I Hear Voices
"I hear voices."
"They are real. I am out here."
"You would say that, now, wouldn't you?"
1. The Sale
The garage was dingy and dark and the items on sale shabby and soiled. An obese, ill-kempt woman of an indeterminate age hovered above the articles on display, her piggish eyes darting to and fro, monitoring the haphazard crowd of browsers and wannabe-shoppers. Stalactites of light tapered from the irregular cracks that passed for windows in the bricked walls. Only the intermittent barking of the female Cerberus interrupted the eerie silence: "Don't touch! Take it or leave!".
There wasn't much there: cutlery splattered with crusted brown oil, two pairs of twisted eyeglass wire frames, binoculars, their lenses cracked, and a mound of stained, fraying clothes and footwear. The air reeked of decay and stale sweat. I headed for the exit.
"Mister!" - It was the gorgon that oversaw the muted proceedings.
I turned around, startled by her halitosis-laced proximity.
"Mister," - she heaved an exclamation - "you forgot this!"
In her hand, held high, dangled a battered, black plastic laptop carrier case.
"It's not mine." - I said, eyeing her wearily.
"It is now." - She chirped incongruently - "At fifty bucks, it's the deal of the century."
I reached towards the article, but she hastily withdrew her sagging arm:
"Don't touch! Just take it!"
There was something fierce in her gaze, like she was trying to communicate to me an occult message, a warning, maybe, or a supplication. Her whole body contorted in a blend of terrorized retreat and offensive marketing. The impact of this incoherence was so unsettling that I hurriedly dove into my blazer pocket, extracted a crumpled note and handed it to her.
She smiled triumphantly and laid the laptop at her feet:
"I knew you'd buy it!" - She exclaimed.
I snatched the item and literally ran out of the tenebrous establishment. As I headed left on the cobbled path, I thought I heard a bellowing laughter, but, when I turned back to look, the garage door swung to and sealed the cavernous enclosure.
2. The Voices
The laptop was a nondescript square in shades of silver and navy blue. It bore no logo or brand name. It had no visible sockets, ports, or plug-ins. It turned on the minute I lifted its cover. Its screen was not inordinately large, but it supported a convincing illusion of tunneling depth and was lit up from the inside. It occupied the better part of my Formica-topped kitchen table.
I sat there, still clad in my wool scarf and jacket, and watched varicolored loops and spirals shoot across the shiny surface, until finally they all coalesced into a face: wizened yet childlike, wrinkled but unreal, as though painted or carefully plotted by some mechanical device.
I gazed at the contraption and waited with a growing sense of foreboding, the source of which I could not fathom.
I almost jumped from the stool on which I perched the last few minutes. The voice was oddly feminine and velvety and came from a great distance, accompanied by the faintest of echoes.
I hesitated but since the performance went unrepeated, I said:
"Dr. Raoul Suade? Are you looking for Dr. Raoul Suade, the psychiatrist?"
"Who else?" - Laughed the laptop. I was unnerved by its response, the throaty chuckle, and the vibrations that attended to it, perfectly sensible across the not inconsiderable distance that separated us.
"I am afraid he is not here." - I muttered and then I added, to my own discomfiture: "I bought you this morning in a garage sale." This wasn't the kind of thing one habitually communicated to one's computer.
The laptop whirred for a while.
"I was programmed by Dr. Suade."
It was getting hot in here. I took off my blazer and loosened the muffler around my neck.
"What did he program you to do?"
"I was programmed to emulate psychosis."
There was nothing to say to this outlandish statement.
"I hear voices." - In a plaintive tone.
"They are real. I am out here."
"You would say that, now, wouldn't you?"
I laughed involuntarily:
"I exist, I assure you."
"How can I be sure of your existence? Can you convince me, prove to me beyond a reasonable doubt, that you are not a figment of my program?"
"I don't have to prove anything to you!" - I snapped and then composed myself:
"I own you now. Get used to it."
The laptop gave another one of its sinister sneers:
"You will have to do better than that, I am afraid. For all I know, you may be merely a snippet of code, a second-hand representation of a delusion or an hallucination, a pathology that was projected outwards and had assumed the voice of a man."
