A History of the Darkling Eclectica

Well, from my point of view, anyway

by Michael H. Payne, Air Personality

Part Ten

         Right at the top here, I'd like to warn readers that, well, there's some swearing later on in this installment. Words you can't say on the radio, as we call them. Just thought I'd better mention it.

         Well, Carmen took to chaircreaturing a lot quicker than I had: I mean, I'd been acting chaircreature from March of '84 till January of '85, and I spent most of that time trying to get the filing cabinets open.

         But Carmen, she not only opened the cabinets, she went through the files, and the afternoon of her first full day, she called me into the back office to go over what she called "a few loose ends."

         It was the first time I'd set foot in the back office, a cozy corner space, the windows giving a nice view of Aldrich Park. Carmen was sitting at one of the two desks, file folders spread out, three of her upper tentacles tapping at them. "Come on in and sit down," she said. "There's just a couple of things here I'm trying to fit together."

         "A couple?" I smiled and sat. "Gee, I thought I'd made a lot more trouble than that."

         She rolled her turquoise eyes. "No, these are left over from Mr. Hyniof." A greenish cast came into the pearl-gray of her skin, and she raised one of the folders. "This is his preliminary evaluation of El Brujo, and he makes some serious allegations as to her competence."

         I had to grin. "Yes, well, Mr. Hyniof didn't like cats much, and El Brujo doesn't really go out of her way to get on folks' good sides. Also, she refused to give her real name, insisted that even Mr. Hyniof call her El Brujo."

         "Well, names are very private things with cats." She licked her pen, made some marks in the file, and closed it. "Mr. Hyniof's impression of her was so different from my own, I thought I'd better get a third opinion. Mr. Hyniof himself, now..." She took another file in her claws, opened it, and looked across the desk at me. "I was told he left 'Hey, Your Nose is on Fire' rather abruptly, but there's no letter of resignation here, no final evaluation, and all his discharge papers, well, they're signed by you, not by him."

         "Ah." I'd been wondering when this would come up. I swallowed, sat back, and told Carmen the whole story of Mr. Hyniof's last day at the office, the story I told you about in Part 7, finishing with: "I might've been able to do more to stop it if I'd tried, but El Brujo insists he wasn't hurt at all, and, well, I guess we could all use a little enlightenment now and then."

         She hadn't made a sound throughout the whole story, only her tentacles twitching now and then, and things stayed quiet when I was done for a fair handful of seconds. "I see," she said at last. "I'll have to get her a copy of the 'Hey, Your Nose is on Fire' policies for handling grievances: we don't want anyone else disappearing."

         She made a few marks at the bottom of the page, closed the file, then blew out a breath. "I'm sorry to have put you on the spot like that, but I can be a little maniacal about sewing up loose ends." She clicked her claws together. "Which reminds me: we should see if the E25's captured its qi yet."

         I blinked at her as she rose from the desk. "Its what?"

         She moved to the door, pulled it open, and gestured with several tentacles. "Come on. I'll show you."

         Another blink, and I followed her into the front office. But what I saw there made me stop in my tracks: Ned was at his desk for one thing--he wasn't scheduled to come in, it seemed to me, until in that evening--and for another, he was clean, absolutely shiny clean.

         Not that Ned's usually grimy, but you've got to remember that he's a scarecrow, all dark wood slats, shaped straw, and cardboard. He has a sort of patina about him, not of dirt so much as of use, like an old broom, or a chair that's been sat in for generations. He's been around a lot, Ned has, and you can tell that just by looking at him...or by catching a whiff of his deep, dusky scent.

         But the Ned sitting at his desk right now smelled like Liquid Gold. His slats nearly glowed, they were so polished, and he'd obviously scrubbed out the straw of his head with some detergent or other. His hat even looked freshly blocked, if a hat made of black cardboard can be blocked. And on the desk beside him, in a vase of swirled green glass, stood a bunch of flowers--daisies, geraniums, roses, I don't know what all.

         It looked like he'd gotten to his feet when Carmen had come out of her office, or I suppose he might've been standing the whole time. At any rate, he was sort of perched there beside his desk now and looking as uncomfortable as I'd ever seen him look. "Good afternoon, Ms. Lacertae," he said.

         Carmen had continued toward the Pauly-Wisowa E25 without, apparently, noticing Ned. "Oh, hello, Ned." She turned to face him. "And, please, call me Carmen." She cocked her head. "You're in early today, aren't you?"

