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THE PSYCHIC FIFTH

Bill Griffiths

  

Mabel, Enid, Agnes and Maureen managed to meet, quite by chance, outside the cafe, in the course of their morning business, it looked rather full. They settled on a seat in the pedestrian concourse, and an exchange of the gossip of the day, in particular, all the opinions about the real dad of

'Hello,' said a newcomer, Mrs G., as they recalled. She seemed familiar. 'Donít stop for me, I knaw it all.'

Reassured they carried on. Rodney or Greg?

'What, that Rodney in Galagil Street went Mrs C.

Something made Agnes hesitate. 'Well, I din naw where he's living. Tall, with dark hair....

'Na, he's brown, or ginger even,' corrected Maureen.

'Is he the one over Grainger Street way?í mused Mabel, trying to get the different Rodneys clear in her mind.

'I'm not getting a very clear picture of him, my dears,' said Mrs C. Maybe her tone was a little acid.

'Well, none of us knaws exactly.... But Mrs C. had gone.

'Who was she?í asked Enid. 'Mrs.... her name begins with C, I think...'

'Niver seen her afore,' noted Agnes tartly. 'Nor want to again. Snooper. Probably in with the Child Support Agency. Have to watch what you say, girls. Times, like these....í

At the other end of the street, a gaggle of men had accrued not quite in line with the 66 bus stop. A combination of wind and sun favoured a stand a little left and down of the stop itself, where sensitive bodies could combine the best shelter and the most sun. Men notice these things.

'A hard time that Alice had,' said Ben, meaning his pal's wife and her problems. 'She should never had stayed with that doctor in Shiel Raw. He's nae good at aal.'

'As soon visit the moon as visit a patient, that man.'

'Aye.'

None of them specially noticed a fifth man join the group. Mr M. they recognised him as.

'Doctors are hard-pushed to reach everyone,' he commented sagely.

'Nut sae reluctant when it comes ti rakin' in the salary, like.'

'Of course, anyone can make an official complaint.'

'Look here, Mr. - whatever your name is, don't ye com tellin' us what we knaw an' dinnaw about the health service roon' here. Aave hed mair pills prescribed me nor yeve had haircuts and hot dinners. Complain indeed. Whee ti A'd like ti knaw. A pack mair doctors, that's whee. Sae stuff it.'

Mr. M arranged a fixed rigid grin in response to this aggressive talk. He paused a second, as if recollecting, then spoke, and sinister and urgent his message was:

'Well now, Ben, that isn't very friendly. You all know me, a nice easy-going chap. I donít like no aggravation. Not like what you had with that article hidden in the garage,' he said, motioning to Ben.

Ben gasped. 'Garage? Why...'

'Yes, the axe.'

'But Aa nivvor telled anyone aboot that.'

'The axe you murdered your neighbour's dog with, Mr Ben Taxwell. I think we'll just walk down to the police station together and sort that one out, what do you say?í

Open-mouthed, and lost for words, Ben assented, and went off, bus forgotten, to confess or at least give his version of the events that murky Sunday when Copper the red spaniel from two doors down had been found playing pirates and treasure chests in the ripe rhubarb.

'Fancy that,' said one or two of the three left standing waiting for the bus.

'Gadgy must be a mind-reader,' commented one.

And trying to keep their thoughts strictly to themselves, they sat well apart when the bus turned up soon after.

What was behind all this, if ultimately, was the success of Easytown's Befriend a Councillor campaign. A Councillor had been allotted to each pub and club in the district, a sort of local respected probation officer figure people could entrust special titbits of gossip to confess to, if you like. Someone with the status of an elected Councillor fascinates people that way, as if a spark of God were in the chosen one's make-up, and he or she had a special power to assess and act, punish and give absolution. It probably stems, like all religion, from the figure of the supervisor in the kids' playground.

Anyway, what with having to select women Councillors, and hunt round for beleaguered minorities, there just weren't enough traditional male Councillors to cover all the drinking spots. A rota was made up, with each Councillor dealing with four or five different venues a week. Then alcoholism became a problem and the information collected became less and less reliable. And information was desperately needed. How else can a society be policed by mere administrators unless informers come forward to set justice in motion?

