Exclusives

PECULIAR TULIPS

By February 14, 2018 No Comments

 

The bounty hunter forgets why he was in the building the instant he walks out. He looks back through the entrance yawning doorlessly in the unmarked redbrick facade behind him. Then he looks up and down the alley. The sky is thick with grey-bellied clouds and the asphalt about him patched with mirroring patches of puddle. By the time his gaze returns to the door there is a woman standing there, blonde hair cropped short, a slim bulge of fat slung under her chin.

‘What’re you still doing here?’ she says.

The bounty hunter shrugs.

‘Same thing I was doing in there, I suppose.’

The woman chuckles. Her throat is naked to him and so is the entire pinkshirted expanse of her chest and her gut. The bounty hunter notes this all in an instant, along with shapelessness of her arms and the tightness of her garb – a thick-shouldered black jacket, a tube skirt cut off at the knees.

She is not afraid of him, then.

‘Go home,’ says the woman. She waves a hand at him. ‘Go on. Shoo.’

He turns to go. A moment later she calls out after him.

‘Wait!’

She disappears into the dark and returns holding a porkpie hat and as she comes towards him the puddlewater splatters up onto her glossy pink heels tea-dark and full of grime. She holds the hat out to him. The bounty hunter takes it and inspects its stained band and the crinkles on its coalblack brim. Then he looks back up at the woman.

‘This is mine?’

The woman laughs. Loud and loose, body quivering with amusement.

‘Yeah, it’s yours. And for fuck’s sake, get it right, this time.’

‘Get what-’

‘Shoo, now. Go on. Shoo.’

The bounty hunter walks away but the woman claps her hands and points the other way. He stops for a moment and realizes that she’s right. He heads down past two large bins stalked by doppelgangers who appear briefly in the puddles beneath him, mimicking his movements and disappearing into the wet black of the blacktop. It is drizzling now. How unfortunate this water is, he thinks, to have come so far, only to fall here in this in-between space inhabited only by sodden fragments of boxes and shoe-smeared ramen. How sad that this clear and heavenly stuff will be permeated with filth and then run in into pipes clogged with the forsaken wreckage of life above, even more putrid than the alley itself. How long will it linger in that stagnant dark before finally it returns to the sea, or else seeps into the earth through layers of redeeming rock? How long before it is water once again, and not just a matrix for things that no one and nothing else would want?

Finally he comes to the end of the alley. Cars lurch along before him in the grips of a traffic jam and people hustle past, silent and glum. He turns around. The woman is still there, by the door, bright like an errant daub of paint. She waves at him, and walks back in.

 

*

 

He catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror when he walks into his flat. His face is lean and bloodless. His hair is thinning and slicked back in tendrils, and between these his scalp is pale and moist. He stares at his reflection for a long time and as he does it disaggregates into an unstill sprawl of eyes and lips and flaring nostrils and after that he can’t look any longer. There is a thin film of dust on everything and the air is crowded with several species of staleness that fight for attention in his nose. In a fishtank in the far corner is a coral-and-black ringed snake and it rears up when he shuts the door. It is a male, and it is called Georgias.

He remembers this.

He clears away things he doesn’t remember leaving, moving with precision and in silence as if enacting the steps to a dance he has repeated so often he needn’t think of the moves. Removing cans of beer he is convinced he doesn’t drink and two ashtrays full of cigarette butts he doesn’t smoke. In the living room are two knitted signs. One, red letters on flecked white cloth, has a picture of a magnifying glass, and says Nothing exists. In the end the only certain thing as that I, the thinker, and my mental state, are real. All else is extrapolation. Another, hanging over the TV, says If thinking it made it real, then all things that can be thought, would exist. There is also a post-it struck to the microwave door that simply says For fuck’s sake get it right this time. The bounty hunter reads these, blank-faced, moves on.

He opens the curtains to let some of the feeble grey light in and opens the windows. Then he fixes himself a plate of cheese and bread and ivory-white pickled shallots he fishes out of the sour-smelling bottle with a fork. There is a box of frozen mice in the freezer, stacked atop one another like furry white logs. There is also one in the fridge. He takes this, cool yet somehow still soft to the touch, and drops it into the snake’s tank. Then he watches, eating, as the creature slithers over to the corpse and distends its jaws and begins to swallow it with rhythmic pulses of its throat. He does not notice but after a few moments he synchronizes his chewing with the snake’s gulping. His eyes, fixed on the creature, do not blink.

