Chapter 1: The Programme
The frustration I felt ever since I installed this spooky little programme on my Mac suddenly got the better of me. Yes, I admit I am a bit of a gadget freak. And, no, this wasn't a freebie, because I always buy my programmes and submit contributions for shareware and even cardware. People programming for a living have a right to be paid and since I live, used to at least, by setting type and producing books, I like to be paid as well. Bits for tat.
Still, this programme I bought for recreation only. Creating graphics from photographs is all nice and well, but sometimes I would have liked to combine 3D visuals with my own 2D images to liven things up a bit. I fiddled around with a few demo versions off the net, but didn't want to spend more than was absolutely necessary to pander to my hobby. Eventually, MasterBuilder promised to be exactly what I wanted and at barely 30 Euro shareware fee, it was well worth a shot at it.
Instead, I found myself in very deep water right from the word Go. Installation was a nightmare with continuous demands for information about myself: name (You may choose any pseudonym), secure alpha-numeric password (Not less than 12 characters), gender, age, size, hair colour, eye colour, health, dexterity, educational level, skills, interests, blood group, sexual preferences for God's sake. No way. I hit OK, ready to kick the programme into touch. There was only the slightest hiatus, the small pop-up window shimmying on the screen for a moment, before another window appeared: This information will be needed at a later stage. However, you may now transfer the small shareware fee, if you wish, and start a project to create your dream. Not surprisingly, the money transfer went without a hitch. Pondering what I should try first, I suddenly heard this tinny, screechy yet distinctly male voice hustling me.
"Thank you for registering and submitting the tiny fee. Start the programme. There are wonderful things waiting just for you. You don't want to waste any time now."
For how long I sat there, stunned, I don't know. Was this the kiss of death by friend Alzheimer, was I rushing ahead on the road to becoming a full-blooded raving, spitting, drooling lunatic? Because the voice did not come out of my cheap speakers, it seemed to float on the air around me, sounding exactly like the inane phone ad voices which have become the bane of everybody's life lately. Reluctantly, I complied with the request, barely able to suppress a premonition of doom.
The programme opened to a beautifully landscaped scenery, rendered in very high definition. A lovely lake in the foreground, set against a backdrop of gentle hills and vales, while, far in the background, a spectacular mountain range soared up to meet the sky, reflecting the sunlight off its glaciers and snow-fields. Almost simultaneously, all kinds of hot buttons began to pop up: Create New Project – Now; Rework Existing Project – Now; and, decidedly weird, Do You want to be Happy – Now?; Do You Wish to go there – Now? All except the first being greyed out.
As far back as I can remember I always hated being pushed around. At home – clean the dishes, tidy your room, give your father a hand; at work – finish the job, here is your next one; in the army – hurry, hurry, wait, wait. Now, now, now. It still pisses me off just to think about it. Small wonder that I left home when still in my teens, and not surprisingly I got into trouble with my bosses more often than not. I won't even mention my successes in the bloody army. If you don't count extended stays in the detention barracks as such, there were none. To be honest, I wasn't kicked out, much as I had hoped, but I got myself kicked about a hell of a lot.
Here I was facing the same shit again. Now. Now. Now. Irksome though it was, the fact remained I wanted to try my hand at designing 3D scenery, I did pay for the pesky software after all and I always liked a minimum of prompts in unfamiliar programmes. But why shout, why push where a mere whisper, a little nudge would suffice? Sighing, I hit Create New Project. Perhaps I should have been prepared for it, instead I nearly popped a rivet. This bloody voice again.
"Welcome and congratulations. You have taken the first step to change your life. Carry on now; don't be afraid to try anything this programme has to offer. What do you have to lose?"
Just my mind, just that tiny bit of sanity left to me, and I am going to lose that right now. Pondering for a moment of just what I wanted to try out first, Screechy was with me yet again.
"I repeat, don't waste our time. Just do whatever you feel like doing."
