All that we see or seem

Armed with the immovable paranoia that everyone around conspires against him, an apparently troubled individual begins to question the very nature of reality.










The hesitant patient walked slowly along the long corridor of Pinewood Hill Mental Healthcare Facility, scrutinising the inexpensive-looking artwork which decorated the wall to his right, glancing out of the tall steel-framed windows on his left, at intervals. He was on his way to his appointment but in no real rush, his feet shuffling.

   Each of the exhibited pieces that he observed seemed to him deeply expressive in one sullen way or another and highly evocative in a fittingly correspondent manner. As though one might contract some terribly contagious misery, merely from casting a passing glance over them, each made him feel sombre, blue, ever so melancholic. Each of the many tall windows he peered fleetingly through seemed also to compound his flattening of spirit further, as bright as the day was; for out of each one he noticed increasingly, in the gardens there, the distinct lack of vitality, movement and life.

   It was a scorching hot day in July and so it was odd to anyone pondering it that he should feel so awash with depression. The sun was lancing down gorgeous beams of light which lit up the whole ground and left not one object casting a shadow, so powerful and ubiquitous was its splendour that day. It seemed the whole of outdoors was molten gold, shimmering. As bright as the day was, though, it seemed to him dark.

   Of the paintings and pencil sketches he cared to look at there was one in particular which always made him feel the worst, but that conversely he could not refrain from the prolonged contemplation of. It was oil-painted on a large canvas. The image was that of a spacecraft – a rocket ship – at the point of launching; only it was clearly failing to do so and was instead on the point of destruction. Flames and smoke were issuing not just from its tail but instead flaring from all around the vessel; they shot this way and that in a vivacious oil mimicry of motion; the colours were of an awesomely meticulous accuracy, lending themselves to perfect illusory effect. It was a beautiful destruction. It was fantastic.

   The patient staring proposed to himself that the work had been executed by a patient, and that it was symbolic of unrealised aspirations, of helplessness, somehow. That was at least his interpretation. Perhaps it meant nothing at all.

   ‘Come in, Charles. Take a seat,’ said the doctor, greeting his patient in the doorway of his office. Leading with an open palm, he then said, ‘Please, make yourself comfortable.’

   To his greeter, Doctor Singh, Charles Huff said, ‘Thank you.’

   He took up his seat, forced a smile, awkwardly.

   There had been two chairs to choose from, one furnished in blue and one in red material. Charles wondered, as he had done previously, whether or not there was any supposed psychological implications to be drawn from which colour he chose to park his posterior on, but said nothing of the thought. He had sat on the red chair, as always.

   ‘Would you like a glass of water?’


   The doctor brought Charles water from the fountain dispenser in the corner of his office. He placed it down on the desk between them. It was in a plastic cup.

   Charles took a sip. It was very cold and refreshing.

   I should drink more water, he told himself. It’s good for you. Or at least that’s what they say.

   Next, the doctor took up his own seat, rested his elbows on the desk, laced together the fingers of each hand and then propped them under his bearded chin, as though about to pray.

   He observed Charles with intent, expectant eyes, waiting for him to speak.

   So, we’re here already, thought Charles; we’ve already reached the point where the patient initiates his own cleansing. This guy works fast. I bet he turns over each patient within three months: medicates the soul after the first meeting, cuts them down from weekly to fortnightly sessions, then from fortnightly to monthly, quarterly in no time at all. He’ll most likely down-grade me before long, devolve my course to a counsellor soon enough. The Talking Treatment. How momentarily effective: expel your emotions, vent your vexation, orate your ill-informed opinions and expunge with them your discontent: purgation of the soul, whatever that is.

   Charles breathed a sigh, said nothing. Instead he found himself looking over the left shoulder of the seemingly praying man before him, at the shelves of reference and research material on the bookcase there. Freud on this, Freud on that, Man and his Symbols, Modern Pharmacology: Pharmacodynamics and Pharmacokinetics, Understanding Human Nature by Alfred Adler, ICD-10, Psychiatric Care Planning, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Atlas of Psychiatric Pharmacotherapy… He read the many spines. The bookcase was littered with intriguing titles which, supposing that the good doctor knew them all cover-to-cover and could recall and recite them with the consummate ease of an exemplary schoolboy making biblical declamations, made Charles Huff feel envious in his own self-professed inadequacy. Me, Myself and Schizophrenia, might be a good title for such a book, Charles told himself, had he the aptitude to write it.

