To the Berginlight Bridge
by Jeffrey Greene
All able-bodied men in late middle age must attempt the Journey to the Berginlight Bridge. They leave their villages with only what they can carry, without even a dog for company. Only men are summoned, and they are given no map, only the admonition “to head north for a moon, then east to the sea.”
Now Simon must leave his village and the people he’s known all his life. On a rainy morning in early winter, he begins his lonely trek, knowing that, like all the men before him, he will never return. However, he will find he is not alone and that his Journey has an ultimate meaning for both men and women and for life itself.
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
“It’s the best news we’ve had in a while. The team at Cal Tech has perfected the suspension process. Helium-4 was the key element. The surrounding superfluid seems to prevent the breakdown of tissue at minus 200 degrees Kelvin. Theoretically, we can now preserve the patient indefinitely. Or at least as long as the power supply lasts.”
“How many are still alive?”
“Two hundred and thirteen.”
“God help us.”
“I’m told that by tomorrow evening the number of human males left on this planet will be two hundred and ten. Which is why we need immediate approval from the Council.”
“We’ll be preserving the disease as well as the men. Are you ready to take responsibility for that?”
“I’m aware of the risk. We have to assume that ten or twenty years down the road we’ll have a cure.”
“And if it takes a hundred years?”
“It doesn’t matter. At least we’ll have patients to treat.”
“Sperm supplies are healthy. We can eventually revive the gender if our descendants fail to find a vaccine.”
“That’s unworthy of you, Callista. If we don’t beat this virus, we’ll still be aborting every male fetus a thousand years from now. The species may survive physically without two sexes. But in every other way we’ll be just as dead as if the virus had taken all of us.”
“There are factions in the Council that believe we’re better off without them. That the virus was Mother Earth’s solution to an intractable problem.”
“Oh, sure. No penis, no problems, right? Bloody nonsense. We’re degenerating faster than I think even men would have in a world without women. At the rate we’re going, we’ll be extinct in a few centuries.”
Was there no hiding place for us? I ask the voices, but no one answers. Too much time has passed since I’d posed the question, years, decades, centuries. The number rolls around in my head: two hundred and thirteen comatose men flash-frozen for safe-keeping out of three and a half billion. Where did they store us? All those funeral pyres must have contributed to climate change. Irrelevant thoughts slowly spin out from an inexhaustible spool of glowing green thread. I drift through an endless succession of rooms, hearing snatches of conversation that become less frequent as time passes.
“The search for a vaccine has been like a centuries-long chess match. Every time we get close, the virus mutates. It’s as if Nature doesn’t want us to find a cure. But the recent tests on male anencephalic clones have been very encouraging, and we’re now prepared to revive one of the men and test our vaccine.”
“‘Encouraging’ isn’t quite the term we were hoping for, Dr. Chappell.”
“I’d be lying if I told you we’re certain of success, Madame President. We’ll have to risk losing one of the men to save the rest.”
“I’m glad I don’t have to choose the guinea pig.”
“It’s my responsibility.”
“The Council will be anxiously awaiting your report.”
I sit in a darkened corner of a huge, domed chamber, the walls, ceiling and floor emanating a dull green fire that barely illuminates the faces of the women sitting in a semi-circle, looking down at the tall, weary-looking woman standing in the center of the room. No one seems aware of my presence.
“Speak up, doctor. We can’t hear you.”
“I said, ‘The vaccine failed.’ There were no encouraging signs. The poor man died very quickly. If I didn’t know better, I would think the virus had somehow mutated at minus 200 degrees Kelvin.”
“This is a great disappointment. What do you plan to do now?”
“Very little, I’m afraid. If there were more of us to work on the problem, we might have a chance but, considering the vitiated state of our remaining research facilities, I don’t think we can realistically hope to develop a vaccine in the near term.”
“‘Near term?’ Don’t you mean ‘never’?”
“All right. Yes. Never.”
“Do you have anything else to offer?”
“Yes, I do. But it may shock the Council.”
“I seriously doubt you could shock us at this point, doctor.”
“The two hundred and twelve men in suspension are still very much alive, though comatose. The virus has — or will — compromise every organ in their bodies except one: the brain. We can’t save their bodies, but we can preserve their brains, keep them functioning with precisely calibrated metabolic regulators. It would offer the last men on Earth at least a kind of virtual life. In fact, as long as the machines continue functioning, their brains would be immortal.”
“I retract what I said a moment ago. You have shocked us. What you’re proposing is grotesque.”
“Please hear me out. We’re not talking about severing the brain from the body and just leaving it dangling in some timeless chaos of psychotic thoughts and dreams. That would be atrocious, unthinkable. We’ve come a very long way in the centuries since neural game technology replaced the external digital model. We can insert these men, so to speak, either collectively or in carefully selected groups, into a fully realized world, one in which they can experience life developmentally, with a normal sense of time and space.
“They’ll have familial relations, friends, neighbors, community. They will no longer be comatose, deep-frozen, dead in all but name. In their minds they’ll be men, with a reason and a purpose to go on living. Our finest dream artists have designed a game postulating a faux primitive culture built around a quest for ultimate meaning, through the offices of an extraterrestrial artifact. The game is called, ‘To the Berginlight Bridge’.”
“So a form of logotherapy is built into the system?”
“Precisely. And an escape clause has been included. Death, in other words. Strictly as a matter of choice. At a fixed point in each man’s life, which we decided should occur in late middle age, his avatar is slowly, painstakingly led through a series of trials and revelations, carefully engineered both from his own memories and staged re-creations, culminating in his becoming aware of his predicament.”
“Surely you don’t mean to tell him the, well, naked truth about his condition, do you? That seems unnecessarily cruel.”
