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Opus Posthumous

by Larry Stark

"Is everything all right, Mr. Clark?" said the nurse as she stepped brightly into his room.

"Come now, grand-daughter," came Harry's slightly bored voice out of the nest of tubes and wires on the bed. "What could possibly go wrong in here without my whole wall-full of medical machinery firing off alarum-bells all over this hospital."

"Now you know I don't mean PHYSICALLY! Is there anything I could bring you? Maybe you'd like the tridi on? Everyone down in the nurse's room has been glued to the set watching the Public Airways retrospective of your work. They've even got some of the really old ones, with the live actors. Aren't you even interested?"

The dry heap on the bed made a contemptuous snort. "Ah yes, my bi-centennial, isn't it? What a masterful publicity stunt for SPINOFFS, INC. that is! They make the credit 'Original story-line created by Harry Clark' three times as big on each series and soak the advertisers seven times what they're worth. No, grand- daughter, I spend a lot of time and serious effort every day trying to Forget the holographic sins of my late-middle youth. I'd really hate to be reminded just how profitable my shoddy workmanship has been over the years."

"My, we certainly are acerbic today, aren't we"? the young girl giggled. "Like me to adjust the tranquilizer dosage just a touch?"

"'Acerbic'. Yes, you have a good memory for words, my girl. I think 'astringent' may be a passable description, too. But as a matter of fact, I shut the damned mood-makers off altogether this morning with malice aforethought. I felt the need today for non- synthetic emotionality. I am, all on my own, monitoring the internal debate of my gall with my spleen as they go at it au naturel for a change. But thanks for the concern. You're really very good at what you do, grand-daughter, no matter how difficult I make it for you. And the nearly non-existent eye-shadow does wonders to emphasize the gold flecks in those hazel eyes."

"And the blush you get for free, kind sir. I take it you haven't a burning desire to receive a visitor, then?"

"Hmmmm. That'll be Simmonds again, won't it? Just interested in cheering the ancient invalid into eager creativity, and never once mentioning the desirability of some new work, however slight, to bring that bi-centennial retrospective to a stirring climax, eh? Tell him this senile old bat is well aware of how many dollars are at stake here, and I've never fudged a deadline yet. Actually, there's a tape sitting in the machine now, redolent with nostalgie and just chock-full of rich, creamy goodness. It needs one final editing-pass, and they can slap it straight on the transmitters for the last broadcast, and billions of goldfish-bowls all around the globe will display ample evidence that there's a feeble glow within these hoary embers even yet. But for God's sake don't Tell him. Simmonds is the ultimate agent, and he'd fall to flinders like the one-hoss shay if ever anyone deprived him of his daily dose of anxiety."

The nurse guffawed. "God, I love the funny way you talk, Mr. Clark! Don't worry, your secret's safe with me. If you don't need anything, I'll just make a quick report and leave you with your muses."

The nurse picked up a small microphone attached to a quietly humming battery of medical monitoring devices that filled an entire wall of the hospital room.

"April Bowers on early-afternoon look-ins. Mr. Clark is awake, aware, alert, and disinterested in receiving visitors. His own evaluation of his mood is astringent, with which I fully concur, though he is in usual good spirits, and not in need of any medication at this time."

As she put the microphone aside, she confided, "That's really going to shake them up downstairs. You know you've forced the software maintenance staff to do an entire rewiring job on the unit? Because of you they had to install a big red button that lights up and says 'METAPHOR' whenever your mood-check set off alarms down there. In this hospital you're a legend in your own time."

"My dear, when you've been a legend as long as I have, you'll understand how sweet a little pleasure it is to learn you can still outfox a computer. Before you disappear would you pour out a small glass of Oloroso sherry for me, and get out that notebook we keep hidden in the closet?"

"What is this?" the nurse asked, depositing the thick ring- binder on the bed-table and adjusting the height. "Is this where all those wonderful stories come from? I've never understood how a real artist works."

"I've never understood it either, grand-daughter. No, you don't make tridi's this way. That's a much, much easier process. You just say whatever comes off the top of your head, and the machines do the rest, and then you edit a little and the duck flies down and pays you two million dollars. They do it with mirrors, I hear. No, this of the blank white pages is a bit more difficult. You've actually got to Have something up your sleeve first. Oh, one more thing. Somewhere down there on the floor of the closet you'll find a thin blue plastic tube with a little ball-bearing in the tip. Would you hand it to me please?"

"You mean this? What are you going to do with that?"

"Why, I'm going to write with it. See?" He demonstrated. "It makes marks. Now go look in on old Crabby Carstairs and leave me to my magnum opus."

"Madame Carstairs insists on being Sat With, so I always put her off till last. Okay if I poke in again for a refresher when I'm through with her?"

"Just don't hurry, grand-daughter. I've got work to do."

"See you later, Mr. Clark."

The withered heap of bones and tubes and wires on the bed was 247 years old, and a billionaire many times over. he had been the major architect of the hologram entertainment industry, and was still its major creative fountainhead. The thick manuscript before him constituted the distilled memoirs of his historic career, in the form of an autobiographical novel.

Harry had tried to do it as a tridi tape, but what his genius and his expertise concocted totally failed the test of his taste. The tape would please Simmonds --- Anything from the hand of the master would please Simmonds at this late date --- but all that Harry saw as he ran the tape were a flaccid crew of waxworks mannequins mouthing predictable platitudes familiar to everyone. It wasn't that his creativity failed him, but he finally had to admit that the medium he had created could not convey the exciting story of its own making.

