Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Aditya Bidikar from India. When he started writing at the age of eleven, Aditya Bidikar wanted to be Edgar Allan Poe when he grew up. He later found out how Poe died, and decided to strike out on his own.
You Cannot Fight the War for Reason: Wearing the Wrong Trousers
1. Death of the Ancients
Ten years after the plague, twenty-one months after the Age Riots began, I was standing outside the shack of one Marion Crow, artist, male, and in his middle forties before he became immortal. It was a cold day, the chill had crept into my shoes and was making its way up my feet. I wiggled my toes and looked up at the crumbling building—possibly a mansion back in the day. It was surrounded by a garden that had lizards like trees have leaves and leaves like people have eyes. Near the fence was an easel that evidently hadn’t been used in months; the unfinished painting standing on it was faded and covered in dust, its reds and blues almost invisible under the dirty ochre. It was a painting of two flowers engaged in the act of blossoming. The models were obviously long dead.
I pulled my coat around me and headed up the garden path to the house. Even this early in the evening, a dim light had been lit in the living room, it showed through the ragged curtains in the windows.
I decided to knock—the flickering light seemed to indicate that electricity was too much to hope for—then I waited for Marion Crow to appear.
He did not look immortal. He was wearing a stained vest and a pair of shorts, and looked like he hadn’t washed in years. His face, though as dull and lined as one would expect after all he had lived through, was lit with excitement. Apparently my visit was highly anticipated.
“Mr. Crow?” I said. “Carter.”
“At last!” he said. “I was hoping you’d respond. Come in, come in! I’ll make tea.” And he turned abruptly and walked back in, and I followed him into the house.
The room we sat in was large and dingy, and most of the doors that opened into the rest of the house were padlocked. The windows had been framed in putty to keep out the cold, but really, you could only have told the difference if you’d had a thermometer.
Marion made a baroque brown tea, and told me about himself as he did so. Nothing I hadn’t already found out in my research—scholarship at eighteen, famous at twenty-one, married at twenty-three, married at twenty-five, disrepute at thirty-three, married at thirty-seven, dead to the world, including his most recent wife, at forty.
After handing me my cup, he dragged a plastic chair near the armchair in which I was seated and planted himself on it, then wiggled his bottom around till he was comfortable. He tried not to let me see him shiver from the cold.
“Now then,” he said. “Let’s begin at the start.”
“Absolutely,” I said, and pulled out my notebook.
He was shocked. “A notebook?! Don’t you have a recorder?” I shook my head. “You’re conducting this important an interview—something to be preserved for the ages—and you don’t have a recorder? What kind of reporter are you?”
“I work better with a notebook.” He shook his head in disappointment. “I could bring a recorder.”
He shook his head again. “This is shoddy, very shoddy,” he repeated a few times, and then he leaned back in his chair, resigned to his testament being documented in pencil.
“So,” I said. “How have you been?”
“I came here six months ago. I had nowhere else to go. This house belonged to my son. He killed himself five years after the plague.”
“How old was he?”
“Twenty-three, physically. Real terms, twenty-eight. I know. Prime of his life. No idea why he offed himself. We weren’t…close.”
I nodded. He continued, “Before this I was living with conservationists. There were seven of us oldies. Rations were limited. And after a point, I think, they didn’t really want us. It made them feel good, yes. But also miserable. We left them no privacy. So I left voluntarily. I think I was just afraid they’d give us up at some point.”
He paused. “It’s strange. You’d think someone would detect a pattern to the Age Riots. Looking back, it makes sense. But I think someone should have sat up on the day of the plague and said, yes, this is what is going to happen. Old people will die. There was so much obfuscation. Wilful, like. ‘This is a property murder, obviously.’ or ‘That guy had too much money for his own good.’ Sheh. It just took two months to get from that to ‘Kill the oldies’ slogans being recited on marches with police protection.
“And even then, people just rationalised it all. The earth can’t support an abiding population of seven billion, it needs to be brought down. And old people are the perfect candidates. That was….”
“Anton Black,” I filled in. “I remember the scandal that caused. He was thrown out by his university. I think some group even tried to burn down his house.”
