Sunday, October 30, 2011

Eternal Return

-i-

It had been 50 years since Nick used to see Dominique. At the time he was living on a small ranch just up the street. Dominique’s family used to stable their horses at his parent’s place.

Dominique’s family had a sprawling estate on gently slopping grounds, with orchards, gardens, and a stream–leading down to the shore. The property was bounded on either side by wild ravines, with a lake forming the other boundary. A triangular plot, like a gated garden, but with natural barriers walling or fencing them in.

The property was long-since abandoned. The orchards and gardens a thicket. The ruins of the white stone house overgrown with vines from the neglected grape arbor. The woods tenaciously reclaiming the boathouse, bathhouse, greenhouse, gazebo. The swimming pool caked with dead leaves. The weedy tennis court. Squirrels nesting in the chimenea.

Nick had returned for the funeral. Her funeral. Afterwards he went back to the old estate for a final good-bye.

This was the second funeral he’d attended for her family. The first was for her brother Albert, who died of TB in his teens. Dominique never got over his death. When she inherited the estate, she couldn’t bring herself to either live there or sell it. The physical association was both unbreakable and unbearable. So it fell into a state of decay. A cemetery for a lost brother. For a lost childhood. For a lost future.

-ii-

Nick met Debbie in junior high, just up the hill–on the summit. Dominique attended private school. Debbie was more down-to-earth than Dominique. A middle-class girl who lived in a rambler over on the next hill. Nick would often walk her home after school–then double back to his own house. Sometimes he’d pick up her kid brother at the neighboring grade school, a few blocks away, and walk him home–if she was busy with her figure skating.

Debbie was everything Nick was not. So sweet, gentle, feminine. Features like fine china. And just the right size. When he held her close, her contours fit snuggly into his contours. A perfect matching pair.

So Nick was torn between two girls. Dominique was unobtainable. Indeed, that was part of her charm. It wasn’t social class that kept them apart. In a way, Dominique loved Nick more fiercely than he loved her. He loved her, but he also loved Debbie–whereas she only had a heart for Nick.

He could have been happy with either girl, though happier with Debbie. Debbie was steady.

Yet she remained aloof. By turns affectionate and distant, passionate and diffident. He couldn’t figure her out. Was she just a tease?

She hurt him deeply when he found out that she was having an affair with Jeff, his best friend from high school. They were football teammates in junior high and high school. Nick trusted Jeff implicitly, which turned out to be a mistake. Yet he couldn’t quite blame Jeff for responding to Dominique’s advances. What guy in his right mind wouldn’t jump at the opportunity?

No, he blamed Dominique. Not so much out of anger, but puzzlement. If she loved him wholeheartedly, why didn’t she give herself to him? He was available for the asking.

Mind you, that would force him to choose between Debbie and Dominique. And in hindsight, who’s to say how that would have turned out? Each fork in the road might be equally fulfilling in its own way. The road not taken might be just as good, in a different way. But he could only make a life with one woman.

Dominique knew about Debbie, and Debbie knew about Dominique. When he was with one, he’d sometimes mention the other. He hadn’t made up his mind. Still testing the waters.

Dominique confided to Jeff, who confided to Nick. Dominique loved Nick too much to marry him.

The funeral for Albert had been a grim affair. Not just because it was a funeral. Not just because it was for her only brother. But because it was so hopeless. Dominique’s mother and dad were irreligious. This life was it. When you died, that was the end.

She could never again invest her heart in a man. For she couldn’t bear to bring herself to give herself to what she’d someday give away in death. To lose herself in what she couldn’t keep.

Beginning with Jeff, she carried on affairs with other men. When she felt she was becoming attached to a man, she broke it off and started anew with a stranger. The less she gave, the less she had to lose.

She and Nick continued to correspond all their lives, until she become too ill to write. She traveled the world, never putting down roots–for fear of being uprooted.

