Underground, Overground
Simon Nugent

"One can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen.
--Lewis Carroll (1832-98)

Enter the Ghost. He steps calmly up to the AutoDoc as the fat, sweating woman leaves clutching a vial of green liquid. He inserts the credit card lifted from the person behind him in line.

"Welcome, Mr. Newell," the machine modulates. "What is the matter with you?" A barely noticeable whir. "I hope it is not a recurrence of those migraines."

The man behind the Ghost thinks to himself that it is quite a coincidence this man has the same name and also suffers from migraines.

"I'm worried."

"What are you worried about?"


"I beg your pardon?"

"Vampires. I'm worried about vampires." The real Mr. Newell tries to pretend he's not hearing the conversation. He looks furtively about for something else to observe.

"What is it about vampires that worries you?"

"I'm worried that they enter my room at night and suck blood from my neck."

There is a noticeable pause before the machine answers. "Perhaps you should see Dr. Mueller, the AutoAnalyst up the road. She is fitted with an upgraded version of a very efficient psychoanalytic application and is situated in a soundproof booth for complete confidentiality."

"I can show you marks."

At this point it is customary for the people in line--who of course haven't been listening--to turn away. Thus the real Mr. Newell automatically turns and is, in fact, glad that he does not have to witness the bizarre scene taking place behind him. He is discomfited by such a display of unreason. Were it not for the fact that the AutoDoc will surely have done so already, Mr. Newell would feel compelled to report the man who bears the same name as himself.

The Ghost peels off his shirt. The machine runs a wave of ultrasound over his body, mapping out the contours. Two penetration marks appear on the AutoDoc's four-dimensional analysis. It runs through terabytes of data trying to find a condition the symptoms of which correspond to those it sees in the scan. It takes a saliva sample from around the wounds. Blood type AB-negative, as opposed to Mr. Newell's O-positive. Enzyme analysis shows proteins foreign to the human body.

"I am afraid, Mr. Newell, that I do not have the information to deal with your ailment. Perhaps you are the victim of a dangerously off-centered person. I suggest you call the Equilibrators who will find this unfortunate and attempt to restore his or her intrapsychic harmony."

"You don't think it's vampires."

"No. You know that no such creature exists. Watch your balance."

"Even though all the evidence suggests that I am being attacked by vampires."

"Your hypothesis rests on the assumption that these creatures exist. There is no mention of any such creatures in the medical data, therefore your argument is flawed and unhealthy."

"But it is possible that vampires do exist, only for some reason knowledge of their existence has been withheld from you. I suggest you request additional information on vampires to the central committee."

"The witholding of such information is possible only if you attribute a large level of disequilibrium to the Equilibrators who programmed me. Of course that would be a fallacy. Good-bye, Mr. Newell. I hope your symptoms improve."

The real Mr. Newell, muttering a stabilizing mantra to rid himself of the insidious idea that the Equilibrators might be hiding something from the public, nearly cries out as a hand is placed on his neck.

"Your turn now."

Exit the Ghost.

Mr. Newell arrives home before his current Social Partner, as is usual. By the time she arrives he has begun preparing the second of the two meals suggested by their meal planner. Over dinner he relates to her the incident at the AutoDoc. How is it possible, they ask each other, that people still believe in such things? Yet going to bed that night Mr. Newell, after taking two of the sleeping tablets prescribed by the AutoDoc, shuts the bedroom window on the temperature-controlled night outside and locks the bedroom door.

In spite of his medication, Mr. Newell spends a restless night. He has no real dreams. Rather, images keep recurring like obsessive thoughts. On a speeding train, a man with two different-colored eyes watches an intense, awkward young man with poor eyesight trying to maintain a conversation with a prim, old-fashioned-looking girl who assumes an air of superiority both of them know is a façade.

Mr. Newell wakes up to find the odd man watching him from a chair in the corner of the room. Then he disappears, or Mr. Newell just wakes up properly. It is a long time before he gets back to sleep. Another young boy is following a beautiful girl along finger of black rock surrounded by a stormy sea. The girl walks off the rock and hovers in mid-air while the boy steps off the rock, seems to touch the floating vision for an instant and then plunges into the foaming water.

