Watch this video. Then, consider that nothing in this is – in any way – more than another couple of years of development from now…
Yeah, sleep well.
Watch this video. Then, consider that nothing in this is – in any way – more than another couple of years of development from now…
Yeah, sleep well.
Many years ago, in graduate school, I was an op-ed columnist for the school newspaper. I wrote about things totally-unrelated to the school, such as war, welfare, Israel, abortion, gun control, religion, and other topics – and I weighed in, once, on the potential for genetic engineering of humanity. (In going through these essays as a part of cleaning, it was entertaining to reread them; in some instances my views have not changed, while in others my views have altered significantly since that time – in some cases becoming diametrically opposite to what I used to believe.)
But I had been searching for one particular essay: Laws Must Lead, Not Lag, Technology. In it I hypothesized about gene editing technology and potential implications, and had been looking for it in light of many recent developments in gene sequencing and genetic engineering. So what did I predict in that 1993 essay? Here:
Genetic engineering portends even greater dilemmas. In the next 20 years, I can easily foresee the ability to “fix” fertilized human eggs. Imagine that a couple goes into the clinic where an egg is fertilized in vitro. The genes are then examined, and the defective ones (such as those for sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, Tay-Sachs syndrome, diabetes, a propensity for cancer, etc.) are fixed so that the child is flawless. This perfectly engineered egg is then implanted in the woman’s uterus.
And now we have news like this (link in original):
In the experiment, outlined in a paper in the journal Nature published Wednesday (Aug. 2), scientists essentially snipped a mutant gene known to cause a heart condition that can lead to sudden death.
The work is controversial because it showed that scientists could manipulate life in its earliest stages and that those changes would then be inherited by future generations, if the embryo were allowed to grow into a baby. (The embryo in question was destroyed.)
It also raised the tantalizing promise that the baby would be disease-free and would not transmit the disease to his or her descendants.
Did I call it, or what?
BETTER, STRONGER, FASTER
But there’s more in my (IMHO) prescient essay:
Suppose, 50 years down the road, we have learned enough to increase human strength, improve intelligence, and maybe even redesign some of the faulty or flawed systems in the human body.
And while some of this is still beyond our reach, I may have been pessimistic about 50 years; to wit this story China unveils gene technology to create SUPERHUMANS with hyper-muscular test-tube dogs:
The dogs, which are test tube bred in a lab, have twice the muscle mass of their natural counterparts and are considerably stronger and faster.
The canine genome has been especially difficult to engineer and replicate – but its close similarity to the human genome means it has long been the prize of geneticists.
Now the Chinese success has led to fears the same technology could be used to create weaponised super-humans – typifed in Marvel Comics by Captain America and his foes.
And from later in the article, the quote being from David King, director of Human Genetics Alert:
“That does set us on the road to eugenics. I am very concerned with what I’m seeing.”
An army of super-humans has been a staple of science fiction and superhero comics for decades – but the super-dog technology brings it closer to reality.
Genetically-engineered “supermen” have been a staple theme in sci-fi for years. For example, the “Augments” from Star Trek (bolding added):
The Augments were designed to be remarkably agile, five times as strong and twice as intelligent as a normal Human, resistant to sickness and with enhanced senses, possessing heart muscles twice as strong and lung efficiency fifty percent better. Their blood contained platelets capable of regenerating from any disease or toxin, which could be used to cure or revive medical subjects via transfusion. They also had twice the average lifespan.
They were joined in the next Star Trek series, The Next Generation, by another attempt to re-engineer humans and played a central role in several episodes of Enterprise. Or consider the “Sauron Supermen” from Jerry Pournelle’s Co-Dominion universe (bolding added):
Among the Empire’s many worlds is Sauron, where the culture has grown militaristic and adheres to a literal interpretation of the philosophy of Nietzsche, namely that “man is something to be surpassed.” In service of this aim, they engage in extensive genetic modification and eugenic breeding programs to turn themselves into supersoldiers known in the galaxy at large as the Sauron Supermen. Bristling under Imperial hegemony, in the 27th century they lead several worlds into open revolt.
But there are implications beyond mere supermen. Once more, from my essay (bolding added):
[C]onsider the implications of such changes. Those who were engineered might not be able to interbreed with us “old style” humans. This is, biologically, a test for a new species. These “upgrades” would, quite literally, be a superior race. One might even say a Master Race.
