Time to read: about 1 hour and 15 minutes
We have been asked to write our major freshman composition on the topic of human evolution, and specifically to explain why it is both a necessary and a beneficial process. I believe humanity is, at the present time, going through a shockingly rapid evolutionary change and I have attempted to draw upon personal experience in examining this topic.
The major difference between our current evolutionary change and previous ones is the relative time frames: Profound change rarely occurs instantaneously, or even very quickly. For this reason, it is often difficult to mark the exact time or date when the change has even occurred. Our ancestors didn’t emerge from the sea one day, as if having tired from a long swim, to sun themselves on the beach. They didn’t shift in a single day from swinging through trees to walking upright in the grasslands, groaning as they stretched out their backs after being hunched over for far too long. These adaptations took years, centuries, possibly millennia.
Most evolution is a painstakingly slow process, with countless fits and starts and blind alleys, an agonizing struggle to become something else, a war waged one mutation at a time, a long chain of happenings propelling us from what we once were to what we next might be. And this imperceptibly slow pace of evolution is probably for the best. For when a change is so glaringly rapid and far-reaching as to be noticeable within individual lifetimes, our natural impulse is to pull back in horror from such a change. After all, such change brings with it the frightening uncertainty of a very altered future, veering into an uncharted new course through never-before dreamed of seas.
This may explain the initial human resistance to the VIM adaptation. It occurred with alarming rapidity. Although even in the case of the VIM, it started slowly enough, a trickling in of alien consciousness, a commingling of a few of theirs with a few of ours. It occurred first in a few near-death experiences, accident victims who emerged from induced comas different from before. These redeemed recipients were now more. They retained what they once were, in voice, in appearance, in at least some of their memories, yet they were also different, with additional memories and a different way of regarding their world. They even sounded detectably different even though their voices hadn’t changed. Now they had enhanced abilities. Now they had altered motivations.
But while the timing of the modifications to an entire species may be difficult to track with any precision, modifications to a single individual, or a single family, are easier to discern. That is why I have decided to focus my composition on my personal experiences with the VIM and how they have affected me and my family.
I must first acknowledge all the benefits the VIM have brought to me and my family and humanity at large. On a personal note, I am very grateful for the opportunity to study here at the North Dakota Free Human University. It would not have been possible for me to have a place here on the ND Human Nature Preserve or to attend such a fine, tuition-free institution, were it not for the VIM. Of course, there are still a few who are unhappy with the VIM incursion, but there are many others who have freely converted.
But my essay is not intended to be a discussion of the pros and cons of VIM consciousness, which I realize is a prohibited subject. Rather, my focus is upon outlining my own family’s personal adaptation to the VIM as a case study of a type of evolutionary change and of our reaction to such a change. I have identified twelve steps on my family’s progression to this next stage of human evolution. While the selection of these particular events is admittedly arbitrary, as I look back now, I consider these twelve incidents to be significant shifts, twelve facets of my family’s overall adaptation. Some of these steps were subtle, not even noticeable at the time, while others were more immediately life-altering. But all of them moved us along the path, like familial mutations on the way to a collective evolution.
* * *
When I reflect upon how the change overtook my family, I have to conclude I was primarily responsible. The most obvious starting point was one particular Tuesday when I first brought Gargong, my VIM classmate, home with me. All the subsequent events flowed from that first day. But before that even happened, I think the groundwork had already been laid. So I have identified the real first step as my own first substantial contact, the day I initially befriended Gargong. It wasn’t our first meeting. He was in several of my classes, and I had known the human version of him as Billy Thompson years before the VIM had first appeared on Earth. But, for a while, I had had little contact with Gargong. I hadn’t ever hung out with Billy Thompson, so when he became Gargong and transferred into the more advanced class, becoming my classmate, there still wasn’t any reason for us to spend any time together outside of class.
Besides, at first, when there weren’t many of them in the school, the VIM tended to cluster together in a single group at lunch or in the halls. Other humans rarely socialized with them. In fact, they quickly gained a reputation for being a little creepy. It wasn’t as if they were overtly rude, just the opposite. They were always extremely courteous if approached, although maybe a bit stiffly formal. But they never said or did anything wrong. And their always controlled, almost perfect demeanor combined with constant overachievement soon became a source of resentment. And also, they always seemed to be watching the rest of us a bit too intently. They made a lot of kids feel uneasy, as if they were judging the rest of us. But if they were, they kept these judgements to themselves.
After a while, for some of the kids, this uneasiness and resentment manifested itself as antagonism. And, on this one particular day, it erupted into a physical confrontation. I didn’t see how it happened. I’m sure Gargong wouldn’t have initiated the trouble. Probably it started harmlessly, somebody accidentally bumping into somebody else in the crowded hall, but then it quickly escalated.
By the time I wandered onto the scene, there was a group of the bigger boys, the ones who played on all the major sports teams, surrounding Gargong, shouting insults at him. A large cluster of spectators quickly formed around them. Most were urging them on. And being naturally nosey, I asked what was going on and pushed my way through to the front of this spectator group.
Just as I got to the front of the crowd, several of the boys grabbed on to Gargong. I didn’t especially care if they fought, but something in me objected to how one-sided this fight was shaping up to be. Billy Thompson had never been a very large boy, and these jocks looked much bigger and stronger than Gargong. So, I felt I had to get involved. I screamed at the group to let him go.
The ring-leader, a boy named Matt, told me to screw off. But this just got my back up. For one thing, I knew Matt and I didn’t particularly like him. He was a bit of an arrogant jerk. And I knew I could exploit this weakness. So I started to make fun of him, calling him a coward, pointing out he was afraid to take Gargong on in a fair fight.
Matt glared at me, but my accusation had the desired effect. He told his friends to back off and then he stepped forward, without hesitation, confidently taking a swing at Gargong.
But Gargong was much quicker than anybody expected. He easily dodged Matt’s intended blows and for several minutes Matt flailed away, trying to hit Gargong, without being able to land a single punch. The two of them continued to circle around within the confined space afforded them by Matt’s friends and the crowd of spectators. Matt was getting increasingly frustrated. Some in the crowd were already beginning to laugh at his feeble attempts to inflict any serious damage.
He finally completely lost it. He screamed and charged straight at Gargong. With amazing speed, Gargong stuck his arm out and Matt ran straight into his fist. Matt crumpled in a heap on the floor. His friends then jumped into the fray, but fortunately, before any of them could even grab hold of Gargong, a couple of the teachers waded through the crowd and pulled the assailants apart.
The teachers’ attempts to find out what had happened or assign any blame were, of course, complete failures. Gargong claimed there was no real problem. It was a simple misunderstanding. And Matt said he had just tripped and fallen down. When asked about the blood streaming from his mouth, he seemed surprised, as if he hadn’t noticed it before. He said he must have collided with something during his fall, which elicited some laughter from the surrounding witnesses. But no one else in the crowd could remember having seen anything at all. So we were all ordered to clear out of the hall and get to class.
Gargong and I were headed to the same class, so I found myself walking along beside him, and we started talking. Given what had just happened, he seemed amazingly calm. He thanked me for trying to intervene and I told him I didn’t like to see anyone get bullied. I said I thought the speed of his punch was amazing, but he brushed off the compliment, saying he was merely using his assailant’s own force against him. He asked me how I was enjoying physics, which was the class we were headed to, and I screwed up my face like I was biting into a lemon and made a gagging sound. I admitted I was finding it a bit of a struggle. That is when he suggested he might be able to help by tutoring me, to thank me for having sided with him.
“You don’t need to bother,” I told him. “It was really no big deal.”
But he was quite insistent. I looked at him for a moment, trying to figure out his motives. Other guys had offered to study with me in the past, but I usually discovered they had ulterior motives. But I have to admit, by that point in the semester I was already beginning to worry about my grades in the physics and math classes. They were proving to be tougher than I had expected. And since I was now a senior, my grades definitely mattered. So, after thinking it over for a few more seconds, I tentatively agreed. “Maybe we can get together to study sometime, although I’m not sure how much benefit you’ll get out of the arrangement.”
“I’m sure I’ll find it beneficial.” He smiled. “I can teach you physics. And there is much I could learn from you about more general things. People like me sometimes have difficulty fitting in. That is the root of the bullying.”
“Okay then,” I agreed. His explanation seemed reasonable. “Sounds like a good basis for a study group.”
“Excellent.” His smile broadened. “I am available Tuesday after school.”
And with this, the seeds were planted. And everything grew from this.
* * *
My family was never rich. But we were admittedly always quite comfortable; some would even say unapologetically entitled. Our family home reflected our upper-middle-class status. It was a large, two-story Craftsman in a well-manicured neighborhood. The living room, where we spent the majority of our family time, stretched across most of the front of the house. It was always well-maintained, neat and orderly. My mother, Rebecca, was the primary architect of this order.
I think this is how it is in most families. One person sets the standards and the others do their best to adhere to them. But in our family, everyone always readily pitched in, except, of course, for my grandmother, Cassie, who was not physically able to help out much. But everyone else always did their share, and the chores were rarely a source of contention. Everyone in the family always appreciated our well-ordered, successful middle-class existence, even if we tended to take it for granted.
On the far side of our living room, through an alcove, there was a dining room with a large table and half a dozen straight-backed wooden chairs. We rarely used the dining room for actual dining—only when our family was entertaining guests—so most of the time, the table was free for me to use as a makeshift desk. I often preferred to do my homework there in the dining room. There was more room to spread out and fewer distractions than in my bedroom.
On this particular Tuesday, when Gargong accompanied me home from school for the first time, I asked him to wait at the front door while I slipped quietly into the house. The living room was empty except for Cassie, my grandmother, who sat perched in her upholstered armchair which was located directly in front of the large-screen TV. This was my grandmother’s usual vantage point. She rarely strayed from this chair during the daytime except for occasional assisted visits to the main-floor washroom.
My grandmother was the reason I had insisted that Gargong wait for me at the door. As I said, the VIM influence started as a slow, barely perceptible trickle, and even at this point, the VIM still comprised only a miniscule segment of human society, but their presence was already beginning to be felt. And the types of news programs Cassie tended to watch all day long were expending a great deal of airtime discussing “the VIM problem.” People’s reactions to the VIM were becoming more polarized, gravitating into two distinct camps, both of which were represented in my family. People like my grandmother considered the arrival of the VIM to be a horrendous threat, nothing short of a clandestine invasion. These people regarded the VIM with suspicion and fear and anger. People like my mother, Rebecca, were embarrassed by this hostile reception. They felt the VIM should elicit a better response from humanity. They stressed the need to be open, to be welcoming. They stressed the need to be humane.
On this afternoon, Cassie, in her customary armchair perch, was taking an active part in the Cable News panel discussions by hurling invective at the television: “Talk. Talk. Talk. That’s all you ever do.”
As I peered in from the front hallway, my mother entered from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Were you calling me?”
“No,” Grandma answered without taking her eyes off the TV, “I was talking about those damned fools in the government.”
My mother emitted a histrionic sigh. “Mom, you’ve got to stop screaming at the TV all the time.”
Grandma glanced at her daughter. “Why’s that?”
“People’ll think you’re crazy.”
My grandmother pounded her fist on the armrest of her chair. “The politicians are the crazy ones. Do you know what they want to do now?”
And my mother, fully prepared for this outburst, launched into the same conversation they had had a thousand times: “Maybe you shouldn’t watch the news if—”
Grandma jabbed her finger at the TV. “They want to establish a committee to study the VIM issue, to decide what to do. As if there’s any question. I’ll tell them what to do!”
“If it’s upsetting you so much, just don’t watch it.”
