by DJ Burnham

A post-millennial cultural curveball leads to a complex caste system based on numerical prowess: the Accotote.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E





Bri Allen came into the world at one second past one minute past 1am on the 1st January 2101. Her parents had met at primary school and had been one another's first love, married for life, with Bri their first-born. She was in the first flush of youth and lived in a penthouse atop Block One, on First Avenue in the capital city of Protos. Her lifepath, thus far, consisted of gently leaning against a succession of 'open doors', carefully guided by her proud and loving parents and warmly welcomed by her consecutive employers—for her exemplary accotote. She was steadily ascending a ladder with a bottom rung already at a dizzyingly privileged height.

* * *

It had started as 1999 gave way to 2000, and the public and media interest turned to retrospection and the compilation of lists. Leading up to the millennium there'd been top 100s compiled for the world's most popular songs, most widely read books, favourite films and the like. But the focus on celebration and the collective emotions associated with moving into a new century had spawned a new surge of interest—more an obsession—in list compilation. Truth be told it sowed the seeds of what would, in effect, become the tangible ramifications of the genuine Millennium Bug. Not the PC-based virtually non-existent Y2K spectre of the impending collapse of modern society, which had driven right-thinking souls into a frenzy of century rollover and calendar compliance patch-test program licence purchasing—or stocking up on a decade's-worth of toilet paper. This was a far more insidious, yet equally abstruse, aftershock that would cast its ripples across the coming generations, shaping and guiding mankind. Irresistible, ordered and unavoidable, it would grow to become part status, part superstition, but above all it would set the dictate for the New Classes and a firm foundation for unequal opportunities.

It developed into a complex caste system based on numerical prowess: the Accotote.

By 2040 it had gone way beyond the top 100 greatest comedians/movies/plays/web sites/foods/beers/card tricks/guitar riffs/plants/cartoons/quotes/holiday destinations/one-hit-wonders/athletes/news stories/adverts/memorable TV moments/sexiest stars/chat-up lines lists, or the top 100 worst wars/jobs/toys/religions/ideas/fashion statements/allergies/ecological disasters/critics/diets/politicians/diseases/aftershaves/April Fools' Day hoaxes lists. Importance was attached to the seemingly least significant events or factors and the slogan of the new infatuation was: 'Never accept second best, be better than all the rest'. In the political arena the concept of Prime Minister took on a new and more loaded meaning. Companies fought to register—or take over—the most accotote-significant names such as First Choice, Prime Directive, One Stop and The A-Team. Simply doing business with hi-accotote companies would confer tremendous benefits on clients, strengthening both sides' positions in the all-important ranking system.

By 2095 each individual had his or her own Curriculum Primae: a catalogue of achievements and associations strengthened by an increasingly bizarre underpinning of fate-related ranking systems, such as date of birth, chronological order of siblings/classmates/work colleagues and an inventory of lifetime travel arrangements (economy class scoring lowest and first class highest) to name but a few. Many of the determining factors were consequently calculated by happenstance, but an equal number could be bought. It was a new world in which 1 + 1 = +1.

* * *

'Please come in, Miss Allen,' the President of the Bank of Protos requested. 'Take a seat. This is a most impressive CP,' he commented, waving her Curriculum Primae at her and smiling broadly, 'and an outstanding accotote for one so young.'

'Thank you, sir. I've been most fortunate,' she concurred and nodded.

'Ah, modesty is an admirable quality and I can see you had a fortuitous start in life. But, first and foremost, your career achievements show you are indisputably a prime mover. I wouldn't deny that an associative accotote is an important factor in the employment decision-making process, especially from the perspective of our shareholders.' The President raised his left eyebrow quizzically. 'But what kind of a business would we have if we made a habit of employing people who didn't know the first thing about the job for which they'd applied?' He laughed loudly at his own joke.

'Not a terribly successful one,' she replied, giggling out of politeness.

'Quite, quite. I see from your CP that you have experience in the field of biometric security,' he stated, fixing her with cool, grey eyes.

