Risks of Empathy, A Novella
Bob stepped off the curb into the small puddle of brown water, which distracted him just long enough for the bus to run him over. A police officer sitting in a cruiser parked just a few car lengths away saw the accident and made an immediate 911 call for an ambulance. The bus driver made a similar call only an instant later. Within two minutes two ambulances had arrived, surprisingly fast. One minute later two paramedic teams were at Bob’s side and saved his life. Bob had every reason to expect to be able to live another eighty or ninety years at least; he was only a hundred and forty-two years old after all.
Sarah drove up to her front door wondering what to make for dinner that night. After a little thought she decided on fried chicken. Jimmy and Amanda both love it and Dave thinks her fried chicken is the best he’s ever had. Fried chicken always made her think of her mom, “Sarah,” she would say, “remember to always peal the skin from the chicken and fry it in low fat canola.” That always made Sarah smile. Thinking of her own two kids she tried to imagine what it must have been like for parents back in her mom’s and grandmother’s times who knew their children were going to die and needed to be protected even from things like cholesterol, salmonella, or cancer.
The damn thing just wouldn’t work. Stan and Earnie were sitting on backless swivel stools facing each other. Earnie had a pair of blue virtual vision goggles on and was wearing something that looked like a hairnet. Stan had a sensor in his hand and was moving it from intersection to intersection on the hair net thing while watching the readout on the sensor and occasionally glancing over at two video displays that appeared to be showing two rapidly undulating graphs.
“I don’t know what the fuck’s wrong with the damn thing,” Earnie said from behind the goggles.
“We’re gonna get it,” answered Stan reassuringly.
And then Earnie seemed to relax and said, “Oh, god.”
Karen was finally going to graduate and was going to make her first career choice. Her grades had been excellent and all her professors had written her glowing recommendations. She had met with the councilors and they had given her all the brochures to read, but even without them she knew what career she was going to choose. Without more than a second glance at the code for Conservationist, she coded the appropriate boxes and became the country’s newest Basic Biological Research Scientist Trainee for about two and a half minutes until some equally bright and dynamic young scholar took her place as the nation's newest scientist.
In 2014 Dr. Robert N. Diggins discovered that a particularly long series of nucleotides in human cells seemed to be misplaced. Using gene-splicing techniques that had been in use for decades, Diggins rearranged things. The order had only been a little off according to Diggins’s research. Ten years later scientists generally recognized Diggins as a total crackpot, but a damned lucky one. Based on erroneous data and faulty reasoning, Diggins had discovered the fountain of youth and the Diggins Adjustment had become something akin to circumcision. It had taken eight years for the public to force the government to act, but now, with the gene rearrangement, humans had become immune to nearly all disease. Rumors continued to pop up for years about this or that rare disease, but now everyone generally agreed that they just might not die.
Bob got out of the hospital fairly easily after his run in with the bus. His liver had been damaged quite badly, but techniques had come a long way from his grandfather’s time. Bob’s liver had been removed and placed in a nutrient bath and allowed to rest and heal more quickly. While Bob’s liver was getting its healing rest, Bob stayed attached to the artificial liver and watched videos. An artificial lens had been placed in his right eye, which had been punctured in the accident, but now he had excellent vision in that eye. When Bob left the hospital his liver was rested and his vision, in one eye at least, was sharp.
Sarah took the chicken from the freezer, and she felt really old fashioned. How many people still stored their meat in the freezer? An entire craze had embraced meat that was beginning to decompose and soften. Sarah did keep some meat in the cabinet but she found that the ventilating fan rarely completely removed the smell. The chicken thawed out in an instant in the microwave. Sarah liked to cook. She put the black cast iron pan on the electric burner and spooned in three cups of the best snow-white pork lard. She went to the refrigerator, thinking of being old fashioned again, took out half a dozen eggs and cracked them into a bowl. To this she added a cup of heavy cream. She took the cracker crumbs from the shelf and dumped them into a flat blue dish and sprinkled in some salt and pepper. She cut the chicken into her natural parts: legs, wings, breast, thighs, and back and set the giblets and neck aside. She dipped a piece of the chicken into the egg and heavy cream, then into the crumbs, then back into the egg and cream and crumbs once more and then into the almost smoking hot fat. The skin sizzled as she repeated the process with another and another piece until the pan was full. She went back and turned each piece while the aroma of frying chicken filled the house.
“It was fucking beyond real, man,” asserted Earnie. He looked down at the foam in his coffee mug and watched the colors change from reds and greens to blues as the oil slid off the bubbles. “It was fucking beyond real, man.”
Stan knew they were going to be very wealthy. Their research into virtual reality had hit pay dirt. When he had switched places with Earnie he had understood Earnie’s rapture. Their cerebral transmitter had achieved a step, a light-year's leap past the virt-vision in use. This was so real that someone might get hurt reacting from the images in their mind and before their eyes.
Karen began her new career at the Enzyme Interaction Institute in Dr. Yu’s laboratory. Yu’s people were working to discover whether the ratio of neurons to muscle fibers in hamster thigh muscle was quantitatively different than the n/m ratio in guinea pig thigh muscle. The first of the many responsibilities Karen was eventually assigned was the care of the experimental animals in building number seven. Karen would begin cleaning at nine o’clock in the morning. The hamsters and guinea pigs were stored in clear plastic tubs with light blue snap-on plastic lids. A water bottle was attached to one end. A simple food tray was attached at the other. Karen had a cart she pushed along with her. On the cart were two tall stacks of the clear plastic tubs stacked like Dixie cups. Next to the tubs was a five-gallon bucket of food pellets. A pistol grip hose nozzle was hooked over the edge of the cart which pulled a black water hose along behind it like an endless tail. Karen stopped at the first bank of tubs. The stainless steel rack was twelve tubs wide and five tubs high. She cleaned a half rack at a time. These were guinea pig tubs; the hamster tubs were twenty-four tubs wide and ten tubs high. Each aisle was made up of twenty banks of racks. All the tubs along the first five aisles held experimental animals. Each of these tubs held one animal. The other three aisles held pregnant mothers or mothers and babies.
The Diggins’ Adjustment, or simply the Adjustment as it came to be known, was a boon to food producers and tobacco growers and chemical corporations and turned life insurance companies into holders of truly astounding amounts of money. People quit dying, but it was a decade or two before people really began to understand and canceled their life insurance. The food producers quit caring about the health benefits of their products, and low fat options disappeared overnight. Tobacco became immensely popular once again and though a few restaurants still tried to maintain a no-smoking area, the notion was considered quaint more than anything else. Chemical companies quit worrying about carcinogenicity and pollution and went into free-for-all production.
The world experienced a renaissance - no illness, no death, nothing but potential.