“Earth is for humans,” my grandmother declared. “They should send them all back. That’s what they should do.”
“They can’t do that, Mom.” My mother sighed wearily. “Their sun went supernova. Where they come from doesn’t exist anymore.”
“And why is that our problem?”
By this point I had slipped into the living room, carrying my knapsack, which I set down on the couch. “Hi Mom. Hi Grandma.” I was making a concerted effort to appear nonchalant.
My mother smiled at me, grateful for the distraction. “Oh, hi dear. Good day at school?”
“Yeah, but I’ve got a monster physics test to study for.”
“You should study fact-based stuff, like history or geography,” my grandmother told me, “not that theoretical mumble-jumble.”
I ignored this advice and slid up beside my mother. I asked her if I could talk to her for a second and the two of us moved back toward the kitchen while my grandmother re-engaged with her TV panel discussion.
My mother gave me a worried look. “Are you in trouble? Is something wrong?”
“No, Mom, I’m fine.” I smiled at her reassuringly. “But I’m really jammed up with this physics thing. So, I brought a boy home so we could study. He’s waiting outside. He’s got this stuff down cold and he’s promised to help me cram so I can get a decent grade. I thought maybe we could study up in my room.”
My mother frowned, making a show of considering this request as if it required focused concentration. “There’s nowhere to sit in your room. Why not use the table here like you always do?”
“We could spread out on the bed,” I suggested.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
I glanced over at my grandmother. “But we can’t study here.”
“She’ll just watch TV,” said my mother. “Maybe make the odd loud, obnoxious comment. But you can easily tune her out.”
My mother then looked around and asked where my friend was. I admitted I had told him to wait outside, which she observed was terribly rude.
“But you don’t understand.” I lowered my voice even further. “He’s VIM.”
“Oh.” My mother was momentarily taken aback, but she quickly recovered, slightly embarrassed by her initial reaction. She said she thought it was nice I was reaching out to one of them.
“They’re the only ones who really understand the physics,” I explained. “And now that we’ve got a few of them in our class, they’ve raised the bar, so it’s tougher for the rest of us.”
My mother looked back over at my grandmother, considering. “I can see the problem. But, of course, your friend is welcome to help you study. We’ll give you the whole front of the house to yourselves.” She marched back over to my grandmother. I followed close behind. “Mom, can you come give me a hand in the kitchen?”
My grandmother’s face scrunched up as if she were tasting something sour. “Since when do I do that?”
“Never too late to start.” My mother wrapped her hands under one of my grandmother’s arms and I crossed over and took hold of my grandmother’s other arm. We gently hoisted her out of the chair and began to maneuver her around so we were pointed toward the kitchen.
“But my shows!”
“It’s nothing you haven’t already seen,” my mother pointed out.
“They’ve got on a special panel of experts and they’re about to discuss the VIM problem.”
My mother exhaled heavily as the three of us shuffled toward the kitchen. “And I’m sure they’ll still be discussing it tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.”
“You got that right,” my grandmother admitted.
With Grandma shifted safely into the kitchen with my mother, Gargong and I were soon seated side-by-side at the dining room table with numerous books spread out in front of us. He was droning on: “Newton’s assumption that these motions are continuous and can be defined with complete mathematical certainty is a good enough approximation for any large-scale motion on earth, but in reality any seemingly continuous motion can be broken down into discrete occurrences, like still pictures which when flipped give the illusion of continuous motion. Time provides this illusion. It is quite obvious.”
Rather than focusing on studying physics, I took this time to study Gargong. As I said, I had known him before as Billy Thompson, who had been in my seventh- and eighth-grade classes. At the time, I hadn’t been very fond of Billy, but I was now willing to re-evaluate. In looks, Gargong seemed like just a more mature version of Billy Thompson, although, like most of the VIM, he tended to look a little more clean-cut than a typical high school student. His hair was short and neatly combed. He wore beige slacks and a crisp blue dress-shirt. It was the sort of look you might expect from someone coming to the door handing out religious pamphlets.
Gargong, becoming aware of my evaluative stare, ended his instruction. “Do you feel you have adequately mastered the physics?”
Feeling suddenly caught out, I giggled nervously and averted my eyes. “No. But I could use a break.”
“Are my explanations not sufficiently clear?”
“No, they’re great.” I smiled. “I’m still not sure I’ll be able to ace the test. But when you explain it, it does kind of seem to make sense.”
“Of course it does.” Gargong nodded. “Physics is the most natural thing in the world. It is nothing more than an explanation of the basic mechanisms of nature.”
The truth was, I had no intention of studying any science after high school. I just wanted to make it through this class without it ruining my grade point average. I closed my book and slid it farther away. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Not at all. What is your question?”
“Well…I was just wandering what it’s like. I mean, I knew you as Billy Thompson. You were in my class several years ago. At the time, you were a bit of a pest. But you seem so much more mature now. I don’t know if you remember what you were like back then.”
“I do, but only vaguely,” Gargong told me. “With humans, prior life memories sometimes fade. You don’t always retain full access to your memories.”
“Yeah.” I again studied him closely. “So how’d you…like…become one of them?”
He stiffened slightly. “I do not view it as me becoming different. Billy Thompson was different. But he was in a car accident and he was dying. I was able to take over his body and the body was repaired. But I am the same. And Billy Thompson is now also the same, only enhanced.”
“But you’re living with his family, living his life. So why change your name from Billy to Gargong?”
“Gargong is a closer approximation to what I was called before. A lot of our language sounds were made in our throats, with our previous bodies, so consonants and vowels formed in the back of the mouth are closer approximations.”
I gave this some thought. “So a name like Billy doesn’t sound right to you?”
“No. We did have tri-labial sounds, but a name like that would have been considered rude, disparaging.”
“Yes,” Gargong explained, “with our previous bodies, we had three lips. Our mouths were more like triangles.”
I tried to picture this, but it seemed too weird. “What sort of triangles?”
“Isosceles.” Gargong smiled wistfully, as if reliving a pleasant memory. “But unfortunately, those bodies are gone now, so I am not able to show you.”
“That must have been so difficult, giving up your bodies like that.” I shook my head. “I really can’t imagine it.”
“There was no other way. Our planet, our entire solar system, was ending,” Gargong stated matter-of-factly, relaying what must have been a traumatic situation with no outward show of emotion. “We needed to be able to depart quickly and travel long distances. We needed to be able to travel faster than light.”
Trying to impress with my small smattering of physics knowledge, I pointed out, “But nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.”
“Nothing with mass,” he corrected me. “But pure consciousness doesn’t have any mass.”
I was beginning to be fascinated by Gargong. I again studied him thoughtfully. “What’s it like, just being the consciousness without the body?”
“Not pleasant. Cold. Empty. A vast darkness.” He took a breath and then added, “But it was necessary, at least temporarily.”
I smiled. “Then I’m glad you made it all the way here. And I’m glad you now have a body.”
“I’m glad too. I’m eager to use my new body.”
“I bet.” I was giggling nervously like a stereotypical schoolgirl. “But seriously, I really like you Gargong. You’re probably an upgrade on Billy, at least as I remember him.”
“Every VIM inhabitation is an upgrade.”
“And you’re different from most other guys.” I confided in him that other guys had offered to tutor me for free in the past but they always ended up having ulterior motives.
“You mean sex?”
I glanced quickly back down at the physics books. “Well, yeah…something like that.” I realized I may have miscalculated in thinking Gargong was all that different from other guys.
Gargong slid his hand gently over mine. “I have that motivation too. I have all the hormones and emotions that Billy had. I would like to have sex with you to create babies.”
“Woah!” I yanked my hand away. “Slow the truck down there, boy!”
Gargong started to explain, “We need to create more recipient bodies.”
I started to set the record straight, telling him I had no intention of leading him on, and I certainly wasn’t down for creating any new recipient bodies. But just then, I heard the front door slam and my father came striding through the living-room. “Hi, Princess.”
I jumped up from my seat. “Dad!” I don’t know why I felt so embarrassed. It’s not like we had been caught in the act. We really hadn’t been doing anything except talking. Aside from Gargong’s hand brushing over mine, there hadn’t even been any physical contact. And even if my father hadn’t interrupted us, there wouldn’t have been any. But I could still feel myself blushing bright red.
But if my father noticed my awkwardness, he diplomatically avoided directly acknowledging it. Instead, he smiled and nodded at Gargong as he strode toward us. “And what are you two up to?”
“Nothing…” I hastily told him. “Physics…Studying…We’re studying physics.”
My father greeted Gargong. “I’m Robert Baynes, Jennie’s Dad.”
And Gargong, standing and leaning forward across the dining room table, extended his hand. “How do you do. I am Gargong.”
“Pleased to meet you, Gargon.” My father smiled broadly, and they shook hands. “Will you be joining us for dinner?”
But before Gargong had a chance to reply I quickly interjected, “No. He has to go. He was just leaving.”
* * *
The next step of our familial evolution occurred on that same evening, after dinner, with my father’s news. After the cleanup, the elder members of my family had located themselves back in their customary spots in the living room. My grandmother was planted, as usual, in her armchair in front of the TV. My parents were seated on the couch. I was up in my room intent on getting a bit more homework done and my older brother, Scott, who was attending the local state school, was still not home from basketball practice.
I had planned to continue studying for my physics test, but I couldn’t concentrate. My mind kept wandering. I was disturbed by a vague sense of unease, a feeling of an impending threat, and I couldn’t quite determine the cause. It wasn’t the physics test. I already felt sufficiently confident I’d pass thanks to Gargong’s help. There were a lot of kids in the class who, like me, were just trying to get by in physics, so the bar wasn’t all that high. Of course, I didn’t expect to do as well as Gargong on the test, but I knew I didn’t need to. Trying to understand science at the level of a VIM student would be an unrealistic goal. But as long as I understood it better than my average human classmates, I was assured of a decent passing grade.
And it wasn’t even Gargong’s unexpected proposition which was bothering me. This was a complication, especially because I was hoping to enlist his help with more math and science tutoring, but it was really nothing new. I knew how to handle this kind of challenge—diplomatically but firmly. He wasn’t the first boy to make an awkward advance, and in this specific area, VIM or human, I figured they were all the same.
But still, I couldn’t shake the sense of foreboding, a subtle tickle of concern from somewhere below my active awareness. Perhaps it was a sort of primal evolutionary defense mechanism being activated. But whatever it was, it was making concentrating on the physics almost impossible. So after a short while I packed up my books and headed downstairs. I arrived in the living room just in time to catch my parents’ conversation.
When he had arrived home and encountered Gargong my father had made a show of being his typical jovial self, doing his best to be gracious in welcoming my guest, but over dinner he had seemed more subdued. My mother had picked up on his mood but had waited until now to respond to it. Once they were relatively alone, she focused her look of concern squarely on him and asked, “Is there something wrong? You’re so quiet.”
My father’s typical reaction was to deflect. “No. It’s nothing. Sorry. I’m just a bit distracted.”
But my mother, with decades of experience, knew how to patiently probe. “Everything all right at work?”
“Yeah fine. It’s just…well…you know that promotion I was going for?”
“I didn’t get it.”
My mother did her best to comfort my father, understanding fully that all she could do was remind him he was not facing the disappointment alone. “I’m so sorry. I know how much you were counting on that.”
“It’s okay,” he sighed. “There’ll be other opportunities.”
I quietly took a seat in a chair facing the couch.
My mother continued her consoling for some time. Eventually she observed, “But you were the obvious choice. Who’d they give it to?”
“Hongawg,” he told her. “He’s one of the new VIM hires.”