When all this is done he turns on his computer and checks his emails. He has just one, marked Cheng. As he reads he takes a small pad and writes things down in short bursts and his writing is crowded and tiny like a host of lined-up ants. When he is done he walks over to his wall and taps one of the wooden panels. It slides away to reveal a safe the size of his chest. Inside it is coffin-deep and contains four or five steel boxes and assorted papery ephemera – passports, envelopes, cash. He extracts one of the boxes and inside is a brushed steel pistol.

The bounty hunter holds this up to the light and examines it with great care. Then he lifts the padding beneath it and extracts a box of bullets and loads each one into the magazine. Finally he clicks it into place through the handle with the sound of a small bone snapping and looks at the snake.

‘Got a hunt, Georgias,’ he says.

The snake, bloated and immobile, flicks its tongue and says nothing.

By now it is dark and he realizes that there is nothing else he wants to do. He strips naked and climbs into bed. The mattress is harder than he expected and the blanket too thin and he wonders why the whole thing feels so unfamiliar. But soon he is asleep. He dreams of snakes hunting people, and in those dreams, he is the snake.

 

*

 

The bar is wood panelled and narrow and instead of light bulbs  each table has a little kerosene lamp producing a single sinuous flame. Behind the counter is a wall garlanded with jewel-bright bottles, and above those are masses of glasses hanging from racks like an expanse of crystallized sugar. There is one other person there when the bounty hunter walks in, a woman in a pink tube skirt sitting at the far end. He can smell fuel and cigarette smoke and leather and booze and with these come the half-formed fragments of so many memories that the bounty hunter must stand and breathe deep to settle himself before he sits.

The barkeep comes over, smiling, and puts down a coaster

‘What’ll it be?’ he says.

‘Port,’ says the bounty hunter.

The barkeep pours him a ruby glass of the stuff with limp-wristed flourish. The bounty hunter shoots it and licks his lips and holds up a finger. The barkeep pours again.

‘Busy?’ says the bounty hunter.

‘Not very,’ says the barkeep.

‘You free to chat, then?’

‘We’re closing soon, so I’ll be doing this and that. Doesn’t mean I’m not listening.’

The bounty hunter nods.

‘Yeah, yeah.’

The barkeep picks up another wine glass and wipes it with his rag. Then he holds it up to the light with one eye closed and through it the world is garbled into curving shards. When he is satisfied he hangs it up with the other glasses.

‘Where’s your wife from?’ says the bounty hunter.

The barkeep pauses.

‘You’re wearing a ring.’  

The barkeep looks at his ring, and resumes wiping.

‘Beijing,’ he says, eventually.

‘So she’s a tike?’

The barkeep turns and scowls at the bounty hunter and the bounty hunter chuckles. ‘Relax,’ he says. Then he shoots the rest of his port and holds up his finger.

‘Why don’t you pay for what you’ve already had?’ says the barkeep.

The bounty hunter shrugs and presses his thumb to the bar. When he removes it he leaves a fluorescent green print.

‘Open tab,’ he says.

The print flickers and words appear next to it. Fluorescent also, and blinking gently. Transaction complete.

The barkeep pours him another drink.

‘So you from China too?’

‘You have something against the Chinese?’

‘No. Good for them. Ruling the world.’

‘They don’t rule the world.’

‘They own it.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Yeah they do. Most of it. The bits that matter, anyhow. You speak Chinese?’

The woman down at the end of the bar says something and the barkeep heads over to her. He puts a glass on the bar and drops three cubes of ice into it and pours something in over those. The glass is clear and the ice transparent and the liquid, colourless too, churns into foam till it settles. The barkeep makes no move to return to the bounty hunter so eventually he catches his eye and signals for another shot of port.  

‘What’s her story?’ says the bounty hunter.

‘She’s a regular.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Where’s she from?’

‘Not sure.’

The barkeep hangs the last wine glass up and reaches under the bar. He takes out a bottle of whiskey and pours a shot and downs it. Then he puts the bottle back.

‘You allowed to do that?’ says the bounty hunter.

‘Did you see the name of this bar when you came in?’

‘Cheng’s.’

The barkeep points at himself.

‘I’m Cheng.’

‘That’s a Chinese name.’

‘Yeah, but I’m not Chinese.’

‘Suppose you can’t be.’The bounty hunter sips his port and licks his lips. ‘Ever heard of the Chinese room?’

