Story-A-Day May #6: The Final Question

Today’s challenge prompt from storyaday.org is to write an interview with a character whose invention changed the world, a long time after the change took place.

Please excuse the terrible techno-babble in my story this time.

***

The Final Question

“Welcome, Professor Galveston. I’m Julia Eddyton, it’s a pleasure to meet you at last.” A woman with remarkably large teeth, which sparkled as though they were freshly bleached, waved him over to a sofa in the middle of the empty sound stage.

Its appearance was strangely domestic, surrounded by all these cameras and equipment, and a solid green backdrop. He understood a computer used the background to generate some charmingly quaint surroundings, for viewers at home. From where he stood, it all looked very artificial and inhuman.

He blinked at the harsh, hot studio lights, already beginning to sweat inside his tweed suit. These days, he preferred a dressing gown and fuzzy slippers — and the confines of his little countryside villa — but his wife had insisted he look the part on national television. How long had it been since he’d dressed up like this to teach students? He couldn’t remember, though it felt like only yesterday.

Professor Galveston settled in on the sofa, far enough from those teeth that he wouldn’t be blinded, and crossed his legs. “How does this all work?” he gruffly asked.

“I ask questions, and I hope you’ll answer them. Does that sound simple enough? Just relax and be yourself. Remember, this isn’t live. We’ll edit out any embarrassing faux pas, though I expect those will be mine rather than yours.” Julia’s self-effacing laughter only irritated him. When did he turn into such a grumpy old man?

“I suppose I’m just more accustomed to asking the questions.”

“Of your students, you mean?”

“Partially, but I haven’t taught in… quite some time, I suppose. But I was speaking more broadly of science, because that’s all it really is. Asking questions.”

“I can’t disagree. Alright, shall we kick this off formally? Lights, camera, and all that jazz.” Her head snapped toward the nearest camera. “I’m Julia Eddyton, and today I have the privilege to interview Professor Galveston on the 10 year anniversary of his remarkable achievement. Professor, thank you for joining us in the studio, and the millions tuning in around the globe.”

‘Um, yes. I’m happy to be here.”

“Tell me, has the worldwide impact of your invention surprised you over the years?”

“I can’t say that it has. Naturally, I only began with the goal of healing one synapse of one brain. But the implications of my research were apparent from the beginning. Behavioral modification, neural self-improvement, were merely challenges of scale for my Guidelines Device, not a qualitative shift in application.”

“Well, I think it’s fair to say that the rest of humanity has been pleasantly surprised on your behalf. The alleviation of suffering, the ability to overcome our weaknesses, our lack of willpower… we are all forever in your debt.” Julia laid a hand on his arm.

Somehow he didn’t — never had — absorbed that sense of appreciation. He still felt like the underdog who fought tooth and nail for research grants, and squabbled weekly with his department head.

Julia played to the camera once more. “Now, as long time viewers of the program will know, I have no head for science. But I’ve been informed that the crucial breakthrough for your device concerned the mediation of neurotransmitter overstimulation, via the selective uptake of 5-HT2 in directly stimulated ion channels.

“No, I’m afraid that’s incorrect, Julia.” He fixed her with the pitying look his students had become so familiar with. He so clearly recalled explaining this to his colleagues… 10 years ago, now? How time flew. “It was 5-HT7, and affixing select enzymes to radioligands.”

“Of course, that’s just what I was trying to tell our tech guys.” Julia winked to the camera and pointed to the green screen. “Now, we have some images of your old laboratory, we’ll be showing our viewers. It looks like security was always tight, even back then.”

Did people really find this interesting? “It was quite annoying, actually. I’d have to show my badge, go through the metal detectors, have my biometrics scanned. And when I finally arrived in the lab, I’d still have to enter an encryption key to access all my data.”

“Oh, I’m just terrible with my passwords. Apparently, using your birthday is a no-no.” She laughed. “I bet our viewers would like to know what a brilliant scientist uses? Wife’s maiden name? Favorite pet?”

He might have, if it weren’t for all those damned protocols. “I’m not supposed to say…”

“Professor, that lab was torn down years ago, after your retirement.” Those incredibly white teeth menaced him, leaving spots in his vision. He couldn’t quite seem to escape their glare.

He rubbed the back of his neck, hoping this was one of those moments they’d edit out. “Sorry, old habits.” He half-smiled to himself. “It’s funny, the things you remember, and those you forget. My old encryption code wasn’t anything remarkable. 1-7-4-8-Y-V-backslash-pound sign-Omega-Juniper.”

Julia put on a show of mouthing along, counting off the key presses on her fingers. “You must be a genius to remember all that.”

He squirmed in his seat and held up his hand. “If I might interrupt, and I hope I don’t offend you, but I’ve never cared for this casual attitude of anti-intellectualism that’s so popular these days. You don’t need to be a rare genius to remember a string of numbers. Or to be a scientist. Or to accomplish something important. You just need diligence, practice, and the courage to confront your own ignorance with a humble mind and spirit.”

Her expression had twisted into something very strange and unreadable. At least she’d put those distracting teeth away again, for the moment. “Of course. And with the aid of your Guidelines Device, individuals can overcome such mental blocks.”

“Yes… yes, that’s true.” Funny he hadn’t thought of that before giving his little speech.

“Now, professor, I’d like to end on a more serious note. Some say your device is too dangerous, that it could be employed for nefarious, mind-altering purposes.”

“It’s power must be respected. That’s why all proprietary data is closely guarded, and world governments have formed a mutual enforcement pact to safeguard production facilities and pursue unauthorized chop shops. This was a moment for humanity to demonstrate its growth and responsibility, and we rose to the challenge.”

“There you have it, folks. A miracle sprung for all humanity. One last question, if I may. A personal one, to satisfy my own curiosity. How did you get here, professor?”

“I… that is, you sent a car service, I believe.”

She turned to the camera once more. “Remarkable, isn’t it? The instantaneous confabulation.”

A speaker squawked overhead. “We’ve collected all the data we need. Well done, Agent Rose-venom.” 

The studio crew emerged from the dark, removing microphones, stowing away equipment. They wheeled away the green backdrop to reveal a long observation window occupied by mysterious silhouettes.

Julia… Agent Venom-something?… flashed her teeth at him a final time. “Thank you, professor. My organization appreciates your cooperation.”

His muddled brain worked feverishly, reaching a conclusion he didn’t fully trust. “This is a prank show, of some sort? Did I not change the world?”

“You just have.”

***

Thanks for reading!

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