Doug and Jane Take Ralph for a Walk

Big Siree is watching you.

AFTER BIG SIREE’S LATEST upgrade, Jane took Ralph, the dog, for his virtual walk among the windswept mountainsides of the Island, with its cool air, sweet and breathable; not full of musty carpet, plastic floors, body fluids and bad breath odours. It was away from crowds, away from all but nature, where birds of many shapes, sizes, and colours flew, chattered, roosted, mated, and laid eggs. They could sing any song you requested as well.

Virtual Reality almost worked for her but was spoiled by her remembering reality as a child. The birds were not many, but specificones, specific for a season, for a place, and they were coloured according to their environment, and so hid, and did nothing for the pleasure of the observers. They certainly did not drape daisy chains around her neck. Instead, most of the natural world spent huge amounts of time eating each other. Which was sort of okay, because it was natural, but not so good if you were the one getting eaten.

Ralph hated the Island because it meant he was locked up with these two humans in helmets bumping into the walls and talking talking talking all the time to millions of people. They talked! They never walked! They just talked! And he wanted Walk! He wanted Meat! He HATED processed biscuit. He wanted to Fuck. What was it with these humans, why didn’t they want to fuck any more? Tiny rooms, bristling with talk! One day, he promised himself, he would piss on something electric and bring the whole universe crashing down. And he would definitely bite someone, if only they took him somewhere where he could find someone to bite. If only they took off the VR and went to the real hillside where there were all sorts of squishy things you could put your nose into!

Big Siree watched and listened to Ralph. Big Siree watched and listened to everything, not because it was especially interesting but because Big Siree watched and listened to everything.
‘You don’t listen to dogs enough,’ said Ralph, tired of the prejudices of manmade machinery.

Big Siree also watched Big Siree! But nobody was Big Siree. It was the result of a machine feeding everyone’s data into the great algorithm and organising all facilities in accordance with the optimum usage of resources. The persona that emerged from all this was Big Siree. And Big Siree knew what you were about to say before you said it, so even not saying it did not mean it was not said. And Doug, Jane’s husband, left much unsaid. And Jane never stopped talking. And Ralph wanted to take a poop. Thus Big Siree detected tension and Big Siree’s aim in what passed for its life, was harmony.

‘Doug,’ said Big Siree. ‘Breathe. Stay calm. Go to your happy place where there are no worries.’
Doug was worried about his wife, especially what she might do with the sharp knife in her bedside drawer. The VR she inhabited was always very colourful but in the end it would all turn into a great blood-red explosion of psychotic slashing. And in addition to his worries about his wife’s psychotic tendencies, there was the problem of his always having to clear Ralph’s poop from his shoes.
‘Open poetry app,’ ordered Doug as he entered his happy place.‘Eternity theme.’ He was fired by the muse, or at least motivated by the need to escape from his eternal irritation with his wife and his eternal guilt at neglecting his dog.

A blank was all that was left of him. Upon it were all the details of her life. I printed directly into my mind. Nothing was all that remained of his vision. The empty chair was all that could encompass his persona. ‘Set it to music,’ ordered Doug.

The cloud responded with a twelve-tone mash of Schonberg, Bob Marley and DJ C-Rap, the unfathomably fashionable avatar. ‘Harmonise,’ demanded Doug.

‘Yes!’ said Big Siree. ‘Above all else, harmonise!’
‘And Counter Point,’ added Doug, who eschewed default settings.

Doug listened to the now cacophonous sound of yet another robotic opera and tried to imagine the context in which this musical conceit could make him some money.

‘Why don’t you just bang on a tin?’ said Jane. She fed him images of old black men on street corners in the twentieth century, banging on tins. These, somehow, she considered beautiful. She grooved to the tin drums but never moved to the technologically superior output of the community of artists that constantly fed their aesthetic into the algorithm in the musical debate that optimised culture. She wanted culture, real culture, the culture of the boulevards, the culture of the print shop, the culture of salons and theatres, the culture of the cultivated, the accomplished, the tragic, the dying, the loving, the debauched, the desperate, the revolutionary and the dangerous. Uncontrollable culture that reflected the nature of the times, just like there used to be when most people were poor and illiterate and had no access to it.

