He woke and gagged, feeling his gorge rise as he desperately tried to clear the obstruction in his throat. Some kind of tube removed itself from his mouth with a painful tug. The air that rushed into his lungs felt heavenly but couldn’t keep him from dry-heaving even though he wasn’t quite able to summon up the energy to vomit. A blinding light blinded him as he tried to open his eyes. He tried to move a hand to block it, but his arms were restrained.
Something was very, very wrong.
“Mr. Bettega, can you hear me?”
He lay still. Bettega. Bettega. The name sounded familiar. It was his name. He tried to respond, but could only manage a weak croak. Something snaked into his mouth and he turned away violently. Not again.
“It’s just a straw, you need to drink,” the voice said.
Bettega tried to open his eyes again, but the light was still too strong. He felt the tube with his tongue. It seemed that the voice was telling the truth. This was a thin strand, not the monstrous pipe that had just left his throat. He gave a tentative pull.
Water dripped into his mouth, and he couldn’t believe how wonderful it felt. Ice-cold and sweet, he tried to suck as much of it as possible – but the straw was removed.
“You need to go slowly. Your body might not be able to handle too much at once.”
“More,” he croaked. His voice sounded faint, tortured.
“All right, but go slowly.”
He sipped the water, making the effort to control himself. The voice was right: his body didn’t seem to want to respond – even swallowing the water was a struggle. He tried to open his eye, just the left one, and managed a tiny fraction of a squint. He forced himself to keep it open.
The whiteness gradually coalesced into shapes, grey lumpy islands in a sea of bright white.
“Just relax, the doctor will be here in a moment.”
“Doctor? Where am I?”
“The doctor will explain everything. Just be patient a few more minutes.”
He was in a small room, filled with what looked like air conditioning ducts. He couldn’t make out many details, as his eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the brightness of the light shining straight into his face from above. The voice came from a greenish blob beside his bed – surely a nurse of some sort.
“Hold still, now,” the blob said, heading for the door. “I’ll check if the doctor can see you first.” It moved out of his line of sight.
Bettega tried to move, but whatever was restraining him seemed to have been expertly applied.
He didn’t have to wait long, however. A thin woman in a white smock walked into view. She was studying some kind of plastic film.
“Hello, Henri,” she said.
“Hello. Are you the doctor?” That would explain it – doctors always used first names for some reason.
“It looks that way. I’m Wendy Taylor.”
He looked around at the machinery in the room, which looked well-used and state-of-the-art at the same time. “Are you some kind of surgeon? What happened to me?”
The woman smiled. “One thing at a time. I’m not a surgeon. I’m what you would call a psychiatrist, although we no longer use that term here. I am referred to as a mental balance expert.”
“Oh,” he said.
“I bet you’re wondering why you’d need a psychiatrist.”
He chuckled. “I didn’t know psychiatrists could read minds.”
“I’m good at my job, but that has little to do with it. Everyone is always surprised when they awake to find that the doctor that greets them is a psychiatrist. It’s usually better that way, because we’re never quite certain how much the patients remember.”
And he remembered. The strange lump in his neck, the diagnosis, the chemotherapy: one, two, three courses. The tumor in his brain. The terminal verdict and the hospice care facility. The male nurse who’d watch action flicks with him whenever he had a little time.
“They said I had a few months at most. That’s the last thing I remember. I was in a hospice care center. My friends came by to say goodbye.”
“Well, it seems you remember more than most.”
“But what happened?”
“You didn’t die.”
“Impossible,” he said. But he couldn’t quite quell the upsurge of hope he suddenly felt. “How can that be?”
She studied the plastic film again. “No one really knows. One day you went into a coma – the tumor had grown far enough to cause that. Everyone who edited your file seems to have expected you to die in a few weeks. And then it stopped growing. No one knows why, and no one wanted to risk bringing you out of the coma in case it started up again. Your family had instructed the clinic not to disconnect you under any circumstances.”
“That doesn’t explain what I’m doing here.”
“After a few years, it became illegal to disconnect you under new legislation, and eventually, medical science found a way to cure you. You were the test case – and so far the only case – for an advanced inoperable cancer within the brain.”