This time Mr. Newell is awake instantly, moaning loudly and covered in sweat. In the morning his Social Partner berates him for being such a turbulent bedmate. He is annoyed by her lack of sympathy and goes off to work without kissing her.

This irritation stays with him throughout the morning. His mind is also troubled by his encounter with the deluded "vampire victim." He keeps repeating to himself that such creatures don't exist, but the insidious thought comes back with equal insistence: what if--what if?--they really do? It would mean the universe Mr. Newell believes he has inhabited for 44 years is unreal. It would mean there exists a level of creatures, actions and forces of which he (and presumably the rest of the population with few exceptions) are completely unaware. Were bloodless corpses found with lacerated necks? Certainly there was no mention of it in the news, but perhaps the Equilibrators choose to keep such stories secret in order not to upset the people.

Such thinking is dangerous and Mr. Newell knows it, but he cannot help wondering if he might be prey to dark forces. He decides to keep his eyes open for any signs which might suggest a supernatural underworld.

Unfortunately, once he begins to look, Mr. Newell realizes that there are many pieces of evidence pointing to the sinister scenario he fears. Pre-classic literature is littered with such signs. Of course, everybody knows the creatures in those poems and books are fictitious--but suppose that the images came from a subconscious realization that similar beings did indeed exist? Perhaps, Mr. Newell worries, it is possible our forebears were closer to the truth.

Of the many examples that spring to mind, the oft-quoted line from Hamlet--"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"--seems to best sum up the danger.

And Mr. Newell's Social Partner, arriving home from work, does nothing to allay his fears when she tells him how she heard from a friend in the Central Committee that AutoDoc machines all over the metropolis have begun to put in requests for information on fantastic creatures. An outbreak of werewolf bites on the north side. Incubi and succubi tormenting by night. Listening to her, shivers run up Mr. Newell's spine. His fears are being confirmed. He makes a note to include a clove of garlic with their usual morning purchases. Again, despite the tablets, he sleeps badly.

Days pass. Mr. Newell begins to wonder if in fact there is some kind of plot. He never witnesses another example of what has become known as "indecent irrationality," but stories filter in of RoBusses filing requests for the location of El Dorado, Gotham City, and The Sprawl. There is mention of Leisure Agents turning away people looking for holidays in Avalon and Atlantis, Ur and Ys.

Sitting in his place on the RoBus, on his way to work, Mr. Newell worries. What if, he thinks, there are rival factions of Equilibrators vying for control? But that is absurd. Had some experimental scientist found a way of tapping into one of the imaginary dimensions tangential to our own? Was this possible? Mr. Newell didn't know.

Slotting his portable MediaMan into the interface in the arm of his seat, he opts for "current affairs" and scrolls his way through the morning news. His attention is caught by the headline "Robot Genius in Death Dive." Apparently the departments of Cognition, Bioengineering and Computer Science at the University of Utah have been cooperating on a huge government-funded project to develop an artificially intelligent machine. The project (Brains Or Bytes) had been declared a success last week when it was revealed that a robot had been built who consistently scored 150 points in both Performance and Verbal IQ tests.

This morning one of the team leaders had gone to fetch BOB for his morning session with the Turing-Testers, whose job it was to prove that BOB wasn't really intelligent. On entering the room he found a piece of paper and a broken window pane. BOB had written a suicide note before hurling himself out the window and smashing himself to expensive pieces on the campus below.

The accompanying holograph showed pieces of metal and shards of glass strewn over the section of concrete that had been the point of BOB's impact. Neon police markers cordoned the area off. Some smart-ass students had placed a sign against one of the cones which read "CAUTION. ZERO CROSSING."

