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The End Note
The Royal Wheatleigh Jumeirah Banyan Resort & Conference Center
There are eight billion people on the planet today. Tomorrow, there will be eight billion minus one. Or
there will be zero. The difference depends, in the next few hours, on a solitary digit, a decimal of a decimal, a mathematical jot.
One person over eight billion seems, by any reasonable arithmetic, lopsided. If you write it out as a
fraction, it takes about six seconds to sketch all the denominator’s little circles, trailing it out like a child’s
drawing of a googly caterpillar.
1 / 8,000,000,000
And the single stroke for the numerator takes nothing at all.
I entered this equation on a winter morning three weeks ago when I opened a box of cherrywood and white satin and lifted out a black tablet embossed with the logo of the Anfort Foundation. It hummed to
life and requested the honor of my presence at seven o’clock in the evening on December 28th, in the Palm Courtyard of the Royal Wheatleigh Jumeirah Banyan Resort & Conference Center.
Of course, I thought it was a mistake. But when I clicked the contact link, a voice assured me the invitation was genuine.
“Mr. Anfort approved each name personally,” said the voice—female, Asian-inflected, proprietary soft-
ware. “Is there anything more I can do for you today, Professor Adams?”
There was not. The invitation’s digital concierge already knew enough about me to select a room with a
view of the pool instead of one of the golf course, and to order the short rib entrée at the gala dinner. All I
needed to do was confirm my preferred seat on the flight, aisle 9B, two checked bags included, and allow
a minimum of six hours for airport security screening. The World Summit on Progress and Reconciliation
thanked me for my kind response.
On the airplane, I opened my antique laptop to revise the notes for my committee sessions. They were
based, mostly, on the research I had been grudgingly picking at over the course of the past twenty years—a general theory on Western literary thought. But as I looked at the words on the white screen, I felt an almost dyslexic blur, with the letters swimming out of their typeface into amorphous schools of tadpoles and twirls. I closed my device and shut my eyes.
Charles Anfort knew my name. And he knew it well enough to summon me to the most exalted summit
since Olympus. It didn’t make sense.
The airplane beeped a sing-song chime. Behind me, I heard the clink of the trolley from the steerage
section. In the forward galley, a flight attendant, her mouth tight in concentration, dropped heavy red raspberries into flutes of fizzing prosecco. She looked all business, from her blonde, sensible hair-bun to her broad, sensible bottom. Below the sleeves of her jacket, I could see her forearms striped and wrinkled with bruises and brown burns. Scars, probably, from a life of scalding coffee, hot trays, and turbulence. A worker’s scars. In the seat beside me, a trim black gentleman in a cashmere jacket dozed in silence.
I picked up the tablet one more time, running my finger over the Anfort Foundation’s familiar logo: a lotus
flower with thirteen petals. It was the mark of Charles Anfort, Sultan of Silicon Valley, the multi-billionaire
with granny glasses and a wood rat’s haircut. The man was a legend—or, rather, he was the legend. He had lived the hero’s journey of our time. Act One: a banal boyhood in Boise, college fizzle, supreme self-regard against all evidence to the contrary, and the inkling of an idea that lay, like a golden key, just out of sight of everyone else on earth. Act Two: adulthood, the first tech venture and the years of Hobbes and Darwin, enemies defeated and allies betrayed, the temptation of settling for an easy buyout, an act of hubris, a very public fall. Act Three: redemption, earthly glory, riches beyond the dreams of Mammon, the purchase of starlets, spaceships, land masses, and the corpse of Steve Jobs. Act Four: respectability, the purchase of ideas and institutes, clinics and water treatment plants, hand-shakes with the pope, the eradication of malaria, rumors of a private moon base.
And now the curtain rises on Act Five. The planet is buzzing about something called the World Summit
for Progress and Reconciliation—W.S.P.R. I first heard of it six months ago when the press breathlessly pronounced that “Whisper” would be “the greatest congregation of thought leaders in history.” Catchphrases took root and, within days, the media bloomed with hope: “Whisper is going to reset the clock,” “Whisper will update humanity’s operating system,” “Whisper is Ground Zero for the future.” And, most memorably, “Whisper will heal the world.”
So I found myself seated, for the first time in my life, in the front of the plane. Charles Anfort had plucked me from my forgotten basement at Rothbard College to sit on Whisper’s “Committee on the Human Condition.”
