“The Game of Life”

 Laura Rabinow

All rights reserved by the author

 

            I was only an underling. An intern. A coffee bitch. But even I knew in 72’ that what we were doing was of no small consequence. We were part of a small subsidiary, known as the P.E. (Personal Energy) Corporation, of Beyond Petroleum, the company which had spearheaded the movement to sustainable energy after the final depletion of fossil fuels in 53’. The only thing I knew when I first came to P.E.C., during my final year of graduate school at RPI, was that it was in the testing stages of producing a personal energy device that relied on renewable energy- solar energy to be more precise.

The concept behind what P.E.C. was doing was simple; if we could use sustainable energy in the form of solar hydrogen power to run cars, why couldn’t we create something along those lines to power people. A Solar Personal Energy Device, SPED they were calling it. Thousands of minute solar panels implanted, as with microchips, in the outer layers of the more visible areas of the epidermis, collecting solar energy. The media dubbed us: “The Human Flower Project”, and in truth that is largely what we were.

The story goes that the head scientist, William T. Bergman PhD., was enjoying his wife’s award winning rose garden one afternoon when it occurred to him: why must we as humans be relegated to using only eating and sleeping as our means of maintaining and storing energy for our bodies? Why couldn’t humans use solar panels for photovoltaics like plants use leaves for photosynthesis?

 – It’s amazing how the whole course of history can be changed by a single thought on a sunny afternoon.

            And so, in 2072, as a scruffy faced grad student I came to work in the Tech Valley of Albany, New York, for P.E.C. For the first two months I was relegated mostly to shuffling files, sorting mail, and doing lunch runs but, after that time they hired a couple new interns thereby promoting me to the all important title of ‘Testing Note Taker’. My job: to sit there for two hours a day and scribble down the dictations of the scientists while they observed our ‘subjects,’ which I then got the privilege of typing up for them afterwards.

But, perhaps I should let you know a little bit about our subjects, as I referred to them. The company, having found desirable results in other large mammals, namely chimpanzees, had progressed to the final group for testing: humans. They were officially the first humans to be integrated, to become solar powered, a seamless network of intertwining flesh and solar cells. Numbering about fifty and representing an array of ethnicities an ages, our subjects were carefully observed for two hours a day, five days a week, for two years, in addition to bi-weekly interviews.

 The scientists working on the project felt that two years would be a long enough time to see if any negative effects developed, so long as the subjects continued to go to their regular check-ups following the conclusion of the study. When I arrived they were in the eighteenth month of testing, and with the study headed for the homestretch, with no ostensible problems as of yet, everyone was feeling pretty confident. The atmosphere had actually become, while still focused, quite pleasant and somewhat filled with excitement. Truth be told, I really didn’t mind working there, despite my less than thrilled attitude towards my actual job.

            The results thus far truly were remarkable, so it seemed. With this new source of energy our subjects were able to produce about anywhere from 1.5 to 3.0 times the work they would normally be able to produce. This of course primarily depended on their height and weight and their percent body fat, which determined the overall surface area on which the minute solar panels could be placed and the normal efficiency/capability for their body to do work. Their body fat, it should be noted, did decrease, though not dangerously, as a nice side effect of this procedure due to the increased amount of not only intellectual but physical work that our subjects were able to do. It was truly amazing to see people not only working faster but longer.

There’s that clichéd old phrase “there’s never enough hours in the day,” but now, there were. On average, in the age range from 17-37, the number of necessary hours of sleep per day was three hours and twenty-six minutes! That’s compared to the normal person who would typically need about eight hours of sleep. Imagine having twenty hours a day to get done all the things you needed to, without feeling exhausted! Think about how much more you could do: a hobby you always wanted to take up, a sports team, a second career. Of course, I knew what I would do. The possibilities for a grad student are extremely enticing and I, as I’m sure many of my colleagues did, began to entertain the idea of having myself integrated if this all panned out, not that I would be able to afford such a costly procedure that insurance, no doubt, would not cover.

“But think of how many classes you could take at one time, of how much better your work would be if you could get it done faster and have more time to go over it. Think, of how much easier cramming would be!!!” my roommate said to me. “And you’d still have time to do a bunch of other shit- I’d bet you could build up a pretty impressive resume if you could be ‘integrated’. And, you still have time to spend on the ladies…” he raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah,” I said, “but so could everyone else. At least, everyone else who had enough money to afford integration.”

            Anyway, over the months I came to know our subjects fairly well. The majority of the scientists seemed to view these people in a detached and impersonal manner; perhaps, I figured, because they had learned from years working as research scientists that this was the only way to make their observations more objective. But, being that I was green and lacking any experience whatsoever in the art of withholding my feelings from the people that I saw nearly every day, I began to form relationships with some of our ‘subjects’.

            There was Gary, a forty-five year old high school janitor, who, like most of the people in our study, was doing it for the extra cash for his family. His file, which was given to me for the purpose of writing up reports, only reinforced what he had told me. At forty-five, after working for the same school district for almost twenty years, Gary only brought in about $33,000 a year, which taking into account inflation, was at the poverty line for a family of four, especially since his wife couldn’t work much anymore due to the chemotherapy she was undergoing for cancer in her left breast. Gary’s participation in the study was paying for her chemo.  

            There was Fitz, who’s real name was Jack, a student at Union College over in Schenectady, who, all told, was about to graduate from undergrad with over $80,000 in debt and a fine arts diploma. Not a great state in which to enter the ‘real’ world. The study was wiping out a good chunk of his debt, and as an added bonus in his perspective, giving him great stuff for an exhibit he was working on: “Shedding Light”             .

