Sunday, July 7, 2013

Another Kind of Harmony by Fred Skolnik

Fred Skolnik tells the story of John and Mary, members of a strange race in a red world.

In the red room the figures come and go. In the red light they give off an eerie glow. In the red dust they twist and turn. There is nothing but this: the red light and the figures that come and go. There are no walls in the red room. It is as big as you want it to be. No one can say for certain how their history began. They are like us but not like us. They float through the air, greeting each other cordially in their peregrinations. It is like groping in the dark. Everything is steeped in shadow, dark and red. Who comes? Is it male or female, friend or foe? They float toward us. They veer to the right or to the left. Everything flows. You cannot see them but they are there.

They are intelligent creatures, that much is certain - more intelligent than we will ever be. They communicate as if by magic. They reproduce unwittingly. They do not understand death. Otherwise they are pretty much like us. They laugh and cry. They socialize. They enjoy a good meal.

John and Mary were a couple. They'd known each other since they were kids so naturally enough they stuck together when the time came for the big migration. They drifted south with the others in the laborious way such creatures have, through the red shadows and heavy mist. In truth they thought the world of one another. John saw Mary in the most flattering light, as though she were an angel. Everything about her was perfect in his eyes. Mary thought John was the handsomest creature she had ever seen and would provide for all her needs. He would maintain her and protect her and embrace her before they slept.

They all hovered in the red air until everyone was there and then settled in. John and Mary rented a lovely house, a split level affair with an arbor out back and shopping nearby. John worked at the Information Center. It was either that or the drudgery of a recycling plant with the attendant risk of being recycled oneself. Mary took care of the house. You wouldn't have thought there'd be much to do there but between the shopping and cleaning and preparing meals she was exhausted at the end of the day and John often had to recharge her when he got home. That was sometimes a problem because the weaker she got the less of her he could see. "Let's get some color back in your cheeks," was their standing joke. At the Information Center John processed data, running them through his PS and saving whatever was interesting for personal use, always passing it on to Mary when they interfaced so they had that as an additional bond; they often chatted about arcane things, batting ideas back and forth, so they got a reputation as intellectual types in the neighborhood. Mary could handle whatever John threw at her, even though her PS was less sophisticated than his, being needed only for the household chores. Both of them had opted for the multitrack system, meaning they could be in many places at the same time. Therefore John was lodged permanently at the Center while always being at home and Mary could go anywhere she liked and still take care of the house. On the other hand, experts agreed that the multitrack system led to a high rate of decoupling as interfacing with more than one partner became a simple matter of being in the right place at the right time with no one the wiser for it unless the suspicious party got a detective to "bug" the guilty party's system. John and Mary, however, were faithful to one another, never having interfaced with anyone else, except of course for social or professional purposes.

Mary did wonderful things with the standard oil-based paste that was distributed every morning at the Food Center. She supplemented it with taste options and they imbibed the whole concoction through a straw. The Manufacturing Center was always coming out with new lines of straws and naturally enough they became conversation pieces and their designers were said to have become rich and powerful figures in the world of haute couture. Some of the straws cost a small fortune and John and Mary sometimes had arguments about how much she was putting out on them, as occasionally she tended to go overboard - as in the case of a candy-striped model inlaid with precious stones that she couldn't resist at a holiday sale. "I'll stick to the old plexiform if it's all right with you," John said, and Mary was almost in tears and said she was going to bring it right back if that was how he felt about it; John of course relented and afterwards they interfaced as they hadn't interfaced for weeks.

Every six months they had to sign in at the Service Center for a general update and hardware check. This was a lengthy procedure and Mary always complained of headaches afterwards. On one such occasion, floating through the corridors in a disoriented state, she wandered into a storeroom for discarded parts and saw her old CPU there. It was a wrenching experience, bringing back memories she'd thought she'd lost, so she interfaced with it on the spot and came back home with a rosy glow. John asked her what had happened and she explained it to him and John said he'd heard about such things but pointed out that it was strongly condemned in certain quarters as a form of autodegradation. Mary got angry and said, "You ought to try it first before you put it down," and they had another fight.

John and Mary usually spent their evenings at home relaxing in their networking box. Sometimes they had friends over and then Mary would whip up a quick paste and lay out their best straws. Their next-door neighbors had three kids, so small you could hardly see them. They were kept in a kind of pod, as was the fashion those days, interfacing freely until they fell asleep. Mary kept asking the neighbors all kinds of questions - John could see she wanted kids herself and even asked them how you got them but they didn't know. "One day they're just there," was what they said. Nobody seemed to know where the kids came from. It was a great mystery, one of the few mysteries still left in fact.

