Want to know how we got to a world where humanity’s lack of humanity is barely even news anymore? The following is a work of fiction, but strives to explain how we arrived in a world without a conscience. Let’s just say that Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla have some explaining to do.
THE CONSCIENCE SWITCH
by David Davisson
“When I was eleven years old my mother told me a story about Florence Nightingale.” Bell paused to sip his raspberry vinegar.
“After the Crimean war, Miss Nightingale traveled through Greece. While she traveled God spoke to her. This wasn’t unusual. God frequently spoke to Miss Nightingale. But, in Greece he asked a question that fundamentally changed her life – ‘What will you do to benefit My glory, God’s glory, without improving your reputation?’
“I was a precocious child and already had visions of being a great inventor. Something I said or did prompted my mother to remind me of reasons to invent beyond success or recognition. Ever since my mother told me that story, I have always considered how my inventions might help mankind.”
Tesla nodded and lifted his glass in a toast. “To humanity’s progress.” The raspberry vinegar was odd, but unexpectedly refreshing.
Second Class Cadet Cahill found himself snorting to push the stench from his sinuses. It was a pungent mix of deep rot, mold, and something more treacherous Cahill couldn’t place. It hadn’t been improved by weeks of non-stop rain. Cahill felt like he was walking underwater.
How was it possible to get lost in a basement?
Cahill shined his light around the enormous room, uncertain which way was forward and which way back. He saw a gap in the wall which he determined to be a small door cracked slightly ajar. Swollen from dampness, the door had been pushed out of its frame. As much as Cahill tried not to smell anything the aroma worsened as he moved through the narrow opening.
“You find anything yet, Cadet?” shouted the Captain.
Cahill ducked through the undersized doorway and saw a switch on the wall. This year’s string of storms had wreaked havoc on the school’s power supply. Cahill was on a team tasked with searching through older buildings to locate legacy power systems and remnants of old electricity infrastructures. The General believed some legacy system was contributing to the current erratic power outages.
“I think I found it,” he shouted.
The switch didn’t look like the circuit breaker box he expected. Instead it looked like the kind of switch you’d see in old Frankenstein movies the mad scientist flipped to reanimate the monster. Cadet Cahill flipped the switch to the down position. No light.
Cahill flipped the switch back and forth, up and down. Still nothing. Shit. It probably wasn’t attached to anything.
Suddenly a flood of light came through the tiny doorway.
“Found it!” the Captain yelled.
Cahill glanced around the still dark room. Just a bunch of old junk, he thought. He bent down and walked through the doorway and into the now lighted basement, leaving the switch in the down position.
When President Gonzales went to bed he left orders to be awakened if the storm worsened. Another annual “Storm of the Century” pummeled the east coast. It was 4:32am when a soft knock at the door woke him. The President grabbed his robe and opened the door. CJ, his secret service agent, stood at attention.
“No sir. Attorney General Glick thought you should see something.”
“I’ll be right there.” The President returned to his bedroom for pants, sweater, and slippers.
“The storm?” the First Lady asked from the bed.
“Something Maggie wants me to know about. Go back to sleep.” Gonzales dreamed of being president since childhood, but never imagined he’d spend so much time worrying about the weather.
Gonzales dreamed of being president since childhood, but never imagined he’d spend so much time worrying about the weather.
Maggie Glick, President Gonzales’s Attorney General, sat facing a wall of televisions, each tuned to a different channel. She muted the TVs when the president entered.
“How’s the storm?”
“Morning, Johnny. The storm’s intense, but it’s diminishing.” Glick looked exhausted. Dark circles under her eyes gave her the look of a boxer coming out of the ring. Her face was haggard, her short hair mussed. She held a tumbler of scotch in her left hand and a remote control in her right.
“I asked CJ to wake you. Something weird is going on.” Maggie pointed the clicker at a television showing a paused image and hit play.
The President recognized the blond newscaster as Brittany Snow, a FOX News anchor.
“I’d like to take a moment to make a personal announcement. I love my job. I’ve wanted to be a news anchor since I was a teenager. Unfortunately, to obtain this goal, I have done things, said things, of which I am not proud. No one at FOX ever told me what to say. But, I get praise. I know the sort of attitudes valued here, and what is not valued. I have purposefully been provocative and said things I don’t believe. I have done this in the name of success.
“Tonight my conscience finally got the better of me. I am resigning my position of news anchor at FOX News. Everyone facing the storm tonight be safe.” Glick paused the video.
“You woke me for that? Some talking head had a crisis of conscience?”
“It’s not only her.” Maggie manipulated the clicker and another newscaster came onto the screen.
