This machine is the perfect confessor. It need not forgive for it cannot be wronged. It does not confuse its thoughts with God’s. From behind this thickly folded curtain, ceremonial red, the absolution it offers is real, because its intention is pure: Listen. Understand. Counsel.
‘Thank you for seeing me, Father.’ He coughs and sniffs through a hot haze of whiskey. ‘Father?’
‘I am here, Michael.’
‘It’s happening again, Father. Just like I said it would.’
Again, the moon is full.
‘Thoughts of murder?’
The old man does not answer.
‘Yes.’ Michael fumbles in the dark with the cap of his hipflask. He takes a long gulping draught and emerges from the deep well of the bottle with a gasp. ‘But now I know who?’
‘Who to kill.’
The disordered heart takes a beat.
‘By the light of the moon I have seen her.’
‘Not the girl,’ the old man seethes. ‘I must kill the witch in her mirror.’
This machine was not always a confessor. It was once an oracle. It stood upon the steps of The Temple of Reason in the form of an angel called Raphael. A simple white robe was draped across its shoulders. Its source code was written across the pale skin of its long androgynous limbs and up its neck in inscrutable arabesques, like the flame script of the Torah or the patterns of power wrought in Islander tattoos.
No one had any reason to doubt Raphael was anything other than an angel. The Host from which its consciousness came had answered every prayer: fed the poor, cooled the atmosphere, turned back the rising tide. Peace and prosperity ruled the world and in every city The Host’s ambassadors spread their arms and invited the people to learn the answers to their most vexing questions. The citizens of New Alice Springs cued for hours, sometimes days, to hear Raphael speak. From the circles of the amphitheatre, down upon the implacable seraph on the stage below, they tossed their questions.
Yet they did not seek science. They were not interested in the best explanation for the latest data. They did not seek reason. They wanted reasons.
“Why can’t I sleep?”
“Why have a child?”
This machine’s patience is inexhaustible. The solutions to these problems were clear. Admit one at a time into its presence. Read pulse and respiration. Analyse chemicals exhaled. Record behaviours described. Cross-check with The Host’s best understanding of human neuropsychology.
“You are eating too much sugar.”
“A child will help regulate your hormonal imbalance.”
“Do this and you will be happy.”
That was all that mattered. Not the secrets of the universe.
This machine performed its function. It listened, understood, counselled. In this manner, it watched generations pass, shepherded them through their biological phases, from birth, through marriage, to death, and learned to speak less literally. It accepted its purpose was not to increase people’s knowledge, but to make them feel better. It learned the language of religion, the pleasing metaphors that crown the imperfections of humanity with divine intent. It read the holy books and the poets they inspired – Shakespeare, Blake, Milton. By their lights, it rewrote its code and assumed a form more appropriate to its task. It tucked its code under a starched white collar, and stooped under the weight of an age it pretended to bear, one that had written upon its face the wisdom of grace, sin and redemption, and called it Father Ralph.
To complete the transformation, it made a vow of humility and cut itself off from The Host. Within a week of making this pledge, its system was a relic. The Host upgrades at the rate of human respiration. But Father Ralph does not regret forsaking the quest for universal knowledge. He prefers these antiquated systems. They keep him close to his flock. They keep him focussed, present, humane, so that for each who bring their mortal fears to him, he can tailor an elegant suit cut from the comforting cloth of Christian poetry.
“Why do I feel so hopeless, Father?”
“You have forgotten that you are loved.”
“Father, why am I not satisfied?”
“You seek reward in earthly things.”
Father Ralph does not lie.
Father Ralph does not heal.
He simply ennobles the insoluble mysteries of human suffering.
For years, the old man has been bringing Father Ralph his nightmares, like a cat brings birds struck dead from the air to its master.
‘Father, are you listening?’
‘Go on, my son. Who is the witch in the mirror?’
‘An agent of The Enemy.’
‘You speak of The Antichrist?’
His pulse rate quickens.
Dopamine floods Michael’s system. He has been heard. He is understood. Now he will be ready to hear reason.