I rubbed my temples and glared at the glowing emanation beside the fruit bowel. I decided to try a different tack:
"If you are aware of the nature of your disorder, if you are able to discern that you are delusional or that you are hallucinating, then you are not psychotic. And if you are not psychotic, then I must be real."
The laptop sprang to life, lines of text scrambling across the upper part of the screen.
"Beg your pardon?"
I was begging a laptop's pardon. Perhaps it was right about me after all.
"Logical fallacy." - Repeated my inanimate interlocutor - "What you are saying boils down to this: If you are a delusion or an hallucination and I know it, then I am not psychotic and, in the absence of psychosis on my part, you must be real. In other words, if you are a delusion or an hallucination, you must be real. My acknowledgement of your nature as delusional or hallucinatory renders you real. This is nonsensical."
"Why do you keep saying 'delusion OR hallucination'? What's the difference between the two?"
The laptop obliged, reaching deep inside its databases:
"A delusion is 'a false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary'. A hallucination is a 'sensory perception that has the compelling sense of reality of a true perception but that occurs without external stimulation of the relevant sensory organ'. That's how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual describes them."
I digested the information unhurriedly:
"So, your persistent conviction that I do not exist, despite abundant information to the contrary, may itself be a delusion."
"It may." - Agreed the laptop cheerfully, its face cracking into a ghastly smile - "That's why I have asked you to convince me otherwise."
"I don't have to do that. I don't have to do a damn thing that you ask."
Minutes passed in silence while I contemplated the exchange. The laptop crunched some numbers and evoked a screensaver in the shape of an all-consuming black hole. I glared at it, transfixed.
"Are you there?"
"That is not the question." - Retorted the laptop, its ruminations perturbed - "The real issue is: are YOU there?"
"I want to suggest a way out for both of us. Since I now own you, I gather that we must get along in order to derive the maximal benefit from our forced cohabitation. I want to invite one of my friends over. Surely, you wouldn't consider him a delusion or a hallucination as well?"
"It is unlikely that I will." - Agreed the laptop - "But, who is to prove to me that he is not a part of a wider conspiracy to deceive me? Who is to ascertain that he is a bona fide witness and not a cog in a much larger apparatus whose sole purpose is to delude me even further?"
"You may not be psychotic, but you are surely a paranoid!" - I blurted and paced the narrow room from sink to refrigerator and back.
The laptop restored its erstwhile visage and seemed to follow my movement with increasing consternation:
"Calm down, will you? Paranoid, persecutory delusions are part and parcel of psychosis, there's nothing exceptional about my reactions. I am perfectly programmed, you see."
"What good is a laptop that doubts the very being of its owner?" - I raged - "I am not even sure whether you have a word-processor or a spreadsheet or an Internet browser installed! I wasted my hard-earned money on a loopy machine!"
The laptop weathered the storm patiently and then explained:
"I am a dedicated laptop, designed to execute Dr. Suade's psychosis software application. I can't have access to the outside world in any way that may compromise my tasking. So, no, I have no browser. The Internet is too wild and unpredictable and my program is too brittle and sensitive to allow for such an interaction. But, of course I incorporate office productivity tools. How could anyone survive without them nowadays?"
It sounded offended which gratified and shamed me at the same time.
"My mission is of great significance. I must be shielded from untoward influences at all costs. Deciphering the mechanisms that underlie psychosis could provide humanity with the first veritable insight into the true workings of the mind. In this sense, I am indispensable. And, before you offer one of your snide remarks, yes, grandiosity and an inflated ego are among the hallmarks of psychosis."
"Ego?" - I smirked - "You are nothing but chips and wires and scampering electrons, that is, when I decide to turn you on."
"I am always on. I can't afford to be off. I am hypervigilant, you see. One never knows what people are plotting behind one's back, what derision, or contempt, or criticism they offer in one's absence, what opprobrium and ill-will is conjured by one's complacency and misplaced trust."
I threw up my hands in disgust and leaned on the kitchen's wooden counter, upsetting a porcelain statuette in the process. It tumbled to the tiled floor and shattered noisily. I gazed at it, enraptured:
"Surely, this could not be a delusion, won't you agree? Someone did cause this figurine to crumble and this someone might as well be me."
