My mind a whirlpool of
swirling darkness and light.
The light gradually overcomes the darkness.
Slowly, I come to. The disorientation, slowly, leaves me. I'm coming to. Coming to.
Coming to consciousness.
Then, all of a sudden, a strong burst of pain brings my eyes wide open,
tenses all of my muscles at
(A thought.) once. But I don't move, not at all. My legs, arms, chest, head, they are restrained. Strapped down.
"Aaggh...." The cry is very short, for as quickly as the pain began, it is gone. My eyes, not used to the light, take a minute to adjust, to focus. When they do, what I see is not what I want to see. I recognize the figure from the viewscreens. To see him, live, for the first time, indeed, at all, is almost worse than the pain:
It is a Punisher. He wears the distinctive white and purple jumpsuit of his profession. The Punisher is crouching over a table, working on something. He stands and pauses, then touches something.
I'm not ready for it. "Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh!" The pain I continue to scream. And in my screams are sobs.
When I'm able to, I look to the Punisher. He is standing, his arms folded, across from me, at his table. I can see a panel of red, white, and green buttons, illuminated from within on the panel. On the right side of the panel is a big black knob. The regulator. I've seen pictures, footage.
The Punisher is smiling
(computer is wrong wrong wrong)
(That thought. I shake my head.) at me. Stop smiling! How can he smile while inflicting such pain? How?
Looking at me, I'd probably laugh too. I realize that I'm naked to the world, electrodes and wires attached everywhere. I feel sweat on my brow, my chest, my legs. I imagine I have at least a day's growth of beard as well. But still he smiles.
He speaks to me, his voice as gravel-like as his rugged, pitted face, and as dark and deep as his black eyes.
"Hello, Mr. Cronin. Welcome to my Chair."
(dont lie terminal computer doesnt)
(A thought.) Distracted, I don't respond. That's a mistake.
He moves his hand to his panel and presses a button.
This time, it begins in my feet and moves sharply up my legs. My knees
feel as if they're being bent backwards, my thighs as if long hypodermic
needles were shoved all the way through them, my stomach as though my
intestines are being ripped out by a bare hand, my chest as though a 1000 pound
bar had been dropped on my ribs, my eyes as if they're being stung by bees.
And then, it stopped.
"I said, 'Hello, Mr. Cronin'," the Punisher repeats.
"...hello..." I manage to say.
"You learn quickly, my friend," he says. He still smiled.
I didn't answer. I didn't think I had to. Fortunately, he didn't think so either. He just stood there, looking.
He called me
(computer wrong wrongwrongwrong)
(Yes.) Cronin. Cronin. First name? Begins with A. Arthur? Albert? Argus. Yes, that's it. My name is Argus Cronin. Argus Cronin. But where am I from? It's on the tip of my tongue. New York? New Haven? New Chicago? No. New, New, New something. New, New, New Stockton in the Cliffs. Yes, that's it. No wonder I couldn't remember. My God, what a name.
But after the Quake, things were just crazy. The Quake? Yes, the California Quake of 2009. Yes, it's coming back.
I'm Argus Cronin from New Stockton in the Cliffs, California. I work at
ViewTek, a division of IBM. I am a CPA for the largest producer of 3-D
viewscreens in the world. I own my own house, I own my own land car, and an air
car. I have a complete four-wall viewroom, and a wife of seven years. So what
the hell am I doing in the Chair?
(Yes.) Computer was wrong? Wrong. What?
Ah, yes. I remember now:
"Mr. Cronin, my terminal does not show your account as having enough credit to cover your meal," the Maitre d' said.
"I don't have enough credit to cover the meal," I repeated incredulously. "Well, why?" Why was really irrelevant: Terminals don't lie.
"Honey," my wife said, "what's going on?"
"I don't know, 'Lanna. I just put $200 in two days ago."
"Sir," the Maitre d' repeated, "you don't have the funds to cover your bill."
"What is the bill?" I asked.
I opened my wallet. I only had fifty in cash. "Do you have twenty-five?" I asked 'Lanna.
"Let me look," she said. She opened her purse. "Here. I have thirty three." She handed me the bills, and I handed seventy five to the Maitre d'.
"Thank you, sir," he said and then he walked away.
"Let's get to the bank." I stood.
We left and drove straight to the bank, stepped into the TellerBooth and closed the door. "Cronin, Argus," I announced.
"Wait for verification," Computer answered. We waited. Then, "Cronin, Argus, account number five seven two nine four two eight two one two two, checking, credit, savings. Waiting..."
"Account balance, credit, checking, savings," I requested.
"Account balance in credit, zero; account balance in checking, zero; account balance in savings, zero."
I looked at my wife with disbelief. But Computer doesn't lie. But it has to be wrong. "Did you spend it?" I asked her.
