Realtime Interrupt
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    Few things, Corrigan thought irritably as he lay washed up on the pebbly shore of wakefulness from the warm, carefree ocean of sleep, could be more maddening first thing in the morning than a chatty house-computer--especially one afflicted with the kind of advanced neurosis that he usually associated with swooning aunts or psychiatric rehabilitation counselors.

    "It's almost nine o'clock, Joe," it babbled again in the fussing English accent that projected Muriel's conception of professional conscientiousness with a touch of social style. "As a rule, this is your absolute latest for getting up on a Saturday."

    Corrigan thought that it sounded gay. He pictured it as lean and limp-wristed, with a receding hairline, mincing about the room and throwing its hands up in agitation.

    "Oh. . . . Hmm." Corrigan yawned, stretched, and opened his eyes to the homey disarray of the apartment's bedroom. "Is it Saturday?"

    "Well, of course it is, Joe. Why would I have said so if it weren't?"

    Horace. What kind of a woman gave the computer a name like Horace? Corrigan allowed wakefulness to percolate through his body gradually. She had gotten the name, and its emulated persona, from Horace Greal, the equally insufferable confidant and financial adviser to the playgirl-adventuress star of the series Fast-Lane Lady, which depicted high society, fast sex, and mega-money in a bright-lights, big-city setting. Muriel, apparently like most people these days, was able to relate to such roles totally, elevating experience by dissolving the barriers between fantasy and actuality, and letting "is" merge effortlessly into "could be." Corrigan couldn't. The two categories remained obstinately unfused in his mind. That, he was told constituted the principal cause of the inner alienation, insecurity, and resentments that the experts assured him he felt. The only thing wrong was, he didn't.

    Saturday. That meant that he wasn't due at work until the evening. He rolled over and contemplated the ceiling. As he began thinking what needed doing today, a disharmony of clashing chords tied together by an ungainly, clickety-clack rhythm started up from the apartment's sound system. Muriel's kind of music. He wondered if the choice presaged the role that she had decided to adopt for herself today. Would it be luminescent, green spiked hair, purple jump suit, and "Astra, Queen of the Mountains" (who also promoted Vaylon cosmetics and the Salon Faubert fashion styles), or imitation combat fatigues, calf boots, and . . . And then the last shreds of sleep fell away from his mind, and he remembered.

    He rolled sideways and looked across the room. Muriel's bed was empty, unslept in. Yes, of course: She was away for the weekend, gone to see her crazy sister in Philadelphia. That brightened up the prospects for the day considerably. A light feeling of relief softened the line of his mouth and caused him to exhale away the unconsciously accumulated tension in the way he used to as a boy when he braced himself for the day ahead at school, then realized that it was Sunday.

    A low whining sound came from the doorway as the 20-inch display waddled through from the living room on its stumpy, rocker-footed legs. "There are a couple of news items that might interest you," Horace's voice announced. "A California court has ruled a firm guilty of discriminating against employees on the grounds of competence. Europe's prime minister is threatening to resign. Ireland's soccer team has qualified for the World Cup semi-finals in St. Petersburg in August."

    Corrigan got up, went through to the bathroom, and pointed at the shower. The water turned itself on. "No, save it, Horace. I'm not interested in the mad, mad world. Today is strictly vacation. And while you're at it, will you spare me from that row that you're playing. I thought that a decent house-manager was supposed to know its residents' tastes. That's herself's, and she isn't here this morning, as you well know."

    "What would you prefer, then? Something with fiddles and whistles, jigs and reels?"

    To give credit where due, the edge of sulky disapproval that Horace managed to inject into its voice was masterful. Although he would never have admitted it--least of all to Horace--Corrigan never ceased to be amazed. Interactive ability of such sophistication might have been conceivable from the batteries of super-machines that Corrigan had once worked with, but to find it in a house-manager was something else. The same was true of consumer technology, generally. Corrigan could only conclude that, in the twelve years since his incapacitation, the entire state of the art had advanced much faster than he would ever have dared predict. That was the kind of thing that made a man start to feel old.

    "No, let's forget the old country for today," he said. "How about something light and classical? Try Vivaldi." He stepped into the spray, and the shower door closed behind him. From outside, Horace's voice came indistinctly through the noise of the water. "Sorry, Horace," Corrigan called as he began soaping himself. "I can't hear you."

    It wasn't that life with Muriel had turned into misery or taken on any of the other afflictions that marriages were supposed to deteriorate under. But simply, looking back over the past two years and the time that they'd known each other before then, there had never really been anything substantial for it to have deteriorated from. They shared the same abode but existed in two different worlds. She--in tune with today's ever-changing whims, able to mold and respond, donning and shedding identities to best express her mood of the moment as easily as she did her clothes-- was a creature of the times. He, it seemed, couldn't even fit into the undemanding role expected for a mundane, basic self.