My grandmother, who up to this point had seemed almost comatose, staring blankly at the television, came alive at the mention of ‘VIM’. “See. I told you. First, they take our bodies; then they take our jobs.”
My mother, her lips tensing, glared at Grandma. “Mom, you’re not helping.”
And my father felt obliged to point out he wasn’t using this disappointment as a reason for any VIM-bashing. “In fairness, Hongawg’s a hell of a worker. Ten-hour days or more, all the time, and he never even seems to get tired. It’s tough to compete with that. Not if you want to have any sort of family life.”
But this just provided more fuel for my grandmother. “That’s just the point. Family’s not important to those people, is it? Clive Burns on Cable8 says there ought to be quotas. Simple truth is we’re being overrun.”
“Oh Mom, that’s so alarmist,” my mother scowled. “No one’s being overrun.”
“Every time I turn around there are more of them,” Grandma declared.
My father responded, “That’s only natural, given they inhabit bodies sometimes when people are dying. Over time, more people are bound to die, or be in danger of dying, so then there’ll be more VIM.”
My grandmother, now fully engaged, leaned over the arm of her chair. “And don’t all these deaths strike you as being suspicious?”
My mother took a deep breath to contain her annoyance. “That’s ridiculous. Death’s nothing new.”
“Death and taxes—the only certainties,” my father solemnly observed.
“But Clive Burns says if you count the VIM transformations as actual deaths life expectancy’s decreasing,” my grandmother warned us, “for the first time in hundreds of years.”
My mother shook her head disapprovingly. “Oh, Mom…”
The front door slammed and Scott, carrying his gym bag, burst into the room. He hurled his bag to the floor.
My father, relieved by any change in subject, smiled at my brother. “Hey Scott, how was practice?”
Scott slumped into the chair beside me. “Lousy. I’m not a starter anymore.”
My father was genuinely surprised. “But you were one of the best on the team last year.”
“That was before some VIM decided to try out,” Scott replied sullenly.
“They’re good players?”
“Crazy fast and great shooters. They like practice non-stop.”
“You see. You see.” My grandmother wagged her finger at the rest of the family to emphasize her point. “We’re being overrun.”
“Maybe having them on the team will actually be a good thing. The competition will make you better,” my mother suggested.
“Yeah,” my father added encouragingly, “your sister’s got a VIM friend who’s making her better at physics.”
I remained silent, not wanting to delve too deeply into my relationship with Gargong, but my grandmother responded, “She shouldn’t be hanging around with VIM. You can’t trust them.”
Scott thought about it but shook his head. “I doubt my game will get any better if I’m riding the bench and only getting to play garbage minutes. Maybe I’ll try to switch to a different sport, something they’re not competing in.”
My mother now focused her look of concern on her son. “But you love basketball.”
“And you can’t always run away from a challenge,” my father pointed out. “Sometimes you’ve got to meet it head on.”
But my grandmother, still waving her hands at us, had a bleaker assessment. “You mark my words. They’re taking over. Soon all the humans are going to be passed over and relegated to the bench.”
* * *
I have heard it said, by those still opposed to the VIM, that the success of the VIM incursion has been facilitated by humanity’s inability to understand the true VIM nature. But whenever I reflect back on my own family’s initial interactions with the VIM, I’m not sure whether the deciding factor was the VIM motivations, or human motivations. Remembering some of the times I caught Gargong studying me, and the way he studied all of us, I suspect he was learning a great deal from us regarding human goals and aspirations, not all of which was positive.
When we stare into a mirror, we shouldn’t blame the mirror if we don’t like what we see. The VIM were learning to succeed as humans. If humans were competitive, the VIM would learn to be competitive. If humans were manipulative in their efforts to get what they wanted, the VIM would learn to be manipulative, and would learn to want the very same things. In retrospect, we should have been able to anticipate VIM motivations because they were learning them from us. The ultimate actions of the VIM shouldn’t have been unpredictable, because humans, it turns out, are far too predictable.
What I have identified as the fourth step in my family’s evolution occurred on a Saturday a few weeks after Gargong’s initial visit. I was not present during this particular incident, but I was able to piece it together from what I was later told. This incident involved a conversation Gargong had with my father. Looking back on it now, I still can’t figure out whether Gargong was as guileless as he appeared at the time, or whether there wasn’t already some level of manipulation at play.
My father was sitting on the couch reading his tablet when he heard the doorbell ring. He was the only one on the main floor, so he hopped up and promptly opened the front door, revealing Gargong, standing ramrod straight.
Gargong was wearing a crisp white shirt with black dress pants and a black tie. His short hair was, as always, neatly combed. “Hello Mr. Baynes. Is Jennifer here?”
“Hi Gargong,” my father smiled and motioned for him to enter. “She’s upstairs. Is she expecting you?”
“Yes. Today I am assisting her with calculus.”
“That’s great. I’m sure she appreciates how generous you’re being with your time.” My father led Gargong into the living-room. “She’ll be down in a minute. In the meantime, I was wondering if I could ask you something.”
My father hesitated, framing his thoughts. “I’m not quite sure how I can put this. It’s just, there are now some VIMs at my work, and with all the recent talk and everything, at the risk of being rude…”
Gargong nodded. “Yes, Mr. Baynes, what is your question?”
My father took a deep breath. He felt the corporate culture at work was undergoing a subtle but significant shift and it was important for him to understand the new dynamics. But at the same time, he didn’t want to appear culturally insensitive. But he decided finally the direct approach was probably the best. “I’m just curious…as a VIM, can you tell me what your intentions are?”
“I really like Jennifer,” Gargong responded without hesitation. “I feel we have become good friends. I am very attracted to her, but of course I fully respect her too. I feel she is a good human. I want to make babies with her.”
“What?” My father was naturally shocked. “You’re attracted to my daughter?”
“Of course. Do you not think she is attractive?”
“Well, sure, I guess.” My father was momentarily flustered. The conversation had taken a completely unexpected turn. “But that’s not the point. I really wasn’t expecting…I mean…you’re so different.”
“So you don’t approve of my seeing your daughter?”
“No. No, that’s not what I’m saying. I think it’s terrific she has a VIM friend.”
“As long as we remain just friends and nothing more?”
“Well, I don’t mean to suggest…” My father felt his mind was somehow lagging behind the conversation. He struggled to catch up. “But, for starters, how old are you?”
“Billy Thompson, whose body I have inhabited, is the same age as Jennifer.”
My father examined Gargong critically, having momentarily forgotten about his own query. He was now trying to make sense of this unanticipated declaration. “Yeah, but what about the VIM part of you?”
“Well, it did take our consciousness stream several hundred light years to reach Earth, so…” Gargong did not bother to finish the sentence.
But my father jumped on the implication. “So maybe you should try to pursue people your own age.”
At this point my grandmother, assisted by my mother, came shuffling into the living room. Grandma was wearing a shapeless floral print dress, looking like a brightly colored tent with stubby legs, and her hair was still wet from her bath. My mother was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. As they made their way over to my grandmother’s armchair, the old woman fixed her disapproving gaze on Gargong. She always has a very specific look of disapproval. Her right eye closes and she swivels her head as if she is squinting down the barrel of a gun, setting her sights on the object of her disapproval. She was now squinting at Gargong in this manner.
“By that reasoning,” Gargong said in a stage whisper to my father, continuing their previous conversation, “I’m far too old for even Jennifer’s grandmother.”
“Yeah,” my father muttered back under his breath, “but if you want to have a go at her, you’ve got my blessing.”
Having gotten the Grandma tent pitched in her chair, my mother turned to the others. “What are you two talking about?”
Gargong answered before my father had a chance to. “Mr. Baynes feels we VIM should stick to our own kind.”
“Robert!” My mother regarded my father with alarm. “Really?”
“No,” he responded, “that’s totally being taken out of context. I never said that, not exactly.”
“Then why were you questioning my intentions towards your daughter?” Gargong asked him.
“Actually, I wasn’t. You misunderstood. I was really trying to ask what the VIMs’ intentions are, in general, towards humans, in terms of work and fitting into society.”
“Oh.” For the first time, Gargong appeared to be at a temporary loss for words.
My grandmother used the opportunity to interject, “Admit it. You and your kind are looking to take over, aren’t you?”
But in reaction to this allegation Gargong merely smiled. “Do we not all want to succeed as much as possible? Striving for advancement would appear to be a major focus of your world. We are trying to fit into this world culture. We feel we can be successful. Cream purportedly always rises to the top, according to the expression. It is only natural. But admittedly human attitudes are often complex. Everything in your society is set up to be very competitive, but then sometimes when others excel at the competition they are resented.”
“He’s absolutely right,” my mother declared. “Intelligence and hard work are traits to be admired, not feared.”
My father agreed with her, but with less certainty, “But then where does that leave the rest of us?”
“A rising tide lifts all boats. You will benefit too,” Gargong assured him. “And you cannot afford to not have your share of VIM in a global economy. If other countries have VIM and yours does not, your economy will go into decline. You will be unable to compete.”
My mother nodded. “So you’re saying economically we need VIMs just as much as they need us.”
But my grandmother was unwilling to accept this argument. “I don’t need ’em. I’m on a fixed pension.”
* * *
The VIM, it seems, quickly learned how to compete. It came easily for them. They were better at most things—math, and science, and even sports. But more importantly, they also became adept at understanding social interactions. I would often glance up and catch Gargong intently studying me. I initially thought he was just smitten with me, in the usual boy-girl sort of way. But I was wrong. I had totally misread the situation, arrogantly overestimating my own attractiveness, my own importance, in Gargong’s eventual plans. I now have a greater respect for VIM capabilities. They realized superior accomplishment alone, without the ability to also dominate—to motivate and manipulate—would be ineffective. So they also learned the power of seduction.
Several days after Gargong’s conversation with my father, when I returned home from school, I found my brother, Scott, waiting for me in the living room. He was coming home earlier now that he had quit the basketball team, but there was still something strange about the way he jumped up when he saw me. He had an annoying smile pasted on his face, the type of smile he always used to have when we were little and he would tease me.
I didn’t engage him. I quickly said hello and then greeted my grandmother who was, of course, parked in her usual spot, watching television. Then without hesitation I proceeded on to the dining room table where I deposited my knapsack.
But my plan to avoid getting into it with my brother was obviously not going to work. By the time I sat down at the table Scott was hovering just behind me. I switched from avoidance to confrontation. “Why are you following me?”
Scott flashed another teasing smile. “Dad says I’ve got to chaperone. He’s worried Gargong might put the moves on you.”
“So what if he does?” I scowled at Scott. “It’s not like I’m going to let him do anything, or not too much anyways.” I was still feeling out my relationship with Gargong, but he hadn’t broached the subject of sex again after that first time, at least not with me. And I had never witnessed Gargong, or any VIM for that matter, being aggressive or trying to force their will on anybody else. So I felt securely in control of the situation. I told Scott, “Dad should trust me.”
“Maybe it’s not you he doesn’t trust.” Scott was obviously enjoying his assignment way too much.
My grandmother’s public affairs program went to commercial so she took the opportunity to chime in. “You can never trust those VIMs. We don’t know what they’re really thinking.”
I exhaled audibly, fully trying to communicate my annoyance. “I’m never sure what anyone is really thinking.”
The doorbell rang and I went to retrieve Gargong.
When I opened the door, he smiled at me serenely. “Hello Jennifer.” If he had any nefarious designs on me, he definitely wasn’t showing it.
“Hey Gargong.” I led him back through the living room. “I’m afraid we’re not going to have the place all to ourselves today. I hope you don’t mind a few distractions.”
