by Steve DuBois
“We, as the negative team in this debate, propose that you exterminate the human race. The chief flaw in the affirmative team’s policy proposal lies not in the mechanics of how it protects people, but in the assumption that people should be protected. In your notes, judges, please label our overall argument: Wipeout. It is an overarching strategy with several interlocking components. Amit and I believe that you will find that the pieces fit.”
The debate final is underway, the arguments unraveling under flickering fluorescent lights, and Connor’s shirt sleeve is unraveling with them. His clothing is threadbare, the sleeves of the suit he outgrew two years ago riding up his forearms, revealing a frayed left cuff, a missing button. Whenever his hands are left idle, they return to the cuff, picking and plucking nervously. It’s amazing, over time, how the wear accumulates, how much thoughtless damage is done.
The boy himself is gawky and angular, addicted to argument. He hunches over the desk, battered laptop open before him, hitching in quick double-breaths between sentences, spewing facts and spittle. Connor is awkward, and he is unkempt almost to the point of being anti-kempt. But Connor is a tactician. You’ve yet to even open your mouth, and Connor already knows what you’re going to say and why you’re wrong.
Beside him, Amit. Amit is tiny and brown, his necktie impeccably knotted by his mother that morning, and there is no unkindness in him. Amit can speak at three hundred and thirty words per minute without a stumble or a bobble. Amit skipped two grades and posted a 36 ACT at age fourteen. Amit can’t ask a girl out on a date without his throat swelling shut from pure terror. But stick an equation in front of him or an argumentative brief in his hand, and Amit becomes a machine.
The room contains a triumvirate of adult judges and a plethora of adolescent spectators and the clacking and rattling of fingers on keyboards and the breathless, rapid-fire drone of Connor’s voice. And the room contains the surprised expressions on the faces of their opponents, Maggie and Amanda, and the quizzical glance between them, as Connor drops the bomb.
“Adoption of the affirmative’s policy will result in several disadvantages, the first of which you may label Vacuum Metastability. In Subpoint A we note that the affirmative prevents a nuclear war. This, of course, is their claim. You may have found their reasoning specious when they presented it, but you shouldn’t hold it against them. It’s just the way things work in modern high school debate. Judges are expected to weigh the benefits and the drawbacks of the affirmative’s proposal. In search of the biggest impact to weigh, both teams inevitably race towards apocalypse. We will not dispute their claim; we concede it. In fact, we will double down on their behalf: as this evidence from Professor Schell in 1994 demonstrates, the war they prevent would inevitably result in human extinction.
And that’s the problem. Our Subpoint B points to mankind’s continual and unwise experimentation with particle colliders. As Dr. Ammerman demonstrates in this evidence from 2014, our curiosity will ultimately kill us, as particle collisions create microscopic black holes with the capacity to suck in our entire solar system. Worse still, as Till in ’08 shows, is the probability that experiments of this sort could cause the collapse of the universe from a false to a true vacuum state—creating a new universe with its own set of physical laws, expanding outwards from a fixed point at the speed of light.
Sometimes the best way of disproving an argument is to take its premises seriously. Amit and I demonstrate that humanity must always seek to prove its intelligence, and that this urge to prove ourselves will prove the universe’s undoing—unless we undo ourselves first. We need the nuclear war, judges. We need the extinction of the human race to save the universe. You must reject the affirmative, judges. You must negate.”
The first day Connor wore a suit was the worst day of Connor’s life. Ever since, putting on a tie has triggered a psychosomatic reaction, a gnawing in his stomach accompanied by a cold, sour sweat and a feeling of impending doom. He has taught himself to channel it all, to burn it as fuel, and now Connor’s laptop and his mouth are roaring wide open, and the data pours forth, and from it, Connor knits a narrative of apocalypse. Vacuum Metastability first, and then four more disadvantages to the affirmative plan as well as a critique of the affirmative’s philosophy: a smorgasbord of anti-human arguments from which each judge may select her personal favorite. Things fall apart, by Connor’s design; the center cannot hold, he will not let it. Maggie and Amanda, at the desk across the room, ensconced behind laptops of their own, stare slack-jawed as Connor rhetorically exterminates the human species. They had carefully crafted a proposal to ameliorate American poverty, had meticulously researched its merits, had prepared, or so they thought, against all possible objections. But then, alas, they claimed to prevent nuclear war. Connor and Amit have seized the opportunity, have taken them to a place they were unprepared to go. Amanda and Maggie had assumed that the value of human life was common ground. Connor has ripped that ground from beneath their feet, and they plummet, grasping for reasons and for the right words.
