Chapter 1: The Year 2049
Arnav came inside the house hurriedly and double locked the door to their cramped one bedroom apartment.
“It’s happening” He said to Aditi. She swiftly opened her system.
“How much time do we have?” she asked calmly, concentrating on her screen. They had expected this to happen and were ready for it. Almost ready.
“How much do you need?” Arnav checked the windows to spot any movement.
“It’s ready” She signaled Arnav to take a seat next to her and handed him the ‘Sachet’ chip. They attached it right in the middle of their forehead.
“What about this body?” Arnav asked.
“They most probably will retain it to host others. But I have removed all the muscle memory so we don’t need to worry.”
Aditi logged onto her computer and pointed at network diagram “We will try Bangladesh first. Then Srilanka or Myanmar or wherever we can get in.” she said tentatively.
Arnav looked at the network on the system nervously. They had been on the run ever since the civil war had started; jumping from one body to another, transferring their consciousness. But each time it was a huge risk. They could get lost in the network or not find any human body to load their conscious into. And if the army finds them using ‘Sachet’ chip illegally they might be put into prison or worse, would be erased without a fair trial. There was no country left to hold a fair trial anyway. India was already divided into twenty-nine small countries from twenty-nine states, and more were forming each year. It was like an epidemic. One day you are a legal citizen of India and the other day illegal resident of a new country called Punjab. What could a common man do?
“You ready?” Aditi asked extending her hand to him. Arnav nodded. They took one last look at faces they were wearing and smiled.
A small bomb came rolling inside the room and with a blast the door to their apartment shattered to pieces. A masked soldier stepped in carefully and looked at the lifeless bodies in front of him.
“They are gone sir?” He reported to his base.
“Both of them?”
“Bag in the chip and the laptop. Freeze the bodies in boxes”
The immigration officer, Subra KKR , at Srilanka border stared at his computer. The border firewall was throbbing with refugees. He had been working in this office for 90 years now, but in the last decade he has seen a surge of request like never before. Mostly from old India. People were abandoning their bodies and fleeing like the mice deserting the drowning ship.
Subra was one of the few who had seen the world change in front of his eyes. Earlier, there used to be a line of people on the border, to seek asylum in their country. Some people still come that way, but very few, only the ones who are rich. Others download their conscious as data on the system and transported themselves to the online firewalls, the virtual border where they can seek a new body to live in that country. But it’s not easy to find a new body. Especially now when people have the option to live beyond their 60-year-old life,if they happen to live that long, by keeping their conscious intact after physical death.
He himself had shifted into the second body once he was 60 and extended his retirement. He was one of the few lucky ones, who had the privilege to do that being a government employee. Others who wanted to live beyond the death of their body was downloaded into a capsule and shipped to an interstellar spaceship until a body was made available for them to come back. Some even shared the same body. The city was throbbing with people with multiple personality disorder. Only that it was not a disorder anymore. People could also choose to die, if they wanted to, but the government still stored their bodies for any future use.
One would think that the country that developed this digital immorality, the chip called ‘Sachet’, would dominate the world. But India was extinct now. Many big countries were on the verge of the same fate.
Two dots blinked on Subra’s computer. A request for asylum was placed by two consciousness from a country called ‘Punjab’, an old Indian state. He scanned the profile details attached to them. They both were scientists, the high profile ones, seeking political asylum. This was huge. He immediately transferred them to the body stationed in the prison cell number 33 and walked up to it.
A body that laid on the cold storage bed jerked and came to life. It looked around and then sighed with relief.
“Good morning” Subra said “Due to the shortage we have hosted both of your conscious in the same body. Apologies, we did not have time to bring the body to room temperature before transferring you. I assumed you might have been followed on the network, so transferred you immediately”
“It’s absolutely fine. Thank you.” Aditi responded from the body, still looking around the prison, touching and smelling things. Having bodily senses was a luxury they recognized and appreciated.
