“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Traditional bluegrass lyric
Todd stopped opposite the office doorway. Letters seemingly suspended in the milky film that filled the space scrolled by: “Gregory Morton, Senior Transitions Counselor, Office of Population Stability.” The milky film evaporated as he stepped through the tiny anteroom and leaned into Gregory Morton’s office.
It was as if he had wandered into a Montana woods on an autumn afternoon. A tranquil stream burbled across mossy rocks softly a few yards away. A gentle breeze, rich with woodsy aroma, brushed across his face. Wild birds cooed and called nearby, and the floor beneath his feet yielded gently and crunched as though on slightly dry leaves on the forest floor.
Mr. Morton, fit and handsome with just a sprinkling of silver around his temples, sat behind the glossy black surface of the desk, about as long as a man is tall. There was no other furniture in the room, except for the Smartchair on the other side of the desk, to which Morton beckoned. “Mr. Todd! I’m sorry that my assistant is out to lunch. Please come in!”
The Smartchair swiveled to face Todd. As he stepped in front of the desk, the chair scurried behind him and rose to affix itself to his back side. He leaned into it, and it lowered him to a sitting position, automatically adjusting for his height. He noted that it placed his eye level approximately even with Morton’s nose, subtly reminding him who held the authority in that office.
Morton brushed his hand slightly over the surface of the desk. It looked like a casual gesture, but Todd knew he was operating the touch sensors for the powerful computer housed in the desk. The Montana forest faded into a stunning panorama of the capital city, as if the walls of the building had fallen away and the men were sitting on the roof, overlooking a breathtaking vista of the city – but with much cleaner and cooler air. Although the remarkable high-resolution technology of the Envirorama built into the walls gave the impression of a much larger space, Todd realized the room was only a meter or so wider than the desk, and only a few centimeters deeper beyond the Smartchair where Morton sat.
“Well, Mr. Todd. How is the adjustment coming along?”
Todd knew by now that Morton was reading his history from the computer images of his file projected into the translucent matte of the desk, visible from Morton’s angle, but not from his. From Todd’s perspective, the surface of the desk appeared as opulent, polished walnut. It even felt that way under his fingers.
“It’s been amazing. A lot to get used to, but it’s very exciting.”
“Quite an adventure you are having, Mr. Todd. You went into the lazarization process in 2016, and now you come out in 2142. Of course there’s a lot to get used to.”
“Well, yeah. They called it therapeutic suspension then. I didn’t hear the word ‘lazarization’ until I came out.”
“The name was applied a decade or so later. It refers to Lazarus, a figure from Biblical mythology who would have been familiar in your time. He received a second chance at life after death, just as you have. I guess you didn’t count on it taking us 126 years to figure out how to cure your disease, though.”
“Well, when I went in I didn’t know if I’d ever come out. I was a wreck then, more dead than alive. But you certainly did cure it. I feel great, even young. It’s like I was 30 again.”
Morton chuckled. “That expression would strike most people now as very strange, but I understand what you mean.”
He gestured over the desk again, and the room transformed into a library, with heavy walnut shelves bearing rows of ancient-looking volumes. A subtle scent of aged paper wafted across his nose. Todd realized it was just a façade for his benefit; he had learned that in the crowded world of the new century, when information could be preserved electronically in infinitesimal space, the allocation of precious cubic feet to bookshelves and file cabinets was a luxury of the very wealthy. But the evocation of that scholarly space from a bygone time was a signal that the business of the meeting was underway, carefully tailored to his century-old sensibilities.
“Our medical techniques now are as far from what you had in 2016 as, oh, as your medicine was from the days of leeches and exorcisms. You’re fortunate that you were such a wealthy man in your world. Very few people of your time could afford the process. They didn’t become commonplace until the 2040’s, so most of the revives I see had been through at least some of the changes. Very few have as much ground to make up as you do. You’ve had the basic reorientation, I trust? Economics, technology, everyday amenities, social arrangements, communication patterns, all that?”
