Monday, May 3, 2010



Dr. Pellegrino awoke to find himself in a padded cell. For just about any man, much less a man of his studied ambitions, this was a distinctly unsettling turn of events. Why, only last night he had gone to bed at the usual time, in the usual place. As Warden for The Institute of Mental Reprogramming, he was used to being on the other side of the bars, looking in. Whatever went wrong?

For years he had been a devoted public servant of the Imperium. Was it not he who designed the software for Sybil, the computer program which had proved so useful in monitoring subversive movements? Indeed, it was that achievement which had brought him to the attention of Gen. LaBete, and gained him his promotion.

To be sure, it is not uncommon for LaBete’s most trusted lieutenants to fall out of favor with the grand old man. And when they did so, they would disappear behind the sound-absorbent walls of the Institute, never to be seen or heard from again. Well, that’s not entirely true. They could still be heard from time to time--in high-pitched squeals of pain.

Not only was it not uncommon, but rather routine, for secretly denouncing one’s superiors to LaBete under some trumped up charge of sedition was, after all, the general method of career advancement.

Yes, that must be what had happened to Dr. Pellegrino. Some obsequious underling of his had floated an evil rumor. But who could it be, and what could it be? Had he not taken every possible precaution to cover his tracks? Not only so, but to lay down another set of tracks pointing in the wrong direction? He had done his share of whispering in the old man’s ear. Such was both an occupational hazard and an occupational safeguard.


Deep into his musings on cosmic injustice, his cell-door opened noisily, and Pellegrino was escorted to his old office, which was now occupied by a new incumbent. Pellegrino was startled to see Col. Clouenfote in his old chair.

For years, Col. Clouenfote had been as LaBete’s right-hand man. Indeed, rumor had it that Clouenfote was the real power behind the throne. Evidently, LaBete came to nurture the same suspicion, for Clouenfote fell from his good graces, to be "reassigned," as the saying went, to the Institute. Following upon an unfortunate "accident" in custody--or was it suicide?--accounts differed--Clouenfote’s condition was upgraded to brain-dead, after which he was given a state funeral for his years of faithful service to the revolutionary cause.

That, at least, was the official report. All this happened before Pellegrino became warden. But it now looked like "death" was a term of art. Were all those eulogies spoken over an empty casket? Come to think of it, maybe that’s why it was a closed casket ceremony. Had Clouenfote staged his own death?

In the Imperium, things were never quite as they seemed. Why, LaBete himself had "died" on more than one occasion to smoke out his political rivals. No one could succeed him until he died--whether by natural causes or otherwise--and if he could liquidate his successors before they could liquidate him, his tenure was secure. All things considered, "death" was his best life-insurance.

Like 3D chess, imperial bullets weren’t restricted to straight lines, but could travel at right angles. There was no telling from just what corner an imperial bullet might emerge. That no doubt lent life in the Imperium a certain sprightly exhilaration.

I don’t wish to leave the reader with an unduly harsh impression of The Imperium. LaBete preferred a scalpel to an ax. He took a certain professional pride in his management skills. It was not so much a moral inhibition to wanton carnage, for morality was only a tool to restrain the masses. Rather, it was more a matter of decorum and statecraft. Not point wasting a perfectly good bullet. Even assassination had its golden mean. Excess was a sign of inefficiency, and inefficiency was downright indecent in a respectable despotism.

Nevertheless, as LaBete was apt to say, one well-placed projectile does wonders for diplomatic leverage. A bullet is worth a thousand words.


Clouenfote dismissed the guards, who took up their station outside the door--just a buzzer away--then gestured for Pellegrino to sit down. This was the same chair in which Pellegrino’s "patients" ordinarily sat for their "therapy" sessions. "Patient" was another term of art in the Imperium, as was the word for "therapy."

Counterrevolutionary impulses were humanely treated as a symptom of mental illness. Treatment took a variety of forms, depending on the severity of the illness. Just as certain techniques were used to cultivate an aversion to addictive-compulsive behavior, aversion therapy was often employed in the treatment of counterrevolutionary impulses. It was necessary to first diagnose the particular phobia of a given patient, then put his phobia to productive use.

More extreme cases might require more invasive measures, such as electroshock therapy or the odd lobotomy. There was even a specially trained pain-management team to scientifically investigate a patient’s pain threshold. In the Imperium, tolerance was a virtue--especially a tolerance to pain.

But in the case of high-ranking patients, psychoanalysis was the preferred method of extracting useful information lest more invasive procedures might impair their long-term memory.

