So, there are still people on Earth who live in their flesh bodies. Who eat, drink, procreate and die. It is these Outsiders, as we call them, who usually take care of the maintenance of the Tower.
The third winner of our April 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Vijayalakshmi Harish.
I am reading my great-great-grandmother’s blog, when the service request comes through.
“What is the problem?” I enquire.
SOLAR PANEL ON THE TOWER’S RIGHT FACE DAMAGED BY ONGOING STORM. REPAIRS NECESSITATE A PHYSICAL INTERVENTION ON THE OUTSIDE.
Outside repairs are usually handled by a maintenance crew of embodied Outsiders. So why is a Tower resident being asked to volunteer for the job?
OUTSIDER MAINTAINENCE CREW ALERTED. STORM CONDITIONS MAY DELAY THEIR ARRIVAL. REPAIR URGENT. CONFIRM AVAILABILITY FOR MISSION AND CONSENT FOR INCARNATION.
I confirm, and the next thing I know, I’ve been downloaded into an Avatar.
It began in 63 BI. That is, 63 years Before Immortality, or 2020 AD, as it was known then. Compared to all that came after, the Covid-19 was a relatively harmless virus, but it was the first one to seriously disrupt human life. Countries across the world struggled to rein in its spread and the global economy tanked. While the experience forced many to take stock and reconsider the effects of human activity on Nature, for the majority it became an inconvenient truth to be ignored. No sooner did the danger of the virus pass, than they went back to polluting and exploiting.
The damage humans had done to the planet was already irreversible. Scientists back then were already issuing dire warnings about climate change and the Doomsday Clock stood at 100 seconds to midnight.
Each year brought with it a slew of natural disasters. The melting permafrost from the ice caps not only raised the sea levels, drowning coastal cities but also released the ancient pathogens trapped in the ice, which were then spread to humans via rivers, lakes and other water sources. Food and water shortages sparked conflicts, both local and global. Faced with annihilation, humans did what they did best –they turned on each other. Death and ruin were everywhere.
It was then that The Immortality Project was born. Humans, after all, did another thing very well –they adapted.
It always throws me, this sudden sense of having a form. I always feel trapped. I look at “my hand” and flex “my fingers.” Odd things, bodies. Granted, this one is made of metal, but it is an accurate, if not superior, reproduction of the flesh bodies occupied by our ancestors. Cautiously, I attempt taking a step forward. Last time I was on the Outside, I’d tried walking too fast and had ended up face down on the ground. Luckily, this time I have better control of my limbs. It has been a while since this Avatar has been used though, and I wonder if I should take the time to do a bodyscan. That will take an hour though, and the service request had emphasized the urgency of the repairs. I decide to skip it, and step out of the garage.
The sense of being trapped goes away when I look at the wide open vista outside. I guess this is what made having bodies bearable for our ancestors as well.
The storm is fierce. It is already nearing sunset, and the dark clouds in addition make it look positively ominous. Lightning cracks, thunder booms and the river rages. I actually have to turn down the audio controls on the Avatar, because everything is just too loud. I look up at the Tower, and can see the errant solar panel flapping dangerously in the wind. The panels not only provide the Tower with the energy it needs to function, but also protection against the elements. So a solar panel coming loose during a storm is a serious problem.
I turn on the magnetization controls and start climbing the Tower. I have a long ascent ahead.
The Immortality Project began, horrifyingly enough, as a eugenics project. A way to preserve the best and the “purest” of humanity. It took its inspiration from the idea that the body is like the “clothing” for a soul that is eternal and undying. What if, we could find a way to release the soul from the confines of the body? It wasn’t a radically new idea. Sci-fi TV shows and books were already exploring the idea at the time. The answer came from disciplines as wide ranging as psychology to computer science to robotics and artificial intelligence.
To simplify greatly, scientists found a way to “upload” human consciousness into the cloud.
The Tower, where I live, is like a giant server. It was the first and the biggest, and it currently houses over a trillion “souls.” It was built in what used to be the holy Hindu city of Varanasi. The city where people believed they could escape the cycle of birth and rebirth. Of course, by the time the construction of the Tower began, the city itself didn’t exist anymore, having been ravaged by earthquakes and repeated floods, but the symbolism lived on in memory.
The panel itself doesn’t take much time to fix. An hour’s job at the most. It is dark now however, and I don’t relish the prospect of spending a few more hours climbing down. If only it wasn’t so windy, I’d have used thrusters to fly up and down, and this job would have been done in 15 minutes.
Then, suddenly, I am falling. It takes me a second to realize that I’ve been struck by lightning, and that has fried the magnets keeping me attached to the Tower’s surface. Well, now I would have to use the thrusters.
The wind, however, is too strong. I try to control the direction of the thrusters, but my lack of experience with inhabiting a body, combined with the strong winds, means that I’m flailing helplessly around. A particularly strong gust of wind sends me flying headfirst into the Tower, and while the Tower remains undamaged, my Avatar isn’t so lucky. Alarms indicating numerous malfunctions bleep and flash as I drop into the river below.
I struggle to stay afloat, but the current carries me away too fast, and I sink. The Avatar is too damaged and will shut down any moment now. I try extracting myself. All I have to do is upload myself back into the Tower. If the Avatar shuts down while I’m still in it, I will die.
