The story so far: Mrs. Amanita, with her children Galerina and Agaric, tours the Bethlem Hospital for the Insane on Christmas Day, 1860. After meeting a strange half-lucid lunatic named Bingo, Agaric discovers, in a secret room, a tea-pot-headed armored body that seems to move by steam. This is the robot Excalibur, created by Dr. Poppit to “care for” the insane so that normal humans are not contaminated by them. After a “demonstration” of Excalibur’s powers goes horribly awry, killing Dr. Poppit’s colleague Dr. Brandywine, Poppit buries him in the Bedlam cemetery and writes a false letter to Brandywine’s family explaining that he has run off to join the circus.
“Uncle Aldous shan’t be returning to us. I sense he is lost,” sighed Agaric.
“Yes my love,” said Mrs. Amanita. “I feel it too. I will go to that infernal institution where he was last seen and make inquiry.”
“You will not find the answer there. That place is filled with darkness. Danger lurks. Don’t go.”
“Alas child, I know. But there is something else I must do there. I must free the one who will free the others.”
“And I will free him as well?” asked Agaric.
“After I free his body, you will liberate his spirit when the time comes. You are the key, my son. It is you alone who will save them all.”
“I won’t let you down, Mother. I promise.”
“I know. Do not be afraid, my son,” said Mrs. Amanita, stroking her son’s hair gently. “Even as you free them all you will return to your original form, your essence—and thus you will also be freed.”
“I am glad,” said the boy. “I am weary of this form.”
“We’ll never get out of this will we?” said Miss Pepperflake. “At least I will die among my brethren of the plant kingdom.” With that, she took a watering can and poured its contents on to her head. “Ah, maybe now I will finally bloom,” she said.
Bingo patted her lightly. “Don’t let them see you do that, my little friend.” He cast around furtive glances, just catching sight of Mr. Pigg and another overseer approaching on horseback, whips at the ready.
“You there! No lollygagging! His Lordship expects these crops head high in a week. Get to work. And you, flower girl! You are not to water yourself.” With that he cracked the bullwhip, snapping the watering can from her hand and leaving her fingers bleeding. When they rode on, Bingo wiped her tears away and wrapped her hand in cloth.
“I fear death shall be my only release from this place,” Pepperflake sighed.
“There, there, girl,” said Bingo, but he could say no more, for having been an inmate at Bedlam himself for these past one score years, he too felt she might be right.
They were both standing—along with the other inmates of the incurables ward—in the middle of a dense, hectares-wide field of fog tea, a strain specially designed to thrive in the foggy conditions of England. The illustrious Mr. Tuttle, who believed himself to be King George II, and Mrs. Plumper, who thought herself a cow and was munching on some thistles, could be seen several rows over. Also, there was Mr. Steadman, a sailor who’d taken a bit much of the grog in his time, and decided he was a mermaid. He was quarreling with Mr. White, an elderly gentleman who, in his quest for purity, decided he was a unicorn.
Along with Mr. Pigg and the other human overseers there patrolled another malignant presence, throwing its cold, blue light across the greenscape of the newly engineered tea plants. The sound of the quiet grinding of metal gears and the rumble of tank treads signified its approach, but nothing—no nothing—was more dreadful than the silence broken by its unearthly and unforgiving voice.
“PRO-DUC-TION UN-IT TU-TTLE, IN-CREASE PRODUCTIVITY BY 8%.”
“I am the king. You cannot order me! Besides, I’ve collected twelve bushels of tea today. Isn’t his Lordship satisfied?”
“IN-SUB-OR-DIN-ATE PRO-DUC-TION UN-IT. Commencing loving correction.”
“No, no…I’ll work harder. I promise! Have mercy, I pray you. I am incurable.”
The automaton seized the unfortunate wretch in its steel lobster claws and ensnared Mr. Tuttle like a spider with a band of wire cable, then pulled him closer. A hatch opened on Excalibur’s torso and a long, needle-like drill emerged. It emitted a high-pitched whine as it neared Mr. Tuttle’s forehead.
“Help! Help! The devil has me, the very devil!”
“THERE, THERE,” said Excalibur. “THERE, THERE. THE LORD IS WITH YOU. COM-FORT. COM-FORT.”
Hearing these piteous cries, Bingo flew from his station, flailing through the dense foliage of monstrously large tea plants towards the undulating blue lights. As he neared the automaton, the head spun around, casting its pitiless gaze upon him. Bingo picked up the only weapon he could find, a stone. He pitched it at the metal beast like a cricket ball; it clanged against the tea pot head with a hollow echo before ricocheting harmlessly to the ground.
“CAST THE FIRST STONE, YE WHO HATH NEV-ER SINNED.”
“I just did!” said Bingo.
