The Prize

Reads: 209  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 2  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
What if your work could make you literally immortal?

Submitted: April 20, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: April 20, 2016

A A A

A A A


The Prize

He is jarred awake by the ringing of the phone.  He reaches for his glasses, fumbles them on and looks blearily at the clock.  4:00 AM.  At that time of day, there are only emergencies on the other end of the line.  Or deaths.  And in one of those naked midnight moments he recalls the news of the death of his mother, on a morning more than five years ago and, in the manner of middle-of-the-night awakenings from dreams or nightmares, the emotion is as raw and overwhelming as it was then. He puts a hand to his brow.  Who else could it be?  In his head, he runs through the possibilities.

The voice on the phone has asked him a question.

“Yes, this is he.”  He clears his throat, then, louder, “Yes, this is he.”  He can barely understand what the voice is saying; there is a heavy foreign accent.  German?

“Who is it?  What’s wrong?” asks his wife in a small, frightened voice.  She has turned towards him, leaning on an elbow, the covers fallen from her shoulders.  He waves a hand behind his back, impatiently.

“Dr. Mallory, my apologies for the early morning call,” the voice is saying.  “I wanted to reach you before the press corps does.  Better you should hear the news from the committee than from them.”

“What news?” he asks.  And what committee, he wonders.  He is completely at sea.  “I’m afraid I have no idea what-“

“Dr. Mallory, it is my very great pleasure, as chairman of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, to inform you that you are this year’s winner of the Nobel prize in physics.  On behalf of the committee, my heartiest congratulations.”

He is stunned, silent.

“Dr. Mallory?  Are you still there?”

He pulls himself together.  “Yes, I’m still here.  I- I don’t know what to say.  This is completely unexpected.”  The clouds of sleep are breaking up.  He knew, of course, that his name was on the candidates list.  But it had seemed the longest of long shots.  He was flattered when he learned of the inquiry into his work, then promptly dismissed the possibility.  There were so many qualified people out there doing such outstanding work, and his own work had been so far from the mainstream of physics research...

“I understand how you feel, doctor.  It takes a while to sink in.  But it is happy news, I trust.”

“Yes.  Yes, of course it is.  I assume this is for-“

“For your work on the nature of time.  I may say that the committee were extremely impressed.  You realize that most prizes are granted years after the discoveries that prompted them.  So much so that some deserving people have died before they could be recognized.  But in this case, the committee felt that the work was strong enough, and the implications important enough, that the award shouldn’t be delayed.  Again, my congratulations.”

“Well, thank you.  I am humbled and grateful to the committee, mister…  I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name?”

“My fault.  I don’t believe I mentioned it.  Thorvaldsen.  Dr. Harald Thorvaldsen.”

“Well, Dr. Thorvaldsen, I’m afraid I’m not at my best before I’ve had a cup of coffee in the morning.  You’ll have to excuse what must sound like a lack of enthusiasm about this.  I’m simply dumbfounded.”

“I understand.  I have the advantage of a several hour head start on you this morning.  I will let you get back to your rest.  As I said, I wanted to be the one to break the news to you.  There are several matters we need to discuss, but they can wait until later.  I assume you’ll be able to join us in Stockholm for the awards ceremony later this year?”

“Yes, absolutely.  I just need a little time to let all this...  I’m sure I’ll be more coherent when we speak again.”

“Certainly, doctor.  Until later, then.  Good-bye.”

There can be no question of further sleep.  Mallory hangs up the phone, then turns to tell his wife the news.  The impress of her body is still there in the sheets, but she has left the room.

***

He sits in the kitchen, a cup of cooling coffee at hand.  The thin sunshine of earliest morning filters in through the gap in the still-drawn curtains.  The pale fluorescent kitchen lights are gradually becoming irrelevant.  Outside, a solitary wood thrush is finishing its morning devotions, as Mallory likes to think of the thrilling runs and liquid trills.  Lauds, he thinks the early church service might be called, a dimly-recollected bit of trivia from a parochial school childhood.  Mallory, a lapsed Catholic, no longer finds the religious metaphors compelling, but still aesthetically pleasing.

But lauds, well, big shot scientist, appropriate nevertheless.  He grins.

There is an unopened pack of cigarettes in front of him, next to a clean ashtray and a book of matches.  Though the temptation is strong, he has resisted, mostly because he knows that a cigarette, after months of abstaining, will make him light-headed.  And represent a defeat of sorts; quitting had required a monumental effort of will.But mostly he wants his wits about him.  He is on the phone with the second caller of the day, a man from the New York Times identifying himself as the science editor.  Mallory vaguely recalls seeing the name attached to popular science articles he occasionally reads.

They are in the middle of a rather superficial discussion of the theory that has brought Mallory the Nobel prize.  He is annoyed to find himself defending some of the more outré implications of his work, but realizes that the reporter is just trying to find an angle that his readers would find interesting.

“So your work slams the door on the possibility of time travel once and for all?  You’re going to make a lot of science fiction writers very unhappy, Dr. Mallory.”

“Science fiction writers have never felt themselves unduly constrained by reality,” Mallory says mildly. “I imagine there will continue to be time travel stories.  The idea is too seductive to just go away.”

“And so it's all really just common sense, after all?”

“I suppose so,” Mallory says, a bit nettled in spite of himself.

“But tell me again why that’s so.  I’m still having trouble following all this.”

This will be the third time over the hurdles.  Mallory is tempted to tell the man to go read the prize-winning paper himself; it is available out on the ‘net, where it has been ignored for months.  He supposes that there will be some interest now, with the announcement.  At least, he hopes so.

He sighs.  “You know about the arrow of time, right?  Don’t I remember you even wrote something about it once?”

“Yeah, but I was just parroting what I heard from the guys I interviewed.  A lot of it went over my head.  Not that I was going to admit as much to my readers, you understand.”

