Friday, October 24, 2008

The Book of Life

The Book of Life

Beautiful words can be traded,
Noble deeds can enhance reputations,
But if people lack them,
Why should they be rejected?

-Lao Tsu

I put my car into gear into gear and manoeuvred it onto the freeway. The sun was a baleful red eye in the middle of the noonday sky. Ordinarily I would take the bus into work, but today I was to be given a special interview which conveniently happened to be on the other end of town. Ten minutes of freeway driving, off the exit, ten more minutes through a suburban wasteland brought me to the required destination--a typical, non-descript government building. Sign in at the front desk, the guard gave me directions: fourth floor, room 427.

I gave my name to the receptionist and took a seat for my turn. What would they grill me on, I wondered. There were no magazines, so I worked on the details of the latest experiment in my head. In short order I was ushered in to a largish office--hmm.. surprisingly efficient. The woman behind the desk in front of me was your typical urban professional: mid-30's, shoulder length hair, conservative skirt suit, reasonable attractive but somewhat overdone. She introduced herself. First she handed me some papers, a fill-in-the blank answer sheet as used in multiple-choice tests in school and an HB pencil.

"I want you to answer the questions as honestly as possible. If you have any questions, please let me know."

It was a typical personality test like the ones employers use to ensure the honesty of potential employees. You know, the ones that look as easy as ever to fix. I tried to answer it as honestly as I could.

I handed the papers back to her. Next, she started to ask me some questions like it was a job interview or something.

"What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments?"

I hated questions like that. You've done so many things in your life, how can you sort out the greatest of them at only a few seconds notice? Moreover, greatest by what standard. They also have the tendency to make you feel tremendously inadequate. Others might say, "Oh, I wrote a symphony, won a tennis tournament and published a novel." What did I have to offer?

So I stalled for time. "Umm... errr... I think I'll have to think about this one for a bit," I said.

"That's OK. There's no pressure." But there was. There was.

"Well, I guess I'll have to say finishing school," I managed.

"Finishing school?"

"Yeah, you know, I did my four years and I got my degree. In physics no less. I mean heck, most of my friends couldn't even do physics in high school and here I was I got a whole degree in it. OK, so it was only a second-class degree, but at least I finished."

"So getting your degree was important to you?"

"Well, not really, but I'm glad I finished it."

"I see. So when you were at school, were you involved in any extra-curricular activities, such as athletics, volunteer organizations et cetera?"

"No, not that I can think of. Not unless you count hanging out with my friends at the pub." She gave a half-hearted attempt at a smile. "No, I always just tried to do my best in school, hand in my assignments on time."

There were a few more like these. Again I tried to answer as honestly as possible, but the woman across from me at this point just seemed to be going through the motions. I must confess I wasn’t really into either. The interview was concluded with that excessive politeness which often marks these occasions.

As I walked out into the lobby I glanced at my watch–3:30–damn, the interview was a lot shorter than I had expected. That meant I would have to go back to work. I again slid my car out of the lot and back on the freeway. I glanced up at the sun again. Lower in the sky, it looked even more red and baleful than it had earlier. It was a sign of things to come. This was not a premonition, it was a scientific fact. Researchers had determined through spectroscopic analysis and observations of the surface activity that it was about to go supernova. I had learned all the details at some point in my schooling, but they eluded me at this time. It was estimated that the Earth had all of between five and ten years left.

I worked at a biochemistry laboratory. Since I didn’t have the marks to get into graduate school, I had found work as a lab technician. I wouldn’t describe it as my dream job, but the work was easy and it paid well. Back at my computer I tried to decipher some data from an experiment. The results weren’t coming out quite right. Just then one of the assistant researchers, a fellow by the name of Steve, stopped by.

“How goes the battle, Joey?” he asked. “Do you almost have those results ready yet?”

“No, not yet. The data isn’t coming out. See here...” I grabbed a paper from my desk. “See this equation, I don’t think it’s right,” I said, pointing to it.