Those persons who were “Homo Novii” could out-compete us “old styles” physically and mentally. Nations that progressed quickly in this process, perhaps mandating that all children born as citizens must be so engineered, would prosper far above those countries that did not do so. Would each nation have differing genetic goals, thus leading to the splintering of the human race?
Do we really understand just how dissimilar a DNA sequence has to be to qualify for species-hood? Consider that humans and chimpanzees share somewhere around 98% of DNA; factor in that “junk DNA” and other genetic mysteries are still – to my knowledge – not understood, that’s a line whose position is still uncertain. What would “fixing” genes en masse do? Like all limits, we truly won’t know we’ve crossed it… until we cross it. And, as I pointed out in my essay, different nations and cultures could pursue emphasizing different things – and even the same things, like increased strength, could be pursued by different gene sequences. Differentiated species are also seen in science fiction; consider The Moties, introduced in one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read, The Mote in God’s Eye. The Moties are a caste-system species, with differences so large most of these castes are different species. And some of those variations in the book are sterile like mules; could mass-engineering of the human genome not only produce a new species, but sterilize it unintentionally?
These are unknown unknowns.
EUGENICS AND DEATH CAMPS
In the name of eugenics, white “progressives” in America sterilized women who were guilty of nothing more than being considered of inferior stock – i.e., not white. Whole genetic lines were extinguished in the name of “improving humanity”. The Shoah (Holocaust) was the first mechanized, industrial genocide; it was not the first such attempt to “improve” the race by genetics (e.g., the eugenics movement mentioned just before), and it was not the last. And we humans did this even though, scientifically, we are all the same species.
Just what would a truly superior – at least, by every stretch of what’s being improved – species do? Would it be a simple “old styles / inferiors” will not be permitted to breed and shunted to the edges of society like in the movie GATTACA, or would it be worse? Given that human nature is what it is, my bet would be the latter. Especially in light of…
MASTER RACES SHARE A COMMON TRAIT
So in two separate science fiction venues, Star Trek and the Co-Dominion universe, we find that superior abilities breeds superior ambitions (and doubtless other fiction-based examples exist). But we need not venture into science fiction to see this potential dangers of superiority, even if just a perceived superiority. One only need look at human history – history within living memory – for an example of those who desired to create a Master Race (bolding added):
Nazism was “applied biology,” stated Hitler deputy Rudolf Hess. During the Third Reich, a politically extreme, antisemitic variation of eugenics determined the course of state policy. Hitler’s regime touted the “Nordic race” as its eugenic ideal and attempted to mold Germany into a cohesive national community that excluded anyone deemed hereditarily “less valuable” or “racially foreign.” Public health measures to control reproduction and marriage aimed at strengthening the “national body” by eliminating biologically threatening genes from the population. Many German physicians and scientists who had supported racial hygiene ideas before 1933 embraced the new regime’s emphasis on biology and heredity, the new career opportunities, and the additional funding for research.
Atrocities happened, not only to Jews and gypsies and many others, but the manifest destiny belief of the Nazis – a belief that their destiny must, by definition on this finite planet, come at the expense of others – led to World War II. And referencing my above comment about Progressives in America, it’s time to recognize that the Nazis took many cues from them, and vice versa.
All around, on multiple levels, we are mucking with nature. To cite an example, Why Millennial Women Are Rejecting The Pill, apparently birth control pill use is linked to depression (bolding added):
Last year, the results of a study conducted by the University of Copenhagen of more than one million women over the course of 13 years confirmed a significant link between hormonal contraceptives and depression. Women taking combined oral contraceptives were 23 per cent more likely to be treated for it; those on the progestogen-only pill (known as the mini-pill) were 34 per cent more likely. Teens taking the combined pill were discovered to be at greatest risk, with an 80 per cent increased likelihood of being prescribed antidepressants.
The pill has also been linked to other side effects (links in original article, bolding added):
In addition, before taking my classes, my female students were never told that the Pill scrambles the sensory messages that they subconsciously detect with their sense of smell: The hormones in the Pill make them more attracted to men with immune systems similar to their own. Those scrambled signals mean falling in love with a man while taking the Pill is risky. If the couple marries and tries to have children, the woman will have somewhat higher odds of repeated miscarriages and perhaps of having more-vulnerable offspring.
