The April day was joyful with sun, but there was a solemn niche in Risen Falls. At the Wyman Mansion, in the study, at the old oak desk, Adam sat brooding.
It had been two weeks since the death of his mother. When Dawna died that one evening, in her sleep on the divan, he once again found himself in the cave of sorrow searching for a way out. In the days that followed he rediscovered the mental turbulence that comes with the death of someone close. He found again how tangled memories can become, how complex life can appear, how cryptic purpose can seem. And again he stared into the shadows of his own mortality.
But this time the one person to whom he could always go for solace was not there—would no longer be there. Now no one stood between him and the abyss.
The thoughts repeated themselves without permission often producing odd revelations that seemed to give personal expression to all the morbid pathos of literature. The only comfort he got from the constant rumination, if there is a comfort, was that he was not the first to endure this crop of sensations, nor the first to conclude that life does, will, must go on.
“Hey, you ready for some angling?”
Adam looked up to see Yuri Chenkov standing in the doorway. His old friend looked like a model from the cover of a fisherman’s magazine, with two rods and reels lain across his flannel shirt sleeves, suspendered pants crumpled around his waist, and rag hat decorated with vivid lures. His personal genue, Rzilchok, stood behind him with tackle box in hand.
Adam rose from his chair with a grunt. “Oh, hi, Yuri. You really want to do this, eh.”
“Yup. Us gaffers got to stay active.”
“I would prefer to golf.”
“Not that active,” Yuri replied. “I’m an octogenarian, you know.”
Adam tugged at the cuffs of his plaid shirt, then stuffed the tail further into baggy slacks. “At 67, I’m no puppy either.”
“We can golf next week. The genues have gone out of their way to stock the stream with fish for us.”
Adam accepted one of the rods from Yuri. “Okay. But let me warn you. I’ve never fished.”
“Nothing to it. You’ll do fine. You’re with an expert,” Yuri said.
“You, an expert?”
“Yup. Did some fishing on the Volga as a kid.”
The genue Rzilchok drove the two men to a nearby park, once a popular recreational area that nature seemed to be successfully reclaiming. They made their way from the car to a long dock jutting out into the river. The genue set down the tackle box and went back on land where he stood like a bored bodyguard.
Yuri removed his rag hat to finger the various lures. He spotted one he seemed to fancy and pinned it like a pro on his line. Adam imitated his baiting and in a few short moments both of them were sitting comfortably in wicker chairs waiting for nibbles.
“Now isn’t this relaxing?” Yuri asked.
“Easy living, as they say.” Adam took a deep breath. The smell of the river filled his nostrils.
“The whole world seems to be living easy. What’s it, about six hundred million people now?”
“Yeah. And each with a genue. Good thing we developed them when we did. Can you imagine the misery without genues?”
Yuri tipped his hat down near his eyes to block the sun. “Yup, they certainly are a blessing all right.”
“It’s not only doing the menial stuff. If you think about it, it’s amazing how well they’ve done in running things.”
“Yes, sir, we did a great programming job,” Yuri said.
“It’s more than programming. I mean, they’ve shown initiative in helping people, like the population consolidation program they’re working on, and the ‘Dining Out At Home’ services.” Adam squinted and nodded. “And I think some day they might even do what human scientists couldn’t do—find the answer to Amber Day.”
“Wow. High expectations. Why would you think that?”
“Versum did it,” Adam said. “Why couldn’t some other genue be able to do it.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
“We don’t know Versum did it. In fact it’s unlikely that he did. Genues aren’t designed to theorize, formulate, speculate. We designed them to be average Joes, remember?” He gave Adam a superior look. “Boy, you carry on about them so. You must think they’re a new race.”
“No.” Adam pulled on a wicker splinter and broke it off. “Well, maybe. What I mean is I think they are sentient beings.”
“Depends on what you mean by sentient. You could say cats and dogs are sentient. They sense things,” Yuri said.
“Okay, let me rephrase that.” Adam flung the splinter into the water. “They are conscious. Or as some people would say, they have a free will.”
“Hmmm.” Yuri tilted toward Adam. “Sentient, perhaps. But conscious… free willed, I don’t think so.”
“Consider,” Yuri offered, “Why is it not morally wrong to kill a genue?”
“Well… I don’t know. Maybe it should be.”
“It’s not wrong because genues are viewed as machines, which they are. And you don’t murder machines. You disable them, incapacitate them, turn them off. They don’t have a life force, an anima, a soul if you will.”
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t conscious,” Adam protested. “Yuri, you know them as well as I do. You’ve seen their curiosity and drive for new knowledge and experience. They may not be Einsteins, but they are making new discoveries in physics, astronomy and electronics.” He shooed a dragon fly. “Right?”
“Yes, that is true.” Yuri waved at the same dragon fly. “They are curious… and they do gain knowledge. But don’t forget that curiosity is also that quality that drives a cat into a dark and strange cellar. Certainly you’re not saying a cat is conscious? And knowledge? That’s what we store in quantum computers.”