“We’re not gods, Madam President. By what right do we indefinitely hide the truth from these men? I said that the option to choose death would be offered, in the form of a signaling device inserted into the game, alerting the monitors to the man’s — I mean the brain’s — choice. The machine will then cease delivering nutrient-laden blood to that brain.
“As you know, the brain has no pain receptors. Consciousness, and life, will simply fade out. If, on the other hand, the man recoils from the final revelation or refuses to believe it, then he’ll be reinserted into the game, with a new name and identity, and begin the quest all over again, a kind of reincarnation. Some men will never give up on life, whatever the conditions. Others won’t be able to endure the knowledge of their situation, and choose death. But no one will be forced to do anything.”
“Except live in your artificial reality. They don’t get a choice there, do they?”
“Not unless you decide against our proposal. But either way, we’ll be choosing for them.”
“You’ve given us much to consider, Dr. Chappell. We’ll render our decision by this time tomorrow.”
* * *
I accept these horrors calmly, as I would a dream. Maybe I really am dreaming a future instead of seeing glimpses of the real one, skimming the centuries as one skips the slower passages in a book. Indeed, I feel like a privileged spectator rather than a participant in the events unfolding like a series of cave paintings illuminated by torches, which may very well be my own desperate strategy of denial.
The name Alan Touhey, however, continues to trouble me. My birth name was Simon, and I’ve answered to it all my life. But how could I have dreamed of Alan’s wife, Margaret, if she was not in some way connected to my past, or at least to some alternate past?
I’m no longer drifting through a succession of rooms, I’m walking now, dressed as I was before entering the Berginlight Bridge, a bedraggled scarecrow of a man, sickened by ghosts and dreams, looking for my friend Omar. Our time together, our searching conversations and shared need to find the truth about ourselves have been a great comfort to me, and I need to find him, to share what I’ve seen and heard with him, find out if his experiences tally with mine. If it has... but there are more things yet to know.
Unseen, I move among women lying in rows on beds, their skulls enclosed by transparent globes, apparently sleeping, though their eyes move rapidly under closed lids, and their hands and feet twitch and tremble. A voice sounds so close to my ear that I leap back, startled. But she isn’t talking to me.
“The late Dr. Chappell couldn’t have foreseen, in her compassionate wish to offer virtual life to the Two Hundred and Twelve, that the attenuated remnants of the surviving gender would queue for hours for the chance to vicariously share in their Journey to the fabled Bridge.
“Our last link to the past, where men and women lived side by side, can now be experienced only as a neural game program. It’s one thing to insert ourselves into the game as female characters, but quite another to become voyeurs, ogling them throughout their Journey from birth to the Bridge, simply to know what it’s like to make love to a woman, feel a beard on one’s face, know their fears, joys, bewilderment, the sense of things being not quite right in their world, the unimaginable reality leaking through tiny cracks in the fabric of the game.”
“I gather, Sister, that you have no objection to tourism, as long as it isn’t mental.”
“I didn’t say I objected to it. Like everyone else, I’ve tried it, and yes, it’s seductive. Our collective obsession with the Game is hardly surprising, after all. There isn’t much left for us now, besides dreaming. Virus 2014 has brought down the curtain on the human experiment. A unisexual world, we discovered, was biologically feasible — at least until sperm supplies are exhausted — but emotionally and spiritually pernicious, which I find strangely comforting. They couldn’t have lived without us, either. It’s as if the virus killed one half of the collective human body, and it’s taken five hundred years to die of the disease. The stage is set for whatever replaces us. I wish them luck.”
“I don’t share your pessimism, Sister. We still have the means to bring forth male children. We just have to wait out the virus.”
“Oh, I think it’s waiting us out. And time is on its side.”
* * *
Running now, away from the insupportable things I’ve heard, through one cave-like room after another, and for the longest time there have been no voices, only the green silence. Did the women finally die out altogether? Is there no one left to tend to the machines that tend to us?
At last I burst into a room and find Omar, sitting slumped on a couch that runs the entire length of one wall, his face in his hands. There is one emerald-green sphere hovering a few feet above his head. I look up and see an identical sphere over my head, too. The door at the opposite end of the room is the same shade of green.
“Omar.” It’s the first time in what has seemed like ages that I’ve heard my own voice. Slowly he raises his eyes. His face looks many years older than the last time I saw it. Mine too, probably.
“Simon,” he says, his voice as dry and worn-out as his face. “Well.” In that one word, he expresses everything I feel.
“It’s good to see you,” I say.
“You, too.” He smiles faintly, then points to our spheres. “You know what they’re for, don’t you?”
I nod. “How do we... decide?”
“I’m not sure,” he replies. “But I think the fatal vote is registered by stepping through this door. Beyond it, I guess, is the Last Room.”
“And if the choice is ‘reincarnation,’ then we just stay where we are?”
He nods, his face sickly in the interminable green light.
“I think we’ve been here before,” I say.
“I don’t want to know how many times,” he says.
There is far too much to assimilate and nothing left to say. I don’t wonder where the other travelers are and don’t care. No doubt they’ve found their own anterooms, their own Last Door. Maybe Omar and I were friends in the other life, the one before the Game. I prefer to think we were.
It is Omar, the better man of us, I’ve long known, who gets up first. He checks a move with his right hand, perhaps thinking better of offering to shake mine, instead raising it in something between a wave and a salute, then he walks briskly to the green door and, without a backward glance, pushes it open and walks through, his sphere following too closely to be left behind, the door closing silently in his wake.
What am I waiting for? Another round of confusion, shame and dishonor? I get up on my stiff, creaky, unreal legs, walk to the door, and step through it.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Greene