The Advertising Age, Part II

Continued from my previous entry…

Barbara’s head was still expanding as she boarded the monorail, which to her resembled a giant snake with crystal skin. All the businessmen in suits, all the women in flowing silver dresses—they were sitting, legs crossed, hands folded, unaware that they were deep in the esophagus of an electric beast. Didn’t they know that they were slowly being digested? As they sat patiently, the snake secreted enzymes and gastric juices while it slithered forward in automated silence.  On it went, through downtown, past the grimy robo-ghettos, into day-glow suburban comfort.

The beast spit Barbara out at her front door. She swiped her transistor at the key-sensor, and entered her home. The living room was immaculately decorated, with sleek lines, lots of open space and large windows. Abstract art and sunburst mirrors adorned the walls. Collapsing into her teal Eames sectional sofa, she kicked off her high heels, and placed her stocking-covered feet on the walnut coffee table. No more red pills for now. Instead, she pulled out a Galaxy cigarette from a fresh, cellophane-wrapped packet. Putting it to her lips and igniting it, she inhaled the smoke into her lungs and, with every drag of tobacco, began to come down from her trip.

Feeling more relaxed, she switched on a sociable television program. Just as soon as she had initiated power, familiar faces and voices surrounded her. Every night, she participated in “What’s My Story”, a game show in which she and a celebrity panel tried to guess the secret of a guest. The host of the show, Skip Weatherly, had materialized at a desk which was now directly in front of the sofa. The image was extremely realistic, but had a slightly phantom-like incandescence. Skip was dressed in slightly outdated attire, complete with bowtie and, like Barbara, was puffing away at a cigarette. A placard that read, “Galaxy’s taste good!” was placed prominently on the desk.

“Welcome back, Barbara,” said Skip. “I’m glad you decided to join us this evening. And I’m glad to see you enjoying the cool, crisp pleasure of Galaxy Cigarettes! Remember: you can take a Galaxy out of the universe, but you can’t take the universe out of a Galaxy!”

This week’s panelists were now sitting around Barbara’s living room— Betsy Underwood on the blue-woven lounge chair, Arlene Redgrave and Richard Billings at a yellow teak-framed loveseat. They each smoked Galaxies and gave Barbara a welcoming wave and smile.

“Hello Barbara,” said Richard Billings, a suave-man dressed in a closely tailored gray suit and thin black tie. “You look absolutely stunning this evening. I trust your day has been agreeable?”

Barbara was not feeling particularly conversational. She nodded and muttered something about everything being okay, at which point she fixated her attention back on Skip.

“Now may we have our first contestant please!” said Skip, “Will you come in, sir?” Skip stood to his feet and motioned.

The contestant was a middle-aged man with gray hair, in a modest shirt and green corduroy jacket. He had a kind look about him, and reminded Barbara of a scatter-brained professor. The man smiled at Barbara as he walked over to the desk and shook hands with Skip.

Skip said, “Will you tell Barbara and the panel what your name is and where you’re from?”

“My name’s Paul Sheffield and I live on the east side of the city.”

The smiles on the panelists’ faces sank a bit, and they murmured amongst each other. It was highly unusual that the man would live on the east side. After all, that was the heart of the robo-slums.

“Very good sir,” began Skip. “Barbara, and panel, as usual, our guest tonight has accomplished an unusual feat, and it’s your task to guess what that it is. Now, sir, whisper in my ear your secret and we’ll let Barbara and the panel start guessing.“

Betsy Underwood was the first to guess. “Is this something you did recently, sir?”

He replied that he had been working on the project for a couple years.

Arlene Regrave asked, “Do you work in any kind of a laboratory?”

He replied that he did, and it was Barbara’s turn to guess.

“I’d like to pass, please,” said Barbara. She was beginning to long for the days when watching television meant sitting back with a TV dinner and relaxing.

“Barbara,” said Skip, “this is highly unusual. We’re counting on you to make a guess.”

“Yes, go on, Barbara,” responded Arlene, encouragingly.