'I do, sir, yes,' she confirmed, maintaining her undaunted composure with a slight nod, which caused her perfect blond bob to bounce gently.

'Good. Well then, I'm sure you would be an asset to the Bank. We are in the process of updating our systems and your previous two jobs show you excelled in sysop development. If you would like to accept my offer, can I have my secretary print out a contract of employment with immediate effect?' He raised both eyebrows to accentuate the question.

'Thank you, Mr President. I would very much like to accept your kind offer.'

'Excellent,' he roared, and jabbed at the intercom to summon his secretary.

This was the way interviews usually went for Bri. They were more of a formality than anything else, but she still had the good grace and manners to play the game.

* * *

Otto d'Jamma had joined the Rank Outsiders six months previously. He'd been the drummer in a neo rock band called First Aid Kit, and their first album, Prima Voci, had done really well. Unfortunately the music business was as fickle as it had ever been and their second album, First Amendment, had failed to bother the download charts. That wouldn't have necessarily marked the end of things—as they were a talented bunch and could have easily changed their style to the currently in-vogue jazzedelica that was taking the clubs by storm—but once a rocker, always a rocker. A small but enthusiastic fanbase would have just about kept them going, had it not been for First Aid Kit's decision to underline their growing 'Bad Boys of Rock' image and go for both a pun and a numerical obscenity.

They called their next album Third Time Lucky.

The media backlash was extreme. They were threatened with imprisonment if they didn't withdraw it, and their individual accototes were immediately zeroed as a punishment. A public apology was demanded and Otto agreed to be spokesman for the band.

The live broadcast had proven too much of a temptation for the fiery young man.

Things started well enough but the interviewer began accusing the band of using vulgarity and cultural taboos to bolster a lack of innate talent, as well as intentionally corrupting the youth market. That was enough to goad Otto into a knee-jerk, live-on-air reaction.

'Look, buster. We're not some second-rate, accotote-based, middle-of-the-road outfit. We don't play second fiddle, we're second to none and just because polite society is in its second childhood I didn't come here to get the third degree!'

It happened so fast that by the time the director reacted it had already gone out. They transferred to an acutely embarrassed anchorman who fell over himself in his attempts to placate the audience, desperately apologising for the profanity-laden outburst and pointing out that it was the first time that anything like it had happened in the history of the network.

As Otto was being bundled into a police car, bootlegged copies of Third Time Lucky were changing hands among the disaffected youth like hot cakes and recordings of the instantly notorious interview were already popping up on illicit download sites.

* * *

It was early, the morning after the interview, and Otto was in a police van on his way to court, having spent an uncomfortable and sleepless night in jail.

The van never made it.

The tyres were shot out and unmarked cars with blacked-out windows blocked the vehicle's path. As the driver was held at gunpoint, the back doors were lasered open and the accompanying officer was forced to uncuff Otto. No one was harmed.

'Who are you?' Otto asked, rubbing his wrists, as the car sped through the back streets.

'Rank Outsiders,' came the reply. 'Welcome aboard, Otto d'Jamma. You're one of us now. My name's Mahir.' His rescuer, a tall young man dressed in a coal-black jumpsuit, tugged off his polypropylene balaclava helmet and offered his hand. Otto shook it.

'Why me?'

'Ha, you're a folk hero, mate,' the driver, Alex, called over his shoulder.

'Yeah. That's about the measure of it,' Mahir agreed.

'A folk hero?' Otto repeated sceptically.

'Last night! You were the hero of the lower-accotote classes, the champion of modern communism—'

'The voice of a generation,' Alex interrupted. 'You did more for our cause in a few seconds than we've managed to do in five years.'

'Oh right, okay… er, good,' Otto muttered and ran his hand over his heavily-tattooed, bald head.

'I mean, you don't have to join us if you don't want to, but I guess you don't have a great deal of choice.'

'Guess not. I'm not killing anyone though,' he added, pointing at the automatic weapon on Mahir's lap.