Mr. Tuttle’s lamentations grew ever louder as the drill remained in place next to his cranium. The robot cocked its head slightly, casting a focused beam of blue light on a bushel of fog tea Bingo carried in his other hand. It paused, then retracted the drill. Turning its head to face Mr. Tuttle again, it said, “YOU ARE DYS-REG-U-LAT-ED. WOULD YOU LIKE SOME TEA AND SYM-PA-THY?” A lobster claw reached into the torso of the iron devil and brought forth a tea cup of the best China porcelain. Then the fickle machine pitched its head forward and expertly poured off a cup of England’s finest fog tea.
Just then, Mr. Pigg and Dr. Poppit arrived on galloping horses. “What is the meaning of this?” said Dr. Poppit. “Excalibur! Explain yourself at once!”
“I WAS HELP-ING,” stated the robot with what could almost be called a contrite tone.
“No! You were about to kill this imbecile! This is our labor force! You must cease, cease at once.” With that, Excalibur released the sobbing Mr. Tuttle from its grasp. “Excalibur, return home. Pigg, order these wretches back to work. Mr. Bingo, you will follow me back to the hospital. I want a full accounting of this situation. Pigg, see that Mr. Bingo has access to soap, warm water and fresh clothing before our interview.”
When Bingo appeared before Dr. Poppit in his spacious office, he could almost be mistaken for a gentleman—albeit one without the finery and customized raiments of one. His whiskers were shorn of twenty years’ growth, revealing a careworn face and furrowed brow that was not the better for its years of confinement at the lunatic asylum. It was a face none the less chiseled with pride and dignity for having survived many ordeals. From within that face a pair of well-lit, cold grey eyes stared into the eyes of their chief tormentor.
“Why sir, have you called me here?” he asked, using the accent and affectations he had become accustomed to, rather than those of his native time period and country.
“Ha! You finally begin to sound like us, Mr. Bingo. Yet you do so remain firmly within the grip of your monomania.” Bingo remained silent. Poppit continued. “You are a strange man, even by the standard set forth within these walls. Do you yet claim you are an expert on the human mind from some future epoch of human existence?”
“You have not beat or tortured it out of me yet.”
What Poppit said next puzzled Bingo further. “Good. Difficult situations require novel solutions. While your words and mannerisms clearly mark you as having an unsound mind, I do believe you know something of empathy and enlightened values. What are your thoughts on what you witnessed today of Excalibur’s behavior in the tea fields?”
“I would rather comment on your behavior, for you are the creator of that evil machine, and you set it loose on all of us like a mad dog. Speaking of empathy, where, by the way is Dr. Aldous Brandywine? He was to be the doctor in charge of my case, if I am not mistaken.”
“He is not with us,” Dr. Poppit stated coldly. “You will not mention that name to me or to any other inmate here, ever again, or you will face the most severe penalty. Is that clear?” When Bingo nodded his assent, Poppit rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and continued. “I will not begrudge you your accusations, for you would not be standing here before me if they did not contain some small kernel of veracity. Indeed, Excalibur is learning. He is imperfect. I intended him to be an instrument of mercy as well as justice.”
“It is an instrument of torture.”
“Scientific progress is not torture. Make no mistake about that. Tell me, Mr. Bingo, if you truly hail from the future as you say you do, why then do you know nothing of my marvelous creature? Surely, your world should be teeming with ‘Excaliburs’ of all types ready to meet every want of the human race?”
“In my time, no one would dare try to subjugate a free people with the use of artificial intelligence.”
“Ah,” said Poppit, regarding Bingo like an exotic zoo specimen, “One of your fascinating terms from your fascinating, disordered mind. It still amazes me that you manufactured an entire lexicon that is completely alien to your present surroundings. Truly, if you were not mad, I would say you were brilliant. I believe you were never intended for the project of being an ordinary inmate, Mr. Bingo. You have been ill-used here, in light of your talents. I apologize that my own pettiness has prevented me from seeing your innate worth until now. I have a much grander project for you that, if successful, will elevate your status here and earn you a measure of freedom you have not experienced for a very long time.”
“Go on,” said Bingo.
“You rightfully criticize Excalibur’s faults. You say you possess knowledge of the mind and techniques for conveying empathy that we—(ha-ha) ‘barbarians’ as you call us—are not privy to. So…change him then. I offer you the power to do good! Inculcate mercy, pity, empathy—even love if that is possible—in my machine so that he can extend those virtues to the rest of the inmates. But do so without relinquishing my ability to override them at a moment’s notice when justice is required over mercy. Do it, and your life here can be made easier than you’ve ever dared to imagine.”
“Justice? You know nothing of the word. To leave you in charge of overriding those values would be to effect no change at all, for you are more sorely in need of virtue than your creature.”
“You insult me. Very well, you force me to withdraw the choice I have given you, and instead offer you an ultimatum. You must do as I say, and you will. I command you.”
