Islets of the Blest
by Nidhi Singh
“How are you fixed up, young fellow,” the grey Mortimer rasped. The fixity with which his saurian eyes held me brought the pocket square out. I dabbed the face.
“I do well. Between me and Jenny, we make close to 5,000 Divvies a month.” Divvies, or stock options in ONE CORP that ran the government, were what we, the shareholders; the happy citizens of this pristine island state were paid in. It was our currency.
“Who is Jenny,” Mortimer asked. I felt flattered at the man’s curiosity in my modest affairs.
I swirled his Henri Jayer leisurely in the wine glass, before sipping it slowly, despite the strong urge to gulp it down. My palate began to sparkle with the effervescent minerality of the vintage pinot noir. The man had taste, and mega bucks: yeah, I gave him that. And why wouldn’t he; he was a reigning Satrap, from one of the ten powerful corporates of the islands that formed the conglomerate that ran our state.
“So you are straight! I am glad. For who would want a buggered arse!” he cackled a raspy, rheumy laugh.
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind. What about kids, you can’t raise kids on that kind of money.”
“There’s nothing you put your heart into, you cannot do, sir,” I said, shifting under his unrelenting gaze.
“What does she do, this Jenny?”
“She a painter.”
“You a singer, she a painter: Artisants, right?”
I nodded, sliding two fingers into my collar and loosening it slightly. Our society was divided along four rigid castes: the Druidants, for that rare, prophylactic magic and spiritual succor; the Martialants, for defending the islands and our shipping lanes from pirates and wild marauders from the mainland; the Mavenants–doctors, astronauts, myriad professionals; and finally, at the bottom of the food chain–us–the Artisants who did menial jobs like writing, painting, plumbing, sculpting…or…dancing and singing. Rest of the work was done by sentient Automatons; cheap, efficient, hybrid-powered machines that came more potent each day, gradually eating into our ranks, taking our places, increasing the unemployment queues of the anthropoids. You even had Druidatons who baptized babies, and sought converts on the white mainland beyond the Frozen Sea.
The powerful corporates, through the Sovereign, the ex-officio CEO of ONE, ruled us all. The Sovereign was the guarantor of heavenly and earthly order. People were trusting, chis had a luminous quality, and people and chis had their own realms. There was respect and no untoward familiarity–as a consequence chis sent down blessings on the people, and accepted from them their offerings, and there were no natural calamities.
“Do you love her, this Jenny,” the old geezer pressed.
“She’s all I got. I’d give anything for her.”
“The point being, what would you take for her,” the man chortled again, and spilled his bubbly on the purple rosette table runner. “You haven’t yet answered me–do you love this Jenny, Jack?”
“Absolutely!” she was the fairest this side of the Frozen Sea. It was blasphemy to even question it.
“Send her over then.”
My brow must have clouded as I looked at the man. He wasn’t very old, but he was wheelchair-bound from a stroke they said he’d got from an angry, stupid boardroom argument.
They were experimenting with exoskeletons, shells made from Humboldt Squid beaks to move rich men like him, but the initial trials on volunteers had wrecked pelvises, and crushed ribcages and skulls into fossil powder fit only for desiccated bone meals for buccaneer captives. Swapping bodies was a much safer bet.
He grinned wickedly and pointed at the bare, high domed ceiling done in ivory and gold water with his baton, a gold-encrusted rod that had a platinum band with ‘ONE’ emblazoned in pink diamonds. ”Can she paint angels? I want her to paint flights of angels, heaven’s cherubim clustered around ropes of garlands done in tea-wash linen. I want to dream with my eyes open. Of course, I am a good paymaster.”
My fists unclenched beneath the table and I smiled. “Thank you Mr. Mortimer, sir. I shall bring her around.”
“Now, Adonis, croon away.” He turned his cheek up to an elegant, glowing lady who’d glided over to where we sat. She grazed his grizzly neck with her muzzle and snuggled up to him. That someone could find love deep within for the grim boor seemed pretty awesome to me.
“Happy Anniversary madam.” I nodded at Mrs. Mortimer and returned to my band on the stage to belt out a cover version of ‘This Will Be (An Everlasting Love);’ a relic from our lost past.
