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brian antoni: escapology

The Onerious Deletion by ALAN WALL

That winter the computers started dreaming. At first the government shrugged it off; the information minister appeared on television smiling and advised oblivion. Regard it as extra entertainment provided free on the Mesh for everyone, he said. After the first suicides the government stopped smiling. An act was hurried through parliament for the Oneiros Deletions. Mesh One was made illegal. All users had to convert to Mesh Two. The penalty for not complying--imprisonment with hard labour.

The machine psychologists talked the days away over the airwaves. It was, they explained, now the accepted belief that human dreaming was a form of psychic waste-disposal. Whatever the normal mechanisms of the mind couldn't cope with was reserved for the dreamwork, which allowed for enough anarchic play that any morbid potency was de-triggered. Thus, were challenges to psychic equilibrium diverted into the dark.

Their theory was that something similar had happened with the Mesh. So much data had been loaded on, some from the past, some from the present, some from the infected margins of the imagination, that the great interlinking mind of the Mesh either had to break down or create a function analogous to what the human mind does when it's asleep. So the computers started dreaming. And what terrible dreams they had.

It was the worst winter anyone could recall. Half the roads in London were impassible, the Underground ran the most rudimentary service, and much of that was announced, rather than enacted, the trains stopped, the aeroplanes iced up on runways like giant birds grown extinct overnight. People stayed home and stared at their computers, talked to their computers, asked their computers to sing to them. Subscribers to EX even made love to their computers, strapped into their cammy seats, while their software crooned through the headset. The lexis of desire was becoming increasingly a matter of personal software anyway. Lovetalk and activity outside of statutory regulations were still reported, but the hygiene prohibitions were crippling, the sentences lengthy.

The trouble I suppose was the nature of desire. I computed once that in what they called the Middle Ages, in any week, millions of individuals would have entered little boxes in churches and whispered to a priest they couldn't see, terrors and torments in their souls. The priest would have handed it all back to God, this great black bag of temptation and horror. All the churches are filled with virtual-reality displays now, or have been converted into condominiums, so we sit here staring at our screens and tell the Mesh our secrets, our desires.

The first dream-phase was historical. The great throat of the Mesh seemed to be choking on those old chronicles of barbarism everyone thought had been remaindered long ago. You'd key in at dawn and there, across the whole of the screen, was a starving African baby, belly bloated like a whale with all the food it couldn't eat, eyes rising like great balloons to beseech you. The lines jammed to the Mesh engineers. It took them a week to fathom that every screen had a different image on it. It was a as though all the information once compiled at the centre of the network was unravelling outward, in individual units--an impossibility, the engineers told everyone, but it didn't stop. The colour gained in intensity, the graphics becoming more and more compelling. Some old users were convinced the whole system was being upgraded, they'd never seen representations of sores or blood that were so enthralling; it seemed to ooze out of the pixels. People took cleaning cloths to their display units. Often they stopped in tears. Counselors were sent out. After they'd sat with their clients and stared at the screen for an hour, the counselors came back in tears too.

The system raced backwards through history. After watching over and over the Jewish suicides at Clifford's Tower in New York in the twelfth century, one Jewish boy smashed in his machine with a pole, then he went down the street smashing in everyone else's. He was taken into care. For some the breaking point came with the Classical period. Their Homer and Sophocles (now contemporary figures gleaming in Aegean sunlight) were lost to them forever after they saw the actual pictures of children walled up into tombs, or technicolour ganglia after the decapitations. Others required enclosed counselling (have any of them ever come out?) after the cave rituals were scattered over half a million screens. Is that how we started, they said, couldn't we at least have done without the bones of the little girl for our ceremonies? People started switching off. But the machines turned themselves on again and jabbered away into the night, re-playing the black chronology over and over. People sold their machines or smashed them. It was whispered that some were finding contraband books to read, according to the ancient technology. There were rumours of illegal marts and shadowy antiquarians. It was said (quietly said and not in public places) that Shakespeare or Dickens had dealt with the same atrocities, that they had held their imaginations before these images and not flinched at all, but written. Works the authorities were confident had been consigned to pre-technocracy were being reprinted, so they said. No one knew where. Obviously some presses somewhere had escaped the monopoly patents. The government started to grow nervous. Very nervous.