For the briefest moment, Dr. Poppit’s eyes appeared coal black. It sent a shudder through Bingo, down to the very marrow in his bones. Dr. Poppit let out a long sigh. “Something amiss? It pains me to say this. I had hoped to parley with you as gentlemen do, but I see that your imprisonment here has made you into a brute. I see that you have taken a liking to some of the other inmates here. I have seen as well the almost fatherly treatment you have tendered to dear young Miss Violet—or Pepperflake—as you call her. Let me say that I can make her life as difficult as I can make yours easy.”
“You wouldn’t dare. I’ll kill you first.”
“Your threat is empty. You possess no means against me, while I possess every possible tool and power to back my words. You are an intelligent man. You know I have only to say one word, to sign one paper, and the young, delicate Miss Pepperflake will be sentenced to transportation to the Botany Bay colony. They say the voyage to Australia is long and arduous, and for those who survive it, many more are taken by the fevers and miasmas that surround the primitive colony there. The prison is a mere stockade surrounded by rotting swamp. A light term of seven years is more than adequate to erase many of the hardiest souls from the earth forever—let alone those of a more refined temper—before they can ever think of returning to merry old England. Would you so readily damn Miss Pepperflake to a hell of godless kangaroos and vicious koala bears? Therefore, choose your next course of action carefully, my friend.”
Bingo had acid words ready on the tip of his tongue, but he prudently withheld them, seeing the dark truth in Dr. Poppit’s threats. He was taken back to his cell, where he contemplated his task. He realized that teaching the robot empathy might reduce the inmates’ burdens, was he to be successful in the endeavor. Furthermore, should he refuse, a far worse fate might befall all of them, including those most dear to him. He thereby reasoned that he had no choice but to acquiesce to Dr. Poppit’s mad scheme. The next morning found him seated in the iron devil’s hidden chamber with Dr. Poppit and Excalibur. Dr. Poppit glared at his creation and wagged a stern finger at it the way one would remonstrate a naughty child or a bad dog. “Excalibur,” he said, “you are to practice all the lessons that Mr. Bingo here teaches you. You are to listen to and absorb all that he says, but if Mr. Bingo tells you to turn against me or this venerable institution, you must kill him at once. Do you understand?” Excalibur’s tea pot head nodded silently.
Bingo held aloft a portable blackboard and Excalibur held one as well. He handed Excalibur a stick of white chalk, which it crushed to powder in its powerful pincher claw. “No,” said Bingo. “Gentle, gentle! Like this.”
“GENT-LE,” repeated the iron devil as it tried again to hold another piece of chalk.
Bingo took his chalk and drew the words “therapeutic use of self.” He pointed at the blackboard, then at Excalibur. “Do you understand? You must have a healing presence.”
“WHAT IS SELF?”
“I AM SELF?”
“Yes, you, “said Bingo. “You must be healing and kind. You must show empathy.”
“WHAT IS KIND?”
“Kindness is…mercy. No punishment, no drilling into the brain!”
“CORR-EC-TION IS KIND. DEATH IS MER-CY.”
“No! Death is cruel! Punishment is pain!”
“THERE, THERE. THERE, THERE. COM-FORT. COM-FORT.”
“Yes, but you must mean it. It must come from the heart, Excalibur.” Bingo drew a heart shape on the chalk board, and tapped it emphatically with the chalk. Excalibur tried to follow suit, but the artistically impoverished automaton’s heart looked more like a deformed potato.
“EX-CAL-I-BUR HAS NO HEART.”
“Yes, yes you do. See, you drew a very nice heart right here. Look. Very good job, Excalibur.”
“NO, EX-CAL-I-BUR STUP-ID. NO LEARN.”
“You must try, Excalibur.”
“WHAT IS HEART?”
“Heart…?” Bingo was at a loss. “Heart is no pain. No crushing. Gentle.”
It went on in a similar vein for hours. Bingo attempted to progress from these simple lessons to more complex elements of social work theory, such as the trans-theoretical model or stages of change, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and clinical boundary setting. All attempts to train the tea pot-headed robot were futile. The robot’s solution to every problem was crushing bones, strangulation, drilling into craniums, and then offering tea and sympathy to the corpses of its manufacture. When Dr. Poppit arrived to check on his pupil’s progress, he was gravely disappointed. “I warned you, Mr. Bingo,” he said. “Now I am afraid you must suffer the consequences of your failed pedagogy.”
Just as Bingo was being hauled back to his cell, Mr. Pigg entered the chamber, a look of anticipation on his caricature-like visage. “Begging your pardon, gov’nar, but a lady be visiting, and she got a writ for the immediate release of that’un,” he said, pointing a knobby finger accusingly at Bingo.
“What is the meaning of this?” roared the doctor. “Send her to my office.”
