Forking – episode 2

This is Episode 2 of Forking, a short story in the ‘philosophy fiction’ genre.  If you haven’t yet read Episode 1, start here.

Forking 2 composite5 flattenedInstead of the motel on Bridgeport, as the other Elliot wanted, he checks into the Verdmont for what remains of the night.  He owes himself that much.  He is a bit surprised that his iid still opens doors.  The other Elliot could have changed his code, which would have made his own implant useless.  But the surprise vanishes when he thinks of what he would have done in the other’s place.  Without a valid iid, he could hardly last a day in Waterloo without coming to the attention of the police.  He has to eat, to sleep somewhere, and although he knows that resourceful denizens of the city’s underbelly do so without an iid, he cannot.  He might, of course, approach the authorities for assistance, were it not that he fears publicity just as much as the other does.  As the other Elliot said last night, the stikists could ‘get mileage’ out of this.  That could set the itravel industry back ten years.

Although staggeringly tired, he is afraid he won’t be able to sleep.  Still bug-eyed after a mael-bath with deep massage, he tries to get sleep meds from room service but no go.  He settles for an obscenely priced bottle of single malt.  Not really a great idea, he thinks, picturing a muzzy morning.   As he tosses in bed, the stikists keep crowding into his thoughts.  An ignorant, rearguard mob, persuaded by mystic claptrap to mount a campaign as damaging to themselves as to the planet.  An all-too-effective campaign.  The stikist marketing psychologists are masters of simple messages and attack ads.

It’s a dangerous time for the itravel industry.  Government subsidies are being choked off.  That’s why deregulation is so critical; itravel needs to be able to offer value-added health and beauty services.  But the stikist lobby has the ear of Canada’s right-wing minority government, the present U.S. administration, half the heads of the EU, and the entire Muslim world.  And now with the energy economy shifting massively to electric, the costs of fossil fuels have cratered, giving the airlines a free ride.  Every year, the smothering blanket of greenhouse gasses thickens, just a little.

But what preys on Elliot’s mind now is not the stikists’ Luddite character, not their contemptible no-holds-barred politics, but their core message – the stikist argument.  Metaphysical rubbish though it is, many simple minds find it absolutely compelling.  Scientists and philosophers have refuted it a dozen times over, and Elliot has been satisfied by the refutations.  But they are harder to grasp than the original argument, and in his present state – anxious and strung out – he is unable to reconstruct them.  Only the argument comes clearly to mind, and he cannot help but feel its vulgar force.

Itravel started out as space travel.  An adaptation of molecular manufacturing, it was hailed as the breakthrough technology that cut the cost of transporting people and equipment across interplanetary distances by orders of magnitude.  Itravel brought the rich resources of Mars within reach of a depleted earth, opening a frontier and helping fuel a stock market boom that finally beat the fabled turn-of-millenium ‘internet run’.  Buoyed by success and government help, itravel was touted as the ‘green’ solution for earthbound transportation.   Early enthusiasts – Elliot was one – tried it and raved about it.  City centre to city centre in just minutes, no security lineups, no weather delays, and no lost luggage!   The long-suffering travelling public jumped on board.  Most ordinary travellers didn’t enquire too exactly about how IGo took them to Chicago meetings and Tahitian beaches.  The how was deep science.  They only know that it took them quickly, reliably, sustainably, and cheaply.

A few skeptics, however, developed a concern about the mechanics.  They reached a conclusion against which the environmental benefit, the safety statistics, and the convenience counted as nothing.  The itravel system, they said, is not a vehicle.  It is a duplicating machine.   The man who entered a pod in Duluth this morning expecting to step out on the Champs-Élysées was deluded.  “He did not step out anywhere,” they tell anyone who will listen.  “He was killed.”