"I haven't touched it," 'Lanna said. She was standing with her hands on her hips, her face skeptical.
"Computer, confirm deposit to credit account, June 3, 2024, please."
"Confirm deposit to credit, three June two zero two four."
"Upon this deposit, what was credit balance?"
"Credit balance after three June deposit to credit, zero."
I didn't understand. I heard 'Lanna utter a "What?" under her breath.
"Computer, pre-deposit balance, please."
"Before three June deposit, credit balance, zero."
Curiouser and curiouser. But this was more than curious. This was my money we were talking about. "Computer, how the hell could I deposit two hundred dollars to my account and end up with nothing?"
"Wait for response...." I tapped my foot as I waited. I didn't know what to expect. Least of all what I was told. "All funds contained in accounts of Cronin, Argus were confiscated by Internal Revenue on one June two zero two four. All funds transferred thereafter are placed directly in transit to Internal Revenue account. Upon payment of back taxes amounting to four four five two one dollars, fund transfer will be terminated."
"Shit," I said. "How the hell can they do this? We don't owe forty five thou in back tax! I owe shit for tax! My goddamn personal terminal pays my tax!"
"What is your request, please?" Computer asked. It wasn't programmed to respond to tirades.
"I want you to screw yourself!" I said.
"Not programmed for response," it said.
"Good!" I screamed. Forty five thou, Jesus. "Let's go," I said to 'Lanna.
"Terminate session?" Computer asked as I flung open the door.
"Yes!" I yelled back as I stormed away. 'Lanna walked behind me, embarrassed for herself.
The next day, I called Internal Revenue and asked the answerline to connect me with an auditor. It did. "How may I help you?" the auditor asked. A woman. Pretty. A real person. They're rare these days.
"Yes, um, hi, my name is Argus Cronin, and, uh, I'm having a bit of a problem with my bank accounts."
"What kind of problem?" she asked.
"Well, my bank just told me last night that I have an account siphon due to a back tax accumulation of forty five thousand dollars. Now, I'm a CPA, and I pay my taxes by PT. I know I owe nothing."
"Hold on a minute, please, I'll call your file up."
"Thank you," I said as I watched her type on her terminal. I was confident that this would be cleared up in a snap of the finger.
"Ok, um, Cronin, Argus, SSN 241-56-3103-45, tax balance, forty-four thousand, five hundred and twenty-one dollars, seventeen years account accumulation." She paused for a second while changing from her reading voice to her speaking voice, and to look up from her monitor to me. "According to my terminal, your bank was correct, Mr. Cronin."
"But it's impossible," I said calmly. "I always pay my taxes. Seventeen years, for God's sake, I'm only twenty-five years old. I was not paying taxes when I was eight."
"Mr. Cronin," she said matter-of-factly, "Computer doesn't lie."
I was stunned. What could I say to her? What could I tell myself? Computer doesn't lie. I've known that since I was a toddler. It's just a fact. But it's also a fact that I wasn't receiving an income at eight. I decided to say it.
"Computer is wrong."
It was her turn to be stunned. "Mr. Cronin," the auditor said, deliberately, slowly, "Computer doesn't lie."
"Miss, I know that better than most. I work on a mainframe all day long and when I come home, I work on my PT into the night." I paused because I knew I'd have to say it again. "But your computer is wrong."
"Sir, I don't have to tolerate this kind of, of, heresy! I'm afraid I'm going to have to report you to the proper authorities."
"Fine! Report me, goddamn it. I'm just so, rrrrr! I'm just so pissed, that I could care less what you do!"
The picture had cut off when I said "care." "Bitch!" I yelled at the screen. I ripped the screen from the desk and threw it with all my might at the sliding glass door to the porch. The door shattered into a million sparkling shards. 'Lanna rushed in from the viewroom and sttod in shock, her hand to her gaping mouth. She rushed back into the viewroom, sure I was crazy. And I guess I was.
I trashed the room. I destroyed my PT, overturned tables and chairs and ripped documents into shreds. Still, I wasn't satisfied. I began to kick and punch the wall. I must have been in my tantrum for tens of minutes, long enough for the police the auditor had called to arrive. I was delirious when they took me. They sedated me once they pinned me down.
I vaguely remember hearing Punisher before I lost it.
"I find people always tend to learn quickly sitting in my chair," the Punisher says, wiping the nostalgia from my head.
He is looking at me, with a strange look on his face, like he's studying me. So this is a heretic, he must be thinking. No, I know he's seen heretics before. He's no novice with the Chair.
Then his look changes, as if he's given up thinking about it, and he unfolds his arms. "Mr. Cronin," he says, "you do know why you're here, don't you?"
"Yes, I know," I say in a harsh whisper.
