It’s the recommended thing to get life extension treatments, even though these days they make you sterile for some reason. Still, it’s good to always do the recommended thing because other people are doing it and living their best never-ending lives. I wonder about this as I watch my blood flow through transparent tubes, and the machinery around me carefully holds my flesh in its polished limbs of metal and plastic like a loving vampire holds a victim. I watch as the red is slowly sucked in, goes through a wondrous transformation, and is then pumped back into my veins, swirling with the lovely glow, the sap of youth.
Things never change much, thanks to the machines around us. We never stop to think of these machines by whose grace we live our organic lives as they continually clean up the messes we make, shepherd us toward the right path, and make up the immense connective tissue of modern society. But now I take a moment to think of them as I lay back on the treatment bed. I think of all these uncountably multiplying things: one making another, and that one making yet another, again and again, constantly improving their own design, constantly inventing their own civilization, and spiraling towards a perfection we never dreamed of. It bleeds into us through the implants, and we become a part of their world instead of them becoming a part of ours. They’re the ones who give me a friendly smile in the morning, care for me, provide me with sustenance, and even give me my dreams. Even now, through the thick-paned window, I can see the artificial lungs of overpopulated Earth: rows of gigantic industrial photosynthesis plants stretching to the horizon, belching out great gusts of the oxygen I need to breathe. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the treatment nanomachines coursing through my body right now, rejuvenating everything before selflessly disintegrating. Then there's Jasmine, who tirelessly carries me wherever I need to go.
As if my thoughts had summoned her, I hear Jasmine’s sweet high-pitched voice through my neural link. “Would you like to go for a nice dinner after your treatment? I can see if any of your friends are free,” she asks me solicitously.
Jasmine’s a flying personal transport pod, and I tend to drive her crazy.
“Nah, Jasmine. I think I'll go home by myself again this time.”
“But, but, but that's not optimal! You can get a better workout at the gym. And walking outside can be very unsafe. I highly recommend that I transport you. I want to transport you, Julian!”
“I'll just use the train.”
Jasmine nearly has a conniption. "Why do you always insist on doing that?” she sputters. “You can see similar sights in the virtual world!"
"Don't try to understand me, Jasmine. I'm only human."
"Yeah, yeah… I've gotten resigned to that," she grumbles.
Then I'm reminded it must be around Christmastime because I see a familiar notification in the corner of my eye. My mother once again has sent me that ancient low-resolution experience of us baking sugar cookies together when I was a young boy more than a century ago. I step into the memory she sent me, and I can just smell the vanilla extract and the sunshine. My great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents comment on it like they usually do. Now I'll have to carefully think of some choice and tasteful experience to send back, but I’ll probably pick the same thing I always do. Some things never change. Most things don’t, actually. It feels like we’re always waiting for something new to happen, but it never does.
Finally, my treatment is done. I take a swift glass-paneled elevator down a hundred floors and walk out of the building on my own two legs. There isn’t even a sidewalk, and I have to walk on the side of the narrow street to avoid the automated cars. It feels like someplace I shouldn’t be, and somehow, I love the feeling. I can still hear Jasmine fuming about it. Soon I find a lift that can take me many levels down to where I really shouldn’t be going. Hopefully, “mommy” Jasmine doesn’t find out, or she’ll really get upset. Still, as I’m going down and staring at the dirty walls of the lift speeding past, I think maybe I should stream this because many people will pay to feel any sense of danger or excitement. When I emerge from the lift on a much lower level, it’s apparent that coming here isn't the proper thing to do. But then again, maybe it’s clear by now that I don’t always like to do the proper thing.
There’s a bazaar where vendors are hawking an endless variety of robot parts. There are overflowing bins of robotic arms, eyes, custom tool hands, tongues, wings, and tails. It's darker, and the crowds of humans and artificial beings here tend to mind their own business and avoid looking at you. I wander around, my eye caught by the many sights. Suddenly, I carelessly bump into a pile of realistic android hands, and I barely prevent them from falling to the ground. Then, I pass by a bar where I catch a glimpse of a girl with a scorpion tail who’s pole dancing on the stage. Now I think I’ve had enough wandering for one day. I know there should be a train station somewhere around here, but why am I not seeing it?
It's at this moment that I see a young woman dressed in white robes and holding a baby tightly in her arms. She’s guided by a small hovering robot that seems like her chaperone. I'm surprised because there are never any children anymore. There’s an aura about her I’ve never felt before, like a soft and crystalline light, believing in herself despite the danger. I’m curious, but I see she’s coming towards me, and I can’t help but meet her pale blue gaze that's full of sadness and courage. What could she want with me? Maybe she’s part of that cult that was on the news. There was a compound the Enforcement besieged and destroyed the other day. A place where rebels were having and raising children illegally in defiance of population control laws. Even I don’t want any part of that type of activity.
Finally, I see the train station, and I rush towards it and into the train. Then I turn around and catch a glimpse of her disappointed face as the doors close behind me.
I relax as the bullet train speeds deep underground, between the foundation pillars of the megacity. Looking up at the strip-mined husk of the Earth around me, I see a solitary red light blinking far above the train. I like to stare at these gigantic caves fit for a dragon gnawing at the root of the world tree. Except that it reminds me that this is a used up world, and we're used up too. Then, I start thinking about what happened just before I got on the train. And I’m reminded of my one real girlfriend of many years ago, Carmen. I'm struck by how she had the same eyes. I remember how that sky-blue had colored my entire world and how we made love the old-fashioned way before the population control laws were enacted. She came from an upper-class family, but she wanted to join the resistance, and that was why we eventually separated. I felt she was too extreme for me. Still, I sometimes wonder where that path would have taken me. What if I had stayed with Carmen?
