The following is an excerpt from Sterling Gibson’s book, Plugged, published November 2097.
SARAH LANGDON IS 43 AND looks very old.
In reality, Sarah looks how 43 is supposed to look. In her community — a small Organa settlement outside District 6 in Ontario, not far from the consolidated Great Lake — aging is considered beautiful and a badge of honor. The Organas believe that Sarah’s 43 years are an achievement, and that she should wear the small wrinkles and few gray hairs in her otherwise dark-brown pony tail with pride. Not that 43 is old even among the Organas; life expectancy of an Organa child born today, barring accidents or violence, is still in the low 90s. But if 43 is an achievement worthy of a few wrinkles, 75 is a larger achievement worthy of many more wrinkles and much more gray hair. And 95, like the settlement’s grand dame, Mama Beatrice? Well, that’s a four-star general’s worth of honor, making even her creaking bones something like a trumpet flourish.
The reason Sarah looks so old isn’t because she is old; it’s because we’ve grown used to a new standard of age. Even if you’ve never gone into a rejuvenation clinic for a bolus of scavenger and repair nanobots, you’re still getting a few in every glass of fortified milk, in every yogurt that claims “active cultures and repair,” and with every vaccine. Anti-dust mite nanos, standard in any Beam-enabled house built after 2075, clean their home’s owners as well as the floors and walls, keeping them healthier and younger looking. And if your home has a HEMA filtration system (which it almost certainly does even if you live far below the line), that system is removing countless floating pathogens and bugs while constantly moistening your air to tighten and smooth your skin. No one questions any of this; 30 today is 30 is 30 is 30, and we accept it in the way we know that cobalt is blue.
But compare photos of 2097 NAU citizens to year 2000 Americans and you’ll find that today’s 65 (even without rejuvenation treatments) looks virtually identical to 2000’s 45. When you add in the fact that most above-the-line citizens today get at least a nanoinjection or two in their lives, the chasm widens. Then there’s those higher on the ladder, who can afford more comprehensive treatments and better nanobots. Many of the richest 80-years-plus men and women today look like they’re in their late 20s by year 2000 standards, and the clock hasn’t even had time to prey on those folks yet. Given that telomere lengthening treatments seem practically capable of pausing aging (rather than simply making it look that way), we may yet see life expectancies of upper-class citizens reach 200 or greater. If those folks ever get around to dying, it’s possible they’ll do it looking mid-40s when they do.
When I say that Sarah looks very old, I mean that she looks like a 43-year-old woman is supposed to look. She looks like any other Organa woman her age — very close to how a 43-year-old woman would have looked in the year 2000 or how she’d look today outside the NAU.
“Most people don’t get our way of living, and that’s kind of the point,” says Sarah. “Kind of a cliché, but true: one of the ways we know we’re on the right track is if we’re living opposite of the average person.”
What Sarah doesn’t really understand, though, is that even the Organa’s “opposite” way of living — mostly disconnected from The Beam, in basic shelters with few amenities, clustered in communities that work cooperatively and ride horses for transportation — still relies heavily on technology. Sarah, for instance, likes early-century punk rock music, which she says carries many of the same anti-establishment overtones of the modern Organa movement. But although she doesn’t play that music through a Beam canvas as it streams from her cloud cache, she’s still playing it on an old 44.1 kHz device called an iPod because there is simply no truly non-electronic way to listen. The music itself was created with bits and electricity, even though if they’re almost 100-year-old bits and electricity. Many Organas don’t have Beam IDs, but they still sometimes send mail, and mail has to come from an address … which, of course, identifies the sender. And what about mail? There are orthodox Organas who shuttle paper back and forth like they did in the 20th century, but paper has gone from “the way things are” to almost a luxury. Papery delivery is nearly impossible unless you want to box and ship it, so the orthodox either waste money or hand deliver their missives. And if they’re hand-delivering letters, why bother sending them at all?
