This is the fourth and last episode of Forking, a short story in the ‘philosophy fiction’ genre. If you haven’t yet read Episode 1, start here.
Roger Beethey shows up late, with a blonde. Elliot gives him a pleading look. “Relax,” says Beethey.
“You said it would be a skeleton crew,” Elliot complains, gesturing to a clump of technicians.
“It is.” Beethey nudges the blonde. “This is Sylvan. He’ll do your faces.”
The Elliots exchange glances, and stand up. “This isn’t a game,” one says angrily.
“You’re right, it’s no game,” Beethey hisses. “You chose us, a US major network, over your socialized Canadian TV, because you wanted the exposure. Well if you want our exposure, you’ve got to get us our ratings. The network doesn’t even know what it’s invested in, because of your paranoia about leaks. They’ll be watching with interest, and if I don’t come up with a professional product” – he draws a line across his throat – “I’ll have to pull your stunt right after you. Ha, ha, just kidding. Seriously, this isn’t some art-house cinema verite, it’s a news program.”
“People will think it’s a sit-com,” Elliot grouses. “The Incredible Forking Man.” Beethey has walked away. Sullenly, one of the Elliots allows himself to be led to a light-bathed seat where Sylvan sets to work with tweezers.
“I told you to do them together!” Beethey screams. “They’ve got to look alike. A-like! Do the same to both.”
“It’ll look like twin-imaging,” Sylvan says petulantly.
“Idiot. Only one of them is going to…they won’t do all the same things.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Sylan breathes, painting out a pimple on Elliot’s cheek. “Possibly.”
The lamps burn into Elliot’s scalp like divine omniscience. The rest of the room is cloaked in a subterranean gloom. Even Sylvan’s movements close to his face seem shadowy, inconsequential. “You look like a star,” Sylvan says when he finishes.
Elliot’s handlers move him to the set. The backdrop is rough concrete – “a hide-out cue,” according to Beethey. The host suddenly claps Elliot on the shoulders. “OK guys, this is a live show – no retakes.”
“That’s right,” Elliot says solemnly. “No retakes.”
“Hm. When I do the intro, you just sit and look natural. But dignified, this isn’t a classroom. No professorial slouching. Keep your heads up.” Elliot’s thoughts drift away. After a while, Beethey’s voice is audible again, having picked up that special resonance which Elliot knows from countless podcasts – the broadcast voice of Roger Beethey.
It is awkward to be viewed as an exhibit, doing nothing. But much depends on making the right impression. When Beethey comes to the words, now reconciled – close friends, the Elliots smile self-consciously at one another.
As Beethey’s explanation unwinds, Elliot’s gaze wanders to the equipment on the far side of the room. It is more than he wanted. An injection would have done the job. But Beethey insisted it would make a perfect ending.
…a new, unimagined frontier, Beethey says exultantly. Elliot Otley is the only person to have crossed that frontier – a fascinating and devastating experience, which he is about to share with us. Now, Elliot Otley…and Elliot Otley.
The lights seem even brighter on Elliot’s face.
“Throughout my professional career,” he begins, “I have advocated itravel as the best, safest, and most environmentally friendly way for humans to cross long distances. My opinion has not changed – despite the fact that, as you know, itravel has recently caused me problems. I was beside myself, so to speak.” He cracks a smile – two smiles. He is beginning to feel something like rapport with his audience of millions, the same feeling he loves to get lecturing, when the students are with him.
He tells the whole story from the inside point of view – his shock when first learning of the split, his growing anxiety and jealousy, the brooding hatred which his two halves conceived against each other. He describes the absurdly destructive extremes to which that hatred led. He tells of his final realization of the absurdity, and the resulting evaporation of the hatred. During the narration, he often switches from one mouth to the other. The switches are surprisingly smooth.
He goes on to the stikists’ interpretation of his case. His voice hardens as he describes the limitations of their metaphysics – the narrow, lonely, self-centred world they would have every man believe he inhabits. He tries to point out the weak spots in their philosophical prison.