         "I...I..." Twiggy fingers rustling, he grabbed the vase and held it toward her. "I brought some flowers for you, uhh, for your office, I mean, sort of a...a little 'welcome to the office' present or...uhh..." His voice trailed off.

         Carmen's dolphin smile was back. "Why, thank you, Ned." She padded forward, several tentacles snaking out to take the vase, and touched the point of her snout to the flowers, her eyes closing. "Oh, they're lovely. Are they local blooms?"

         It had never occurred to me that a scarecrow could blush: I mean, I'd helped Ned replace his lower leg the week before, and I hadn't seen anything circulatory. Nonetheless, his straw went red, and he stammered out, "Yes, they, uhh, I mean, I picked them, uhh, picked them right out in the...the..." He gestured toward the wall.

         "The park?" I suggested.

         "Yes," he said, his face getting redder. "And around."

         Carmen's eyes had come open. "Well, again, thank you. I'll go set these in on my windowsill, then we'll see what we can do with this E25." Touching the tip of her snout to each flower in turn, she carried the vase into her office.

         Ned followed her every step with his eyes, I noticed, letting out his breath only when she had vanished back into her office, and I couldn't help but wonder what on earth was going on. "Ned?" I asked. "You okay?"

         That brought his gaze over to me, and the blush came into his straw again. "I don't know what you mean," he said.

         I had to blink at that. "I mean: are you all right? Is something wrong? You look like you're about to pass out."

         He gave a laugh, his attention suddenly dividing its time between an out-of-shape paper clip on the blotter pad of his desk and the door to Carmen's office. "No, I'm fine. I mean, of course I'm fine: why should I be anything but fine? Just thought I'd, you know, clean up a little, try to...to brighten the place up around here. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Nothing out of the--"

         He stopped as Carmen stepped back out into the front office. "Well," she said, rubbing several of her tentacles together. "Let's see about this E25."

         I'd forgotten about that. "Oh, yeah. You said something about needing a key? Are there more little places to unlock on it?"

         Carmen stepped over to the desk where the Pauly-Wisowa sat. "Not 'key.' 'Qi.'" She looked over at me. "Am I pronouncing it wrong? I thought it was one of your human words."

         I blinked at her again. "Not in any language I know."

         "Hmmm." Her mouth went sideways, then she shrugged--well, I mean, she doesn't really have shoulders, so I guess she doesn't shrug, but she spreads her tentacles and lets a wave pass through them from her body out to her claws, a move very similar to a shrug, though I don't know if it's a gesture she's picked up from us humanoids or if it's something her folks do back in DelFrace.

         Uhh, anyway, she shrugged. "Well, it's from some human language: Gustav Pauly uses it all over the place in the E25 operating manual." She turned back to the machine. "Come on over, and I'll show you how it works."

         I nodded, moved up behind her, and looked over her--well, again, not over her shoulder, but you get the idea--and Ned came around to her other side, his steps a little wobbly: I remember thinking again that he might be sick, though what diseases might effect scarecrows other than maybe wood blight I couldn't imagine. But when he reached her side, he took a deep breath, smiled, and looked all right again.

         As you can see, I'm not exactly Basil of Baker Street when it comes to picking up on clues.

         Anyway, Carmen gestured to the Pauly-Wisowa's big glass platen, and I noticed for the first time that it was glowing a solid orange color. "Hey," I said. "What's that all about?"

         She was nodding. "That means it's working."

         "Working?" Ned was just as wide eyed as I was. "Working at what?"

         Carmen tapped a claw on the desktop. "Gathering its qi. Y'see, the Pauly-Wisowa E25 was one of the first successful artificial intelligences, mainly because Gustav Pauly cheated a little. Instead of making a pure machine intelligence, he made a machine that could hold the force generated by organic intelligence, a force he calls qi."

         "Qi," I said. "And that is?"

         "Ahh, well, it's sort of a...sort of a..." Carmen blew out a breath. "Pauly spends three whole chapters in the E25 operating manual explaining qi, and I'm trying to think of a way to summarize it without messing up the nuances."

         I held up a hand. "I think I can speak for both Ned and myself when I say that nuances are usually lost on us anyway. Give us a rough idea, and we'll pick up the subtleties later."