“Are you a dentist?” asked Barbara.

“I’m afraid you’re getting rather far afield, Barbara,” said Skip.

The panel continued guessing but Barbara refused to play, and eventually Skip gave up in frustration.

“I think we’ll end the questioning there and I’ll let you know that Mr. Sheffield is an engineer, currently employed by the Luna Land amusement park. Why don’t you tell them what you’ve invented, sir.”

Mr. Sheffield explained that he had invented a singing robot that writes its own music. Skip beamed and said how fascinating it all was.

“Now I’d like to invite our next guess out,” said Skip. “Put your hands together for Mr. Sheffield’s invention, The Song-Bot 2000!”

What followed was a sight Barbara could not have dreamed about, even in the midst of one of her wildest hallucination. The robot came out in a silver jumpsuit with a mop of hair over its ears. It didn’t look at all like a bot, but it almost looked to be of another species. It played a keyboard attached to its body, and the noises it made were like space-time becoming deformed. It crooned softly then screamed wildly as it jumped around the stage:

Didn’t know the ghosts would come when her guard was down, yeah, yeah

Heads feeling heavy and she starts to drown, yeah, yeah

She sleeps in water stirred by vibrating waves of sound!

Barbara didn’t know what to make of this music, but she found it mesmerizing. But it was the chorus of the song that really got her attention.

Barbara, don’t take those little pills!

I don’t wanna scare ya but, baby, you’ll get killed!

Barbara’s heart skipped when she heard this line. How did this robot know about the red pills? Sociable programs were supposed to be interactive and incorporate aspects of the participants’ lives into the events. But the little red pills were her secret!

The robot continued its performance, but it was clear to Barbara that both Skip and the panelists were as uneasy as she was. The sound cut out abruptly the second time the robot sang the chorus.

“Mr. Sheffield,” said Skip sternly, “your robot seems to be malfunctioning.”

Mr. Sheffield didn’t respond but, turning toward Barbara, shouted, “Be warned, they’re trying to take over your head, Barbara—!”

His holographic image was dimmed before he could finish. He was gone and so was the bot. Skip was starting to sweat.

“Sorry about that, Barbara. It looks like we had a bit of a technical malfunction. But don’t worry, because coming up we have lots of other great guests to amuse you. And, in the mean time, don’t forget to light up a Galaxy and enjoy the soothing taste of fresh tar!”

Skip took a deep inhalation: “Mmm, now that’s smooth.”

Barbara barely had time to contemplate what had just transpired when Stanley entered through the front door, in a rumpled suit, stumbling and smelling of bourbon. He had his robotic mistress, Jessica, with him. She had flowing waves of blonde hair, deep blue eyes, large breasts, and wore a slinky black dress. Stanley was clutching her to maintain his balance.

Jessica was the only robot that Stanley allowed in the house. He always told Barbara it wasn’t cheating because female robots were even less able to think than female humans.

“Barbara, what—what is this garbage?” Stanley slurred, seeing the holographic images populating the living room. “I thought I told you not to watch this program!”

Stanley hated “What’s My Story” because he was the head executive for Anderson-Sprocket, the advertising agency that handled the account for Star Cigarettes, Galaxy’s main competitor.

Barbara just looked at him with silent hatred, taking a long drag on her cigarette and blowing it in his face.

“Are you smoking Galaxies? God damn it! Those things will kill you!” Stanley said. “You should be smoking Stars! 9 out of 10 doctors approve Star Cigarettes. The calming tar and additives in a Star will revitalize the lungs and energize the mind!”

“Stanley, I’m in no mood to hear your advertising copy tonight,” Barbara barked. “Leave it at the office with your robo-whore.”

“You’re a little feisty today aren’t you?” said Stanley. “That’s okay, I like my women with a little fire! Isn’t that right Jessica?” He slapped the robot on the behind.

“Stanley, I don’t have time for this. It’s been a long day,” said Barbara.

Stanley looked annoyed. “What about my dinner?”