            There was Carol, a local librarian, $27,000 a year, family of five. There was Rick, a double amputee and his wife Brenda, a bus driver, two kids, one in college, $35,000. Jimmy-Matt was twenty-seven, a bartender in school, a modern languages major, $12,000 a year for bartending, negative $19,000 a year for school. William, fifteen, aspiring doctor, the son of a sales associate at Radio Shack, $31,000. Linton, thirty-six, single mother with two kids (Tess, 15, and Ben, 12), cashier for Wal-Mart, $23,000. And then there was Sarah. Eleven, an aspiring fish who spent the majority of her time, outside the fourth grade, in the community pool. She was the daughter of the head butcher at Price Chopper and a woman who died during the birth of Sarah’s sister. She was a sister of two, Lindsey, 2, and Kevin, 5. $28,000. Sarah was the youngest of ‘the subjects’, though not by much. “I always wanted a big brother, you can be my big brother if you want…” she said when I  first met her. And, being away from home and away from my own younger brother I guess I latched on to her nearly as much as she latched on to me; though, that’s difficult to believe considering the number of times I had to drag my leg around, deadweight, as it was pulled down by all of Sarah’s ninety-two pounds.  It was in the twenty-first month of the study, three months after I had started at P.E.C., that I began to see the change.

            Sarah, was a smart girl for a fourth grader; sharp, though ridiculously silly. She loved to play games with me before and after her observation sessions, which was where I first started to notice something had changed with her. We would play hide-and-go-seek and Simon says, we would play all sorts of board games: Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, Clue. But, her favorite game was Life.

            “It’s the only game worth winning” she would always say.

“It’s awfully odd that a little girl would say that about a game based on who gets the

most amount money before they die.” I said to her the first time I heard her say this.

“Oh, I don’t mean it like that, I mean in real life!” she replied laughing at my misapprehension. Like I said, she was very smart.

So, one day, while waiting for her father to come pick her up, she, as was typical, suggested we play Life, and I agreed. She was excited as we began to play but no more than two or three minutes later a blank stare came over her face and she quickly began to get up and walk, no run away only to go skipping about, running around the room in circles without any explanation. A couple minutes later she returned to our game sat down and, impatiently tapping her foot, waited for me to take my turn. She continued in this manner for a half an hour or so, up and down, up and down, before her father came to get her. With any other kid I may have disregarded this behavior but, it was so a-typical of Sarah’s usual focused and driven energy to win the game.

“Sir, I have to tell you, I’m a little concerned for Sarah, she was behaving a little oddly today.”

            “Well, you don’t need to be concerned, I’m her father, that’s my job” he replied curtly as he quickly ushered Sarah to the car. I immediately took my concerns to Dr. Bergman, the head research scientist, afraid that this incident was somehow connected to the integration.

            “Nope, I wouldn’t worry about it. She young,” he said matter of factly, “probably just ADD or something to that effect. We’ll make sure she sees someone and gets the proper treatment for that. No worries.” He slapped me on the shoulder. I hesitantly accepted what he had to say but, definitely got the feeling that I was being brushed off.

            Sarah’s level of distraction and lack of focus only increased in the final months of the study, my growing concerns, which I continually approached the doctor with, were only somewhat lulled with the repeated assurance that she was being treated for Attention Deficit Disorder. It was only later on that I learned Sarah’s father had also had serious concerns. His fears however, were lulled by the promise of a fully paid for college education for Sarah and her siblings. An education Sarah never got to have.  

            Following the study, integration became a huge fad among the wealthy and powerful and their sons and daughters. Solar Personal Energy Devices became the Christmas gift that every heir and heiress wanted. They were also popular among the corporate execs, who worked long hours, not to mention the guys on Wall Street. Every soldier was to be equipped with one as soon as they could make it more affordable. But perhaps, the most unfortunate area in which the trend caught on was with government officials. In any case over the next few years SPEDs made millions of dollars for Dr. Bergman and, it was projected, would make him millions more in the years to come. That was until around 78’ when the first cases started popping up.

Perhaps it was because of Sarah’s young age and her already sharp mind that the integration began to affect her after only two years, instead of the four or five years it took for most people. Like Sarah, at first they only exhibited some minor ADD like symptoms but, their conditions quickly worsened.

Human bodies were simply not made to handle that kind of energy intake for a prolonged period of time. People stopped being able to function normally, they lost all perception of time and began to experience dementia and many other symptoms associated with sleep depravation. Eventually, it just became too much for most of them and they either ended up in an institution or worse, they committed suicide.

 Left and right they dropped; at first a few, then in greater and greater numbers. CEOs, big business owners, stock market analysts, senators and yes, even the President. Literally thousands of the leaders of world. It was chaos. We are just now thirty years later beginning to put ourselves and our society back together.

            And, what of our ‘subjects’?

            * Gary’s wife’s cancer went into remission and she survived, only to raise their two kids alone.

* Fitz’s art exhibit was only a mild success but, the price for his paintings skyrocketed a few years later, as is usually the case when the artist dies.

* Carol, the librarian, was institutionalized about five years after the study ended. The money she got for it was just enough for her family to pay for medical care.

* Insurance paid for Rick and Brenda’s kids to go to college.

* Jimmy-Matt’s parents were left with $21,000 in school loans and a son that had to be kept tied down by straps, for fear that he would hurt himself.

* William’s parents no longer needed the money for medical school.

* Linton’s two children went to with their aunt in Arbor Hill after their mother died.

And Sarah… Sarah I see now and again. Every other week I visit the hospital where she lives; it is a large white building which if you didn’t know was an asylum, you might think was a lovely resort. Sometimes Sarah is better than others, you can talk with her and you might even think she was ok. But, after awhile a she will simply leave the conversation to run around them room as if she is in mad dash, a race that she cannot lose. Perhaps, I think, she imagines it is the game of Life and that in order to win she must get to the finish line first, cash in hand.

 

 

© Copyright 2005 by the author

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