The Night Before Supable
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Dust had turned the sky a thin pink and the glittering cities of Phobos and Deimos rode high in the sky as night came to Pickeringham. Draped over the red desert in kilometer-wide branching meanders, Pickeringham's dome caught and sprayed out the last rays of sunlight to come skimming across the desert to the west, even as the town's own lights began to glow in the warm little oasis under the vitaglass. Pathlights and streetlights stood in the middles of discs of white light throughout the garden park that ran down the center of the enclosed space and houselights and yardlights glowed around the homes on their wide landscaped lots.
In the inner core of one of those homes, in the ten-meter wide virtrium, a robot stood before the silver-faced doorway into Virtuality. Drawn up to its full height of two meters, the robot stood at attention, as a sentry might stand at his post. Fresnel patterns of thin wrinkles that the robot made in the vitaglass of the hemiglobe atop its shoulders to give itself vision flowed smoothly over the otherwise smooth surface as the robot scanned the room.
The solid silver surface of the doorway rippled and turned opalescent gold. Reflections shattered into all the colors of the spectrum as they flittered across it. Then the surface bulged outward as an opalescent fog that streamed back toward the doorway. The fog became thinner as the nanomechs that comprised it disengaged from the man they had encapsulated, thereby disengaging the man from the planet-wide node of the system-wide Intanet. Thus Apaullo Genewright stepped out of Virtuality.
Facing Apaullo, the robot placed its right hand on its chest, made a slight bow, and asked,"Was the hunting good today, Apaullo?"
Apaullo made a fishtailing motion with his right hand."'Twas not a good day for a serious glitch hunt, Rutituti. All that we could achieve was the mere stomping of a few minor bugs." He led the way out of the virtrium and up the short, plushly carpeted hall to the house's wide elliptical hearthroom. "It's days like this," he commented, "that make a man appreciate the presence of an expert witch."
"Oh, would that you had sweet music upon which to float such sparkling lyrics," Yshtarella said as Apaullo and Rutituti came into the hearthroom. She was standing at the near end of the room, inspecting the various dishes, some steaming, that rose out of the foodfex's assembler plate. Rikittienne, Yshtarella's robot, took the dishes that passed inspection to the family table while Yshtarella phaged the ones that failed to satisfy her, instructing the foodfex to reabsorb them. Yshtarella had, Apaullo noticed, already dressed herself in the ancient fashion, wearing a forest-green dress with a long full skirt, the garment actually made of wovencloth of a kind called satin. Over it she wore an authentic kitchen apron made of vinylfilm, soft transparent-white plastic that had polka dots in pastel tints of blue, red, and yellow printed on it. Rubbing over each other, satin and plastic made a swishing sound as Yshtarella came to Apaullo and greeted him with a kiss.
"We truly missed you on the glitch hunt today, Yshti," Apaullo said, but he was interrupted before he could say more.
"Daddy's home!" seven-year-old Prokyonia squealed as she ran into the hearthroom from the privatory wing of the house, loping gracefully in the soft Martian gravity. Nine-year-old Ketchwell came right behind her. Both children, like their mother, had also dressed in their Dawn Age costumes, Prokie wearing a pink cashmere sweater with a wide gray skirt that had the black silhouette of a dog stitched to it and Ketchie wearing a plain white short-sleeved shirt with frayed blue denim trousers. Taking a more leisurely pace, Prokie's Rotumpili and Ketchie's Rebliblab also came into the room.
After greeting the children with appropriate hugs and kisses, Apaullo cast a glance at the table and, with eyebrow raised, asked,"Fexfresh?"
Yshtarella nodded and said apologetically,"I forgot how long it takes to kitchencook a full Tailgate Dinner for the entire extended family. It'll be ready tomorrow, but tonight we'll have to eat straight out of the 'fex."
The children's moans of disappointment well echoed Apaullo's own feelings, but he didn't want such a dark mood to dim the holiday, so he smiled and said, "Well, it will make Tailgate Dinner all the better." Then, feeling better himself, he took his leave and went to the connubial privatorium to change into has own Dawn Age costume; a button-front white shirt worn with an ornately patterned, brightly colored tie, black wovencloth trousers, held up with the aid of a leather belt, and a matching jacket.
After dinner the Genewrights and their robots sat on the curved sofas of the family circle for the telling of the Story of Supable. This year they had chosen Rutituti to play the role of the Debriefee. Sitting where he could face all four human members of the family, he intoned the ancient formula:
"I call upon memory to take the witness stand, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.
