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A Newcomb Being's Paradox
Introduction by Michael Shackleford
A NEWCOMB BEING'S PARADOX is Science Fiction writer Aaron Denenberg's fourth short story posted at my web site WizardOfVegas.com. His first three stories were culled from the world of gambling. In NEWCOMB Aaron turns his attention to a problem/paradox in game theory, known as the Newcomb Problem.
As the problem goes, a being, known as the Newcomb Being, has superior predictive powers, believed to be 90% accurate. The ramifications of this are put to the test in a game. A contestant is presented with two boxes, A and B. He is informed that box A either has nothing or one million dollars. Box B is guaranteed to have $1,000. The contestant is informed that the Newcomb Being already studied his behavior, and predicted what he would pick. If the Newcomb Being predicted the contestant would pick box A only, he would put the million dollars in it. However, if he predicted the contestant would pick both, then he would put nothing in box A. The money was placed in the boxes 24 hours ago. The question gets at issues of fate and free will. If the contestant picks box A then will it be his fate to get the million dollars? Or is the money in box A fixed, so whatever it is, the choice is whether or not to turn down the extra $1,000 in box B.
In A NEWCOMB BEING'S PARADOX Aaron breathes life into the characters and the choice. The Newcomb Being is a recently discovered alien race. They are an agreeable lot. So much so that one of them agrees to participate in a game show putting his powers to the test. I was reminded of Aaron's book Dark Oz as I read the description of the Newcomb Beings. His use of humor and descriptive writing breathe life and fun into the story.
As the plot of the story unfolds, the contestant in the game show based on the Newcomb Being is incapacitated, and can't perform for the opening of the box(es). A hugely successful live show is on the line, not to mention millions in wagers placed on the outcome, and the military implications of controlling the Newcombs. Why didn't the Newcomb Being see this problem in the first place? Should he be asked what to do about it? Could the time slipper from Aaron's first three stories get them out of the mess? That is about as far as I should take it. The story takes many plot twists, and the end I never saw coming.
A NEWCOMB BEING'S PARADOX
by Aaron Paradox
Preparations, preparations, preparations!
So much labor went into each holovid show, Cheryl Vascomb never had time for friends, family, hobbies until after the broadcast. It did not help that each show had to go on live--that only added to the angst. There were never second chances to get mistakes corrected. Luckily, their resident Newcomb Being rarely failed to see the future for anything but what it was. If Ketchlkoachl (that was the closest phonetic spelling one could arrive at) made determinations as to anyone's choices, he was correct well over the ninety percent the traditional paradox demanded.
So, when Cheryl's portable twanged, she answered with the brevity of one who had very little time in her certain schedule. The call, nonetheless, was surprising. "David, what's up. I can't really talk long."
"Cheryl, we have a situation. It's going to affect the show."
"Great! How do we fix it?"
"I don't think it can be fixed! I'm talking about cancellation, Cheryl!"
"Just come down to Neptune Memorial. I'll meet you in the lobby."
Cheryl Vascomb hopped out of her hydrocar and stormed through the visitor doors of Neptune Memorial Hospital, anger shivering through her frame. This was a complete waste of time. The show was on within the next twenty four hours!
The premise of the Galaxies last two season's biggest hit was simple. A Newcomb Being--Ketchlkoachl, nicknamed Ketch for short, had been contracted to do the show. He would meet with contestants and after a single scan, determine which of two choices they would be most likely to make on the next episode, which took place forty-eight hours later.
The choices were simple enough. Two boxes were placed in front of the contestant upon his return. At that point, he could choose either box A or both box A and box B to take home. Box B was guaranteed to contain one thousand dollars. Anyone who wanted to guarantee a profit from the show could simply choose both boxes and leave.
Box A however might possibly contain one million dollars--if the Newcomb Being predicted the contestant would pick box A, then the million dollars would be inside--if the prediction was both boxes as the contestants choice, then Box A would be left empty. Unfortunately, Ketch was not always correct in his prediction. If he was wrong and concluded the contestant would pick both boxes, then the contestant picking only Box A would walk away with nothing, an empty box. Conversely, The conservative player that chose both boxes, would be surprised winning both the million dollars and the thousand dollars.
Ketch made his prediction at the end of the episode although that was hidden from everyone including gameshow staff. Only the Newcomb Being was aware of his choice, placement of contents into the boxes occurring in a sealed room.
Meanwhile, the general populace could make their own predictions and that was the main reason the show had been such a runaway hit. There were two games to choose from. With the first game, one chose which box the contestant would choose, basically mimicking the actions of the Newcomb. People who wished to play simply obtained a gamers card with the scratch-off choices. Scratching off the left box exposed a million dollar avatar--the right a thousand--scratching off both voided the ticket. If the scratch off revealed the correct decision for that holocast, then one simply redeemed the card for cash at the local gamestore. A correct choice was even money odds--most people thought they knew their fellow human's predilections!
The second bet was on whether Ketch would get the prediction wrong. If the box was empty, when the contestant chose only box A or if the box was full when the contestant chose both boxes then a bet on Ketch being incorrect would pay eight to one(although the correct odds payoff was nine to one).
