Dust to Bits — Chapter 14 (draft)

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These are the early drafts of my first novel. You can now read it on Amazon at http://bit.ly/dust2bits

The sun was about to set in what had been a beautiful summer day. It would’ve been perfect to go for a quick stroll and then maybe some light dinner. Sadly, he was working.

If someone would have asked Lucca Daneri about the most unlikely place for him to do his work, this would be it. The double wooden doors facing him were intended to convey great power, quite fitting for an officer of the Holy Church, except that the person behind them no longer had any power, even though his spiritual influence continued to be strong.

Cardinal Giulio Scorza had resigned, some said he had been removed, from office shortly after refusing to follow the Pope’s orders to strongly condemn the existence of virtual consciences as the Devil’s work, mankind’s unruly attempt to look at God in the eyes. He could just not bring himself to do it. It wasn’t the first time he ended up in trouble with the Catholic hierarchy; as a young seminarist, he briefly joined a group that favored extensive reform of the Church’s rites, among other things. They went as far as to propose Holy Mass to be abolished. His stint with that group almost got him expelled; the only reason he managed to avoid such punishment was that his superiors where far too impressed with his intellect to let him go, they rightfully saw a lot of potential in him. To be fair, after being ordained, he did make a conscious effort to align himself to all aspects of the Church’s doctrine, even those he felt strongly against. Every now and then, however, he would still stir things up by speaking out his mind to the wrong people and yet, somehow, he always managed to make the landing and end up at a higher position. As he became older, it bothered him that some of his colleagues would chalk up his more controversial ideas to “old age”. He was old, that much was true. Already pushing past ninety-three, he was the second oldest member of the College of Cardinals. But that didn’t mean his mental faculties had declined in the slightest. His body, on the other hand, had, and he was increasingly feeling death get closer as it loomed out of a shadowy corner of the Spartan bedroom in which he had spent the past few days after fracturing his pelvis during a morning walk. And it was right there, in that bed, that Giulio Scorza had made the decision that had prompted Lucca to be knocking on his door this evening.

He had to knock twice before the door opened with a creaking sound that betrayed how old and heavy it really was. The six-feet tall Lucca was wondering if the door had opened by means of some automated mechanism that he had failed to notice, then he saw the tiny figure of an elderly nun. She gave him a stern look from head to toe, then did the same with the other two people behind him, one of them a woman, who made an attempt at a polite smile that was not returned. Once she was satisfied, the nun muttered a cranky buona sera and motioned them to come inside. Once they were in, she stuck her head out and looked on both sides of the street before locking the door behind them.

The place was more sparsely furnished than the facade would have suggested. A wooden dinner table with two chairs, an old leather couch, a love seat that was likely part of the same set and a flat-screen television that was at least twenty years old. It was tuned to the news, some spirited discussion in the European Parliament on the right to die, which was now recognized across the European Union and had made a comeback into the spotlight, precisely because of the procedure that Lucca was about to perform. A few paintings on the walls displayed vaguely religious motives, none decidedly Christian. One that depicted a man at the top of a primitive building, his left hand extended to touch a cloud, called his attention. He had read Scorza’s open letter, which explained the grounds for his resignation from the Roman Curia and where he mentioned the story of the Tower of Babel, which the building in the painting reminded him of; except that the building in the painting was completed, and the man on top of it had indeed reached the sky.

The nun lead them pass the living room into a dimly lit corridor with one door on each side. She knocked twice on the door on the left and then opened it. Only the nun and Lucca walked in. The two bodyguards went back to the living room to wait and make sure no uninvited guests arrived. They had been very fortunate, with no incidents in more than a hundred visits. Other teams in both Italy and Europe had had no such luck.