“How long have I been…”
“In the coma?”
He tried to nod, but his muscles were too weak to support the movement and lolled slightly. He was beginning to understand why he was restrained.
She hesitated, took a breath and continued: “Eighty-three years.”
Something beeped urgently to itself in the background and the room went dark.
“How long has it been this time?” he asked as soon as he woke.
“Only a few hours,” Dr. Taylor replied. “The machines sedated you because your heart rate went above the acceptable threshold.”
“Can you untie my hands? I want to see how I look. I must be…” he did a quick mental calculation, “A hundred and sixteen years old.”
“Well, you are and you aren’t. Yes, you were born over a century ago, but after you went into your coma, a technique was developed by NASA to prevent ageing under certain conditions – it was developed for Mars missions initially, for astronauts in hibernation, but was quickly adapted to long-term coma patients. It’s essentially a combination of two cell-level therapies – one which shuts down many of the body’s cell functions and the other which keeps the DNA strands from breaking down.”
“I don’t really care about the science. I just want to know how old I am.”
“Medically, you’re a forty-five year old man.”
“So I’ll live after all?”
“Yes. And probably much longer than if you’d never gotten cancer in the first place. Life expectancy has increased dramatically since your time.”
“Oh, god.” For the first time in years, his life was not dominated by his recurring bouts with cancer. For the first time, he had a future. And the implications suddenly hit him. He had no money – the cancer treatment had seen to that – no friends and no family that he could reasonably expect to have survived. He didn’t know the first thing about the world. If technology had evolved to the point where they could cure a tumor buried deep in a human brain, he wouldn’t be able to understand anything at all. He’d be worse than useless.
“It looks like you’ve just understood why they send a psychiatrist to greet waking patients.” She smiled at him. “But in my experience, everyone worries about the wrong things when they awake: money and family and future shock and all of that. Having seen this a few times, I know those are just trifles. No one ever worries about the one thing they really should.”
“Oh, and what’s that? What about this world is such a nightmare?”
“The world is all right. The problem is you. You’ve been in bed for eighty-three years. The physical therapy course you’re about to go on is going to make chemotherapy look like ice cream with your grandparents. You’re going to curse us for not letting you die.”
“I doubt you could even imagine how you feel after chemo. After the first course, I thought nothing could be worse – and it got worse with each treatment.”
“We can discuss that when you’re back on your feet.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Henri told her, six months later.
“I know. But my first job is to get patients to stop thinking about the world they’re going into. We’ve found that if we scare them enough with the physical therapy, they obsess over that instead, which allows us to teach them about the world without undue anxiety.”
“From what you’ve told me, it isn’t all that different from when I left. I can even work the bathroom facilities by myself by now.”
She smiled sadly. “Everyone thinks that just because they understand how the world works, they’ll understand how the people work within it. It never ends up being that way. You are nowhere near ready to face life outside this facility.”
Henri felt his hopes dash. How much longer would they keep him locked in the hospital? He asked Wendy.
“Oh, we’re releasing you right now. It’s illegal to keep patients interned once the medical doctors have pronounced them physically fit. Our only power – and our only responsibility – is to heal your body. We can’t help you beyond that, unless you ask for assistance with your mental balance. In writing.”
“Then I’m free to go?”
“As soon as you finish packing. Make sure you have your Panorama with you at all times. Once you settle in, you’re probably going to want to get wired up so you don’t have to carry that thing around with you.”
Henri glanced at the flexible strip of plastic they’d given him. It was about the size and shape of a baseball card, and could bend in any direction. They’d shown him how it would adhere to whatever he was wearing so he could simply forget about it. It was, in essence a combination of personal identification chip, cell phone and bank, all rolled into one. It had been explained to him that it could be much smaller, were it not necessary to display images. Implanted versions that were controlled directly by the owner’s thoughts and were plugged into the optic nerve were truly nano-scale.
“I won’t lose it,” he replied. “But I’m not sure I want anyone playing with my nerves just yet. Call me old-fashioned, but it does seem a bit risky to me.”
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “Everyone will call you old fashioned.”
“OK, then. I think I’ll just grab my stuff and get something to eat. You said that I have an open account on this Panorama thingy that will last me how long?”