“This can’t be real,” said the dean when I handed her the invitation. “I don’t mean to be dismissive,
Magnus, but don’t you think it’s a prank? Maybe Jerry in Technical Services? He doesn’t like you.”
“No. I RSVP’d, and they confirmed my flight. It’s hard to believe, but this is real.”
She shook her head and gently passed back the tablet, as if it might scald my fingers. “I don’t get it, then.
No offense, really, but why on earth would they pick you of all people?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” I said. “I’ve been trying to figure that out since the damn thing arrived. Wait,
Jerry doesn’t like me?”
“Do you think they meant to send it to someone else?”
“Only if there’s another Magnus Adams in the Digital Humanities Cluster at Rothbard College.”
No doppelgängers, however, emerged from the particleboard woodwork of the faculty lounge. The real
oddity was that the name Magnus Adams wasn’t even well-known in the prescribed circles of academia. My published work had, since I launched my half-baked theory of literature years ago, dried into a trickle and was now more of a sucking wound.
I had squandered years of energy on the works of a minor school of 19th-century Romantics called the
Naysayers. It wasn’t a popular subject, even if their leader, a disreputable poet named Nicholas Crooke
(d. 1848), had always enjoyed a modest vogue among addicts and suicides. Crooke didn’t count as an important writer, or even a notably good one. He had an uneven grasp of meter. His images had the habit
of melting into incoherence. But his drug binges had inspired many imitators and he had always touched a
nerve with a specialty readership. A few of his poems consistently showed up in high school anthologies,
namely, the juvenile, “Waking Did I Spy a Crow,” and the unnerving “Succoth.” But hardly anyone bothered reading his challenging material, best represented by the narrative cycle, Songs of Ivory and Horn. Sadly for my job prospects, this indifference carried over into the parched and thorny field of Crooke scholarship. It was barren ground on which a career might die.
Certainly, I never imagined Charles Anfort might count himself among the initiated. Perhaps he didn’t.
Perhaps, as the dean suspected, my invitation to the summit had all been a huge mistake.
Still, I dug my passport from out of a sock drawer and packed my two good suits into my one good suit-
case. Two weeks later and 35,000 feet upwards, I reopened my laptop and scrolled through the latest news headlines:
Hurricane Ziggy Casualties Top One Million
German Chancellor Visits Southern Front: “No One Is a Civilian”
Rapture Terrorists Claim Dallas/Ft. Worth “Super Ebola” Attack
Global Elite Gather for Historic World Summit for Progress and Reconciliation
“Would you care for a refreshment, sir?” said the flight attendant. The man in the window seat roused
himself from his meditations.
“Just a club soda, thanks,” he said in an undiluted Dublin lilt. He was perhaps ten years younger than me,
and several magnitudes less rumpled. Even his shoes looked sleek and gleaming, like fresh-sloughed snakes.
“Of course. And you, sir?”
I accepted a jot of whiskey. As our attendant arranged the drinks, the moment balanced between silence and the hesitation of first speech. Then the man cleared his throat and tipped the scales into conversation.
“It’s got a pleasing look to it, that stuff,” he said, nodding at my plastic tumbler. “Water of life, sunshine
on barley and all that. But I can’t abide the taste. I suppose color isn’t everything.” He laughed.
“Where in Ireland are you from?” I said.
“Lagos. But me mam was Dublin born and bred, and I boarded at Blackrock College with the Holy Ghost
Fathers. The name’s Jack. Jack Lekhanya.”
“Magnus Adams.” We shook hands.
“Great name, Magnus. Who gave it to you?”
“It’s sort of vestigial. My mother’s family is Minnesota Swedish.”
“Well, that’s highly exotic of them. I see you’re a guest of Mr. Anfort’s?” Jack nodded at the tablet peek-
ing out of my carry-on, and I felt a flash of embarrassment. I had perhaps been too eager to flaunt it in
“Yes. Sorry. I didn’t really mean to...”
“Not at all. I got a golden ticket as well.” He fished an identical tablet out of his satchel. “I’m with the U.N.
in New York. Mostly, I mess around with computer models trying to predict stuff about rice and soybeans
and potatoes. At the summit, they have me on the Agriculture and Fisheries Committee.”
“I’m with the Committee on the Human Condition.”
“Well that’s a fine thing, to be sure. So how is the human condition these days?”
“I suppose the committee ought to figure that out.”