'Ha, no way! We're not about that. Just positive direct action, people power, raising awareness,' he explained.

'Okay. Well I think my diary's free for the foreseeable future so, yeah, I'm in.'

'No second thoughts?' Alex swore happily.

'Nah, I reckon it should be second nature, mate,' Otto replied, and they all laughed heartily.

* * *

It was One Day and Bri Allen was riding in the first of Protos' famous, fifty-year-old gold-plated taxis on her way to the commerce awards. Formal religion had been outlawed twenty years previously—far too many conflicts and unsound principles (for the skewed sensibilities of an accotote-based society) getting in the way of progress. It had been replaced by the monthly celebration—on the first of the month, naturally—of One Day in which the collective multicultural hope for better things to come was a unifying principle, supported and sponsored by the state; enjoyed by all. Once a year the commerce awards were timed to fall on One Day to reward entrepreneurs and employees alike, as well as emphasizing the possibilities of a better future, and a higher accotote, to everyone else.

She was on her way to accept the "Greatest contribution to a company in the first month of work" award. It would go with all the others, but she was far too young to grow complacent. And anyway, the associated accotote boost was always welcome, along with the media splash and thrill of seeing her face on a vidscreen. The taxi driver knew a short cut and being the first to arrive would do them both good.

Suddenly they found their path blocked by two cars with blacked-out windows. The doors were flung open and two disguised men jumped out, brandishing automatic weapons.

'Miss Allen, please get out of the taxi. You will not be harmed if you do as we say,' the tallest of the pair demanded.

'What should I do?' she whispered to the driver, nervously.

'Do as they say, sugar,' he advised.

Bri slowly opened the passenger door, stepped out, straightened the new, bespoke, one-off fuchsia dress over her willowy form and, with all of the bravado she could muster, called out, 'What do you want?'

'You,' her would-be captor replied.

'How do you know my name?'

'How could we not? It's One Day. Your face is everywhere.'

'Shut that door and get out of here,' the shorter man ordered, addressing the taxi driver.

He didn't need asking twice. He hit the auto-close on the passenger door and sped backwards on squealing tyres.

Now she was on her own. As she stood there, forcing back an incipient tremble with failing resolve, someone let out their bathwater and it hurtled down a nearby pipe, mocking her discomfort, focusing the harsh reality of her predicament.

'Come over here please, Miss Allen,' the shorter, stronger man requested, gesturing towards the open door of the car.

'Why? What do you want? I haven't got any money on me,' she declared, holding her ground.

'Just get in the car,' the other said in a tone of authority.

Bri did as she was told—straight-backed and unhurried, trying to mask her fear as she slid on to the seat. The two men got in either side of her, slammed the doors shut, and sped off.

'I know you,' she commented, narrowing her eyes at the man on her left who had just removed his disguise.

'You may recognise me, but we've never met. We don't move in the same circles, honey.'

'Ha, nice one,' his colleague remarked.

'Hmm. So, are you going to tell me what you want then… Otto?' she inquired with an air of innocence.

It had the desired affect and he jumped when she addressed him directly by name. 'How do…' he trailed off. 'Oh, you saw the interview, huh? What was someone with an accotote halo the size of the moon doing watching that? Hope I didn't taint your purity,' he remarked sarcastically.

She'd actually seen the interview via an illicit download, viewed on an untraceable terminal. She'd had to know what all the fuss was about and she'd experienced an unexpected thrill, despite—or possibly partly due to—the risk to her exalted accotote. 'I wanted to witness your apology,' she bluffed.

'Ha, some apology,' Mahir scoffed. She shot a well-practised glance of disdain at him and swiftly took in his features. He was an attractive young man with bright, mischievous eyes, childlike features and skin the colour of golden copper. But experience had taught her to whom to apply subtle leverage, and it was with Otto she felt her chance rested.

'Anyway,' she turned back to the ex-drummer, 'for the time being that's irrelevant, even if you are number one on the "Wanted List".'

'Ooh, number one, d'ya think that'd raise my accotote?' Otto mocked.