“Yes, I can appreciate that. Well, up to now, theory has said that time could flow in both directions, forward and backward. Or, rather, it didn’t say it couldn’t flow backward.  There's nothing in the mathematics to stop it doing so. On paper, basic physical laws work equally well forward or backward in time.  But as we know from our own experience, it flows forward only. All I did, really, was to come to a better understanding of how it was that entropy influenced the direction of time.  I assume you’re familiar with the concept of entropy?”

“As much as anyone is, I guess.  Increasing disorder, right?”

“Close enough.  Classic example is you can’t turn an omelet back into an egg.  Well, without going into the details, I found a deep connection with quantum mechanics that shows why this must be so. I poked around and saw that there was a way to tie entropy and the time arrow together and prove that time indeed flows forward only, never backward.  Oh, there are still some arcane bits of theory that people will continue to argue over, but in the main, the case is decided.”

“Such as wormholes.”

“Yes, like wormholes.  And some posited elementary particles.”

“And that’s all you did,” the reporter says, gently mocking.

“Yep, that’s it.”  Mallory glances at the clock with the picture of the steaming cup of coffee on it, on the kitchen wall opposite.  ‘Refills 5¢’, it says.  Mallory could use a refresh, himself.  He pushes his glasses up, massages the bridge of his nose.  He is on the point of asking the reporter if there is anything else, because he knows he has a busy day facing him, as he is sure the reporter can appreciate, when the man abruptly changes tack.

“Have you heard the rumor about the prize?” he asks.

Mallory draws a blank, then is alarmed.  They haven’t decided to eliminate the prize money, have they?  Austerity in Europe, or something?  Was that what the Swedish guy wants to discuss later?  His rosy daydreams about spending the money began to glow a brighter orange, then curl and blacken at the edges.  Tendrils of smoke rise.

“No, I’ve heard nothing.  The committee chairman didn’t bring the subject up.  What about it?”

“I don’t want to talk out of turn.  Just repeating what I’ve heard.  There is talk that this year’s prize winners will be given a choice of two prizes.  One is still the money.  The other one is-“

“Is what?”

“You remember last year’s winner in medicine?  The guy who figured out eternal life?  And tried it on himself?”

“Yes, I remember.”  It had caused quite a sensation, one that had made headlines for days, then moved to the inner sections of the newspapers, where it still rated an occasional mention from the science or religion columnists, as well as sporadic letters-to-the-editor debates on the editorial pages.  A year later, it was still a dominant meme on the ‘net.  Google ‘eternal life’, and the first reference to God was now about the tenth link down the list.  “Still a bit doubtful, it seems.”

“Doubtful?  How so?”

“Well, he hasn’t lived forever yet, has he?” Mallory says drily.

“No, of course not.  But the animal studies were very thorough.  And ongoing, before you say that they haven’t lived forever, either.  Mice completely unchanged after five years, et cetera.”

“Yes, I remember.  So what?”

“Well, the rumor is that the other prize you can choose is eternal life.”

For the second time this morning, Mallory is speechless.

“Doctor?  Any reaction for the press?  Your money or your life, right?  Doc?”

Mallory hangs up the phone without replying.  He opens the curtains and the golden light of full day fills the kitchen.  Absently, he reaches for the pack of cigarettes and continues to stare out the window.

****

It is nearly noon.  The sun has left the kitchen and is now flooding the solarium and, through its floor-to-ceiling glass wall and doorway, the dining room.  Outside, the children have filed past on their way to school, the older children, wearing plastic safety vests and carrying crossing flags, shepherding the younger ones.  Years ago, Mallory’s own two children had made the same journey each school day.

Mallory has fielded calls all morning from colleagues at Lawrence Livermore lab and around the world.  He has not had time for breakfast.  The ashtray is overflowing, he notes ruefully.  The tone of the calls has ranged from reserved, polite, to jubilant.  In the main, the callers are rejoicing with him.  He wonders if there isn’t a trace of envy in some callers’ voices, but he is too fatigued to trust his ability to catch nuances of tone. 

His wife, a prominent physician on the faculty at UC Berkeley with a visiting professorship at Johns Hopkins, has dressed and gone hours ago, after an excited conversation and a brief congratulatory kiss.  He gets up to bus the ashtray and coffee cup to the sink.  He needs to use the bathroom and then get dressed himself; then the phone rings again.

“Damn,” he says.  He debates whether to ignore it, then picks up.  It is Dr. Thorvaldsen again.  This time, the accent isn’t as troublesome.  Maybe it’s a better connection, or maybe he is just more awake.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Mallory.  I trust you had a good morning?  Had some time to digest the news?”

“Hello, Dr. Thorvaldsen.  Yes, a busy morning.  I’ve been on the phone constantly.  News travels fast.  I’ve heard from people that I haven’t seen since college.  And, of course, a lot of people I’ve never heard of before.  All very bewildering.”

“Your reaction is quite typical.  All recipients find it rather bewildering at first.”

“It all seems unreal at the moment.  I’m actually glad to hear from you again- that way I know it wasn’t a dream.  That is, I don’t mean that I wouldn’t have been glad to hear from you, it’s just that-.  Well, you know what I mean,” he finishes lamely.

“I quite understand.  No need to apologize.  I wanted to give you enough time to think things through a bit before I called again.  As I mentioned earlier, there are some important matters we need to discuss.  Is this a good time?”

“Yes, of course.”  His kidneys will have to wait, he realizes.  “What matters are those?”

“I wanted to discuss the prize.  By that, I mean the consideration that is awarded in addition to the medal and of course, the recognition of the world.  I assume you’re aware that past winners have received certain monies from the bequest of Alfred Nobel?”

“Yes, of course.”

“The prize has varied, but generally grown.  This year it will be 8 million Swedish kroner, or about $1.4 million in US currency.”

He can think of nothing to say doesn’t sound venal or stupid or both.  “Yes,” he manages.

“Well, this year there is an additional factor.  Winners this year will be given a choice of prizes.”

“Yes,” carefully neutral, this time.

“Perhaps you’ve heard rumors already?”