“That’s ridiculous!” his wife protests.  “I know he was in Paris because he told me all about it over dinner.  He booked a sewer tour, but the guide didn’t show up, so he went down there on his own.  He was really funny about it!”  “Beware, that man is not your husband,” the stikists intone.  “Moreover, he was never in Paris.  He came into existence at 5:30 this afternoon in the Duluth itravel terminal.”   “You’re crazy!” says the wife.  But then they hit her with the argument.  “The man who ate bran flakes in your kitchen this morning is not the same man who threw up in the Parisian stink, because the latter was made from a mologram of the former, and the molographic process permits duplication.  Two copies could have been made from your husband’s mologram as easily as one.  Now suppose – just suppose – that happened.  Two men, each resembling your husband in every way, emerged from itravel pods in Paris.   They can’t both be the man who tripped over your cat this morning, because then they would be the same man.  But in fact they are two men, who will lead separate lives.”  (That point’s true enough, Elliot thinks ruefully.)  “Perhaps just one of them is your husband?  Hardly, for both were copied from his mologram; there is no reason to choose one over the other.   But if not both, and not one, then neither is your husband.   He died this morning, killed by a disintegration field.  An other took his place.”  Hearing this, too many spouses began to cast strange glances.  Too many families, too many relationships of mutual help, were destroyed – for nothing, Elliot knows.  It’s as absurd as the hope of heaven and the terror of hell.

The word “stikist” is derived from “space-time continuity”.  Stikists believe that no one’s life can span a spatio-temporal gap.  It is conservatism of the ilk that once fought assisted suicide.

The refutations of stikism are harder to grasp than the argument itself, not because they are more complicated, but because they are more abstract.  They lack the emotional grab of the stikist line. They require a different way of thinking – a paradigm shift.  This bleary morning, Elliot can’t get the refutations straight.  He wishes he had taken a few philosophy courses in university.  What is his relationship to the other Elliot Otley?  He is another man, a rival; that is as clear as anything.

As clear as what will happen if the stikists find out about this.  So far, their argument was purely hypothetical.  Because of strict regulation, and electronic safeguards on itravel units licensed for human use, two copies have never been made from the same human mologram. Practical people have replied to the stikists that the possibility of duplication does not matter, because care is taken to prevent it.  John comes home from his adventure in Paris, and everything is the same as before.  To practical people, the stikist argument is ‘just words’.  And that is why the stikists are still a minority.

But with a living example, that could change.  Elliot will have to keep it quiet – they will have to keep it quiet – for a few more years, until a majority of the voting public have actually used itravel.  Statistics show that fewer than four percent of people who have used it become stikist converts.

He wakes at 8:45, feeling uneasy about the extravagance of the Verdmont.  The other might retaliate in kind.  Breakfasting in repentance on toast and coffee, he mulls over his alternatives.  The first priority is to regain possession of house and family.   Elliot knows how to break into his own house.  He knows the upper bedroom window with a broken latch, and where the ladder is kept.  The trouble is, the other knows these things too and will have taken steps.    Elliot shakes his head.  It will be a battle of wits – too evenly matched!

Checking his phone, he finds a message from himself.  The subject line says, “You’re not at the motel on Bridgeport.”  Leaving it unopened, Elliot scans the list.   Investment-related, work-related, work-related, Amex offer, flood relief appeal, Shelley!  He opens his daughter’s note.  “Hey, any ideas for a birthday present for Mom?”  Oh, crap!   The party was planned for the coming Sunday.

“I was going to ask you that question!” he types.  He adds a graphic of a weasel with a cringing, embarrassed smile.   “We’ll figure something out.  Love you.  Dad.”  He sends it and, as an afterthought, deletes her message.  If the other Elliot hasn’t seen it yet, it will be gone from the server when he checks.  Elliot feels a bit mean about that.

As he watches, a message from EB pops into the queue, subject line “Fwd:”.  “Elliot, there’s unhappiness at IGo.  Read Dalton below.  Please stop and see me before your class tomorrow.”  Scrolling down, Elliot finds Dalton’s email.  “VERY DISAPPOINTED IN SYDNEY EVENT.  NOT THE MESSAGE WE WANT TO PUT OUT.  BOARD ASKED ME TO REPORT ON ONGOING IGO-WITS RELATIONSHIP.  WHAT WILL I TELL THEM?”

That prick! Elliot thinks about Dalton.  He considers deleting EB’s message too, but decides against it.

* * *

Although it’s Marjory’s day off from the library, her car is not in the driveway.  No surprise, Elliot thinks; the other Elliot would have taken it, because he has his – Elliot’s – car.  Approaching the house, Elliot speed-dials his wife.  The cellular customer you are calling is not available. Damn, she’s got her phone turned off!

He rings the doorbell, and waits.  He rings again.

The street is empty of life except for their cat Popeye and the neighbor’s cat, moaning at each other in a territorial standoff.  Elliot fills his lungs and yells.  “Marjory!”

