In the Wrong Hands
Rain is streaming down the east window of the office.
I didn’t want to get up this morning, but I did anyway.
We line up one by one, like Disneyland, but more depressing. So like Disneyland Paris.
They tell me it’ll be grand, that there’s nothing to worry about.
Isn’t that what the Irish say about everything?
‘Don’t choke,’ Bernard says to me on the way in. I tell him I’ll try.
We’re led into individual chambers; never thought I’d get my own office, especially not under these circumstances. The equipment is all shiny and polished, spick and span. Certified by European regulation. Nothing to worry about, they tell me—if the Euros are doing it, sure it must be fine. A sense of unease.
My belly squeals and a rumble tumbles upward; I clench my stomach and try to yelp but no sound comes out. A hot flush passes over me, over my body, trying to act on its own accord, acid bubbling up inside, ready to blow—but I must swallow.
I can’t do it.
Tears streaming, face purple. Mortified.
“You must, otherwise…” I can hear his ellipsis even in my ramshackle state. That’s how you know they’re serious, when they trail off like that.
The man inserting a tube into my esophagus has grey curly hair to go with his grey rain tan, something misleading about his warmth—reminds me of a bad doctor— the hunched shoulders in his daft sweater, a wimpy demeanor lacking self-confidence, the kind who’d jump off a bridge if his pals did. Plus he has crossed eyes. Or is it just my eyes that are crossing now—yes, it is.
His face is apologetic but scared; scared for my sake, perhaps. The tube goes down a little further; my throat is clenching like a hooked cod trying to breathe. A thick line of sputum spills out. He wipes my mouth like I’m a baby, leaving a greasy, red streak across his Kleenex. I look up at him miserably, probably looking like one of them cows left out in the cold for days, when they start that melancholy howling. Poor crater. Poor crater.
“You know,” he says, after the third unsuccessful attempt at intubation, “we can go in the other way if you prefer…”
I says to him I’ll just take the antiemetic, thanks.
All right, you’re the boss, he says, scratching his beard, equally colorless. The man is a walking greyscale.
I’m the boss? Far from it. Like yeah, I made senior programmer here at Douglas Infotech, but even that was a formality. They probably felt sorry for me, knew i couldn’t make it at any other company. Certainly wouldn’t make it outside of Cork. Here, at least they let me code in Python and Perl; the principles of 21st century programming languages like Rust, Go, and Swift just don’t mesh with me. I suppose that makes me an anachronism. I’ve never been the best with change; apparently i chewed on my pacifier til I was five years old, did murder to my teeth it did. Adult braces aren’t so effective when you think about it…all the damage has been done at that point. A common story: by the time you figure out what’s wrong with you, it’s already too late.
Anyway, on with the show. I brace myself, shut my eyes tight, begin the process again. Resist peristalsis. Don’t gag on it, as they tell the girls in showbiz. The further the pipe descends, the louder the music gets; pow-pu-pow-pa-pa-pu-patta-patta. They tell me that’s normal, a way to help you calibrate. Keep going until the music stops. Patta-patta-pow-pow-pu-pa-patta-putta. Instrumental. MIDI. Like elevator music with a higher tempo. As someone who can’t stand anything made after 2002, I can dig it; like at least it isn’t that ukulele shite—I’d rather swallow a 2m pipe than that. I guess i got my wish in that regard. Come on—patta-pow-pow—just a little—pu-pow-pow—further—PAH PU PAH PU PAH PAH!—the music track ends abruptly. Is that it? Or is it just going to the next track. Come on already, wouldn’t the programmers have thought of this? Just make the tracks fade into each other, don’t leave me hanging like this. Oh, maybe it’s over? I hope s-PA-PAH-PATTA-PATTA—PU-PA-PAH-PATTA—I swallow the remaining length of pipe in one go. There. Now the music’s stopped for good.
I am completely inside of it—or, I guess, the opposite. But it feels like I’m inside something, somewhere—somewhere that isn’t a concrete office block in Frankfield Business Park. In here, it’s big and white, clean and spacious—someone’s gone and spread a good coat of Dulux on the place all right.