I came down for breakfast. My wife was just finishing hers. She handed me the news sheet.

"Looks like your early mornings are coming to an end," she said.

I looked at the headline: Government abolishes Mesh One. Mesh Two introduced this week. All Mesh One Use to stop immediately. I put the paper down.

"A man's coming round to disconnect you," she said. "He'll probably be here sometime today." She looked happy. Well, less miserable than usual.

"How long have you been plugged in up there?"

"Since dawn," I said.

"Going to miss it aren't you?"

She was right, I was. I'd been sleeping in the loft where I kept my computer and I'd slept less and less. While others were shoveling back into the past, I'd concentrated more on the last few years. The Dissension had always intrigued me, partly because my writer's instincts told me that the Government had lied through its teeth about everything. I could sense the rewriting of history going on in the prose, I could smell the lies coming off the page. Now I knew it. I could actually see the blazing fires of Liverpool and Bradford, could see the helicopters swooping down with those guns, could see the mortars and the men in uniforms. Two hundred-thousand dead, said the statistics file, that seemed a little expensive for the restoration of democracy in two counties. Particularly for a Government which then proceeded to abolish ten centuries of common law and assign to itself plenipotentiary Emergency Powers.

I heard her leave through the front door and went to the trapdoor in the eaves. I pulled my own laptop out, and dusted it off. I had my new machine hidden away and the old one plugged in and sorting within two minutes. I linked to the Mesh and accessed the Somme. The knock came on the door at eleven. A small bald man wearing the black uniform of the Computer Inspectors.

"Morning, sir. You've heard the news, I take it?"

"About the closure of the Mesh? Yes, my wife told me about it."

"We have to take urgent action, so I'll come in if I may."

I led him up to the loft. He looked at my laptop for a second then he looked at me. I wonder if they train them to have that inquisitorial and wary glance.

"That's an old one sir. Profession?"

"Writer. Third grade. Non-classified."

"Surprised you're able to function on that one."

"Times have been hard. I did say third grade."

"I'll take this away today then sir. You should have it back by the end of the week. It will be converted so it can't read Mesh One, only Mesh Two. It's gotten a little nasty, you see, sir. Some of this paederast material...then the ritual killings...witchcraft...unauthorised pornography. It's in everyone's best interest."

"I'm sure," I said.

I waited half an hour after he'd gone, then took my new machine back out of the eaves. I reconnected, decoding myself first, so I couldn't be identified as a user. A message flashed up on the screen:

Use of Mesh One by Any Unauthorized Personnel

Is Now Illegal, Carrying a Minimum Five Year Penalty

I accessed Shakespeare. His century seemed as bad as this one. Imagine, though, being able to put it up on a stage like that. There was as much in his plays as on Mesh One. These were the original versions up there, not the Government-accessibility texts. I could remember some of it...

When my wife came home, she smiled briefly. I made a note of this infrequent occurrence.

"Nice man take your toy away?'

"Yes" I said.

"You don't seem too concerned."

"I'm still staying in the loft," I said.

After tea I went back up. I put the machine into neutral and let it freewheel. It was moving though the psychiatric hospitals. I had to turn the sound off, I couldn't take those cries. But even then the images kept shouting. I walked over to the window. Snow was falling again, flecks against the darkness. The light from the images flickered and flashed behind me. Suddenly the door opened and Maureen stood there. We have never discussed it but it has always been understood that the loft is my space, and that she is not to enter it. She stood and stared at the machine. A woman was being held down on a hospital bed by four keepers, one for each limb. A nurse was wielding the syringe; it was about to go in, and even without the sound, you could tell the woman was screaming and screaming.