The words do not come. Connor wipes out humanity and wins. Connor and Amit soak up the applause of the crowd and the adulation of their debate coach. Connor basks in the admiring glow of Ambriel’s gaze. Fragrant Ambriel, with her perfect face, her showy figure, her formidable mind, her fashionable hyphenate of a surname. Connor knows he can never hope to approach her either competitively or socially. On most Saturdays she’d have swept the field clean—but as luck would have it, this weekend, she and her partner stumbled in quarterfinals, and Connor and Amit were there to fill the void.
The day is theirs, as is the first place trophy—plastic and wood veneer, columns and platforms ascending, crowned by a gilt figurine of a dapper teen, right arm extended in a sweeping gesture, left arm resting lightly atop a lectern. The figure is a fraud, a throwback to a bygone era in which debaters were rhetorical artists as opposed to industrial information processors. Pretty, Connor thinks, observing the figurine’s posture, but not realistic. He can’t imagine why any debater would choose such a bizarre stance.
“The second disadvantage to the affirmative team’s proposal is Nanotechnology. Consider first Subpoint A: the affirmative team’s plan will prevent a nuclear war, and the ensuing human extinction. In Subpoint B, we note that continued human survival ensures the development of nanoreplicators. Dr. Drexler explained in 1990 that these microscopic machines will disassemble molecules to make new, more useful molecules out of them, in order to build more replicators, in order to make still more molecules. And the impact, in Subpoint C: nanoreplicators will unravel the universe. Smith in 2012: The off switch fails. The replicators start making more of themselves, and they don’t stop. The mindless machines turn upon their creators, disassembling us, disassembling Earth, spreading out in a cloud. The solar system, the stellar cluster, the galaxy, dissolve into grey goo. The machines are all.
One single change in the program is all it takes. One single unit can make all the difference. Shut down the program, judges, by shutting down the programmers. Bring on the apocalypse! You must negate.”
Connor is leaving the building, trophy under his arm, when he is approached by one of the judges from the final round, probably somebody’s mom. He does not know her, which is unusual; debate is a closed community, and the usual adjudicators are former competitors. Seeing her on the finals panel, Connor and Amit resolved themselves to ignore her in favor of the two younger judges, but she surprised them by giving every appearance of being able to follow, and even appreciate, their rapid speech and coldhearted impact calculus. Connor looks at her and cannot think how to describe her; her face registers as undefined, a mathematical average of all faces.
She greets Connor, offers him a vague attempt at a smile. Her eyes, he notices, are a truly strange shade of hazel, almost gold. She stares at him a moment longer. He stops noticing. She remarks upon his tactics in the round. An interesting argument, she says, but can it be that he truly believes it? Connor reflects on the question. Well…sure, he replies. He’s not lying. Any debater, to sell an argument with full conviction, must first sell themselves on its virtues. He did, at the moment of advocacy, believe the argument to be true.
The woman offers Connor that strange smile again, and leans in close. He leans in as well. She turns to him, grips him firmly by the collar, and whispers thirteen words in his ear. Ten of the words would be familiar to any eight-year-old. The eleventh is more advanced. The twelfth is a word Connor has never heard before, and the thirteenth is, perhaps, not a word at all; Connor can’t fathom what part of speech it might be, or even how a human tongue could shape the syllables. The words fit together imperfectly. They express a thought, but they are not quite a sentence.
As he sifts through the thirteen words, over and over again, in his head, on his walk to his beaten-up Oldsmobile, on the ride home to the carefully maintained double-wide he shares with his father, who is working another double shift and won’t be home for hours, won’t be home for dinner, won’t see Connor at all that night, won’t know of his great victory until its savor has faded, until Connor is uninterested in discussing it—as Connor spins and flips the words in his head, it almost seems like the thirteen words are spinning him, popping and fizzing in his cranium, disconnecting and reconnecting synapses, introducing neurons to new neighbors.
Connor retires early with a headache. And his dreams are strange.