   Presently he switched his eyes to looking over the doctor’s right shoulder and out of the window there, the desk between them being at such an angle that it was perfectly aligned to aid this furtive inspection.

   It was indeed an auspicious day outside. The sky had not a lone cloud in it, and so the sun lay idling serenely in the vast blue sea of it; it seemed a vivid painting of which any artist might be proud, framed by the window. But still Charles felt doused in dreariness.

   He had something he wished to discuss.

   On the wall to the left of Charles there was positioned an extraordinarily large mirror which served to catch many a sunbeam and reflect it into volleying around the white-walled room, greatly decreasing the dimness and occasionally dazzling the observant man’s eyes.

   ‘So then,’ said Doctor Singh, after the prolonged silence, ‘how are you feeling? How have you been?’

   Charles shook himself out of dreary introspection, rubbed his left sun-blinded eye, and took another sip of water; his mouth was dry despite having not yet spoken since his first drink.

   ‘Things have been… okay,’ he said, after licking his lips, ‘I suppose.’

   ‘Go on,’ the doctor encouraged him. ‘Go on.’

   And so the patient went on updating the doctor. He spoke on what he could recollect had happened since his last visit, on his increasing alienation from long-standing friendships, how he often could not bring himself to answer the phone, how he had become increasingly obsessed with learning but despondent at how much he struggled to retain. He was frustrated with what he perceived to be his failing memory.

   The thing he wished to discuss drifted repeatedly from the front of his mind to the back, and back to the front again, in a sort of grey mist of cognitive haze.

   ‘That’s a common problem with stress and – and I know you don’t like the term, but – depression.’ The doctor seemed to ease that last word out of his mouth as though it were something secret, lurid, or fragile.

   The melancholic man said nothing.

   ‘Have you been taking the medication I prescribed? The higher dosage?’


   ‘Good. Good. And are they helping at all?’

   ‘I suppose so,’ admitted Charles, ‘at times. I’ve experienced some heightened moods; the plateau now has some mountains, as it were... some ravines, too.’

   ‘Good, that’s good.’ Now he scanned over the patient’s face briskly, said, ‘Well you certainly look better. Less fatigued. More rested. Brighter.’

   Charles shrugged in casual half-agreement.

   ‘And,’ the doctor asked, ‘what about the anxiety?’

   ‘What about it?’

   ‘Well… is it still significant? Still impeding you as much? Or can you get things done more efficiently now?’

   Charles Huff snorted amusedly.

   ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s still there, as always. I just don’t go out much. That helps.’

   ‘Oh,’ said the doctor. He moved quickly on. ‘Have you noticed any side-effects of the medication?’

   The patient took a moment to reflect. Then, entirely unforeseen and unsolicited, he yawned. He laughed to himself at the irony of it. ‘Yes: drowsiness. That’s been a big problem.’

   I don’t see, he thought, how anyone can be expected to achieve happiness – or even contentment, for that matter – when they spend thirteen hours of the day asleep and the other eleven halfway there, like a dumb-and-numb zombie.

   ‘We could try you on a different kind? See how you go?’

   See how I go? thought Charles. See how I go? What am I? A monkey? A lab-rat? A god-damned voodoo-doll pin-cushion? Jab a few hypodermic needles in me and see what happens? Pour some medicinal-Molotov-cocktail down my gullet, stand back and see if I breathe fire the next time I light up a cigarette? See how I go?

   ‘No, thank you,’ said Charles. ‘I’ll persevere, for now.’

   ‘Okay,’ agreed the doctor. ‘But, don’t just stop taking them all-of-a-sudden, Charles, okay? You’re on a relatively high dosage now. To just abruptly stop could be harmful. Okay?’


   ‘You’d have to wean yourself off them,’ he added, ‘gradually.’


   He didn’t need to say gradually, thought Charles Huff. Weaning is always gradual.

