Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Sat, 31 Oct 2009

Bad Science

No inconvenient questions are asked about William's death. In a world without evil, instincts toward suspicion once common in the species have become extinct. No one at the camp gives a second thought to Jaryn's story: he tells anyone who asks that he was mistaken when initially reporting William wasn't badly hurt. There is no autopsy; there is no investigation. Who would investigate? There are no police detectives. Everyone mourns the boy's death, new rules are established that discourage running near the water and the city adds more beach front caretakers. Otherwise, life goes on.

Jaryn, on the other hand, is deeply puzzled by the memory. Although outwardly he apes the simple grief over William's unfortunate accident that is displayed by all his camp mates, inside, the tumultuous emotion he feels is not grief. Rather, Jaryn struggles to comprehend what has taken place. Someone has died and it appears that he, Jaryn himself, intended and caused that person's death. The enormity of this thought boggles his mind.

In his mind Jaryn repeatedly runs through the moments leading up to William's murder. There he was running alongside William. He saw the driftwood. Was there a moment of thought? Of calculation? A motive of jealousy? Here the memory blurs slightly but becomes clear again when the boys bumped. William tripped, fell. Jaryn's knee was on the fallen boy's neck. He felt the neck throb, then crack a little. First there were bubbles in the water, then the bubbles stopped. Then William stopped moving.

These events are mostly clear to Jaryn, but what stays hidden from his view is how, exactly, he had caused it all, if he even was the cause. He feels in his gut that he did in fact cause William's death, but this is just a "feeling" -- a deep emotion of authorship. Is emotion proof? Jaryn looks at his own hand. Clenches a fist. I am clenching my fist because I choose to clench it, he thinks. And I killed William too -- I chose to kill William -- Jaryn concludes to himself, uncertain, still not completely convinced.

It may seem odd that Jaryn did not concern himself with the question whether the act of killing was wrong. There was not the least feeling of guilt or regret in his heart. No doubt the distorted lens inherited from his errant parentage would further refract his moral vision should he someday choose to reflect on the murderous act with whatever he might have for a conscience, but Jaryn did not look at William's murder as a moral question. Not yet. To Jaryn, it was first a question of empirical fact regarding his function in the affair. Did willfully tripping him and then grinding a knee into William's neck to hold his head in the surf cause William to die? Jaryn simply didn't know for sure.

Jaryn is curious about this weighty question on two levels. First, he didn't know very much about the physical mechanism of causing intentional death in someone. How can a healthy person be killed? Would blocking someone's breathing kill them? This wasn't something in his lessons, nor could he remember someone causing another person's death in any of the news or entertainment he had seen. He suspects that a physician would know these facts, but a vague sense of caution prevents Jaryn asking any for details. Instinctively, Jaryn knows that best methods for killing people is not a suitable subject to discuss casually with your doctor.

On a second level, Jaryn wonders if what happened to William was really a consequence of Jaryn's will, or was it something more akin to an involuntary reflex. Jaryn couldn't decide. Although he remembers the objective details of the event, the subjective details surrounding whether Jaryn's conscious will had played a role are vague in the boy's memory.

Time passes by. Jaryn returns from camp and resumes his routine lessons at school. He has seemingly recovered from the tragedy, but the inward puzzlement at his homicidal potency does not diminish. With each passing day he worries over the facts, detail by detail. The facts are conclusive, flawlessly damning on the surface, but paradoxically, his doubt about the proximate cause of William's death grows the more he mentally re-enacts the affair. Eventually, he decides that he cannot rest without knowing for sure. He decides to do an experiment to settle the matter.

From Jaryn's science lessons, he has learned how to conduct a proper experiment. He will need a control group and an experimental group. First, he will randomly select ten people. Of those ten, five will be the experimental group -- the people he will choose to kill. The remaining five, will be the control group. He will consciously choose not to kill these. Afterward, he would evaluate the results and possibly learn something.

He begins with the random selection. This was easy enough. With a few gestures on his network terminal he has the names and addresses of ten random people that live within easy walking distance of the school. It is equally easy to divide these ten into the two groups of five. He'll kill those who's identity number is even, and spare those that have an odd ID number. He saves the details of each group into a folder. Jaryn doesn't know that his creation of such a "death list", had it occurred in an earlier, more primitive, time in man's history would have been considered sufficient proof of his premeditated intent to murder and, had he been caught, would have led to a sentence of life imprisonment, at best. Jaryn's genetic ancestors would have known to hide such a list, fearing its discovery by the long arm of the law. But in the twenty-sixth century Jaryn had no such fear. He posted the list in his public network area, convenient for him to read from anywhere.

Jaryn is anxious to begin his plan immediately. The first person in the experimental group is named Edward Kohl. The address is in a nearby community that Jaryn knows well. At the first opportunity, Jaryn walks there and sees what may very well be his victim, an elderly man tending some flowers outside a small house.

"Are you Edward Kohl?" asks Jaryn.

