto a broad balcony on the top level, some hundred meters above the ground below. Everywhere were people, walking, running, sitting, laden with shopping or hurrying on unknown errands. A cacophony of music, advertisements and conversation filled the air and the smell of a hundred fast-food outlets competed with each other for Higgs’ attention. His stomach rumbled. He felt an inexplicable urge to eat a burger. Something told him there was a special at an outlet just yards away.

Simms took Higgs by the arm and led him across the balcony to the railings. They stood for a while staring down at the endless stream of people. Higgs looked at the shops. They were the familiar chain store names, offering the latest in fashions, high-tech goods and creature comforts. His shoes were wrong. He knew it somehow, people would laugh at him when they saw his “oh-so-last-year shoes”. I’m not wearing shoes. I’m wearing slippers.

Simms tapped his clipboard on the railings. “Have a good look. It might come back to you.”

Something about the mall was familiar but Higgs could not place it. He searched in vain for the exit. Instead, he saw at the far end of the mall, perhaps some three hundred meters away, an opening at ground level which led through to another precinct. He glanced up, hoping at least to find some windows there, but again he was disappointed. Huge lights were suspended from the ceiling, but no skylights.

“Well?” Simms inquired.

Higgs shook his head. “No. No, I don’t know this place. What is it?”

Simms beamed with pride.

“It’s a place to inspire all true citizens. People going about their daily business in freedom. Free to live, to love, to shop. And all of this is possible only through the vigilance of Homeland. With, of course, a little help from security officers such as yourself and information officers such as yours truly.”

“Security officer? So I am in the security services?”

Simms cursed under his breath. “Ah, yes, well, everything will be explained soon,” he spluttered. “After a few tests.”

“Tests? Excuse me, sir, but what tests?”

“All in good time.”

Higgs’ head began to race. He did not like this place. He wanted to get home, back to somewhere familiar, somewhere that could help him get his bearings. Also, he had missed something, he knew it. Something Simms had said burned in Higgs’ head but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He sighed.

“Where is this place? I want to go home.”

Simms beamed in that irritating fashion of his. “We’re in a shopping mall in Iowa.”

“Iowa? Where in Iowa?”

Simms stammered, gaping like a codfish for a few seconds before regaining his composure. “In Iowa. All will be explained in good time.”

Higgs returned his gaze to the floor of the mall.

“Come on,” said Simms, putting a hand on Higgs’ shoulder. “I’ll get you home.”

Higgs was about to follow when his gaze came to rest on two huge figures standing on a pedestal in the middle of the mall. For a moment he thought they were statues but they moved, slowly scanning the throng milling around them. They stood some seven feet tall, their massive bodies covered with smooth black plates of armor. Their heads were covered with impassive, mirrored visors and on the insides of the joints of their limbs, wires could be seen. Each one cradled a heavy automatic assault rifle in its arms.

Higgs pointed them out to Simms. “What are they?”

Simms was jubilant. “Ah, they are Homeland’s right-hand men, ceaselessly working to preserve all of our freedoms and—”

“But what are they?”

“The reserve guard. Androids.”

“Androids? What, robots?”

“Er, of a sort. Partly machine and partly human. Well, human in that there are arms and legs under the armor. They don’t have human brains.”

Something still burned in Higgs’ mind, something he was missing. He fought off a nagging voice in his head telling him he must buy a designer suit.

“They’re sort of Homeland’s special police for dealing with terrorist incidents,” Simms continued.

That was it. Homeland. That was the word tugging at the back of Higgs’ mind. He turned to Simms. “What’s Homeland?”

Simms clicked his tongue. “Ah, yes. All will be explained.”

Chapter Two