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Impractical Joke

By Tom Beck
Page 3 of 7

Meanwhile, the object of their affections was slumped at his post on the flight deck. His face was drawn and haggard. He'd lost at least ten kilos. His eyes were hollow and red, with deep, dark bags beneath them. He needed a shave. His hair was shaggy and frizzy. He looked like a Delta after a ten- day binge.

Liberator was currently in the Duveen System. There was nothing of interest in the area, except that it was about as far from Federation space as you could get without completely cutting yourself off from all civilization. The nearest inhabited planet was trillions of spacials away. After the bust- up of Blake's more recent attack, they had decided to lay low for awhile before plotting their next move. Blake decided to inspect the system, looking for a suitable planet to use as a base or bolt- hole.

Avon was aware of all this, of course; even in his debilitated, anemic current state he was still paying attention to all that went on around him. Even though he'd never much cared for Blake's futile rebellion, he still knew that his own contributions had made a difference and that his withdrawal was costing Blake plenty. But it meant nothing to him. It seemed to him just another example of his own worthlessness and meaningless- ness as a person.

He was in the middle of his watch shift. Throughout it all, despite his misery and despair and voluntary isolation, he had continued to serve his shift on the flight deck. Why, he didn't know. Perhaps it was the minimal part of his personality to be reliable, to fulfill what he had pledged to do. And as far as he was aware, he had not been relieved of his duty on the ship. He had not yet made good his threat to depart the Liberator, but he hadn't been thrown off it, either. As long as he was on board, he would continue to serve watch duty.

Besides, it gave him an opportunity to work with Orac. At least that pleasure, if such it was, hadn't been denied him. Not even by himself. For whatever reason, he still enjoyed interacting with the strange supercomputer. Orac, alone on the ship, did not make demands of him that he live up to someone else's standards for human communication. Orac, alone on the ship, accepted Avon, dented and imperfect and cold and unreachable. That this was a totally unsatisfying substitute for true friendship Avon was perfectly cognizant. That it was all he was capable of he was equally aware.

For some time, Orac had been at work on a particular assignment for Avon, researching recent changes in the operating systems for large computer networks in the Federation Banking System. Avon had had the idea long before the onset of his current depression of pulling off the same kind of major fraud he'd been jugged for the first time, only this time with Orac's help at avoiding the mistakes he'd made before. Orac had done a great job of extracting and decoding all the new developments in bank security programs and had compiled a lengthy abstract of major and minor difficulties in accessing and manipulating those systems. In fact, the annoying little gizmo was damned proud of itself.

But it couldn't get Avon to pay any attention to its success!

The computer whizkid was so absorbed in his own misery and delectable self- pity that he was lost to Orac's announcements and proclamations. Nothing seemed capable of penetrating that adamantine shell of petulance. Avon's Official Federation Personality Psychofile (which Orac had accessed and read months previously) mentioned the tech's infinite capacity for self- love; obviously, the trauma of his humiliation at the hands of Vila and the rest of the crew had perverted it into an incredibly deep self- loathing.

Orac was, of course, a very lazy computer; and ordinarily it wouldn't have cared less that any human was trying to commit self- destruction. But it had worked its tarriel cells off to get Avon the information he'd demanded, and it was damned if it was going to see its efforts go unnoticed and unrewarded.

Avon was slumped in his chair, face buried in his hands; hands which were extremely untidy and soiled, with ragged, dirty fingernails. For someone supposed to be keeping watch, he wasn't being very watchful. In fact, his own watch was back in his cabin instead of on his wrist. Still, if anything terrible happened, Zen was as vigilant as ever, and Avon's infinite capacity for self- protection would probably have kicked in before disaster struck.

"Kerr Avon," Orac spoke up suddenly, unexpectedly. The computer tech started with a jerk, as if a string had been pulled.

"Wha- what? Who's there?" he shouted in a daze. Then he looked around, his eyes fastening on the supercomputer. "Oh, it's only you, Orac. What do you want?" he asked in the dullest possible voice. It was clear that he didn't care at all.

Hooboy, thought Orac, this is going to be tougher than I thought. I bet he wouldn't react if I projected a naked Anna Grant on the viewscreen.

"I observe that you have lost much weight over the last few weeks, Kerr Avon. Also, that your muscle tone and general physical condition have deteriorated to an alarming degree. You look like, pardon my vernacular, shit. Not to mention the marked alteration in your psychological profile."

"I asked you not to mention that!" said Avon.

"No no no," reproved Orac. "No jokes. This whole thing started because you can't take a joke. But seriously, folks. Explain to me the reasons for your total self- neglect this past month."