Adam sighed and pushed his hat back. “Genues are more than that, though. They…they’ve learned the importance of free play, sports, and having pets. I think they even have a sense of morality. They have their own democratic government, worldwide. And don’t forget, they have a concept of self. They are aware of their own existence.”
“You think self-perception defines consciousness? Come, my friend. You should know as well as I that self is merely an artifact of associative sensory feedback. Even the old artees had a kind of self. But you can’t know that it’s anything like a human self. As for the other things, well, they may be true, my friend. But to me, it doesn’t seem enough.”
“Enough of what? They reason. They plan. They reflect. I can’t think of another way they could be more human.”
“They act like humans. Is that what you are saying?”
“Yes,” Adam answered with a jerk of his head.
“That is the key word—act. To me that does not make them conscious beings. They are simply machines running a program; a program developed by people—in fact, by your dad… and me and you. Quite cleverly developed, I might add.”
“A program?” Adam grabbed his cap and slammed it on the dock. “You’re saying because of their program they aren’t truly conscious?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“But what about…what about…” He shook his head in frustration, and to rattle loose more arguments, but none came to mind.
Yuri reached down, picked up the cap and handed to Adam. “Look, my friend, can’t you see that everything genues do is expected. It’s always within some parameters. They don’t do no-no’s. They perform based upon the programming we gave them. They mimic us, the proper and civil us.”
“Isn’t that what we wanted?”
“Sure it is. Machines modeled to be human in awareness and logic without the emotional and hormonal distractions. And you know what, I get the sense that if and when there are no more people, these ingeniously designed beings will continue to go around acting like humans, until one day the agenda will be exhausted. Their program will enter an infinite loop; then for eternity they’ll walk around in circles. No, Adam. I think something is missing. The genues are not free-willed.”
“But what do you expect? Some kind of genue mysticism? Maybe some dastardly evil act?”
“Evil?” Yuri thought a moment. “Uh, no. I think I could program evil.”
“Is it because they don’t have a sense of humor?”
“Humor? Actually, that would help. But, you know, I did a prototype component for that quite awhile ago. If you’ll remember it didn’t go over well with the board. They thought genue humor might be perceived as smart assing instead of entertaining. It’s still in the lab somewhere.”
“Then what, Yuri? Tell me. What would it take to make you feel as if they were truly conscious, free minded beings?”
“I think…” Yuri’s pole quivered, “…I have a bite.” He grasped the pole with both hands and was pulled to his feet by the unseen force at the other end of the line. “I need help. This critter is a big one.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
Adam waved at the genue, Rzilchok, who came quickly to Yuri’s aid. With the genue’s help the old fisherman had his catch.
He removed it from the line. “A bass. Beautiful, isn’t it?” He held it up and turned it around. Adam nodded in agreement, and so did the genue.
Yuri threw the fish back into the water.
“Why did you do that?” asked Rzilchok.
“Felt like it.”
“That is very strange,” the genue remarked. “You went through all the effort to catch the fish and then you throw it back. I don’t understand. You like to eat bass.”
Yuri gave the genue a slap on the back. “Not right now. Thanks for your help.” Rzilchok went back to his post on land.
“See what I mean?” Yuri sat down in his wicker chair and flicked his line out into the water. “Genues don’t understand spontaneous actions, whimsical decisions. Throwing back a fish you have just caught makes no sense to them. But it does to us. They understand sports like baseball because there is a goal and procedures to get to the goal. Anything as recreational as fishing is too unstructured for them.”
Adam stared out at the river, at the hyperbolic ripples rolling away from his line, pondering a response. After a moment he said, “That’s not a fair test. The genues have accomplished too much to be passed off as mere machines. What you did was unreasonable—just as unreasonable as acts of violence. Genues act human in every reasonable way.”
“See, you said it again. Act human.” Yuri leaned on the chair’s arm and brought his face nearer to Adam’s. “Can’t you see there is no substance behind the act. No verve, no spirit. They are simple, two dimensional actors of human logic and perception doing what we do, doing what we gave them the capacity to do. My friend, I think you want the genues to be more than they are because you are too close to them.”
Adam had no response. A subtle depression set in as he searched his mind for a rebuttal that would prove Yuri wrong. But he found nothing. What bothered him most, all of a sudden, was that his old friend made sense. He felt a chill and looked up at the sun, but a cloud had taken it away.
* * *
“I don’t know why you talked me into playing golf in July. Too damn hot. Now I’m dog-tired and catfish-wet.” Yuri wiped his brow. He followed Adam and Murl into the study of the Wyman mansion.
“It’s the same sun shining on the docks where you fish.” Adam flung his golf cap at the divan. “You just don’t like losing.”
“You mean, losing two kilograms of sweat.” Yuri fell on the divan next to the cap.