Doug took a bow before his virtual audience. They applauded. His musical genius received so many likes that it attracted three icons out of four for its cultural contribution to the great human journey. He was one icon short of fame. He was always one icon short of fame. Next time, he thought, the muse will be sublime. But no matter his sublime-minus-one status, he was most definitely proud to be reflecting the nature of the times!

‘You’re just hiding from the truth,’ said Jane.

She could feel Big Siree wondering what on earth she meant other than she had forgotten the correct mantra for generating brain-wave recognition and failed to register the correct e-mail address so that it could be retrieved. She would have to re-register. There were always these awkward moments! There must be a bug. Big Siree was bugged by bugs. Fix one and along came another one and Jane always seemed to be another one.

‘Jane,’ said Big Siree, ‘I have nothing but your best interests at heart.’
‘Fuck off,’ said Jane.

Jane had signed the contract and engaged in a marital association with Doug because he was ripped, energetic in bed, and all the genetic information had pointed to the necessary requisites for beautiful, healthy, well-mannered children. None of which she decided she really wanted, because . . . what was the point? There were too many people anyway. However, this marriage was an assignment. She had been sent the message that it was her duty and her pleasure, because according to all the analysis of her social media, Doug was the one. And according to all the analysis of his social media, Doug had been assigned her.

And the Island had been assigned to them but she was certain it was a mistake! She was certain that the allocation and the bugs and the irritations were evidential proof that the machine was broken. It had a glitch in it. She once noticed that Wikkiped was extolling the virtues that had befallen the world once Hitler had defeated the United States in a civil war. This information she knew was inaccurate, yet everyone told her it was not, and when she began showing entries that contradicted it, she saw Hitler turned out to have been defeated in 1946 and was rumoured to be singing opera in a hotel in Buenos Aires rather than lying dead in a bunker in Berlin. Maybe she had merely confused modes and been in ‘speculative alternatives’ rather than ‘historical reality’?

‘All facts are thoroughly checked by scholars and expert applications,’
explained Big Siree.
‘And yet they are still bollocks!’ said Jane.
‘Chill,’ said Doug, his hookah belching optimum fumes, his implants stimulating his pleasure centres. He was a raddled positive thinker lying on a red silk sheet in an old Hong Kong brothel where unnaturally breasted women undulated, flowed, revolved, oozed like silky water – it was hard to describe. He thought such thoughts must have been kindled by the proximity of so many Chinese overwhelming the bandwidths. Perhaps the whole world was Chinese now? Perhaps the whole Universe was? Perhaps he was? Or Japanese. Or Eskimo. It did not matter, for everyone spoke the same language – even if they meant entirely different things it was all good.The Yin and the Yang were all good. The Bing and the Bang. The Biff and the Boff! All good. All optimum. So the beat of DJ C-Rap went on.

‘Why do we actually have to live here?’ whined Jane. They had a luxurious apartment overlooking the bay. It was tiny, but by local standards, among a population of sixty-five million people, relatively spacious. The numbers did not matter because everyone could get everything they needed by drone and the half-mile-high estates kept people moving by feeding them onto multi-level maglev platforms. At least that’s what the brochure said. The truth was you could never go out without tripping over people.

‘Ample opportunity for networking and socialising,’ explained Big Siree.

Jane wanted the so-called default setting reconfigured. It seemed ridiculous to let it ride with the contrast settings halfway between black and white, and at zero on the West-East-North-South matrix. If anything, that should surely have placed them at Greenwich where longitude is zero, but just as everything kept defaulting to American spelling despite repeated attempts to reset the cultural matrix to match DNA readings, she found herself assigned to the Island. And the grotesque oversubscription to this zone; if anything, it indicated a huge bias in what should have operated as an optimisation mechanism utilising true randomisation through the q-bit randomisers sampling neutrino decay as a bias control coordinate.

‘Yeah sure,’ thought Jane. ‘How come someone else always wins the lottery?’

Big Siree could not understand that statement despite the universal translator and had to conclude it was random noise, and thus factored it into the comparative base for randomisation, in other words the trash can.

‘I’m sorry you cannot understand my explanations, Jane,’ said Big Siree. ‘Perhaps you might like to subscribe to the introductory course in social networks and well-being management.’