“Go away!”  Her voice is restrained, but the intercom makes it loud and staticky.

“MA-A-A-RJ–O-O-O-R-Y-Y-Y!  LET ME IN!”

“No.  I can’t.  Elliot said you’d come, pretending to be him.”

“Marjory!  I am Elliot.”

“No you’re not.  He wore his winter coat today.  He had his key, too.  Where’s your key, if you’re him?”

“He told you!”

“Of course, he told me everything.  How he got sent to Nova Scotia, making him late for the conference, and then finding you there.  So just take a hike before my son hears you!”

“Marjory, I see you by the curtain.  Please look at me.  Norm’s my son too.”

“You’d better go.”  Marjory’s voice is brittle.  “You have to go, now!  Why wouldn’t  you talk to Elliot on the phone?”

“I needed to talk to you first.  Marjory, it isn’t fair to keep me out of my own house.”

“I’m going to switch off.”

“Please look at me.  It can’t hurt to just look at me.”   He moves as close as he can to the window.  Her eyes, fixated on a patch of lawn beside his feet, slowly lift as far as his shirt collar.  “Well, is it fair?” he asks in his humblest voice.

She fails to answer.  They stand facing each other through the glass, not knowing what to do.

“Why is Norm home, anyway?” Elliot asks.

“He…has the flu.”

“Oh, no!  Poor kid –  he was sick two weeks ago.  And in September too, right after school started.  Why’s he getting sick so often?”

Marjory looks more and more unhappy.   Elliot waits for her to speak.  “I know,” she says at last, her voice breaking, “it’s not fair.  I understand that.  Life isn’t always fair.  I had to…choose.”

Elliot feels deeply undermined.  How much of his life is already lost?  How much can he hold onto?  “Marjory,” he pleads, “if you made a choice, you made it with him, didn’t you?  You were with him, you heard his side of the story, but you haven’t heard mine.  Is that fair?  Is that all I get?”

“Oh, Elliot….”

He is grateful to hear her speak his name.  Hearing her cry through the intercom, he wants to comfort her.   What an awful experience for her!  “Just let me in for a minute,” he begs.  “If Norm comes downstairs, well, I’m home early, that’s all.  I promise I’ll go whenever you ask.  I only want to talk to you, Marjory, face to face.  Even if it’s for the last time.”

She is sobbing, now, without restraint.

“I know,” he says, “it’s hard on you.  I can imagine how hard.”

“Elliot…I lied, I’m sorry.  Norm hasn’t got the flu.  He’s at school.”  She runs to the door and flings it open.  They embrace as they have not done for years.

* * *

“Damn, let it ring.”

Rin-g-g-g.

“I’d better get it dear.”  As she reaches across him for her purse, her nipple grazes his chest.  He pulls her down with hungry kisses.

Rin-g-g-g.

“I can hardly keep up with you,” she tells him with an amazed laugh.  “I’d have thought last night would have taken the edge off.”

Rin-g-g-g.

Seeing his face fall, she winces and turns away.  “Hello,” she says rather formally into the phone.  “Oh…yes of course I know it’s you.”

Elliot tries to put his ear against the phone, but she keeps twisting away.

“No, I didn’t get anything for dinner…I don’t feel like cooking, let’s order sushi…well as a matter of fact he did show up.  He’s here now…no, right here at home.”

You mean you let him in?”  Elliot’s scream is audible even to Elliot.

“Yes, and…Elliot, that is not good enough.  It’s not fair.  I know, but…Elliot, I’m surprised at you!  How can you treat your own…well,  you’d better stay out a bit later tonight.  Until the kids are in bed.  Then we’ll have a talk.  Yes, the three of us.  Don’t be angry with me, Elliot, it’s not my fault…after eleven, but call first.  Do calm down, it’s not as if someone died.  Goodbye.  Yes, I love you too.”

Sprawled on the bed, Elliot makes a face.

“Bye now,” she says soothingly, and disconnects.

Elliot searches for clues to her feelings.  A thought occurs to him.  “Just a second!”  He gets out of bed and rummages through his coat.  “I know the party’s Sunday,” he says, handing her a small, gift-wrapped box.  “But I thought I’d give you this now, because…Sunday, who knows?  Things are so crazy.”

She holds it awhile without unwrapping it.  “From Birks!  Elliot, really, can we afford this?” She sounds impressed, but her smile is half-hearted.