Contrary to the impersonal image of socialized medicine, treatment at the Institute was deeply sensitive to the unique profile of each patient who came through its doors. There was a low doctor-to-patient ratio to ensure that no patient fail to received the individualized attention he needed. What is more, all neurosurgical and neuropharmacological services were offered free of charge, as a civil right of every certifiable citizen. Patients were so satisfied with the treatment they received that, once admitted, no one ever left the Institute.


"Dr. Pellegrino," said Clouenfote, "I’ve heard so much about you that it’s a real privilege to finally meet you!"

"Forgive me for saying," said Pellegrino, "but the inauspicious circumstances of our meeting tend to dampen my enthusiasm!"

"I quite understand."

"Why am I under suspicion?"

"Come, come, my dear fellow. In the Imperium, no one is above suspicion. You know that!"

"But why am I here?"

"It has come to the attention of the Imperium that some of your recent contacts raise a few questions about where your ultimate loyalties lie."

"What contacts?"

"Your interest in Piscator."

"That’s why Sybil is for. To monitor subversive groups like Piscator."

"Yes, I quite understand," said Clouenfote, "but sometimes the level of interest goes well beyond the bounds of purely professional duty, and becomes an altogether more personal concern."

"If you’re accusing me of counterrevolutionary sympathies, nothing could be further from the truth! I’m a loyal public servant of the Imperium!"

"Comrade, no one is accusing you of anything. Your aren’t on trial here. It is not as though this were a punitive action on our part. No, you were committed for your own good. Our only concern is that you receive the help you need."

"I don’t need any help! I’m innocent, I say!"

"If you were innocent, you’d profess your innocence--but if you were guilty, you’d profess your innocence. That is what makes this a matter of such exquisite delicacy. Surely you understand our predicament?"

"So you are accusing me of something!"

"Once again you’re entirely too defensive about this. Mental illness is not a crime!"

"I’m not insane!"

"If you were sane, you’d profess your sanity--but if you were insane, you’d profess your sanity. That’s why we need to go through this exercise in psychodiagnostics, in order to isolate and identify the root-cause of your psychosis."

"This is crazy!" Pellegrino exclaimed.

"Ah, I’m glad to see that we’re finally making some progress!"

"That’s not what I meant. You’re twisting my words!"

"Then what do you mean?"

"This is a miscarriage of justice--that’s what I mean!"

"I see. So you really are impugning the integrity of the Imperium. Such a treasonous confession confirms our worst fears."

"How can I acquit myself when you choose to equate self-defense with self-incrimination?"

"It seems to me that you’ve answered your own question!" Clouenfote replied.

Everything that Pellegrino said made matters worse. Indeed, it suddenly occurred to him that he had heard this all many times before, only he was the interrogator, and someone else was on the couch. But somehow it never hit him until today.


The next morning, Pellegrino was taken back to Clouenfote’s office.

"So good to see you again," said Clouenfote. "I hope you’re better rested today. I’m afraid we got off on rather the wrong foot yesterday. Would you like a nice cup of tea?"

Pellegrino sipped slowly as music playing in the background--the Damnation of Faust by Berlioz, as he recalled.

"Now, in our little counseling session this morning, let’s talk some more about your associations with Piscator," Clouenfote said.

"I have no associations with Piscator!"

"There you go again! You’re taking this much too personally! If you have nothing to hide, why do you become so irritable the moment I pose a simple, innocuous question?"

"Waking up in a padded cell, interrogated like an enemy of the state--that might have something to do with it!"

"This is all for your own protection. We only have you best interests at heart. That is why LaBete took the unusual step of having me assigned to your case."

"Either that or he think I know something I’m not supposed to know!"

"And do you?"

"Of course not!"

"If you didn’t know, you’d say you didn’t know--but if you knew, you’d say you didn’t know."

"What’s there not to know? You tell me?"

"Now that’s a trick question, my dear Pellegrino."

"On the contrary, isn’t the real question what you think I know?"

"Now you’re trying to change the subject again. Let’s get back to Piscator," Clouenfote said. "Do you remember the very first question of the shorter catechism which we all taught in grade school?"

"How could I forget? ‘What is there?’" Pellegrino replied.

"And what was the answer?"

"Infinite atoms in infinite combinations!"

"Precisely! But Piscator believes in all this ethereal, intangible stuff like God and angels, the immortal soul, and abstract universals like sin and grace.

Yet scientific materialism has disproven the existence of spectral entities. There is no mind. The mind is just a useful fiction, a bourgeois illusion. We are meat machines--corporeal robots programmed by natural selection to simulate consciousness, but--trust me--there is no homunculus behind the eyes.

