"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Minerva, Chapter 29
'Sure I can't talk you out of this?' O'Toole asked, knowing what the reply would be.
'Yes, Peter,' Mason answered. 'These missile strikes are only the beginning. I feel as if my remaining time is limited.'
'That's not the Mason I used to know,' O'Toole said. 'Back when everyone else was saying Hail Marys at the thought of an invasion from Lugar, you were urging me to buy real estate.'
'Yes, but it was different then. At that point, I was elated just with the fact that Minerva existed. It didn't matter if I died; it was enough that the society and its institutions would live on.'
'And now?' O'Toole asked.
'And now,' Mason said, staring out the O'Tooles' giant window at the eastern coast, 'I have grown accustomed to the success of my ideas. There is nothing now that can stop the spread of freedom. And so I want to move on. Just yesterday I learned that Roderick Dupont, the philosopher, has decided to take the jeneers' offer. That makes my decision an easy one.'
O'Toole nodded, knowing further arguments were useless. For several months Mason had been seriously discussing a move to the jeneers' island, but O'Toole thought the professor had just grown flighty in his old age.
(Jeneers was the slang term for the few dozen genetically engineered ['gen-eered'] humans grown in Minervan labs. From almost the beginning, scientists on Minerva had conducted research that was illegal in other countries. [Indeed, these experiments constituted a major plank in the United Nations' case against the island.] At first, the medical procedures consisted of gene therapy for inherited diseases, as well as trivial applications such as choosing a child's hair or eye color.
Soon enough, the alarmists' worst fears were realized. After a brief legal battle, companies began soliciting DNA samples from extraordinary individuals in order to create genetically superior children, who were then sold for exorbitant amounts to wealthy parents. [Depending on the clients, the adoptive parents' own DNA was usually represented, in varying percentages, in the child as well.] The hopes'and horrors'for a new breed of Minervan ubermen were dashed, however, within a few years. For some inexplicable reason, when the jeneers reached puberty, their nervous systems suffered enormous damage, leaving the child in exquisite pain and requiring constant medical supervision. Thus, just a decade after they had started, the jeneer programs were virtually discontinued except for a few stubborn researchers who wanted to solve the 'puberty problem.'
Partly out of guilt but mostly out of relief, the parents of the jeneers jointly financed a special platform to house and care for their freakish children. Located ten kilometers off the southern coast, the facility boasted state-of-the-art medical equipment for the physically debilitated. The platform's amenities allowed the jeneers to exist almost independent from outside supervision.
The uplifting twist in the sad tale occurred three months after the jeneers had all been relocated to their customized island. Despite their handicaps and constant pain, the children were still quite gifted intellectually. A few retired academics had petitioned for the right to work with the children, and were admitted. After only two weeks, the academics [with the approval of the jeneers' guardians] invited scholars from all areas to move to the tiny island. There, they were promised an unimaginable intellectual climate in which to exchange ideas and conduct research. The only stipulation: Those moving to the island had to promise never to leave, and all contact with the outside world would be limited to academic publications. The jeneers were apparently extremely private, and did not want their embarrassing condition to become fodder for gossips.
As one can imagine, at first the invitation went largely unheeded. But gradually, a few scholars'all close to death'agreed to the terms and moved to the island. The quality of their output in their respective academic journals was so pronounced that soon other, younger intellectuals began to move as well.)
'Thank you again for your generosity,' Mason said.
'Of course, David.'
In order to limit applicants, as well as finance the on-going operation of the facility, the jeneers insisted on a hefty fee for prospective newcomers. The O'Tooles were only too happy to pay the sum on Mason's behalf. They had donated almost the entirety of their fortune to various philanthropic concerns, especially college endowments, and this gift to Mason had been negligible in comparison.
O'Toole waited for the old man to speak. Instead, Mason continued to stare out the window at the booming metropolis. In the distance, hundreds of small craft littered the ocean, consisting of merchantmen, recreational boaters, and ferries to the outer platforms.
'We really did it, didn't we?' Mason finally said.
'It was your composition,' O'Toole said. 'I was just the conductor.'
'You are a very decent man, Peter,' Mason said. 'And you have a wonderful family.'
'Thank you, David,' O'Toole said, blushing slightly.
'I'm sure you already suspect this,' Mason said, 'but your son is fantastically clever. The best I've ever encountered. Once he gains his confidence, heaven help the man who challenges him.'
'I know,' O'Toole said, 'but thank you. Danny just needs to come out of his shell, and he'll do great things.'
O'Toole still didn't quite understand why his son was so shy. Perhaps, if he and Tara had had another child, he could have done a better job.
'And your wife,' Mason said. 'What can I say, except that I am truly sorry. Please excuse my indefensible behavior.'
'What're you talking about?' O'Toole asked.
Mason stopped staring out the window and turned to face O'Toole.
'Peter, surely you realize that I have been plotting desperately to seduce your wife.'
'What the fuck are you talking about?' O'Toole said.
'Peter, since the day I read her review of my novel, not an hour has gone by in which I failed to fantasize about Tara McClare. And I should stress,' Mason said, raising a finger, 'that it has always been Tara McClare with whom I have been infatuated.'
'Well I guess it's a good thing you're an old man,' O'Toole said, barely above a whisper.
Mason's head drooped. Had he realized that Peter genuinely did not know, he would have said nothing. And now, he certainly would refrain from divulging the details of his intricate plot, which involved a plausible excuse to take Tara alone out for dinner and dancing, and a superbly crafted monologue in which he would reveal his desires and let her realize that all of his sexist banter over the years had really been just a vehicle for her attention.
'Yes, Peter,' Mason said, breaking the awkward silence, 'I am an old man. I'll go now to my final resting place.'
Mason tipped his hat and headed for the door.