“Of course,” said Marion. “Truly revolutionary ideas have to be outraged at. They show us too much about ourselves. But a few months later, people came around right enough. There were so many rationales. I used to keep track. Robotic production lines being shut down to make for jobs, which were crucial now, because speed wasn’t really important anymore.
“I was in England during the New Workers Union meeting in Manchester. Saw it live on tv. They said we oldies were taking their jobs. They had a grotesque effigy of this half old man, half old woman thing. They burned it at the end of the meeting. Scary it was. In India, they kept repeating like children, ‘Old people need medicines and we can’t afford them, we can’t afford them.’ And as always, it was too late till you paid attention to Africa.”
He was silent for a few moments, collecting his thoughts. He started swinging his legs, and then he stopped.
He sighed. “Some said the plague might have caused it. Changed people’s minds in fundamental ways. So foolish. I think it was the prospect of spending eternity with so many people around you, staring at the same faces, faces that remind you of the past. Of when people could grow old and die. Immortality was a gift, and you didn’t know where it came from. You didn’t want it jinxed by us, a reminder shoved in your face all your life.”
Marion Crow sat with his hands clutched together between his legs. He let me finish my scratchy writing. He looked at me almost expectantly. Perhaps he wanted to see if I would contradict him. Perhaps he wanted to be called wrong. I kept silent and he continued.
“I started running soon after I came back from England. I knew there was little time. And I knew you youngsters would not wait.”
“How do you know we started it?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Tell me, which side is stronger? Had more to profit? Who was on the offensive?”
“Half a billion have died. You can’t know who struck first.”
“Half a billion old people have died. What are the young casualties? One? A hundred? A thousand? Insignificant losses.”
“You can’t say those lives didn’t matter!” I exclaimed, pointing my pencil at him.
“You attacked us! We were simply trying to stay alive! Don’t you understand that?”
We were both silent for a few minutes. I tried to listen for the ticking of a clock, but I couldn’t hear one.
“Half a billion dead,” Marion said softly, “and they call them riots. Fewer have died in wars. Give it a euphemism and put it out of your mind. And they say people can never agree on something. You were complicit in the design. All of you. You agreed to forget.
“We don’t feel the need to remember stuff these days. We have too much time. Ever since you stopped aging, it’s been coming. When you stop killing, and the excitement goes away, you’ll get slower and slower until time moves like gravy.”
“That’s true even today,” I said in an attempt to lighten the mood, but it came out fatuous.
“Hah.” He got up from his chair and started pacing around the room. “Tell me. What’s your age?”
“Thirty-six this June,” I said.
“No-no. Before you stopped aging.”
I shrugged. “Twenty-six.”
“Now tell me, how many people have you seen in the last two months that were physically older than thirty-five?”
“I don’t know….”
“Take your time, think about it.”
He went and stood in front of a window, facing me. The curtain was torn in a few places, and the light of a streetlamp showed through behind him. One shaft of light lit his balding pate. He was a lawyer summing up, but looked like a street-side preacher.
“I….” I began.
“I’ll tell you. None. Apart from me, you can’t have seen any. There aren’t any left. Anyone older than you can tolerate. The ones there are have gone underground. Living like rats, with a few sympathisers showing them crumbs once in a while. Living in people’s basements and being parasites. Until they get tired too.
“They are already dead. They just don’t know it. But I’m tired of playing dead. I’m tired of living to rules I didn’t choose. I’m…I’m ready to start living again.
“Do you realise what I’m saying? I’m the last person you’ll ever see above the age of thirty-five. And I’m not going to hide anymore.”
I stared at him. His eyes pled me to believe him, to grant his premise, to realise the magnificence of the situation.
I scribbled in my notebook. ‘Poser,’ I wrote.
2. The Whole World Is Sitting Up to See
In a different city, far, far ago, while still mortal, still struggling my way between other bright, shiny journalists, and still young enough to have my mind changed through epiphanies, I was hitchhiking the last leg of a journey to an event that was supposed to be a scoop. It was winter then too, and I was chilly cold, my face pasty and drawn. The train journey to the city hadn’t done me any favours, but thankfully I still looked good enough not to be a serial killer, and it wasn’t hard to get a lift. I got out of the third car and headed towards the observatory that was my destination.
