The first immortal a novel of the Future



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THE

FIRST IMMORTAL

A Novel of the Future.

Note: If you enjoyed The First Immortal or The Truth Machine, please consider posting a review on Amazon or purchasing copies at:



http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0345421825/ref=ase_jameslhalpe or

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0345412885/ref=ase_jameslhalpe

THIRTIETH DRAFT; Approximately 130,000 words

 Copyright 1996, James L. Halperin, 6/20/98

Address: 3500 Maple Ave, Dallas, Texas 75219

Fax 214-520-7108

e-mail: Jim@HeritageGalleries.com


“There is but one evil, ignorance.”

— Socrates


“All that stand between us and eternal life are fear and gullibility: Dread of the unknown forges faith in the unknowable.”

— Benjamin Franklin Smith

To my family.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Observant second-time readers may recognize some changes in the text, and even a few new plot twists. All such revisions are part of an obsessive quest to make The First Immortal the most severely scrutinized — and therefore scientifically accurate — novel ever written on our potential for biological immortality. In the first hard-cover edition, I offered a bounty to each reader who was first to point out any scientific or factual inaccuracies that I subsequently corrected. The bounty, a scarce Ivy Press first edition of The Truth Machine, my first novel, was enough to attract hundreds of submissions. Fortunately for me, most were duplicates, but I did wind up awarding about two dozen books. Still, I’m sure mistakes remain, so I now repeat the offer. Should you find any such errors, please send me an e-mail at jim@heritagegalleries.com, or write to me c/o Ballantine Books, 201 East 50th Street, New York, NY 10022, and include your mailing address.

And be sure to visit The First Immortal Web site at www.firstimmortal.com to post your comments about this book and the topics and philosophies it examines. I intend to read every comment, and will continue to post responses.

— JLH, 6/15/98


PROLOGUE

June 2, 1988 – Echoes tumbled through the ambulance. Squeals, rattles, and torsion-bar sways came at him in waves, magnified and ominous. The attendants standing over him seemed blurry, even extraneous. What mattered was the beeping monitor and all-too-familiar stench of emergency medicine. And every single sensation blended with the mundane smell of the rain-soaked streets beneath him.

Benjamin Franklin Smith, my great-grandfather, knew he was about to die.

The morning had delivered Ben’s third heart attack in six years—worse than either of its predecessors. This time his chest felt vise-tight, more constricted than he’d imagined possible. His oxygen-starved muscles sagged like spent rubber, so weak he could barely feel them twitch, while a cold Novocain-like river prickled his left arm from shoulder-blade to fingertips: numb but so heavy.

Oh, Christ! he thought, remembering his first symptoms on that flight to Phoenix in 1982. He should have known better. If he hadn’t stayed on the damn airplane, they could’ve given him treatment; minimized the damage.

Now he was dying. Him, of all people. Ben snorted. Absent his pain and fear, it might have been a laugh. Well, why in hell not him? He was 63 years old.

God, just 63? Is that all I get? Please Jesus, spare me this. Not yet....

Two ambulance attendants wheeled Ben through the hospital emergency entrance, past check-in and dozens of less critical cases, sprinting straight for intensive care. All ignored them except one nurse who, recognizing the too-familiar patient, merely gaped. One of the attendants whispered to her, “Looks like myocardial infarction. Probably massive.”

Still half-conscious, Ben wondered if they realized he could hear them, or if they cared. He wondered whether these professionals tasted the same empathy for him that he had so often experienced with his own dying patients.

He also questioned his rationality.

His preparations over the previous half-decade had included an oath to himself that he would betray no ambivalence about the unusual instructions he’d left. This despite understanding that his chances of staving off death remained slight.

And that if he succeeded, he might end up envying the dead.

Before surrendering consciousness, Dr. Benjamin Smith managed to whisper: “Call Toby Fiske.” These words would set in motion all his plans—irrevocably changing the nature of his death.

Then, as the rush of unreality gathered speed and his awareness faded, his subconscious mind began to play back the most important moments of life, as if by giving these experiences a new orderliness he might somehow absolve himself of, or at least comprehend, his mistakes.

Images assaulted him of his parents, his children, and the first time he ever made love to his wife Marge. She was just a teenager then. How fiery and resilient she was. They were. Then he remembered sitting at her bedside when she was dying. For six weeks he had fed and bathed her, consoled her with stories and recollections, held her hand, and watched helplessly as the cancer consumed her body and mind.