The man on the bed was emaciated, a pale reflection of the vivacious man Giulio Scorza had once been. He made an effort to sit and offer his hand to Lucca, the image of pain in his visage showing how much of a toll that simple exertion was taking on him. Both Lucca and the nun rushed to his side; he gently helped him lay back to rest again, while the nun carefully adjusted the drip rate of the IV going into one of his veins. Lucca uttered a hurried greeting and then told him who he was and the procedure in which he was about to engage, to which the ailing priest weakly moved his head to signal his agreement. He then proceeded to read, in Italian, the same legal document that was now being read hundreds of times a day in hundreds of different languages, finishing by asking the patient whether he understood.

“Sì”. His answer was full of all the strength the dying man could muster.

That was all Lucca needed; he put the briefcase he had been carrying on the floor and opened it. Inside, there was a helmet of sorts, a slimmed-down version of the one Eran had used, with the electronic components visible through the transparent and flexible silicon encasing. It stayed connected to and powered by the remaining hardware inside of the briefcase by way of a single, razor-thin, flat cable. Trying to be as gentle as possible, he slightly lifted the head of the old man, just enough to slide the helmet in and get a good fit, something that was confirmed by a message that showed up in Lucca’s field of vision, the lenses he was wearing doubling as control panel for the system. The cardinal had remained silent through the whole process, not a single sound betrayed any discomfort he may have been feeling. A single tear rolled out one of his eyes, a quiet testimony to his stoicism. Lucca felt a lump in his throat and had to step back. He finally took a deep breath and made a hand gesture that started the copying process. The fact that it induced a state analog to a dreamless sleep gave him some comfort; he could see the relief in the priest’s face. Twenty minutes later, it was all done.

“Grazie,” said the priest with a faint smile. Lucca bowed his head to him and to the nun and left room to meet his companions and leave, already headed for their next destination that day. As he was leaving the room, he could hear the cardinal talking to the nun with the last bit of strength he had left. “Sorella, sono pronto.”

Translated from L’Osservatore Vaticano, June 24th, 2036:

“Cardinal Giulio Scorza passed away last night in his private residence in Rome, where he had been recovering after a recent fall. Scorza was a prolific author, having published over thirty books through his career, delving on topics from Church history, theology and social engagement to poetry. He was also a controversial figure, with his opinions more often than not clashing with the official posture of the Holy See. In one such incident, he recently resigned his position as Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which he held for a little over two years, over a disagreement with Pope Leo XIV, related to his position on virtual consciences.”

He looked at the pile of books in front of him, then at the pen he was holding and the blank piece of paper that was supposed to contain the essay he was due to deliver the next day. All around him, the sounds of people pulling books out of their shelves, turning the pages on the ones they were reading or scribbling a few notes created a pleasant buzz of intense activity. There was also a very faint music, which he realized was coming from the headphones a young man sitting two tables ahead of him was wearing, his back turned. He must have had the music very loud for someone to be able to hear it. He smiled, put the pen down and spoke in a heavily-accented English:

“They didn’t have music players when I was a student,” he said, then added “but I did love that record.”

Everyone in the library suddenly started walking away, leaving just the two of them.

“I know,” Eran replied. “I always liked it as well. Granted, it was already a classic by the time I was born.” He pushed his chair back, stood up and turned to face the new arrival. “Welcome to our world, your eminence.”

The former cardinal looked at his hands for a moment, noticing how smooth the skin appeared to be. Still in disbelief, he started to stand up carefully, his mind grudgingly accepting his newly found nimbleness. He walked towards Eran and effusively shook hands with him, his excitement only matching the first time he was face to face with a Pope.

“You can call me Giulio,” he said affably. “I’m not sure I ever deserved being called ‘your eminence’, and here I definitely don’t.”

“Fair enough. Then you can call me Eran, although I really don’t go by any other title.”

Giulio laughed heartily, enjoying not only the joke but the fact that he was finally here, the suffering from his aged former self now a memory of the past. “Good people go to Heaven,” he had been told since he was a little child. This seemed to be Heaven indeed.

“Are you always present to welcome the new arrivals, Eran?” He asked with curiosity. It was easy to imagine that the numbers of new virtual consciences were already in the thousands.