“I don’t know if you’ll remember the case, a few years ago. It was in the news, but only the barest details. There was a lady named Josephson, an astrophysicist – Emily Josephson. She was an excellent scientist, although her reputation was unremarkable. She never sought the spotlight. While others did easy, sensational things, she did quiet, hard things. After years of devotion, her work began to point to an experiment of critical importance. It concerned the phenomena then known as black holes. She had grown suspicious of some very basic theory, held more or less without question in the physics community. Those of her colleagues who listened at all were convinced she was wrong. Only a few of her students would even help with the spadework on the computer. When the plan was ready, Josephson knew the experiment could not be conducted in a high gravitational field, like Earth’s. The nearest suitable facility was Spacelab Udo, in the orbit of Neptune. It was very difficult for Josephson to raise research funding for the project. Finally, just one problem remained: she had to get to Spacelab Udo. And no conventional shuttles to Udo were scheduled. The only way to get there was by itravel. And Josephson was a stikist.
“The experiment would take two months to set up and a third to monitor. None of her colleagues, who were always in and out of the spacelabs, were willing to take the time or jeopardize their reputations by running it for her. She had one graduate student who, in her opinion, was competent to conduct the experiment. His name was Harry Pilot – you may have heard that one. Pilot was no stikist, and he begged Josephson to let him go. But she refused the authorization. She thought, as all stikists think about non-stikists who use itravel, that he didn’t know the true nature of what he was volunteering for. No, she insisted, it’s for me to do. She meant that she would use itravel to put what she believed to be a mere copy of herself onto Udo. She herself, according to her belief, would be killed in the process. That is, she decided to give her life for science. Her career had plateaued. Because she was always working, her ties with family and friends had grown weak.
“She booked the trip to Udo ten weeks in advance. She wanted to use those weeks to enjoy life, to experience some of the good things she was in the habit of denying herself. She embarked on a top-of-the-line world cruise – one of the last. Those cruises were expensive, to put it mildly. But the pleasure it gave her, those first few weeks, seemed well worth it. She felt enormously liberated. She had never in her life taken such a long vacation. Before, she would have felt guilty about neglecting her research. But not this time. After all, she was making the supreme sacrifice for research. She owed this to herself.
“Or rather, she began to think, someone else owed it to her – owed that, and a lot more. This was the other Emily Josephson – the ‘copy’ – who, at Spacelab Udo, would have the opportunity to conduct the most significant experiment of the decade. Who, if the experiment turned out as Josephson expected, would gain the highest reaches of academic stardom. Who would live out her days in the comfortable, cloistered surroundings of the spacelab, relieved of teaching responsibilities, well-funded, probing ever deeper into the sublime mysteries of space, time and matter. Josephson was envious of that other Josephson, and depressed at the thought of the ignominious end waiting for herself. She began to see her life as a failure. Within a hair’s breadth, so to speak – the distance between Earth and Neptune – of what should have been the culmination of her career, she was to be snuffed out. Deprived of her well-deserved moment of glory – if it was to be glory, and not a washout. One of the worst things was that she would not live to see the result of the experiment. To die without knowing! The thought was terrible. But she could see no other way. At least she would live life to the fullest while she could. She threw herself into all sorts of activities – painting, tennis, ballroom dancing, male companions. She moved into the most luxurious cabin, and dined at the captain’s table. She denied herself nothing. And she spent most of her money. She knew that the other Emily Josephson would bitterly regret being left so low in funds, especially if the experiment were not a success, in which case she would be without a means of livelihood. She also knew that the other Emily Josephson would find herself on Udo with an acquired taste for exotic pleasures that only Earth can afford – and that, being a stikist, she would be stuck there. But those things are a small price to pay. Emily thought, for the gift of life.
“The ship made port at Honolulu, its last stop before returning to Los Angeles. She disembarked. She postponed her trip to Udo for another two weeks. Her successor would have to work terribly hard to set up the experiment on time, but that was all right. Emily had not finished enjoying herself. There were Waikiki nightclubs to visit. There were walking tours to take on the lovely dead cone of Haleakala. There were the coral reefs and fantastic fish of Hawaii to experience – once before she died. Snorkelling one bright morning, enraptured by the underwater scenery, she was caught by a shark. So, no one went to Udo – until six years later, when Harry Pilot was able to revive her project and prove her right. His Nobel Prize this year was given for that work.
