MSPARKER was a quipping machine, built and maintained by the Department of Computer Religion at the London University of London and its Environs. Bob Martin was currently only just authorised to use it, because there were suspicions hanging over him that he'd been asking it inappropriate questions. As Bob was studying Epistemological Eschatology (EE for short, usually pronounced like a short scream) he had his doubts that there was any question he could ask that could justifiably be called inappropriate, but his opinion wasn't one that mattered.
Right now, he was sat in a plastic-upholstered armchair in the long and narrow office of Dr. Malmstein, Head of Computer Religion. The office had been originally designed as a corridor, which meant it was rather too narrow for comfort, and exceptionally long. It had four doors, spaced at regular intervals along its length, and eight windows spaced at irregular intervals that eventually got on the nerves of anyone sat in there for any length of time. Dr. Malmstein had placed the armchair where the windows would be maximally annoying, in order to limit the length of any visit, especially from students. There were two swiss-cheese plants between windows, and a small rug on the floor that slid freely across the polished floor tiles, and frequently caused people to fall over and land heavily on their backsides.
"Bob," said Dr. Malmstein. He was bald, had bloodshot, deep-set eyes that seemed to glow in their sockets, and had multiple jowls where other people would have had multiple chins. His ears were enormous, and his lobes, stretched out when he was younger and experimenting with body-modification, were pocked with the remnants of piercings. He wore a dusty black suit and fingerless gloves, which he claimed were best for typing on keyboards. He reminded many people of a bloodhound, albeit one with a recursively nested face.
"Dr. Malmstein," said Bob after a few moments when it was apparent that Dr. Malmstein wasn't going to continue speaking.
"Bob, I'm concerned about MSPARKER. I need to know what questions you've been asking her."
"It, Doctor," said Bob carefully. "It's a machine."
"As a matter of Computer Religion, we have ascertained that she is, in fact, a she."
"Right you are then." Bob tried to sound cheerful, but he had issues believing that there was a great silicon God in the sky that predetermined the shape and power of humanity's computers. "She."
"I asked it abo– her about eternity," said Bob. He looked down at his shoes, hoping that this Dr. Malmstein wasn't one of those people who believed that you could tell if someone was lying by where their eyes were pointed.
"And what did she say?"
"Don't you have the transcripts?" Bob realised as the words came out that he sounded defensive and slightly rude, so he quickly added, "She told me that eternity was a boiled ham and a man and a woman in a room."
"We have transcripts." Dr. Malmstein nodded and his jowls flapped. There was something solemn and almost priestly about it. "But we're not sure we have all the transcripts, and we are worried that one of the transcripts may not be true."
Bob lifted his head and looked at Dr. Malmstein in amazement. To hear a high-priest of Computer Religion admit that his God might be fallible was like hearing the Monarch argue in favour of a republic.
"How can there be a false transcript?" he asked. His mind immediately thought of the unexplained delivery to his office door of 5,116 ways to end the world.
"We don't know that there is," said Dr. Malmstein. "But we have a transcript that answers a question that no-one seems to have asked. Namely, –" he paused, and the blood thundered in Bob's ears and his vision narrowed down to a tunnel. Did they know he'd asked how many ways there were to end the world? "– namely," repeated Dr. Malmstein, "At what age was Charles Dickens murdered?"
"Was he murdered?" asked Bob weakly, his vision expanding back to normal and his hearing restoring as well. He felt light-headed and slightly dizzy.
"Does it matter?" Dr. Malmstein folded his hands in his lap. "Someone asked that question, or they asked a question that was then misrecorded as that question. The question now is, to what end?"
"That's a lot of questions," said Bob. "Have you asked MSPARKER about it?"
Dr. Malmstein stared at him as though he'd grown another head and introduced it.
"No," he said slowly. "And perhaps we should."