"Yes I am, son. What is your name?" replies the old man.

Jaryn says nothing at first. His inner confusion has him temporarily speechless. He came here with the clear intent to kill this man, and he is definitely wanting the man to be dead, but now Jaryn is stuck. How do I do it, he thinks. We aren't running on the beach. I can't trip him and crush his face into the surf. I can't wait forever for an accident. Maybe I can't cause this man's death. Maybe this means I didn't kill William at all. Furrows of concern form on Jaryn's brow.

"Are you OK?" asks the old man, concerned about the boy's befuddlement.

Jaryn begins to turn away. He'll go back home and think this through some more. Some preliminary research is needed. As he turns, his eye notices a garden tool, a small pick-hoe, that Edward Kohl had been using to cultivate his flowers. The old man is holding the tool casually in his hand. Small clods of soil still cling to the wear-polished steel of the pick. A tool to kill, Jaryn is suddenly enlightened -- a weapon -- forming the primitive concept in his mind without knowing the word "weapon" itself, a word lost to the language through centuries of disuse.

"May I have that tool, Edward, please?" says Jaryn.

"Oh, so you are interested in gardening," the old man says with a smile, handing the pick-hoe to Jaryn.

Jaryn takes the implement from the man, feels the tool's weight for a moment, takes a firm grip and steps toward him purposefully. With a vicious backhand slash, Jaryn buries the pick 8 centimeters into the man's right temple. The boy releases the handle leaving the tool behind. It protrudes sickeningly from Edward's head as the old man blinks. Now it's the man's turn to be befuddled and speechless. He stands there stiffly, Jaryn watching, curious and attentive, observing every detail. I still feel the warmth in my arm from the effort of the swing. There's no question that I decided to swing my arm that way and it did swing, he concludes. Do I smell something?

Blood begins to drip from the side of Edward's head. The old man blinks his last blink, utters a quiet groan, and collapses into a heap on the ground. Edward Kohl is dead now, Jaryn is sure. Dead because I wanted him dead. I chose to kill him.

The boy turns fully and he begins his walk back to his dorm, happy that his first trial went so smoothly.

The murder of Edward Kohl excites no investigation, no concern. It is considered to be a terrible accident. The pick-hoe tool must be defective somehow. The company that manufactured these garden tools pays a large settlement to Edward's family. Another sentence, something about keeping sharp gardening tools away from ones head, is added to the safety instructions for pick-hoes.

His success in willfully killing the first member of the "to kill" group gives Jaryn growing confidence that he is, indeed, a willful killer. Still, he doesn't want to jump to rash conclusions. Jaryn will complete all the trials, as planned.

Soon enough, Jaryn attempts to visit the first member of his control group. This is also a man. His name is Kevin Land. He's middle aged, a train conductor, who also lives in a nearby neighborhood. Land is not married, which should be helpful in getting him alone, but even so this man is not nearly as easy to approach as was Edward Kohl. Jaryn makes several trips, never seeing the man outside his house, never seeing a curtain open or a door ajar. Soon enough Jaryn concludes that the man must work at night and switches to evening reconnaissance. Two nights hence Jaryn is waiting in the shadows when Kevin Land arrives, briskly walking home from work.

As Land passes by, Jaryn thinks about ways he could go about killing the man. He looks around for a tool -- a weapon. There is no handy pick-hoe. All he can identify as a potential weapon are several small rocks at the base of a nearby fence. He could heft one of those, then try to bash Land with it. Jaryn wonders just how hard you'd need to bash someone with a rock to kill them. He'd have to do a calculation on his terminal later. The rocks seem pretty small.

Could he kill a man without a weapon, with his bare hands, Jaryn wonders. Is such a thing possible? I killed William that way, but there was an accident to exploit, and a nearby ocean.

Momentarily Jaryn considers the odd possibility that an automobile could kill somebody. Obviously, cars go very fast and are massive. He thinks it possible someone would be severely hurt, probably killed, if hit by a car. But traffic on the road is light. Even if traffic was heavy, pushing Kevin Land into the road wouldn't kill him. No twenty-sixth century vehicle would collide with a pedestrian, or anything else for that matter. The car's radar would detect him and the automatic collision avoidance system would override simply dodge around the obstacle, human or otherwise. Jaryn would need to research that too. Maybe the control system of a car could be disabled, or confused.

Absorbed in these thoughts, Jaryn doesn't realize that Mr. Land has long since passed by. In fact, it's the sound of Land's front door shutting behind the man that snaps Jaryn out of his musing. So that's it, Jaryn thinks. I didn't want to kill him, so he wasn't killed. But Jaryn immediately knows there is a flaw in this reasoning. Land's survival might not have been because Jaryn lacked the intent to kill him; possibly Land survived because Jaryn didn't know how to kill him. There was no accident to exploit (as with William), or handy weapon (as with Edward Kohl). Before Jaryn can say definitely that he chose not to kill Land, Jaryn first would have to discover some effecting means for killing the man, and then choose not to use it.

