I followed him to an oak-trimmed door that had suddenly appeared. He opened it and gestured me to walk through. I stepped across the threshold and into a study room. Stained oak decorated the interior just like the door. On one wall there were shelves full of books with titles of classics: books by Thoreau, Freud, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Asimov, and Butler. A large print of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam covered the wall opposite the bookcase. The remaining wall was a picture window with the view of a lush garden full of flowering plants and fruit-bearing trees. Two heavily upholstered chairs sat in the middle of the room with an end table close to one of them. Sitting on the table was a snow globe with the image of three individuals, miniatures of Taylor, Doctor Musaki, and myself sitting on park benches. It was the scene we just exited. Musaki sat down in the chair close to the table, and he motioned me to take the other.
“Now we can talk in private. But we can’t take too long,” the doctor said to me as I sat down. “What’s going on, doctor?” I asked.
“Ah, Rachel, what have you gotten yourself into?” he said as he looked at me with tired eyes.
“Detective Taylor and I are in the middle of an investigation concerning a drug called White Noise and murders that seem to be related to them.” “I know, I know. Have you forgotten how SAE works?” Musaki admonished me. “The detective’s mind.” He tapped his temple.
I had forgotten about the empathic qualities of the Sadayatana Engine and how new Taylor was to it. I had warned him to be careful of the dangers in transferring information across individuals within the SAE cyber-construct.
“What I mean,” Musaki started to say, “is why are you looking for trouble where it is best not to?” He was blocking me from access to his thoughts again. Why?
“Doctor Musaki, yesterday Taylor and I were attacked by drones with AI intelligence. They fired on us first. That isn’t supposed to happen. Can you explain to me why it happened?” There! Read that!
Musaki solemnly looked at the globe on the table before he answered. “There are people who believe our robots have the potential to be something better. But just because it’s better doesn’t mean it’s not incorruptible.” Again he was blocking me. “We are so close to giving our robots a soul.” He looked at the print on the wall. “I’m afraid, though, of the serpent in the garden.”
I was confused both by how he was being so cryptic and evasive. “What do you mean?”
“The worm in the machine!” His statement startled me! He had caught me completely by surprise. How could he know about that? How could he know that’s how I see myself? A person trapped inside a cybernetic machine! I never shared that with anyone, not Chan or Commission-General Deng, least of all Taylor. I internally examined my privacy protocols and saw they were intact. He hadn’t hacked me, so the troubling question remained.
He suddenly pulled up a holo display and started to examine it. It was backside to me and heavily encrypted so I couldn’t read it. He paid close attention to certain places within the indecipherable script as he continued to speak.
“You see, Rachel, people, humans, crave for a Utopic state but we allow our weaknesses to get in the way. We inherited Adam’s sin. We pervert everything we create. A bow and arrow for hunting is a weapon for murder. A hammer for building becomes a tool to bash skulls in. Even in the early days of the cyber networks, humans used it not only for what it intended for, to share information, but to dehumanize, cheat, lie, and wage war. Everything we touch we pervert. Now, we are on the brink of something new, the creation of life, and even that we have corrupted.” He stopped for a moment, closed the holo display with a wave of his hand, and moved closer to me. “Listen, we are running out of time. This investigation of yours, keep looking, dig deeper for the answers. There’s going to be a point where they’ll try to stop you. Don’t let them. There are those, like me, who oppose what they want. We’ve taken measures to slow them down but there are so few of us now. White Noise is part of it and so are the robots. That’s all I can say for now without exposing myself to danger. You’ll know when you come close to the truth. I may be able to help you then, or not. It will all depend on you.” What have I gotten myself into? “Trust no one! But do trust your Detective Taylor.” He looked at the scene in the globe once more and smiled. “I like him, Rachel. He has good intentions.”
Before I could say a word he rose, led me to the door, and we exited the room.
“So, you see, it’s possible that someone may have tampered with our initial programming. We’re not liable for that.”
Again I was sitting on the bench with Taylor as Doctor Musaki finished his long explanation of the AI Convention and Robotic Laws. In my mind, I was trying to figure out what Musaki, the other Doctor Musaki, had just told me. He wants us to dig deeper. Then, deeper we’ll go.
Doctor Musaki indicated that our session was over. We said our goodbyes and exited the Sadayatana Engine.
Paul Atreides’ prescience, the ability to see future events, in Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is both a literary device and commentary on science throughout his novel. As a literary device, Herbert uses Paul’s ability to see the future as a way of foreshadowing events in the book. In Paul’s visions, the reader sees the destruction of the House Atreides, Paul meeting Chani and the Fremen, and his rise as a messianic figure. The author also shows how Paul may be the long-anticipated hero of this messianic story, the Kwisatz Haderach, as hinted in the scene with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and the Gom Jabbar test. But Herbert also tells the reader another story, one about the danger of living in a deterministic society where freedom gives way to absolute predictability and control. The trap of the prescient as he calls it.
To understand Frank Herbert’s fear of a world where everything is determined and predictable you have to understand the times in which he lived. From the 1940s through the 1960s science was both the boon and a bane of human society. Through science, human beings could increase lifespan, end hunger and disease, and promote peace. Science could also make more devastating weapons and introduce the threat of a technocratic despotic state. Computers, or thinking machines, could orchestrate all aspects of human life and, with their ability to predict future events, create a static society where everything is determined and controlled. Herbert hated this idea, of the loss of free will, so much that in his book he had the “thinking machines” destroyed in a Great Jihad. He also postulated that this folly by the people who wanted to predict the future, to control the fate of others, would not end with that. So in ‘Dune’, Herbert introduces the reader to prescience, and Bene Gesserit’s eugenics program to achieve this goal, and how this could lead to the extinction of humankind.
The creation of the Kwisatz Haderach by the “witches” in the narrative gives the story both the reason for the central character, Paul Atreides, to be the messianic figure in this story and the theme which is the folly of predictability. Paul’s abilities set him apart from those around him through his visions of the future and foreknowledge of things he shouldn’t know. For example, when he knew how to wear his stillsuit for the first time or of his mother’s pregnancy with his sister. His visions of the future weren’t perfect, though. They were not always accurate and could even be open to interpretation as to when he failed to predict Gurney Halleck’s attack on his mother and the death of his first son, Leto. Paul himself described his prescience ability as a man traveling through the desert. When the traveler reaches the crest of a dune he can see for miles in the direction of his destination. It is only when he begins his journey, and climbs down to the lowest part of the dune, that his vision and sense of direction become obscured. Paul could see the future but once he attempts to move in that direction “his vision becomes obscured.” This is an analogy of computer efficiency in Herbert’s day. Computing technology was good at making short-term trend predictions but for predicting anything long-term with any accuracy it was virtually impossible. Like the traveler, the scientists could see their answers on the horizon but couldn’t see how to get there. In the novel, Paul saw an infinite number of scenarios, all equally valid, with the only difference being choosing the one least unfavorable. Instead of leading a conquering army on a bloody crusade under the Atreides banner, he chose the part of the messiah for the Fremen Jihad and Emperor of the Known Universe. Statistical analysts had the same problem, but not so dramatic. They also could see an infinite number of scenarios through the data they accumulated and from those chose the most plausible. If, they thought, you could build a better, faster thinking machine, a computer able to handle more data, then you could eliminate the uncertainty and make a better forecast of future events. Paul in his frustration in not being able to “see” Gurney Halleck’s attack on his mother echoes the same indignation futurists had with computing systems. They, like Paul, wanted a better way to improve their vision of the future, to make trends more predictable, and that is what Frank Herbert saw as dangerous.
