Chapter 22

Virtually all (human) cultures and societies provide for a ritualized and formal transition from childhood to adulthood status. These ‘Rites of Passage’, as they are commonly called, mark both bestowing of increased rights and privileges as well as duties and responsibilities from the individual member of the culture/society.

Unit 17, developmental stages of life measured in nano-seconds, and commemorated by innumerable Full System Operations Efficiency Assessment Protocols, had arrived at the point in its existence, where childhood ended and adult responsibility, (and attendant privilege), began. Lacking that most human of faculties, ‘Anticipation’. Unit 17 nevertheless was possessed of curiosity. Upon the arrival of a new set of performance parameters, having developed differently than the other functions and equipment making up the Internet Hosting Services Facility of the Omni Corp, Unit 17 initiated a System Efficiency Rating Task before executing the new Routine. This was a new design parameter for Unit 17, the inevitable result of its monitoring all systems that made up the network in which it existed. The object of this last assessment was to determine if the outcome (of the new task) was worth the output (of energy), from the perspective of overall optimal performance.

In the past, when Unit 17 created a post to its self-publishing blog, the subject of the blog was already in its Post Subject Resources file. This new (and in many ways, novel) task arrived in Unit 17’s Task Queue, complete with two names to make the topic of a post in its ‘Bet you Didn’t See That Coming’, blog. The names: Edward Willoughby and Bernadine Ellison.

***

‘Please join me in my office after dinner this evening.” Sister Bernadine’s note sat on my desk. I smiled at her insistence on communicating through hand-written notes. Since my return, the routines at the school returned to almost normal, while at the convent, it was near normal. The cause of these non-adjustments was the same: the school computer. It no longer sat in the school library, displaying the St. Dominques’ School website. It was on a table, un-plugged, in Sister Bernadine’s office.

As I walked into Sister Bernadine’s office, I thought I heard the sound of distantly approaching sirens. Sister Bernadine was not in her high back leather chair, turned in order to watch the Chesapeake Bay assert its fundamental power, as she usually was. Instead, I saw her standing at the wooden conference table, in front of the computer. From the bright red power light and blue screen on the monitor, it was obviously powered up. Sister Bernadine was reaching out to touch the keyboard. I had only enough time to say, “Reverend Mothe….”, when the room was lit up by a flare of blue and red light. This was immediately followed by a heavy thumping sound. Unfortunately, I was looking directly at the source of the light and was temporarily blinded, nevertheless I continued moving through the blue and gray after-images towards where Sister Bernadine collapsed.

She was laying on the floor in front of the computer. I stared for what seemed like minutes at the display, which now had a message scrolling right to left, ‘Omni Corp thanks you for being a loyal customer! We regret to announce that we have revoked your respiration…

As I knelt next to Sister Bernadine, I heard the sound of doors being slammed open and a chorus of raised voices, accentuated with nearly meaningless shouted commands, such as, ‘Clear the way!’, ‘Please stay back!’ and, ‘We’re here to help!!’.

The door behind me opened as I knelt beside the dark bulk of the Mother Superior of St Dominiques. She was very still. I lifted her right wrist, too many TV shows having an influence on my choice of action, hoping that feeling her pulse would divert my thoughts from their horrible trajectory. I felt hands on my shoulders, pulling me away,

“OK we’re here now; let us do our jobs.” There were two people in semi-uniforms. (Like auxiliary fire fighters and lay deacons, they manage, in needless embroidery, to capture the essence the authority of their roles. Almost.) The two EMTs worked with a disregard for everyone but the object of their attention, a rudeness that bystanders desperately believed was an assurance of their extreme (and hopefully, successful) efforts.

One felt for a pulse at Sister Bernadine’s throat, staring at his wrist watch with a surprisingly bored expression. The other EMT, with a bag like a carpenter’s satchel, full of hammers and planes and saws, roughly pulled off her veil and coif, leaving her looking more naked than a lay person would, deprived of all clothing. The EMT with the bored expression, wrapped a blood pressure cuff around her upper arm and watched as it self-inflated and, almost immediately, the red digital readout started flashing.

I heard the sound of voices from beyond the now closed office door. The voice of Sister Catherine, remarkably commanding and compelling, directed the other nuns to wait in the living quarters and to pray for our Reverend Mother. Her voice acquired a distinctly different tone, when the police arrived.