“Six months, and it gets renewed automatically if you can’t get a position within the economy in that time. Just remember to spend on the green-level items, and not more than you need, or they’ll come talk to you.”
“I got it. You don’t have to repeat everything a million times. Just give me directions to the nearest burger joint.”
The blood drained from her face. “Don’t even joke about that,” she said. “People are still sensitive on the subject, despite the referendum passing thirty years ago.”
He laughed, thanked her for everything, and walked off to look for his possessions.
They called him old-fashioned, as predicted, but in a good-natured way, and only when he went out of his way to obnoxiously show everyone that he was being that way on purpose – and was therefore open to some gentle chiding. Otherwise, they would just politely ignore any oddities and do their best to treat him exactly the same as they would treat anyone else.
He could amuse himself for hours by doing something anachronic but impossible to ignore and watching the people around him trying to adjust to it. If he stayed away from the taboos – such as pretending to want meat-based food – it was a harmless way to learn about his hosts.
Another harmless way to gather information was to have random sex. At first he couldn’t believe how casually girls started dropping into his lap and decided that he was probably a minor celebrity and that they were doing it just so they’d be able to say that they’d slept with a guy old enough to be their grandfather… but after getting attached to a couple of them and having them flit away after a few days or a few weeks, he understood that sex meant very little in this particular brave new world.
The first few times, it hurt. He didn’t understand why a girl would be delightedly snuggling up to him and genuinely enjoying both his company and his conversation one moment – and moving along to the next eligible guy the next. No jealousy, no commitment, just enjoying the moment.
Soon enough, though, he learned to adapt. While losing a particularly entertaining companion always represented a sacrifice, it was tempered by the knowledge that he could go out and find another as soon as the mood hit.
So it was with little surprise that he observed that the stool next to him, empty just a second ago, had suddenly sprouted a pretty girl.
“Hi,” he said. The cafeteria was nearly empty, so sitting beside him was an invitation to conversation.
“Hello,” the girl responded with a smile. “You’re Henri Bettega, aren’t you?”
The question didn’t surprise him any more. After all, he was a bit of a minor celebrity.
“Guilty as charged,” he responded. He always tried to give the people he thought of as his fans their money’s worth. In a society where serious crimes seemed to be limited to things like accidentally mislabelling the recycling and punishment to hours of educational courses, Henri’s phrase tended to catch people out.
The girl didn’t bat an eyelash. “I’m Victoria Gonzalez, and I’m very pleased to meet you.”
He thought he’d seen the name somewhere, but decided it was probably a common name. They sat in silence for a while, and he wondered whether the girl was trying to figure out how to ask him to bed. Most of the time, they had very little bashfulness about it. He felt himself warming to her.
“I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time,” she said.
That was a new one. “Why?”
“Well, you’re the oldest man on the planet – well, the oldest of the ones that is still on his original skin and organs anyway. They say there are no more people left to reanimate from your era.”
“Yeah, that’s what they told me.”
“So you’re my best hope.”
“Best hope of what?”
“Of finding someone to talk to. You stole my crown, you know.”
“What…” he paused, remembering. “I knew it. That’s where I heard your name. The doctors kept mentioning you.”
“I imagine they did. I was the oldest reanimation. I was the one that gave them the confidence to reanimate you. I was under for a full seventy-five years.”
“But you look so young.”
Victoria shrugged. “I was fifteen when they put me under. They had the stasis perfected by then. It’s been five years since. And in those five years, I’ve been waiting for them to wake you… and to release you. And then I was trying to work up the nerve to come talk to you.”
“I didn’t realize I was that intimidating.”
“I guess to most people, you aren’t. I suppose they pity you. Or they find you curious. But in a humorous way.”
“Yeah,” Henri replied. “They do. But if they’re too obvious about it I invite them to dinner and then try to order a rare steak.”
“You wouldn’t.” Her eyes widened.
“I would, and I have. Just because I might still be attempting to catch up on the technology doesn’t give them the right to treat me like an idiot.”
“But…” She paused to look him over. “But that’s wonderful.” She burst out laughing, the dam of caution she’d built up during the conversation finally bursting. “I wish I could have been there to see their faces.”
