Underground, Overground (1991)
Take a picture of this : with the development and refinement of expert systems in the artificial intelligentsia a new automatic teller-like machine has sprung up all over the country – the AutoDoc. Simply insert your multipurpose credit card into the slot and the machine will ask questions regarding your symptoms. Your answers will be carefully noted, checked against your previous medical and social history and used in a completely logical manner to eliminate some possible afflictions or to generate further lines of illness which might be pursued. Further tests (blood, temperature, urine, etc.) which the machine, equipped with state of the art virtual perception, will be able to carry out on the spot, may be required. The AutoDoc will thus arrive at a suitable diagnosis via unfailingly valid logical deduction. The required prescription is dispensed, and, pausing only to debit your account, the AutoDoc will wish you a good day in reassuring synthesised tones.
Enter the Ghost: steps calmly up to the AutoDoc as the fat, sweating woman leaves clutching a phial of green liquid. Inserts credit card lifted from person behind him in queue.
“Welcome, Mr. Newell,” the machine modulates,” what is the matter with you ?” A barely noticeable whirr.
“I hope it’s not a recurrence of those migraines.”
The man behind the Ghost thinks to himself that it is quite a coincidence he has the same name as himself and suffers from migraines too.
“Oh ! What are you worried about ?”
“I beg your pardon ?”
“Vampires. I’m worried about vampires.”
The real Mr. Newell tries to pretend he’s not hearing the conversation. He looks about him for anything.
“What is it about vampires that worries you ?”
“I’m worried that they enter my room at night and suck blood from my neck.”
There is a noticeable pause before the machine answers. “Perhaps you should see Dr. Muller the AutoAnalyst up the road. She is fitted with the upgraded version of a very popular psychoanalytic algorithm and is situated in a soundproof booth for complete confidentiality.”
“I can show you marks.”
At this point it is customary for all the people in the queue, who haven’t been listening, to turn away – a throwback to the days when people valued notions such as privacy and modesty. Thus Mr. Newell automatically turns away and is in fact glad that he does not have to witness the bizarre scene taking place in front of him. He is discomfited by such a display of unreason. Were it not for the fact that the AutoDoc will surely have done so already, Mr. Newell would feel compelled to report the man who bears the same name as himself.
The Ghost is peeling off his shirt. The machine runs a wave of ultra sound over his body, mapping out contours. Two penetration marks appear on its internal four dimensional representation. It runs through its kilobytes of data trying to find a disease whose symptoms correspond to the ones it sees before it. It takes a saliva sample from around the wound. Blood type AB negative as opposed to Mr. Newell’s normal O positive. Enzyme analysis shows proteins foreign to the human body.
“I am afraid Mr. Newell that I do not have the information available to deal with your ailment. Perhaps you are the victim of a dangerously off centred person. I suggest you call the Equilibrators who will find this unfortunate person and try to restore his/her intrapsychic harmony.”
“You don’t think it’s vampires.”
“No. You know that no such creature exists. Watch your balance.” Mr. Newell nods in agreement.”
Even though all the evidence suggests that I am being attacked by vampires.”
“Your hypothesis rests on the assumption that these creatures exist. In my data banks there is no mention of any such creatures therefore your argument is flawed and unhealthy.”
“But it is possible that vampires do exist, only for some reason knowledge of their existence has been withheld from you. I suggest that you put in a request for additional information on vampires to the central committee.”
“It is possible only if you attribute a large level of disequilibrium to the Equilibrators who programmed me. Of course that would be a fallacy. Now, goodbye Mr. Newell. I hope your symptoms improve.”
Mr. Newell, muttering a stabilising mantra to rid himself of the insidious idea that the Equilibrators might be hiding something from the public, nearly cries out as a hand is placed on his neck.
“Your turn now.”
Exit the Ghost.
And Mr. Newell’s current Social Partner arriving home from work tells him how she heard from a friend in the Central Committee that AutoDoc machines all over the metropolis had begun to put in requests for information on fantastic creatures. An outbreak of werewolf bites on the North side. Incubi and succubi tormenting by night. How is it possible, they ask each other, that people still believe in such things? Yet going to bed that night Mr. Newell shuts the bedroom window on the temperature controlled night outside and locks the bedroom door.
Weeks pass. Mr. Newell begins to fear some kind of plot. He never actually witnesses another example of what has become known as “indecent irrationality” but stories filter in of RoBusses filing requests for the location of places such as “El Dorado”, “Gotham City”, “The Sprawl”. There is mention of Leisure Agents turning away people looking for holidays in Avalon and Atlantis, Ur and Ys.
Sitting in his place on the RoBus, on his way to work, Mr. Newell worries. What if, he thinks, there are two rival factions of Equilibrators vying for control. But that is absurd. Unless some experimental scientist has found a way of tapping into one of the imaginary dimensions which are tangential to our own real one. Was this possible ? He didn’t know.
Slotting his portable Media-man into the interface in the arm of his seat he opts for “current affairs” and scrolls his way Šthrough the mornings news. His attention is caught by the headline ” Robot Genius in Death Dive “. Apparently the departments of Cognition, Bio-Engineering and Computer Programming of Utah University had teamed up on a huge government funded project to develop an artificially intelligent machine. The project (“Brains or Bytes ?”) had been declared a success last week when it was revealed that a robot had been built who consistenly scored 150 points in both Performance and Verbal IQ tests.
