Category Archives: Politics
Science Fiction Short Story Amazon Giveaway: What Price to Live the Dream
Most of my output to date, and all of my books with traditional publishers, has been non-fiction. That is where I live as an academic. As much as I enjoy my research and writing which is overwhelmingly in the area of law throughout more than a quarter century, poetry and fiction are at my core as a writer. My output in both is relatively meager to date, at least the portion I’ve collected in my little self-published books and decided to share with a few readers. But there is more of me in both my fiction and poetry than in my combined “serious” works.
Below is my longest free verse poem to date and a work in progress to which my dad and mom will be added in the fullness of time.
Although I stand on the shoulders of giants,
I fail to see much farther than the bridge of my nose.
The fault in mine. The shame is mine.
For I am unworthy of you, my beloved dead.
Emilio (Maternal Grandfather)
Your crime was literacy,
And the possession of a social conscience,
That made you yearn to see your beloved Spain remain free,
And prevented you from suffering fascists lightly.
You did not bear arms,
For you abhorred all violence,
You did not incite rebellion, though you
Rebelled against the foreign and domestic enemies of freedom.
As best I can tell you were an idealist who,
In a time of darkness,
Clung passionately to the belief,
In the perfectibility of the human spirit.
You would not abide the lies the regional papers carried,
And translated news from American and British newspapers,
About the gathering storm,
Sharing the truth freely with all who would listen.
You gave speeches, and wrote speeches delivered by others, in support of a doomed
Republic collapsing under the weight of its own incompetence and corruption.
You were warned by friends of your imminent arrest and offered passage back to the U.S. or to
Buenos Aires where so many of your friends had already found refuge.
But they would not get your wife and nine children out,
And you refused to leave them to their fate.
They came for you, as always, in the middle of the night,
These cowards with stern faces hiding behind machine guns.
They took you prisoner, not for the first time, to the Castillo de San Anton,
A fortress by a most beautiful, tranquil bay,
Where they tore out your nails, one by one, and that their
Gentlest caress while they asked you for names.
You endured, God knows what there, for months,
And were sentenced to be shot as a traitor at La Plaza de María Pita.
But the Republic had friends, even among the officers of the fascist forces,
And one of them opened your cell door on the eve of your execution.
You had contracted tuberculosis by then, yet, according to grandmother, you
Managed to swim miles across the bay in a moonless night, to safety in the home of
Another patriot who risked his life and the lives of his family to hide you in
His cellar and made a trip of many miles on foot to find your wife.
He found your home and told your wife of your unexpected reprieve,
And asked her to send some clothing and some shoes to replace your dirty rags.
You eldest daughter, Maria, insisted in accompanying the stranger back on foot, taking
Clothing and what provisions she could quickly gather and carry to you.
From time to time you accepted the hospitality of an overnight stay
In the attic or hay loft of a Republican sympathizer as these were not hard to
Find in the fiercely independent Galicia under the yoke of one of its own.
But mostly you lived in the woods, with active guerrillas for years.
You lived with all the comforts of a hunted animal with others who would not yield,
Whose greatest crime consisted of being on the wrong side of a lost cause.
I hope it brought you some comfort to know you were on the right side of history.
It brought none to your wife and none to your youngest children.
As you paid your long penance for your conscience, once a month or so, after some
Time passed, you visited your wife and children. You were introduced to the little ones
As an uncle from afar. They did not know the bearded wild man who paid these visits
In the middle of the night and left wearing dad’s old, clean clothes.
The older ones, Maria, Josefa, Juan and Toñita, all in their teens, told the little ones
That their “uncle” brought news of their dad. The younger children, still wearing the
Frayed cloaks of their innocence, accepted this, not questioning why he stayed in
Mom’s room all night and was gone before they awoke the next morning.
Your grief at playing the part of a stranger in your own home, of not embracing your
Children on whom you doted, one and all, for their protection and yours, as there were
No shortage of fascists who tried to ply them with pastries and candy,
Seeking to use their innocence as a weapon against you.
Your parents were relatively wealthy business owners who farmed the sea but
Disowned you—perhaps for your politics, perhaps for choosing to emigrate and
Refusing to join the family business, or perhaps for marrying for love in New York City
A hard working girl beneath your social station in their eyes.
You lived just long enough to see Spain delivered from war,
Though not freed of its chains.
You were spared the war’s aftermath.
Your wife and children were not.
No books record your name. Most of those who knew you are dead.
Yet flowers have long perpetually appeared on your simple above-ground burial site in
Sada that holds your ashes, and those of your eldest son, Juan, and second-Eldest daughter,
Toñita, who died much younger than even you.
Your wife has joined you there, in a place where
Honor, goodness, decency, principle and a pure,
Now rest in peace.
Manuel (Paternal Grandfather)
They also came for you in the middle of the night,
But found that you had gone to Buenos Aires.
The Guardia Civil questioned your wife in her home,
Surrounded by your four young children, in loud but respectful tones.
They waved their machine guns about for a while,
But left no visible scars on your children,
Or on your young wife, whom you
Left behind to raise them alone.
You had been a big fish in a little pond,
A successful entrepreneur who made a very good living,
By buying cattle to be raised by those too poor
To buy their own who would raise them for you.
They would graze them, use them to pull their plows
And sell their milk, or use it to feed their too numerous children.
When they were ready for sale, you would take them to market,
Obtain a fair price for them, and equally split the gains with those who raised them.
All in all, it was a good system that gave you relative wealth,
And gave the poor the means to feed their families and themselves.
You reputation for unwavering honesty and fair dealing made many
Want to raise cattle for you, and many more sought you out to settle disputes.
On matters of contracts and disputed land boundaries your word was law.
The powerless and the powerful trusted your judgment equally and sought you out
To settle their disputes. Your judgment was always accepted as final because
Your fairness and integrity were beyond question. “If Manuel says it, it is so.”
You would honor a bad deal based on a handshake and would rather lose a
Fortune than break your word, even when dealing with those far less honorable
Than yourself. For you a man was only as good as his word, and you knew that the
Greatest legacy you could leave your children was an unsullied name.
You were frugal beyond need or reason, perhaps because you did not
Want to flaunt your relative wealth when so many had nothing.
It would have offended your social conscience and belied your politics.
Your one extravagance was a great steed, on which no expense was spared.
Though thoughtful, eloquent and soft-spoken, you were not shy about
Sharing your views and took quiet pride in the fact that others listened
When you spoke. You were an ardent believer in the young republic and
Left of center in your views. When the war came, you were an easy target.
There was no time to take your entire family out of the country, and
You simply had too much to lose—a significant capital tied up in land and
Livestock. So you decided to go to Argentina, having been in the U.S. while
You were single and preferring self exile in a country with a familiar language.
Your wife and children would be fine, sheltered by your capital and by
The good will you had earned. And you were largely right.
Despite your wife’s inexperience, she continued with your business, with the
Help of your son who had both your eye for buying livestock and your good name.
Long years after you had gone, your teenaged son could buy all the cattle he
Wanted at any regional fair on credit, with just a handshake, simply because
He was your son. And for many years, complete strangers would step up offering a
Stern warning to those they believed were trying to cheat your son at the fairs.
“E o fillo do Café.” (He is the son of the Café, a nickname earned by a
Distant relative for to his habit of offering coffee to anyone who visited his
Office at a time when coffee was a luxury). That was enough to stop anyone
Seeking to gain an unfair advantage from dad’s youth and inexperience.