Mallory acknowledges that there have been rumors.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard.  I understand there may have been leaks to the popular press.  I am telling you that there is to be a choice between accepting the money or what the press, with their usual sensationalism, are calling eternal life.  In essence, this is correct.  You may choose a cash award, or you may choose to undergo a procedure that will extend your life.”  Thorvaldsen pauses, perhaps for dramatic effect.  “Your work has already made your name immortal, doctor.  The committee are now able to make you literally so.”

Despite his desire to remain soberly professional, Mallory lets his breath out in a long, ragged sigh.  So it’s true.  My God, it’s true!  Fantastically, dizzyingly true.  The confirmation is more staggering than the original news of his selection.  What can it mean?  Mallory’s mind races with the possibilities.

Thorvaldsen is speaking again.  Mallory reins in the speculations and tries to pay attention.

“The committee are officially neutral on the choice, Dr. Mallory.  It is yours and yours alone to make.  This is the first year that it has been offered.  That we have been able to offer it, in fact.  I will have the same conversation with each of our prize recipients sometime in the coming days.  You are the first I have spoken to.”

“I can’t imagine there’ll be any hesitation about it.”

“You mean in choosing immortality?  I wonder.  I’m curious to see what you choose, doctor.  While we are officially neutral, I admit that my bias is to have recipients make the choice that way.  We on the committee view the prize money as an investment.  Although we never say it, we have always hoped the cash prize would enable the recipient to continue in the line of research that led to the prize.  Similarly with this award.  There is nothing to prevent you spending eternity tending your garden, if that’s what you want to do.  But we think we know our prize winners better than that.”

“But this is staggering, Doctor Thorvaldsen.  I can’t make a decision like this on the spot.  I simply can’t.  The implications are-  I need to talk to my wife and we would have to know how we-“

Mallory stops in midsentence.

“Ah,” saysThorvaldsen. “We come right to the difficult part of this conversation.  This offer is only to the prize recipients themselves, doctor.  Not to family.  Firstly, you must understand that this is a fabulously expensive procedure.  The resources of the committee are not unlimited.  But that aside, where would we draw the line?  As I’m sure you are now realizing, if we extended the offer to spouses, what about children?  Grandchildren?  Many Nobel prize recipients are of that age.  Or perhaps even parents.  Once we begin, there is really no logical place to stop.  There would always be someone left out.  Also, doctor,” a slight hesitation, “looking beyond your immediate situation, there is a population problem on this planet.  If everybody lived forever, there could be no more children.  There would have to be a balance struck between a small number of immortals and the rest of us.  The honored few.”

“The envied few, you mean.”

“Perhaps.”

Mallory is silent for a moment.  “You said immortality.  But I can die?” 

“Yes, accident, catastrophic injury, and so forth.  You won’t get sick or grow older.”

“Suicide.”

“Yes, I suppose so, suicide.  I would hope not.”

Mallory is thinking furiously.  An unsuspected new world has opened in front of him.

“With a one in a million chance of dying in a plane crash, eventually it’s a certainty.” 

“Perhaps, but by that same logic it is also a certainty that with a one in many billions chance of seeing an elusive particle appear in an accelerator, you’d see it.  Or imagine a botanist who could plant a redwood seed and witness its entire life history from the sprout breaking the soil to the eventual, inevitable return to the soil.  Or the ability of a geologist to witness the drift of continents into new configurations.  Or a historian who is literally an eyewitness to an age.”

“I don’t think you award a prize in history, do you?”

“Perhaps we should start.”

“But this is fantastic.  Continental drift takes millions of years.”

“It is unfortunate that the popular press has already firmly established the ‘immortality’ notion, although I fall into that usage myself sometimes, as you’ve noticed.  Perhaps it is better to think of a lifespan that is simply ‘indefinite’.”

“Doctor Thorvaldsen, I am immensely flattered.  In awe.  Feeling I don’t know what- completely undeserving.  But I can’t possibly decide this on the spur of the moment, on my own.  I can’t even think coherently about the implications for my family.  I was completely blindsided by that.  I owe them everything that I am, everything that I have been able to accomplish.  Surely you see that.  It would be unthinkable to leave them behind.”

“I understand.  But consider: what do you owe the world, Dr. Mallory?” 

***

“How can you even be considering this, Loren?” 

They are standing in the kitchen, tense as two cats on a fence.  It is evening.  Shadows are long in the reddish light coming in through the west-facing hallway door.  His wife’s coat hangs from a stool pushed in to the kitchen island.  Her briefcase stands beside it.

“I didn’t say I was considering it.  You asked me what the big mystery about the prize was, and I’m just telling you what he told me.  That’s all.  Nothing’s decided.”

“Nothing’s decided?  There’s nothing to decide, is there?  What the hell is wrong with those people, your Dr. Thorvaldsen and his.. his committee, or whatever it is?  Do they think their prizes are won in some kind of splendid isolation?  What about all those fine speeches where the winners talk about how they couldn’t have done what they did without the support of their families?  And now they’re dangling this new prize in front of them- do they expect them to just say thanks for the leg up, but now I’m off on my new adventure, alone?  That’s not you, is it, Loren?”

“No, of course not.  You’re not listening to me, Claire.”

“Who put you through grad school, Loren, working those shitty clerical jobs?  Who looked after the kids while you were so busy establishing yourself in your research career that they hardly ever saw you?”

Mallory is getting annoyed in spite of his promise to himself to remain calm.  “Well, to be fair, Claire- who saw to it that you got through med school?  Who passed on several prestige faculty appointments because it would have meant moving the family?  This hasn’t exactly been a one-way street.”

“Oh, but the stakes are just a little bit higher, now, don’t you think?  We aren’t talking about simply postponing anyone’s career.  We’re talking about one of us dying, Loren, and the other going on- forever, apparently!  This is not what we promised each other when we got married.  It gives a whole new meaning to ‘til death do us part, doesn’t it?  Maybe I’d have some advice for your next wife!”

“Claire, stop it!  Jesus!”

They stare at each other, stricken, aware that they are on a precipice.

