MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, Abhyan Chatterjee loved harmony.
Harmony among the stars on this moonless night; all of them twinkling with the same purpose, the same brightness, even though they were separated from one another by trillions of miles.
Harmony among the seasons; from as long back as he could remember, monsoon came to Mumbai in the second week of June. It was thus then, when skyscrapers had choked the city, when factory smoke had stained the sky, when they had called it the human hive. It was thus now, with its rolling, undulating lawn carpets, paddy fields and fruit orchards, solar gardens and water treatment plants.
Harmony among the Centurions, within their walled, domed village that held their modest homes.
Harmony among the feeders, who came dutifully and with regularity to one of the seven Renunciation Centres scattered across the city, when the big questions of life grew too heavy to bear. Whatever battles they fought, they fought in their own minds, with themselves.
Seven hundred odd Centurions within the village. Fourteen thousand feeders out there in the city, housed in neat little boxes. A feeder house was no smaller or larger than a Centurion’s – there was harmony there, too – but it contained more people, three or four at a minimum, and so it was untidier. Abhyan Chatterjee had supported a motion in parliament years ago to correct this anomaly; his dream was to see every feeder live in a house of his own, a house which was exactly the same size, shape and dimension as a Centurion’s.
But there was a fundamental problem. The feeders liked living in families. The Centurions, alone.
He looked about himself. His living room was a picture of harmony too. The three-dimensional holograph of Sanghamitra was beginning to dim around the edges, he thought; it had been no more than a month ago that he had serviced it. His memories of her had long faded – seven hundred years was a long time – and now whenever he looked at her in this picture, or watched old videos of her and him together, it was as though he were watching two strangers. His rational mind knew that the man in the files and the man watching them were one and the same, but his heart refused to believe it.
That was the source of all disharmony, he thought savagely. The heart. Even after centuries of studying the human genome to isolate the source of emotions, after thousands and thousands of research papers on how to dull the Dionysian and sharpen the Apollonian, the chinks refused to disappear. Every now and then one emerged in the unlikeliest of places.
Like today. Abhyan poured out two glasses of red wine, one for himself and one for his expected guest. He adjusted the white chairs about the coffee table so that they faced each other squarely. A harmonious human race had the heavens in its future. Why did they not see it? Why did they not realize their full potential? Why did he have to force it into their numb skulls that humanity needed to spread its wings and soar, not shrivel and roll in the dust?
A knock on the door. At the touch of a contact the wood melted, turned transparent. His secretary, a woman in her third decade who went by the name of Shubha, stood on the other side, prim hands clasped around a silver-coated notepad.
‘He is here,’ she said, burgundy lips hardly moving. ‘Shall I send him in?’
* * *
Maitreya Biswas wore his customary saffron, but it was a Centurion suit, not the flowing robe he preferred when he went visiting the feeder city. The badge on his chest glowed a faint blue, which means he was still under fifty. That made him a good six hundred years younger than Abhyan.
But what did years matter when one had eternity at one’s disposal? Abhyan did not stand as the younger man walked in and the door behind him solidified to its natural texture. There was a slight incline of the head from both men, and though Abhyan would have stopped Maitreya if the latter had addressed him with respect, he was disappointed that he had not.
The younger lot, he thought, held no value for the people of the First Generation. As the years passed, the malaise only deepened.
‘May I call you Abhyan?’ said Maitreya, sitting and adjusting his carefully parted hair. He had long, wiry hands, out of which veins popped; the hands of a brute who had just stepped out of a medieval stone quarry. They did not sit well on a head philosopher.
‘You may,’ said Abhyan, in Bengali. It had been at least half a millennium since the old language barriers had disappeared between the people of India, but Abhyan knew that things like that never went away, not really.
‘I would prefer English, please,’ said Maitreya amiably. ‘I do not use the native tongue unless I am speaking to the masses.’
‘Right,’ said Abhyan, and waved his finger toward the half-filled wine glass. The man had come to play hard, he thought, watching the stiffness in the slender shoulders, the little twitch in the corner of the long mouth. ‘This interview has been long overdue. I hear your name a lot these days, of course.’
