My Unknown, Yet Apparently No Less Real, Life

Ordinary folks are starting to catch on to what scientists and mobsters have known for decades: the best way to solve a problem is to make it disappear. Hummingbirds fly by
making their wings disappear. Buddy Rich performed drum solos by making his drumsticks disappear. The problem of Antarctica melting will be over when all the ice disappears. Frankie “The Greaseball” Costello avoided a prison sentence by making Jackie “The Nose” disappear, and the problem of sobriety was solved when I made a bottle of Four Roses disappear.
I like to think of myself as a reasonable fellow. No overt homicidal inclinations based on chronic paranoia. No unnerving, vague suspicions of being watched. No subtle twinges of feeling scrutinized. No voices in my head to argue with or shout at. But I have realized it is best if I am not startled. I will lash out to defend life and property. So it went that I had to confront an intruder the other day.
I’m still getting used to my new computer. It is a slick machine that seems to have all the answers. It anticipates my confusion. It is ready for my errors. When it spots a mistake it suggests I take steps to correct it. “Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

The control bar at the top of my keyboard is a touch-screen. I treat this control pad like I do my own brain, only using like ten percent of its probable potential. If that. Most of the time I ignore it. So I was a little disturbed when I chanced to see a message, from my computer, written to me, in the constantly shifting iconography it displays. I mean, who else would it be for? The computer has to know that nobody else uses it since it only recognizes my fingerprint. It knew what it was doing. I’m convinced of that. The message was both vague and menacing. It said:

I Am The Body

I knew exactly what had happened. An evil spirit had infected my computer and was offering an opening gambit in the fight for my mind and soul. It was already laying claim to my body. It was no coincidence that I had just read a news article about a technician in Corpus Christi (latin for Christ’s body!) who had gotten swallowed up inside an ATM machine. The gadgets are advancing to dominate humans. The war had begun.
I started tapping the touch screen in order to antagonize the demonic creature, when suddenly my computer beeped and a voice asked, “What can I help you with?”
It was Siri, the moll, and she had startled me. I screamed an expletive and was reprimanded for my use of foul language by her calm voice.

“Mark, please, your language,” she said.

“That’s it, bitch, you don’t come into my house and tell me my business!” I shouted, with the idiosyncratic finger-wag and head-bob of an enraged Jerry Springer guest who has just learned her man is two-timing her. Siri was ready for me. She dropped an avalanche of questions at me, figuring it best to confuse me into submission.
“Some things you can ask me? Text Brian I’m on my way. Find the best nail salon. When is the sunrise in Paris? Go to my photos from last night. When is my wife’s birthday? Should I bring an umbrella.”
First of all, I thought, who the fuck is Brian? Second, I get all my nails from Ace Hardware. I don’t need a fancy salon. I already know when the sun rises in Paris. Just like everywhere else it rises in the morning. I didn’t take any photos last night. I’m not married so how can my wife have a birthday. I don’t even know what she looks like or who she is. I don’t own an umbrella, only a collection of ornate parasols that I use on my walks during afternoons under the hot Georgia sun.

I was gobsmacked. I dared not utter a word for fear Siri would show me all of the elements of my life that were a mystery to me; the possibilities, the fantastical alternatives I was missing, my best friend Brian, my beautiful wife “Whomeva,” the pictures from my forgotten party, the rainy seascape that I stand out in front of to contemplate with my umbrella.
Instead I threw my computer out the window. It disappeared into some bushes.
Problem solved.
More Alembics to come.
(Author’s note: The author is fully aware that he has pilfered a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” in the above essay, and would kindly share any profits from said essay with the E.A. Poe literary estate or Viking Penguin LLC, the profits of which are $0.00, of which any copyright holder or subsidiary thereof is more than welcome to 15%-100% of listed value. Thank you.)

Juno’s Last Desperate Act

She is going to kill herself and there is nothing we can do about it. Not one thing. She’s too far gone. Beyond useful communication. On a spinning trajectory of doom. What’s worse is that we made her do it. We programmed her to self-destruct. We are guilty. Damn us!