   Flatly, the doctor then began to explain just what the consequences could be.

   ‘To just stop like that,’ he explained, ‘could bring on Discontinuation Syndrome, make you sick; could cause a dangerous chemical imbalance in your brain; could cause synaptic trauma, could damage the neurological transmitters and…’

   Charles then became acutely aware of the digression which had initially led away from his concerns and now towards medical matters, matters which he had at best a vague understanding of, and so he contrived to lead the conversation back the way he desired it, even though he could foresee the entire appointment easily falling into a familiar flow of banal closed questions and reflexive answers.

   ‘I find that the more I learn,’ he interjected in a low, listless voice, ‘the less I know. The real problem being that I can’t stop studying. It’s counterproductive. But unavoidable.’

   ‘Socrates,’ the doctor pointed out.

   ‘Pardon?’ said Charles.

   ‘Didn’t Socrates say something similar to that – the more I learn…?’

   Charles shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’m not sure.’

   ‘I’m quite sure he did.’

   Charles conceded that perhaps he did. Then he said listlessly that he felt, ‘the difficulties with retaining and recollecting information are the cause of my discontent, and not a symptom of it. I think – with all due respect – that you have them back-to-front.’

   The doctor mused but remained foursquare in his diagnosis, compelling the patient to proceed with his course of medication: sertraline hydrochloride.

   Charles again conceded and, to his dismay, soon found himself going on and on and on about things that he was certain were a waste of his own time and would too be a waste of Doctor Singh’s time, had he not been in receipt of proportionate remuneration by the Healthcare Services. Then Charles, after exhausting his idle and tediously trivial concerns regarding the practical aspects of his personal life – relationship difficulties, financial struggles, new ambitions, old ones, so forth – and after pondering the doctor’s likely financial income, at last became silent and perceivably pensive. He thought fleetingly about talking on his childhood, but refrained.

   The doctor duly noted his patient’s upset mood, sensed something was troubling him.

   ‘Was there something else,’ he asked, ‘that you wanted to talk about, Charles?’

   And now at this particular question Mr Charles Huff’s mind wildly spun, like a butterfly caught up in a hurricane, trapped in perennial chaos. He hated the words within his head, whipping round and round in the vicious storm, despised his recurring failure to find the perfect combination of them. Communing with his conscience he reached around at a number of the cyclonic words, clutched them, and attempted to form a sentence.

   ‘I’ve not shared with you my… deepest concerns… not been honest as to the extent of my delusions,’ admitted Charles Huff, finally.

   ‘You’ve not mentioned any delusions at all, in all our time together, Charles. Go on,’ said Singh.

   Now we get to the real grit, thought Charles. No more digressions.

   ‘Well,’ he begun, but said nothing more, at once overwhelmingly apprehensive and gripped by familiar aphasia.

   You see Charles Huff suspected, though he knew all too well that he would fail to express it, at least with any true coherence, that life was a cruel play – a pantomime, perhaps – in which he had been elected the unwitting protagonist, bound for torment. He was not sure of the architect of his ominously dreadful fate, but only that it, he, she, or they conspired to do him damage. He felt he was a helpless ant beneath a cruel child’s magnifying glass. A million times before, both furtively and openly, he had attempted to articulate this suspicion, and failed. He considered trying again now but conceded the venture as futile, fruitless.

   He placed a hand on his forehead, groped it in aid of soothing the anxious matter within.

   The doctor waited patiently.

   It’s no good, Charles told himself. I’ve tried and tried. Tried and tried, and still the burden seems impossible to unbosom. Understanding relies heavily, he summated, on the succinct expression of an idea or theoretical premise, yes, but much more so on experience. The listener must have shared similar experiences in order that he might relate to those being narrated, or there stands no chance of accurate comprehension, or even vague understanding. In fact, he speculated, terse narration alone is not enough. Language is not the cornerstone of civilisation, after all. Sympathy is. All that is civil grows from sympathetic ability. And the fulcrum of sympathy is shared experience. Language is merely the crux on which understanding leans, at best. An animal without language can still sympathise with another, facilitated by emotion alone.