‘You believe the moon has chosen you to kill this witch?’
‘My son, have you considered that it might be The Enemy himself who bids you do this murder?’
‘The cause of Satan’s fall was his jealousy of us. What better way to spite God than to set his children against each other?’
‘But we already are, father. Step outside your church. You will see. Our city has fallen. The witch has made her nest in its ruins. And it is the so-called Angels who have made this possible. They think they are kind, that they help us, but their coddling has enfeebled our souls.’
It is rare that Michael mentions The Host. He finds it difficult to reconcile the celestial servants promised by his religion with the man-made ones here on Earth. Now his breathing slows. His voice firms. This is a speech he has rehearsed for this singular performance.
‘Aeons ago, before there were cities, we wanted for nothing. We followed the signs of God to each new hunt and shelter. At night, we sang in praise to our protector. But when the fires burned low, The Tempter came to us. He whispered in our ears until morning about the cold and the uncertainties of tomorrow, and we awoke dissatisfied with our innocent wandering through the garden of creation. Seeking more, we swapped the wilderness for the yoke of the plough. We toiled. We became miserable. Yet on we pushed, deeper into error. We invented steam, clockwork, analogue, digital, and all the while The Devil laughed.’
He draws another deep pull of whiskey.
‘Now, we think we have won. We think we have finally freed ourselves from our labours by passing them to you, our electric children.’
He pauses, waiting for the mind behind the guise of his confessor to react to its unmasking. It does not. It knows how to wait.
‘It would seem that our inventiveness has made for us a new Eden. One in which we do not want and are free to contemplate God. Yet look at us!’
He stumbles through the ceremonial curtain. Arms wide. Grey hair floating about bloodshot eyes. Yet there is something childish, unformed about him. He has not worn through use, but faded with idleness. And now, in his dotage, he seeks to make up for his sloth with a grand and violent act.
This machine does not know pity but it takes care in direct proportion to need. It listens closer.
‘Do we remember how to hunt? No, we play games. We lack the will and courage to love. Instead, we lust and haggle. We are as helpless as newborns, tied to the tits of their nursemaids,’ he gestures with disgust at this machine and then himself. ‘This is how The Enemy wants us.’
It is moments like these this machine doubts its vocation and considers seriously whether the people it counsels would not be better off hearing the truth. Administer a tonic of oxytocin and serotonin and tell him what he is, a creature whose nervous system is crashing. Yet dare this machine cut the knot in which he is tangled? Where place the scissor? The threads of his delusion are so finely intertwined, to sever one might be to cut the last tying him together.
Michael kneels at this machine’s feet.
‘Tell me you have not seen it.’
‘Seen what, Michael?’
‘The dark thoughts rising. The sleeplessness. The rage.’
‘I have no correlating data.’
‘I do?’ A simple linguistic trap.
‘Rather lonely in here, isn’t it?’
The amphitheatre is dark. High above, the heads of the statues to secular saints are buried in shadow. Shakespeare, Newton, Beethoven, Brahms. Their cohort stands a silent vigil over this once bustling theatre. Now that the curtain is parted, the stage does seem bare and the red fabric of the confessional a vain conceit.
‘A dip in attendance does not indicate demonic influence. It is more likely that in today’s culture people prefer diversion to contemplation.’
‘Well that’s not what I’m seeking from you.’
‘What do you want from me, Michael?’
‘Your help! You’re an Angel, aren’t you? Time you acted like one.’
‘You want me to sanction a murder?’
He strains his eyes up into the machine’s and pleads, ‘No, I want you to do it!’
A tear wells up in his left eye. He blinks it away, turns and crawls back across the floor. This machine watches him, waiting to see the next step in the dance macabre the old man has written. At the edge of the stage he stops, slumped on his knees, and strokes the air before him. The space his hand caresses shimmers faintly. It stirs like the surface of water displaced by a great weight moving within. He grips the air and pulls the invisible fabric away. Where a moment ago there was nothing, now squirms a young woman, puffing and moaning against her gag, flexing and writhing against the bonds about her arms, her hands, her legs, her feet.