In the morning, Connor sits at the breakfast table across from his father, munching off-brand corn flakes and marshalling his arguments. Dad, he says, I think we should talk again about sending me to a summer debate institute. And he braces for what will follow. There is no money, of course. There is never money. Since that day, ten years ago, when Connor sat in his first suit at his mother’s funeral, Connor’s father has worked two and sometimes three jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. She was the smart one, Connor’s father always says, the up-and-coming lawyer. She’s the one you take after, son, he says, beaming with pride. Connor’s father works with his hands, wearing himself down to a nub in exchange for a fraction of the income she could have earned.
Connor knows, entering into the debate with his father, that he has no chance at a clean win. So he prepares to fight dirty. Connor is prepared to say: Dad, I need to earn a debate scholarship, we can’t pay for college any other way. Dad, I know you don’t want your grandson to grow up the way I grew up. Dad, this is what mom would have wanted.
Connor braces himself to say these things. Then his father, hard-handed and bleary-eyed from God knows how little sleep, looks up at Connor and says, Yeah, OK. We’ll send you to debate camp.
All of Connor’s arguments die unuttered. He sits, numb with surprise. Really? He says. Yeah, replies his father. What about the money? Connor asks. His dad sits staring for a moment. Hadn’t really thought about it, he says. Which is odd, because Connor knows that his father seldom has the luxury of thinking about anything else.
Connor cracks a joke: Well, in that case, can I have a Maserati, too? His father sits staring for a moment, then nods, stone-faced. Connor waits for him to crack up in laughter, but his father just keeps mechanically shoveling the cereal in. Dad, seriously, Connor says. His father looks up, shrugs. Just makes sense, he replies. A kid’s gotta get around somehow, right? Not even a hint of a grin.
Connor tents his fingers in front of his chin, watching as his father slowly, methodically works his way towards the bottom of the bowl. Dad, he says, you should wear that cereal bowl as a hat.
His father looks up, mild surprise in his eyes. Hadn’t really thought of it that way, he says. And then his father, who to the best of Connor’s recollection hasn’t done a single silly thing in the decade since a drunk driver wiped out the love of his life, calmly picks up the bowl in front of him and upends it over his own head. Soggy corn flakes patter against the cheap nylon carpet. Connor’s father peers out at him through cascading rivulets of milk, brown eyes solemn, perfectly matter-of-fact. Connor stares back, waiting for a laugh that never comes.
“The third disadvantage is ecocide. Subpoint A is the nuclear war they prevent. Subpoint B is global climate change. Subpoint C is ozone depletion. Subpoint D is pesticide runoff and oceanic dead zones. Subpoint E is the Pacific trash vortex. Subpoint F is oil spills. Subpoint G is hydraulic fracturing. Subpoint H is deforestation.
Must I go on? Must I exhaust the alphabet as we have exhausted the Earth? The problem, judges, is not that humanity is incapable of love, but that our love is self-directed. Our priority is proximity—family over nation, nation over humanity, humanity over all else that lives. We are incapable of the sort of self-sacrificing love that makes coexistence possible. Nuclear war, I will grant, is not the most environmentally benign of actions, but at least it has the merit of eliminating the cause of all the other problems. Solve the problem, judges, and negate.”
Connor and Amit run amok. Their victory of the previous week was hard-won, the result of years of painstaking effort and thirty hours a week of research and practice. This is different.
Connor and Amit’s strategy has not evolved. The element of surprise is gone. They have made themselves a stationary target for their opponents’ research, and it seems to Connor that their opponents have done an excellent job of preparing, that the responses he and Amit facing are well-reasoned and well-evidenced, that he and Amit are barely winning the argument at the best of times and losing it badly most of the time. The judges, however, disagree. Connor scarcely has time to open his mouth before the judges sign the ballot in his favor. Even his opponents, who have worked so hard developing what seemed to be sound strategies, slump their shoulders at Connor’s responses. For Connor, the victories are without savor. The thirteen words hang before him now, always, as if seared into his retinas. What have his accomplishments to do with him?
Amit is thriving amidst the glowing ruins of civilization. Connor once watched Amit, lost in thought, walk directly into a tree, then excuse himself politely and continue on his way. Amit is in love with the abstraction of ideas and the complexity of systems—he will, without provocation, speak at length about the mechanics of a bumblebee’s flight or about Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon. Now, Amit has fallen in love with the concept of human extinction. It seems to Connor that Amit, who once trailed in his wake, a mere machine to execute Connor’s strategies, is beginning to surpass him in skill. It fills Connor with pride to see Amit achieve this, and it saddens him that the judges can’t seem to recognize it, that their ballots consistently rank Connor as the superior competitor. But from a win-loss perspective, it makes no difference. Connor and Amit hold their own on the affirmative and wipe everyone out on the negative, winning their second tournament in a row. And after the awards ceremony, Connor goes for the BIG win: he asks Ambriel out to dinner. She accepts, of course, and Connor wishes like hell that the delight in her eyes were the product of his own merit, rather than of a formula someone recited in his ear.