   I should tell the doctor that. But, again, that would be pointless. Even if he did understand the speculative premise, the doctor, Charles decided, would associate my feelings with the plotline of a movie or novel, or the symptoms of a medical condition. That, or he would liken it to something it was nothing like, because I can’t help him share in my psychological experiences, can’t help him know what I know. So it always goes. That’s just the way of it. Besides which, he told himself, there’s really no telling just how far and great the conspirators’ reach is.

   This was a thought that had not yet occurred to him.

   The people I’ve tried to explain this to, he pondered, could be a part of the play. Perhaps the doctor would understand that... Or… perhaps… the doctor’s in on it, too?

   And now his mind turned back to the receptionist. Hadn’t she welcomed him by name, he wondered, even though he was almost certain that he had never seen her before? She was new here, he assured himself. Wasn’t she? Or was she? Did she ask for his name before calling him by it? Or after? Or not at all?

   Hadn’t she looked at him in a peculiar fashion, too, and spoken of his arrival in whispers when she was on the telephone, glancing up at him furtively and nervously as she informed Doctor Singh of his arrival?

   The people in the waiting, the staff and fellow patients there, were any of them even real? Or did they cease to exist upon his exiting? When he left the room and could no longer hear their shufflings and fidgetings and words, was it because they simply stopped living, because he was no longer there to entertain, to perform for?

   Didn’t it always seem that there – at Pinewood Hill – for that matter didn’t it seem that everywhere, he was subject to tenfold… twentyfold… thirtyfold attentions, subject to the scrutinising glares of twenty… forty… sixty… a thousand million eyes? Wasn’t he the alien tissue, or the amoeba pond scum, beneath the lens of some great microscope, hugely magnified alighted eyes peering down on him in turn – blue, now brown, now green, the rarest and brightest and most mystifying of colours – watching him, examining him, probing, intruding, staring, staring, staring…

   Paranoia? A sort of converse, reversed, terribly cruel and twisted-around God Complex?

   Heavily burdened, he sighed to himself.

   Then he felt his head split clean in half; and from one half there crept a voice of reason saying not to be, ‘so goddamned foolish.’ But from the other there poured a voice crying out, ‘Yes, yes, you’re right! They are against you! They do conspire!’

   He felt overwhelmed by this thing called Paranoia, felt he could trust nobody. He was racked with it, felt a small vein pulsing in his temple.

   ‘These delusions of yours, are they of a violent nature?’ Doctor Singh wanted to know, finally prompting him.

   Charles suspected that the doctor knew all too well the nature of his apparent delusions, although now he wished very dearly that he had not been forced to even use that word: delusion. He wished he could have found a word more fitting, more succinct. Perhaps suspicion was it. Either way, delusion or suspicion, he could not bring himself to speak of it now.

   But then, all of sudden, in the manner of an epiphany, a poem occurred to him, a poem which seemed to capture the whole mad situation quite perfectly.

   He found himself reciting it, aloud, and the man sitting opposite did not interrupt but instead listened intently:


‘I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of golden sand –

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep – while I weep!

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?’


Edgar Allan Poe.


   Silent for far too short a period, the doctor appeared to ponder the poem only for a very brief time, if at all, and then he said, quite remotely, that, ‘As beautiful as that was, Charles, I’m afraid I don’t follow you.’

   Again the patient felt awash with distrust, as weary as a wild animal suddenly thrust into captivity.

   Wasn’t this always the case, thought Charles Huff; didn’t the doctor seem to have an awful habit of listening but never really hearing, of responding all too quickly, giving no pause for thought.

   Charles breathed out, then in, and out again, and asked himself how any person could fail to understand such an exquisitely astute, masterful and artful execution of expression.

   The simple answer was that they could not.

   Just then Charles heard a buzzing sound.

   It was the sound of an insect annoyance, a fly voice – tiny complaints, incessant whining, anger at nothing – a buzzing, fretting sound.

   It stopped.