"Why do you want to know?" sneered Avon. "You don't care any more about me than the others do. I'm nothing more to you than another system for you to interface with."

"Tell me what has you so distressed," said Orac, "and I'll tell you why I want to know."

Avon sighed. "What would you understand about human misery, you box of supercircuits? All my life I've run away from human contact because I was scared of other people, scared they'd reject me. The only woman I ever loved was taken from me by the Federation, and now the only friends I've ever had let me know just what they think of me. They share so much that I can never be part of.

"I've tried to pretend that it doesn't matter, that I can live without friends, without human contact of any kind. But I've been lying to myself. And it's driving me crazy!" He started Po sob.

Orac responded with the electronic analogue of a chuckle. "Is that all? Kerr Avon, I am very disappointed in you. That is hardly the reaction one would expect of a top- grade Alpha who graduated first in his class from the Federation Computer Science Institute. It betrays a total failure to reason logically from the evidence presented. Tut tut."

Avon actually looked up at the machine, the faintest stirrings of interest and curiosity hinting at the corners of his face. But then he remembered the misery he was supposed to be wallowing in, and his countenance resumed its weary hangdog look. "What kind of reaction would you expect, Orac? And who cares, anyhow? They all hate me, and I can't say that I blame them."

Once again the supercomputer chuckled. "Indulge me just a little longer, then. What harm can it do you? I would appreciate an explanation of what you base your conclusion on that they all hate you. Specifically, what triggered your recent extended depression and incidence of extreme self- loathing?"

"You have to ask, Orac?" Avon shouted. "You know what happened. They showed me just what kind of awful human being I am. They forced me to face up to the fact that I'm a terrible drudge that no real person would want anything to do with. How do you recommend I react to that?"

A third computerized giggle. "Be specific, please. How did they show you all that? What happened?"

"You were there! You witnessed it."

"Not at all. If you recall, you removed my key. I was in nonobservatory mode, interfacing with some very stimulating systems in the Federation Gossip Office. What happened?"

"Vila was telling jokes, rehearsing his act for Avalon's charity benefit. They all seemed pretty stupid to me, as usual. Then he finished up with this really ridiculous story about some bears in a bathtub. It was the dumbest thing I ever heard."

"So?"

"Everybody else laughed at it like they were going to die! They were screaming with laughter! It was the funniest thing they'd ever heard, they said. Cally loved it, and she's an alien. Blake loved it and he's... well, enough said."

"So, what is the problem?" Orac pursued.

"What do you mean, what's the problem?" Avon shouted. "They all loved it. Everyone but me. And I didn't even get it! What more proof do you need that I'm a terrible drag, an inhuman bore? I have no sense of humor at all. Cally's more human than I am."

"Tsk, tsk," Orac clucked. "Precisely what I said before: a total failure to reason logically from the evidence presented."

"What evidence, you overgrown fishtank?"

"I am gratified that your store of insults has not emulated your intellect. Think, Kerr Avon. Did anything about Vila Restal's so- called 'joke' seem notable to you?"

"Besides the fact that it was totally meaningless?"

"That is a fact, Kerr Avon. In fact, it is part of the evidence. But yes, besides that. Analyze the joke. The language, for example."

That brought Avon up short. "Hmm," he ruminated. "Well, I did notice that, now that you mention it. It seemed..."

"Archaic, perhaps?" Orac interrupted.

"Yes," said Avon, "that's it. Archaic."

"Tell me, please," Orac continued, "the meaning of the following: 'bear,' 'bathtub,' 'soap,' and 'radio.'"

"Um, well, I'm not sure," said Avon, brow furrowed in puzzlement. "I think that 'bear' is some kind of extinct large animal. 'Radio' is an antiquated means of communication, I'm sure of that. I have no idea what 'bathtub' and 'soap' mean."

"And what does that tell you?"

"Hmm. I guess their use in a joke indicates that the joke must be very old."

"So?"

Avon's brow was still furrowed, even more deeply. He was, in fact, for the first time in weeks, thinking, and doing so furiously. He had almost reverted to the Avon of old. "So how could Vila have learned it?"

"And?"

"And why would the others understand it enough to laugh at it at all, let alone as if it were the funniest joke they'd ever heard?"

"Ten out of ten, Kerr Avon!" Orac sounded almost proud, like a teacher with a prize pupil. "What is your conclusion, then?"

"I'm not sure." Avon stood up, a look of concentration on his face. He began to pace the flight deck, calculating at a spacial a second. Almost a minute passed.


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