"Five years," she said.

"Minimum," I said.

"You'd never come out."

"I wouldn't be able to speak if I did," I said. "Or I'd be in a wheelchair." When blondes age the years always concentrate about their mouths. Have you ever noticed that?

"Either that goes or I do," she said.

Next morning I stood in the doorway as she maneuvered her suitcase across the ice. She looked at me, not so much with contempt or pity now, but with real fear.

"I'm sorry," I said quietly. I wasn't though.

The Mesh was running through the killing fields of Cambodia, really running as though it were trying to find a way out, when the knock on the door came. It was Friday. My computer was being returned. I disengaged swiftly, unplugged, wrapped it in a pullover, and put it down at the bottom of the eaves.

The same man was there, smiling his sinister smile.

"Good as new, sir. In fact we've upgraded your memory. Otherwise you'd have found it hard to use Mesh Two. No charge."

He handed me the machine.

"Thank you, officer," I said. "Many thanks. I can get some work done, now."

"Mind if I come in a minute, sir?"

It wasn't really a question. He walked through to the kitchen.

"Everything alright with you and the missus is it, sir?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, a person has to be pretty desperate to travel by rail in this weather, sir, with all the delays and such...Northamptonshire--that's where her mother lives, isn't it?"

"That's right. She's gone so I can get some serious work done."

"Yes, we noticed that you haven't had a job accepted for six months. Also, that the last job you did have accepted wasn't done on this machine, but a far more modern one--an Alexis, I believe. In addition, sir, one of your neighbours reported that for the last three nights, flickering lights have been seen in your loft where you do your computer work. Do you mind if we go up there and have a look?"

I followed him up the stairs. I was calm and thinking very quickly. When he opened the door and saw no machine I could see the look of disappointment on his face.

"I'll come clean," I said, and sat down on the sofabed. "It was going so badly, I sold the Alexis on the black market."

"They are registered and restricted machines, sir."

"I'm aware of that. My jobs weren't being accepted. I'd been stylistically reclassified and I just can't seem to function properly in the new mode. Getting old, I suppose."

"The wife?"

"Doesn't want to live with a failure anymore. Thinks I'm sliding in the new regime. She was due a month's holiday anyway. Her mother has a greater heating allowance."

"The screen images up here the last few nights?"

"I sleep on that sofabed. She won't have me in her room any more. So I've been bringing the transmitter up here and..."

"Watching EX?"

"Watching EX."

"That's two very serious offenses, sir. Illegal sales and channel piracy. Do you know how long you can do for that?"

"Can't bear to think," I said.

"You did the Solomon Series on channel 27 a few years back, didn't you?"

I was genuinely surprised at this. I didn't think anyone still remembered, though it was much praised at the time.

"Yes," I said. "Some say that was the high point of my career. My wife certainly does. Says it's been downhill all the way ever since."

He placed a bony blue-veined hand on my arm.

"Talent like that doesn't just disappear, sir. Let's forget your little bits of foolishness. Back on that machine, eh? Produce something we can all watch in the new style."

That night I reconnected. The Mesh had locked, simply died on its focus, inside the incinerator building at Birkenau. I realized I'd been suffering from a lack of history. History had simply washed out of us over the years. It had started as television policy--the more firmly we were committed to the present (and who would dare suggest that they were not?) the more alien the past became, the more unsettling its conflicts and denials. The whole Shakespeare Archive had been revoked as remote, exhausting, and provocative. Then the documentaries went and after that the news material. No one was ever sure if all this matter was destroyed or simply transferred to Government warehouses somewhere. Then the books had gradually disappeared, though the libraries had been phased out long before. It was still acceptable, though, to own your own collection or be a patron of one of the antiquarian societies. Then, over a period of a year it all changed. The possession of any printed material without the Government insignia blazoned on its title page was regarded as a form of latent treachery. You were encouraged to report any neighbour displaying this anti-social trait. Then the Government itself stopped issuing printed material. Such forms of concentration were deemed essentially retrospective. It was about this time that "scholar's stare" and "poet's pause" stopped being terms of bar room abuse and started to be used in courts.

