The Risks of Empathy, a Novella
In its heyday HtH Cattle and Timber had been the largest range-fed beef-producing outfit west of the Atlantic Ocean. Its one hundred seventeen thousand acres was massive by any standards even if much of it was arid semi-desert. Its grandiose size gave it its name, Horizon to Horizon, and the original owner liked to falsely boast that the sun never set on HtH.
The property’s size made parts of it very remote and generally unknown, even to its neighboring ranchers. There was a small valley near the center of the property that was protected by mountains on three sides. A small spring-fed stream came out of the mountains, ran through the valley, and formed a small lake that marked the valley’s edge. The small lake slowly evaporated in the dry air of the desert at just about the same rate that the stream kept it filled. In the valley, between the mountains and the lake, nature had contrived to create a microclimate that pine trees and firs found to their liking. Native grasses clung to life as they competed with the exotic grasses that had taken over the West. All in all, the valley was green, cool in the summer, surprisingly mild in the winter, and home to many animals.
It was in this valley, twenty years ago, that Richard Selling had built his hideaway. He had bought HtH simply because of the valley. He had mentioned his purchase to very few people, had bought it through a shell company that quietly transferred title to him just before it went out of business, and to the degree he was able to, he had kept the location very private.
The cabin, as Selling referred to it, was simple but sophisticated. The cabin’s south façade was mostly glass and overlooked the lake and the desert beyond. It acted as a solar collector and helped warm the building during the cold months of winter. The other rooms had views of mountains and forests reaching up into them; snow clung to the mountaintops throughout much of the summer, offering a cooling vista on hot summer days. The cabin appeared to have grown in place. Its worn silvered wood exterior had been chosen carefully to blend in with the terrain and surrounding forest; the shingles were dark and lined with moss. Two chimneys rose from the roof. They were made of stone that matched the color of the peaks guarding the valley. From the air, it was easy to overlook the cabin due to its easy fit in the valley, just as Selling had wanted it to be.
As gentle and nondescript as the cabin was from the outside, it was state of the art telecommunications and security on the inside. Two of Selling Inc.’s geosynchronous communication satellites relayed continuous data streams to the cabin from news outlets around the world. A third satellite, listed as space junk in all the federal and commercial catalogs, maintained a dedicated comlink with the rest of the planet’s communication system via highly encrypted code. As much as Selling enjoyed his semi-reclusive lifestyle, Selling Inc. had become a giant in world commerce specifically because Selling himself kept a watchful eye on the economic and political climate of the market and could respond instantly when need be.
Now, two weeks to the day after he had listened to the White House’s excuses for why they were going to put Selling Inc. out of business, Richard Selling sat in his cabin and watched the news from around the world on seven holoscreens; five of them were all saying pretty much the same thing: the United States government had banned the Selling TE, had criminalized sale of Selling TEs, was blocking all Selling TE transmissions, was warning current users against their use due to the discovery that extended exposure to the transmissions would cause irreparable dementia over time, that the Government had set up an exchange program to replace the Selling product with a safe government-tested version, and that there was no cause for alarm unless users had already begun to experience the headaches that were the first sign of the progressive irreparable dementia, and finally, that clinics were being supplied with a vaccine that could reverse the earliest damage, if caught in time. Medics were standing by at all government sanctioned clinics.
The other two holoscreens were featuring the collapse of Selling Inc’s stock price.
The old recliner’s stuffing had made piece with Rita’s curves and bulges many years ago; they fit together as neatly as a body and its skin.
She was walking along the Boulevard de Raspail in Paris, just window shopping and taking in the foreign scents and language. She had gotten over the strangeness of recognizing the meaning of foreign words sometime ago. She drifted into a little coffee shop on a corner, ordered an espresso at the counter and took it outside to a small table and sat watching the foot traffic on the busy street. Students walked by, a woman selling flowers, shoppers with bags filled with packages and fresh produce peeking out. Music was wafting through the warm light breeze. She picked up the small demitasse and inhaled the rich aroma and ... suddenly, she was no longer in Paris, but was instead standing in a featureless room with a fairly attractive middle aged man in a gray suit standing in from of her.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “We apologize for the sudden intrusion. My name is Dr. Frank Jones, I represent the U.S. Virtual Broadcasting Network.
“The Surgeon General has determined that the Selling Total Experience transmissions may be hazardous to your health. In the interest of public safety, the government will replace all Selling TEs with government tested and approved virtual experiences. This new service will be provided by the U.S. Virtual Broadcasting Network. It is our sincere desire to provide you with the best in safe virtual experience.
“Your Selling TE receiver may be exchanged, free of charge, for a new VBN receiver at any government broadcasting office.
“All Selling TE receivers and any broadcast recordings must be replaced within seventy-two hours. If you are unable to visit a U.S. Virtual Broadcasting Network office in person, your Selling TE receiver may be deposited in any U.S. Postal mail deposit box along with a postcard with the receiver’s serial number and your signature.
“As of January 1, 2160, personal possession or viewing of the Selling TE will be deemed a Class A Felony. Conviction of this offense may result in a $5,000 fine, imprisonment of up to fives years in a federal penitentiary, or both. Sale or other distribution of a Selling TE receiver or a recording of a Selling TE may be punishable by a $10,000 fine or imprisonment of up to ten years in a federal penitentiary, or both.
“I apologize again, for the intrusion. All Selling TE transmissions are hereby cancelled by order of the Surgeon General.
“The U.S. Virtual Broadcasting Network looks forward to serving you and providing you with entertaining and safe virtual experiences in the future. Thank you."
There was a slight flicker and he began again, “Don’t be alarmed. We apologize for the sudden intrusion. My name is Dr. Frank Jones, I represent the Surgeon General of the United States of America...”
Rita reached down to the receiver in her lap and changed the channel, “Don’t be alarmed. We apologize for the sudden intrusion ...”.
She worked her way through the channels and found the same dull gray room and the same dull monologue on every one. Rita leaned the recliner forward and sat for awhile wondering about the message. She glanced over at the old clock hanging on the wall and decided she might as well walk down to Jim’s Lounge.