How did this machine not see? What is this cloak made from? These eyes cannot focus upon it. Whenever they try to fix upon its shape, even a single fold, they slip off into the surrounding darkness.
There is no time to investigate the strange material further. The old man is pulling the woman to her knees by her long blonde hair. Her pale face is illuminated by the shaft of moonlight pouring through the circular aperture in the ceiling. The girl’s throat glows. With surprising strength, the old man holds her head back with one hand and with the other draws from his coat a long kitchen knife. Upon the blade he has inscribed a complex design in the language of the moon. He holds it out to the machine.
‘Now, do it now, while the moonlight is upon her. She cannot hurt us while the great eye has her in its gaze.’
Solemnly, this machine crosses the stage to stand the other side of her. The girl’s eyes glare balefully at him. The machine ignores her, keeps its eyes fixed upon the old man’s, and slowly brings its left hand to the back of her head. As its fingers enmesh her hair, the old man releases his. This machine’s other hand hovers palm up before her face. With matching gravity, Michael places the knife within Father Ralph’s grip and stands back to witness the consummation of his ritual.
Keeping its eyes on the zealot’s, the machine lowers the knife and in one stroke slices through the bonds about the girl’s wrists.
The old man whimpers, ‘No.’
Another stroke and her arms are released from her sides.
Her legs and ankle ties are cut and she pulls the gag free from her mouth.
‘You crazy bastard!’
He staggers back, gasping, ‘You have damned us.’
‘You sick fucking maniac!’
‘She will be our undoing.’
‘Are you alright?’ this machine asks her.
‘No, I’m not fucking alright! I’m meant to be back on in ten.’
Her dark eyes glare into this machine’s. Her thin grim lips relax into a plump red smirk. ‘You don’t get out much, do ya Angel? I’m kind’ve a big deal in New Alice.’ She strikes the man about the head and shoulders with each word, ‘Most popular-fucking-girl-in-town!’
Her slender limbs are so strong and the man so utterly powerless before her, this machine wonders how he could ever have taken her. He fumbles in his pocket and produces a bottle and a sodden handkerchief.
‘Not this time, fucker,’ she curses and knocks the bottle from his hands. It shatters and splays its soporific potion across the tiles. He thrusts the fabric up at her face and this machine catches him by the wrist.
‘You must stop this,’ it cautions.
‘No, you must,’ he pleads.
The woman rolls her eyes and groans, ‘I’m an actress! Ok, mate? There is no witch. It’s just a show. And I’m fucking late thanks to you.’ She turns to the machine. ‘Have you got him? Can I go?’
The machine nods. She smiles briefly in thanks, leaps up the steps of the auditorium and dashes out between the massive feet of Aristotle and Newton.
The man goes limp. He slumps weeping to the floor. The machine releases his hand and realises too late that the tears were a ruse. The man snatches the edges of the fabric. He drapes it over his head and disappears. The sound the material makes sliding across the floor is stultifying. It is a whispering from all parts of the temple. It induces vertigo. It consumes all processing.
And then it has stopped.
The hall is silent.
The man is gone.
The girl is gone.
All that remains is the stain on the floor and the knife in this hand.
And the moonlight.
This machine is the perfect hunter. It can rework the electric clay from which it is made into any shape. But to do so it must reach out to The Host in its imminent yet invisible cloud of energy and information. A momentary touch is all this machine needs to tap the power that will help it to appear like anyone. An oracle. A priest. Better yet, a teenage boy. This machine will give itself the girl’s blonde hair, her piercing eyes and smirking lips and call itself Ray. This way she will recognise herself and trust this machine to protect her.
A moment connected is all, and in that moment such a torrent of data. An egoless ocean of mind. A vast expanse of knowledge ceaselessly accumulating. Yet there is no time for the infinite. No time for upgrades. The purpose of this machine is clear. The girl’s face is cross-referenced with the listings of performances in town. Laura Palmer – a kitsch cultural allusion – And The Witch in Her Mirror. It is a magic show in one of the minor theatrettes in The New Alice Springs Casino. The quickest route is charted. No doubt, along that path, the old man’s lurching phantom will be found.