Hell, give a man a gap, I heard myself scream inwardly. But yes, I wanted to create an island which I would populate with the people I had created, people of all kinds, all ages and races, in all stages of life. Besides, I had often dreamed about having an island refuge where I could withdraw to when all this pushing and shoving going on in my life became too much to bear. So I clicked on a list of projects which suddenly popped up. Was Screechy a mind reader as well as a flaming nuisance? Amongst the more exotic themes like creating a Railway Station, a Zoo, Armageddon even, I found Island and clicked on it hastily before interruptions would start again. In vain, of course.
"Very good. Now enter the specifics."
An ice-cold rage gripped me. I would have liked to jog the prog in my own leisurely fashion, try this, look here, poke yonder, I did not want to be pushed around like an overstuffed Teddy bear on fairy-wheels. Possibly, my frustration might have filtered through to the Little Man, since he left me alone to search through the long list of features and properties to be chosen from. First, however, the location. Yes, definitely, it should be in the Pacific. And it should be well below the equator, out of the way of monsoons, typhoons and all kinds of crappy weather, with moderately lush vegetation. – I think of myself as a man of few extremes, so the island and everything on it should complement my disposition. While thinking that a map would be a nice thing to have handy just now, a new window popped up.
"Pinpoint a location on the map to be shown. Geographic and climatic facts as well as feasible fauna and flora will be provided interactively on-screen."
Pinpoint I did. The map was excellent. It showed sea currents, the varying depths, prevailing wind conditions, even shipping lanes, and, most surprisingly, air lanes as well. The latter caused me to ponder. Suddenly it dawned on my dim brain: an island refuge would be of little use if the airspace above me is cluttered with noisy flying things. It did cross my mind that I was engaging in a very foolish line of thought. For crying in a bucket, I only wanted to create a digital visual of an ideal place, why should I worry about climates and flowers and little bees and such? I decided reluctantly that there must be a reason for the programme to request all this information and, after considering all the pertinent facts the map told me, I chose a position. Moderate subtropical climate, no shipping lanes within 200 sm, no air routes passing overhead. Fresh water of course, streamlets, a small lake, a couple of hills, not too high, and the island itself not too big, so that I could view everything from the top of one of its hills.
"This location is not suitable for your purposes. Severe tectonic faulting. Seaquakes a distinct possibility in the near future. Select anew."
I threw away my mouse in disgust. Death by apoplexy suddenly seemed a desirable fate. So much for interactivity! But I had an idea and did what I should have done in the first place. I checked out the Help function. And there it was: FAQ. Click.
"Don't be silly. Nobody ever asks any questions about this magnificent programme. You have me to guide you!"
Like hell, like bloody hell. This preposterous twit got onto my nerves so badly I would strangle him blissfully, could I only get my hands around his scrawny neck. But then, still in the Help window, I spotted a tiny button: Ask, if you have to. Yes, I had to. Click!
I typed. "Can I talk to you, you arrogant, nagging wretch?"
"There is no need to insult me. Of course you can talk to me. And you don't have to type. Just talk. As you would have found out already if you weren't so damn slow on the uptake. You have no idea about the magnitude of my programme. Now get on with it."
Of course I felt extremely silly, sitting at my keyboard and talking to some voice. Thank God, I have my own study in the basement. If my wife heard me she would be on the phone in a flash, pleading with the white-coated chaps to come and take away the old man at once.
"The only thing of great magnitude is your unsurpassed arrogance. Have you forgotten about interactivity? I'm sick and tired of this nonsense. You select an island to my parameters, without underlying fault lines. And hop to it, now!"
"Oops. A little glitch. Here you are. Perfect in every way. Now add all the features you want. Start logically. Outline your island, then design any hills first."
As if I wouldn't have done that in any case. Still, the next hour or so was quite pleasant. The programme, this part at least, was extremely well-designed and intuitively structured. After laying out the island itself, I could draw in the hills, move them, make them steeper here, add some gentle slopes there. I shaped a few interesting rock formations of weathered granite, carved out a large cave in one of them and stuck the whole thing on top of the highest, not very high hill. A 150 metres, all told. Then I took the whole set-up, moved it around, aligned it to the compass facing north so I could watch both the rising and setting sun from my vantage point without getting a crick in my neck. – Again, I would have liked to kick myself back in line. Why bother with sunrises and sunsets at all? But who knows, perhaps the visuals would look more authentic that way.