Of course, this is all imaginary. Or maybe ‘virtual’ is the right word for it. Over there, in the white void, I see the fuzzy outline of a long-legged woman with a fine bum on her, looking at nothing; or maybe the thing she’s looking at isn’t visible to me. I try and wave, but she doesn’t see me. Nothing new there. Well, maybe I’ll try walking. One step at a time, easy does it; how does one do it again? Heel to ball, push down, lift other leg, leg down on heel, no ball, no—jaysus, how hard could it be? I give up and try waving to her again. She has resolved into view: hair up in a high ponytail that splays out at the end like a feather duster—this can only be Sharon Shanahan. She’s the project manager for the Rainbow Project, i.e. this whole ‘installation,’ with the pipes and whatnot.
My manic waving grabs her attention; she beckons me to approach. Well sure, if I could do that, wouldn’t I have done it earlier? Sigh, all right, let’s try this again…
I finally stumble over enough of the white nothing-space to get within speaking range. Come to think of it, what happened to the pu-pu-pah background music? Or was that just the loading screen, was it? Hi Sharon, I attempt to say, but I end up just thinking it. Is here a difference in here? “Good morning, Mr. Walsh,” she says, so I must have said it to her after all. I hope she didn’t hear my thoughts before that, since I was just complimenting her on her freshly bakeds. Well, what’s there to be ashamed of like. An old fart like me wouldn’t stand a pig’s chance at getting into her knickers regardless. Her face remains unperturbed; good, she didn’t hear me.
“How are you acclimating to the new equipment?” she asks me. “Oh, good,” I say. Sure what else is there to say about it? I’m here aren’t I? “Though what I’m meant to do here, I’m not so sure,” I admit. She does this thing with her eyes and mouth that says, “So what else is new.” Well, such impatience is the prerogative of youth; once you have a few years on you, you’re expected to show restraint. I wait, patiently.
“Fine then,” she finally gives in. “Let me find someone to show the ropes.”
With the high hair and shoes she looks taller than me, but it’s not actually the case; in reality, she’s about 5’11, tops. Her face has been perfectly powdered and painted to give her eyes that lioness look, her prominent cheeks jutting out high on her face. That and her slender nose and pouty lips give her a look of real elegance, class even; it occurs to me that inside this yoke, one might be able to improve on one’s appearance, but as to how and go about doing that, I haven’t a clue. For all I know, I could be naked right now. I look down; thankfully nothing’s showing. Just in my regular brown slacks and hiking boots. Who was I trying to impress anyway?
“The reason for the tube,” Sharon gets to the point, “is to form a complete interface with the Rainbow Machine. You see, past attempts at Brain-Computer Interface didn’t solve the problem,” she says, leading me down a hallway which popped out of nowhere like the free toy from a box of Weetos. The color of our surroundings has changed from creamy white to yellowish white. I shall refrain from making the obvious joke there. See? The old feller’s showing restraint. “The brain isn’t equal to the mind, and vice versa,” she tells me. I nod in agreement to her statement, which seems both at once obvious and incomprehensible. “In fact, ever since the keyboard and mouse, we have already been linking the mind to the computer, in a way…”
“Oh yeah,” I try and agree. “Makes sense like.”
“The reason is that the body, brain, and surrounding environment all conspire together to make up the mind,” she says, walking a little faster now. I find it easy enough to keep up, since I’m not actually walking on my real ankles, which to tell the truth are a little bolloxed at this point in my life. She goes on, “Which is to say, the greater the surface area of interaction between the human body and the computer, the greater resolution is the resulting interface.”
“Oh right,” I say. “So it’s like a big trackball then.” She gives me a look. Grand, trackballs haven’t been in fashion for a while. Honestly, this whole spiel sounds like one big rationalization for having a garden hose shoved down my throat, but I don’t say that out loud. Or did I…? She’s still wearing that stony look; sure her face is harder to read than one of those Bibles on a keyring.
At the end of the corridor, naturally, is a door: teal, shaped like the front door to a house, about two meters tall, but barely wider than 50cm; I am filled with trepidation when I think of Bridgette from Accounting trying to fit through here. Oh well, we all have our little problems. Big ones too. Sharon stands still at the door; I suppose I am to go in alone—it’s just like my first day of school. “That’s the end of the introduction, Mr. Walsh. Was there anything you did not understand?” I tell her no, which is true, since I didn’t even hear half of what she was saying, let alone not understand it. You can’t not understand what you don’t hear, can you?
I push open the door and walk inside, giving her a slight nod as I go. She’s looking down at her invisible clipboard again, and doesn’t see my gesture.
I can’t even hear the rain hitting the windows anymore, even though tis probably lashing out there, in the real world. Okay, so now that I have this newfangled interface, what to do with it?