The Organa face the same dilemma as every fringe group in history: They want to live outside of society, but society surrounds them. The whole world doesn’t live as they do, so unless they want to cut themselves off entirely, the choice isn’t whether to “sell out” or not; it’s how much they can sell out and still look themselves in the mirror each morning.
“So, fine, we live under a big, protective dome,” Sarah said as we sat on hand-built wooden chairs in her commune’s meeting room. “And we’re safe from Wild East incursions like the rest of you. We have controlled weather, because we can’t help it. And yeah, sometimes we have to ride mag trains to get where we want to go. We communicate with other groups like ours using mail, and when we get sick, we visit non-commune doctors, sometimes, when we’re scared. But that’s how it is, and we don’t want to just shut the 10 or so of us here inside our own dome and live like cavemen. Because that wouldn’t be true to our ideals, either. It’s no more natural or right for people to cut themselves off entirely than it is to have implants in their eyes that let them record their lives, or have other implants that let them receive mail straight to their brains. We’re like the Quakers or Amish used to be, driving buggies to mainstream construction jobs where there were electric lights and power tools. We do our best, and sacrifice where we must.”
The Organa get plenty of criticism — people say they’re just a fashion and that “listening to music on old devices” is hardly a sacrifice worthy of someone committed to her ideals — but it’s hard to not be swayed by their thoughts on what happened during the early 2030s. I happened to mention what I’d observed with Victor Salieri to Sarah. She had an immediate answer. So immediate, in fact, it had the feel of a foundation principle — of something the Organa have spent time discussing.
“He disassociated,” she told me. “Like everyone.”
The Organa movement took form after the fall in 2026 and through Reconstruction. It seems to have popped up from nowhere, but Sarah claims that one of the largest rallying points that Organa had through its inception was how the Internet created a “culture of indifference” in the pre-NAU. The reason I couldn’t find anyone to tell me about the early ‘30s with any true emotion, Sarah says, is because the Western world immediately scrambled to put screens between themselves and reality in 2030 when networks came online.
“They needed that distance,” she says, a touch of understanding percolating through her disgust. “Mama Beatrice lived through that period, and swears she was no better than anyone. It’s her greatest point of shame — the reason she’s the most orthodox among us today. She had lived through four years of absolute horror. Mama Beatrice lost her entire family — most in a storm and the rest in a civil uprising outside Washington D.C. — and had to make her way across the country with a small band of travelers, always on the move to stay away from highwaymen. Every time they stopped somewhere, bandits saw their nightly fires and raided. She was robbed more times than she could count, raped three or four times, and nearly killed twice. When Chicago came back online, she was nearby. Lights suddenly came on in a house where her group was hiding. There was an old iPhone Ruby plugged into the kitchen. She heard it beep and ran for it — ‘like I used to run for food’ is how she puts it.”
I later spoke to Mama Beatrice, but she was less helpful than Salieri had been. She’d been so traumatized by her time in hell that the familiar charging beep of that mobile was like the clucking of a mother hen. She took the phone with her and looked at it constantly, charging it when she found electricity. For the longest time, all she did was play games installed by the previous owner.
“The others searched for food, and I played something called Angry Birds,” she said with a sorrowed chuckle, her wrinkled, arthritic hands shaking atop the curve of a polished wood cane. “Like I was in a trance.”
It’s possible she was; psychologists estimate that in 2030, as much as half the U.S. population was suffering from undiagnosed and untreated post-traumatic shock. What pulled Mama Beatrice from her bird-flinging game and back into reality was the day the Ruby’s display indicated the presence of an open network. There were still paid networks before the Second Black Thursday, but the Doodad revolution had opened free access to anyone who didn’t care about voice telephony. Once that access was back, Mama Beatrice jumped on it. She describes it as a breath of fresh air — much better than her games from a forgotten age because it proved there were still other humans in the world. Good people who lived in cities, who had consolidated enough to share, and were calling the rest of them home.