“No problem.” Gargong held his hand out to Scott as we approached the dining room. “You must be Jennifer’s brother. I do not believe we have met. I am Gargong.”
As they shook hands, my grandmother silently squinted at Gargong, taking aim. Intent on blocking out the distractions to the best of my abilities, I continued on to the dining room table where I sat down again. I started to take my books out of my knapsack and arrange them. But Gargong hung back with Scott.
“I am glad to have run into you,” he said to Scott in a low voice, as if confiding to a close friend. “I have another friend who is desperate to meet you.”
“Yeah, who’s that?”
“I believe you know her as Debbie Winters.”
Scott’s eyes widened, but he scoffed at the suggestion. “Yeah, right, Debbie Winters is desperate to meet me. Since when? She’d never give me the time of day.”
“She has changed,” Gargong informed Scott while strolling over to the chair beside me. “She is VIM now. Her new name is Kawkonga. Would you like to meet with her?”
Scott followed closely behind. Gargong clearly had his attention. “Sure. I guess. I mean, she’s only one of the hottest girls in school. If she wants to get together sometime, I—”
“Excellent. I will contact her immediately.” Gargong pulled out his phone and typed a message.
“What? Now?” Scott appeared slightly panicked.
Gargong nodded. “She will be here in four minutes.”
Scott laughed nervously. “You know that for certain?”
“Yes, rounded to the nearest minute. I told you, she is very desirous of connecting with you.”
I gave up trying to appear like I was working and stared up at the two of them. “Great, so now I’m going to have to study in the middle of a party?”
“Not necessarily,” Gargong explained. “Kawkonga would prefer to spend time alone with Scott.”
Scott’s eyes widened even further. “Really?”
“Yes. She has expressed a specific desire to have you show her your bedroom.”
Scott’s entire face was aglow. “I’m sure that can be arranged.”
“What about your role as a chaperone?” I asked him.
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
I was tempted to use the opportunity to turn the tables on Scott and tease him the way he would tease me, but somehow I sensed this matter was more serious than either of us might realize. So instead I asked him if he was sure he knew what he was getting himself into, but rather than responding he suddenly remembered the inhospitable state of his bedroom. “Damn, I’d better go clean up.” He ran out of the dining room and straight up the stairs, taking them three at a time.
Gargong again smiled at me serenely. “Not so many distractions after all.”
But my grandmother, having momentarily abandoned her TV program, was still squinting fixedly at Gargong. “I can guarantee you I’m not going anywhere.”
* * *
Of course, whether competition is considered a positive factor or a negative one often depends upon a person’s ability to compete. The next significant moment of familial evolution, in my recollection of events, was an evening, about a month after Scott’s first encounter with Kawkonga. I was again seated in the dining room doing my homework. And my grandmother was, as always, perched in her armchair watching Cable8 news. My parents ignored us as they came through from the kitchen in the back. They were already deeply engaged in conversation.
“But you’re a good worker,” my mother was reassuring my father. “They’re lucky to have you. You’ve always been one of their best workers.”
“That was before,” my father replied, looking away. He wandered over to the couch. “Now the bar’s been raised.”
“But I can’t believe they’d actually eliminate—”
“A number of the others have already been made redundant.” My father’s throat constricted, raising his voice half an octave. “And Hongawg says he’s going to be introducing more efficiency measures.”
I froze, taking in this scene as a silent, concerned spectator. I had never seen my father this upset. He already appeared beaten.
My mother laid her hand gently on his arm. “What’ll you do?”
“I don’t know.” He sighed and sank down on to the couch. “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I even care. The atmosphere at work isn’t what it used to be. Work used to be more collegial, more fun. Now it’s just…it’s just work. The whole place has become…I don’t know…dehumanizing.”
My mother sat down beside him. “I could see if the bank would take me back full time.” She had worked full time at the bank before my brother was born and had been working there on a part-time basis ever since.
My father glanced over at my grandmother, as if only now acknowledging her existence. He lowered his voice. “And have me look after your mother?” He was unable to conceal his alarm.
My mother assured him it would only be a temporary arrangement, but after thinking about it silently for a few seconds, he slowly shook his head. “I doubt that’s even an option. Human unemployment is skyrocketing. And I know the bank’s already got several VIMs in senior management positions. It’s unlikely they’re doing any hiring.”
“I don’t know.” My mother was unwilling to just give up without a fight. “I could ask.”
And then my grandmother, prompted by a commercial break, joined in the conversation. “Maybe now you’ll believe me. The threat is real. These VIMs are dangerous.”
My mother shot her a cross look. “Oh Mom, enough with those crazy conspiracy theories. This really isn’t the time.”
“Brett Byle on News8 says the VIMs won’t be content until they’ve completely taken over.”
“You’ve definitely got to stop watching that channel.”
“Wake up, dammit,” Grandma erupted. “Take a look around you. Brett Byle’s not wrong. More and more they’re insinuating their way into positions of authority. Just like at your work, Robert. More and more humans are being marginalized. It’s happening everywhere.”
My father was determined to maintain a reasonable attitude in the face of adversity. “The economy’s merely going through a period of adjustment,” he told Grandma, “that’s all.”
“Yeah, right,” my grandmother sneered, “while the VIMs totally dismantle human society.”
“And what about all the good they’ve done?” My mother chipped in.
“You may think it’s good but—”
“Everyone thinks it’s good,” Mom declared aggressively, “anyone with half a brain. The human species was on the verge of destroying itself. If the VIMs hadn’t shown up, we’d have probably gone extinct in a few more generations. They’ve totally reversed the climate catastrophe. They’ve re-engineered refining and smelting and all the industrial processes to recapture carbon dioxide and methane and other greenhouse gases and pollutants rather than sending them into the atmosphere. They’ve introduced more efficient sources of power. They’ve even changed the cows’ diets so they don’t fart as much anymore. The air’s cleaner. The water’s cleaner. They’re making this a much better world.”
“They’re even putting an end to war,” my father added.
“And you’d think, if they were only looking out for themselves, they would like war,” my mother pointed out. “It would provide them with a greater supply of bodies.”
My father considered this. “Yeah, but I think the condition of the bodies might be a drawback.”
But my grandmother was unwilling to concede the point. “You may think they’re helping. Everything seems better and it’s all thanks to VIMs. But it’s better for them. Not for us. It’s going to end up being their world, not ours.”
“There’s plenty of world here for all of us,” my mother observed. “We’ve just got to learn to share.”
“But are you sure they’re even interested in sharing?” My grandmother snorted contemptuously. “What do we actually know about them, who they are, what they really want?”
“As far as I can tell,” my father responded, “they want the same things we all want. They’re interested in working hard, getting ahead. Only trouble is they’re better at it than the rest of us.”
“But we really don’t know anything about them, do we?”
I had totally given up even trying to do homework at this point so I strolled into the living room and my mother eagerly focused on me as a way to change the subject. “Hi Jennie. Where’s your brother?”
“He’s gone out,” I told her, “to visit Kawkonga.”
She nodded. “He seems to be spending a lot of time with her these days.”
And I agreed, “As much as she’ll allow.”
“You see, Mom.” My mother turned her attention back to Grandma. “The adjustment may be more difficult for us older people, but the next generation realizes the benefits of the VIMs.”
I muttered to myself, “Scott’s definitely realizing benefits.”
But my grandmother would not be so easily put off. “All I’m saying is: We need to find out more. There’s not much actual information about them at all. And the story seems to keep changing. We don’t even know what the name VIM really means.”
My mother thought about this. “I heard someone say VIM stands for ‘visiting intergalactic migrants,’ and I’ve also heard ‘virtual interstellar mariners,’ but I’m not sure either’s correct.”
“I’ve heard ‘variable interspecies merger,’” I said, “but I think that’s made up.”
“Actually, I don’t think it’s an acronym at all,” my father chimed in. “I think this is sort of like how the Kangaroo got its name, when the English explorers asked what it was called and Kangaroo was the aboriginal word for ‘I don’t know.’ I heard ‘VIM’ is based on a sound the first VIMs made when they emerged from their comas and were initially confronted by other humans. So maybe it’s originally their name for us.”
“If so, it’s probably not a very nice name,” I observed.
My mother was surprised by this response. “Why would you say that?”
“Gargong told me they consider names made with sounds produced with the lips to be very rude,” I explained.
And my grandmother, feeling justified, nodded in agreement. “Maybe VIM means ‘vanquish imbecilic mammals.’”
* * *
Considering the events of the past year with the benefit of hindsight, I now realize how naïve so many of us were for such a long time with regard to the changes to all parts of our society which were being brought about by the arrival of the VIM. Of course, attitudes continued to differ. Some people feared the VIM. Most people grudgingly accommodated them. While change, especially change forced upon us from outside, is rarely ever welcome, most of us just naturally make whatever adjustments are necessary to fit in with “the new normal.” But we did this without contemplating the true meaning of the changes. We still thought they were something external to us. We still considered the VIM situation was one of them and us, a separateness which, perhaps, cushioned us for a while, insulating us from the full force of this evolutionary change.
But a few “enlightened humans” were already accepting an alternate strategy, one best described by the old adage, “if you can’t beat them, why not join them?” This was the insidious argument which would provide the real watershed to our evolutionary journey. And it turned out to be my brother, Scott, the least likely member of the family to ever be considered enlightened or any sort of leading-edge thinker, who would lead us across this watershed.
It was only a few weeks later when Scott, very late one night, opened the front door to discover Gargong waiting there on the porch. Scott did very little to disguise his disappointment. “I don’t understand. I was expecting Kawkonga.”
“I know.” Gargong smiled at him like a strange solicitous midnight door-to-door salesman. “You have been expecting her a lot lately. But we both thought it might make more sense for me to meet with you this evening, to talk.”
Scott hesitated, unsure whether to welcome Gargong in or turn him away. Gargong stood stiffly, like a soldier at attention. He was clutching a small blue and white cooler. Scott’s imagination drifted incongruously to vampires who cannot cross the threshold without an invitation. “It’s awfully late,” Scott pointed out. “Everyone else is asleep.”
Gargong’s smile never wavered. His voice had a soft, almost melodious quality. “I understand Kawkonga comes to visit you most nights at this time.”
“Yeah, but that’s different.”
Gargong nodded. “I understand that it is.”
A hundred scenarios flashed through Scott’s mind as he tried to figure out why Gargong was standing here at the door in the middle of the night rather than Kawkonga, whom he had been eagerly expecting. All hundred scenarios were bad news. “She’s not breaking up with me, is she? Oh God! This is terrible! If she doesn’t want to see me anymore, she could at least deliver the news in person.” The muscles in Scott’s face and throat tensed as he processed this assumed news which hadn’t actually been delivered, at least not explicitly.
Gargong’s head tilted slightly. “Why would you think she does not want to see you?”
“Because you’re here and she’s not.”
“VIM are not inconsistent,” Gargong explained. “We rarely want something at one point in time and then not want it at another. We tend to know our own minds much better than humans do, especially humans of your age. But this is not a matter of what Kawkonga wants.”
“No. This is a matter of what Scott Baynes wants.”
“Scott Baynes wants Kawkonga,” Scott declared, but then he reluctantly moved aside to allow Gargong to enter. They strolled together into the living room. Scott reminded Gargong that everyone else was sleeping and they needed to keep their voices low.
Gargong nodded and leaned in close to Scott as he said, “Kawkonga believes you have been very happy with her.”
Scott enthusiastically agreed. “Totally. She’s wonderful.”
“So,” Gargong continued, “she would like to take your arrangement to the next level.”
