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Adam Etzion

Fiction and Art | Hindsight is Always

A Short Story

22/02/2021

Read Time: mins

His breath steaming in the cold, Gary threw the final log into the campfire. Hitting the embers, a swarm of glowing sparks rose into the night air, twirling like fireflies, a warm echo of a distant summer.

Charlie shuddered and scooched closer to the flames, holding her hands to the heat. Gary sat down next to her.

Soon, her familiar, reassuring weight was leaning into his stalky frame. Sitting there, together, breathing, gazing into the fire and listening to the night, was when Gary knew that this would be the last woman he would ever love.

San Quentin, CA – Very seldom is a single person marked out as the sole influencing factor on large scale, long term historical phenomena. There are, almost always, additional circumstances contributing to the ripening of historical events. Cases of people just doing something which then goes on to influence the rest of humanity’s future are few and far between.

Perhaps the first man to harness fire, or the first to invent the wheel, were people of that sort.

By the time you finish reading this account, it is my hope that you will come to see Dr. Gary Hopkins of Rochester, Minnesota (and later, of a privately held compound outside of Pasadena, belonging to his Transhumanist cult) as one such person as well.

Hopkins first came into the public spotlight in 2032, when coverage of the Smith, Awad and Trevers Vs. Hopkins case went national. America stood by, horrified, as the families of three of his followers sued him for maliciously inflicting brain damage on their sons. Since then, the macabre hold of his actions over public imagination has only grown stronger, and his persona has taken on a Dr. Frankenstein-like quality. In recent years, multiple documentaries, film and VOD adaptations – as well as one controversial, off-color musical – about him and his followers have been produced and widely circulated. Nevertheless, Hopkins himself has remained elusive, refusing interviews and pleading the Fifth in his trial.

Some claim he’s done so for the benefit of his followers – many of whom have become very rich thanks to the sale of memoirs and interview rights – while others say that due to his self-inflicted brain scarring he is simply too far gone, and that his disinterest in defending his name, reputation or actions is simply the result of reduced mental capacities.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was notified by his lawyer that he wished to break his notorious, years-long silence by means of an interview. With me.

“What changed? Is there a reason for this interview now?” I asked.

The only answers I received were a shrug and a cryptic “I don’t know, but he asked for you, specifically.”

I did not take much convincing.

After a short Hyperloop ride I was sitting in a cab, crawling north through San Francisco’s morning traffic, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

The following is Gary Hopkins’ story, as it was relayed to me on February 7th, 2045, at the San Quentin Criminal Rehabilitation Center in Northern California.

An audible silence falls over the hall as I step into San Quentin’s visitation facility. Despite its cheery décor, vestiges of its past as a maximum security prison are still prominent in the architecture. I feel out of place between the whitewashed, reinforced concrete walls, and the other visitors waiting with me – a young father with his two children, an elderly person of indeterminate gender vaping intently, a distressed, short haired woman in her late fifties – seem disproportionately small under the bright LED lights. The corrections officer behind the reception desk raises an inquisitive eyebrow as she checks her lists.

“Adam Etzion, I presume?” she asks.

“How did you guess?”

“The only two people he’s requested visitation rights for are you and his lawyer.”

“He hasn’t had any visitors since his incarceration?”

“No visitors.”

The guards around the room all seem preoccupied, all intently staring at the door leading back to the center’s dormitories.

As I sign the required paperwork, I ask the officer what Hopkins is like.

“He’s very… quiet.” She replies thoughtfully, and after a short pause almost blurts out – “We’ve never heard him speak. Would you, um – would you mind if some of the guys sit next to you and listen in?”

“I’m afraid I would,” I answer, and quickly move to secure an empty, secluded table next to a window overlooking the center’s lawn.

I check the time, and just as the clock strikes noon, Gary Hopkins emerges from the double doors at the far end of the room. He is splayed out in an old wheelchair, pushed by an attendant, looking like a castaway from an old pirate story. He seems malnourished and far from civilization, his face covered by a large, unkempt grey beard, his bald scalp surrounded by a circlet of long, ragged hair. Thin and visibly weak, his head lolls grotesquely to one side. The attendant wheels him over to the table and parks the chair a few feet away. He then bends over and helps Hopkins out of the chair. After an arduous few seconds, Hopkins manages to stand, leaning on the attendant for support. He takes small, painstakingly careful steps towards the table, stumbling over his toes as his feet drag along the floor.

His gaze is cast down, intent on the tiles in front of him, as if his whole being is focused on the act of walking.

