This is "Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing," CNET's crowdsourced science fiction novel written and edited by readers from around the world. New to the story? Click here to start. To read other past installments, visit our table of contents.
Compiled by Escobar MacNamara, curator of the Museum of the Uninstallation, San Jose, State of Jefferson, 2067.
Earth, April 11, 2051:
Rebecca Danish felt old. She felt it in her bones, in her blood, in her organs and her skin, despite the swarms of hyperactive nanobiotics floating through her systems, constantly repairing and improving all of them. They could not, however, rejuvenate her mind. Although she was pushing 110, she lived in the body of a woman half her age.
She stood alone in the uncared-for grounds of the graveyard. Not even the moon, hidden behind dark clouds and the ash-filled air, kept her company. The sight of the once beautiful green field, now ravaged by weeds and time, made her feel ancient. And forgotten, like a lost ruin.
The condition of burial grounds around the country had been deteriorating ever since the advent of nanobiotics. Fewer and fewer people seemed to attend the resting places of their dead. How could it be so easy for them to forget? She couldn't understand it.
Her Charles hadn't had a comfortable death. The massive stroke had led to a cerebral edema, the swelling in his brain relieved by a decompressive craniectomy. She had not been with him when he woke up disoriented after days of coma, and she carried that shame for years. His left arm and legs were rendered immobile and he developed a persistent pain in his right shoulder, but his sense of humor was gladly still intact.
She had been with him every step of the year-long rehabilitation process. Charles tried to hide it as best as he could, but she knew he was depressed for not being able to do his little tinkering projects anymore. After retiring, Charles made the house an ever-changing experiment, testing what he could do, literally single-handedly. Only for the second stroke to take him away -- for good.
Much as Rebecca was proud of her composure in difficult times, she could not have helped but give in under all that suffering. Khloe had been her fulcrum then. Her daughter had been by her side on that same spot, 32 years ago, on their last goodbye to Charles. Why wasn't she there yet?
As the years went on, Rebecca began to romanticize the notion of downgrading. While her body responded as it always had, refreshed each morning after just three hours of sleep thanks to recent upgrades in cellular O2-processing efficiency, her mind was growing tired.
Editor's note: Some of you may be living on an Earth in a universe where the entire Milky Way galaxy is moving through space a little slower, causing time itself to actually pass less quickly, thanks to what Einstein calls special relativity (see: Time Dilation). More simply put, some of you are essentially living in the past from the point of view of the authors of this work.
So for those of you living on a pre-nanobiotech-revolution Earth, let's look at the basics. Around the time of our story, Earth EB-2 humans were still all completely natural-born, so nanobiotics were still installed at an elective age.
The benefits to allowing the body's natural growth to go on longer before introducing nanobiotics to halt the body's progression (or reverse it, a more costly process typically accompanied with some not insignificant physical pain) were basically twofold. Obviously, going with natural growth is considerably cheaper than the introduction of nanobiotics, which have a deceptively low installation price, followed by monthly or even weekly maintenance costs that seem to be constantly escalating.
The trickier part of the cost-benefit analysis of going "H+" was that halting the natural breakdown and decay of the body's system had the odd side effect of also freezing muscle memory in place, sometimes causing a regression. Stories of people who slowly forgot how to ride a bicycle after going H+ were not at all uncommon. Learning to juggle or play an old-style manual instrument after installing was a tedious and frustrating process requiring intense mental concentration that could cause persistent migraines in those who refused to accept the limitations of the biotech. Of course, body mods and implants exist to offset these limits, but with the extra cost and stigma for an experience that could be had more easily within the virtual safety of a VR.
Should customers choose to uninstall their nanobiotics, they were directed to the numerous releases of liability that were signed before installation. Thousands of microscopic words in the documents detailed the high likelihood that deinstallation would be followed by accelerated aging. Most ended up in assisted living centers filled with other "downgrades" fending off the arguments during weekly visits from their family members who desperately pled with them to reinstall.
So much wasted breath, right?
Rebecca still missed Charles, even after four decades. Although he had passed over 20 years before nanobiotics had become commercially available, she knew his faith would have prevented him from ever considering putting such a monstrosity into his own body in defiance of God, nature or whatever anyone else would have called it.
She took one last glance around the graveyard, looking for Khloe's silhouette between the trees and headstones, but saw only a sad haze in all directions. She cursed her daughter quietly, apologized to her husband's grave and made her way home to a bottle of wine and an early bedtime before another day teaching at the academy that she struggled to get excited for.
That evening, the darkness that seemed to surround her slipped away in her dreams.
Rebecca dreamed more frequently of heaven in recent years, a heaven in which her late husband had so steadfastly believed. She was an equally steadfast atheist, but this seemingly fundamental disparity in their beliefs had never bothered Charles.
"You know I can't wait to prove you wrong on this one, babe," he'd joke whenever the topic was broached at a dinner party with their closest friends. "One day it'll be you and me and margaritas on a beach where sunset lasts for eternity...you'll see, babe."
When asked, Charles typically referred to himself as a Christian by default, but his real religion was more basic: eternal optimism dressed up in the most socially acceptable theological fashions of whatever environment he happened to find himself in. He called himself a spiritual pragmatist. Over the years, he'd told multiple rabbis he felt like a Jew at heart; when working on contracts in the Middle East he was a Muslim at heart; after experiencing his first Diwali, he had concluded that "we are all Hindu at heart, most of us just don't know it yet."