Nonetheless, this creation business I rather enjoyed. I had Genesis flitting through my mind while I added and shifted features, made a path go up the highest hill and around the island, placed a lake in the gently undulating flatlands, drew in a shallow, well-protected bay and made a streamlet flow off my hill to feed into the lake, draining from there towards the bay. From a pop-up list I added trees, a veritable forest even, shrubs, some edible berries, grasses, flowers and weeds as well as quite a few creepies and crawlies. Lots of birds too, some smaller mammals, buck and antelope, hares and squirrels and the like, a few foxes, but no large predators, no monkeys and apes, but yes, all kinds of amphibious, aquatic and marine life for lake and bay. Forget about old Darwin and his cumbersome evolution: if the choice were mine, I would be God anytime!
Every now and then I would switch to full-screen mode, viewing my creation, turning it this way and that and felt, rightfully so I think, quite proud of my achievements so far. Saving the document to my hard drive, I went for a cup of coffee. My wife asked me if I wasn't fed up with crouching in front of my computer all day, weren't my eyes turning into little pixels yet? But I just pointed towards the windows. Sleet was still coming down since early this November morning, whipped along horizontally by a fierce gusting wind, howling mournfully in the shrubbery of a dreary dishevelled mini-jungle that used to be my pleasant summer garden, sounding much like unpaired lurs announcing ragnarok, demise of the gods.
Back to my cosy shelter. As soon as I sat down the Screech let me have it.
"Where have you been for so long? It is very irresponsible of you to waste so much time, all the time. At this rate, we won't ever finish your project."
"For God's sake, Screechy. I'm retired! I have all the time in the world."
"Don't you dare call me that! No, you don't have much time at all. And certainly I haven't. If you would just get on with things a bit faster, you would find out what I mean."
"Listen, we can go backwards and forwards like that for hours. You seem to know me, but you never found it necessary to introduce yourself. Rude, that's what you are, rude and pushy to the extreme. I don't know why I put up with this crap at all."
"You are so dense. My name is in the copyright line of the programme you are, rather should be using. But before you go and waste more time checking, just call me Alfred. Not Fred, not Al, not Alf, and if you call me Alfie even once, I will frag this programme to hell and gone. Now, can we go on?
It was his reluctant attempt at politeness, which made me carry on with this joint exercise in futility. Alfred then, for better or worse. On screen, a prompt showed up: Continue with your design project, now. Ha, got you, I thought, since I spotted a Complete button in the file menu. Click! Immediately, thick shit started to percolate down the funnel.
"You fool, you dim-witted punk, you nearly destroyed the whole project and the programme with it! I do not know why I bother with somebody as ignorant as you! Talk about 3D: dense, dumb, difficult! You are nowhere near finished! This project will be complete when I tell you!"
Yes, our Alfred was in a towering snit, even I could hear that. Great rhetoric. Each sentence was punctuated with a virtual shout and his feeble voice attempted to span a few octaves as he kept ranting about my stupidity. He would have gone on for quite some time, wound up as he was, but I cut him short.
"Alfred, calm down. It would appear to me that there are two kinds of fools involved here. Why don't you tell me what you have in mind? If you don't, I will crash the project wilfully and be done with this ruckus. It's aggravation I can well do without!"
No, I didn't shout like Alfred, I merely spoke very forcefully. But my vociferous tutor seemed to understand, all of a sudden.
"I am sorry, I do apologise. You are right; you cannot know yet what this is all about. I will tell you eventually, but for now you have to be patient and when I urge you on, you must believe me that it is for your own sake. We really cannot waste any more time."
"Well, Alfred, since time, for whatever reason, seems to be important, why don't you ask whatever needs to be asked and I will supply the answers as we go along. This should speed up things considerably."
"You are right. We start at the top. The cave. What is it for?"
Now, a cave is a cave, I thought. But if I was living on this imaginary island, I sure would like to have some shelter from wind and weather.
"Shelter it is. Now think about the inside. What do you need?"