I start to get up in order to greet him, but the officer waves me down with some concern and urgency, signaling for me to remain seated. I think that he looks more like a concerned relative or a kindly nurse than a prison guard.

As Hopkins progresses towards the table, murmurs break out from every corner. I get the impression that something exceptional is taking place.

I send the receptionist an inquisitive glance, but she seems too stunned by Hopkins’ actions herself to notice anything else.

Finally, Hopkins reaches my table and is gently lowered into his seat by the guard. In a concentrated effort, he raises his head, his eyes dull, seemingly registering nothing, until they are level with my own. He stops moving his head and begins the slow task of focusing his eyes on my face. His pupils dilate and contract, but settle after a few false starts. He now seems to be present – albeit distracted – and fully aware of me.

It should be noted that while the following interview is written in a traditional Q&A format, Hopkins’ replies come at a noticeable delay. It takes him time – sometimes several long minutes – to process and answer the questions presented to him, and so while the text may convey a sense of rapid rapport, this is not the case. Hopkins remains silent after my initial greeting and only speaks after a considerable amount of time. When he does speak, his voice is surprisingly strong and clear. It flows out of him in a droning, monotonous Midwestern accent.

Hello, Dr. Hopkins.

“It is August, 2023. The hour is half past two, PM. Charlie and I are working at the lab. I try to tell Charlie about a novel application of the PET scanner I have thought of, but she seems preoccupied. She says she – hello. Thank you for coming. Charlie says she has received an interesting offer. It is October, 2026. Charlie is leaving for Mars.”

Charlie – is this Charlize Hopkins, your ex-wife?

“It is May, 2020. Charlie and I are at the altar.”

Here, Hopkins smiles. His back straightens and his eyes twinkle with excitement and hope. He reaches out and takes my hands in his. His palms are warm and his arms tremble slightly.

“I am holding Charlie’s hands in mine. She is smiling. Her hair whips around her face, and a few strands get caught in her mouth. She is as beautiful as she will ever be. Radiant. The officiant speaks, but her voice is nothing more than a hum in the background. I only see Charlie and her glowing face. I lean in to kiss her and there is nothing in the world except for her lips and my beating heart.

It is November, 2026. There begins to be a perceptible lag in the video calls with Charlie’s shuttle. We decide to switch to video messages.”

Hopkins’ hands drop to the table with a dull thump and he slouches in his seat. His eyes do not twinkle and his smile evaporates, leaving no trace behind.

“It is February, 2045. I am at the San Quentin Criminal Rehabilitation Center. Charlie is still on Mars. You are here with me.

Hello. Thank you for coming.”

Thank you for inviting me. This is your first time ever addressing the media – did anything happen to convince you to reach out?

“It is Christmas, 2027. I am at home, watching a video greeting card Charlie had recorded an hour before and sent to me over the void. The only thing I want for Christmas is to talk to her directly. I miss her so much. They have crumbled some of the Styrofoam packaging they took with them on the shuttle and scattered it around the habitation dome. It looks like snow. Charlie is blowing a kiss through the screen. I reach out and grab it. I realize, a moment too late, that Charlie cannot see the gesture. I throw my hand down in exasperation, the kiss fluttering up into the air, lost forever. I am alone. I breathe in deeply and wipe away the tears. I smile and begin recording my reply.

It is Valentine’s Day, 2028. I am having an epiphany.

It is February, 2045. Thank you for coming. Was the ride here alright?”

Taken aback by Hopkins’ jarring narration, I take a moment to process his question.

Was it..? Yes. Thank you. What epiphany did you have on Valentine’s Day?

“It is Valentine’s Day, 2028. I am having an epiphany.

The problem of latency cannot be resolved by streamlining the communications process. We’ve known this from the outset. Mars is too far away. At its closest approach, the time it takes to send and receive a message is six minutes. This does not allow for conversation, just correspondence. We have always known this. This is not the epiphany. These are the laws of physics. They cannot be bent or broken. Charlie is on Mars and I am in Minnesota. This, too, cannot be changed. How have I not realized this before? Time and space cannot be altered, but our perception of them can be.”

Are you referring to the Eternal Present Doctrine your followers subscribe to?

“It is May, 2028. It is 3:04, AM. I am at my neurosurgery lab at the Mayo Clinic. I should not be here.

My cranium is open. I have programmed the robotic surgery arm to scar my superchiasmatic nucleus in the hopes of changing my sense of present.

I have made a small incision. I am now sealing the cranium. I feel, for the first time, that both of these things are happening at once.