“Josephson’s name, unlike Pilot’s, will never be a household word. Not that she would have cared, much, about that. But she did care about science. Until, as she saw it, her life was running short, science always came first for her. Yet because of her beliefs, science was held back for six years.”
Elliot falters, under the sudden, horrible suspicion that the story has fallen flat – that whatever significance (if any) it has to his audience is not what it has to himself. His feeling of rapport is an illusion, only possible in the physical absence of his audience. Having always been able to communicate ideas easily, he naturally assumed he was coming across. But now he fears he was mistaken. His experience has opened a gap between himself and the rest of the world, which words cannot easily cross. He is like the victim of a rare mind-affecting disease, trying to explain to his healthy acquaintances how the world seems to him. The possibilities for misunderstanding are boundless. Only with a fellow sufferer do the words work as they should.
“But that’s not the point – the real point,” he interrupts himself. “The point is not just about stikism.”
“Right,” he hastily agrees.
“The point is…it was after my arrest, during my ‘cooling-off period’, when I was desperate to understand what had happened to me, that I remembered Emily Josephson.”
Get on with the action! Elliot is appalled to hear Beethey’s voice in his earbud. What good is the action without the explanation? His voice accelerates.
“I noticed parallels between her case and my own. Josephson envious of Josephson. Josephson throwing away her money, in the belief that she was impoverishing Josephson. Otley in a desperate struggle against Otley. There wasn’t much difference. The same motives which alienated Josephson, on Earth, from the Josephson she believed would succeed her on Udo, had also alienated Elliot Otley from Elliot Otley. Since Josephson’s motives had always seemed bizarre to me, I was shocked to recognize them in myself.”
“You see, the problem isn’t just stikism,” he interrupts again. “The difference between stikists and non-stikists is superficial.”
“Superficial? Wait a minute, it’s…”
“Comparatively superficial. What’s really wrong with stikism, the source of its tyrannical power over human lives, doesn’t only affect stikists.”
“That’s right, it affects everyone.”
“That’s right, nearly everyone. Ask yourself: if you’d been in my situation, how would you have felt? Then ask yourself: is that reasonable? Are you sure there’s no flaw in your thinking – do you see?” The question dies in his throat as he realizes his mike is dead. Beethey has resumed his broadcast voice.
…verdict? Who knows? One thing is clear in all this – Elliot Otley has a problem. Stay with CNN for the solution. Ready, Elliot? Beethey looks expectant.
“Yes,” says Elliot, fending off confusion, “as far as my personal problem goes, there is a solution. Once…” – he wipes his forehead, recalling his speech – “there was just one Elliot Otley, and no one felt sorry for him because there was only one. Then he split into two. Now he will merge again, into one. I’ve already mentioned some of the reasons for this. I can’t cope with two bodies; I keep falling over my feet. But there is another reason which has nothing to do with me, but with you, the public. I want to show you that you have nothing to fear from an itravel pod. There’s one right over there.” The monitor cuts to the tall shape across the room. “Actually it’s just half an itravel unit. This is an analyzer pod – the half that takes you apart. The synthesizer is the half that puts you together. But this analyzer is not connected to a synthesizer. The cameras in it are not mologram cameras, but ordinary TV hologram cameras. They take visual images, nothing more. Through them, you will witness the disintegration of one of my bodies here – of one superfluous Elliot Otley. He will be destroyed in there, and will not be reassembled anywhere. Yet he won’t mind this. Not because he wants to die – on the contrary – but because in every way that matters he’ll still be alive.” Elliot breaks off, not knowing how to continue.
“The stikists have seen the wrong lesson in my case,” he fills in through his other incarnation. “Try, at least try to see the true one. Okay, Elliot?”
“A dime.” He shows the antique to the camera. Beethey’s voice drones in explanation.
Elliot flips the coin. “Heads,” says Elliot.
…will now enter the pod, where he will be taken apart. Like Humpty Dumpty, never to be put together again.
Elliot catches Elliot’s arm before he steps in. “We’re right, aren’t we? We can still call this thing off.”
“Sure we’re right. Remember, it’s just overlap.” He enters.
Elliot sticks a foot inside to keep the door open. “Is there anything you want to tell me? Anything I should never forget?”
He shakes his head. “We’ve been over all the important stuff.”
“I’ll miss our talks, friend.”