“I am going to state the rules as per the law.” Subra said “We will collect all the relevant information from you and present it to our immigration court. Until the judgment is given you will be placed in this cell and will have to use the same body. Please be mindful of how you use it as this body is a shared resource. Any kind of physical harm or mental distress to it is punishable by law. Do you understand?”
“Yes. We understand” They responded.
“Good, now for our verification, please state your name, age and relationship if any”
“I am Aditi, age 120 and He is Arnav age 80. He is my husband”
“Please state your country and the grounds to seek asylum”
“We are from a country called Punjab. We were part of old India. Our country is under another civil war. The government is sizing all bodies for the war under martial law and capturing the consciousness of people who revolt against the government.” They paused a bit before proceeding with the next bit of detail “..Some of the consciousness are even loaded into nonliving objects and used for experiments. We do have proof of this Human rights violation.”
Subra looked at them cautiously. As per United Nations law, one cannot host a conscious of a living being inside a nonliving one. This could have grave implications for a small country like Punjab, the one with water abundance.
“Where is the evidence?” Subra asked as reluctantly as he could.
“In our memories folder” Aditi said “..Encrypted”.
Subra considered them for a moment. They both knew the importance of what was being negotiated here.
“You will be provided with a lawyer” Subra got up “I will put your case on fast track.” he left hurriedly to contact the higher authority.
The room was scanned for any kind of signals and all electronics were removed. Any decision that was taken in the room were to be handwritten and signed old style for the fear of being hacked. The Srilankan President, Madam Urva Mandini, was sitting with her military head and strategic team in that room, appraising the evidence submitted by Aditi and Arnav.
After a long consideration the military leader turned towards the Madam President.
“If we present this to the UN committee, they could approve the war on Punjab”
“They are not fools” said the external affairs secretary “They know we are going after their rivers. Punjab is one of the countries with an abundance of water. Declaring war on them could be understood as a self-serving act”
“If we won’t attack them, somebody else might. China has already occupied Pakistan on the grounds of human rights violation. Now they acquire two important rivers, but nobody tagged them as self-serving .China might use this opportunity to take over Punjab since it’s strategically next best option after Pakistan. If we reject the plea for political asylum for these two, they would go to Washington with their evidence, and they won’t miss a beat either” The Military leader turned toward the president “Punjab is under civil war. We won’t get this chance again”
“They are a nuclear-enabled country” cautioned the external minister again “Use of the Nuclear force of any kind, could trigger war on a larger scale. We need to consider everything before we give a go on this”
Urva mandini leaned back on her chair, her black beady eyes narrowed in deep deliberation. Her country was withering away like a dry leaf. Women were dying even before they could give birth to a healthy baby. Water could save her country and put it in a place of strategic importance. She knew she cannot risk the use of nuclear power against any country without the approval of United Nations committee, and this evidence could get her just that. What did she have to lose? Either she could see her whole country die parched or be wipe out in one big sweep of a nuclear explosion.
“Let’s do this” She finally said.
Aditi and Arnav waited patiently in their prison cell. The meal had been served to them. They did not feel like eating, but it was illegal to starve the body in most countries now. They took the broccoli and let its soft, sweet texture melt in their mouth. The only good thing that came out of “clinical food’ was that now broccoli tasted better. In fact it could taste anyway they wanted it to be. The original bland version was also available in the market but was not that popular. Aditi stressed to recall how the organic broccoli tasted, its patchy dull color of green compared to the bright yellowish one now. She had stored few senses from her old body into her memory, like the sound of wind that hushed between the tall trees and the warmth of the sunlight that filtered through leaves. The touch of the silky green grass and the smell of the rain that used to plow the land. How long ago was it since she had felt something naturally aesthetic like that?
“Don’t.” Arnav said sensing the flow of Aditi’s memories in their mind “Past is too painful. If they see us crying they could put a fine on us. We cannot put this body in any kind of distress”
Aditi pushed back her memories into the encrypted data section. Arnav was right. There was no use of these memories now. They looked at the three big trays of food and a small square bag of water. They could eat as much as they want, but drinking water… Now that was the whole problem wasn’t it?