The pill may also have multi-generational effects. According to this one article, Birth Control and Homosexuality: Unintended Consequences, the author discusses a possible – and with all fairness, unproven to my standards – link between women who took the pill and increased homosexual tendencies in grandchildren. Now, this essay is not about homosexuality as that topic is not germane to this discussion. But let’s posit for the sake of argument that the link described actually exists (I await independent verification), in addition to the more-rigorously-determined results, further up. This would mean that nature has cycles within cycles within cycles which should come as a surprise to nobody, and that even hormonal treatments – child’s play next to genetic engineering – could have remarkable and long-time-downstream consequences that are either unforeseen or, as the article claims, are swept under the carpet as “inconvenient”.
So let’s turn to genetic engineering., and ponder this one data point, New GMO Wheat May ‘Silence’ Vital Human Genes:
Research conducted on a new type of GM wheat showed with “no doubt” that molecules created in the wheat, which are intended to silence wheat genes to change its carbohydrate content, may match human genes and potentially silence them.
Experts warned that eating the wheat could lead to significant changes in the way glucose and carbohydrates are stored in the human body, which could be potentially deadly for children and lead to serious illness in adults.
Long-term studies are needed before the wheat is released into the environment and the human food chain – but a new review states that the risks are still not being adequately assessed.
While I would label this site on the “alarmist” side, I remember when this news first came out – it definitely was a topic of conversation on far-more-mainstream sites.
A POPULATION OF CLONES
One of the hallmarks of sexual reproduction is the variation created by the different combinations and variations of chromosomes and genes. Even with the same parents one can get differences; an extreme example is the famous twins whose mixed-race parents produced twin girls of wildly different genetic expressions:
Across humanity there are countless variations of genes for superficial characteristics like hair, eye, and skin color; height, weight, and I have no doubts that even significant and functional things like muscle makeup, nerves, etc., have subtle differences between individuals and across demographic groups. But supposing that, thanks to such engineering, an entire population of a country and perhaps the world will have that variation in multiple genes brought to literally zero by deliberate engineering. What if there is a disease that happens to find that particular variation appealing? Just look at the natural variation that creates Sickle Cell anemia; the distorted red blood cells it creates are definitely a handicap, but strangely serve as an advantage in malaria-ridden countries as the mosquitoes carrying the disease shun carriers of that gene.
To just what pandemics are we opening ourselves after we have eliminated the natural variation that protects a breeding population as a whole? The same dangers lie in the hyper-optimized crops we now grow, leading to efforts like I read about many years ago to gather all the different natural-variation types of potatoes to have the genetic variation stored just in case something happened to the primary crop potato stock.
Nearly 4,000 different varieties of potato can be found in the Andes, and scientists, economists, and historians are racing to record and preserve the genetic diversity to ensure it does not disappear as suddenly as did the Inca Empire.
The same effort is being made with other important staple crops, per memory of articles read over the years. The Wikipedia article on Crop diversity mentions potatoes again, specifically the Irish potato famine – but the threat applies to all monoculture plants and doubtless extends to animals in general.
Crop diversity loss threatens global food security, as the world’s human population depends on a diminishing number of varieties of a diminishing number of crop species. Crops are increasingly grown in monoculture, meaning that if, as in the historic Irish Potato Famine, a single disease overcomes a variety’s resistance, it may destroy an entire harvest, or as in the case of the ‘Gros Michel’ banana, may cause the commercial extinction of an entire variety. With the help of seed banks, international organizations are working to preserve crop diversity.
Note the comment about the extinction of an entire variety of bananas. And this threat would be doubly-so against humans who, unlike even “pure breed” plants and animals, would literally have the same genetic sequences in multiple places in their DNA rather than even the low-but-still-present natural variation of pure-breed, “optimized” organisms. And I remember, some years ago, reading an article – IIRC in National Geographic – about a species of fish that can reproduce both sexually and by cloning; it was pointed out that clones can colonize a territory far faster than by sexual reproduction, but specifically mentioned the risks I discuss: a population-wide potential susceptibility to a disease targeting a particular aspect of the identical-across-the-population clone genetics.
