Reality Inspector, chapter 5

Copyright © 1982 John Caris

John reviewed the past two days as he drove along Portola Drive. His meetings with ZAC were starting to bear fruit. They were slowly understanding each other. It was a sharing of feelings now, but soon, he hoped, it would be a sharing of ideas. ZAC was aware of the alien program's existence. It felt guilt and embarrassment when the program reappeared, causing errors in the M-l calculations. It also felt frustrated since it did not know how to prevent the program from returning. ZAC was like a human who, subconsciously without intending, commits a gaffe and then turns around and does it again.

Traffic was slowing up. When he reached the lights at the intersection of Clayton Street and Market Street, the traffic came to a complete stop. After a few minutes he decided to take Clayton and go around to Haight Street and then down it to the Mint. But at the fire station Clayton was blocked with a detour. John swung left and up Twin Peaks Boulevard. Driving up to the intersection with Clarendon Avenue, he parked his car. Wood-framed, earthfilled steps ascended the steep slope of Pluto Hill. After climbing to the top, he went over to the eastern slope. From here the East Bay could be viewed. Turning northward, he saw the red, twin towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. A fog bank sat about a mile off the coast, making the shoreline of Marin County up to Bolinas Point visible.

He sat down beneath an eucalyptus tree and, taking his pipe, filled it with some tobacco. Letting his mind wander, he watched a large freighter move toward the Bay Bridge. It had been over a year since he had last visited Pluto Hill. Then, Od and he had made a pilgrimage to this spot so that they could watch a full moon rise above the East Bay hills. It had been an enchanted night; a slight breeze rippled leaves of nearby trees, and as darkness settled upon them, a huge, yellow moon slowly ascended its way heavenward. Time seemed to stop, as if they were in a different dimension, one that was magical.

Now, he was here by chance or destiny. Whichever, he could use the opportunity to reflect on ZAC and its reality leak. The morning mail had brought him another threat, or was it another clue? He had received a piece of paper with the image of a pawn stamped on it and a typed message beneath: "passed away." Again, there was no name. If he assumed that it was from the person who had sent the first message, then the phrase "passed away" meant death. But why was the image of a pawn included? Was he a pawn in some larger chess game? Was Mr. Acorn using him in some unknown way? Pawns were quickly and easily sacrificed or traded when position demanded. A pawn separated from its comrades was weak and usually left to the ravages of combat, unless it was in a significant position like on the king or queen file or on the seventh rank. John did not feel separated even if he might be a pawn. He must make certain that he was not separated, unless the situation demanded and he was willing to be bait in a trap.

Certainly, this second threat sharpened his alertness and survival instincts. Whoever his opponent was, he was being warned; his opponent was giving him a fair chance. Or was either of those messages from an enemy? One or both could be from a friend who had secret knowledge of his danger and wished to warn him.

The first chess game of the championship match was tonight, starting at seven p.m. Although the match would be held in the Cow Palace, all seats had been sold out two weeks ago. Of course, many seats were reserved for different chess clubs. Only standing room would be offered at the door. John had decided to watch the match at the Rainbow Inn since Mary had installed a large screen TV for the occasion.

He had his own chess game now, one in which he was a pawn. Or was that the idea--that he should see himself as a pawn and thus lose any initiative? He would be careful not to fall into that trap! He would not be a pawn just because someone said that he was.

He looked toward the Mint and thought of ZAC. If he could fly like a bird, it would be easy to reach the Mint. But with the traffic snarl it was like going through a maze, and he did not have Ariadne's thread to follow. A straight line could be drawn from the Mint to Pluto Hill, and in the middle of that line was Corona Heights where the Josephine Randall Museum was located. If lines were drawn among all the city's hills, an interesting and intricate pattern would emerge.

A strange feeling touched him, and he recalled Fritiz Leiber's story Our Lady of Darkness, which was set in San Francisco. Were there really malevolent forces under the city's hills--forces so strong that any mind coming into contact with them would be destroyed? At the moment he did not want to find out; he needed his mind intact if he were to solve ZAC's problem. But a thought kept lurking in the back of his mind. What if those forces were affecting ZAC?

John cleaned the ashes from his pipe and refilled it. The afternoon was warm, and a smog hung over the downtown. A few years ago most of the bay could be seen; but now because of the many downtown highrises, only a patchwork of glass and concrete was visible. The traffic snarl certainly had been removed by this time, but he was in no hurry to leave. So he sat and smoked his pipe.

Perhaps, he was not supposed to visit ZAC today. If so, what was its meaning? He made a mental list. One, he was caught in a delay. Two, he could have reached the Mint only by a circuitous route. Three, he was spending the afternoon on Pluto Hill, which he had not visited for over a year. Four, the Mint was on a ridge linking several other promontories.

And then there was the second message--passed away. He had certainly passed far away from his intended goal. Perhaps, he should redefine his goal, taking into consideration the events of the day. His intention had been to visit ZAC, yet perhaps he was supposed to sit on Pluto Hill and--what? Think? Think about what? He visualized Ariadne's thread. She was certainly a pawn in Theseus' game. Theseus had cruelly disposed of her when he no longer needed her. And there was the line between Pluto Hill and the Mint, between ZAC and him. He now felt empathy toward ZAC as he would toward a human being. It was no longer an objective and neutral job but a subjective and sympathetic one. ZAC was his friend, a friend that needed help, whose reality had leaks. Because of those leaks ZAC's sanity was in danger. The bigger the ego, the greater the fall. And ZAC had a very high opinion of itself. If ZAC did go off the edge, how would that affect the whole economic system? Could one computer, turned into a monster, wreak havoc with the fiscal policy? He did not have sufficient data to decide that, so he would file it away for now; perhaps later, he would gain more information.

Wisps of fog were now blowing down the eastern slopes of Twin Peaks. John decided that it was time to return home and have some dinner before the chess match began.

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