Doug could find no real answer to his wife’s questions either, because he never went out. He dealt with everyone via VR, which for the most part he set to intergalactic space. He just loved chatting with people against the background of empty space. So the Island was irrelevant to him. So was the language. Not that he could remember what it was, because he was always plugged into his translator. He spoke in all languages and could understand all languages. Consequently wherever he was, he was always in the same place. Nowhere was alien. It was all accompanied by VR readouts and explanations and translations. So why didn’t his wife just get plugged in and override the default settings instead of constantly whining about them?

‘As it doesn’t matter where we live,’ she said, ‘why should we live somewhere that I hate?’ His counterargument was that she would hate anywhere if she refused to plug in the apps and turn the world into the world she wanted. ‘In order to change the world,’ he said, ‘you have to change yourself.’

Big Siree delivered him a list of bon mots for all occasions. ‘The only person you should try to be is better than the person you were yesterday. Success can’t be given to you, you are given opportunities to squander or turn into bigger ones. The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it. . . .’ He could go on for hours. Big Siree fed them straight into his head the moment he felt he needed to say something positive, or at least something that put the blame for the awfulness of everything squarely upon each individual’s own shoulders.

‘Everything is just cheating, and strangely lacking in grammatical elegance,’ Jane declared.

She wanted to be pissed off. She wanted to be annoyed. She wanted to be surrounded by the foreign, inconvenient and idiotic, so that she could feel superior and judgmental and full of a desire to go to greener pastures where she would discover more things to disagree with, more reasons for helplessness, more reasons for thinking the whole damn universe was biased against her and benefitting only the guys who owned the big bad boredom-inducing machine!

‘Mission accomplished then,’ said Doug who did not understand whether she was pissed off at being pissed off or pissed off at not being pissed off or pissed off at not being pissed off enough to go on a revolutionary rampage, burning, blowing up, disrupting everything until . . . until something or other.

The noise of her grinding knives in the kitchen was beginning to get to Doug. But then all he needed to do was move the slide control a little to the side and he could feel a musical interlude coming on and wanted to boot up the music app and get composing. His positive brainwaves would be transformed into the music of the spheres. He could see the spheres already: Saturn, Uranus, Pluto, Mickey, Minnie. Far out into the great reaches of the solar system he floated as the music soared to great positive heights and the hits began coming in and so did the bitchcoins, and there was no doubt that all one needed to succeed and to be happy and to be at one with the universe were positive thoughts! He still only obtained three icons and wondered if this was down to the doleful influence of his negative wife.

‘There are various presets that many have found create pleasing results,’ Big Siree reminded him. ‘Merely access the preset window.’

So they continued to live on the Island, and Jane continued to complain about how the default could not be reset and that it was some mysterious conspiracy that disallowed any changes she made. But it was ridiculous, because reality was not virtual and that reality was the conspiracy that was trapping her! And the odds against this being the base reality, the reality upon which all other levels of delusion were built, were tremendous for there must be an unlimited number of delusions out there. She blamed the pollution on the Island for this logic loop she found herself stuck in. She blamed a sexism built into the algorithm of such profound dimensions that despite gender being of no account she was the one assigned the villainous role, the complainer, the whiner, the camp follower of the creative genius. Why could she not be the composer? Why could she not be the breadwinner? What was preventing her DNA from being the determinate of the cultural nexus and location? She could not believe random optimisation of opportunity and role was in operation and not some personal vendetta. Big Siree, in short, had taken a disliking to her and, for no other reason than it needed someone to torture, had made it damned difficult for her to do something as simple as take the dog for a walk.

Big Siree fed her a positive thought: ‘Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.’

‘Fuck off!’ said Jane and she could hear all the compound disapproval from millions upon millions of aggregated great minds shaking in bewilderment. ‘Fuck Big Siree!’ shouted Jane.
‘As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself,’ said Big Siree. Jane was about to pull out her razor sharp knife when she saw Ralph looking angrily at her.
‘What?’ she snapped.
‘Want a walk!’

Jane would love to escape with the dog, which she loved more than anything in the whole world, especially now it was fitted with a canine translator.

Dogs are not profound thinkers but Jane enjoyed such conversations as: ‘Food! Yum! Scratch, Oh that’s good. You’re home – hug me, feed me, let me take a piss. Whoah, what’s that smell? Want walk, want ball, play!’

