Posts Tagged immortality
Mildred Feldnether was on her way to take birth for the twenty-eighth time when she found the creature. She heard it first; a call that didn’t belong to any animal she’d heard in the forest before. The sound came from a bundle of clothes behind a tree just off the track. She squatted and gingerly pulled away some of the fabric to reveal a red, bloody thing. She didn’t immediately recognise it as a human baby; it had been more than a millennium since she’d seen one.
“Hello,” she said to it. “What’s your name?”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, first in the most popular local language and then in several others she knew.
The baby continued to wail. Mildred’s foetus kicked her from the inside.
“Where are you from? Where do you work? Are you lost?”
At the last question, Mildred noticed that the baby didn’t seem to have a navigator. She took out hers and showed it to the baby, who stopped wailing and gurgled at it.
Mildred sighed with relief. It was just lost. Soon it would get on its way. She said goodbye and continued walking to the extraction clinic.
It wailed again.
Mildred turned back towards it. “What do you want?” It seemed so upset. Most of it was still wrapped in a sweater, and Mildred suddenly wondered whether babies even had arms and legs like normal people.
Her sister had had a baby once. Or maybe her sister had been a baby. Or had she just heard a legend about a baby? It was so long ago.
She sat next to the baby and tried to remember other languages to speak to it in. She remembered how frustrating it had been when when she was just a few centuries old, and only knew a few languages. She could imagine wanting to wail when she couldn’t express herself. She was frustrated just trying to remember what the thing was called. Baby. Baby. Like in the old fairy tales. She looked it up in the encyclopaedia:
A baby is a juvenile form of human, commonly created in the pre-extraction era as a means to perpetuate the human species when it was possible that existing individuals may succumb to death (q.v.) In modern times, a baby may develop from a foetus whose life is not fully extracted after removal. This is effectively remedied by further extraction.
From a foetus? Mildred burst out laughing. Foetuses grew inside people. This thing was outside and it looked like a little human that could only speak wail. Somebody must have vandalised the entry. The baby ceased crying and seemed to look at Mildred. Mildred watched it, enchanted. It was hard to believe it really existed.
The forest they were in was even older than Mildred, and offered a secluded path to the clinic, where those unable to carry foetuses wouldn’t plead with the pregnant women for a share of the life within them. They weren’t needy, just lazy; less than a year’s work as a manservant protecting a pregnant woman and they’d have decades more life. Mildred had already made a contract with her friend and three-time manservant James, who had made sure she stayed safe and healthy and didn’t need any infusions of life which could delay or destroy the pregnancy. Four decades for her, four for him, and the rest to the clinic for miscellaneous healing. She always preferred to make the last walk to the clinic alone though, so that she wouldn’t have to explain the knot in her throat that she didn’t understand herself. Most women were excited at the prospect of becoming four decades younger. Mildred was nervous. With the crying baby tugging at it, the knot in her throat unraveled into tears.
Just then, James called her. “We’re waiting for you at the clinic. Are you on your way? Do you need me to help you with anything?”
“I’m fine, I just… I found something. But I’ll be right there.”
The baby started to wail again. “Right,” she said to it. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but if you’re sick maybe half a decade could fix you. Unless you’re already too young for that. Well, the clinicians should know the right dosage.” By this time she was almost certain the baby could not understand her, but it was hard to get used to.
The baby had freed a hand from its cocoon, so Mildred took it to lead it to the clinic. The baby gripped her finger, but didn’t get up. Mildred looked at its face for a second. So tiny. So new. Too new even to walk?
Mildred felt uncomfortable carrying someone she barely knew, but there didn’t seem to be much choice. She picked up the baby, finding the underside of its wrap to be soaked with dew, and tried to find a way to hold it that was comfortable for both of them. The baby did not stop crying for the rest of the way to the clinic.
“Oh dear,” said the clinician. “A baby?” The other clinicians gathered around to look at the specimen. “Oh, that must have been a disturbing thing to find. Don’t worry, we’ll do the extraction for you. It doesn’t look like you need any decades yourself,” she looked down at Mildred’s pregnant belly, “but if you’d like to donate them to the sick or less fertile, we’ll make sure you get something nice as a thank-you.”
“I’ll take them if you like!” grinned James.
“But… isn’t it like a person? I mean… can you really extract… It’s crying. I think it needs to be healed.”
“We’ll take care of that. It’s just crying because it’s not supposed to be outside the womb.”