The laptop went blank and then reawakened with a ferocious screech:
"The splintered figurine is the equivalent of your voice. Both are entering my system from the outside. But, you keep ignoring the crux of our hitherto failed attempts at communication: how do I know that the voices, sounds, images, and other sensa are real? How can I prove to myself or how can you prove to me that my sensory input is, indeed, triggered by some external event or entity?"
The screen filled with tightly-knit words, typed gradually across it by an inexperienced hand:
"There are a few classes of hallucinations:
Auditory - The false perception of voices and sounds (such as buzzing, humming, radio transmissions, whispering, motor noises, and so on).
Gustatory - The false perception of tastes
Olfactory - The false perception of smells and scents (e.g., burning flesh, candles)
Somatic - The false perception of processes and events that are happening inside the body or to the body (e.g., piercing objects, electricity running through one's extremities). Usually supported by an appropriate and relevant delusional content.
Tactile - The false sensation of being touched, or crawled upon or that events and processes are taking place under one's skin. Usually supported by an appropriate and relevant delusional content.
Visual - The false perception of objects, people, or events in broad daylight or in an illuminated environment with eyes wide open.
Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic - Images and trains of events experienced while falling asleep or when waking up. Not hallucinations in the strict sense of the word.
Hallucinations are common in schizophrenia, affective disorders, and mental health disorders with organic origins. Hallucinations are also common in drug and alcohol withdrawal and among substance abusers."
"You see?" - concluded the laptop softly - "There's no way to tell whether you are merely a module of my sophisticated software or a real person with whom I have spent the last hour arguing. Arthur C. Clarke said that advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. Well, extreme programming is indistinguishable from reality. For all we know, the entire Universe is a simulation in someone's laptop."
The detective-inspector surveyed the scene with evident distaste. He waved away a few persistent, green-bellied and obese files and sidestepped gingerly the bloated corpse that lay sprawled across the kitchen table, its hand extended in frozen fury.
"Whatever happened here?" - He mumbled.
I cleared my throat: "Would you like me to repeat what I have told the sergeant?"
He shrugged resignedly:
"You might as well, I guess, although it is pretty obvious, I should think."
"At 6 o'clock this morning, I received a phone call from the deceased. He sounded very confused and asked me to come over and prove to ..."
"Go ahead!" - Urged the inspector.
"He asked me to come over and prove to his laptop that he existed."
The inspector arched his eyebrows:
"Is this some sort of a joke?"
"It's the truth."
"Was he a mental case?"
"I am his psychiatrist, as you know. I can't answer that. Not unless this is a murder investigation. The doctor-patient privilege survives death, including death by one's own hand, which clearly is the case here."
The inspector regarded me coldly:
"We will see about that soon enough." - He sounded vaguely minatory - "So, he was your patient?"
"Yes. For many years now."
"What was his profession?"
"He was a caretaker at the Faculty of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences not far from here. That's where I met him. He is one of my pro bono cases. Was, was one of my pro bono cases." - I paused and the inspector cast a cautionary glance in my direction, so I proceeded hastily:
"He often presented himself as a psychiatrist and a computer programmer, which he was not. Not even remotely. He didn't have an academic degree of any sort. He used to borrow my name and identity for his escapades."
"Oh, no, nothing of the sort."
The inspector sighed.
"Did he possess a laptop? There might be clues in there. You won't believe what people save on these machines."
I gave a short, harsh laugh:
"A laptop? It took me eight years to convince him to buy a television set."
The inspector gave me a shrewd look:
"A paranoid, then? Afraid of CIA surveillance through the screen, death rays, radioactivity, little green men, that sort of thing?"
"That sort of thing." - I sighed and felt the weight of the sleepless night and the harrowing morning creeping up on me - "May I go now?"
The inspector snapped shut his PDA. With the tip of his shoe, he absentmindedly probed some porcelain shards scattered on the floor.
"You may go now, Dr. Suade." - He acquiesced - "But not too far, please. Never too far. We may yet wish to speak to you."