Once in Buenos Aires, though, you were a small fish in a very big pond,
Or, more accurately, a fish on dry land; nobody was impressed by your name,
Your pedigree, your reputation or your way of doing business. You were probably
Mocked for your Galician accent and few listened or cared when you spoke.
You lived in a small room that shared a patio with a little schoolhouse.
You worked nights as a watchman, and tried to sleep during the day while
Children played noisily next door. You made little money since your trade was
Useless in a modern city where trust was a highly devalued currency.
You were an anachronistic curiosity. And you could not return home.
When your son followed you there, he must have broken your heart;
You had expected that he would run your business until your return; but he
Quit school, tired of being called roxo (red) by his military instructors.
It must have been excruciatingly difficult for you. Dad never got your pain.
Ironically, I think I do, but much too late. Eventually you returned to Spain to
A wife who had faithfully raised your children alone for nearly two decades and was
No longer predisposed to unquestioningly view your will as her duty.
Doubtless, you could no more understand that than dad could understand
You. Too much Pain. Too many dreams deferred, mourned, buried and forgotten.
You returned to your beloved Galicia when it was clear you would not be
Persecuted after Generalisimo Franco had mellowed into a relatively benign tyrant.
People were no longer found shot or beaten to death in ditches by the
Side of the road. So you returned home to live out the remainder of your
Days out of place, a caricature of your former self, resting on the brittle,
Crumbling laurels of your pre Civil War self, not broken, but forever bent.
You found a world very different from the one you had built through your
Decency, cunning, and entrepreneurship. And you learned to look around
Before speaking your mind, and spent your remaining days reined in far more
Closely than your old steed, and with no polished silver bit to bite upon.
Remedios (Maternal Grandmother)
Your husband died at 40, leaving you to raise seven children alone.
But not before your eldest, hardest working son, Juan, had
Drowned at sea in his late teens while working as a fisherman to help
You and your husband put food on the table.
You lost a daughter, too,
Toñita, also in her early teens, to illness.
Their kind, pure souls found
Their way back home much too soon.
Later in life you would lose two more sons to tragedy, Paco (Francisco),
An honest, hard working man whose purposeful penchant for shocking
Language belied a most gentle nature and a generous heart. He was electrocuted by
A faulty portable light while working around his pool.
And the apple of your eye, Sito (José), your last born and most loving son, who
Had inherited his father’s exceptional looks, social conscience, left of center
Politics, imposing presence, silver tongue, and bad, bad luck, died, falling
Under the wheels of a moving train, perhaps accidentally.
In a time of hopelessness and poverty, you would not be broken.
You rose every day hours before the dawn to sell fish at a stand.
And every afternoon you placed a huge wicker basket on your head and
Walked many, many miles to sell even more fish in other towns.
Money was tight, so you often took bartered goods in
Exchange for your fish, giving some to those most in need,
Who could trade nothing in return but their
Blessings and their gratitude.
You walked back home, late at night, through darkness or
Moonlit roads, carrying vegetables, eggs, and perhaps a
Rabbit or chicken in a large wicker basket on your strong head,
Walking straight, on varicose-veined legs, driven on by a sense of purpose.
During the worst famine during and after the Civil War, the chimney of your
Rented home overlooking the Port of Fontan, spewed forth black smoke every day.
Your hearth fire burned to to feed not just your children, but also your less
Fortunate neighbors, nourishing their bodies and their need for hope.
You were criticized by some when the worst had passed, after the war.
“Why work so hard, Remedios, and allow your young children to go to work
At too young an age? You sacrifice them and yourself for stupid pride when
Franco and foreign food aid provide free meals for the needy.”
“My children will never live off charity as long as my back is strong” was your reply.
You resented your husband for putting politics above family and
Dragging you and your two daughters, from your safe, comfortable home at
Number 10 Perry Street near the Village to a Galicia without hope.
He chose to tilt at windmills, to the eternal glory of other foolish men,
And left you to fight the real, inglorious daily battle for survival alone.
Struggling with a bad heart, he worked diligently to promote a better, more just
Future while largely ignoring the practical reality of your painful present.
He filled you with children and built himself the cross upon which he was
Crucified, one word at a time, leaving you to pick up the pieces of his shattered
Idealism. But you survived, and thrived, without sacrificing your own strong
Principles or allowing your children to know hardships other than those of honest work.
And you never lost your sense of humor. You never took anything or
Anyone too seriously. When faced with the absurdity of life,
You chose to smile or laugh out loud. I saw you shed many tears of laughter,
But not once tears of pain, sorrow or regret. You would never be a victim.
You loved people. Yours was an irreverent sense of humor, full of gentle irony,
And wisdom. You loved to laugh at yourself and at others, especially pompous fools
Who often missed your great amusement at their expense, failing to understand your
Dismissal, delivered always with a smile, a gentle voice and sparkling eyes.
Your cataracts and near sightedness made it difficult for you to read,
But you read voraciously nonetheless, and loved to write long letters to loved ones and friends.
You were a wise old woman, the wisest and strongest I will ever know,
But one with the heart of a child and the soul of an angel.
You were the most sane, most rational, most well adjusted human being
I have ever known. You were mischievous, but incapable of malice.
You were adventurous, never afraid to try or to learn anything new.
You were fun-loving, interesting, kind, rambunctious, funny and smart as hell.
You would have been an early adopter of all modern technology, had you lived long
Enough, and would have loved playing—and working—with all of my electronic
Toys. You would have been a terror with a word processor, email, and social media
And would have loved my video games—and beaten me at every one of them.
We were great friends and playmates throughout most of my life. You followed
Us here soon after we immigrated in 1967, leaving behind 20 other Grandchildren.
I never understood the full measure of that sacrifice, or the love that made it
Bearable for you. I do now. Too late. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life.
We played board games, cowboys and Indians, raced electric cars, flipped
Baseball cards and played thousands of hands of cards together. It never
Occurred to me that you were the least bit unusual in any way. I loved you
Dearly but never went far out of my way to show it. That too, I learned too late.
After moving to Buenos Aires, when mom had earned enough money to take
You and her younger brothers there, the quota system then in place made it
Impossible to send for your two youngest children, whose care you entrusted
Temporarily to your eldest married daughter, Maria.
You wanted them with you. Knowing no better, you went to see Evita Peron for help.
Unsurprisingly, you could not get through her gatekeepers. But you were
Nothing if not persistent. You knew she left early every morning for her office.
And you parked yourself there at 6:00 a.m., for many, many days by her driveway.
Eventually, she had her driver stop and motioned for you to approach.
“Grandmother, why do you wave at me every morning when I leave for work?”
She asked. You explained about your children in Spain. She took pity and scribbled a
Pass on her card to admit you to her office the next day.
You met her there and she assured you that a visa would be forthcoming;
When she learned that you made a living by cleaning homes and washing clothing,
She offered you a sewing machine and training to become a seamstress.
You thanked her but declined the offer.
“Give the sewing machine to another mother with no trade. My strong back and hands
Serve me well enough and I do just fine, as I have always done.”
Evita must have been impressed for she asked you to see her yet again when the
Children had arrived in Buenos Aires, giving you another pass. You said you would.
You kept your word, as always. And Evita granted you another brief audience,
Met your two youngest sons (José and Emilio) and shared hot chocolate and
Biscuits with the three of you. You disliked and always criticized Peron and the Peronistas,
But you never forgot Evita’s kindness and defended her all your life.