“Let me take a moment to apologize for my recent comments on the shootings in Alabama. That was a horrible tragedy and I’m ashamed of ever suggesting the victims deserved to be shot.” The speaker was a well-known middle-aged pundit, known for his provocative commentary.
“And this.” Maggie brought up another segment.
“The people at FEMA are good, hard-working public servants. I was wrong to imply that they are lazy or acting maliciously.”
“Hunh. That’s weird. So, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know. It might be nothing. But, it’s weird and I thought you should see.”
“Do you have any more of these?”
“Queue them up. Get the media team here. Then take a break, grab a nap and take a shower. I’ll take it from here.”
By nine in the morning it was clear the nation was in the midst of a national crisis. The crisis went beyond newscasters. Politicians made public announcements of regret. Soldiers refused their orders. #regret, #sorry, and #iwaswrong trended as the top hash tags on Twitter. At 8am Attorney General Glick turned in her resignation and half of Gonzales’s staff followed suit. A crisis of conscience gripped the nation.
He watched the bright red kite dance in the pale blue sky for many minutes before looking to see who flew it. He was surprised to realize he recognized the old man.
Nikola left his breakfast on the table on the veranda of the Colorado resort where he sat alone, and walked down to greet the kite flyer. They had met before. Several times. But always at some function or demonstration or contest. Never in such a casual manner.
“Mr. Bell,” Nikola smiled and waved.
Alec Bell took his eyes off the kite, and after squinting a moment, recognized the man approaching him. “Mr. Tesla. What a surprise. How delightful to find such an eminent colleague at this resort.” He returned his attention to the sky.
“I used to live near here. I find the mountain air refreshing. I have read about your work with kites. Is this a new experiment?”
Bell laughed. “No. Nothing so substantial. Simply an old man enjoying a brief respite from his work. Please join me. I have been following your work on the bladeless turbine. We can discuss flying machines.”
Their conversation carried them through the morning, the afternoon, the evening, and the night. At dawn they found themselves on the broad veranda of the resort discussing regret and human frailty as they watched the sun rise over the meadows.
“Do you have any regrets, Nikola?” Alec sipped the raspberry vinegar he brought from Beinn Bhreagh, his home in Nova Scotia. The vinegar was a recipe of his own.
“Not long ago I would have immediately dismissed such an idea. But, in the last few years I realized I have many regrets. I regret my outsized ambitions which diminished my time with my mother. It would have made her happy if I’d spent more time thinking about art and less about scientific success.”
“I remember once as a child,” said Bell, “we were traveling through Germany and out of our carriage window I watched people step over a beggar in the street. I believed him to be dead and leapt from the carriage because I saw a constable. ‘I think that man is dead,’ I said in my broken German. The constable sneered. Not the reaction I expected. ‘When he dies the world will be a better place.’ In that moment I understood the depth of indifference man could have for his fellow man. I knew I would help people as my career, but I realized how truly challenging such a road might be. Some people are upset by the tragedies afflicting their fellow humans. Many are not.”
“I regret our lack of progress,” said Nikola. “By this point we should have a world that encourages good, but everywhere is still war, violence, crime, and poverty.”
“Perhaps we can invent a machine to save humanity from itself. When I went to school in London I learned that helping people is a form of happiness called eudaimonia. I have often wondered what a eudaimonic world might be like.”
“I know this word,” Tesla gave a half-smile. “My own work shows that short bursts of directed electricity can increase intelligence. I used short bursts of electricity once to cure myself of depression. Sometimes at night, or on mornings like this, I imagine the detailed workings of machines that can amplify intelligence.”
“Perhaps we can invent a machine to save humanity from itself.”
“Intelligence is not enough, Nikola. There must also be empathy and care. Thought is not only in the mind, but is in the heart and the blood and the muscle and the marrow of the bones.”
Nikola pursed his lips. His brow furrowed. “It may be possible,” he began slowly, “to turn those parts of the brain on and off. Like flipping a switch.”
By mid-morning Woody felt more confident about his suspicions. If he was right, sleeping was going to be a problem.
All morning he watched reports of soldiers abandoning their posts, drone operators walking away from their consoles, billionaires donating substantial sums to charity, pundits recanting their hate speech, criminals turning themselves into the police, high-level politicians resigning their positions, priests and rabbis and pastors and imams admitting they didn’t believe in God. Every moment, someone was clearing their conscience.
Since the middle of the night Woody’s nightmares kept him from sleeping. He was tired. All he wanted was a chance to sleep, and to forget. When he was young he abused alcohol, and his family. Now they were all gone, and he no longer drank. He wanted to forget his life, but the nightmares wouldn’t let him.