I am overjoyed. The procedure is a success. Instead of perceiving the present moment as a fragment of two hundred milliseconds, I now perceive it as approximately an hour. The scale in which I perceive time has changed.

I hurry home and send Charlie a message. For the first time in forever, her reply is instantaneous. We are, finally, once again, talking.

Palo Alto, CA – To better understand the procedure Hopkins underwent, I reached out to professor Wyatt Peters, head of Stanford University’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences department.

We meet up over iced coffee at the historic Stanford Shopping Center.

The colorful, oversaturated surroundings, blue skies and healthy people strolling and sipping Matcha lattes around us form a stark, strange contrast to the concrete walls, flickering fluorescent lights and dim eyes in San Quentin.

“Gary Hopkins’ solution to the latency in communications with his wife is an odd one,” Peters muses, restlessly moving his Anko-filled croissant around on this plate. He is clearly uncomfortable with the subject at hand. “Had I decided to resolve this issue with neurosurgery at all – rather than with the obvious, adult solution of dealing with it emotionally and maybe going to therapy – I would not have done so in the way he has.”

Why not?

“Well, the issue, as I understand it, was his lack of patience. The lag-time between Earth and Mars bothered him. From what you’ve told me, he simply didn’t want to wait the hour or so it would have taken to hear back from his wife. I wouldn’t have even bothered touching time perception if I were in his shoes. That’s a tricky, delicate thing to do, and even if the procedure is entirely successful, its ramifications are debilitating, to say the least.”

What would you have done differently?

“Well, rather than changing my perception of time, I would have simply elected to create a – well… a consciousness on/off switch. Allow me to explain.

Unlike a change in one’s perception of time, which screws with one’s sense of causality, we are able to function perfectly well with our consciousness cut out of our brain circuit’s loop, if you will. In fact, consciousness is a hindrance to our cognitive processes. It’s a strange, vestigial construct that doesn’t do a lot for us, from a functional point of view, other than give us a clear sense of self. Now, that sense of self is important to us – or to itself – so we are naturally queasy about taking it out of the picture entirely. But there are various ways, especially if you’re a neurosurgeon of Hopkins’ caliber, to temporarily switch one’s consciousness off and back on again.

In his place, I would have simply created such a switch, sent my wife a message when I was conscious, switched my consciousness off while I waited, and then reactivated it when the message arrived. That way my sense of time would have remained intact, but the waiting period would have disappeared. At least for me, subjectively.”

I see. But in that case, wouldn’t you still just be corresponding? Given, the waiting periods between correspondences would subjectively feel shorter, but the nature of your communication would have remained unchanged.

“That’s true. That is the one advantage I can see in the procedure Hopkins underwent, I suppose.”

Could you explain?

“I can try. Our perception of time is… sequential. Generally speaking, we perceive events as following one after the other. First, event A occurs, then event B, then C, and so on.

What our brain does, after establishing sequence, is infer causality. Event A happens, causing event B, which, in turn, causes event C. But in order to establish that sense of causality between events, we must first have a clear sense of which event is subsequent to which.

Now, from an evolutionary standpoint – purely thanks to circumstantial things like the type of environment in which our simian forefathers developed – in order for them to survive, the highest resolution needed to establish sequentiality was around two hundred milliseconds. That means that we have no difficulty establishing what preceded what, as long as it took over two hundred milliseconds to occur.

If two events happen within that two hundred millisecond time frame, however, we cannot tell which event preceded which.

This means that our sense of ‘present’ – of what is happening ‘now,’ is anything that happens within these two hundred milliseconds. Go back further than that time frame, and things will appear to have already happened, rather than to be happening at the moment.

So when Hopkins expanded his sense of ‘present’ to an hour, what he essentially did was damage his ability to judge which event preceded which, if several events happened within that hour.”

But most human interactions happen in much shorter time frames.

“That’s exactly right. And because he hadn’t damaged his ability to take in the amount of information one regularly does, he would still be taking in everything, just like one would regularly do, and he would still be trying to synthesize and make sense of it – to infer causality, if you will – just like everyone else. He would, essentially, be reconstructing the sequence of events he had experienced in that time, just like everybody does. But because his sense of sequence is damaged, he would have to rely heavily on the perceived causal or logical connections between events in his reconstruction – I imagine that a bit like a detective or forensic doctor would. In most analytical activities this would not be an issue, but correspondences that happen within that hour-long timeframe could, I think, be reconstructed as conversations in his subjective experience.”

