“I’m sorry, Mrs. W_,” the crisply pressed Chief Researcher explained. “He signed a legal document. He can’t be removed from the machine. Ever.”
The machine seemed to blink in agreement.
“What’s it like in there?” she asked quietly. “What’s he experiencing?”
“Whatever he wants,” the Chief Researcher’s back stiffened with pride. “It’s designed to fulfill all his wishes, without him knowing he’s attached to a machine. It should be as real to him as this conversation is to you and me.”
“What is he experiencing,” she restated, “specifically.”
“That kind of information can’t ever be known,” he replied with authority. “We aggregate the experiences of all the test subjects. It’s impossible even for me to know what any particular test subject experiences.”
Sharon noticed a security guard in the corner of the room. He was playing solitaire the old fashioned way — with a deck of cards.
“How long will he live?” She placed her hand on the cool smooth machine.
“In theory, we could continue his life indefinitely,” said the Chief Researcher, warming to his subject, “nevertheless, the machine is designed to euthanize the test subject’s body, when he or she chooses to experience death.”
“People choose to experience death,” she asked, as she rubbed her wedding band. “People choose to die.”
“Yes, when a test subject is ready to die, the machine euthanizes the subject,” he patted the machine with an affection he was incapable of showing to humans. “In fact, one of the early and surprising discoveries of our project is the large number of people who accelerate the experience of living, so that they can reach death more quickly.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’re not sure we fully understand either,” he picked up a tablet and consulted some of his data. “It’s as if they only want and need the memory of a long and happy life, but they don’t want to experience the length of life in terms of time. It’s one of the reasons we ran the recent recruitment in which we enlisted your husband. Too many of our subjects choose to experience very happy but very short lives.”
“Couldn’t you have forced him to talk to me — to someone — first,” she asked, looking the Chief Research in the eye for the first time.
“He was advised to consult his family and several psychologists, he refused, and he signed a legally binding document, Mrs. W_,” he said with a soft tone of satisfaction. “He was, I am sure you will agree, a rational and competent adult.”
The compensation for the experiment, he explained, would allow her to do whatever she wanted for the rest of her life. He was also sure he would experience loving her forever inside the machine. He suggested, if she wanted to, she could also participate in the experiment, give all the money to charity, and they could both experience being in love together forever. After all, we are to each other, he wrote, in the final and last analysis, only experience and the memory of experience.
Tim’s logic had always been impeccable, Sharon had always respected him for it, but she had never loved him because of it. Now, finally, she understood why.