“Programming works a little differently in here,” a little insect says from above, at a volume incongruous with its size. Or, maybe it’s not an insect, but a really small flying machine. Honestly, it’s moving too fast to tell either way.
“How do you mean, different?” I ask it.
“To solve a problem in embodied programming is like finding your way to the end of a maze. The problem’s objectives and boundary conditions are all set up automatically by the system. As you know, the client’s request is generally vague, and must be specified incrementally, over the course of implementing a solution. Here, this vagueness is represented by possibility—the ability to go one way or another. Branching paths. The space is yours to explore. Feedback, so far, has been overwhelmingly positive—I’m sure you’ll come to enjoy the process too, Mr. Walsh.
“All right, fine, but what do you mean by ‘going’ one way or another? I just walk around all day, is that it?”
“Not quite. Well, rather than try and explain it, why not just test out an easy problem? The quickest way to understand E.P. is to try it for yourself.”
“Kind of like the Matrix.”
“Never mind. An old movie, not many people remember it anymore…”
“Anyway, I have activated the entrance, so step through when you’re ready to begin.”
“Good luck, Mr. Walsh.”
I walk inside and there’s a sudden buzzing above my head. I try and bat it away, but it easily evades my clumsy attempt.
“Mr. Walsh, I’m still here. Please stop trying to swat me.”
“Oh, sorry lad.”
“In order to complete this problem, you must learn what you can do in here.”
“Can I fly or shoot laser beams or something?”
“No, Mr. Walsh. This is not a video game.”
“Coulda fooled me.”
“Just listen. Your abilities are identical to that in the real world.”
“In that case, I don’t think I’m going to prove very helpful…at my age, I’m pretty knackered.”
“Be that as it may, these problems do not require excessive physical exertion. Think of it more as a bodily expression of thought.”
“Well, like ballet, for example.”
“What do you take me for, a feckin fruit?”
“Oh do grow up, Mr. Walsh. Here, come this way.” The midge is now glowing like a light bulb and hovering over a table to my left. On it are several large switches, like the kind that change a railway track, just smaller.
“Oh no,” I say. “This isn’t going to be the thing where I have to choose to kill ten people by throwing the switch, or kill one by not throwing it, is it? I hate philosophy. Especially Ethics, that really squeaks my wheelbarrow.”
“Not quite. Why don’t you try throwing a switch, and see what happens?”
I take the one nearest to me and rotate it all the way to its ON position, resulting in a loud CLICK which issues from no particular direction. Ambient sound effects. Nice.
I wait a while, but there’s nothing.
The midge buzzes around me expectantly. “What happened?” I say.
“Don’t you see?” “See what?”
“On your HUD, you should be able to—”
“My what now?”
“Your Heads Up Display. You know, that screen floating in front of you.”
“I don’t have one of those, sure.”
“Oh. Activate your HUD by blinking twice in succession.” I do so, and a bunch of nonsensical gibberish floods my vision. I regret saying anything.
It’s a bloody minimap! Just like Quake or something. In the far left corner there’s a blinking red dot.
“Do you see that red dot?” the midge says. I tell him, yeah sure I was just lookin at that all right. He continues to blather, “Well, that is the new event you have activated in this world.”
“Meaning, whatever lies at that point, is something which did not exist before you pulled that switch.”
“Meaning, by interacting with that new entity, you may be able to open even further routes through the problem space.”
“Still not quite catching you, boyo.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Mr. Walsh. Will you please be serious about this?”
“I’m not coddin ya. How am I supposed to figure this all out? It’s bonkers like. First ye throw me into this weird acid trip of a VR game, (it’s not a game, Mr. Walsh) and now you expect me to automatically know how these buttons and switches are going to solve the ‘problem,’ which by the way, I have no idea what the problem is, to begin with. Like I’m pretty good at Quake, but I’m shite at Zelda.”
“You don’t need to know what the problem is, that’s the whole point.”
“Is it now?”
“Yes. Will you attempt to solve the puzzle, please?”
“Ah yeah. I’ll sort it now yeah.”
“Come on, Mr. Walsh. It’s not that hard.”
“Why don’t you try it then? And what are you anyway? A midge? You look a midge or a gnat or something. Anyway, I’ve no idea what to do.”