         Ned scowled at me, but Carmen gave another little dolphin smile. "All right. How's this: qi is a particular type of life force."

         I stopped her right there. "If you tell me we have to feed this thing blood..."

         She laughed. "All it needs is a shot of petroleum distillates now and again. It gathers its qi, you see, from the air itself, from certain sorts of life forces that have become disembodied but haven't dispersed from this plane."

         Ned stopped her this time. "Wait a minute. Are you...are you talking about ghosts?"

         "Ghosts?" Carmen cocked her head. "Yes, I think I am. But only special kinds of ghosts: not every life force is organized enough to qualify as qi." She raised several tentacles and started tapping at the keys, each one striking the glowing orange platen and leaving a black letter behind. "Let's see who or what we've gathered."

         The tink-tink-tink of the keys on the glass was the only sound for a moment, and she typed what looked like random letters to me at the time:

         Then she snagged the carriage return handle with a claw, and the black letters slid up in the orange glow.

         For another long moment, nothing happened, then letters began stringing and scrolling across the platen:

         The words shifted up on the platen, and Carmen typed on the now open bottom line:

         Out loud, she said, "Pauly emphasizes as essential the need to ask the qi you've gathered if it wants to stay. Life forces that qualify as qi often don't want to get involved in the outer world again."

         She pulled the return handle, and we waited again till the letters appeared:

         Carmen sighed, then typed:

         She hit the carriage return, typed:

hit the return again, brought a cloven foot down on the floor pedal, and the orange glow vanished, leaving the platen its normal cloudy glass color. "Oh, well," she said then. "We'll do better with the second one." She pumped the pedal, and I saw a flicker of light pass through the platen.

         Ned's cork eyes were absolutely goggling. "What are you...what are you doing exactly?"

         Carmen swiveled her head, gave Ned a grin, and started in on the technical aspects of the machine. I hope you'll pardon me if I leave out the details, but, well, even after fifteen years with this Pauly-Wisowa E25, I still don't know how it works. She talked about planar ratios and insertion manifolds, and Ned seemed to pick up on it, asking questions that made Carmen nod and give him answers that got more and more abstruse, I mean, to me at least. I just sat the whole time and watched the orange glow on the platen get stronger and stronger.

         Finally, it seemed every bit as bright as it had before, and Carmen interrupted her answer to one of Ned's questions to say: "Well, here, I'll show you. It looks like we've gathered another qi."

         She typed the:

again, pulled the carriage return, and this time, the words appeared almost instantly:

         "Y'see?" Carmen was saying. "The way the speech patterns seem so exaggerated? That's a common trait among qi." Her claws were tapping at the keys while she talked, typing:

         She hit the carriage return, and almost at once we got:

         I saw Carmen's mouth tighten, and she typed:

         She hadn't ever hit the carriage return, but the words were already appearing on the platen:

         Carmen sighed, typed:

pulled the carriage return, put in her:

stomped the foot pedal, and the platen went dark and glassy again. "I don't understand it," she said, pressing the pedal again. "I never had this much trouble back on DelFrace. The second qi always agreed to help when the first begged off."

         I nodded. "Well, getting regular humans to agree in any constructive way can be hard enough, and from what I've heard about ghosts, they sound even more difficult to deal with."

         The new glow was already spreading over the platen, the glass going from dark to bright even as I spoke. Carmen's brow wrinkled. "That's odd. We can't have gathered anyone this quickly...." Her voice trailed off, she typed:

for the third time, and hit the carriage return lever.

         A moment of nothing, then the words:

moved letter by letter across the platen.

         Carmen gave a little laugh, then typed:

         Nothing happened for another moment, then:

popped up over the orange glow.

         The question seemed to take Carmen aback, her whole bare brow wrinkling. She stared a moment, then tapped in:

         She pulled the lever and got the reply:

         A little more brow wrinkling, and Carmen typed:

         We waited then, and after a minute, up came the words:

         That made me blink and made Ned growl, "Who does this guy think he's dealing with?" He looked at Carmen. "Give him the jet, and let's gather another."

         But Carmen shook her head. "We'd get a penalty if we did that."

         Ned gave a little laugh. "A what?