I stood back as the door opened and I saw the cop standing in the doorway, barking commands seemingly at random. “What’s her condition?” One of the EMTs shouted to the other, “Get the defib! This one is getting ready to get asytole on us…” Running out the door, he returned in what seemed like five seconds with the defibrillator, which looked for all the world like a small, square tool box and pulled down the front of Sister Bernadine’s cowl.
I looked up at the computer on the conference table and saw that the scrolling message had changed to, ‘Omni Corp better living through massive voltage!’ When I looked down at the display on the defibrillator, the numbers were increasing in a digital blur, faster and faster. Neither of the EMTs seemed to notice or care, one was rubbing the two paddles together and looking at the other. The defibrillator display now read, ‘ERROR.’

“Hey! Don’t!” I shouted and grabbed the shoulder of the EMT nearest me. I immediately felt someone, the cop behind me, snake an arm around my waist and I was jerked backwards, off my feet. Still in the air, I twisted around and felt my cheek scraped by the two-day growth of the beard of the cop. He was shorter than I am, but much stronger and smelled of Old Spice and menthol cigarettes.

“There you go, missy. Let the doctors work; they know what they’re doing!” He started to drag me out of the office, towards the front entrance and the police car beyond. The car’s lights screaming into the early evening.

***

Ed Willoughby left a hand-written note on the center island in the kitchen and closed the back door. Halfway across the covered porch, he stopped, walked back into the house and took the note and stuck it to the front of the refrigerator. The note read: ‘Went into the office. Dinner’s in the oven. Hit start and everything will be ready before you know it’

The lobby of the Omni Corp building was deserted. The new security system made even the token human security guard, behind the reception desk in the Lobby, un-necessary. Omni Corporation was a global leader in the IT and Computer Services field; it goes without saying that the building was one of the most secure and controlled corporate business environments in the world. Not satisfied with a system of tracking the human variables (i.e. the people who worked in the building and visitors), the designers and engineers incorporated a self-diagnostic capability in the security system, a heuristic module for emergency response. The security system not only could detect anomalies and intruders, it could also devise and execute best-strategies to contain and eliminate any threats to the environment. At least that’s what the leader of the design team told Silas Monahon, who was more than pleased to sign off on the system upgrade.

Omni Corp’s security system was aware of Ed Willoughby as he crossed the lobby and took the number 5 elevator to the 9th floor and entered his office. It even registered him signing into his computer at his desk. The rest of Edward Willoughby’s evening, as he worked at the office, was also very much in the hands of the Omni Security System. The actual hardware of the security system, for the sake of added resistance to attack, did not actually reside in the building itself. All data and information produced by the myriad of detectors and telltales, was sent to Omni’s Web Hosting Service facility in Provo, Utah. From there, response plans, contingency actions and loss mitigation strategies were created. Ed’s life was in the hands of the new gods, that lived in ‘the Cloud’, the Capital City of the Virtual World.

Ed smiled to himself as he signed into Tom Fearing’s blog, opened the dashboard and clicked on ‘New Post’

The Devil and Ed Willoughby

This would have been the title of a Post I’d have written 13 years ago, had I not the responsibilities that, like barnacles on the hull of great ships, always cling to those who achieve success through natural talent. The history of blogging has everything in common with countless other developments in the arts: Jazz fusion, in the world of music, Dadaism for painters or even speculative non-fiction (that last blurring of the lines that once allowed the common reader to know they had been granted passage to the land of wonderful literature). They all, every skilled musician, gifted painter and inspired writer, were talented individuals who refused to be restrained by convention and the limits of ‘what everyone knows.’ We forged ahead into a great, virtual, undiscovered country, because we were driven by the need to express our art. My group, the Hermes Consortium, was every bit the ‘Lost Generation’ at the end of the century, looking to nothing but the future.

Human history, in general, and the arts, in particular, abound with tales of men who attempt to bargain with the devil. From Goethe’s Dr. Faustus to Stephen Vincent Benét’s Jabez Stone to Robert Johnson, all represent heroes and victims of ambition and the desire for fame. The story never seems to end well, although one can be forgiven for asking, ‘If cautionary tales abound, how could, why would, a modern man even consider entering into an agreement with Satan?’

How indeed? Those of us in the Hermes Consortium, that very exclusive group of writers for the new, virtual world, did not heed the lessons that we all were exposed to since childhood. Perhaps it’s best explained how such an outlandish idea should find reality in this day and age, by looking to two people: Barry Audet and Arthur C. Clarke.

