By: Dustin Hillsley
Photo by Rennett Stowe
The great absurdity of life was that by the time you had the knowledge and wisdom to appreciate it you were already losing it. What was it people said? When you’re born, you’re already dying. But I think knowledge and wisdom were different; unlike knowledge, wisdom didn’t come from the accumulated experience of a long life. Wisdom came from that sense of impending doom, the feeling that your time was running out. It came from watching others take over where you left off, after your limbs lost their youthful vigor and your mind its clarity of thought. It came from giving up your stake in the world. It came from mortality itself.
If I’m right, that would be some irony for you, because that would make me a fool. For all intents and purposes, I am immortal, frozen in time at the peak of my youth. Sounds magical, right? Don’t misunderstand. I’m not a vampire, the highlander, or God. I don’t star in a prime time television program, and tweens across the country don’t swoon when they see me. I’m just an ordinary man, the same as any other. I live forever, but that’s not strange. Everyone can live forever, barring some cruel accident or twist of fate. Woody Allen said he didn’t want to achieve immortality through his work; he wanted to achieve it through not dying. Had Woody been born a century later, he could have done just that.
Wrinkled skin, saggy breasts, round bellies, sloped spines, balding heads, erectile dysfunction, constipation, memory loss. Aging doesn’t sound like much fun. I like being able to go to the bathroom in under ten minutes. So what happened? Some time back, a few scientists hit on a way to change all that. They called it preventing the accumulation of random damage at the biological level, from intercellular to systemic functions. No damage to the cells and organs meant no aging. I understand the process is pretty complicated; fortunately, doctors don’t make patients spell “pluripotent stem cell” before treatment. Inoculation as a child, therapy as an adult, and you get to stay young as long as you like. They call it “normalization,” and the procedure is really no more invasive than a visit to the dentist.
There was some debate about the ethics of normalization at first—how it was destroying humanity’s natural relationship with the world, how it was “unnatural” to live forever. But man’s relationship with nature didn’t change overnight. It started way before normalization. It started with pills: uppers, downers, sleeping pills, diet pills, Viagra, Provigile, Seasonolee. Next thing you knew, we were changing the way we looked with braces, breast implants, lip augmentation, and liposuction. We even enhanced our senses with eye surgery. We put machines, like pacemakers and defibrillators, in our bodies. Not long after that, regenerative medicine produced artificial organs; people were upgrading their systems by replacing components with whatever. The intellectuals were calling it a “visceral retread.” I call it an oil change. Maybe put in a new air filter, some hoses, rotate the wheels. We were changing: post-humans, trans-sapiens, technosapiens. Humanity wasn’t natural anymore; we were an amalgamation of man, lab and machine.
Most people came to think of aging as a design flaw. If life is good, wouldn’t more life be better? Sure, some people called up images from Brave New World. What purpose would there be in life if it went on forever? Wouldn’t we all just play electric golf, waste our time, fill it with self-indulgent distractions? The conservatives were worried about unintended consequences—that we’d go too far and not be able to find our way back. What was the first principle of intelligent tinkering? Don’t throw away the parts.
I can’t speak to all that except to say that the spiritualists, the traditionalists, the conservatives, they all lost out to the mad hope for a longer life, for youth extended without limit. The joy of seeing and playing with your kids and grandkids and great grandkids. The confidence that you could follow your passions without a biological clock ticking in the background.
I’ll admit, though, there is a certain disjointedness about life now. My family goes back generations, and they all look like me. Young and healthy. Some of them still work, dabbling in this or that passion; others worked hard for years and then retired to let their money work for them. They play now, work at this or that, learn about this or that, travel, live in new places, follow whatever fancy takes them. There are so many of us, though, that we really don’t keep track of each other like we might if we all kept dying off. Even with that, I like it. There certainly is a lot of freedom of choice when you live forever.
My wife and I live in Denver, Colorado, the mile high city, nestled up against the Rocky Mountains. I’m told the city used to be sprawling with lots of open space and bucolic views of snowy peaks. That isn’t the city I know. For me, Denver is rows and rows of dirty narrow streets, piled upon each other and reaching to the sky. Any view there used to be has been blotted out by the crushing press of urban efficiency. Buildings huddle together, squeezed into too little space. Where I live, apartments line the streets, stacked like coffins in every direction—tiny, endless, and without change.
Looking out my tiny port window, I have to crane my neck to see a spot of sky, and I can’t see one street over, let alone mountain peaks. When the developers ran out of room to build north, south, east and west, they started building up and down. The world turned into a storage warehouse.
It’s the first day of winter. Glancing down at the street, I saw a chilling wind sweep the street corners around our place, rustling the dusty coats of a flood of harried morning commuters. Red noses blinked up at me like fireflies in the morning light, puffs of hot air misting thousands of strained faces. Glimpses of street between rushing feet revealed dirty paving lightly dusted with new frost.