Maitreya shook his head at the wine. ‘Indeed. I have been meaning to meet you right from the beginning. The Compassionate Party does not wish to fight with our First Leaders, of whom you are the most prominent. If we are to move in a fresh direction, we need your blessings. The one thing I wish to clarify right at the outset is that all of us want the best for the world.’
‘Which world? The Centurions or the feeders?’
‘The world of humans,’ said Maitreya, with a flush of anger on his young face. Abhyan remembered the wild days of his youth as well, the naive, silly notions of equality and liberty and so on. There was a saying among the older Centurions that everyone starts off being Compassionate, until life turns you into a Traditionalist. He had first scoffed at the word ‘Traditionalist’; it had seemed overly apologetic, but over the years he had come to like it.
‘There is no one world of humans now, Maitreya,’ he said, after a suitable of silence had passed. ‘As a head philosopher you know that as well as I. There are two worlds, as different from one another as night and day. To even suggest that the feeders are as human as us is laughable.’
‘But sir,’ said Maitreya, ‘they are human. Every genetic test that has been conducted on them has –’
‘They are biologically human, yes.’ Abhyan sensed irritation rise within him, but he quelled it with an effort of will. The Compassionates, as a rule, insisted on splitting hairs. ‘But they are not psychologically so. Socially. Emotionally. Their makeup is different to ours. We need it to be different to ours. Your claim is akin to saying a lion and a lamb belong to the same species, Maitreya. As much as you wish it so, they do not, and they will not.’
The younger man began to say something, but he checked himself and smiled. ‘I did not wish to get into a philosophical argument with you, sir, or at least not this early into the meeting. The focus of our interview is a simple one; the Traditionalists want to cut the Feeder Renunciation Age to forty, and we at the Compassionate Party do not agree with it. Surely there is room for disagreement in our democracy?’
‘There is room for disagreement, yes,’ retorted Abhyan, ‘but not for stupidity. Doing this means that Centurions will need less transplants during their lifetimes. They will get fresher, younger organs, and all research suggests that we will be able to extend the average Centurion lifespan to a thousand years.’
‘From the current eight hundred,’ said Maitreya, narrowing his eyes at Abhyan.
‘I don’t know what you are suggesting, young man.’ The sliver of irritation inside Abhyan swelled into one of anger, and his voice acquired an edge. ‘Are you suggesting that I have a personal interest in the matter? I will have you know that I have looked after myself well. I shall live for two centuries more at least, with or without the resolution.’
‘But you will agree, sir,’ said Maitreya softly, ‘that this proposal benefits older Centurions like yourself over others.’
‘And one day, you will become one of those older Centurions.’ Abhyan sighed and exhaled a breath of air. There was no use arguing with these Compassionates. They had to learn all the lessons the hard way. Just like he had. But back when he was a staunch Compassionate, their numbers had been too small to affect policy. Now almost thirty percent of Centurions globally were registered Compassionate, and they were led by young head philosophers like this one; brash, brave, irreverent, ignorant of history, no foresight – Abhyan could go on.
‘We are not suggesting anything drastic, sir,’ said Maitreya, having forgotten by now his initial assertion that he would call Abhyan by name. (He allowed himself a smile at this realization.) ‘But we would like some time to study the proposal. Cutting ten years off an average feeder’s life will have – consequences.’
‘Of course there will be consequences,’ said Abhyan. ‘Did we not face them during our previous cuts? Our first Renunciation Age was seventy. Two hundred years later we made it sixty. Two hundred more years later it became fifty. And we have remained there for three hundred years now. It is high time we lowered it further.’
Maitreya allowed the fingertips of his hands to tap together. His face showed no trace of emotion. His lips stayed pursed. His thin brows came together in a grim frown. ‘I am a philosopher, sir,’ he said. ‘A head philosopher. It is my job to go among the feeders, talk to them. I dare say that this cut will make a lot of them rather uncomfortable.’
‘Uncomfortable?’ said Abhyan. ‘Again you make the mistake of equating them to humans, Maitreya. Do you think a lion stops hunting for lambs because it makes them uncomfortable? For a lion to live, a lamb has to die. That is the law of the jungle, is it not?’
‘It is, sir.’
‘Is it your argument, then, that the law of the jungle is somehow unjust?’
‘I would never make that argument, sir.’