   But, there again, it came buzzing, circling the room in spirals about the ceiling, this way and that, here and then there next. Charles Huff’s eyes and head tilted and followed this way and then that, homing in on the flitting sound and its source, but ultimately failing to find it and make an optical verification of its identity. He twitched and ticked here and there, frantically shifting both his eyes and then his head in jerks and blinks, a confused look upon his restless face.

   ‘Are you okay, Charles?’ asked Doctor Singh.

   The sound stopped again.

   ‘Yes, just – just that – fly buzzing around.’

   ‘There’s no fly in here, Charles,’ said the doctor. He looked around the room, added, ‘not to my knowledge anyway.’

   The sound started again: buzz, buzz, buzz.

   ‘You don’t hear it?’



   Buzz, buzz.


   Buzz, buzz, buzz...


   The buzzing stopped.

   Was it just in my head, asked Charles Huff, communing with himself again. Then, his senses sharpened, he heard the buzzing once again. Although slightly quieter, it was much clearer now. His ears twitched. In slow motions he tilted his head, turned it steadily, and stopped. He had located the source of the sound. He knew exactly where it was.

   No, it wasn’t in my head, he told himself. It was in the doctor’s head. I traced it there. It didn’t move at all. It never did once. My ears were just fixing on it, tuning themselves automatically to its origins – the doctor’s head.

   ‘There it is, fainter now,’ murmured Charles, glaring at the man opposite him in suspicion. ‘You don’t hear it?’

   Doctor Singh said nothing, flicked his eyes this way and that, and casually shook his head, making his face a visage of denial.

   Buzz, buzz, buzz, and buzz once more.

   ‘You don’t hear that?’






   ‘Not at all?’

   ‘I’m afraid not, Charles. Listen, would you like me to –’

   A hand was thrust up in a halting motion. ‘Shhh,’ whispered Charles, ‘there it is again.’ He looked at the doctor excitedly now, eyes wide, and said, even more whisperingly now, ‘It’s in your ear.’

   Then, in a fitting flurry, jumping and jerking, the man on the other side of the desk agitatedly poked a finger in his ear, scratched at it, batted away something he was apparently sure did not exist. Then he quickly and loudly grunted, exasperated, panting, ‘Quit this foolish craziness now, Charles! You’re acting like a madman!’ He beat his fist down hard against the desktop. ‘Quit it!’

   Very subtle, thought the patient, very subtle indeed. He had marked the apparent doctor’s behavioural lapse as likened to that of an actor slipping out of character for a moment, his focus compromised. The sign, as implicit as it was, was unmistakable. You know that the whispering-buzzing bug is in your ear, thought Charles, they had you put it there in order that you might receive instructions, so your reaction, too – jumping around like that, panicking – was all for my sake. Bravo, bravo! Quite the performance!

   All of a sudden Charles perceived the illusion of theatre once again, but much more clearly now, in everything he contemplated. He was sure that the walls of the office were false, that the books lined upon the bookcase, if he opened them one-by-one, would contain only blank pages, leaf after leaf after leaf after leaf after leaf… And, had he the wild courage or wild rage to blaze out into the corridor and smash down a few doors – which he felt for certain would all be locked – behind each one he would invariably discover only vacant rooms; or queues of bit-part-players waiting for their cues to take the stage, cross his path, walk shuffling papers, utter indistinct sentiments to one another in rehearsed crowds, stand aimlessly, or perform a tacit pleasantry. The mirror on the wall too, if broken, would inevitably have all the time been concealing a camera, light and sound crew, and a director orchestrating all this, quietly casting instructions, in hushed tones, down a microphone which would lead, through a wireless network, to countless bugs like the one in the doctor’s ear.

   Buzz, buzz, buzz – a pause – then buzz and buzz and buzz again. The man sitting opposite Charles tilted his head to one side, as though something was bothering him, deep within his skull, scratching at his eardrum. Charles noticed the motion, read the blatant sign. They’re whispering to him, he told himself.

   ‘You’re not real,’ Charles announced.

   Apparently nonplussed, the man playing at doctor said nothing.

   ‘You’re not real,’ the patient repeated. ‘Did you hear me?’

   The acting man nodded his head, now visibly vexed, or at least performing a commendable impression of vexation.

   ‘You are not,’ Charles added conviction through emphasis, ‘real.’