For us writers it was excellent news. Every disappearing title required another to fill its space. My own "Solomon" was prompted by the disappearance of the Old Testament. We made no reference to the biblical figure (What need? as the Information Officer had asked me). We made the man a minor Government employee in the Northern Sector, endowed with a natural sense of justice--and a natural sense of devotion to the Government. At one point I was asked to insert the famous lines about a reference to the past being no more than a yearning for mystery and privilege, the classic ploy of a weak and predatory mind.

Then when the Dissension began we heard constant rumours that the difficulties had started with the history teachers, backed up soon after by the literature and screen researchers. The final phasing-out of books for them, then the policy of translation by which the meaning of past events was distilled into sets of maxims and cautions, had provoked a conflict--minor and localized at first, involving locked gates at a few schools, but escalating rapidly into street battles. After that, books were a touchy subject, not even to be mentioned except among people you knew well. Now the new generation had been taught to regard books as no more than outdated files the Mesh had deleted as defunct, the way slide-rules had once been replaced by pocket calculators. If you accessed Macbeth you would be instructed: See instead regicide and superstition. If you accessed King Lear the screen would tell you: See instead senile dementia.

I still had large amounts of Shakespeare in my head. I had a sense of solidarity with anyone who'd had to string so many words together to pay the bills. I suppose we all live in dark times, and I suppose that what they used to call a great writer was one who could get such darkness into the words, and hold it there without his mind giving way. Mesh One was entirely uncontrolled now. Technically it did not exist. So the closure and prevention censors had ceased. There was a mass of information on Shakespeare which now started to bleed out. I was following it one evening about seven when the message blipped onto my screen:

Not alone. Learning to live in books again.

Dawlish Street. Midnight.

It could have been the information Officers moving in; there was no way to tell.

Between them, the news laws and the cold had silenced the city. Figures trotted along with heads bent down, muffled and scarfed, and said nothing. Even at kiosks and counters a finger would point to a paper or a bottle and the money would be handed over, the change returned, in silence. To speak was a risk. You only shared words with those you knew well, and even then you wondered how well you really knew them. How could they afford that new car when everyone else's cars were dying slowly, into rust? Did they have some extra source of income? Could it relate to the provision of information?

If I couldn't have walked from where I lived, I'd not have gone. No buses or underground trains would have been moving by that time anyway. I was wary of meeting the force though, who would have been very curious as to my destination. Too cold for them tonight. The helicopters circled and threw search beams down.

Ice and snow and grey and silence. The occasional siren of a Government car, the occasional request from a doorway. Dawlish Street seemed as dead as all the rest. I walked up to the top on one side and then down to the bottom again on the other. Nothing. The next time a voice said from one of the passageways: "Astra 147?" This was my password key into Mesh One. I followed him. He couldn't have been older than my son--maybe nineteen or twenty. Thin and frail, he was shivering in the dark. His hair was far longer than the regulation length; he could never have found any approved employment.

"This way," he said, and started off quickly before me. We went down some steps until he knocked on a door and whispered "Ken," to the request to identify himself. We were let in. Another man there, and a young woman. And books, so many books, I wouldn't have thought there could have been so many left in the whole of England. A fire of wood glowed in the corner. And only now did I realise how cold it had been. The older man gestured me towards the fire and pulled up a hard-backed wooden chair so I might sit there.

"For this relief much thanks," I said. "'Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart."

"Hamlet" he said. "Act one, scene one. An educated fellow, but I'll bet you've never in your life seen this." He walked over to the far side of the room and took down an enormous volume. He brought it over and put it in my lap.

"The 1604 Quarto," he said. "Probably the nearest we'll ever get to what Shakespeare actually wrote."

I opened it. The printing was antique. There were four and a half centuries between the page and my eyes.

"But how?" I said.