Kids demanded a lot of time and had to be interfaced from morning to night, which took a lot out of a parent. They also required special pastes. You could shut them down of course and stick them on a shelf, but what was the sense of having kids if that was what you were going to do with them?

The high point of the year was the recitation of the history of the race with its mythological beginnings. Nobody believed these myths but they were recited nonetheless and pulling your plug was a punishable offense. It was said that once there had been many forms of life but in the end the creatures of the red room had prevailed and now they were alone in a universe no larger than their own minds, a universe not so much reduced in size as reinvented to suit their requirements. The universe, their teachers liked to say, is in your heads, bigger or smaller as the case may be.

The wars of the creatures of the red room had lasted eons. At first they had enslaved all those whom they vanquished but they really had no need for them and besides even as slaves they competed for the precious paste that was the stuff of their lives, so the creatures of the red room had eliminated all the vanquished races of the land, sea and air. John and Mary knew only a perfect world with enough paste for everyone. Those who regulated the social order sat in the center of the room and sent out messages every day. Mary relied on John to process them and was satisfied to receive a short resume when they interfaced at night. The number of messages coming in was so enormous that those equipped with ordinary PSs sometimes had trouble sorting them. John knew everything. Even the neighbors came to him for information and advice.

However, even in a perfect world there were signs of discontent. Not everyone was satisfied with his PS and occasionally there were demonstrations about the quality of the paste. Some thought it was being watered down and funneled off to the advantage of certain privileged individuals who inhabited a rarefied atmosphere seldom visited by lesser creatures. Nothing had ever been proved, however. Besides which, processing messages kept everyone pretty busy. John told Mary he wasn't sure everyone was getting the same messages and this may well have been the way things were regulated, but again no one could prove it, the flow of information being so immense that you barely had a chance to breathe.

The minute size of the creatures of the red room did not prevent them from performing herculean tasks by coupling and bonding to form huge conglomerates capable of moving even mountains. They were of course aided by the ingenious machines devised by the mechanically inclined, machines that gave the impression of being the true rulers of the realm, but this was of course an illusion, for the machines were ruled by those who built them, as was everyone else.

As nothing began and nothing ended there were no questions about the beginning and end of things, only about what appeared to be a protracted middle. No one wondered where this middle went or where it came from. It was just there, forever. John and Mary sometimes wondered how they would fill so much time. Sometimes Mary even got depressed and pulled her plug in the middle of the day and then John would have to spend half the night recharging her. He took her to the Service Center and they spoke to a counselor but afterwards Mary wandered off and interfaced with her old CPU again. The counselor said she was suffering from fatigue and suggested they take a vacation together. John found a suitable program and in less time than it took light to travel they were on the beach under a parasol sipping drinks that didn't taste like any paste they'd ever had before. There was a floor show every night and someone called Happy Hal exercised the females in the morning while the males played games with a ball. One afternoon they went to see a professional match in the local arena. A number of males ran and jumped for three hours and everyone cheered. Mary thought John could be out there too but John told her it wasn't as easy as it looked and that was why males who ran and jumped were so greatly admired and got extra paste. When they got back to the room John deactivated Mary's moving parts and they interfaced in new positions. Mary said, "Wow!" and it looked like she was back to her old self again.

The day after they got back home they found half a dozen kids in the house. Mary was beside herself with joy and sent John to get a pod. That evening as they sat in their networking box John had occasion to reflect on how well his life had turned out. Here was Mary with her sleek chassis and flashing lights, just as alluring as when he'd first interfaced with her, and now the six little ones lapping up their paste like kittens, though nearly invisible. He had an interesting job and a well-appointed house. He was sleek himself. Others, less fortunate, showed signs of wear and tear and didn't seem to be having much fun. That was too bad. John refused to feel guilty. Anyone in the red room could be happy. It was up to them.

John and Mary fitted out the kids' room with all the accessories recommended by the Information Center. When they were about a year old they began to float. That made it easier to get around. There was a playground near the house where Mary often took them, meeting females like herself and spending many pleasant afternoons chatting with them about family matters like interfacing and pastemaking. When the kids were a little older they were upgraded and the information began to flow. Sometimes John or Mary had to help them sort it out and sometimes the kids learned things that John or Mary didn't know. Besides which, they interfaced in strange ways that sometimes shocked their parents. "The times are changing," John said philosophically. And it was true. The kids were barely out of their pods and were already engaging in autodegradation, not to mention the music they listened to from morning till night.

