The apples felt good - Editor
The Nine Lives of Chairman Mao
by Craig Gehring
Chairman Mao sat at the command table. Truil brushed past a woman making her exit and took his seat.
Mao was in the nude. The sight was uncommon enough to make Truil raise an eyebrow.
“Nothing,” said Mao.
“You expected nothing,” said Truil. “Perhaps a pill.”
“I wasn’t talking about the woman. Nothing on either count, though,” said Mao.
Mao looked at the projector table.
“You needed my council?” asked Truil.
A holo video of the last conflict with the Outsiders played. Jupiter loomed brightly behind the United Nations of Earth Fleet. Hundreds of their tiny fighters swarmed to the Outsiders. The huge Outsider ships were pulling gas from Jupiter with their gravity. They grew even larger as the fighters approached. Then a dozen U.N.E. fighters smashed into one another. A dozen more. They made compact balls of white light. The holovid reached its end.
“I’ve seen it, Chairman,” said Truil. He’d seen it thousands of times.
“Everyone’s seen it.”
“They made a hologame out of it,” said Mao.
“What’s your emotional response?” asked Mao.
Truil opened his mouth, then closed it. He smiled.
“If you were our run-of-the-mill citizen of the U.N.E.,” said Mao, “survey says you wouldn‘t have one.”
“Hmm?” asked Truil.
“Computer says the Outsiders will kill us, 99% chance. The whole population knows this. And 99% think we should enjoy the eighty years that we have. They aren’t worried. There’s no response. Nothing.” said Mao.
“How do you feel about it, Chairman?” asked Truil.
“I agree. Worry is useless, and could spoil our last years. The odds are impossible. But Computer points out that, comparing this data with wars in its memory banks, this is a highly irregular response, even with the odds.”
“Man hasn’t had war in 700 years, since the Luna conflicts.”
“I keep thinking about it. Computer’s there to do my job, and all I’m left to do is think. I think there’s a way to change the odds, but…”
Truil nodded. “Computer includes in the odds the possibility of the odds changing…” he said.
Mao nodded back. “You’re the oldest of my councilors, Truil. You come from a time where the response may have been different.”
Truil sighed. “Not in my time,” said Truil. “I am only three hundred, not that old. But my forefathers, yes.”
“What made it different?” asked Mao.
Truil thought it over. “There were philosophers, a couple hundred years after Atlas, that said that mankind was changing, evolving. As we went without need, without producing to survive, without pain or war, we evolved culturally into…” Truil struggled with the word.
“Impotence?” suggested Mao.
Truil smiled again. “At least, our will to survive has evolved to a will to…just…exist. That was what the philosophers said. I heard some disagreed with the pain-proofing.”
“What do you think?”
“I think…well, I think…just a bunch of clichés pop to mind, really,” Truil answered.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean. I’m an old man. I could say that without pain, pleasure loses its contours. Without something to lose…Well, maybe both pain and pleasure are necessary to drive mankind to survival. But I‘m just saying bumper slogans. I haven‘t felt pain since I was twenty-three, and I have two backup bods.”
“Do you miss it? The pain?” asked Mao.
“No. No one misses it that can remember it. No one misses the fear of dying, either. Except the drones.”
“Hmm,” said Mao.
“But to answer your question, if I understand your question: You’ve studied that pain was a survival mechanism to keep one away from contra-survival factors,” said Truil.
“Well, what happens in our society when one of our children touches a hot stove and burns his hand?” Truil asked.
“The nanites rebuild the dead cells from within the body. The child’s tutor cautions him about stoves. There’s no need for pain, if that’s what you‘re asking.”
“What happens when one of our youth incautiously kills himself in a car wreck?”
“He’s revivified in his backup bod. Maybe he’s missing a few weeks of memories. He‘s cautioned. No need for pain to learn that lesson, either,” said Mao.
“Even the pilots who fought the Outsiders came back. They couldn’t have learned their lesson, otherwise. But what happens when the Outsiders heat the atmosphere of Earth by a few hundred degrees?”
Mao imagined fire sweeping his planet. “We die,” said Mao. No need for pain there, either, he thought. He felt he was missing Truil’s point.