Given the adaptability of bacteria to antibiotics, which is an emerging threat to human health, and the adaptability of viruses (e.g., the HIV virus), would an entire human species of clones fall to a germ that “decoded” a vulnerability in the superhuman genetics? Discussing HIV specifically, consider that there are some people whose genetics give them heightened resistance, People with natural immunity to HIV may serve as basis for new vaccine (bolding added):
(Medical Xpress)—Despite urgent need and tremendous scientific effort, researchers have yet to discover a vaccine for HIV that adequately protects humans from infection. But some people don’t need one. For reasons not completely understood, there are individuals who have developed a natural immunity to the virus without any medical intervention.
The average person’s immune system will attempt to fight HIV, but normally the virus simply mutates and deflects the attack until it is able to replicate and spread unimpeded.
Faced with a population whose immune systems are quite literally identical thanks to the genetic enhancements, a disease that mutates with every reproduction will likely outstrip not only the immune systems, but the research to stop it. So imagine a scenario with an immensely communicable virus that has “learned” to exploit the population-wide vulnerabilities due to that population having a uniform same immune system response. Further, nature is an inexhaustible source of new-to-humanity viruses: Virus Crisis | National Geographic. We’ve been very lucky but, just playing the odds, you can only spin the cylinder so many times before landing on the full chamber. The non-fiction book The Hot Zone was a very disturbing read… and as I put the finishing touches on this essay, the airborne form of Yersinia Pestis (the Black Death) is ringing the alarm bell. Just imagine someone in the early stages of this infection getting on a plane and getting to New York; one patient is not a sure bet for a problem, but given the airborne nature of this variant, it’s enough to keep me up at night. Marburg, too, is raising its head again, causing more alarms to sound. And that’s with natural variation in the population.
Black Death killed millions last time. With crowded cities and within-hours intercontinental travel, is it time for it – or another nasty – to make a “world tour”? And how would cloned immune systems exacerbate that?
WHERE DID I CHANGE?
When I wrote that essay I was all gung-ho to proceed with engineering humans, and even desirous to be on the redesign team. On that score, I have flipped 180 degrees, and think this would be calamitous for multiple reasons outlined above. In a large part I attribute that switch not only to a broader awareness of information that a curious mind gathers plus having more mileage under my belt, but also – having had my religious beliefs return and my faith in G-d rise like the phoenix – I am much more appreciative of the subtleties of His work.
But more relevant to the subject at hand, what I predicted over two decades ago is just about upon us, so… now what?
About that quote I alluded to. No, it’s not this line by actor Jeff Goldblum, “Boy do I hate being right all the time” though it was an ego-driven contender. No, it’s this one, said earlier in the film:
The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here staggers me… genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun… your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Mankind has, from early days, tinkered with genes. Animals ranging from cows to dogs to horses now bear the mark of man’s alterations; plants grown for food and other purposes also do. But all of the changes made have been with the tools of selective breeding – i.e., survival of the fittest, with the “fitness” gradient determined by our needs – so the genetic shifts were made entirely with the tools that already existed in nature. We, rather than nature, provided that gradient, but we worked within the system. And even with that meddling, variation remains. Now, with genetic engineering, we are on the threshold of stepping outside that natural gradient system to alter the mechanisms of life itself.
As we sweep into possessing the ability to engineer humanity’s genetic code and realizing we could, and also ignore the implications and unintended consequences of whether we should, will our arrogance in playing with the very stuff of life itself again prove the wisdom of the ancient Greeks: Nemesis follows hubris. Will the quest to fulfill Nietzsche’s admonition and attain a biological advantage over other nations/groups become the epitaph of the human species, whether from ambition and the resulting warfare between the different variations of Homo Novii as well as against us old-fashioned Homo Sapiens, germs seizing the opportunity in a “target rich” environment of identically-responding hosts, or a simple inability to breed generation after generation?
© 2017, David Hunt PE
© 2017, David Hunt PE
Brings back memories.
This is… entertaining. Forget fighting humanity. Aliens encounter our wildlife.
I don’t care for ALL of these X vs. Y mini-films, but here are three of my favorites. Also, there is a Darth Vader vs. Batman one that has a different ending – that one was made first. This one, immediately below, was made second (hence “alternative ending”) but is better IMHO… because it highlights the incredible and anticipatory mind that is Batman/Bruce Wayne.