‘We’re closing in twenty minutes.’

‘It’s a thought experiment,’ says the bounty hunter. ‘It’s a good one.’

The barkeep leans back against the far counter and glances to his left to where his gun is clipped to the underside of the bar. It is barely visible in the shadows but for five winking yellow-green lights at the top of the grip. It is fully charged.  

The bounty hunter keeps speaking.

‘Imagine,’ he says, ‘There’s this room. There’s no way out and no way in except this one door, and it’s locked. There’s nothing else in the room but a table, and a chair with a book on it.’

The woman in the pink dress says something and the barkeep heads over to her without a word. They chat for a few moments, heads bowed, and then they both look at the bounty hunter and laugh. Then the woman gets up and shakes the barkeep’s hand. She heads out, glancing twice at the bounty hunter as she goes. The barkeep comes back over and points to the clock on the wall. ‘You’ve got ten minutes,’ he says.

He is no longer smiling.

‘Sure, sure. You’ll want to hear this though. Remember what I said about the room?’

‘No way in and no way out. A table. A chair. A book.’

‘You’re a clever boy, Cheng.’

The barkeep doesn’t say anything.

‘Now the door, see, the door has this little slot in it,’ says the bounty hunter. ‘Big enough to fit a card. And in the book, every page is in pairs. On the right is one sentence – like Chinese for nice to meet you – and on the opposite page is its response – like Chinese for nice to meet you too. You follow?’

‘Yes, I follow.’

‘Good. Thanks, Cheng. I’m sorry I’m keeping you. Anyway – you can sit in the room there and look at the symbols on the page. You don’t have to speak a word of Chinese, just be able to tell the symbols, got it? Just be able to tell one symbol from another.’

‘Mmm-hmm.’

‘Now – imagine if someone who does actually speak Chinese comes to the door and writes nice to meet you on a card and slips it in. Then someone inside to room could pick up the card, go to the book, find the matching symbols, copy out the response on the back of the card, and push it back out. Now the person outside has no idea what’s going on inside, but they’d think – right? – that the person in the room can speak Chinese!’

The bounty hunter leans back, grinning, and spreads his arms wide. The barkeep frowns.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘What I’m saying is, from the outside it looks like the room, or whoever’s in the room, speaks Chinese. But the person inside doesn’t. It’s a scam.’ He pauses. ‘Just like artificial intelligence. Just like synths. They fool you into thinking they’ve got a brain – but they’ve got nothing inside. They’re just clockwork. They’re…hollow.’

The bounty hunter holds his finger up. The barkeep shakes his head.

‘We’re closed,’ he says.

The bounty hunter stares at the barkeep for a few moments and then reaches into his coat and pulls out a pistol. He reaches over before the barkeep can make a move for his gun and and takes it himself. He puts both guns down on the bar. All this accomplished in a couple of seconds and with barely any noise. Then he subsides onto his stool, breathing through his nose, and staring at the barkeep. The barkeep has his hands up.

‘I saw you looking earlier, Cheng,’ he says. ‘Gimme another port.’

‘This isn’t wise,’ says the barkeep.

‘Are you afraid?’

‘No.’

The bounty hunter nods.

‘I thought not. Pour me another.’

The barkeep does and the bounty hunter sips it and licks his lips again.

‘This is good stuff. You know why I like port?’

‘This is very unwise.’

‘Steadies my hands.’ The bounty hunter holds up one hand,  his trigger finger latticed with scars. ‘I get the shakes, sometimes. It’s the weather here.’

‘Have your drink and go.’

The bounty hunter shakes his head.

‘Naw. I like talking to you, Cheng. Why don’t you go on over there and kill the lights? Don’t want anyone walking in thinking we’re still open.’

‘I need to lock the door.’

‘I’ll lock the door.’

The bounty hunter takes both guns and walks backwards to the door with one still pointed at the barkeep. The barkeep walks sideways to the switches on the wall next to the register and flips them one by one. The room darkens with every click and then finally the lights outside flicker twice and die. The bounty hunter locks the door and comes back to the bar.

‘See, I think you’re missing the point, Cheng,’ he says.

‘What point?’

‘The point of the Chinese room. The point is that it’s a way of showing why AI is so dangerous. It’s a way of showing that something might look like it knows what it’s doing, but it actually doesn’t. An AI can look like it knows Chinese, but actually it doesn’t have a damn idea. It’s just input, response. Same with anything. Directions. Art.’ He slurps a little port. ‘Feelings.’