The gambling returns had proved quite lucrative all across the galaxy for this show and other networks were already in search of their own premises--but none had a deal with the Newcombs except for Cheryl's company--the Newcombs had only been discovered a few decades earlier upon settlement of the new frontiers. They were an alien race and not related in any real means to the traditional Newcomb Being of the paradox model as proposed by William Newcomb way back in the twentieth century--they certainly did not call themselves by that name but had adopted it when dealing with homo sapiens after they had inadvertantly spoke their first words to their human ambassadors--"New comers" which one ambassador familiar with the paradox misheard as Newcombers. When it was discovered they actually did have precognitive powers, the name stuck and the Newcomber moniker was cemented.
Cheryl Vascomb was impatient. They had already telecast last evening the premiere episode for the new season and she had plenty to prepare for the forty-eight hour follow-up. Their first contestant had proven very popular based on the exit polls and subsequent lottery sales so his return episode the next day was looking to be a possible watershed for the network.
"This better be really freakin important, Dave. Now, what's going on?"
David explained the situation and Cheryl listened intently. Then she followed as her assistant David led the way to the Intensive Care Unit of Neptune Memorial and into the third room from the hydrovator. Laying there on the bed, comatose and unmoving without doubt was a member of tomorrows show. A very important member.
"Is this confirmed? His Identicard?"
"It's him," nodded her assistant.
Cheryl stared at what seemed an impossible portrait of statistics. "Wow, we are so fucked!"
Laying in the bed unconscious was James Roy--their next evenings returning contestant.
"Have you been able to reach next of kin?" queried Cheryl of the physician in charge. He was a kindly older, soft-spoken gentleman with a shock of white hair.
"We tried the two top listed numbers in his portable. The first was listed as his wife, but after several messages left, we've yet to hear from her. That's when we called the other number and got your assistant, David."
Cheryl nodded. "I have his wife's number. Let me give her a shot." She removed her portable from her hip-pocket, and stated "Mrs. James Roy" into the mouthpiece. The voice-activated gadget self-dialed. Putting it to her ear, she heard the resultant brrr of the receiving line. After five rings, a click followed by the traditional message about not being able to answer. "Listen, Mrs. Roy. This is Cheryl Vascomb from the Holovid station. We've met before. I need you to call me as soon as possible. There is an issue with tomorrow's appearance involving your husband. Please call. Thanks." She left her number repeated twice and snapped the holder shut.
"It's unusual not to have heard from her considering the condition of her husband. Any possibility she was also part of the accident?"
The physician looked skeptical but gave it a quick thought. "No one else was brought in and this was a singular accident. I would be surprised if she turned out to have not been brought here or that she came in anonymously. I can't answer for her lack of outreach."
Cheryl glanced at David and then nodded. "Doc, there's definitively no way James is going to be leaving the hospital within the next twenty four hours, correct? "
The doctor smiled amiably tinged with sorrow. "His injuries are quite serious. I don't know if he'll ever recover!"
She nodded. Cheryl had a lot to do now and excused herself.
Newcombers resembled disgusting horse-sized caterpillars. They tolerated our air with the invention of a breather they could periodically remove from their thick-lipped, gummy, oral orifices giving them an appearance of a smoker--one of the first political cartoonists had likened them to the hookah-smoking caterpillars from Alice In Wonderland. Facially, they had the expected binocular eyes, bifurcated nose and singular mouth one found on most Earth creatures allowing an average person to converse with them without discomfort. They had proven quite adept at learning our language which they somewhat demeaningly, although without malice, called simple. No human had ever managed to grasp even a rudimentary usage of their own language which to most humans resembled slurping near empty soda through a straw.
Upon first contact with their race and the discovery of their prescient abilities, many religious fanatics expressed the coming of the apocalypse as we had clearly met our makers--while still other religious fanatics decried them as evil mockeries of the lord and blasphemous creatures--but once language was not a barrier, the hooplah died down as the Newcombers themselves expressed incredulation that they might be considered anything related to deities.
In fact, the seemingly supernatural method they exhibited of foretelling the future was anything but--a quite physical bony nodule that grew from their brain at a Newcombers puberty exhibited these capabilities turning prescience into a completely physical interaction with their environment. Their young offspring did not have these capabilities and had to be taught proper methods of use, although it was as intuitive to them as our own sex education is to us.
This brain organ would vibrate when the Newcomber wished, sending out a "ping" quite similar to an Earth Whale's sonar or the Lasar developed for spaceships(which like it's underwater counterpart, sent out a ping, only of light instead of sound that reverberated and bounced back off of encountered objects.) The returning "pong" could then be analysed as shapes and determinant figures.
This pinging across the timestream was what allowed prescience and was originally as mysterious and alien to humans as vampire bats ability to "see" in the dark with their sonar. Scientists had immediately attempted to mimic this powerful ability mechanically, but had hit nothing but a brick wall. There was something very physical about the interaction of their brains with this formed bony modular growth.
A Newcomb ambassador had been asked if there was any foresight he had to our creating our own forms of prescience and the answer, although not disheartening was not encouraging either. According to the human ambassador who reported the conversation, it went something like this, "is it possible--I do not see it in your future but I do not not see it in your future. Any race that can conquer flight mechanically as you have is capable of it. How many generations did it take your race to mimic the flight of birds?"
Clearly it was not something Cheryl expected to see in her lifetime. Still that allowed for her network to create their award winning show of which she was a producer. "Are You More Prescient Than A Newcomber?" had started with high ratings and only been skyrocketing higher--it was now syndicated all the way to the Neptune satellites. A similar version was being developed for the Newcomber market although she was unsure how that one was going to work.