You were gone too quickly. I had not said “I love” you in years. I was too busy,
With school and other equally meaningless things to keep in touch. You
Passed away without my being there. Mom had to travel by herself to your
Bedside for an extended stay. The last time I wrote you I had sent you a picture.
It was from my law school graduation.
You carried it in your coat pocket before the stroke.
As always, you loved me, with all of my faults that made me
Unworthy of your love.
I knew the moment that you died. I awoke from a deep sleep to see a huge
White bird of human size atop my desk across from my bed. It opened huge
Wings and flew towards me and passed through me as I shuddered.
I knew then that you were gone. I cried, and prayed for you.
Mom called early the next day with the news that you had passed. She also
Told me much, much later that you had been in a coma for some time but that
You awoke, turned to her without recognizing her, and told her that you were going to
Visit your grandson in New York. Then you fell asleep for one last time.
I miss you every day.
Maria (Paternal Grandmother)
You were a gentle, genteel young woman swept away by a man
Thirteen years your senior who gallantly courted you,
Riding proudly atop his great steed, and who offered you
Safety, security, his good name and his heart.
He gave you four children—two boys and two girls—and left you,
And them, just before the Guardia Civil came for him. You told them that
Your husband had emigrated to Argentina and was an honorable man.
They questioned you but left empty handed and did not trouble you again.
For the next two decades, you managed your husband’s affairs,
Continued with his business for a time,
Grieved the death of your youngest son, Manolito, to meningitis,
And found comfort in your lot, which was better than most.
You were a proud, prim, proper, handsome woman,
With large, penetrating, deep blue eyes.
Though you were not the a radiant beauty like your older sister,
Who died young but whose beauty long outlived her in the eyes of many.
But you were beautiful, and turned more than your share of heads in younger days.
And you fondly recalled all the good, young men from good families who courted you,
Whom you kept at a proper distance through your virtue, wielded like
A great shield; yet you took no small pride in recounting their attentions.
You were kind, generous, and self sacrificing. And you were strong, though this
Trait was not encouraged of proper women of the time. You were a
Good friend, and though you could appear as aloof as a queen walking among her
Subjects, you had many close friends among both rich and poor.
Though you were proud, you tilled the soil and grew potatoes, beets, beans,
Cabbage, artichokes and many other vegetable in your ample garden,
Picked apples, lemons, pears, figs and many other fruits for your family,
From your fruit trees, milked your cows, and raised chickens and rabbits.
Your pride sustained you through the tough times, and you took comfort from
Your illustrious relative, José Sánchez Bregua (1810-1897), the distinguished
Four-star General, Commander in Chief of the forces of Spain, and War Minister whose
State funeral was the first moving picture shot in Spain.
Your memories of a gentler past colored by both real and imagined glory,
And your overly strong pride in your children, grandchildren and family,
Rescued you from loneliness and the unpleasant realities of life,
And condemned you to remember the past at the expense of living the present.
The last time I saw you, you were as strong and lovely as ever, with perfect
Posture, and every hair in place. Your eyes were still clear, and your smile as
Gentle and reassuring as it had always been. But you did not know me, and spoke to me of
Your son and grandson in New York of whom you were so proud.
While dad and I sat next to you, you told us both about ourselves and of
Sánchez Bregua, and of your many suitors when you were young, and of your
Virtuous friends, and of your husband’s good name, and of his standing in the
Community, and whispered not a word of pain, of loneliness or of self-sacrifice.
Your soft voice spoke only of pleasant things I’d heard many times before that belied Y
our strength, your mettle, your life deferred, your wounds covered over by the only
Salve available to you—pride—and by the unshakable knowledge of who you were
Without a moment wasted in the pointless contemplation of what might have been.
Dad and I left you for the last time, contentedly fussing with your old sewing
Machine, the same one on which you had made your children’s clothes, and taught
Your two daughters their craft. You did not recognize us, but chatted politely and did
Not notice our tears when dad and I said what would prove to be our final good-byes.
“Earth Mother” SF Short Story Preview
The adrenaline in her veins and the irrational fear that paralyzed her made every joint in her body ache and yielded spasmodic pains as though her muscles were tightly coiling around themselves. Her mouth dry and vocal cords frozen from fear, Lisa lacked the power to give voice to a scream that was born, grew and died in her throat without expression. Unable to move and still unaware of the cause of her discomfort, Lisa could detect a barely perceptible blue-green aura through the partially closed Venetian blinds and drawn drapes in her bedroom. The air was charged; she could sense it though the prickly itch of her hair standing on end. It smelled like a summer thunderstorm had just passed though, despite a cloudless sky.
After long, silent moments of languishing transfixed in irrational terror, satin sheets clinging coldly to her naked body as she lay in a perspiration-soaked bed, a painful flash of white light inundated her bedroom, leaving Lisa temporarily blind, with multiple circular black afterimages receding slowly through her repetitive blinking, eventually fading to gray and melding into a humanoid form standing some six feet from the foot of her bed. The form, a hairless, androgynous ashen skinned humanoid with large, seal-like black eyes, button nosed, with thin, small lips, approximately five feet tall and weighing perhaps ninety-five pounds, finally spoke to her. More accurately, it transmitted words and fragmentary, vivid images into her mind accompanied by a soft, musical sound that might be speech and was as beautiful as it was unintelligible.
“Please, please don’t hurt me,” she thought, still unable to utter a sound.
“No need to fear; we will not do you harm. Be calm,” the creature replied in visual words and images that were fragmented but quite clear.
“Please go away. Oh. God, help me, please.” Lisa would have cried and screamed and run had she the power to do any of those things. Since she did not, she lay still, mentally pleading with the seemingly innocuous creature whose presence, despite its attempts at reassurance, had done little to ameliorate her dread.
“Do not fear. We bring you a gift with which to bargain for your help.” The creature’s facial expression and body language did not change, but the visual messages it transmitted clearly tried to show its good will. Warmth, happiness, contentment emanated from the creature as does the sweet scent of a flower carried by a slight summer’s breeze.
“You won’t hurt me?” Lisa half asked, half pleaded, somewhat reassured by the creature’s communication, yet certainly not yet disposed to accept its alleged good will at face value.
“We come only to offer a gift, in exchange for your assistance.”
“What kind of gift? And what type of help do you want?” Lisa’s fear seemed to dissolve rather quickly with each reference by the creature to a gift.
“We offer a great gift, the ability to communicate without words as we now do, in exchange for your service” The creature retorted, seemingly encouraged into more negotiation by Lisa’s growing receptiveness.
“Are you offering me the gift of telepathy?” Lisa’s heart, no longer beating fast in response to fear, was beginning to speed up in response to a new growing emotion.”
“You may call it that, yes.”
“What do you want in exchange?” Lisa asked, furrowing her brow slightly, and beginning to ask herself what in her power she would not be willing to do for that ability.
“You must incubate one of us and nurture it until it is strong enough to part from you.”
“I don’t understand. Do you want me to care for you or one of your kind? To be a baby sitter?”
“Much more,” the creature replied, sending Lisa a clear image of a human body, her body, in the last stages of pregnancy.
“No!” replied Lisa, tried instinctively to close her legs and gather her sheets about her, aware for the first time of her nakedness and vulnerable position with great revulsion. She also remembered the unpleasant reports of alien encounters with horrific medical exams and intrusive probes wielded by intergalactic perverts apparently intent on molesting humans for their own gratification. But her body would not obey her commands; whether she was paralyzed by some sort of stasis field of by the creature’s mental powers, she did not know.