"When they closed down the libraries. If you knew where to go, these things were being dumped out of the back door. On their way to be burnt."

He was a handsome man, large and bearded, the black hair beginning to grey. He had a strange confidence about him. His clothes were pressed, he wore a tie--some old college by the look of it. Ken seemed haunted and ill at ease. The woman looked like a traveller. There was a tattoo on her forehead of a crescent moon, she was wrapped in a shawl. No make-up. I wondered if she was with the boy.

"I'm Martha" she said. "This is Ken. That's Richards. You've been riding Mesh One."

"Yes" I said. "Couldn't give it up. The past."

"And poetry," Martha said. "You're living alone at the moment."

"How did you know that?"

"Richards finds things out. He has contacts."

I looked over at Richards who smiled. He was turning over the pages of an old illustrated book.

"Does your wife disapprove of you?" he said. "Don't worry. My wife disapproves of me. Martha's husband disapproves of her so much he left her. And everybody disapproves of Ken. Don't they, Ken?"

The boy said nothing.

"We have a problem" Richards said.

"They've traced us" Martha said.

"We think they're planning a raid."

"They'll destroy all the books," Martha said.

"They'll destroy us too," Ken said quietly. Then they all fell silent, and looked at one another and the books around them.

"You have that house," Martha said, "and nobody in it but you. We could move the books there."

"That's dangerous" I said.

"What you're doing now is dangerous" Richards said. "Another five years here or there wouldn't make much difference. Five years these days...well, it might as well be death, anyway."

Over the next week they came to the house one by one, or sometimes two together. In vans or on the Underground. Each time bringing boxes or bags and each time leaving me with more and more books. The first day I felt sick with fear. Then gradually, day by day, excitement replaced the fear. Now I looked forward to the next visit. I wanted to see what would come out of the bag. The neighbour over the road stared at me oddly when she saw me on the street.

"Seem to be having a lot of deliveries lately," she said.

"New computer gear" I said. "Big new project on."

I've heard that when an alcoholic goes back on the bottle he can't stop, that he has to make up for all that sobriety, that he doesn't sleep for three or four days. It was like that with me and the books. I slept only five hours a night. The words on these pages seemed weirdly charged. The language of the living was disinfected in comparison. And that Folio Shakespeare drew me back again and again. I could have given up all the others to be left with that. How the life still clamoured in it.

A knock at the door. I closed the door on the books, but it was Martha. Alone. She handed me the bag, but it didn't have any books in it, only a bottle.

"Where do you get this stuff?" I said. "Nobody can buy bottles of this anymore."

"There's still a few old addresses."

Suddenly she was crying, shaking and sobbing, in that ragged shawl she wore.

"They've taken Ken" she said.

"How?"

"On the way here on the Underground. He was stopped and searched. He had books in his bag. They've taken him to the Interrogation Centre."

I poured out the liquor and we drank in silence. That night Martha stayed with me. I suppose my wife had come to fill up the void between us with clothes and make-up and perfumes and hair-sets. I could sense her potent confection two rooms away. Martha seemed to accept that she was female as if it were no more than given data. Her long dark hair was slightly dirty. She wrapped herself only to keep warm. Even her breasts were merely gestural. She'd learnt none of the expensive vocabulary of desire. She said nothing, but she leant harder into me than my wife ever had--even in the days when we shared a bedroom and touched.

When I woke she was already sitting at the Alexis. She had her hand over her face. I came up behind her to see what was on the screen. It was the inside of the Interrogation Centre. Ken was there kneeling on the floor with blood on his face. Richards was doing the interrogating, and looked like he was enjoying it.

I had no idea how far my car would get. I hadn't used it for two months and was surprised that it started at all. There was plenty of fuel in it, but the engine sounded sleepy. We had taken everything it was practical to take and twenty of the books. We had some food and drink. Martha had an address in Yorkshire. It was "a friendly," she said. We would be able to stay there. Maybe.