Now would he finally rejoin her?

Ben Smith also knew the world would keep turning without him. So at the end of things, he pleaded to his God, praying that once he was dead, his only son might finally forgive him.

============O============

My great-grandfather was an only child. And despite his birth into near-poverty, his genetics and early environment favored him with certain critical advantages. But timing was not among these: He was born in 1925.

His attempt to become immortal is a tale of character, luck, and daring. Benjamin Franklin Smith’s story might have befallen any person of his time—that era when death seemed inevitable to every human being on earth. Inevitable, and drawing ever closer.

THE BENJAMIN SMITH FAMILY TREE

Gary and Susan Franklin

formerly: Giancarlo & Sophia Francheschi

_________________________________|________________________________

| | |

Charlotte Franklin Alice Franklin b. 1904 Sophie Franklin



b.1906 marries b.1901

Samuel Walter Smith b. 1902

|

Benjamin Franklin Smith b. 1925

marries


Margaret Callahan b. 1924

_______________________________|___________________________

| | | |

Gary Franklin Smith Rebecca Carol Maxine Lee Smith Janette Lois Smith



b.1947 Smith-Crane b.1951 b.1952 b.1954

marries marries marries marries

Kimber Otani Chevalier George Jacob Crane Robert Miles Swenson Noah Lewis Banks

b. 1997 b.1948 b. 1950 b. 1953

| | | |

| Katherine Franklin Justin Robert Sarah Smith Banks



| Crane, b. 1978 Swenson b.1981 b. 1982

| George Jacob marries David Smith Banks

| Crane, Jr. b. 1972 Abigail Carol Hall b. 1989

| marries b. 1983 Michael Smith Banks

| Sondra Deeds Goad | b. 1986

| b. 1977 | marries

| | | Joanne Helen Gleason

| | | b. 1986

| | | |

| George Jacob (Trip) Chloe Maya Swenson b. 2021 |

| Crane, III b. 2006 David Asia Swenson b. 2023 |

| marries Liza Caroline Swenson b. 2026 |

| Stephanie Van Winkle Molly Skylar Swenson b. 2030 |

| b. 2035 |

| |

| Erik Cornell Banks b. 2014



| Frederick Harmon Banks b. 2018 | Robert Goddard Banks b. 2022

| Alica Claire Banks b. 2008

| marries marries

| Virginia Maria Gonzalez b. 1989 Caleb Jason Harwell b. 1994

| | |

Margaret Callahan Lysa Banks Gonzalez Devon Banks Harwell



Smith b. 2084 b. 2043 b. 2060

PART ONE—THE FIRST IMMORTAL
January 14, 1925
My great-great grandmother stared into a spider-web crack spreading through the dilapidated ceiling paint, its latticed shape taunting her as if she were a fly ensnared in its grip. For several hours she’d been lying on their bed, shivering and convulsing, in that drab and tiny apartment. Now she felt a scream swelling in her chest, like a tidal wave drawing mass from the shallows. Alice Smith was only 20 years old, but she knew something was deeply, perhaps mortally wrong.

She shut her eyes, trying to focus on something, anything, other than the pain-fueled fire-storm raging inside of her. But there was only the tortured stench of her own sweltering flesh. A single tear found its way into the corner of her mouth. It tasted of pain and fear, but she was surprised to discover another flavor within it: hope and a coming of new life.

Her husband, Samuel, entered her consciousness as if to provide an outlet; a cathartic conversion of pain to anger. Like Alice, the man was a second-generation American. He was a grocer by trade, and also like herself, from Wakefield, Massachusetts. He had always been a hard worker and steadfast in his tenderness. But he was not there! She was in agony, while he was stacking cans of peaches!

Just when, she asked herself, had he judged his work more important than his wife? and soundlessly cursed him with words women of the year 1925 weren’t supposed to know.

Why did she need him there, anyway? To share her torment, or to seek the comfort of him? All Alice knew was that right then she hated and loved her husband in equal measure, and if this ordeal was to kill her, she needed to see his face one last time.

To say goodbye.

No! she decided, as if her circumstance had been caused by nothing more than a failure of will. She had to raise and love this child. She would not allow herself to die.