“It is not copulation we seek,” the creature immediately offered, seemingly amused and sending a clear visual image of its honorable intentions. “Our anatomy is unlike yours and would not permit it, but your womb is compatible for our purposes. We would plant an embryo in your uterus that would grow, protected and nourished through your normal biological means” With this, the creature sent an image of a sesame seed-sized embryo being implanted into a human host, and later emerging in the usual means less than a fifth the size of a human baby.
“No pain?” Lisa asked, relived but cautious.
“Both the implantation and the subsequent birth are completely free of discomfort.”
“How long for the procedure and how long is the period of gestation?”
“Two of your minutes for the implantation and six of your weeks for the gestation to be completed.”
“A two minute implant and painless delivery six weeks later buys me the gift of telepathy, huh. Is that your deal?”
“Wait a minute. My mother raised no fools. How long does my telepathy last?”
“Throughout the entire period of your life.”
“Not bad. A lifetime of telepathy for six weeks of work.” Lisa replied, more to herself than to the creature, who perhaps sensing that fact made no reply.
Then, her brow furrowing again, she continued, “If this is such an easy deal, why do you need me? Why can’t your own kind do so themselves.”
“All of those capable of breeding on our world are dead.” The creature’s thoughts and mental images conveyed great sadness. AWe will cease to exist as a species unless we have outworlders such as yourself help us.”
“Sorry to hear that. “ She thought back at the creature, which again made no reply. “Is there any risk to me from the pregnancy or birth? Will you return for the birth? And how long need I care for the thing afterwards?”
“There is no risk to you. We will give you medications to strengthen your immune system and eradicate any illness you may currently have. The medication will also prevent your antibodies from attacking the embryo. We can guarantee your health and vitality for the rest of your life as a byproduct of the procedure. As to our return, it is unnecessary. Our infants are self sufficient and require only the most basic type of sustenance for a period that never exceeds two of your weeks after their birth. The infant would then move on without need of any additional assistance from you.”
“Sounds like a deal to me. The little bugger will pop out like a slice of toast when its time comes, care for itself immediately, leaving me with telepathy and good health for life, and I don’t even have to undergo morning sickness or stretch marks. What more could a girl want?” She smiled, thinking about the possibilities that telepathy would provide for her. To know what others thought, and to be able to plant messages in their minds. The possibilities were intoxicatingly endless.
**** END OF FREE PREVIEW ****
Earth Mother is one of the ten short stories in Mindscapes: Ten Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction Short Stories. The book is available as an audiobook, in paperback and in every major eBook format from a wide range of book sellers.
Mindscapes short story collection – Audiobook version. Click on any of the following vendors for additional information and and an audio sample: Audible, iTunes and Amazon.
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Is reality nothing more than a computer simulation? Some physicists seem to think so according to a report in the BBC (http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160901-we-might-live-in-a-computer-program-but-it-may-not-matter). I played with this theme in one of my short stories many years ago (“What Price to Live the Dream”) asking the philosophical question of whether it matters whether we live in life in a perfect virtual reality or reality itself, and whether a virtual reality indistinguishable from reality may not be preferable under certain circumstances. (My conclusion–spoiler alert–is that giving up one’s life for the chance at happiness in a perfectly rendered virtual reality is preferable to a life of regret in the real world. But then again, I also posited that microbes living in a god’s privates also view their universe as a wondrous, miraculous place from the point of view of their subjective reality in another short story, “Mergs,” so my view of reality may be a bit skewed.)
At any rate, if our universe is indeed a computer program, I need to hack the code–or at least find the damned reset button! As to the chance for happiness in a virtual reality or an unfulfilled life in the real world (whatever that means), I’ll still opt for door number one.
Since I’m taking (yet another) break from real work on a paper that is driving me nuts, I may as well give a preview of What Price to Live the Dream? It will at least waste a few more minutes. Then I’ll hit the fridge and scrounge around for something to occupy me for a few minutes more before going back to MS Word. **SIGH**
(C) 1990, 2011 Victor D. Lopez
Ken was tired, despondent and none too sober. He’d learnt only a few hours before that the Phoenix Project of which he was the lead scientist was about to be scrapped, that funding would not be renewed by Congress for the current fiscal year to the intelligence agency for which he worked. He saw the last 15 years of his life, years in which he’d been entirely absorbed in working on this most carefully guarded project and which had borne success beyond his most optimistic hopes, rush by him in a swirling haze. His life’s work was dissolving before his eyes like an early morning mist burnt away by the unforgiving rising sun of a new day (and a new Washington administration unfriendly to risky, high-priced covert projects).
The Phoenix project had been his life. He had conceived it while an undergraduate student at MIT and it had taken on a life of its own until it became his rason d’etre. He used his considerable powers of persuasion, and political connections (being the son of a senior senator certainly had not hindered his efforts, and he had not been shy about enlisting his father as an ally from the start), to convince the intelligence agency that his project was both feasible and of unparalleled value as an intelligence tool, and much too dangerous to be developed by private industry. All three assertions were undeniably true. Unfortunately for Dr. Kenneth Leyans, having cast his lot with the government, he was now precluded from pursuing his project through the private sector despite the fact that the cost of further research and development from this point on would be relatively modest. The pointed success he had achieved, to date would make many technology companies and most foreign governments literally kill to get their hands on his work, and would make him to only an instant billionaire, but a guaranteed Nobel laureate.
Simply put, the Phoenix project represented quantum leaps in computer technology and nanotechnology that allowed for a symbiotic melding between humans and computers. Dr. Leyans had succeeded in creating a device which could read and store any person’s complete memories from birth and download them into a computer’s memory, where they would be stored and could be enhanced, manipulated and made to interact with the real, computer-enhanced and computer-generated virtual memories of thousands of other people. Any person interfacing with the system can be made to relive his past from any given point with such accuracy as to make it indistinguishable from reality. Any past experience could now be relived in minutest detail. But the system was far more than a virtual memory generator. A subject interacting with the system still retained the free will to change past events by making different decisions from those made in his or her past, thereby affecting a change in all that followed from that moment in time onward. Decisions great and small that define our lives and its intrinsic quality could be revised. Doors closed by past choices, destinations forever unreachable in life after taking the wrong fork in the road leading to the wrong career, the wrong friendship, the wrong mate, could all be potentially revised.
At a fundamental level, we are little more than the sum of our life’s choices. With the benefit of hindsight we can judge the wisdom of our decisions and congratulate ourselves for our successes or lick the wounds of our failures. If we are wise, we learn from both. But no amount of introspection can alter the course of events that flow from crucial decisions made. Words spoken in anger cannot be taken back. A bullet fired from a gun cannot be recalled. A priceless crystal vase once dropped and shattered cannot be reassembled. Life offers no rewind button and the detritus we leave in our wake as the remnants of our broken dreams, broken words, broken hearts and broken souls is all too often beyond repair.
But the Phoenix Project had the potential to change that. The system’s many applications would include entertainment and it would add a powerful new tool for the treatment of mental illness. But it is the value to any government as an intelligence tool that Dr. Leyans had stressed when seeking government funding of his research: It would provide a valuable training and debriefing tool for agents and for the military, allowing subjects to re-live previous assignments or computer generated new ones; the entire memories of captured terrorists, enemy agents or dangerous criminals could be read into the computer and examined or changed by it so as to yield important information which could not be withheld. Agents’ reactions to specific events, such as interrogation under torture, could be examined so as to best determine their likely reactions in the field. It might even be possible to re-program captured foreign agents, terrorists and other enemy combatants at will so that they could be used to sow misinformation, gather information and otherwise disrupt the plans of enemies of the state–something not yet achieved by the system, but certainly well within its theoretical limits and a possibility well worth exploring.