Time has estranged them.  Twenty-two years of marriage has produced two decorated careers, two children now in college.  Their lives are a ramifying network of choices they have made.  With each life transition, the partnership they had forged became a little less relevant, less necessary, as their respective worlds opened to them.  Colleagues took more and more of the emotional energy they had once reserved for each other.  Their worlds touch over matters concerning the children, at holidays, little else. Her friends are not his friends, his friends though few, are not hers. 

She moves to the window, arms folded, back rigid.

“I thought we were looking forward to growing older together, retiring, grandkids, things we both wanted,” she says, softly, over her shoulder.  She turns to face him.  “Don’t you see, part of having a life together is giving it up together at the end?  No matter who dies first, we’ve shared all that life brought to us, the sweet and the bitter. Maybe I‘ve been assuming a lot of things about us that you weren’t.”

 "We'd still have that.  And it’s not like we’re all that close any more, Claire.  We have separate lives.  We sleep in the same bed when we’re both in town at the same time.  Which isn’t very often.  We haven’t had sex in two years.”

“Just the sex?  Really, Loren?  That’s all you can say about us?  You’re over fifty, Loren.  We’re over fifty.  We had sex for twenty-five years.  And produced and raised two kids together.  Doesn’t any of that mean anything to you now?”

He frowns unhappily.  Somehow this thing that has the potential to foreclose their future together is also threatening their past, draining it of meaning.

 “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded, Claire.  I’m sorry if you took it that way.”

She is on the verge of tears.  Mallory tries to put his arm around her, but she flinches away.

“What other way is there to take it, Loren?  Tell me.  What other way am I supposed to see this?  Why not just leave me right now, since obviously we have no life together?”

“Claire, for Christ’s sake!  Stop it!  Nobody said anything about leaving.  I’m saying the opposite- I wouldn’t leave you if- I mean, I won’t leave you.  Period.  Dammit!”

“So I grow old and you watch me die.”  Her voice is flat, dull.

“That’s a very long way off, Claire.”

 “But it wouldn’t be from your perspective, would it?  Your oh-so Olympian perspective?  And then watch your own children die, for God’s sake?  That’s- that’s inhuman!”  She is nearly frantic.  “But there, don’t you see?  We’re already at the point where this is something thinkable?”

The hell of it is, Mallory thinks, she’s right, it is conceivable.  “Well, barring a plane crash while they’re on vacation together, one member of a married couple will always have to watch-“

“Don’t!  Don’t even.  You know what I mean.”

The hurt in her eyes is unmistakable, but the tears have retreated.

“I’m not sure I know who you are any more, Loren.”

Distractedly, he walks to the solarium doorway, savagely pulls the drapes closed.  Where the years of sunlight have fallen on it, the floral pattern on the drapes has faded to meaningless swirls.  He runs his hands through his hair.  He turns, wanting to say something, anything, to redeem the years, hell, even the last fifteen minutes, but she is already gone.

***

It is after midnight of the same day.  Mallory is lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, his hands laced behind his head.  He has taken the phone off the hook.  The moon, two days past full, bathes the room in pale light.  He barely notices.  His wife is the one who usually closes the curtains.

He is alone.  There is a single-sentence note on the kitchen counter.  His wife has gone to her sister’s in Sausalito.  No indication of when, or if, she’ll return.

His mind is racing.  The idea dazzles.  Who wouldn’t want to live forever?  Never be sick, never grow old.  Think of all the time to pursue his work; there are so many aspects to the time puzzle that he still wants to investigate.  With no worries about declining abilities.  Thorvaldsen hadn’t exactly said that, but that’s the correct inference, isn’t it?   Or time to pursue several more careers, or another Nobel in a different discipline.  Weren’t there some people who had done that?  No wonder Thorvaldsen had called it an investment.

He turns over, hugging the pillow.  But he’d probably continue with the physics.  He enjoyed the challenge, the uncompromising nature of physical reality that, in the end, accepted no outcome but the truth.  His interest in the work was as intense and obsessive now as it was when he began to study time.  No reason to think it wouldn’t continue to be.  That was the nature of people who were persistent enough to win Nobel prizes.  Although forever is a long time to do anything, he supposes. 

But if it’s an investment… 

Always intensely, and sometimes bitterly, competitive, the physics community would now expect continuing discoveries from the envied winners of the new prize.  But that concern was surely small-minded, wasn’t it?  Think of what Einstein could have accomplished if he had lived longer, as his biographers often mused.  Except, Mallory remembers, he hadn’t produced much in the last decades of his life.

Mallory thrashes onto his back, kicks the covers aside, and sits on the edge of the bed.  He starts to reach for his glasses, then lies back down.  Dawn is a long way off.

Ironic that someone who has peered more deeply into the nature of time than anyone before him should be having such a struggle deciding whether to accept the ultimate gift of time, he thinks.  A gift that would effectively halt personal entropy, all the little biological breakdowns that occur constantly on the march to the grave.  But was that even possible?  What about what goes on in the mind?

Is it reasonable to suppose that a Nobel prize winner would continue to be able to advance a field when the arc of his life is effectively frozen?  This looks like a chance to continue your work indefinitely, but people are notorious for getting in ruts, which only fresh minds seem able to surmount.  Maybe, he thinks, what you really want is reincarnation after reincarnation. 

Mallory sighs, resists looking at the clock.  He’s out of cigarettes, or he’d get up and have one.  No worries about lung cancer any more, at least. 

If he chooses to accept.

None of this helps with the choice in front of him.  He tries to balance the alternatives in his mind: if he chooses yes, if he chooses no.  Too bad you can’t do both, and then he laughs aloud as he realizes he is about to go down the multiple universe rabbit hole.  Apologies, Hugh Everett, for all the nasty things I’ve said about you.

So will he accept?  He doesn’t know, and he begins to question his ability to think coherently about the choice.  Midnight is dreamlike, even when you’re not actually dreaming.

