“Forking” is the story of a man who is accidentally duplicated. It is both thought experiment and short(ish) fiction. The thought experiments of philosophers are often thin stuff, which fail to paint a coherent, credible picture. Because readers’ imaginations are undernourished by the lack of detail, so are their philosophical conclusions about the possibilities being described. Fiction invites readers into a more richly imagined world which can engage them on several levels – emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually, morally – as they are engaged in real life. If a story is well told, readers’ judgements about it should be close to what they would think if they were to live in the world it portrays.
Finally an email from Dalton, on the last possible day. With misgivings, Elliot opens it. Nothing at all in the body, just Dalton’s signature and the animated IGo logo scrolling endlessly across the page.
Elliot opens the attachment – his own presentation – and starts flipping through it. Dalton’s markup starts on the fourth slide. “DATA VOLUMES? NOOOOO!!!!” in 60-point Arial. Wincing, Elliot flips to the next slide. A fat red X covers all five bullet points. Next slide. Another X. The next slide has another note. “FORGET DATA VOLUMES. ENERGY IS MEANINGLESS.”
Elliot snorts, then closes his eyes. He can feel pressure building behind them. Energy is…. How could anyone say that?
Dalton sat on it for a week, more than a week, and now this is his feedback. Who is this prick? Just a flak, a lobbyist hired for the PR push the board insisted on. Dalton impressed the board; he was the man. A dumb flak who can’t use the shift key. Elliot flips ahead and finds another note. “YOU’RE OFF MESSAGE. REFER TO COMPANY WEBSITE.” Well that’s helpful, Elliot mutters under his breath. Presenting in Australia tomorrow, and half his slides X’d out. Thanks for the timely feedback.
He knows what’s wanted. Only the benefits. Energy costs are no longer an issue. The benefits, as identified by customer focus groups. But you don’t need a Ph.D. to make that kind of presentation. You don’t need eighteen years of peer-reviewed research to cut and paste bullet points from the company website.
Energy is meaningless. How times change. It wasn’t that way back when IGo was a struggling tech company desperately in need of an academic partnership to channel government funds. Energy was God then. Back when data costs were astronomical, when the itravel industry depended on the feast-or-famine crapshoot of interplanetary missions, it was a completely different picture. The world’s oceans were rising fast. Gorgeous homes on expensive real estate were flooded out, and a few million people died in low-lying countries. But Elliot and others like him could see that the emerging manufacturing technologies had potential for reducing the huge carbon footprint of the airline industry. Elliot knew he was on the side of the angels when he staked his young career on Waterloo’s alliance with IGo.
It was a tough fight, always against bone-headed human inertia. When the melt-rate slowed, they thought they had won. But they hadn’t; it wasn’t enough. As fear weakened, greed reawakened, and governments hedged. Carbon reduction, yes, but dikes and levees too. And now, with photovoltaics as cheap as paint, energy costs have collapsed. A conservative populist is back in the White House with another simple message. “Carbon isn’t warming the planet. The sun is warming this planet. What we need is a little cooling shade.” Unbelievably, despite its monstrous projected costs, the Sun Shield initiative has political legs. The stikists, who propped up jet travel for years when it looked like it was going the way of General Motors, vote as a bloc.
Elliot takes a long breath and exhales slowly. He deletes half a dozen slides, inserts a new one. The Waterloo Institute of Transportation Studies crest looks at him reproachfully from the bottom-right corner, opposite the IGo logo. “Benefits of Deregulation, ” he types. Bullet point number 1, “DNA Correction” – no, what’s the term? “Cleansing.” Point 2. “Body Makeover.” Number 3, ah – “Hair Restoration.” Painfully, Elliot hammers out a new draft.
Coming up for air, he notices that everyone in the room has gone home except Stan. He remembers he still hasn’t booked his trip. That’s cutting it, considering that Sydney is hours ahead – jesus, fifteen hours ahead! He clicks on his browser and opens IGo’s on-line booking page.
He ponders the screen, trying to remember what to do. He asked Raymond to update him so he could capture screen shots of the latest UI for his presentation. The interface hasn’t really improved at all, as far as he can tell. His personal details are filled in automatically from his iid, which is nice, but that’s been a feature forever. Elliot’s presentation is at 3 PM tomorrow. Which is midnight tonight. He would need to book for 10:30. But he’d be bagged! Better book for 7:30 and take a 3-hour rest delay. Elliot chooses his options and types “Sydney”. The Country drop-down still reads “Canada”. He clicks the list to change it but nothing happens. An hourglass. He waits. He clicks a few more times. Nothing happens.