Henri found her laughter contagious and chuckled. “Well, I know I shouldn’t have done it, but it was pretty funny. There was one girl that I thought would actually explode. She sputtered and started trying to explain why what I did was wrong without calling me an ignorant jackass of a caveman. Of course, if she’d have called me that, I would have apologized and admitted that I did it on purpose.”
“So why did you do it?”
He paused. “It’s kind of hard to explain. There are some people here… now… whatever, that are just too polite and respectful. You know they think you’re an idiot, but they think they might offend you for saying anything remotely bad about the past. At least that’s what they do to me – when they talk to each other, they never mention that someone might be stupid, or smell bad or simply talk funny. It’s like a convention of those politically correct parrots from my time. And they’re all so earnest all the time when they talk in public.” He laughed. “I guess I just can’t resist.”
“Some people?” she said. “I would say everyone acts that way.”
Henri thought about it. “No, not true. Some of the girls I’ve been with have eventually understood that they can actually be open with me and call me a jerk when I’m acting like one. One of them even called me a caveman. I was going to ask her to marry me, but we kind of got into a threesome with another girl later that day, and it didn’t seem appropriate.”
She gave him a wan smile. “You understand that she wouldn’t have even thought of the threesome when considering your proposal, don’t you?”
“I guess, so. But I would have, and that was enough. And besides, I don’t understand the whole marriage institution any more. How can you have two-week marriages?”
“I would think that a guy suddenly dumped here would find it pretty convenient.”
“I suppose my twenty-year-old self probably would have. And I suppose it makes sense. But it takes a while to get used to it.”
“If you think that’s weird, just wait until the elections.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. What gives?”
“Oh, nothing much. But you’d better get a head start on that post-doctoral thesis if you want your vote to carry any weight. I’ve actually enrolled in classes to get a master’s degree. I hate having to do that – I don’t think people are worth more just because they’re a little more educated than the rest.”
Henri felt a slight smugness. He already had his master’s degree, although he wasn’t entirely convinced it would still count – after all, a business degree from 2010 wouldn’t be very relevant in the current environment. “The whole weighted-vote concept seems to be a good way of keeping the political system taking intelligent decisions.”
“That’s what I thought, too. At first.”
“Not really. It… it’s actually hard to explain. The government certainly seems to deal with things much more rationally than what I remember from before. There’s not really any more poverty, and everyone seems to be content and polite. Society is definitely much safer than what I was used to.”
“But…” Henri prompted.
Victoria paused. “I’m not sure there even is a ‘but’. For all I know, the problem is probably just me. I’m just as much a cavewoman as you are a caveman. Maybe I just don’t get it.” She smiled sadly. “Anyway, I actually have to run, but if you can find a place that serves rare steak, do yourself a favor and call me. I won’t treat you like some kind of psychopath for not wishing to eat slaughtered vegetables.”
“I’ll do that. Heck, I’ll probably call you anyway, just to reminisce about old times.”
“Anytime.” She walked off.
There was one thing she was right about, though – elections were coming up. Henri decided that he should probably attempt to understand what kind of voting clout his academic achievements allowed him.
The first thing he did was try to look it up on his Panorama, but the interface was just too unwieldy – or maybe his fingers were just too fat. A complex search like that one would have taken him forever – compact size had its limitations.
Everyone kept telling him to get implanted, that it made life so much easier, and searches almost completely intuitive… but he just couldn’t bring himself to take that step. The Panorama screen itself seemed incredible to him, even though it was a perfectly logical development of the mobile phones of his own era.
He walked to the nearest branch of the Library, and was quite surprised to find that it was not only open, but that there were numerous people on the premises, using what looked like antique terminals from his own era.
There was even a help desk manned by an actual human. The plump, middle-aged woman looked up when he approached. She favored him with a smile loaded with genuine warmth and said: “How can I help you?”
“I… Well, with everything, most likely. I need to look something up, but I haven’t been in a library in eighty years. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
She looked him up and down. “You don’t look like you’re…” suddenly, she stopped in mid-sentence and her eyes became unfocused for a second as she looked something up on her implants. “Oh. I’m so sorry, I didn’t recognize you at first. I’d be delighted to help.” Her smile grew even warmer. “What is it you are trying to look up?”