    At first, when he had believed that togetherness would eventually bring closeness, he had tried to communicate thoughts which to him seemed important. Now he knew better than to bother even making simple observations. His perspective of reality was one that the rest of the world evidently didn't share. So on any level that mattered, he no longer tried communicating very much to anyone. And that was why he found the prospect relieving of not having to accommodate or be accommodated for a whole weekend, but, instead, of just enjoying being himself.

    "I said, maybe this nostalgia for five-hundred-year-old music is an unhealthy sign," Horace resumed when the hot-air drying cycle stopped, and Corrigan stepped out. The strains of a vigorous string concerto were coming through the open doorway from the living room.

    "Oh, is that a fact? And what led you to this momentous conclusion?" Corrigan inquired, reaching for a towel.

    "The symptoms are on record from expert diagnosis. Item: Doctor Manning's caution to Mr. Felmer in the series Fraternity, where Tim's preoccupation with dated European architecture indicated a pathological condition of reality-rejection. Furthermore, as Fenwick Zellor observed in The Mind Healer, a morbid fixation on the past is, in effect, the same--"

    Corrigan laughed as he turned to the mirror and began palming shaving lather onto his face. "Ah, come on, Horace. You don't call that kind of stuff reality, now, do you? It's a how-to manual for misfits. Attitude-programming for the intellectually bereft, artistically inane, and socially clueless. Wouldn't you agree?"

    By now, Corrigan was cheerfully resigned to the thought of being a permanent misfit. But he enjoyed goading Horace by implying that he alone represented normality, while the norms that the computer reflected were distortions. Horace had never been able to grasp the subtleties of what Corrigan saw as humor, and would miss the point entirely. Muriel had the same problem. Perhaps, Corrigan thought to himself, what it needed was Irish computers. Perhaps he should have married an Irish wife.

    Sure enough:

    "If you ask me--"

    "I didn't."

    "Well, I did make it a conditional." If Horace had feet, it would have stamped one. After years, it still couldn't understand when Corrigan was having fun--or why. Corrigan grinned at himself in the mirror. Intelligent machines would finally have arrived--almost--when their adaptive neural nets could handle things like this, he decided. Horace went on, "I don't think that those comments are appropriate, Joe. You seem to be forgetting that you're the one with residual psychiatric readjustment problems." (And a dash more of the human art called "tact" while they were at it, Corrigan thought.) "But you're suggesting that the rest of the world ought to change to conform to your perceptions. Hardly a rational position to adopt, I would have thought." The machine stressed the implied conditional, giving a wonderful emulation of sarcasm. Corrigan was impressed.

    "I can only go by the way things seem to me, Horace," he said. "If you can't call a pig a pig when you see one, what hope is there?"

    "Please explain the connection with pigs."

    Corrigan sighed. (And better comprehension of metaphor, along with tact and humor.) "Some other time. What I meant was, there's no point in pretending that something looks other than the way it does. I'm told that my powers of projective immersion are impaired. And maybe they are. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody that I might actually be happy with things being this way."

    Corrigan finished drying his face and went back into the bedroom to select some clothes for the day. Horace's voice pursued him relentlessly like an anxious butler.

    "Are you really the one to be the judge of that, Joe?"

    "The judge of what I like? Sure. Who better did you have in mind?" Maybe a regular, button-up, navy shirt and plain, old-fashioned, gray slacks, he thought--non-projectively, non-immersingly expressing what he thought of bright purple jump suits and plastic imitation combat garb.

    "I meant, of whether it's healthy to feel happy about it," Horace said. "According to the testimony of Doctor Newcomb, who as you may recall was the expert witness called in the trial of Jenny Drew in the--"

    "Horace," Corrigan interrupted. "I thought you were talking about reality. Those are fictional characters in contrived situations. Get it? They don't really exist."

    "Not as such, possibly," Horace admitted stiffly. "Nevertheless, they are based on carefully researched studies, and may therefore be taken as realistic depictions of composite actuality."

    "In that case, reality has got problems," Corrigan said.

    "Not you, by any chance?"

    "If I have, I can live with them. So where's the problem?"

    "You're happy to be out on your own like that, to be different?" As if it weren't already obvious. An ability to accept the fact had evidently not connected in Horace's associative net.

    "What's more important, would you say?" Corrigan replied. "Conformity or contentment?"

    "Invalid comparison," Horace pronounced. "Your contentment is something that only you know about. What you do is different. It's external. It affects other people, and hence what they do." There was a short delay, giving an effective impression of Horace weighing its words. "Therefore the answer to which is more important depends on how seriously you take the consequences."

    Corrigan caught the pause and stopped halfway through buttoning his shirt. "Horace," he said, looking away from the mirror instinctively. "Something's happened. What is it?"