“Yes. It’s taken two weeks already. It’s just incredible. I’m like a baby learning to be an adult. I’ve even been taking language coaching, because the language has changed so much. How is my accent coming?”
“Coming along,” said Morton diplomatically. “Don’t worry about your accent with me; I’m thoroughly trained in the dialects of all the eras of the last 150 years, although yours is a challenge.”
“So you’re a transitions counselor, then? You’re going to counsel me in my transition into society as it is now?”
“Not exactly,” said Morton.
“Well, what is it you do then?”
“My role,” said Morton, “is to explain to you some of the changes that have become necessary as a result of the remarkable advances of our technology. Some of these might be difficult for you to accept without an understanding of the implications of the extraordinary progress we’ve made in improving the length and quality of our lives. You see, Mr. Todd, we have conquered almost all known diseases, and with the invention in the 2060’s and 2070’s of STR – synthetic tissue reconstruction – we can simply replace any body organ as it wears or is damaged, or even if the owner desires to improve it.”
“Wow! You mean we can – like, live forever? Eternal life?”
Morton smiled. “Well, we’ve only had the technique for less than a hundred years, so I don’t know if we can claim ‘eternal.’ But we do have the capability to achieve what mankind has dreamed of throughout its history – not just limitless life, but limitless youth. We can have any body we want, for centuries at a time. In fact most of us have some sort of synthetic body modification. Almost everyone chooses optically perfect manufactured eyes and variably sensitive hearing devices, for instance. I happen to enjoy racquet sports, so I have a technically advanced elbow which is nearly indestructible. Also gives me a killer serve, as a side benefit.” Morton grinned with self-satisfaction. “In fact I am 120 years old. I was born in 2022, just six years after you went into lazarization.”
Todd gawked. From Morton’s youthful appearance, he would have taken him to be a very healthy man in his late 30’s or early 40’s. But then he realized that Morton’s features were identifiably Caucasian, which should have tipped him off to his advanced age. He had learned that most people born in the United States in the last sixty years or so had no discernable racial identity, due to the nearly universal admixture of the races after Caucasians fell into minority status in the mid-21st century.
“Man, I must be the luckiest man on earth. I go in nearly dead, and come out into a place where I can be young forever. It’s like paradise!”
Morton folded his hands and took on a serious expression. “That’s what I need to explain to you. We do indeed have a blessed existence, but as you’ll often find, even the greatest privileges come with some cost.”
Morton leaned back and swept his hand over the surface of the desk. The imagery on the walls zoomed out to reveal a vast metropolis, spreading unbroken across the landscape that Todd recognized as the entire East Coast of the United States.
“With the passage of time and our conquest of almost all diseases and risks to human life, our population has grown dramatically. The earth now harbors a population of nearly 14 billion human beings, and the United States is home to over 600 million. We have made tremendous technical advances, but we have not conquered the laws of physics. There are significant limitations on how many people we can support a lifestyle we now consider acceptable. The energy demands of our technology are staggering, and although we have tapped new energy sources barely contemplated in your time, the creation and use of energy is still a constant challenge to us. With so many people to house, space is also a significant limitation. Large sections of what used to be our country have disappeared with the rising of the oceans, or have become uninhabitable due to environmental stresses. Over the last century, our best scientific minds have been struggling with the issue of how many human beings the planet can support, and they determined the maximum population we could manage. That is the population we are currently at, and that is the level at which must stay.”
Morton waved his hand again, and a hologram, showing thousands of people living and working in close quarters in a complex of buildings swept across the wall. “The fact is that the hotel is full, and there are no vacancies. We have technology that allows us to never die. But if we never die, there is no room for anyone to take our place. This is the paradox we face: if we conquer death, we must give up birth.”
“Give up birth?” said Todd. “How can you do that? Birth is just . . . natural. People want children. That’s one of the most basic human needs.”