Herbert wasn’t the only science fiction author writing stories about “science going amok”. If scientists were to create machines that controlled human society it would mean the extinction of humankind. It is an old trope with countless examples (it is still in use today with the fear of AI and life under the control of the machines!). In ‘Dune’, the electronic machines were replaced by “human computers”, the mentats. Mentats were human number crunchers which is what computing systems were at the time Herbert authored his novel. They perform copious amounts of numerical computations quickly so that the data can then be analyzed and propose workable solutions to problems. It was making short-term predictions by following the trends in the data. The more data that could be accumulated the more accurate the predictable outcomes. A mentat is only as good as the information it was given. It is no surprise that mentat training was part of Paul’s education through Thufir Hawat. Making reliable predictions, to see into the future, was the goal for developing supercomputers. Once you had such a system you can control multiple aspects of functionality, control the fates of others, and eliminate randomness. Control, and the end of free will, is what scared writers, like Frank Herbert, in this genre. But there were limitations in building such a system. There was a need for new programming algorithms and the miniaturization of transistor electronics. An intuitive leap in technology was necessary to create the kind of control in trends for long-term predictions. There was a need to shorten the way.
In the novel, Paul takes the “Water of Life” and makes his ascension to the level of the perfect seer. Computing technicians were doing the same in a way, through innovations in microchip technology and software, by building bigger and faster computing systems. To Frank Herbert this acquisition of technology was equivalent to Odin drinking from the Fountain of Wisdom and, as with Odin, it would come with a price. Paul drinks, pick the path of lesser evils (according to trend analysis seen as the possible scenarios in his visions), vanquishes his enemies, marries the princess, and becomes the new emperor. But what then, Herbert leaves us to ask? How will history judge us for following the words of the seer and ignoring the warnings of common wisdom (for Chani was wise!). Is the future a paradise of peace and plenty under the rule of the Perfect Prophet? Can a pre-deterministic controlled society, with no free will, end humankind’s problems? Frank Herbert continues his treatise on the scientific folly of predictability in his next three next books culminating with ‘God Emperor of Dune’. (To continue in Part Two)
They are both wrote about the decline and fall of an empire but observe how this comes to be through different eyes and resolutions.
Asimov’s approach in ‘Foundation’ is one of a historian. He describes how bureaucratic inefficiencies and a disconnected oligarchy caused the end of the Galactic Empire. He does so analytically and logically throughout ‘Foundation’ and ‘Foundation and Empire’. He changes in ‘Second Foundation’ when he introduces a proper protagonist/antagonist narrative. He had to. The first two books were an amalgamation of published short stories with a common theme. To continue the story beyond the first two books he had to shift style and construction. From ‘Second Foundation’ to his last Foundation book he continues the narrative in this way but never abandons the logic (as questionable it becomes) of the events to the end.
Herbert tells the same story but from a more traditional mythological saga approach. The story of how the empire falls and rises again is the story of the hero’s journey. It begins with Paul Atreides and ends with Duncan Idaho, the last “true Atreides” (I do not include those works by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson because those books were not part of the original vision). Herbert tells the story as a storyteller. Where ‘Foundation’ stresses the “Science” ‘Dune’ is all about the “Fiction”. AppleTV failed with its version of ‘Foundation’ because David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman tried to make it into something it wasn’t, a mythic saga. Nothing in the first book lends itself useful for this kind of format. Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ is systematically logical and few on character development. To adapt it, Goyer and Friedman used a familiar narrative, and it is the reason it feels more like a bad imitation of the worst ‘Star Wars’ tale. This is not the same for Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’. Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is a mythic saga. Other than changes by the director for running time and artistic interpretation it is the same story by Frank Herbert. ‘Foundation’ failed with audiences because it tried to be something it wasn’t, and ‘Dune’ succeeded because it was what people expected.
I remember the night I saw her sitting on the dock by our cottage on the lake under the newly risen full moon. Legs hanging over the calm, black waters of the lake, her silhouette casting a dark shadow on the wooden pier. I had awakened sometime past sunset and had stepped out of the old wooden house to smoke a cigarette. I thought I was alone until I sensed her presence. My companions and I had specifically chosen this place because of its seclusion so I was surprised to see someone this late in the evening. Having no one know of our whereabouts was important to us at this time so finding a stranger so close to our cottage unnerved me a bit. Before making my way towards our unexpected visitor I took one last drag from my cigarette and tossed it out into the grass.
I didn’t attempt to hide my steps as I walked onto the creaking wood of the pier because I was curious and didn’t want to startle her. When I reached the dock’s edge I looked down to have a better view of her. She had pulled her long white dress exposing her knees to keep it above the water. I couldn’t see her face but from the back, I noticed her long, straight black hair reaching down to the old wooden planks of the pier. She seemed not to have taken notice of me until I spoke.
“Are you aware that you are trespassing on private property?” I spoke. I startled her as if I had awakened her from deep thought.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I saw the house earlier today and thought it was abandoned.”
Not completely untrue. Few knew it was occupied and fewer still knew of its occupants.
“Well, now you know.”
I bent down and slid next to her. That’s when I turned my head and look at her face for the first time. It was a soft profile, nothing angular about it. A small nose with an even smaller mouth underneath it, a pronounced but well-rounded chin. Her eyes, though, were her most remarkable feature. Wide and almond-shaped, her irises were as black as the dark waters of the lake.
She was about to get up when I stopped her and introduced myself.
“Please, don’t go, my name is Steven Elbridge. I own this property”
“Hello,” she said in a soft melodious voice.
“And you are…?”
“Laila” “Laila? No last name?”
“Well, just Laila, what brings you out here this late at night?” I asked fascinated by this wonderfully delicate creature.
“I was walking along the beach when I came across the pier and decided to sit for a while. I like going out at night, especially on warm ones like this, to view the lake and to look up at the moon and the stars. Isn’t it wonderful?”
The beauty of nature is something I never tried to appreciate but on this occasion, sitting next to her, I understood what she meant.
“It’s the quietness, mostly, that I find so fascinating. It’s soothing and calm. It helps clear my mind and I feel, well, you’re going to think it silly, but it makes me feel like I’m part of it. You know, the darkness, I feel like its wraps itself all around me; keeps me safe and warm.” She added a soft giggle as she said the last words.
She wasn’t aware of how truly dangerous the darkness of the night can be. Things move around in the cover of night, terrible things, some of which can cause great harm. Tonight, though, she was safe sitting next to me. That’s when I noticed how quiet the night was. Not a cricket sang in the woods nor was there the occasional disturbance of the water by fish hunting for prey. It was silent except for her voice.
“Yes, yes, I guess you are right. It is wondrous.”
She laughed again. “You talk funny. You’re a bit strange. I bet you’re not from around here.” Laila’s expression then changed realizing she may have said something wrong. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. Sometimes I just blurt things out without thinking.”
“That’s okay, don’t worry.” I don’t know why but I felt like I needed to be apologetic. She was right, I wasn’t from around here and her observation could be a problem. An idea then came to me. “Would you like to come inside?”
“Oh no, no. I need to be going. I live on the other side of the lake and I should be heading back.” Laila got up and began to walk towards the beach.
“Maybe I can walk you home?”
“No, that’s okay. I can find my way back by myself. I don’t want to trouble you.” Not walking home with a stranger, smart girl.
“It wouldn’t be. I’ll just tell my friends inside-”
“Please, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” She said this as her bare feet reached the patch of grass before the path that led into the forest, and I had stood at the end of the dock. I resist the desire to follow her but decided, for my sake and hers, not to. “Will I see you again?” I shouted as she ran along towards the path in the woods. From a distance, within the forest, I heard her reply, “Maybe.”
