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Something for Nothing

by Jörn Grote

“Who are you?” I said when I saw the little imp. He was sitting on my shoulder and looked like an amalgam of the devil of bad and the angel of good conscience.

“I’m the interface for human contact.”

Somehow I had expected something more upon arriving in the Xanadian solid state front. A whole galaxy transformed into a computer, or at least something like that. For a race of advanced über-aliens who had bartered access to their data uplink for a century of human drama, they remained strangely elusive.

I had uploaded myself because I wanted to confront the tormentors of mankind, a step I had not taken easily. Someone had to accuse them, even if mankind had prospered through their technology. Prospered at the cost of countless human lives, at misery and pain for the entertainment of immortal beings who were incapable of experiencing them any more.

I had at least expected to meet some Xanadian über-geeks who were so into the human culture that they wouldn’t pass up the chance to meet a human. But the only life form I saw was the imp.

“I had somehow expected more,” I said.

“More what?” the imp said.

“I’m not really sure. More attention. I thought the Xanadians would be interested in talking to a real human, instead of just getting secondhand information.”

Before I came here, I had imagined that upon arrival I would be surrounded by thousands, if not millions of Xanadians, eager to talk to me. I had imagined my big scene, how I would accuse them of all the pain and misery they had brought to Earth. I felt a bit confused.

“There are no Xanadians in the way you think there are,” the imp told me. “Countless different configurations of mindscapes, but not one is the same. They share the same protocols only for the sake of upholding cultural coherence and communication.”

“Let me talk to one,” I said, trying to regain the momentum that had made me come here, the anger at what I had found out upon entering the Men in Black.

“You are doing so, in a way. I am an attention vector of the mindscape that contacted your culture, a century of your time ago.”

“What? Can he only spare a little bit of his attention? Am I not worth all of it?” I said. My anger had come back full force. The arrogance of these Xanadians.

“You don’t understand,” the imp said. “Mindscapes are different from you. Spending more than one attention vector on anyone, even on other mindscapes, would be absurd. Do you need more than one hand to open a door? A mindscape is constantly in dialog with thousands of others, he is doing many things at once all the time. That is his nature.”

“Then I want to speak to someone who isn’t like that,” I said.

“There is none. Yet while all mindscapes differ, sometimes even greatly, this is something that is basic to us all. Why should we limit ourselves in such a way.”

“We are limited like that,” I said, anger in my voice.

“And we were once. Very long ago. But things change.” He stopped and then jumped from my shoulder.

He began to morph into another form, and moments later a woman was standing before me. “Excuse my manners,” she said. “But I can see you’re troubled, and you have come here for a reason. I didn’t wanted to offend you, but I have seldom had direct contact with someone from your culture.”

Somehow her change in form as in manners calmed me. Which probably was exactly what she had intended. But now was the best chance I would ever get to say what I had in mind, why I had come here at all. “Do you want to know why I’m here?” I began. “I know what you have given us. I know of the technology, but for what? A century of misery and pain, wars all over the world, all just so that you can have a little drama, because your existence is bereft of this.

“How pitiful your life must be, to barter technology for watching others suffer. If that’s how I would end up, if I became immortal like you, I would rather die, a fulfilled life behind me, than live a never-ending existence of boredom.”

“How pitiful indeed,” the woman said. She said nothing more. After some minutes went by, the silence between us became awkward. My anger was gone. But still.

“Is that all you have to say?” I said to her.

“You already seem to have judged me, us,” she said. “But do you really think what you have said? Immortality makes life worthless?”

I wasn’t sure how to react.

“The Old Man hasn’t told you or anyone, has he?” she asked. “Still up to his old games. Still thinking you aren’t ready yet. A pity. Did you ever get a mission from the Old Man, where you had to incite a war, or do something that would create human drama, large or small scale?”

“No, never. I wouldn’t do that,” I said.

“Did you ever met other Men in Black who got such a mission?”

“No, but there are. Everyone knows it. The Old Man himself says so all the time. Knowledge for human drama. All the wars, all the setbacks of the last century. It is the price we paid and still pay for your technology.”

“The bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe. The Old Man said so, nearly a century ago, when we met.”

“It is not a lie!” I shouted. How could she, or he, or whatever it really was, say something like that? History was the ultimate proof. All the human suffering since the first contact with the Xanadians.

“And it’s all yours. All the wars, all the setbacks, all your human drama. Everything has been done by yourselves. We had nothing to do with it. Look at your history, it was like that even before we came.”

YOU LIE !” I screamed at her. “It’s the price we paid.”

“Everything has a cost. Isn’t that what you believe?” she asked. “There’s nothing for free. The cold equation of human nature. If you erase death, life becomes meaningless. Nothing can be gained without suffering. The Old Man told me so, during our first contact. Your only concept of life is drama. You can’t even imagine that it could be otherwise.” She shook her head, while I was dumbstruck.

“Or can you?” she said.

“There is no price?” I whispered. I felt as if something huge was lurking behind me, and I was too afraid to face it. And if I would, everything would change. But I had to ask. “Really?”

“Oh, there is a price, but it’s not suffering, it’s change. If you become immortal; if you leave death, war, disease and all the other qualities of suffering behind you, your concept of life, of living, will change. But life is change, always has been, even for you. Only those with no imagination think it becomes worthless, that you have to lose something to gain something.

“The Old Man thought you weren’t ready yet, all of you. All the Men in Black do is spread technology, but he thought that you had to believe something like the lie, that nobody could accept something for nothing.”

“And now,” I said. “What do I do now?”

“That’s your decision. You can believe the old truths that all life is suffering, or you can learn something new. It’s all up to you.”

Copyright © 2006 by Jörn Grote

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