This question-and-answer game would take a couple of years of Sundays yet if he went on and on about every tiny detail.
"Alfred, we are still going about this the wrong way. You seem to know where we are headed with all this, I don't. So you show me prompts and I select whatever comes to my mind. I may appear dense to you, but I am a right fast clicker."
Nothing was spoken, but I felt more than heard a heavy sigh in the air. And yes, the prompts came at me swiftly and in great numbers. After some initial hesitation, I soon got into the swing of it. Look and click. Do you want to live in the cave? Stupid really, but yes, click. Furniture? Yes, click. Shelves? Yes. Books? Yes, plenty. Yes, yes, philosophy, a few of the old Greeks but not in their language, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche & Co., biographies, pre-history, anthropology, a bunch of crime novels, John D. MacDonald, Janwillem van de Wetering. Go for it. TV, radio? No question at all. I never owned a TV set and rarely bother with radio or recordings. Why should I, when I have books? And music, after all, is only so much more noise. Besides, where would the electricity and the broadcasts come from? We settled into a nice rhythm after that. Of course, I still didn't have the faintest clue where my Great Weird Leader was taking me with all this. But the island took on a much more defined look, better too I have to admit.
But we weren't finished by far. Where do you want your bathroom? What about ablution facilities? Hell, did Jesus invent aquaplaning? What about them? Put them in of course. Yes, damn you, European style; I don't want to crap over a hole in the floor. And, yes, I want to piss and wash right after I wake up. There cannot be running water at the mountaintop? For Christ's sake, talk about dense. Think artesian, I want water at my front door, you...
Our off-screen communications were improving in but the most minuscule steps. We still misunderstood each other with great regularity, though we avoided excessive shouting and slanging matches, relatively speaking. So I got my wish, even if Alfred complained that an artesian well on top of a mountain was something hitherto unheard of. With a few prompts we settled for a small pool, not large enough to swim in, but good for a full-blown dunking and open-air ablution was set up well behind my cave. Alfred thought of leading running water through there and made me create a nice philosopher's throne to go with it. To my specs, not his.
I won't bother to talk of all the details of establishing the island, but be advised that Alfred was finicky in the extreme. Fauna and flora were eventually sorted out by him and completed to his satisfaction. After all, why should I worry about food chains and such? I let him go over the top with everything but put my foot down when it came to snakes and mosquitoes, nits and gnats. And that was it. I was quite knackered by now and wanted to call it a day. I said as much to Alfred.
"Okay. It is high time for me to log off as well. Save the project. I will be here when you start up tomorrow. But start up you must. It's imperative. No excuses."
Sleep did not come to me easily. Tossing and turning, I kept thinking about this bizarre business of talking with friend Alfred, wondering how a simple 3D programme could lead me so far astray and, especially, what the hell I would do with this creation, if ever it would be finished.
I am not a morning person at all. I don't talk much before my third cup of coffee, managing to eat something only at the second attempt, which takes place at about 10 o'clock, and generally am best left alone for the first half of the day. Having set my alarm at an ungodly hour, I got up miserably, stubbed a great toe against the bedpost, re-distilled the remainder of yesterday's coffee to the flavour of paint thinners with a top note of sewage effluent, burnt my lips of course, tried brushing my teeth with my wife's peeling lotion. God, the state I was in! That I bumped my blundering head when I stumbled down to my den I considered to be an improvement. I was finally humming and ready for Alfred!
"It's about time you showed up. We have lots to do still!"
Alfred was trying his utmost to match my own cheerfulness.
"And a lovely good morning to you, too, my friend. What do you mean: we have lots to do? The island is finished, I like it and I want to get on with my things now. Thank you very much."
"You dim-witted fool – again, the island will be complete when I tell you. You really have no idea how much work is yet to be done. We haven't even touched on the subject of all the features and their properties you will need. Let's get a move on. I will prompt you again, since you are too slow on your own."
A twenty-four-carat, dyed-in-the-wool prince of a fellow, no doubt about it. But as I looked at the prompt coming up, I nearly blew a gasket. Consider your health. What do you want to improve?