“Indeed,” said Morton. “Technologically, it’s no big problem. A few changes in the law, accompanied by minor alterations to the air water supply, assured that no children would be conceived except with the aid of certain antidotes which we carefully control. Political acceptability, of course, is the big issue. When it became clear in the latter half of the 21st century that we had to choose between our own lives and those yet unborn, this became the dominant issue of the time. Your seventy year struggle over the right to end individual pregnancies was a minor quarrel compared to the debate that raged in our society over the prospect of ending all pregnancies. But democracy is a hardy beast, and in the end we were able to come up with a solution that all could live with.”
Morton waved his hand again, and the walls once again took on the character of their outdoor surroundings. “We resolved this controversy with the passage of the Population Stability Act of 2091. This landmark legislation resulted in the creation of the Office of Population Stability, and the development of the transitions program which my office oversees. The Population Stability Act established the right of every American to enjoy a healthy and vibrant lifetime, free of disease, degeneration, aging, and discomfort. By consensus, we agreed that every American has an unlimited right to whatever care is necessary to enjoy this lifestyle. Each citizen is also allocated the inalienable right to be one of the two parents of a new citizen, or scionizen, as we call them.”
“Whoa, whoa. Let me get this straight,” said Todd. “I have the right to parent one half of a child?”
Morton glanced at his desk and smiled at Todd. “Actually, Mr. Todd, I note that you were already the parent of three citizens born between 1977 and 1988, although none of them are still extant. So I am afraid that your personal quota has already been used.”
“But if you only have the right to have half a child, how does this work?”
Morton answered, “Obviously, as was the case in your time, one must find a partner to become a parent. Since each citizen has only one opportunity to make that choice, most people make it with more care and forethought than was the case in prior times. When one has many decades or even centuries of youth and vitality to look forward to, we have found that marriages and relationships tend to be more transitory. But the choice to create life is one that people make very carefully.”
Todd leaned back, his Smartchair gently gliding with him. “You said, though, that we could not afford any growth in the population. If people are still producing children, how does the population stay stable? If we’re the maximum population, we couldn’t add any more children unless . . . unless . . .”
“Correct,” said Morton. “The choice to create a new life carries with it a certain responsibility. As the cost of our right to create a scionizen, we also accept that our lifetimes, magnificent as they are, will still be finite.”
“You mean . . . because we still can have children, err, a scionizen, we are also agreeing to die?”
Morton leaned back in his Smartchair and folded his hands. “There is certainly an irony to this.”
Todd leaned forward on the smooth edge of the desk. “But wait. Children need parents. If parents die when they choose to have a child, who raises the child?”
“This brings us to the Population Stability Transitions program, which was the key to acceptance of the Population Stability Act. Obviously, it is not in the interest of scionizens that their parents leave life just as they come into it. Therefore, we determined that there would not be a direct connection between each citizen’s exercise of the right to become a parent and the consequences of achievement of that goal. All citizens have the right to scionage, and all citizens are enrolled in the PST program. Each citizen is guaranteed a lifetime of one hundred years, or twenty-five years after the birth of his or her scionizen, whichever occurs later. After that, each citizen makes a transition election. A citizen may elect to set a date, within the next twenty-five years, for his or her voluntary transition. There is a most attractive incentive program for those who elect voluntary scheduled transition. In your terms, it is a three-month vacation of a lifetime: travel, the most sumptuous food and drink, the best entertainment and art, every experience one could wish for fulfilled. As to the actual voluntary transition process, the details are not public, but rumor has it that the procedure is wired into the same center of the brain that controls orgasm. One can only imagine.”
“But – but – you’re choosing to die? To give up this amazing, centuries-long existence? Why would anyone do that?”
“Indeed. Despite the incentives, relatively few people have elected to give up the prospect of so many years of youth and vitality. For those who decline the option of voluntary scheduled transition, there is an alternative – the random transitions program.”