She still remembered the time, when the first restriction on water consumption was laid out. Twenty-ounce per citizen per day. But that was the time when there was a country called India. Before the Indian civil war, when the rivers were not border bounded or taxed or were sold as a commodity on world trade center. When we were trying to fix a different kind of problem. The problem to fill the growling hallow pits of hungry stomachs. Stomachs which were the vote banks for politicians.
The ‘Clinical food’ concept seemed to be our best bet, a technology to create food in the lab from plant cells. There was no need to waste the land on growing food. There were few who resisted this but were promptly silenced or bought out. Everyone was happy for a while, until draughts began to hit. It was like heavens had dried up. Lands had lost that green magic that summoned the rains. Millions were spent by ‘Food corporations’ to create water in their labs, but they could not. Too risky it seems.
Aditi had foreseen it all. She knew what was coming. The newspapers had dubbed it ‘water wars’. The states with rivers demanded independence to protect their resources, their own people. But who was ‘their own’? To decide that history was dug out. ‘You, ‘Me’, and ‘Others’ were defined based on religion, caste and gender and were killed accordingly.
The civil war started and like a shattering glass, India broke up into million pieces. If blood could quench the thirst, those wars would have given enough to this world. But people were still thirsty. So new boundaries were formed around the heavily guarded source of water.
Was it around this time she had met Arnav? Aditi tried to recall.
“No” Arnav said, smiling at her “We had met before that. Wait, let me pull out that memory”
They had met when Arnav was just 18 and Aditi was 50. He was hosted in a body of a 30-year-old male and she was in a body of 34-year-old Girl. But it wasn’t their looks that drew them to each other, it was their views that had clicked. They shared the same perception of the future. The grim picture of where their world was headed to. The civil wars, the draughts, the red flags of climate changes that every big corporation ignored. They both had seen it coming.
Aditi was assigned to train Arnav in ‘Sachet’ technology as a part of Military contingency program to curb any attempts of civil wars. He was to travel around the country, capturing the conscious of people who caused civil unrest, and lock them into the system. He had no clue what was done with them afterward. It was confidential until one day Aditi cracked open the codes of one of the online files and they saw the horror of what was happening. Many captured conscious were downloaded into objects and left that way for years as a way of tortures. A harmless pencil, a textbook, or a spoon was haunted by the conscious of such people. For some of them their memories were erased and were left in the body of animals to figure out who they were. Arnav could still remember the look in the eyes of mice as doctors performed experiments on it. They were painfully human, begging for the mercy to end their life. They all were humanitarian crimes. Arnav would have gone mad had Aditi not locked away these memories away safely for later use. They knew that they had seen too much. They had to get away or they could end up as a lab rat somewhere, being dissected alive.
“We are safe now” Aditi patted their heart as it picked up its pace. She replayed the memory of their first night to calm them down. They had rented the bodies of their favorite movie stars for the night but had ended up talking the whole night instead. They smiled unaware of the dangers that were shadowing their world.
The lawyer entered into prison no. 33 briskly and presented Aditi and Arnav with the government deal.
“You have struck gold here” He smiled widely at them.
It was indeed a gold. They would get young and separate bodies of their choices along with new Sri Lankan citizenships. Their food and water would be rationed under a government program for special citizens. When the time comes they can either chose to die or shift into another body. They both would have to work under Srilankan government’s science and research program for a year before they could move on to other occupations.
Aditi pointed a clause on the page “What is this for?”
“Oh! This one. That’s just for security purposes. Your conscious will be locked in your body so that no spies can enter into it or the body cannot be hacked to steal your memories. Only government would have access to all of that. At the end of each day, a backup copy of your conscious would be made and stored in a capsule in our Interstellar spaceship, in a state of deep sleep. In case you lose your present body or die unexpectedly, your conscious from the backup would be loaded back into the new body. This is just a standard protocol for Political refugees”
“And if we don’t want to lock our conscious into this body?” Arnav asked. He had been on the run for far too long to let them be locked in one body and that too the one which government could access anytime they wish to.