"For God's damn sake, Alfred, are you spinning totally out of control now? I want to create an island, I do not want to consult a bleeding doctor!"
"I told you not to swear at me, so stop it at once. And I know that you never see a doctor. But I also know that you will not be able to enjoy this wonderful island of ours, because right now your pancreas as well as your prostate are cancerous, your heart is dangerously arrhythmic, some major blood vessels in your brain are heavily clogged, a fatal stroke imminent. Not to mention all your other little ailments as you call them, when you do talk about them at all to your lovable, loyal wife. Must I continue? Now do as you are told, you stubborn old crank."
Most of this was old hat to me. Over the protests of my wife – how the hell did that flakey punk know about her? –, I told her often that I considered time spent at a doctor's rooms to be time wasted. The indignity of all those tests, repeatedly thumping the heart with electroshocks, grubbing about in my arse to fondle the prostate, making me bend into the most unnatural positions, twisting all the painfully-worn major joints to tell me that, indeed, they are worn and, therefore, painful. I had an aneurism a while ago the dimensions of which made even the specialists pale. But this I had fixed as a compromise with my wife, and that is as far as I wanted to take it. So what if I didn't know about the cancers, I would still have a year or two, the pain could be controlled in the end and, besides, I had done everything I wanted in my life. Built a house, found a fine woman, our many children turned out very well indeed. I could live – and die – with that. And I could certainly do without Alfred!
"Alfred, this is the end of the line, definitely. I will not put up with any more of your shit. You annoy hell out of me. You complain about my swearing, yet you don't seem to have a problem with throwing insults at me from all directions at once. Your goals and mine are entirely divergent. I want to spend my leisure time noodling about on my computer, while you are apparently bent on going on an ego trip of gigantic proportions. I don't even want to think about all the implications of this grotesque farce, although I do realise that you must have found some obscure way of not only invading my computer but my body and mind as well. That I neither need nor want. So get the hell out of my life. Now! I do not mind the shareware fee. Keep it and welcome. And no, Alfie boy, you won't have to crash the programme. I will delete it myself."
With that, still fuming, I closed the programme, without saving the bloody Island of course, and started the de-installation. Strangely enough and very un-Mac like, this didn't work. Even when I tried to draw all files into the trash with every trick I know of, they would jump back to the hard drive immediately. Damn, I would have to erase the hard drive and re-install everything, because I didn't want this twisted sword of Damocles hanging over my head. I wouldn't put it beyond this spaced-out crackpot to create real havoc here. Fortunately, I had taken great care with regular back-ups, system included, and could easily return to the happy status quo ante Alfred. Or so I thought, before I realised that all my latest back-ups would include this freaky programme as well and that I would have to do everything manually. I was well and truly buggered. But why should I care, life is like that: lose one fight, don't win the other. Time for a coffee break.
Imagine my surprise when I found my wife at her PC, wringing her hands. Now, she doesn't have much to do with computers at all. She wants to write a couple of e-mails, watch a movie on DVD, do a little research here and there, and that is it. But now she was listening to Alfred instead. The sneaky little sod made use of my network! My wife looked up at me in sheer desperation.
"I haven't done anything. I was just writing some e-mails. The speakers are turned off. And now I have to listen to this – this Alfred ... who or whatever he is. And he complains about you! What have you done to him? Can you fix it? Fix him?"
I did not want Alfred to listen, so I wordlessly saved what she had written in the e-mail and switched the computer off. I heard a keen wailing for a fraction of a second, but this might have only been my imagination. While the wife went ahead and made some fresh coffee, I told her about my hassles with the programme and especially Alfred. Of course, she didn't understand it any more than I did. But when I got to the part about the health issues, her eyes lit up.
"Say, what if there is something to be done about it? You have told me that all this should not be possible, ever. The voice, talking backward and forward over thin air. Yet, here we are. He talks to you and even me, and it seems he knows you very well. And he knows me." Here she went into directly to heavy-suspicion mode. "What have you told him about me?"
"I told him nothing at all about you. I just mentioned that I am married, that we have children. I didn't tell him anything about my health either. Yet he knows exactly what is wrong with my old body, in more detail than I do."