He chuckled. “There’s precious little hope of that, Magnus, unless you already have the answers up your
“Fair point,” I conceded, but I didn’t want to get drawn into discussing the inconsequence of my work.
“I guess most people in my business would say that the human condition is the same as it’s always been.
Maybe a little faster and louder is all.”
“We have better stuff.”
“Oh, yes. But our condition is still the usual mess.
First we’re born mewling and puking, then we whine like schoolboys.”
“‘And then the lover sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’s eyebrow.’ Sure, I
remember my Shakespeare. Seven stages of man. Fifth form, Mr. Peters’s class. Grand stuff, that. I can still recite Macbeth’s dagger speech word for word.”
“Very impressive. But you must know all about the state of humanity,” I said, volleying the subject back
into his court. “They say we are what we eat, no?”
Jack chuckled and launched into a yarn about falling global production of millet and water tables in
northern China. “It’s a challenge,” he said. “But every problem has a solution. It’s just a matter of getting people to think rationally.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, but then I noticed his rueful smile. “Oh, you were serious,” I said.
“I’m afraid so. Generally speaking, I’d say it’s in the social interest not to starve everyone to death. What
Adler called gemeinshaftsgefuel. It’s not like the world’s inhabited entirely by lunatic monsters.”
“You and I have clearly been watching different news stories,” I said.
As the airplane slipped toward pale veins of sunrise, I remembered the first time I encountered a line
of Nicholas Crooke’s, scrolling through an outdated literature compendium as a boy, my blood inked with
longing. The line read, “Fell dreams rake o’er the yielding clay of thought.” This seemed a reasonable encapsulation of disquiet, and it echoed with me then on the plane as Jack snored lightly, a silk eye-mask shielding his slumber from the wink of the lavatory sign.
Fell dreams. I trawled through a stream of troubles and regrets, my thoughts catching on stubs of recollection. Faces, names, dates. Over the years, I had cordoned off whole sweeps of my cortex, purposefully committing these memories to darkness. But on that flight I drifted loose, touching on events that, like torn canvases, my past left spoiled and ripped. Then, floating up to the surface, I succumbed to a swarm of mundane niggles: unwritten papers, undialed calls, unkept doctor’s appointments, the unpaid bill for my cognac-of-the-month club.
We landed some eight hours later. The glassy, gargantuan airport terminus reminded me of another line
of Crooke’s: “Black shadows spring from brightest light.”
From the porthole, I glimpsed rows of sand-dappled tanks lurking on the tarmac.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you may turn on your devices,” said the flight attendant. “The local time is
6:22 am, and the outside temperature is currently thirty-four degrees Celsius with highs expected in the low forties. We hope you’ve enjoyed your journey with us today. On behalf of your entire flight crew, it has been our pleasure to serve you.” Her cantillation ended in a crackle.
As we stewed in our seats, Jack telephoned friends, coworkers, and business contacts, volubly pleased to
speak with them. I reread a batch of old emails. After an hour or two, the door clunked ajar, and we wrestled with the luggage bins. Stomping up the gangplank, we trudged quietly past ranks of masked soldiers lining the concourse. I could see the passengers’ reflections in the soldiers’ visors—us, bleary and greasy in night sweat; them, silent in black Kevlar. Their dogs wore matching armor, straining their nostrils but otherwise sitting still, inhaling the instinct to lunge.
Security only thickened past Customs and Immigration, with the terminal in a state of frantic, noisy alert. Loudspeakers barked, SWAT teams beetled across the mezzanine, and armored troop carriers shuddered and gusted in the handicapped parking spaces. Above, the hot daylight chugged with helicopters.
“They’re not messing around,” said Jack, appearing beside me. “Do you think this is all on account of us?”
“I guess so. There are some pretty big names showing up at the summit. They must think Rapture is going to pull something.”
“Of course they are. Those bastards would be mad to miss the chance. What’s the guest list now? Sixty
heads of state, all the richest people on Earth, Mickey Mouse, and the Blessed Virgin herself?” Then a swirl
of liveried attendants stripped my suitcase away, and I found myself shunted into a gleaming black Otto car.
I had never been in such a luxurious model, a cocoon of creamy leather and polished black screen, the
seats thrumming with haptic sensors, rollers, and massaging nubs. The instant the door clicked shut, the Otto welcomed me by name and peeled away from the curb. In seconds, it was speeding through a blur of colorless haze and concrete. Before the windows darkened to shield my eyes, I saw that, outside, the world looked overlit and overcooked.