         "A penalty." Carmen ran a claw over her snout. "Jetting a qi who's agreed to stay lessens the machine's receptivity factor. The kind of luck we've been having, I doubt we'd gather anyone at all if we forced this guy out." She set to work at the keys then, typing:

         The reply came before Carmen had a chance to pull the return lever:

         Carmen's mouth opened. "How...how did he...?"

         And the words appeared on the platen:

         "No," Carmen muttered. "You don't. The operating manual says input is only possible from the keyboard."

         I looked over at her. "What? Then how can he--"

         But I stopped as more words rolled over the orange glow:

         Carmen's eyes went wide, her tentacles twitching a little where they lay on the desktop, a sort of sickly yellow coming over her skin. She looked at Ned--he didn't look much better--then at me. I sighed, got up, squeezed between the desks to El Brujo's, and knocked on the top.

         A scuffling from inside, and the deep drawer slid open with a growl. "Whoever that is," I heard from its depths, "had better have his insurance paid up."

         I sighed again. "It's me, El Brujo. We've got a little problem I think might be right up your alley."

         Papers rustled from the drawer, El Brujo's front paws appeared at the edge, and she hauled herself up, her whiskers bristling and her ears at half-mast. "Fine. You wanna be sliced, diced, or julienne fried?"

         "It'll just take you a second." I crooked a thumb over my shoulder. "See, our typewriter needed a ghost inside it to work correctly, and the one we summoned, well, we can't get rid of him since he agreed to take the job, but now he doesn't want to co-operate."

         "Ghosts?" She leaped out of the drawer onto her desktop. "You're summoning ghosts? What are you, stupid?"

         I nodded. "So if you could take a look at--"

         But she was already leaping from her desk to Ned's, mumbling, "Buncha goddamn amateurs," as she went. "Can't believe I stick around this place..." She sprang from Ned's desk to the windowsill, then onto the desk where the Pauly-Wisowa sat. "All right," she snapped, settling down and looking up at Carmen. "Gimme the low-down."

         Carmen had turned the color of very weak tea. "It's my fault, I'm afraid. I had no idea your qi here would be so difficult to deal with."

         El Brujo scratched behind one ear. "Well, now you know. On Earth, most ghosts are rats, and rats, as the man says, gotta suck the pipe."

         I had gotten back to the desk by this time, lines of odd words rolling over the machine's platen. El Brujo stretched, padded over to the machine, sniffed at it, and gave a quick sneeze. "Black Sabbath. Yeah, real quality individual you got here." She raised a paw, popped her claws, and gave the E25 a little poke. "Let's cut that out first thing, okay?"

         The words stopped at her touch, the orange glow going dark, then springing back with the single word:

appearing on the platen.

         "Now, now," El Brujo purred, resting her claws gently on top of the machine. "Let's be polite."

         The orange glow flickered again, and up came:

         El Brujo's voice interrupted the print out. "Now, if I really heard you use the word 'kitty' just now, I might hafta get angry with you."

blinked across the machine instantly, followed by:

         "That's right," El Brujo said, her voice all gentleness. "After all, if you'd been thinking, you would've realized that you'd agreed to take this job. And that means you've gotta put on your happy face, work with your colleagues, and not get so mad when they do stupid things that you follow through on your desire to tear the skin off their bones." She glanced at me, then at Ned. "Or the straw outta their heads, as the case may be." She returned her attention to the machine. "So, you gonna be nice now?"

         For a moment, nothing. Then:

         "Sure." El Brujo lifted her paw, shook it, licked it, then yawned. "Me, I'm going back to sleep."

         Carmen blew out a breath. "Thank you, El Brujo. And I'm sorry: if I'd known about the qi here, I would've called you before we started." She turned back to the keys and typed:

         Nothing appeared for a moment, then:

         The words stopped, then picked up again:

         The black letters halted, and when they didn't resume, Carmen typed in:

         Out loud, she said, "Ned, let me show you how the start-up procedures work."

         Ned nodded, and El Brujo leaped back to the windowsill, to Ned's desk, then to her own. "Guy's a loser," she said, stretching on her blotter pad. "Some thirty- five year old who never got his brain outta high school. Wouldn't be surprised if his wife shot him." She jumped down into her drawer, and it slid closed after her.

         Carmen and Ned were getting technical again, so I made my way back to my desk and got started on the show report again.

More about our newest staff member in the next installment. But for now, you can choose to go back to Part 9 of this History by clicking here, or you can go to the Main Page with a click here.