Henri explained his voting conundrum.
“Ah, come with me.” While they walked over to one of the free terminals, he took a moment to look around the library.
The library was built on a square footprint over what seemed like a complete city block, with floor-to-ceiling windows along the wall letting the warm sunlight in. The public area comprised the outer ten meters of the perimeter, with a square inner core in the center lined with tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of books.
The books never ceased to surprise him. When he’d gone under, the world had been in the throes of a revolution in which books printed on paper were being replaced by electronic readers. Pundits had given the physical book months to live. Libraries were closing all across the developed world. And yet, here he was eighty years later, and books were still very much in evidence. And he recalled seeing them in the houses of many of his dates, too. He mentioned his curiosity to the librarian.
She chuckled. “Most reading is done on the implants, of course. It’s much more convenient, and you don’t have to lug books around with you. But most people associate electronic reading with work, so printed books have become the healthy option. It seems that the tactile experience allows people to relax and enjoy themselves in ways that direct-to-retina never has.” She shrugged. “I can’t tell the difference myself. No-one ever asks me anything, so I enjoy a ton of reading at my desk without the need for physical books at all. But a lot of people do prefer to read that way.”
“Those don’t look like books people read for pleasure,” Henri remarked, indicating a wall of grey cloth-bound tomes.
She smiled again. He was really beginning to like her, and also to feel that perhaps being the helpdesk person in an era of mind-direct access to information must be a truly lonely job. “Unless you’re really into capitalist economic theory.”
“I just might be. Don’t forget that when I got sick, the world still worked under capitalism.”
She shuddered. “Most of it still does. Even we permit certain commercial enterprises. Nothing like China or Japan, of course, but American products can still hold their own in some categories.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Henri replied. He made a mental note to find out how things had changed so drastically, but decided it might be better to ask Victoria. The librarian seemed a little too happy with the way things were. “But what about those books? Why are they still printed?”
“It’s hard to explain to a non-expert, but it has to do with the limited capacity that the human brain has to process information.”
“Do you have time? It might take a while to explain.”
“Time is all I really have right now.”
She brightened, deepening Henri’s sense that she must be truly bored, day in and day out. She explained that the network that the implants accessed, though vast, was limited in scope because it was simply unnecessary to put the entire sum of human knowledge online without network performance becoming clunky or expensive. Most people didn’t care.
Research libraries were essentially gateways into a separate network dedicated only to accessing books in digital form, catalogued and cross-referenced so that anyone who knew what they were looking for could find it. Big data analysis techniques dating back to Henri’s own era made it possible to find and extract whatever text was required, with a fantastic degree of precision.
“The problem is that people doing research often don’t know what they are looking for – becoming an expert is why they’re looking in the first place. Since they aren’t experts, they miss things and never make connections that would further their knowledge. And electronic searches within the same text are being ordered by the same mind – our programs are only as good as the person giving them instructions, after all.”
“It seems that looking for the same info in books would be even more difficult.”
She smiled. “That’s what everyone thinks, but there’s one thing about books that makes them hugely valuable – they don’t have searchable text.”
“That just proves…” Henri noticed the sly half-smile on her face and stopped. He was being led along the path that she had chosen for their conversation. “All right, I’m listening.”
The woman nodded, approving. “As I said before, it’s quite likely that a researcher will be looking for something specific, and pressed for time. But at the same time, they really don’t know too much about the subject. So do you think it’s better or worse for them to do a text search and immediately find what they’re looking for?”
“Well, it’s certainly quicker,” he replied, “but I assume there’s a catch.”
“Quite so. By not being forced to glance at the context and related topics that the author – who already was an expert on the subject matter – put in the book, a new researcher will often become excited by a new angle on something only to discover that it’s an exhausted avenue. Most of the good researchers don’t begrudge the time they invest in reading physical books. They actually see it as a way to save unnecessary effort.”
“I guess it sounds reasonable,” Henri replied. “Is this just a preamble to have me calculate my own number of votes?”