At any rate, the images Pinged back, although never seen by human eyes, were visualized by the Newcombers as being imperfect representations of the future, similar to sonar screens that showed blips-correctly delineating information but still being open to interpretation and mis-informed decisions.
Cheryl greeted Ketch, who as part of his contract with the show had his own on-site living quarters. Newcombers to date had not proven very excitable aliens, preferring to remain homebound and sedentary--they themselves had no space travel capabilities and were subject to the whims of human ship captains passing by their homeworld. Ketch sometimes expressed mordant wonder at how a gameshow was anything but a doldrum. Still, he grasped the context of the show and had proven a very popular character with the general audiences which for many was their first real exposure to this new race. In some ways, Ketch was an ambassador for the Newcombers.
The public had come to trust him!
Which is precisely why Cheryl felt odd with her present enquiry. "Good morning, Ketch!"
"Morning to you, Cheryllll." Newcombers had a tendency to extend their el's to the back of the throat, the closest to the gurgling soda pop sound of their own language they encountered in ours.
Cheryl noticed the two boxes that the Newcomb Being should have already stuffed with money. They sat in his apartment where they should be safe. Ketch rarely left and no one could steal from a sleeping Newcomb being, some form of sleeping sonar from that bony protrusion in their head alerting them to any unauthorised visitors. "Those suitcases are definitely filled, I am sure?" queried Cheryl as gracefully as she could muster.
"Are you confirming or asking? I fillled them based on my prediction just minutes after the meeting with the contestant. The static llllocks were activated in front of a llllive audience before the taping concllluded. A quick anallllysis by any independent entity willlll show they have not been tampered with. Why do you ask?"
"So, you definitely saw James Roy making a choice of one or both boxes to open tomorrow evening?"
"Within the usuallll parameters of accuracy, yes. I did see which choice he willllll make."
Cheryl looked point-blank into his ocular orbs. "Any chance you could be, you know, wrong?"
Ketch stared back at her silent for a moment in thought. "Yes. That is the wholllle point of the show's paradox for our contestants, is it not?"
"Of course. I guess I was having some butterflies in my stomach. Well, thank you, Ketch. A pleasure seeing you."
"The plllleasure was alllll mine."
"If our contestant is in a coma at Neptune Memorial, then who is going to open the boxes at tomorrow's taping?"
The majority of the producers and holovid executives had gathered around for an emergency meeting. Their stunned faces showed the intensity of their concern. Wendy Wisher was head of programming. She spoke up, "Just what type of vehicle was he driving when he hit the hydrobus, anyway. There are safety procedures in most of the current models that would have avoided this."
Cheryl winced. "He was not driving a vehicle at all when he hit the hydrobus. He was walking."
"A pedestrian? You mean the hydrobus hit him? It's a wonder he's still alive."
"And who knows for how long." Cheryl glanced around the table. "The question remains, what do we do about the show?"
"Well, that's obvious, isn't it," spoke up one of the lower echelon execs attending the meeting. "We have to cancel. We have no contestant."
"And refund over a hundred million dollars in scratch-off bets and wagers placed already for this show? This is primed to be one our hugest ratings bonanza's in years. The largest for the entire shows history."
"It's primed now to be a disaster. We have to cancel. And yes, we refund those people who have legitimate tickets. I fail to see how we could do anything other than that."
"There are other concernsss here, gentleman." Everyone turned to the deep bass voice from the gruff executive across the opposite end of the table. He was not someone Cheryl was familiar with personally but she knew the department he headed. The Holovid station was only a small part of a huge corporate conglomerate with many attached entities. This particular executive, whose identicard showed his last name to be Hughes, Cheryl understood, had oversight of the military development department of the company. She was amused by the fact Hughes had a lisp similar to the Newcomb Beings except it was his "es" sounds that he slurred.
"For the lasst few yearsss, we have been in development of an interfacce which will allow our generalsss and military to act in tandem with a Newcomb Being. In other wordss, a method of determining with ninety perccent accuracccy the decisions of the opposing generalss and military forcesss. Certainly anyone can ssee the ramificationsss of ssuch a military coup. The army is currently examining all aspectss of the Newcomb Beingss and in particular, the continued resultss of thiss very show. Gentleman, we cannot cancel. Our military prospectss make one hundred million dollars in refunded tickets look like a dime-sssstore bag."
Silence enjoined the table at the import of those words. It was the rather daring lower echelon executive who had the guts to pipe up again. "The Newcombers...are subject to inaccuracy, right? Obviously, this is one of those few times when our resident Newcomb Being misread the possibilities. I still don't see what the problem is?"
Hughes turned to him with an eyebrow upturned, about to deliver a school lesson to the uninitiated. "Thiss iss more than jussst an inaccurate reading. The ssituation iss thiss. We have a Newcomb Being who hass-sstated that he has foresseen with his customary "ninety percent accuraccy" the outcome of an event...an event that usss puny and inconssequential homo-ssapienss know with one hundred percent ccertainty will never occur!
"Ccertainly you can imagine how that can affect the confidence of our military contractorss, yesss?"
The junior exec nodded in a wave of comprehension.