The barkeep crosses his arms.

‘How about I tell you something?’

The bounty hunter shoots the rest of his port and puts the glass down.

‘Tell me about your wife.’

‘No. I’ll tell you that by your measure, humans aren’t real either then.’

‘Eh?’

‘So you say, the Chinese room experiment, it proves AI’s aren’t real? No soul, and no conscience?’

‘You’re a clever boy. That’s precisely what I mean.’

‘So tell me, then. What about humans?’

‘What about humans?’

‘Serial killers. Torturers.’ The barkeep pauses. ‘People who’ll kill other people for money. How do you know they’ve got anything going on inside? How could they do those things if something wasn’t missing?’

‘That’s not the same thing.’

‘Oh yeah? Why not?’

‘Stay back, man.’

The barkeep holds up his hands. ‘I haven’t budged.’

‘Stay back. You’re getting agitated.’

‘We’re all input-response on some level. Plants feel the sun and grow towards it. A dog on heat smells a bitch and goes straight for her. A soldier gets told to shoot a man who’s not said a word to him, and he does.’

‘Listen -’

The barkeep smiles. ‘And now you’re getting angry. This asshole thinks he’s better than me, that’s what you’re thinking. Input. That makes me mad. Response. Just a like a Chinese room.’

The bounty hunter stares at him for a few moments, mouth open, lips moving. Then he smiles, slowly, and shakes his head.

‘You’re a clever boy, Cheng. You really fucked with my head there. You’re a smart one.’

‘They’ll know you were here. Your thumbprint’s on record.’

‘Oh, I don’t think anyone’s going to have a problem with what I’m about to do.’ The bounty hunter shakes his head again, and chuckles. ‘You really fucked with me, there, Cheng. Wow. Input-response.’

‘That’s all we are,’ says the barkeep. ‘If you stop to think about it, that’s all we can be.’

A moment passes. The bounty hunter lifts his gun and points it straight at the barkeep.

‘Last chance,’ says the barkeep.

The bounty hunter laughs.

‘Last chance? You’re a brave one, Cheng. Of course I -’

Cheng roll his eyes.

‘Peculiar tulips,’ he says.

And suddenly, the bounty hunter cannot move a muscle.

 

*

 

Before long his, held straight out before him, begins to ache. The pain escalates through to throbbing agony and his flesh quivers with effort, but still he cannot lower it. He cannot move anything. Even his eyes stay fixed on the point where the barkeep stood before him and glared at him, arms crossed, for a full minute or so after, before heading off.

He can hear him now, cleaning the bar around him. He takes his time. Now he notices that he does not blink and wonders why his eyes are not dry yet. Then he hears Cheng let someone in, and low voices, and finally the familiar clip-clip of shoes on the ground. Cheng and the woman who was there earlier wander back into his field of vision. And now the bounty hunter recognizes her – t is the woman from the alley.

She peers at him, and shakes his head.

‘That bad, huh?’ she says.

Cheng crosses his arms and leans against the far wall.

‘No attempt at checking my body temperature, or my chemical emissions. No attempt at triangulating for DNA. It’s as if that entire protocol has just shut down.’

The woman sniffs.

‘But there’s no connection between the self-identifying protocol and the rigour protocol. The two are in totally different segments.

‘Yeah but one’s working – too well – and one’s not working at all. We can’t use it like this. It nearly fucking shot me.’

The woman sighs.

‘It’s so close to perfect.’

‘It’s a jerk.’

‘Yeah, I was listening.’

‘If it wasn’t such a dick I’d feel bad. But it is. So I don’t. God, how it babbled. On and bloody on, about the Chinese room and sentience and crap. That doesn’t bode well.’

‘It’s so close to done, though.’

Cheng squeezes the woman’s shoulder.

‘Scrap it.’

The bounty hunter wants to scream. He wants to turn and run out the door. But he can do nothing. He cannot even watch. He can only listen as the woman walks down to the end of the counter. He can only hear the diminishing of her footsteps and then their return as she approaches. He can only feel the brief tickle of her breath on the back of his neck, and then her finger, pressing down through his flesh and onto his neckbones. He has enough time to realize that it is the last thing he will ever feel. He has long enough to see that it is just input – input that will shut down his output, forever.

The woman pushes.

 

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