There was a small crowd in the lobby, and I saw that the mad professor was flitting from group to group, with his coat gathered in one hand like a dress, and the other hand supporting a tottery pair of spectacles. Everyone present seemed to be a reporter, and the professor was talking to each and every person, it seemed.
I headed to the bar to get a whiskey and heat myself up a bit. But before I got there, the professor saw me and made his way towards me, slinking between clumps of people.
“My dear,” he said, shaking my hand enthusiastically. “You’re late! I’ve been waiting.” I started to answer, but he ignored me and continued, “you do realise I simply couldn’t have begun without you. This is an important event in world history. I could never have forgiven myself for the sacrilege of it. My, if you had been any later, we’d have had to reschedule!” I grinned. “But you’re here now, and….” and then he saw someone else and flitted off without completing the sentence.
Tony, a handsome young man I had been to university with, sidled up to me and whispered, “He used the same shtick on me. He says something like that to all the more successful ones. Apparently his mother thinks I’m a good omen and therefore essential to success.”
“There are so many people here,” I said. “Are they all reporters?”
“Yup. Most of them, anyway. There’s some aristocracy and some rich slugs, but they’re all outside, waiting for the show. Wait till you see the number of people there. And he talked to every single one. And it’s being transmitted live.”
“Yes, he said that in the invite. Anyway, how have you been?”
After dawdling around the pre-appetisers (served with drinks) for about fifteen minutes, both of us headed inside. Our credentials were checked, and we were led through the observatory, out the rear exit and onto huge grounds where seemingly thousands of chairs had been arranged in identical rows, facing away from the observatory and towards, it seemed, a gigantic screen that the organisers had forgotten to put in. Most of the seats were filled. I found it hard to believe that the loon had talked to each buzzing idiot. There seemed to be hundreds of cameras placed all around, covering every inch of the grounds to the horizon and back, unwilling to miss the tiniest action. Tony had told me that all the cameras belonged to a single channel, and I wondered how many editors were working them.
I peered into the distance, trying to make out what it was the seats were pointed towards. But before I could see, I was tapped on my shoulder by an usher and guided to the seat beside Tony’s. He was waving a glossy programme at me. I picked up mine, and saw that someone had sat on it before my arrival. I suspected Tony.
The programme elucidated how we, the select few, were lucky enough to be a part of this great gig, how we were, live rather than on television, about to see the spectacle of our lifetime. Which was, obviously, going to change our very perception of the world we inhabited. The many miraculous wonders of fulsome Urbania were as nothing to this, the true, quiet miracle of an amalgamation of nature and technology—well, more the latter than the former, but that was forgivable, a minor gaffe in a magnificently ambitious undertaking.
The hot lights ranging over the lawns dimmed, and with them the hubbub of conversation on the grounds. A large holographic stage flickered into view in front of us—a background that was cunningly disguised as an off-white terracotta sheet, beige floorboards and an oversized brown podium which was a magnified and tarted-up version of the actual lectern to the right of the hologram, where the professor would be standing. The professor approached his lectern, and, with him, a larger, slightly duller version of him walked onto the stage and towards the podium.
When he reached the podium, he shuffled his papers for show, coughed to adjust the voice magnification, and began to speak.
“Ever since humanity stepped out of the gutter,” he said, “we have meditated upon the nature of life. From our earliest conjectures of the heart being the centre of all things and the vague, deceptive and still-disputed concept of the immortal soul, we have imagined the grand scheme of things and our place in it, and, according to ego, reached some conclusions as well. Keppler and Galileo were persecuted for being proponents of the heliocentric view of astronomy, and there are still people who do not believe in evolution, who would like to pass off their belief in magic as something scientific. Tonight is not for them.
“The human body is made of tiny cells. We are, at conception, one single cell formed of two halves, and then we multiply. At some point, whether in the womb or outside it, we achieve identity. But we remain, in essence, a collection of cells. These cells function as per their nature. Some of them existed before humanity was born, and they adapted and became a part of us. Without cells, we would not be people. Our food is their food—we sustain them. Their waste is our waste, we excrete what they have thrown out. But these little cells—do they know who they serve? Do they have any awareness that together they have a consciousness? Can they fathom this consciousness? They have their own attributes as non-sentient creatures, but they come together to make up a thinking human being—or in many cases, a sentient being who chooses not to think.”