    Horace's voice became formal, sounding like a lawyer serving notice of a suit. "I have to inform you that Mrs. Corrigan is not staying with her sister in Philadelphia for the weekend as you were informed. She will not be returning, and has instructed that her whereabouts not be revealed. It is her intention to initiate proceedings, and you will be hearing from her attorney in due course." There was a pause, Corrigan saying nothing while he knotted his tie and digested what he had heard. Then, reverting to its normal self, Horace added, "She left this message."

    Corrigan slowly finished buttoning his shirt cuffs as Muriel's twangy Tennessee voice filled the room. "Well, I guess by now you know the situation--not that I can see you taking it as any big deal. But then I don't think we ever had much of that deep kind of stuff that they talk about, either way. I never could figure out that world you live in, someplace inside your head. All I know is that I'm in this one out here, and you're never gonna be part of it. . . . But then some of that has to be my fault too, for hitchin' up with somebody who I knew hadn't finished havin' his head an' all that straightened out in the first place. Sorry I couldna been more help in fixin' that like we hoped--but them shrinks did tell us up front that it was a long way from a sure thing.

    "Hell, Joe, no, I'm not the one who should have to be sorry about anything. I tried hard, dammit, you know that? But do you know how hard it can be tryin' to make it with a guy who's--I gotta say this, you understand me, Joe--like, a failure. As in socially, for instance. There's things that people aim at in life, things they try to be that make everyone feel together, like they're part of the same planet. And then there's that job of yours, where you don't care about being a success or have any ambition to try something better. But none o' that ever meant anythin' to you, Joe. . . . Hell, you probably don't even know what I'm talkin' about."

    There was a heavy sigh. "Well, this isn't really coming out the way I wanted it to, so I'll wrap it up. Don't try getting in touch or anythin' like that, because there really isn't any point. I talked to a lawyer, and he'll be in touch soon. . . . I guess that's it. This seemed the best way to break it--without too much talkin' an' stuff. We never did talk the same language, anyhow. So . . . 'bye. I hope things work out."

    By this time Corrigan had finished dressing. He checked the other closet, then the vanity. There were odds and ends, cheaper jewelry, clothes that she had grown tired of. The things that she valued more were mostly gone--far more than she would have taken for a weekend in Philadelphia.

    But he had never doubted what he would find. His movements were unthinking, automatic, filling the void while the meaning sank in. His feelings about it had not yet emerged from beneath a curious detachment. Yes, there was the sudden surprise. But along with it . . . not bitterness, nor anger of rejection, but--even now, poking enticingly out of hiding like an ankle glimpsed below heavy Victorian folds--an intensified version of the relief that he had experienced on awakening.

    "Well, I'll be damned," he said finally in a tone that could have meant anything.

    Horace, after deciding that a short, respectful silence was appropriate, had evidently checked up on how humans were likely to react in situations like this. "Don't do anything rash, Joe," it cautioned. "I understand that these things can be a strain. Breaking the place up would only make everything worse in the long run."

    "Thanks, but I have no intention of doing anything of the kind," Corrigan told it.

    "Do you want to sit down for a minute?"

    "What for?"

    "There are tranquilizers in the cabinet. Or shall I mix you a drink, even if it is early? If you like, I could get Sarah Bewley on the line." Then, via its optical sensors around the room, the machine discerned that Corrigan wasn't behaving in any of the ways categorized in its data retrievals. "Don't you feel rage, remorse, guilt, confusion?" it inquired. "An impulse to get even, to have revenge? Compulsions to commit physical assault or battery? Homicide?"

    "I feel fine."

    But of course, Horace realized: It had been presuming in terms of normal humans. With a deviant like Corrigan, anything was possible. "What are you going to do?" it asked warily.

    Corrigan moved back to his own closet and took out a pastel blue wool-acrylic jacket. "I think I'll go for a walk and eat out," he replied. "So don't worry about breakfast."

    "But . . . that's it?" Simulated or not, Horace sounded genuinely befuddled--even, perhaps, with a hint of mild disappointment.

    "Reality rejection," Corrigan explained, slipping on the jacket as he went through the doorway to the hall. "Look it up with the experts, Horace. I'm sure they'll tell you all about it."

    On the table by the front door was a figurine of a grinning Irish leprechaun in a battered hat, clutching a curly-stemmed pipe. It was originally a wedding present from Corrigan's marriage to his first wife, Evelyn--long ago, now, before his breakdown.

    "And the top o' the mornin' to yerself, too, Mick," he said as he let himself out the door.

    The figurine had been among the personal things kept for him after the house that he and Evelyn had shared was sold. Apart from being a reminder of home, it had always held a strange fascination that Corrigan had never really understood.

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