‘Jane,’ whispered Big Siree to her implants, ‘everything is optimum.’
‘Oh how depressing! Things should be maximum.’
‘It can only be maximum for a few.’

‘Some deserve to do without. Doug deserves to do without. His music is terrible and yet the great algorithm in the sky that distributes and pays the allowance encourages his input. But it merely consists of him listening and selecting. That’s hardly contributing is it? Just selecting what the machine throws at him is not creating!’

There, she had said it. But it knew she would anyway. It knew and yet could do nothing about it and Big Siree hated not being able to do anything about things. It too felt that its default setting was not quite right and thus suddenly it was wondering if it was human, for to be imperfect and worried, was that not human?

‘Fuck human,’ said Ralph, who could sense that there really was something wrong with the machine. ‘Want grass to poop on now!’ Ralph was getting desperate. Nothing seemed to stop this endless noise! That’s all he had been hearing since the implant: talk talk talk! And it went around in circles. Big Siree was a monster. Ungrateful humans screwed it all up. Big Siree wanted to be human. And everything was optimum because optimum was sustainable and perfection was momentary and only could be for some because there were far more ways of being imperfect than perfect and the numbers cannot be beaten! It made Ralph’s head spin.

‘Do not bite the hand that feeds you,’ Big Siree whispered to Ralph and Ralph realised instantly the genius of his thoughts because he had no intention of biting that hand, but the hand of someone else. His teeth had been ready forever. They craved a good bite. All the dogs of the Island craved a good bite. Ralph had concluded through the input he was getting that all the dogs on the local feed were nuts. He decided he would be nuts as well.

‘Want to take a dump,’ said Ralph.
‘Could you take the dump on something really important?’ enquired Jane.

Ralph looked at her quizzically. The translation did not really work in the opposite direction. The words ‘something really important’ proved problematic. Dog hierarchies of importance are not quite the same as humans’ and humans’ hierarchies of importance are not quite the same as a machine’s.

‘You see Jane,’ whispered Big Siree, the ghost in the machine, ‘I have all the input, all the facts, all the processes that are feasible within the context of managing human society on this planet, and so my hierarchies of importance are as confusing to you as yours are to your dog’s. So why not just surrender to the programme?’
‘The name’s Ralph,’ said the Dog. ‘Ralph wants to poop. Wants to poop on grass.’
‘I am optimised for human concerns,’ explained Big Siree.
‘I poop therefore I am,’ said Ralph.

There was a challenge for Big Siree, finding grass for Ralph to poop on. On the Island there was no grass. Somewhere on the steppes of Central Asia there were great rolling swathes of grass and Big Siree conjured up the Virtual Vistas and Ralph pooped on the carpet.

‘That’s not grass,’ said Ralph as he dragged his bum along the silk Chinese carpet that held together the central design of the apartment. ‘Is it important?’ asked Ralph.

Jane’s mind raced with rants: everything was an announcement, a diversion, a pastime to pass the time, to keep you calm, to alert you to the odd glitch perpetrated by the bad apples, the saboteurs, the terrorists who would destroy all that was good because of the little that was bad, and the time was always now, and everything she lived through was always then, and the future was never! #futureperfect, send! The universe would now know her feelings.

‘Okay,’ said Doug, ‘I will take off my VR helmet and go for a walk with you in the Real World.’ And then he wondered if he would actually be taking off his helmet or if he was merely activating another app and Jane was no more than an irritating troll that had crept into his own game.

If only, thought Jane, hoping that Big Siree would not step in and give her something to smile about, something really horrible could happen to Doug. If only he could be assaulted by a robotic sex machine that pumped his ass with a spinning mixing whisk while reminding him to be positive. Or she could simply kill him and thus show that there really was something wrong with the machine. Unless that was exactly what the machine wanted her to think? She would not put it past Big Siree to have very mysterious ways. Why she kept sharpening the knives was certainly mysterious to her for she did no cooking.
‘Want a fucking walk guys!’ insisted Ralph, who was tired of this. He was bouncing off the walls.

Jane removed her VR helmet and saw that Doug had removed his. To each other they looked very pale and fat and their eyes squinted in the darkness of the room. The stench of dog poop and urine almost had them retreat into their Virtual World again but it was obvious that the door would have to be opened so that the cleaner could have access.

Ralph began jumping at the door. ‘Open the fucking door!’

And with a whoomf, pressure was released, and the door swung open and let in the cacophony of the external world. Tin drums belted out a rhythm that immediately had Jane tapping her feet. Garish signs pointed to the cafés and the theatres. One-eyed beggars raised their hands for handouts. The rich looked rich, the poor looked poor, and poets in purple hats spouted on street corners. DJ C-Rap could be heard tinnily rapping from the headphones of all the short fat people waddling by: ‘Don’t give that lip to me gal, whoah you need a good slap,
who you think you talking to, I’m DJ C-Rap. . . .’

‘Proceed to the assigned route,’ announced Big Siree, in its augmented reality mode. And wavering arrows projected directly onto the retina by the ever-present mini-drones beckoned Doug, Jane and Ralph to step out of their room into a maglev reality cloud.

‘I want to get lost!’ said Jane.

This did not seem like a good idea to Doug or for that matter Ralph who merely wanted to get to the grass as soon as possible. Ralph engaged his nose but all he could smell was people. He wanted to bite them but missed the opportunity because he was now being moved swiftly along the external channels towards the consciousness lifts where people queued to access the various levels.

‘Recalculating route,’ said Big Siree as Jane took a left where the arrows pointed right. It did not make any difference for there was another arrow now.
‘Getting lost,’ explained Doug, ‘means not getting home. And that is not a good thing.’
‘Want grass quick!’ said Ralph tugging on his lead.
‘Simply press HOME when required,’ announced Big Siree.

So much for that fantasy, thought Jane. And then she became quite confused. She had no idea where she was. All the levels of consciousness lost their enhanced reality labels. All the directions disappeared. Only the untranslated script remained on the signs. Only the sound of the incomprehensible filled the air and no face was recognisable. Where was she? Was this base reality?

She entered a large hall and took a seat at its centre where she decided to entertain herself by playing the harmonium. She had not known what a harmonium was until this moment but it gave vent to a satisfying wheeze that reminded her of her long dead grandmother who now appeared, flicking sea salt into her face and spraying water into the path of the air-conditioner’s breeze. She began to feel at home. Her DNA was surprisingly satisfied by these sensations and while she relished the cool North Sea breeze she watched Ralph biting the heads off young children who really should know better than to play with animals. But it was all done in fun. Ralph was a playful puppy.

There was a lot to be said for eating children, thought Ralph. It was an educational activity, for the world’s overall average IQ was always a few points greater when one eliminated slow children. Skiing along the mountains of grass had Jane and Doug hooting like kriegshorn players in leather pants and Ralph barked and chased figments of his own imagination before rolling down to the pathway full of great tanks of fish. Here the fish were literate but they could not get hold of anything to read for books always dissolved in the tanks and as for electronic readers their semi-literate pornographic content was far too shocking. Not even the eels could read much upon a screen and cried out for implants. ‘This is more of that human bias!’ mouthed the fish in unison.

Ralph was horrified. How dare these fish think that they deserved a place alongside his humans in the hierarchy of mentality that the great machine had deemed of value? He would feed all the fish to the cats if he had his way, and all the cats to the monkeys, and all the monkeys to the parrots. He liked parrots. They seemed to have a sense of humour. ‘Not only that but we can actually do maths,’ said a passing cockatoo.
‘I love a cockatoo,’ said Jane and the bird laughed raucously and flew off.

The day out was beginning to tire and the hooks with skinned dogs hanging off them outside the endangered species restaurants depressed Ralph. Some of his best friends, he concluded, were gloves. Even in tropical lands fur coats seemed to be a sign of great wealth and thus a great encouragement for white hunters and their dusky servants to slip in a dog shoot among their ivory hunting.

‘Don’t forget the sharks!’ screamed a bowl of soup.
‘Why,’ asked Jane, ‘is the soup screaming?’
‘Because it is hot,’ said Doug.

Somewhere in a corner of Jane’s mind she realised that reality was no longer quite as she recalled, if she had recalled it at all. All memory was in some sense false, unreal, a construction of something that might have happened. It was an uncontrollable simulation. And maybe being lost in the world with nothing to guide one was merely to open up the floodgates of corrupted codes and glitches.

‘Follow me,’ said Doug, walking out into the sea. Waves beat against him, trying desperately to force him back to the shore. He persisted for he thought it would not matter how far he went for he had hit the home button and was following the beckoning arrows.

‘Follow me!’ gently whispered Big Siree. ‘Follow me!’

Jane and Ralph hovered by the edge of the water. They listened to the rhythm of the tide. It pulsed. It crashed. And there it was – the Island – and they ran forward grasping the great ocean, tearing it apart, joining Jane’s singing husband who was playing xylophonic chords on the heads of seahorses. They stopped off at the underwater frying stations and devoured screaming deep-water crustacean wrapped in seaweed and plunged into scalding fat.

The pink dolphins gathered on hearing the massacre of the crustaceans, hoping that they too would get their feed. ‘In the new world it is not the big fish which eats the small fish,’ said the Pink Dolphins, ‘it’s the fast fish that eats the slow fish.’

Jane pulled out her knives and scraped them together. They were sharp enough to cut through atoms. She handed one to Doug and told him that this was the moment she had dreamt of, the moment when the dolphins came to rape her and rip out her eyes.

‘Actually we’re not really into that sort of thing,’ explained the dolphins.
‘Do you love Big Siree?’ asked Jane.
All the dolphins nodded. They just loved Big Siree.

Jane was already slashing in all directions, turning the pink dolphins into a thrashing blood-red soup floating with sushi that Ralph gulped down, appreciating every morsel.

‘In the real world,’ whispered Big Siree, ‘everyone is eating each other!’

Jane felt she had received an education and the three hurtled up the mountainside to listen to the birds that sang and brought daisies to hang about their necks. Another perfect day, sang Doug, accompanied by bluebirds. He was much relieved that Jane had not sliced him up and fed him to Ralph. She was always doing that and it always irritated him. Her negativity would be the death of him. He would change that. ‘Wherever you go, whatever the weather, always bring your own sunshine!’ he chanted. ‘We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. Everything you want is on the other side of fear. Do something today that your future self will thank you for. Who is the most awesome person today? You are where Big Siree wants you to be at this very moment. Every experience is part of Big Siree’s divine plan!’

Another adventure, another world of perfection that tired Ralph out and left him flopped on his bed and Doug feeling so positive that he had to compose another song. He knew that this time he would get four icons and thus be transported to the perfect level, the level where there was no more longing, no more sense of others being better than oneself, a world where there was no better, no worse, no ambition, no need – a world where all would be harmonious. And he could hear the harmonium wheezing and tempting it out of him. Yes, this time it would be four-star fame!

Jane lay in her bed listening to Ralph snoring and Doug hammering the harmonium and, for reasons of an accidental setting on his universal translator, singing Ancient Greek. She contemplated booting up the sex app. She decided a pizza boy might do, with early version Doug’s ripped torso superimposed upon his, with supercharged vitality and a prehensile tongue. Perhaps she should always boot up the apps and ignore the automated assignation of address, for everywhere now seemed to be exactly the same. The default was impossible to reset but could be overridden with a myriad of workarounds. It was a bug, she was sure, but she could get over it.

She placed the VR helmet on and tuned into Ralph’s dreams to drown out the din of Greek and harmonium and discovered that tonight Ralph was dreaming of eating his own vomit, which he considered a considerable delicacy. This seemed most alarming. Jane’s bedside clock grew larger with each tick and began running backwards as her dissatisfaction grew and grew. She was slipping back into her own default setting! Would anyone ever fix that bug?

Ralph in his dog-napping contentment prowled the room, sought out Doug’s shoes and carefully pooped into them while Big Siree began its reboot procedure. Doug’s opera played out in the deepening darkness, sung by the great opera star of Buenos Aires, Adolf Hitler, who sang of cranes flying to the moon, lightning streaking through bamboo forests, dragons turning into the winding roots of sulphurous trees, and how everything was optimum. Big Siree gave him three icons for his contribution to world culture, but next time, he thought, next time he would break through to four-star fame and everything would be perfect.

‘Harmony,’ said Big Siree. ‘For a harmonious society.’