Alice’s membrane had ruptured 26 hours ago, yet she had not given birth. She’d once read that in prolonged labor, omnipresent bacteria threatened to migrate inside, infecting both mother and child. Even the hunched and hoary midwife, though ignorant of the danger in scientific terms, seemed well aware of peril, per se; Alice could sense a fear of disaster in the woman’s every gesture.

Where in the hell was Sam?

Even in anguish, Alice understood this rage against her husband was misplaced. It had somehow become a societal expectation that women should bear children with stoic grace. And it was absurd. A student of history, she knew that anesthetics had been used for many surgeries since the 1850s, yet had found little acceptance in obstetrics, the pain of childbirth considered by doctors to be a duty women were somehow meant to endure.

Still, it could have been worse; Alice was equally aware that her odds had improved. A hundred years earlier, doctors would often go straight from performing autopsies to delivering babies, seldom even washing their hands. No wonder it had been common back then for men to lose several wives to complications of childbirth. At least now, sterilization was practiced with some modicum of care.

Her 19-year-old sister Charlotte and the midwife stood at Alice’s bedside. The older woman’s facial expression evinced kindly resignation, as if to say, It’s all we can do for you, dear, as she held a wet towel, sponging Alice’s forehead. Charlotte Franklin’s intelligent eyes and sanguine aspect seemed to magnify the midwife’s aura of incompetence.

“Just breathe through it,” said the midwife, who’d already told them that the suffering and peril of delivery were “natural,” God’s punishment for the sins of womankind. “It’s in our Lord’s hands now,” she now added, as if these words held some sort of reassurance.

Alice felt her mind shove aside the hopeless bromide.

“You’ll be okay, Allie,” Charlotte whispered nervously, gently massaging her sister’s shoulders. “You’re doing fine.”

“Quick now, fetch the boiling water for the gloves,” the midwife ordered. “Won’t be much longer.”

Alice screamed again and Sam burst into the room. The snow storm dripped its offerings from his clothes onto the stained wooden floor. He shivered.

Thank God, Alice thought, her rage forgotten. Sam would see their child be born.



“Am I in time?” he asked stupidly.

His question went unanswered. “Head’s about through. Now push, girl!” the midwife shouted.

Alice pressed down. Slowly, painstakingly, Charlotte and the midwife managed to extract a perfect baby boy.

Though bleeding heavily, Alice rallied a wan smile of optimism and hope, qualities she intended to convey to her son, assuming she survived.

Charlotte cut the cord. The midwife spanked the infant’s bottom. They washed him with warm water. He wailed, but soon rested contentedly in his mother’s arms. His father gently stroked his back. The caresses, tentative at first, easily progressed in loving confidence.

“Benjamin Franklin Smith,” Sam declared, as if in the ritual of naming, his wife’s pain might be banished to memory.


The next few days would be difficult. Having barely survived the ordeal, Alice sustained a dangerous post partum infection of the uterus and tubes. Her fever would reach 105 degrees, often consigning her to the mad hands of delirium. She’d live through the illness, but not without loss: She would never bear another child.
August 15, 1929
Oh! Ah! The next flash card displayed a tug wearing an impish grin and belching smoke from its only funnel. As Ben saw it, he felt his cheeks puff into a smile. His first impulse was to reach for the drawing; get a good close look at the happy work-boat. But doing that would be bad. Might ruin the game.

B-O-A-T, yes, yes, yes! He could see the letters forming in his mind’s eye and was delighted. The mental picture of the vessel and the alphabetic characters defining it jumped from his cerebrum into his eyes and mouth.

“Boat! B-O-A-T, boat!”

“Wonderful.” Alice grinned. Oh, he’s so special, she thought, even knowing that her excitement was exponentially enhanced because this delightful four-year-old was her own. Although they said John Stuart Mill could translate Cicero at this age...

She showed him the next card.

“Train,” he said, but did not attempt the spelling.

“I’m so proud of you!” she exclaimed, turning the card over. “That’s 18 in a row. And you spelled half of them. Enough for today?”

“Just a few more, Mommy. Please?” Ben loved this time with his mother. Everything he said seemed to please her so.

“As many as you want, sweetheart.”

