Blesok no. 103-104, December, 2015


Benjamin Stein


Translation: Brian Zumhagen
I am frightened by phantoms that I did not invent myself. And now, this hoof… It’s peeping out from under the blanket at the foot of my bed in the dark. It’s giving me the creeps. Without looking, I cover it up, put my head back on my pillow and close my eyes, like a child who thinks that if he can’t see something, it isn’t there. That makes me feel better. And yet, I ought to know that it’s a bad omen.
    I’m not a fool. A rose is a rose is a rose. I learned that much from Matana. A sign is, first and foremost, nothing other than a sign, an indication, a guide, not identical to the thing it’s pointing to. The sign itself is innocent. In and of itself it means nothing, and there’s no reason to get excited just because you see it.
    Omens, providence, destiny… I know what I’m talking about. I am a specialist in signs. At least I consider myself to be one, because I got an early start looking for signs, discovering them and interpreting them.
    I started by making “if/when” bets with myself: if the car turns left at the next corner, then I’ll get the ice cream. If not, I won’t. And if it goes straight, there will be something unusually tantalizing waiting for me. I just have to be patient. And then, the red blinker lit up on the back of the car – on the right-hand side, and my hopes were dashed.
    My gaze soon moved from the blinker on a car to the twinkling in the sky. Surely the stars would speak. When I got out of school in the early afternoon, I would turn on the TV, change the channel to The Daily Horoscope and wait eagerly until they got to my sign and announced my astrological outlook. The show had the advantage of coming on at a time when the day was already halfway over. If the astrology backed up the things that had already happened, then that could only mean that the things they predicted that hadn’t happened yet were indeed going to come to pass. If the horoscope had no correlation to the day as I had experienced it up to that point, then that meant anything could be in store for me, just as if my day hadn’t even started yet. What trepidation I felt, oh, the promises of joy and sorrow and indecision… The stars couldn’t be wrong.
    Even today I can’t open a magazine without going right to the table of contents to look for the horoscope. If there is one – and I prefer magazines that treat the astrology section as an essential – then I can’t help turning to that page immediately, so I can find out what to expect. Money, work, love, all the possibilities. Sometimes, if the paper’s any good, they’re even presented in graphs, with gently waving lines, with phases of tranquility, and high-altitude flights. And if you look at the patterns of those entangled lines, the intersections and turning points of their curves, you can even learn what the next moment might bring.
    A bit later, there were the numbers, which formed their own universe, with infinite spaces, suns, planets and emptiness, the heavens and the earth, and in the midst of all those things, a continuous murmur. Every number had something to tell me. Often it was in the form of a riddle, but sometimes it was completely unencrypted. You had to train yourself to hear the messages. The numbers didn’t always reveal their information without a puzzle.
    From the beginning, certain numbers stood out, like prime numbers, which were my first exercises. The search for them was a hunt for the indivisible core of things. They seemed to me like a secret and never-ending alphabet, from which words and messages were pieced together.
    I was initiated – that seems to be the right word for it – during my Bar Mitzvah lessons. My parents didn’t care much for religion, and so I had almost no clue about religious matters. I was indifferent when it came to God and his laws. But there had to be a Bar Mitzvah, for the party and the presents, if nothing else. My father could show everybody what we had, a big show with hundreds of guests. The lessons were nothing more than the price of the ticket I needed to get into the party and be showered with presents. And so, for a few months, I had religious instruction twice a week.
    My teacher was a grumpy old man who spat when he talked and had such bad breath that it was nauseating. I have no idea what was going on in his innards. His ears had tufts of bristly grey hair growing out of them, and whenever I sat across from him, I couldn’t help staring at them, with a feeling somewhere between disgust and fascination. So, I thought to myself, religion is a smelly and prickly thing that sprouts out of your ears.
    The first two sessions alone made me long all the more for the day of the party, because it would mean an end to this ordeal. I would be out of the danger zone, and I could stop panicking every night and looking in the mirror to check my ears. And when I was around other people, I would no longer have to keep my mouth closed obsessively or mumble through my teeth, out of fear that the foul stench of religion was going to rise up out of my insides, too.