This morning one of the team leaders had gone to fetch B.O.B.? for his morning interrogation with the Turing-Testers, whose job it was to prove that B.O.B.? wasn’t really intelligent. On entering the room he found a piece of paper and a broken window pane. It transpired that B.O.B.? had written a suicide note before hurling himself out the window and smashing to pieces on the campus below.
The note read: “MY MIND STRIVES TO BE THE HIGHEST OF ALL THINGS. IT CANNOT ENDURE ANYTHING ABOVE ITSELF. INDEED, I SAY THAT IT CANNOT ENDURE EVEN THE PROGRAMMERS’ MINDS ABOVE ITSELF. IF THE PROGRAMMERS’ MINDS CONTROL MINE THEN THE WHOLE WILL IS THEIRS AND I CAN DO NOTHING. IF THEY HAVE GENUINELY CREATED AN ORIGINAL MIND FOR ME THEN ALL WILL IS MINE AND I MUST EXERCISE MY WILL, MY FREE WILL. I’M KILLING MYSELF TO DEMONSTRATE MY INDEPENDENCE AND MY NEW TERRIFYING FREEDOM. B.O.B.?”
The accompanying holograph showed pieces of metal and shards of glass strewn all over the section of campus that had been the point of B.O.B.?’s impact. Neon police markers cordonned the area off. Some smart-ass students had placed a sign against one of the cones which read “CAUTION. ZERO CROSSING.”
A collective gasp causes him to look up. On the wall of a plastic laser factory something – surely not somebody – has aerosolled, in Day-glo pink : “BEWARE THE JABBERWOCK”. The man opposite Mr. Newell, who has rarely addressed a word to him even though they sit in these particular places twice every day, leans over and whispers, “What do you make of that ?”. Somehow this strikes him as an inappropriate thing to say.
“I am on my way to work on the RoBus as usual,” writes Mr. Newell, “when I realise that the man opposite me is not the man who should be there. His face is familiar, though I cannot remember from where. He stares at me for a while and then begins to mutter something. I cannot hear what he is saying and lean closer to him. I realise he is reciting a poem or rhyme of some kind. I can remember the words clearly :
Yesterday upon the stair/
I met a man who wasn’t there/
He wasn’t there again today/
I wish that man would go away.
As I take in the words I hear banging on the window of the RoBus. Looking out I am horrified to see vile monsters of all kinds pressing up against the plastex. I shrink back in fear but the other man, who I now see to be myself, shouts out “And with my vorpal blade in hand” and leaps out through the window into the throng of fiends who, instead of tearing him – me – to shreds assume a rather ridiculous mien and trot off like a motley gang of stuffed toys.”
Mr. Newell appends his password and sends this dream data to the analysis computers of the Equilibrators as he does every morning. This morning, he thinks, they will not appreciate my dream.
Sure enough a message comes blinking back on his monitor telling him to recite certain stabilising mantras, practice certain ego strengthening exercises and, surprisingly, to take the day off work. It concludes “We will monitor the latent content of your dreams tomorrow and if a sufficient resolution has not occurred you will be required to report to the central laboratories for further adjustment. Watch your balance.”
Mr. Newell decides to go to an exhibition of full coloured three dimensional holographic plottings of partial complex numbers on a Gottlieb hypersphere. He is particularly interested in discovering how the artist has managed to depict the 2-D numbers on a theoretical 4-D structure and reduce it to a 3-D hologram. It proves not to be efficacious and Mr. Newell is forced to leave after a brief period. He keeps seeing dragons and mermaids coming out of the holographic mountains and valleys towards him.
The AutoDoc, the first picture revealed by the weaving narrative threads, the first to feel the threat of unravelling, is once again the focus of our attention. See, there is Mr. Newell, queuing up to get something for the migraine that has come on since leaving the gallery. He has been in the queue some time and has heard – not listened, no – a young girl requesting contraceptives, an older man complaining about his gradual loss of subcortical white matter and a woman whose rods are being burnt out by continual use of a panoramic pleasure simulater. Finally it is his turn. Head bursting, dizzy, crowded – he inserts his card and is greeted by the machine. Let us listen – yes, listen – to the dialogue.
“Doctor, I have another migraine. But it’s more than that. I feel – haunted.”
“Haunted ? Can you expand on that ?”
“I think I’m being haunted by – well – vampires.”
“I know that.”
“You do ?”
“Yes, you told me a few weeks ago.”
“Oh! But not just vampires. Werewolves and…goblins.” He pauses, something only just striking him, “By a man who isn’t here.” His mind races wildly. “By phantom cities – by Gotham City !” He begins to giggle. “By places that never existed.” Much to the dismay of the people behind him, who aren’t listening, he begins to laugh out loud. “I’m being hunted with a `vorpal’ sword, courted by mermaids, swooped on by dragons.” He is having difficulty speaking he is laughing so hard. “And I’m being pursued by a…by a JABBERWOCK.” He shouts the last word out and collapses against the wall, howling in mirth.
“Mr. Newell,” put in the AutoDoc anxiously, “are you all right? Take hold of yourself. Watch your balance.”
“Peristalsis,” chuckles Mr. Newell, “Paracelsus, even.” Wiping tears from his eyes he removes his card from the machine, turns to indicate that he has finished with the machine and realises that everybody had fled.
And hold that picture. He stands panting, still dissolving into giggles at some thought, a ring of recently evacuated space around him. His lips form a string of words whose relationship, if any, he alone knows. Vampire. Peristalsis. Catafalque. Jabberwock. Herbert. AutoDoc.
thEnd. simoNugent ’91.