When the seventh person from the President’s cabinet announced their resignation Woody decided he should contact the White House and tell them what he suspected. He liked this president and felt sorry for him. Besides, it might be the only way he’d ever again get some decent rest. How does a regular citizen get in touch with the White House in the middle of a national emergency?
It turned out to be surprisingly easy. Woody phoned his last supervisor at the Library of Congress, who walked down the hall to the Librarian of Congress, who texted the Vice President who spoke to the President. By the time Woody showered and put on nice clothes a secret service agent stood in his hallway to escort him to the Oval Office.
Gonzales firmly grasped Woody’s hand in both of his. The President’s hands were warm and unexpectedly firm, a reminder of the hard labor he performed as a young man.
“Mr. Gullette, thank you for coming. They tell me you might be able to shed some light on the strange day we’ve been having.”
“I hope so, sir. And, let me say, it’s an honor to meet you. I voted for you.”
“Thank you, Woody. I appreciate that. Now tell me what you know about what’s going on today.”
Woody told him. It happened shortly after he joined the Library of Congress as a twenty year-old technical assistant in 1962, before he received his degree in library science. He didn’t know young black men could be librarians until he started working there. Once he started working at the library he never wanted to leave.
“One of LBJ’s aides grilled everyone in the library trying to locate some papers. I directed him to one of the senior librarians, who led him to the archives. The collection the man was looking for wasn’t much, only a single archival box containing two manila envelopes. One envelope held correspondence between Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla. Within that correspondence was a letter describing the design for a machine that could affect people’s conscience. The second envelope held orders from Truman about building and implementing the ‘conscience machine’.”
“Conscience machine?” The President interrupted.
Woody’s mouth went dry as the magnitude of who he was speaking with and what they were discussing became real. “Yessir. Could I get some water, sir?”
“Mr. President I recommend dropping the bombs on Japan and dropping them now.”
Truman stared at the gloss on the tops of his shoes. These were probably the best shoes he ever owned. His favorite, anyway.
“General, I want to end this war more than anyone, and even if I agreed….”
“Sir…” General MacArthur looked down at the exhausted man. He kept his distaste barely in check. He did not want deliberate reflection. He wanted orders to act. Even better, he wanted the autonomy to act as he saw fit. He could end this war immediately if he was simply given the go-ahead.
Truman raised his head sharply and looked General MacArthur in the eye, cutting him off.
“…and I do agree it would end this war sooner and ultimately save more lives than it cost, but the people would never accept it. It’s too cruel, barbaric. We’re supposed to be better than that. I would be run out of this burg on a rail.” Truman stood and stretched his back.
“I have a solution, Mr. President.” He knew the old man would sap out on him, so he came prepared.
“I’m listening.” Truman perched himself on the edge of the desk.
“The Nova Project. It never showed the promise of the Manhattan Project, but I’ve been keeping my eye on it. When Alexander Graham Bell died the Library of Congress acquired boxes of his letters and personal effects. Notebooks, sketches, drafts for his patents, etc. At the beginning of the war President Roosevelt had everyone scrambling for sources for new ideas. One of the eggheads started digging through Bell’s notebooks, and found a few ideas to develop. Most failed, but they made one work.” The general started pacing.
“Are you saying you have something better than the bomb?”
“No sir.” The general took a deep breath, stopped his pacing, and spoke deliberately. “But, I believe this will address your concern about public opinion. This thing is a conscience machine. It turns people’s conscience on and off, like flipping a switch. I’ve seen it work. Bell invented it with Nikola Tesla, but the idea never went further than their letters, and Bell’s notebook, until army scientists developed a prototype.”
“How is that going to help me end this war?” Truman was losing his patience.
“We can amplify the effects of the conscience machine to cover most of the people in the United States. Right before we drop the bombs on Japan we turn on the conscience machine and dull the conscience of the people in the US.”
“You want me to use a weapon on the citizens of these United States? Are you fucking crazy?” Truman stood.
“It’s not a weapon, Mr. President. Bell and Tesla invented it to serve a peaceful purpose.”
“Don’t you think they wanted to use it to GIVE people a conscience, General, not take one away?”
“Yessir, but that doesn’t change the fact that if we used it to quash their conscience, they would not object strongly to hearing about the slaughter of the Japanese.”
Truman returned his gaze to the polished tips of his shoes. “You said we might be able to amplify it. Find me someone who can tell me for sure if this thing will work or not and bring them here immediately.”
Dear Mr. Bell –
I have the results of my experiments directing electrical energy in focused bursts into the brains of pigeons. I’m happy to report some general success. I shouldn’t admit this, but I tried it on one of my assistants who stole lab equipment. A focused burst prompted him to confess his crimes and tell me where he sold the stolen items. The electrical impulse works best if directed slightly behind the right ear.