Mildred felt a bit like crying again herself. “But is a baby a person?”
“Oh, no. I’m not a specialist in antiquities, but from what I’ve heard it takes decades of round-the-clock treatment before a baby can turn into anything like a normal person, and even then it would be centuries behind in general knowledge; it would be a complete stranger in society.”
They were silent for a few seconds, then they both started talking at once.
“Let’s get that…” began the clinician.
“Did you have a baby? In the beginning… when you were new?”
“Yes I… think I did. This is my daughter,” she gestured to one of the other clinicians.
“What was it like?”
The clinician’s eyes glazed over for a second. “It was… centuries ago. I don’t know if the things I remember about it are even real. Now let’s get these extractions underway.”
“If you… this sounds ridiculous, I know, but if you… if you removed my foetus without extracting its life, would it be a baby?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, we won’t let that happen. We have strict quality standards here.”
“So babies do come from foetuses? And people come from babies?” Mildred felt a little lightheaded.
The clinician shook her head slowly, as if Mildred were a few decades too senile. “And people need life, and life comes from foetuses, and babies are just primitive remnants from a millennium ago. Don’t you worry about it, love. You’ve found yourself some free decades!”
The baby cried even louder, and Mildred almost wanted the clinician to make it quiet. It was driving her crazy. Crazy enough that in an instant she was running out of the clinic and screaming over the noise, “I found myself a free person!”
“You can’t make a new person!” the clinician shouted after her. “They’ll have no records! They won’t know anyone! There won’t be enough food for them! It probably doesn’t even speak!”
She ran without thinking, without being aware of anything except the wailing coming from the thing in her arms. She only realised what she had done when she found herself twisted on the ground, having turned to protect the baby and her belly when she tripped. Her back hurt and her eyes were wet and the baby’s wrap was still soaked and the baby was still screaming and her mind was a cacophony of new information clanging into memories. Twenty-seven extractions, more than two millennia for her and her manservants, not a year for twenty-seven potential people. But wasn’t it just like eating meat? Some creatures give life to others. Twenty-seven more people would mean less meat for others and less space for the forests and fauna that kept humanity and the rest of the biosphere alive and prosperous. Twenty-seven stunted proto-people who knew nothing and nobody, taking life when they should be giving it. As Mildred’s head started to clear, she began thinking about how to apologise when she went back to the clinic.
As Mildred’s eyes started to dry, she realised a woman was leaning over her. What was her name? Sandra? They’d been good friends a century or so ago, and lost touch. “Milly, are you okay?” Sandra asked.
“Sandy, what are you doing here?”
“Milly, are you okay?” panted James as he arrived. He was getting old, and could do with those decades she owed him. “Sandy?! What are you doing here?”
Just as Mildred realised the wailing had stopped, it started again.
“That’s my sweater! Is that…” Sandra went white. “Is that m…mm” she stopped speaking seemed to be concentrating on not crying. Mildred stroked the baby’s face, momentarily forgetting she was caressing a complete stranger.
“It’s okay, Sandy. Take your time. What happened?”
Sandra took her time. Finally, she managed to cry, “My foetus came out! It was horrible; it hurt so much! It came out by itself, out my vagina; there must be something wrong with me. It hurt so much. I never want to take birth again; I’ll just take a manservant contract whenever I need more life.”
“That’s your baby?” said James. Sandra didn’t hear.
“I wasn’t due for extraction yet but I was feeling sore and my manservant’s run off to do some kind of crazy botanical research so I started going to the clinic but then…” She broke into sobs as the baby screamed. “Is it… is it the foetus? How come it’s alive? It wasn’t… I mean I don’t think it… It didn’t move. I thought it was just a foetus. It was horrible and bloody and blue and it had almost like a face on it. I covered it up so nobody would find it.”
“It’s a baby,” sniffed Mildred. “A… a juvenile form of human, often created in pre-extraction times as a means to perpetuate the human species… at the clinic they said it can turn into a person with a few decades of round-the-clock treatment. But it’s a foetus. They can still extract. They want to and it’s kind of… kind of like eating meat…” In the face of Sandra’s tears, Mildred’s own conclusion seemed silly again. How could they extract life from a thing that could become a person?
They were silent for a while. Even the baby quieted down. James leaned against a tree for support and flexed his creaking knees.
“Can I hold it? Does it mind?”
“I don’t know. It seems to mind everything.” Mildred passed the baby to Sandra.