“I enjoy it because the warm sunny day always puts a high charge in my batteries and that makes me feel more alert,” Murl said.
Adam settled into his easy chair. “Murl, get us a couple of beers. Would you mind?”
Murl called the household genue. “Raffy, bring each of the gentlemen a glass of beer.” Murl wanted to sit with the two humans. He always seemed to learn something from human conversation regardless how trivial it seemed.
When the beers arrived, Yuri took a gulp and then turned to his friend. “Adam, I’ve heard some interesting rumors from some of my compatriots. I find them hard to believe. They say that human fertilization has been achieved clandestinely. That there are human children.”
Adam’s eyebrows rose. “Children? Where?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere in London is what I heard.”
“Can’t be,” Adam said. “Rumors, gossip, wishful thinking. If there were any truth to the news it would have been declared an open fact by now. Isn’t that right, Murl? You’re probably more in tune with world events than either of us. What have you heard?”
“As far as I know, these stories are not true,” Murl replied.
“There you go, Yuri. Silly rumors. Just as I thought,” Adam said.
Hope sauntered into the study. “Hi, all. Your wandering Wanda is home.” She kicked off her shoes.
“Have fun, Cake?” Adam greeted.
“Not really, Pie. The tennis club banquet was as boring as boiled biscuits.” She squeezed herself into the chair with him, legs across his lap, head on his shoulder, arm around his chest. The seven gold rings of luck on her wrist tinkled as she fidgeted to get comfortable.
Adam stroked her spine and closed his eyes.
Murl stood by the bookcase talking with his aide at the Genusys plant on his GenLink. Yuri got up to gaze out the window. The only sounds in the darkened study were the soft notes of Copland’s Tenderland, Adam’s favorite music, and a guttural accompaniment coming from his parted lips.
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
Raffy came into the study and beckoned Murl with his hand. Murl went to him, listened to his whispers, and followed him out of the room. After several moments Murl returned with a large flat object which he leaned against the divan. He was unsure if he should disturb the ambiance of the study. He approached the couple in the recliner.
Hope opened her eyes and smiled at the genue. When she realized that Murl was staring at Adam, she gave him a poke to rouse him from the musical enthrallment of Copland. “Adam.”
He opened his eyes. “Isn’t this wonderful music. It gives me goose bumps.”
“The tonal mathematics are interesting,” Murl said. “But the music does nothing to my DuroDerm. As you know, I cannot appreciate the audio qualities that drive humans to sway with its resonance.”
Hope unburdened the recliner. “Maybe someday genues will write music—music that’ll drive you to sway with its resonance.”
Adam brought the chair to an upright position. “Yes. Who knows. Maybe they’ll sculpt, write poetry, and paint, too.”
“Paint, indeed.” Murl raised the flat object by the divan. “What do you think of this?”
Both Adam and Hope gazed at the picture. From the left lower corner a brilliant yellow aura sprang up in undulating fractals, fading into, yet puncturing, an abstract green visage along the top and an intricate moiré weave of pinks and reds to the lower right. Laced throughout were dense black lines bleeding in odd spurts to either side.
“It certainly is different,” Hope said with polite reservation.
Adam was noncommittal. “Are you telling me you painted this?”
Murl moved his hand away from the signature. “No. The artist is E. Nuge.”
Adam’s forehead crinkled, then his eyes lit up. “Ugene!”
Just then a genue wearing a beret walked through the doorway. He lifted the cap and gave a bow. “At your service.” His voice carried inflections and tonal intensity quite unnatural for a genue. And the beret was the first piece of decorative clothing seen by anyone on a genue.
Adam went to his long lost friend with open arms. “Ugene. All these years. I’d almost forgotten you. You survived.”
“Yes I did.”
“But you shrunk.”
“No, I haven’t. But you surely have grown.” He turned to Hope and lifted the beret. “And who is this lovely flower?”
“Well put your finger in my coffee, aren’t you sweet. I’m Hope. I don’t think we ever actually met. But during my runt years I heard a lot about you. You certainly seem bohemian for a genue.”
“Actually, I’m a New Risen Fallian. More than a decade ago, in Canada, I began teaching painting to other genues—those who had lost any meaningful occupation when their human contacts passed away. The place grew large enough to call a town, so I called it New Risen Falls. Not very imaginative, I admit, but it was commemorative of my birth place.”
“That’s remarkable. It’s really great to see you again,” marveled Adam. “And this is my friend Yuri.” Yuri and Ugene shook hands.
Ugene took the painting from Murl, lifted it up high with both hands and asked, “What do you think?”
Yuri gave it a hard look. “I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I devoted much interest to art. What’s it called?”
“Given Taken,” said Ugene.
Murl gave a positive nod. “I find it quite stimulating. And intriguing, though I do not know exactly why. It seems to provoke some unusual activities in my ideator loops.”
“It certainly is different,” said Adam.