Most famously among friends and family, he had remarked weeks before his death and after defying doctors' orders to make one final trip to his favorite spots in southern Cambodia that he had "always been and always will be a Christian at heart, but you know -- it's a funny thing, because I'm pretty damn sure Jesus was a Buddhist at heart."
Rebecca had always secretly envied her husband's unique blend of faith and open-mindedness that allowed slightly grumpy atheists entrance to an eternal beach vacation in the afterlife. Increasingly, she found herself spending those precious three hours of nightly slumber on that Pacific beach with Charles, sipping away at a bottomless margarita and staring at an iridescent horizon, which spun and swirled through shades of pinks, yellows, oranges and magentas.
April 12, 2051:
In the morning, Rebecca woke feeling a little groggier than usual, momentarily experiencing the actual age and burdens of 11 decades of life rather than the youthful elasticity of her body, fresh off another round of nocturnal nano-maintenance. Looking into the mirror she wondered how she might look two weeks from now should she just give up and uninstall today. She knew that the aging process would race to catch up with the time that had passed. Her vanity conjured images of rotting corpses that would flash through her mind, jolting her back to the reality of present day.
She stood and stared into the mirror, longing for a face that accurately reflected the weight of all her years to look back at her. She imagined an equally decrepit, 110-year-old Charles next to her own reflection, with a big stupid smile on his weathered face.
It was a particularly hard morning. Feeling weighed down, she opted to call in a substitute to take over her class.
"They used to call these mental health days," she tried to explain to her administrator, a boy eight decades her junior. He could make her job more difficult, but most of the younger staff knew there was no point in arguing with an instructor with six decades of tenure. She sat and read over all the texts she could find on uninstalling, on the decline toward an inevitable death. It actually sounded pretty tolerable, if not a little exhilarating, but two thoughts gave her pause.
First, she recalled the months (or was it years; she had willed herself to forget) of chronic pain she had endured to appease her vanity with an advanced nanobiotic system that gradually restored her body to its middle-aged state, a stage in her life that she deemed acceptable and that still allowed her to appear appropriately older than her daughter's permanent chosen age. Then she considered how it would hurt to leave her daughter behind, knowing that Khloe would never consider making the same choice, that she would never come to join the two of them on that infinite beach.
Rebecca came to her senses, as she saw it, got herself together and made her way down to the academy to relieve the substitute and take over her class.
She often wondered about the age of many of her students. It was easy enough to figure which were showing their true age, thanks to a matching outward arrogance and naivete. But it was the quiet ones that were more mysterious. Someone who appeared to be an introverted twenty-something could really be an eighty-something retired engineer who had sprung for the most advanced age-regression nanobiotics in a bid to more easily slide into a new career, a new life.
Invariably, as she stared out at a sea of perfect faces and attempted to squeeze some modern multidimensional theory into their ears, a siren would go off.
Editor's note: While technologies to preserve the individual on Earth were advancing by leaps and bounds, they only contributed to the continuing collapse of society. Overpopulation, bureaucratic disorganization and environmental ruin all sowed the seeds of war. It wasn't even clear anymore what the sirens might be warning about. On any given day it could be a loose nuke threat, a radiation or air quality hazard, a fleet of unauthorized drones tripping an auto-radar system...Frankly, the once glorious Einstein-Beyonce-2 was screwed up bad.
The first time she heard the sirens, the sound was so piercing she grabbed for her ears as if to pull them off of her head. Her students stared at her with fear, waiting for her to tell them what to do. It took her a moment to realize that she was in charge. Her heart was thumping so loudly the pressure of its beating and the siren made her head feel like it might implode.
This time on the first siren of the day, she waved her arm toward the door immediately and assertively to direct the students out. "Go, go!" she yelled, though she knew they could not hear her.
Still, they stood quickly and exited the building. Outside, the siren was not quite as loud, and the students and teachers gathered in circles to guess at what the alarm was all about.
Rebecca just stood silently to the side and stared at the perfectly blue sky. For a moment, she felt totally at peace.
And then the siren stopped. They quickly learned it was a false alarm triggered by a friendly cruiser circling the campus in preparation for a landing.
It turned out to be an exhausting six-siren day.
That evening, Rebecca entered her empty apartment in the Back Bay as the sun set. She kicked off her shoes just inside the door with an unusual level of frustrated frenzy, landing one in the bed of the kitchen fabricator. She sighed and left it there, ignoring the flashing error display. Instead she walked into the pantry, shifting boxes around until finally pulling one out from the depths of the storage space. She removed a plain cylinder marked "Manzanillo Marg" and shook it clumsily before flipping off the lid and chugging the concoction that was just the right blend of sweet, sour and awful.
What does Rebecca look like in your mind? Contribute your visual interpretations.
Two hours later she passed out on top of her bedsheets, still dressed in her teaching uniform, and thoughts returned once again to that sublime setting sun. Instead of sitting and staring at the sunset, this time she and Charles were walking along the beach; they had made love in the sand and she thought at one point they might have even surfed in tandem.
When Rebecca awoke, her head rang. She walked to the kitchen, took her shoe out of the fabricator bed and started a cup of tea. While she waited, she made the decision that she had put off for years, maybe decades. As she sipped her tea she smiled and gestured to activate her screen.
"Call Khloe," she said to the system.
Khloe was pissed, more than Rebecca expected, especially given her unexcused absence from the graveyard earlier that week.
"I need to do this," Rebecca said. She tried to explain why, why she welcomed death, but all Khloe heard was that her mother was deserting her. They hadn't spoken since.
In the next installment of "Crowd Control," we meet one of Earth (EB-2)'s heroes. Maybe.