Robot Pro-Councillors was the answer. These were facsimiles constructed of bionic tissue with the latest cloning techniques, but with strictly controllable hyperthaluses, that avoided the addiction trap. Expensive but perfect collectors of information, RPCs were let loose on the public with special funding from some section of the crime fighting TV network, who figured the information collected would be of quite extraordinary general interest - to insurers and employers, tax units and credit companies. After all, computers could now handle any amount of information. It was almost a duty to get them information to handle. The Psychic Fifth, as it became known, was an extension of this experiment. Here, genetic modifications produced faces considered to be so close to the perceived norm, that everyone thought they recognised the person, and in most cases, accepted their presence. These Robots were programmed to join any group of four or more persons and join in the conversation. Hence the 'Fifth' part of their name. 'Psychic' because they had telelinks with the main computer banks in Easytown and could call on any amount of background information to assist in their work: other faces before them became linked to names and records, and even trivia like the report of a missing axe could be useful in the right circumstances.

The system worked well for two or three years. Misdemeanours were shunned. It became dangerous to express criticism of the Local Regime in any form. Public conversation descended to the level of exchanges on the weather. You might have been in Brighton or Cheltenham as Seaville or Easytown. Unreal it seemed. Friends came to mistrust each other. Many pubs shut. Likewise cafes and places for easy foregathering. Small circles of two or three friends (never more than four) who knew each other (and sometimes even then asked for identification) met behind closed doors in private houses, rather than be seen in public. The Fifth Pyschics were frustrated. Letting a stranger, however plausible, however vaguely familiar, in on your conversation was one thing. Admitting them to your house quite another. The citizen was perfectly justified in refusing to let such a slight acquaintance come over the threshold. In fact, that was exactly the course all the best crime-buster programmes advised. 'Never let a stranger in....

A Fifth Psychic could sometimes be seen, forlornly, hopping from one foot to another, trying to raise its amplification potential and overhear conversation from within a house, like a humanoid TV licence spy, but the usual chaos of multi-voice conversation, with Emmerdale in the background, and the blare of a music system from the kids' rooms upstairs, made that impossible.

Psychics began to hang about in groups on street comers and collect information on each other. Not surprisingly (to us) this information was not welcome back at HQ, where it was trivial and familiar, to the nth degree. Something, the robots sensed, was wrong. They were used to collecting information for a grateful receptor. Why was their intelligence now rejected? How else could they communicate with the great receivers of information?

Like a vacuum cleaner gone into reverse, the Psychics entered that terrible phase of their existence, still remembered in Easytown as the Evacuation, when random, but essential bits of knowledge from the central computer bank were picked up by robots and made brutally public: chalked up on walls, shopfronts, bridges, hoardings, van panels, bus shelters, shouted out at shopping centres, announced under 'Any Other Business' at endless social meetings - everywhere and anywhere It seemed feasible to communicate data, in the belief that was their function - to obtain knowledge and share it. If there was no or little information to be gleaned outside and brought in, then the only alternative outlet for their functional zeal was to use the information already collected and see if it was welcome outside.

Welcome? Secrets that Local Government had kept for decades suddenly began to appear as public slogans. The nick-names of councillors were explicitly explained. (Like 'Slug', referring to the almost tangible glittering trail left by one who shunned washing or a change of clothes while serving as a flying picket away from home.) Or the smothered challenges to the election of ó.Or how many relatives of Councillors X and Y held jobs with the Council. And how many Councillors were benefiting from disablement grants and sickness benefits, white others less privileged were thrown back on the forced labour lists. And why documents submitted for Council Tax Benefit claims - originals only please - kept getting lost. Plus the strange behind-closed-doors influences of business pressures on Council decisions. The most confidential files on the most private meetings, exempt, it was believed, from public scanning for ever, suddenly became popular knowledge. And the personal records of personnel, and drug rehabilitation programmes. Worst of all, the destabilisation campaigns carried on against specific housing areas, and the communities within them, where redevelopment was favoured, was suddenly accessible, with devastating effect.

A virtual volcano of unpleasant information came hurtling out, to be read, discussed, laughed at and be indignant over. For the first time ever, people came out onto the streets in crowds, spoke to the Fifth Psychics, congratulated them, asked them questions, treated them with friendliness and consideration. The Robots, in turn, learned of their own genesis, and the evil of their creators.

It was not easy knowledge to cope with. The reaction that followed was generally known as the Lunch-hour of the Long Knives, or by some local historians, as the Exfenestration of Easytown.