Forbidden by Preston Denton

by


FORBIDDEN

Preston Dennett

“Jason! You’re late,” Merriweather barked, as he flung my jacket onto a chair and impatiently ushered me to the sitting room. I wondered why he had called me there. Presumably, it was because we were colleagues and he needed my professional opinion as a nanotechnologist.

“Not by choice,” I said. “The traffic was heavy. I got here as soon as I could.” I looked around the room in surprise. The whole gang was here. Chuck Feinstein (excuse me, Doctor Feinstein, now a bestselling author), Professor Nate Maxson (Head of the Philosophy Department at New Sallee University), Hiroko Nagati (arguably one of the most intelligent men I had ever met) and Elias Merriweather. All of us college buddies reunited at last. They all sat sipping at their brandies or scotches, sitting on the Corinthian leather couches and Koa chairs. Merriweather was never one to scrimp on luxury, and with his kind of money, why would he?

Merriweather handed me a drink and motioned to me to take a seat. He stood in front of us, rubbing his hands together— his way of expressing excitement.

“So glad you could make it. So happy you decided to come.”

“What is it, Merriweather?” Feinstein asked curtly. “What mad scheme have you dreamt up this time? Have you cooked up another love potion?” he snickered, glancing at Maxson.

Maxson revealed only a hint of amusement. We all remembered Merriweather’s love potion. He had spent unknown millions of dollars studying human pheromones to come up with a perfume that would supposedly be irresistible. Unfortunately for Merriweather, the end product was a scent remarkably akin to body odor, and was singularly unsuccessful. It was one in a long line of crazy ideas Merriweather had entertained.

I had never quite decided if Merriweather was a borderline psychotic, or a truly brilliant scientist and inventor, but I leaned toward the former.

“I’ve done it,” he announced. “They’re going to rank my name among the greats. Socrates, Plato, Descarte… and me, Merriweather. You see, my dear friends, I have solved one of the greatest dilemmas of the human condition, something that has baffled the world’s greatest thinkers ever since the dawn of humankind.”

Merriweather paused for dramatic effect. Here it comes, I thought. What insane thing has he thought of this time? I took a big swig of brandy.

“I’ve proven that there is no such thing as free will.”

Feinstein began laughing, nearly choking on his drink. Maxson groaned and put his head in his hands. Nagati remained calm, but narrowed his eyes. The mystery man eyed us all, studying our reactions. I admit I was shaking my head in disbelief. Merriweather had really come unglued this time. How could anyone disprove free will?

“You’re out of your mind!” Feinstein roared. He surged to his feet and began pacing. “This is why you called us here? I knew I shouldn’t have come. What a waste. Free will, Elias? You’ve proven that there’s no such thing as free will? And exactly how have you done that? There’s no way.”

Merriweather beamed, “Ah, but there is. And if you’d all just think about it for a few moments, I think you’d remember.”

“Fine, this ought to be good for a laugh.” Feinstein sat down and folded his arms.

“This is no laughing matter, Charles. I’m totally serious. I’ve done something that nobody else has ever been able to do. Not that I had any choice,” he added. “There are forces greater than us that control our every move. Nature or nurture, it doesn’t matter. Both are valid and neither makes one iota of difference. Our behavior is one hundred percent pre-determined.”

Feinstein scoffed and threw his hands up in the air. He looked around at us for support, settling on Maxson. “Are you just going to sit here and take this?” he asked.

Maxson sighed. “We’re here. We may as well just hear him out. Come on, Elias. Get on with it. Exactly how have you proven there’s no such thing as free will?”

“What? None of you remember? Philosophy 101. How do you disprove free will?”

We all looked around at each other dumbly, except Nagati, who was turning a shade pale.

“Jesus,” he said. “I think I know. Please tell me, Elias, that you’re not planning on doing… the forbidden experiment.”

“Very good!” Merriweather smiled. “That’s it exactly. And no, Hiro, I’m not planning on doing it. I already have. And the results are undeniable. There’s no such thing as free will.”

“Jesus,” Nagati repeated. “You’ve crossed a line here, Eli. If you’ve actually done this, well it’s immoral, unethical… probably illegal.”

“Ethics aside, how is it even possible? The cost of it alone would be prohibitive.”