She willed the estate to Nick and Debbie, with the proviso that she be buried there, beside her brother Albert.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eugenix

In 2141, the global climate control system was beginning to fail, due to computer malfunction. The GCCS had been installed in 2103 to forestall natural disasters, filter airborne pathogens, screen out cosmic radiation, and make many hitherto inhospitable regions habitable. A planetary botanical garden with many ecozones and microclimates, as well as urban centers.

While this enhanced the quality of life, one downside is that humans were now so adapted to the GCCS that their immune systems were compromised. Their melanogenetic function was also impaired. Simply put, the human race couldn’t survive without the GCCS.

So the computer needed to be repaired–at all cost. But there was a problem. The man who designed the firewall was dead. He was a polymath, with a side interest in comparative mythology. He designed the firewall as a videogame, combining plants, animals, characters, buildings, landscapes, plot motifs, type scenes, and riddles from the Pentateuch, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, John, and Revelation.

The firewall was part wargame, stealth game, and 4X. Before you could fix the computer, you had to hack the firewall. To hack the firewall, you had to win the videogame.

But this was complicated by the fact that the Commissariat outlawed Christianity in 2117. The Bible was banned.

Classified copies were stored in the archives of the Commissariat, to which only high-ranking commissars had access.

The Commissariat regulated all aspects of social life, beginning with population control. Reprogenetics. Mandatory sterilization. The state awarded one child per couple, from Eugenix.

There was, however, an underground church. Knowledge of Scripture was preserved by word-of-mouth as well as encrypted copies of Scripture. The underground church included Christian hackers who attempted to disable the police-state apparatus.

“Theoterrorists,” as the Commissariat labeled them, were normally executed, but some of them had invaluable computer skills. These few were incarcerated at a supermax facility, where their troubleshooting skills were sometimes tapped.

It was a tight wire act. The hackers were both dangerous, yet indispensable to the state.

When the GCCS began to fail, the Commissariat turned to Peter Neureich for help. Peter was their most brilliant prisoner.

The Commissariat tried to limit his computer access to the GCCS firewall. But once inside, Peter hacked his way into other systems. He deleted the database for the Ministry of State Security. He fried the Eugenix mainframe. And he reprogrammed the GCCS to phase out over three generations, allowing the human race time to readjust.

All this led to a popular uprising. Civilization reverted to indigenous social and religious institutions.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Shadowgram

Frederick Ducasse was a grasping old man. Before he became a grasping old man, Frederick was a grasping young man. This world was all there is, so he squeezed every last drop from the tangerine. He made his fortune through cunning and treachery. Making friends to betray friends. He was widely hated, but that didn’t bother him as long as he was rich. He had everything money could buy.

Yet there was one thing he couldn’t buy–immortality. He saw his body age. Felt his body age. Despite diet, exercise, and the best medical care, he was helpless to halt the advance of time.

And now he lay on his deathbed, gasping for every breath. On a ventilator. With a heart monitor. And a live-in physician. Once a man of the world, with a private jet, a gigayacht, and mansions in Newport, Bel Air, and the Côte d'Azur, his cosmopolitan existence had contracted to an antique royal bed in his cavernous, curtained bedroom. Big, empty, and dark–except for flashing, beeping monitors.

He clung to life with every effortful breath. Clung to the fading light. Clung to fading memories.

He felt a great weight pressing down on his chest. He tried to reach for the call button, but he was too weak.

He felt his soul slipping away. Exiting the shell. Hovering above his lifeless body. Then passing through the ceiling.

For a moment he saw this world for what it was–a shadowgram. A shadow cast by the shadower. A shadow foreshadowing the shadower.

His fond old world suddenly looked so flat and colorless. Now he longed for the shadower. For the world above. The world to come. He caught a glimpse of heaven. New Eden. New Jerusalem. Joy unspeakable.

Yet he felt his soul falling rather than rising. Heaven grew distant. The music faded. A receding speck of light as he continued his descent. The air grew darker and colder. Then silence.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Into Eden

Derek Apted was dying. Alone, in a hospital bed. In the final stages of a long degenerative illness. He was only 54.

During lucid moments he reviewed his life. So many regrets. So many lost opportunities. If only he knew then what he knew now. If only he could repeat his life with the benefit of hindsight.