I have to admit, Thor knocked Superman in precisely the wrong direction…
And IMHO this one could not have ended any other way:
And IMHO very well done.
As an aside (and I’m not really giving much away), some time ago I saw a short film about an Israeli police officer seeing a suspicious Arab, and giving chase through the streets of Jerusalem. Just as the officer catches up to the bomb-wearing Arab, a tentacle decloaks and grabs the Arab. All of a sudden the game changes, and the Israeli starts trying to rescue his blood cousin from the now-decloaked, multi-tentacled alien ship. With an eye-lock and a nod, the Arab has the Israeli let go; he gets pulled inside the ship, and detonates his bomb.
I have to wonder… not that I’m eager for an alien invasion… what would happen to humanity were it confronted with an existential threat from outside.
A double-hit. Lots of Navy stuff (I came very close to signing up for their Nuclear Engineering program!) and time travel too. From 1980.
And others… DC/Marvel vs. Star Wars. Avengers
AND THIS IS AWESOME!!!!!
Blogger’s note: I’d mentioned in my Happy Anniversary 2 post that I’d planned on starting to write some fantasy and science fiction. This is the first one I’ve gotten down. I’ve submitted it twice… and been rejected twice which, as I understand it, is not uncommon. I’ve been invited to join a sci-fi writing group which I’d love-love-love to do, but I don’t have the time right now for several reasons. A pity, as I’m sure I could learn a lot… perhaps in the future I’ll have the time and the group will have the opening. Thus, I am self-publishing this to get it out there and, hopefully, solicit comments on how I might improve it. Obviously, having put it up on my blog, I can’t get this published in a magazine or anything, but… if I can get some good comments I can use them to influence and improve my next story.
Enjoy, please let me know what you think, tell me suggestions on how I might improve it, and if you like it – please forward it on to others. If nothing else, I hope this shows a different side of me, one worthy of consideration in seeing me as more than just an engineer.
(This is a sci-fi/fantasy romance. Nothing explicit, but just be forewarned.)
He sat under the oak tree at the top of the hill, leaning against it with his knees up, staring at the sun as it slowly sank and the already-cool fall day started to turn crisp. As he twirled the burnished bronze vial pensively, the old man’s warning came to mind. “Both of you must drink their vials in the last light of the same setting sun,” the old man had said. He’d also warned “If one drinks and the other does not, the soul who drinks this elixir will be trapped, alone forever…”
The sun fragmented as its rim penetrated the autumn-stripped woods, and was soon lined with dark veins from the silhouetted trees. Almost time, he thought.
He wondered aloud, “Will she drink hers? Will she wonder and doubt? What am I doing? Can I do this?”
“Can I do this?” he repeated. Their one kiss came to mind, and he heard – as if she were standing there – her single-word reply to his plea to drink the elixir: Yes. “How can I not do this?” It was more statement than question, and he swallowed its sweet contents down, replaced the stopper, and put it into his jacket pocket.
“Come on, let’s go home,” he said to the dog, rising up and brushing his pants off. They walked down the hill to the waiting car. Home was the same as always. Dinner, helping the kids with their homework, feeding the pets, reminding the kids of their own pets, and doing all the regular mundane chores. Then, with the kids asleep, he went to his office. His binder, labeled “In case something happens to me”, was still where he’d put it years before. He reviewed it one last time. If something went wrong, he didn’t want his family to suffer.
Then it was time for bed. Slipping into bed next to his already-sleeping wife and falling asleep as well, the world disappeared in a cascade of golden sparks and a chorus of tinkling bells.
Just days before, in the morning, he had gone to the break room for his mid-morning coffee. Standing at the counter pouring steaming water into her cup was a woman he’d never seen. Slim, almost as tall as he, with milk chocolate skin and shimmering black hair cascading down her back to her waist. She wore a sleeveless purple dress. Gold and diamonds glittered boldly on her left hand’s ring finger as she turned, smiled, and said “Hello,” with an Indian accent as she stepped forward to shake his hand and looked at him with black eyes. “I’m Shareen. I just started.”
“Charles. Charles Williams. Junior partner.” He took her hand and felt like he’d grabbed a live wire. His arm tingled and he felt wobbly on his feet, light-headed, and staggered. She jerked her hand away, overbalanced, fell against the counter, and then landed awkwardly on her rear. They stared at each other for a moment. He recovered, smiled, and offered his hand again to pull her up. “Here, let me help”. She took it and he pulled her up. The momentum brought her up close, almost touching. His hand tingled at her touch.