“I don’t think any of us know what that means - to die,” said Truil. “And I don’t think any of us want to find out.”
“I don’t think anyone thinks he could find out…” said Mao. He understood. He decided to just say it. “Truil, there’s a part of me that wants to fight it.”
Truil didn’t say anything. He did not agree or disagree.
“Maybe it’s just my own uselessness, trying to find a purpose for my existence - the genetically perfected ruler with a Computer to rule for him.”
“What do you think, Chairman?”
“I think I’ve thought enough.”
Mao thought more, though. He did want to fight the Outsiders.
He thought about what Truil had said. He’d heard the words before, the clichés as he’d called them, in old books in the archives that didn’t make any sense.
Something Truil said did make sense.
Mao thought he’d figured out why he needed a pill. He had an inkling as to why just about every male on Earth needed a pill. He would solve it.
He disguised himself as a drone, slipped his bodyguards. He had nothing to fear on Earth. And he had seven bods.
He went to the slums, the drone fields.
He saw her working in the orchard. She was clothed from knees to neck; all the drones wore homespun. The mystery of her body allured him. He watched her picking the apples. After a while he joined her.
“I’ll help you pick the apples,” he said.
She sized him up. She seemed to like what she saw. “Don’t you have your own work?” she asked.
“Finished it,” he said. It was true. It had been finished for him by Mao V and his great Computer. And he was Mao VII.
She was cautious but let him pick. She showed him how to do it. The apples felt good in his hands as he twisted them off, hundreds to the branch. She had to take a break.
“If I finish this barrel for you, can I take you to dinner?” asked Mao.
“Yes,” she said. “Sure. What’s your name?”
“Mao,” he said.
“Like the Chairman?” she asked.
“Yeah, just like the Chairman,” he said.
The sun fell before he finished the barrel.
“Are you cold?” he asked her.
“No, I’ve got a heater. Aren’t you?” she asked.
He looked down at his body. It was shivering under the homespun. It felt…pleasant. He knew the nanites would protect his body from real harm. “No, I’m fine.”
She walked closer to him.
They reached the pub. It was warm.
He ordered their dinner. They shared it. They laughed. He liked her; she seemed to like him.
He asked her, “Can I take you home?”
She splashed her drink in his face and stormed off.
Two weeks later Mao visited the orchard again. He’d reversed his pain-proofing. He’d had to transport a special doctor from North America. It hadn’t actually been done to a human in two centuries.
The Computer, his advisors, even Truil disagreed. “Pain clouds the ruler‘s judgment.”
To which he’d answered: “None of you know what pain is.”
The drones knew. They hurt. They refused to let machines provide for them, refused the pain-proofing, refused the bod backups the U.N.E. freely supplied. They did backbreaking work in the field, like robot drones. They felt they were the only ones that lived.
She hurt. She saw him in the orchard and he knew she hurt. But she did not leave. She just sighed. He asked her if he could help her pick the apples. She nodded.
He picked for hours. After a little while his arms burned. It felt wonderful. He kept at it. Eventually he had to take a break.
She giggled at him slumped panting against a tree. “Last time you were like a robot.”
“This robot is out of batteries,” he said.
The sun fell. He felt nervous. He felt like his stomach was in his feet, and his feet were in his stomach. He didn’t like it.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Can I take you to dinner?” he asked.
She nodded again.
He didn’t get splashed in his face at the pub. He told her goodbye at the door.
It hurt. It felt good.
Mao started reading. He read the old books that were down in the archives that didn’t make any sense. They weren’t even in Computer.
Someone called Shakespeare, someone called Dickens. Histories that seemed to be fantasies, although he knew they were real: Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler; American presidents, Gandhi, King. There were even books on Atlas that he’d tried to make sense out of in his youth and finally put away. He read them all now.
He understood more, now that he’d felt what they felt.
He understood their drive, too. He’d never experienced it, except with her, now.
He picked apples with her for five weeks. Every night was finished at the pub.
She knew he wasn’t a drone. She knew he felt pain, though, like she did. She never asked about any of it.
One night she asked him quietly, “Will you come home with me?”
They made love at her place. He was sore by the end of it. It felt wonderful. He lay with her, her breasts soft against the side of his chest, her legs warmly enmeshed around his leg, their homespun on the floor. He could not catch his breath or stop smiling. He was very sore.