He doesn’t like to ask Stan, primo programmer, surly SOB, but it would be nice to get out of here, go home and get some dinner before popping off to Sydney. Have a drink. No, forget the drink. “Stan,” he says quietly. No response. Elliot checks the time, clears his throat. “Stan, could you help me?”
“Yeah.” Stan keeps typing.
“Stan,” Elliot persists. “Could you please look at my screen?”
“I am looking at your screen,” says Stan without moving. “What are you trying to do?”
Elliot gives up and walks over to Stan’s workstation. “Book Sydney. I can’t change the country.”
Stan stares at Elliot’s screen. “You’re running the pre-release.”
“I know,” says Elliot. “Raymond updated me. It’s supposed to work.”
“You’re running under Zephr,” says Stan, referring to Elliot’s favourite web browser. “The pre-release hasn’t been tested under Zephr.”
“It’s supposed to work,” Elliot repeats.
“Just kill it,” says Stan. “Try Plex. It works with Plex.” Stan’s eyes drift back to a screenful of code.
“Whatever works,” Elliot tells himself on his way back to his desk. Zephr is still showing an hourglass. He closes the program and starts Plex.
“No, I do not wish to make Plex my default browser.” Elliot goes to the IGo site and books Australia. He checks off options. Return – same day. Bags – 0. Hotel – no. Rest delay – he changes the 15 hour default to 3 hours. At least itravel has one clear benefit, he thinks. We don’t have to be jet lagged. I wish I could take advantage of it sometime. Elliot’s last six trips were all same-day return.
He emails the fixed-up presentation to the organizers in Australia. He reads an email from his daughter Shelley. “Hey Dad, check this link.” He clicks on it and gets the message, “Zephr is running, but not responding. Please close Zephr and try this link again.” Elliot checks his process list. Sure enough, Zephr is running. “I know I closed it,” Elliot tells himself. “Weirdness.”
* * *
At the terminal, Elliot waves at the check-in screen. It spits out a boarding pass for pod 5-188. He takes the elevator, follows an arrow labelled 150-200. The pod is still in use when he gets there. Eight minutes early. He watches the IGo logo scroll past. “I → i → I → i →….”
When a green hand appears he waves at it. “Passenger Elliot Otley,” is displayed, with a green check mark. The pod opens, and he steps in. Still warm. And stuffy. You’d think they could pipe in fresh air. He drops his notebook in the luggage bin and sits on the chair provided. The interior of the pod is a claustrophobic grey cylinder, with a screen opposite the chair. “Thanks for choosing IGo as your itravel carrier. Your destination is…Sydney, Australia. You have selected a rest delay of…three hours. If you wish to change your rest delay, say ‘Change’ now”. There is a short pause. “Your itravel will begin in a few seconds. If you need to cancel your trip, say ‘Cancel’ now, or push the red Cancel button. Cancellation and rebooking fees will apply. Now relax and enjoy itravel with IGo.”
Elliot smiles wanly to himself. His presentation is rough, but he knows others will be rougher. It is what it is.
The red glow of the Cancel button dims, signalling the end of the opt-out time. The music changes, and the familiar deep tickling starts as the analyzer goes to work, recording Elliot’s mologram. Such a huge swack of data. It could be so much less, saving so much time and energy, and the results would be better! Elliot thinks about his chronic back pain, due to deteriorated lumbar disks. Twenty-odd trips so far this year, and every one of them faithfully reproduced his back problem! It would be so much easier to leave it out. Which would be a nice, personal touch for his presentation. But it’s probably too late, Elliot tells himself. The tickling sensation is fading now. Definitely too late to save that thought. The analysis is finished, and he’s in overlap.
His memories of trips past always end with the faint tickling caused by the analyzer as it probes his body, so unlike any other tickling, because it goes deep inside. He knows, of course, that the tickling isn’t really the last thing that happens to him. It is followed by a period of overlap. Overlap – he has often lectured on the subject. Overlap, he would explain to his students, is the time that elapses between the two important events that take place in the analyzer – exposure of the mologram, and disintegration of the passenger. It is the time when the mologram is checked for consistency and completeness, copied to the server in the destination city, and the copy verified against the original. Safety standards require keeping the passenger in the departure pod until the mologram is checked. If the verification were to fail – “If your suit gets creased on the trip,” as the travel ads claim – the whole process would abort. The information would not be used to assemble Elliot in Sydney. And Elliot in Waterloo would be completely unaffected. “It takes all the risk out of travel,” Elliot has often told audiences. “You don’t leave until after you’ve arrived. If anything does go wrong, your trip’s cancelled and you just start over.”