“Mmmm...” he said, looking over the notes scattered around my desk and the display on my computer terminal. “Let me see that.” He took the paper from me and perused it.

“Well, listen...” he continued. “You worry about the data analysis. Let the researchers worry about the theory and equations. But I want to see those results on my desk by the Monday after next, OK?”

“Sure, whatever you say,” I replied. “Though I should remind you that you are not my official boss–those result aren’t for you.”

“Hey, I am one of the researchers in this lab. As such I have seniority over you. So I want to see those results as soon as possible.”

“Sure, fine,” I said, a bit irate by this time. “As soon as I’m finished with them, I’ll show them to you.”

“You do that. So have great weekend–I’m calling it a day.” He gave me his best condescending slap and took off.

Yes, the joys of working at a government lab as a techie–the lowest of the low. I took another look at my data and my analysis. It wasn’t coming out: the results didn’t match the theory. I scanned through the work, searching for errors, but I just wasn’t into it, a feeling that was compounded by the fact that Steve had walked off with the paper containing the equations. I glanced at my watch. It was four thirty, Friday afternoon. There was an empty, dead feeling all through the laboratories and offices typical of Friday afternoons in government offices across the country. It was definitely time to go home.

I passed though the lounge and grabbed my coat. Louise, one of the techies from down the hall was cleaning up. We exchanged greetings. I stooped down to change from my lab shoes into my street shoes. As I did so, Louise grabbed one of the newspapers that lined the floor under the coat rack.

“Wait a minute,” I said, noticing one of the headlines. “Let me see that.” I took the paper from her. “Where does this come from?” I asked.

“Dr. Kenderson’s lab. He has a whole stack of old newspapers.”

“Thanks.” I walked out the door and down the hall to one of the other labs. Luckily, the door was still open. Even better, there was no one around. I poked around until I found it–there in the corner was a stack of old newspapers, all from around ten years ago. After scanning the headlines, I stuffed some of them into my bag along with the one I had taken from Louise.

At home, I had just finished washing the dishes after eating dinner. I pulled out the old newspapers and was all set to go through them when the phone rang.

[I had just started to brew some coffee and was sitting down to read the paper when the phone rang.]

"Hello?" I answered. It was my girlfriend, Carla.

"Oh, I'm good, I was wondering if you could come over tonight." Her voice was quiet, almost difficult to make out.

"Is everything alright?" I asked.

"No, I just thought it would be nice if you could come over, that's all." Now almost coyly, with much more spunk.


"See you soon."

I hung up the phone, and got dressed. I pulled out a bottle of wine from the liquor cabinet and drove over. When she answered the door, she was wearing only a white t-shirt which came down just above her waist and pair of tight sweat pants. Her shoulders were thrown back and her hip thrust sideways. She looked positively radiant. "Hey, come on in."

I was inside the door; she tugged her shirt up over her chest, for just the briefest flash of her bare breasts. She took the bottle from me, smiling, and said almost casually, "I'll get some glasses." We walked into the kitchen; she was swaying her hips in an exaggerated motion. She poured us both big glasses and drank hers down very quickly. I sipped mine a little slower. "So what's on your mind tonight?" she asked.

"Well, you know, football, just like always, " I answered. I hate football.

"I don't know about you," she began, "But I'm going to take a shower." She started quickly towards the bathroom. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this: it didn't seem very much in character. She stopped in the door and mooned me. This time I hurried to follow her. Now I was having trouble containing my excitement. By the time I got there, she was on the other side, with the door open just a crack. "I told you, I'm going to have a shower. You'll just have to wait 'til I come out."

"Well, um, maybe I could come in too?"

"Oh, well, OK." She pulled me in and started to unbuckle my pants.

OK, we'd had some good sex before, but never like this! It was twice more before we were done. Once in the shower and then again, all over the apartment! I wasn't sure I could keep up.

It was a Wednesday, a week and a half later, when I received an unusual call at work. It was Dr. Coleman, an old colleague of mine that I hadn't spoken to in a long time. He was now working at the Department of the Interior as an economist. We exchanged pleasantries for a bit, but he didn't seem to be into it.