'What accotote?' she countered.

'All right, you lovebirds,' Mahir snapped, 'that'll do for now.'

They swung on to the highway out of Protos and Alex gunned the car away from the city. As the highway lights thinned out, she watched the strobing sodium glare illuminate Otto's face. Despite the tattoos, the strong jaw and the stocky physique, there was something behind the bluster, something quiet and disarmingly attractive.

* * *

Bri wasn't used to the privations that awaited her at the Rank Outsiders' hideaway. The shared toilet was disgusting; there was no bathroom—just a cracked and scummy sink—and her bed consisted of a hard, stained, grotty old mattress. There were only sixty actual members (along with a few children), which struck her as odd because the way the media reported their activities you'd have thought they comprised a small army. Most were disgruntled lower-accotote, fighting for better opportunities, but a few had turned their backs on healthy CPs and high accototes. For them the campaign was based on principles and equal rights issues.

At first she maintained a stance of indignation centring around the "You won't get away with this" approach, but as days turned into weeks she realised that these men and women weren't thugs or hired mercenaries, rather that they were intelligent, caring people with a genuine concern for their fellow man.

They'd issued a totally unrealistic ransom demand to the Bank of Protos and, despite Bri's parents' pleas, the Bank would not cough up such a large sum, and anyway, to give in to the demands of the Rank Outsiders would only set a precedent for future hostage situations.

One of the women, Scarlia, provided Bri with more sensible clothing. The high heels and diaphanous red number that she'd been wearing on her way to the commerce awards ceremony were entirely unsuitable to her current situation. Thick cotton jeans, heavy boots and a man's woollen shirt were far more comfortable.

'Listen, Bri. I'm truly sorry that you got caught up in all this,' Otto apologised one evening over dinner.

'So let me go.'

'I would if I could, but you're a major star in the accotote ranks and we had to make them sit up and take notice.'

'I understand.'

'You do?'

'Yeah, actually. I've learnt a great deal these past few weeks. I've been isolated from the truth.' She shook her hair in disapproval and it swayed naturally about her pretty face, liberated from the stern designer bob and curve, which had grown out by now. 'I always knew I was lucky, but I never took it all for granted. Thing is, we're not told about the conditions that the lower-accotote live in, about how hard it is for them to get even the most menial employment. The utterly egocentric upper-accotote was all I knew. I had no other point of reference to inform me. You've opened my eyes to the reality of it.' As she spoke, a few of the others stopped eating and fell quiet, listening to her confession.

'So you can see that we're right?' Otto asked.

'Well, I can see that you are principled and I can see that you want to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It's clear that things can't carry on like this and sooner or later there'll be a rebellion, well beyond your own style of insurgency. It's as though I've acquired second sight, living with you.' She smiled to herself at the ease with which she swore in their company, although to all intents and purposes it felt quite normal now. 'But how do you sway the opinion of those who have the most to lose?'

'We're open to suggestions,' Otto remarked, as he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

A month ago Bri would have recoiled in horror and disgust if someone of an inferior accotote had so much as touched her, let alone kissed her. Things had changed, she'd changed, and her world had changed. She reached over and ran her hand across Otto's cheek and smiled. The others went back to their meals and struck up conversations of their own. It was obvious that something special was developing between these two.

'I'm glad you've had second thoughts about the system,' Otto said, gently taking her hand, kissing it and holding it in both of his.

'Yeah, and third!' she whispered back, blushing at the word.

* * *

Otto and Bri were curled together on a recently acquired new mattress, curtains nailed to the ceiling for privacy. A candle flickered from within a recess in the wall, illuminating glistening skin.

'I've seen it from the Rank Outsiders' viewpoint and you've managed to convince me,' she murmured softly in his ear, watching the projected patterns from the flame play and dance over his shaved head. It had taken some time for her to get used to the life-sized image of the gold, blue and red brain tattoo, but she'd come to love it as much as its owner.

'You've convinced me too,' he replied, patting her naked bottom and kissing her on the nose.

