He awoke, and sensed at once that something dreadful was wrong. Oh God, he thought as he realized that Mr. Bed had deposited him in a muddled heap against the wall. It's beginning again, he realized. And the Directorate West promised us infinite perfection. This is what we get, he realized, for believing in what mere humans say.
As best he could he struggled out of his bedclothes, got shakily to his feet and made his way across the room to Mr. Closet.
"I'd like a natty sharkskin gray double-breasted suit," he informed it, speaking crisply into the microphone on Mr. Closet's door. "A red shirt, blue socks, and --" But it was no use. Already the slot was vibrating as a huge pair of women's silk bloomers came sliding out.
"You get what you see," Mr. Closet's metallic voice came to him, echoing hollowly.
Glumly, Joe Contemptible put on the bloomers. At least it was better than nothing -- like the day in Dreadful August when the vast polyencephalic computer in Queens had served up everyone in Greater America nothing but a handkerchief to wear.
Going to the bathroom, Joe Contemptible washed his face -- and found the liquid which he was splashing on himself to be warm root beer. Christ, he thought. Mr. Computer is even zanier this time than ever before. It's been reading old Phil Dick science fiction stories, he decided. That's what we get for providing Mr. Computer with every kind of archaic trash in the world to read and store in its memory banks.
He finished combing his hair -- without making use of the root beer -- and then, having dried himself, entered the kitchen to see if Mr. Coffeepot was at least a sane fragment in a reality deteriorating all around him.
No luck. Mr. Coffeepot obligingly presented him with a dixie cup of soap. Well, so much for that.
The real problem, however, came when he tried to open Mr. Door. Mr. Door would not open; instead it complained tinnily: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
"Meaning what?" Joe demanded, angry, now. This weird business was no longer fun. Not that it had ever been the times before -- except, perhaps, when Mr. Computer had served him with roast pheasant for breakfast.
"Meaning," Mr. Door said, "that you're wasting your time, fucker. You're not getting to the office today nohow."
This proved to be true. The door would not open; despite his efforts the mechanism, controlled miles away from the polyencephalic master matrix, refused to budge.
Breakfast, then? Joe Contemptible punched buttons on the control module of Mr. Food -- and found himself staring at a plate of fertilizer.
He thereupon picked up the phone and savagely attacked the numbers which would put him in touch with the local police.
"Loony Tunes Incorporated," the face on the vidscreen said. "An animated cartoon version of your sexual practices produced in one week, including GLORIOUS SOUND EFFECTS!"
Fuck it, Joe Contemptible said to himself and rang off.
It had been a bad idea from the start, back in 1982, to operate every mechanism from a central source. Of course, the basic idea had sounded good: with the ozone layer burned off, too many people were behaving irrationally, and it had become necessary to solve the problem by some electronic means immune from the mind-slushing ultra violet radiation now flooding earth. Mr. Computer had, at the time, seemed to be the answer. But, sad to say, Mr. Computer had absorbed too much freaked-out input from its human builders and therefore, like them, Mr. Computer had its own psychotic episodes.
There was of course an answer. It had hurriedly been slapped together -- pasted into place, as it were, once the difficulty was discovered. The head of World Mental Health, a formidable old battleax named Joan Simpson, had been granted a form of immortality so as to be always available to treat Mr. Computer during its crazy periods. Ms. Simpson was stored at the center of the earth in a special lead-lined chamber, safe from the harmful radiation at the surface, in a quasi-suspended animation called Dismal Pak, in which Ms. Simpson (it was said) lay aslumber while being entertained by an endless procession of priceless 1940 radio soap operas, fed to her on a closed loop. Ms. Simpson, it was said, was the only truly sane person on -- or rather in -- earth; this, plus her superb skill, as well as infinite training in the art of healing psychotic constructs, was earth's sole hope for survival.
Realizing this, Joe Contemptible felt a little better, but not a lot -- for he had just picked up Mr. Newspaper where it lay on the floor beside the slot of his front door. The headline read:
ADOLF HITLER CROWNED POPE. CROWDS CHEER IN RECORD NUMBERS.
So much for Mr. Newspaper, Joe realized glumly, and tossed it into Mr. Garbage-slot. The mechanism churned, and then, instead of ingesting or cubing the newspaper, spat it back out again. Joe glanced briefly at the headline again, saw a photo of a human skeleton -- complete with Nazi uniform and mustache, wearing the great crown of the pope -- and seated himself on the couch in his living room to wait for the moment (sure to come soon) when Ms. Simpson was startled out of Dismal Pak to minister to Mr. Computer, and, in so doing, restore the world to sanity.
Half to himself, Fred Doubledome said, "It's psychotic, all right. I asked it if it knew where it was and it said it was floating on a raft in the Mississippi. Now get a confirm for me; ask it who it is."
Dr. Pacemaker touched command-request buttons on the console of the vast computer, asking it: WHO ARE YOU?
