The Risks of Empathy, A Novella
Karen was more excited than she had been in weeks. She had cleaned more hamster and guinea pig cages than she had imagined even existed. That morning, on the magnetic white duty board, she had seen her name stuck in a new location: Dr. Yu’s assistant.
In the laboratory she prepared everything just as she had been taught at the university. She had the gleaming sterile instruments all prepared on the pale green plastic tray and the four tubs of research animals: two hamsters and two guinea pigs, on the cart next to the laboratory table.
Dr. Yu came in wearing a crisply starched white lab coat and latex gloves. His dark hair was combed straight back and seemed covered in some sort of grease. He seemed momentarily surprised by Karen’s presence. She thought he must have forgotten that she had been assigned to assist him, or maybe he had not been told. Yu mumbled something, looked around at Karen’s preparations and seemed satisfied. He turned his attention to the tubs and chose one of the small ones first. Yu popped the blue top off and reached in with one motion. Karen was startled at how quickly he broke the hamster’s neck. Almost before it had quit quivering Yu had cut out a small portion of its thigh and placed it into one of the vials Karen had standing by. In less than five minutes Yu had performed the same procedure on the other hamster and the two guinea pigs.
Karen loved science.
A little over a year after their breakthrough Stan and Earnie’s cerebral transmitter had evolved and been repackaged by the global marketing giant Selling Inc. Selling’s production team had learned that the experiences one had when "plugged in" seemed absolutely real. Volunteers who had watched downhill skiing recordings had broken legs and arms when the person skiing and recording their experience had fallen.
Harry sat on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands. He noticed the darkly stained sheet covering the sagging mattress and wondered idly to himself how long it had been since he had put fresh linen on the bed. Years he figured. “Happy fuckin’ birthday,” he thought to himself. He had turned ninety-eight last night, and as far as he could tell he was going to be around for a very long time. The thought of the endless days of work ahead of him encouraged him to pick up the can on the bedside table and down the stale dregs of last night’s last beer. Harry rose from the bed, walked over to the window and looked out on the gray sky, gray skyline, and gray skyscrapers blocking his view of endlessly more gray buildings. He put his hand down the front of his stained Jockey’s and absently held his penis and testicles. It was Tuesday at 11:00 AM. It was his regular day off. He wondered what he would do to kill the day and walked over to the purring refrigerator for a fresh cold one. And, as luck would have it, there was only one left. Harry popped the tab and downed it in a single gulp. Oh well, the trip to the store would get him out of the apartment.
Dr. Robert sat across from the couple and tried to guess their ages, though he realized it was an impossible task in this day and age. But she appeared to be mid-thirties maybe and him just a little older.
“How old are you two?” An impolite question in recent years but one a doctor could still get away with.
“Sharon’s one forty something doc, and I’m pushing two hundred. How old are you?” the man asked, tit for tat.
”Well, I don’t know if that’s…”
“Look, you asked us, so what’s fair’s fair,” the man snapped back.
Dr. Robert sat for a moment, “I’m one fifty-two.”
“OK then, you can see what we’re sayin’. We don’t want our kid to get Adjusted. We want to have her at home and let her get to grow old and die.”
“You know that’s illegal? I could lose my license if someone found out and reported me. I’m supposed to report you just for asking, you know.”
“Look doc, we came here because someone said you were a good guy and could be trusted. If we got it wrong you can just say we never came in.” The man took his hand off his wife’s still shapely stomach and said, “Let’s get out of here Sharon.”
“No, wait, I’ll help you. I just have to be so careful. I hope you can understand.”
The man settled back down and seemed to shed a few years from his countenance.
“Let’s get you on the table for an exam, Sharon.”
Richard Selling sat across the gleaming walnut conference table from the Secretary of Commerce and wondered to himself just what the feds were actually willing to pay.
“As I mentioned earlier Mr. Selling, our top experts feel that if more people had access to your Total Experience device that there would be far fewer jumpers and ‘accidental’ car and train accidents.” He leaned heavily on ‘accidental’.
“How many is ‘more’ Mr. Secretary? We are in full production now and can barely keep them on the shelves.”
“Yes, well, we think, um, well, everyone should have one.”
“We think so too Mr. Secretary, and we are hoping to increase production by opening a new plant next year.” He could see from the Secretary’s expression that he might have missed the point. “Did you mean, literally, everyone?”
“Well, um, well, say everyone over fifty?”
Selling did some quick mental math. “Mr. Secretary we don’t even begin to have that sort of production capability at the moment…”
“No, no, you misunderstand our proposition. You see, we do have the resources. We want to, well, um, yes, license the product and would be willing to pay some fair amount per unit. We, um, well, I have been authorized to offer you, say, one hundred dollars per unit,” he lied.
“We are selling them now for two thousand a pop, why would we…?”
“I’m sorry for not making our position a bit more clear. We are talking about a, well, um, yes, well, a lump sum payment.”
“A lump sum payment?” More mental math. “But people turn fifty every day and you said…”
“Yes, well, um, we, uh, our experts tell us that we can expect eight hundred million people to be over the age of fifty within the next ten years. So, um, well, er, how does eighty billion dollars sound? Does that seem fair? We really have to do something about all the suicides we think. Our experts tell us that the strains on the system will be just too great if …” he shut up quickly, realizing that had rambled on in exactly the way he had wished to avoid.
Selling sat enthralled. The government had just offered to cut him an eighty billion dollar check. “My god,” he thought to himself, "they must really think there is a real problem. He had known that the feds had been keeping the number of suicides under-reported, but this suggested that they were keeping them seriously hushed up. He knew he had them.
“Make it one hundred even and you’ve got yourself a deal, Mr. Secretary.”
“You are a true patriot Mr. Selling. The country owes you a real debt of gratitude.” He was secretly quite pleased with himself; he had been authorized to go to one thousand each.