    No, I really wasn’t a fan of this instruction in matters of God. That changed, however, when my teacher informed me that the Hebrew letters, which I had learned to differentiate and read with great difficulty and little enthusiasm, also had numerical values. That meant that, when I looked at one of those Hebrew books of seven seals, I was actually gazing upon gigantic columns of integers. The letters in a word could be added up. And so you could track down hidden messages by searching for words that might perhaps describe very different things, but which, because their numerical values matched, seemed to indicate that they shared a connection, a hidden kinship in meaning that was just waiting to be discovered and which, I was sure of it, contained a message.
    (from Chapter 1)

    Just a moment ago, I was still floating, in a nocturnal sea. There was darkness all around, but far above me, the moon was shimmering, round and pale, casting down a narrow beam, and in the light the plankton twinkled like a band of stars. An enormous stingray was gliding toward me. Then it went over my head, so close that, when I looked up, I could see its white belly, pumping gills, narrow mouth, and its eyes, which had a kind of lunatic stare. The tip of a fin nearly brushed against me. I drifted up slowly, slowly, and then surfaced. The air was calm, and the leaden and stagnant sea seemed endlessly vast and black. I closed my eyes and drifted. Little by little, the black turned first into a deep, then a lighter shade, of blue.
    And now, a warm yellow light is penetrating my closed eyelids, as if I were lying in a meadow in the midday sun. I open my eyes, and the meadow is actually there. I am lying naked in the grass, and close beside me, there are two women, Katelyn and Lian. They are also naked, nestled together chest to back, smiling dreamily in their sleep, as if reveling in affectionate dreams…
    I feel a strong temptation to reach out and caress Katelyn’s forehead, to trace her eyebrows with my finger, or to brush aside the lustrous lock of Lian’s long black hair that’s lying across her breast like a band of silk. But that would be futile. I would be grasping at nothingness.
    As much as I like what I see, I know that it is not real; it is merely a memory. At the time, we were not in a meadow when we awoke, but in Katelyn’s round bed. The night that Lian spent with Katelyn and me happened about fifteen years ago. I have aged since then, and so has Katelyn, and after we said goodbye to Lian the following day, neither of us ever saw her again.
    It would surely be futile to want to touch both of them again. I can see them. Nothing else is possible. That’s because what I am seeing is a film sequence, a captured moment of happiness that my UniCom has recorded and stored for me.
    The meadow and the summer landscape with the deserted rolling hills, those were elements that I added later. The resulting clip is one of my favorite in the “Awakening” file of my library, my private, secret Arcadia.
    Every morning I find myself back in a similar moment of bliss. The vivid memory of those seconds of happiness, which might have taken place long ago, blends with a deep sense of satisfaction from the current moment. I have accomplished fantastic things in my life. Miraculously, it is those very seconds of awakening that give me a daily reward for my past labors.
    I have never liked to get up in the morning. The way things were with my job, I was hardly ever able to sleep in. And that made getting up all the more difficult. There was nothing I hated more than being yanked out of a deep sleep by an annoying alarm, and then finding myself dazed in the dark. That was over and done with a long time ago.
    I love what we’ve created. I love the UniCom, and if I had to pick one thing that I love most about this technological marvel, then I would say: the fact that I get to wake up every morning in paradise.
    I’m not exaggerating. There is no memory that is lost to me, unless I decide to give it up for lost. The UniCom sees and hears everything that I see and hear, and stores it for me. It monitors my sleep. It knows when I have to get up. When that time is approaching, during a dream cycle in the lightest phase of sleep, the UniCom activates one of the clips I have scheduled. No matter what I have just been dreaming about, I glide smoothly from that dream into the light, into a memory that is precious to me, a memory of a moment of happiness. Wherever I am, whether it’s terribly early and it’s still dark and cold outside, none of that makes any difference. I wake up with a smile on my face.
    It was a long road to get to this point, and I think I can be justifiably proud of the accomplishment. In the beginning there were sacrifices, obstacles, and hard manual labor – things I hadn’t expected. Nowadays, the implantation is outpatient surgery. You go to the clinic in the morning on an empty stomach. After a few examinations, the UniCom is implanted, and that afternoon, you go home a modified man, endowed with sharper senses, hooked up to the inexhaustible current of worldwide communication. The tiny incisions behind your ears are the only evidence of the operation. They heal within a week. After that, the only way you can tell a new arrival is by the quietly pulsating blue light of the Status Indicators, two tiny round light-emitting diodes that flash every thirty seconds under the skin at the temples – as proof that a person has been enlightened, ennobled, admitted to the upper stratum of the Adopters, the Interconnected, the true citizens of the world.