Before he knew what was happening they were kissing, a hungry lover’s kiss, clutching at each other, pulling so hard they would have merged into one if they could have. Her lips, her touch, her taste, her smell, engulfed him. But it only took a few seconds, a handful, before his mind took over and he pulled away, stammering, as she blinked at him, their hands sliding down to hold each other left-in-right, right-in-left, still tingling, and then they fell apart as each took an uncertain step backward.
“I… I… I’m sorry, I don’t know what… please, what just happened…” he managed to get out. She opened her mouth to speak, her eyes on fire and he knew it was for him, but then the full awareness of what they’d just done flooded her mind as well. Her hands flew to her mouth in shock, and she ran from the room.
He looked around. Whatever had just happened, nobody else had seen it. He leaned heavily against the counter, wondering what to do. Go with routine, he concluded. He got his coffee and went back to his office, and tried to work.
Every time his computer beeped with a new email, he wondered if it were her. Or perhaps a sudden emergency meeting with HR. Every time his phone rang he looked at the caller ID with fear, but it was just business. Then his boss, Ted, the firm’s founder, called and he nervously picked up the phone. Trying to quell the fear in his voice, he said “Charles Williams.”
“Charles, Ted here. Just reminding you about your trip to San Francisco next week. Since you’re the only person in the firm who speaks Mandarin, we need you there to finalize the Raptorium-Middle Kingdom Enterprises contract. You ready?”
The relief in his voice must have seemed strange to Ted. “Yes, all set.”
“Good. This is a huge deal and I want to make sure you’re ready. Get this signed for our client and you’re on track for Senior Partner.” His boss hung up.
The next day his anxiety was even worse. Each beep of the computer made him jerk. Each instant message startled him. And the phone ringing sounded like a death knell until he looked at the ID and saw that it wasn’t his boss, wasn’t HR, and wasn’t her. But at the same time he wanted it to be her. He needed it to be her. Her eyes filled his thoughts, and even though it was a day later, he could still taste her kiss, feel her against him. Her perfume and smell still filled his nose, and he still felt her hands in his.
At the end of the day he went home to dinner. He took the dog for its evening walk. He answered the kids’ homework questions, did the dishes, and helped get the kids to bed. His wife snuggled up on the couch to watch TV, and they made quiet love… but it wasn’t her he saw. It was Shareen.
And it got no better. Work, which he liked, had instantly become perdition. The weekend was no relief – all he could think about was her. He avoided her on Monday, staggering his coffee times, and eating in his office. But Tuesday, the day before his trip, he was going to the men’s room and she came out of the women’s room.
“Hi,” he said, not knowing if he should shake hands, not knowing how to stand, not knowing if he should look her in the eye or avoid eye contact. He decided to look at her.
“Hi,” she said, looking down, avoiding his eyes. “A big trip tomorrow?”
“Yes.” Everyone in the office knew about this deal.
“You’ll do fine.” She lifted her face to look right at him and he felt a jolt just from her gaze. She took a step toward him, reaching out, then jerked away as though he was a hot iron that she’d been about to touch. She walked away, pausing to look at him before she went around the corner. He fought the urge to run after her.
Later that day he stepped out for a short walk. When he came back there was a sealed, colorful card envelope on his desk. Charles was all it said on the front. Even before he picked it up he knew who it was from. All she’d written on the Hallmark card was Good luck! in beautiful cursive, echoing the cutesy stock message. No signature. But there was one word in the lower left corner, scribbled over and obscured. She’d started to write something else, and changed her mind.
He stared at it the whole flight. No luck. He arrived at the hotel, exercised, showered, and had dinner. He reviewed the planned negotiations and made some notes. Then, lying in bed he stared at it one more time, and put it aside to try and sleep. Just as he was in the transition from waking to dreaming he heard her voice. Come back to me.
He sprang upright, awake. Come was the word she’d written and crossed out, before she’d even finished the thought. Now that he knew what to look for, he could see it. Come back to me. He fell back on the mattress, and thought of her. He thought of his wife and children and pleaded to the empty air, “What am I going to do?”