There is so much he does not know about killing. He needs to learn more. Jaryn walks home quickly and immediately logs into his home terminal. He will work hard to close this uncomfortable gap in his knowledge.

Jaryn begins to research medicine. At first his efforts net him nothing. Medicine attempts to do no harm. All harm, mild or severe, is bad in the eyes of the physician. Thus, the art of medical practice has very little to say about the specifics of inflicting maximum harm. But then he discovers something perfect for his purpose: the computerized patient models doctors use to validate therapies in simulation before using those therapies when treating actual patients. With these computer models, the physician (or homicidal tyro) can specify exactly the physical characteristics of the patient, his or her age, height, weight, basic racial mix, health history etc... Then one can subject the patient to a variety of physical problems, infections, or abuse. Then, finally, one can "treat" the patient with any of a vast array of medicines or procedures.

With these flexible (and reputedly very accurate) models, Jaryn plays "what if" games. First he verifies what happened with William. Yes, blocking someone's airway is fatal, as is crushing their neck. Then he evaluates head trauma. As Jaryn instinctively knew when he killed Kohl with the pick-hoe, punching a hole in the side of someone's head with a sharp tool is generally fatal. Even striking the head hard enough with a blunt tool can kill. Maybe those rocks would have served to do in Mr. Land. But Jaryn spots an important caveat, with the exception of the heart and to some extent the abdomen, blows or punctures in other areas of the body are not nearly as effective for killing.

His virtual computer person in regular clothing can't be killed easily by cold air. Even in weather as cold as the north pole, the computer reports nothing more than some frozen limbs with severe discomfort for a few hours exposure, but no death. Cold air will never do, he thinks. On the other hand, immersing a person in cold water just above freezing is far better. The patient model lasts only a few minutes when dunked in icy water. As for heat, it turns out that humidity is a big factor. At temperatures near 100C with air around 10% humidity, the computer patient still feels reasonably comfortable and the warmth has many healing properties. But if the air is 90% humidity, then 100C air kills him quickly.

Jaryn is fascinated by this research. He takes copious notes as he moves beyond freezing to death and burning alive. He rediscovers throat slitting, strangulation, drowning, drawing and quartering, stabbing the heart, electrocution, ingested poisoning, poison gas, falling from heights, and many other ways to kill. Some require weapons, some don't. In less than a month, Jaryn has learned enough that he's ready to return to Mr. Land.

It's a dark, moonless night when Jaryn is again hiding in the shadows waiting for Land to return from work. The boy clears his mind and waits patiently. He waits like a big cat of the African savanna waits for its prey.

Land appears at the time expected, as Jaryn knows his schedule now. Land walks close by -- so close that Jaryn catches a faint whiff of the man's body odor accumulated from a day at work. Still the boy makes no move. Land approaches his own house, opens his front door, goes in, and shuts the door behind him. Jaryn remains still, watching the windows of Land's house. The lights go on. An hour passes. The lights go off. Kevin Land has turned in for the night.

Slowly, carefully, Jaryn approaches Land's house. Jaryn quietly opens the front door (no doors are ever locked in the twenty-sixth century), goes in, and shuts the door behind himself. The house is dark, but Jaryn is not disoriented. He had visited this house several days earlier while Land was away and had memorized the floor plan.

Continuing in stealth, Jaryn walks to Land's bedroom. He can hear the man asleep inside, snoring softly. Jaryn steps up to the man's bed. Kevin Land is laying on his back, under covers, head turned slightly to the side. His breathing has the heavy rhythm of deep sleep.

There are two pillows on the bed, one is firmly under Land's head, the other is isolated, except for Land's shoulder that crosses the pillow's corner. Jaryn reaches down and very slowly, so as not to wake Land, extracts the pillow. He then takes the pillow firmly in his two hands and holds the pillow a few inches above Kevin Land's sleeping face. If Jaryn were to force the pillow firmly down on that face and block Land's airway just after he exhaled, and if he could hold it there a few minutes, then Land would die -- or so the computer model predicts.

There might be a struggle, but Jaryn thinks Land's disorientation upon emerging from deep sleep would make it unlikely he could successfully defend himself. Jaryn would hop onto the bed, pressing the pillow home while he trapped Land under the covers. Jaryn had done this same thing early that very morning, killing a similarly sized man in his sleep -- not one of the experimental group, this was merely a practice murder. From this experience, and the simulation results, Jaryn is almost certain Kevin Land will be suffocated exactly the same way, if he carries through the attack.

But there is no attack. Jaryn does not force the pillow down. He simply decides not to. Then, the boy replaces the pillow on the bed, retraces his steps to the door, and leaves.

At last Jaryn is satisfied that he has conducted a proper experimental control trial. He had the opportunity and means to kill Kevin Land. It was like a mathematical proof where the necessary and sufficient conditions had been rigorously established. The only reason Kevin Land still lived was because Jaryn chose not to kill him.