Scott was momentarily confused. “You mean…like…get married?”
But Gargong appeared to have not even considered this possibility. “You could if you wish, although that particular ceremony is not as meaningful for VIM. But Kawkonga would like to mate.”
“I’m totally down for that.” Scott studied Gargong. “So why isn’t she here?”
“We have observed human logic is often impeded by physical desires. We felt she might actually serve as a distraction to your rationality.”
“Sure, I guess,” Scott countered, “but sometimes distractions are good. I mean, rationality’s not everything. Besides, it’s late so—”
Scott made a move back toward the door but Gargong remained motionless. “Kawkonga has discussed with you the benefits of becoming like us. And you readily agree when she talks to you about it, but she has begun to suspect you may be motivated to agree with her as a means of facilitating your other activities with her.”
“No. It’s not like that,” Scott argued, “not completely.”
“So I am here to discuss the matter with you rationally, without distractions.”
“So you’re talking—”
Scott’s eyes flickered toward the door but he realized there was no chance of ushering Gargong out before they had this conversation. “I know. Kawkonga makes a lot of good points,” Scott conceded. “She really does. But, well, there’s a lot to consider.” Unfortunately, he knew Gargong would not be satisfied with such a vague response and he also knew his arguments would be no match for Gargong’s logic. Scott had not anticipated having this discussion with anyone but Kawkonga. He was ill-prepared.
Gargong, by contrast, was well-rehearsed. “Not only will you be able to spend the rest of your life here on earth with Kawkonga, but it will also be a superior life. When you become VIM, you become smarter, more capable, more competent, even better at activities like basketball. You could retake your place as the star of the team.”
“Yeah, why’s that?”
“The VIM awareness shortens the latency response time between the neural signals and the muscular-skeletal actions of the body.”
“You speed up reflexes?”
Scott wandered across the living room, trying to distance himself from Gargong. “I admit it all sounds great. It really does. But I like being Scott. I’m not ready to lose myself to—”
But Gargong pursued him. “You will not be losing yourself. Scott will still exist. You will merely be adding to yourself, still Scott, but an enhanced Scott. When a dinosaur evolved into being a bird, it was different. But it was still itself, just a better version of itself. This is your chance to evolve. This is your chance to soar.”
Scott turned and stared at Gargong. “But I’ll be dead.”
“Do I look dead to you?”
Scott shook his head. “No, but Billy Thompson had to die for you to be here.”
“Billy Thompson was dying,” Gargong replied in a quiet voice. “He was not dead. He readily accepted me. And I am still Billy, only different, better, an upgraded version.”
Scott struggled to comprehend. “So he consciously accepted you?”
“Yes,” Gargong assured him. “It has to be that way, although admittedly acceptance is often more easily obtained from humans when they are dying. It makes them very open to alternatives. But you do not have to be dying to accept conversion.”
“So I’d still be me?”
“Just a better version of me?”
Scott’s mind began to tally up the pros and cons. The pros—Kawkonga, enhanced basketball skills, possibly better ability to compete in all other areas—were seductively enticing. “Everything you say makes perfect sense. I really do want to be the best person I can possibly be. But what’s the downside?”
Gargong smiled. “Why does there need to be a downside?”
“I don’t know.” Scott’s eyes narrowed. “There usually is. This sort of deal seems almost too good to be true. It feels a little like making a pact with the Devil.”
Gargong continued to smile serenely. “I am not the Devil, Scott. I am another living being just like you. Humans create devils as a means of embodying what they fear the most—change. But change is inherently neither good nor bad. It is merely transitioning to something different. I am not evil. Honest. I would never lie to you.”
“So you’re asking me to trust you?”
“No, I am saying if you want to be with Kawkonga you need to trust her. Can you do that?”
“Yeah, when you put it that way.” Scott nodded slowly. “I do trust Kawkonga, totally.”
“Then why wait?” Gargong unzipped the top of the small cooler he had brought with him. “I have the conversion kit here with me. It contains a VIM consciousness. We can proceed immediately if you are truly committed.”
Scott took a deep breath. “Okay. But I’d feel better if Kawkonga was here to help me through the process.”
Gargong studied him closely. “But you are fully in agreement? You see the benefits for yourself? You want conversion for yourself as well as to please Kawkonga?”
Scott did not hesitate. “For sure. I’m fully committed. Really.”
Gargong nodded and pulled out his phone. “Then I will request that Kawkonga joins us.” He typed a message into the phone and then put it back in his pocket. “She should arrive in six minutes.”
While they were waiting, Gargong rummaged in the cooler and pulled out a small bottle of pills. He handed a couple to Scott. “In the meantime, you will need to take these.”
* * *
Another observation I would like to make concerning most evolutionary changes is that, in retrospect, they always appear to those affected to have been inevitable, as if this is the way things had to be, as though it were part of a greater plan. At first glance, the VIM conversions appear to contradict this fact. They involved choice, a willful acceptance rather than inevitability. The element of perceived choice may be one aspect of this evolutionary change which sets it apart from the more typical process. Most evolution is a matter of chance mutation and therefore less directed than the VIM conversions. Organisms typically don’t choose to evolve; they just do. But I still think, after the fact, even totally random mutations, when successful, will seem like they just had to be. Humans tend to think that the way they are at any given time is the way they are meant to be, even the way they have always been. This is why so many people historically had such difficulty accepting the notion of evolution. It runs counter to our sense of identity. It seems inconceivable for our ancient ancestors to have ever been much different than we are now.
So there is a clear sense of inevitability, after the fact, with regard to any profound change. Once such change becomes established as the norm, there is a firm belief that this is the way things were always meant to be. That’s how it was with my family’s evolution. Each change was quickly adopted as a new norm. It had to be, for once the choice was made, there was no alternative. Once it was done, it had to be accepted, even embraced, for there was clearly no way to undo it.
Late afternoon the day after Scott’s conversion, I was again doing some homework at the dining room table and my grandmother was, of course, again sitting in her armchair watching television, when Scott came downstairs from his room and walked straight up to me. “Hi sister.”
“Hey Scott,” I responded without looking up from my notes, “not hanging out with Kawkonga?”
“No. She has other matters to attend to. You are not spending time with Gargong?”
“No. I’m trying to take it slow with him, to temper his expectations. And I figure every now and then I ought to try to do some of the work on my own, just to see if I really can.”
Scott stood beside me like a sentry. “So how is that going?”
I abruptly tossed my pencil down on the table. “Not great. I’ve been trying to tackle some math. But without Gargong’s help I seem to be going around in circles.”
Scott leaned over and pointed at my book, at the question I had just been wrestling with. “That one is simple. Just take the derivative of that function, then determine where the slope of the tangent is equal to seven, then use the quadratic formula to solve it.”
Shocked, I stared up at Scott. “Since when do you…?” My voice trailed off as the obvious realization slowly trickled into my brain. My eyes widened. “Oh my god! Tell me you didn’t…”
Scott straightened up. His face remained expressionless. “It was the natural next step in my evolutionary process.”
“But Scott—Oh my God!—Are you even still Scott?”
“Of course I am. You can still call me Scott. Although I am also called Gongawgaw.”
Grandma overheard this exchange. Her head jerked to the side to face both of her grandchildren. Her lips began to move as if she were talking, but no sound came out. Then her right eye slowly closed and she fixed her squinting aim on Scott.
I regarded Scott sorrowfully. “You died?”
“I converted,” he explained. “We have realized humans have a particular fear of death so we are no longer explaining the process in those terms. I freely accepted a merger of my own being with the VIM consciousness. It was an obvious choice for self-betterment.”
I let this slowly sink in. No one spoke for a few seconds. But I continued to examine my brother with a mixture of concern and curiosity while my grandmother kept her gaze of disapproval focused upon him. My initial reaction of grief at the loss of my brother transitioned into a more general feeling of concern. But even this concern began to dissipate. Scott seemed fine.
Finally I asked, “What’s it like?”
“Excellent. I am capable of so much more.”
“Yeah, I get that. But what’s it feel like?”
Scott tilted his head as if only now considering this question. “It feels…different. I feel the same, but at the same time different, serene. There is a calmness that comes from the commingling of all the different VIM consciousness, a much greater sense of perspective.”
My grandmother now managed to spit out a single word of disgust: “Traitor!”
Scott regarded her without rancor. “You should not reject me, grandmother. I am still your grandson.”
“You’re a traitor to your race!” Grandma declared. “You’ve abandoned your humanity!”
“No grandmother. I have not abandoned it. I have enhanced it.”
“But Scott,” I asked him, “are you really sure you’re totally cool with all this?”
“Yes, completely sure. Please do not reject me.”
“No, of course not.” I stood up and hugged him. “If you’re sure, I’ll do my best to accept it. I don’t fully understand it, but you’re my brother and I’ll try to support you.”
“I certainly won’t.” Grandma told him, as if there was any doubt.
But Scott ignored Grandma and smiled at me instead. “Thank you, Jennifer. And there is a benefit for you too. Now when Gargong is not here, you still have someone who can help you with your homework.”
“That’s not going to help me achieve my goal of being more self-sufficient,” I observed. But I returned his smile, nonetheless.
“I promise to only provide assistance when you request it.”
“Okay then. Have a seat.” I sat back down at the dining room table and motioned to Scott to sit beside me. “Tell me again how I do this first one here.”
Scott sat down and picked up a pencil. He immediately sketched a graph in my notebook. “Simple. They are asking for the tangent which is parallel to this linear equation here. So you find the slope of the line defined by that linear equation—see?—and then you set the derivative equal to that slope and solve for the independent variable.”
I studied the graph. “Right. I think I’ve got it.” It seemed so simple when he laid it out like that.
Scott smiled. “You know, when you become VIM all this will be much less difficult for you.”
I glanced up at him without moving my head. “Thanks, but I’m okay continuing to struggle.”
“It would seem pointless when it could be so much easier for you. Surely Gargong has explained to you the benefits—”
“Yeah, he has,” I interjected, “in great detail. But I’m fine staying human. I’m not sure I want to optimize myself.”
I cut Scott off, wanting to nip the proselytizing in the bud. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll support your decisions if you support mine.”
“Yes. Of course.” Scott stared down at the books on the table, unsure how to continue the conversation. “I was just making sure you are aware—”
“Yeah. Thanks. Fully aware.”
Scott swiveled around, giving me his full attention. “Could you at least help me with mother and father? I have not informed them yet of my conversion. I am unsure how they will take it.”
But before I could even promise my support, Grandma jumped into the conversation again. “I’ll take care of that.” She called out in a loud voice, “Rebecca! Rebecca!”
“Grandma!” I scolded her. “Really!”
But my mother had already emerged from the kitchen. “What’s the problem?”
“No problem,” Scott assured her.
But Grandma announced, “Your son here’s gone and become a VIM.”
“But he’s still Scott,” I observed. “Nothing’s really changed.”
“But why?” My mother’s eyes flickered across the three of us before settling on Scott. She examined her son as if she were seeing him for the first time.
Scott stood up. “I decided to convert. It was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be better and becoming VIM provided me with a way to greatly improve myself. I only hope you and father can accept me, accept the decision I have made.”
I have to give my mother full credit. She only hesitated for a few seconds before rushing forward and hugging Scott. “Don’t be silly. Of course we do. No matter what path you choose to follow in life, you know your father and I will always be very proud of you.”
My grandmother was obviously disappointed by this reaction. She shook her head sadly and announced in a gravelly voice, “This whole family’s going to hell.”