The following morning I brought Jenny over to the Mortimer Palace to discuss the mural. I left the excited Mortimer couple poring over her portfolio, and drove back home. The streets were wide and clean, the traffic moved like clockwork, and they’d flavored the crystal-clean air a rich woody scent today. Last night it was a mild citrus aroma. I needed to catch up on my sleep, for each night I sang at the ‘Old Monk,’ our district’s club for the uppity.
“How did it go,” I asked Jenny that night as I slid next to her at a corner table placed well out of sight of the rich revelers, where she sat with other girls, mainly staffers’ spouses, who received complimentary drinks. I had an hour before an automaton pole dancer handed us the stage back. This was how it went: I worked the nights, Jenny worked the days and then she joined me at the club each night, which we spent drinking and laughing with other beautiful people. Life was one endless party.
“He is such a dirty old man!” she laughed. “He kept trying to grab my boob each time I leaned over to show him a sketch. He stopped only when I laughed in his face. That sure squelched him!”
“So you said no?”
“To 100,000 Divvies? No way! His electric wheelchair can move fast, but not quite as quickly as these aerodynamic legs.” She flashed a smooth, golden-colored thigh to whistles and howls from our merry party.
“Are you sure?”
She leaned over and smoothed the pout on my lips with her thumb. “Relax love, he’s quiet as a mouse when Helena Mortimer is around–and she is one watchful wife!”
“You don’t have to do this,’ I pressed again as we drove home later.
“We could have a baby…educate it in a fine boarding school. Give it a chance to do something worthwhile with its life. Not like us.” She ruffled my hair as I scowled. “Please…isn’t that what we always wanted?”
She was right. To move up the caste system was tough, but possible, on merit. And to hone, and polish merit to a glowy sheen took money; divvies. The state kept life pretty easy till we were 18; everything was for free: education, food, living and travel; but thereafter things began to get nasty. Suddenly left to fend for ourselves, we had to earn, not for the basic wants, which still remained on the house, but for starting a family, for that lip and tuck-in job…for that 100-foot yacht…that space travel. It all cost money, and if you wanted respect, you had to have all of those things. And for that you had to break free of the shackles of mediocrity, and had to excel, to shine, and to be the number one.
“Funny thing is,” she said after a long silence, ”he was asking, quite a bit I think, about you.”
“Me? The same of you; his interest in us is morbid!”
“He wanted to know if you were as beautiful on the inside as you were on the outside! If you had any addictions…disease!”
“That man has a diabolical look in his eyes. Stay away from him! Promise?”
She laughed; shaking her flaming red locks she rolled down the window and drew deep breaths of the pure, wine flavored air. Days broke in with ambrosial splendor and went out attended by a dazzling bouquet of evening stars–not a daylight blanched when there were not shingled boughs of glitter against the deep, velvety blues. “I promise,” she said, swearing by the shimmering veil over the frozen mountaintops.
She began work the next day.
The tearing, exploding headaches started soon after. Mortimer got her examined by the best doctors on the islands. She had a malignant tumor. And we simply couldn’t have put together the money for that kind of treatment. The baby became out of the question. I wondered if I could even hold on to my love.
“Take another husband.” I suggested one night. Another husband would mean more earning members, and treatment for Jenny.
“What!” Jenny jerked her head toward me; her blue eyes wet and round. She folded her knees close to her chest and began to rock slowly in the sit-out. “Are you mad?”
“Is there a way? Can you think of anything?” My voice rose equally.
“I will not be divided like…like some object!”
“And for all the world I would not share you darling, but…” I leaned over and weaved my fingers through her flaming locks, but she shook her head away, out of my reach.
“Then why? You sound so…so cheap!”
“The state allows you five husbands–and you have no dearth of suitors–I am aware! You are the most beautiful in the universe!”
That was the sex ratio in our state–5:1. Sometimes I think the state deliberately kept it that way, to make men clamor and want; to make their circumstances destitute; even though on the surface we lived exempt from toil and suffering. The world was created perfect, we were created perfect, test-tube babies reared as orphan, spare bodies for the state, but the manifest imperfection of the world we lived in seemed to be explicable only as the result of a fall–some original sin. The stigma of our imperfection was the great lie. It was at times like this one wished there were a god. But Jesus Christ was just some protean, bearded ancestor of one of the powerful families, and church an obscure totem pole to the forces of nature that we had not yet quite learnt to master.