The librarian laughed. “No, although it’s always best to know how the system works and why the weighting was set as it was. I imagine that they didn’t teach you any of this in school.”
It was Henri’s turn to chuckle. “Oh, no. Back in my time, weighted voting was decidedly anathema to a certain mindset to which everyone paid lip service. It was never discussed seriously, but I assume that if it had, it would have been considered elitist by some and communist by everyone else.”
He was delighted by her expression, just a little shocked, and not certain how to proceed. He watched as she gathered her thoughts.
“I suppose you could say that the system actually sprung from both groups, then.” She paused, and then shrugged. “There’s no delicate way to say this, I guess. The democratic system in your time eventually degenerated into a way for politicians to perpetuate their power by passing shortsighted resolutions to keep ignorant voters happy.”
“Sounds about right. It always worked that way, at least a little.”
“Yes, but after you… while you were in your coma, the situation got so bad that the US was soon compared to some of the more ridiculous populist governments from the time before Latin Americans learned how to vote: Venezuela under the Chavists, Argentina under Perón and the Kirchners.”
“Hey, I remember some of those, especially the Venezuelans. They were pretty funny.”
“Not for the people who had to try to make a country work under their idiotic rules.” It was clear that the librarian didn’t approve of humor regarding discredited political views. “Anyway, none of that matters, because everyone ended up agreeing that the vote of people who’d never bothered to read and write shouldn’t count as much as the rest. The intellectuals thought it would limit the traditional fundamentalist vote, while the rich assumed they’d be able to afford to send their kids to school, so it would be a good way to keep the status quo. Both groups had cynical, self-serving reasons for supporting the legislation, but in the end, it came out surprisingly well.”
Henri asked himself why, if everything was so great, he couldn’t get a hamburger, but said nothing.
“I’m glad to hear it… but how do I calculate my voting power?”
“What do you know about the system?”
“I know that everyone gets a minimum of one vote, and a maximum of ten, weighted by academic achievement.”
“Correct, so what degrees do you have?”
“Everything up to and including a master’s in business administration.”
The librarian asked about the colleges he’d attended and entered the data. She raised an eyebrow. “Not bad,” she said. “3.27 votes. That puts you in the top twenty percent of the population.”
“Yes. Most people are content to get their bachelor’s degree – some don’t even bother finishing, just coursing enough credit to get to 2 votes. A lot of people just don’t feel that the extra effort for the degree is worth it just to get to 2.5. Plus, two is the cutoff for a bunch of desk jobs.”
Henri kept his opinion to himself, mostly because he was suddenly realizing that he had no idea how a lot of things worked in this world. If it had been him he’d have done everything in his power to get his vote rating as high as possible – he didn’t trust politicians he’d elected himself, much less those that others selected. He wouldn’t willingly give up any power. From what Victoria had said, she wasn’t going to sit around and let people have five times her clout, either.
But she was the only person he’d heard about that studied for that reason. Other students he’d met had a true passion for their subject – and no one seemed the least bit interested in voting privileges.
“Thank you,” he told the librarian.
“It was my pleasure.” Though her smile showed him it was true, he made his excuses and left. He had a lot to think about, and then he wanted to ask Victoria a question or two.
“The problem,” Victoria told him over a glass of something that had quite a bit of kick – meat might be anathema, but at least alcohol was still hanging on, “is that they no longer take any risks. If it weren’t for the fact that they’d crucify me for saying it, I’d say that every decision in the country is being taken by little old ladies. Worse… imagine if we took the Puritans from the nineteenth century and crossed them with the people who insisted on making everyone wear helmets on ski slopes and drive fifty-five miles an hour from our time – that’s who seems to be taking the decisions.”
“What, have they turned into religious fundamentalists?” Henri hadn’t seen anything to indicate that, but there was enough going on that he didn’t understand that he would have been willing to accept that he’d simply missed the signs.
“No. I mean philosophically. They’ve become ultra-conservative. They’ve convinced themselves that this is the perfect society and that change can only be for the worse. They’re all extraordinarily risk-averse.”
“They don’t seem all that conservative to me,” Henri replied with a smirk.