Harry took a lot of pride in having been the major creative input in what had been a huge software revolution. There had been hundreds of script-writers scrambling around television studios in his youth, any one of whom might have written better than Harry Clark could. But a coincidence of accident, insight, grueling hard work and feverish adaptability picked him out of the mass and made him immortal. It also made him very, very rich.

The initial concepts were not his at all. Once television was understood as a signal containing sequential information, it was only a matter of exploration before computer-deformations of sketches and drawings became the playthings of programmers. It meant merely a lot of grueling work to apply the same techniques to photographs. All the hologram added to the mix was the illusion of three dimensions, and a mind-staggering multiplication of variables in need of computerized control. It took only man-years of mental sweat, and a whole battery of holographic stage-sets could be generated by any semi-literate set-designer with a pocket-sized computer console, and live actors could cavort before dozens of non-existent backgrounds with the wave of a finger.

Harry's contribution was similar synthesis of the actors. He would start with the static hologram of a person, and he would tell the computer what he wanted that person to do, how to move, when to speak, and what to say. He spoke his dialog into a tape, and then dialed up any of a thousand different voice-patterns in which it should be spoken; then he played a sort of emotional organ-console to get the intonations he desired, and matched the movements to go with them. By the time Harry joined the company as what they first called "playwright", he had a dozen Emmys and a reputation for excellence to maintain. It was his constant insistence that forced the hundreds of programmers working on the project to iron out all the initial crudities, to simplify the instruction consoles according to Harry's demands, to build in capabilities for greater and greater flexibility and subtlety.

And it all paid off. In a fever of inspired creativity, Harry turned out one masterpiece after another, and when his technological arsenal lept light-years ahead every year, he went back to oversee and re-edit his previous works so that they fully realized all the potentials he knew had resided in them when they first came to mind. Everyone agreed that no Nobel for Literature had ever been so well-deserved as Harry's.

But the machines didn't stop at masterpieces. The world market for tridi programs was a voracious maw seemingly without surfeit. Harry switched from specials to series, and then called for and got the first plot-machine --- and SPINOFFS, INC. was born. Once initial situations were set down, the plot-machine could create weekly variations on the basic theme for years without additional input. Harry's integrity insisted that every series submit to a yearly review and update, lest the initial mine of material wear thin; but few of his competitors felt such compunctions. That was one of the reasons why SPINOFFS, INC. commanded top ad-dollar world wide.

Since the ridiculous accident seventy-five years before, Harry Clark had lain in the same hospital bed, his left-arm and his body below the waist totally paralysed. Yet there was a complete Creativity Console he could swing down over his bed with the touch of a switch, and the world waited eagerly for the newest of his creations. Clever critics had noticed that since the accident a whole new range of physical actions and subtleties infused his work, and Harry admitted the possibility of some sublimation going on at a wholly unconscious level.

The medical machinery keeping him alive well beyond any norm was specially designed, and very expensive. Harry paid the hospital $3,000.00 a day --- or half the interest on his American bank- balance. It was worth the money for SPINOFFS, INC. to keep him alive and creating.

But, no matter the capabilities of all his machines, the taste and feel of his own remembered life eluded him. Harry had reviewed and revised and re-edited, and even completely rewrote his own autobiographical tape, and still he hated it. Some envious young writer had once roundly damned all Harry's work with the phrase "Anything you can cram into a goldfish-bowl can't be art, can it?" Harry had worked his ass off trying to prove him wrong. But he had to admit, looking over this latest tape, that there was, indeed, something missing.

That was when Harry had put aside his console and demanded that the hospital find, somewhere, anywhere, a pen and some paper. He was astonished, after several embarrassing false starts, at how quick and easily it went. how clearly and how precisely the flat words on the flat page meant Exactly what he felt and meant. The wooden automata in the holograms were nowhere on the page. He hadn't written a biography, but a metaphor of his life. He recreated some scenes and incidents as accurately as he re-lived them, but he stitched them together with necessary fictions making the reality richer and more meaningful. It had been an exciting, invigorating experience, and he was surprised at how little revision and rewriting the final work needed.

For the past week, Harry had been carefully reading through his final draft, a little each day, correcting an occasional word or paragraph. Today he went slowly through the final chapters, satisfied that this, his legacy to the world, was precisely what he wanted it to be.

When he finished reading, Harry sipped at his sherry, and penned a little addendum giving the book, royalty-free, to his public. He knew it to be his last, his best piece of work.

Harry then heaved himself up on one side, and carefully thumbed his emergency adrenalin supply to Full. With carefully thought-out precision Harry grasped the dozen-odd wires and tubes connected to his chest, and wrenched them all free. Then, ignoring the shock to his fragile physical system, he hefted the sherry glass and hurled it precisely into the most delicate section of his life-support system.

The medical team tried for twenty-seven minutes to revive him, but could attain only flat curves in any significant life- signs. Grudgingly, they gave up, and Harry got his wish.

"You had better get Mr. Simmonds on the phone, nurse," the Head Resident finally said. "Thank you all for the valiant attempt, anyway. I'll read a final report into the recorders. Did he leave anything, nurse? Any final statements?"

Nurse Bowers nodded. "There's a whole tridi tape in the machine. That's all. Oh, and this. I guess he was doing something with it before he died. What do you suppose it is?"

The notebook was scuffed underfoot in the team effort to revive the patient, and two of the pages were splashed with brown sherry stains.

"Well, I'm not sure," the Head Resident said. "Looks to me as though it might be a book. I think maybe we'd better call over to the college, and see if there's anyone there might be able to read it."

"What an odd thing," said Nurse Bowers. "I mean, when we've got tridi, who knows how to read any more?"


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