Then an angel appeared to him in his hospital room. Or maybe it was just a hallucination. Hard to say in his often delirious state of mind.

The angel asked him if he wanted anything. Derek asked the angel for a chance to repeat his life, but with his memories intact.

In a flash, Derek found himself back in kindergarten. On the outside, a little boy. On the inside, a middle-aged man with a college degree and decades of experience.

He quickly established himself as a wunderkind. His teachers and parents were amazed at this precocious little boy. So mature for his years!

One of the first things Derek did was to talk his dad into making some prescient investments in some fledgling companies which would one day become Fortune 500 companies.

Derek wanted to be independently wealthy, not because he craved a rich man’s lifestyle, but because it would give him more control over his circumstances.

By the time he graduated from high school, and took ownership of his fortune, Derek was one of the world’s richest men. Yet only his tax attorneys and portfolio managers knew the extent of his fortune.

Outwardly, Derek maintained a fairly modest, middle class lifestyle. He never wanted much more than what he had. His problem lay in losing what he used to have. Derek had a happy boyhood and adolescence. He wanted to maintain as much of his past intact as possible. That’s where the money went.

Sure, there were a few indulgences along the way. Like a nice sports car in high school.

His friends were dimly aware of the fact that even though he wore what they wore, ate what they ate, he seemed to have bottomless pockets. Although he never worked a job, he could always afford whatever he needed or wanted. Always picked up the tab at the restaurant, or movies, or whatever.

Derek knew that his intellectual reputation was a perishable commodity. A 5-year-old with an adult IQ is a genius. And adult with an adult IQ is merely average. As he got older he had to coast on his reputation. Bluff his way through conversations with fellow students who were truly gifted.

He was offered full scholarships to Harvard and MIT, but he turned them down. He didn’t need the Ivy League education. He didn’t need a college education. He already had one. And, in any case, he didn’t need a job to pay the bills. More to the point, he couldn’t sustain his intellectual reputation in that company.

Derek’s ambitions were very unambitious. Down to earth. Close to home. He wanted to preserve his past, and redeem some lost opportunities.

His home was a beach cabin on the lake. His parents bought the property for a modest sum, before the area became so gentrified. Later they were priced off the land by ever increasing property taxes.

Derek always resented that. He was hoping to inherit the property. To be cheated out of it by the taxman was galling.

And now, of course, that wasn’t a problem. In fact, he bought some other neighborhood homes. He lived in one while his parents lived in his old home.

He moved his grandmother and his elderly aunt into another home nearby. In her old age, his grandmother lived alone until a house-burglar broke into her home and attacked her. She never recovered from that incident.

But Derek, with an eye to the future, could now prevent that from happening. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons he was repeating his life. To protect his loved ones from harm.

He also knew that his aunt would come down with a degenerative illness. Indeed, it ran in the family. She spent her final years in a nursing home.

Derek regretted that. And now he could do better. When the disease began to take hold, he could keep her close by, in the house next door. Provide her with a live-in nurse. Whatever she needed.

And he took the opportunity to have all the conversations with his aunt and his grandmother that he thought about having after they died, when it was too late to ask.

As a boy, Derek had a dog. He loved his dog. Indeed, after the dog died, he never wanted another dog. He remembered the day he had to put her to sleep. And he never quite got over that. He still missed his own dog.

So this time around he was more attentive to her physical needs. Had her groomed regularly. Scheduled regular check-ups with the vet.

Derek was also sorry that he never tried out for the football team. He missed the camaraderie. The opportunity to befriend certain students. Maintain lifelong friendships.

And now he had a chance to make up for that. Even though he wasn’t very good at football, he made the team. The athletic dept. could always use more money for equipment. All it took was a private little chap with Coach O’Brien, and Derek had his jersey.

After they graduated from high school, Derek hired his friends to keep them close. Found jobs for them to keep them in the area. Rented out his houses to them for a nominal sum.

One of the best things about repeating the past was his opportunity to date a couple of girls he let slip away the last time around. At the time there were two girls in high school who caught his fancy. He wasn’t sure which one he preferred, for he never got around to dating either one. Now he could get to know them both, and decide which one to marry.