With a sympathetic shiver, I turned from the window, glad nothing called me out of the coffin this morning. I’m not a vampire, but if you shared a space with your spouse that was reminiscent of a broom closet you’d call it a coffin, too. My wife and I are dabblers. We follow our passions wherever they take us. We’ve been saving a bit, but otherwise just pursuing the mood. Not really in any kind of rush. I’m a part-time columnist and photographer for an international news website; my wife decided to go back to school to be a doctor. This will be her tenth graduate degree.
My wife hummed a little to let me know she was done with her morning routine, and I turned and smiled at her. The world is so small these days, and people live in such little space, sometimes the only privacy you have is the kind you make in your mind. Tokyo taught the world how to do it: sleeping in public, watching movies in cars, the studied effort to be alone with others. With so little space, even though we loved each other, it was nice to just pretend to have some alone time now and again. She hit a button, and with a hiss of hydraulics, our little kitchen set rotated up into the wall, bringing out our bathroom.
She crossed to me with a couple steps and snuggled into my arms. She breathed, “Missed you.”
I snorted. “Ditto, alley cat.” And then I took a deliberate breath. “Try again this morning?”
She squeezed me a little tighter. “Uh huh.” And then she let me go as she turned back to the bathroom. For a long time, we put off having children—something you can do when you live forever. We wanted to experience life, get to know each other and ourselves. Find our place in the world. We wanted a shred of knowledge and maybe even some wisdom to pass on before we invited another person into the world. But now, after waiting so long, and being so responsible about all of it, we are having the hardest time getting pregnant. Sure, the doctors can artificially inseminate anyone these days, but I don’t know. Call us old fashioned. We want to do this ourselves. We don’t want to go to the doctor’s office and pick out a kid like a designer outfit at a retail store. Obviously our hang-up with the whole thing isn’t about enhancements in general; after all, we both normalize. We talked about it, because a lot of people are having lab babies. It basically comes down to this: there’s something to be said for adversity. Being perfect doesn’t build character; struggling builds character. Plus, we have pretty good genes; I think we’d do alright.
While my wife peed on a stick, I plugged in my headphones and turned on the morning news. With a touch of my hand, a panel in the wall took light, and some talking head lawyer-type started in on his critique of some breaking news.
“For some of you this has been a long time coming. I can hear the chants outside my window. ‘Sustainability! Sustainability! Sustainability!’ Well, Congress has finally acted. The catalyst? Reports are in from farm operations across the country. Corn has been genetically modified for agronomical reasons for years. These forms of modified corn produce higher yields and are resistant to insects and pesticides. These modifications were necessary to keep up with the increasing demand of our population. Reports indicate very few people have decided to die in the last few years, while many continue to have children. The combination of these two factors has resulted in exponential population growth and ever-increasing pressure on the agricultural industry to increase efficiency.”
“Enough background. I have some very troubling news. The reason I’m not enjoying my morning coffee is that we’ve just been informed that the majority of the world’s transgenic corn crop has been decimated by what is being called NMSV—the New Maize Streak Virus. Apparently the most recent genetic enhancements created a vulnerability to this virus. What does all this mean? It means that the country is facing a food shortage on an epic scale.”
“In anticipation, Congress finally addressed the overpopulation issue. After years of short-term thinking and expedient politics, Congress acted, although some—me included—will likely say their measures are extreme. As of midnight last night, a moratorium is in effect on all live births. No one is to get pregnant. The moratorium applies to any undocumented conception as of this morning’s announcement. Should any of you find you are pregnant today, tomorrow, or anytime in the near future, you are required to visit a clinic and acquire an abortion.”
“I know what some of you are thinking. What about the Bill of Rights—the right to privacy, to reproductive freedom? In an emergency hearing last night, the courts ruled the moratorium constitutional, citing Korematsu v. United States, a case from a very long time ago, 1944, authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. The courts held that, during a national emergency such as this, Americans should be willing to make certain sacrifices for the well-being of everyone. I quote: ‘This is not something we do lightly; it is with heavy hearts, but clear consciences, that we validate this restriction on civil rights. We cannot allow more children when we cannot feed the ones we already have.’”
“This is what I think is going to—”
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I glanced back to see my wife standing there looking at me. She smiled, pulled the headphones from my ears, and said, “I’m pregnant.”
We’d been on the light rail for some time, headed towards Salt Lake City, Utah. The train was packed with anxious families. People that hoped the rail would end with safety for their loved ones, born and unborn.
The decision had been an easy one. In the coffin, after I told her, we both knew. There was no doubt. I saw it in her eyes—the fear, the desperation. And utter and total rebellion. We were having this child. It was going to take a heck of a lot more than an Act of Congress to stop her. It was simple. This fetus, no matter how new to the world, was already part of my wife and, therefore, part of our family. I’m not saying we’re against abortion or anything like that—people can do what they want—but we both felt the potential life in her, a potential we’d been fighting for, and we couldn’t just let it go.