"Listen, I think we should meet sometime, I have something important to discuss with you," he said gravely.

"Well, OK, maybe we could go for a beer this Friday?" It was just a thought.

"No, I don't want to socialize, not now." Thanks a lot, I thought. "You have a pass to the Library of Scientific Defense, don't you?"

"Yes, my work requires me to go there from time to time," I replied. What was he getting at? "But it's only for special projects. I don't think I could go in there just anytime."

"Can you meet with me in about a week’s time? Can you do that?" he asked.

"I suppose so. Where? What time?"

"I’ll call you back with the time and place." He hung up.

For one o’clock in the afternoon, the pub was crowded, the air thick with the cigarette smoke and chatter of early revelers. Six of us were sitting in a booth in a local bar enjoying our last beer of the longer than usual lunch. Carla was there sitting in the middle beside me even though she worked for a different department. Steve was sitting on the outside of the booth directly across from me while on the inside on my side was one of the summer students, a slight unassuming young man followed by Chandra, one of the secretaries and then our boss as we came around the table.

Carla was showing us an official-looking government letter she had recently received. “Yeah, they changed my number,” she was saying.

“So what’s your number now?” asked Steve. She rattled off a string of digits, which of course prompted the usual banal stream of conversation: “Oh, my number is…” or “What’s yours?”

Before it came to my turn, Carla piped up, “So what do the numbers mean?”

“The last four numbers is the date of your launch,” said Chandra.

“The date of launch determines which Ark you’re going on,” added Steve. “It should say somewhere in the letter.”

Now we went around figuring out which Ark each of us would be on. Chandra and the summer student were each going on the third one. Steve and Terry, our boss, were on the first. Carla would now also be on the first, which disappointed me, as I remember her telling me once that she was on the fourth, same as me.

The conversation moved on while I drifted off, lost in my own thoughts. At this point I was on my third beer, a new record for me on our semi-weekly lunch outings. I looked over at Carla. We started talking about inconsequential things and I put my arm around her. At some point Steve started getting in a heated discussion across the table with the summer student about some minor technical issue.

“Relax, Steve,” I piped in. “Jesus, sometimes your so full of yourself!”

“What did you just say?” He whipped around, glaring at me.

“You know, chill out. He’s still a student—he doesn’t have your knowledge or experience.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from creeping into my tone.

“He’s got at least as much experience as a lowly techie like you!”

“Oh cool it Steve,” said Terry, in his normally easy-going manner. “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” Uncharacteristicly this didn’t appease him at all. He began to shout:

“You think you know something? I’ll tell you something! Everybody on the second to fourth Arks are going exactly nowhere! Only the people who mean something—the people with special skills and accomplishments, the ones with PhD’s, are going on the first Ark.

“You want to know something else? They give you these drugs that give you incredible endurance. I’ve been fucking Carla every second day and let me tell something, it’s incredible. So don’t think you’re something special, whispering sweet nothings in her ear!

“So why don’t you take your fucking arm off her and acknowledge that you’re going exactly nowhere with her?”

There was an awkward silence. I sat dumbfounded, avoiding eye-contact.

“You heard me!” He stood up from the bench. Like an idiot I stood also.

“C’mon guys, relax.” I barely heard Terry’s words. “I know you’ve both had a bit to drink…”

I stared dumbly at the floor. “Jesus Steve, why are you such an asshole?”

Pow! I found myself sprawled across the tiles, before realizing he had struck me with his fist. We all remained motionless for a time while the reality of the past events sunk in. No one made a move to restrain him.

“Listen Joey, why don’t you take the rest of the afternoon off?” Terry offered lamely.

I looked over at Carla. “Is that true?”

I was to meet my old colleague at the cafeteria in a government building midway between our two buildings. I shifted uncomfortably in the hard plastic bench as I waited for my old colleague. The business on Friday had been glossed over, as these things often are. Steve tried to stammer an apology but that was about it. I had not spoken to Carla since and was putting off calling her.