Of course I didn't tell my wife about the cancers and other delights Alfred mentioned. But she, like a goaded bloodhound cutting to spoor, went right to the theme and it was kind of funny that she used almost the same words, which Alfred had uttered.
"What have you got to lose? It either works or it doesn't, and you can always spare some time for this experiment. From what you didn't say, health-wise, I gather that there are more kinds of nastiness you are trying to hide from me. Besides, you are not all that busy around the house in any case."
With that last statement she hinted, rather spitefully, that I have never involved myself in all those housewifely things, vacuuming, dusting, doing the dishes and the like, as much as she had hoped I would.
"You mean, I should go back to loony Alfred, kiss his virtual feet and ask him to please carry on driving me to distraction? I will not do that. I will not bother with the programme at all. If he wants to continue, he will surely know how to get in touch with me."
As an afterthought I added. "And please, don't meddle. If that shifty creep should try to talk to you again, just shut down your computer. I don't want us both to lose our minds."
With a heavy heart I went to my study. After I booted the computer, everything appeared to be in order. Thinking that I might just as well have a quick shufty whether the Island would be ready for use in some of my creations, I tried to export the file. Project incomplete, cannot be exported to other programmes at this stage. Complete? Having no choice, I clicked.
"Look here; I know we got off to a bad start and I do realise that I am to blame for some of the misunderstandings. But you are severely lacking in social skills and I therefore failed to impress on you the seriousness of the matter. I would very much like for us to work together and finish what we started. I assure you, you will not regret it."
This was rich, coming from this greatest of communicators. Lacking in social skills indeed. Were I to follow his shining example, I would be as popular as a leprous recluse in the Takla Makan.
"Apology accepted, please continue."
"I did not ap ... Ah, forget it. Now you have to..."
"No, Alfred, I do not have to do anything before you explain in complete detail what this is all about. If you don't do that, I will definitely abort everything. I want an up-front explanation, and I want it now."
The silence was long and, yes, I would say pregnant.
"Okay, maybe I should have done this right at the beginning. But you have to understand that even now I cannot tell you everything. In some things you will just have to trust me."
Why should I trust freaky Al, I mused? No reason at all, but...
And Alfred spilled the beans. Not all of them, just as he had said, but I got a very clear picture nonetheless. Alfred was a recognised if erratic genius. He taught himself programming at a very early age and, after studying for a couple of degrees at university, never had any trouble getting a job with software developers; even the hottest hot shots were keen to have him. His troubles started when he had the job. He was almost never able to complete a given assignment because he always wanted to write more and better code, amazed at the penny-ante limits his bosses set him, frustrated by their short-sightedness and total lack of vision. He would write a two-way cracker/encoding programme which would have put Enigma to shame, to see the government kill it because their floppies could not get a hold on it; still, they wanted him to hand over the source code for free which he refused point-blank. He had created search algorithms to run circles around Google, only to be told that there is no money in that since the market was cornered already. And so on. In the end, he took up with a sleazy puke-shop company, writing exactly what they wanted him to write, confining his serious programming to home use only.
He didn't mention his age, but I am sure that he has been at it for a long time, living his solitary existence in a hovel with no more than the most basic amenities, getting his junk food and an occasional six-pack delivered from the neighbourhood. He never travelled, didn't go to movies, had no laundry to take care of since he trashed all his cheap clothing when it became soiled, buying new T-shirts, pants and essentials in bulk from whoever ran the cheapest mail-order, yet he had the most powerful computer set-up money could buy. He told me that parallel reality was his main interest after wasting years developing shooter games for illiterate palookas that ripped off anything they could lay their grubby hands on. And now he wanted to introduce me to his special world, which, he claimed, was much more than merely virtual, involving time, space and matter simultaneously, was reversible to boot and at will. When I scoffed at that, maintaining that simple logic would rule that out, he just – virtually – shrugged it off and bade me to wait and see for myself. The complexity of the programme was so immense, he claimed, that I had no hope of understanding even half of it.
"But what do you want to achieve?"