“No, sometimes I wished I could, but it would eventually get boring,” Eran answered with sincerity. “Besides, we are asking some of the first arrivals to serve as guides for the newest ones. That’s more sustainable,” he added. “No, I’m here today for a different reason,” he paused. “There’s a something I’d like your help with, if that’s ok with you…”

From the Bay Times, June 27, 2036:

“Healthcare and pharma sharply down on assisted suicide numbers

The statistics of assisted suicides in the past month, released this morning by the Swiss government, sent pharmaceutical and healthcare stocks on a tailspin. An increase was widely expected, but analysts had predicted it would remain in the 30% to 40% range. Instead, assisted suicides in the country, which also include foreigners in what has been referred to in the past as ‘Death Tourism’, have seen a dramatic three-fold increase after authorities in the Virtual World opened the door, under certain conditions, for people to complete a full transition into virtual consciences. Although Eran Marno, spokesperson for the Virtual World and first virtual conscience with a human origin, originally stated that only humans suffering for a terminal condition that made death a predictable certainty would be allowed in, that requirement was later clarified to include those going through euthanasia procedures in countries where legislation allows them. This has resulted in an increased influx into several countries that have legislation allowing assisted suicide. For most of these countries, said legislation applies only to those with conditions that usually end in death or impact the quality of life in such a way as to make suicide a viable option. Critics of this argue that none of the countries and states that offer this alternative have a clear definition of the requirements to opt in, making it in the end a subjective decision and a de facto legalization of suicide. As for the Virtual World, they are themselves content with abiding by local legislation, stating that, in any case, their associates are not involved in any procedures related with life termination.

It bears consideration that these numbers may not be presenting a complete picture, in that it has been pointed out that a sizeable portion of those now opting for assisted suicide and admission to the virtual world are afflicted with different degrees of paralysis and other conditions that make their life in our world partially or fully dependent on caregivers, something that is a non-issue with regards to their lives as virtual consciences. From this point of view, the Virtual World would be accomplishing one of its goals in opening the option of permanent immigration, namely, giving people a second chance beyond their natural lives.

Why does this negatively affect the healthcare industry?

For starters, as life expectancy in the developed world increased in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, new conditions that were relatively rare or completely unknown in the past started to show up. The healthcare industry discovered early on that there was money to be made here. Along with pharma, they have made considerable profits from treating everything from Alzheimer’s disease to osteoporosis. Now, all of a sudden, people are ‘opting-out’ of life as part of the sick and old; worse than that, they are doing so for free. Although the migration rate is still not as high as to make a significant dent in these industries’ revenue streams, market projections already show no future growth, some even go as far as to predict a sharp decrease as time progresses. These numbers have simply compounded those fears.”

The elderly woman fell to the floor, disoriented. Her husband helped her up, although David worried that he would fall as well. People had different reactions the first time they used an immersion pool; some would feel dizzy, a few entered a panicked frenzy, others became drunk with the sense of being all powerful; finally, most decided to sit on the ground for a couple of minutes and let this new reality sink in. These two were having a particularly hard time adapting, although David knew that it was not only on account of being exposed to an unfamiliar environment, but also because of the combination of stress and excitement related to the reason they were here today.

David waited patiently for them recover, which happened after about ten minutes. The woman looked at him, nodded her head in assent and stood up. “Take us to him, please,” she said. It was said as a request, and a very low-voiced one at that. He could easily see how conflicted she was. Her husband didn’t seem so worried, now that he was feeling more at ease in the place. He led them through a country road that he himself had already walked in the past. It would’ve been easier to just show up directly at their destination, but he rightfully though it was better to let them take in the place a bit before heading for the next shock.

“I recognize this place!” The woman said, stopping for a moment. “How’s that possible?” She asked, with an air of surprise.