Unfortunately, not every bug had yet been satisfactorily worked out. The system’s Achilles heel, and the trigger for the withdrawal of funding, was that the link between it and a subject once established could not be safely severed. Such attempts invariably led to one of two unacceptable results: death or madness. A person’s memories could be downloaded safely into the system without any ill effects; all that was required was the massive storage and processing power of a network of linked supercomputers and the wearing of a helmet with hypersensitive sensor receptors able to intercept and translate normal brain waves into data downloadable to the network. The average download time for a subject was a mere 10-12 hours of connect time under sedation. But for the system to directly interface with the brain in an active manner, setting up the parameters of the memories to be relived or hypothetical present setting to be infused, a more complicated procedure was required. In order to facilitate the symbiotic linkup to the Phoenix Project, an esoteric mixture of biochemical and nanotechnology agents needs to be consumed within four hours of the linkup. The biochemical agents strengthen the brain’s normal electrochemical reactions and enhance the body’s circulatory system, while the nanotechnology agents are carried through the blood to the brain, where they attach to individual neurons and act as miniature receptors to translate and convey impulses from the computer directly to the brain. The combination of the biochemical and nanotechnology agents makes it possible for a subject to receive data directly from the system safely. Unfortunately, once the link is disturbed, dire consequences result for reasons that Dr. Leyans and his team did not yet understand.
Convinced that the failure of the tests on the chimpanzee and gorilla subjects was related to the creatures’ inability to cope with the stress of the procedure due to their limited mental capacity and their inability to understand what was happening to them, three volunteers from the Phoenix Projects took it upon themselves to perform unauthorized tests on humans. Without the knowledge or consent of Dr. Leyans, three volunteers agreed to simultaneously interface with the system. They knew they would only get one shot at it and, aware of the high risk to themselves but confident in the success they would achieve, they wanted to have multiple positive results to strengthen the argument for further human trials. Of the three test volunteers, two died upon the severance of the symbiotic link between the subject and the system, and the third suffered severe psychosis requiring her to be institutionalized; the well-meaning volunteers in a single act confirmed the failed results on the simian test subjects and simultaneously dealt a death blow to the project.
Ken had been torn between the grief and guilt he felt for his colleagues and the frustration and anger at the untimely demise of the project so close to achieving complete success. The link‑up had been successful in all three cases; he had the complete record of their brain responses to their trips back in time into their own past, and all seemed normal until the link was severed and the attempt was made to bring them out of their virtual reality. The new generation mainframes which he had developed contained voluminous amounts of data on each of the psychic “voyages” undertaken by the project volunteers. While it would take years of close scrutiny to fully analyze such data and to yield conclusive results, there was little doubt from the preliminary findings that the experiments had been successful, other than for the recurring fatal flaw.
Yet, despite these unquestionable triumphs, the Senate Oversight Committee had decided to scrap the project. The computer equipment would certainly be put to some use, and he was assured of getting credit for that part of the project; but the Phoenix Project was effectively dead. All research relating to it would be branded top secret and filed away beyond the reach of espionage or the Freedom of Information Act.
But all was not lost. His father’s warning had purchased him a grace period of perhaps a day, or at least the better part of it. No guards were likely to storm his lab at 2:00 A.M., at any rate. Ken smiled; there was something to be said for red tape, after all.
There was nothing for him to do at the moment but wait. He’d called his best friend over an hour ago, and knew that he would soon be arriving. He had not given him any specifics over the phone, but had told him that he needed to see him immediately on an urgent matter. He smiled again faintly, conjuring a vision of poor Dan rushing out of the house in his pajamas, making the four-hour trip up from Albany to the Suffolk County facilities in what he knew would be record time. He felt some guilt about putting his friend through that; but it was necessary, and he knew the other would understand.
Ken sipped slowly from his large snifter–brandy, real Napoleon; he kept several bottles in the lab for important occasions, such as the celebration of new breakthroughs with his team (champagne, he felt, was better suited for World Series winners and senior proms); he certainly was not in a celebratory mood, but what the hell, crossroads counted, too.
A loud buzzer erupted in the lab, destroying the hypnotic humming of the computers. He arose slowly, self consciously attempting not to stagger perceptibly, and walked towards the intercom to be greeted by an emotionless voice.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr. Leyans, but there is a man here by the name of Daniel Lantz who claims you’ve sent for him.”
“That’s right, Sergeant, I have. Please escort him in.”
“Sir, he lacks appropriate clearance. I cannot allow him into the compound.”
“I’m clearing him now, Sergeant,” Ken retorted, not attempting to hide his annoyance. “Let him in at once.”
“But sir,” the Sergeant began, “I have strict orders that no one is to be admitted without proper clearance without the express authorization of General Worthing.” The man was insistent, but a tone of nervous annoyance was also detectable in his voice. Waking the general at 0215 hours was not something he cared to do; neither did he wish to incur the ire of the head of a project as important as this must be, judging by all the extensive security surrounding it–security and secrecy unlike anything he’d seen in his twenty five years of service.
“Sergeant,” Ken interrupted impatiently, “I am the head of this project, not General Worthing. His sole responsibility is the same as yours, to ensure my safety and to secure myproject. Mr. Lantz has information I need immediately that is crucial to that which is your duty to guard. If you delay me for one more minute, I promise you that both you and General Worthing can kiss your careers good-bye. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”
“Yes sir,” came the somewhat muffled response.
“Please escort Mr. Lantz to the lab immediately. Thank you.” With that, Ken turned towards the locked vault-like steel doors and punched in the access code to open them. He felt a little ashamed of his heavy-handed treatment of Sergeant Ellis, a man he had grown to know and like; but he simply did not have time to be diplomatic or overly concerned over a man’s hurt feelings, not when his life depended on what would transpire within the next few hours.
As soon as the door opened, an M.P. immediately came to attention on the outside as Dr. Leyans walked out to meet his friend. a moment later, he saw Dan being escorted by a somber Sergeant.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Ken said with a thin smile, “And don’t worry, the surveillance tape of our conversation is on the record and I take full responsibility for Mr. Lantz’s presence here.”
“That you do, sir” the Sergeant retorted, stiffly doing an about-face and heading away at a brisk pace.
“Thanks for coming, Dan,” Ken began, turning to his friend and giving him a quick embrace. “I’m sorry to put you through this; you’ll get a full explanation in a minute.” With that, Ken signaled his friend to precede him inside. After both men had entered, Ken again punched in a code and the door slid shut, closing with a final clanging sound which sent a slight shiver down Dan’s spine.
“What the hell is this all about?” Dan demanded no sooner than the door was sealed, nervous anticipation and concern clearly detectable in his tone.
“That is a long and complicated story. But I’ll try to keep it brief. Please, come in and make yourself comfortable; this will take a while.” Both men moved towards a table in the corner of the expansive laboratory. As they walked, the immensity of the place with its myriad electronic equipment began to sink in for Dan. He let out an unconscious, low whistle. “God, what is this place?” he asked with a tone that clearly evidenced his surprise, curiosity and awe. He recognized some of the equipment immediately, namely mainframes and the ubiquitous video display terminals. Yet, most of the electronic paraphernalia was completely foreign to him. For the most part it consisted of monolithic metal structures with LED read‑outs and flashing lights; the enormous lab was well lit, almost painfully so, with white halogen light bouncing off the myriad chrome counter tops and milk-white high gloss laminated cabinet surfaces. The facility was spotless, anesthetized to the point of completely eradicating all odors; only the faint scent of ozone could be sensed, barely perceptible. Even the sounds seemed clean–merely white noise, a soothing hum at an almost subliminal level. The general effect, after the initial disorientation caused mostly by an almost overwhelming sense of immenseness, made Dan uneasy in a way he could not have explained were he even fully aware of it.