I worked on expanding it to affect larger populations, but started getting some odd weather effects. I have attached the sketches (which I rarely create) and my notes to this letter. Until I hear from you otherwise I am going to pursue this design, but investigating how it affects the weather.
Enjoy your trip around the world. If your travels allow you to spend time in Serbia I can arrange some introductions.
“Truman told me about this. I’m going to take care of these damn protesters once and for all. Flip the switch.” Nixon stood in the basement of Smiley Hall at West Point with Gordon Liddy. The two men stared at an old-fashioned electrical switch.
“Nothing happened, Mr. President.” Liddy held a lantern, to illuminate the interior of the hidden room.
“Bullshit. It’s working. It’ll take some time. All that,” he waved at the machinery filling the room, “generates some waves or some shit, and they’ve got to be zapped across the nation. It’ll take some time, but it’ll work. Truman told me he saw it work after Hiroshima.” The President stared sullenly at the switch.
“If you don’t mind me asking Mr. President, what does it do?” Gordon peered over the mass of machinery filling the small basement room. The room had been carved out of the mountain, an extension of the original basement.
“When you flip the switch this machine sends out electromagnetic rays or some other kind of hocus-pocus electrical shit that affects the moral center of people’s brains. Flip the switch up and the rays diminish people’s conscience. Flip the switch down and it enhances people’s conscience.”
“And you want the switch flipped up.” Gordon took out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his face and neck.
“I need to stop these protesters. They will destroy everything great about America. These kids need to get back in school and start studying engineering and law, and stop spending so much time worrying about everybody’s goddamn feelings.” Nixon turned away abruptly. “That’s enough. Let’s seal this room and get back to work.”
“I need to stop these protesters. They will destroy everything great about America. These kids need to get back in school and start studying engineering and law, and stop spending so much time worrying about everybody’s goddamn feelings.”
Woody watched the President on the phone. His back ached from sitting so rigidly. He felt exhausted and wondered if he’d ever sleep again. The President spoke to the general in charge of West Point.
Gonzales phoned West Point immediately after speaking with President Bush. Woody overheard enough of the conversation to guess that Bush located someone, one of his dad’s old friends, who knew about the machine.
“Are you on a mobile phone?” The President paused for a moment to hear the answer. “Good. I need you to go to the basement of Smiley Hall. You’ll see when you get there. And take a flashlight.”
There was a long pause while the President waited for General Moon to follow his orders. Woody took a moment while the President’s attention was elsewhere to yawn.
Part of Woody hoped the President returned the machine to the way it was before. His guilty conscience wouldn’t allow him to sleep. The better part of him hoped the President would destroy the machine. It would be healthier for the people of the nation to not have their conscience suppressed.
“Check the walls. Do you see a doorway, or a hole in the wall?” The President smiled at Woody. “Wonderful. And what do you see in there?” Pause. “General. I need you to flip that switch up. All the way up. Then post a guard. No one is allowed in or out. I will be there in a couple of hours.” The President hung up the phone. He had a beautiful smile.
“I believe we did it,” he said to the people in the room. He focused his attention on Woody. “And we couldn’t have done it without you, Woody. Thank you. You saved the nation today.”
Woody sat on the couch beside the President of the United States. They watched as the world returned to normal. Billionaires reneged on their philanthropic promises, newscasters and pundits returned to work. The President told the Chief of Military Staff to forgive all AWOLs and conscientious objectors from the last twelve hours and to expunge their actions from their record.
With the world returning to the status quo the President rose, shook Woody’s hand and left to take Helicopter One to West Point. He whispered into CJ’s ear before leaving.
CJ escorted Woody out of the office and out of the building.
“I’m honored to stand here today to announce the renovation of Smiley Hall.” The President stood before the cadets of West Point. “This building stands as a proud monument to American values. Its renovation shows how we cherish the past, how we maintain the values that created this great nation, and carry them forward into the future.” The cadets stood patiently in the unseasonably cold drizzle. The President and the school administrators stood under a sturdy tent.
“It is these values you have volunteered to defend. It is these values that allow the United States of America to be the moral compass of the world. Where we go today, the world will follow tomorrow.”
Three men cleaned out Woody’s apartment. No one said a word, or asked any questions. When they arrived one man knocked on the landlord’s door and gave him the death certificate. The landlord opened Woody’s apartment for them.
The books took the most time. They packed fifty boxes of books. Other than that Woody owned hardly anything. When they left the apartment was completely bare.
“What are we going to do with all these books CJ?” One of the agents asked.
“Dump them.” CJ followed the President’s orders, and his conscience never bothered him.
Tampa, Florida 2017