There is, indeed, no essential difference between a man and a packet of instant coffee. The only difference between the two is that you must mix up a different batch of dry chemicals to get a man or a cup of coffee. Just add water!"

Pellegrino nodded his head in apparent agreement. Indeed, had he’d heard this same speech a week ago he’d have nodded his head in earnest agreement. But now he was beginning to harbor grave doubts about the party line. Up until now he’d had no reason to question the Imperial creed. Indeed, he’d had every reason to never question it. Until his fall from grace, he had prospered under the system.

But now, yes now, the crackpot logic of the whole enterprise was beginning to take hold. And the more unreasonable the Imperial creed appeared to be, the more reasonable the Piscarian creed seemed to be. Of course, he didn’t tip his hand to Clouenfote.


Back in the cell, Pellegrino began to plot his escape. The Institute was a high security facility. Yet most of its security measures took the form, not of armed guards, but of electronic locks, motion-controlled laser beams, nerve gas, the electrified fence, and other suchlike.

Once he was taken into custody, his access codes were moot, but having designed the software for Sybil he knew how to hack into the system. All he needed was to get his hands on a computer keyboard. That's how he would break out. But where would he go?

In his surveillance of Piscator, he had discovered their secret base in the Delectable Mountains. He was planning to report this to the Imperium before his downfall. But now he was hoping to join the movement.

He bluffed his way through the third "counseling" session. At one point he deliberately spilled his cup of tea, making it look like an accident. When Clouenfote went for a napkin, Pellegrino stole a ballpoint pen.

As the guards were escorting him back to his cell, Pellegrino whipped out his pen and stabbed them both. He then headed back to the office as little puffs of smoke rose over his shoulder, unbeknownst to him.

With an ID card he had taken from the guard, Pellegrino swiped the lock on his old office door, and barged back in.

Clouenfote was startled, to say the least. He buzzed the guards, but of course, they were out of action. He then reached for a gun in the desk drawer, but Pellegrino was on top of him. In the ensuing tussle and scuffle, Clouenfote was shot. But instead of bleeding, he began to sizzle and smoke.

Pellegrino was momentarily nonplused, then the truth dawned on him--Clouenfote really was a robot! Evidently, Clouenfote had died after all, to be replaced by a robotic double.

After recovering his senses, Pellegrino went to the computer terminal and disabled the security system. He was now free to make his escape.

But then another thought crossed him mind. Who was really in charge of the Imperium?

Having swiped the computer with Clouenfote’s ID card, Pellegrino didn’t need to hack into the system, for Clouenfote already had the next highest security clearance, just under LaBete.

He studied a top-secret map of the Imperium. This disclosed an underground shuttle which went direct from the Institute to Imperial Central, where LaBete was headquartered.

Curiosity got the better of him. Pellegrino hopped onto the shuttle. With Clouenfote’s ID card, he had no difficulty gaining access to LaBete’s private office.

LaBete was seated in the handsome leather chair from which he was seen to give his televised speeches to the nation. Pellegrino stalked over, gun in hand, and demanded to know who had turned him in.

LaBete was speechless. When Pellegrino bent over, LaBete disappeared from view. When Pellegrino straightened up, LaBete reappeared. Momentarily confused, Pellegrino then waved his hand back and forth. The image came and went accordingly. LaBete was a hologram!

It seemed as though the entire Imperium was one vast automated necropolis. How could that be? Where did all the people go?

He then did another computer search. It turned out that Sybil was generating robots and holograms to replace dying members of the Imperium. Pellegrino never designed Sybil to do that, but as an adaptive program, his software rose to the challenge of keeping the old guard intact.

But, for Pellegrino, the idea of a robotic ghost town was like a nightmare from which the sleeper can never awake. Worse than that, it was a mantrap. Any man or woman wandering in would be ensnared like a rat in a mousetrap. It was time to put an end to the bad dream and make his way to the Delectable Mountains.

Pellegrino went into the computer system for the power plant, and initiated a shutdown of the entire power grid, leaving himself just enough time to get out of the Imperium before all hardwired and wireless systems went offline. After he got outside the defensive perimeter, he turned around to watch the lights going out all over the Imperium. He had made it! He was free--free at last!


A week later, Piscator retook the Imperium. There they found Pellegrino still standing outside the city gates, frozen in place, facing the Imperium.

A computer search uncovered the fact that Pellegrino has been executed as an enemy of the state, right after which his cybernetic doppelganger was put in a padded cell, and preprogrammed to wake up the next morning. In the Imperium, "to wake up" was a term of art.