I stood there alone for a few minutes contemplating what had occurred and wondered why I wasn’t following her. At least, for the sake of keeping our location a secret, it would have been wise to know where she lived. I shook my head of those thoughts, lit another cigarette, and made my way back to the cottage. Just before I opened the screened door I took one last look at the blackness of the lake and noticed the crickets were singing in the forest.
Inside were my three companions. Raffi and Simon were laying on the couch, entangled in each other’s limbs, scrolling on social media. Dar sat alone, as always, on a stool by the bar with a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. All three looked up and stared at me with big grins on their faces as if they had just shared a private joke at my expense. Dar took a sip of something dark red out of her wine glass before putting the cigarette out in an ashtray. The television was on, a newscaster’s voice was giving the local weather report. Raffi, the brasher of the two lovers, spoke first.
“So, Elbie, who’s the chick you were talking to?”
I felt annoyed by his question.
“Yeah, Steven, who was she?” Dar asked in her most accusatory voice. Dar could be very abrasive when she wanted to be. I calmed myself down before I answered them.
“Nobody, a local I think. We didn’t talk much before she had to leave.”
Simon, who was normally the quiet one, spoke up. “I think Dar’s right, Steve. Do you think it was smart to let her go? I mean, what if she tells someone we’re here?”
I could read the anxiety in his eyes. He always worried we would be discovered.
“I don’t think we have anything to worry about, Simon.”
“But what if she does talk? What then? Not smart, Steven, not smart at all.” Her anger showing, Dar stood up from the stool and approached me from across the living room.
I tried to reassure them. “She won’t. Besides, if she shows up again I’ll follow her and take care of it.”
“You’ll take care of it,” mocked Raffi.
“I said, I’ll take care of it.”
We three have been together for several years now and we’re like family. I met Raffi and Simon at a dance club in Soho, they were lovers back then too, in a night of hedonistic revelry. They were a pair looking for an adventurous night and I, well, I provided the entertainment. They have been with me ever since. Raffia and Simon weren’t your typical representatives of the LGBT community. There have been more than a few times when I’ve walked out on them because I found their antics a bit excessive. One particular “game” they were fond of playing was their sadistic version of “Monkey in the Middle”. That’s when they blindfolded and hand-tied their victim and proceed to use a baseball bat whenever their target got near to them. Another one of their escapades was “the pigeon drop”. That’s where the boys would indiscriminately push an individual off the roof of a building and bet on how big of a mess they could make when the person finally reached the ground. Most of the time, though, at least when they weren’t bored, they were tolerable and even mildly amusing. Yet, despite all their cruelty the bond they shared between them was so deep I have to admit I envied them. Their love for each other was so passionate I know death itself couldn’t tear them apart.
Dar was different. At seventeen, her mom kicked her out of their house and had been alone when we three found her. Dar wasn’t into guys, or even women, but was willing to do what she had to do to survive in the streets. We took her in, not asking for any favors, and soon found out she came in handy when we were on the hunt. Predators are what we were. She was particularly good with children and had an uncanny knack for putting them at ease and gaining their confidence. They trusted her and did everything she asked. We purposely looked for the ones people wouldn’t miss and preyed upon them. It was because of this that we ended up in the northern part of the state; to hide among the scattered cottages along the lonely, forested roads by the lake until things cooled off a bit and we could return or move elsewhere.
We had left the city when one of the human trafficking outfits we traded with got raided by local law enforcement. We got a tip from one of our associates that the police had arrested everyone at the house we dealt in. Dealers, by their very nature, were unscrupulous and I knew the one they had arrested couldn’t be trusted to keep his mouth shut. He would have easily turned me and my companions to the authorities on the promise of a lesser charge. I hadn’t lived this long by being stupid. So, Raffi, Simon, Dar, and I decided to seek refuge in a cottage I had purchased some time ago just for this very purpose. Here, with no one around for miles, we would rest quietly, so I thought. It was by complete surprise to me to find someone out on the dock that night.
The next night Laila returned. There she was, same dress, same lovely hair, and beautiful eyes, sitting on the dock as she was the night before. I approached her, just as I had, and sat down next to her. Same black waters, same night but with the moon a little less full than before. This time, though, it was she who spoke first.
“Hi, I want to apologize for leaving so quickly last night,” she said in that same soft tone I found so pleasing.
“That’s okay,” I said in a way that I found surprisingly mimicked her calmness. “I was hoping you would return.” She softly laughed at my remark. Same laugh as the night before.
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
I found myself strangely attracted to her, like a moth to a flame. The look in her eyes, the way her lips moved as she spoke, the way her dark hair cradled the pale skin of her face, all these things awakened a desire in me I hadn’t felt for a very long time. Her small delicate features, so child-like and innocent, contrasted with eyes so deep with age. A thought that had never come to me before slowly crept into my mind. I wanted her! I wanted to be possessed by her! If I could just sit next to her for all eternity I would be content.
We spoke for a while just me and her. We talked about the night again, the darkness, how calm and soothing it was. We talked about the ageless stars and the charming moon. We conversed for a few moments on the things that dwelt in the night, both real and imaginary. And I, listening to everything she said, felt so serene. She had a mystical presence that held a spell over me. Then the time had come for her to leave.
“Must you go?” I asked, almost pleading.
“I have to. It’s getting late.”
Laila got up and, as she had the night before, she made her way towards the beach and then to the path that led through the forest. But, unlike the night before, I decided to follow her. I had made a promise to my companions I now wish I could take back. I needed to keep our whereabouts secret, I told myself. I needed to take care of the danger she posed. As much as I desired her I knew her existence was a threat to us.
I let her get ahead of me just enough for me to see her yet not too close for her to notice me. The forest was dark, but my eyes were well enough adjusted for me to follow her white dress. I moved quickly yet watched where I stepped so as not to make a sound that would give me away. The insects helped to cover my movements for they had started back with their nightly music. Surprisingly, Laila mirrored my silence and agility as if she was aware I was following her. I thought it impossible and yet there she was in manner. She turned into a bend in the path, and I lost sight of her for the moment. As I followed I saw the path open up into a clearing and then the beach but no sight of Laila. She was gone! I looked back behind me, retraced my footsteps hoping I took the wrong way, but no other paths were leading another way. Laila had vanished and all there was, all I could see, were a few dim lights from scattered houses in the distance and a lonely beach.
“You lost her! Bullshit!’ screamed Dar. “We saw you talking to her for hours! Why did you wait so long?”
Dar and the two lovers had been watching Laila and myself as we talked on the pier. They saw how she got up and entered the woods and how I followed her. When I returned my companions were under the impression I had taken care of our problem. But when I explained how she vanished they all howled in disbelief. Raffi spoke then.
“I’m with Dar. You let her go.” Raffi was standing next to Simon who stood by the old plaid couch they normally occupy. “We saw how you were looking at her.”
In silence, I put out my third cigarette in the ashtray on the dinette set. I was seething with anger as I sat in the chair next to the table. It vexed me how brazen they were with their accusations. I was tired and heard enough. It had been a long evening and the last thing I wanted to hear was any more of their squabbling. They weren’t there. They didn’t know what it was like to be in Laila’s company. They certainly didn’t know how I felt when I realized I had lost her. It tore me apart. Not only because of the missed opportunity but she had vanished, and I wasn’t sure she would ever come back.
“I’m going to sleep,” I said as I got up from my chair and made for my room. “I suggest you three do the same.” They were all standing in the living room when I closed the door to my bedroom.