The answer appeared on the vidscreen at once.
"You see?" Doubledome said. "It is totally out of touch with the reality situation. Has reactivation of Ms. Simpson begun?"
"That's affirmative, Doubledome," Pacemaker said. And, as if proving him correct, doors slid aside to reveal the lead-lined container in which Ms. Simpson slept, listening to her favorite daytime soap opera, Ma Perkins.
"Ms. Simpson," Pacemaker said, bending over her. "We are having a problem with Mr. Computer again. It has totally spaced out. An hour ago it routed all the whipples in New York across the same intersection. Loss of life was heavy. And instead of responding to the disaster with fire and police rescue teams it dispatched a circus troop of clowns."
"I see," Ms. Simpson's voice came through the transduction and boosting system by which they communicated with her. "But first, I must attend to a fire at Ma's lumber yard. You see, her friend Shuffle --"
"Ms. Simpson," Pacemaker said, "our situation is grave. We need you. Come out of your customary fog and get to work restoring Mr. Computer to sanity. Then you may return to your radio serials."
Gazing down at Ms. Simpson he was, as always, startled by her virtually unnatural beauty. Great dark eyes with long lashes, the husky, sensuous voice, the intensely black short-cropped hair (so fashionable in a world of dreck!), the firm and supple body, the warm mouth suggesting love and comfort -- amazing, he thought, that the one really sane human left on earth (and the only one capable of saving same) could at the same time be startlingly lovely.
But no matter; this was not the time to think such thoughts. NBC TV news had already reported that Mr. Computer had closed down all the airports in the world and turned them into baseball stadiums.
Shortly, Ms. Simpson was studying a composite abstract delineating Mr. Computer's erratic commands.
"It is clearly regressive," she informed them, sipping absently at a cup of coffee.
"Ms. Simpson," Doubledome said, "I'm afraid that's soapy water you're drinking."
"You're right," Ms. Simpson said, putting the cup down. "I see here that Mr. Computer is playing childish pranks on the mass of mankind. It fits with my hypostatized hypothesis."
"How will you render a return of normalcy to the vast construct?" Pacemaker asked.
"Evidently it encountered a traumatic situation which caused it to regress," Ms. Simpson said. "I shall locate the trauma and then proceed by desensitizing Mr. Computer vis-a-vis that trauma. My M.O. in that regard will be to present Mr. Computer with each letter of the alphabet in turn, gauging its reactions until I perceive what we in the mental health movement call a flinch reaction."
She did so. Mr. Computer, upon the letter J, emitted a faint whine; smoke billowed up. Ms. Simpson then repeated the sequence of letters. This time the faint whine and billows of smoke came at the letter C.
"J.C.," Ms. Simpson said. "Perhaps Jesus Christ. Perhaps the Second Coming has taken place, and Mr. Computer fears that it will be pre-empted. I will start on that assumption. Have Mr. Computer placed in a semi-comatose state so that it can free associate."
Technicians hurried to the task assigned.
The virtually unconscious mumbling of the great computer issued forth from the aud channels mounted through the control chamber.
". . . programming himself to die," the computer rambled on. "Fine person like that. DNA command analysis. Going to ask not for a reprieve but for an acceleration of the death process. Salmon swimming upstream to die. . . appeals to him. . . after all I've done for him. Rejection of life. Conscious of it. Wants to die. I cannot endure the voluntary death, the reprogramming 180 degrees from the matrix purpose of DNA command programming. . ." On and on it rambled.
Ms. Simpson said sharply, "What name comes to you, Mr. Computer? A name!"
"Clerk in a record store," the computer mumbled. "An authority on German Lieder and bubblegum rock of the '60s. What a waste. My but the water is warm. Think I'll fish. Let down my line and catch a big catfish. Won't Huck be surprised, and Jim, too! Jim's a man even though --"
"What name?" Ms. Simpson repeated.
The vague mumble continued.
Swiftly, Ms. Simpson said to Doubledome and Pacemaker, who stood rigid and attentive, "Find a record clerk whose initials are J.C. and who is an authority on German Lieder and bubblegum rock of the '60s. And hurry! We don't have much time!''
Having left his conapt by a window, Joe Contemptible made his way among wrecked whipples and shouting, angry drivers in the direction of Artistic Music Company, the record store at which he had worked most of his life. At least he had gotten out of --
Suddenly two gray-clad police materialized before him, faces grim; both held punch-guns aimed at Joe's chest. "You're coming with us," they said, virtually in unison.
The urge to run overcame Joe; turning, he started away. But then furious pain settled over him; the police had punched him out, and now, falling, he realized that it was too late to flee. He was a captive of the authorities. But why? he wondered. Is it merely a random sweep? Or are they putting down an abortive coup against the government? Or -- his fading thoughts raced -- have ETIs come at last to help us in our fight for freedom? And then darkness closed over him, merciful darkness.