Though the creatures of the red room inhabited a murky space, everything was crystal clear to them, they saw what we cannot see and knew what we will never know. Their limbs were like tentacles interfacing as they floated through the crowded air or paused to rest and information flowed through their veins like a thick elixir. They saw what they saw and knew what they knew in the clearest images, deep inside themselves. It hardly mattered what the world was like outside.

John and Mary had a family now. They were like all the other creatures of the red room. They stuck together. After their semiannual hardware checks they always took the kids on a family outing, exploring the outer edges of the red room. There were some who said there was a door in the room that led to other rooms no less vast and undefined than the one they inhabited but none had found it though many searched. The door is in your minds, their teachers said. You will only find it within yourselves.

Some even said that these other worlds had a beginning and an end, but the creatures of the red room could not grasp such a concept. If there was a beginning, what came before it, they asked; if there was an end, what came after it. No one could say. John and Mary could not remember a time when they had not been and could not imagine a time when they would not be. At the very worst you traded in your CPU, as in Mary's case when she'd had that virus that nearly erased her memory.

John got a promotion at the Information Center. Mary was having trouble with her chassis and had to be serviced twice a week until the problem cleared up. Fortunately she had a good sense of humor so whenever she wanted to interface she would say to John, "I need to be serviced, baby, and I mean now!" John had a good sense of humor too and would always reply, "Full service or self-service, ma'am?" This was of course "bedroom talk" and they always had a great deal of fun in bed, playing with each other's controls until their circuits hummed and throbbed and then Mary would let out a scream that would have woken the dead had there been any in their perfect world. Sometimes at breakfast one of the kids would say, "What was all that racket last night?" and another one would say, "That was Mom and Dad interfacing again," and there would be merry laughter all around the table.

They had three males and three females so the kids could have gone on interfacing among themselves but after a certain age it was considered desirable to couple outside the family circle and thereby expand the family network. The first to couple was Joanne. She brought Sid home just before the annual recitation of the history of the race. Sid also worked at the Information Center and was therefore thought of as a "good catch," belonging to their own class. John and Mary could see that Joanne was crazy about him because while they were eating she kept brushing against his chassis as though by accident.

"What division are you in?" John asked him.

"Commercial messages," Sid said.

"That must be exciting," Mary said.

"Sid designs the taste option ads," Joanne said.

"You sure convince me," Mary said. "I buy them all."

"It's what keeps the economy going," Sid said. "If there were no options we'd all be eating the same paste and there would be no growth and diversification."

"And fewer jobs at the Manufacturing Center," John added.

"Fewer jobs at the Information Center too," Sid said with a sly look.

"We'd have a recession," John said.

"Anyone care for some 'strawberry' jello?" Mary said.

After dinner they sat outside and John and Sid engaged in some more "shop talk" while Joanne looked at Sid adoringly and the other kids ran around in circles hitting a ball with a stick. The sky was clear and many stars were out as well as a full moon lit up by a distant sun that was said to be a star itself. Somewhere up there, everyone knew, there was a dead planet from which they themselves were said to have come, though there was some disagreement on the matter. Had they migrated from the dead planet, or was the dead planet in the red room as well? John certainly didn't know, though he knew almost everything else.

At the end of the evening Sid said, "I think I'll be floating along now," and Joanne accompanied him to the front gate, giving his cable an affectionate tug. When they were in bed, Mary said to John, "I hope it works out. He looks like a nice boy." John concurred.

After that they saw quite a lot of Sid, who'd come by nearly every evening to take Joanne out to a paste bar where young couples tried out a variety of stimulants and often came home with their memories gone. "Kids will be kids," Mary said. Fortunately it all worked out for the best. Sid and Joanne soon coupled and set up their own household. Needless to say, it wasn't long before the kids started to come. "A new generation," John sighed. They got the usual viruses and filled themselves with the cookies that Mary brought when she came over for a visit. One day Joanne said to Mary, "You know, Mom, the more we interface the more kids we get. There must be a connection."

"I don't think so," Mary said.

John didn't think so either. "The ideas kids get nowadays," he said.

"It was different when we were kids," Mary said.

"Remember the first time we interfaced?" John said.

Mary blushed. "How can I forget."

"I hardly knew what I was doing."

"You had the longest cable I had ever seen."

"It's a good thing your port was so big or I never would have gotten my plug in."