“That’s either because you haven’t been here long enough or because you think with your dick. I’ll admit that the openness about sex surprised me at first, but things have been exactly like they are now for at least fifty years.”
“Still seems like progress.”
“Again, think for a second. Just think of how sex changed in the fifty years before you went under. Think of how sex crossed the line from something dark and taboo to casual entertainment for anyone between fifteen and seventy.”
“It kept going to what we have now, which isn’t all that shocking… and then stopped. You’ll find it’s the same thing that happened with every single aspect of life. Social plans evolved to a certain point, and then stopped. Science is still evolving, but the rules and organizations that govern that advance are essentially fifty years old. New techniques get developed all the time, and no one knows what to do with them because they are trying to use the old research structures.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. The thing is, I don’t see your point. Everything looks reasonably stable. The people seem happy. I haven’t heard of anyone being poor, or of anyone trying to overthrow the government. So what’s wrong?”
“Everything! That’s the point. The people are convinced that everything is perfect, but there’s one stat no one will mention to you: the suicide rate.”
Henri raised an eyebrow. He could guess what was coming, but said nothing.
“There has never been another country in the world with a suicide rate as high as that in the US today. Not even the Scandinavian countries in the second quarter of the century are near our level. We have a one in a thousand incidence, the highest ever measured.”
“OK,” Henri said, “but couldn’t that be because all suicides are actually getting reported? Back in my day, a bunch of suicides were listed as different things because of the religious stigma of killing yourself.”
“There might be some of that,” Victoria conceded, “But there’s one thing that has absolutely nothing to do with reporting, and that’s the fact that suicide rates are almost the same for men as for women. That has never happened anywhere.”
“But that might be because there aren’t any more guns. Or if there are, I haven’t seen any evidence of them.”
Victoria laughed. “There are plenty of guns. The military has destructive power you probably couldn’t even dream of when you went under. But none of them are in the hands of common citizens.”
“So, it’s just a question of a level playing field. That’s it. Back in our day, guys killed themselves more often because they had the guns.”
“But it’s not it. One person in a thousand is killing themselves every year… and it’s harder to do it than it ever was. How can you explain that?”
Henri was about to give a flippant answer, but caught himself in time. He thought about the question for a few moments. “Well, poverty doesn’t seem to be the answer.”
“No. And neither are any of the other factors from our time. People don’t get bullied or discriminated against. And I’ll give you another data point: the people killing themselves are generally healthy, mature adults. Not confused teens.”
“You give up?”
“Sure, why not.”
“The only study published in the past ten years circled around and around in a most unacademic way before concluding that ‘a large majority of subjects had expressed their concern that there was no real reason for them to continue living.'”
Henri shrugged. “That doesn’t sound like an earth-shattering conclusion to a study about suicide. It sounds about right.”
The look Victoria gave him made him think he’d said something incredibly dense.
“Well, considering the fact that in our era, ninety percent of suicides were found to be related to some sort of mental illness, doesn’t it strike you that something changed?”
“And no illness was found in the study, I suppose?”
“Mental imbalances like depression have been cured for a long time, Henri.”
“But what does it even mean? ‘No reason to continue living’ doesn’t even sound like a reason.”
“I disagree. It’s a good reason. But if the study had been well run, someone would have at least asked the question of why there’s no reason to keep on living.” She looked at him innocently. “Wouldn’t they?”
The question stayed with him. Victoria was playing games with him, trying to lead him down some rabbit hole or other.
But even knowing that he was meant to obsess didn’t keep him from doing so. He spent the intervening weeks trying to see why the people around him were killing themselves in droves.
When he asked about it, no one seemed too concerned. “It’s their life to do with as they want,” was the reply he received most often. Everyone knew someone who’d taken their own life.
The arguments began when he wanted to know why they’d done it. One girl had gone as far as to cut a two-week marriage contract short by ten days because he’d simply refused to take “Who knows – it was his decision” for an answer.
But he couldn’t control himself. The complete apathy and lack of interest in this subject was something he wasn’t capable of processing.
“OK,” he asked Victoria a couple of weeks later, “I’ll bite. Why do you think people are killing themselves?”