“Hi,” said someone, interrupting my reverie. It was Dr. Coleman looking very nervous and distracted. He had aged more than his years and lost a considerably amount of weight since I’d last seen him.

“Sit down,” I offered. “Long time no see.” But he seemed to have no time for pleasantries. His gaunt eyes stared directly into my own.

“I need you to research the Ark project,” he began.

“What’s there to research? It’s T-minus 1 378 432 seconds…” I said, citing the last figure I had heard on the radio this morning. He ignored me.

“I want you to find out as much as you can about the Ark project. I have a bunch of government white papers. I need you to check all of the back-references.” He passed me a thin stack of computer print-outs. “If you can, try to keep this to yourself.”

I stared back at him. He took a deep breath. “I hope you don’t mind doing this for me. I really appreciate your collaboration on this.”

“Yeah…” I concurred slowly. “No problem, I guess.”

“So we’ll meet again in two weeks? Same time, same place?”

I nodded.

The very next morning I complied with his request. I could tell anyone at work that I was just going to the library to photocopy some journal articles, which I was. For several hours I wondered through the deserted, musty-smelling stacks, pulling out and photo-copying huge tomes. But first I had had to get past security. My heart had been in my throat, thudding so violently I was sure it registered visibly. But my paranoia turned out to be unfounded when the guard barely glanced at my I.D. and then waved me on through. It didn’t take long to get what Dr. Coleman was driving at. I thought back to the newspaper article I had absconded at work, over a week ago now. “Two choices for Ark project,” the headline had read, over forty-five years ago. But I had set it aside and not looked at it since.

From the beginning there had been two projects considered. A single Ark could take approximately twenty-five percent of the population with a projected ninety-nine percent probability of survival. Or three more Arks could be built but with a projected probability of only eighty percent per Ark. These two options were not even kept all that secret, at least not initially. It now became brutally apparent which option had been chosen. I thought back to Steve’s comments back in the pub. Did he know?

I fidgeted on the edge of my living-room couch like a nervous school boy. There was no one else in the room save for the lifeless apparition of the television screen flickering before me. On the news tonight was an interview relating to the Ark project. The confident newsman with his slicked-back hair towered over the small man before him in the drab brown suit.

“Mr. Nowhit,” began the newsman. “Is it my understanding that according to you, the whole Ark project is a fabrication and that the government has been lying to the people?”

“Not the whole Ark project,” replied the man in his barely audible voice. “There is an Ark project, but instead of four Arks, the government has built only one. The fabrication is that everyone has a place in an Ark. In reality only about twenty percent of the population is going.”

“Can you explain why this might be?”

“I imagine it’s to prevent panic. But the question we should really be asking is why there is only one Ark to begin with.” He struggled to put his words together.

“Can you elaborate on that?” Ask an open question. Isn’t that what they teach you in journalism school?

“Initially there were two plans considered:” he began slowly, “all of the population could be taken in four arks, a project which would take almost 100% of the existing work force and was estimated to have an 80 percent probability of survival per ark. Or less than one quarter of the population could be taken in one ark, which would consume only 40% of the existing work force…”

“Don’t you think that makes sense?” interrupted the newsman. “This thing obviously wasn’t easy to build: better to make sure it’s done right, even if we have to leave some of the population behind.”

To this the man had no answer.

“So who gets to go on this alleged single ark?”

“There seem to be a number of different criteria. Primarily it seems to be an issue of merit: an advanced degree almost guaranties you a place. Also, some kind of accomplishment deemed to be of some significance such as an invention or starting up a business. Civic activity and other activities not related to work or academics also helps.”

“Again, this seems to be perfectly reasonable. Do we want take some bum off the street and put him into space, while accomplished statesmen and other leaders get left behind? These people have the task of re-starting our race. They’re like Adam and Eve!”

Again the man had no answer. The newsman changed the line of questioning. “Can you tell me what proof you have that this is true? That the government is lying to us?”