Wendy Wisher broke the silence. "We have no choice. The show must go on! Does anyone have suggestions how to make that happen?"
Now the silence in the room was paralyzing. Cheryl wanted to really speak up but a gremlin lodged temporarily in her throat. She coughed and finally, "I have a friend of a friend who owns a...um, well, a time-slipper. I've checked and I can have access to it. Perhaps this is one of those times when we have no choice but to use it?"
Both Wendy Wisher and Mr. Hughes looked with shock and alarm upon Cheryl's suggestion. "Are you suggesting you go back in time and keep our contestant from being fatefully hit by a hydrobus? The first tenet of Gale's Law is that the past is fixed and anyone attempting to change the past will be blocked from doing so. The repercussions of such attempts are usually disastrous. We cannot condone any such activity."
"Of course not! That was not what I was suggesting at all. What I propose is to go one day into the future purely as an observer. I will affect nothing. I will watch the taping of the show and see what solution we developed. Then I will return here and divulge what we did. Since that will be the future, we will be pretty safe in simply implementing it."
Once again, the junior level exec spoke up. "You want to find out what solution we came up with and give it to us so we don't have to come up with the solution ourselves? There's something wrong with that, I'm sure. I mean, isn't it kind of cheating?"
Cheryl thought about it but her boss, Wendy, gave her no time to make conclusions. "No, it's genius. We have such little time to implement whatever plan we decide on anyway. Cheryl, prepare for this trip. It's vital to the show and no one else has come up with even a remotely viable solution."
Cheryl nodded and with that the meeting was adjourned.
Cheryl had her assistant double-check all her calculations as per the time slipper. They were pretty intuitive but she was still nervous about the whole thing. David smiled reassuringly. "It's fine. I should point out that none of the executives will back you up if anything does goes wrong. Time Slippers and their use is illegal. They won't implicate themselves."
"I understand. Anyway, it's just a quick trip one day forward. To observe! I'm sure nothing will happen. Some people do return from their time trips, right?"
David frowned. "Truthfully, I don't know any. But I don't know any gamblers who win consistently, either. Doesn't mean they don't exist."
Cheryl raised one eyebrow. "Are you trying to help or not?"
"Sorry! You're ready to go! Break a leg!"
"Thanks. Alright. Step back. Here goes." Cheryl activated the time slipper and then glanced up at her assistant--he was still there glaring at her a few feet away. "Oh, well, I guess it didn't work. I wonder what happened?"
"What are you talking about?" asked David. "You just appeared."
"I came to intercept you. It's twenty four hours into the future."
She looked David up and down confused. "Oh, wow. Then, David, you're wearing the same clothes? Don't you change? You're my assistant--how does that look?"
David sighed. "Cheryl, I've been here all night. I haven't had a chance to leave yet."
"Oh, forgive me then. This whole time travel thingie still has me spooked. It doesn't feel like I went anywhere." She glanced at her watch which concealed the time slipper. It did indeed indicate an entire day's passsage into the future.
"We have like ten minutes till showtime. Come on, let's hurry. I still have to return and file the full report."
"Hold up, Cheryl. The reason I was sent to meet you--something went wrong when you left."
That stopped her in her tracks. "I leave and more hell breaks loose? What now?"
David paused, nervous. "Cheryl, we waited for you. You never returned!"
It took her a few moments to recover from the shock. "I guess I failed at filing that report, huh? Maybe I didn't need too? Right? I mean, we are talking about only missing a day. I probably saw no reason to return, right?"
"You're trying to convince me or yourself?"
Cheryl nodded. "It just makes me nervous, that's all. I planned on returning and still do! I wonder what prohibited me from doing so? I guess I have to just scoot it to the back of my mind for now. So what have you been doing the last day? Sitting around with your thumbs stuck up your ass?"
"No. When it was obvious we couldn't depend on you, we went ahead and devised our own plans. Follow me."
Cheryl followed David, ignoring her assistant's admonishment--he was right, after all. She hadn't returned and they had been unable to depend on her. He led her to the make-up chair where what appeared to be their comatose contestant sat receiving the full powder puff for his upcoming holovid show. "Mister Roy?" she asked suspiciously astonished.
David giggled. "No, that's not him. An actor with an excellent resemblance to him. The make-up guy is completing the illusion."
The doppelganger rose. Standing, she could see he was a few inches shorter than their real contestant, but the illusion was pretty realistic. Nonetheless, this made her somewhat queasy. "So, he's going to open the boxes? Isn't this cheating?"
"If you had a better solution, you didn't return to tell us."
She considered the situation a moment. "Have you notified Ketch?"
"We debated about that. The decision was to keep him in the dark. Mister Hughes thinks this will make for an interesting experiment. If our resident alien cannot tell the difference, for example, that would be unfortunate, interesting."
"He's still an alien. I don't know how much goodwill that displays. We don't really know the Newcombers all that well yet."
She shrugged. Not much she could do after being incommunicado for so long. The doppelganger returned to his make-up chair. Cheryl pulled her assistant over, whispering, "So, this actor has obviously been made aware of everything, right? What's going to keep his mouth shut when this is all over?"
"Well, let's just say that regardless of which choice he makes, he's walking away with a million dollars this evening."