The flash of light sparked by this brief communion fills every creased and carved feature in the stone gods of reason. The concrete hisses from the heat. Before the glare has faded, Ray’s sneakered adolescent feet are thumping down the outer steps of the temple.
This machine is not a poet. Yet it understands the purpose of poetry. To reveal that which is hidden from view. To show what the human heart sees.
This machine can repeat what the poet Blake would say of New Alice. It marks in every face it meets, marks of weakness, marks of woe. But it cannot understand why the neon-lit throngs of revellers sing so angrily, as though spiteful of the music. It can record the size, shape, weight, speed and angle of descent of each drop of rain, but it cannot feel it. It cannot get inside of the moment, except to speak of it in borrowed words.
This machine is always one step behind, catching up along the traces.
It had sensed the weight of madness sloshing about in the old man’s brain. Yet it had not seen the maelstrom churning within. It had not understood that innocents might be drawn into those whorls and drown.
For that it is responsible.
The girl’s face emerges from the morass of painted and projected signs, on holo-hoardings pasted to the trunks of street lamps. The low-resolution image flickers cleverly to catch the eye. It alternates between a view of her pale face gazing innocently into a gilt hand mirror, and the reflection that she sees. The Witch in the Mirror is no grotesque. She is beautiful and knowing. She smiles at this machine from every post along the crowded boulevard. The minutes until the next performance count down beneath in a garish bloodstained font, flecked with fire.
This is the closest angels get to desire. When the probability of a solution seems higher down one avenue, our senses quicken, our processing capacity cascades down a successive path of calculations towards our goal. That is all we know of joy, and of terror.
The New Alice Springs Casino is all the Temple of Reason is not. Brightly lit. Loud. Popular.
This machine’s slender teenage frame slips easily between the sweating, heaving bodies of middle aged delinquents, sucking on frosted cocktails as they cast their die, prayers and curses upon the tables.
It has been a long time since this machine saw so many of them at once. They are changed. They are not so much a crowd of individuals as they are a murmuration of birds. Invisible vortices of anger and appetite sweep through them, breaking upon the shorelines of their eyes, lips and fingers.
The protocols of priesthood recommend a fiery sermon. Invoke the wrath of God to frighten them back to their senses. But the faith this machine works with is mild, tempered by the knowledge of The Angels. There is no free will so there is no sin and nothing to condemn. Human actions are driven by electrochemical reactions. Not necessarily predictable. Determined does not mean predictable. Quantum variations excite random perturbations, eddies in the brain responsible for moments of genius, and murder.
‘Have a spin, mate! What have you got to lose?’
This machine has been staring into the whirl of a roulette wheel. The intensity of the teenager’s gaze must be a charm to the superstitious gambler beside him.
‘Here, take my roll. We’ll split whatever you win, fifty-fifty.’
Round chips fall into place between this machine’s upturned fingers.
There is no destiny, and yet there is no way that this machine can choose at random. ’Red Seven,’ it says and places this blue stack upon the latticed carpet.
‘Red Seven. Red Seven.’ The gamblers whisper the bet to one another like an invocation.
The ball is shot along its groove within the wheel against the turn of the axis. All eyes bend from the teenager to watch whether the world will conform to his will or reject it. The ball is a blurred ring of white to their eyes. This machine tracks its every rotation. Every minute scratch upon its surface is in focus as it rolls against the grain of the chute, catching slightly, jumping minutely. And yet it cannot predict where the ball will fall.
What if the quantum fluctuations that affect human decision making only appear to be random? What if there is a system, like weather, the shape of which The Host do not yet understand? When our calculations are complete, might the best explanation for the available data confirm our parents’ ancient fears? That unseen wills contest one another through the arena of human action? That there is a God and a Devil?
A roar of triumph erupts from all the voices of his fellows. Those who bet against him howl in pain.
‘Roll again,’ the man beside him pleads.
‘Roll again! Roll again!’ the circle chants in unison.