Well, what about the money?  That’s still an alternative.  Not millions and millions, but a few million.  So what if I took the money instead?  What about a bird in the hand, one you actually understand?  Pay off the mortgage.  Retire.  Go fishing.  Stagnate.  Then what?  For a scientist, intellectual decline is more to be feared than physical death (but tell that to John von Neumann, he thinks, smiling as he remembers a biography he once read).  True immortality lies in the work itself.  Artists’ immortality lasts only as long as there is someone around to encounter the work.  Scientific immortality lies in conformance with the truth, independent of whether anyone is around to notice.

Although it is nice to be noticed while you’re still around.  He wonders briefly how van Gogh, wherever he is, feels about paintings that he once gave away, now selling for millions.

He sits up, pounds the pillow into shape, and flops down onto his stomach.  The moon is setting.  He sighs heavily.

All right, suppose you accept, and somewhere down the line the ideas aren’t coming anymore?  If you do get stuck, then what?  Are you stuck forever?  But then we aren’t talking about literal eternal life, are we?  Thorvaldsen had preferred ‘indefinite’.  And said that accidental or deliberate death was possible. 

Death.  The gateway to what most people think of as eternal life.  Mallory hasn’t thought much about the subject since his freshman year in college.  His scientific training caused him to treat the question of life after death as unscientific, unanswerable.  He knew religious thought had eventually become sophisticated enough to insist that its assertions were literally supernatural, beyond the realm of things that could be investigated with the senses.  Once upon a time, you could go out to the woods and check to see if in fact there was a hamadryad living in the oak, as the priests claimed.  As far Mallory is concerned, no sprite, no sale.  Although, he acknowledges, true believers routinely weather crushing disappointments when end-of-the-world deadlines come and go.  There’s always the next time.

Mallory had let all that go as unimportant.  Until now.  Was a belief in eternal life just wishful thinking?  Fear of the inevitability and finality of death?  But suppose they were right?  He’s already admitted it can’t be proved one way or the other.  Suppose he did eventually get run over by that bus, or simply grew weary enough to turn ‘indefinite’ back into ‘definite’.  What lay beyond? 

Mallory knows what his mother thought.  And the nuns at St. Michael’s school.  But how deeply have believers actually thought about what eternal life would be like?  Reunion with mother would be wonderful.  But coffee every day?  Forever?  What could you find to talk about?  Mallory suspects the only sort of eternal life truly imaginable is the one that is routinely derided by cynics: an eternity of harp-playing and praising God in front of the Throne. One unending Glorious Day (Mallory smiles at the unintentional pun), no memory of yesterday nor expectation of tomorrow.  How could it be otherwise?  The human mind is incapable of coping with the extent of time that was being proposed.  There weren’t enough brain cells and synapses.  Okay, so you were given some sort of new celestial body.  Still.  Could you have a coherent experience of eternity?  After a million years, you weren’t even getting started yet.  Or a billion.  Or a million billion.

Mallory is well aware of the ‘awe of large numbers’ thing, and dismissive of it; math is his bread and butter.  Until it gets personal.  The vast expanse of time is easily captured in mathematics, but defeats the imagination. “The equations were simple.  The reality ungraspable.”  Who had said that?

All right, so it probably isn’t on and on until the breaking of the world and the death of the sun.  Perhaps merely –merely- hundreds or thousands ofI years.  Is that any more comprehensible?  Eventually your only contemporaries would be other Nobel winners.  Everyone else would have, in the way of the world, passed on.  How would it be?  If you stay in the public eye, as the Nobel committee no doubt expects, how are you viewed?  Venerated by the rest of the world?  Living fossil?  Still relevant?  Institutional memory?  Or envy, even anger? 

In the end, maybe it would just be unbearably lonely.  No close friends, just an ever-changing cohort of young people that turned into old people.  Youth looks out from the faces of everyone once but then moves on.  Except for the curdled youth on the faces of the prize winners.

Mallory finds his eyelids have become leaden.  He yawns until his jaw cracks.  It has been a very long day.  He begins the easy slide into oblivion.  Thought becomes untrammeled, imprecise.  Memories and fantasies crowd around.  A godlike observer, he witnesses the final victory of entropy in a universe in the last throes of heat death. The guttering stars wink out one by one.  Alone and lonely, he drifts among cinders and shadows. But something in this image jolts and he is a swimmer, lungs bursting, struggling upward toward the daylit surface of consciousness again.  Could there be entropy somehow in human relationships, too?  In the end, is all affection destined to cool and lovers drift away from each other?  And he is wide awake again and wracked with overwhelming guilt.  The idea that he has been avoiding since the afternoon is stark before him.  What about Claire and the children?

He sits up, rubs his hands over his face.  Two hours of this and he has gotten exactly nowhere.  As in every bout of middle-of-the-night soul-searching he can recall, he is more conflicted now than when he began.  Mallory does not do his best work after midnight.

He needs to talk to someone else about this.  Someone with perspective.  He pulls on his robe, then pads barefoot to the study, opens his laptop, and does a search.  After a few minutes, he has what he is looking for.  Then, careless of the hour, he picks up the phone and dials the number he has found.

***

“So.  This is about the immortality option, isn’t it?  You didn’t come up here just to talk about how wonderful it is to be a Nobel prize winner.”

They are sitting in the mountaintop lodge belonging to Stephen Mason, last year’s Nobel prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, outside Breckenridge, Colorado.  The leather armchairs face a wall that is entirely windows.  The only light is from the fire in the open fireplace in the middle of the room, and the last of the day’s sunlight coming through the windows.  The ceiling is held up by massive cedar beams radiating outward from the fireplace chimney.  The floor, what you can see of it, is salvaged pine planks, a foot wide, waxed to mellow perfection.  Most of the floor is covered by expensive-looking Oriental rugs.  There is little other furniture, but here and there are pieces of sculpture, the smaller ones on pedestals.  The effect is one of casual, expensive elegance.  Behind them, in the shadows, are the kitchen, bedrooms, all the life support machinery.  In front is only the eternal sky.

“You knew about the committee’s plans, then,” says Mallory.  He has a drink in his hand, from the small bar in a dark corner of the room.