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones. After the announcement, several state governments issued their own press releases. They refused to enforce the federal prohibition. We were headed to one of those states, Utah, home of one of the most prolific populations in American history, the Mormon Church. The more I thought about it, the more sure I was that we were making the right decision. For both Catholics and Mormons, the new law would have significant religious implications. We should be safe, tucked away in the mountains, insolated by the strength of their moral and religious imperatives, if no longer by the First Amendment.
In the train, the PA system bleeped as it was turned on. “We are approaching the border between Colorado and Utah. Be advised: this will be the last train. The border is closing. If you wish to continue into Utah, remain onboard; if you wish to stay in Colorado, disembark at the next stop on the Colorado side of the border.”
“Wow.” My wife turned to me with a frown. “Civil War?”
“Let’s see if somebody knows what’s going on.” I got out of my seat and headed to the front of our car. Between the madly gesticulating crowd of angry people at the front, I saw a woman in a uniform, tapping on a large video display. I elbowed my way close to her. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I said. “Do you know what that announcement was about?”
“Sir, you must return to your seat.”
“I know, I know, but please. Why are they closing the border?”
“I don’t know any more than you do. Please return to your seat.”
In Salt Lake City, we exited the train with a flood of refugees. The streets were crowded with young healthy faces. No way to know if the people were 20 or 200. A lot of the women were pregnant. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to go. People were just waiting for something to happen.
Then we heard a scream. And another. The sound of rushing bodies, breaking glass. The sharp crack of a gunshot and the acid smell of a bullet.
I tried to dig our way out of the crowd into some semblance of safety. As we broke free, I saw a scene playing out before me. A nearly empty grocery store, the window fronts shattered, a man holding a bag of rice in one hand and his wife’s hand in the other. His wife, screaming as blood pulsated from the hole in her pregnant belly. A store clerk, staring first at his gun and then at the woman and then at his gun and then at the woman. Disbelief. Terror.
All over the city, it started as hoarding and turned into looting. Stores were raided and sacked. People were afraid they wouldn’t be able to find their next meal. Utah closed its borders in an effort to stabilize its population. Other states did the same. No one wanted more refugees. The federal government refused aid to those states in rebellion. Food was too precious to share.
“Push!” I was bedside in a hospital somewhere in Salt Lake City. My wife was flat on her back and doing a pretty good job of crushing the bones in my hand. We were surrounded by people, but we were basically alone. The hospital was so overcrowded her bed was actually a couple of stacked pallets in the corner of what used to be the doctor’s break room. A lot of women were giving birth in Salk Lake City just now.
I panted with nervous energy as my wife fought the labor pains. She looked up at me with an incredulous expression. “Stop talking.”
A doctor glanced our way and then rushed over. “Your baby’s coming; one more push.” My wife screamed as she strained, her face scrunched with effort. I heard a rush, and the doctor said, “There we go! She’s here! She’s here!”
My wife closed her eyes and said, “Thank God. Let me see her, please let me see her.” A moment later, the doctor passed my wife a bundle.
Peering into the blankets, she said, “Oh, she’s healthy; she’s whole. Oh, thank you, thank you.”
A startling cry filled the room. My wife’s eyes glued to the little person in her arms. “Oh my God, you are alive, little baby. You’re here. Oh my God, I can’t believe it.”
The doctor quickly cleaned up my wife and then moved away. I reached out and touched my hand to our daughter’s little head. Our daughter. A family.
I barely caught the rush of new movement by our pallet. I glanced up to see the doctor arguing with someone in a suit. The Suit seemed to have won the argument because the doctor snapped her gloves off, glared at the Suit one last time, and left the area. The Suit then turned towards me and smirked.
A wave of panic hit me. As he approached, I put myself between him and my wife. “What do you want?” I said.
He smiled benignly at me. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” He nodded towards my wife and baby girl.
“Look, I’ll try to make this easy. Your family here is only supposed to be two; it is now three. You have a decision to make.”
“What the hell are you talking about? Utah doesn’t enforce the moratorium. What do you mean we have a decision to make?”
He sighed. “I’m not with Utah; I’m with the federal government. While you all were in here breaking the law, the State of Utah was making a deal with the federal government for more food. People are starving out there.”
I glanced back, and my wife was looking at the Suit. I heard the words burn their way out of her throat. “You can’t have my baby. You can’t have her.”
The Suit shook his head. “That’s your choice. We’re willing to be reasonable at this late stage. Yes, you broke the law, but the baby doesn’t have to pay the price.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew a syringe. “We aren’t medieval. This is for the greater good. We’ll let you choose.” He placed the needle on a medical cart.
He walked back over to the door and slid it open. He pointed at me, my wife, and my baby girl. “But when you leave this room, there will only be two of you.”