The lawyer smiled at them “Government needs some kind of assurance that you would not flee to other countries with your evidence. You are the star citizens of this country. You might not get a deal better than this in any other country.”
Aditi and Arnav pondered for a while. They knew their thoughts were monitored in this body. There wasn’t much left to ponder anyway.
“We’ll take it” Aditi replied.
“Fantastic!” Said the lawyer “You just need to sign on these pages and then we can head to the storage to select the bodies you would want. In fact they just got the bodies of a 26-year-old couple who died out of dehydration. It could be all yours if you want it” He offered with a wide smile.
The Military surveillance team of Punjab Army saw some movement on their border.
“What is it?” Asked the commander Pratap Singh. In short span of just 10 years he had already seen six attempts by the neighboring countries to capture their strategic point. His team was small, but it was one of the best. Each soldier here had died at least seven times on the field before being resurrected back into another body, like in a video game, where one gets a set number of lives to spare. Their 4D training centers were state of the art, which were designed from the real-time war memories of the soldiers on the field. But each year, there was something more lethal, more cunning brought out on the battlegrounds.
“It’s the storm, sir. It’s picking up the velocity and obstructing our visual of the border.”
They stared at the screen as the yellow sand particles veiled their surveillance camera. The storms in this region were not that unusual in the last decade. But there was something odd about this one.
“Can you pull out the surveillance video from the last year, when one of our soldiers was stuck in a similar sandstorm”
“Yes sir” the soldier pulled out the 4D version of the incident. A soldier walked in the deserted land when suddenly yellow sandstorm started to swirl around him. It wasn’t anything major and after a minute the storm stopped and the soldier walked back to the base. But he had to walk back an extra kilometer to the base.
“Check the coordinates of enemy’s base camp near the Border Forcefield” Pratap commanded.
“We don’t have a visual sir”
“Then send our robots to check where is the force field” A prickling intuition at the back of Pratap’s head told him something was not right. They watched the sensors as the robot proceeded towards the border and burned to ashes within minutes after colliding with the force field.
“Damn It! We are just 10 feet away from border field” Pratap gasped.
“How did they moved the border force felid sir?” The officer asked confused.
“They have not moved the force field” Pratap spoke spitefully “They have moved our base camp towards the border” he turned towards his team.
“Everyone, out of your bodies and into the capsules.” He commanded and then turned towards one of the soldiers “Burn down our base camp now”
“Sir are you sure…” The soldier confirmed.
“Yes!, the bastards are trying to make us breach the border laws. Now do it quickly!” The soldier pressed the self-destruction button.
The bodies dropped on the floor as they moved one by one into the capsules in the bunker. The dot on the tracking system moved in closer and closer towards the border force field. The destruction machine beeped.
Arnav and Aditi were already checked into the hospital to be moved into their new body, when they saw the latest news being aired.
“China declared war on Punjab last night, after Punjab army breached their border law by crossing into their territory and exploding their base camp. The Punjab government denied responsibility for this breach and accused China of playing it dirty by drifting their base camp across their own border intentionally and use that as an excuse to declare war on them. UN Committee has strongly condemned the act of China, however in the absence of any kind of proof their hands are tied.”
The blood drained from Arnav and Aditi’s face. They knew what that meant. Sri Lanka has lost Punjab to China. Their evidence was of no use to them now.
Their lawyer entered the hospital room a few hours later.
“The government has revoked your deal..” He pulled out the contract “They want to store you two in the space capsule under a deep sleep state. You will get a body based on the lottery system, just like any other normal Srilankan Citizen. Under the current situation, this the best they can give you. Unless you want to seek refuge somewhere else”
What can they seek in other countries? It was the same story everywhere else. They looked outside the window of the hospital, taking in every bit of the senses into their memory and locking it in.