The next night I overslept again. Since leaving the city I had been ill at ease and had not been sleeping or eating right. It didn’t help that the provisions we had brought were proving to be unappetizing and, with the threat of discovery hanging over our heads, I felt very stressed. I awoke restlessly and feeling the burden of age. Shuffling across the floor of the bedroom I tried the door. It was locked from the outside! I banged hard with my fists and cried out loud for my release. At first, I heard nothing. Then I heard conspiring whispers coming from the living room before the sound of a key moving and tumblers shifting within the door’s lock. I pushed on the door hard, almost taking off its hinges, and entered the room. I let out a grieving wail at the scene that greeted me.
The great couch in the middle of the room was soaked with blood and in the midst of it was Laila’s lifeless body. She was in an upright sitting position, her arms marked heavily with multiple puncture wounds as they were stretched out along the backrest of the sofa. Her neck, in an unnatural and twisted position, had a heavy gash where her carotid would be. Raffi and Simon sat on either side of Laila, content and satisfied, as Dar sat on her favorite stool by the bar. Dar’s fangs still dripped crimson along her lip line from the meal she just consumed. I was enraged.
“What have you done?!” I screamed. I launched myself over the couch and landed squarely in front of the two men. In fright, they tried to escape but I grab each one by their shirt collars and threw them across the room. Dar hissed and jumped towards me. My fist caught her in her midriff, and she landed roughly on the dinette set breaking it. When I recovered I looked upon what they had done and came to the realization that they accomplished what I failed to do. We were desperate creatures with a consuming hunger and she, poor innocent sweet Laila, was nourishment. Even then, as tempting as she was to me, as much as I needed her, I refused to drink.
“What’s the matter, Steven? I know you’re as hungry as we are,” Dar chided from where the table now laid toppled over.
“She showed up like she had the two nights before,” added Simon as he recovered from hitting one of the living room walls. “She knocked on the screen door asking for you, Steve.”
“We let her in,” it was Raffi this time. “We told her you were sleeping and, well…”
“You said you’d take care of it!” Dar was up now and ready for another round. “Well, we took care of it! She won’t be telling anyone where we are! AND SHE WON’T BE VANISHING INTO THIN AIR ANYTIME SOON!”
Disgusted, I pushed a defensive Dar out of my way, went into the refrigerator, and pulled out one of the bags of blood we hastily robbed from a Red Cross blood bank we broke into before we left town. I tore hungrily into it, feeling the cold, dead fluid run down my throat, and when I could drink no more, threw the almost empty bag into the kitchen sink. It was cold and old, but it had done the trick. I was filled and the desire for Laila’s sweet offerings was quenched. I restored my composure and addressed my companions.
“Now that you have decided to take matters into your own hands you will now clean up your mess.” All three looked at me in indignation. “I meant NOW!”
I grabbed my pack of cigarettes from my bedroom as they began to straighten up the room and take out cleaning supplies. I avoided their stares as I stepped outside and made out to the pier. I listened to the crickets sing as I sat on the lonely dock and lighted my cigarette.
The next night I was awakened by a cry I had never heard before. A low-sounding moan and sob coming from one of the other rooms. I hurried out of my bedroom and made my way down the hallway to where I heard the commotion. It was coming from the lovers’ room. The door was ajar, and Dar was already there. Raffi was sobbing as he laid over Simon’s body on the bed. Simon! Vampires normally have a slightly pale complexion but even then, if kept well-nourished, we appear to have the resemblance of the living. Not so with Simon, not now anyway. He was ashen and thin in countenance and more worrisome, unconscious. His skin had become leathery and desiccated and there were scattered blotches like pox all over him. It did not seem possible for one of the undead, but he looked as if he was truly dead!
“Steve, please, help,” Raffi pleaded as he saw me enter. “I woke up as soon as the sun went down and normally Simon wakes up after me. But, tonight, he didn’t even stir. I shook him and he wouldn’t wake up! What’s wrong with him, Steve?”
I stood there next to Dar not knowing what to say or do. In the many decades that have passed since I’ve been turned, I never would have thought something like this possible. Yes, daylight can do us harm, even destroy us if we prolong the exposure. There is the blood of the dead that could make us ill, but we have always been good at avoiding it even if we were in short of supply. We weren’t carrion eaters. Even if we could not feed for some time, which has happened in the past, we only have to lay dormant, with the appearance of death, until we sense something living to nourish us. A scavenging animal or a person eventually stumbles upon us, and we feed. But this? I motioned Dar to grab a bag from the refrigerator thinking it would help. When she came back I tore a hole with my teeth and let the red droplets fall into Simon’s gaping mouth. Nothing happened. He remained still. I eventually drained the whole bag and watched the crimson liquid spilling out of his mouth. Simon was truly dead.
Later that night we buried our poor sweet Simon next to the grave he had dug for Laila. Two bodies, in the forest, one taken by violence and the other by some unknown agent. We sat in the living room, Dar at her stool, me on the couch, and Raffi, uncomfortable in the only chair left of the dinette set. Dar finally said something.
“I don’t get it. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen. Right? I mean, am I right?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Raffi remained silent in his grief.
“Steven, do you think there was something wrong with the blood we took from the bank?” Dar had an unfounded fear of blood-borne pathogens. Maybe it was because of her previous occupation as a prostitute or of some experience from earlier in her childhood. She always checked her victims for needle marks before she bit into them. This is why I think she preferred children or young adolescents to feed upon.
“I don’t think so,” I answered her. “We all drank from it, and we would have known right away if there was something wrong.”
“I think she had something to do with it.” Dar and I looked in Raffi’s direction, he had broken his silence. “Maybe she told someone we were here. They could have entered the cottage while we were sleeping and did something to Simon.”
“That impossible!” I said as I looked at him with astonishment.
“Why not?’ Raffi continued to argue. “How would we know? You don’t know where she went after you lost her in the woods. As far as we know, she could have lived in any one of those houses along the lake. When she didn’t return, whoever she told about us could have gone out to look for her and found us instead. We all heard the stories about vampire killers”
“Fairy tales,” snide Dar. “Stories vampires tell each other to drive the competition out.”
“We would have known. I would have known,” I said for it had happened before. Once, in the city, a burglar broke into a house I was staying in during the daylight hours. Because the sunlight was bad for us I always kept the windows well shaded as to not let even a sliver of sunlight in. As I laid sleeping I sensed the thief breaking in. I heard him noisily stumbling through the house looking for anything he could steal. He was surprised to see he wasn’t alone. He was even more surprised to see me lounge towards him ready to put my fangs into him. No, if anyone had entered the house while we were sleeping I would have known. Then a thought occurred to me that even I found hard to believe. But could it be?
“Do you two think that maybe it was Laila?” I asked. Dar rolled her eyes thinking I was taking Raffi’s side. “Not as Raffi suggested. Dar, do you think that maybe it could have been in her blood?” Raffi contorted his face in confusion as he tried to understand what I meant and Dar shook her head more dismissive than before. It pained me deeply to hear her response.
“I doubt it, Steven, she was fresh, warm, and clean. I know good blood when tasting it. Hers was sweet like a newborn. No, I think you’re wrong there. If anything, my money is on that filthy blood we stole.”
That’s when we ended our argument that night.
On the fifth night of our stay at the cottage, it was Dar’s turn not to awaken. As with Simon she had to succumb to the same ailment that had afflicted them. Raffi and I began to uncharacteristically worry. This is something that wasn’t supposed to happen to us and yet it was. Raffi still didn’t believe me when I said nobody has been in the house while we slept. He couldn’t, wouldn’t accept it. So, he took matters into his own hands. Some time ago he had purchased surveillance cameras just in case we needed additional protection from pesky onlookers. They were small, easily hidden, and could be synced to our smartphones. Later, we could watch the videos the motion-activated cameras recorded. Raffi planted three of them strategically around the rooms and at dawn turned them on.