But if the verification succeeded, as it nearly always did, the information sent to Sydney would be used to assemble Elliot, and Elliot in Waterloo would be disassembled into his chemical components, most of which would be preserved for reuse.
The odd thing about overlap is that the passenger never remembers it afterwards. The reason, Elliot would stress, is simple. The arriving passenger is assembled according to the information contained in the mologram. The mologram was taken at the beginning of the overlap period. So, if the passenger breaks a nail during overlap, it will not appear in the mologram – and she will arrive with nail intact. By the same token, she will not remember breaking her nail.
Elliot knows that the lag will be two or three minutes. If, in this quiet moment, the solution to some vexing problem of transportation dynamics were to occur to him, it would be lost again in Sydney. Perhaps – through the hassle of immigration, catching a cab – lost forever. The thought makes him uneasy.
The tickling starts again, surprising him. He can’t remember ever being tickled twice. But it is not the usual sensation; it is stronger. It seems wrong, a malfunction. Frightened, he tries to reach for the dimmed Cancel button. But his body does not respond. He is being tickled to bits….
* * *
The familiar quiver in perspective tells him he has arrived. It is so slight that first-time passengers are usually amazed to find their journey over. The tickling sensation from the mologram gradually fades.
“Welcome to Sydney,” says the voice-message. “On behalf of your IGo travel team…” Elliot gets up and grabs his notebook. When the pod opens he steps out briskly, hoping the customs queue won’t be too long.
He finds himself in a medium-sized room with inexpensive vinyl flooring. Ten or twelve itravel pods line the perimeter. He exits to the foyer. The next set of doors, which are glass, lead directly outside. There is no sign to Immigration. Elliot looks around, wondering what to do. Australia can’t have dropped all their border controls!
He approaches the glass doors. He can see a road, lights, and some industrial buildings beyond. He turns around. A large sign says, “Sydney, the port city.” That’s all right then. “Gateway to the Atlantic.”
The foyer looks way too casual. A craggy-browed man in a souwester, flecked with sleet, lurches in. “Where am I?” Elliot asks him, but only gets a suspicious look.
The sky is dark. Elliot pushes the outer door halfway open, then lets it close again. Definitely turning to snow out there. His phone shows 11:37 PM Eastern Daylight Time.
* * *
The familiar quiver in perspective tells him he has arrived. He watches his phone as it syncs to local time. 2:58 PM – shit! When the pod opens, a subtlety in the air reassures him that this time he has made it to a tropical destination. Standing in the immigration queue, he texts EB. “Delayed! I’ve arrived in Sydney. Please cover for me. Sorry. See you in 20 minutes.” Optimistic, he thinks guiltily.
Sydney is in a state of late October spring, blossoming into summer. The cab carries him past parks with palm trees, designer beaches with bikinis, foamy waves, a glimpse of the billowing New Opera House. He knows he would enjoy it if he weren’t so stressed about being late. How did it happen? He was sure he picked Australia. Never again, he tells himself, will I book a trip using pre-release software.
At the Pier One’s front desk, he gets directions to the door off the stage of the main ballroom. As he pushes it open, he hears a speaker in full swing. Relieved, he realizes they covered for him after all. Or they’re running late.
He can see the speakers’ platform, but curtains block the podium and audience. Although his view of the overhead screen is extremely oblique, he recognizes a slide from his own presentation. Benefits of Deregulation. Good – good thing he emailed it. But who is covering for him? The voice is sort of familiar.
“…cleansing will virtually eliminate the DNA copying errors in non-germline cells which are responsible for most cancers. Assuming current rates of itravel usage, this enhancement would reduce cancer-related health care costs in our country of Canada by thirty-eight percent.”
Not a very dynamic speaker, Elliot thinks. It must be someone from the Institute, but who? Seated on the stage, waiting their turn to speak, are Twila Sharpe and EB, and Sam Hearne from Chicago. EB is fiddling with his phone, looking more bored than the subject deserves.