“Stop raving!” Her fingers trembled as she stuck a cigarette to her tongue and tried to strike the match. “It’ll go away…I know it will.”
“Don’t! You’ve read the reports.”
“I’m fine, ain’t I?” she stood up and twirled around, her skirt rising to show her slim ankles. She was perfect, all vim, and vigor. No one could have guessed. I pulled her down to my lap. We watched for a long while the play of coiling and uncoiling strands of gossamer lights, a million diffused colors against the black skies, licking the silent valley, making it come alive.
“Then there is only one choice.”
She leaned her head back and then curled softly against me, bracing herself:
“don’t say it,” she pleaded.
“I must sell my body…but only after we make the baby, and for that, you will have to quit these.” I gently removed the cigarette from her lips, and flicked it into the night.
Yea, you heard me right–you could sell your body. We were all made after the image of Apollo or Aphrodite–fine specimens of human perfection, without a blemish to begin with, reared in gene labs that crafted a race of achievers. But people evolve; some progress, some stray, and disease and misfortune strikes one and all despite the best algorithms to keep them at bay. And given the boundless ambition of the young and the impossible competition in our society, one could sell the body to the old and the rich for a handsome price–the exchange of springtide for the storms and shipwrecks of autumn. You remained the same person; just the body was swapped. They plugged you into a computer and did a memory transfer, and voila! You were a different man! There was a time it’d seemed so stupid when other people had done it–young beautiful healthy men like me. What’s left to live for, I used to think, if it were not to live by all that the body, this temporal, corporeal garb could serve up to be savored and relished. I had often found myself vehemently dismissing the dark, depressing thought as sheer balderdash, never thinking I would myself one day be seriously proposing the idea to my wife. Our dreams of raising a happy family with normal children, and not some gene-altered meat like ourselves, were dashed.
“No! No body swapping!” she buried her face in her hands and began to sob. “I wish we had someone to pray to! Do you know any prayers?”
“I don’t know any of ours, but I have seen the barbarians from the mainland utter prayers sometimes–at the docks when they bring in the supplies, or are casting off.” ONE never did any farming. We relied for food on the Nordixons, a fierce seafaring civilization that thrived toward the south of the islands across the Frozen Sea on the white mainland. We bartered with them with medicines and technology; they had no use for stock options in ONE; they mocked it. They resembled us in every way, except that they still lived by tradition and the ways of god and a strong family system, and didn’t believe in altering destinies or ruling the elements the way we did. They shrugged off disease and decay as an immutable truth of our being, something we ONEs furiously resisted.
“Will their prayers work for us?”
“It must be better than repeating after a recorded, nasal voice on Sunday-morning after morning–swearing allegiance to the stock market. Come on, let me show you how it’s done.”
I gently coaxed her to her feet and then made her kneel down on the dark-wood deck beside me. With my palm I softly pressed her eyelids close and made her repeat the prayer I’d heard the seamen on the docks say. I can’t say it didn’t make us feel instantly better–it was as if we had called out to a mysterious, higher force. And I liked to believe that it was going to make things okay for us, why or when, I had no answers, as there was no logic in it that my trained mind could grasp. ’Amen!’
* * *
Cognitive computers kept up an insistent blip and beep on the head panel where my body parameters, unseen to me, flashed past on a diffused ticker. On my right was a flexible touchscreen recording the medications being given by robotic tentacles that snuck on you on whim and pricked you like collar tags that irritated you only when you thought of them. To make me feel at home, the virtual reality screen on the facing wall played scenes from my life, and on my special request, of the Aurora Borealis twisting like chiffon ribbons of greenish glows over my night sky. In between they ran the breaking news; a woman had been elected PM on the mainland–the islands were stunned. Halo lights, programmed for mood and light therapy, blushed unobtrusively in my corner vision to calm me. The entire hospital had been done in a soft white and blue. The Apple Experience Hospital followed the Ritz-Carlton ‘10-5 Rule’: smile at 10 feet, a warm ‘hello’ at five feet.