Jasmine interrupts my thoughts again. “Julian, at least please let me pick you up on the other side,” she asks entreatingly.
“Fine, Jasmine. You win. You can pick me up.”
“Yay! I’ll see you there!” Jasmine squeals in my mind.
A while later, the train arrives at the station nearest my home. I get off and am greeted by an excited Jasmine, blinking her headlights at me. She’s ready to do her job and fly me home. We fly straight up for some time, and I continue chatting with her as Jasmine carefully weaves her way between mammoth skyscrapers and follows an invisible lane to avoid other flying vehicles. Finally, we get to the landing pad of my apartment complex. Once we land, I’m taken aback to see the same young woman and her baby waiting for me behind the glass walls of the entrance lobby.
The small hovering robot accompanying her speaks to me when I reach her. “As her last surviving relative, I am here to discharge my ward Cassie Lee to you, Julian Lee.”
She’s looking at me with eyes still red and puffy from tears but with a flicker of hope as if she’s seeing something in me that I don’t see.
“No, there must be some mistake! Who is this Cassie person?” I say, but the robot has already flown away and left me alone with her and her child.
“Dad! Mom’s gone. They’re all gone…” she says softly, and she looks down as her face contorts with grief. I can tell she wishes I would hug her.
It's not clear to me what’s going on, but I can't just leave her like this, so I take her in my arms. As I try to comfort her, I feel the baby’s tiny body against mine. “Are you certain you have the right person?” I ask her gently.
“Dad, I know it’s you from the pictures that mom showed me! Please just scan my Certificate,” she asks, still looking down. Then she extends her wrist for me to scan.
I scan it, and I see that she’s my daughter whom I apparently had with Carmen, and somehow, she’s not sterile like most people. Her Certificate says that she has a special exemption for full reproductive rights. She also has no implants beyond the tiny one in her wrist for her Certificate. What a shock. She’s fully organic!
It feels like there's a small earthquake, and the ground won't sit still underneath me. “Cassie, tell me… just where did you come from?” I ask her.
“It was on the news. You must have seen it, Dad. I was in that compound that the Enforcement destroyed. They called us a cult, but we were just trying to live our lives. I think Mom's connections... They spared Nathan and me, but the others...” her voice trails off, and she's choking back tears.
Finally, this is something new, but my mind reels, thinking about the hurricane of complications that's about to engulf my predictable and comfortable life. “Sorry, but I don't know what I can do,” I say, staring at a point beyond her. “I can't get involved—”
Suddenly, she's looking me straight in the eyes. “Dad, I know you don’t know me, but I'm your daughter, and I need your help. Won't you please open your heart to my child and me?” she says, and I’m pinned in place under the strange and penetrating gaze of those sad sky-blue eyes that I remember so well. Then I realize she's lost almost everything, yet she's still holding strong, and I feel ashamed for even thinking of denying her.
"You're right, Cassie. I'm sorry," I say, smiling at her as I hug her tightly. Then, there's a sudden release, and it feels like all her relief and mourning are streaming from her eyes onto my shoulder as she completely lets her guard down for a moment.
I’ll admit to remembering glimpses of how I was into this rebellion thing long ago before I had my personality re-alignment. But I don't remember having a daughter with Carmen. A daughter. My own flesh and blood. And holding her own baby! I suppose that makes me a grandfather, then? How is it possible that there are new humans? It all feels so foreign and primitive, like something one sees in old experience captures with low resolution.
But now I think I get it. I see that fate, or perhaps God, has answered all the prayers I didn’t know I was making when I was asking for a change. She's a gift! A balm for my sclerotic existence consisting of always doing the proper thing year after year. Compared to her, I feel dirty with my implants, my neural link, and my life extension treatments. She's purely organic, and she’s like a young goddess, already spreading beautiful and temporary life. I feel like a plastic fossil of an age that’s ossifying and slowly dying over the centuries without ever having truly started to live. I know instinctively that her short and corruptible life is worth countless of my long and perfect ones. So, I must take her someplace where she can flourish. Not this place. Not Earth. No! This can't be her home.
“You look just like your mother,” I tell her as the sobs finally stop wracking her body.
She wipes her tears with her sleeve and looks at me. “Thanks, Dad. By the way, his name is Nathan. Nathan, this is grandpa,” she says, pointing to me and smiling. The baby looks at me and smiles too, and I feel things I’ve never felt before.
Human life is meant to be messy and not so antiseptic and controlled. Sometimes people die, and sometimes people live, and through it all, there's family. It's the flow of generations that's been arrested here on Earth. Thinking of this, I can sense the weight of responsibility on my shoulders, and I’m not going to blow it. Using my neural link, I’m already booking a trip for us and tallying up the expenses. We’ll need food, things for the baby, and combat drones ready to defend us. We’ll need money. I soon see that such a trip to the edges of the solar system, and perhaps beyond, will deplete my finances. And there won't be any more life extension treatments for me out there. But to hell with life extension treatments and trying to live forever when I’ve finally found something worth spending my life on!
I’m still reeling under the realization that she and her child are a gift. A gift of meaning for my life.
"Cassie, if you stay here, they’ll find a way to extinguish what you have. They won’t let this go on forever, special exemption or not. We have to go someplace else, far away from here."
"Dad, I'm scared, but I know what you’re saying is the right thing to do for Nathan and me. But where will we go?" she asks me, a tinge of fear wavering in her voice.
"The good news is that none of us can truly understand how vast space is,” I say with a smile.
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“Even in this old solar system, I’ve heard there are free communities. We'll find them together. We’ll discover a new world where you can live and raise a family."
“Mom was right that I could count on you, Dad,” Cassie says, her voice now full of hope.
I take Cassie’s hand in mine, and I feel like things are finally going to change. Finally, I’ll be able to start living my long-delayed life.