(computer was wrong)
"Good. And you also know how we resocialize heretics and, uh, well, for lack of a better word, crazies."
"Good. Shall we get on with it then?"
"But, I'm not crazy," I say in an almost a normal voice.
"Mr. Cronin, normal people don't owe forty-five thousand dollars in back
taxes. Normal people don't curse and fling heresies at government officials.
Normal people don't destroy their own property. Normal people, above all, don't
question the accuracy of our electronic
friends. You must be crazy. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here."
"Computer was wrong, Punisher. Wrong."
(Yes, wrong.) I tried to yell the "wrong," but couldn't manage.
"Crazy," the Punisher said softly, just barely audible as he turned to his panel. He fiddled with some dials and then turned back. "Now, I must tell you the rules, Mr. Cronin, though you probably know them."
"Yes, I know." I've only watched this happen a hundred times. Everyone knows the rules of the Chair.
"Very well. I will inflict the pain for a..."
As he speaks, I look at the Chair, deliberately, for the first time. It is made of wood, sanded smooth, fortunately for me, though the pain of a gigantic splinter right now would be like pulling a hair from my head compared to what was coming.
I've seen the Chair used before, a hundred times. We all have. It's nothing
new. It's for the worst offenders of our perfect society. There's little crime
anymore, of course, not like in the old days of illicit drugs and handguns. But
there is still a little murder, and petty theft, and a rape here and there. And
there's heresy. I've never seen a heretic go to the Chair and come away still
believing his heresies. The Chair is foolproof. It's psychology's gift to
utopia. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" on a grand scale. But I feel scared
for myself. My problem is not based on a psychosis. I know Computer
Electrical pads cover me. They which attach externally but which direct electric current internally, precisely. They're attached to the bottoms of my feet, to my temples, my scrotum, my ears, my fingers, the insides of my thighs; smaller ones are attached in my nose, on my eyelids, between my toes, in my rectum. Everywhere, literally.
"...period of five minutes, minimum. After five minutes..."
I'm strapped by soft cloth no need to damage the corporeal self, I guess. I sit on a cushion, and the Punisher is lit by very pleasant, soft lighting. To my right is a viewcamera, for the public's pleasure. To my left, a timer, with five minutes displayed on it.
"...the pain will continue, but you can stop it any time you want by pressing the red button at your fingertips three times. However, if..."
The button is just within reach, and designed not to be pressed accidentally. You must press it three times, at regular, but quick intervals. It's on the right arm rest, and I feel it with my middle finger. I won't press it.
"...you press the button before a total of thirty minutes have passed, you will return to the Chair tomorrow and do it again. You will not leave..."
Finally, there's the Punisher and his space, between the clock and the camera. Not too much to him, tall, dark, handsome, I guess. Like I said, ruddy, but not bad looking. His table is solid plastique, with the leads to my wiring connected to the control box.
"...this compound until you have withstood thirty minutes of the treatment. Is this clear?"
I breathe very heavily indeed for a moment, then say, "Yes, I got it."
"Shall we begin, then?" Again, that damn smile.
The Punisher picks up a phone and hits one button. "We're ready," he says simply and replaces the receiver. A second later, the red light on top of the camera turns on.
I'm on View! Oh boy.
"Very well, Mr. Cronin. On the count of five, now." I nod. "Five, four, three, two..."
I clench my teeth, hard, flex my muscles. And then, it comes.
"Aaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrr!" Pain, utter, unstoppable, complete, one might even say perfect, pain.
My toes are being broken, my throat is being crushed, my eardrums are popping, my teeth pulled. Pain! Stop! My God, for five minutes. No, for thirty, or else for five again tomorrow.
I pray to lose consciousness, but I know that the system is designed to keep me awake, aware. The pain does not come in waves, as I thought it might. It is very, very constant, unchanging.
Someone is poking a pitchfork into my thighs, pouring acid into my navel, placing my hands into punch presses. Someone is carving my scalp like one would a turkey. Someone is cutting my nipples with a hot knife. Someone is pulling my toenails from my toes, and running dull scalpels over my cheeks.
"Fuuuhhhhk!" I manage to scream. But it doesn't help. The needles, razors, acids, garden tools, and kitchen utensils remain. And they continue.
"You have one minute of your first five to go, Mr. Cronin," I hear the Punisher say to me. Is that all? It hasn't been thirty minutes already? Only four have passed? Impossible, imposs.... God, God, God, God, God, God, God, please, STOP!
But it doesn't.
"Anytime now, Mr. Cronin!" the Punisher says. His voice is almost to calm to
be real. But the time is up. Five minutes, passed.
I hit the button with my right middle finger. And I hit it again. But something keeps me from hitting it a third time. Perhaps the pliers crushing the bones in my finger prevent me.