We skimmed through concrete and dust-clouds for about an hour while I scanned a touchscreen for any
news containing the words “Rapture,” “World Summit,” and “death toll.” Nothing came up. Then I felt the car slow to about 90 miles per hour. From the tinted backseat window, I could see a gate like a monolith of black graphene in a 40-foot wall crowned with curls of razor wire. A camouflaged tank sat, idling lazily, by a candy-striped security post. We slowed down as the gate swung open, exposing a brilliance of green.
“We will be arriving in a moment,” said the Otto. “I hope you’ve had a pleasant journey, Mr. Adams.” Then
it snaked along a red-brick road framed by fronds and creepers. I glimpsed bursts of emerald quetzals and
expressionist macaws, as well as an outrageous flamingo in a patch of roadside ooze. We swung under
a cyclopean limestone portico, a rough primeval ruin like the entrance of Mycenae or Jotunheim, but with
security cameras and floodlights roosting in its nooks.
The car door clicked open.
“Thanks,” I said, stepping into a wash of searing whiteness that felt like being doused in hot bleach. The air shimmered with heat and petroleum exhaust. My stubby suitcase in tow, I plunged through a set
of revolving doors, into the chill of the resort’s Great Pavilion.
At once, cool air peeled the shirt away from my swampy back, and I smelled cherry blossoms on a tickling breeze. The lobby was enormous and put me in mind of one of Crooke’s happier laudanum binges. A
giant silicon dome blazed with starlight, brighter than a cloudless sky over a mirror-calm sea. Red-tailed comets and plumed serpents drifted through the stars like trails of bright vapor. Underneath, hologram butterflies and fire-winged swallows flitted and fell in golden shimmers among the hundreds of guests pooling around the reception stations. At eye-level, VR screens mimicked an enveloping landscape of spruce trees sighing on breezy grass slopes, while angel voices murmured, in every major commercial language, about a special credit card offer for premier level guests. A wispy young woman in a white sheath dress appeared in my path.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Welcome to the Royal Wheatleigh Jumeirah Banyan Resort & Conference Center. I trust you had a pleasant connection from the airport. My name is Alia. Would you care to leave your luggage with me while I expedite your registration?”
Alia left me deep in a rum cocktail and a leather armchair while she scanned my documentation. Across
the lobby, I saw Jack laughing and slapping backs with a throng of beaming colleagues. They flashed expensive dentistry and looked awash with vitamins. They were friends, no doubt, from the rarified stratosphere of international governmental organizations.
It was funny how bureaucrats had climbed up the social food chain. As a boy, I always thought of them as
egg-shaped men, slick with failure, or thorny spinsters bent over their wasted ovaries. They simply weren’t glamorous. Back then, kids played at rogue superheroes or rebel captains, cowboys who rode the bucking system until it broke. Today, they pretend to be systems administrators and risk analysts. This makes sense. Centuries ago, everything people thought and did was steeped in the governing truth that the world was absurdly messed up, and an afterlife in the lap of Christ was all that really mattered. To deal with sin and Saracens, you needed knights in armor. Today’s governing truth is more complicated: The world is still absurdly messed up, but overpopulation, climate change, and economic inequality are all that really matter. To deal with macroeconomics and large-scale vulnerability assessments, you need technocrats with spreadsheets.
The difference is data. The world isn’t made of soil and rock and water anymore. It’s made of information.
And the world always gets the heroes it deserves.
My phone vibrated with a new text. The sender’s ID was, vexingly, “Unknown.” The message was more
vexing still. It simply read: You don’t belong here.
I looked around. There were hundreds of people walking around, laughing, communing with their de-
vices. Alia tapped dutifully on her screen. My phone thrummed again.
It was the same anonymous sender. You should never have received an invitation. Then: You’re an intellectual fraud.
“Professor Adams?” It was Alia. Nearby, a coterie of hereditary monarchs grinned under a battery of flashing cameras. “Your room is ready, sir. I just need your signature, please.”
I absently signed her pad and followed her past the King of Thailand and the Emir of Qatar, down a wide,
warmly-lit hall, spongy with gold carpeting. Rows of elevators dinged merrily.
“Your itinerary has been uploaded to your invitation tablet,” she said. “If you have any questions at all,
I would be most happy to help. Do you have dinner plans this evening?”