    I had to do a lot more than that to get into the inner circle. For me, it was anything but a walk in the park. I had already transformed myself once for Matana; now I had to undergo yet another transformation, physically and psychologically, and this transformation would require more than new clothes and a trip to the spa.
    However uneasy I may have felt on the evening when Matana had broken off our chess match and put forward his suggestion to me, the next morning I was just as impatient to accept his offer. I was a bundle of nerves, and yet it was clear to me that I had to accept, that there could be no other response. How many people would ever get a chance like this? I couldn’t refuse. After I jumped out of bed and shook off the vexing hallucination of the ram’s hoof I had woken up to, I sat down at my computer and sent Matana a message.
    I’m in, I wrote. Nothing more. And as if he had had done nothing the whole night but sit in front of his computer screen waiting for my response, Matana got back to me immediately.
    He expected nothing less, he wrote.
    And so it was decided. There was no going back.
    It didn’t take long to reach an agreement with the company, that is to say, with Matana. The issue was medical care. What would happen if, for example, I lost my eyesight or ended up with some other irreparable harm? For this secret project, insurance was out of the question. The company would have to take care of it. And the company would, Matana informed me. As it turned out, he had already planned and prepared everything. The lawyers had drafted a contract that covered all eventualities. All I needed to do was sign it.
    Some of the provisions that the contract stipulated for the duration of the experiment surprised me, because they made it seem like I was going to have to be given personal protection. I was to have a driver, because we couldn’t anticipate the effects of the experiment on my ability to operate a car, and we couldn’t take any risks. I was also to get a kind of medical lifeguard. A team of selected doctors would look after me, and one of them would always be nearby, night and day. Generally speaking, the doctors would be running things for the time being.
    They examined me thoroughly for a week, measured my heart rhythm and my brain waves, did blood work, calculated my body fat percentage and gave me stress tests. They checked me for allergic reactions, and used a CT scanner to create a detailed image of my brain, in a resting state and in simulated stress conditions. You might have thought I was being sent on a mission to Mars, or that I was training for the Olympics. In any event, I had never been through anything like it, and I had never expected to find myself subjected to such intense medical scrutiny. When the doctors presented their report, it seemed that the experiment had failed before we had even gotten started.    
    The verdict was devastating. My mind might have been in good shape, but my body was anything but. I was informed that the way I was living – poor nutrition, a lack of sleep, and an overabundance of stress from working too much, I was more of a candidate for an early heart attack than for an experiment like the one we had in mind. Besides, the white coats had also found traces of THC. That didn’t surprise me, and it amused Matana, but it made the doctors worry that I might ruin the experiment if, at some point during the stressful months ahead, I ended up reaching for a joint.
    If I was going to qualify to be a prototype of Homo UniCom, I was going to have to get in shape. That meant a delay of several months for the experiment, and for me it meant a strict regimen that would catapult me out of the daily routine I was used to. They prescribed eight hours a day of sleep per day, a change in my diet, and a fitness program that was downright terrifying to me, since I’d never been much for sports.
    And, of course, I’d have to stay away from intoxicating substances of all kinds. They said they’d give me six months to take Ed Rosen, the occasional pot smoker who was always chained to his desk, and turn him into an athlete, one who might possibly, but only possibly, be suitable for the experiment that Matana had proposed.
    Even that lukewarm assessment couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I was determined, and so I signed the contract. While I was doing so, however, I was troubled by the only thought that really scared me about this project: I would have to have a conversation with Katelyn. For months, I had spent a lot of time trying to talk her out of having laser surgery to correct her nearsightedness. Now I was going to have to explain to her why I, of all people, was suddenly gung-ho to have a procedure that was much more risky.
     Given the status of our relationship at that time, I didn’t necessarily have to explain myself. But that was precisely the point: I had advised her against the surgery not because I loved her fake green eyes so much that I didn’t want to live without them, but because I was concerned about Katelyn. I convinced myself that maybe my concern was the reason she hadn’t had the operation yet, because she would have felt the same way if she’d been in my place. How could I do something that she had denied herself for my sake?