“Yeah, me too,” Elliot says too quietly for the microphones. “But the peace might not last. We might start fighting again.”
Stunned, Elliot blurts, “Think so?”
“Who knows? Come on, let’s not spoil the effect.”
Elliot withdraws his foot, and the door sighs shut. The monitor cuts to the interior of the pod. Millions see a quiet, composed face – one that might belong to a mid-career academic who thinks he is on his way to a professional conference.
* * *
The public reaction is not what Elliot hoped. No one seems to see the point of what he did. The stikist propaganda machine turns it inside out.
“Professor Pod” kills extra self
It is a setback for sustainability, a setback for itravel. Responding to Elliot’s case, legislatures beef up regulation to prevent any recurrence of human duplication.
After that, nothing much happens. Elliot stays out of sight, refusing to take the bait of the rabid call-in programs. Within months, his case has lost its political significance, becoming a transitory weirdness, like a video of aliens or ghosts, an anomaly that just doesn’t fit into a practical person’s view of the world. As the practical person demolishes old houses without worrying about displacing ghosts, so he uses itravel without worrying about Otley. The stikist websites keep the case front-and-centre, but no one else reads them.
The Institute goes through a rocky patch after IGo terminates the relationship. A number of jobs are cut. But not Elliot’s – EB stands up for him courageously. “Tenure is tenure.” After learning the facts, his colleagues don’t seem to hold a grudge. Oddly, they always identify the Elliot who shocked poor Wade, and disrupted everything, with the one who disappeared into the analyzer. “It was a sly, vicious attack on you,” they sympathize. “You’re well rid of him.” Elliot, who never told them which was which, sees no reason to encourage speculation on the matter.
Things go harder at home. His return to his family is to crying and confusion. Marjory swears she will never forgive him. When he asks, “For what?” she sometimes says, “For killing him,” – other times, “For letting him do it,” – and still other times, “For what you did to yourself.”
As for the kids, Shelley will hardly talk to him. She spends less and less time at home. And Norm…Elliot comes home one day to find a new aquarium set up in the living room. “It’s a science project,” Norm tells him. He scoops a brown flatworm onto a plate and shows it to Elliot. The worm’s eyes strike Elliot as cartoonishly expressive, like a painting by Edvard Munch. As Elliot watches in horror, his son slices it up with a kitchen knife and dumps the pieces of flesh back in the water. “Every bit will grow into a whole planarian.” Norm explains. “Even just a tiny chunk of tail. It’s full of stem cells.”
“Amazing,” says Elliot.
“We can’t do that.” says Norm. “If I lost my leg in an accident, I couldn’t just grow it back. But maybe, when we figure out how planaria do it, we’ll be able to make it work with people.” He looks at his father. “You could cut off your head and grow a new one.”
“No thanks,” says Elliot. He decides to pack the family off to the Bahamas for a month’s vacation without him. On their tanned return, they seem determined to be normal. But things deteriorate again, and Marjory moves to another bed. At the end of term, they seem visibly relieved when he leaves for Mars, to study safety systems in giant ore-hauling road-trains.
Among the causes of his family’s unhappiness, Elliot knows, is his own dissatisfaction with life. His former enthusiasm for work has dwindled. It takes him some time to realize that this lassitude is not due to depression, but to a subtle shift in his values. Gradually, he has come to regard the importance of workplace safety, which he once held paramount, as derived and secondary. What, then, is important? He wrestles with this question, but the answers he comes up with are unsatisfying. He longs to talk it over with someone, who would act as a sounding-board for his ideas. But he is reluctant to raise the subject in company, foreboding that misunderstanding is inevitable. There is only one person he wants to talk to, and that person was demolished, molecule by molecule, and filed in the thousand compartments of a chemical bank. Demolished in vain, it seems. Sometimes Elliot cannot help regretting the decision they made together, when things seemed so desperate. They hoped to teach the world a lesson they had learned only through harrowing and bitter experience. They should have known such lessons are never learned from television. Before, at least, there were two who had an inkling of this new truth; now there is only one.
Crowded by shallow, self-aggrandizing construction workers within the shallow dome of their life-support systems, Elliot has never felt so lonely. His research absorbs less of each succeeding day. At last he resolves to be honest with himself and drop it. He sends EB a note requesting a leave of absence from Institute work.