The next two days were grueling. Negotiations. Clarifications. A call back to Ted for a first-day situation update and advice. But in the end, the deal was done, and quicker than anticipated. Both sides, the American company, Raptorium, and the Chinese company, Middle Kingdom Enterprises, wanted the contract signed. With time on his hands he decided to do a little exploring.
He went to Chinatown and had dinner. Walking around as the sun sank towards the Pacific, he passed by a small alley. Something pulled at the corner of his eye and he looked down it. Hanging underneath a faded and dusty awning was an equally-faded sign on weathered wood, in Mandarin: I can help.
The inside was stereotypical. Piled boxes and crates. A musty smell. A whole wall of nothing but jars of spices, herbal medicines, and who-knows-what on shelves. Curios and display cases stuffed to overcapacity, souvenirs, jade trinkets, and odd-lot miscellany were scattered across tables, in front of books, and everywhere. He had to move carefully lest he nudge anything and start a domino-chain avalanche. A stuffed monkey lurked precariously on top of a shelf, screaming silently forever.
“May I help you?” A wizened old man in a grey silk jacket appeared out of the back through a beaded curtain.
“No thanks, I was just… I was just meandering and saw your sign.” He looked around. “I was curious.”
“Ah.” The old man paused. “I was making tea. Might I offer you a cup?”
Something made him agree. “I would be honored.”
The old man went back through the curtain and came back after a minute, carrying an enameled red tray, a pot, and two cups. “Sit, sit.” Charles sat.
The old man poured two cups. They both sipped tea. The silence stretched. Then the old man asked “Why are you here?”
Charles started talking about his job, the contract, his work… the old man waved dismissively to interrupt. “Why are you here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Only people who need help come in here.” The old man put down his tea and leaned back, fingers meshed across his chest. He asked slowly, again, “Why are you here?”
Charles broke down and it came out in a geyser. Shareen. Her touch. The kiss. Thinking of her. How he wanted her, how he needed her, how he knew she felt the same. The guilt of what would happen to his family if he followed his heart, and what would happen to his job. And the added guilt of knowing she was also married.
The old man was still, staring past his shoulder. He turned to look. There was nothing special to look at. The old man breathed, not moving or speaking, and it became uncomfortable. Charles was about to push back from the table when the old man spoke. “Have you heard of Master Zhuang?”
“He once had a dream about being a butterfly. When he awoke, he wondered if he had dreamt about being a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming about being a man.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Young man, there is a way for you to be with her in your dreams. It will be real, and you will be together in an Eden, a paradise. The energy between you will move from this world to the dream world, and while you will remember your dreams, you will remember them as dreams only. In this world you will be friends, but just that.”
“How?” Charles asked.
The old man went into the back, rummaged around, and came back with two small brass vials. “Both of you must drink their vials in the last light of the same setting sun. When you are both asleep you will be together. And, if you both wish, you two can be together forever, even after you die, forever young and fully aware, in Eden.” He smiled. “Adam and Eve in a reborn Eden.”
“What’s the catch?” Charles was a business lawyer. “There has to be a catch.”
The old man nodded. “If one drinks and the other does not, the soul who drinks this elixir will be trapped, alone forever, in that honeyed Eden alone for eternity. Only together do your souls have the power to escape.”
“What do you mean, for eternity?”
“Eternity. Forever. Your body will wither away and die, but your soul will be alive until the stars burn out. Alive forever, alone forever.”
“Oh my…” Charles said.
“One other thing. You must not be together when you drink it. You must show your trust in the other.”
Charles thought. “How much?”
“Four thousand dollars.” The old man smiled again. “I take credit cards.”
Charles was normally a careful man. Methodical. Not prone to wild adventure. Yet he whipped out his wallet and paid without hesitation. The two vials went into his pocket and he walked out. Just as he left the alley he thought Wait, what did I just do? The memory of her kiss flared on his lips, and he steeled himself to see it through.
At the hotel room he logged onto his company email. There was a note from Ted, congratulating him and saying they needed to plan for the future. There were notes from several others. He answered them all. And then, taking the vials out and putting them on the desk next to the computer, he opened a meeting request with Shareen to have coffee with him at the corner coffeehouse.
Please, we need to get together. Deleted. Please, I need to talk with you. Deleted. He stared, and typed, and deleted, and typed, and deleted, and typed, and deleted. Finally, he sent one word in the meeting request: Please.