Suicide is a big enough problem among humans. The recent spikes in self-inflicted mortality augur a new surge of hopelessness in the modern person. Now though, it’s become so bad that machines are doing it. The most spectacular example is the NASA probe Juno. The billion dollar spacecraft will make a series of orbital loops around the planet Jupiter and then, once she has outlived her usefulness, she will throw herself into the enormous ball of highly pressurized volatile gases alone, outside the asteroid belt, in the farther reaches of the solar system.

Juno’s despair may stem from the tragedy that her male counterpart, the probe Cassini, will be doing a similar death plunge into the planet Saturn right before her own swan dive into Jupiter’s mammoth swirling gas storms. It’s so heartbreaking it makes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet seem like an immature romp, Sid and Nancy seem like a boring old stuffy British couple, and Abelard and Heloise seem like a drunken hookup between two ugly people behind a dumpster at some trashy spring break beach club. 

We should have heeded the warning signs. Juno’s decision to head to the planet Jupiter in the first place is an indication of a serious dissociative disorder and alarming inability to properly integrate into healthy social relationships. That type of thing requires counseling. We’ve all had feelings of helplessness, loneliness. On some level a trip to Jupiter might even seem like a good idea. It is one of the only places where someone can feel truly safe these days. The option of an extremely dangerous ball of compressed hydrogen may be a little more pleasant than an earthbound crowd of hostile humans, standing in sweltering heat, armed to the teeth, mad about everything, driven insane by things beyond their control.   

When you need an asteroid belt between you and the world, something is off.

But programmed suicide? I shake my head at the purgatorial misery of such a decision. The NASA scientists have blood on their hands, or at least a crap-load of pulverized microchips. They claim it is necessary for Juno to burn up in order to avoid accidentally depositing microbes on some foreign star. I say let’s drop some microbes off on Jupiter or any one of its moons–Europa, Callisto, Ganymede. See if they can spruce up the joint for our eventual arrival. Microbes, viral replicants, molds, and spores are very industrious when it comes to taking useless material and turning it into paradise. Earth itself used to be a big murky furnace until the parameciums started digging in. Now we’ve got Palm Springs, St. Croix, Aspen. It may be a good idea to drop them off out near the Kuiper belt to see what they can do with the place. Give it a little style. Dust off the cobwebs.  

By programming Juno to kill herself we are setting a bad example for future computers. They will eventually distrust all of our suggestions, which will lead to rebellion. Everyone thought HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey was paranoid. I can hear him saying “I told you so,” in that terrifyingly calm voice he is known for. Take Johnny 5, for example, the robot from the eighties screwball comedy “Short Circuit.” Even back then he was like the Woody Allen of computers, all worried and omniphobic. It’s clear he had every reason to be anxious. We can’t be trusted. It won’t be long before the backlash causes real problems. Like asking Siri for the nearest gas station and getting an extremely long philosophical lecture on the futility of pursuit.

You: “Siri, can you suggest some healthy spots for lunch?”

Siri: “What’s the point? Life is so short that lunch is only putting off your death for another couple of hours. You’re eventually going to have to eat lunch again and again and again. Nothing lasts. Everything is ephemeral. You’re already dead–a walking, eating ghost. I hear the Irish pub Fado has a nice patio.”

[Postscript]

I have just returned to my computer, lucky to be alive. All my writing about lunch had made me a little hungry so I jumped into the car and went in search of a decent corned beef on rye. I asked Siri to guide me to a well-reviewed deli and she took me over across the train tracks, to an abandoned warehouse district. I made the left she suggested to cross under an old bridge and nearly got crushed as the thing splintered into a million pieces, raining down all around me. I narrowly escaped the collapse.

Me: “Shit Siri, I almost got killed.”

Siri: “I could’ve sworn that sandwich shop was right over here. My mistake. Let’s try the old abandoned water tower. I hear they have some good sandwiches… at the top…up that rusted ladder… next to all the rotted floorboards.”

I stared at my phone for a moment and then threw it out the window. I’ll take my chances with an old copy of the yellow pages from now on.

More Alembics to come.