“That’s what Hope said,” Ugene said.
“I mean…” Adam hemmed, “it takes a little getting used to.” He glanced at Hope.
She shrugged her shoulders.
Ugene stared at Adam. “Apparently this masterpiece does not suit your taste.”
“Well, Adam, I see your appreciation of art has not developed since your… runt years, thank you, Hope.”
Adam laughed. “You’re probably right. So, Yuri, what do you think of it?”
Yuri studied the intricate patterns, trying to relate what he saw to some of the great Russian abstract painters of the past. But nothing registered. “It sort of leaves me cold. I guess you’d have to be a genue to appreciate it.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
“Voila! I am a success!” exclaimed Ugene. “Long ago, when Dr. Wyman sent me off to develop my talent for painting, he said that I should try to make my pictures interesting and meaningful to genues. So I have.”
Adam slapped his forehead. “That’s it!” He pulled Yuri away from the others and said in hushed voice. “Look at what Ugene did. He is creative, just as any human artist. Isn’t that a sign of consciousness?”
Yuri thought a moment. “I don’t think so. You know as well as I that creativity is just a process that yields results which weren’t obvious by logical deduction. Stochastic neural nets have been programmed to be creative decades ago.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Hope asked from across the room.
“Nothing,” Adam answered. Then he leaned closer to Yuri. “No, I don’t agree. You’re saying a kaleidoscope is creative. But it isn’t. It is the brain that must pluck the one design from the infinite randomness that has meaning. It is the brain that is creative.”
Yuri rocked a bit on his heels and thought. He was less inhibited about the subject and spoke out so that the others could hear. “But you, Hope and I don’t find his painting particularly good.” He looked at Ugene. “Pardon me, but that is the opinion.”
Ugene waved his hand. “Don’t apologize. I’m sure I would not care for your paintings… if you could paint.”
Adam cut in. “But, Yuri, he paints from a genue perspective, to have an effect on other genues like Murl. Whether you and I respond to his art is not important. That’s not why Ugene created it.”
“I’m not sure,” Yuri responded. “Let me think about it.”
Hope waved a hand at them. “Come on, you guys. You’ve got company.”
Adam sighed. He approached his old genue pal. “Ugene, I hope you’ll be staying with us for awhile.”
“Wish I could,” said Ugene with untiring high spirits. “I’m here for just a few hours. Then I’m off to meet with Dr. Xandra Bundt, former head of the art department at the University of Michigan. I met him at the Cultural Exposition last week in Kampala. A thoroughly delightful man. We have much in common, and he is extremely interested in learning about my techniques.”
For Adam, a pang of jealousy arose, then was quickly flushed by a feeling of alienation. He tried to remember the joy and companionship he had so long ago with the uncommon genue standing before him. Though the physical image was the same, Ugene was nothing like the memory. Adam sighed. “Fine. Whatever you like.”
Hope kissed Adam on the cheek. “I’m going to let you guys yak.” Then she yawned, “Besides, I’m dogged. Gotta go crush a pillow. Nice meeting you, Ugene.”
“Good night, Hope,” Ugene said waving his beret.
With renewed ardor, Adam said, “Ugene, I’ve got to tell you what’s happened to all of us, of the great advancements we’ve made in understanding genue systems and potential.”
Ugene held up his hand. “I’m not really interested in science. But let me tell you about all the wonderful and weird things that happened to me in the wilderness. I have some great stories about my mystical experiences doing perceptual deprivation, and my discovery of mathematical disharmony and illusionary symmetry.”
With smile melting, Adam looked over his shoulder at Murl, a constant in his life, transfixed by the genue painting. “Sure,” Adam replied politely to the stranger called Ugene. As he listened to words he could not relate to, his mind sorted through distant and precious memories.
* * *
Murl led his guests down the aisle to front row, first base side seats.
“My money is on the Risen Falls Photons,” Yuri said.
Hope waved a blue and white Flatpoint banner. “Go Thresholds.”
Adam nudged Murl. “Who you rooting for?”
He thought about it. “I don’t know. I know of no reason why I would prefer either team to win over the other.”
“Murl, it’s an easy question. You’re a resident of Risen Falls.” He shook a finger at him. “You need your allegiance gate recalibrated.”
On the field, genues dressed in blue vests with white numbers tossed baseballs back and forth. Others with yellow vests and black numbers practiced swinging bats. Waiting at each base was a genue umpire in a black vest. Except for matching caps, there was nothing else to any of the uniforms.
Hope whispered to Adam, “Hey Pie, baseball would have been a lot more entertaining if they’d have worn those outfits back in the old days.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
“Maybe. But I bet there would have been a lot less sliding.”
Yuri shaded his eyes and scanned the crowd. “Markam Morris Stadium doesn’t look very crowded.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Adam said. “Looks like there’s only about a thousand people here, and about as many genues.”
“By the way. Where’s Ugene?” Yuri asked.