“We’re talking about Merriweather, remember?” Nagati said.

“Would someone mind refreshing me?” I asked. “What exactly is the forbidden experiment?”

Feinstein looked down his nose at me. “You really don’t remember. The only way to truly disprove free will would be to raise two people, ideally identical twins, in the same exact environment.”

“Six,” Merriweather corrected. “I wanted to be sure.”

“Six?” Nagati echoed, incredulous. “Jesus.”

“Six identical people in exactly the same –”

“Clones,” Merriweather said. “Identical clones.”

“Will you please let me finish?”

“Never mind,” I said. “I remember now.”

It was an experiment thought up several centuries ago. One way to disprove freewill would be to raise identical twins in exactly the same way. The result ostensibly would be that the twins’ behavior would be exactly the same. The experiment had apparently never been conducted not only because of the obvious ethical conflicts, but because of the impossibility of creating a controlled environment.

It seemed that Merriweather had overcome both hurdles. The ethical one, I could understand; Merriweather had never been one to let ethics stand in his way. But creating a controlled environment… I shuddered to think what he had done.

But it looked like I was about to find out. Merriweather walked to the wall and began turning on a series of computer screens. I refilled my glass and took another swallow.

“Here they are gentlemen, my babies. I have named them all Valerie.”

I peered at the screens. Six screens, each showing the same image of a baby in a crib. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought they were the same person. Each was identical.

“You named them all Valerie?” Feinstein asked.

“Yes, of course. I couldn’t very well have given them different names, could I? The controls had to be perfect. Even something as insignificant as a person’s name could have a profound effect on their behavior. I needed to be sure that everything was exactly the same down to the tiniest detail.”

He panned back the camera. “See, each room is furnished the same. Identical beds, chairs, pillows… everything. Every toy, every picture. Each child has been assigned an identical Nan who does everything for them, gives them everything they need. In this scene they’re just babies. They don’t have the ability to make any decisions. Let me fast-forward.”

“Fast-forward? How old are they now?” Nagati asked.

“Oh, now? They’re fourteen.”

“Oh, my God.” Nagati put his hands to his face in disbelief.

“You’re a sick man,” Feinstein said.

“Hey,” Merriweather barked. “These are my children and I have the right to raise them in the way I see fit. Besides, they live in complete luxury. They have everything they need and more. Millions of kids would give anything to be in their place.”

“Do they have friends?” asked Feinstein. “Obviously not, as it would ruin your precious controls. How could you do this?”

“Just watch,” Merriweather said. He forwarded the images.

The screens changed. It showed the girls at around age four, each of them swinging their hips and flailing their arms. Suddenly, all six of them stopped, flopped on their bed and began laughing. It couldn’t have been timed more perfectly if it had been choreographed.

“Jesus, it’s as if they’re marionettes, tied together and controlled by strings,” said Nagati.

“An apt analogy,” said Merriweather. “We truly are nothing more than puppets. Do you know, they all learned to walk within hours of each other? It’s incredible how identical they are. No matter what stimulus they are given, they always react in exactly the same way. I speak to them through the computer every day. They all said their first word on the same morning. ‘Daddy.’”

“Wait,” I said. “I have a question. Do you mean to tell me they’ve spent their entire lives locked up in these rooms? They never get to go outside? All so you can explore the idea of free will?”

“They’re big rooms,” defended Merriweather. “They live in more square footage than the average four-person family. So don’t go complaining to me that they don’t have enough space. And besides, I’m not just exploring free will… I’ve proven it doesn’t exist. I’ve solved an age-old question.”

“You’ve solved nothing,” said Feinstein, waving at the screens. “This could all be a coincidence.”

“Hardly. Besides, you haven’t seen the best part. I’ve amassed enough footage to convince even the thickest-skinned skeptic. Watch this.”

Merriweather pressed a few buttons. The images on the screens changed and showed the Valeries around age seven. Each was sitting on the floor facing a screen which showed Merriweather.

“Let’s play a game, shall we?” Merriweather’s screen image asked. “I call this the question game. I’m going to ask you a question, and you give me the answer.

“Before we start, why don’t you go over and pick one of your dolls to hold.”

The Valeries each hopped up and ambled over, eyed the huge pile of dolls and picked the same one, a rumpled baby doll.