“Its very simple. All you need is a telescope. Any amateur astronomer with a powerful enough telescope or access to an observatory can see for themselves. The arks are in a geo-stationary orbit and are visible during daylight hours. If it’s a clear day and your telescope is good enough, you can clearly see that three of the arks are inflatable mock-ups.”

With that, the interview was cut short.

“That was Joseph Nowhit talking about the Ark project,” said the anchor-woman. “Mr. Nowhit is a…” she continued but I had already shut it off. Better not to hear her list my meager credentials. Dr. Coleman had both got me the interview spot on the local network and then with some persuading convinced me to actually attend.

I am sitting on a two-lane highway. Traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see in my direction of travel. I have long since grown impatient, and seeing that there is no traffic in the opposite direction (and likely to stay that way) I pull into the other lane and floor it. The engine wheezes as I coax the old clunker up to 140. I am almost at the launch site and rather than search for a place in the parking lot, I pull off the road doing sixty. The car slides sideways on the wet grass and I shut off the engine as it comes to a stop. I scramble from the vehicle and jog over to the terminal.

I’m not really sure what I hope to accomplish here. I join the line of pilgrims waiting to receive their seat on the shuttle. Perhaps I can sneak in. I look for a gap in the security. Do I even want to go? At the head of the line a woman is checking ID’s. After an eternity, my turn comes so much sooner than I had expected. “May I see your card?” asks the woman, who seems to recognize me. Lamely I pull it out and show it to her, hoping she won’t notice. She barely has to glance at it: she knows it’s not right. But she calls my bluff anyway and picks up her clip-board.

“I’m sorry sir. If you could just step over to the side here.” She motions with her hand. I notice several others fighting with security guards: a young mother with three children, a large, aggressive man in an ill-fitting suit. “I’ve got to get on there…” she cries. I slip away from this congested scene. “Sir, sir…” calls the woman checking ID’s, but I ignore her.

I walk swiftly through the terminal, dodging the myriad people milling about, lost, confused, wondering what to do. There is a large, open lobby, overhead of which a concourse passes. There are people waving, from both above and below, some smiling, some with tears in their eyes.

“Carla!” I call trying to be heard over the clamour.


I walk further down the lobby, trying to follow the concourse, hoping to resolve its ultimate termination at the doors of the shuttle that will ferry these people to their new home on the Ark.

“Carla!” I cry again and keep repeating until I am hoarse with the effort.

I search out the opposite concourse and repeat the same foolish exercise. Finally I leave the terminal and begin to pace about the tarmac. The crowds have dispersed—either back to where they have come or crowded into the shuttle—and the crews are now making the final preparations for launch. I walk around the terminal and somehow find myself standing right on the launch pad. The count-down has already begun. “T-minus 120 seconds,” blare the loudspeakers. “Please make your way onto the shuttle and clear the launch pad.” I stare dumbly up at the hulking mass that will accelerate 300 passengers over 1000 kilometers above the earth. For a time I just stand there, my mind frozen.

The final announcement shocks me out of my reverie. “Twenty seconds until launch! Starting ignition.” Only then do I realize the danger I am in. I run back towards the terminal and see there a figure. “Carla!” We run towards each other then head for some equipment near the wall and there crouch down, clutching each other, crying as the rocket exhaust whips up the wind around us, showering us with a fine mist.

As the roaring subsides, we emerge from our hiding place and stare up at the craft rapidly disappearing overhead. The chosen few, departed to find their new home in the stars. While we are still stuck here on this doomed planet. Walking back across the tarmac, past the terminal, across the parking lot with its abandoned vehicles now useless to their owners, it is a ghost town. The silence is enhanced by a dry wind blowing across the hills carrying with it the chill of autumn. It is not until we are both in the car and driving that one of us has the courage to break the silence.

“Why did you stay?”

“I met the head of the project. He took us on a tour of one of the shuttles and the prototype of the Ark. The guy thought he was Jesus!”

The hills are bathed in blood, city lights just beginning to wink at us in the distance. We have five more years, maybe ten at most. It is a Saturday evening and the pubs should still be open. It’s time to discover what the rest of this life has to offer.

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