He paused, and a few moments later some of the audience realised they were supposed to laugh. They did, and the professor continued.
“Just as we are made up of tiny particles that have no idea of the big picture, might we ourselves not be only the first step in sentience? Might we not create—rather than beget—a new form of life? And just like the cells in our body, could we perhaps not be simply a part of this being?
“Think about it. Why can’t we make a creature which consists of human beings acting as individual cells? Thousands, if not millions, of men and women, functioning together, just as most humans do anyway: going to work, eating, sleeping, and multiplying. If they were all connected in a machine, performing designated functions. And if the machine comes to life, who is to say that it might not actually be life? And who knows, maybe it will have a mind of its own.
“It would live on a scale that we might not understand. A century might be like a day to it. Seventy years—the average human lifespan—would be, for it, the life-cycle of a single cell, a blink in a life that might last aeons beyond our reckoning.
“We have been looking for immortality ever since we plumbed the depths of scientific discovery. Our genes are immortal—they propagate through one human generation to the next without skipping a beat. But, for once, we might make something that will rival the gene in the long run. Something we made might finally catch up with what made us. We could raise our fists to the heavens and say, ‘We are as Gods!’
“And the reason you are all here today, my people,” he said with a grin, “is that everything I have just told you…is no longer hypothetical.”
There was a silence. And then there were murmurs in the audience, and, in the pause that the professor had left, it grew to a gigantic droning. The professor grinned as he seized that moment—his chance to pose as a genius madman. He raised his voice to overpower the noise, and he screeched in a calculatedly manic tone. “Yes!” he said. “What you’re now thinking is exactly what I’m saying. When he wrote of evolution, Darwin couldn’t have dreamed of this moment. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the future!”
He pointed behind him with a flourish, and the hologram vanished, and hundreds of blinding focus lights turned on and pointed into the distance, and, blinking and shading our eyes, we gazed into tomorrow.
3. The Last Bastion of the Middle Age
“Tell me,” said Marion Crow, “what’s your theory on the plague? Why do you think humanity became immortal? Everyone has a pet idea, right?”
“I’m…I’m not sure, actually,” I said. “I was an atheist before, but obviously, the voices…they made me doubt that. But I still don’t believe most of the religious theories. It doesn’t take much to impose irrational reasoning on a perfectly rational phenomenon. There’s this one theory that appeals to me. Some people call it ‘the Tented Pants.'”
“I don’t think I know that one. Is it new?”
“Fairly. I don’t suppose you’d hear of it, holed up in here. You don’t even have electricity, do you?”
“I do. But I don’t use it. I don’t want to attract attention.”
“Well, this theory says that the intensity of human desire for the impossible—for immortality—stretched the fabric of reality into contorting itself, you know, like…erotic desire—”
“Oh. That’s quite clever. But not very rational, is it?” I looked abashed. “But it makes more sense than the monolith theory, anyway—one doubts if reality reads human fiction. But what about the voices in our heads. Religious theories at least take them into account.”
“Yes, but they don’t make sense either. I mean, really. Angels told us that we would live forever? Without telling us anything else? And the nightmares? Everyone on earth having them at the same time?”
“How do you explain them?”
“Unconscious telepathy, perhaps?” Marion snorted. “Hey, when you’re trying to explain people no longer aging—at all—you’ve got to think beyond everyday science, okay?”
“No, I agree. Was a time, I used to go with whatever took my fancy. Alien astronauts, dolphins, planetary spin, quantum, anything that was whimsical enough. For about four years, I stuck with the Mother Earth hypothesis. Considering the way we’ve been messing up the world, it makes sense if the world decided to let us confront the problems we would have otherwise left behind. But…since you started killing us, I’ve been wondering….” He leaned forward in a conspiratory way. “What if the voices lied to us?”