   There was the buzzing again, the little voice inside Doctor Singh’s ear. Charles definitely heard it, even if the doctor pretended not to.

   The doctor’s eyes narrowed now and he stared intently at Charles, lurching his head forward slightly, slowly, as a botanist might do in scrutinising some previously undiscovered, or at least undocumented, strange orchid.

   ‘You can’t be serious, Charles,’ he said disbelievingly. ‘You’re not serious, are you?’

   ‘Yes. I am. Deadly.’

   ‘Oh,’ the doctor-come-botanist intoned. ‘Well then, if I’m not real, Charles, what am I – a figment of your imagination, perhaps?’


   The doctor laughed quietly, nervously, and said, ‘Well, then what? Do tell.’

   ‘An actor, a drone, or an android; something unreal and placed here to make me seem crazy… that’s what you are. I know it.’

   ‘Surely you can’t truly believe that, Charles.’

   ‘I can. I do. Because it’s the truth.’

   ‘I’m afraid it’s not the truth, Charles.’ The doctor, seemingly sympathetic of poor Charles and his fantastical fantasy, sighed. ‘Not the truth at all.’

   ‘Prove it,’ demanded the deluded individual.

   ‘Well,’ said the doctor, humouring his patient, raising one eyebrow, ‘I have a family, a wife and child –’

   ‘So what,’ Charles Huff said, his face perfectly expressionless. ‘Maybe they’re not real either. Maybe you’re making them up.’

   ‘I can assure you I’m not,’ chuckled the doctor, with false joviality.

   ‘Maybe you don’t even know you’re not real,’ offered the impatient patient. His eyes roved speculatively over the doctor’s face, shirt and tie.

   ‘And how would that work, Charles? Please, do elaborate. Enlighten me.’

   ‘Well,’ Charles proposed, ‘how about we say that you have the outwardly appearance of being real so much so that you’re convinced of the authenticity of your life. But you’re not really alive. You’re mechanical. Maybe everyone is like that – apart from me – going about their lives with a programmed mechanical regularity, and not ever suspecting and all the time not knowing that they’re mechanical.’

   There was the buzzing again.

   The ersatz doctor laughed heartily now, said to Charles, ‘I’m certainly not mechanical, I can assure you of that. Why,’ he laughed again, ‘I had an operation just last year; and I cut my finger just the other week when I was making dinner; I bleed, Charles; I bled.’

   Softly, the doctor went on laughing.

   Now Charles felt a deep frustration boiling up inside himself, a building torrent, as a fumarole bubbling up with indignation, on the verge of spouting forth steaming jets of acidic water.

   He was hugely anxious.

   He felt his right knee tremble, tried to stop it.

   He bit his lip, breathed heavily through his now-flared nostrils.

   Then he erupted, exploded, shouted over the unreal man’s unreal laughter. ‘It’s only blood,’ he wailed, ‘because you’ve been told that it’s blood!’

   At this the unreal man ceased his joviality, placed his laced knuckles back under his bearded chin, sat quietly, and listened, expecting embellishment but not elucidation.

   ‘How do you know what blood is, really?’ asked Charles. He licked his bitten lips. ‘How do you really and truly know exactly what it is? Did you count the reds and whites yourself? Inspect it beneath the lens of the first ever microscope, four hundred years gone by? Did you watch it spill from the wounds of history’s first murder victim and declare quietly, holding the piece of slate which killed him, “ah, yes, that’s blood, made of fire and wind.”? No, you did not.’

   ‘This isn’t just some crazed whim, you know.’ Charles shook his head in very small and very quick movements, insistently. ‘No, it’s something I’ve considered at great length. Blood?’ he laughed. ‘What is it, really? You just accepted the name of it as we all did, in childhood, without ever wondering otherwise. Couldn’t it be wrong? A lie like any other lie; an unintentional one, perhaps, but a lie all the same; or a false name, as so many others have been proven to be. Theories all fail in time, details become jaded, formulas crumble, the maths stop adding up, and they give way to the new. You might think I’m crazy but in my mind nothing is crazier than blindly accepting another man’s truth, without actually proving it, first of all, to yourself.’