The night arrives; he dresses in his least-wretched outfit, and pilots his shameful jalopy to her family’s McMansion, where she waits, resplendent, a golden-skinned figurine, a trophy to be won. Her parents raise an eyebrow at their daughter’s scarecrow of a suitor, but he assures them that he’s not as bad as appearances would indicate. And they agree; of course they do.
Connor’s expectations for Ambriel are unimaginably high. She exceeds them. She is, as far as Connor can tell, perfect in every way. She treats his rusted-out Olds as if it were a coach-and-four, names it “Clarence,” and every time they pass through a yellow light, she kisses her palm and presses it to the vehicle’s ceiling, leaving Connor jealous of his own dome light. At dinner, she talks easily and freely of matters large and small—so much so that Connor finds himself, entirely against his nature, relaxing. And when the subject matter turns to the weird, wonderful members of the community that they share—Amit, Cece Eberhardy, the Wu brothers, Thoroughly Postmodern Millie Roberts, all the glorious freaks that make up high school debate—the two of them laugh until their sides hurt.
And when, on the ride home, Ambriel turns to Connor with a lopsided grin and asks him to park the car for a while, Connor is so excited that he scarcely notices that what’s happening is happening at her instigation, not his. She proves confident in all the ways that he is shy, and skillful in all the ways that he is clumsy, and patient with him in all the ways that he is impatient with himself, and when the two of them come up for air for a moment, she tells him that she’s been waiting for over a year for him to ask her out. She tells him that he is so, so sexy when he’s up there at the podium, interrogating ideas instead of his own flaws. And, miracle of miracles, he actually finds himself believing it. And then, somewhat later, Ambriel hands Connor a small foil package, and as he grasps for it with fumbling fingers, he feels the jaws of the trap close around him.
Connor’s newfound talent means that Ambriel cannot give him her consent.
Or, rather, she cannot deny him her consent, or withdraw it. Which is, Connor knows, the same thing. His fantasy is a reality, but he cannot allow himself to live it, because whatever his flaws, his father did not raise him to be a monster.
He pulls away. What’s wrong? she asks. Too fast? she asks. Did I blow it? Did I ruin it? Did I mess everything up again? Her perfect composure has evaporated, her face is suddenly and strangely desperate, and he wants, more than anything else, to reassure her.
Except, he thinks. If he does so, she will accept his explanation completely. She will believe any lie or any truth he offers. She will have no power to resist. He loves her face, he loves her body, but above all else, he loves her agency, her fearlessness, her strength of will. And he cannot speak a single sentence to her without destroying all of those things. The two of them will never have a disagreement, never have to hash out a compromise. He will always have his way—and in having it, her will will cease to exist except as an extension of his own. In time, his personality will eclipse hers. His mind will subsume hers. There will cease to be the two of them, and there will instead be two of him.
And he loves her. And he will not make that exchange.
So Connor swallows, and he says, it’s not you, it’s me. A pathetic cliché, but she believes it.
And Connor says, you have done nothing wrong, and she believes this, too.
And Connor pauses for a long moment, and then he makes himself do it. He says: you deserve better than me. And in saying it, he changes her mind. Her eyes are suddenly wary, and she covers herself up, and she says, take me home. Which he does, in perfect silence; he has already said more than he wished to.
“If the scientists are insufficient to convince you, judges, then, perhaps you’d care to hear from the philosophers? Consider the following critique. We will call it Negative Utilitarianism.
Subpoint A presents a philosophical truth: our primary moral obligation is to minimize suffering. Note that I do NOT say ‘to maximize happiness’; the two are not the same. As Hampe and Contestabile demonstrated in 2010, the alleviation of suffering always has a superior moral claim over the provision of pleasure. Consider a starving man seeking a crust of bread, and a healthy man seeking a gourmet meal: are their claims equivalent? Consider a woman dying of cancer and a man with no medical issues; which matters more, her right to relief from pain, or his right to an orgasm?