He leaned back and grinned, letting his words sink in.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“What if,” he said, “when you’ve killed me—by that, when you’ve killed every old and middle-aged person—what if you then start growing old again? What if, one day, you turn fifty, instead of being perpetually twenty-six? How will you live with yourself? That’ll fuck you right up, won’t it?”
“Why are you talking to me like that? I didn’t do anything.”
“Of course you didn’t do anything. No one did anything, not you, not the government, no one. It was all them, not you. They’re killing a bunch of oldies. Who cares? We’ve got enough left. They just killed my dad. But nuh-uh, I didn’t say anything when they killed my next-door neighbour. Fair enough. You never saw that was the bloody problem—you just shut up and ignored it. Put your fingers in your ears so you couldn’t hear the screaming. The world went crazy and you let it.
“But I can tell you what’s going to happen. One fine day, someone will decide that twenty-six is old enough. So you’ll be killed. Yes, you. Then they’ll realise that the children are not going to grow up. They won’t want to bear the little shits screeching all the time, all their immortal lives. So they’ll kill every kid—from two to nineteen—who the hell needs the brats? Then they’ll fuck each other and watch tv for a few years. And then what are they going to do? They’ll have all eternity to themselves, and nothing to do. And whatever made us immortal is going to have a big laugh at that.”
4. New Life
The professor stood back from the podium and turned, and all of us stood up and looked into the distance, trying to fight the atmospheric dark compromising our visions, to try and see what happened before anybody else did.
We almost didn’t notice the chairs disappearing, and the scores of androids meandering through the crowd, walking up to each clump of onlookers. I looked at the one standing beside me—it was a replica of the professor, although its beard was a tad too silvery, and its eyes a little too glassy. It spoke in the professor’s voice.
“I have been programmed to be your host for the evening. If you have any questions, fire away, please.”
“Anything?” Tony asked.
“Absolutely,” it said.
“How many other scientists did the professor cheat out of credit?”
“I’m afraid I won’t answer that.”
Tony grinned at me. Everyone around us started scrambling for information.
“How many people are in it, this future?”
“Fifteen hundred as of now. But there will be larger versions made. Once we have the funding and the volunteers. This is a prototype, so to speak, modelled mainly after invertebrates.”
“Who is in control in there?” I asked.
“That is the point—nobody. Everyone fulfils individual functions. The mental functioning has been divided into sixteen sections, none of which supersedes the rest. It is impossible for any one person to take control of the whole. Anything that you see it doing, it is doing. It is therefore a somewhat basic…organism, as of now.”
“Yes, but how do we believe that?”
“There will be tests and verification, I assure you.”
The people in our group looked at each other sceptically.
“Is it all computerised?” one asked.
“Mostly. But there are mechanical parts, just to keep everyone on their toes.”
“Can the professor communicate with it?”
“That isn’t a valid question for now, I’m sorry. That would require a creature with a much more complex design.”
“How big is it?” and “What does it look like?”
“Quite big, and you’ll see soon enough.”
The ground beneath us started vibrating, and a low hum filled the air. The android offered each of us a pair of binocular glasses, and we all shut up and watched.
At first, we could see nothing. But then, flashes of silver and gold appeared, reflecting the focus lights back at us. We concentrated on making out shapes, and we saw a giant stump with tentacles rising in the air.
A hush had fallen over the crowd. I broke it.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Functionally, you could call it a hand,” the android replied.
I looked around me, and saw that people were either staring with their mouths wide open, or muttering to themselves.
“How far is it from here?” somebody asked.
“Around five kilometres.”
We tried to get our minds around the sheer size of the creature.
“Wow,” Tony said. “That thing must shit a lot.”
The android smiled. “It will.”
“So how would that work?”
“The cells—the people inside—process material as usual. The plumbing collects it all and expels it from the body, along with garbage, dust and recyclable waste—separated, of course.”
“Could it shit on us?” someone said. A snicker went through the group.
“Theoretically, it could,” said the android gravely. “But it won’t be incorporated into regular society just yet, thank you very much.”
I tore my eyes away from the giant hand to see what the professor was doing. He was kneeling down, with his hands on his head, weeping openly.
Then I asked, “Isn’t it going to do more?”
“Um, it will,” said the android. I wondered why the hesitation.