"It was the end of the dark time of the Totalitary Age. The Murican, with the help of his Ellies, had defeated the evil Nasty, the vile Fashess, and the depraved Nipper Tojam. Only the wicked Comyuness, who had pretended to be an Ellie, remained, sitting like a spider upon the web of her evil empire. Many wise counselors urged the Murican to inflict hotwoe upon the Comyuness as he had done upon the Nipper Tojam, but the people cried out, 'Hell, no, stop the woe!' Thus it was so, that the Murican and the Comyuness strove to bury each other in coldwoe.
"New teams came onto the field of contest -- Nasa and Esa, Redgird and Globcosm,...."
As Rutituti continued his telling of the ages-old tale, Apaullo let his attention wander to fond memories of Supables past. He felt an especially warm nostalgia glow within him when he remembered the first time that he had been allowed to put a Supable fexwarrant into his parents' omnifex. He had been about Prokie's age then and he had wanted eagerly, almost desperately, to fex up his own Evolving Star Bear doll, the most popular item on the playgrounds that year.
Brushing off his parents' offers to help, he had slid the oblong fexwarrant into the acceptor hole in the machine's intaface and then watched in awe as ripples of full-spectrum iridescence swept over the normally dull-white one-meter by two-meter assembler plate. Breathlessly he had described and sketched and pointclicked the customizations that he wanted incorporated into his toy's design. But bright, warm joy had been quickly frozen out by dark horror and cold grief when he had seen a grotesque caricature of his dream emerge from the assembler plate. The doll's pathetic attempts to sit up and its slurred, stuttering speech had repelled him altogether. Heartbroken, he had turned away from the omnifex and run straight to his father's waiting arms.
Sobbing his tears into his father's tunic, he had been only faintly aware of Rutituti kneeling next to him and saying to his father, "An unknown virus seems to have made Apaullo's program sick. I have located a toy doctor who can heal the program and make Star Bear well."
After he had cried out most of his grief, Apaullo had allowed his father to lead him, with Rutituti carrying the doll, to the virtrium. Together, man, boy, and robot, they had stepped through the silver doorway, through opalescent fog, and entered Virtuality. They had stepped out of what appeared to be an identical doorway and into a realm called, according to the sign, Diznatopia. Immediately they had been confronted by a highly excitable duck who had pointed to a wide dotted line painted on the ground and told them in a quacking voice that no adults were allowed to cross it. So Apaullo and Rutituti had set off down a dusty little road into a presumably enchanted forest while Apaullo's father had waited by the duck's sentry box.
Once they had entered the forest, Apaullo and Rutituti had been joined by a goofy-looking anthropomorphized hound who had expressed deep sympathy for Star Bear and had offered assurances that the toy doctor would be able to heal him. The hound had guided Apaullo and Rutituti through the forest to the tiny town of Baskerville, a town populated entirely by child-sized anthropomorphized dogs of all breeds. As if nothing else in the world were important, the Baskervillers had stopped whatever they happened to be doing to marvel at the giant robot in their midst and to offer sympathy for Star Bear as Apaullo and Rutituti made their way to the toy doctor's office.
The toy doctor had turned out to be an anthropomorphized Samoyed whose white fur had blended with her doctor's smock and who had shpoken with a shlightly whishtling Roobatoobi akshent. In the guise of gaining diagnostic information, she had asked Apaullo to repeat on the omnifex in her office the instructions that he had used to modify the basic Star Bear plan. As he had worked at that task, malignant viruses had poked their ugly heads up out of the assembler plate, only to have them mashed down again by the oversized mallet that the toy doctor wielded. Finally all that had emerged from the omnifex was a rainbow-colored pill, which the doctor fed to Star Bear. In a few moments Star Bear had been transformed into just what Apaullo had wanted and in delight and gratitude Apaullo had hugged the toy doctor, getting his cheek licked in response.
Suddenly Star Bear had run out the door, calling out, "I'll be home before you are!" Apaullo and Rutituti had given chase but had lost sight of Star Bear before they had come back to where Apaullo's father awaited their return under the suspicious gaze of the duck. Sure enough, when they had stepped through the doorway and back into Reality, they had found Star Bear waiting in the virtrium. His face was still a trifle lopsided, he had a slight limp, and he thpoke with a lithp, but Apaullo came to cherish him more than any other toy he ever had.
Years later he had recalled the memory to mind and had noticed that his mother was absent from it. He had thought it strange then that such a powerful and highly accomplished netwitch would not have helped her own son correct his mistake. Then, of course, he had recognized the toy doctor behind her canoid mask.