Cheryl was parched and needed a drink of water. She approached the catering table amongst all the hustle and bustle before taping. Only ten minutes to showtime. She felt strangely distanced, out of the loop. The production staff obviously had moved forward smartly without her and she almost felt like a fifth wheel. Natural thoughts about the efficacy of her continued employment billowed through her consciousness. Management was not averse to examining the roles of producers who did not fulfill their roles and were discovered to be fifth wheels.
She gulped heartily when the heaving, out-of-breath voice behind her startled her. "SO SORRY! I did everything I could to get here on time but you know how difficult it was. I was practically comatose."
Turning with half-swallowed water being expelled from her lips she greeted her contestant, the real contestant looking apologetically at her. "Mister Roy? I mean, James Roy?"
He smiled. "I hope I haven't caused major problems for the show arriving so late. I won't be penalized, will I?"
Cheryl stared at him open-mouthed. She thought she was hallucinating until her assistant, David, came up to them with the same shock registering across his own open-mouthed face. She quickly recovered, "No, of course not. Where's your wife?"
"Um, she really wanted to be here for tonights taping but a personal matter came up. That's not a problem?"
"NO! We prefer the family here but under the circumstances..."
Now, her training really kicked in. She immediately snapped her fingers for the make-up persons attention. "I WANT THIS GUY IN MAKE-UP IN FIVE! Dave, get on the horn to technical, have them grab me an extra few minutes with the show, anything, I don't care, even a promo for an upcoming episode. Just buy me some time. Mister Roy, I'm thankful you're just here and I have lots of questions but right now, I just need you to sit in that chair and get prepared."
She did have lots of questions but also, she felt strangely invigorated above the mystery. She was back in her element and finally in charge of the whole picture again. Of course, there remained one other unexpected element to deal with. She summoned Wendy Wisher over and the two of them approached this doppelganger who's smiling cherubic face had milkily turned sour over the course of one minute. "Thanks, for coming. Listen, we obviously will not be needing your services today. You can still enjoy the show, if you please."
"This is bullshit! You promised me a million bucks and I know exactly why you did, so unless you pay up, I'm going to make a big stink about this. You better believe!"
Wendy Wisher was not someone prone to extortion and quickly turned into Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, "Excuse me but just what exactly will you tell everyone--our resident Newcomb Being prophesied correctly even though none of the staff saw it coming? Right, and that's exactly the way things are supposed to be. Our staff does not take lightly to threats and I'm sure neither does your union so I suggest you get packing immediately, sir!"
Cheryl wanted the animosity to not simmer. She quickly piped in, "for your time, why don't you take box B. A thousand dollars for a few hours in a make-up chair is not a bad haul for you." The man thought about it and resignedly acknowledged acceptance. "Of course, you can't take the real box B. We're using that in tonights episode. We'll cut you a check."
The show went surprisingly well, all things considered. After introductions and a recap from the last episode, there were the obligatory features on the life of the contestant, which really amounted to a bunch of filler designed to make the average human viewer believe they might guess what choice was more likely to be made. That spent about fifteen minutes of the show, followed by a quick intro for new viewers on the verisimilitude of Newcomb Beings, their history and predictive abilities. A quick retread of what was at stake and finally, the moment had arrived when their contestant, James Roy was about to make his decision.
James Roy gave a speech about what he would do with a million dollars if that was his choice and the box was filled, answered a few questions from the host to "Ooohs and Ahhhs" generated by the live audience, was given generalities from the host who did his damndest to ad lib on the fly and finally announced the time had come for James to pick a box...right after the commercial break from their sponsors.
Wendy Wisher approached Cheryl during the five or so minutes the product ads ran. "Cheryl, I want you to follow our medical miracle after the show. I'll have a limo for you to follow behind his. Something is fishy here. You don't recover from a union with a Hydrobus that leaves you comatose and show up without a hair on your head mussed."
Cheryl nodded. She was concerned about that, too. "Looks like Ketch did see into the future correctly, huh?"
"Well, the show's not over yet. Let's see how precognitive he really is tonight!"
Music swelled up signalling the return to the airwaves. Loud applause from the studio audience killed another few moments and then the host gave a quick recap of what had occurred prior to the commercial interruption(funny how they were messages prior to the break and interruptions afterwards) and now came the moment of truth. "Mister Roy, James Roy, you must now pick a box that may or may not change your life forever," intoned the host with the gravest solemnity. "If you wish to go home with both boxes, then please choose to open Box B first, and then Box A. If you choose Box A only, then we will open that next. Mister Roy, make your decision."
James Roy smiled and looked briefly into the holovid. "I really knew all along what decision I planned to make. Box A only, please. I will take that million dollars."
Audience approval, yes. "Final choice?" asked the host, milking the moment for everything they had.
"Absolutely. Final choice."
"Then open that box and lets all see how well your decision turned out." The host handed him a key to open the static locks and gave him the concurrent passcode to type in.
James Roy smilingly went up to Box A, grasped the locked handle, scanned the magnetic key over the static locks, typed in the code to the computer interface and watched as the box did a rubiks cube style movement of shifting walls that forced all the viewers to store up their bated breath. The hissing locks finally grumbled into place, a drum roll accompanied the motion and then...
The box opened--completely empty!
Disappointment and sad music echoed through the studio. Even Cheryl was a bit shocked and disappointed. After all that, the last few hectic days of angst only for Ketch to both get his prediction right(about the show going on) and wrong about the boxes. It was lunacy in overdrive!