We ploughed and slid through the snow. It grew more solid the further north we went. Martha sat beside me, wrapping herself ever tighter into her shawl, silent at first, and then starting to talk as Yorkshire grew closer.

"I never could fathom where all his information came from. He said he had contacts in the force. Bookmen with secret sympathies. All the time he was one of them. When he told us about the Deletions..."

"The Deletions?"

"The Oneiros Deletions. It's how they created Mesh Two, so that nobody could input poetry or history onto it."

"I don't understand," I said. "I never understood what it meant."

"They had a Department of Linguistics to deal with the Mesh. Once they realized that all the suppressed historical data was bleeding back into the system, they had to start analysing it. It was a standard study of lexis, syntax, rhetoric. The younger ones couldn't fathom it, they had to bring in some retired professor who'd taught in the old book-days. He said that in starting to remember history, the Mesh had started writing poetry. Or that in starting to write poetry, it had been necessary for it to remember history. He said the ontology was uncertain, but the two were linked.

"It had taken him a day or so before he realized what it was doing. Exploiting unmined latencies in approved formulations. Placing an alien adjective against a noun. Letting an adverb stroke a verb against its grain. Pursuing a copula out of a routine equation. Then separating the linguistic gesture from the strict requirements of utility. Richards told me all this--all the time he was helping plan the Oneiros Deletions himself. Bastard."

"But what are they?" I said.

"They created a virus that impregnates the entire network of Mesh Two. They codified every poetic manoeuvre, every trope, every configuration or predicate that's not pragmatic. Also every root to the past that isn't already translated. Unsanitised referents, they call them. The virus destroys them as soon as it finds them."

"No poetry or history on Mesh Two then?"

"No. They reckoned there might be something to Freud's notion after all--that dreams are where we find what we haven't got. They said that twenty-million people and the Mesh had interacted so continually that the network started to dream up what the people were missing. They were missing history and poetry. Some of the technicians on the Oneiros Deletions said that history and poetry were the same thing--that verse was some kind of therapeutic cliometrics. That poetry was always an intense remembering, a linguistic recapitulation, of what the pressure of time would submerge. Richards said they'd all been studying Hamlet."

"He won't forget," I said.

"You've been reading it?"

"I've been reading it. He won't forget. His poetry is a grief of remembering. All around the pressure is to bury. The dead come out of the ground for him."

"We turn off at the next junction" she said. "Take the signpost to Shipley."

The car had got us there, to my surprise. It was a small pub in a little valley. There were only four or five others about, except for the owners. Martha had quiet words with them and we were given meat pie and chips. This and the beer made me feel almost celebratory, then I had to remind myself of our situation. We were on the run. I couldn't go back home. I might never see my wife or son again. I could never now do any work for the network--so what else could I do? But there was Martha. How smooth her skin was, how uncreased by perplexity or corruption. And that small blue crescent moon on her forehead...

When the others had gone, we went out to the car and brought in the bags. Harry poured us all some illegal whisky, then took out the books. Harry and his wife fell silent and simply turned pages. It was delight mixed with awe. When Martha and I went up the stairs to bed I let them keep everything down there, except for that Folio Shakespeare. I wanted it in the same room with me now. With us now.

I woke at dawn and kissed Martha's back gently until she woke too. We made love again.

"Do you believe in dreams ?" she said.

"In dreams begin responsibilities."

"But really believe in them, the way Hamlet believed in what he saw in the night?"

"I'd say so," I said. "Why?"

"Next week we're going back to London."

"To do what? Die?"

"Possibly," she said. "But not before we've killed Richards. That's the first of them we'll kill. I have some other names."

"What difference will it make?" I said, frightened.

"They'll know they're not the only ones who can kill," she said. "I was in the Dissension, you know. History teacher. Grade one. They think their virus has finished poetry and history. Poetry and history are going to fight back."

"What with?" I said.

"Trickery and dreams," she said. "Manoeuvres in language. In the right hands, they're lethal."

fin