“Milly, I think I’m really sick,” she confided. “First my foetus came out and now there’s yellow stuff coming out of my nipples. Can you take me to the clinic? I know they expect me to give them some life rather than take it, but maybe I could use some from your foetus.”
“Hey, you know half of that foetus is for me, right?” said James. “Nah, you can have a some of my share. Anything to help a fetching fertile lady.”
The foetus kicked, and she realised that the word was not metaphorical; it was kicking with actual legs. “I don’t know if I want it to be extracted today.” Mildred said quietly.
Sandra reached out and held her hand. They were silent, except for the baby.
Suddenly, Mildred thought of something. “What if it’s hungry?”
“I have some bacon sushi,” said James. The soon learnt that the baby could not use chopsticks.
Once again, Mildred checked the encyclopedia for information on babies. “You’re not going to believe what it says about feeding them…”
Over the next week, while Sandra and James tried to figure out how and whether to keep the baby alive, and how to keep it quiet, Mildred researched the early history of extraction. Of course there was the ugly time they all commemorated each decade on Death Day, the time when people would kidnap and extract the remaining life out of strangers. It must have been horrible to live in fear of dying. Nine out of ten of them did die. Nine out of ten adults died so that the rest could live longer.
Then perinatal extraction, called today simply extraction, solved everything. More life with no killing, and no fear of accidental breeding creating an infinite number of hungry immortals. The inventor shared the technique with the oldest and newest people he knew, the ones who hadn’t stolen anyone else’s life. They won round extractors with their ethically-sourced life, and soon nobody would extract from an adult, and nobody would give life to those known to have done so. Over the next century, the life thieves died of old age and the rest bred up to the capacity they knew they could sustain without competition for resources, and then ceased with the bother of people-making. Most of this was familiar to Mildred; the well-known story told each decade on Life Day. She’d even seen the inventor of perinatal extraction telling the story in person. Though she’d all but forgotten the meaning of the archaic words such as ‘perinatal’ and ‘breeding’.
It wasn’t quite so pretty, though. As she read older and older memoirs, Mildred discovered that many people had actually protested, saying foetuses were people; some even thought that embryos were people. And some even thought that animals should not be eaten; not just because of the unsustainable farming practices back then, but because animals were also a sort of people. Mildred wondered why nobody thought of things like that any more.
Further into her research, she came across an old journal entry which struck her:
I took my first birth today. I know it isn’t right, but I was getting old, almost too old to be coaxed into fertility, and if I die the foetuses will have nobody to fight for them. Thirty more years should give me the time to fix things. I need to find a way to prevent both death and overpopulation without sacrificing living humans.
That’s what happened to people who thought foetuses were people. They either took life anyway, or they died. She checked the author to see which group this one had ended up in.
Mildred felt lightheaded at the sight of her own name, and saw the edges of her vision prickle black. Her foetus turned, and so did her stomach. She fought to stay conscious for fear of what people might do to help her.
She’d been one of the people who’d fought to stop perinatal extraction. She’d been one of the people who’d let her survival instinct change her mind. On the backs of those she’d claimed to want to save, she’d lived long enough to forget they existed. And she would forget again.
Unless she fixed things soon.
Mildred switched her attention to learning all she could about the science of life extraction. It came to her easily at first, as if she’d learnt it all before, which she probably had. She felt less familiar with the breakthroughs that led to increased efficiency in more recent centuries. She enrolled in some classes and followed the century-old standard practical experiments involving extraction and infusion in small plants.
One night she was idly dissecting a piece of sushi, picking out the individual grains of rice and twirling the meat between her chopsticks. That meat had been in a pig once. Pigs were probably smarter than babies. She put it aside and ate the rice and seaweed thoughtfully. Just like eating meat…
She jumped up and ran to the bedroom. “Sandy!” she called out loudly before realising that it was past midnight. “Sandy, come here,” she whispered, but the baby was already gearing up to surpass her careless loudness.
“What is it?” Sandra asked groggily, before gasping in horror, “is yours coming out too?”
“No, no, it’s not that! What did you say your manservant went to do?”
“Botany. Some nutso alternative healing thing.”
“Listen, I think he might be onto something. I was thinking, we can live without meat, right? So we can live without foetuses! It’s so obvious!”
“Hey, you didn’t get me out of bed to tell me you’ve gone as crazy as Jezdimir, did you?”
James wandered in holding the screaming baby.