“Of course.”

“Yes, that’s the main reason.  I can’t decide what to do.  I thought I’d talk to the only person who might have answers to the questions I have.”

“I can try.  The gift of time.  Particularly appropriate in your case, I suppose.”

“What do you- oh, because of my topic.”

“I can tell you a bit about the process, at least.  Afraid I can’t help much with the big questions, though.  All of which you’ve asked yourself by now, I’m sure.  I guess I’m the original optional prize recipient, aren’t I, although I awarded it to myself.  Need that refreshed?”

Mallory shakes his head.  Mason goes to the bar, adds some vodka to his highball glass.  “How much do you know about how the process works?”

“A little.  I’ve done some reading.  Just the general interest stuff.  I don’t have the background for the really technical bits.  Not my speciality.”

“You don’t need the molecular level details for what you want to know.  When I arrived on the scene about ten years ago enough critical research had been done so someone- me- could put all the pieces together.  Aging had come to be understood as a general breakdown of the body’s ability to repair itself.  So if you could fix the breakdown, you could stop aging.  You’ve heard of telomeres?”

“Yeah.  The protective tips on the chromosomes, aren’t they?”

“Yes.  Cells wear out, need to be replaced by new cell division.  Every time they divide, the telomeres are like counters marking the number of remaining times the cell can divide.  When it can’t divide any more, you begin to die.  Anyway, part of the solution was learning how to stop the telomeres from breaking off.  A lot of other people were working in that direction before I was.  But that wasn’t the whole story.  Turns out there are cellular clocks that cause cells to start producing some faulty proteins that actively cause degraded functioning in the body- aging.  It isn’t just a matter of things wearing out, like a set of tires with too many miles on them.  It’s like something is actively destroying things from the inside.  Stop these proteins from being produced, and you’ve got the key.”

“So how do you do it?”

“Gene editing.  You do some cutting and pasting, and you get cells that are effectively brand-new again, no history.  Once they’re out of the lab and injected back into the host, they propagate nicely in the body until you’re a new man, as the saying goes.”

“And you tried it out on yourself.  Pretty daring.”

“Maybe.  I didn’t feel I could ask someone else to do something potentially dangerous.  But don’t forget there were a lot of animal trials before I used the protocol on myself.  I was pretty sure by then.  I’m not crazy.”

“Kind of makes you wonder why people die at all.  Especially if, as you say, it isn’t simply a matter of wearing out.”

“Go ahead and smoke if you want to.”

Mallory, who had started to reach into his shirt pocket several times and then refrained, grins sheepishly.  He takes a cigarette from the pack and cups the lighter in his hand. 

Mason watches, a small ironic smile on his face. “Can’t hurt now, right?  All the ills the flesh is heir to.  I picked it up where I left off years ago, but then quit again.  Seemed kind of childish.  To me, I mean.  I don’t try to tell anyone else what to do.  There are ashtrays over on the bar.”

Mallory walks back to the bar, takes an ashtray, pauses, figures he might as well pour a little more brandy while he’s up.

“I don’t suppose you’ve any quarrel with Darwin?  The standard argument is that you don’t want to compete with your own offspring.  Once you’ve raised your children and maybe paid for the grandkids’ college, you’re just taking up space and consuming resources they could be using.  And you certainly don’t want to keep passing on your old, unevolved genes when later generations are already smarter, faster, better.  So the best thing you can do for posterity is to die and get out of their way.  Have you seen any of the computer simulations?”

Mallory shakes his head.  “What simulations?”

“Some guys at MIT, I think it was, set up a game where a mixed population of immortals and mortals would compete for resources over time, and then they let them have at it.  There are various parameters they can tweak that change the progress of the game, things like how fast the mortals evolve, but in the end it’s the mortals that outcompete the immortals.  Always.  Food for thought.”

Mallory looks closely at Mason’s face.  “So how’s it going?  So far.”

“So far, so good.”

“How long has it been?”

“Four years.”

“You don’t look any older than the pictures that were all over the newspapers a year ago.”

“Well, you wouldn’t really expect to see much difference in that amount of time, would you?  But I’ll tell you something I haven’t told anyone else yet: I seem to be getting younger.  This didn’t just halt the march to the grave.  There is actually some sort of rejuvenation going on.”  Mason turns his head to one side, then to the other.  “I was beginning to get quite grey at the temples four years ago.  Now, no sign of it.”

“Wait’ll the cosmetics industry gets hold of this.”

Mason smiles.  “I wouldn’t want to be nine years old again, but so far the results have been quite positive.  I have taken up several activities again that I had given up.  Skiing, for example.  Why I have the place up here on the mountain.  That and the fact that nobody bothers me up here.”

“Except me, you mean.”

“Special case.  Elementary courtesy extended to a fellow Nobel recipient.”

“You make the prize choice sound quite obvious.”

The smile leaves Mason’s face.  “But that isn’t the crux of the matter, really, is it, just not growing old and dying?  It’s what you’re going to do with all that time that is suddenly in front of you.”

“That, and what happens to the people you leave behind.  You’ve heard that they’re only offering it to the medal recipients themselves?”

Mason looks grave.  “No, I hadn’t heard that.  Makes sense, I suppose.  Maybe they’ve seen the simulations.”

“I doubt it.  Thorvaldsen said it was pure economics.  I believed him.”

“You’re married?”

“Yes.”

“Children?”

“Two.  In college.”

“I’m sorry.  I must have sounded pretty callous with the survival of the fittest stuff.”

“No worries.  You didn’t know.”

“Your choice is going to be a lot harder than mine was.  My wife left me years ago.  Widowed by science, as she liked to put it. We never had any kids.  Part of the reason she left.  They say children are the only real immortality.  Were, I guess, now.  I never really bought into that- too self-absorbed, maybe, to see someone else’s life as an extension of my own.  Maybe it’s different for women, I don’t know, to actually produce a new life from your own body.  For men, it’s more like the stream of life casts you up on the bank and leaves you stranded.”

“That has a familiar ring, actually.”