Life was better this time around. Much better. At least in some respects.

And yet he couldn’t shake a certain lingering sadness. It’s something of a curse to know the future unless you can also control the future, or change the future. A bit fatalistic, really.

He could use his wealth and foresight to extend the lives of his loved ones. Enhance their quality of life. But in the end, he couldn’t really save them. They’d still age, sicken, and die.

He could take a different route this time, but all routes had the same destination. You just got there sooner or later, that’s all.

Indeed, life was rather anticlimactic. He often knew just what to expect. Pleasures were less pleasant when you could see them coming a mile away.

And he was filled with foreboding. Instead of outliving loved ones once, he’d have to outlive them twice.

And then there was the nagging fear that his friends loved him for his money. The first time round, when all of them were hard up for money, and only had each other, wasn’t friendship more meaningful? What comes easily, goes easily.

Moreover, he could do nothing to prevent the onset of his own degenerative illness. Once again he felt the clockwork progression of the old familiar symptoms.

There was only so much this life had to offer. He needed something more. Something this autumnal world could never provide.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The brain-pickers

Jeff Bender was a psychic P.I. Technically, Jeff’s profession was illegal. Classified as a class B felony, colloquially known as “mind-rape.” Jeff was automatically banned from even stepping foot inside a casino.

However, there was a thriving black market for psychic P.I.’s, with a wide range of clients. They were handy in custody battles, where the ex-wife wanted the dirt on her no-good spouse. In competitive sports, where one player wanted to know the secret weakness of his opponent.

Although illegal, Jeff was a strictly off-the-books consultant to the Pentagon, where he could pick the brains of an enemy scientist.

Even though his profession was technically illegal, his crime was rarely enforced. The DA was afraid to prosecute a psychic P.I., since certain details concerning the DA’s youthful indiscretions or extracurricular interests might mysteriously find their way into the headlines a day after the indictment was handed down.

It took intense mental discipline to be a psychic P.I. You had to learn how to shut out the miscellaneous thoughts of all the men and women around you. And it was very disorienting to immerse yourself in someone else’s mind. Hard to maintain your personal identity. Your thoughts mingled with his, or hers.

After each case, it became harder to disengage your memories from the memories of the host. You needed time between cases to sort it out. Separate yourself from the entangling host.

To penetrate the mind of the host required one’s undivided attention. In his basement, Jeff had a soundproof room with a hospital bed, I.V. line, catheter, and so on, to keep his body under mild sedation and hydration for long hours while he tried to find his bearings inside the bewildering mind of the host.

Psychic detective work often involved a degree of serial mind-jumping. To extract a secret, you frequently had to approach the mind of the host through the mind of a trusted third party. Having that sympathetic connection made it easier to coax incriminating or embarrassing secrets from the mind of the host. After entering the mind of the host through the mind of a third party, you normally had to retrace your steps to regain consciousness.

In his current case, a mobster retained his services to pick the brains of a business rival. Jeff went through the mind of the businessman’s brother to reach into the mind of the host.

Unfortunately, this came with occupational hazards. While Jeff was successfully navigating the mind of the host, he suddenly felt a kickback, like a rifle recoiling. When he went back to check, he found out that his exit was gone. Where there had been a backdoor, there was now a wall.

As it turns out, the brother just died from a headshot in a gangland slaying. With his escape route cut off, that left Jeff trapped in the mind of the host.

So Jeff had to find another way out. In principle, it was possible to regain consciousness if he jumped into the mind of someone with whom he had an emotional bond. Someone who remembered him. A friend or relative. He could use that preexisting pathway to make the return trip.

However, his profession generated a bit if a dilemma in that regard. When you know what other people really think of you, it’s hard to maintain a friendship. As such, Jeff didn’t have any current friends. He wasn’t in a relationship. He gave up on girlfriends, for however understanding they were, he could always overhear their unspoken resentments. The things they thought of saying, wanted to say, but bit their tongue. The girl talk. What they said bout him when he wasn’t around.