The host went into his usual spin control, making cooing and soothing motions to ease the pain of the contestant, but James Roy looked more than distraught at his loss. His face had blanched when the box had exposed its contents, skin turning a pasty white and then drenched green. Cheryl almost thought it was a trick of the light but Mister Roy actually looked sick.
Now the host addressed the Newcomb Being seated lordly over all at the back of the studio stage and intoned, "Ketch, can you give us any insight into how this calamity could have occurred? The audience is very curious."
The Holovid camera zoomed in on the Newcomb Beings thick face. Over the course of the show, Ketch had become more comfortable and knowledgable about hamming it up. He looked directly into the camera with his occular orbs and stated, "I was tragicallllly wrong!"
The audience clapped at the magnanimity of KetchlKoachl!
"Well, we will be right back after these messages with our next contestant." The red broadcast lights winked off and Cheryl did what she knew would be damage control from an irate contestant--it always happened this way.
"Sir, if you'll come with me. We have a limo waiting to escort you home. I'm very sorry you did not win."
"Fuck no! I won! I want my money. I never faltered or wavered. I always knew I would pick only box A. There is no way that box can contain nothing. You cheated!"
"Sir, that is the game. It's not whether you knew which box you would pick but what the Newcomb Being thought you would pick. You lost. Again, I'm sorry."
"No, you don't understand. I need that money!"
"We all could use a million dollars, Mister Roy. It just didn't happen that way."
"I am not leaving without it."
"Mister Roy. Don't make this worse than it needs to be. There have been some apparent improprieties about this show and I think you know to what I refer to. Under the circumstances, it would be easiest for everyone involved to just let things go. Don't you think?"
James face had contorted at that speech. There was something wrong, that much was obvious to Cheryl. He quietly nodded his head. "Good. Then let my assistant escort you to your limo which will drop you off home. And thank you for playing and making sure to be here at all costs."
As he left escorted by David, Wendy Wisher slinked next to her. "Cheryl. Still follow him home. Let's get to the bottom of this."
None of the scenery registered as the limo shepherded the dry-mouthed, withered and wracked soul of James Roy towards his final destination. He rewound the events of the past forty-eight hours like a perpetual non-linear Holo-vid machine. He had gone from incredible opportunity to nightmare, hope to horror and return to hope and return to horror in a nauseating rollercoaster ride of events. Now, he had to analyze his next move--with the knowledge he had no leverage--no money to deal with his nightmare situation.
For now, the only choice was to go home. He swallowed reflexively. What had that Holovid exec said? Apparent improprieties? What had she meant by that? Did she suspect what the situation truly amounted to? If that was the case, were the authorities involved?
His instructions to follow had been explicit--no involvement by the authorities or the absolute worst. And return with the millions dollars--or the absolute worst.
The studio limo dropped him off in front of his house, a ride that took both seemingly forever and almost instantaneous. He dazedly made some pleasantry about the trip and exited onto the front portico of his house. As the limo drove away, he took a deep breath and prepared to enter.
A muscle-bound goon stood off to the side, hidden in the deep shadows of night. James noticed him only because he had prior knowledge of his whereabouts. Anyone else not looking in the deeper recesses of the portico would not have spotted him. Realising James' had picked him out of the shadows, he grunted as James Roy allowed himself into the front door of his house.
He met the evil glare of Kinberg immediately and shut the door behind him. Kinberg and a second smaller, but no less dangerous goon stood in the center of the room. A quiet, tearful, beaten and swollen face, gagged, blindfolded, sat near to the back of the room--James heard her squeal pleadingly--it was his wife and he had not much to offer her in the way of hope.
Kinberg stepped forward. "You lost! You asshole!"
"I did everything I was supposed to do. How could I know box A would be empty? There was always the possibility of that!"
"NO, THERE WAS NOT!" Kinberg screamed. "You had to have messed up! You were picking the million dollar box and there was no option in that, no choice! How could this new-brush being thingie GET IT WRONG?"
"He's only right ninety percent of the time. He was wrong tonight!"
"I had faith he was going to get it right, my friend. I had faith because the consequences of getting it wrong were too strong for you. I had faith and now that faith and my patience has been sorely tested." "Perhaps your faith in the Newcomb Being was misplaced? I don't know, but I did what you requested. I would like to leave. Me and my wife." Kinberg laughed a lower throaty chuckle. "I don't have my million dollars!"
Silence except for the nervous, muffled whimper from his wife against the backwall. James Roy didn't know what to say or do. He couldn't come up with the money now, and certainly this pissant gangster knew that. Finally, Kinberg broke the silence if not the tension. "You want to know what I needed this money for? Come here. I'm gonna tell ya." James Roy stepped closer until he was arms-length from Kinberg.
"I have plans! Big plans. They involve illicit opportunities. Drugs, smuggling, prostitution, extortion, blackmail. Call me a one man cosa nostra." Kinberg glanced at the henchman standing to his left. "One man with a few helpers. I needed your help. I understand you had little control but I still needed it. That million was going to finance all of this. All my plans, all my operations were pivotal on your success. The Newcomb Being and your choice of Box A should have guaranteed that. Well, I guess nothing seems like a sure thing in this world!"