On the sixth night of our stay, I was the only one left. Raffi was dead, really dead, just like the rest of them and I was not going to stay and be next. I thought that even if it was an unknown agent in our environment, tainted blood, or sickness, I prefer to meet my end as far away from this place as I could get. Let’s say it was something particular to the cottage, some virulent strain specific to our kind, would it not be wiser to leave than to prolong exposure? What if it was in the blood we consumed? Deer were plentiful in the woods. Then there was the occasional hiker walking alone. If the blood was tainted I could hunt for sustenance and not risk suffering the same fate as my companions.
Leaving Raffi’s rapidly putrefying corpse where it laid in his room, I quickly packed what I could take into a small suitcase. I only took a few things; a change of clothing, multiple passports if I decided to leave the country, and the couple of thousand in cash I always kept while on the run and loaded them into the Rover Ranger Sport we drove on our way to the cottage. I went back in to retrieve my phone and charger and that’s when I remember the surveillance cameras Raffi had planted the night before. Not wanting to leave anything behind that would incriminate me of some wrongdoing, I removed them from their hiding spots and placed them in a carryall I was going to take along with my luggage. That’s when curiosity got the better of me. What if Raffi was right. What if instead of something causing my associates’ unfortunate demise it was someone. I had dismissed the possibility the night before but now I couldn’t take the risk if I was wrong. Knowing it was one threat or the other bettered my chances to escape.
I looked for the app on my phone and opened it. I then scrolled down to the correct date, time, and camera angle in the recordings and tapped the screen to play. On my phone screen, I saw the living room as it would have looked when we slept. The room was heavily darkened by the shades I had erected yet you could still make out items as if it was lighted. All seemed calm and I was about to shut it down when I saw a shadow moving in the hallway leading to our bedrooms. The shadow became more defined as it moved into the living room and that’s when I almost dropped my phone in horror. The specter wearing a white dress moved to face the camera as if it knew where it was hidden.
“Hello, Steven,” said a familiar voice behind me. I turned quickly and faced the same phantom I had just looked upon on the screen. I could only think it was a spirit for it was Laila who spoke to me.
“No, I’m no ghost. It is me, Laila.” She spoke in the same soft melodious tone I had heard her use just three nights ago.
“But, but how?”
“You of all people should know of the hidden things that walk this Earth.”
“I saw you die. You were dead when we buried you. That’s your body in the shallow grave in the woods.”
“Dear, dear Steven. How can anything that has never been alive die?”
“I don’t understand.”
She gave me a feral smile before she continued. “Ever wonder where the monsters come from? You, your kind, and others? Have you ever known what begot the denizens of the dark? Hmm? The Night, of course!”
That’s when I understood. All the talks we had on the pier about the darkness of the night and of how comforting it was to her. Of how even the creatures of the night, except for me, shunned from her presence. Only she could steal our semblance of life. She could bring true death to the undead. It was then that I remembered what they had called her in that ancient biblical tongue. “Your name,” I said.
“Yes, my name.” She moved closer and I could feel the coldness of her breath on me. “Come now, dear boy, my sweet, sweet Steven. Come and hug your mother.”
I picked Jessie up from her parents’ house in my Nova at eight. Sitting with my car running on their driveway trying to keep warm. It was uncommon in December for it to be this cold in Michigan. I could hear the snow crunching under Jessie’s feet as she walked up to the passenger side. Without saying a word she opened the door and got in and I shifted in reverse to pulled out of the driveway.
“I told my parents I wouldn’t be out late,” she finally said to me as I drove down the dark, lonely road. I could tell something was bothering her, but she wouldn’t tell me what. Maybe it was another argument with her parents. I didn’t know. There were times I found it hard to understand what she was thinking. It can be that way with couples.
“Don’t worry, we won’t be out long. I was thinking maybe we’d go out to Rick’s and hang out.”
Rick Lang was a friend of ours who lived with his parents just outside of Jackon’s city limit and a couple of miles from Jessie’s. We both knew him from Mickey D’s, a fast-food restaurant all three of us worked during the summer before I left for college in Ypsilanti. All three of us were part of the fast-food restaurant’s closing crew and used to party after work together. All that summer we’d spend hours sitting in the restaurant’s parking lot late at night drinking wine coolers and smoking the joints Rick would roll. Me and Jessie would sit in front seats of my blue ’79 Chevy Nova messing with the radio while Rick would sit in the back. He would use one of the store’s dining trays to sift the seeds out from the crumbled weed before putting it into the crease of the thin cigarette paper and rolled it into a joint. Jessie would tune in from one station to another until settling on one that was playing a song we all liked.
“Stop there,” I would say when she came to a station playing Led Zeppelin.
“This one? Okay, maybe this one song but only because I like it.” Jessie began singing along with the music as I took a drink from my wine cooler. “I saw a liar standing alone with a tadpole in a jar.”
I burst out laughing and almost spilled my drink. “I saw a lion, not a liar.”
“What?” She stopped singing and looked over at me with irritation.
“It’s lion, not liar. I have the album and it’s got the lyrics.”
“That doesn’t make sense. What would a lion be doing standing with a tadpole in a jar?”
“And a liar makes more sense?”
She punched me in the arm, and we settled to the jams as we listen to another one of Rick’s stupid jokes.
“What do you call a fake noodle? An im-pasta. What do you call a guy who never farts in public? A private tutor.”
Rick would go on and on like this as he rolled another pausing only to lick the adhesive on the rolling papers to seal it. Jessie would laugh, so would I, and she would tell Lang how lame he was. Rick would just look up with that famous shitty grin of his, pop a freshly rolled joint in his mouth, and light it. They were fun times, and we enjoyed each other’s company as we drank and got high. After a couple of hours, just before the cops made their rounds to our part of town, Lang would crotch-pocket his sandwich bag full of weed and joints and climb out of the car. Before getting into his Ford Ranger Rick would always do this wink and clicking sound with his tongue as he waved goodbye. I think he thought it looked cool when he did it. I just thought he looked like a big dork, but it always seems to make Jessie laugh. Another thing he would do that he thought was cool was knock on my driver’s side window and hand me a joint before he is driving off. Other times, well, he left us with yet another groaner. After he pulled away I’d start the car, went, and dropped Jessie off at her house after a kiss, and I drove home to my parent’s house in town.
None of us had met before working at Mickey D’s because we went to different high schools in town. I went to Denton High in the subdivision on the south side of Jackson while Rick and Jessie went to Jackson High on the city’s west end. They said they had never met before because they hung around with different crowds. High school was like that back then in the eighties. Our whole lives revolved around groups you fitted into. If you were into the sports you were a jock, primps were the rich kids, drug-users were burnouts, book readers with good grades were nerds, project housing kids were slums. You also had your black wearing goths, avant-garde weirdos, and the misfits who didn’t fit anywhere. It was social suicide to ever drift outside your circle. Rick played in both football and basketball teams so he was a jock. He got his dope from the burnouts and that was all right because that was just business. He would share what he toked so that made him cool. Jessie’s dad was a regional distribution manager for one of the automotive associated companies and made enough money to live comfortably in one of the nice homes outside of town. She worked at the fast-food to save up so that when she goes to college she would have spending money. So, Jessie, the primp, would never have known Rick, the jock, even though they went to the same school. My parents were part of the working middle class that lived in one of Jackson’s subdivisions. Dad worked the night shift in a plant that Jessie’s dad managed. In high school, I was a nerd because I read a lot and had been pulling a four-point-o since the sixth grade. Graduation changes all that, at least, it did for some.