Her tone suggested an invitation, or so I thought.
“If you’re in the mood for lighter fare, may I recommend the Asana Lounge? Or Chakra, one of fine dining establishments, is excellent if you feel like something more traditional. I’d be delighted to make a reservation.”
She spooled through a monologue about wellness centers, pool hours, and the award-winning holistic spa. The entire time she spoke, I noticed that she was able to keep her eyes smiling while fixed unwaveringly
ahead. I also noticed that her dress revealed the full splendor of her golden back, and her dark hair swished against the root of her spine.
My phone buzzed again. Stop staring at her ass you filthy old goat. She’s half your age. And that was the
moment it fully dawned on me that, even in this busy wasteland, I was not alone. I looked around again and saw soft crystal lights, polished stone, and dozens of what looked to be prosperous network scientists, none of whom I knew.
“Would you like to follow me to your room, Professor?” Alia smiled, stretching her lips a little farther than seemed natural. Her teeth had the same sheen as the marble in the elevator vestibule. I glanced back
at the crowd to see laundered sheikhs, turbaned Sikhs, and ladies in ruby saris. Cameramen shoved their lenses at junta generals dressed like boxy Christmas presents in ribbons and gold brocade. An actress famed for her brood of adopted children posed next to her husband, an industrialist famed for his abuse of child labor. I recognized the bloated trapezia of an Olympic swimmer, the bleached hair of a Korean pop star, the spectacles of a movie director who had been accused of rape in three countries. I recognized a great many people, but I didn’t know anyone there. Unless someone stood hidden behind one of the pillars or jungle fronds, I couldn’t imagine who might be sending me these texts.
“Professor?” said Alia in a firmer coo. I let the elevator door ding shut on the human miscellany. The panel
showed the numbers 1 to 99. Alia pressed 30.
You are a total disgrace, buzzed my phone, and then we swooped into light, up thirty flights above a dia-
mond necklace of swimming pools, above a crushed velvet golf course, above sandbags and watchtowers,
even above the falcons circling in the furnace currents of the desert beyond.
I’d lied to Jack Lekhanya on the airplane. I do know something about the human condition: Impermanence is our permanent complaint. If you went back 17,000 years to chat with one of the cave painters of Lascaux, he would explain he was elegizing a bygone day in the Upper Paleolithic, back when the aurochs were taller, the antelope more fulsome, and the megaloceroses had bigger antlers. And now, for the first time, human regret is scientifically justified. From atmospheric CO2 levels to meteorological drought measurements to sea surface temperatures, we now possess the data to prove that the world is completely screwed.
When I was a boy, my parents made an annual pilgrimage to Uncle Ole and Aunt Ingrid’s country property, a converted seminary on the shore of Minnesota’s Teakettle Lake. It was a skewed, redbrick Victorian with a crown of leaning chimneys, its creaking insides riddled with nooks and curious staircases, its attic
windows exhaling nightly streams of bats. My mother’s family, granite-faced sets of Andersons, Jensens,
Carlsons, and Bergs, used it as their summer headquarters, camping out in the many bedrooms, sometimes two to an ancient, springy bed. The screen doors were always banging shut to the whoops of children, and the kitchen always simmered with the grandmotherly scents of boiled potatoes and fried fish. A trail sloped past the sleepy beehives to a rickety boathouse amid the sloppy lily pads, while a gravel path led a quarter mile along the shore to a crescent of sand where the women drank vodka and tomato juice while the men-folk kicked and dove in the bottle-green pond. There were tree houses and frogs to snatch from the mud and two nervous horses in a paddock. In my memory, it was a bright dream of eternal July, even on days washed out by pale Midwestern rainstorms.
It was during such damp afternoons that I explored the house’s jumbled bookcases and boxes of yellowed
magazines. As the rain drummed on the windowpane, I would lie in my cot, immersed in tales of Arthur
and his knights, Leonidas and his brave Spartans, Chamberlain’s stand at Gettysburg, and the first wave
at Omaha Beach. Those old stories kindled in me a boy’s romance for gallant dying, the pang for beautiful sacrifice on a windswept field with banners lifted high unto the final cannonade. Uncle Ole noticed me
mooning around, so he helped me navigate the shelves. It was Ole who led me to Beowulf’s plunge in the mere, to Roland’s horn at Roncevalles, even to The Story of Burnt Njáll with the outlaw Gunnar’s last stand at his homestead door.