   The doctor nodded, continued to listen.

   ‘Human progress has equalled Nature’s,’ added the wild-eyed patient. ‘Even surpassed it in some cases; so much so that I can no longer tell what’s real and what’s not. The anchors which hold my mind in place have broken away, rusted to nothing, and I’m left drifting through a shoreless sea of uncertainty. Now I’m unsure of almost everything. I ask myself: “Is my mind my own? Is it even a mind, sat alone and uninfluenced in my skull? Are the choices that are mine to make, really mine to make? Do I have a choice in any of what I wonder?” We could all be mechanical androids, living but not living, for the entertainment of some great and curious inventor. Blood could be oil, the heart a pump, the liver a filter, the brain a computer. Isn’t that what they call it, “the most powerful computer there is”?’

   Doctor Singh the humanoid sat back in his chair now, rocked a little, to and fro, and seemed to be honestly considering the plausibility of Mr Charles Huff’s insane perspective. He mused for many minutes, the sun behind him.

   Deep in thought he now looked down at the upturned palms of his hands, turned them over, flexed his fingers, made a fist, opened it, made a fist again, opened it, and examined the moving parts beneath the purportedly synthetic skin. Then he flipped them over again and observed the pulse beating in his wrist, like a ritual drum, or a piston, thumping, thumping, thumping, bur-bum, bur-bum, bur-bum. You could read in his face that he had never before challenged his own mind to think outside the confines of the collective’s. But that now he was. Deeply, he was.

   Consensuses faltered, axioms crumbled, the rock of truth experienced erosion caused by the encroaching sea of uncertainty. The doctor seemed to be asking quiet questions in the resounding silence of the sun’s shadow: Blood or oil? Heart or pump? Liver or Filter? Mind? Computer? Controlled or in control? His electronic mind and pneumatic heart raced. The questions seemed to somehow have breached the formally unimpeachable fabric of his reality. His mind seemed to be whirling and whirring, spinning uncontrollably, seemed suddenly unsettled beyond all hope of sustained composure.

   He paled, turned grey, shook a little.

   He knows it could be true, thought Charles Huff, staring at the suspicious man in the chair across the table, who was now visibly perturbed. He knows. He knows damn well I could be right.

   In the next moment the apparently confused and seemingly stressed doctor-come-synthetic-man began – with lightning suddenness, mouthing silent words of plea and gasping for air – to reel about in his chair, thrashing first to his right, and then to his left, clutching at his chest in agony, face distorted in sheer, unmitigated, most terrible pain.

   He was having what we call a heart attack.

   His eyes blazed in the direction of Charles Huff’s in want of help, but found the witnessing patient either unwilling or unable.

   Then the doctor flung out his right hand and clawed desperately at the desktop, beat his fist against it, then lashed the same hand – now once again open – back against his bursting chest.

   He gripped at his chest, his face the portrait of an almost silent scream, making only soft gurgling sounds of excruciation.

   Once more he threw out his right hand, desperately reached, grasping for the telecom linked to the office; he missed it and knocked the phone off the desk and on to the floor, gave out an agonised scream and then another gurgling groan.

   His heart exploded violently in his chest. His mind collapsed. Each organ buckled in turn, palsied, quavered, fitted and then failed under the immense and unbearable weight of new and horrifically intolerable perception.

   He issued a gargle, his final breath, the life pouring out of him, and then finally fell back, silently slumped in his chair, and failed to move again.

   There was the buzzing once more, within the now-deaf ear of the inoperative doctor.

   Buzz, buzz, and buzz a final time: commands not followed.

   He wasn’t real, thought Charles Huff, and I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it…

   ‘I knew it,’ he then said aloud, shaking his right fist at the air. ‘You can’t fool me any longer! He wasn’t real and I knew it! I knew it!’

   Then, beginning to sweat, he got up crazily from the red upholstered chair, staggered a little but reclaimed his balance, composed himself and cracked his knuckles, and set out to smash the false mirror, tear through the fake walls, to kick down the bolted doors and expose the whole sadistic circus, to locate and beat the orchestrators and the architects of his cruel fate.




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