Upon stepping into the migrant train, I walked down the aisle until I arrived at its furthest carriage. To its right, a girl was lost in her telepresent game. I am not sure she noticed me. To the left, a couple was talking. They flashed me a smile which I acknowledged, but instead of starting a conversation, I looked out of the window upon seating.
The closer we got to Libria, the more subtle second glances my clothes got. Had that much time passed? Still, a satisfied smile spread across my face. My mind became pristinely still, like the lake on the north side of Avant-Grid in the colder months. It is a stillness I could no longer find there. After waiting so long to feel it, I was so intent on not disturbing it that I repressed my urge to urinate the whole way. I carried it with me as the train disembarked.
I had booked a self-driving car and as it made a turn right by the bend where the electronics market sits, my smile was austere but genuine. I remembered the fog of ideals that had caused me to leave, and now the bluntness of reality that had brought me back. It was humbling.
Outside the window, on the other side of the bridge in the dimming skyline, I saw her. In memory, she had been more imposing. As a child, she would tower over me in my dreams, her face a vision of possibility. Often, she would bend over and wait as I climbed onto her wing. From there, I would walk to the very top of her right shoulder. She would show me not only Libria, but all the Distrikts. I cannot put the sheer awesomeness of that experience into words. Suffice it to say that I would often lose my breath.
It was hard to fall out of love with her, but I forced myself to. I sealed it when I threw my miniature statue of her into the trash bin as my parents and I joined the migrant train. Shortly after, she stopped coming to me in my dreams. At the time, it was taken as given that we left Libria for Avant-Grid, as nature evolves into more intelligent life forms. My parents were convinced, and I was impressionable. I was drawn to the idea of conserving God’s energy. I could see that the moral failings that led to the Sundering were gradually eating into our lives in Libria. I had fallen in love with the idea of what we could be beyond the quest to accumulate.
I had left Libria right as my scientific career was starting, abandoning a career progression pathway with hefty benefits. I was convinced that people were more than what they could produce, and I wanted to put my skills behind that conviction. It took so long to get the proper placement in Avant-Grid, and even then, I was paid nothing close to what I was worth. Yet, since people are not things, I surmised that it was ultimately good to be where I earned less but had a better quality of life.
For years, I tried to get the funding to expand my research area, but over and over it was rejected. It was “novel, but they didn’t see why we needed yet more ways to outsmart nature.” It was “an overreach.” So on, and so forth. Eventually, I got worn out trying to establish my own lab, and I decided to work as an assistant in an existing one. I had a salary, but no path to independence beyond vague assurance. I was overworked, in the name of serving the common good.
The slowness also started to eat at me. How long it took before anything got fixed. How people got used to things being substandard, which led to seeking favours to get things done better or faster. How people cared only for functionality but had no ambitions toward speed or even aesthetics. Soon after, my parents died back-to-back, and something about the loss caused me to settle into that life. Perhaps it was the way depression makes it so hard to find one’s will again, or perhaps I was too proud to consider starting yet again.
My crossroads came when I became aware of my medical condition. I went to every doctor in Avant-Grid, not that there were many. We had “just enough” doctors, like everything else. First, it was hard enough to get a simple examination. They kept saying how I needed to be grateful that I could at least get examined for free unlike in other Distrikts. Eventually, after all the tests, the doctor told me that there would be a wait time of two years for my procedure.
‘Two years?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ they said.
I went to another doctor. Then another one. They all said about the same thing. The procedure itself would take twelve hours and I would need a month to heal.
‘Is there a way to speed it up?’ I asked, in one form or the other.
The last doctor was unimpressed and brought a record with a long line of patients with conditions more complex than mine. Why did I think I deserved to jump the queue when patients like these were waiting? I went home disappointed. I even wondered if my parents would have lived longer if they had aged in Libria. Afterall, we did have the means.
Later that evening, I did a search into the Database to see what obtained in the other Distrikts. In the Covenant, they had a minimally invasive procedure that only took three hours. In Hygge, they had managed to do over 80% of the procedures in one hour. Then I looked up Libria, and my mouth hung open. In Libria, robots could replicate the procedure with 99.9% success under forty-five minutes. Not only that, but they really aimed to “care” for you. They had not just a doctor but a pre and post procedure care team whose entire goal was to make sure you were comfortable.