“We’ll take this deal” Aditi and Arnav responded.
A capsule was marked as ‘Aditi_TK00-Arnav_TK00 (year 2049)’ and shipped to the emptiness of the space; free from borders, free from hunger, free from thirst.
***350 light years later****
Low humming sound brought Aditi to her senses. A touch of cold metal was registered by her skin. She got up from the bed and looked in the mirror in front of her. She was in a body of a young child of around seven years old, without any arms, dressed in a space jumpsuit. An adult male body, who had a leg missing, was lying on the bed next to her.
“Arnav?’ She lightly called out to him as he opened his eyes, smiling at her.
A guard entered their room “Welcome back.” He checked their pulse and attached plastic tags on their wrist with an ID number. “You might not feel it, but you guys have been asleep for a long time. Please follow me to the conference hall for your induction program”
“Are we in interstellar Spaceship?” Arnav asked confused. Weren’t they supposed to come back to life back on the earth, in Srilanka?
“You indeed are.” The guard replied with a smile.
They were seated in a small room which accommodated ten other people, appearing as confused as them.
“Welcome to all on the Srilanka Spaceship 9KK-08.” A lady standing on the podium in front of them addressed “I am Urva Mandini, the captain of this spaceship. It’s my pleasure to inform you all, that you were the last batch of conscious that we have loaded back into the human bodies. We today stand at the population of 300 people on this spaceship” The soldiers standing at the gates clapped enthusiastically.
“Most of you are from the year 2049. I will do my best to speed you all up to the current time. Please do feel free to ask any questions you might have.” She clicked a button and the lights in the room dimmed down. An image flickered on the screen in front of them.
“This is the world map for the year 2069. As you can see, by this time China had occupied most of South East Asia and was still marching ahead. Their hostile takeovers to acquire more water resources and violation of human rights, provoked the countries in United Nations committee, to launch a War on them. But collaboration soon turned toxic as each country wanted a claim on water resources. This is what led to the World War 3, or what we now know as ‘Water Wars’. The nuclear weapons were unleashed wiping out millions in one go. It was the darkest hour in the history of the human race. Each country began to shift their civilians to their spaceship in an attempt to save their people. Right now we have around 12 spaceships around us, each representing the surviving citizens of a different country. We all operate without any formal boundaries in space as of now.”
“Who won the war?” Aditi asked.
All eyes turned to the captain for an answer.
“No one.” She gave a sadistic smile “Climate got to us before we could get to each other. Use of nuclear weapons heated the earth much faster than we had estimated. Several Tsunamis hit the land as the arctic ice melted. Deserts were submerged under the new oceans and land began to wipe off from the face of the earth. People who were fighting for water was swallowed by it. It took a few more years of drastic climate changes before we realized that earth was no more suitable for human habitation. The few humans that survived were transferred to the spaceships and moved away in search of other habitats. We have been trying to grow our population in space since then. It took us 350 light years to bring back every single conscious left into the human bodies.”
“But what about the water in the space?” Someone asked.
“We harvest it from the nuclear explosions in the space. It is a risky mission, but every spaceship cooperate. We have lost quite a few brave souls in this mission. Some of you acquire their bodies right now. ” She spoke proudly “But today, we have a good news to share”
The light flickered on the wall and a series of new planet emerged on it. They all were clustered around each other and looked very similar to the old earth.
“These were the planets that were reported by the Kepler space mission data on November 4, 2013. We have now reached the inner solar system of these planets and are ready to inhabit these. Each spaceship plans to occupy one planet each for its people. We want to give every person a choice of which country they want to live in once we are on the land. Details of each spaceship and the planet are right here on the screen. People, please do make an informed decision about your new future”
Aditi and Arnav looked at the images of the beautiful blue planets illuminated on the screen and wondered ‘How would we destroy our world this time?’
Priyanka Mathur writes on Indian Review. Her novel “It’s all about the click” was shortly released.