The Risks of Empathy, a Novella
The tobacco and marijuana smoke was thick in Jim's Lounge. Business had picked up again after the ban on the Selling TE's took hold. The government versions seemed less real somehow, and no one liked the damned commercials that they had started inserting into them. Who wanted to hear about a sale on furniture when they were surfing Pipeline in Hawaii?
Rita sat in a booth with three other regulars. The conversation topics had been the same now for some time: revolution and animals.
"I heard that people are takin' animals out of labs. I heard that people are goin' right in to restaurants and delicatessens and shooting the people selling meat."
Heads shook in agreement. "I wish I had the guts to do that."
"Well, I heard that there're places out west where animals and people are livin' together and startin' their own countries."
"I don't know about that," said Rita. "It seems to me that the government would step right in if people was claiming they was starting a whole new country."
"Look, they ain't sayin' it, but they're sure as hell doin' it."
They all sat quietly for a moment letting the idea sink in.
"What I don't get is why there's no news about this." They all looked over at the vert-view mounted above the bar. A football game was on, but there had been no news about the animals or the underground revolution that everyone everywhere was talking about.
Karen had never been in the main house. Everyone knew that Richard Selling came and went, but he was rarely seen. She walked up the stone steps to the large front porch and started to knock, but the door opened and a man she recognized instantly said, "Hi, you must be Karen. I'm Richard Selling."
Karen was only a little nonplussed by being greeted by Selling; her time at the Enzyme Institute had at least offered her enough experience with meeting famous people that she could now do so without appearing completely befuddled.
"Mr. Selling, I'm so honored to meet you. Nothing I can say can express the admiration I feel for all you have done."
Selling actually blushed and guffawed, "Why anyone in my shoes would have done the same. Now hush, or my head will simply swell too big for this door. Come on in. I'll take you down to the lab."
Selling led Karen through the house to a door that opened to reveal a second steel door behind it. Selling pushed a button next to the door and it slid open revealing the inside of an elevator.
"After you, Karen," he said, and stepped into the elevator with her. He pressed one of only four unlabeled buttons and the floor seemed to drop away. Karen realized that they were going deep underground.
Selling's basic survivalist notions had motivated him to equip the cabin with a keep buried deep within the rock. He had intended it as his retreat of last resort should the world take a particularly lunatic or anarchic turn. During the excavation they had broken through the ceiling of an immense underground cavern that he was still exploring. It had been the obvious place to set up Stan and Earnie's lab once they and their paradigm-shaking research became machinus non-gratis.
The elevator slowed and the doors slid open silently. Karen was unprepared for the magnitude of the expanse that opened before her and she let out a small gasp.
"It catches most visitors off guard," said Selling. "We were really lucky to have found this place. We still don't know how far it extends back into the mountains, but the engineers tell me that we could probably survive even a direct hit from a medium sized nuclear missile. The way things are going, we might have to put it to the test."
Karen took her eyes off the lit cavern and the dark shadows that suggested hidden rooms and corridors to look over at Selling to see whether he was speaking figuratively. The seriousness of his face suggested that he wasn't.
Metal walkways led off in a variety of directions from the elevator and along one of these came two decidedly disheveled men being followed by a large dog.
Karen recognized Earnie who walked up and said, "Hi Richard." He beamed, "Hello Karen, I'm so glad you came! These are my friends Ted and Stan."
Karen reached out and shook hands with Stan and told him what an honor it was to actually be meeting him. She look down at the dog and said, "Hello, Ted."
Ted cocked his head a little and looked over at Stan.
Stan said, "She's OK."
Ted walked up to Karen and sniffed her crotch. He sniffed her legs and let her scratch his neck. He wagged his tail. Earnie said, "Ted thinks you're OK too. Come see the lab. I'll show you what we are trying to do. Richard, are you coming?"
"No," said Selling. "I have some other things I have to take care of right now. I'm sure I'll be seeing you around Karen. Enjoy yourself. Take good care of her you guys, don't scramble her brain." He winked at Karen. "I'll see you later." And he walked off along one of the other metal walkways.
Stan and Ted led the way. Earnie walked with Karen and talked with her about their new project.
"We've been working for a couple of months trying to modify the transduction cells to synchronize with random and unspecified neural frequencies and unpredictable fluctuations of feedback."
"I have no idea what you just said," admitted Karen.
"I'm sorry. I talk to Stan too much. We've been trying to work out a device that will allow us to send and receive thoughts at the same time. Sort of a mental telephone. The problem has been an odd sort of feedback. If you and I were hooked up, I would be getting your thoughts while you were getting mine, but they would be the thought that you are getting my thoughts, so we end up in a sort of endless loop. See?"
"Hum, not really."
"Here we are," announced Stan. They stepped through a door and into a lab that seemed more like a TV repair shop than the modern labs that Karen had worked in at Enzyme. Pieces of electronic equipment, much of which Karen did not recognize, lay ill arranged on work benches and spread around the room. Ted walked over to a large over-upholstered chair in the corner covered in dog hair. It was obviously his standard post.
"The problem is hard to put into words, but the feedback problem is real. When Earnie and I hooked ourselves up we got stuck for about eight hours. If Ted hadn't gotten bored and started licking my face, I have no idea how long we would have been stuck. Want to try it?"
"Well..." began Karen with obviously hesitancy, but Earnie interrupted her.
"There won't be a problem. With Stan here to break the connection, we won't stay hung up. This is why we need another person. We were working with Ted, but it's hard to know whether the problems were with the theory and electronics or because he's a dog." Ted looked up at the mention of his name. "We know that he can experience human experiences, we've seen that, but this feedback problem is really sticky. We need another human. I promise you won't get hurt."
Karen wondered about the effects on Ted of experiencing a human's experience, but he seemed none the worse for it. She wondered about the effects of being 'hung up' with another mind, but Stan and Earnie seemed OK, or at least not too nuts. She let out a little laugh and said, "OK, I'm in. Hook me up."