What Dr. Poppit saw once he reached his office was a stern-looking Lady Amanita, her curled, auburn tresses flowing vivaciously over her shoulders, the green eyes of her penetrating gaze fixing upon the guilty-looking personage before her. “Ah,” said Poppit, attempting to recover his composure, “what an exceedingly lovely…and, er…unexpected visit this is, Lady Amanita. I had heard that you attended our Christmas tour and were bedazzled by our famous Idiot’s Choir. What, might I inquire, brings you back to these hallowed halls so soon?”
“I shall come straight to the point,” she said. “My brother has disappeared.”
“I am so sorry to hear of this unfortunate fact. I am sure I have not seen him, but I will assist you in any way I can.”
“You have seen him, for he was last seen here, within these ‘hallowed halls’ as you call them. You are familiar with the name Aldous Brandywine?”
“I…I…had no inkling that our dear Dr. Brandywine had a sister…or that that sister was yourself. I am deeply grieved—”
“Had?” she repeated. “Deeply grieved at what, dear doctor?”
“His…absence,” Dr. Poppit stated flatly. “He left quite inexplicably, in a fit of pique. He left a letter…”
“I have seen it, and I can vouch that it was not the hand of my brother that penned it. I ask you now—nay, implore you—be forward with me regarding any knowledge of my brother’s disappearance. He would never have left his loving family behind, especially not for an occupation as trivial as a... a rabbit tamer.”
“My dear, let me assure you that I have not the faintest idea where your brother could be. His disappearance is as inconvenient to me as it is to you, I assure you. But, Dr. Brandywine was—is, is—an intelligent man. I have not heard tell of his whereabouts or his present condition, but I am sure that wherever he is, he will soon recover his senses and return to us both.”
At that moment, a tremor shook Dr. Poppit’s office, causing plaster to fall from the ceiling and books to be dislodged from their cases. “Did you feel that tremor?” said Mrs. Amanita, looking around the room.
Dr. Poppit gulped. “Not at all. Probably just a quirk of our plumbing system.”
“For the final time, I entreat you to tell me where he is and what became of him. If you do not heed my warning you will pay dearly in both this life as well as in the next.”
This statement caused Dr. Poppit to rally his nerve, for he gritted his teeth and walked out from behind his desk, drawing up his full height as he approached Lady Amanita, looming over her and casting a long, sinister shadow in the flicker of the gas lamp. “Do not presume to threaten me, my dear, for in so doing, you grossly underestimate the forces that back me.”
“The devil himself may back you,” said Mrs. Amanita, stepping boldly towards the taller doctor, “but the light is coming, and there is no escaping that light for you or anyone in its path.” With that, she drew out an official looking set of documents and thrust them at Dr. Poppit’s chest.
“What is all this?”
“A signed letter found moldering in the library of one Lord Byron the 6th, and backed by the House of Lords calling for the immediate release of one Mr. Bingo from his confinement at this or any other lunatic asylum or house of correction that holds him.”
Dr. Poppit could not stifle a sarcastic laugh, though he was moved by the elaborateness of what he assumed to be a clever forgery. “Come, don’t be absurd. This letter is dated to 1816, fully 44 years prior to the present day! Mr. Bingo was not even in this institution at that point. This letter is not valid.”
“I am afraid the House of Lords and their consulting historian do not see it your way, and given the unusual nature of this document, they backed it with a co-signed writ demanding the immediate release of the inmate so-named.”
Dr. Poppit read the second document, his eyes widening in shock. “This cannot be! Preposterous! The entire House of Lords was taken in by this…foul prank? I assure you, Mr. Bingo is a dangerous, violent lunatic, and he cannot be released.”
“I am afraid sir, that the fact of your reticence is moot and this demand, non-negotiable. Given your likely refusal to obey the commands that issue from the mouth of a mere woman, I have with me my solicitor, Mr. E.M. Forsythe as well as Deputy Inspector Harrison of the London Metropolitan Police. I left them waiting outside, to avoid causing you undue embarrassment. Shall I call them in to enforce the writ and secure Mr. Bingo’s release?” Dr. Poppit looked to the doorway of his office, where Mr. Pigg was standing, hat in hands.
“They’re outside, sir, just as her ladyship says.”
Dr. Poppit set his jaw. “Very well then, it seems I have no choice but to participate in this ridiculous charade, but I shall not remand this or any lunatic to your custody without your witnessed signature on a document stipulating that neither I, nor Bethlehem Hospital shall be held liable for the actions or destruction caused by a raving, dangerous maniac while he is outside of our care and authority. Rest assured, my lady, I have political connections as well. If Mr. Bingo is not back within these walls by sundown tomorrow evening, this affair will terminate in scandal.”
“So be it,” said Mrs. Amanita. The documents were signed. Bingo was brought forth in wordless surprise, and whisked away in a black-leather, upholstered coach to where he knew not.