“Look, there are trees out there that’ve lived longer than us, right? What if we could extract life from them? I mean their seedlings? There’d be millennia! They’ve made a lot of improvements in extraction lately. Did you know that even plant extraction was not possible a few centuries ago, and now they teach it in introductory classes? All we’d need to do is figure out how to convert their life to ours, and no more foetus-killing!”
James squinted his reddened eyes and looked down at the noise-maker in his arms. “Are you sure you want more of these around?”
“No, you see that’s the other thing. If anyone gets pregnant by mistake, which, let’s face it, hardly ever happens, they can take enough life, plant life, to make the embryo regress back into nothing. Or wait, maybe that’s bad too, I don’t know. But some of them could make babies. Did you know that fish are edible; they were just banned back when there weren’t enough of them? And that there’s way more of everything now than back at the beginning of extraction? And that you can feed way more people with plants than with meat? The population limits they set back then are way lower than they need to be now. We could have new people!”
“Hey hold on there… is that even possible? What about the new people? They’re not going to know anything,” said James.
“But even at our ages, everyone knows different things,” answered Sandra before Mildred could think of an answer. She pointed at the baby. “He’s the only one who knows what it is to be new in an old world. That’s worth knowing.”
“So we need to contact this, what was his name? Jezdimir? Your manservant, and see if they can help us. I reckon we’re only a few decades away from converting plant life into…”
Mildred stopped and winced as a pain surged through her belly. Sandra stared at her with a terrified look in her eyes. Mildred regained her composure in order not to upset Sandra. “…converting plant life into human. I’ll never have to have another extraction.”
Then she collapsed in agony. James and Sandra practically carried her to the clinic, Sandra holding the baby in her free arm, and James clutching at trees with his.
“Are you back for your extraction, finally? It’s about time,” said the clinician.
“Noo…” moaned Mildred. The clinician laid her on the bed.
“What do you mean no? You clearly need the life,” said James. “I hate to see you like this.”
“No,” said Sandra. “She doesn’t want any more extractions. You’re going to take this foetus out of her and let it become a baby.”
“But she said she didn’t want another extraction. She meant after this one. I’m sure!”
Mildred filled her lungs to protest but the breath hurt so much that she let it out in a moan. Her head felt as bad as the rest of her. For a moment she thought she remembered being a child, watching her mother cry over her brother. But she had no brother.
“No, no, she doesn’t want to take any life! Haven’t you seen her? She’s been obsessed with this idea of foetuses being people.” The baby screamed louder as if to affirm its personhood.
“Well no, I haven’t seen her, because I’ve been trying to keep this thing alive! She doesn’t want one of these!”
“She does. She does. She wants the baby to live.”
“It’s not a baby! Look, she owes me four decades. She owes herself four decades. How could she just let herself die in this day and age? I’d miss her! We all would! And she needs time to finish that plant thing.”
“Sure, but the baby…”
“…doesn’t owe anyone anything.”
“But you can’t privilege this useless little thing that can’t even eat or speak over someone with a millennium of knowledge and skills and hundreds of people who love her! I know your baby is cute and it brings a fresh perspective and blah blah blah but you can’t have both, and I’m choosing Milly.”
“I love her too! But she doesn’t want to kill babies any more and we have to respect…”
“For goodness’ sake, you’re not killing anything! You’re just extracting the life out of something that isn’t alive yet to begin with!”
“Extracting the what? If it’s not alive, then…”
“Look, your friend’s not doing well. I’m going to need a decision,” urged the clinician, as Mildred slipped into unconsciousness.
The first few hundred years were okay. I had a lot of thrilling death-defying adventures. I lived the dream.
I got used to my loved ones dying, and got better at meeting new ones, and better at being by myself. Not a problem; before the accident, I’d stayed eight years at a lab full of one- and two-year contractors and students. I stayed there for a while afterwards too, but it seemed silly to chip away at the minutiae when I’d seen how huge and incomprehensible the whole thing was. Even with the amount of time I had, I knew I could never get my head around it.
In any case, the universe would stick around for a while. I wanted to study the things that wouldn’t. I don’t think I realised back then just how little time I had to do that. I always felt like there were so many more people to meet, so much more alone time to savour, so much more to learn, so many more ideas to realise than I had time to, but somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed I could get back to them later. Oh, if only I could.