He woke up and no one was in the bed.
He felt a pang of fear and loss. It was so intense he felt like retching.
He realized she had gone to work. She’d left a note.
It said, “I love you.”
After three weeks of nights, he could not watch the vid of the Outsiders. It infuriated him. Twice he broke the vid table with a chair. He yelled at Truil and the rest of his staff. He physically assaulted three aids.
He bypassed Computer and clumsily started a recruitment campaign for the fleet. Computer said it was futile but could not override him.
He diverted much of the U.N.E.’s wealth to the military labs.
“All we’re getting is hologamers for pilots and idiots for researchers! Not a single discovery to date! They‘re still reading their goddamn texts!” shouted Mao in a conference. “Why don’t the drones help? They could help. They’ve at least got something to lose. They’d do something!”
The Panelists looked at each other. No one understood what he meant.
“The drones, Chairman?” asked Computer. It had a screen at all meetings of the Panel. “The drones are uneducated and lead simple lives. Not only would they be even more useless as soldiers or scientists, they are unreachable. Not one will follow U.N.E. They believe U.N.E. to be an abomination.”
“We are abomination if we let Earth die. It’s in our goddamn title. United Nations of EARTH!” bellowed Mao.
He couldn’t get a rise out of any of them. The whole Panel of fourteen men and women looked at him pleasantly without the slightest sign of disturbance.
Truil said, “Chairman, I believe I speak for us all when I say that not one of us wants to see the end of Earth.”
Mao checked himself. A few of the Panelists were thinking. He could see them thinking in their chairs.
“No,” Mao said. “Of course not.” He fiddled with the back of his chair. “Listen, I appreciate everything that you’re doing. I know you’re doing what you can. Carry on,” he said.
He walked out.
On Sunday, the drones’ day of rest, Mao walked with her in the orchard.
He walked barefoot with her. The grass’s cool tendrils snaked between his toes. Every now and then a briar poked him.
They walked between two rows of trees that framed a white-capped mountain. The air tasted crisp and energized him.
He loved the Earth for giving him her.
He loved her for giving him the Earth.
One day she was not in the orchard. He found her still at her place. She was crying into her pillow. Her aunt had died.
He comforted her.
“I’ll miss her. I’ll never get her back,” she said.
Aunt didn’t have a bod backup. Aunt was a drone like her.
She cried all day and talked about the disease. There was a sickness spreading. Mao held her the whole time.
He was happy that no matter how many times he died, she would always have him.
He started figuring out how to get her a bod.
He wouldn’t. She wouldn’t want a bod, no matter what he said. She’d never forgive him if she woke up in one.
Mao stopped talking to the Panel.
The more he talked to them, the worse the rift. They were at a total disconnect. He sounded like one of those ancient books.
A year passed. They were no more ready than the day their whole fleet was smashed to bits over Jupiter.
Humankind was willing to be eaten by the Outsiders.
Mao had nightmares of the Earth melting into a butterball of light, just like the fighters.
The grass would disappear from between his toes. She would disappear from their bed.
There would be no note that said, “I love you.”
The idea came to him while he lay in her bed.
She had said she had a headache that night. He was looking at her bare shoulder in the dark room and wondering if she really had a headache.
If he were Chairman Mao, he could order her to take a headache pill and do as he willed. She would be reimbursed for her services by the State.
He was just Mao. He was wondering if she really loved him and had a headache, or if she was sick of him. He loved her.
Love was not a pleasant emotion usually.
He took a walk. It was winter. His body shivered and hurt down to the bone. He grew hungry. The nanites could rebuild cells, but they couldn’t feed him. The sun rose behind the mountain.
He reached the foot of the mountain. He was still cold, but mainly starving.
He climbed the mountain. He got halfway. He couldn’t breathe well anymore. The air was thinner and he was exhausted. It was freezing even with the sun high in the air.
He sat down. He slept.
He woke up in his backup bod. He just slammed into it. One moment he was asleep and the next he was awake in the bod. It was just the same as the old bod. It wasn’t even pain-proofed.