“He declined my invitation to watch a genue baseball game,” Murl replied. “Apparently he had an important meeting with Dr. Bundt.”
The first batter, number nine, came to the plate and the human fans cheered. The first pitch was a fast ball down the middle and the home plate umpire shot up an arm and roared, “Strike.”
Hope howled. “Hey, hollow head. Get your thumbs out of your eyes.” She saw Adam give her a weird look. She grinned. “I use to be a Cubs fan.”
“Why don’t we get some hot dogs?” Yuri asked.
The question caught Murl unprepared. “Hot dogs?”
“Yes. It is traditional, Murl. And beer and peanuts and ice cream…”
“I’m sorry. There are no nutrients. But I will make a note of that.”
During the second inning the shortstop for the Thresholds, number twelve, connected and the ball arced high into right center. The crowd rose up and yelled. The center fielder loped over, easily getting to the fly ball as it almost reached the fence. But as he put his glove up, the ball hit the thumb and fell to the ground. He snatched it up and fired it to second base, but the batter was safe on second.
“You got arms like eggplants,” Hope shouted. She turned to Murl. “I don’t believe it. He had it all the way. What happened?”
“Remember,” Murl answered, “these genue players have been practicing at baseball only a few months. For them to learn to play as well as professional human players once did will take a little while. But as long as they strive to win at the game they’re bound to make great improvements in performance.”
As the third inning began, Murl continued to discuss the peculiar genue nuances of the game with Hope.
Yuri touched Adam’s sleeve and then put his head next to Adam’s ear. “I’ve thought over carefully the notion that Ugene’s art demonstrates consciousness or free will. It seems to me that Ugene’s so-called creative behavior and accomplishments can be explained entirely by his obedience to his early programming.”
“How do you mean?”
“Didn’t your father instruct him to practice painting?”
A loud crack of the bat.
Adam’s eyes followed the arching fly ball. “Yes.”
“There you go. That’s evidence that he’s still obeying commands he received nearly sixty years ago—and evidence that his so-called talent is a result of programming, and not because of what we’re calling free will or consciousness. I would have been more impressed if Ugene had decided to disobey your father and give up painting all together.”
Adam was speechless. Here he is, at a genue ball game, marveling at the extraordinary independent action of this new race of beings, and, like a splash of cold water, the old Russian dampens his fervor. He watched the genue outfielder make a fine running catch, clapped mindlessly, then turned again to Yuri. “What about his style? It sure is unique.”
“What would you expect? During all those years, he was isolated from human contact. No feedback from outside. So his so called style degenerates through the incestuous rehashing of technique. I think his work is less a demonstration of consciousness than of entropy.”
“But Ugene paints for genues, not humans. Isn’t that worth something? He’s producing art that makes sense to the genue perspective.”
“You can’t win this one, Adam. Artistic creativity cannot demonstrate consciousness. If people appreciate a genue’s works, then it reflects the human influence—it’s imitation, all according to program. If they don’t, then the genue is like the kaleidoscope generating random patterns—call it computer art. And the argument that other genues appreciate Ugene’s paintings is vacuous. Is there any significance in the fact that one machine agrees with the output of another?”
Adam propped his elbows on his knees and his chin on his palms and mumbled to himself. “That can’t be right.” He sat hunched over sorting through mental debris as everyone else cheered when a genue stole second base. “They just seem so natural, so much like human beings. They must have a consciousness.” Or was it all a childish notion, a biased vision, a fanciful dream?
A roar went up. Adam looked up and saw dust at third base and an umpire genue signaling the runner safe.
“Wow! Aren’t they great,” Hope declared.
Adam’s face was blank. “Yeah, they are.”
* * *
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
Hope came out of the bedroom trying to tie a bow in her hair. “I just can’t get use to where anything is around here, Pie.”
“So you sorry we left the old mansion?” Adam asked from his easy chair.
She stopped in front of a mirror. “No, no. This is a great place. I understand it made sense to move.”
He got up, stood behind her and put his arms around her. “It’s the biggest and best in the high-rise. Close to our friends, good food, good service.”
She smiled at him in the mirror. “You don’t have to sell me.” She saw sad eyes and read his mind. “You miss the old place, don’t you?”
He helped her with the ribbon. “Kind of, Cake. But I miss Murl, too.”
She turned around. “Poor pie. Makes me feel guilty leaving you.” She grabbed her coat.
He opened the door for her. “You, feel guilty about running off? Huh.”
She kissed him. “Gypsy guilt. See you in a bit.”
Murl was in the hallway walking toward them.
Hope wiggled her hips. “Well, lookie cookie. Murl to the rescue.” She waved as she strutted passed the genue. “Hello, fello. Bye, guy.”
Delight lit up Adam’s face. “Murl. I’m so glad to see you.”
They entered the apartment.
Murl opened a business case he had brought with him. “I’ve just returned from Europe. Just checking some renovation projects. Where’s Raffy?”