“This, dear friend, is the end result of my life’s work. You know what I have been working on for the past 15 years, but only in a superficial way. Until a few hours ago, this place stood for hope, a self-made vehicle for redemption. Now …” Ken’s voice trailed off to a nearly inaudible whimper.”Now, it is a tomb.”
“What the blazes do you mean? What is this place, and what the bloody hell are you talking about?”
Ken sighed, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, mechanically reaching for another snifter for his friend and pouring out a generous serving of the precious brandy, groping for words and a place to begin what he knew would be an explanation difficult to accept.
“I haven’t told you exactly what it is that I have been working on because it is classified information, and because, even if it were not, it could be dangerous for you to know it.”
“I can see it’s heavy-duty stuff. This damned place is a fortress.” I had no idea this lab was still operational.
“To put it simply, I am working on a project which has made it possible to relive one’s past. I can synthesize memories from brain impulses, translate them into code which the computer can manipulate and inject it back into the brain so that the subject actually relives them.”
“That’s . . . fantastic,” Dan interrupted excitedly. “Does it really work?”
“Yes and no. I have incontrovertible evidence that the process works, but the biochemical changes necessary to effectuate the process in conjunction with the physical symbiotic link‑up to the computer is not reversible at this time.”
“What do you mean by ‘not reversible’“?
Ken shuddered almost imperceptibly and answered in a low tone: “I mean you can’t cut the link without some . . . unacceptable consequences.”
“You mean that anyone who gets hooked up to your machine can’t come out of the . . . thedream?”
“Basically, yes. Although your characterization of the experience as a dream is inaccurate. The programming is so complex that the person linked with the system literally relives past experiences, or whatever scenario, real or imagined, we inject. You can think of it as a dream, but a dream so very real that it is indistinguishable from reality. The effect is not some blurry, black and white fleeting representation, as with most dreams, but a true life experience. Every nuance of taste, smell, touch, sound and sight are re-experienced; every feeling and thought relived.”
“God,” Dan interrupted. Can you imagine what people would pay to relive a particularly pleasant experience at will? To be with a loved one long dead? To recapture lost youth? This has to be among the greatest inventions of our time. Programmable dreams and truly attainable fantasies!”
“Yes, the potential uses of my invention are many, including the obvious commercial ones. But it’s all a moot point now.”
“What do you mean?”
“My father has just informed me that funding for this program has been cut. I expect the prototype will be dismantled by tomorrow.”
“But why?” Dan asked in disbelief. “Just because you haven’t perfected it yet? I know you said that once a person gets hooked up to the system he can’t be disconnected, but that must be something you could eventually fix . . .”
“It’s not just that, Dan. I’ve lost three colleagues who voluntarily underwent the link-up. The Senate simply felt it is too dangerous to be allowed to continue. Also, the climate has changed in Washington. Pricey research is out–especially when requested by an intelligence agency known for its black ops. The deaths of my staff members was simply the last straw that those opposed to the project needed to finally destroy it. I can’t really fully blame them. In the wrong hands, the Phoenix Project could be potentially more dangerous than nuclear weapons.”
“You should never have gone to the government with this. You could have developed it in any major university, or even through private industry.”
“No, I needed my dad’s clout to even get the government to listen to my crackpot notions. And no corporation on earth could have provided the enormous capital needed for research and development. At any rate, that’s all immaterial now. The real reason I asked you to come is that I have made a decision that I need to speak with you about before I can carry it out.”
“I know you well enough to know that I’m probably not going to like this,” Dan said, picking up his snifter, swirling the amber liquid slowly, absent‑mindedly, and downing half of its content in a single gulp. It could have been brandy, vodka or kerosene; Dan would not have noticed the difference. He was preparing himself for whatever it was that Ken had brought him here for. He cleared his mind of everything and concentrated on his friend, waiting to do whatever was asked of him. Ken refreshed their drinks saying “This is your final one. I need you clear headed. Clarity for me is of secondary importance at this time.” He smiled at Ken, then sat back in his chair, warming his brandy in his hand and exhaling a soft sigh as he resumed speaking.
“Let me tell you straight out why I asked you to come, and we’ll take it from there. I must link up with the system tonight, while it is still possible, and I need you to assist me with the process.”
“Are you absolutely out of your mind!” Dan spat out immediately, enraged because he knew that Ken was deadly serious and would not be easily dissuaded; extreme stubbornness is one among many characteristics they both shared. He would do anything that Ken asked, regardless of the risk or price asked of him–anything, that is, except help him to commit suicide, no matter how bloody important or worthwhile the cause.
“Relax, Dan. Please her me out. I don’t expect to have your help unless I can convince you that it is the right thing to do.”
“Forget it. I’m not buying any utilitarian argument about the need for sacrifice for the sake of science. The answer is no. Period.”
“You’re jumping to conclusions. Please hear me out; I must link up to the system, but not for any altruistic reason. I must do it for me, not for science, country, humanity or any other idealistic reason. I began work on the project purely out of selfishness, and that is the same force that drives me into what I must do tonight. It is what is best for me, and that is why you will help me.”
“That’s all I ask,” Ken said, smiling softly and taking another sip from his snifter. “Do you remember Linda?”
“Your high school sweetheart? Of course I remember her.”
“Do you remember why we broke up?”
“Sure I do; you thought you were getting too emotionally attached, that both of you were in love at the wrong time, and that continuing to see each other would interfere with your education. You broke it off, never saw her again and learned that she was married some years later, when you were starting your senior year at MIT.”
“That’s right. You also know that it was the worst mistake of my life.”
“Yeah,” Dan uttered, his voice nearly inaudible. “You’re the most brilliant moron I’ve ever known.” They had spent many hours rehashing that decision over the years. Ken had never been the same since he’d learned of Linda’s marriage, since that door was forever closed for him. She now lived in California, three thousand miles away, with a caring, decent man she would never truly love despite having borne him three sons. Ken had not married and never would; he was an idealist who could never settle, as Linda had, and much too honest with himself to even hope that he might change. Regret had nearly driven him to despair until he had launched himself head-on into his work. In it, Dan had thought that his friend had found if not a substitute for love, at least a meaningful escape from the unbearable reality of his loneliness and regret. Throughout the past ten years, Ken had been too busy for pain or emptiness and had seemed content. Dan had known better than to breach that subject during that time, and had finally nearly convinced himself that Ken had exorcized his ghosts. Until this very moment, when the import of his friend’s motivation throughout the past ten years became all too clear. His heart sank, and he fought keep in check the powerful emotions percolating to the surface.
“You can’t go back, Ken. You can’t throw away your life for a dream. You can’t give up everything to live a lie.”
“You know me better than anyone on earth. You are my best friend and probably the only reason that I made it through my graduate studies and the years before I conceived of the project. But you’ve got to understand the simple fact that life without Linda is literally not worth living for me. Regret is the cruelest disease; it gnaws away at you from the inside until there is nothing left but a hollow shell, and the echoes of painful memories. You know, it’s funny; no matter how many times you say you’ve hit bottom, that you can’t sink any lower, that there is simply no more pain you can possibly feel, you’re proven wrong. There’s always more. It can always get worse, and almost invariably does.”