‘Well, then never again speak to me of the discomfort of the feeders.’ Abhyan picked up his wine glass and took a sip. ‘You seem to have forgotten the purpose for which we breed them. And we have you, and the entire platoon of philosophers, to deal with the discomfort. Are you saying that you are not doing your jobs well enough?’
‘We are doing our jobs as well as we can, sir.’
‘Perhaps we ought to vote on that at the next session of parliament,’ said Abhyan, his voice rising just enough to make Maitreya’s hair bristle. ‘As you said, there is room for disagreement in our democracy, and I disagree that you are doing your jobs well.’
Maitreya sighed, and Abhyan could see that the young man was going through turmoil of his own, beneath the stony cold mask he wore on his face. He was used to handling crowds of converts; his training had not equipped him with means to spar with an ideological opponent.
But he was trying.
‘You know, do you not, sir,’ he said, ‘that heathen numbers have been on the rise?’
There was that disharmony again that Abhyan Chatterjee hated. Genetics was supposed to be a precise science. But every now and then one of the feeder kids would switch from being a docile believer to a violent heathen. None of the scientists – not the biologists, not the sociologists, not the philosophers – knew why this happened, nor could they predict who would switch when.
‘Yes,’ he said, not without a note of grudge in his voice. ‘But that is a genetic problem, not a political one.’
‘We have reason to believe, sir,’ said Maitreya, ‘that the conversion of feeders to heathens is a social process. One of the factors that we think plays a role is the reduction of the Renunciation Age. Each time we lowered the age, sir, we have seen a significant rise in heathen numbers. Some studies say that as much as ten percent of feeders in Mumbai are heathens.’
Abhyan stopped to consider his drink. ‘At the last census the figure was two percent.’
‘Heathens do not admit their leanings to a computer manned by a philosopher, sir,’ said Maitreya. ‘The official figure is still around the same, but the real number is around ten percent. That means there are fourteen hundred heathens out there, just in this city. That is twice the number of Centurions, sir, so one could say that they have already outnumbered us.’
‘Their number means nothing,’ said Abhyan, though he wavered just a little. ‘We have weapons to keep them out. Why, we remain forever prepared for an uprising of the feeders, do we not, as unlikely as the event is?’
‘We are, sir,’ said Maitreya. ‘The concern of the Compassionate Party is not that the heathens have enough strength to mount an offensive on the Centurion village. But their networks are now embedded deeply enough to convert more and more of their feeder brothers. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, sir, not unlike the growth of a viral colony. The more heathens get converted, the more they convert in turn, and the numbers grow along an exponential curve.’
‘Do you have evidence for any of this?’ asked Abhyan hotly.
Maitreya nodded. ‘Sociological evidence, sir. We have sent some of our philosophers undercover to infiltrate some of these heathen networks, and our reports suggest that they are now quite well-formed.’ A pause to examine the older man’s face, then: ‘This new proposal, we think, would only quicken the rate of conversion.’
‘Theories,’ said Abhyan. ‘Just theories.’
‘We wish that were true, sir,’ said Maitreya. ‘We think that if heathen numbers were to reach or exceed twenty percent of all feeder population, they would then be uncontrollable by policy and by peaceful measures. That seems like a long way away, but at the rate of current rise, we will reach that point in as little as twenty years.’
Abhyan took another sip of the wine. ‘I have heard all of this before. You are just fear-mongering.’
‘This is cause for fear, sir,’ said Maitreya, in all earnestness, but what was earnestness in a philosopher, he who had been trained to lie, to deflect, to obfuscate, to cook up numbers out of thin air, to build arguments that sounded grand but rang hollow. ‘This is cause for fear not just for you, but for all Centurions across the world. Why do you think the Compassionate Party has grown in size at such a rapid rate? Because people understand that we are right.’
‘Right, my foot,’ said Abhyan. ‘This is just another ruse to give the feeders a longer life. I would not be surprised if I saw you in a further twenty years, asking us to increase the Renunciation Age back to seventy. And then what? Shall we make it a hundred, just to please them?’
‘If it is required, sir,’ said Maitreya quietly, ‘then yes.’
‘I see through you, you know?’ said Abhyan, pointing his finger at the younger man. ‘You cannot sway me with your supposed logic, when I see through your entire edifice. I have been a Compassionate once. Feeder or Centurion, we are all human – is that not how the slogan used to go? Do you still repeat that at your party meetings?’