“There’s a chicken-dinner capsule on the table,” said Barbara.

“Just like a woman,” said Stanley. “Too busy washing her hair and powdering her nose to make her hard-working husband a decent meal. I’ll let it go this time because I’m in a good mood, but next time will be d-d-diff—” He was too drunk to form the sentence.

He and Jessica made their way toward the bedroom. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he continued.  “I am going to make love to my robot. Don’t wait up.” And he slammed the door.

Barbara shuddered, and walked over to her desk. She couldn’t worry about that bastard right now—she had to figure out what Mr. Sheffield was trying to warn her about. Turning a dial, she powered-on her home library console. The vacuum tubes blossomed in an orange glow as the graphical interface initiated and a holographic image of a librarian greeted her.

“What may I help you find?” said the librarian, a middle-aged woman with her hair in a bun.

“What can you tell me about the little red capsules?”

“I am sorry, you must be more specific,” replied the librarian.

“The capsules!” said Barbara. “The ones they sell in the robo-slums.”

“I’m sorry, Barbara, you must be more specific,” repeated the librarian.

Barbara decided to give up the line of questioning.

“Who is Paul Sheffield?” asked Barbara.

“Please narrow your query, “ said the librarian.

“Tell me about the Paul Sheffield who invented the Song-Bot 2000.”

The librarian pulled up a photo for Mr. Sheffield. “That’s him!” she said with excitement. “Get more information, please.”

The librarian paused. “I’ll query that in just a moment. But first, from one lady to another, I couldn’t help noticing your furniture could use a touch of Lemon Pledge. It’s the fresh, clean way to get the beauty of waxing with none of the work!”

Barbara took a drag of her cigarette and looked at the librarian impatiently. “For Christ’s sake, hurry up!”

The librarian was singing: “Lemon Pledge, very pretty, puts a shine down, very good! Lemon pledge as you’re dusting, brings new luster to your wood!” She stopped singing and adopted a serious tone: “And now back to your search session.”

The console emitted a series of tones. The librarian continued: “Article match found, from June 1965 in Advertising Age Magazine. Paul Sheffield, lead engineer at Anderson-Sprocket, resigns amidst controversy over in-brain advertising.”

Barbara nearly choked. Anderson-Sprocket? That was Stanley’s agency.

“Tell me more,” she said impatiently.

“Just one moment please,” said the librarian. Then she paused, “Full article not available. Please swipe your transistor to process a charge of $10.99 for full access.”

“Never mind that,” said Barbara impatiently. “Find me articles on in-brain advertising.”

The console emitted another series of tones: “Article match found, from April 1965 in Advertising Age Magazine. Hunter Sprocket’s filing with the Inter-space Drug Administration awaits approval. Administration warns of hallucinatory side effects of in-brain advertising capsules.”

Now she saw it all—those little red pills were sending commercials into her brain! She had always assumed her hallucinations featured advertisements because she was barraged with them every waking hour of her life.

“Tell me more, “ Barbara said, nervously.

“I’m sorry Barbara, but I have just encountered a terminal system error. Have a pleasant evening.”

Just like that, the librarian disappeared, and the main console shut down. Terminal system error? That had never happened before.  Someone must have blocked her access.  She puffed away at her cigarette, not knowing how to proceed. Suddenly, her transistor received a new communiqué. She picked up the device and looked at the glowing screen, hardly believing the name she saw in the sender field—Paul Sheffield. “You’re on the right track. Meet me tomorrow at Luna Land and I will tell you more.”

Barbara responded immediately: “When? Where? Why not tell me now?”

But when she pressed the button to send the communiqué, the transistor operator announced: “We’re sorry, you’re communiqué cannot be delivered. Please try again.”

Barbara tried again, but the operator repeated the same message.

Barbara threw down the transistor with frustration, knowing she’d have to wait for tomorrow for answers. She was still groggy from her earlier drug-induced nightmare and, after hours of pacing, she fell asleep on the sofa, head against a throw pillow.

To be concluded…

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