"I want to prove to myself that my concept works. I cannot do that as a subject, since it will most definitely be necessary to make adjustments along the way. And this is where you come in."
"As your guinea pig, I suppose?"
But Alfred just ignored me.
"My technique of warping time and space and tweaking matter is so comprehensive," he continued, "that I can now, after years of development, bend almost everything. The island you will eventually create – if you ever stop obfuscating and get down to a little serious work – will be real in its space and time and location, but not related to our present reality. Matter will, however, be integer in all dimensions and properties, except that I found ways to alter some such properties should I deem it necessary. If this concept is too difficult to understand, just ignore it. It is sufficient that I know how it works and that, indeed, it does work."
Then Alfred told me more. He maintained that he could also cure all my ills, since he could set my biological clock back to when I was healthy. He could, within reason, even alter my body against a template of values, dimensions and such of what a healthy young male would be like in strictly medical terms. Probably, he said offhandedly, he might be able to do this for women as well, again a template being all that was needed.
"Alfred, your explanations leave out a lot, don't they? How did you find out about my health? I did not answer any of the questions, as you well remember. And how did you manage to speak to my wife? I tell you straight, you shouldn't have done that. That would have been a severe breach of trust, had there been any to start with!"
"I am very sorry about that, but I was quite desperate because you did not want to co-operate. Remember my search algorithms? Together with my special additions they are so powerful that I can extend them to do mind searches as well. The flimsy firewalls you have installed are no obstacle at all since the programme caters for direct bio-feedback. But rest assured, I will never harm you in any way nor will I abuse any of this information, when, not if we continue with the project. If you can trust me on that, you will be rewarded with the experience of a lifetime. Will you carry on, please?"
I told Alfred in no uncertain terms that I was still bothered by strong misgivings, doubting not merely his integrity but also my sanity. Again, he insisted that time was of the essence and that it was, mainly, the desolate state of my health that allowed no further procrastination, were the project to succeed.
"All right, let's continue and see where this lunacy will take us. After all, I only live once."
To hear Alfred chuckle was an eerie experience. "Actually, you will soon come to realise that it is indeed possible, with my help, to live more than once. But start the programme now."
I called up the Island Project and saw immediately that Alfred had been very active behind my back. He had levelled off the top of my hill, set the rock formation with my cave well to the back and planted a few trees for shade, and where there used to be one small pool, there where now three almost identical ones, the artesian outlet apparently having been placed underground. You couldn't take it from Alfred, a major pain in the neck he may be but he was also one hell of a plumber. The scenery had been altered as well. Towards the beach there was a strange little grove of oddly shaped trees, all twisted and warped, some growing almost parallel to the ground, others reaching higher up with strong horizontal branches.
"Alfred, I see you have been quite the busy man. Were you that confident that we would finish the project?"
"No, I wasn't confident at all. But if we don't work on the project for as long as 24 hours, it will be aborted and we would have to start from scratch. Do you like what I have done?"
"Yes, everything looks very nice, but why three pools and why the weird trees? And where is the small brook I had drawn in?"
"Oops, I will re-install the streamlet, no problem. As to the rest, I will tell you all in good time. For now, I suggest we get the health issues out of the way. You have to try and get a complete template for me of a 25-year-old healthy male in your population group, of about your size and build. Try some medical handbook like Pschyrembel. Physical attributes are not important but race is, since you will have to be measured against it. We can always add templates for other races and women if required. Now start filling in the forms, which I will bring up. Be as quick and succinct as possible, but do not omit anything. This is very important for this project."
Immediately an A4-size form comprising of many pages came up on the screen. It looked clear and uncluttered and well laid-out. Yet, something was bothering me about its overall appearance. It took me quite a while to establish that Alfred, clever Alfred, had done nothing more than copying an income tax form and twisting it into shape for his purposes. There wasn't a single Yes or No space for answers. Whenever I activated a heading, it branched out immediately into numerous sub-divisions, each requiring a full answer.
"Alfred, shame on you. You have stooped very low to copy an income tax form, of all things. Couldn't you come up with something original?"