Trying to shed the stigma of an outsider in the camp, he takes work as a ‘bull cook,’ or kitchen help – a lowly job traditionally held by men who plan to make their money gambling, who want to be neither physically nor mentally exhausted at the end of the day. Elliot wants that too – not in order to gamble, but to discuss. And through persistence, through consumption of gallons of beer, he works through a hundred men. A hundred men, ninety of whom leave his table disgusted, or bored, or thinking he’s trying to con them somehow. Martian conditions are responsible for a huge turnover of personnel, yielding an endless supply of new faces. This is a loss as well as a boon to Elliot, for the departures include some of his most promising ‘students’ – mostly young men who dropped out of university, seeking a more exciting and ‘real’ life. As soon as they and Elliot understand one another’s language, they all too often tell him, gleefully, that they’re bound for Beachcomber Island. But some stay. Some stay longer, Elliot suspects, because of him. They are interested. And when they can’t stand it any longer, instead of quitting forever, they take a two-week holiday and come back.
There is one in particular with whom Elliot gets to the bottom of things. They talk a lot about his forking experience, and Peter eventually gets the point. Elliot knows he’s got it, because Peter restates it for him in ways that deepen Elliot’s understanding. Elliot’s unhappiness begins to crumble. He feels he is accomplishing something.
Peter is gregarious, always introducing new blood to their discussions, and shrugging off the inevitable rejections. But he cannot stand it full time, and Elliot puts no pressure on him to remain. When Peter announces one of his periodic jaunts to Samoa, Elliot’s thoughts turn with his to the sun and the surf and the girls – especially the girls. Lying in his bunk that night, waiting for sleep, Elliot dwells with pleasurable anticipation on everything Peter will experience. He is getting older, but mortality does not worry him.
* * *
“Did you say you’re looking forward to my vacation?” Peter looks at him challengingly across the table. “Elliot, if the guys in my unit heard you say that, they’d know you’re a wing-ding.”
“But it’s true,” Elliot insists.
Peter’s frown melts into bemused tolerance. “I don’t doubt it. Elliot, the truth is not enough. Sometimes you come across like the Ancient Fucking Mariner.”
Elliot’s expression acknowledges the fact.
“Why don’t you take a vacation yourself? Get out of this hell-hole.”
“I don’t mind it.”
“Right.” Peter sips his beer. “Heard from your kids lately?”
“Yeah.” Elliot sighs. “I talked to Shelley last night. Actually we had our longest conversation in quite a while. She’s doing fine now! Straight A’s, except for French. And her Mom’s okay too, I think.”
“Yeah? Any other attachments?”
“No. At least not that I’ve heard.”
“How about your son?”
“Norm is…coasting. School bores him. He’s a bright kid too, really bright.”
“I expect so. He’s twelve?”
“Actually he’ll be thirteen next week.”
“He’s having a birthday?”
Elliot nods. “Wednesday. But his party’s on Saturday. I’m sending him a display set of minerals of Mars.”
“Oh, yeah? He’s into rocks?”
Elliot shakes his head. “He’s more interested in biology. But there’s no Martian biology.”
Peter drinks in silence, his mouth set. “Sometimes you piss me right off,” he says finally.
Elliot looks bewildered.
“It’s your son’s birthday. You should be there!”
“Oh no. They don’t need me.”
“I didn’t say they needed you. I said you should be there.”
Elliot looks into the younger man’s eyes, trying to understand his anger. After a while he sees that Peter’s right. “Yeah,” says Elliot. “I’ll go.”
“No kidding, you’re going?”
“Yeah. I don’t know how it’ll work out, but I’ll go.”
“Don’t worry,” Peter assures him. “Your family will be happy to see you.”
They drink some more.
“Hey Peter,” Elliot asks. “What did you like when you were thirteen?”
Peter laughs. “Video games. Mayhem. The bloodier the better.”
“What game would you like?” Elliot persists. “If you were thirteen?”
Peter shrugs. “I’m out of touch with games. I guess I grew out of the ultraviolence. But hey, I’ve got a cousin that age. I’ll find out for you – today.”
“Thanks,” says Elliot warmly. “But not too violent, eh?”
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