“But your invention is not the answer. You can’t find happiness in a dream, because a part of you will always know it is a dream. You can’t cheat fate, at least not in that way. If Linda is still that important, then damn it, let her know that; there may still be a way. Marriage, especially an imperfect one, is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle; you can always . . .”
“No, Dan,” Ken interrupted gently, feeling his friend’s frustration, but drawing strength and a calmness that surprised even him from his determination. “Even if I could, I would not break up that family and hurt her husband or her kids; I could no more do that than I could suffer the death of an innocent person to save my own life or the life of a loved one. If I could, I would be unworthy of her love, and if she could accept me under those circumstances, she would be unworthy of mine. There is no other answer, and you know that too, dear friend.”
Dan could not reply. He knew that Ken was essentially right, but he would have said or done anything to dissuade his friend. Unfortunately, he also knew that once Ken made up his mind, something he never did lightly, there was no power on earth that could make him change it.
“You just can’t throw away your life, Ken. Nobody is worth that, not even Linda. It’s one thing to take a chance for the sake of science; I can accept that.” Dan’s tone softened, seeing the pain that his allusion to his dead colleagues had immediately caused; he had struck a responsive chord and he had every intention of exploiting if it could save his friend from himself. “The sacrifices your colleagues made were not in vain; they knew the risk and willingly took it. Their sacrifice is no less noble for being rash and unwise.”
“I would never have allowed it had I known of it. Jason, Sandra and George were brilliant scientists and good, decent human beings. The project wasn’t anywhere ready for human experimentation.” Ken’s eyes glistened as his voice grew hushed and husky. “I would give anything to bring them back, to ease their family’s pain. The risk, when it was time to take it, was always meant to be mine alone.”
“But the point is, they took that risk for all the right reasons. I’m sure they sensed that a breakthrough was needed very soon to allow the project to continue, to prevent what has happened from coming to pass. But you are willing to take the same risk for all the wrong reasons, knowing that you will die. You’ve taken on the whole damned project for the wrong reason; you can’t change the past. We have to accept our mistakes, learn from them and move on. You’ve been brooding for over twenty years about something you fundamentally cannot change and are too damned stubborn, proud and weak to accept that simple fact.”
“You probably right about that. I am guilty of pride, the original sin. But you’ve got to understand, Dan, that there is simply no other choice left to me; if it is between pride and despair, I’d rather burn for pride. I can’t give up; I just can’t. Not while there’s the slightest chance that I can set things right without hurting anyone, except possibly myself.”
Dan sighed. He knew he was getting nowhere, but he could no more give up than Ken; stubbornness was a trait they both shared, a trait they recognized as a flaw yet carried proudly like a banner upon their psyches.
“Look,” Dan started, trying a different approach. “Even assuming your damned machine works, what is the point of living out a dream until they shut it off? What will it prove or accomplish? How is that any different from blowing your brains out, the second thinly veiled option to which you alluded a moment ago?”
“It’s very different. First of all, you keep thinking that I will be living a dream. That is a false assumption and belittles what the system can deliver. Second, you falsely assume that the system will be shut down within a matter of hours; it won’t be if I’m attached to it and they know that shutting it down will kill me. That’s essentially what I need you for, counselor. I trust you can keep the matter in the courts with a temporary restraining order and perhaps even get a permanent injunction against the government pulling the plug. A shutdown, and my subsequent death, probably won’t occur for years, and perhaps not at all.” He smiled wryly at his friend and continued in an almost playful tone, “You’d fight like hell to see to see to that as if my life depended on it.”
“You’re a sly bastard. But you’d have to convince me that this ungodly machine of yours can do more than provide you with a pleasant, deadly dream before you can count on my help.”
“Actually, I don’t. I can kick you out right now and hook myself to it with the absolute certainty that you’d wake some poor judge or other to work your magic from your cell phone before you got to your car, and before the nasty old agency people pull the plug and hide my cause of death.” Ken was smiling broadly now, knowing he’d won, and enjoying the dour look on Dan’s face. “Nevertheless,” he continued in a more serious tone, “I will convince you. I owe you that, and I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life wondering what you might have done to prevent this. You’ve got to know that this is right for me, that I have thoroughly thought this out for many years, and that it will definitely bring me the second chance without which I cannot and will not live.”
“Fine, Ken. You can start by telling me how what you hope to achieve is not simply a dream, and why I’m wrong in saying that.”
“Easy enough. Remember what I said before, that the system has the ability to make the host relive memories in the slightest detail so that they seem real, and that it can inject variables to change those memories, or even completely computer-generated ones? It can also, as I’ve said, contain the complete memories of multiple people. The subject can either be aware that he is living a virtual reality, or he can be ignorant of that fact.”
“You mean that the person can either know that he is dreaming or not know. O.K., what difference does that make?”
“First of all, it’s not a dream. That should be abundantly clear by now, but I’ll still clarify it further in a moment. As to the difference it makes, that’s obvious. If I were aware that I was living a computer generated quasi reality, I could not accept it, and my ultimate death would have been a truly meaningless sacrifice. The point is, I would not be aware of that. It would be real, as real as our present existence is to both of us. After all, how do you objectively know that you are now alive? How do you know that you are not the figment of some sleeping being’s overactive imagination? And, more importantly, what the hell difference does it make?”
“OK., let’s assume arguendo, that you can swoosh yourself back to high school, not remember that you did so, since you would not have the knowledge of everything that has transpired from that time until now in your memories of that time, and manipulate the computer into letting you fall back in love with Linda. Granted, you may not know it’s not real at that point, but you do now; you know you would be living a lie. What is the point beyond merely hedonistic self-indulgence or intellectual masturbation?”
“I know what you’re saying, and I’ll admit there’s a grain of truth to your argument, but fundamentally you’re wrong. The existence I will live will be in part a lie; the reactions of people I have met in the past and continue to meet in the future while linked to the computer will look, dress and react in accordance with my previous experiences with them enhanced by the artificial intelligence of the computer’s own programming. Since their memories or consciousnesses have not been captured by the system, the system will merely extrapolate from what it gleans from my recollections and generate their actions based upon that limited data. Father McMullen will always be a saint in my alternate reality, and Ben Munsen will always be the miscreant he was in sixth grade—unless the computer’s AI decides otherwise. People will react largely as I expect them to. But I won’t know that, so it won’t matter. Also, the computer will randomly generate new individuals for me to meet and interact with, drawing from its massive database of personalities and from the collective memories of the hundred or so people who have linked up with the system to voluntarily download information. If my usual neighborhood gets too boring, or my old friends too predictable, I’ll probably decide to move, as I would in real-life, which will be fine, since I’ll be exposed to an almost limitless number of computer generated people no matter where I go in my mind’s eye.”
“That’s fine as far as casual acquaintances, colleagues and maybe even friends. But what about Linda? Won’t you find her incredibly predictable after a while and grow weary of her? What if you decide you can’t stand her after all? Wouldn’t that be poetic justice!”
“Linda is a special case. Her entire memories are in the computer, along with mine. In the early stages of the project, we developed a safe means of downloading memories into the system; as I’ve already told you, we found a relatively simple process to capture the electromagnetic impulses of the brain and translate them into machine code. The danger comes only in establishing a two-way linkup with the system to access the shared memoriesBso far, that’s been a one-way trip for us.