“Body enhancement!” the speaker says brightly, highlighting the next bullet point. “I’ve seen the menu for tonight, and I know what a wonderful dinner we’re going to get. Now imagine – just imagine that when you check in for your travel home you are presented with a weight loss option. You fill in the amount. Two pounds? Oh heck, I had dessert. Three pounds?” The audience titters, liking the idea.
Could it be a graduate student? Bit of a light-weight, Elliot thinks. Someone from IGo, maybe. Would they do that? Would they actually let an industry flak give Elliot’s talk? The notion creeps over him that the speaker may not only be giving his speech, but actually impersonating Elliot! Just one thing stops him from tiptoeing out on the stage to join the other speakers – there is a single empty chair. If he takes it, where will the speaker sit? Who the heck is it? That voice!
Keeping in the shadow of the curtain, he edges forward to get a look at the speaker. When he does, he has to clutch the curtain for support. He gasps, and shakes his head violently, trying to make sense of it. The speaker, it seems, is not impersonating Elliot. The speaker is Elliot. That is why he is able to give Elliot’s speech – as he must admit – so effectively.
After a minute he moves further back, so that no one on the platform can see him if they turn their heads. Against the wall is a stack of chairs. He pulls one out silently, and sits to listen. And think. Eventually, a light scatter of applause. “We have time for questions,” says Elliot.
The usual coughing ensues. “I have a question,” says a male voice, “on DNA ‘cleansing’, I think you called it. That means you only send the genome of one cell, am I right?”
“The person’s correct genome is sent,” Elliot replies, “and it gets used to rebuild every one of his cells. Human cells reproduce often, with a lot of copying errors as a result. This eliminates the copying errors.”
“Let me get this straight,” the man continues in a heavy Texas accent. “You’ll eliminate copying errors by producing a less than perfect copy. In so doing, you’ll be able to reduce the volume of data transmitted by several zettabytes. Which will reduce your costs accordingly.”
“Well,” Elliot begins, “there would be data reductions, yes.” Seated in the wings, Elliot snorts softly. That was the material Dalton insisted on killing. It would have been a lot better to include it in the presentation than have to deal with it apologetically in question period.
The next question, from a woman, is even more overtly hostile. “Mr. Otley, you have tenure at the Waterloo Institute of Transportation Studies. The public funding received by WITS covers the costs of teaching only. Research at your institution is paid for by industry, and your facilities were also built by industry. How can you claim to be unbiassed when everyone in the transportation world sees WITS and IGo as joined at the hip?”
On his chair in the shadows, Elliot takes a soft, sucking breath, and grins. Obviously an opposition plant. The audience is salted with stikists. He is glad not to be in the hot seat, for once. As Elliot on stage gropes for words to counter the accusation, Elliot slips out quietly by the side door.
* * *
Elliot is happy to get home. His presentation didn’t go too badly, all things considered, although it was stressful. After a rough start, the questions got friendlier. People definitely responded to the weight loss idea. And it was a good dinner, and the Australian wines have improved remarkably, and the younger people who talked to him afterwards were so bright, so eager and deserving – Australian grad students who spoke admiringly of Elliot’s work – attractive too, some of them – enquiring deferentially about teaching jobs in Canada, but of course on that score Elliot couldn’t hold out much hope, in today’s market – wearily, yearning for bed, Elliot waves at his front door. It clicks, but fails to open. He waves again. Nothing happens. Standing on the doorstep, he palms the door firmly.
He becomes aware of movement by the corner of the house. Startled, he turns to see a figure in a hooded jacket, backlit by the neighbour’s security light. What the hell? “Uh – can I help you?” he calls out.
“You took your time,” the stranger says plaintively. His voice is oddly familiar.
Elliot looks at his front door, which remains resolutely shut. His feet are cold, and he feels unsteady. A pang of fear shoots through him. Is he going to be mugged? Is this one of Waterloo’s homeless, deranged by too many nights of sleeping rough, hungry for the price of a hit?
“It’s locked,” says the stranger. “With a key. Your iid won’t do it. I have the key.” He slaps his pants pocket.
Elliot feels he should assert himself. “What do you mean, I took my time? How is that your business?”
The man surprises him by laughing. Elliot’s hand drifts towards the doorbell. “No, don’t touch that!” the other orders. “Don’t wake anybody. Don’t worry, I’ll keep my distance. Sorry to complain, it’s just – I was waiting for you in the side yard, and it seemed like a long time. I just got cold. Hey, was that dinner good? No, forget it, let me explain about the lock. You remember, Elliot, there was a mechanical lock in that door when you two bought the house. You never got around to taking it out. You just didn’t use it.”