“So how are we this morning,” Betty, the nurse, chirped merrily, wiping her hands on a sterilized tissue paper. The doors didn’t open until you washed your hands before entering or leaving. “So how do you know Mr. Mortimer,” she asked, not without a hint of envy in her voice.
“He saw me at a club, and then I sang once at his anniversary party. Jenny painted his ceiling–she is one hell of a clever girl. Can’t you put her picture on the screen up there? Once?”
“I am sorry Jack. You know the rules–no contact or memories with family once you sign the contract.”
“Yeah…I know. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. We’ll start with the first trimester tomorrow. Are you up to it Jack?”
“Yeah,” I blew out my chest and thumped it.
She sided up to the bed and squeezed my hand, just so that the cameras wouldn’t see it. “Now, as per the law, I’m required to explain the procedure to you, though I’m sure you already know it.” Her eyes twinkled; “I’ll keep it brief!”
If all the preset-nurses were like her, technology must be less of a thing to be afraid of; I smiled at her.
“The process will take 42 weeks tops, depending on how well you cope. There will be three trimesters, each lasting about 18 weeks. In the first trimester, when we begin planting the receptor’s memories into you, you will be in a ‘two-state;’ conscious of both yourself and Mr. Mortimer. Similarly, Mr. Mortimer shall have your memories implanted in him. In the second trimester, you will be in a ‘one-state;’ conscious only of yourself, i.e., of Mr. Mortimer. We would have erased Jack’s memories in this body. And Jack, rather Jack’s memories, will by then be in Mr. Mortimer’s body. In the last trimester you will be in the ‘identity,’ state, where we will let you adjust to your new body, and wipe out any stubborn traces of the other person’s memories that we haven’t been able to erase. When we are done, and you walk out of here with your loved ones, you will be in the ‘bonding’ stage, consolidating and reaffirming your new soul state.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Ask your wife. She will hurt more, I think.”
“Where is she?”
“She is in the same complex. And so is Helena. But you can’t contact Jenny–not until the start of 3rd trimester when the transfer is almost complete. Then both of you can see and get used to your new body. The girls will receive rigorous training and counseling while you two exchange bodies and souls.”
“ I will live yet to see that day when I can hold my Jenny.” I was missing her already. A week in the facility, and I was already wondering if I’d made a mistake, like Jenny had said.
“She could have taken another husband, or four more–pardon my asking.”
“She wouldn’t hear of it. She’s a bit…old-fashioned that way. It was easier to talk her into letting me shed my–this outwardly casing. Especially after she…was enceinte–became with child.”
“You are both very brave. Now get a good night’s rest–we have a long day ahead.” Her hand lightly brushed against my forehead–or was it my imagination–as she reached over me to switch the room to ‘sleep’ mode. She smelt of cold steel and detergent and reminded me of mother: a preset lab assistant who’d sprinkled nutrients in my jar when I was an infant.
* * *
I came around from the dark depths of my slumber with a vigorous shaking of my arms, and a desperate hissing in my ears; ”wake up Jack, wake up!”
I opened my eyes with a massive effort of will–the voice was too compelling. It was Jenny, and she was hysterical.
“What happened–what are you doing here,” I mumbled. “How did you get in? You could get into trouble!”
“Have they drugged you? Can you understand me?” she shook me again.
I nodded. I put a finger to my lips and pointed toward the camera.
“It’s okay, I zapped it with stingray.”
In the presence of so much beauty, despite my heavy sedation, I felt a strong storming in my loins. I grabbed her breasts hungrily and lunged at her with my teeth bared. She drew back in dismay. “Control yourself–that is Mortimer in you,” she said, standing out of my reach.
“Sorry,” I said. It was 10 weeks already–and now I had the consciousness of both Jack and some of Mortimer. And I didn’t know which was I. It was an unnerving, disorienting feeling. With an effort I pulled Jack back out from the pits of my jumbled memory. ”Come to me,” I spread my arms out to her. She hesitated but then fell into my embrace.
“Oh Jack, where is this going?” she sobbed.
I patted her hair but had no words for her. A strange part of me rejoiced at her torment. A part I hastily squashed with strength I did not know came whence.