'You know what I mean,' she said, playfully digging him in the ribs.

'Ouch!' he protested. 'Yeah, I know. It's just nice to forget about the world for a while.'

'True, but... I've been thinking.'


'Very funny. No, really. Before I met you guys, my only opinion was based on what the media fed us. You were, at worst, a dangerous militant outfit, hell-bent on undermining decent society, at best a minor irritant. Any direct action you take is just going to be distorted and used against you. It won't sway public opinion, just reaffirm it.'

'So we're stuffed?'

'No, not at all. You just need to understand your market,' she explained, sitting up.

'Uh huh.' Her firm young breasts, outlined in the candlelight, momentarily distracted Otto.

'As I was saying,' she continued in a matronly voice, lifting his head with one finger under his chin to focus his attention. 'Rather than direct action, what about direct communication?'

'With who?'

'The kids who are young enough to change and the old folks who can remember a time before the accotote.'

'Oh, I see.' Otto half sat up and leaned on his elbow. 'You could be right.'

'Gotta be worth a try.'

'But how do we do it?'

'Let the kids do it for you.'


'I was talking to Scarlia. She's one of the youngest here and she's still in touch with some of her friends—those who are sympathetic to the cause.'

'I guess that'd be a start, but if questions are asked it could lead them back to us.'

'Oh, what I've got in mind would be much more effective,' she claimed smugly.

'Go on.'

'Scarlia told me that Third Time Lucky is still being bootlegged and circulated.'

'That's nice,' Otto commented uncertainly.

'So reform the band!'

'What? They'd arrest us on the spot.'

'Not to tour, silly, and certainly not in an official recording studio situation. Just get hold of a digital multi-track, plus a computer and a few microphones. It's not gotta be commercial quality. Think about it. The kids would do the work for you. It'd spread like wildfire.'

'Maybe. Dunno if the other guys would be willing to take the risk, though.'

'Ask them. We'll write the lyrics in advance, just three or four tracks. The important thing is to get the message out there.'

'Wow, it'd fun to play again. A couple of tracks could be really heavy neo blues, written from the lower-accotote perspective, highlighting their plight.'

'Exactly, and we could write something that would encourage the kids to go and talk to the old folks, find out how it used to be, make them look like ambassadors from a better age. You know how that generation love to jabber.'

'You've really thought about this, haven't you?' He took her face in his hands and kissed her tenderly on the lips before hugging her close.

'It could work, Otto.'

'Yeah, yeah, it could. I'll figure out how to get a message to the guys.' He went quiet for a moment, then sat back and smiled at her. 'What are we gonna call this subversive album then?'

'I thought about that, too,' she laughed.


'"Go Fourth and Multiply", fourth spelt with a u.'

They giggled hysterically for the next five minutes. It was perfect, combining a pun, an obscenity, instructions, and a direct comment on the accotote system, all in a single title.

* * *

As rock 'n' roll, punk and gangster rap had gone before, so the parents of the younger generation had nothing but distaste for the musical mentors of their rebellious offspring. However, when their own parents started to present a united geriatric front in their recommendation of First Aid Kit's anarchic neo rock four-track EP download (accompanied by hard-hitting artwork featuring a background of primulas—taunting the upper-accotote with Bri's namesake—Otto's brain tattoo, the First Aid Kit logo and a sinister retro-punk, trumpet-sprouting skull gazing down on the contentious bullet hole font title), they had little choice but to at least listen to their argument, and the seditious music that had got them all fired up. Little by little the plight of the lower-accotote was brought to that generation's attention and the middle-accotote started making inquiries into human rights issues, living conditions and employment expectations.

The upper-accotote were riled beyond belief and smothered the media with blatant propaganda, as well as offering a reward of unparalleled accotote enhancement to anyone who could provide information on the whereabouts of the members of First Aid Kit.

The band had gone to ground. Amazingly they'd all agreed to Otto's proposal and had set the subversive lyrics (which he, Bri and other Rank Outsiders had compiled) to some of the best neo rock/blues music they'd ever composed. Their association with Otto, and his public statement, had led to its own punitive repercussions, so they were more than ready to strike back and live with the consequences.