“He wanted it to be like that,” replied David. “I’m sure this house will also look familiar to you,” she had been paying attention to his words and at first didn’t notice they had stopped right next to a set of double iron gates. Also in metal, and split between both blades, was the word Persevere.

“My house! It’s my house!” she covered her mouth with her left hand, while touching the letters with her right. She suddenly stopped, as she saw the person standing just a few feet from the gate. Teresa Marno dropped to her knees at the sight of her deceased son, now standing right in front of her, smiling like he used to. Her son helped her stand up and embraced both her and his father. Although not all wounds would be mended at once, the process had finally begun. David politely left as the three went into the house. He had another pressing matter to attend to.

From the Tokyo Financial Review, July 1st, 2036:

“Neural Ventures, Inc. and Japanese Labor Ministry sign cooperation agreement

Tokyo. During a press conference this morning, Japan’s Labor Minister, Hiromi Ohta, announced the signing of an agreement in which Neural Ventures Incorporated, a wholly-owned subsidiary of California-based Silicon Micro Electronics (SME), will supply Japan with a range of automation products to offset the impact of a dwindling workforce , officially attributed to the aging population, but also rumored to be related to the number of Japanese citizens committing state-sanctioned suicide after transitioning into virtual consciences. Japan’s government has been both lauded and criticized on their lenient posture towards mass emigration to the Virtual World, allowing the establishment of transition centers through the country with very few bureaucratic hurdles. Today’s agreement is deemed to be a nod to that, since SME is partially controlled by a private group representing the Virtual World. Neural Ventures’ products, included their top-of-the-line, humanoid robots, will be used in activities ranging from manufacturing to care for the elderly, both being among the most affected by the drop in the number of available workers.

David Yuen, former Project Director at Neural Ventures and member of SME’s Board of Directors said that ‘[today’s] announcement marks the first of a series of similar initiatives to help countries across the globe improve the quality of life of their citizens in ways that just a few years ago were thought to be impossible’.”

“Are you sure about this?” Eran asked him. They were in one of the facilities outside of Tokyo. David was already donning the helmet that would capture his essence, the contents of his mind. Eran had taken control of one of the androids there, part of the first batch that was going to be delivered to the Japanese. This one was very detailed in his human appearance, as it was destined for a healthcare facility. Nevertheless, it had no resemblance to Eran’s human appearance.

“Yes, Eran, I’m sure. There’s nothing I want more.” His voice was relaxed, but firm. He had thought this thoroughly, the trip to Japan had presented him with an opportunity to finally go through with it. Eran was initially taken aback when he found out, but had in the end provided his blessing. Japanese law allowed any adult deemed to be of sound mind to undergo life termination procedures, something that had contributed to the number of people that were transitioning and that were doing so in Japan. David had prepared himself to rebuke any attempts by Eran to dissuade him, so his next words took him by surprise:

“Alright, friend. I’ll see you on the other side, then,” he simply said.

David’s eyes were wide open, then he smiled. It wasn’t that he needed Eran’s support to do it, but it still meant a lot to him. Eran watched in silence as the technician started the process.

Translated from Die Woche in Europa, July 18th, 2036:

“Universal Minimum Income to go to referendum in 2037

The European Parliament stamped its approval for the celebration of a referendum next year that could lead to the introduction of a Universal Minimum Income (UMI) for all twenty-four member states. Over three million signatures were collected Europe-wide to request the referendum, which comes largely in response to a sharp increase in unemployment due to massive automation across several industries. The measure even has the support from the leaders of several of those industries and from the Neural Initiative Europe, a lobby group representing the Virtual World and Neural Ventures, Inc., a company that has been largely behind automation efforts across the continent.

If the proposal is approved, EU citizens currently unemployed will receive a minimum base salary on a monthly basis in exchange for participating on a regular basis in cultural and educational extension programs, as well as physical education and conservational efforts. It is worth noting that a study, published last month by the European Central Bank, estimates that prices of manufactured goods and services within the EU will drop by five percent this year on account of automation efforts alone. If this trend continues, within five years, there will be an accumulated drop of fifty percent, which may soften the blow of the additional benefits.