I remember Ole in those days, his stubby legs thrust under the kitchen table as he told dirty jokes, or puttering, in goat-leather gloves, among his bees. He was a deep font of family lore, which he would dispense when we went hunting mushrooms, baskets in hand, under the cool pines. From him I learned about Andersons past. There were farmers and cranks, and heroes like the ones in my storybooks: George and Conrad, who fought in the first war, and Francis, who died in the second. There were villains, too, like the pretty young wife of a great-grandfather who ran off with the local minister and perished in the rubble and burn of old San Francisco, struck down by the justice of God.
It was Ole, too, who taught me how to pin a worm on a hook, threading its wagging finger through the cruel rust. He taught me, too, the likely haunts of trout. I was no older than six when, standing on the end of the pier, he helped me pull up a magnificent catfish, fierce and regally whiskered. I wrestled it into a bucket, where it shuddered and flapped, a royal beast among the little bass we’d been snagging all afternoon. Ole carried the slopping bucket up to a wooden table by the boathouse. On the stained tabletop lay a knife and a pointed brown rock.
“This is real important, Mags,” said Ole. “You have to be quick. Fish are just stupid things, but they feel
scared, same as you or me. They suffer in the air, same as you would if a big catfish held you underwater. So always end it quick, before they know what’s happening.”
He grabbed a curling, rainbow-scaled creature from the bucket and, with two deft swipes, took off its head
and flicked the innards on the green water. “There. No pain, and now it’s ready for the pot. The
big one’s yours, Mags. Want me to do it for you?” I shook my head. Sir Lancelot wouldn’t be scared of gutting a fish. Ole nodded, and, wiping his big hands on a checkered rag, he stepped aside from the butcher’s block. From the bottom of its white plastic prison, my catfish calmly wagged its tail and stared.
“Hold it firm,” advised Ole. “And finish it off like I showed you.” With both hands clenched hard, I
managed to get hold of the oily scales, and, a minor Hercules wrestling his Nereus, pinned my flopping
catfish onto the tabletop. Gills flaring, it twisted and thrashed, rocking the jittery surface. I could feel it sliding through my left-hand fingers as my right fumbled for the knife.
“Steady now, Mags. You can do it,” said Ole, but my hand sent the blade spinning off the table. Panicked,
I grabbed the pointed stone and slammed it down on the glossy flat skull, just above the silver coin of its eye. It caved in a burble of goo. But the fish kept thrashing. I struck again, splitting the disc, then twice more until the animal stiffened, its head a pink mash.
Ole appraised the mess. “That’s alright, Mags. You did it quick. I’m sure it didn’t feel anything. Next time,
you’ll do it clean. Come on, then, your aunt will want these for the stewpot.”
For a dozen summers thereafter, my family returned to Ole and Ingrid’s country house, but every year it
underwent some sort of change. First, the sky curdled and the bees died. Then the woodlands turned brown and dry, or white and skeletal as marsh water spoiled the soil. After a few years, the blooming clouds of mosquitoes made even the daylight hours a maddening, scratching hell. Season by season, Teakettle Lake thickened with burping algae while its waters curdled in the breathless heat. Eventually, the house passed its summers shuttered and empty.
The last time I saw it was on Thanksgiving, a year or two into my college days. I was no longer a boy dreaming of knight errantry but an arrogant young scholar earning a fancy degree, certain in my deep readings of theory and criticism. Ole, too, had changed. Age had leached away his goodness. Gone was the wink and double entendre, the playful pat on his wife’s backside. His mind had calcified around the TV tropes of hoodlum blacks, killer Muslims, and the end of times. He steeped himself in odious blogs, vented to online strangers about the cyclicality of the Earth’s climate, and hardened in his conviction that liberals had betrayed all that was sweet and proper about our patria.
As the turkey carcass diminished, Ole grew hotter with each splash from the vodka bottle. After he let out
some indefensible bray about gas chambers, I called him out. I told my old uncle that he was a racist and a fool.
“What happened to you?” he yelled back. “You have no respect! In my house, you have to show me respect!”
“I respect people who deserve it,” I snapped back. Ole lurched up and, eyes afire and nose adrip, flung
his arm in a wild, backhanded smack. He misjudged the distance and swung wide, the momentum toppling him sideways across the dinner table. Then an eruption of shrieks, spills, and clattering china, and the inexorable slide of the turkey as the tablecloth dragged floorward. I will always remember Ole’s dumb rictus, ringed with spit, and the feeling of stones filling my chest as I watched him thrash in the litter of bones, shouting for someone to pick him up.