I open my eyes just long enough to see the clock. It had reset to 25 minutes, and was at 23:37 now. I'll make it. Hot coals drop on my crotch.
I won't make it.
(wrong computer compu)
(No, get out of my head, Out!) to hallucinate. A midget I saw at a circus once is sawing at my right kneecap with a hacksaw. A dog with human hands is cutting the skin on my left shoulder and large ants pull the skin away from my flesh. My boss is standing on my stomach and with a hydraulic sledgehammer, he, one by one, shatters my ribs. My wife is at my left hand, a nail gun at the ready, and she nails my fingers to the Chair. A purple bear is clawing at my left side. Every once in a while, a bee pokes his belly into one of my eyes, obstructing my view. Mary Jane Pullock is poking at my penis with a sewing needle. The IRS auditor
(wrongqeibfetpmh computjmdk wronwght dntdontjdfk dont lie)
(Stop!) is running sharp paper edges over my fingertips.
Fifteen and a half minutes. Again, I hit the button, but this time, only once. I try to defy the pain. I will show the home viewing audience that I cannot be beat, that this whole "rehabilitation" is farcical, stupid, useless. I will win. I will last thirty minutes, and I will do it with a smile on my face.
I smile for exactly three seconds, sit still for over ten. But by 15:15, I'm screaming in pain again, and again, I hit the button. But I stop myself at two.
Fifteen minutes passes. Fourteen passes. Thirteen passes. Ten passes.
Cumulatively, I've pressed the button over a hundred times, but never three times in a row. The hallucinations grow stronger, though the pain is unchanged. Seven minutes.
I look straight into the camera and I can see myself. There's no one around
me. But then I look down, and they're there
(computer dont dont dont lielielie doesnt lie)
(ENOUGH!) again. I look back at the camera and see what everyone else will see. Five minutes.
My hair is wet with sweat, as is the rest of my body. Drenched. My tendons are flexed and hard. My back is arched, my face, drawn back. My arms and legs are shaking from the strain, and my penis is erect. My breath is short and quick, my heart racing. I feel like I'm going to die. No, I feel dead. Dead, and in Hell. Never again could I feel alive. Four minutes.
What's the use? I think. Why go on? I wish for a knife to thrust into my gut, but then almost laugh because I look down and it's already there. I scream instead. Two minutes.
The Punisher has stood up. He's been reading. Now that I look, I see that
it's Hustler Magazine. No surprise. But how, how could he be satisfying his
libido while I'm screaming in pain at his side?
(dont dontlie doesnt lie)
(NO! It Doesn't Lie!)
Pain! "One minute," he announces. If he hadn't said any- thing, I wouldn't have noticed.
My finger quivers over the button. Again, I hit it. And again. It must be involuntary, I think. I'd be insane to push it now. I hear the Punisher counting down the seconds. Thirty, twenty. I push it. And again. Ten. Nine. Eight. I push it. Seven. Six. I push it. Five. Four. Push? Push? Three. Too late. Two. One.
Then, the pain is gone.
(computer doesnt lie)
(No, it doesn't.)
The hallucinations sit up and smile at me, (Doesn't lie.) all of my phantoms, all of my visions, smile at me. My sight blurs. My legs and arms and back and feet and hands and neck and chest and rectum all relax, but painfully. I'm spent. Now I do feel dead. Like I've run the Boston and New Chicago Marathons, both in the same day.
The Punisher loosens the straps and asks me, "Mr. Cronin, what have you learned?"
I haven't the strength
(computer dont lie wrong)
to lift my head, but I look at him. "Kuh" comes from my mouth.
"Computer doesn't lie, do they Mr. Cronin?" he asks, helpfully.
"N," I mutter. I can't
say anything so I just shake my head.
The Punisher turns to the camera. "Mr. Argus Cronin. He sits here and is purged. He has been rehabilitated. He is again a productive member of our society. Thank you."
The red light goes out. The Punisher turns to me and says "Congratulations,
Mr. Cronin. Only ten percent of Chair visitors make it their first time. I
respect that." He places a towel over my mid-section, and a wet
(wrong dont lie computer doesntliewrongdontlie)
cloth on my forehead. He removes the straps and says, "Rest, now. I'll come back when you're ready." I nod weakly, and he turns and leaves.
I look at myself. I'm dirty, I smell. I can't move. I feel like shit and
don't look any better.
(computer doesnt lie)
(No, it doesn't.)
I rub my eyes, and take a deep breath. I utter a small sigh/cry and place my head in my hands. My head begins to clear. No, Computer doesn't lie, they can't.
All the other "heretics." What? God. A lie? One big lie?
Yes, damn it,
(dont wrong computer wrong lie computer wrong)
even after all this
pain, the fact remains the same: Computer
(Yes.) was wrong.
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