Subpoint B. Life is pain. Schopenhauer explained: pain insists upon itself, makes itself impossible to ignore; pleasure is defined only by the absence of want or need. All life endures by consuming other life; do you suppose the pleasure experienced by the animal eating is commensurate to the pain of the animal being eaten? Pain, not pleasure, is king.
Subpoint C offers you an alternative to the agony that is life. Instead of the affirmative’s policy proposal, which seeks to keep the wheel of suffering spinning, grinding us and our descendants down for all eternity, you can opt for voluntary human extinction, the brainchild of environmentalist Les Knight. Choose not to breed, and to husband Earth’s resources as carefully as possible while we remain. What greater gift can we give the generations yet unborn than the absence of their own births, than freedom from their own pain?
You can choose to end suffering, rather than to perpetuate it. You can choose to negate.”
In terms of competitive success, Connor and Amit are on a rocket to the moon. Spaceflight, however, has its drawbacks. In the absence of gravity, muscles atrophy. Robbed of the resistance caused by the prospect of a loss, Connor is getting sloppy. He is throwing stuff at the wall, and of course, it is all sticking.
Employing their wipeout strategy, Connor and Amit win their third straight tournament. Amit has never been better. Connor has never been worse. It seems to Connor that their opponents’ responses are now very, very good indeed, but of course it has long since ceased to matter how hard their opponents work or what they say. Afterwards, holding the trophy, he is surrounded by admirers and immersed in self-loathing.
At eight PM that evening, the phone rings in Connor’s trailer. His father picks up, listens for a moment, then stares, white-faced, at Connor. He hands him the receiver. Connor listens for a moment, then rushes out into the night.
Connor is in the driver’s seat of the car he now calls Clarence, its headlights eating up the road before him, and he is remembering another night in the same car, he behind the wheel and Amit in the passenger seat, hopelessly lost on a back road in the hills outside Emporia. If we drive forever, Connor assures Amit, we’ll eventually find something. Amit corrects him: if we drive forever, eventually we’ll find everything.
Connor is thinking of last year’s debate team T-shirt, which Amit designed. The front bears a child’s scrawl; mixed capitals and lower-case letters, a lopsided smiley face, and the slogan “We liek D3bate alot.” The back bears the names of each member of the squad in the same shaky childish hand. Childlike wonder alongside formidable intellect; the capacity both to pick ideas to pieces and to believe in them utterly; the irony of Amit.
Connor is thinking of his father. Once so strong, a lifetime of work in hazardous environments, with heavy objects, with toxic chemicals, have taken their toll. And when his father thinks he’s not looking, Connor sees the signs: the tremors in his once steady hand, the subtle twitching on the left side of his face. Connor thinks of the movie he once saw in which the pirate built up an immunity to small doses of poison over the years, and knows it for a lie. A tiny dose of death might be endured. But the doses do not dissipate with time. They accumulate, a snowball rolling downhill. They build momentum. They overwhelm.
And Connor is remembering an event from his early childhood, before the loss of his mother: he and Amit, side by side on a riverbank, high above the water, wearing swimming trunks. A rope dangling from a tree limb in front of them; if they dare swing from it, it will project them out into empty space. Connor knock-kneed, afraid; Amit, half his size, reassuring him. Don’t be afraid, Connor. I’ll go first.
When Connor arrives at the hospital and rushes through the emergency room door, a huge throng rises to greet him. His teammates, yes, but also all of the others, all the competitors from neighboring schools, all of the people Connor and Amit have been wiping out on a weekly basis. The nerd-horde. The Wus are there, of course, and Bobby Throckmorton, Amanda and Maggie and LaToya and Tony, and yes, even Ambriel, over there in the corner, her eyes red. All of them, dozens upon dozens, all of his allies and all of his enemies, along with a horde of JV kids and pimply-faced freshmen he’s never even met. He scarcely recognizes them without their three-piece suits and prim, pleated skirts, without the laptop glow lighting up their faces. It’s Ambriel, of course, who has the courage to meet his wild-eyed, desperate gaze, and who swallows slowly, and shakes her head before she dissolves back into tears, taking half the room with her. But, of course, she need not have bothered. Connor knew, from the moment he heard the tremulous voice on the phone, how it would end. Because Amit was always impeccably careful, precise in everything he did; he would have researched the process carefully and known exactly how to wield the razor blade, exactly how to put the process beyond the possibility of chance or retrieval. Amit was firmly resolved.