* * *
To reiterate, most evolution happens so slowly the organisms involved don’t even notice the changes they are undergoing. There is no challenge to their sense of self. But the VIM conversion is different. It happens right away. People we once thought we knew are now instantaneously different. This creates an immediate need for adjustment which takes a psychological toll on those close to the changed VIM-human.
My family was perhaps remarkable in the way we so readily accommodated Scott’s conversion, although we mainly dealt with his change by clinging to our normal routine. Routine is often crucial in cushioning the shock of cataclysmic change. Our regular routines continued, and therefore everything seemed, on a surface level, to remain the same. In this way, Scott’s conversion did not at first appear to unduly affect my family.
But then, about another month later, the next step in our familial evolution occurred. My father experienced a severe professional setback. And so, on the evening of this event, while my grandmother sat in her armchair watching television, my mother sat on the couch doing her best to console her husband.
“It’s not your fault,” she told him. “You shouldn’t blame yourself.”
“But who else can I blame?” My father was making a brave attempt to appear stoic but his thin and winey voice was undercutting his efforts. “I keep going over it again and again in my mind. I just don’t know what I could’ve done differently.”
“It’s not the end of the world,” my mother reassured him. “It could happen to anyone.”
“More all the time now that they’ve arrived,” my grandmother pointed out, without looking away from the television.
“We shouldn’t blame the VIMs either.” My mother squeezed my father’s shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll bounce back right away.”
“I doubt it.” My father sighed histrionically. “There are more and more AI programs designed by VIMs doing the hiring. I’m not sure I’ll meet their requirements. There’s no way you can game them, and it’s difficult to get an edge when you’re blocked from employing the personal touch. I can’t prove they’re biased, but I suspect they’re unlikely to hire a non-VIM.”
My grandmother thumped her armrest for emphasis. “I told you so.”
“Mother, this isn’t the time.”
But Grandma refused to remain silent. She shifted in her chair to face her daughter. “If not now, when?”
The front door banging shut announced the entrance of Scott and me, which saved my mother from having to listen to my grandmother’s extended I told you so tirade. I immediately picked up on my father’s despair and my mother’s concern. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
“Your father’s been laid off,” my mother told us.
I sat down in the chair closest to my father. “But you’d been there…like…forever.”
He nodded. “Over fourteen years.”
He swallowed, taking a moment to compose himself. “Hongawg, the new Director, has been doing a lot of restructuring. My position got phased out.”
My grandmother jumped back into the fray. “You see. As soon as the VIMs get into positions of authority, more and more humans get terminated. Clive Burns on News8 has documented all of this. He shows how they’re a terribly disruptive force.”
“Yes,” Scott agreed. “We call it creative disruption.”
“There you go.” Grandma waved a hand at Scott. “Your own son’s turned against you.”
Scott, who had remained standing, moved closer to the couch. “I am not against you, father. I will do everything I can to help you.”
“You can’t provide a solution,” Grandma told him. “You’re part of the problem. You’ve already turned your back on your family, abandoned your own kind.”
My mother responded angrily. “Mother, we’ve already had this conversation. We fully accept our son’s life choices. If you can’t accept them, you should keep your hateful thoughts to yourself.”
I have to admit my own reaction was quite selfish. I was wondering how the news would affect my own future, even though I tried to appear noble. “Maybe I should start thinking about getting a job rather than applying to universities,” I suggested. “There’s no way I’ll get a scholarship competing against all the VIMs.”
This managed to rouse my father from his feelings of self-pity. “No, Princess, I can’t let you suffer for my shortcomings. I’ll find a way. I promise.” He was clearly pained by any suggestion that he couldn’t adequately provide for his family. “And we’re set for a while. I’ve already consulted a lawyer who says he might be able to get me a larger severance than what they’ve offered me.”
“But can he get us enough to tide us over?” My mother wondered aloud.
My father shrugged. “I think he’ll do his best. But he’s only human.”
“You are right,” Scott agreed. “You should hire a VIM lawyer.”
My father was embarrassed and eager to end the discussion. “Anyways, I don’t want any of you to worry. We’ll find a way.”
My mother snuggled closer to him. “The main thing is we have each other. We’re a family.”
Scott and I joined our parents in a group hug of solidarity. But my grandmother looked on sadly from her armchair. “Why won’t anyone ever listen to me?”
* * *
This set up the next step in my family’s evolution, which was driven by my father’s sheer desperation. And I must again admit I was not present for this step, but after talking with Scott I am confidant my account of it is generally accurate, even if some of the specifics might be embellished with a generous helping of poetic license.
When the family’s livelihood, its very existence, was threatened, my father frantically searched for a way to adapt to the new world order. As he had feared, his job search throughout the spring proved to be unsuccessful. His prospects appeared increasingly bleak. He was beginning to panic. He felt like he was some dinosaur who was seeing others of his species, with a new mutation, flourish while he was in danger of going extinct. But he put on his bravest, most confident smile this particular Saturday afternoon as he welcomed Gargong and Scott at the door and led them back into the living room.
“Thanks for coming by. I really want to pick your brains about something.” My father motioned for them to sit down, but everyone remained standing. There was a tense atmosphere of anticipation. Gargong merely placed the small cooler he was carrying on the coffee table in front of the couch. “We are happy to be of assistance, Mr. Baynes.”
Scott glanced over at the armchair. “Where is grandmother?”
“I got Rebecca and Jennifer to take her to the mall,” my father explained. “It’s a nice outing for her. Now that I’m home full-time, we’ve really been getting on each other’s nerves. That constant yapping on the TV’s beginning to drive me crazy. And besides, I wanted to be able to chat with you without any interruptions.”
Gargong asked, “How is your search for new employment proceeding, Mr. Baynes?”
And my father, despite trying to put a positive spin on things, had to admit it was not going great. He had hit a wall. “I’ve tried all the standard social networking tools, but none have been very promising. Most of the people active on those sites are even more desperate than I am. That’s why I thought I should talk to you.”
Gargong smiled. “How can we be of help?”
My father took a deep breath. “I’m realizing, more and more, that it’s becoming a VIM-dominated world. So I was thinking maybe I could get your advice about maneuvering in this new world. That’s why I asked Scott to invite you. I mean, I feel I have to adapt to this changing landscape, maybe get an in with some of your VIM colleagues. But I’m not sure how to go about it.”
“You recognize the need to accept the new VIM world order,” Gargong observed. “That is an excellent first step.”
“Yes, father,” Scott added, “I am very pleased to see you accepting the need to be VIM.”
My father managed a slight chuckle. He didn’t want them to think he was rejecting them in any way but there were also limits to how far he would go to accommodate this VIM world order. “I definitely want to fit in. But to be clear, I don’t want to be a VIM. I only want to know how to be more VIM-like, maybe to present myself in a more VIM-acceptable way. I figure even VIMs are still going to need good workers, so—”
“What we really need,” Gargong told him, “are more bodies to host VIM consciousness.”
My father frowned. “Yeah, but what’s your rush? The government’s making VIM-donor cards compulsory now, so we’ll probably all end up as VIM eventually anyway.”
“Yes,” Scott agreed, “but if we wait for people to die naturally most of the bodies will be very old, almost all worn out. That is not optimal.”
“And there are time constraints.” Gargong confided in him the reason for their sense of urgency. “We are concerned there may begin to be some degradation of the remaining consciousness if it is left in disembodied containment for too long.”
My father looked back and forth between Gargong and Scott. “So you want to take us over sooner rather than later?”
Gargong nodded. “It is the best course of action for all involved.”
“I don’t know about that.” My father sat down on the couch, feeling bewildered. The VIM stood in front of him.
“It is indisputable,” Gargong declared. “We are the next stage of human evolution. You need to evolve to survive.”
“Even if evolving means leaving my humanity behind?”
“You will not be leaving it behind, Mr. Baynes. You will be enhancing it.”
Scott added, “You and mother have said repeatedly we are a family. This is the best way to keep us together as a family.”
“But Rebecca and Jennifer—”
“Can convert too,” Scott told him. “We can all remain together as a VIM family.”
Gargong sat down on the couch next to my father. “We have projected your financial situation and we know you are only months away from not being able to pay your mortgage. You will not be able to support your family as an unevolved human.”
“Jennifer will not be able to go to college,” Scott pointed out, “certainly not the type she wants to go to.”
My father stared down at his feet. “But this really doesn’t seem fair. Surely there must be some job I can find that doesn’t require renouncing my humanity.”
“Unlikely,” Gargong responded. “Much of human employment is dehumanizing. We are merely formalizing the process.”
Scott sat down on the other side of the couch so that my father was positioned between them, like a human sandwich with VIM bread. “Imagine how successful you will be merged with a VIM consciousness.”
My father leaned back in the couch, trying to maintain some distance. He stared up at the ceiling. “So you’re saying I’ve got no choice? I’ve got to convert?”
“No,” Gargong answered. “We are saying you do have a choice, and conversion is your best alternative.”
My father sighed. “Convert or starve. That’s not much of a choice.”
Scott put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “It should make the choice very easy, father. It is only sensible to want to be on the winning team.”
Gargong stood up. “So do you want to join the winning team?”
My father’s eyes darted around the room as he tried to determine his best chances of success. “Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely a team player.” He stood up and faced Gargong. “You can tell all your VIM friends that. Robert Baynes is eager and willing to join the team.”
Gargong nodded. “Excellent. In that case I have some pills for you.” He bent down and zipped open his cooler, pulling out a small plastic container. Scott ran to get our father some water from the kitchen.
Gargong opened the bottle and extracted two capsules, a red one and a green one. He held them out to my father who eyed the pills but did not take them from Gargong. “Maybe Rebecca ought to be included in this discussion.”
“Or you can surprise her with the good news when she returns from the mall,” Scott suggested, returning with a large glass of water.
My father chuckled nervously. “It’d certainly be a surprise.”
“Here you go.” Gargong succeeded in dropping the pills into my father’s left hand and Scott passed him the water which he held in his right.
He stared down at the red and green capsules. “What’s this?”
Scott urged our father to take the pills. “These pills are the first step to making you feel better, to making your life better.”
Gargong explained, “The process is facilitated chemically.”
My father sighed wearily. “I have been down lately.” He looked at the two VIM standing on either side of him. “But are they safe?”
“Yes,” Scott assured him, “completely safe.”
My father decided to play along. He wanted to give them proof of his ability to be a team-player. He popped the pills in his mouth, washing them down with a few gulps of water. Then he set the glass down on the coffee table. “But before we go any further, I really do want to talk it over with Rebecca.”
Gargong was uncharacteristically puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“That’s another way I’m a team player,” my father hastily explained. “Rebecca and I are a team too. We discuss everything.”
Gargong frowned. “But I thought you were fully committed. I thought you were accepting.”
“I’m not saying I won’t go through with it, at some point, maybe later. But it’s a really big step. We both need to be completely onside with it.”
“But it is too late to reconsider,” Gargong told him.
“No, really.” My father was still trying to navigate the thin line between ingratiating himself to the VIM and full conversion, a bit like trying to stay amicable with a suitor without agreeing to become their lover. “Before we get to the formal conversion process—”
Scott was also looking confused. “What do you think the full process would entail?”
My father shrugged. “I don’t know. A big lab somewhere, I suppose, maybe with some sort of metallic helmet I’ve got to put on, with lots of wires and stuff. Or maybe it’s all wireless. I don’t know.”
“No,” Gargong corrected him. “It is not an electronic transfer. It is induced chemically. The pills are the full conversion process. You have already taken them.”
Now it was my father’s turn to be confused. “But I thought those were just to make me feel good, as a first step. I know what whizzes you guys are with your chemistry.”
Scott said softly, “We thought you had accepted.”