San Quentin, CA

“It is August, 2028. Charlie has sent me a video message. In it, she is crying. She says she has felt our conversations have been strange in the past few months. She says I have changed. I tell her about the procedure. She is horrified. It is January, 2029. Charlie says I am not the man she married. She is saying that it would be better for the both of us if she moved on. That I should seek treatment. I tell her I did this for her. I tell her the procedure has brought me closer to her. It is February, 2029. I have received divorce papers with Charlie’s electronic signature. It is March, 2029. I have not seen or spoken to Charlie in a month. I am alone. She is on Mars and I am in Minnesota. We both knew she would never be able to return to Earth from Mars, but I had never imagined she would leave my life. I am alone. I miss her. I miss her so, so much.

It is March, 2030. It has been a year. I am still alone. It does not get better. Time heals no wounds. Perhaps because I have broken my time. It does not work for me like it should.

Time has done nothing for me.

I am having another epiphany.

I am back at the laboratory.

I am making another incision.

Now is elongating. Now is now two hours long. Three. A day. A week. A month. A year. Five years. My life.

Now is always.

And I am, once again, with Charlie.

It is May, 2020, forever.”

Palo Alto, CA

So what happened when Hopkins expanded his sense of present to encompass his entire life?

“It’s difficult to say, really. Essentially, he obliterated his sense of sequentiality altogether. He doesn’t experience time in a manner I would consider ‘Human’ anymore.”

He was still able to function, though. At least partially.

“Yes, but his perception of the order of events would have to be filtered through a process of complete, artificial reconstruction. He would have no intuition for which event came before which. He would have to allocate extensive brainpower to constantly puzzle out the information he takes in. Every step he takes, every word he utters – I would imagine it would all require intense, excruciating concentration.”

San Quentin, CA

“It is June, 2031. Or July, 2033. The Transhumanists have found me. They say I have transcended the human condition. That my lack of sense of time makes me immortal. They take me to their compound in Pasadena. They take care of me, and I don’t have to worry about remembering to eat or sleep any more. I can concentrate on Charlie. All they ask for in return is that I make them like me. They have the equipment.

I teach them to program the robotic arm. The first three men botch it.”

Trevers, Smith and Awad?

“Yes.”

There are others?

“Many others. One of them is an astrophysicist. He constantly demands my attention. He does not want an operation – he wants me to look at equations.”

Why?

“He says my perception of the universe transcends human intuition. He is bothersome. I would rather spend time with Charlie. I solve his equations for him.”

What’s this man’s name?

“Mualem.”

Palo Alto, CA – Talk to anyone at Stanford’s department of Astrophyiscs and Astrobiology for more than five minutes and Amir Mualem’s name will necessarily come up.

Mualem’s groundbreaking theoretical work and radically out-of-the-box calculations were seen as being singlehandedly responsible for the Faster Than Light Travel breakthrough, which has paved the way for affordable interstellar transportation and the wide scale colonization of Mars. Taking credit for this astonishing scientific breakthrough has cemented Mualem’s place in history.

Until now.

San Quentin, CA – I sit, thunderstruck, digesting what Hopkins has just told me.

Hopkins, unsurprisingly, seems unfazed by my silence.

I finally clear my throat.

 

Thank you for your time, Dr. Hopkins. Before I go, I just have to ask – why did you ask for me to interview you? And why now?

“‘Now’ is of no consequence.

It is 2018. I am reading a political debate in the comments section of a Washington Post article. I enjoy the way you write. I realize that my story is worth telling. I think that you are capable of telling it well.”

As I exit the visitor center, I overhear the distressed-looking woman arguing with the guard at the reception desk. Under the harsh lamps above the desk, I notice her skin has the tell-tale greenish hue of pre-FTL Martian colonists.

“Ma’am,” the guard tells her, “I’m very sorry. Believe me, I’d like to help you – you’re heroes, all of you pre-FTLers. But you’re not on his visitor list. Not on the list, no visitation rights. There’s nothing I can do.”

“But how can I get on the list, if you won’t allow correspondence with people who aren’t on it?” she asks, exasperated.

“I’m sorry ma’am. I can’t help you.”

“Can you check again? Just one more time?”

“I told you, just like I told you last week, and the week before that, and the week before that – we have no one under the name of Charlize Barnes on any of our visitation lists.”

“What about Charlize Barnes-Hopkins? Or just Charlie Hopkins?”

The guard pokes at her computer terminal again.

“I’m sorry ma’am. There’s nothing I can do.”