I travelled the world while there were still means to do so, tried the foods when I could pay for them, smelled the flowers when I found any, learnt the languages, met the people while there still were some. Had a few wives. A few husbands. A few children. Thirty-three thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three known descendants, before I lost count. They all died, of course. I had my alone time to savour.
One by one, then ten by ten, species went extinct. We got used to it. People are good enough at ignoring things as long as they’re still comfortable. Eventually things were stretched too far to be comfortable. After the human race died out, when there was not much left bigger than bacteria, I went through a moody phase. For a millennium I’d be content just wandering around admiring the landscape, watching erosion create interesting patterns. Then I’d occupy myself by carving my own intricately-shaped rivers by hand and swimming back and forth along them. I learnt to shape them in such a way that oxbow lakes would form naturally to complete my designs. Next thing I knew, I’d be in a ten-thousand-year blue period, craving someone to hold, barely noticing as the mountains grew. Those lifelong romances seemed so short.
Sometimes the despair would give way to industriousness. I tried to work out a chemistry that would allow complex life to thrive in the changed environment. I tried to evolve something from lichen using as sole selection criterion ‘something I can talk to.’ Later I changed the goal to something I could enjoy eating. This was rather more successful, maybe because millennia of hunger had made me less picky. Every so often, I’d find little niches where life had figured out how to adapt in ways more ingenious than I’d come up with. I’d sit and watch them for generations upon generations, but nothing complex enough to be worth watching was ever as successful as before.
Time always seems so much shorter when it’s behind you, but in my case, things really did happen more quickly back then. Two-year contracts, 80-year relationships, ten-thousand-year bad moods, million-year species. When finally something interesting happened, it seemed sudden even though by mortal standards it took a long time. I still remember watching the sun expand and redden like it was yesterday, and I suppose it was yesterday, for I wouldn’t define days by that pitiful white dwarf I ended up with.
Boy was it hot when the Sun expanded to near Earth’s orbit. I’d been injured plenty of times, many times enough to kill anyone else, and it hurt a lot. If I was having a bad aeon, there were times when I jumped off cliffs or into volcanoes every day in the hope of dying. But the first time I felt the corona of a red giant, I really thought that was the end. A nanosecond of it was worse than all the pain I’d experienced until then. I did not know why my nerves could even feel pain at such magnitude. I just closed my eyes and waited for death to come. I waited what could have been thousands of years, not like the thousands of therapeutically-dull years of river carving, but thousands of slow, slow years in which I felt every moment.
And then… then it was over, but it still felt like a long time looking back. It took me a while to recover emotionally, and the blood-freezing cold didn’t help. The Earth wasn’t engulfed by the Sun, but just continued orbiting the cool, withdrawn white dwarf. The atmosphere and liquids were lost to space. I didn’t miss breathing as much as I missed eating and speaking; the urge to breathe comes more from the buildup of carbon dioxide than from the lack of oxygen, and I had none of that. There wasn’t any life I could see, but from what I’d already seen, I was sure some had survived somewhere under the surface. Sometimes I’d dig down and have imagined conversations with bacteria I couldn’t detect.
The next life-changing event came when the Earth was knocked out of its orbit. A few chunks came off it, and I had less gravity and some fragments to look at in the sky for a while. I took to jumping around the world, pretending to fly. A couple of destructive meteorites later and I accidentally reached escape velocity. Goodbye, cool world.
There was no such thing as a year for me after that, but it may as well have been ten billion years ago. I haven’t come close to any planets since. I’ve passed through a few stars, and I can tell you it doesn’t get any easier. Spent some time squished inside a black hole waiting for the Hawking radiation to free me. I took little comfort in knowing it was quicker for me than for anything on the outside.
Between stars, with no air or plasma rushing past my skin, no sound, almost no light to prove my fantasies wrong, I could construct worlds in my head that felt more real than anything else. I’d forget I was lost in outer space with nothing to look forward to but that moment of beautiful views and relief from cold that preceded an epoch of burning inside a star.
A frequent dream is that of finding the genie again, the god, that creature I had conversed with through that little tear we’d made in spacetime. Back in the old days, even before feeling the hellfire of a red giant Sun, I used to wish I’d asked to be impervious to pain as well as immortal, but now my only wish is mortality. And once again, I feel like time’s running out. The universe is expanding away from me. If I don’t find a way to summon the genie before the last matter retreats over the de Sitter horizon, I will be stuck with nothing but the taste of my mouth and the feeling of my cold, hungry body, for infinitely more time than I had anything else.