She laughed at him. “Do you actually think I’ll make it that easy on you? Tell me what you think.”
“Probably because there’s no risk, nothing to strive for.”
The speed with which he answered, and the answer itself left her agape.
“Impressive. And here I thought you were only trying to get into my pants.”
“Plenty of pants around here without your ancient hangups,” he replied.
“Hey!” she said. But she laughed. “Still, that’s pretty much what I think. And I also think that we got here because the rules are getting made by people with too much education. They’ve legislated all risk out of society – I actually looked it up. They started with the physical risks, of course. Even back when we were young some legislatures were making helmets mandatory on ski slopes… and it just got worse. The poor and the ignorant always took more risks. Often because they didn’t know better, but usually just to stick it to the man.”
“Well, I suppose it’s logical. Governments that spend trillions curing cancer probably didn’t want their citizens to get themselves killed at the next intersection. I can see how it would feed upon itself.”
She shook her head. “It didn’t stop there. Non-physical risk was also gradually removed. Private investment was severely limited, schools were actually prohibited by law from failing students.” She chuckled. “Hell, you’re not even allowed to use certain words to reject romantic advances.”
“Oh, crap, which ones?”
“You don’t need to worry about it, they make allowances for barbarians from the past.” She paused as their drinks arrived. “No one enforces that particular law, but the fact that it’s on the books at all shows what things have come to. I actually think there’s another reason – people who have more to lose are usually less averse to risk. So by giving more power to those in higher educational strata, risk-aversion is guaranteed.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked her. “You want something.”
“I want to know if you’ll help me on a little project I have.”
“And what would that be?”
“I want to burn down this safe little world.” Victoria gave him a significant look. “And I’m not just saying that. I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it, and I keep coming to the conclusion that someone needs to shock this entire society back into something resembling vigor. I decided that person would be me a long time ago.”
“But how would you even begin? Are you suggesting terrorism?”
“Not necessarily in the way you and I remember it, mainly because the plan is to avoid killing anyone… but yes, most of our fellow citizens might see it that way.”
Henri paused. “I suppose you’re not working alone.”
“I’ll tell you when you pledge your support. Not before.”
“Do you know how to make a Molotov Cocktail?”
He shook his head, bewildered.
She smiled. “Then it must be because I think you understand, and that, deep down you’re as disgusted as I am with what we’ve become.”
“I… I have no idea what to say. I’ll have to think about it.”
“There’s no hurry. While you’re thinking. How about taking me home? We can discuss those hangups you were concerned about.”
“Are you sure you want to replace this society? Looks like you fit right in.”
“Do you want to spend more time discussing that?” Victoria turned to go, confident that Henri would follow.
She wasn’t wrong.
The following morning found them enjoying a breakfast of pancakes and orange juice at a small café on a terrace overlooking one of the countless parks near Henri’s house. It was a beautiful, peaceful morning, and joggers were out in force among the manicured lawns.
“Did you seduce me hoping to convince me to join your crusade?”
“I didn’t realize I’d seduced you,” Victoria replied. “You need to be much more clear about your wishes. For example, the part where I’d taken two steps into my apartment and you started tearing my clothes off confused me.” Her smile took the sting out of her words.
“You know what I mean.”
She sighed. “All right. The answer is no. It had very little to do with convincing you of anything. We don’t actually need you, even though it would be nice to have another person who knows what we’re fighting to regain on board. All I really wanted last night was to be with someone who understands where I came from. Call me lonely.”
He nodded, looking down at the tranquil scene below and wondering whether there really was more to life than peace and contentment. And whether regaining the freedom to decide one’s own level of risk and to live a life a little less constrained by benevolent social intentions was worth destroying that idyll.
The orange juice was excellent, but the pancakes were a bit dry.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he told her. “I’d hate to think you thought my price was so low.” He paused to swallow. “But if you wanted to buy my loyalty, there’s something I would join a subversive group for, right now. Do you know what that is?”
“Three strips of bacon,” he replied. “For a hamburger, I’d learn to make Molotov Cocktails.”
She studied his face, saw the earnestness there, and nodded.
“Then we’ll just have to make that a priority, won’t we?”
by Gustavo Bondoni