The stranger knows his name! He doesn’t really sound like a street person. “Do I know you?” Elliot asks.
“Just think,” says the other. “You basically forgot about that old lock. Do you remember what happened to the key?”
“Look, it’s late.” says Elliot impatiently. “I’ve had a long day.” A pause. “How did you get the key to my house?” He feels the conversation isn’t making much sense; he should be able to handle it more intelligently.
“No, you wouldn’t remember,” the other goes on. “I just happened to find it. In that little Chinese box on the dresser. With the shirt buttons. And Carl’s obituary. There were some old keys in that box.”
“Do I know you?” Elliot asks again. Slowly, the other raises his hands and pushes back the hood of his jacket.
“All too well, I’m afraid.” Elliot’s jaw drops. His hand moves to the doorbell again. “Don’t! Marjory and the kids don’t know. Let me explain, please! You remember this afternoon, when you booked the trip to Sydney, and the site hung. Zephr hung, with the new software. You filled out your stuff, but the country was stuck on Canada. It said Sydney, Canada, remember?”
“Then you talked to Stan. You closed Zephr and tried Plex. Plex worked fine and you booked your trip to Australia. But later you found Zephr still running. That instance of Zephr started the transaction, and Plex completed it. But with two different country codes. It’s not supposed to happen, but it did. You were double-booked.”
“You went to Australia. I went to Nova Scotia.”
“Oh,” says Elliot. “My.”
The other Elliot nods, and comes closer. “Just take a minute to think. We’ve got to keep it quiet. The stikists could get a lot of mileage out of this. Look.” Forcing a smile, he touches Elliot’s arm sympathetically. “We both need some rest. Why don’t you check into that little motel on Bridgeport?”
Elliot can hardly believe his ears. “Me check into the motel on Bridgeport?”
“Look,” the other repeats. “I’ve had a bit more time to think about this. I’ll call you in the morning. I’ll come and see you; we’ll meet in the room.”
“Wait a minute,” says Elliot. “I’m not checking into any fucking motel.” He is surprised to hear himself say “fucking” out loud.
“It’s a decent place.” Elliot shrugs. “Just for tonight. You can do whatever you like tomorrow. Within reason, I mean. Look, we’ll talk about it.”
Elliot feels his anger mount. “You expect me to go to a motel? This is my house!”
“I understand,” says Elliot. “But…” He slaps his pants pocket.
“You lock me out of my own house and expect me to accept that?”
“Actually I do,” says Elliot firmly.
Speechless, Elliot glares at him.
“Your iid is still good,” Elliot tells him in a reasonable tone. “No problem there. You can buy things, you can do…anything. Except…well, you need to keep a low profile.”
“I need to keep a low profile!” Elliot sputters. “I’m not the one! I went to Australia, according to plan. You’re the mistake!”
The other shrugs. “Not really. No one would take that view.”
“I don’t believe this. Do you know what time it is? After five AM!”
“Just two our time.”
“I guess I’ll just have to wait until you open the door.”
Elliot sighs. “Look, as I said, I’ve had more time to think about this.” He pats his pants pocket.
“Are you going to open it?”
“Not till you’re gone.”
“I’ll open it myself, asshole!” Elliot grabs the other’s arm and shakes it. He dives for the pocket with his other hand, but the other Elliot gets hold of his arm. Locked together, they dance a quick, staggering two-step under the porch light.
“Don’t make noise! I’ll show you, look.” Easing back, Elliot lets the other draw the object from his pocket. It’s just his phone. “The key’s not on me.” The other Elliot pulls out both his pockets. “I don’t have it.”
“But you know where you put it.”
It goes without saying. Elliot steps back, watching the other stuff his pockets back inside with trembling hands. He is trembling himself.
“Just one night,” the other pleads, panting. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Elliot thinks about mounting another attack. Or getting to the doorbell, yelling, rousing the family. How would that end? He needs time to think. And rest. The other Elliot has a point about that. But every instinct tells him not to leave. His own house. His wife and children! He watches the other, his posture defensive, his back against the door of his home, protecting all he holds dear.
Elliot shakes his head. He knows Marjory and the kids will be perfectly safe. Suddenly bed seems like not such a bad idea.
…continued in episode 2…