Awful Shadow, ch. 6: Simon Martin

Monitoring: Simon Martin
Vienna, Virginia, USA

4:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Thursday, May 29th, 2014
20:15 Coordinated Universal Time
Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Fast forward—

Dr. Denham has this thing where he draws a curtain in front of the door after Simon enters his office, as if there needs to be an extra layer between them and the outside world. The window blinds, too, are always closed until Simon has been asked whether he’d like them to be open. Simon isn’t sure if the quirk is Denham’s, specifically, or if it’s some trick that he’s picked up over the years for a certain kind of patient. Asking would feel too weird, so Simon has never brought it up.

The office has a pair of ugly teal armchairs with stubby wood legs and a couch, one of those black faux-leather pieces that always seems to appear in one-panel cartoons about therapists, the sort that seem to think that Freud is still a big deal in modern psychology. Dr. Denham always lets Simon choose a seat first. Today, as sometimes happens, Denham has elected to use the Freud-couch. It feels like a peculiar arrangement to Simon but he’s really just going by pop culture. For all he knows, Denham is thoroughly typical. At the very least, the man is qualified enough to have gotten clearance from the CIA to work on Simon and Austin (and Hannah, technically, but nobody needs to ask her in order to find out how she’d respond to the offer).

“How have you been holding up since Monday?” asks Dr. Denham as soon as they’ve gotten settled.  “Pretty okay,” Simon says, and then, before Denham can ask for it, gives more detail. “I’ve had two days in a row without nightmares, Tuesday and Wednesday, so that’s an improvement.”

“How does your recovery go when you wake up?”

“It’s alright. Falling asleep has been getting a little easier, too.” Simon pauses, thinking about what else to say about the past few days. If he doesn’t bring up his mom then Denham will know that she still doesn’t know how deeply his visions are affecting him, but at least there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the topic won’t be brought up and they’ll just talk about other things. “I’ve been thinking about, um, God. I don’t think I’ve really been, well, religious. I guess I’ve had the idea that there’s something out there but I hadn’t, you know, actually spent that much time on it.”

“Until now,” says Denham, and Simon nods. “I assume that it has something to do with the question of these powers that have appeared.”

“I was talking with Hannah about it earlier this month, and it’s just been growing on me. Gnawing at me, maybe. I mean, I took it for granted in the beginning that this was for our good. There was something out there that was going to destroy the world, and we had been given these powers to stop that thing. But now, as we’ve gotten more information about the future, it looks like we might be the reason that the world ends in the first place.”

Dr. Denham doesn’t say anything, so after a few seconds Simon continues. “I can’t figure out what we’re supposed to do, though, we’re not supposed to protect the world. Unless I’m some sort of sleeper agent, I can’t be part of a plan to outright destroy the world, either, and I can’t imagine why an intermediary would be necessary anyway. I’m still me, or at least I think I am.”

“Is it just that?” Denham asks. “It sounds like you might be wondering about your specific place in the plan or, if you don’t mind the presumption: why you?”

Simon nods. “Other people could do it better. You’re an adult, you’re smart, you know how the world works. Hannah’s got nerve. I guess I’d pick Peter Singer, if I had to choose. I don’t know if he’d be willing to march into Hell if that’s what it took, but at least he’d probably be less squeamish than me.”

“Tell me more about your visions, if you would,” Denham says.

“Well,” he begins, and he swallows and tries to start again. “Well, we haven’t learned anything useful for a while, but I guess those are the constraints that we’re working under.” Those constraints are partly his own doing, since he’s reluctant to find ways to make the process more efficient and uncomfortable with sending people to die in alternate futures, even if they’ll be undone when Simon gets the vision and is thereby able to change the present. There’s still so much that they don’t know about the mechanics of his power, like whether it’s just producing a simulation of future events in a hypothetical timeline where he hadn’t used his power or sending a message back in time and then dissolving the timeline back to that instance of Simon using his power.

A more horrifying possibility is that he’s getting messages from actual future histories, but that they aren’t getting overwritten. If every vision that he receives has effectively produced one more timeline where everything goes wrong and everyone dies, then Simon isn’t sure that using his power is morally defensible. Hell, even if most of those timelines were only minor apocalypses, whatever that means, he’s already killed hundreds of billions of people. How is he supposed to ever justify—

“Simon,” interrupts Dr. Denham. “Care to share your thoughts?”

“Sorry. Just thinking about… You know, the future.”

“You don’t have any way of knowing exactly how your power works, Simon, but staying healthy may help you to figure that out. None of us can really know how the next few years are going to work out or what the consequences of our actions will be. I’ve been doing some thinking though,” Denham adds, “and I want you to consider: even if it’s true that you’re destroying worlds, what happens if we survive?”

“Huh?”

“I researched it after our last session ended, and it turns out that mammal species tend to last for a million years. We still only know a little bit about these powers—barely anything at all, compared to everything that’s still left to be found out—but it seems to me that if the world doesn’t end then we should expect humanity to spread across the stars at some point. Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but if we can handle this crisis then I think we’ve got good odds to handle anything else that comes at us in the future.

“Whether it takes a hundred years or a hundred thousand to reach beyond our solar system,” continues Denham, “we’ve still got hundreds of thousands of years left before the fossil record would suggest we ought to be extinct—and if we’ve survived this hurdle, and we’re able to take our destiny into our own hands, then there’s no reason that we should expect to be limited to just a million years. The way that it looks to me, we’re either in for a very short ride or a very long one, and even if you’re dooming billions of people—which, I should emphasize, I do not think is a likely scenario—you are still making possible the lives of so many people that we’re talking, not about billions or even trillions, but numbers so high that they have strange names that don’t sound real. That’s what you’re fighting for, Simon.”

“Do you actually believe that?”

“I think that what matters more is whether you believe it,” replies Denham. “I can mouth the words, but if you don’t accept that chain of logic then it’s irrelevant whether I do.” He puts his pen and notepad aside. “Are you still willing to receive visions?”

Simon knows what he wants to believe, which is what’s making it so difficult to go through with it. There’s a part of him that worries that he’s overlooking something, ignoring some crucial piece of evidence that proves that he’s effectively the greatest mass murderer in history and that the only good thing that he could possibly do now is stop receiving visions. He knows all about motivated reasoning, and it’s terrifying to think that it might be tricking him into killing more people just because he doesn’t want to think that he’s already killed them, or because he wants to think that it’ll all be worth it someday.

But he knows Denham, too, and he trusts the man, at least enough to believe that Denham wouldn’t lie to him about something of this magnitude. Maybe Denham’s wrong, but he isn’t being dishonest, and if he’s wrong then how is Simon supposed to catch the error? Hadn’t he said earlier that Denham would be able to do a better job?

“I think so,” Simon finally says, and he silently thanks Denham’s patience and ability to wait in silence at times like these.

They spent a session discussing post-traumatic stress disorder once. Denham is still waffling over whether Simon quite fulfills all of the criteria, but in either case still recommends the same treatment: exposure therapy. It’s how most of their sessions have ended, lately.

Denham extends his hand. Simon takes it, and is taken out of his body once again.

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