They paid attention to things like the food you ate, the temperature of the room, the quality of the mattress in your hospital bed, your favourite movies, and your virtual reality experience as the robots operated on you. You should have seen my face as I read it all. But of course, it wasn’t going to be free.
I went to my doctor in Avant-Grid, asking if they would be able to do the minimally invasive procedure if I waited the two years they had mentioned. I did not want to be left with a big gash that would take weeks to heal. I begged. The condition was starting to get quite uncomfortable. The doctor told me that they could only do the more invasive procedure even if I waited. There is a cost for everything, they reminded me. Did I know how much energy these wasteful cities spent by doing everything the fastest way? Did I know how many people in Libria went without food while their elite were going against nature to optimize their bodies?
I was sad for days. I tried to go on my mental healthcare app, Happy, to improve my mood. I played the session on “What to do when things don’t go your way.” I practiced breathing when I was upset. I practiced focusing on what I was grateful for. I tried running it out. I joined the chat group for people also waiting for procedures. Nothing worked. I prayed, but it was only the limited God I could think of, and I ended up getting upset instead of comforted. It became progressively harder to get out of bed each day.
Then the winged woman came to me in my dream. For the very first time ever, she was in Avant-Grid not Libria. What was she doing here, I wondered? She just smiled. As usual, she bent over so I could climb on her wing. From there I walked over to her shoulders. I held on tight as she lifted off. From there we sailed through the air. The higher we went, the smaller everything became, until the buildings of Avant-Grid, the forests, the roads, our energy grids were a little more than stick figures. Finally, we got to Libria, and very gradually we made our descent.
I woke up suddenly that night, shivering. I tried to turn on the heat, but it had been turned off centrally. The next day, only one thing was on my mind. I called the hospital in Libria just to confirm that what I had found was indeed true. The next question was the cost. They offered to put me on an insurance plan if I had a source of income in Libria. I could also get on the clinical barter, where I could pay in kind with vestigial organs like wisdom teeth and my appendix; extra organs like kidneys and fertile eggs; or renewable resources like hair and blood. Finally, I could license the rights to a digital copy of my consciousness for a fixed period of years. This would allow them build robots using my consciousness. Such robots were always needed to automate the essential services people of Libria needed but did not enjoy supplying, like managing sewage, executing dangerous criminals, and arming the defense forces. One way or the other, there was always a way to afford it, they assured me.
I left for the migrant train with only my nipa palm raffia tote swung over my shoulder. Most of what I had I donated, auctioned, or sold quite fast. I didn’t accumulate too much. I did not say goodbye to anyone. I did not want anyone trying to convince me, even though they would not have. Once I got off the train, I went straight to the electronics market. I wanted to see if the R&D lab was still there. It was a strange firm, that instead of being nestled among prime real estate sat oddly in the electronics market. The owner believed that we could learn so much more about innovation by being as close to the ground as possible, than by buying another skyrise condo. The more lost I got trying to find it, the more I realized it was also foolish hope that brought me back here thinking that my offer from several years back might still hold.
Most of the people I spoke to were confused, that is, those who even let themselves be distracted from their sales to listen. My question was indeed vague – where is that firm that was somewhere around the bend in the road, where they do research on applications of quantum physics to biomedical science? Anyway, someone finally helped me. His name was Nwọzọ, and he ran an antique store, where they refurbished old electronics and sold them as premium vintage pieces to tourists who wanted souvenirs from Libria. Residents of Sunflower Heights who wanted to give some character to their homes also frequented his store. Nwọzọ only knew what I meant because he often supplied the firm with starting materials for some of their experiments. He left his busy store in the hand of his apprentices to help me find it.
We walked through mazes of sweaty bodies, and eager feet until we got to an unpainted building hidden behind new stalls. No wonder I couldn’t find it. I showed the receptionist the letter they had sent me several years ago, when they offered me a position. She was surprised at how long it had been, but she still offered to let me speak with a senior team member. The person who came out must have been younger than me, and I thought about all the time I lost in Avant-Grid. He was impressed with my resume. He ran a quick search on the Database, found an opportunity at one of their offices elsewhere in Libria, and he sent me there with a note.