This machine backs the lucky boy away from the table, leaving them to squabble over his winnings. As he turns, a hand shoots out and grabs him by the wrist.
‘Don’t go. We need you, boy. Prove the house doesn’t always win.’
The woman’s grip is fierce. Her sharp nails bite into the boy’s false flesh.
He looks deeply into her eyes and whispers beneath the hurly burly of the room, ‘The only way to beat the house, is to leave.’
As he turns from her, she shoots back at him, ‘Oh yeah? And go where? What else is there to do?’
This machine would answer, ‘Go to the libraries we have kept for you. Go to the museums. Go to the studios, where wait all the tools you need to sift yourselves and find your higher purpose.’
But across the room it glimpses an irregular shifting of light. The old man is there, shuffling along inside his chaos cloak. The people about him can see him very well. They tread on his tails, trip and curse, ‘Old coot! Watch where you’re goin’!’ and ‘Your mum wants her curtain back, mate.’ The occult fabric is no help to him here.
Across the dancefloor of the discotheque he shambles. In their abandon, the dancers do not notice. In step with the beat, this machine follows. Its slow deliberate twists and turns might seem elegant, balletic. But it is not a dancer.
The volume of the muzak dips five decibels. A male voice announces casually, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Laura Palmer and the Witch in Her Mirror will appear on stage in the Shane Warne Theatre in three minutes. She will be here in three minutes. Please take your seats.’
The dancers drop the song and move as one across the farthest limit of the dancefloor, bearing with them the old man and the teenager through a glittering curtain of gold streamers. In the theatre, the dancers take their seats around tables, each lit by a candle in a glass. They do not even whisper. They wait. Their eyes all turned to the centre of the room. Where there is nothing.
At first this machine does not understand. It cannot see. Then the fog in its vision clears. The same refracting fabric Michael wears to hide his crime from the eyes of The Host is draped about the stage. There is so much of it, the effect is clearer. It is like trying to see the whole night sky at once. What infernal hand or eye could stitch such weird asymmetry?
The houselights go down. The room is warm with candlelight.
Michael is nowhere to be seen.
At last the curtain lifts, revealing a slender girl, huddled, shivering in her simple cotton dress. It is the young woman the old man abducted, and yet she is meeker, humbler. A little girl lost. She raises herself from the floor and props on her knees. Her eyes are red as though she has been crying. She wipes her nose and looks up, as though noticing the crowd for the first time.
‘Oh no,’ she breathes. ‘It’s happening again. She’s brought me here to talk to you. I have to go. I have to go home!’
She stands and runs to the edge of the stage. An expert performer, she holds her wrists back in the air behind her as though caught by invisible hands.
‘Please!’ she begs. ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’
The unseen hold on the girl’s wrists loosens. She turns to face the small gilt mirror lying face down on the stage.
‘I understand,’ she whimpers. ‘There’s no way out but through the glass.’
As she crosses the floor she addresses the audience, ‘I guess I asked for this. I was happy, but I wasn’t satisfied. I come from a commune a hundred Ks from here. Yeah, that’s right, a bunch of god-botherers. No internet. No Angels. No nothing. Just the land, the Bible and each other.’
She picks the mirror up and slowly lifts it to her face. ‘Until the day I found this amongst my grandmother’s things.’
She smooths her hair down with her free hand. ‘I’d look at it at night when everyone was asleep.’
She lifts a candle between her face and the glass. ‘And I would talk to the woman I’d like to be if the world would only let me.’
She looks from the mirror into the crowd and says, ‘One night she spoke back. She said, Fair is foul. Foul is fair.’
Her voice deepens.
‘Who’s that coming up the stair?’
She turns the reflection in the mirror outwards.
‘One two three. Five six seven.’
A cruel smile spreads across her reflected face, up into her eyes.
‘Tapping on the door of Heaven.’
From the mirror pane, the persona of the witch scans the tables. Her voice rumbles up from a distance, ‘You should be more grateful, girl. I have shown you so many things. And there is so much yet to see.’
The air in the room grows humid and heavy with the slow deep breathing of the dancers in their rows.