And that applied to his other relationships, or lack thereof. His profession was a recipe for misanthrope. Had he know psychic detective work was so lonely, he would have chosen a different career. But it was too late now.

Was there anyone else he could use as a bridge to get back? He thought of classmates from junior high and high school. But that was so long ago. The emotional connections generally weakened over the years as you lost contact.

Still, he’d been to his 20th high school reunion last year, which gave him a chance, albeit brief, to renew his acquaintance with some students he knew way back when. But he was running out of time. His body could only survive untended for a few days while his mind played hooky. If his body died, he would be stuck in the head of this mobster for life. A distinctly unsavory prospect.

Jeff dipped into the minds of the classmates his chatted with at the reunion. But he didn’t mean that much to most of them, as he found out, trolling their minds.

However, there was one student who still cared about him. They had been good friends in junior high and high school. But that was before Brad got religion. Jeff couldn’t stand Christianity. It was incomprehensible to him how anyone could take the Bible seriously.

So they had a falling out shortly after Brad got saved. Not that Brad broke off the friendship. But Jeff lost all respect for Brad.

That was some twenty years ago. But now, ambling through the mind of his old school buddy, with whom he recently reconnoitered at their reunion, he discovered that Brad was the only one who continued to care about his long-long friend. Indeed, Brad had been praying for Jeff all these years.

But what is more, for the first time in his life, Jeff was seeing the Christian faith from the inside out. Through the eyes of his friend. He was privy to Brad’s inmost experience. And it suddenly fell into place. It suddenly made sense.

Of course, there was some sordid stuff in Brad’s mind. Not the sort of thing you’re proud of. Not the sort of thing you’d publicize.

But Jeff was used to that. Everybody had that sort of thing in the back of their minds. Often in the forefront. Whenever you mucked about in another man’s mind, you got your boots muddy. But Brad had something else. Something not of this world.

Jeff was able to use Brad’s mind as a catwalk to regain consciousness. He awakened, back in his body, lying on the hospital bed, with tubes and all.

He was the same, but not the same. For some of Brad’s memories were now a part of his memories. Memories of Brad’s conversion experience. Of answered prayer. Of God’s subtle, but fatherly providence in Brad’s life over the last twenty years or so. Passages of Scripture, committed to memory. Stanzas of hymns, inaudibly sung in the inner recesses of the mind.

Jeff couldn’t get that out of his head. It grew on him, like a vine.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Vivarium

In 2113, the world was drug free. No more junkies. No more dope dealers and drug lords.

Unfortunately, what took the place of drug addiction was a new addiction. An addictive new technology.

In 2102, Dr. Maroue founded SynesthesiaWorks. SynesthesiaWorks was a biotech entertainment corporation. Dr. Maroue discovered a way for clients to experience the sensible world in the same way various animals perceive the world. In one program, the client could experience the olfactory sensation of a bloodhound. In another program, the client could experience the auditory sensation of moth (up to 240,000Hz.). In another program, the client could experience the gustatory sensation of a rabbit, which has twice the taste buds of human beings. In another program, the client could experience the optical sensation of a bee, or an ostrich, or an owl. And so on and so forth.

Each synesthetic enhancement was like discovering a new world. Some clients, knows as Cruisers, would sample different synesthetic enhancements. They purchased lightweight headgear that enabled them to enjoy as much or as little synesthetic recreation as they wanted to every day or every week.

But many other clients found the technology positively compulsive. They had neuroimplants which enabled them enjoy the synesthetic enhancement 24/7. They burrowed ever deeper into the alien world of an animal sensation.

Different clients tapped into different animal sensations. It wasn’t long before they formed their own communities, such as Avians, Moths, Rabbits, Canines, and so forth.

Clients would only relate to other clients with the same synesthetic enhancement. This, in turn, quickly spawned various subcultures. The Rabbits started their own restaurants, with menus catering to their rabbity taste buds. Canines developed their own line of perfumes. Moths composed their own music, and held their own concerts. Bees made their own movies, especially adapted to their unique visual acuities.