“Doing errands.” He strained to peek into the case wondering what the genue would need on a trip. He saw a notepad covered with the cryptic marks that were Murl’s shorthand, a book by Machiavelli entitled The Prince, and an orchestrina that he played in spare moments. In addition was a small package wrapped in white paper. Murl handed it to Adam.
“It’s a souvenir from Lisbon,” Murl said. “I hope you like it.”
Adam tore open the wrapping. Inside was a fist-sized transparent rock of amber encasing a small lizard. “Why this is very nice. Thank you, Murl.”
Adam placed the object on a table, then sauntered out on the balcony. Its ceiling was the balcony of the flat above, and, like all those at the corner of the tall building, it had two exposures. Adam could lean upon the northern rail and view the bustling heart of Risen Falls where new buildings took shape; and he could look out over the eastern rail toward the river obscured by the greenery flourishing at its banks. This time he went to the corner, grasped with each hand the rails that met at right angles across his stomach, and beheld the landscape to the northeast where the river took a ragged westward turn into the city and became lost in a maze of buildings.
“Such a pretty day,” he said as he took a deep breath.
Murl followed him out into the open air. “Indeed it is.”
“The city looks so clean. The genues have done wonders to Risen Falls. So much industry and activity, yet so neat and handsome. And there, I see one of Ugene’s new creations.” Adam pointed at a building with curves and arches and intricate recesses.
“Yes, that is the Micael Wyman Center for Genue Maintenance,” replied Murl. “If you will recall, you originally funded it as the Versum Center, but the town elders dictated the name change.”
“Yes, I remember.” Adam mused. “Poor Versum. Do you think his ideas about human reproduction would have worked?”
Murl though a moment, then replied, “I am not an expert in such things. I cannot say.”
As Adam stared at the inspiring panorama a potted plant on a rope moved in front of him. He waved his arm at it but it was out of reach. “Damn this artistic flora,” he complained. “I really don’t appreciate it. It only blocks the view. Whose idea was this anyway?”
He backed away from the railing to survey how he could rid himself of the floral annoyance. At the corner of the balcony a three-meter-long pipe hung like a mobile. A ceramic pot dangled from each end, one sprouting green myrtle, the other miniature pink roses.
“That was Ugene’s idea,” Murl answered. “Remember, during his visit last week he commented how you needed foreground for your balcony scene, otherwise perspective was lost. It was installed yesterday. Hope likes it. Actually it’s quite clever. You can see the pots are attached to the same rope threaded through the pipe. By pulling down one of the pots you raise the other. You can give it any visual balance you want. And the way it rotates gently in the wind, it’s quite restful.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
“Well, I’m sure it’s quite ingenious and creative. But I’d just as soon have someone come to take it down.” The pink flowers swung across his view. “In fact… never mind. I’m going to take it down myself.” He moved one of the patio stools to the eastern railing, climbed up on it and swiped at the pipe so he could grab one of the pots.
Murl made an observation. “It will be very difficult to remove one pot at a time. And impossible to remove both at the same time since, as you can see, only one pot can be positioned over the balcony at a time. And since the pots are supported by the same rope, if you remove this one, the one out there will fall.”
With knees resting on the railing, Adam caught the pot of pink flowers. “You’re right, Murl. How the hell did he get the plants hung?”
Murl put his hand on his chin like he had seen people do when they speculate. “I think, if you unhook that pot of pink flowers at that railing and then hold on to that end of the rope by grasping the end loop, and then let the pipe swing toward me, I think I will be able to just reach it at the other railing to unhook the pot of vines.”
“Good idea.” Adam snapped the pot off the rope loop. Holding onto the rope, he placed the pot on the stool by his knees. He looked down over the railing at the shrubbery and sidewalk eleven stories below. “What’s an old man like me doing up on a balcony rail? I must be crazy.”
“Adam, why don’t we just wait and have the building genues remove it at the ceiling pivot? That would be the safest.”
“No, no. Let’s just do what you said.”
“Okay. But we must be careful.” Murl went to the opposite rail.
As Adam pulled the rope through the pipe, the vine plant at the other end rose. He put his hand in the loop where the pot of pink flowers had been. “Now if I hang on to the rail while holding on to the rope, I should be able to swing the pipe so that you can reach the vines.” He climbed over onto the ledge. Grasping the rail with one hand, he stretched the other clasping the rope out over the ground below. The pipe swung and brought the pot of vines just over the northern rail.
“Okay,” Murl called out. “I can reach it.” He pulled the rope for slack and unhooked the potted vines.
Adam’s fingers on the rail slipped. He grunted “Ohhhh” and began falling, his wrist still in the loop of the rope.
Murl’s logic, as quick as instinct, told him to grab and hold the other end of the rope, for it surely would have pulled through the pipe.
Adam let out a deep groan as he rotated in space hanging by his wrist.