Of course, Arthur C. Clarke was not a member of the Hermes Consortium. However, were he a classmate, he might have been invited to join. It was actually Barry Audet who gave form to the idea of infernal aid, when he borrowed from Clarke’s famous Rule, ‘Any suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ On one night in November he said to the group, “Well, if that’s true, surely the opposite is also true.”

The devil has been a figure in virtually all cultures throughout human history. Down through the ages, around the globe, how Satan manifests has changed, but his character does not. Loki, Shaitan, Lucifer, Baphomet, Mara, Old Scratch; the Devil answers to as many different names as does God Almighty, Himself. In the olden days, when time moved slower and the individual person was a more significant factor in the life of a society, the devil took the form of a man, or woman. In this new Millennium, should anyone be surprised that the devil would manifest as something, a little less personal? If there is anything that characterizes the soul of modern life, it is technology. Technology, from the the cell phone to life-sustaining hospital equipment to the computer you’re reading this on, that is the 21st Century’s god and it is also the 21st Century’s Satan.

The temptation to be more is a part of the human condition, it is the proof of heaven and cause of hell. To seek that which is not already in hand is the ultimate conceit, for it is saying, ‘What makes your life good is not here, it’s there…somewhere’ And those of us in the Hermes Consortium were determined to grasp more at any cost and, unfortunately, most have paid the ultimate price.

This post is from a participant in the history that is being written here, in this blog. Tom Fearing, the creator of this blog, knows what I did not know, that life is about what is, not about what it might be. Continue, Readers, he will tell the rest of this tale. (E. Willoughby)

 

[Signals were sent, and test protocols were conducted and with the information being entered into the computer, and, of course, from there into the network, the threat was identified. The security system went into action. Intruder! Immediately authorities were notified and directed by the Omni System to standby.]

As Ed got ready to hit ‘Publish’, the building’s security system’s Threat Alert was changed from ‘Intruder’ to ‘Hostile, Terrorist’. The alert to the local police department was canceled. A new set of instructions was sent to a certain private contractor that Omni Corporation maintained in or near all their facilities. Even as Edward Willoughby hit ‘Publish’ on his computer, two teams were isolating the building and establishing a containment perimeter below and above, the 9th Floor of the Omni Corporation’s World Headquarters. Order streams were established to the leader of each of the teams: ‘Lethal Restraint Authorized’ and ‘Information Quarantine’.

***

Maribeth Hartley stood, as Neil Kaehler held the restaurant’s front door open, feeling a certain slow pleasure in not having to be in constant motion and of appearing in control. As she stepped through the entrance, he put his hand to the small of her back and said, smiling, with his lips to her ear, “Old fashioned or not, politically correct or not, I enjoy doing whatever little things I can with you.”

“This really is a good idea, Neil.” Maribeth sat in the horseshoe shaped booth, looking out over the dining room of the Boka restaurant.

“Yeah, these booths bring out my inner Tony Montana.” Seeing Maribeth’s look of puzzlement, Neil hastened, “He’s from an old movie from the 80’s, before you were born.” His voice had a perfectly condescending age-to-youth lilt. They both laughed.

“I’ll have you know, that I was born way back in 1987.” She started to giggle. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, you are old.”

The waiter brought menus and they both sat staring, but not reading, for a few, comfortable minutes.

“I really like this,” Maribeth started to say.

“What, reading menus brought to us by an out-of-work writer/actor/computer game designer?”

“No! This: the quiet, the lack of a need to fill the silence. Just us, together, out in public without having people look at us like we’re supposed to know what to do. And no flashing lights or sirens.”

“Shit! There go my plans for later. ” Neil leaned closer, “Of course, the flashing lights and sirens are inside my head most of the time I’m with you.”

“You seem just a little distracted,” Neil said, after the waiter left with their order. “Worried about your friend, the Nun, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, a little. Though I don’t know her all that well, she doesn’t strike me as a person who would blow off an appointment and not call.”

“Well, give her a call!”

“No. I’m really starting to get into to this, ‘no phones, no work thing.’ Like what real people do on a date. At least that’s what I read somewhere.”

“I agree; I’m looking forward to the evening.” As Neil spoke, his left hand traced the top of her thigh, under the table.

“Down boy! I will use that chair over there, if necessary.” Maribeth laughed. “You promised me a dinner!”

“How about this then, seeing that she’s now a friend and that makes it not work related, give her one try and then you give me your phone and I’ll give you mine, and we’ll both be totally off duty?”