And went to bed. He had an early flight and a long layover in Chicago.
The next morning he checked his email before he left the hotel for the airport. Among a slew of emails was a reply from her. One word. Yes.
He sat in the coffee shop at 3:00 P.M., not knowing what he was going to say. He’d arrived early, mulling all sorts of scenarios of what he’d say, what she’d say. It was a game he’d play when he had something difficult to discuss with his wife and, of course, things never went the way he’d plan. But it was a habit.
He felt her presence even before she touched his shoulder from behind as she came by the table, but he still jumped. She sat across from him. They leaned in to talk quietly, conspiratorially, and her proximity made his hair tingle, like from static electricity on a dry day.
“This is crazy”, he started.
“Crazy, yes. I am married. You are married. We cannot.”
“What if there was a way we could?”
“What do you mean?” She looked at him, puzzled. He explained about the shop in Chinatown, the old man and his words about being together in a dream world, his warning if only one drank, and how two nights from now it was supposed to be a clear day and night. He put the two vials on the table between them. She asked, “You are serious?”
“Can we go on working in the same office if we don’t?”
She looked at the table, drilling holes into it as she thought. “No.”
“So you quit right after starting, and your husband will ask why. Or I quit on the cusp of being made senior partner. And be asked why. Or we try to have a quiet affair and we will get caught.” He laid his fingertip lightly on her hand and she jumped at the spark of his touch. “Could we keep this quiet?”
He pulled his hand away, and concluded, “Or we try this.”
She picked up one vial, looking at it. She was silent for a while, then put it in a pocket. “So, two nights from tonight?”
“Right at sundown before the sun disappears.”
“Will you?” she asked.
“Yes. Will you?”
She smiled, looking at him, extending her hands out for him to take. He did, but even knowing the jolt he’d feel it was hard to just hold hands. Every fiber of him wanted more – now! She said one more word. “Yes.”
The sparks cleared from his eyes and he looked around. He was in a shaded patio, maybe 30 feet square. Tiled in off-white marble, with rough walls built up waist high all around, the sides above the wall were open air. On one side an opening had a porch under a dark wood pergola draped with shimmering golden fabric rippling in the soft ocean breeze; from there he could see stairs snaking down through waving beach grass to a glistening white beach where waves crashed gently on the sand. A small sailboat rocked gently beside a pier.
Above him was a roof held up by columns of the same dark wood. A low bed was partially embedded in the floor, one wall as a headboard, and it too was covered with shimmering golden fabric, with a watermelon-sized copper cornucopia beside the head of each side. The openings were blue whirlpools and he somehow knew that they would provide anything he wished. A wood table and two chairs, also of that dark wood, was tucked away to one side of the opening to the beach, a sunken bath bubbled and steamed opposite it in the other corner.
Opposite the ocean side, a hill with trees stretched upwards lazily. To his right he saw a splashing cascade of a brook and beyond that, a cove; to the left were more trees. The old man was right. Eden.
He held his hand to a cornucopia and a goblet of wine appeared, as he’d wished. He sat. He stood. He felt the water in the bath, sat at the table again, went outside and walked around on the sandy soil, and started down the path to the beach, then returned. Walking around the outside of the patio he found a toilet in a small enclosure. Time passed as the sun moved, and he got nervous. More time passed. And more. He went to the foot of the sunken bed, looking at it for what seemed like forever. He heard only the susurration of the wind in the trees and the waves crashing, and felt only the warm breeze, and started to panic.
Bells tinkled behind him and he jerked around. She appeared from a fading waterfall of golden sparks dressed in a shimmering purple satin camisole and loose shorts. She blinked, looked up, gasped, grinned, took three steps and jumped at him. He held on for a moment, then her momentum overbalanced him and they tumbled into bed, kissing, touching, the energy between them was white-hot fire, and he was drunk with her against him. They pulled clothes off each other, skin touching as they prepared to consummate their union, but doubt flared, and he pulled back. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Am I a man, or a butterfly?”
Her smile rivaled the sun, and her fingertips slid teasingly up his arm. She caressed his hair, and put her hand on the back of his neck to pull him back down. Her whispered answer filled the world.
“Charles, my love, does it matter?”
© 2015, David Hunt PE