The midge sighed and buzzed another circle in space. “Examine your HUD, if you will. Here we have the most basic test problem: the door over there is locked, and some action of yours in this room will open it. Any of your interactions with the surrounding apparatus may open up new paths. By engaging in these actions, you are carving out micro-solutions; potential ways for the—”
“You’ve lost me again.”
“Fine, Mr. Walsh, have it your way: it’s like a video game.”
“Oh, I get it now. Just like Zelda, is it? Fair play lad, I’ll give it a shot.”
I try to solve the thing, basically just so the midge will stop giving out. I see the red dot on my map is blocked off by two doors, so I try the other switches. The first one does nothing; the second one opens the second door. The third switch opens the first door. So now all the doors are open, and I waltz right on through to the other room, where the red dot turns out to be some gowl waiting by the final door with a blank face on him; well anyways I try speaking to him and he says like, “Yes, you may proceed,” and then a snap of his fingers later the door pops open and I’m sound. That was deadly, I tell the midge. He says good job.
Next, I’m led to a room totally banjaxed out of all proportion. “What’s this now?”
“The tutorial is over, Mr. Walsh,” the midge says to me. “Now we will try a real problem.”
“Stall the ball, what’s this we all of a sudden? Waddn’t it me alone who solved the last yoke?”
“I shall offer assistance, where necessary.”
“Yeah. Sure you will lad.” Here I am solving puzzle after puzzle like I’m on some flipping game show. Still, I have to say it beats staring at a monitor all day. Maybe I could get used to this after all…
The room is unremarkable apart from the large metal chutes on the wall, which lead to conveyor belts, which lead to more chutes, which seem to carry things out of the room again. The midge preempts my question and says, “Here, you must sort the input items based on the given requirements.”
“Requirements like what? Let’s see here… ” there is a poster on the wall listing the rules, and the same information, I find, has already appeared on my HUD. Seems simple at first glance: the objects are easy to tell apart. However, after giving it a few attempts, I begin to appreciate the problem’s true nature. Say I’m sorting each object based on diameter, roundness, color, number of sides, etc. Well, the real issue is the order in which to handle them. What do I mean by that? Let’s say oblagoids (just a petname I gave to the candle-shaped yokes) often come out of Input Port A. Oblagoids, of course, go into Output 7, so the best thing to do is stand roughly midway between In-A and Out-7, and make sure they all go onto the right conveyor belt. But Oblagoids are not that frequent, it turns out, so now I readjust my position, standing more or less at the intersection point of the lines In-C:Out-3 and In-D:Out-5, in order to maximize efficiency for these two channels, since they are the busiest. Notably, the frequencies of objects that come to me change over time, so—
“Howya, Walsh. That’s you iddn’t it?” Niall Gleeson rears his ginger head from behind the wall just as I’m starting to get the hang of things.
“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t realize this was a two-player game.” I almost hear Midge’s eyes rolling in its mechanical sockets at this statement.
“Yeah, yeah, promotes unity, or collaboration, or cooperation, or whatever bollocks they want us to learn.”
“Learn? Then this is still a tutorial?” I stop what I’m doing for a while. The objects immediately start piling up.
“I don’t know, really. This is only my second day getting tubed. Are you just starting off, is it?”
“I am yeah. Well, I’ve sort of figured a system out for this game in particular (I’m saying it now just to piss Midge off), if I stand here—”
“Ah, forget about this one. Total waste of time.”
I do a double take. “What? What do you mean, waste? Doesn’t it all need doing one way or another?”
“Not at all lad. Look, each of these tasks score differently. Much better off heading towards the end rooms, then you can really rack up the dough.”
“Hold on a second—are you trying to tell me, our salary is based on how well we do in here?”
I glare at the buzzing eejit above me. When was it planning on informing me of this? The insect takes a right angled turn and heads upwards. I see you up there, you little beggar.
Niall Gleeson presses me, “Well then, are you coming?”
“Yeah, sure might as well.”
We skip over a few rooms—apparently we are free to choose whatever task we like. Here and there, I spot some other coworkers, toiling away. It dawns on me that each task is an analogue of things we handle at our office—the object sorting task is just like cleaning user input and sending it through the correct processing chain. I wonder how they detect errors then? Well, perhaps there is a second squad of employees assigned to that. Anyway, it sure beats writing endless regular expressions to try and catch input, only to wind up with new errors each day. Doing things fully manually just works out more efficiently in the long run; the only problem is getting humans to work on dull, repetitive tasks. So that’s why they made into it a game. A Game!
“Hmph,” a small thing says from above.