Beatrice describes her relationship with the Ruby as being like that between a drowning woman and her life preserver. Even after she’d settled in Chicago — even after she found herself clothed, fed, cleaned, and sharing a roof with seven other friendly refugees — she couldn’t break away. She got herself a mail account and managed to track down surviving friends and relatives halfway across the country. As the Internet came back up, she followed first damage from the disasters, then the progress of recovery. Millions upon millions had died; weather had grown hotter and harsher; once-great rivers had run dry. Over 10 percent of the world’s population had lived near the coasts, and by the time the ice caps were gone, the coasts had vanished and all of those people (those who lived, anyway) had moved inland. Drought had taken over from there, killing much of the world, starting with its crops.
As horridly as Beatrice had clung to negative news, she soldered herself to any shred of possible positive news as well. Cities rebuilt, then reached out to those in surrounding areas once stabilized. The government was fragmented, but had grown past its ego and was working so closely with Canada and Mexico’s governments that the three might as well have been one. Refugees began coming from other countries, and the U.S. took them. Earthquakes had shattered vast areas and caused worldwide tsunamis, but the U.S./Canada/Mexico, at least, had already developed fairly reliable prediction systems that could tell people when they were likely to strike in time to get out. Strategic use of explosives along fault lines had allowed the earth’s plates to “break where and when we want them to,” relieving the pressure. People began taking charge. Lights stayed on in Chicago. Police patrolled the streets. People felt safer by the day. Clean water was available, piped from the lake. Food wasn’t a problem.
Above all, the network continued to thrive. I’ve found some unconfirmed indications that this was deliberate — that those in charge realized how starving citizens like Beatrice were for any opiate to move their mind from troubles. No one was making new videos in the early ‘30s, but old ones were available in abundance. By early 2031, it was possible for citizens in Districts Zero through 10 (Two sprang from Chicago) to sit around for most of the day and simply watch vidstreams and Internet news. Many did; Beatrice was among them.
It wasn’t all entertainment. Quickly, news of the world’s plight began to surface. This is how we know of the terrible events that occurred between 2030 and 2034 or 36 — the “blackout” period during which I could find no good sources. I asked Beatrice to fill me in, and found her information as plain and emotionless as Victor Salieri’s. The difference was that while Salieri thought he was giving me the straight dope, Beatrice knew that what she had to offer was, in her own words, “a heap of indifferent bullshit.”
Here’s an excerpt from Mama Beatrice’s book, Callous. Amazingly, this account is handwritten on paper in a single holographic manuscript, seemingly as penance:
We turned our heads. We looked away. We watched the world fall apart, but did it through the screens of our Doodads and smart phones and computers and televisions. Watching it that way gave us the illusion of caring — because hey, we were paying attention, weren’t we? — without any of the connection that marks genuine caring. We had distance when we watched everything happen through a filter. It felt like a movie, or maybe a video game. Video games looked every bit as real as that footage. In fact, video games seemed more real because at least we knew they were games, and that was how we could explain what we saw. The footage of the Wild East, by contrast, was too terrible for us to really believe without imagining it as a game dreamed by some sick mind.
At the beginning, all air traffic overseas had shut down, so everything we saw came to us from the Easterners themselves. They were using whatever power sources they had and whatever networks they had managed to get back up specifically to put the footage online. It was a call for help. They were reaching out to us — or to any of the other global brothers they’d so recently clasped hands with to solve the world’s problems. They were begging for help. Just a few years earlier, the entire planet had come together in harmony. But when the chips were down — when we’d begun to recover and they hadn’t — old ties vanished. We watched their cries for help through our screens as if they were another entertainment stream, not terribly different from the old Friends reruns sharing screen space. The rest of the world died and shouted for their brothers to help them. We lay back on our couches with our bellies full and said, “That’s YOUR fucking problem.”
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