They still occupied the same tiny Wakefield apartment where Ben had been born, but much of the furniture was new. Colorful drapes now hung at their only window. Several Maxfield Parrish prints adorned the walls. Some new floor lamps were there to provide their place a bright, almost cheerful atmosphere. Sam’s career had begun to advance; he was now manager of the modest neighborhood grocery.

And like so many of his neighbors, he’d made a little money in the stock market.
It was almost 7:00 p.m. Sam walked through the door, after another 14-hour day. He hid it well. Or perhaps seeing the two people he loved most in the world simply energized him; they were still sitting at the table, playing an addition and subtraction game Alice had invented for their boy.

He kissed Alice on her cheek. She returned his kisses on the mouth. Ben dashed to his father and hugged him. “Daddy, I missed you.”

“Missed you too, buddy boy. Wanna go outside and play some ball?”

“Yeah!” Ben said excitedly, and raced in search of his mitt and ball. At his age he could barely throw the softball and had yet to catch it from more than five feet away, but he loved playing with his dad.

“Stock market went up again,” Sam said to Alice. “Few more runs like today’s and we can move out of here.”

“I’m perfectly happy where we are,” she said. “Long as I have my men.” She kissed Sam again. “Don’t you think it’s getting awfully high? Can’t go up forever.”

Feels like it will. All my friends think so, too.”

“Sam,” Alice said in a voice that implied I’m just a woman, yet somehow commanded full attention, “have you ever seen a light bulb just before it burns out?”

As Ben and Sam left the apartment, Sam shook his head and smiled in bemused amazement. He knew that this discussion with his very prudent wife was far from over, and the outcome inevitable: Tomorrow he would be selling their stocks.
Almost every evening after dinner, Charlotte Franklin would drop by to keep Alice company while Sam updated his inventory register in the kitchen. As usual, little Ben snuggled under his soft bed sheet, listening to their conversation in covert, fascinated silence.

“Mom’s just beside herself,” Charlotte whispered, “that I’m 23 and still not married.”

“She told you that?”

“Not in so many words. Just another of her you-never-know-how-things’ll-turn-out discourses. She, of course, always figured I’d have a brood by now, and you’d be the spinster schoolmarm.”

“So did I,” Alice laughed, “till I met Sam.”

“That’s what I told mom: ‘Soon as I find a man like Sam Smith.’ Then she starts whimpering a little, y’know how she does it, and suddenly she’s talking about that winter... Lord, it’s been... 10 years... when Sophie fell through the ice. Like maybe I’m s’posed to give her some grandchildren to replace our sister or something...”

“I’m sure that’s not how she meant it. And even if she did, Charlotte, it’s a longing, not a wish. They’re not the same, you know.”

“Maybe, but I shouldn’t feel like I’m letting them down, should I? I mean, it’s my life. And it wasn’t my fault about...”

“Not at all,” Alice interrupted. “Not the least bit your fault. Goodness, Charlotte, you were 13; she was 17. How were you supposed to talk her out of anything? I’m just thankful you didn’t go skating with her. Might’ve been both of you they’d had to fish from that pond.”

“Maybe if I’d gone...”

“Hush,” Alice said, dismissing the notion. “I’ll never forget sneaking into our icehouse to look at her the day before the funeral. She looked so...”

“So alive. I remember.”

“Yes, alive,” Alice said. “It was as though a lightning bolt could’ve struck her, and she’d’ve...”

“Woke right up and started dancing?”

“Exactly.”

Ben’s eyes opened wide. He knew more time than usual would pass before sleep enfolded him tonight.


This conversation comprised the last words between his mother and his beloved Aunt Charlotte that Ben would ever hear. The next day, Charlotte felt too weak to come over, and soon Alice would begin spending evenings with her sister at their parents’ home. Less than a month later, Charlotte Franklin’s malady would be diagnosed as incurable, and six weeks after that, she’d be dead from leukemia.
December 4, 1941
Ben Smith looked at the schoolroom clock, saw it was only 1:47 p.m., and smiled. Well Mom, guess I nailed another one, he thought, as if she were there in the room with him.

Although he’d skipped a grade, all his exams had so far been a cinch. It was not so much that knowledge adhered to him, though by-and-large it did; the fact was that work itself came naturally. When dealing with any task, he stepped wholly into the job. He became the goal. Be it physical labor or a complex algorithm, Ben saw, did, absorbed, and moved on.

