The Transmigration’, Nader Elhefnawy

Illustration © 2009 by Joy E. MacMillan

September 2080

 [ Transmigration 1, © 2009, Joy E. MacMillan ] The Church of the Transmigration promised an eternity of bliss in the Higher Plane of the virtual universe, unchained from the bondage and pain of earthly life. It was strange, the rationalizers admitted, but stranger than becoming one with Brahma or sitting at the right hand of God, stranger than Nirvana or Heaven? Strange was not the right word; mysterious was truer to its meaning.

And this heaven was one they could see and taste and touch in Vir. This was a heaven whose workings you could understand, a scientific heaven in place of the mysteries of an earlier god. They uploaded you into the computer, not just a consciousness but all of you, but you couldn't scan an object so completely and leave it perfectly intact. The process was literally deadly, it fried your synapses and destroyed your body. But then bodily death (and strictly speaking, they did not consider it that, "transmigration" was the word they always used) had always been the price of admission to heaven. And history had known no shortage of Crusaders or Jihadists ready to lay down their lives in the belief that they would go to paradise the instant they were struck down. Unlike their paradise, this heaven let you hear the testimonials of those who went before you.

Not surprisingly the Church had found adherents. Three hundred million had made the journey so far, and they said that hundreds of millions more, perhaps billions more, were on the waiting lists. (Fifty times a Holocaust, their opponents cried!) Yet it had all seemed so distant to Bobbie until two weeks ago, when Pyrce told her that he would be doing it, too, and that he wanted her to be there with him, holding his hand during the ceremony . . .

Pyrce Godwin was that most enduring of nineteenth-century Romantic cliches: the alienated and anguished artist. Pyrce was a young painter of unconventional illusions, moderate talent, modest background and no connections, leaving him without access to the circles in which he could have hoped for something like success, or the comforts that softened the edges of such realities. Much like his finances his health had never been good. He was no cripple, and he may have had a long life ahead of him, but his physical frailties added to his existential ennui, further isolating him from the world. Pyrce had never got along easily with others, nor they with him, which was, perhaps, how she came to be here with him; he so often seemed to be within his own little world, just as she was. And here the Church came, offering him a vision of a beautiful world, where everything would be as it should be, and nothing would ever hurt.

Sitting here alongside the scanner bed in the softly lit, rectory-like hospital room, silent but for the hum of the machinery, all of the things people had said against the Transmigration flooded into her mind, thoughts that had frightened her ever since Pyrce told her he was going to do this. That the computer programs in the Church's data banks weren't a continuation of life, because such things could never be alive. They simply lacked the essence of experience, merely collecting and retaining data, they said. Machines were never born, linked to the rest of the living universe through parents and their parents and their parents back to the very beginnings of life, and gestated in a process where they recapitulated their evolution, but were made whole, in a single piece. And where even a single cell came into existence alive, indeed was alive when it was mere potentiality, the most complex machine did not even function until it was started up, silent until someone plugged it into the wall. The machine-men and machine-women were organized, not organic; synthetic, not natural.

It was all metaphysical babble to the sort of hard-core rationalist, materialistic thinking Bobbie had been brought up with. What was experience but data, the materialists asked? And what were living things but nature's inventions? What were we all but information encoded in carbon? She knew she had no answers to those questions, but at the same time the thought of how no one had ever been translated back from the machine nagged at her, and so did what she knew it might have meant, that the rejectionists were right, that life could not be so readily transferred, that the laws of thermodynamics held for the soul, and something was lost in every conversion of matter and energy, and something of Pyrce would be lost in the process. Something essential.

Would he still be able to love? Bobbie had long suspected that Pyrce felt more for her than he let on, and that later grew into a certainty that he loved her. He'd never been able to tell her in so many words, but she remembered the paintings of her he'd made, paintings she'd never been meant to see, or know about, and which he still thought were his secret; she could see what he felt for the subject.

Bobbie didn't know that he'd ever had a girlfriend, or even if he'd lost his virginity (and Vir didn't count). Perhaps, she thought, even if she didn't love him back, she could have let him make love to her, if maybe that would have kept him from this—she'd done it for far worse reasons than that. But it was too late for anything like that, and once he set his mind on something he could never let go of it. Nothing she offered, not even herself, could have changed that; he had too much foolish pride for that. She knew it because Pyrce had never given her the chance to do it, never mentioned his involvement with the Church until the date had been set.

"I'm Transmigrating," he told her simply. "Two weeks from Tuesday. And I want you to be there with me when I do it."

She didn't know what to say to that. She just sat there stunned, open-mouthed, as he watched her expectantly, waiting for her to say yes.

"I don't think you've ever mentioned the Church before," she said when she finally gathered her wits about her. That wasn't what she wanted to say, but what first came to her mind would have just made things worse. How could screaming help at a time like this? That he'd lost his head was all the more reason for her to keep hers.

"No," he said, either willfully ignoring or blissfully ignorant of the meaning behind her words.

"You're sure this is what you want?" she asked, wondering if anything could stop him. "There's no going back."

"I'm sure," he told her, looking her in the eye.

"So this is . . . almost goodbye," she managed, a plan forming in the back of her mind to snatch him away before the day even now, a plan that she could never really enact.

"Of course not," Pyrce told her. "It's not like I'm dying. I'm just . . . changing state. The Pattern remains constant, though, and we'll be able to see each other, just like before. Even better than before. It's supposed to be like . . . being inside joy."

"That's what they say," Bobbie said, trying to smile. There had been tears in her eyes then, too. She wondered if he'd seen them, if they'd made him doubt for even a moment, but if they had he never let her see it. His brave front said that it didn't see through her brave front.

"And don't wear black," he said. "It's not a funeral."

"All right," she said, not feeling it, but agreeing to do what he asked anyway. "I'll wear the red dress. The one you always liked."

He seemed pleased when she said that.

As the days wound down toward his Translation to a Higher Plane, so did her hope that he would relent, but it didn't die completely, not until . . .

She felt his hand go limp in her own, and she knew that he was no longer here. She felt hot tears on her cheeks, tasted their salt as they rolled down to her lips, and continued to hold his hand until the bed retracted into the wall. She wondered if perhaps she loved him, too, in her own way.

 [ Transmigration 2, © 2009, Joy E. MacMillan ] Moments later she heard Pyrce's voice.

"You're crying," he said. "Please, don't cry for me."

She looked up at his hologram, a projection of the consciousness just uploaded into the computer. His appearance was immaculate, and gave an impression of health and strength and certainty that she had never seen him to possess before. It was almost like she was looking at an entirely different man who just happened to have the same facial features as Pyrce.

The hologram reached out, touched her cheek, smiled. "I'm free now," he said.

It was not unexpected; this was part of the ritual, the words said from the other side for the consolation of the mourners, one common experience repeated over and over by the millions the Transmigrated left behind.

"Yes, I know," Bobbie said. He was here, she thought, she could hear him and speak to him and even touch him. It might not always be like that, she knew. The hold this world and its things had on the Transmigrated went only so far, and with the passage of time they so often drifted away. But Pyrce's life continued, she told herself, and still touched her own life, and she would cherish every moment of that she could. And he would at last find some of the happiness that had exceeded his grasp in this world.

‘The Transmigration’ was first published in The Taj Mahal Review in June 2007.

© 2009 Nader Elhefnawy

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