“Okay, here’s your first question. What’s your favorite color?”

“Blue!” they chorused.

“And what’s your favorite food?”

“Daddy,” they echoed. “You know my favorite food is ice-cream.”

Screen Merriweather chuckled. “Of course,” he said. “How silly of me to have forgotten.”

The question-answer session went on. The Valeries were indistinguishable from each other in every way—even the way they sat, with shoulders hunched and one arm resting lightly over the other. It was spooky.

He forwarded from scene to scene: birthday parties, arguments about going to bed, the girls waking up from a nightmare, more question and answer sessions. The girls’ behavior was almost completely identical. There were slight variations, I noticed, but they were negligible… just enough to show that the whole experiment hadn’t been hoaxed.

It was eerie to watch, and for some reason, made me sick to my stomach. I was relieved when Merriweather finally stopped and turned down the volume.

“I have hours upon hours of this type of footage,” he said. “I’m telling you, no matter what I ask them, no matter what choices I give them, the result is always the same. Gentlemen, the conclusion is inescapable. Free will is a myth. I have proven it. I am one of the greatest thinkers of our generation.”

“You’re a monster,” Feinstein said. “How could you do this?”

“Hey, don’t blame me,” said Merriweather. “Like I’ve just proven, I had no choice in the matter. It’s like I keep trying to tell you, we are all just slaves to forces beyond our control. We have no more free will than my robot nans do. We’re really nothing more than biological robots. Everything I’ve done is the result of previous conditions. My behavior is dictated entirely by outside forces.”

“That’s an awfully convenient excuse,” I said.

Merriweather shrugged. “It’s the truth. You can’t tell me you are not impressed by the results of this experiment. Regardless of my motivations or methods, you must agree that the experiment has been a success.”

“It’s grotesque,” said Feinstein. “Nobody will ever believe it.”

“But it’s the truth. I can prove it. Tell me, do you believe it?”

“Doesn’t matter what I think,” said Feinstein. “You’re striking at something too vital here. People need to believe that their choices matter. It’s the only thing we really have that makes us who we are. It’s what separates us from one another and gives us our identity.”

“So you’re saying you do believe me. I knew it! I’ve proven it. Haven’t I, gentlemen? Do you all agree? Or do any of you choose to deny the truth of what you have just seen?”

We looked at each other, speechless.

“It is compelling,” I finally said, if just to break the silence.

“Jason,” Feinstein hissed. “Don’t tell me you believe this?”

“What’s not to believe? It’s nothing we didn’t already suspect. Our behavior is largely controlled by our genetics and our environment. So what? It doesn’t make us any less human.”

“It makes us robots!” Feinstein said. “It’s ridiculous.”

“You believe me, Jason? I always thought you were one of the sharpest of our little group here.”

“I guess I do,” I said. “Seems I have no choice in the matter.”

“Exactly!” said Merriweather. “None of us do. Well… Hiro, Charles… what do you say?”

Nagati shook his head. “I say I wish I hadn’t chosen to come over here. And I’m sure you’ll be able to understand me, Elias, when I tell you that now you’ve left me with no option. What you have done has got to be illegal. You can’t expect me to keep this a secret.”

“Of course not,” said Merriweather. “I expect no such thing. I just wanted to see what you learned gentleman thought of my experiment, and now I know. And now I’m ready to take the next step.”

“The next step?” said Feinstein. “Oh, God, no. Don’t tell me you’re planning on going public with this? They’ll crucify you.”

“Like Hiro says. You can’t expect me to keep this secret.”

“He was talking about the way you’ve raised your children,” Feinstein roared. “Not this stupid idea of yours that we’re all just puppets.”

“Stupid, is it? We’ll see how stupid it is when I become famous and people see that I have solved one of the greatest of all human mysteries.”

“You mean, after they’ve carted you off to jail or the nearest psychiatric hospital?”

“I think we’re done here,” said Merriweather. He turned off the computer screens and walked toward the door. “Gentlemen, I thank you for your time. Obviously your opinions matter to me or I would not have invited you. But I refuse to be insulted in my own home by people whom I considered my friends.”

“Friends?” Feinstein asked. “Let me tell you this, Eli. We may have hung out together in college. We may have chosen… yes chosen to follow similar career paths. But I have never considered you my friend. And this latest fiasco of yours clinches it. Goodbye. And good luck with your insanity. I want no part of it.”