There is no strength in Connor’s legs, but he manages to make his way across the room to the bench on which Amit’s parents huddle, arms around each other, in a paroxysm of grief. And he sits down silently beside them and waits to be noticed, and when he is, they instantly open up to enfold him as well, their son’s best friend and idol, Amit’s link to a community in which his intellect was nourished and his nature understood. And when, at length, they can bear to release him, Amit’s father reaches into his pocket and withdraws a crumpled piece of paper torn from a yellow legal pad, and hands it with fumbling fingers to Connor, and stares at him, his eyes desperate for understanding. And Connor looks down at the paper, and the words on it, written in a calm, decisive hand, read: I am completely convinced.
And Connor is up and out the door, the pleas of his friends fading behind him, drowned out by the roar of his car’s engine as he streaks across town, heedless of traffic, to fulfill a promise he made a decade ago, a promise he made as a seven-year-old boy sitting at a funeral wearing his first suit. He has always had the motive, now he has the mechanism, and there is certainly no reason not to act. It is, in the debater’s parlance, try or die.
“The fourth disadvantage, judges, is Antimatter Cascade. Here, again, we offer you three lines of analysis. Subpoint A: the affirmative plan prevents a nuclear war. Subpoint B: In the absence of nuclear war, antimatter weapons will be developed. Lin Xe demonstrated in 2014 that, on our current trajectory, we are mere years away from the ability to harness matter-antimatter explosions. And, Subpoint C: A war with antimatter weapons produces limitless destruction. As Professor Delgado of the University of California at Bakersfield shows, the potential energy of a matter-antimatter detonation is ten billion times that of an equivalent quantity of high explosive, and an explosion involving antimatter poses a threat to the baryonic matter of which the universe is composed.
It is a fundamental constant of human experience: if a thing exists, we will weaponize it. Humanity will miss no opportunity to turn its abilities to destructive purposes. The time has come to end that destruction by ending ourselves. You must negate.”
The trailer park is not so different from the one in which Connor resides. This particular unit is more dilapidated than most, the patchy grass around it cluttered with windblown trash and aluminum cans. When Connor hammers on the door, it nearly comes off its decaying hinges. The man who opens it has gone to fat; he is unshaven in a sleeveless T-shirt, his hair a greying, cottony fringe, a rich man’s caricature of poverty, and his right shoulder bears a crude tattoo of the sort one gets in prison. The face has changed, but not so greatly that Connor does not recognize it, from that courtroom in which he and his father sat, side by side, ten years ago.
This man had no words for Connor and his father that day, merely an apology mumbled off of an index card before they shuffled him off to a pitifully short term behind bars. He has long since emerged from prison, free to live the life that his neglect denied to Connor’s mother. And there has been no sign, no sign whatsoever, that he will make anything of that life. His license has been suspended, and restored, and suspended again; he has been back in jail and out again, and he has been in but mostly out of work, and in but mostly out of rehab. Connor knows this, because Connor has been watching this man, quite meticulously, for ten years, waiting for his opportunity. And here it is.
And Connor opens his mouth to speak. At what he means to say is: you should kill yourself.
And the words won’t come.
A lifetime spent husbanding his rage. Years spent arming himself with words, sharpening his vocabulary like a prison shank. A childhood spent learning to set his feelings aside in order to win the argument; to appear placid on the surface while churning underneath, to say what needs to be said. All that time, polishing his skills to be able to cut creatures like this one down to size, developing the gifts that are his only legacy from his mother. And now, at the critical moment, with nothing left to lose and no other future to anticipate, the words won’t come. He is his mother’s son, but his father’s as well, and the last words Connor ever intends to speak won’t come.
And what comes dribbling out of his mouth instead is: you should stop drinking.
Connor turns tail and flees, leaving behind him a worn and confused figure who will never consume another drop of alcohol. And Connor and Clarence are on the road again, and when he finally gets back to his own trailer, his father is gone, of course; Connor’s desperate friends have called his home and his father is out searching for him. And Connor cannot find any razor blades in the bathroom, but his father has been working construction and has left a linoleum knife on the carpet not far from the door. Connor spots the knife and picks it up. He looks around at the interior of the trailer. His father always keeps it immaculate. So Connor heads outside instead.
He has one final article to cut.
“The fifth and final disadvantage, judges, is Invasive Species.
Subpoint A is the nuclear war. The affirmative preserves the human race.