Maitreya did not answer. He lowered his head.
‘You do, don’t you?’ he cried. ‘All these centuries, and nothing has changed. The sad thing about you people is that you believe all your lies. But no matter; once you have your first heart attack, once the alveoli in your lungs become too blocked to draw air, once your kidneys begin to fail, once the muscles in your limbs begin to falter – you will know what the feeders are meant for, and then you will be on my side, fighting my fight.’
He leaned forward, and lowered his voice so that the words hung between the two men. ‘But you know what, Maitreya, head philosopher? Then it will be too late. There is never a shortage of foolish Compassionates, who had just received their right to vote and think they know enough of the world to debate members of the First Generation.’
Something in Maitreya seemed to break at that moment, and his eyes, smouldering and brown, settled on Abhyan. ‘The problem with you, sir, and all the Traditionalists, is that you have mistaken longevity for immortality. You think that this procession of organ replacement and skin grafting and bone transplants will continue forever, and that you will live till the end of time.’
He paused for a moment, and Abhyan did not know how to respond. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘Why not?’
‘Because your brain is the same, sir,’ said Maitreya, ‘and though we do not know how long a human brain will live on a youthful blood supply, we do know that it will one day cease to function. You cannot buy immortality, Abhyan Chatterjee, member of the First Generation, not this way. All of your fellow members have passed on. You know that, but you cling to blind hope, and you keep tightening the lifespan of the feeders, and you tell yourself that they are not humans, they are lambs. And you – you are a lion in this jungle?’ Maitreya chuckled, the soft, confident chuckle of a man who knew he was right. ‘If so, you are an old lion, sir, and it is for the good of the jungle that you let go of this illusion that you will live forever.’
‘I might,’ said Abhyan. ‘If the research on brain mapping goes well –’
‘That research has been on for centuries, sir, and we are no closer to the answers,’ said Maitreya. ‘Even if we preserve your brain in the form of a machine, someone will need to power it. Someone will need to keep you alive, sir, and you will no longer have agency. I am certain that the parliament will revoke voting rights from brains kept alive in machine form.’
‘They will not,’ said Abhyan, fear coursing through him in flashes. ‘I shall see to it –’
Maitreya’s eyes became sad at once. ‘Do you not see, sir? An immortal machine is as much a threat to a Centurion as a Centurion is to a feeder. Why would a Centurion vote for the good of a bigger consciousness? And why would a Centurion keep an immortal machine alive beyond his requirement? We will manage some of these machines – perhaps keep them around as expensive pets – but will we ever allow you to become numerous enough to take over from us?’
Abhyan did not reply, because one, Maitreya’s question was rhetorical, and two, he knew the answer.
A heavy silence entered the room, then, like a shadow. Abhyan finished his wine, and placed the empty glass on the edge of the table. He considered his guest, unflappable and stoic as ever, relishing the pause in conversation, waiting patiently for it to end.
‘I can make it worth your while,’ said Abhyan at last. ‘You are at the beginning of your political career, and I am near the end. I have no doubt that I can further your cause at the parliament. You might even become a full-fledged member without having to jump through any hoops.’
Maitreya did not react at once. Even though the face did not change much, Abhyan detected enough tiny movements to know that the man was considering the offer.
‘I have a significant stake in Solaria.’ Abhyan continued his forward press. ‘I don’t know how much of it you own, but I am confident that I can double your holdings comfortably.’
This time Maitreya looked up, and Abhyan knew that he had hit the spot.
‘Yes,’ he said, nodding. ‘You heard me right.’
‘What will I have to do?’ the boy asked.
‘Nothing that you do not do right now,’ replied Abhyan. ‘Use your powers of persuasion for me, not against me. You are the head philosopher of this region; you have influence, my man. Use it.’
‘Do I have to renounce my Compassionate membership?’
Abhyan shook his head. ‘You are of more use to me inside the Compassionate Party. But I shall watch you. In the short term I need you to convince your comrades that this bill – to cut down feeder Renunciation Age – is good for Centurions. Which, I am certain you agree, it is.’
‘In the immediate term, yes,’ said Maitreya.
‘Well, we will survive for the short term first and then think of the long term,’ said Abhyan. ‘None of your rewards will materialize, I must mention, until the bill gets passed.’
