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Gitanjali Joshua | Short story
The Last Architect

© Gitanjali Joshua

Kanoon fought her way to the surface. The grimy air seared her lungs as she gasped, desperate for oxygen. Around her, the water’s surface moved ceaselessly as though it were alive. An endless, bleak expanse of blue-green and grey under the infinite grey sky. She was in the Ocean. Adrift and alone. Kanoon woke abruptly. Her mind raced, but she forced herself to remain calm. The nightmare recurred often, ever since she had almost drowned, three years ago. A tantalising taste. Of witholding her precious mundane thoughts, memories, emotions and experiences from the Brahman. Of remaining herself. Of being free.

The Last Architect 

Why do we not seek the Architect? A thousand metallic voices spoke, as one. 

“Remember of whom you speak,” cautioned the strong voice. “She is the last Architect. She will be with us soon. Her time of Merging approaches.” The chorus intoned the words together. The strong voice led, wistful, even as a soundless electronic echo. 

The salt-wind ruffled Kanoon’s hair as she gazed into the gray-green sea. She felt the sand and cement-grit between her toes, as the waves crashed and receded rhythmically. In the distance, a feeble ray of sunlight pierced through the heavy smog-clouds and glinted gold on the waves. 

Kanoon strode into the ocean. 

Beside her, she felt his presence. Staring out with her at the vast salty death that was the sea. 

Tell me why. