Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 11: I Could Get Used to This

2010 mary portas painted mannequins

Rain can’t seem to get the word, “spabot” out of her mind. She keeps a watchful eye on the comings and goings of all these beautiful people, secretly trying to figure out if there are any real humans here.

Rain is just a tad tipsy from the one glass of wine she’s been sipping for the last hour with Veronica at The Piano Lounge.

“How many hours do I have left before I have to ‘go back’?”

“Three hours. You’ll know your time is up because your internal clock will start to play the Westminster Quarters. You know what that is, right?”

Rain’s mind is flooded with the memory of herself as an eight-year old child, sitting in their little branch library, savoring the smell of books and timelessness. How she loved that old grandfather clock with the sun and the moon and all the little dials on the clock’s face.

More than once, she had the pleasure of watching the old librarian tip toe over to the grandfather clock and open up the glass door with a special key. The only noise permitted in the library seemed to be produced by the old grandfather clock with its chimes and gongs, and the sound of the weighted chain being expertly tugged by its loving custodian. Pulling the trusty chains would raise each weight to its highest point. The weights would then continue their relentless descent towards the bottom of the pendulum, like a persistent child pulling on her mother’s hand. It seemed as if the weights were in a hurry to get back down to the bottom of the case because they wanted to upstage the pendulum’s golden disk by obscuring its midpoint swing. The poor pendulum would be reduced to a peek-a-boo motion, appearing on one side of the weights and then the other. That’s how the librarian would know that it was time, once again, to wind the clock back up.

The old librarian, secretly called “Lady Griselda Grey” by Morgana’s older sister, Jewel, was generally not in a good mood, but one day, she smiled at the little girl, just as the clock was chiming, “Bing, Bong, Bing, Bong…Bong, Bing, Bing, Bong,” and the little girl screwed up her courage and queried as politely as she could, “What’s the name of that song, Miss…please? Oh! And thank you!”

The librarian, touched by the little girl’s courtesy, told her to wait just a second, and she came back with a pencil and a piece of paper. Then she sat down at the table with the little girl and explained that it was called “The Westminster Quarters,” because it was eventually played by the chimes in the clock tower of the British Houses of Parliament at Westminster. The tune was written by William Crotch in 1794, and the words to that simple tune were, “Oh, Lord our God / Be thou our guide / That by thy help / No foot may slide.”

She probably would have forgotten that whole explanation, but the old librarian had written it down in nice block letters for her. She took that paper home with her that day and recited the information to anyone who would listen to her. Mostly everyone laughed at the name, “Crotch,” including the little girl, but they were mightily impressed that she knew this interesting tidbit of information, complete with names and dates. Most impressive was that she was able to recount the whole story coherently, quite a feat for an eight-year old child. That’s actually when people started to consider her to be “one smart cookie,” and that’s when she started to think that maybe being smart, or at least passing for smart, wasn’t that hard after all.

Lost in her thoughts, Rain is summoned back to the moment when Veronica rephrases the question, “You know the tune, ‘Westminster Quarters,’ right?”

“Right,” says Rain, somewhat absent-mindedly, answering Veronica’s question, and now, fully back in the moment, she adds, “But can everyone else hear it, too?”

“Oh, yes—at least, that is, those people who are here on an eight-hour visit, and that’s most of the people you see here. At that point, you have 15 minutes to get back to your room, remove your clothes, hang them up, put on your ‘nightie’ and get back into bed.”

“Well, what happens if, for instance, I’m really enjoying myself and I ignore the reminder?”

“That’s not a problem since there’s an override system that will take over for you. Your tenem will excuse itself, return promptly to the room, proceed to undress, put on the nightie, and get into bed to await the transfer, all without your input or cooperation. The same override system will engage should you be here for a ‘visit,’ and there is some emergency at home that demands your immediate attention, like someone frantically banging on your door during the middle of the night or your smoke alarm going off.”

“I feel relieved to know that I can’t screw this up, but also a little creeped out at the thought of not being fully in control,” says Rain.

“But there’s another way to look at this, Rain—the most important thing is that you will be able to react and respond as normally as you would were you just sleeping, which is perfect. Remember, this whole venture is a secret. That override system is necessary to protect your secret. If anyone were to discover ‘Our Little Secret,” it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but there could be devastating consequences for you and your family if you were not available to deal with a potential crisis in a very timely manner.”

“So, once I’m back in the bed, regardless of how I get there, then what?”

“The Brain Computer Interface chip will then transfer your consciousness from your tenem back into your real body. When the transfer is complete, you will wake up in your real body feeling well-rested and refreshed. You will remember most, if not all, of your experiences here at the Spa. You’ll be glad to know that you will know your real name once again! Your tenem will be waiting patiently for you when you decide next to access it.”

“It’s a little bit sad to think of my tenem, this wonderful body, just lying there like a corpse until I decide to animate it with my presence!”

“Well, don’t worry about it too much—your tenem won’t miss you at all, as difficult as that might be to accept.

“Yes, but, it’s got my DNA so I’m thinking that my tenem should have SOME loyalty to me, you know?”

Veronica laughs. “Loyalty is the stuff of consciousness. Right now, you—Rain—are a conscious being, even though you are in a bio-engineered robotic body. Right now, you are loyal to those you love or to those you think you should love. Once you’re back in your regular body, your tenem doesn’t think about you, doesn’t know who you are, and doesn’t care. It’s merely a vehicle for your consciousness. All I’m saying is don’t get too attached to it, and don’t go giving it qualities that it doesn’t have.

“It’s hard not to—after all, it’s the only other body, or vehicle for that matter, I’ve ever had that looks so great in an orange tube dress!”

“So let’s take it for a spin, then!”

Back in the glass hallway, they stop into a gym filled with exercise equipment. There are people here “spinning” on stationary bikes, running around a track, using stair climbers and elliptical machines, lifting weights, climbing walls and ropes and doing calisthenics.

“Here you go, Rain—Just like I said: Take your tenem for a spin.”

Rain perches on the nearest stationary bicycle and begins pedaling faster and faster.

“Why would we bother doing this? My tenem can’t be healthy–it’s basically a machine!”

“Yes and no. Your tenem needs to develop its coordination and equilibrium to refine its large and small motor skills. You and I have already spent a good deal of time talking. You might think we were just chewing the fat but what we were actually doing was increasing the fluidity of your speech while I’ve been checking your response time and the appropriateness of your social interaction.”

“So how am I doing?”

“You’re doing great! Everything’s working just as it should! And even though you move just fine and seem to walk with poise and stability, the exercise will increase the ease with which you move. A little bonus for you is that some of this should even transfer to your real body.”

“Really? How does that work?”

“As your brain perceives the activity, whether it be walking, talking, dancing, swimming, exercising, etc., it establishes new neural pathways or reinforces the ones that already exist. This ensures that your tenem will be able to perform competently the many tasks and activities you will expect from it. It’s a lot like breaking in a new car, only this is much more delicate; and as for your real body, don’t be surprised if you wake up feeling motivated to do some exercise.”

Rain is obviously pleased. “I’m glad to hear that! I do walk quite a bit, but otherwise, I’m really out of shape!”

Rain gets off the stationary bicycle and heads over to the elliptical machine.

“Here…Let me help you with that,” says Veronica, adjusting the setting for Rain right where “easy” ends and “challenging” begins.

“The contrast between what I look and feel like as ‘Rain,’ and what I look and feel like as…Oh! How I would love to know what my real name is!—what I look and feel like as my real self is as different as night and day.”

“That’s true for everyone else who is here, too. This place, believe it or not, is real life, just like everywhere else except that—and this is a giant ‘except’—all the factors that can make life pure hell just aren’t here—there are no obligations, no bosses to kill your spirit, no spouses who can drive you crazy, no demanding children, no spiteful neighbors, no annoying pets, no illness or malaise, no obvious problems. Thanks to technology, all the people who are here look just perfect. Plus, you probably don’t know this yet, but your new brain has a programmed tendency to maintain itself in ‘Ataraxia,’ which is a state of lucid tranquility. In your tenem mode, you will find that illogical fears will wither away, leaving you calm and anxiety free–for the most part. In a sense, this spa is much more of a vacation than you would have ever imagined.”

“I could get so used to this! By the way, Veronica, who said ‘Hell is other people?’”

“Jean Paul Sartre did, in his book, ‘No Exit.’ Funnier yet is the often-repeated misquote, ‘Hell is other people at breakfast,’ which has always made me laugh.”

Rain laughed, too, at the stunning truth of that misquote, remembering how much she always loved early mornings when no one else was around. How she absolutely hated it when her husband would occasionally get up early and destroy the calm by lumbering around like a bull in a china shop, bitching just for the sake of bitching and banging things that just didn’t need banging. At such times, instead of sipping her cup of coffee and enjoying the slowly brightening sky as she watched the sunrise with wonder through the kitchen window, she’d be jumping out of her skin and tripping over her own feet trying to “fix” what was wrong so her husband would just leave her in peace. She now recalls dispassionately the disappointment and anger she would often feel after one of his early morning “fits,” that she had missed the sublime magic of the sunrise to deal with some mundane nonsense that really could have waited, just another five goddamn minutes, goddammit.

“So, what about this ‘Ataraxia’? I’ve never heard of it before.”

“Most people haven’t. It’s a medical term, but it has its roots in Greek philosophy. The meaning varies somewhat, depending on whether you’re an adherent of Epicureanism, Pyrrhonism or Stoicism, and like all things, everyone puts their own spin on what it means. For me, it’s freeing ourselves of our notions about gods and their punishment, and assumes that hell isn’t a physical place—it’s when other people control us or we let them control us. Hell is that realization that we have somehow lost our dignity and our power, perhaps under the guise of responsibility, obligation or by dint of sheer trickery, ignorance, or laziness. Really, there are so many forms of Hell lurking in the human psyche. So the phrase, ‘Hell is other people’ covers a lot of territory, since a never-ending source of personal torment is seeing ourselves as projections on the screen of own fears of what other people think of us.”

“I’m surprised all that meaning can fit into one little word!”

Veronica smiles at Rain’s naivety. “To be truthful, I’m a little surprised that there isn’t some kind of psychotropic drug with the same name.”

Rain hears the Westminster Quarters and notices other people getting off the exercise machines and ending their conversations.

Veronica turns to leave but waits for Rain to catch up with her. They exit the gym and go back to Rain’s room. Rain surprises herself by taking the lead and going to the exact door which is hers, holding up her palm to a diamond-shaped sensor, and stepping through the door as it pops open.

“How did I know which room was mine and how to open the door, Veronica?”

“It’s part of the program! Pretty amazing, huh?”

“I’ll say! I could get used to this!”

“You already said that!”

“I guess I must really mean it, then,” wisecracks Rain, as she tends to the business of wrapping up her visit. She peels off her orange tube dress, and hangs it up in the closet, unhooks and slides out of her lacy black brassiere, eases her black panties down around her ankles and steps out of them. She tosses the underthings into the hamper in the closet and then locates her white nightie, a cute little white satin chemise, and slips it over her head, wriggling it neatly into place.

“And, here I am, all set and ready to go!” She stands once again in front of the mirror and admires herself in that sweet white chemise. “This has been so much fun. I can’t wait to come back!”

Rain walks over to the bed, and her foot kicks a box underneath the bed frame, but doesn’t pay it much mind since the pain is minimal and she’s still thinking about her sweet white satin chemise and maybe, just maybe, her mystery man seeing her in it.

Rain gets into the bed and lies down on her back, sinking her head into the springy pillow. Before allowing herself to fully relax, she reaches back to the nape of her neck, using her fingers to spread her beautiful, long, dark curls out over the pillow. She looks like, feels like and is a vision of loveliness.

Veronica sits in her chair at the side of the bed, taking notes on her clipboard and smiling at Rain who is now closing her eyes, drifting off to her transfer.

“We’ll be waiting for you,” she whispers.

Rain doesn’t hear Veronica. She is dreaming of her mystery man.

To Be Continued in Chapter 12: What’s in the Box?

Music Credit: “Deep Purple,” by Nino Tempo and April Stevens.

Photo Credit: 2010 Mary Portas Painted Mannequins

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Filed under Proto-Novella, Science Fiction, Short Story Series