Nagati stood. “You shouldn’t have done this,” he said. “Mark my words. No good will come of it. Free will or no free will, you should have used better judgment. I can’t condone this kind of behavior.”

Both gentlemen hurried out.

Merriweather looked at me. “You really believe me?” he asked.

I sighed. “You’ve made a very convincing case.”

“You know,” said Merriweather, “of all the guys, you’re the only one who has ever respected me. I like you, Jason. I’ve always thought you had a good head on your shoulders.”

“Well, thanks, Eli. Now, don’t be offended, but can I ask one last thing before I go?”

“Sure… you? Anything.”

“I’m afraid I kind of agree with Hiroko. I don’t see much good coming from this. Are you planning then, to stop this experiment and treat the girls like normal human beings?”

Merriweather frowned and became a little frosty. “It depends. Of course, I’m not going to keep them there forever. But they are happy, Jason. They really are. And they have better lives than most of us out there. They are well-cared for. I just need to be sure I have enough proof to convince people. You understand.”

“Where are they? Here on your estate?”

Merriweather looked down. “Their location is a closely guarded secret. It’s for their own safety. Don’t ask me where, because I won’t say.”

“Okay,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.” I didn’t tell him I had already figured it out. I knew what I had to do. I thanked Merriweather for his time and left.

Merriweather must have forgotten that I was a nanotechnologist. Hopefully, he hadn’t anticipated what I had done, what I was about to do. Even now, a swarm of several million nano-bugs were swarming inside Merriweather’s home and quickly recording and cataloging everything they touched, then feeding a stream of data back to me. They were crawling along the floors and ceilings, burrowing though the spaces between the walls, invading every square inch of space. By the time I got home, I would have a comprehensive recording of his entire estate, every room, every picture, every dish, every item of clothing, every person. The data would be constructed into a series of visual images which would tell me everything I needed to know.

When I arrived home later that evening, I was not disappointed. The little buggers were amazing. Nothing could hide from them. The resolution of the images was nearly perfect—almost like real life. I began my virtual tour of Merriweather’s house, starting with the only place I had ever been to, the sitting room.

The sitting room led to a larger room filled with antique furniture, expensive paintings and statues. Most of the rooms were the same, filled with items that a museum could have been built around. It was an obscene display of uncontrolled wealth.

I found the girls where I expected they would be: on the basement level. Merriweather had converted the entire basement into an underground lab. One side housed the nans, but most of the space was devoted to the girls. Each were separated by only a few feet. And yet, all this time, they had no knowledge of each other.

I clicked a few buttons on my keyboard and sent the nanos a message. Even now they were targeting the doors of the girls’ rooms, eating away at the locks.

It was a thing of beauty to watch: each of the girls sitting up in bed, staring at the door as it opened seemingly by itself. None of them hesitated. Each girl leaped out of bed and ran outside. Squeals of delight echoed in the corridor as Valerie met her sisters for the first time.

Merriweather would be furious, I knew. And he would quickly figure out that I had done it.

No matter. I’m sure he would understand my reasons. And besides, it’s not like I had any choice.

Food for Thought

The existence of free will in some form, Liberterian or Compatibilist, has been argued about for centuries and yet no definite answer has ever been reached. Would this experiment prove it? It might prove Liberterian Free Will to be false but I am not sure it makes any difference to the compatiblists conception of it.

Would such an experiment be worth doing? It is ethically monstrous but possibly only so if the answer was “yes” rather than “no”.

How do you think the world would change when the news of this experiment leaked out? Would people abandon the concept of free will and accept the implications of determinism?

About the Author

Preston Dennett has worked as a carpet cleaner, fast-food worker, data entry clerk, bookkeeper, landscaper, singer, actor, writer, radio host, television consultant, teacher, UFO researcher, ghost hunter and more. But his true love has always been speculative fiction. His stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Black Treacle, Cast of Wonders, Grievous Angel, Perihelion, Stupefying Stories and several other venues, including several anthologies. He has also earned twelve honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest. He currently resides in southern California where he spends his days looking for new ways to pay his bills and his nights exploring the farthest edges of the universe.

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