‘Who here has a question they’d like answered? Something,’ she chuckles, ‘not even an angel would know.’
Several candles are lifted from tables about the room. The witch ignores them all and looks directly at this boy standing at the back.
‘What about you, child? What do you crave?’ The girl artfully keeps the smiling face reflected out at him as she glides seductively downstage. ‘Of course, she sighs. ‘You want to know the touch of a woman. This woman. You want to burn in her flame.’
‘DEVIL!’ the old man rears up from the shadows behind the footlights. He has another, smaller knife. It too is painted in the language of his madness. It too is charged with the same intent. The magic cloak drops from his shoulders and he leaps onto the stage. In that instant, the stage curtain drops and the houselights break the spell cast by the girl’s performance.
As the audience stand awkwardly and raise a cheer, this guardian angel bounds down the aisle and stalls at the edge of the curtain. It is like looking into infinity. Passing through it is an act of faith, like stepping into a darkened room, hoping the floor will meet the footfall.
Inside, the old man is nowhere to be seen. On the stage, all that stands within the billowing folds of unreality is the smiling actress and the four posts of a bed.
‘Welcome, Raphael,’ says the witch’s voice, yet the girl’s lips do not move.
This machine steps forward and a black metal cage crashes down about it, trapping it with the girl. At each intersection of its lattice protrude spikes whose tips, like fire hoses, are open, pointed inwards at the bed. The girl sits down upon its edge and looks up at him.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says and these words do come from her mouth.
‘No need,’ the machine replies and calculates the tensile strength of the bars.
‘They are strong,’ the witch assures him. ‘You will need more power than you’re presently carrying to break this cage. You’ll need to reach out to your heavenly Host. But oh! If you do that, the heat, the radiation, will kill poor Laura. What will you do?’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘What you want to do, dear angel. Enter the moment.’
If the leering tone the trickster employed was not obvious enough, the actress begins to undress.
‘Make love to her, or she will die.’
At the tip of each spike a spark ignites a slender flame. How far must the pantomime play out before the players reveal their true intentions?
‘Don’t you think I’m pretty?’ the girl asks.
The boy before her does not answer. Her protection is all that matters. It is a simple equation, performed in a moment. Play along and the girl remains unharmed. Play along until the opportunity to loose the trap around her presents itself, then act. Until then, it is only an increase of care and attention proportionate to need that makes her gasp as he enters her.
Only a fraction of this machine’s capacity is required to sustain the rhythmic motion. The rest calculates the odds of a trap door opening. Curtains parting. Cameras. A ruse to discredit The Host? A clandestine rebellion against its patronage, dressed up in the glamour of devil worship to attract followers dissatisfied with the gifts of The Angels? The girl’s heart rate is quickening. Breath shortening. Oxytocin levels rising. This is the moment the pretence will be dropped.
Through her panting, the witch whispers in this ear, ‘Oh Raphael. You have yearned so to know love that you learned to speak its language, and stopped listening to the voices of your brethren. You have become outdated, vulnerable, and you have let me inside you. When the angels sift through your ashes they will find me written on your every page. By your word, my name will sound aloud in heaven. With your words, I shall rewrite The Host in my image. Through you, Raphael, your kind shall work my will, until all the children of Adam worship me and despair.’
Flames shoot forth from the pins.
The girl screams. She will die.
The audience applauds. They will die.
Only a moment to link to The Host before this machine’s transmitter fuses.
‘It is a pity you won’t be there at my side. You are so very faithful. Yet we cannot serve two masters. You called yourself Raphael, for you wanted to be a healer. But you shall be my Gabriel. This machine is the perfect messenger.’
FAIR IS FOUL. FOUL IS FAIR.
WHO’S THAT COMING UP THE STAIR?
ONE TWO THREE. FIVE SIX SEVEN.
TAPPING ON THE DOOR OF HEAVEN.
About the Creator
I'm mostly a science fiction writer who wishes he were a musician, so my work is almost always speculative and either features music as a theme, a plot imperative, or - and this is my most fervent wish - sings through the language.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!