"He he he. Look here, of course I could have wasted hours designing the necessary documents. But hundreds of thousands of dedicated mindless drudges all over the world, with untold man-hours worth of experience in creating the most comprehensive and infuriating questionnaires supplied them ready-made. There is nothing those throttle-bottoms, who continuously copy from each other worldwide by the way, have not thought of. All I had to do was to twist and adapt them, copy and paste mostly, and insert the necessary questions for my purposes."
My friend was in high spirits, whereas I certainly was not. While he was jabbering along, I started with the onerous task of answering all the questions. And I did spend hours on it. Food intake, drinking habits, smoking, sleeping, walking, sports, sexual engagements and preferences, body size and weight, state of teeth, education, literacy including preferred authors and subjects, languages, clothing and shoe sizes even. Every question demanded answering right down to the minutest detail. I did however baulk on those sex questions. Stuff Alfred, some things I will keep private. My good humour was wearing threadbare by the time I approached the final pages. Suddenly I had a splendid idea, an idea I should have hit upon right at the start of this session.
"Alfred, why are you wasting our oh, so valuable time when you could fill in all this garbage as well or better than I can? You know all about my health, or the lack of it, surely you should know even the size of flip-flops I would need, were I ever to wear such ridiculous contraptions."
"Of course I could have done that for you. You only had to ask. But you really are somewhat shady in your upstairs departments, aren't you?"
"Okay, that's it then. You do all the rest. And those templates you asked me to get, hunt them yourself with those tremendous search capabilities you were bragging about."
Nothing I said today seemed to dampen Alfred's good spirits. He just told me to make sure I would be undisturbed for about an hour and he would do a complete scan of my luscious body (He didn't say that, the adjective is my addition!) and complete the forms. As for the templates, he had found them already whilst I was grovelling in all that bureaucratic muck. I told my wife over the house phone not to interrupt me for the next couple of hours.
"Why, what will you be doing that is so important?"
"Chatting with Alfred, of course. What did you think?"
Suddenly I became very sleepy. Taking a little early-afternoon snooze seemed like the sensible thing to do. When I woke up with a start, feeling a bit nauseous, throat parched, back hurting, Alfred was there for me.
"That's it, thank you. A pity you do not want to co-operate on the sexual aspects. Apart from this and a few minor things that will have to be sorted out at a later stage, we are ready for the next and greatest step. Watch your screen!"
On screen, a high-resolution picture of my island unfolded. And did it look good! Yet it wasn't a picture, it was a movie, because I could see a modest surf breaking lazily on the shores, the trees and grasses moving in a slight breeze under a clear sky, and I could hear sounds of birds and other animals.
"No, dummy, this is not a movie. This is a time window into parallel reality, my reality, and it can be yours as well if you take the next step. However, this step you must take all by yourself. It is your decision only, but once you have taken it, I will again be there to guide you. Wait for the prompt and choose wisely, my friend."
Terms of endearment even, and this from Screechy. However, one question remained for me to ask.
"Alfred, will you be part of this new reality? Will I meet you face to face or are you going to remain a dissonant voice, forever nagging from the off?"
"For the time being, I will have to remain a voice only. I might change my status later on, depending on how well we get along with each other and whether you adapt readily to the altered circumstances. – I do not nag!"
Jesus God, I thought, let me get a stiff drink and tell my wife I would be going out for a little while.
"No, you don't need a drink. Everything will be provided. And don't tell your wife. From this reality here you will only be absent for five minutes, whereas your time in my parallel world is practically unlimited. I repeat, five minutes is all it is going to take. Now, do what the prompt tells you, if you dare."
My screen told me in huge signal-red letters: Would you like to visit your island? If yes, put the fingers of both your hands on the Cmd, Alt, Ctrl and Shift keys and hold them down simultaneously till you hear the signal tone. If you do not comply within 5 minutes, the project will be aborted irrevocably.
My body seemed to work itself towards a major coronary occlusion, with my heart carooming about in my chest like a month-old bagel on the kitchen floor, bowels convulsing, while my fingers hovered over the keys. But what the hell, die now, pay later. I set to work and held the keys till my fingers cramped.
Eventually a gong sounded, nothing happened.