“But I haven’t,” my father objected. “Not yet. I told you I’m not ready.”
Gargong put his hand on the side of my father’s face, closely observing the pupils of his eyes. “The conversion has already begun.”
My father brushed away his hand. “So reverse it.”
“It is not reversible,” Scott informed him.
“But I’ve changed my mind.”
Gargong nodded. “Exactly.”
“No, I…I…I…” My father emitted a guttural sound, choking off any further protests. He stiffened up. His body contorted. He began to thrash around uncontrollably. He collapsed on to the coffee table with such force it broke in half. He tried to stand but collapsed again. He stumbled over the broken coffee table and began to roll around on the floor, his eyes staring wildly, uncomprehendingly, garbled screams coming from deep within his throat.
“This is not good,” Scott observed.
“This is not good at all,” Gargong agreed.
For a few moments my father continued his strange seizure, with various random parts of his body jerking erratically. Finally, the shaking began to subside. He regained the ability to speak: “Me…My…Our…No!…No!…Out!…Get…Get…
“Gawg!…Gawg!…Gawg!” Then he screamed in agony, his arms and legs flailing in all directions.
My father was in danger of seriously harming himself, so Scott and Gargong dove on top of him. They pinned him to the ground, restraining him, preventing his hands from tearing at his own throat and face.
* * *
Later that afternoon my mother, my grandmother, and I returned home from the mall to discover my father seated alone on the couch. He was now much more passive, as if the entities within him, after an initial brutal conflict, had arrived at an uneasy truce. He was sitting very still, his eyes wide open but glassy and unfocused.
At first, we were so intent on guiding my grandmother back into the house we didn’t even notice any change in my father. We just greeted him and passed on by, escorting Grandma over to her armchair. It was only after my grandmother was safely installed back on her usual perch, TV convertor in hand, that we noticed something was not right.
I pointed at the broken coffee table, which had been precariously set back in place, asking my father what had happened. But he didn’t reply.
My mother kept calling him by his name. He gave no indication of even hearing her. He appeared dazed, almost comatose. She rushed over and examined him. Afraid he had suffered some kind of stroke, she grabbed her phone and was already dialing the emergency number when I interrupted her. I had found the note, in Scott’s handwriting, which was lodged between the two broken halves of the coffee table:
Father agreed to VIM conversion but unfortunately there have been complications. Please keep him comfortable and restrain him if necessary while we seek a solution.
“Why?” My mother clutched my father’s face between her hands and attempted to make eye-contact, but she couldn’t get him to focus. Her eyes began to fill with tears. “What have they done to you?” A single tear ran down her cheek and dropped on to my father’s upturned face.
His head jerked slightly. His eyes narrowed, as if he was now looking at his wife, although it was still unclear whether he could actually see her. He muttered something in a deep, breathy voice which sounded like, “If it is done then better t’were done better were done better…Better but her bitter…Doing is renewing…A doer always wants newer…Insane not to retain…” His voice trailed off into incomprehensible garbled muttering.
“I told you,” Grandma growled. “Didn’t I tell you?”
My mother ignored her, continuing to focus all her attention on her husband. She gently stroked the side of his face. “C’mon Rob, snap out of it. There’s got to be a way to fix you.”
He continued to gargle incomprehensible nonsense. She leaned her head down so her ear was close to his mouth. She felt his warm breath on the side of her face. She thought she heard him say, “A house divided against itself…is hard to renovate.”
She straightened up. “Why would Scott run off when his father is so obviously in need of help?”
“He’s probably with that Gargoyle fellow,” my grandmother replied.
I suggested they were likely consulting with other VIM who might hopefully know how to fix the problem.
“They’re coming back aren’t they?” My mother asked pleadingly. “They won’t just leave us like this?”
My grandmother shook her head. “If only they would.”
My father again growled some nonsense, disconnected fragments about parting being such sweet, and left behind and brought along, and something about the left and the right and it all being neat, and something else about a thief in the thrill of the night. His voice kept trailing off before he finished any of his sentences or was able to connect the thoughts together in any way.
My mother sat down on the couch next to him and tried to comfort him. “Shh…Don’t struggle so. We’ll get you right. I promise. Everything’s going to be alright.” She put her arms around him and rocked him as if he were a frightened little boy while he continued his incomprehensible guttural murmuring. His voice was now very low and everyone had given up trying to decipher his messages.
We sat there for what seemed like a very long time, with my mother doing her best to comfort and reassure my father while my grandmother scowled and I looked on helplessly. Then Scott and Gargong finally returned. Gargong was still carrying his cooler.
My mother jumped up when she saw them. “Where the hell’ve you been?”
“We have been seeking a resolution,” Scott explained mildly.
I focused on Gargong. “And what did the other VIM say?”
“Are you assuming that all of us VIM know each other,” Gargong asked me, “that we all get together and talk all the time?”
“Isn’t that how it works?”
“Yes, in a way,” he nodded, “but you need not always assume it.”
“So what’s the solution?” My mother demanded to know.
“That is essentially the problem,” replied Scott. “It is not a solution. Father has blocked the melding, so it is more in the nature of a suspension.”
My mother glared angrily at my brother. She looked like she might physically attack him, so Gargong hastily added further explanation. “The human consciousness and the VIM consciousness need to mix into a single awareness. That has not happened in this case. I suspect Mr. Baynes was only trying to ingratiate himself and had no real intention of actually accepting the conversion.”
“So undo it,” my mother commanded.
Scott shook his head. “That is not possible.”
“Any attempt to extricate you husband or extract part of the consciousness from his mind,” Gargong explained, “will destroy them all. Irretrievably.”
My mother sank back down on to the couch and again wrapped her arm around her husband. “My poor baby. Stuck in this hell.”
He continued with his internal battle, his face distorting with effort, indistinct words choking off in his throat. I thought I heard “infernal” and “bottomless,” but I couldn’t piece together the meaning. At one time he roared something about “searing cold” and “empty space,” but then he growled what sounded like “keep the receipt.”
My mother looked pleadingly at Gargong. “You’ve got to do something.”
But my grandmother snorted contemptuously. “Haven’t they done enough already?”
Scott sat down on the end of the couch. “We do have one idea. If there is someone father really trusts, who could convince him, even now, to accept the conversion—”
“You’re not suggesting—” I interjected.
“Post-meld acceptance,” Gargong stated flatly, “while difficult and unpredictable, is the only possibility for a successful resolution.”
Scott leaned closer to my mother and continued the sales pitch. “Father has always been very strong on family. Part of his lack of acceptance may be the belief he is abandoning you and Jennifer because you are still only human. If you are VIM this misgiving is removed.”
I was surprised my mother didn’t get angry or at least immediately reject this self-serving suggestion. Instead, she merely stared at him. “I don’t know.”
“I do,” Grandma chimed in. “That would just be throwing good humanity after bad.”
My mother drew a deep breath. “I get what you’re saying. I do. But I’m very attached to my present humanity.”
“But this will be better,” Scott promised. “You get to be a better you.”
“You will not really be leaving your humanity behind,” Gargong assured her. “All people are essentially the net sum of their experiences and you will get to carry those forward with you through all future incarnations.”
My mother shifted her gaze from her husband to Gargong. “You mean for as long as I live?”
“No,” Gargong corrected her. “I mean forever. A VIM consciousness does not die when the host dies. It is returned to containment until a new host is located for another meld. And then the process is repeated…again and again.”
My mother’s brows contracted as she tried to process this information. “So it’s like reincarnation?”
“Conceptually similar, but with greater awareness, memory of previous lives.”
“So you’re saying I will continue, or at least my consciousness will continue, for as long as there’s a sun in the sky and an earth to live on?”
“Longer,” Gargong again corrected her. “We are not limited to any single planet or solar system or galaxy. Our previous planet, the one in the solar system that was destroyed, was not our first.”
My mother chuckled incongruously. “If you’re able to offer immortality, you might want to lead with that.”
“It is true,” Scott nodded in full agreement. “Humans have a great fear of death.”
But my mother remained focused on Gargong. “So every VIM has multiple consciousnesses from multiple sources?”
Gargong smiled reassuringly. “Essentially. Each VIM incarnation is legion. Each adopted consciousness adds life experiences to the whole.”
“But consciousness is not countable,” Scott added, “like milk. It is all one.”
My mother took another deep breath. “Oh, what the hell. Okay then.”
“You are freely willing to convert?” Scott asked her.
“Sure.” She nodded resolutely. “Why not?”
I was too shocked to even question what was happening, but my grandmother cried out, “Rebecca! No!”
My mother told us she was sorry, but she felt this was clearly the best way forward. It was apparently the only hope of saving my father, of saving our family.
After recovering from my initial shock, I tried to wade in as the voice of reason, pointing out what a big irrevocable decision this was and suggesting maybe she should take some time to think it through. By my mother said waiting wasn’t going to change her mind and she didn’t want to leave my father in the state he was in any longer than necessary, if there was even a chance she could help him.
“But you can’t trust them,” Grandma declared. “They’re VIMs.”
Gargong had already opened his thermos and taken out the pills. As he handed them to my mother he emphasized, “I have not lied. I have never lied to any of you.”
“But you carefully select just those truths people want to hear,” I argued. “Just those truths needed to convince them to do what you want them to do.”
“Yeah,” Grandma agreed. “So what do you call that?”
“I would call it persuasive,” Scott responded.
“I call it demonic,” Grandma countered, pounding on her armrest.
* * *
I like to think of my mother’s decision as heroic. She did what she did for her family, and more specifically in support of my father. Of course, motivations can be complex. A lot has been written lately in the form of testimonials outlining different people’s decisions to accept VIM conversion. Such testimonials are intended to illustrate all the good logical decisions these people have made in choosing to be VIM, but I think what they illustrate more than anything else is the complex personal nature of these conversion decisions. There is rarely only one factor which drives the decision, and I suspect many of those who decide to convert are not themselves fully aware of all their reasons. While the VIM appear to have figured out humanity, humans have an uncanny ability to remain strangers to themselves.
But whatever the causes, with my parents’ conversions, or aborted conversion in the case of my father, our familial evolution had now crossed the threshold. We were no longer a family with a VIM member. We were now a VIM family with a couple of recalcitrant unevolved human members, stragglers on the evolutionary march to betterment.
And that brings me to what I have identified as the final moment of my family’s VIM evolution which was the day I departed to come here to the university. Every evolutionary process must end with the evolved members of the species splitting away from their unevolved relatives.
My high school graduation occurred shortly after my parents’ conversion. I had managed, with Gargong’s help, to easily pass the advanced math and physics courses. The actual graduation ceremony passed by without much fanfare. My family did not attend. VIM do not celebrate personal milestones as enthusiastically as unevolved humans do. The VIM tend to take such accomplishments much more for granted. And it was decided that it was best for all concerned to keep my father, who had still not shown much improvement despite my mother’s conversion, out of the public eye.
I had received early acceptance from Cornell University, but this was later rescinded. There have apparently been revisions to the admission requirements at most of the major schools in the past year, partly reflecting greater VIM input into the process, and partly as a recognition that future significant alumni donors are most likely going to be VIM. The top schools are eager to recruit students who are going to be future leaders, and unevolved humans are much less likely to achieve future greatness. So I entered the summer without an acceptance, frantically trying to find an alternate university. But, due to a program called Evolved Affirmative Action, almost every university now had reduced quotas for unevolved humans and any remaining spots for the unevolved were already filled. My future appeared very uncertain.