So far as he knew, he’d never been taught this methodology. (His mother knew differently.) It was, well, just an obvious choice; the most efficient path to success. He understood that this approach was rare among his friends. It was as if any sight or sound or flight of fancy could distract them, and for them to return to the immediate task required considerable will, or the guiding hand of another. He understood, yes, but only as an observer. He had no idea how it felt to have such a response.

Ben expected to go to whatever college he chose. From there he would attend medical school and become a doctor specializing in whichever field offered him the greatest potential for achievement. He would make his parents proud.

Ben scanned the room. His time could be just as well have been spent reading the paperback copy of We the Living stuffed into his hip pocket. But he knew everyone in the room, and Sam and Alice Smith had taught him a self-aware respect for others.

The bell rang, sparing Ben a sixth reread just as he’d become certain that no power in the universe could prevent him from drumming his fingers. He stretched his lean, six-foot frame, and took a last look around the room. As his blue-green eyes passed over the faces, he could tell which students did well and which had choked. He sympathized with the latter; sometimes wondering what would happen to them in the real world.

Over the previous three years America had stumbled toward a tenuous recovery from the Great Depression. Most of his classmates worried that the day’s relative prosperity was temporary. The general expectation was that Fortress Britain would eventually fall to the Nazis, and their Canadian neighbors would be forced to seek annexation by the U.S., probably costing America’s economy more than it could afford.

But Ben harbored no such fears or consequent xenophobia. He regarded himself as a neo-immigrant, not with embarrassment, but with a self-assured dignity. His own family’s circumstances, though still modest, had steadily risen over the years, and he trusted that, given time, life would continue to improve. He dreaded no new addition to the “melting pot,” begrudged no rival for the American dream. There was plenty for anyone willing to work for it. Another of Alice’s lessons which Ben had been unaware of being taught.

He left the classroom and hurried through the halls. Overhead hung newly installed fluorescent lights, a recent innovation, radiating a pale, stingy luminescence. Several of the tubes announced their impending expiration by casting an annoying flicker. Ben absorbed the ambiance as metaphor: the new already fading into anachronism.

As he walked toward the street, he lost himself in reflection about his future; an exciting world, where science would progress at an exponential rate. In fact it was his optimism which drew him to the field of medicine. He believed medical researchers would eventually discover cures for smallpox, polio, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, possibly aging itself. People would live longer and healthier lives, and in the distant future, might not die at all.

How distant? Ben pondered. Maybe in time for his grandchildren, or even his own generation.

He walked the few blocks separating Wakefield High School from downtown. A tall ladder leaned against Alfred’s Men’s Store; every pedestrian circled around it, but Ben decided to take his chances. Sometimes delights were found in the smallest defiances.

Several people stared, wondering if the boy had maybe lost his mind. What would he do next? Follow a black cat?

He arrived at the Colonial Spa ice cream parlor, the usual gathering place for his friends.

He smiled as he made his way through the after-school crowd to join his girlfriend, Margaret Callahan, and their mutual best friend, Tobias Fiske. It was odd (peculiar was the word most of his friends would employ) in 1941 for a girl to count a male not as her “boyfriend,” but as her best friend. Yet Ben found he enjoyed the raised eyebrows Marge and Toby’s buddy-relationship occasioned.

As Ben joined them, Marge raised her head, smiling in acknowledgment, and welcome. To her, this well-proportioned, fair-haired boy’s body personified the spirit it housed. She admired and trusted his ability and dedication, trademarks of her own father’s character. This emotional context carried an old-shoe familiarity, and she nestled comfortably within it. But there was more; a newer, more compelling feeling, which deliciously seasoned her response to Ben.

“Hey,” he said, taking a seat and joining the now-completed foursome. Marge covered his hand with her own.

Toby’s latest girlfriend, number four of the school year by Ben and Marge’s count, was a pretty blonde classmate named Sally Nowicki. She seemed bright and lively and was clearly sweet on Toby, but Ben knew the courtship had a less than even chance of ringing in the new year. The two were engrossed in a random flow of airy conversation and light, playful petting; a replay of the previous week, except the girl’s name had been Lydia Gabrielson. And Denise Vroman a few weeks before that.