They say that after the incident with the apple, God set the angel Uriel to guard the gates of Eden with a
giant flaming sword. God really overdid it. A wristwatch would have worked just as well, for time only points in one direction. Time tells us we can never go back.
Alia led me down a grand, cream-colored hallway awash with sunlight and jotted with smooth, abstract
sculptures of geometry and genitals. Her heels clicked in the silence.
“May we expect the pleasure of your company at this evening’s welcome reception, Professor Adams?”
“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t want to miss the chance to meet Charles Anfort.”
She smiled and pushed open a mahogany door. The suite was several times the size of my apartment at
home. Picture windows shone with white sky and a gray, feathery horizon, and a glass door opened onto
a shaded balcony overlooking the aquamarine gleam of a swimming pool. A chandelier fell in crystal drop-
lets over a marble-topped dinner table, while sofas like prize bulls herded around a giant black screen. The
bedroom was a silk seraglio, with gold canopy and tasseled pillow.
“The resort is equipped with the latest in SmartLife technology,” said Alia. “Once you’re logged in, you can
use your phone to control everything from the curtains to the humidity to the bath faucets. You’re scheduled to attend tomorrow morning’s plenary session. I can make you a reservation for breakfast or have it delivered to your room. Mr. Keyes’s opening address begins at eight-thirty.”
“Sorry, what was that?”
“May I make you a reservation for eight o’clock?”
“No, the other part. About the opening address.”
“Mr. Keyes is scheduled to deliver it at eight-thirty.”
She glanced at her tablet. “Yes. David Keyes from Mackinaw Labs. The title is ‘Why We Fight: The Human
Imperative in an Age of Crisis.’” She smiled again. Then, “Professor, is everything alright?”
“Yes, fine. Thanks. You know, don’t worry about breakfast. Thank you. I think I’m going to lie down for
She discretely took her leave, pausing only to adjust a vase of white lotuses on the dining table. I sank
flat onto the bed, the plush comforter exhaling slowly around my ears.
There were eight billion people in the world. Eight billion people clamoring to be heard. And yet David
Keyes was the one giving the summit’s opening speech. One of the less reliable biographies of Nicholas
Crooke recounts an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, in which the poet and his longstanding rival, the balladeer Arthur Napier, competed for a commission from Charles Manners-Sutton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop had offered to pay £25 for an original verse to commemorate the completion of work on his cathedral’s southwest Arundel Tower, and Crooke and Napier were both young, ambitious, and cheap. Per his habit at the time, reflecting his short-lived “Ottoman Period,” Crooke arrived for his interview wearing a set of ostentatious pantaloons and a dervish headscarf. He was kept waiting for a long time before Napier emerged from the drawing room, looking pleased.
“You may go home, Nicholas,” said his enemy. “The archbishop no longer wishes to consider your bid for
the commission. I have just been awarded the work, and at double the promised fee.”
Crooke, who was famously intemperate, could not let this insult pass unaddressed. Storming into the
archbishop’s office, he unleashed a torrent of scorching profanities. As the old priest listened patiently, the
poet worked himself into mounting flights of rage, threatening death, demoniac tortures, and the most
imaginative acts of physical defilement. Reaching a crescendo, he leveled a quavering finger and vowed
the vigorous, and repeated, debauch of the clergyman’s elderly wife.
The archbishop shook his head in amazement. “It’s uncanny,” he said. “Just five minutes ago, a gentleman
bet me £50 that the next person I saw would be a raving lunatic in pajamas.”
The point being, the universe may be indifferent and cold, but it’s always other people who actively screw
My phone chirruped again.
You are a pissant nothing. A fizzing blob of cancer cells. A gangrened dick useless even as a medical speci-
men. Go fuck yourself.
I texted back: David I’m blocking you.
How on earth did David Keyes know I was at Whisper? We hadn’t spoken in nearly ten years. More to the point, why would he have sought me out for the sole purpose of sending me abuse? David may have been my enemy, but he wasn’t unhinged.
Five seconds later, my phone buzzed. It was, again, from an untraceable number.
I’m not David, it read. But I know what you did to him.
The End Note
By Andrew Rimas