Now he was drawn out of his happy reverie by the sound of Rutituti's voice intoning the end of the Supable Story:
",...and that is why on the last Sunday in every January we celebrate the Murican's first successful kickoff into space. Now, memory has been debriefed. It's testimony is proper and true. How should we respond?"
"Celebrate Supable!!" Ketchwell and Prokyonia shouted brightly.
"Can we set up the End Zone now?" Prokyonia asked excitedly.
"Of course, we can," Apaullo said.
Yshtarella sent Rikittienne to the storage cavern under the house, whence the robot returned carrying a polished wooden chest a little over a meter long. Then, with Apaullo in the lead, the whole family, humans and robots, went to the fexroom. Ceremoniously Apaullo slid the double doors open, the doors hissing softly in their tracks, and the family gathered in front of the waist-high altar that held up the assembler plate. Rikittienne turned her back to the altar, knelt before it, then balanced the chest on her knees, and lifted up the chest's lid.
Hiding their excitement poorly under a mask of solemnity, Ketchwell and Prokyonia gripped the ends of the green rubber mat that lay rolled up inside the chest and lifted the mat out. They set the mat on the floor in front of the omnifex's intaface and unrolled it, revealing the gray grid pattern on its upper surface. Next they erected the squarish arch over one end of the mat, pausing only to ask whether the arch's feet were to go on the mat or on the floor. Yshtarella explained that the feet should go on the mat because the Goalpost Arch is part of the End Zone. The craters, three-legged gray bowls, were next out of the chest: Ketchwell and Prokyonia each took the crater bearing their name and placed it on the mat, adjusting its position in accordance with whatever children's superstition had led them to choose one particular placement out of all possible placements. Finally, the children stood in front of the End Zone, put the palms of their right hands on their foreheads, and intoned, "We score in peace for all Humankind!"
"Excellent!" Apaullo said.
"Yes, well done," Yshtarella added as she knelt to kiss the children.
"Now Bro Dwayjoe can fill our craters full of fexwarrants!" Prokyonia enthused.
Ketchwell seemed lost in thought for a brief moment, then he turned to his parents and asked, "Have you ever seen Bro Dwayjoe?"
"Well," Yshtarella said slowly, giving Apaullo a worried look, "no, I haven't."
Apaullo shook his head. "I don't know anyone who has," he said, "but that's really not surprising. Bro Dwayjoe is a very old program. He has had a long time to practice hiding from mere humans."
"Bro Dwayjoe was born in the Dawn Age," Prokyonia said, proudly repeating parts of the old story. "He was born when a sports program got accidentally glitchmelded with a lijus icon an' he helped all the knights and witches delete dangerous viruses and bugmonsters. He did it to pertect all the children on the Intanet an' when he was done, the people were grateful an' made a special place fer him in Vircha'ality. An' now ev'ry Supable Eve he comes outa the 'fex an' leaves fexwarrants fer all the good children of the Sola System."
"Yeah," Ketchwell said, glancing at his sister and then turning his attention back to Apaullo. "But how can he visit all the children of the Sola System in one night?"
Prokyonia rolled her eyes and said, "He clones himself," in that special tone of exasperation that seven-year-old girls are wont to use when instructing especially dense adults (or older brothers) in the subtleties of the obvious.
"Fritzie Raumschiffer says that would need a program the size of a Belt city," Ketchwell said. "Nobody could miss seeing something that big, could they?"
Apaullo noticed the sour look that came of Yshtarella's face at the mention of Fritz Raumschiffer and told Ketchwell, "Well, Virtuality is much bigger than most people understand. It grows, just as the real Universe does, and it has grown places that no human has ever seen. Remember the discovery that was in the news last month? That was a realm that Virtuality grew centuries ago and people discovered it only just now."
"You must also bear in mind," Yshtarella added, "that Bro Dwayjoe was born during the Virus Woe. People back then didn't have time to pursue a benign program and certainly would not have pursued it if it seemed to be helping them in their struggle. When the woe was finished, Virtuality had grown so big that Bro Dwayjoe could have created a whole world in which to hide himself and could have developed the techniques to make his hiding successful."
"Yeah, but that only means that Bro Dwayjoe could exist," Ketchwell said, still sounding dubious.
"There is a simple way to test the hypothesis of Joe Name-it's existence," Rebliblab said to Ketchwell. "You have not yet informed your parents of the kind of fexwarrants that you want. Continue to keep your desires secret and then see what kind of fexwarrants fill your crater tomorrow morning."