Maitreya examined his hands, and chewed the inside of his cheek. Indecision crept into his features, the way he sat, the way he ran his tongue over his lips.
‘I might even get you First Generation privileges,’ said Abhyan, watching the young man. ‘That means you will be eligible for a heart transplant every decade.’
Maitreya looked up. ‘Every decade?’
But there was such a thing as offering too much of a bribe. It made the recipient wary of the giver’s intentions. Abhyan had seen this happen before; a person would be receptive to the first offer, ecstatic at the second, but grow suspicious of the third.
That happened here too, and before he knew it Maitreya was back to his cool manner.
‘I do not think I can do it for you, sir,’ he said. ‘And I dare say that I could report you for trying to corrupt a fellow Centurion.’
‘You could,’ said Abhyan. ‘But will you?’
‘Probably not.’ Maitreya’s eyes came to rest on him again, and this time Abhyan felt like he was under siege. ‘I respect my ancestors, like every Centurion does. You are from the First Generation after all.’
‘And I have now come to know how desperately you want this bill to pass. You must know that the end is near.’ Maitreya peered forward in his chair, as if trying to probe into Abhyan’s soul. ‘How many years do you have, sir, at the current rate of transplants?’
‘I –’ Abhyan regained his voice by clearing his throat. ‘Shall I assume that it is a no from your end, then?’
‘An emphatic no.’
‘Then I must regretfully call this meeting to a close, boy.’ Abhyan touched a contact. ‘Pity. I would have loved to have worked with you.’
Maitreya got up, held his large hands behind his back. ‘And I with you, sir.’
* * *
An hour after Maitreya left, Abhyan Chatterjee was still standing in his living room, facing the fading picture of Sanghamitra.
The cheek of the man! In all these years no one had questioned his authority quite like this fellow. It meant two things: one, the Compassionates were growing, not just in number and size but also in courage; two, an intervention was needed to redress the balance. Just tilt it back to where it should be.
That was the thing with the world, he thought; it always tended to slide into disarray, in the absence of a steadying hand. It needed overseers who could keep their sights fastened on the bigger picture, and could pull the necessary strings at the necessary times.
Maitreya was not a bad man, no. He was an ideal man. Incorruptible. But the inherent harmony of human nature dictated that for every Maitreya who was pure, there were ten others that were not.
Philosophers were not the only Centurions who lived undercover lives among the heathens. Long before they had even conceived of such an idea, back when heathens numbered in the hundreds, Abhyan had already placed some of his men among the feeders. Seven hundred years of experience at this sort of thing – one did not just march up, spout theoretical nonsense and expect to win with him.
A head philosopher needed to venture out into the city. That was his job. He would need to speak to large numbers of feeders at public places. It was sometimes dangerous work; some feeders got emotional at these gatherings, caused a ruckus. Heathens had been known to attempt assassinating a head philosopher in the past. In the last seven centuries, four of them had been successful.
He reached behind Sanghamitra’s picture and touched a contact hidden from view. The link was established on the second beep.
‘Yes, sir?’ said a voice.
‘It’s me,’ said Abhyan. ‘A head philosopher needs to be removed.’
Abhyan thought, but just for a moment. ‘Permanent.’
‘Do you have a deadline in mind, sir?’
‘I will make the arrangements.’
The call disconnected with an abrupt click, and Abhyan ran his fingers on the lighted frame that housed Sanghamitra’s holograph. Her smile had changed in the last few minutes; now it appeared to fill with sorrow.
‘I agree,’ he whispered to her. ‘It’s such a pity. But it has to be done, for the greater good. Better a few of us become immortal at the expense of the many than all of us living short, miserable lives.’
Sanghamitra did not answer. Of course. Even when she had been alive she had stayed away from his political life. Only after her death did Abhyan realize that he had never learned of her leanings; the statistics said eighty percent of all women were Compassionates. Had she been one? He had never asked. He had always assumed that her mind was his, and his hers.
Now it did not matter. All that mattered now was that he replaced the lighting system inside her holograph; that she would glow once again with her familiar light; that her old videos be enhanced with the latest techniques; that the assassination of Maitreya Biswas happened before the parliament’s winter session and restored harmony to the universe. To his universe.
Everything else, as the scientists said, was noise.