“Listen, there isn’t much time, Helena helped me to come to you…”
“We’ll talk about her later. Listen–the pains and nausea have gone! While counseling me the shrink did these tests on me when I told her about the sudden headaches that I got after starting work for the Mortimers. She said there was no tumor–there’s been a mistake Jack!” she shook my shoulders; “a mistake Jack, can you hear me?”
I tried to sit up in bed, but couldn’t. My arms squished like jelly under me. “How come?”
“I don’t know–it’s all gone–gone on its own! I told you so! Maybe it was the prayer, Jack!”
I laughed. She laughed too, and there we were, holding each other and cracking up like tickled babies.
“Don’t do it Jack, don’t go ahead with it! Let’s run away!”
“How Jenny? The contract…you know it’s punishable by death. And there’s nowhere to go–they’ll trace us.” I showed her the blue, throbbing glow inside of my ankle where they’d planted a chip to trace me.
“Do something–please! Here…” she put my hand on her belly–it was round and hard. “There, feel the baby–ours,” she said, her face aglow with motherly pride.
“Oh Jenny, I’m so happy…for us!” I clasped her close and felt two beating hearts thudding away under the green hospital gown, calling me an audible.
Jenny drew away and grasping my head in her palms showered kisses on my face, growing desperate with each passing moment. Then she tore herself away and ran out of my room. “Do something Jack,” was what she said before shutting the door.
I pressed my head into the pillow; the last thought that crossed my mind before I drifted into the semi-dark hollows was how to pluck the name Mortimer, which had infested my being, out. Like a leech, it had plunged into the flesh that walled my life.
* * *
Next, it was Helena’s turn to surprise me with a visit. By morning the fumes had lifted somewhat, and I felt clearer and coherent.
“You might be wondering why the magnanimity,” she began. She was regal to behold, gentle of manners, but there was an unmistakable steel in the eyes.
“I did dwell on it, but only briefly, like the flash of a glowworm.”
“Poetic, eh?” she smiled and sat down by the bed. She smoothed away the hair from my forehead. ”Another day we could find some time to soak in it. Tell me,” she grasped my hand, “does he love me, still? He’s inside of you, you will know.”
I looked within. There was no answer I had that she didn’t know already. Her hands slipped from mine and she bowed her head.
“Has he…ever loved me?” I remained silent. All that the old rascal ever loved was money, her money. A tear stole its way to the corner of her eye; I dared to wipe it away with my finger. I cupped her face in my hand, and she leaned into it and cried.
“I felt it,” she said, “ lately, I have been with him. He has already begun to cringe from me, the old lady that I am. And it wasn’t you; it was he. I knew from the clammy hands and shifty eyes.”
“Didn’t you imagine this would happen–gifting an old man a young body–when you gave him consent; without it he couldn’t have signed the contract.”
“…Then there is love.” she sighed. ”Raging, girlish, innocent. Foolish love. I thought the gift would make him happy; he’d been churlish, a twisted caricature of his past splendor ever since he had had the stroke. I wanted my old boy back.
I thought love would tame him, but he’s obviously partial to leashes, and I was wrong. Do you know Jack; he was like you–born in a lab. Yes he was. A perfect specimen, a Martialant–irresistible in his uniform and gold epaulettes! I met him during the Great Wars–I was a conscripted Attack-Helicopter pilot, and he a gallant commander. I brought him home, gave him the family name Mortimer–yes, it’s mine, not his, and propped him up in society. But he was always rash, and lived life only too well, and see where it has got him.”
“Nothing can be done now. The laws…”
“The laws, yes. Science might give men the best minds and bodies, but the laws, of nature, not of men, will still tempt them into vice and sin. That is why, though born equal, many will perish. What should we do with him, and with the law, Jack?”
It wasn’t really a question, not that I had an answer anyway, so I kept quiet.
“With your body, alas, he will be twice-lethal, and evil many score more. He sees through Jack’s eyes, forgetting he hasn’t his body yet. Already, he was eyeing Betty, and she is but flesh-cladded steel. It has been a wasted investment–I am about to lose my love to my generosity!” she tittered derisively.
“What are you going to do Mrs. Mortimer–the guards will be upon us presently.”