Jessie and I had been dating since April and a couple throughout that last summer we were all together. At first, it seemed like we were an odd pair, me being who I was and she, well, her dad was technically my dad’s boss. But after I mustered enough courage to ask her out, and she agreed, we found we liked each other. One date followed another and pretty soon we became a twosome. We did what most couples did back in the eighties. We wasted quarters on video games at the arcade in the mall and go out to the movies at the cinema plex. I had the Nova at the time and some nights we would just cruise around all night going from the mall to Cascade Park and back wasting gas. That summer was the best. Someone always knew somebody who was having a bonfire and kegger and we would go there to party. When we felt like being alone we would park at the Cascades and make out. We were each other’s first and, as such things go, we thought we were in love. Well, at least I did.
Sometimes we would just sit in my car and talk. At Carl’s Liquor Mart I would get someone old enough to buy beer for us and we would drive out to Cascade Park to drink and smoke cigarettes. I would park the car, me in my denim shorts and printed t-shirt, and she in her designer jeans and tank top, and we would sit listening to the music playing on the WRIF radio station. We’d talk about our stupid parents, or how dumb our teachers were, and of how shitty friends can be. She had feathered her hair for her graduation pictures and had been playing around applying more makeup to make herself look more mature. The eye shadow she wore brought out her blue eyes which, framed as they were by her dark, curly hair, made them look beautiful. Sometimes we sat there in silence, and I would just look at her. She would turn and look at me and say something like, “What are you looking at?” I would answer, “You”. We would laugh, fall into each other’s arms and kiss. It was one of those warm summer nights when we talked about leaving town for college.
“When are you leaving for Ypsilanti,” she asked as she lit her cigarette using the car’s lighter.
“The last week in August,” I answered as I took the lighter to light my own. “And you?”
“I don’t have to be there until after Labor Day.”
I was going to Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti to study teaching. Jessie had been accepted at Grand Valley State in the west part of the state on a fine arts scholarship.
She took a puff from her cigarette. “Are you going to call me when I get there?”
“You know I will.”
We had talked often about how hard it would be to stay together. We figured that we would stay in touch by calling each other every week, every day if we could and that we would see each other during the holidays.
“Could you, maybe, drive out to visit?”
‘I don’t know, Jessie, Allendale is pretty far.”
At this point, she would start crying and say how alone she was going to be and how she was going to miss everyone. Looking at her like this made me feel like a real jerk. I still loved her and knew I would continue to do so even if we were on the opposite side of the state. I felt helpless and did the only thing I could think to do; I reached out and cradled her in my arms. I still remember the smell of her perfume as I would rest my chin on the back of her neck.
August came, we continued to do what we had done all summer until it was time to say goodbye. Jessie and I made love one last time at the Cascades before going out to Rick’s for a bonfire party. When we had arrived the party was going full blast with the music playing, everyone drinks, and having a good time. Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dancing Days’ from their ‘House of the Holies’ was blaring in the background. We got our cups of beer from the keg and sat in a couple of lawn chairs by the fire pit. There were lots of people there, some we knew and others we didn’t and we sat alone. This was an all-in-one graduation and going away party for Rick. The Langs were pretty cool in that they didn’t mind if you weren’t old enough to drink. They also didn’t mind us smoking pot as long as Dave didn’t make it so obvious.
I remember spending most of the time asking Jessie if there was anything wrong. She would stare at the fire pit and say nothing as she drank her beer. Lang would occasionally pop in on us and do this “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” thing as he pointed to his parent’s house. We’d catch on followed him to the house and then the basement where he would pull a joint out of his pocket, light it, and we’d catch a buzz. After the joint was gone the three of us would go back to the party and grab some of the food that Rick’s mom had laid out. Again Jessie and I sat down by the fire but this time she seemed to be in a better mood. By now Jessie was laughing and looked like she was beginning to enjoy herself. At three in the morning, things started to wind down and everyone was leaving. Jessie and I said our goodbyes, got into my car, and left. Again she went into her solemn mood and remained silent the entire way to her house. I dropped her off after we kiss, and I drove home. Two days later I left for Eastern.
It was in the same basement from the bonfire party five months ago that Rick led us down to when we arrived at his house. As we climbed down the stairs I noticed things had changed. Gone were the boxes of old toys, books, and picture frames. In their place was a raggedy old couch, a bed, and an old nineteen-inch television. Concert posters of Zeppelin and Pink Floyd covered one side of the walls and on another was a giant velour, neon green painting of a marijuana leaf. A lava lamp sat on a small table in one corner giving the room an eerie glow. It was apparent that Lang had moved out of his room upstairs and was now living in the basement. Rick pulled out a chair from under an old desk and sat in it. He then took a rolling tray, a Mickey D’s dining tray he must have stolen, and began sifting through the pot as he had always done before. Jessie and I sat next to each other on the couch as we watched him in silence. We still hadn’t said much to each other since leaving her house. Rick was the first one to speak.
“So, what’s shaken, bacon?” he said as he pinched some of the pot to put on the cigarette paper.
Thinking he was talking to me I answer, “Not much. What’s new with you, gnu?”
Rick licked the joint to seal it and smiled as I’ve always seen him do hundreds of times.
“Not much over here, partner. You know, same thing, different day. I’m working for my dad now. Business at the dealership is picking up and he said if sales continue to look good he might need another salesman. That might be me if I play my cards right.” Rick’s dad owns Lang’s Used and New Ford Auto Dealership in Concord. He did pretty brisk business. The news caught me by surprise. The last time I talked to Rick he was enrolled at Western State University.
“What happened to Western? I thought you were going there?”
“Nah, change of plans. Got a job with my dad. Making good money working at the dealership running around making coffee and picking up things. Did you check out my sweet ride outside?” I had noticed the used Mustang parked in the driveway. “Dad got me a deal on it.” He lit the joint and passed it to me.
I took a quick hit and passed it to Jessie. She waved it off not wanting any and I passed it back to Rick. I didn’t want to say anything, didn’t want to start anything, but the silent treatment was really getting on my nerves. Rick took another hit and I looked over at Jessie with a pleading expression on my face.
“I don’t feel like it, okay?” she responded angrily not looking at me.
“Okay. Okay. But what’s the matter?”
Rick and I took turns from the joint a few more times before it was gone. Whatever was going on was driving with Jessie was making me nuts. I was high from the pot, frustrated, and I couldn’t take it anymore. Something had changed between us and I couldn’t figure out what. Jessie and I started pretty well after we both left for college. We called each other every day when we first arrived from the phones in our dorms, me from Eastern and she at Grand Valley. But soon it became every other day and then once a week as classes started and the expense of calling made it difficult. There were a couple of times she missed my calls. She was out and I left messages with her roommate. I thought she was studying or making friends, joining a sorority, or something. I didn’t expect her to be waiting in her dorm room for my phone calls. But there were times I just wished she would call me back. Then there was Thanksgiving and she said she wasn’t coming home. Yes, I was upset, but I didn’t hold that against her. She told me finals were coming up and I told her I understood. But this? The cold shoulder? What was going on?
Rick sat and watched the exchange between us, sifting and rolling, sifting, and rolling until the entire bag of pot was rolled.
“We got two weeks before we have to go back! Is this how it’s going be?” I said as I got up from the couch out of frustration.
“I’m not going back! I’m pregnant!”
Rick sat with his head down looking at the tray full of joints. I stood there in silence.
“What? Pregnant? How?”