"Gee, I dunno," Ketchwell said hesitantly.
"I'm not gonna tell anybody what I want," Prokyonia announced, "'cept Rotumpili. An' she won't tell either."
"Oh, alright," Ketchwell said. "At least we'll know for sure this way."
Apaullo and Yshtarella could only exchange glances and hope that their dismay did not show.
Later that night, on their way to their own privatorium, Apaullo and Yshtarella paused at Ketchwell and Prokyonia's privatoria and looked in on the children. With their robots standing sentry-like nearby, both children were sunk deep in the dreamsea of the unconscious.
"I hope we read them correctly," Apaullo said quietly as they entered their own privatorium and prepared to go to bed.
Yshtarella shook her head as she sat down to brush her hair."Children are never easy to read," she said. "I hope that the extra age-year of power spread that you put into their fexwarrants covers any deficiencies in what we deduced." She shook her head again and let out a snort of exasperation. "Does every class have a stinker like Fritz Raumschiffer?"
"Mine did," Apaullo said. "I think it's some kind of subtle glitch in the human genome. Every class has at least one kid who's so deeply in love with misery that they feel compelled to spoil everyone else's joy whenever they can."
"You would think that the robots would do something to stop it," Yshtarella said.
Apaullo made a fishtailing motion with his hand."It's a borderline case. It's not actual abuse of anybody. It may be unpleasant, but it's not an actionable wrong to tell the truth. And it is true that it's parents who fill the children's craters. After all, who else could possibly know our children well enough to fulfill their desires?"
"Well, the robots," Yshtarella said in a dismissive tone.
"Who can neither reveal the children's secrets nor operate the omnifex," Apaullo said. "Unless, of course, a secure program like Bro Dwayjoe, can interrogate the robots, that leaves only us and we have to hope now that we got it right."
Yshtarella chuckled as she got up from her dressing table, slipped off her robe, and went to her side of the bed. "We must not forget to express surprise tomorrow," she said.
"Yes," Apaullo said as he slipped out of his robe and slid himself into bed. "I hope we do half as well as my parents did on some SupaSundays. You know, there were a couple of Supables I remember that I could swear that they really were surprised by what I was warranted to 'fex up."
"I know what you mean," Yshtarella said as she lifted the covers and got into bed. "When I was Ketchie's age I 'fexed up a Hazel Byteweaver Spellbinder and my parents looked absolutely stunned."
"You don't suppose that Bro Dwayjoe snuck into your folks' fexroom that night and put that fexwarrant into your crater, do you?"
"Yeah, right," Yshtarella said as she slid up next to him and rolled over on top of him.
habg'Twas the night before Supable and all through the dome
no one was moving: even the robots stayed home.
The craters were set in the End Zone with care
in hopes that Joe Name-it soon would be there.
The children were both asleep in their beds
while fantasies of fexwarrants swirled through their heads.
And after watching all the specials and the Ten O'Clock News
my wife and I crashed down for a long winter snooze.
I was just dozing off when I heard a faint hiss,
so I snuck out of bed to see what was amiss.
I noticed an absence and my mind was alerted.
Our robots were gone. The privatoria were deserted.
As I crept down the hallway I could see from afar
that the doors to the fexroom were slightly ajar.
I tiptoed to the doors and peeked through the crack.
I saw all four robots and was taken aback.
'Round the omnifex they stood in an attitude of waiting.
And then I caught sight of what the'fex was creating.
A tiny quarterback with helmet of green
and two running backs rose out of the machine.
There was simply no question. Anyone would know.
The quarterback could only be Bro Dwayjoe.
With a"Hut one, hut two" they leaped to the floor.
I hoped they wouldn't see me crouched by the door.
Joe huddled with our robots, then broke huddle with a jerk.
He turned to the omnifex and went straight to his work.
Soon glittery warrants rose up from the plate.
When I saw how they sparkled, my breath did abate.
They were like Faberge eggs made of jewelescent glass.
Joe picked one up and called out for a pass.
"Hut Strongarm, hut Eldern, go out and go deep!
We must finish our work while the children are asleep."
Then he threw each ovoid, took time to throw well.
With pinpoint precision to the receivers they fell.
When the craters were full and there was no more to be done,
then back to the omnifex the receivers did run.
As he climbed up himself, this centuries-old sage,
he instructed the'fex to carry out "phage".
He turned on the plate as his feet began to sink,
raised up his hand, and gave me a wink.
And as he dissolved into the plate I heard him exclaim,
"Jolly Supable to all! Hope your team wins the game!"
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