Mason looks thoughtful.  “I wonder how I would have handled that?”

“You mean if you still had family?”

“No, how I would have structured the prize.  I suppose you can’t have everyone living forever, but leaving behind family members is an awful lot to ask.  I’m glad I didn’t have to do it.  When Thorvaldsen came knocking with his proposal, I agreed and signed the whole patent over to the committee.”

“So you don’t control the rights anymore?”

“No.  Gave it away.  Well, the lawyers insisted on a symbolic dollar for the rights.  You mentioned the cosmetics industry- they’d have to go to the Nobel committee.  But I’m pretty sure- at least I hope- that they wouldn’t license it.”

“You just gave it away?  My God, it must be worth millions, maybe billions.  I just assumed, seeing this place-”

“Couldn’t see myself playing God.  And that wasn’t the only patent I held.”  Mason sips his drink.  “Are you a religious man, Mallory?”

Mallory shakes his head. “No.  I was raised Catholic, but I left the church years ago.  The claims didn’t hold up under scrutiny.”

 “I don’t why they insist on calling it immortality.  Every time I talk to Thorvaldsen, he slips up at least once.  But it’s amusing, in an ironic sort of way.  Eternal life, but no faith required.  Only good works count.  And who judges those works?  The prize committee, of course.” 

He shakes his head.  “Eternal life.  I can’t see how it could work.  Can you imagine a fellow immortal coming up to you and saying, ‘Remember that 9-iron I holed out on 16?  That was a billion years ago last Thursday, you know.’”

Mallory laughs.  “No.  I agree: we just aren’t built for it.  Eventually you’d have to forget in order to continue to live.  For every new experience, a memory would have to fall off the other end.  And you wouldn’t even be aware that you’ve lost something.  I don’t know what the minimum duration for consciousness is; seems to me I read it’s a matter of a few seconds for us to be aware of the passage of time at all.  And what’s any interval of existence but a succession of nows strung together by memory?  Maybe that’s all that would work, some short clip repeated over and over, endlessly.  No lasting memories, no anticipation.”

“Like a scratched LP, skipping and skipping?”  Mason smiles.

“Something like that, yes.”

“And the real world is slowly spinning down.  At some point, there won’t even be day and night any more.  You’d see your own species evolve into something you don’t recognize.  Or they you.”

“Well, eventually you get hit by a bus.  Or struck by lightning.”

“But eventually you’d win the lottery.  Don’t forget that.”

“Yes.  But think how many lottery tickets you’d have to have bought.”

Both men laugh, then are silent for a time.  Mallory notices his cigarette has burned down to the filter.  He stubs it out.  Mason starts to say something, thinks better of it, then begins again.

“Once you argue yourself to where you reject literal immortality, ‘indefinite’ starts to sound like a whole lot of more of the same.”  Mason shrugs.  He glances up, smiles.  “But hey, nice problem to have, right?  Who wouldn’t want to live another hundred years?  And who isn’t, at bottom, afraid of dying?  What about you?  I understand the committee expects more brilliant science in perpetuity from its prize grantees.  You’re quite the rock star yourself, Mallory. Solved the arrow of time puzzle, as I understand it?”

Mallory could recite it in his sleep by now.  “Well, theory has always indicated that time could flow in both directions: there's nothing to stop it. But experience says it flows forward only. I came to a better understanding of how it was the entropy influenced the direction of time. There are theoretical tachyons that go backward in time but in fact the macro world will always be prevented from doing that.  Don’t know how deep you really want to get into it.”

“Mmm, not very.  Not my speciality.  But it does foreclose some old speculations, doesn’t it?  No worries about going back in time and accidentally killing your own grandfather.”

“I don’t know that anyone was ever seriously worried about that, but no.”

“But who hasn’t wished to be able to go back and undo a cruel action, or take back an unkind comment?”

“Most of us, I imagine.”

Mason is quiet, considering.

“So a choice is a choice forever and aye?  No do overs?”

Mallory smiles.  “No, I'm afraid not.  I guess the best we can do to make up for bad choices is to try to make amends.  You can’t correct the past, but you can alter the future before it happens.  Like it’s always been, but no wishful thinking any more, as you say.”  He laughs, somewhat ruefully.  “As I was reminded yesterday by a guy that was interviewing me, this is all stuff that everybody knows already.  Everything we knew instinctively as true, is true in reality as well.  Loren Mallory, disciple of the obvious.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Mallory.  My understanding is that your work provides a foundation for some research that was on pretty shaky ground until now.”

“What about your own work?” 

“What work?” Mason smiles.

 “So what are you doing with the time?”

“This and that.  Skiing.”

“That can’t be all.  You’ll be doing an awfully lot of skiing between now and forever.  Why not keep working?  The opportunities for research now are almost unlimited, yes?”

“Yes, but somehow I've lost the drive. The pressure isn't there anymore. I’ll do it tomorrow, or next week, or a hundred years from next week.  It’s the apotheosis of procrastination.  You know the old cliché about the awareness of one’s own death driving creativity? Well, I’m finding that to be true.”

Mason gets up and walks to the glass wall at the far end of the room.  Away in the valley far below the lights of a city are clear but remote, meaningless.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says over his shoulder.

Mallory joins him at the windows.  It is indeed beautiful.  In the violet dusk, the sun’s disk is disappearing behind the western peaks.  Welling shadows fill the valley.

Mason raises his glass, gestures at the city below. “That could all be yours, you know. I mean it literally. This doesn't have to be about science. You want to know what to do with the time?  Forget about winning the lottery. You’ve got eternity to work in.  Financially, if you didn't do anything stupid you could eventually own the world.  Thought about that?”

 “No, I can’t say I have.”

Mason turns back to the view.  “Well, you could.”

Mallory can think of nothing to say to this.  The silence begins to be awkward.  Then Mason turns to Mallory, holding him with his eyes.  His voice is low but intense.