Toby Fiske, compact, dark-complexioned, and nimble of mind and body, was a brilliant young man, but as Marge had once observed, “Toby’s about as disciplined as a ten-week-old puppy.” Because Toby’s parents considered him overly susceptible to the influence of others, they were pleased that their son had fallen under Ben Smith’s tutelage; it was one of the few things upon which Theodore and Constance Fiske actually agreed.

Ben knew how it felt to be the recipient of subtle feminine overtures; it was always pleasant and flattering, but to him, after the day he met Marge in the spring of 1940, utterly resistible. She was his only and first serious girlfriend.


Marge was a natural beauty; straight brown hair, brown eyes, delicate features, and flawless skin, 5 feet 7 inches tall, with long, perfectly shaped legs and a lean yet curvaceous figure.

Ben lifted her hand and kissed it.

“How’d your exam go?” she asked.

“I was ready for it,” he told her. “How was yours?”

“Okay, I think, but I doubt it’ll be enough to get into Radcliffe.”

“You’ll get in,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Or Wellesley at least.” Marge was probably just being modest.

Ben hated even to think about separate schools. Wellesley was nine miles from Harvard, and that was too far. He looked at her beautiful, serious, intelligent face and knew she was the only girl he would ever love.

Suddenly the image popped into his mind, as it often did, of their most recent evening together, kissing passionately, then touching, first everywhere, but eventually just there. Harder and harder until the urge became irresistible, and finally, ecstatic relief.

In a biblical sense, Ben and Marge had never consummated their love, although recently they had not left each other unsatisfied. Their hands knew many secrets.

“Hey, Toby,” Ben called across the table, “What time ya comin’ over tonight?”

It took his friend a few seconds to extricate himself from Sally and regain his composure. “Tonight? Oh. After dinner I guess. That okay?”

“Sure thing. Should only take a couple hours, if I can keep your brain-switch at the on-position.”

Toby chuckled good-naturedly. “It’d take all night if we tried to study at my place.”

“Parents fighting again?”

“When don’t they?”

“Well, it’s not like they beat each other up or throw dishes or anything,” Ben said. “They just like to argue is all. Some couples are like that.”

“Mine sure are,” Sally interjected.

“Yeah, but at least your parents like each other,” Toby said. “My parents must’ve, too, once. But now they’re each convinced they married the Antichrist!”

“But they love you,” Ben said. “You’re the reason they’re still together.” In fact their religion forbade divorce under virtually all circumstances. But such a notion was foreign to Ben, whose parents, though devout, embraced religion mostly as an expression of gratitude for their lives.

“Yeah, some consolation,” Toby said. “Don’t know if I’ll ever get married myself. Too damn risky.”

Ben noticed Sally’s face clouding. “But wouldn’t it be worse,” he asked, “to spend your old age alone?”

“Not from where I sit. Alone seems a lot better than living the next 40 years with somebody you can’t stand.”

Sally recovered quickly. “Then where do you imagine yourself in 40 years?”

Toby laughed. “Cemetery, probably, pushing up daisies.”

“Y’know,” Ben said seriously, “I was thinking we might all be around longer than we realize. What if you could live forever? Wouldn’t you want to?”

“No way,” Toby said, “Heaven’s gotta be a whole lot better than Wakefield.”

“Who said you’re going to heaven?” Marge cracked.

“Good point. Actually, hell might be better than Wakefield. But just hypothetically, Ben, are you asking if I’d want everyone to live forever, or just me?”

“Everyone, I suppose.”

“Everyone? Interesting.” Toby paused. “But then, what’d keep us from abusing each other? I mean, if we all knew we’d live forever, never having to face God’s judgment for our sins, well, aren’t most people crazy enough as it is?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Marge offered. “People who expected to live forever might be nicer. After all, if you never died, whatever you did to others would eventually come back to you one way or another.”

“Exactly,” Ben agreed. “Any act of kindness, or spite, is sorta like a stone pitched into an endless sea. Y’know how ripples spread from the impact? If you plan to sail those waters forever, you might be more careful about what you toss into ’em.”

“What do you mean?” Sally asked. “Like, for example?”

“Well, most everyone claims to believe in heaven and hell, but some people obviously don’t. So how do you set penalties to fit the crime? For instance, suppose some despot who only pretends to believe in God enslaves a million people for 20 years. What’s the worst punishment he’d expect? Maybe if he gets unlucky, his life gets shortened by a decade or two. He’d probably figure it’s worth the gamble; dictators usually think they’re invincible, anyway.”