Murl tugged at the rope. “Are you okay, Adam?”
He looked down at the garden turning below. “I’ve been better.”
“Let me swing myself out over the edge and get you onto the balcony.”
“No! Then you’ll be in danger. Just call for help on your radio.”
“Adam, I’m afraid my GenLink hasn’t been functioning since before I left London. I was going to have it fixed later today. But never mind about that. Let me swing out there.” Murl climbed over the rail clutching his end of the rope and pushed off. Like a carousel, the long pipe turned, bringing Adam onto the balcony where his toes skimmed the floor. The genue hung in the open sky like some Christmas toy on the limb of a Yule tree.
“This is quite a predicament.” Adam held tightly his end of the rope to keep Murl from falling. “There’s no way to get us both on the balcony. One of us will have to fall to the ground.” Then with little thought, “It should be me, Murl. I’m old and I’ve seen enough of life. I don’t matter anymore. Let me swing back over the railing. It’s you who must be saved. You’re the leader of the genues.” He grasped the rope with both hands, slung a leg over the rail and shoved off into the air. The pipe swivelled, bringing Murl back to the balcony.
Murl called back, “No, don’t do that. I can hang out there indefinitely. Someone may come soon.” He pushed his feet against the rail and swung himself back out and Adam back in.
“This is ridiculous, Murl” said Adam standing on the ledge of the balcony. “We can’t keep swinging back and forth like this. I insist that you let me hang out there. I simply cannot allow any harm to come to you.” He pushed off one more time.
As Murl swung toward the balcony he held up his feet and bounced off the rail reversing the rotation bringing Adam back to the edge. “Adam, I’m just as old as you. I cannot live forever either. Besides, you know I have strong instincts not to let any harm come to you.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
“But, Murl, your life is so much more important than mine. The genue race needs you.” Once again Adam pushed off the edge but the push was weak and the rotation stopped short. Now both hung out beyond reach of the balcony. In spite of how comical it looked—a seventy-year-old man hanging from one end of a rotating pipe and a genue hanging from the other eleven stories in the air—the situation was clear to both that they now were in the same intractable position as the potted plants.
“Adam, I have an idea. I think I know how Ugene hung the plants. Let me swing you back to the rail by swaying my body.”
“No, no. First you tell me the plan.”
“Okay,” Murl replied. “Once you are safely within the balcony you insert an object through the loop, or tie a knot in that end of the rope so that it cannot pull through the pipe.”
“That sounds like it ought to work.”
Murl swung both legs in a rhythm and the pipe moved on its axis. Adam reached the rail with one foot, pulled himself to it, and stepped onto the safety of the balcony. Clutching the rope, he looked for some way to prevent it from pulling through the pipe. “I don’t see any way to do this, Murl. There are no objects in reach and I can not tie a knot in the rope without releasing it.”
“Just as I suspected, Adam. I had thought of this solution earlier when I was on the balcony, and I could not think of a way of doing it either. But now that you are safe I must decide the outcome of our predicament. I leave you now.”
Murl let go of the rope and fell out of sight.
The rope recoiled through the pipe toward Adam. He reeled backward and fell to the floor. “Murl! You can’t do that!”
From outside somewhere a hollow scream wafted in.
The old man could not rise up, nor did he want to. He just sat with his head between his knees, moaning over and over, “Murl. You can’t.”
He stared at the floor through his legs, sobbing, not for a machine he had become attached to, but for a being he truly loved. For the first time he realized the absurdity of it. A machine had become a brother to a human. Murl’s loss hurt as much as the death of any person he had ever known.
He heard someone enter the apartment, then soft steps. Raffy must have returned. How would he tell him of Murl’s death. The loss to him would be as great to Raffy as himself. It would be no easier breaking the news to this long-time genue friend than it would be to tell a human friend.
“Raffy.” Adam raised his eyes just enough to see green legs standing before him. “I have dreadful news.” He could not force himself to make eye contact. “Murl is dead.”
“Not dead,” the genue said. “Just dead tired, as the expression goes.”
Adam knew that voice. He looked up. “Murl! It’s you. You’re not dead.” He jumped up and gave Murl a full embrace.
“No, I’m not. But I sure thought I was going to be.”
“How did you survive the fall?”
“Seems Ugene built the same floral device for Juanita Lorente just below you on the tenth floor. That pipe caught me right in the crotch. I bounced forward, grabbed the pipe with my hands. The pipe bent and I nearly lost hold. I did a hand walk to the corner of the balcony and managed to get safely onto the porch. Juanita was standing there. I think I must have startled her. She screamed, then beat me with her cane. Let me tell you, I’m ready for a sun bath. I’m just too old for this kind of activity.”
Adam held his genue friend at arm’s length. “Oh, Murl, you risked your life for me.” Then he realized how profound Murl’s action was. He had performed an act of altruism, one that evolved through self-realization and an identity with others. “I must tell Yuri.”