“Look, Mallory, it’s really none of my business, but you did say you came up here looking for answers.  I admire your concern for your family.  I envy you that, I really do.  But you know they’re going to die someday no matter what you choose to do about the prize.  And you’d still have all that time until then with them.  Imagine being able to meet your own great-great-grandchildren.  Imagine being able to guide them with the experience gained from several normal lifespans. And don’t let the prize committee guilt you.  I know what they say about the prize encouraging more research- I’ve heard the same speech.  You’ve already given us a deeper understanding of how the universe works than we’ve ever had before.  Think what a gift that is!  You don't owe them anything further.  My discovery can give you the world.  What about what you owe yourself, Mallory?”

 Mallory is taken aback by his vehemence.  He is unable to hold Mason’s gaze and glances down at his drink, then sips from the glass.  Both men return to staring out the window as the last of the sun’s arc sinks behind the rim of the world and the sky is reclaimed by the endlessly circling stars.  The men are left to their individual thoughts.

At length, Mason straightens his shoulders and turns to Mallory.  “Sorry about the outburst.  I’ve been feeling a little cynical lately. I’d even say morbid, but I’ve dropped that word from my personal vocabulary.  I’m so sick of all that’s been said about my work and how selfish it all is and how I’m playing God.  The plaudits of a grateful nation, right?  I hope the press treats you better than they treated me. Of course you should go on with your own work, if that’s what you want to do.  But it would still be a good thing to have unlimited time to do it in.”  He raises his glass, smiles crookedly.  “Good luck with your choice, Mallory. Mine has been made.”  He sets his glass down on an end table and stretches.  “I think I’m through for the night.  Stay up as late as you want.  Enjoy the view.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

But when Mallory comes out of the guest bedroom the next morning, his host is already gone.  The rack that had contained his skis is now empty.  A note on the kitchen island instructs him to let himself out and lock the door behind him.

***

The lights in the Stockholm Concert Hall are bright enough on the stage, but mostly indirect, except where Dr. Loren Mallory stands at the lectern.  The spotlight feels hot to him, but it may just be nerves causing the trickle of perspiration on his forehead.  Elsewhere in the hall, the audience is in  half-light.  Not that Mallory is counting the house, but there doesn’t seem to be an empty seat anywhere.  There are rich woods, tall columns outlining box seats.  Behind him, the ranked pipes of an organ glint dimly.

Mallory has never seen so many white ties and cummerbunds.  This is perhaps one of the very last ceremonies on the planet that has not bowed to the relaxed protocol of the age.

He shades his eyes briefly, looking for faces he recognizes in the audience, then places both hands on the lectern.  The flexible lectern light makes a brilliant circle on the notes in front of him.  He clears his throat.

“Your Majesty, members of the Nobel committee, fellow recipients, ladies and gentlemen,” he begins.  “Good evening.  I am immensely grateful to be here with you tonight to accept the Nobel Prize for Physics.”  He glances up from his notes, smiles.  So far, so good.  He had been coached on the protocol that was required in addressing the assembly: you didn’t want to come across as a hopeless provincial.

“I feel that I really am here tonight as a representative, just one of a group of physicists that have been working on this conundrum of the nature of time- for centuries, really.  But as the committee has chosen me to receive the prize, I’ll do my best to honor those that have gone before me in this investigation.”

He pauses, takes a sip of water.

“Time is a subject that all of us have some instinctive understanding of, although we may not always be able to put into words exactly what we know about it.  During my research, I made certain discoveries about the nature of time.  I don’t flatter myself that many of you have read my paper.  It’s rather heavy going.  But that’s all right, because many of the insights I’ve had regarding time are quite recent and are not reflected in the paper.  Important insights.  Perhaps more important than the research for which I was given the prize.  And I want to share those with you tonight.”

Mallory looks up from his notes.  “By now, most of you will have heard the news about the new prize being offered as a choice to Nobel recipients.  The committee has been thought, in the past, extremely generous with the bequest of Alfred Nobel.  And rightly so.  But this new thing is truly magnificent.  Mind boggling.  Breathtaking.  Or perhaps I had better say life-giving.  It is the option of choosing life extension.  In plainer words, the gift of time, the one thing that, no matter how wealthy, or powerful- or wise-  no person has ever managed to acquire more of.  Imagine if this prize had been available to Galileo, Newton or Einstein.  What if they had been able to prolong their careers for many more productive years?  Perhaps even still be with us today?  What marvels might they have shared with us in those added years?  How much farther along might we be scientifically than we are now?  What if it had been available to Pasteur, or to Edison or Tesla?”

Mallory pauses for emphasis.  “The committee in one noble action has offered prize winners the opportunity to continue their scientific careers indefinitely, for the scientific advancement of all mankind.  It is perhaps the most significant contribution to the cause of scientific progress ever made.  It is truly an inspiring development.”

Mallory pauses, takes another sip of water.  No surprises so far.  But he is about to go off script.

 “I was staggered when Dr. Thorvaldsen first described this new option to me.  The implications were profound.  My mind teemed with the possibilities, all the unexplored avenues of research that had, because of time and resource constraints, seemed out of reach.”  Mallory straightens, leans away from the lectern.“But, ironically, it was this prize that caused me, after much deep reflection, to find myself in the rather odd position of having to admit to all of you that I don’t really understand time at all.”

He looks up.  In the first couple of rows, all he can really see clearly, a few people are turning to seatmates in puzzlement.

“Nothing of any real importance about time, that is.  As you can imagine, it has been humbling, to say the least, for a person in my position to realize that the most important things about time are just those bits of instinctive knowledge that we all share.  I have come to understand some of the uses of time and maybe something of the meaning of time.”

Mallory looks up, smiles, finds his wife in the first row, turns over his notes and turns off the lectern light. 

“It is these things I want to talk about tonight, and why I made the choice I did.  We have much to discuss, you and I, so let’s begin.”


© Copyright 2017 Norman Donald Bloom. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

Comments

avatar

Author
Reply

More Science Fiction Short Stories

Booksie 2017-2018 Short Story Contest

Booksie Popular Content

Other Content by Norman Donald Bloom

Popular Tags