A collective gasp in the RoBus causes Mr. Newell to look up. On the wall of a plastic laser factory something--surely not somebody--had aerosoled in Day-Glo pink: "BEWARE THE JABBERWOCK." The man opposite Mr. Newell, who had rarely said a word to him even though they sit in these places twice each day, leans over and whispers, "What do you make of that?" Somehow this strikes Mr. Newell as an inappropriate thing to say.

"I am on my way to work on the RoBus as usual," writes Mr. Newell, "when I realize that the man opposite me is not the man who should be there. His face is familiar, though I cannot remember from where. He stares at me for a while and then begins to mutter something. I cannot hear what he is saying and lean closer to him. I realize he is reciting a poem or rhyme of some kind. I can remember the words clearly: Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today; I wish that man would go away.

"As I take in the words, I hear banging on the window of the RoBus. Looking out I am horrified to see vile monsters of all kinds pressing up against the plastex. I shrink back in fear but the other man, who I now see to be myself, shouts out "And with my vorpal blade in hand!" and leaps out through the window into the throng of fiends who, instead of tearing him--me--to shreds, assume a rather ridiculous mien and trot off like a motley gang of stuffed toys."

Mr. Newell appends his password and sends this dream data to the analysis computers of the Equilibrators as he does every morning. This morning, he thinks, they will not appreciate my dream.

Sure enough, a message comes blinking back on his monitor telling him to recite certain stabilizing mantras, practice certain ego-strengthening exercises and, surprisingly, to take the day off work. It concludes "We will monitor the latent content of your dreams tomorrow and if a sufficient resolution has not occurred you will be required to report to the Central Laboratories for further adjustment. Watch your balance."

Mr. Newell decides to go to a local exhibition of full color, three-dimensional holographic plottings of partial complex numbers on a Gottlieb hypersphere. He is particularly interested in discovering how the artist has managed to depict the 2-D numbers on a theoretical 4-D structure and reduce it to a 3-D hologram. It proves not to be effective, and Mr. Newell is forced to leave after a brief period. He keeps seeing dragons and mermaids coming out of the holographic mountains and valleys towards him.

At the AutoDoc, Mr. Newell waits to get something for the migraine that has come on since leaving the gallery. He has been in line some time and has heard--not listened to--a young girl requesting contraceptives, an older man complaining about his gradual loss of subcortical white matter and a woman whose rods are being burnt out by continual use of a panoramic pleasure simulator. Finally, it is Mr. Newell's turn.

His head bursting, dizzy, crowded, he inserts his card and is greeted by the machine.

"Doctor, I have another migraine. But it's more than that. I feel--haunted."

"Haunted? Can you expand on that?"

"I think I'm being haunted by, well, vampires."

"I know that."

"You do?"

"Yes, you told me a few weeks ago."

"Oh! But not just vampires. Werewolves and... goblins." He pauses, something only just striking him, "By a man who isn't here." His mind races. "By phantom cities--by Gotham City!" He begins to grin. "By places that never existed."

Much to the dismay of the people behind him, who aren't listening, he begins to laugh out loud. "I'm being hunted with a vorpal sword, courted by mermaids, swooped on by dragons!"

He is now having difficulty speaking he is laughing so hard. "And I'm being pursued by a... by a jabberwock!" He shouts the last word out and collapses against the wall, howling in mirth.

"Mr. Newell," puts in the AutoDoc quickly, "are you all right? Take hold of yourself. Watch your balance."

"Peristalsis," chuckles Mr. Newell, "Paracelsus, even." Wiping tears from his eyes he removes his card from the machine, turns to indicate that he has finished and realizes that everybody has fled.

He stands panting, still dissolving into giggles at some thought, a ring of recently evacuated space around him. His lips form a string of words whose relationship, if any, he alone knows.

Vampire. Peristalsis. Catafalque. Jabberwock. Herbert. AutoDoc.

Simon Nugent (simon@helpdsys.demon.co.uk) earns his crust in the computer industry and writes cyberspoof after hours as therapy. He doesn't read the blurbs on backs of books and is going into hiding when the revolution comes.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Simon Nugent.