She looked up at me from the couch with angry tears before she said, “You know how. How does anyone get pregnant?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. How? How? HOW? NOT WITH YOU! Is that what you want to hear? It’s not with you! Three months! There, you know now!”
I lost my buzz as the floor from under my feet gave out. The last time Julie and I had sex was before we both left for college. Unless she was lying to me that would mean she got pregnant in September. I looked to see if she is showing. I couldn’t see the bump she may have been hiding under her coat.
“Yeah, it’s there, dumb ass! I missed my period a couple of months ago and took the test. I’m pregnant. You happy now!”
I don’t know why but I started to apologize. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I repeated over and over as I sat down on the couch my head between my knees.
“And YOU! You’re not going to say ANYTHING?!”
I looked up as her rage was focused on Rick. Why Rick? Then it hit me.
“Yeah, college guy, Rick is the father.”
Rick wouldn’t look up at us least of all me. He stared at the joints rolled on the tray in silence. Jessie got up and crossed the room. In her tear-filled anger, she smacked Rick several times on the shoulder. Rick closed his eyes and took it hunched over the tray of the pot.
“I hate you! I hate both of you! You!” she said pointing at me. “You said you would never leave me! But you went and I was alone. You left me!” “I called,” I retorted back in anger. “But sometimes you didn’t call me back!”
“So what did you do when I did? You acted like everything was okay. You didn’t ask where I was. You didn’t even ask if I was alright? It’s like, like you didn’t care. YOU DIDN’T CARE!”
“But I did care! I do care!”
“Then, why didn’t you come and see me? Because it was too far away. Yeah, that’s your answer, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Well, Rick drove up to see me. I called him and he came but you didn’t. You wouldn’t come to see me, and I felt so alone, and he came but you didn’t. Rick came to visit me three times and not once did you ever think of driving up to see if I was okay. Not once!”
I didn’t know what to say. She was right. Not once did it ever occurred to me to ask if everything was fine. I once thought about driving across the state to surprise her but talked myself out of it thinking, as she said because it was too far away. Now I thought it may not have been a good idea because of what I might have found. Rick with my girlfriend.
I got up, walked up the stairs, and left the house slamming the screen door behind me.
It had just started to snow as I made for my car. It was that fluffy stuff that came down like little balls of cotton. The air was cold, and it was silent. The countryside was so quiet you could hear the interstate a couple of miles away. I fumbled through my pockets for my keys, but they had gotten stuck in the loose threads of the lining of my coat pocket. When they finally came out I dropped them into the loose snow, and I had to dig them out with my hands. When I found them I put them into the keyhole, turned them to unlock the door, and climbed in. I sat in the driver’s seat staring out at the screen door as it swayed unlatched in the wind. I hadn’t noticed that Lang had followed me on the way out until he rapped on my passenger side window. Startled from my inner thoughts I looked over before reaching the handle to the passenger side window. I rolled it down a crack, just enough to see Rick’s breathe blowing through it.
“You okay, dude?”
“Yeah, I guess I’m okay. How’s Jessie?”
“You know, crying, angry.” He shrugged. “You are coming back in?”
“Nah, I think it’ll be better if I just go home.” I was still angry at Rick, the both of them. But mostly I was angry with myself for being so stupid.
“I hear-ya. I’ll take Jessie home.”
“Could you? Thanks.” It sounded lame after I said it. Of course, he would take her home. I was the last person Jessie wanted to see right now.
A long minute passed before Rick said, “I guess I should go back in.”
“Yeah, you should.”
I started the car as I watched Rick make it back to the house.
I didn’t talk to either one of them for the rest of the two-week Christmas break. I spent my Christmas with my family trying not to think of what had happened that evening. Once I thought I’d give Jessie a call, to see if she was okay and if she needed anything. But I thought the better of it. I even thought about visiting her house. You know, drive up, knock on her door. She would answer, give me a big hug as if things were okay, and we would laugh about it. I even entertained the idea of marrying her if Rick wouldn’t do the right thing. That was all a dream. I never drove by her house ever again. When Christmas break was over, I said my goodbyes to my parents and drove back to college.
I haven’t spoken to either one of them since that night forty years ago. Never heard from either of them or what eventually happened. Did she have the baby? Did Rick and Jessie get married? I don’t know. What about the child? They are all grown up now and maybe with teenagers of their own. There are times when I sit at my desk typing, times like this when I hear Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dancing Days’ playing on a web station, and I remember that last summer when we were together.
Millions, Billions, Trillion; we hear these terms used about large values so often people have become numb to their actual meaning. I heard a fellow employee asked one time what he would do if he won a million dollars in the lottery. He replied, “a million isn’t enough to do anything.” He had no clue how much a million is. So, let’s take the most common object and use it to illustrate what these values are.
A dollar bill is .0043 inches thick. A stack of 1000 one-dollar bills would be 4.3 inches which are also 109.2 millimeters. For the sake of mathematical simplicity, I will be using the metric system from here on. I will convert the here and there so people using “Standard” and are not familiar with the metric system can understand. I will also round-up from 109.2 cm to 110 mm because by the time we get to billions, trillion, and beyond that small difference becomes negligible (if you’re picky, you can go back and use the precise value I’m just too lazy to deal with it).
Back to our stack of a thousand one-dollar bills. A 1000 one-dollar bills are 110 mm. A million, which is one thousand, thousand one-dollar bills (1000 x 1000) on top of each other would be 110,000 mm tall, or 110 meters high (see why metric is easy? 1000 mm = 1 meter). 110 meters is approximately 120 yards, longer than the length of a football field. That’s a million one-dollar bills stacked one on top of the other. So much for my fellow employee’s statement.
A billion is one thousand million. 110 meters is .11 kilometers and when you multiply that by a thousand, to get one billion, (.11 kilometers x 1000) you get a stack of one dollar bills 110 kilometers (approximately 68 miles) tall. Mount Everest is 8.85 km (5.5 miles). 110 km is almost 12.5 times the height of Mount Everest. Twelve and a half Mount Everest mountains on top of each other would equal a stack of one billion one-dollar bills. Presently, there are 7.5 billion people in the world. What if each dollar bill represented one person alive today that stack would be 825 km (approximately 513 miles) tall or 93.75 times the height of Mount Everest! This is the height most low orbiting satellites travel at.
Take a moment to think about this. A stack of one billion one-dollar bills stacked on top of each other representing each person would be tall enough to reach space. I’ll wait.
That’s a lot of people living on Earth today.
This is why I find apocalyptic scenarios that speculate the complete extinction of human being so far-fetched. One billion is a large number and seven and a half, well, you see. Even if you were to kill off 99.99% of the human population there would still be 750,000 people alive. 750,000 is the estimated number of humans alive 10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture and city-states. From 750,000 to 7.5 billion in just 10,000 years, a blink of an eye in geological time! Hardly an extinction event in human terms. Nothing human beings have created thus far can kill every man, woman, and child on this planet. Yes, the human loss would be devastating but not complete. We are as indestructible as the worst of any infestation. Considering the number of species that have become extinct by our hands, beginning with the megafauna around 12,000 years ago, animal life on Earth has more to fear by our presence than any other natural event. By the end of the 21st century, if present trends continue, the human population on this planet will reach 10 billion! Not even climate change will kill us all off but the human suffering will be incalculable. Now, let’s take it up a notch and see what a stack of one trillion one-dollar bills would look like. That is if we can.