The next he knew, he was being served a cup of soapy water by two members of the technocrat class; an armed policeman lounged in the background, punch-gun ready were the situation to require it.
Seated in the corner of the chamber was an extraordinarily beautiful dark-haired woman; she wore a miniskirt and boots -- old-fashioned but enticingly foxy -- and, he saw, she had the most enormous and warm eyes he had ever seen in his life. Who was she? And -- what did she want with him? Why had he been brought before her?
"Your name," one of the white-clad technocrats said.
"Contemptible," he managed to say, unable to take his eyes off the extraordinarily beautiful young woman.
"You have an appointment with DNA Reappraisal," the other of the white-clad technocrats said crisply. "What is your purpose? What ukase emanating from the gene pool do you intend -- did you intend, I should say -- to alter?"
Joe said lamely, "I -- wanted to be reprogrammed for. . . you know. Longer life. The encoding for death was about to come up for me, and I --"
"We know that isn't true," the lovely dark-haired woman said in a husky, sexy voice, but a voice nonetheless filled with intelligence and authority. "You were attempting suicide, were you not, Mr. Contemptible, by having your DNA coding tinkered with, not to postpone your death, but to bring it on?"
He said nothing. Obviously, they knew.
"WHY?" the woman said sharply.
"I --" He hesitated. Then, slumping in defeat he managed to say, "I'm not married. I've got no wife. Nothing. Just my damn job at the record store. All those damn German songs and those bubblegum rock lyrics; they go through my head night and day, constantly, mixtures of Goethe and Heine and Neil Diamond." Lifting his head he said with furious defiance, "So why should I live on? Call that living? It's existence, not living."
There was silence.
Three frogs hopped across the floor. Mr. Computer was now turning out frogs from all the airducts on earth. Half an hour before, it had been dead cats.
"Do you know what it is like," Joe said quietly, "to have such lyrics as 'The song I sang to you / The love I brang to you' keep floating through your head?"
The dark-haired lovely woman said, suddenly, "I think I do know, Contemptible. You see, I am Joan Simpson."
"Then --" Joe understood in an instant. "You're down there at the center of the earth watching endless daytime soap operas! On a closed loop!"
"Not watching," Joan Simpson said. "Hearing. They're from radio, not TV."
Joe said nothing. There was nothing to say.
One of the white-clad technocrats said, "Ms. Simpson, work must begin restoring Mr. Computer to sanity. It is presently turning out hundreds of thousands of Pollys."
" 'Pollys'?" Joan Simpson said, puzzled; then understanding flooded her warm features. "Oh yes. His childhood sweetheart."
"Mr. Contemptible," one of the white-clad technocrats said to Joe, "it is because of your lack of love for life that Mr. Computer has gone crackers. To bring Mr. Computer back to sanity we must first bring you back to sanity." To Joan Simpson, he said, "Am I correct?"
She nodded, lit a cigarette, leaned back thoughtfully. "Well?" she said presently. "What would it take to reprogram you, Joe? So you'd want to live instead of die? Mr. Computer's abreactive syndrome is directly related to your own. Mr. Computer feels it has failed the world because, in examining a cross index of humans whom it cares for, it has found that you --"
" 'Cares for'?" Joe Contemptible said. "You mean Mr. Computer likes me?"
"Takes care of," one of the white-clad technocrats explained.
"Wait." Joan Simpson scrutinized Joe Contemptible. "You reacted to that phrase 'cares for.' What did you think it meant?"
He said, with difficulty, "Likes me. Cares for in that sense."
"Let me ask you this," Joan Simpson said, presently, stubbing out her cigarette and lighting another. "Do you feel that no one cares for you, Joe?"
"That's what my mother said," Joe Contemptible said.
"And you believed her?" Joan Simpson said.
"Yes." He nodded.
Suddenly Joan Simpson put out her cigarette. "Well, Doubledome," she said in a quiet, brisk voice. "There aren't going to be any more radio soap operas nattering at me any more. I'm not going back down to the center of the earth. It's over, gentlemen. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is."
"You're going to leave Mr. Computer insane as --"
"I will heal Mr. Computer," Joan Simpson said in an even voice, "by healing Joe. And --" A slight smile played about her lips. "And myself, gentlemen."
There was silence.
"All right," one of the two white-clad technicians said presently. "We will send you both down to the center of the earth. And you can rattle on at each other throughout eternity. Except when it is necessary to lift you out of Dismal Pak to heal Mr. Computer. Is that a fair trade-off?"
"Wait," Joe Contemptible said feebly, but already Ms. Simpson was nodding.
"It is," she said.
"What about my conapt?" Joe protested. "My job? My wretched little pointless life as I am normally accustomed to living it?"
Joan Simpson said, "That is already changing, Joe. You have already encountered me."
"But I thought you would be old and ugly!" Joe said. "I had no idea --"
"The universe is full of surprises," Joan Simpson said, and held out her waiting arms for him.