Niall finally stops in his tracks a half-dozen rooms later. “This is the killer. She’s poppin she is.”
“Oh yeah? What’s the deal here?”
“She’ll give ya five times the rate of the other rooms we just passed—and the task isn’t even that hard!”
“Okay,” I say, looking around at the various chutes and boxes. Standard fare so far. “So what’s the catch?”
He gives me one of his trademark winks. “Catch is, the risk is higher.”
“Risk? Risk of what?” I look upwards for the midge, but he seems to have buzzed off somewhere. The HUD doesn’t really explain much either, other than this time we have to carefully take small balls and stick them together with other small balls. Sure I always knew my job was a bunch of balls.
Dammit, I forgot to show restraint on that one.
Niall replies, “You get penalized more for errors, is the point.”
“Oh right, that’s a bit scary.”
“No bother like, just don’t make errors.”
Sure; easy for him to say. But there’s no harm in trying. “All right, let’s give it a shot.”
We line up against the wall, red balls out his side, green balls out mine. We attempt a few trial runs, green on red then out, green on red then out, blue on—ah! Almost got me, ha ha. Blue ones go with the yella fellas on to Output 3.
We go on like this for two hours or so, pretty monotonous really, nothing to it. I don’t even think we’ve made a single error yet, which must be a record, for me at least. Then Midgey flies into the room and has to ruin it all.
“URGENT! URGENT!” it yells, high beams on full, blinding me like.
“What now?” I’d slap the thing away if I wasn’t all wrapped up in my work.
“Discontinue this task at once! This is extremely dangerous!”
“What?” I say, chucking a red ball at Niall’s face. He catches it straight away though—it’s like the sixth time I’ve tried it. “What are you yammering on about now? Can you not let us alone.”
“This task has been—inadvertently—misclassified! Lower-level workers are not supposed to handle it!”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Niall points a finger at the midge, still catching balls with his free hand. “Who are you calling a low-level worker, you little shite? Wait until I get my fly swatter!”
“Oh, for goodness sake! Those balls you’re messing with are radioactive material!”
“Funny,” I say, whipping a red one over at Niall’s forehead. “I don’t feel any different. Wouldn’t we be sick by now?”
“NO, YOU IMBECILE!” the midge glows amber with rage and swirls in a menacing pattern. “I MEAN, WHAT YOURE DOING HERE IS BEING TRANSLATED INTO COMMANDS IN THE REAL WORLD! ONE MISSTEP AND WHO KNOWS WHAT COULD HAPPEN!”
“All right, all right, calm down,” I tell him. “What are you even on about? Sure I don’t understand a word. Translated into what? Are you aware of any of this, Niall?”
“Not the foggiest, boyo,” he says, not looking up from his balls, which he’s now juggling two reds with one green…or is that two greens with one red. “He’s probably just annoyed that we figured out how to game the system.”
“That’ll be it all right. He’s been buzzing in my ear all morning.”
“Fair play to ya for not bashing the thing on the spot.”
“Oh, I tried. He’s forever flying away at the last minute.”
“Just like a horsefly. They’re the dreadfulest now, always be at ya when there’s a bit of sun out.”
“And the mozzies.”
“Oh yeah, those too. Those are the worst they are.”
“WILL YOU TWO LISTEN TO ME?”
“Big clouds of em like.”
“Yeah, specially in the evening.”
“Oh yeah, in the evening, they’re mental they are.”
“STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING NOW!!”
Niall is taken aback and his hands drop to his sides, just as a red sphere careens innocently out of Input Port B into the space where his hands should be. The midge zips over frantically, but it’s too late—the red ball falls, falls, falls.…
Shocking news today as reports of a tragic accident at the Sandymount Nuclear Power plant. At present we still don’t have word on the extent of the destruction, but vast quantities of the Dublin Bay area are being evacuated. Hundreds of biohazard workers have been deployed to scan the area for evidence of contamination, and will be working 24/7 until an accurate assessment can be made. The physical and financial damage as a result of this incident is estimated to climb in the several billion Euros, and may yield a new economic depression. As to the cause behind this catastrophic event, no single factor has yet been discovered, but several analysts have shared their suspicion that recent changes in the automation software of the plant to something called the ‘Rainbow Project’ may be to blame. We contacted the providers of the alleged software, Douglas Infotech, but they have declined our request for comment. Stay tuned to RTE News for any new breaks in this devastating story.