John was now a supervisor at the Information Center. It was rumored that he was in line to be moved to the center of the room to become a regulator and send out self-generated messages. That was as high as you could go in the system. All information was inside it. You worked with what you had, though there was a separate division for innovators who sometimes interfaced with external sources and forwarded astounding messages which John would have to sort and evaluate if he ever got his big promotion. Mary said she had a cousin in the higher echelons and it was well worth using her connections at this critical juncture in John's career to advance his interests but John said he preferred to have his case judged on its own merits and if worst came to worst he could transfer to the Service Center where there was always room at the top. "Anything but Manufacturing," Mary said. "You don't want to get stuck in straws."

In the end John got his promotion and was moved to the center of the room. It was a dream come true. He had achieved the highest position in the system. Everything came through him. He was at the heart of things. Mary threw a party. No one could refuse to come. She too was a force to be reckoned with now. She would no longer have to shop or clean the house or prepare her own pastes, and she could afford any straw that struck her fancy. These were going to be the best years of their lives lasting for a length of time that could not be measured. John sat in the center of the room and Mary threw more parties and was said to have the biggest collection of straws in the neighborhood. They also bought a flotation device so that they wouldn't have to exert themselves when they moved from place to place. Needless to say, they both put on a few extra pounds.

One by one the kids all coupled and moved away and suddenly they had the big house all to themselves again. In fact all the kids in the neighborhood had moved away by now so that the neighborhood looked more like a retirement village than anything else. They were all just starting to settle into middle age, which would last forever.

"I don't think I have the energy for another migration," Mary said.

"And all that packing," John said.

"What if we stayed behind?"

"They'd have to deactivate us," John said, "and then we'd have to be upgraded when everyone got back."

"Why can't we just stay the way we are?"

"It doesn't work that way," John said. "You end up not being able to interface."

"But you and I could, if we stayed the same."

"What about the kids? It's more complicated than you think."

"But what happens if you don't deactivate?"

"There'd be no one here to service you. You'd end up on the scrap heap, like your old CPU."

"Sometimes I wonder if it's not for the best. After all, how long can you just go on?"

"Now now, Mary."

Clearly Mary was having another crisis so John took her to the Service Center again for a counseling session. The counselor asked her many intimate questions, like whether she was still secreting oil, and then gave her some powder to add to her paste. "This'll do the trick," the counselor said.

"What is it?" John said.

"Just a little pick-me-up."

Mary had wandered off again and John found her with her old CPU. "I wish you wouldn't," he said.

"I can't help it," Mary said.

"Let's go home."

"Give me another minute." When he was outside the storeroom he heard the familiar scream. He waited patiently and she came out looking somewhat sheepish.

John administered her powder faithfully but there was no improvement. Sometimes, when he got back from the Information Center, he found her sitting on the sofa just staring into space. Sometimes he heard her muttering to herself, "My old CPU, my old CPU, everything is there." This made no sense at all. What about all their years together? Did she want to just erase them?

"It's the menopause," a colleague said. "She'll get over it."

"But where do you go from there?" John said.

"Nowhere," his colleague said. "You just stay where you are."

"Forever?"

"Give or take a couple of years."

This was a big problem though the creatures of the red room did not like to admit it and were a little squeamish even about raising the subject. Occasionally someone pulled his plug leaving notarized instructions not to be reactivated. They were generally consigned to the CPU storeroom in the Service Center with their moving parts going into the recycling bin. At the same time counselors devised all kinds of programs to keep the middle-aged occupied. Some played chess and some played checkers. Some interfaced promiscuously with thousands and thousands of partners, exposing the most intimate details of their lives and expressing opinions about every subject under the sun. This was considered even more debased than autodegradation. Others watched TV from morning till night.

When it was time to retire John and Mary rented a smaller house and spent the mornings gardening, generally dozing off right after lunch. It wasn't much of a life and they were interfacing less and less now but somehow they got used to it, and Mary had a facelift and general overhaul which picked up her spirits considerably. When it was finally time for the creatures of the red room to make their way back to their old nesting grounds, John and Mary were actually looking forward to opening the old house and getting back into harness. When they landed they saw that everything was just as they had left it and the lawn was still green. "Isn't this great," John said. In the evening they sat outside and had a drink. They were content. They had all of eternity to look forward to.

3 comments:

  1. An interesting comparison/blend of the cycle of computer technology and the cycle of life. A sort of "techno life of Riley," if you will.

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  2. An imaginative dip into a world that is just plausible to belief the reader might trip in and out of the technical and the real. Will the future become more and more like this?
    Regards
    Colin

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  3. It was a strange world that we can relate to at the same time. And the interfacing bits made me smile and chuckle. This was a great short story!

    Ziyad Hayatli

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