“How did you get Linda’s memories downloaded?”
“She, along with hundreds of mostly student volunteers, agreed to take part in an MIT project that formed the foundation of my PhD work. Volunteers were paid a stipend to lie for 12 hours on a comfy couch connected with my then- experimental neural interface, with a low-dose Valium drip to prevent discomfort and speed up the subjective time for the participants.”
“So, you see,” Ken continued, “whatever reality we find ourselves in, she will react in accordance with her own stored self’, without any alteration by the computer. Her ‘mind’ will react along with mine, growing and changing in accordance to our interrelationship, our environment and our individual and shared new experiences. She may still meet and marry her current husband, or we may grow to hate each other, but if we do, it will be genuine, just as it would have been had we stayed on our set course some twelve years ago. And that is a chance I will take.”
“What makes you think that you won’t do exactly what you did before, that you won’t make precisely the same mistake again?”
“I just know I won’t. And I’ve loaded the deck just a trifle to ensure that.”
“What you mean, Ken, is that you’ve programmed the machine to give you what you want; you will ‘go back’ in time, know that you must follow through with Linda, and find that she has the exact same feelings you so wish her to have. Which brings me to back to my original point, that you are throwing away your life to pursue intellectual masturbation, to live the dream through a dream. Damn it, Ken, can’t you see that what you are engaging in a meaningless wish-fulfillment?”
“Stop trying so desperately to convince me, and yourself, that I’m wrong. Listen to what I am saying with your heart and mind; get out of the ‘adversarial mode’ and back into the ‘friendship mode’ counselor.”
“I’m trying. Believe me, I’m really trying to understand.”
And I’m trying just as hard to make you understand. Your understanding and approval is very important to me; although I know you realize I’ll do what I have to without either, if necessary.”
I know, I know,” Dan replied softly, beginning to resign himself to the irresistible force of his friend’s determination.”
“Anyway, what you implied a moment ago is not accurate. I will not reprogram the system to bring about or even facilitate any given result. All I will do is program one single thought into my mind which should trigger the right course.”
“And what might that be?”
“Simple. Twenty years ago, the last time that Linda and I got together and I broke it off, I reached what has become for me the most crucial crossroad of my life: a moment in which I was torn between wanting to hold her, to tell her that I loved her desperately and completely and that all would be well, and needing to run out of the apartment and keep running, never looking back. I chose the latter course. If only I’d stayed a few minutes more, looked for another instant at her warm brown eyes, and saw, really saw, her understanding face with the tears gently rolling down her cheeks, I know I would not have been able to follow through. I would have followed my heart and held her, kissed her, and poured out my heart to her. All I will do to the system is to program the thought that I must stay with her for a little longer, and kiss her one last time.”
“And that will do it?”
“And what if you’re wrong? What if you stay five minutes longer, kiss her one last time and then get up and run away, just like the last time?”
“Damn it, what if you do? Then what?”
“Then my ghosts will have been set free. I will be twice damned and will prove myself unworthy of that second chance. And I will most likely go on to live out the rest of my virtual life with the same pain and regrets as my real one. Who knows, perhaps I’ll go on to work on this project, overflowing with regret, and do it all over again. How do you know I haven’t already, and that this is not the umpteenth iteration of an endless loop? It doesn’t really matter what the outcome is; if there were only a one in a trillion chance of it working, I’d sell my soul to try.”
**** END OF PREVIEW ****
It is often said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But then again, too much knowledge can be even more dangerous. One of my first short stories serves as a cautionary tale about the single minded pursuit of anything–including the attainment of knowledge. There is no shortage of highly educated dunces in this world, nor, more tragically, of uneducated wise women and men who never completed grade school. Alas, the alphabet soup at the end of a name does not connote wisdom any more than does a genius I.Q.
When I first wrote the original draft of this short story as an undergraduate student at Queens College, and especially the sonnet it incorporates which was not written at the same time as the story or for the story (though both were written within months of one another), my poetry workshop professor accused me of anti-intellectualism. As I said, alphabet soup after one’s name . . . .
I did (and do) believe that the loss of innocence is the price we pay for the acquisition of knowledge–and wisdom (which are by no means the same but do exact the same price). Childhood cannot survive a class in gross anatomy no matter how precocious the child-student. Nor can it survive the in-depth study of political science or law, for that matter. The adult rises like a phoenix from the ashes of childhood’s end. I was not just tipping the hat to the British Romantics who are my kindred spirits, or to Platonic idealism which is also at my core in my poem or in my story. The former is primarily a young man’s sadness at the realization that the simplicity of his childhood was forever lost. The latter is a cautionary tale about looking for truth (meaning, purpose, fulfillment) in all the wrong places and casting aside what really matters in the process. It is also about the great life-altering sacrifice that true friends will endure for one another, including bearing the pangs of unrequited or forbidden love. And yes, it’s about the literal and metaphorical interplay of id, ego and superego within us all. But above all, it is about what I thought at the ripe old age of 18 or 19 was the meaning of life–something that the intervening forty years have done little to change.
For a preview of the short story, you can use the “look inside” feature on Amazon by clicking on the book cover for my Mindscapes short story collection which features “Eternal Quest” as its first story. You can find the page by clicking here. You can also access the stand-alone version of the short story Kindle page with additional information by clicking here.
BUSINESS LAW AND THE LEGAL ENVIRONMENT OF BUSINESS THIRD EDITION. THIS EXPANDED AND THOROUGHLY UPDATED VERSION (2017 COPYRIGHT) FEATURES 45 CHAPTERS, INCLUDING A NEW CHAPTER ON CONSTITUTIONAL LAW, END OF CHAPTER QUESTIONS, SAMPLE CASES, AND ETHICS AND THE LAW EXERCISES FOR FURTHER STUDY AND DISCUSSION. THE TEXT INCLUDES A NEW FEATURE–TIMELY, END OF UNIT CASES SUITABLE FOR BRIEFING. THE TEXTBOOK IS AVAILABLE IN VARIOUS BOUND AND ELECTRONIC VERSIONS STARTING AT $29.95! TEST BANK AND INSTRUCTOR’S MANUAL ALSO WRITTEN BY THE AUTHOR. FOR MORE INFORMATION OR REVIEW COPIES, VISIT TEXTBOOK MEDIA PRESS. YOU CAN ACCESS THE BOOK’S WEB PAGE BY CLICKING HERE.
ANY COLLEAGUES INTERESTED IN REVIEWING THE TEXT FOR POSSIBLE ADOPTION CAN DO SO BY CONTACTING MY PUBLISHER DIRECTLY HERE. THE SECOND EDITION OF THIS BOOK HAS BEEN ADOPTED BY A WIDE RANGE OF COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES RANGING FROM TECHNICAL AND COMMUNITY COLLEGES THROUGH AACSB-ACCREDITED SCHOOLS OF BUSINESS. THE SIGNIFICANTLY EXPANDED THIRD EDITION (2017 COPYRIGHT) SHOULD BE EVEN MORE ATTRACTIVE TO CURRENT ADOPTERS, ADOPTERS OF MY PREVIOUS FIVE TEXTBOOKS, AND I HOPE TO NEW ADOPTERS AS WELL. MY STUDENT-CENTERED APPROACH TO THE SUBJECT IS VERY DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU WILL FIND IN ITS TRADITIONAL COMPETITORS. IT IS ACCESSIBLE BOTH IN ITS PRICE AND CONTENT. PLEASE GIVE IT A LOOK.