A few days later, I would nervously try to sell the time in Avant-Grid as an asset to a boardroom full of executives. I framed that time as a competitive advantage gained from understanding how the industry worked in another Distrikt. I also sold them the idea that it gave me a thorough understanding of designing for sustainability. Then I crossed my fingers. The next week, I got an offer that was almost double what I made in Avant-Grid and came with benefits and the progression pathway I had long given up hope of having. With a job in Libria secured, I had now fulfilled the condition for getting the health insurance plan I wanted. I was so thrilled I found it hard to fall asleep. I thought of the winged woman and kept smiling in my bed, my tears near.
After my first month, I made an appointment at the hospital. You should have seen it. It was like a hotel. A service person came over and took my bag from me. My bag was not heavy, but I went along for the experience. I waited in a lobby where I could choose any station I wanted and have a drink on the house. The doctor eventually came with the care team and asked me what I wanted from the procedure. Did I want the basic procedure, or did I want some of the add-ons, she asked?
I asked about the add-ons, and they were several. There was the rejuvenating procedure, where they would scan all my organs, identify sub-optimal ones, and do an upgrade. For example, I could have the alpha signature of my eyes reviewed and my retina age-proofed. In Libria, companies were increasingly offering quantum encrypted biometric data linked to retinal alpha maps. With an age-proof retina, I would not need to keep having to redo my biometrics as my alpha map changed.
There was the anti-virus add-on, which would enable all the viral receptors in my cells block invaders permanently. That way, I would not even need to worry about getting vaccines. Then of course there was the vanity add-on where they would modify my hips, my body hair, my lips, and skin. Finally, if I wanted the elixir of life, they could strengthen the ability and speed of my telomeres in healing and lengthening themselves. The doctor said that it would have been better to start that process as a child. However, today was always the best time to start.
A robot, Osadebe came out to greet me. Osadebe would be performing my procedure and had already been synced to all my records in The Database. Osadebe knew my favourite musicians, my favourite books, and even made jokes that matched my sense of humour. I couldn’t believe it. Osadebe would be something of a nurse and physical therapist to me after performing my procedure. Osadebe had already created customized versions of recommended lifestyle changes for me, accounting for my quirks, like what time I liked to go to sleep and how flavourful I liked my food. Osadebe would also be calling me to make sure I was fine before and after the procedure and providing me some counseling if needed.
I was overwhelmed, but joyously so. I signed away. They offered me their loyalty plan, and with that I could get any maintenance procedure for 30% off. Would you believe that the procedure was so good that I went in at dawn and a few hours later I was at work as if nothing had happened? Osadebe then worked with me in the weeks that followed, often sending me reminders and encouragement. We became good friends, and it still attends to me when I have my periodic checkups.
I take no day for granted when I enter the building and make my way to the office. I sometimes think about the years I wasted chasing those foggy ideals. I still have them, but they are much clearer now. For one, I know that my inventions will save lives. Secondly, I have the means to be of service, and most importantly I get to choose. At Avant-Grid, they always say that people are not things, but do they really value you? Here, they only promise to treat you like an asset, yet they have invested in me more than anyone. I would rather be an asset.
Recently, I searched for Nwọzọ to say thank you. We sat to talk for a few minutes. Nwọzọ was born and raised in Libria. His parents lived close to the electronics market. They worked in a factory where they helped to stock the ships that went out to find metals. On the weekends, they also hawked fried food items to tourists in the traffic jams that formed near the stadium. Nwọzọ was tired of watching his parents take care of tourists. His dream was to retire them before they were too old. For a moment, I remembered how it felt to be in a place where ambition was suspicious. I told him of my new office and invited him to visit any time.
When I need to remember myself, I take a walk by the water. I sit at the feet of the winged woman and gaze at her beauty. In the stillness, she reminds me that I am home. She reminds me that I need not worry, that even the wasted time will come full circle. It is nice to dream again.