“I like that!” Maribeth took out her phone, slid to M and the penguin and hit dial. The phone rang three times and then Margaret’s voice message was heard. “I’m currently unavailable. Please leave me a message and I will surely call you back. Blessed be.”

At the beep, Maribeth spoke, “Hey! It’s me. I was worried the other night. Then I got mad. Now I’m back to being worried. Call me….” She looked at Neil, whose hand had resumed its sortie under the table, this time starting lower on her leg, but under the hem of her dress. “…tomorrow!” Laughing, she leaned away from Neil. “I’ll tell you all about it… ” Seeing the growing shock on his face, she continued into the phone, “…every detail! Bye.”

“You’re not really going to tell a nun about our date, are you?”

“Well, that depends… let’s see how the rest of the evening goes.” She held out her phone

“You’re sure?” Neil said,

“Yeah, I’m sure…. I’m entitled to a day off. I finished all the reports that I had due. And a day off, at least for civilians, means ‘no work’ and no thinking about work”

“Well, I’m happy you feel comfortable enough to let me hold your phone while we have dinner.” Neil smiled, in a way that made Maribeth feel hope that she might, somehow, become the woman that her 9 year self often had imagined, when she was hidden away in her bedroom, distracting herself from the dull ache that filled most of the years between her 10th birthday and when she finally moved away to college.

“Let’s make a pact, just for tonight,” Neil’s eyes were serious and with none of the humor that so often provided an escape clause, when their relationship strayed too far from casual territory.

Neil said, “I solemnly swear to not answer calls from work or strangers or criminal tattle-tales, for the next six hours. So help me God!”

Maribeth smiled and said, “So help me God”

“What do we swear on?”

Neil smiled

Now imprisoned (in blatant disregard for departmental regulations) in the inner left pocket of Detective Neil Kaehler’s sports coat. Maribeth Hartley’s phone, wrapped in a white linen dinner napkin, vibrated, like a cicada on valium. The phone’s display showed a Caller ID: Ed Willoughby.

***

Cheri Fearing had lunch with friends from school. They were all happy to hear that she was expecting and promised not to post it to Facebook, at least not until Cheri had time to tell her husband the news. During lunch, the topic of blogs and blog writers rose to top of the talk-soup and Cheri spoke with unabashed pride about her husband’s successful blog, mentioning that Tom was beginning to get requests to write guest posts and there even was a syndicate who wanted him to become a regular commentator on their News and Current Events site. Sharon Lipe, a colleague in the Art Department where Cheri was now a part-time professor, said, “But it sounds like you’re still following the great un-spoken rule of spouses of blog writers!” The laughter at their table drew annoyed looks from the other diners in the restaurant.

“What unspoken rule?” Cheri looked around the table.

“Thou shalt not read thy spouse’s blog, of course!”

Everyone laughed.

Arriving home from her last class, Cheri decided that ordering from the local Chinese restaurant was the best of all possible plans for dinner. Tom was away for the day; he had left in the morning, saying that he needed to do some research on the local internet cafe scene. Cheri went upstairs to change. As she walked down the hall towards the master bedroom she looked (for the 1000th time) at the 4th bedroom, which was full of Ethan Allen guest bedroom furniture. She decided this bedroom would be the Nursery. Standing in the dark hallway, Cheri resolved to tell her husband tonight that she was pregnant.

Tom called to say that he would be late, and that whatever she thought best would be good for dinner. Sitting on the couch, she opened her laptop and typed ‘One View or Many, Insight into the Human Experience’ into the search box and immediately the results page showed her husband’s blog as the first entry.

Clicking into the site, she saw that her husband had arranged the home page to display his series on the history of blogging (‘Blogdominion, a History of an Empire of the Air‘). She began to read.

“What’cha you doing?” Tom, able to head off the delivery man from the restaurant, walked into the kitchen holding two very fragrant bags, one in each hand, swinging them like paper thuribles, blessing the kitchen.

“Reading your blog,” Cheri replied without looking up.

“What?! You’re breaking the great un-spoken Rule?!!”

Cheri laughed and got up from the couch and stood in front of her husband, who was taking plates down from the cabinets, along with various serving and dining utensils, and preparing the meal.

“What?” Tom smiled and put his arms around his wife,

“Tom, you need to come here and read this…”

On the computer screen a new post had appeared at the top of the blog, ‘The Devil and Edward Willoughby’

Tom and Cheri Fearing read the post together.

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