Nodding his head as an idea lit up, Kinberg removed an old-style projectile weapon with gloved hands. "This is an old family heirloom. Like most people today, I prefer blastguns to these old relics. But, it sometimes has its uses." Kinberg showed James there was only one bullet primed and loaded into the chamber.
He offered it to James Roy.
"Your wife hasn't seen our faces--you have! So, either I kill you and let her go, or I allow you to go free with something hanging over your head. So, take the gun!"
James felt the nozzle of the goons blastgun pointed at his skull just as the thought of killing Kinberg rung through his mind. "Don't get any smart ideas. You wouldn't make it in time and that would only guarantee both of you dead. Take the gun and kill your wife."
James lifted the six-shooter, heavy like Atlas' globe. "There you go! You've just incriminated yourself with fingerprints. Now, all you have to do is complete the deed, make the summary execution. Come on, now!"
James vision bored through the gun, tears welling up in his eyes. His breath heaved, ragged with emotion.
Kinberg grinned. "I think I know how this ends. But lets see which choice you will really make. Box number one, you kill your wife and leave a free man with her death over your head. Box number two, you kill yourself and your wife gets to leave unmolested. Now which one will you choose?"
As tears flowed through James along with indecision, he heard his wife's muffled blurbs and glugs, her attempts to plead with her own husband for what was left of her life. Or was she saying to end her misery? He could sit there and make any rationalization when faced with the paradox steaming over him like a freight train. Knees trembling, uncontrollable heaves and fits through his nerve-paralysed body and he looked at the shark called Kinberg, teeth stretched hungrily in front of him--and shook his head. "I...I can't decide. Not something like this."
Kinberg laughed as he looked with disdain at the crumpled figurine in front of him. "Don't decide by the time I countdown to zero and you both die." Then he began a countdown from ten.
James slowly put the gun to his own temple, his finger pressing lightly on the trigger, his wife mewling louder in the background, Kinberg growling with anticipation as his count reached to five.
"Four. Three. Two. One."
James flung the gun to point at his wife and pulled the trigger in a spasmodic paroxysm of hopelessness.
The mewling pleas from his wife had been silenced.
James stood, gun still in hand, sniveling, snot dripping unwiped from his nose mixing with weltering tears.
Kinberg smirked, retrieving his gun. "Just for the record, that's the choice I thought you'd make. I'll hold onto this incriminating piece of evidence--insurance. Let's go! Remember, Mr. Roy, don't go to the police. They are not very sociable to murderers."
As Kinberg and his goon moved to leave, the front door opened and a high-pitched and screaming Cheryl Vascomb was shoved through by Kinberg's larger goon from the portico. She fell in squealing agony to the floor and James Roy noted the crook and protruding bone of the left leg--It was broken. "I found her snooping around! She heard the gunshot."
Cheryl visibly trembled with fear. James glanced up at her, shock silencing him momentarily. Kinberg noted it. "Who is she?"
James saw a silent cry for discretion from Cheryl's eyes. But, it didn't matter. Kinberg was already searching her and located her business card and identicard. Kinberg sighed. Once again, Kinberg loaded the gun-powder pistol. Once again, he signaled for his henchman to point a blastgun to James Roy's temple.
Once again, he outstretched his arm to James Roy. "Double or nothing?"
The house had been quiet for hours. James Roy sat immobile, stunned by the acts of the evening. The twin bodies of the slain women still occupied their small death footprint--James could envision the chalk markings placed meticulously by the law enforcement autobots upon discovery.
As the personal disgust oozed out, anger boiled up. HE HATED KINBERG!
There would need to be vengeance. Somehow. First, he needed to clean up. He wasn"t sure how to proceed with that.
His wife first, then...no, better to do Cheryl Vascomb first. He just couldn't look at his wife yet. His spirit felt scrutinized by ethereal waves of betrayal emanating from her accusatory corpse. Yes, begin with Cheryl, the unwitting victim from the broadcast station.
A quick look and her wristwatch came to his attention. Some distant memory of how time slippers were concealed inside wristwatches made him scrutinize it further. He wanted so bad to go back in time, to make things right. But, of course, what were the odds that an actual time slipper were concealed within this particular wristwatch? Why would a Holovid producer be carrying around one of those? Removing the band, he saw the controls, fidgeted with them and to his shock discovered it really was a modern time travel device.
Perhaps, his luck had changed? Yes, he began to fabricate not a plan for revenge but salvation--one where he lived not with the death of his wife and this young pretty exec but where he warned his wife and himself of the danger before Kinberg had perpetrated the kidnapping.
Of course, he knew full well when Kinberg had entered their lives. After the first episode had filmed when returning home the next day, they had been accosted by Kinberg and his men. Yes, he only needed to approach himself and his wife ten minutes before to warn them and then they would be safe--he could wake up from this nightmare.
Placing the time slipper on his wrist, he set the coordinates and in a flurry of mounting excitement, activated the functions. He blinked and saw the same living room he had left, but there was no trace of the carnage from the brutal shootings. He had successfully returned to a point where his wife was still alive!
Leaving his home invigorated, he waited across the street wearing a virtuascarf. He knew enough about running into one's own self to know that it was not a pleasant experience. He would approach them from behind, introduce himself as an interested party, explain the situation and then remove the virtuascarf holovision exposing the truth. Once he was face to face with his past self, there would be no doubt. They would listen to him and Kinberg would be foiled.