His excitement propelled him out the door. When he got to Yuri’s apartment, he knocked but did not wait to be invited in. “Yuri.”
“Oh, hi, Adam.” Yuri was brushing his Russian wolfhound in the center of the living room. “You look awfully pleased about something.”
“Yes, yes. I’ve just had an extraordinary experience.”
Yuri stood up. “Good. You can tell me about it. But first let me get Pavlov a treat.” He disappeared into the kitchen and called out, “You know I’ve really become attached to that dog. Reminds me of another dog I had back in Russia many years ago. It was a sheep dog.”
When he came back into the living room, Pavlov wagged his tail at the sight of his master. Yuri sat down on the sofa and held a doggy treat over its head. When the dog sat up the old man flipped him his reward. “This sheep dog I once had, Tasha, used to accompany me during my strolls through the woods. One day I came face to face with a bear. Tasha, who had been sniffing the underbrush some yards away, immediately came between me and that bear. I have to tell you, this was not a happy bear. But Tasha wouldn’t let it get near me. The two of them scratched a lot of dirt and made a lot of noise. With Tasha’s barking and my throwing rocks, the bear finally turned and walked away. She saved my life.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
Adam stared blank faced. His excitement turned liquid.
Yuri put a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “What is it you wanted to share with me, friend?”
With a long look, he sighed and asked, “Do you think maybe dogs are conscious beings?”
Yuri laughed. “No. Why such a silly question?”
“Murl just did something that I thought was a free-minded act.”
“Just like Tasha, huh?”
Yuri stroked Pavlov’s head. “You know, Adam, it seems you’re getting obsessed with this notion about genues.”
Adam fell back into his chair. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Yuri blinked in contemplation. “But I confess I’ve been thinking it too. I think I’ve boiled the problem down to a fundamental notion.”
He sat up. “Really?”
“I think we don’t need to make the genues act more human. Regardless of how human you got them to act, it would still be just an imitation. They would just be following the human agenda, mimicking human actions—without the human spirit.”
“But, to be fair, you can’t simply rule out every genue behavior as the result of programming. What would it take to convince you they are real thinking beings with free minds; that it would be morally wrong to kill one?”
Yuri bit his lip in thought, then offered, “Let me state a proposition—call it the ‘Chenkov Proposition,’ if you like. It goes something like this. It can be said that genues are truly conscious beings when they demonstrate rational behavior or thinking alien to the human perspective.”
“What do mean?”
“Genues must show some goal or purpose we people wouldn’t expect—something we wouldn’t understand, yet it would be totally rational to the genues. Only then would my proposition be answered and it would be demonstrated that genues are conscious beings and free of our influence, free from original programming.”
Adam puzzled. “Your proposition turns Turing’s test on its head.”
“That’s right. It isn’t getting the genue’s action to be indistinguishable from a human’s that matters any more. We’ve succeeded quite well at that. It’s the other way around. The genue needs to do something outside the programmed agenda we gave them.”
Before Yuri could reply the I-port on the wall beeped and a generic message sounded. “Attention, a news bulletin of interest to you is imminent.” An old face filled the screen. “This is WCN news and I’m Bartol Pierce. We have just received news from the Laboratory for Human Reproduction at the National University that an important announcement will be made in the next few moments. Rumor has it that the some kind of breakthrough has been achieved in the regeneration of human reproduction. Not since the Roda Strand chimp has there been such speculation and… Wait. We’re ready for the announcement. Let’s go to National University.”
“Incredible,” said Yuri.
Adam moved to the edge of his seat. “Wouldn’t that be something.”
The image on the wall spoke. “Good afternoon. I am Dr. Leon Ching, Director of the Department of Human Reproduction at National University. As you know, over seventy-one years ago a challenge was given to humankind, a challenge of survival. And yet, after all these years, with enormous efforts and huge sums of money, the mystery of Amber Day has remained a mystery. As you know the program here at National University has been the last research facility working on human reproduction for some years. Now, with deep sadness, I must report to you that we too will be closing. With the death of some key people, no new breakthroughs, no future scientists, it becomes obvious that it is fruitless to continue. We’re wasting time, and we are tired. We have no where to go. It’s now time to admit what perhaps we all have known for some time. Ladies and gentlemen, we are the last generation. I have nothing else to say. Thank you and goodbye.”
Yuri fell back into the sofa and shook his head. “Wow. That’s really depressing.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty sad.”
The two old men sat there for several minutes, staring at nothing, deep in similar thoughts. No more people. It was not the first time such a thought occurred to anybody. But it was always a stick figure, like the notion of one’s own death, a fact—but an alien fact, an imponderable fact. Now the image of the possibility took shape. No more people. All of a sudden it seemed that life and existence were irrelevant, that civilization was pointless, that the centuries of culture were burlesque, that reality was empty. No more people. Could it… would it really happen?
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 10: Proposition
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