He remembered everything. As Chairman, he was only one of a dozen people walking the Earth that had a continuous perception dump to his backups. Everyone else had to do a memory dupe every few months. Where the awareness goes, so must the memory.
He had seven backup bods scattered all over the Earth. He would end this one quickly.
He stepped out of the bod tube. He felt the connections slide out. He took the gun of the nearest guard and fired it into his own head.
The last time Mao woke up, Truil was in the room. Truil had been waiting at bod number 7.
He had a gun gripped in his bony hand.
Mao waited for Truil to speak. Truil did not lower the gun.
“Computer estimates a 98% chance you’re insane,” said Truil.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m insane. I’m Chairman for life.”
“You’re Chairman until dead. If you don’t end your own life, Computer says I should end it.”
Mao looked at the gun. Truil was a practical old man. He would not risk Earth to the rule of a crazy man. This was reality. Mao knew that in a very few seconds, the muzzle of Truil’s gun would flash, and his own eighth and final life would end on the steely floor.
Mao despaired. He hadn‘t expected this. This body was to live in, not to die in. Not now, anyway.
Arguments swarmed like a tornado through Mao’s facile mind. With the gun leveled at his eyes, though, Mao could not grasp a single one.
An emotion burst past the stoicism he’d been trained into since birth. He could not grasp the emotion, either; rather, it grasped him.
Mao could no longer look at Truil and his gun. He collapsed and trembled. The floor was hard and cold against his face.
Truil continued, “Mao VIII is already growing in a tube.”
Truil did not kill him.
Mao could not saying anything. His crying had turned into shrieking, however. His reason had turned into cornered terror. He blubbered, “Please don’t kill me,“ and tried to hold his hand up for mercy, only to collapse again. He begged for God’s mercy, for him and his Earth. He shouted the girl’s name.
Truil watched him for fifteen minutes.
Mao did not understand why he was still alive, but could not think further than that. He could not bear to look up. He knew he’d convinced Truil he was crazy. There would be no way out.
Mao heard the click of the gun’s safety.
Truil had lowered his gun.
“Chairman Mao,” said his advisor, quietly…pleasantly, almost to himself, “you’ve attained the necessary emotional response.”
Truil left the room, securing the door behind him.
THOU SHALT NOT PROOF FROM PAIN.
THOU SHALT NOT CREATE A BODY IN THE LIKENESS OF A MAN.
THOU SHALT NOT DUPLICATE A MEMORY.
Chairman Mao read his dictates one hour later at the emergency Panel. He felt like the Moses he’d read of in the archives. He let the networks broadcast live, so there could be no discussion.
He finished by saying, “The penalty for any violation is total death. All U.N.E. citizens have 365 days to comply, effective now, this 19th day of the twelfth month, in the 802nd year of the Atlian Era.”
Truil, most respected, calmed the Panel and garnered compliance.
She did have a headache. She was having a boy.
Seven months into her pregnancy, she caught the disease.
She died in Mao’s arms.
Mao saved the boy. He was the first child ever born to a Chairman, genetically imperfect in all ways and never pain-proofed. The boy looked like his mother in the wintertime, when the cold sky caught his eyes.
Forty years later, that same boy advanced Atlas’s graviton field theories to workable weapons technology.
He was heralded as “the Atlas of our times.”
Chairman Mao called him his ninth life.
Earth, human Earth, might yet survive.
Mao took his boy to the orchard. The boy was a man, but still in the orchard he was Mao’s boy.
They picked the apples until their arms ached and they were laughing hysterically.
They pelted one another with apples. They burst to bits when they hit the tree trunks. Mao was getting too old for this, but getting too old not to. They could not stop laughing.
They collapsed on the grass.
“Dad,” said the boy, “what was mom like?”
“Like this,” Mao answered.
An hour later, they got up from the grass.
“I wanted to talk to you,” said the boy. “They’re taking my guns up, and my shields. It’s really happening.”
“Yes,” said Mao.
“I’m scared,” said the boy.
Mao nodded. He clapped his son on the shoulder. “Me, too,” he said.
The boy studied his father’s eyes. The Chairman gave no comfort, no empty words to soothe the wrenching in the boy’s stomach.
“Me, too,” said the Chairman again, quietly, almost to himself.
It was all the reassurance the boy needed.