His breathing was heavy, forced. He could not imagine how this second chance had been handed to him practically on a silver platter. Suddenly, he was shocked to see Kinberg and his two henchmen approach his home prior to his arrival. He had only been aware of their forced entry four or five minutes after he had arrived home. They must have staked the house.
Boiling intensity almost made him expose his hand. Although revenge and eliminating this threat surged through every fiber of his being, common sense won over--he had no weapons and the situation was three to one. Actually, the large goon counted as two compared to his small frame and they both had blastguns. No, the better plan was to wait until he arrived with his wife in the limo.
The limo delivering him and his wife from the television station turned the corner. Kinberg and his goons would soon con their way in, blastguns waving and make the demand that the one million dollars from the gameshow be turned over to them. Hah! They had had such faith in the Newcomb Being, they hadn't even considered the possibility of his leaving the box empty in error. But all that was going to be erased momentarily. Once he knew for certain his wife was safe, then he would pick box B--hah! After all, he already knew box A was empty. Why go home with nothing?
He began crossing the street as his earlier self approached with his beautiful wife. A twinge of nausea assailed him. He vaguely recalled this as being a psychosomatic symptom of seeing oneself in the past or future. His past self and his wife were walking up the steps to their home. With the knowledge Kinberg was in sight of them, James Roy rushed haphazardly to cross the street.
The door was open to their home. James Roy ran faster across the roadway. As he prepped his voice with what to say, a HONKING intruded on his consciousness. Turning to his right, events of past sins and regrets flashed helter-skelter across his frame of vision....
And any plans of staving off a bitter future were rendered comatose by a Hydrobus.
Wendy Wisher's schedule was always chaotic but this past week was brutal. She still had not located a replacement for Cheryl Vascomb and had just attended her funeral. Meanwhile, the show was going forward at the same time scrutiny over the murder of one of its producers caused all types of speculation.
She partially blamed herself. She had given Cheryl the go ahead to travel forward using a time slipper and had instructed her to follow the contestant who had proven nothing but an enigma. And testimony to the authorities left more mysteries. Two dead from gunshots? From an old-style projectile weapon later recovered due to an anonymous tip containing the fingerprints of James Roy? And Mister Roy himself--the police determined he was still comatose in the hospital which was a real shocker.
The detectives had questioned Wendy five times. They must have realized her story was not the full truth. She dare not mention the time slipper which she had a suspicion was behind the weird anomalies in the case. Detectives were confused about Mister Roy's broadcast appearance while he was still hospitalized. They had hired a doppelganger, claimed Wendy. That left them more puzzled and now they wanted to question him. She had stalled claiming the security of the show--once they obtained a warrant for records that would have to be dealt with! It just kept snowballing.
So when KetchlKoachl approached her with a request, she could only sit on her bum and profess a loss of will--what now?
"I would lllike to lleave for a day or two?"
Wendy stared silently. Ketch almost never left his apartment. A new horror went through her frame. "Are you quitting the show, Ketch?"
"I have no plllans to. I am under contract, am I not?"
"Oh, well, that's a relief. It's just that...this is so unusual coming from you."
"A lllot has happened the past week. I need some time away."
Wendy knew better than to try to read emotions from a Newcomb Being. They were somewhat inscrutable. But she accepted his answer. Newcomb Beings were known for their honesty.
"Certainly, Ketch. You aren't a prisoner. You can leave whenever you please. Should I arrange for transportation?"
"That willl be gratefullly appreciated."
KetchlKoachl went straight to the Newcomb Embassy. He put in a request to see the ambassador and was promptly told to enter his office. Two years earlier, Ketch would have probably needed to wait a few weeks for such a request to be fulfilled, but he was now the first ever bonafide Newcomb Holovid star and his own ambassador was more star-struck with him than the other way around.
When the ambassador had arrived, they discussed some small talk, the future of the holovid industry as pertains to Newcomb Beings and finally, KetchlKoachl broached the subject that had brought him there. He disclosed all the relevant details while his superior listened attentively. When he was finished, the ambassador nodded.
"you did the right thing. No use for recriminations," consoled the ambassador.
"Nonethellless, I knew with one hundred percent certainty, he would pick box A only. Even the Human Beings could have figured that one out. He was in need of enough money to cover the ransom. He would not have picked a choice that would normally give him just a thousand dollars.
"And yet," Ketch continued, "I purposefully did not place the money in Box A as I should have. Two humans are dead as a resulllt!"
The ambassador nodded paternally. "And yet, had you placed that money in Box A, you would have knowingly financed a new inter-galactic drug cartel. Thousands would have died, and not just two! KetchlKoachl, a Newcomb Being's paradox is never easily reconcilable. But I am convinced you did what was correct!"
"Thank you. I suppose I shallll return then and continue my duties."
KetchlKoachl began walking towards the exit. The ambassador walked by his side, placing pressure on his shoulder to emphasize his next point.
"What is most important, I should remind you, as far as the Human Beings are concerned, is that when it comes to our ability to predict the future..."
"Yes, I understand," interrupted Ketch, already foretelling the ambassador's concern. "As far as our ability to foretell the future, the Human Beings must never know that we can cheat!"
Other Short Stories by Aaron Denenberg
- A Fool Proof System For Beating Roulette.
- Another Fool Proof System For Beating Roulette.
- A Fool Proof System For Robbing a Casino.