Then there were clients, known as Alters, who ceased to relate to human beings at all. Instead, they bonded exclusively with the nonhuman animals whose sensory aptitude they shared. Some lost the ability to communicate in human language. They could only communicate with members of their adopted species. Instead of condominiums, they lived in aviaries, insectariums, herpetariums, serpentariums, paludariums, and the like.

Many clients became sociopathic. Perceiving the world from the viewpoint of an animal, they ceased to have empathy for human beings. They lose their native sense of kinship. Some of them came to view human beings as a prey species. Cannibalism became the leading form of homicide.

Civil libertarians defended them on the grounds that cannibalism lacks the element of criminal intent when the “human” predator no longer perceives the human prey as a member of his own species.

There were futile efforts to outlaw the technology. However, it was too popular to ban. Too many judges, lawmakers, policemen, juries, or members of their family, were hooked.

Civilization came to resemble a human zoo, with different factions vying to play the game warden.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

For a woman's love

-i-

Jeff knew Mindy from the time they were in kindergarten. They dated on and off in junior high and high school. In the back of his mind he thought of popping the question after they graduated from high school.

Mind you, Mindy was a popular girl. So Jeff had competition–especially from Doug. Doug’s family moved into town during junior high. And he moved in in more ways than one. Moved in on Mindy, too.

That’s all before Mindy began missing school. At first there was the occasional absence. Then the sick days became more frequent.

The doctors couldn’t arrive at a proper diagnosis, but as time went on it became clear that Mindy was suffering from some terrible wasting disease.

She was still as sweet as ever, but she had no energy. And one could see the weight loss. Pretty soon she was bedridden.

-ii-

Although she stopped attending school, Doug and Jeff would visit her at home. Sit by her bed. Bring cut flowers. Chinese take-out. Talk about sports. Or school. Who was doing what.

They’d take her for little walks around flower garden in the backyard. Propping her up under their shoulder. Or sit together in the double rocker on the back porch, and watch the fireflies come out.

Mindy tried to schedule their visits so that Doug and Jeff wouldn’t bump into each other. She didn’t want one to show up while the other was there, to avoid hurt feelings.

But one day Jeff came calling when Doug was there. Jeff put the carton of Sesame chicken on her night table, then excused himself–swallowing his rage.

-iii-

At school next day, Doug took Jeff aside:

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” Doug said.

“Sorry I caught you seeing her behind my back?” Jeff said.

“It’s not like I’m trying to steal your girlfriend.” Doug said. “We both know she’s dying. It’s not as if I can have her. We both love her. Both want to be with her. Both want to have her. But that’s not going to happen. Not for you. Not for me.”

“I know.” Jeff said, grudgingly.

“I see in her what you see in her. We like her for all the same reasons. You can’t blame me for having the same taste in girls you have!” Doug said.

“Maybe not.” Jeff shrugged.

“Let’s try to make her happy for whatever time she’s got left. For her sake–and ours.” Doug said.

-iv-

So Doug and Jeff continued to visit Mindy. Sometimes together. Sometimes apart. After school. Come the weekend. Mornings. Or afternoons. Or just before bedtime.

And they saw her every day after she was transferred to the hospice. More than ever.

That’s the first time in life either boy ever prayed. Mindy always had a Bible on her night table. Whenever they came to see her, she was buried in her Bible. Usually the Gospels. Or the Psalms.

Before she got sick, her faith was just something they went along with, because they loved her. They were young. They had time to burn. Or so it seemed. Until she got sick. And sicker and sicker.

Seeing her became a bittersweet experience. Watching her fade away. Grow thin and pale. See the pain. Like she was being eaten alive from the inside out. Like a punctured bicycle tire.

Her illness brought them closer together. Not only did they spend more time with her, but more time with each other. The jealousy, the rivalry, the acrimony, was gone. They’d talk about her with each other. The good times. And the bad times.

They began to pray with her whenever they were with her. And pray for her whenever they were away.

-v-

At the graveside service, Doug and Jeff both brought a cut flower from the garden, behind the house, and laid it on her casket.