The upper-accotote needed a substantial media coup. Their best bet was to capture a ringleader—a scapegoat would do—and to reveal the whole thing to be a hoax, a travesty and blasphemy on the accotote system. Consequently, they poured their considerable resources into tracking down the perpetrators.

* * *

At 2am on a Sunday morning the Rank Outsiders were woken by the sound of loud hailers and thunderous hammering from all sides of their hideaway. Mahir ushered the youngest into the underground escape tunnel—dug for such an eventuality. The women were next and Bri clung on to Otto.

'I'm not leaving you,' she sobbed.

'You must! I'll be right behind you.'

'No you won't, you know you won't. You guys have to seal the entrance, I know how it works.'

Otto guided her firmly towards a hole in the floor. 'Look, I couldn't live with myself if something happened to you, especially if I could've done something to prevent it, just get—'

Shots rang out and a unit of upper-accotote troops stormed into the building. Otto pushed Bri to the floor and swung round with his hands up. Mahir brandished his automatic like the brave, foolhardy man that he was. Otto lurched back with an agonised scream.

In the dimly-lit confusion, he'd taken a bullet meant for Mahir.

'Otto! Otto, my love. No! You're okay, I've got you,' Bri shouted, cradling him.

He looked up as a trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth. 'Be strong for me,' he gasped.

'Don't die on me. I won't let you,' she wailed.

'Tell 'em to "Go Fourth and Multiply",' he managed, forcing a grin.

Bri collapsed into convulsing hysteria as Otto's frothing, gurgling struggle ceased and he fell lifeless in her arms.

A bright light shone in her face.

'It's all right, Miss Allen. You're safe now. It's all over.' One of the microweave armour-clad soldiers dragged her away from her dead lover, shielding her blows as best he could. He misread her flailing arms and screams as confusion and shock, doubtlessly magnified by her ordeal as a captive in the hands of the Rank Outsiders. He snatched a pack from his arm pocket, bit it open, threw the wrapper to the ground and pumped a powerful sedative into Bri's arm.

* * *

For the upper-accotote, it had seemed like the perfect result. They'd got their man, in the form of the non-fatally wounded Mahir. They'd disbanded the Rank Outsiders. And, even better, they'd rescued Bri Allen, a high-level upper-accotote 'debutante' whose face was known to all from the continued reports of her abduction.

She'd readily agreed to a live-on-air interview. She was someone that everyone could trust and, after all she'd been through, she would hammer the final nail into the coffin of insurgence.

As the upper-accotote leaders settled down to watch the interview, they felt safe in the knowledge that here was someone who'd been held at the mercy of a group of worthless brigands. She had witnessed everything from the inside, and she had first-hand knowledge of the insidious plot to undermine decent, right-thinking folk and modern societies' unimpeachable conduct and values. She was one of them and she'd been through the mill. She was the darling of the media and had won the hearts and minds of the millions who would be watching the broadcast, having been awarded the highest accotote of any one person in the world in recognition of her ordeal. Her opinion was irrefutable and this broadcast would lay the matter to rest once and for all. The truth would come out and they could rely on her to tell it just as it was.

Trouble for them was... that's precisely what she did.






Copyright © 2008 DJ Burnham

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

DJ Burnham has had a lifelong love of science fiction. He started writing his own stories in 1998, many of which appeared in webzines such as Silverthought, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion.

In 2005 he had a short story published as part of a speculative fiction anthology Silverthought: Ignition. In June 2006 he became the first guest author to have one of his stories podcast by Variant Frequencies.

The first collection of DJ Burnham's short stories, Test Drive, was published in July 2007, with all of the profits from the sales going to the World Wide Fund for Nature.

He also writes poetry and creates original decoupage-style artwork.

DJ Burnham lives in Brighton, England with his wife Sue and their cat. He is a Health Service worker by day and a dreamer by night.

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