“I am on the board of this hospital, you might like to know, Jack. I can keep them off our scent for a while. What I do, depends a lot on you; your wife is with child–I sent her so you would know.”
“ Yes, I know, and she doesn’t even have that silly tumor now. I wish I could escape!” It was a silly wish; the hospital was a concrete and steel stronghold; its grey brickwork was still and reliable as the bleak landscape outside. No one could reach the hearts immured within its impregnable vaults; none could awaken even the beginning of a desire for deliverance. It was a floating island, of the outward appearance of a leafy sea dragon, concealed by manmade storms and rain squalls, with no ship wake; its moving coordinates forever concealed from prying radars of pirates and adventurers seeking the handsome ransoms hidden within its sheetrock walls.
“There is a way, a way of the sea,” she said.
“But it’s freezing, and shark-infested, and then there are the pirates! Men have been known not to last over 30 minutes in the sea.” There were many, who broke the law, and tried to escape; they became legends of doom.
“The pirates may be your best bet yet!” she winked. “As for the rest, are you up to it?”
I thought for a minute. To start a new life with Jenny and the child, yes, I was very much up to it. “Yes. I am not scared of the sea, I am scared of the life on the mainland.” I didn’t know what hard work was like.
“Don’t worry about that. You’ve already been paid–don’t worry I won’t ask for it back. It’s settled then; there’s only one way out of this godforsaken fortress–by air. I will fly you out myself, for there’s no one else I’d rather trust. Once out at sea–you, and Jenny, will be on your own–just strike out southwards.”
“What should I do with Mortimer–he remains inside of me?”
“Leave him be–some of that cunningness might come in handy with the Nordixons! And as for Mortimer, we’ll format him. I fear he will remain a prisoner in his own body, left in eternal want, longing for the body that might have been his, had he behaved. It is sad, but it will have to be.”
“How about you? Can’t you swap bodies?”
“The law doesn’t permit women–yet. But I guess times are a-changing–you must have seen, Golda Meir has been elected PM on the mainland. Who would have thought the islands would learn one day from the savages? It’s time to talk to papa about affirmative action for women, don’t you think,” she brightly smiled, for once.
“That’s a wonderful idea–why not?” I shuddered to think of the possibilities.
“When can we leave?”
“Tonight itself–before they come to drug you. Understand this–you cannot return to the islands after this.”
“I wouldn’t want to.” I had understood this; beneath our comfortable lives we were nothing but fodder to the corporates, bodies induced into sloth and stupor to be put up on sale one day.
“Be ready then,” she said, and left.
* * *
True to her word, Helena, in her helicopter, was waiting on the rooftop with Jenny, as Betty and I clambered up. I hugged and said goodbye to Betty. She dabbed the corner of her eyes with her sleeve to wipe away that imaginary tear. In no time we were up and over the choppy sea. It was windy and Helena was having a hard time hovering the tiny aircraft.
“I guess we should leave now,” I said, peering into the pithy darkness below, only the sharp white lines of froth cut through the void intermittently.
“I wouldn’t worry if I were you,” she nodded at a quaking Jenny, “a pirate ship should get you before the cold, or the sharks do!”
With Helena, nothing would have surprised me.
“Here,” she said, handing over a small e-card to me. “It has instructions: follow them. And remember–not a word of my role to anybody. Good luck!”
“Can I ask you something?” Jenny spoke up for the first time that night. ”I understand Mr. Mortimer would have rigged the tumor reports to get Jack to sell his body, but what about the headaches?”
“From the late nights and too much alcohol, my dear!” Helena laughed. “And a mother’s guilt, I guess. The rest was easy to induce, with the help of shrinks.” Helena raised a thumbs-up sign and returned her attention to the wildly fluctuating controls.
I held Jenny’s quivering hand tightly, flicked my finger in salute to Helena, and jumped into the freezing void.
◊ ◊ ◊
Nidhi studied English Literature at Delhi University. She has a number of novels and miscellany published in India, including commentaries on Sikh Religious Texts, and Bollywood. Several of her essays and short stories have appeared in Aerogram, eFiction, Flash Fiction Press, Fabula Argentea, Romance Magazine, Under the Bed, and Nebula Rift. She lives near the sea in Kutch, India.