Paradise Afternoon

by Gregory Benford


Story Copyright (C) 2009, Gregory Benford.
Images Copyright (C) 2009, Rudy Rucker.
850 Words.


“Come out into the garden,” Robert said. As he ushered Fred onto the lawn he whispered, “Nobody can bug our conversation out here.”

Fred blinked and looked around warily. “That’s necessary?”

“Plenty of people want to know what we’re doing.”

Outside, warm sunshine lightened Robert’s mood. “I’m just cautious. If FDA thinks we’re looking at longevity drugs, they’ll clamp down.”

Robert steered Fred’s slim frame down a path hedged by eucalyptus trees. A tangy breeze ruffled the dry leaves. Fred said, “You think they’d go so far as to snoop? Look, we only said in our corporate application that we’ve got treatments for cardio and diabetes. I’ve got great new data here on that and--”

Something small scampered through the undergrowth. An insect buzzed by Robert’s head and he batted at it unsuccessfully. “A California afternoon is as close to paradise as we can get,” Robert mused. “Like Somerset but with surfing. Only, as I recall, there were fewer insects when I came here.”

Fred chuckled. “You Brits arrive thinking you’re in the tropics. This is a dry Mediterranean climate.”

The bug zoomed by Fred this time. He swatted and missed, too. “When I grew up here,” he said, “there weren’t pesky insects. Must be global warming or something.”

Robert led him to a pleasant oasis of redwood chairs and a bottle of Pinot Bianco in its iced sleeve. Toasting, Fred said, “Here’s to living longer.”

Robert glanced around. “Be careful with such words.”

“You can’t be serious. We’ve proved our method now. Find the animal genes that confer longevity, done. Then match those with long-lived humans, done. Reverse engineer those back to the pathways they act through—done. Look for—”

“Molecules that can enhance those pathways, I know.” Robert smiled. “I seem to recall I began that work.”

Fred downed his glass. “Sorry. I forget the CEO used to be the CSO.”

“Point is, we can’t run afoul of the FDA and other watchdogs.”

“We don’t claim these pills will increase longevity.” Fred shrugged irritably. “Not that it seems like a sin to do so – especially when our own clinical trials show that.”

“I should think there’s the charge of false advertising, my friend.”

“We don’t advertise that!”

Robert arched an eyebrow. “The lawyers tell me that even launching a word-of-mouth campaign falls under advertising now. The FDA will not allow any claim that a substance increases human longevity—a practice over half a century old, now. Act on a specific disease, fine. But not longevity.”

“So we what—just shut up? Answer no questions?”

“If they can get recordings of inside people using the L word—”

“L? You mean ‘longevity’?”

“—then they can make a case to a judge. Get an injunction. Raid our memos and minutes of our R&D meetings. Grab our data.” Robert swatted at the insect again and wondered what was rustling around in the bushes.

“Whatever happened to free speech?”

“A pretty idea, but we’re talking about reality here.”

“Legal protections—”

“We’re ruled not by law, but by lawyers. And social theory folk, too. Government doesn’t want to see people eating up more retirement funds, Social Security, Medicare.”

Robert squatted to look under the fragrant, lush bushes. His knees popped and he thought about his own age. “Bureaucrats rather like the idea that people should shuffle off this mortal coil on schedule.”

Fred frowned and poured himself another glass. “What did Napoleon say? ‘God is on the side with the most artillery.’ Only now it’s the one with the most lawyers.”



Robert saw a gray-brown rabbit scamper across the grass and duck into a lavender bush in buoyant bloom. They both chuckled at it.

“I wonder why the coyotes don’t get them all,” Fred said.

“There are too many tasty house cats around here.”

“That one’s fast, too—faster than a cat.” Fred smiled distantly but his frown did not go away. “You honestly think they’d resort to bugging us?”

Robert sighed. “Maybe I’m being paranoid. Last week we caught a rent-a-clerk going through back files. She was obviously looking for our data and what the lawyers call ‘memos of intent’ – in my office.”

Fred gaped. “You think—”

“I know. The clerk got scared and ‘fessed up. She had wireless bugs on her to plant, too.”

“Wow. So they wouldn’t be above coming right into your house—”

Robert slapped his neck. “Got it!” He scowled down into his open hand. “This is a big one, too – wait.”

He brought his hand up to eye level. “There’s a small piece of metal in it.”

Fred peered at it. “That’s a wireless bug. My God, they make them small now.”

Robert said distantly, “Solar powered, too.”

They stared at each other. “We’d better call everybody. Tell them to clam up.”

“Right. Let’s go inside, get out of this—” Robert gazed around sourly. “This bugged paradise.”

They hurried back inside. The rabbit came out from the lavender bush and carefully watched them walk away. Then it hopped away to download.


About the Author

Gregory Benford has published over thirty books, mostly novels. Nearly all remain in print, some after a quarter of a century. His fiction has won many awards, including the Nebula Award for his novel Timescape. A winner of the United Nations Medal for Literature, he is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, was Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, and in 1995 received the Lord Prize for contributions to science. He won the Japan Seiun Award for Dramatic Presentation with his 7-hour series, A Galactic Odyssey. In 2007 he won the Asimov Award for science writing. In 2006 he co-founded Genescient, a biotech company devoted to extending human longevity.

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