“Yeah?” Toby asked. “And how does death enter into it?”

“See, if that same man had the potential to live forever, he might become more interested in building up good will; helping society improve. He could still be amoral, but only really deranged people do things they know they’ll be punished for. Maybe he’d decide that fifty, or a hundred, or a thousand years from now, he’d be better off if he suppressed his impulses now.”

“Yeah, that’s possible I guess,” Toby conceded. “But still, it’s natural to die.”

“Oh, it’s natural all right,” Ben said. “Just like hurricanes, floods and diseases are natural. Earthquakes and ice ages, too. Some even say war is natural. Maybe we should think of nature as an adversary.”

Marge offered no opinion, but Sally did: “I think nature’s wonderful and we should respect it. When it’s my time to go, I’ll be ready.”

“Nature is wonderful, if you’re dealing with it successfully,” Ben argued. “Yeah, looking at it, or contesting it with a fishing rod or a test tube. It’s easy to say you’ll be ready to give in to it, too. That you’ll be ready to go when it’s time, until the time approaches, then you’ll fight against it, that’s for sure.” His voice was calm, serious, without a trace of mockery.

“I won’t fight it,” Sally insisted. “Not when my time comes.”

“And if you caught some fatal infection tomorrow? Would you refuse medical treatment to save your life?”

“No, of course not.” Sally appeared somewhat uncomfortable with the contradiction in her answer.

“Even if the treatment isn’t ‘natural?’”

“Okay. I get the point,” she said with a flash of defiance. “But still, when I’m 60, 65, that’ll be plenty for me.”

“So let’s pretend you’re 60,” Ben pressed on. “What if they invent a serum that would give you, say, another 25 years of vigorous health?”

“Well, yeah, I guess that’d be nice.”

“So your time could come at 85 just as easily as 60?”

“I suppose so.”

“See? Nobody really wants to die, but we make believe it’s perfectly okay. We keep up the pretense, not only to others, even to ourselves, because right now, dying after six or eight decades is almost a certainty. But don’t feel bad. Used to be the same way myself, till just recently.”

Sally’s face brightened slightly.

“What about evolution?” Toby argued. “Without death, how can the human race develop?”

“I thought you rejected the premise of evolution,” Ben said.

Toby was raised as an Evangelical Lutheran and had been told, ever since he was a small child, that God created heaven and earth about seven thousand years ago.

“Lately, I’m agnostic,” Toby said. “But you believe in evolution.”

“Actually, one doesn’t believe in it so much as accept the evidence for it. Which I’d say is overwhelming. But evolution’s the cruelest thing about nature; if it stopped today, I wouldn’t miss it a bit. Think of the countless millions of pre-humanoids who suffered horrible deaths just so you could hit that triple yesterday.”

Toby smiled. “So if a few thousand more of my ancestors had sacrificed themselves, it would’ve been a home run?”

Everyone laughed, especially Ben. “Strange concept, I admit. But someday medical scientists should figure out how to analyze sperm cells and ova, and predict which combinations can produce the most desirable traits.”

Marge grinned at Ben. “I just want our kids to do their homework and show up for piano lessons.”

“That’s what I mean,” Ben said. “If we get to choose our offspring’s traits, we could have all the benefits of evolution, even if nobody ever died. It’s called eugenics; surely you’ve read something on the subject.”

“Yes, but it’s not natural,” Sally said.

“Good! Like I said, nature is our adversary. Fact is, a natural life expectancy for us may only be 15 or 20 years.”

“Really?” Marge asked.

“That’s about how long they think the average caveman lived,” he explained, “before there were medicines and doctors. You have to remember, we’re talking a truly all-natural lifespan, when lots of us died from being eaten!”

“Are you saying there’s no difference between saving yourself from a cave lion by using a spear, and saving yourself from a disease using medicine?” Marge asked.

“Oh sure,” Ben said, “they’re plenty different all right, but fundamentally speaking, isn’t the effect the same?”

“I suppose it is.”

“So how can anyone say that even 100 years is enough?” Ben asked. “If a long life is good, and good life can be long, why isn’t victory over death even better?”

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