“Yes. After reaching the age of one hundred years, those who do not elect a VST are entered into the random transitions program. Each year, a replacement reserve percentage is calculated based on the number of scionages occurring in the previous year. Thus if births equivalent to one percent of the population occur, one percent of the random transitions pool is selected for implementation. One’s odds of selection in any particular year are thus quite low; the calculated probability is that an individual entering the pool will have another one hundred years of healthy, vibrant life, maybe significantly more. Considering that this is still far more than any previous generation of human ever enjoyed, we consider this an excellent outcome even for those who reject the option of voluntary scheduled transition.”
“Now, now wait a minute. You mean those who are ‘selected’ are . . . are . . . are they . . .?”
“I think I understand what you are saying. Yes, when one is selected, the transition is implemented on a random, unannounced basis. It is all done very professionally and in a manner completely consistent with our compassionate principles regarding suffering or pain.”
“Let me get this perfectly clear. You’re saying that if I don’t choose to die, to give all this up, the government is going to send a hit man to kill me?”
Morton flashed an empathetic smile. “Well, ‘hit man’ is not a term we would ever choose, knowing the implications it had in your time. In the first place, they aren’t all men.” Morton chuckled at his own joke. “More important, our Transition Agents are highly skilled and professional public servants. They take great pains to assure that selectees do not suffer and are not alerted to the process. In the vernacular of your time, they never know what hit them.”
Todd recoiled sharply, and the Smartchair, sensing a possible accident, gently nudged him back into a conversational position. “Now wait a minute! I didn’t come all this way and spend a hundred years in suspension to be knocked off by a government goon!”
“In your case, Mr. Todd, because of your situation, I am sure we can arrange it so that your time in suspension doesn’t count against your hundred years. Since you were sixty-two when you went in, this guarantees you thirty-eight years of youthful health. Far better than you had any reason to expect when you went in.”
“But this is horrible! You can’t offer people eternal life, then kill them!”
“I understand your apprehension, Mr. Todd. But this is the compromise we had to make in order to enjoy the marvelous quality of life we do. Everyone goes into the pool, even the President, the rich and powerful, great artists, our most accomplished scientists. Only by the completely random and efficient operation of the system can we avoid the suspicion of favoritism and assure public acceptance of the procedure.”
“How do you look in the mirror, knowing what your agency does? Are you saying this is all right, that it’s acceptable, that it’s necessary?”
Morton folded his hands and looked very solemn. “It is utterly necessary.” He leaned back in the Smartchair. “Welcome to our world, Mr. Todd.”
Suddenly Morton lifted his left hand to a silvery temple. “Excuse me, Mr. Todd. All of a sudden I feel . . . I don’t understand . . . ohhhh.” Morton slumped forward, and his head landed on the matte surface of the desk with a sharp thud.
Todd rose quickly to his feet, the Smartchair sensing and assisting his rise. He rounded the corner of the desk, pulled a small wand from his coat pocket, and inserted the curved tip in Morton’s left ear. After a moment, the wand beeped softly and a red diode flashed. Behind Morton’s head in the translucent surface of the desk, Todd could see his own hologram, and the pages of the dossier on the identity he was using. Quickly the images blinked out.
Todd turned and left the office through the anteroom. Turning left down the long hall, he walked quickly toward the waiting room, carefully avoiding eye contact with the anxious-looking woman hurrying up the hall. Behind him, he heard her voice as she turned into the anteroom: “I’m sorry to be late from lunch, Mr. M., but I was held up by . . .”
Todd had just reached the waiting room when he heard her scream.
A young woman was sitting in the waiting room, wearing what seemed to be an ordinary webvisor. Although it appeared that she was watching a webvid while waiting for her appointment, in fact she had been observing Todd’s interview on one screen and the transporter cam on the other.
As she followed Todd into the transporter, she said, “That was remarkable, sir. I was watching closely, but I didn’t see you fire the dart. I hope to have your skills when I . . ”
Todd cut her off. “I would have appreciated more notice on the assistant, Ms. Shinu. In the future, I trust you will pay less attention to my assignment and more to your own.”
The young woman caught her breath momentarily. “Yes sir. It won’t happen again.”
But Todd knew that already.