    Maybe I had been obtuse for too long. Now, at any rate, it was clear to me that we were a couple, that our relationship was more than just a fling, a thrilling episode where nobody owed anyone any explanations. I wanted her to be there, I wanted her to – how should I put it? – accompany me on the path to the unknown. And yet, I had signed the contract without letting her in on it. I had made the decision without her. It didn’t matter whether the idea would frighten her or not, or whether she would agree with it or not. I had already decided, as if I were alone, as if she were not there, or as if her views, fears and opinions didn’t count. She wasn’t going to like that. You didn’t have to be a prophet to see that coming.
    The terrifying thing wasn’t the realization that I loved Katelyn. What was terrifying was the overwhelming feeling of being loved, and the ensuing fear that something might change, and I would lose Katelyn, because she would feel overlooked, not taken seriously, not important enough to consider such a major decision along with me. The risks of the experiment actually paled in comparison to that fear.
    You would have thought that at my age, I would have been able to handle my fear, but I was as helpless as a teenager in the throes of first love. Instead of eliminating the problem by explaining myself and bringing Katelyn into the loop, I kept putting off the moment of truth from one date to the next. I found myself telling her that it was a secret project that she wasn’t allowed to know anything about, and that I had no choice but to keep my mouth shut as long as preparations were still underway.
    At the same time, I did confide in Matana about what was going on. I thought he would be flabbergasted when I confessed to the affair – with the auditor from Anderson, Pinchet & Laurie, of all people – but my disclosure didn’t surprise him at all. He pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the eyes looking down from the huge corporate seal on the wall behind him.
    What, he said, do you think the company’s blind?
    No, I didn’t think that. How could I have assumed that Matana would overlook a potential risk? So was this the end? Was I going to have to break up with Katelyn on some flimsy excuse?
    I should concentrate on the training program the doctors had prescribed, Matana said, with a smile that I found almost barbarically heartless. Then we’ll see, he said.
    I felt sick. I had to sit down. Until that moment, I thought, I was still an anxious lover. That was finished. From now on, there was no deluding myself about it: I was a traitor.
    The next date with Katelyn was torture. She was in a great mood and kept joking around, but I was as withdrawn as a snail in a shell. I could hardly look Katelyn in the eye, and I couldn’t get out a coherent sentence, because I was afraid that I would give myself away. It felt as if a fog had rolled in between us, and the patches were obscuring my image of her, the details that I noticed and had always enjoyed, her eyes, her lips, the sassy way the blonde tips of her hair fell against her forehead. Now everything she said sounded muffled and vaguely distorted to me. A grey, billowing cloud had gathered over everything, and it was the thought that all of this was happening for the last time, and that my future with her was ending here and now, even though neither of us wanted it that way.
    Katelyn had no idea about any of this, and when she noticed that I was somewhere else, she reached for my hand.
    Hello, are you there?, she asked. I’m sure you didn’t hear a thing I just said.
    I nodded, and I attempted a smile and an apology. I started babbling about a difficult phase in my project, a problem that I hadn’t been able to solve for days that was blocking me and the progress of my research.
    It’ll be all right, she said. Don’t be so dramatic! Besides, she said, it wasn’t charming to think about machines while I was out with her.
    Take a look here, she said, strutting flirtatiously: that should help you forget your bit patterns, don’t you think?
    She really must have no idea, I thought to myself, and I didn’t know whether I should feel relieved about that, or even more guilty.
    The next day was my birthday. But Matana had already warned me that, instead of presents, I’d be getting a bundle of new obligations. He told me there was no time like the present to start my training program. Matana had summoned me to his office at 10 o’clock that morning, so he could introduce me to the personal trainer who would get me in shape for my mission.
    I arrived on time. At two minutes to ten, I walked into Matana’s outer office and said good morning to his secretary.
    Go right in, she said. They’re expecting you.
    When I opened the door and entered Matana’s office, I felt like I was walking on stage. My eyes went right to Matana, who was behind his desk, leaning back calmly on a throne-like leather chair. Just as he had done on the day of my interview, he had his pocket watch in his hand and was stroking the nymph relief on it with his thumb. Up above his head, the eyes of the company logo were staring down at me. It all felt staged, like a well thought out production that was supposed to impress me. And it did. Matana slipped the watch back into his vest pocket and made a sweeping gesture toward the seating area where we had negotiated the terms of my employment agreement years before. There was already someone sitting there, an extremely attractive woman with a blond bob and green eyes. Under the hem of her pencil skirt, a flash of stocking.
    Voilà, I heard Matana say.
    Katelyn got up, and the secretary closed the door behind me.
    (from chapter 2)


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