Well, not exactly. Immortality Project, remember? I am, after all, like data on a computer, so there are copies of me. This version of me however –the version that has experiences and knowledge that the saved versions do not –this version would be dead soon.
You know the frustration you experience when you’re unable to save a file you’ve made changes to and you’re stuck with an older version that you have to update all over again? Imagine that, but with your personality.
The extraction isn’t working. I am stuck in this Avatar. I’m dying.
Needless to say, the push to keep out the “unworthy” was strong. Immortality was reserved for those who, ironically enough, had the “right bodies.” Back then, humans made judgements about each other based on physical appearances and capabilities. It sounds ridiculous now, and I have trouble imagining a world like that, having been raised in a world where concepts like race, gender, sexuality, disability etc.no longer exist. My family chose to “upload” themselves when I was only weeks old, but I have heard from my elders, who lived till adulthood in flesh bodies, about this senseless discrimination.
Thankfully, there were people, even back then, who realized how illogical and unfair that was. There were protests and demonstrations, and ultimately they triumphed. A majority of the world population chose to live as lines of computer code.
The finite resources people fought for were no longer necessary. There was no need for food, water, shelter etc. There was nothing to buy or sell; whatever we needed we “created with our mind”. So no, commerce or money. No rich vs poor. An outcome of no resources to fight over, meant that there was no need for someone to regulate society—so no governments, no struggle to hold on to power. No bodies, meant no wars, no class struggles, no illness, no death and no limits.
I would compare our society to that of a hive of bees or an army of ants, where each individual has their role, but ultimately serves a collective, but even in those insect societies there is an hierarchy. Our world is much more flatter and egalitarian. It’s not perfect –we still have individuals who act like “viruses,” causing chaos simply because they can, and we have our own forms of discrimination, but on the whole, it is a much more peaceful existence.
At the same time, there were those who chose to stay embodied. Bodies are susceptible to illness and death, but they chose that anyway. Some for religious reasons –they believed that reaching for immortality was too much like playing God. Others, simply because they believed that life had more value when it was finite. Immortality, to them, sounded like a burden rather than a blessing.
Despite my best efforts, I am drowning. I close my eyes and let go, giving myself to the water, with a twinge of sadness and regret. I’d last made a copy of myself five years ago. Who knows if that version of me will make the same choices as I have?
And then I hear voices. My Avatar is encircled by lassos, and pulled up into a boat by strong arms.
The maintenance crew! They’ve saved me!
A few minutes later, we are safe, sheltering from the storm in the ruins of an ancient temple. I use their computer to get a message to the Tower that I need help extracting myself from the Avatar. As soon as the storm passes someone will come and help me. For now, I watch as the crew settles down for dinner.
It is a cold night. They light a bonfire, and as they eat, they talk and laugh. I find their jokes funny, but my Avatar doesn’t have facial muscles that allow me to replicate their smiles or laughter. So I settle for flashing emojis on my chest display. Of course, they find that even more hilarious.
One of them starts singing, and others rise up in response and start dancing. I marvel at how gracefully they move; at the mesmerizing fluidity of their limbs. At their happiness.
How could they be so happy, knowing that someday they would die? Knowing pain and sickness in their fragile bodies?
I think back to what I was reading on my great-great-grandmother’s blog, just before I left for the mission. She was a teenager during World War III, and used the blog to document her experiences. In her posts she wrote of all the ugliness of those times. The violence, the starvation, the death and the unfathomable hate that humans can have for each other.
However, that is not all she wrote. She also wrote about people who put love and kindness above self-interest. She wrote about the small ways in which they resisted against fascism and division. They ways in which they banded together. In one of her posts, she quotes another young girl, Anne Frank, who lived long, long before her, but whose words are timeless –“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
As I look up at the stars and listen to the laughter echoing around me, I realize –that spirit; that hope, is ultimately what makes us truly human, and truly immortal.
Editor’s note: If she had survived the Holocaust, and lived to this day, Anne Frank would have been 91 years old, on the 12th of June, 2020. Would she have realized her dream of becoming a published writer? Maybe. Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl is one of the most riveting pieces of non-fiction literary work we have. What makes it so compelling is the fact that the writer was just an ordinary girl in her teens, writing about the ordinary things of everyday life in extraordinary circumstances and died at sixteen.
In July 1942, Anne’s family, along with some of their friends, went into hiding from the Nazi persecution of the Jews. They remained hidden in the Secret Annexe (as Anne calls their hiding place in a hidden area of her father’s office building). They were helped from the outside by loyal non-Jew friends, who kept them supplied with food, essentials and news. Sounds so much like the lockdown we’re in right? Except it was much worse – they were discovered in August 1944 and taken to a Nazi concentration camp.
Anne’s diary has its last entry on 1st August 1944. In the 2-odd years that they remained hidden, she wrote all her thoughts and experiences – the good, bad, and the ugly – in a diary that she received for her 13th birthday, from her father, Otto Frank. Miep Gies, the lady who was one of their helpers, found the diary along with other papers after their arrest, kept it safe, and handed it over to Otto, who returned after the war as the only survivor.
So much of what she writes is about hope for a better life ahead, “after all this is over”. Hope, to slightly misquote Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers living in every heart. Let’s look beyond this stressful time, shall we?
The cue is this quote by her: “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
Vijayalakshmi Harish wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
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