Silver Coins

A story by Ken Ramsley

Available on Amazon Kindle

Fred is my recalcitrant grindstone tonight—a victim of my rhetorical process.  There is no way to know if Fred would have survived without my help.  He says that I am pompous for raising this again because there is no way to know if I saved his life and the soldiers under his command or made things worse by trying.  “I am not looking for a way to dismiss my ethical dilemma,” I say.  “I am looking for an answer.”

“The ethicists and philosophers at Harvard suggest that, as a scientist, I can’t be held responsible for the consequences of my research, and I have no ethical dilemma that needs to be reconciled.  ‘Nature simply exists,’ they say.  And if I hadn’t made my discoveries about it and developed dangerous technologies based on it – someone else would have released the same genies from the same lamps, and the same knowledge would have passed into the world to produce the same level of harm and benefit.

“But I reject their argument because it ignores the complexities of nature.  Down to the lowest quantum level, the Universe is absolutely rooted in cause and effect.  And saying that ‘the same thing would have happened either way’ is like saying that ‘shit happens.’  But even shit – like every other event in nature – happens for a reason.”

Poor Fred.  He can’t possibly ingest the grist as fast as I can pour my words onto the ground alongside his worn-down millstone.  But as long as he is hearing me without snoring or resisting in any obvious way – it is enough to work out my thoughts.  My rhetorical process is an old grist-grinding method borrowed from an age when useful ideas were still the work of individual thinkers.  Nowadays, most of our research stands atop an intellectual pig-pile of cockamamie expert voting systems and black box algorithms, and it is a seventh wonder how the world still functions when people let computers tell us what to do, where to go, and how to think.  Most people don’t bother to drive their own cars, cook their own food, or tie their own shoelaces anymore.  But I don’t do those things either, and I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

Along with my creaking finger joints, I have trouble hearing, seeing, and getting around on foot.  But I do okay with plastic lens implants, hearing aids, and a smartass walking stick that yells at me whenever I move too fast or stand in one place too long.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records I am a dinosaur that somehow escaped the great asteroid impact – a living fossil – the last of the Mohicans—the oldest man on Earth.  By my success in this regard, I have outlived my wife, all of my children, and half of their children.  Had Abraham Lincoln lived this long he’d have flown aboard commercial aircraft, watched movies in color, and joked about fourteen newly-minted presidents marching into the Executive Mansion to take a stab at his old job.

But I am forgetting Fred, nearly asleep now, and I continue without missing too many beats… “I have always admired Lincoln for reasons having little to do with the notoriety of his life.”  Fred cracks an eyelid, and I press ahead.  “In addition to a career in politics, he was an innovator of ideas, always looking for practical solutions even when they flew in the face of entrenched technology.  If Lincoln had been alive during the American Revolution, he might have scoffed at the British for refusing to fight in anything less dignified than red woolen coats, dying by the thousands because of how their uniforms offered an easier target or killed them outright from heat stroke on hot summer days.  Yet, even today, nearly halfway through the 21st Century, most people still see camouflage technology as little more than sly deceit or stylish decoration, and few understand how battledress counter-surveillance has saved more lives than force protection, medical evacuations, surgery, and antibiotics combined.”

Fred is snoring, and unless I can capture an idle millstone passing in the hallway outside our room, I will need to stop.  As always, my reputation is legendary, and my unescorted hallway appearance this long after dinner scatters my ambulatory neighbors who flee in abject horror, while those visiting nearby in wheelchairs rush away at top speed, tearing hearing aids from their ears.

At the retirement home I move casually through the hours of my day like everyone else who’s adjusted to a life in this place.  Fred and I live in a Tier 1 room where we have housekeeping, laundry, prepared meals – and we do the rest ourselves.  Each morning I wake to the usual aches and pains, and after breakfast I shuffle outdoors on walkways that weave around the building perimeter – if the weather allows – or otherwise through interior hallways.  I use a GPS-enabled walking stick to improve my odds.  Yet, my center of gravity is so close to the ground, I hardly need it.  I get along okay and most people don’t think that I am a day over a hundred and ten.

Meanwhile the Guinness people constantly ask me to record everything that happens during my day because most of it sets some kind of new world record – like ‘the oldest man to eat pepperoni pizza’ or ‘the oldest man to wear a tie’ or ‘the oldest man to piss six times in a day.’

I tell them to drop dead.

 For three days Fred managed to avoid my next monologue. This evening I caught him brushing his teeth.  Before he can sputter in protest, I am underway again.

“It all begins with spectral samples—digital images of sand and wood and leaves and brick and steel and concrete and anything else that can be considered ‘background texture.’”  Fred waves me off with his toothbrush, spraying the mirror with paste and spit.  I ignore his objections and press ahead with my soliloquy—

“Alongside the most complete texture library in the world we kept a catalog of light measurements ranging from the glow of deep-ocean bioluminescent fish to the Sun rising over the high desert above Valles Marineris near the martian equator, and just about everywhere else in between.  But this barely scratched the surface of the problem because information on background textures and lighting conditions told us nothing about how human and robotic eyes and vision systems actually see the world.”

Planning his next move, Fred scans for any possible escape route.  With the bathroom doorway blocked by a pontificating nemesis, he returns glassy-eyed to his ritualized brushing.  “I sleep under a white goddamn sheet and grey goddamn blanket,” Fred suddenly announces in a tone of finality, “and for all I care you can color anything you want in orange and purple polka dots!”

Fred pushes past me without looking back, climbs into bed, and places a pillow over his eyes and ears.  Later that night Fred died in his sleep.  Only 73.  Young enough to be my grandson.  After surviving two shooting wars and a plane crash, how does somebody die like that?  One night he climbs off to bed and never wakes up.

A memorial service for Fred will take place on Thursday.  Most retirement homes quietly avoid the death of a resident, whereas veteran homes see the value in marking the passing of a soldier.  Nearly a century ago in my early 20s I, too, was a soldier.  But I doubt that anyone will remember me that way.  Mostly, I worked as a civil service researcher with the Department of Defense until age 70 when I retired due to government regulations.  As a consultant I worked another 15 years doing the same job until I switched careers at age 85 when I joined the Harvard Medical School.  At age 97, I stopped working fulltime and over the next ten years slowly wound my schedule down from there.

As my dear wife said the day before she left us, if I hadn’t cared so much about my work, I would have found my own grave well ahead of hers.  We had many good times together.  Don’t get me wrong.  Yet, every time I left the house at 4:00 a.m. or returned after midnight following some urgent meeting or invited lecture tour, I had my doubts, and I’ve often wondered how much more we would have enjoyed together if I’d lived a ‘normal’ life.  But she believed in me enough for both of us, and she wouldn’t listen to a word I said whenever I questioned the value of my work.


Sample End

Total Length: 28 pages

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