As we watched, a clicking sound started to fill the air, getting louder, faster and more insistent. And then, much faster than it had risen, the hand fell back to the ground with a god-awful thump.
The gathering dissolved into commotion. Everyone talked to each other. The androids refused to tell us what was happening, all of them stared into the distance. The professor too. His face gone ashen white, he looked exactly like one of his androids.
A coterie of bodyguards came and picked the professor up off the ground and walked him inside. Reporters surrounded him in an instant, but the bodyguards roughly shoved them off him.
We realised that nothing more was about to happen, and the crowd started trickling out of the observatory.
Outside, Tony and I split without a goodbye, and I headed towards the train station. I had intended to stay the night, but it seemed pointless.
On the train, I was almost alone in my compartment. There was an old woman asleep with her cheek against the windowpane, and a good-looking man somewhat younger than me. I tried to read, but the lights kept flickering. The stop-and-start of the train at each station refused to let me sleep. I wanted to reach out of the window and feel the air running through my fingers like I used to when I was a child, but the new gauze reinforcing made that impossible.
I stared at the young man, and watched him read. After a while, he looked up and saw me staring. I held his gaze. He came and sat beside me.
We whispered to each other for some time, and then I took him by the hand and led him into the toilet.
When I got back home, I went to sleep without filing my story.
The next day, I checked the paper out of curiosity and found no mention of last night. The tv channel had, I later found out, cut transmission halfway through the professor’s speech. None of the national newspapers talked about the event. There were questions raised on the interweb, and some mavericks working for the smaller press responded, but the matter sank leaving little trace. I couldn’t even find out if anyone had been injured during the incident.
The professor, now lost without the support of previous charity, made some soft noises about starting again. Three weeks afterwards, he was killed, reportedly by a group of creationists, who left a cryptic symbol carved into his chest. Nobody was able to understand what the symbol stood for.
5. Here to Leave
When I left, late at night, Crow’s place seemed shabbier than when I had arrived. It took me a while to start my car—it was freezing cold by then, and the mandatory water-based engines had yet to be perfected—but the journey home was not as difficult as one might imagine. The GPS traffic monitoring system had already made driving easier than ever, and I got greens almost all the way. I was only stopped by the police twice—no more than in the daytime—and just once they checked my trunk for an illegal passenger. I saw two homeless people cuddling on a footpath, asleep, covered in newspaper, their breaths steaming into the air and mingling together. For a few moments I entertained thoughts of a stray hook-up in a bar, but I was too tired for the nauseating small talk that functions as foreplay.
My apartment building, in the brighter end of town, greeted me as a long-awaited friend, and I hurried into its centrally-heated womb. I had been living there for six years, and never had I loved it as much as I did right then. I saw a light on under my door, and I opened it apprehensively. I was greeted by the smells of warm cooking and the tinkling of utensils from the kitchen. I smiled to myself.
My girlfriend came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a dishcloth. After seventeen years together, I should have expected she’d want to be there to greet me after such an important occasion, but I guess Crow’s pessimism had rubbed off on me a little. I replied to her smile by giving her a long, tender kiss.
“How did it go with the old man?” she asked me.
“It’s dealt with,” I replied.
She grinned. “Oh, I’m so proud of you, darling. Dinner?”
We laid the table together. We sat down, and she dipped a finger in the sauce and held it out for me to taste. I gave it a delicate lick, and sucked on her finger. I licked my lips. “Beautiful,” I said. “Stimulating. Insurmountable.”
We decided to rush through dinner to get to the good stuff.
Afterwards, curled up on the sofa together, both of us a little sweaty and trying to catch our breaths, I told her about my interview with Mr. Marion Crow. Between tentative licks to her brow, and gentle bites to her earlobes, I managed to fill her in on large bits of the conversation—how Marion had eluded hunters, lived off the grid, tried and failed to save others, and of course, his ridiculous claim. At last, I stroked her below her belly button, and she sighed. She took my hand and led it lower.
“Mmhh,” she said.
“Don’t you want to hear more?” I asked her.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Tomorrow.”
First published in Kindle Magazine, February 2011 (Fiction Special)