Subpoint B is the aliens. The Sagan evidence indicates that in a universe of this size, the emergence of life on thousands of worlds is a virtual certainty. Many civilizations must have already arisen that match or exceed ours in technological capacity. Yet we have not discovered any. Scientists call it the Fermi paradox: if aliens are possible, then where are they? Advanced civilizations cannot conceivably be unaware of humanity; we have been beaming electromagnetic evidence of our existence into the beyond for many decades. We have sought them aggressively. Why do they not answer? It can only be because they are in hiding. They have decoded our radio transmissions, our television broadcasts, our cultural representations of ourselves, and they recognize us for what we are: a threat to all that lives.
Subpoint C: Humanity is an invasive species. We are, at present, only capable of wrecking one planet, but nothing lasts forever. We are the disease against which the universe has no antibodies. Should we survive to the point of achieving interstellar travel, we will reenact the conquest of the Americas on a galactic scale. It will be the greatest atrocity in the history of the universe. You must amputate the gangrenous limb that is humanity to protect the greater body of lifekind.
You must negate. If you won’t defend the aliens against us, who will?”
Darkness, and the bitter taste of antiseptic, and the sterile bleeping of machines.
Connor awakes to white light and shadowy figures surrounding his bedside. His mouth feels as if it is stuffed with cotton. After a few woozy moments, he discovers the source of this feeling: his mouth is, in fact, stuffed with cotton, thick rolls of gauze to bind up his self-inflicted wound.
A nurse, her eyes a strange shade of hazel, almost gold, announces to a nearby doctor that the patient is awake. She steps away from Connor’s bedside, then out of the room. Connor, hazy with painkillers, hears the doctor address his father. He hears that he is fortunate, all things considered; he passed out from pain and shock well before he was able to saw entirely through the muscle. There will be long, difficult months of rehab ahead. Connor’s career as a debater is certainly over, but with painstaking work, he may one day be able to speak almost normally.
His father stares down at him, eyes glassy. Features haggard. He has been without sleep for some unguessable length of time. Son, he says, why? Why would you hurt yourself? Didn’t I tell you I would pay for the camp? Didn’t I tell you I would buy the Maserati?
Slowly, through the haze, as if to apologize, Connor raises his hand to take his father’s. His own hand is soft, has never known greater trauma than the touch of a keypad; his father’s is a mass of callus and scar tissue, the fingers crooked from work-related fractures and dislocations. Connor sucks in air through his nose and, through the cotton, emits three strangled, guttural grunts.
The words don’t come, but Connor’s father understands them anyway. And when he does, he closes his eyes wearily, raises his free hand to idly massage his own left temple. No, son, he says. I don’t believe you. No, you do not love me. Because you remember what it was like without her. And if you loved me, you would never deprive me of you, the way we were deprived of her.
And Connor begins to cry. He cries because of the pain he has caused, and because of the pain he has suffered. He cries because he knows that the persuasive task ahead of him is the most important he will ever confront. His case will be a difficult one, and he will have to be both his own advocate and the author of his own evidence.
But Connor also cries with joy. Because someone, finally, has learned to say no to him. And it seems to Connor that he has never heard a more beautiful sound than that of the word No.
“Williamson in ’92: ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.’
You must negate.”
The nurse proceeds to a nearby corridor, then to a service elevator, in the corner of which sits a black duffel bag. She enters alone, and the doors close behind her. As it descends to the basement, her facial features shift subtly, then blur. She reaches for the duffel bag with six-fingered hands, regards it through shining golden eyes, and withdraws a janitor’s coverall. She lifts her nurse’s cap from the scaly indigo crest that ridges her head and casts it aside. She recalls whispering in the boy’s unconscious ear, inflicting seven words on his subconscious mind, earlier that afternoon.
The plan was sound. Her superiors will understand. Humanity’s leaders achieve their status by mouthing vapid platitudes. Truly revolutionary thought, truly dangerous thought, is the province of the young, and the power to choose tomorrow’s leaders is the power to own the future. But the boy, she reflects, was a disappointment. He might have been the one. His thought process had shown special potential. But in the end, it had been necessary to turn him off; he showed signs of turning the gift towards unproductive ends. Still, she thinks, there will be others. In the end, humanity’s attraction to apocalypse is insatiable.
The affirmative will have its day. But the negative only has to win once.
Steve DuBois is a high school teacher and debate coach from Kansas City and the author of over a dozen professionally published short stories. For more of his work, visit www.stevedubois.net.