* * *

At a quarter to eleven, Elliot taps on the sliding glass door of the rec room.  Elliot lets him in.  The newcomer’s eyes search the room.  “Where’s Marjory?”

“She’ll be right down.  A drink?” Elliot offers.

“I’ll get my own.”  Elliot shoulders past him to the wet bar and pours a tall single malt.  “Can I get you one?”

“I’m okay,”  says Elliot, pointing to a glass by his easy chair.  The gesture stops Elliot, who was heading for that chair, in his tracks.

“Well, well.”  Perching on the armrest of Marjory’s chair, he raises his glass.  “Salut.”

“Here’s looking at you.”

Marjory’s slippers come slapping down the stairs.  “Together again!” she says with breezy determination.  “I’m so glad.  Now we can make some progress.  I’ll take that chair, if you don’t mind, Elliot, it’s in the middle.”

“Can I get you a drink?” both Elliots ask simultaneously.

“Thank you dear…dears.” She smiles back and forth.  “Not just now.  I might not be able to tell who’s who.  Ha ha.”

One Elliot crosses his legs; the other shifts uncomfortably.  “Progress.  Well…”

“I’m not sure what progress is possible,” says the other.

“Oh, really!” Marjory breaks in.  “You can’t go on locking each other out of the house, can you?  We’re all grownups here.  Surely we can put our heads together and work out something equitable, hm?   Find a way to share.”

“Share,” Elliot echoes sourly.

“Share?” says the other Elliot.  “You don’t share your job.  Your income.  You don’t share your family.”

“But there’s no other way,” says Marjory.  “And lots of people share their children.”

“Divorced people, you mean.  Ex-spouses share their children.”

“Yes,” she says, “and if people are civilized about it, it can work out just fine.”

“Wait a minute,” says Elliot.  “Who said anything about divorce?  You don’t want a divorce, do you Marjory?”

No, Elliot.  No, I don’t.”

“I didn’t suggest divorce,” says the other.  “Furthest thing from my mind.”

“Well, then.”  He looks at Marjory.  “Sharing doesn’t work.  Sharing can’t work.  Can it?” he asks the other Elliot.  “You see that, don’t you?  See, he agrees with me,” he tells Marjory.

“I agree with that,” says Elliot.  “That’s all I admit to agreeing with.”

“Elliot – dear Elliot!”  Marjory’s gaze envelopes them both in loving concern.  “You two just have to come closer together on this.  I’ve been thinking, and…couldn’t we set up a place out of town where one of you could live while the other one lives here and goes to the Institute?  And every so often, say every two weeks, you could switch around.  There would be advantages too, because you could share the workload.  You wouldn’t get so tired, and you’d have more time for the kids!  I mean, sometimes you’ve said you wished you could clone yourself.”

“Switch around?”  Elliot snorts derisively.  “Marjory, you haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.  I’d be totally out of touch at work.”

“And what about you?” the other Elliot asks her.  “You’d stay here and, every couple of weeks you’d get a fresh husband?  Is that what you mean?”

She flushes slightly, but recovers herself.  “Yes, that’s what I mean.  How could it be any other way?  There is no doubt in my mind that…I love you both.  What’s happened is hard for you,” she continues sympathetically, “so hard!  If ever you needed me, it’s now.   Elliot!”  She shoots intense glances left and right.

The two men glare at each other.

“This is idle speculation,” one finally says.  “Apart from the cost, which we can’t afford.  The only thing to do is get you far away from here.  Wait!”  He waves his hand.  “Hear me out.  Mars is a land of great opportunity,  you know that.  You can make buckets of money.  Start a new life.  And the jobs aren’t all driving heavy equipment.  I’ve looked into it; they need educated people.”

“Stop it, Elliot,” says Marjory.

“Mars!” Elliot is amazed.  “Me go to Mars!”

“Why not?  You’re young enough.  Better than talking about half a life here, which would never work.”

Elliot laughs out loud.  “And Mars would work?  No way!  Iid transactions are constantly mined for information.  If the same account was being hit from here and from Mars, how long would it be before it got red-flagged?”

“I’ve thought about that.  Your iid can be reprogrammed.  It’ll take a little time, but it’s do-able.”

“You want to forge my identity?  You don’t know any forgers!  You model citizen, Mr. Transport Safety, Mr. Conscientious Recycler…”

“Elliot!” Marjory breaks in.