Gargong, Scott, and my mother were all subtly trying to convince me to agree to a conversion. And as the summer wore on, these attempts became less subtle. They were aggressively trying to recruit me by incessantly pointing out that I had no viable alternative. But maybe for that reason I dug in my heels. I knew they couldn’t compel me to convert, only bombard me with reasons why I should. And while I admitted they had a lot of good reasons, not the least of which was brighter academic prospects, I made it clear I was unwilling to agree. So we finally came to a compromise. They agreed to allow me to come here to the North Dakota Free Human University, and I agreed to simply defer the conversion decision and to keep an open mind about possibly converting at some point in the future.
So now the summer was ending, and I was preparing to go away to school, just as I would have been if none of my family’s conversions had happened, although of course the details of the plans were now much different than I had imagined just a short year ago. The world had changed. My family had changed.
My departure occurred on a Monday morning in the last week of August. As always, my grandmother was perched in her armchair, but now the television was turned off. Instead of being engrossed in her news panel discussions, she sat quietly but contemptuously surveying the world around her. I came down the stairs carrying a small suitcase. I set it down and rolled it into the living room, stopping right beside her. I leaned down and gave her a kiss. “Grandma, are you sure you don’t want to come with me?”
“No. I’m too old to go gallivanting clear across the country.”
“But I worry about you.”
“I’ll be okay,” she assured me. “They’ll never be able to force me to convert. They haven’t even tried.” She sounded almost disappointed. “My body’s too worn out to be of much use to them. I’d be a very temporary solution at best. Besides, it doesn’t work when they try to force it. Just look at your father.”
I gave her another hug. “I wasn’t worried about that. But I’m not sure who’ll look after you. What’ll you do? Now that they’ve closed down Cable8, you’ve got nothing to watch on TV. And, as the only non-VIM in the family, I’m afraid you might get lonely.”
“Don’t you worry about me.” She leaned forward, reached up, and clutched on to me. “Will you be okay?”
I nodded and smiled although I suddenly felt miserable at the thought of abandoning her. “I’m good Grandma. I’ll be fine.”
“You’re sure they’ll leave you in peace?”
“Yes,” I replied quietly. “They’re actually quite enlightened beings. They never force us to do anything we don’t want to do. They just try to convince us. And they’ve actually told me they hope to keep the natural human race from going extinct. They feel it’s important for a certain number of us to remain in our natural habitat free of many VIM influences. They’ve given us North Dakota as a human nature preserve.”
Grandma snorted derisively. “That’s big of them.”
“They’re even building us a large new university where we can study anything we want,” I continued, “anything in the liberal arts. They feel it’s a waste of time for us to study anything related to science or technology.”
I reached out for my suitcase and Grandma patted me on the arm. “Even so, I’m glad to see you still getting a chance to go away to college.”
I paused again, finding it surprisingly difficult to leave. I studied my grandmother, committing her unyielding face to memory. “But I’m sorry to have to leave you behind.”
“Don’t fret about me,” she again reassured me. “Just do what’s right for you.”
I wistfully surveyed the living room, realizing I might not see this home again for a long time, if ever. “You know…” My voice cracked as I spoke. “Sometimes this all feels like some big terrible dream, like it’s all a simulation.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” my grandmother agreed, possibly not quite understanding.
“And the program’s just going to end all of a sudden,” I predicted, “and this whole crazy story will have played itself out.”
“And then what happens?” She asked me, sounding like a child being told a story.
But I didn’t have a good ending to my story. I merely shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe it begins all over again.”
Grandma sadly shook her head. “Unfortunately, this is more a liberal arts view than a scientific one.”
I gave my grandmother one last determined hug. “I’m going to miss you, Grandma.”
As I straightened back up, I saw Gargong approaching, carrying his cooler. Neither of us had heard him enter the house. He set the cooler down on the coffee table. “Is there nothing I can say to make you change your mind?”
“No, thank you,” I calmly replied. “I prefer to leave my mind unchanged.”
He moved closer. “You, of all people, are the last one I would have expected to be this stubborn.”
I stared at him but did not reply.
“I do not understand why, after all this time, you still do not trust me.”
I stood my ground, refusing to be intimidated. “Really?”
“No. We have never lied to you.”
I carefully evaluated his claim. “There are lies of commission and lies of omission. You may never have committed an act of lying, but I suspect you often omitted large parts of the truth.”
Gargong nodded toward Grandma. “You sound like your grandmother.”
“Yes,” Grandma readily agreed. “I’m very proud of you. But I’m afraid you can’t even trust them to leave you in peace on that human nature preserve.”
But Gargong waved away her concern. “You have nothing to worry about. It is important for us to have some humans continue to live freely, naturally. We are, after all, inhabiting human bodies.”
I thought about this. “So at some point you may need some free range humans for medical experimentation?”
Gargong did not immediately respond. He and I stared silently at each other for several seconds. But I thought I detected something in his eyes, like a veil finally being pulled aside, revealing a merciless determination. Eventually he replied, in a sterner voice, “Homo sapiens are really in no position to claim the moral high ground when it comes to treatment of inferior species.”
My VIM family—Scott, my mother and my father—came down the stairs together and joined the rest of us in the dining room. The whole family was there to see me off except Kawkonga. She had chosen to remain upstairs, and it occurred to me she was probably already measuring my room, making plans to turn it into a nursery.
My mother had her hand under my father’s arm so she could steer him. He was calmer now, possibly due to my mother’s constant attentions, but he remained in the same lethargic condition, caught between the VIM and human worlds.
Scott informed me my van was waiting outside. He asked, “Are you still intent on leaving?”
“Yes,” I replied curtly. “I’d better go. Goodbye.” Scott and I hugged awkwardly and I moved on quickly to my parents.
I tried to get my father’s attention but was unable to register any eye contact. “Not much change?”
“He has his good days and his bad,” my mother told me. “But we are still hopeful he will find his way through to us.”
I quickly hugged my mother and then my father. I felt him shudder. He seemed to be, deep inside his throat, still attempting to produce speech, but all I could discern were faint muffled incomprehensible sounds. He might have just been having trouble breathing. I released him, grabbed my suitcase, and strode quickly through the living room.
But right by the exit I hesitated and turned back. “Just one question.” I glanced back at all of them before focusing directly on Gargong. “Just out of curiosity, what does ‘VIM’ really mean?”
He intoned a response, like a pastor delivering a sermon. “It means there is a life-cycle to all organisms. It means humans must adapt to survive. It means you must choose to accept an enhanced awareness.”
“But that right there’s the flaw in your sales-pitch,” I argued. “No organism ever chooses to evolve. That’s not how evolution works. It has to happen naturally.” I left quickly without looking back.
But once alone on the front porch I halted again, emitting an involuntary little gasp. My eyes filled with tears. I heard my mother, after having watched me go, say to the others, “She needs to get with the program.”
Gargong insisted, “There is still time.”
And Scott reminded the others they needed to prepare. He made some vague reference to establishing plans for the next phase.
Gargong stated, “Our plans need to be confidential.” I could imagine him glancing at my grandmother as he said this.
And Scott suggested, “Perhaps, grandmother, you would be more comfortable in your room. We could move your armchair upstairs along with the television.”
“Go to Hell!” Grandma snarled back at him. I peeked in through the door and saw her right eye drooping as she took aim at her VIM family.
And then my father jerked to attention and proclaimed, in a loud guttural voice, “Abandon hope all ye who…” But then the words were choked off. He began to shake. His face contorted, his arms flailed up above his head, and he screamed, “Reach out and touch the stars.”
I ran down the steps and straight to the waiting car.
* * *
In conclusion, as has been pointed out repeatedly, the merger of VIM consciousness with human represents a profound evolution for humanity. However, in making this claim the VIM are using evolution in the broader general sense meaning improvement of the species. It is not my intent to challenge or debate this declaration, but it would seem to me that such a claim is made more as a justification than a scientific observation.
When we focus on the nature of evolutionary change in its more standard form, we can see that the introduction of VIM consciousness, as illustrated by my own family’s case study, differed significantly from a normal evolutionary adaptation in a number of ways:
First, evolutionary change typically happens through an internal change in the organism. The cause is some random mutation which may be driven by something like ultraviolet light radiation or some other external force but which occurs internally, subtly if not completely unforeseen, deep within the biological entity. The VIM adaptation is different in that it comes from outside and causes immediate change once internalized.
Second, as previously mentioned, the speed of the overall VIM adaptation has been remarkably quick compared to a typical evolution. In the case of my own family, the entire process took less than a single year, except of course for me personally and my grandmother. Given the rapidity of the changes to our society, the acceptance of VIM consciousness may be considered revolutionary rather than evolutionary.
Third, typical evolution does appear to be in some sense inevitable, at least in retrospect, whereas the VIM conversions are completely a matter of choice. They have to be. This was most clearly illustrated in my father’s unfortunate case. Requiring an evolutionary change to be actively chosen is, I believe, particularly problematic. All evolution is driven by the principle of survival of the fittest so the stakes are very high. To have to actively choose such change is to be put in a position of selecting an unknown future with unpredictable consequences and the highest of stakes.
While evolution of the species as a whole is undoubtedly both necessary and beneficial, on a more personal level I believe the necessity and beneficence of such an adaptation may greatly depend on the effect on the individual organism. Some organisms will survive. Some organisms will flourish. But for the strong to survive, weaker members of the species must perish. That is the merciless, unrelenting mechanism which propels evolution.
It has been repeatedly suggested to me by the people in the VIM Outreach Center that I am being obstinate in not accepting conversion when to do so would result in so many obvious benefits. This may be so. I know many of my classmates who began the fall semester with me have already converted and gone on to rewarding positions in the new society. But I don’t feel I’m being unduly difficult in wanting to wait until I feel I have a clearer picture of what such a choice may entail in the long run. When the choice is irrevocable, as this one clearly is, a little procrastination would seem to be understandable. Any sentient being might be reluctant to make such a choice without fully appreciating all the ramifications.
Finally, let me observe that, in using my family’s own conversions as a personal illustration of the broader VIM evolution, I have attempted to report the events as accurately as possible. However, I realize my memories may sometimes be faulty and such a historical recollection may drift unwittingly into an improper depiction of our VIM benefactors. I am only now learning the difference between free thought, which I know is encouraged here at ND Free Human University, and sedition, which is prohibited; and I fear I may have strayed over the line.
For this reason, as recommended in my Ethics and Rhetoric class, I am submitting this essay to the PAT (Proper Academic Thought) Committee for pre-review before formally handing in the assignment. Please let me know if it is acceptable by leaving word on my ND Free University email account.
However, no further action is required on your part, even if this essay is considered to be unacceptable. Consider it to be my own personal declaration of independence. I am aware some of my classmates, who have been accused of straying from free thought to sedition, have been detained by the university authorities for more intensive pre-conversion thought training. I have decided to avoid this possible outcome. Therefore, by the time you read this, I will have left my dorm and withdrawn from my classes at the university. I have encountered some like-minded unevolved individuals who are assisting me in pursuing a different path. I know you are already aware of their existence.
We are all evolving, with different changes taking place in different individuals, all the time. Not all of us need to evolve in exactly the same way, in unison. Compliance and conformity should not be preconditions for survival.
Our goal is not to fight against the VIM evolution, but only to slow the pace of it so that it follows a more typical evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, path. The only thing we ask of the VIM is that you respect our choices, in return for us also respecting your right to exist. The VIM appear to have learned much from humanity, in terms of motivations and competitiveness. We are hopeful you can also learn our more noble traits such as respect for the rights and freedoms of all individuals. We need to know if coexistence is still a possibility, or if the intention is to only allow a single fittest evolutionary path to exist.
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