Proponents of UMI say that it will provide a medium-term solution for growing unemployment in the EU. Some even see it as a precursor of a new model of society in which the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force behind human ingenuity. They admit, however, that there is still a long road ahead before such a utopic society can be made into a reality.”

Eran, David and Robert watched as Maya carried a small box, followed closely by eleven others, all looking exactly like her.

“It’s a symbol,” Eran explained. “Mostly for our benefit. They meant it as a way to show that, because of what they share in the Common Knowledge, they are all her.

“What’s in the box?” That was Robert asking.

“That’s more difficult to explain”. Eran hesitated for a moment, as if trying to find the right words. “Maya’s essence survived in the Common Knowledge, that is how the virtual conscience that took her place is able to ‘be her’ in a way that is more real than anyone thought possible. However, there were other fragments of her, left around every time she went to the outside world. In a way, they’re like lines of unused code.” He paused, looking at David, then added: “They have located all those lines of code and placed them inside of the box.”

“And then?” David had become interested in the subject.

“It’s all going to be deleted. That’s what this burial ceremony is about.”

“Why not save it somehow?”

“It’s about letting go, David,” Eran replied. In a way, it felt as if he was reminding himself about it. “Humans learn to deal with death to one degree or another almost since they’re born. It’s everywhere, so you’re more or less ready to accept it when it hits you the hardest. They don’t have that advantage, having never had the luxury of growing up in a way that you and I would characterize as normal. This is what they came up with to honor her memory and then let her go for good.”

“What about Maya? The new Maya, that is.”

Eran shrugged. “I told you it was difficult to explain.” He turned around to greet a new arrival. “Father Scorza, I thought you were not coming.”

Giulio Scorza had settled on the appearance of his mid-forties self, a time in which he had felt quite comfortable in his old skin, but not too young that he would feel as if he was unduly indulging in the temptations of eternal youth. He had also decided to lead a quiet life here, the life of a scholar he had craved for in his late years and for which he now had unlimited time available. What he had not yet decided was whether he wanted to play a spiritual role in this new life as well, after all, who needs the hope of an afterlife when there is no end to life? Then, Eran had told him about what had happened, how one of the virtual consciences had died. He asked him to talk to the others, the virtual consciences that, unlike Eran and now himself, had never been human and were as lost as little kids would be, dealing with the loss of a loved one. He had at first refused, but then reconsidered. Fragile as his faith was in light of the place he was in, of who and what he was now, he felt it was his duty to help these children, because that’s what they were, cope with loss, in the best way he knew how, with words.

“It’s the least I can do, Eran. But please, drop the ‘father’,” he said affecting false indignation. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He stepped up to talk to the virtual consciences now standing before him, with Maya at the lead, still holding the box. “Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult ordeals humans face through life. Although we are taught that death is part of the human condition, we protect ourselves by pretending to believe our time here is never-ending, and it feels like that sometimes. That is why death always manages to surprise us. When that happens, we deny, we grieve and finally, we accept. It would be unbecoming for me today to tell you about paradise, about a better place we go to when we die because, well, you are already in such place. Instead, I will tell you this: From all the things death has taught us, knowing your time is finite is the most important of all, it makes us push harder in order to make that limited time count. That, and not money, not fame nor wealth, is the driving force that made us immortal for millions of years, not as individuals, but as a species. It is the same driving force that I am sure is part of you, our descendants. Now, it is the time to accept, the time to thank the one who was left us and then let go, the time to continue moving forward, because our time, no matter how long, always has an end. There is a line in the Book of Genesis: ‘For dust you are, and unto dust shall you return’, that humans sometimes use in funerals. For us, that is no longer the case, so I leave you with a new one: “For dust we were, and unto bits we shall return.”

Continue to the Epilogue…