“Do you think I enjoy insulting him?  This is a bitter lesson in self-discovery.   Anyway, if Mars is so great, why doesn’t he go there?”

“That’s not open for discussion.  I…uh…”  Elliot clears his throat.  “I changed the PIN on the bank accounts today.  And at the Institute.”

“You what?” Marjory and Elliot say simultaneously.

“I added another level of security.  Your iid isn’t enough anymore.  You need a PIN number too.”

“At the Institute,” says Elliot.  “And the bank accounts.”

“Except for one,” says the other.  “You can get to one account.  It has…”  He names a sum.  “I won’t touch it – that’s yours.”

“That’s half a year’s salary,” says Elliot.

Elliot looks aggrieved.  “It’s about all we can afford right now.   There could be more later, if you need it.”

“Let me get this straight.  You’re trying to buy me off with half a year’s salary.  What do you think I’m going to say to that?”

“Elliot, that’s so unfair!” his wife breaks in.

“Marjory, you know we haven’t saved a lot!  Waterloo is an expensive city to live in.  There’s the mortgage.  The kids’ education, for god’s sake!   That’s the difference between him and me.  I have responsibilities.  Don’t worry,” he tells Elliot, “we’ll see that you land on your feet.”  He sets his jaw.  “There’s nothing more to say.  It’s my best offer.”

Marjory bites her lip, her eyes downcast.  “I don’t think,” she says, “it’s quite right.”

“Do you want us to sell the house?” Elliot asks rhetorically.  “I know it’s hard.  The truth is often hard.”

Elliot sees Marjory take in Elliot’s words.  Her expression is one of pained duty.   He feels as though his intestines are filling with ice-water.  “I’ll take you to court,” he challenges.

Elliot’s head shakes slightly.  “No bluffs between us…Elliot.  Legislation to cover this hasn’t been thought of.  The lawyers would beggar us all.  And besides, of course…”

“The stikists, of course,” Elliot assents wearily.  “What makes you think I won’t stop caring about them?”

I wouldn’t,” says Elliot.

“You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

He considers attacking him to beat the PIN number out of him, to beat something out of him.  But they are too evenly matched.  There would not be the advantage of surprise.  He might get hurt.  And the kids might hear.  I don’t believe in violence, he tells himself.  And the ice-water in his bowels – the gracious, pitying way Marjory is looking at him now – makes him feel defeated already.

“This is not my decision,” Marjory says.  “You can see that.”

She said she loved them both!  “You’re staying though.”  There is only the hint of a question in his voice.

“What choice do I have?”  He notices that she has again stopped calling him by name.  “The children.”

“Oh…my…god!” comes a voice from the foot of the stairs behind them.  Shelley is standing there in her pyjamas.  Elliot is suddenly, piercingly struck by the loveliness of his daughter, her dark hair cascading almost to her waist.  The pyjamas are a bit small, exposing her navel.  In the last few months, he has started to worry about boys.  “I can’t believe what I just heard!”

“Shelley!”  Marjory runs to her.  “It was just an accident, dear.  A ghastly accident.  You see, there was a programming error, a bug…”

“I heard what happened, Mom.”  Escaping her mother’s hug, Shelley confronts her father.  “Dad, I’m ashamed!  What you said is totally, totally unfair!  I mean, so you were duplicated, so what?  Deal with it!”

“Honey…”

“No really, Dad, if you could see how ugly you look right now!   Who cares about your fucking job!  You haven’t even liked your job as long as I can remember.”

“Shelley!” Elliot is shocked.  “Watch your language!”

“No, no, Elliot,” Marjory pleads.  “She’s really upset, can’t you see that?”

“Upset?  I’m not upset!  I’m just his daughter.  I don’t have to be upset, I’ll be out of this house in a couple of years. What about you, Mom, you’re married to him!  Aren’t you upset?”  Eyes bright, she faces Elliot again.  “I don’t recognize you!  You’re not my Dad anymore.  It’s like you’re turning into a horrible person!  If something like that ever happened to me I would kill myself!”

“Shelley, go upstairs!” her mother orders.  “I’ll come soon, and we’ll talk.”  She turns to Elliot.  “I think you’d better go now,” she says quietly.

“I appreciate you bringing the car back,” the other Elliot tells him.  “Don’t try to take it again.  It’s PIN-protected too.”

…continued in episode 3

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