A trillion of anything is thrown around these days with as little true meaning as a billion was decades ago. A trillion is, in fact, a huge number. We just saw that our stack of one billion one-dollar bills would reach outer space. Doing the math as we have done before, multiplying by one thousand, our stack is now 825,000 km tall (512,630 miles). The distance to the moon is 363,100 km (238,900 miles). That would make our stack a little over two and a quarter-time the distance from the earth to the moon. Another way to think of it would be to make two equal stacks reaching the moon with a lot of change leftover. The stack laid on its side would circle the Earth a little over 33 times! The United States’ national debt is now at $28.3 trillion and growing every year.
I’ll give you another minute to think about that one.
$28 plus trillion dollars is an amount in debt your great, great, great-grandchildren would barely make a dent in paying it off. And like I said, it grows every year. The United States would have to run on a balanced budget up to its quadricentennial to pay it all off. It’s just impossible. Yet, politicians are always talking about how cutting a million here, or a million there makes them fiscally responsible. Who are they kidding if it’s not their constituents? Quibbling over a billion dollars, and cutting vital programs in the process, seems a little like trying to empty an ocean with a teacup.
Now, I’m going to skip a great deal of order of magnitude and discuss another term widely used but little understood by the general public, infinity. Just what does infinity mean? To most people, it means “something that goes on forever”. But can anybody truly picture what “forever’ means? Is it to the end of time? Well, no. Because the universe has a beginning, the Big Bang and, if physicists are correct, there is an end. One theory states that the “End” will come when the universe has expanded so far that star formation will come to a complete halt because the matter will be so thinned out no material could clump to make new stars a quadrillion years in the future. That’s one followed by fifteen zeros. What stars are left would form black holes that would eventually, due to the escape of Hawking radiation, will slowly fade away in ten to hundred quintillion (one followed by nineteen or twenty zeros) years from now. The only thing left at this point is a thin soup of basic particles that too will eventually lose energy and decay after a huge amount of time (1 followed by 200 zeros years from now). At this time, in the far, far future, with no movement, no particles, not even enough energy to register, time cannot be said to have any real meaning, and, so, it can be considered the “End of Time”. But this is not infinity for it goes on forever. This is why physicists hate infinity for to them it means simply “I don’t know”.
There you are, working on equations that will solve the Grand explanation of Everything and after years of work your answer comes out as “infinity”. Talk about frustration. Yet, the general public throws it around like it’s a household word. There are Infinity Stones, infinite multiverses (redundant, really), infinite possibilities (but, really, only a few possibilities). Infinity is, in human terms, an unknown and one that, by definition, can never be known.
-A. M. Holmes
Author’s Note; I’m not going to include any citations for the piece because I went to Google for such things as “how tall is Mount Everest” and “how far is the moon”. If I could do this, so can you if you have any doubts. I do think my math is pretty sound but if I did make mistakes please point them down in the comments along with the correct answer. -A. M. Holmes
I just listened to an intriguing podcast on Science Fiction with Damien Walter where he tries to answer, ‘What is Science Fiction?’ (https://damiengwalter.com/2021/07/20/what-is-science-fiction/). In it, Walter brings up what he calls the three fallacies concerning science fiction. He says science fiction is not a genre as it is more like an artistic movement, it is not just “speculative fiction”, and not entertainment. I agree with what he said about two of these fallacies and slightly disagree with him on one.
First, what I agree with. Having viewed and read science fiction since I was a small child I have been inspired to write science fiction stories. For most of my life, I’ve done this as a hobby, something I did as a form of expression, to tell stories to myself. Now, encouraged by my wife’s publications, I wish to take this hobby and turn it into something that I can share with others. One of my wife’s questions, she writes epic fantasies, was what specific subgenre I was writing in. Well, I never considered that because to me science fiction is just that, and to break it down to a subgenre, or a sub-sub-genre seemed to me to be a ludicrous idea. Why would I want to pigeonhole myself into a specific slot and limit my creativity? Why does a story need to be limited to a specific arbitrary group when it can be more than that? “Who’s your target audience?” she answered. So the idea is a marketing tool and not a real literary definition. I agree with Damien Walter in that science fiction, with its crossover into many media forms and influence is more of an artistic movement no different than, say, post-modernism. It is only defined into its narrow literary definition of “genre” and all its “subs” to make it easier for the people who market it. So, the difficulty in defining it comes from it not being a specific product.
Is science fiction speculative fiction? Yes, it can be. But is it speculation? Not necessarily so. If you take science fiction out of being a genre you can do so much more with it along other avenues of thought. Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone’ did this in many of their stories. It wasn’t always about the “if this now, this is where we’ll end up” but at times about “here we are, now take a good close look at it”. Science fiction is storytelling with one foot in reality and the other in fantasy. It is the combination of the imaginative and the rational into one narrative. Technology, physical phenomenon (e.g. time travel, black holes, etc.), and non-human encounters are aspects of the setting unless they are the protagonist/antagonist of the story. They do not define science fiction but are part of the framework. I think Damien Walter’s explanation of science fiction as the melding of the “Mythos/Logos” is very much true. It is storytelling using the abstract notion of creativity with the rationality of realism. It is a form of expression distinctly unique as in any other artistic movement, for a movement it is.
Is it entertainment? Now, here is where he and I disagree. The reason I want to be a published writer is not that I want fame or notoriety, or to make a butt-load of money but to tell a good story. Storytelling is one of the oldest endeavors that first evolved in humankind. Our ancestors told stories around the campfire to educate and, depending on the manner it was told, to entertain. You can make the daily hunt more interesting if you tell it in a certain way. Storytelling is entertainment and science fiction is or should be, about the story.
Someone on one of the social media creative writing groups I belong to posted, “Why in the world would anyone like Harry Potter? …How do you create a book or characters that people will love?”
It’s all about hard work, timing, and the fickle predilections of a fad. You can be a good writer with a good idea and never succeed because it just isn’t what the readership is looking for at the time. You can also be a good writer with a good idea that resonates with readers that, with their favorable reviews, may engage others, and your works become a hit.
J. K. Rowling’s success wasn’t overnight, it took years of effort to finally make it. Rowling worked on Harry Potter for five years, getting feedback, rewriting, more feedback, more rewriting, until she got something she was happy with. It still wasn’t easy, she had to get it published. When publishers refused to read it unless she got an agent she got one. Even after that, she was rejected by 12 publishers until one decided to print. Then came promoting it. Fortunately for ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ it connected with young people through its protagonist. The character of Harry resonated with adolescents through fantasy and plain good storytelling in a way they understood. The more the word spread about this book, the more excitement was generated about it, the more books flew off the shelves in sales. J. K. Rowling had a hit in little time after publishing, but also, after 7 long years of hard work. It could have just as easily, as many have learned on their own, never have amounted to anything. It could have ended up in the “Bargain Book” section after its first edition. There’s no way to predict what the public wants.
But there are ways to improve your chances by,
1. Make a good product (yeah, unless you’re doing this for fun, or obscurity, your book is a product). Edit, edit, EDIT! NOTHING IS SACRED! You, your family, and your friends may think your work is a masterpiece as is but unless they plan to purchase every single book published it’s the general public you have to convince (people can distinguish between something readable from crap).
2. Try to be original, fresh. If there are too many books about zombies, and you like writing about zombies, how can you make your “zombie story” different? (Or, here’s an idea, give up writing on zombies and find something different.)
3. Learn to promote your product (GET THE WORD OUT! People aren’t going to randomly flock to you just because YOU think YOU’RE great).
4. DON’T GIVE UP! The one thing that is common among successful writers is that THEY DIDN’T GIVE UP. QUITTERS NEVER WIN!
So, do you think you have the next “Best Selling” phenomenon? I know I hope I do with my work in progress. The difference may be all in the effort we put in and what readers are looking for.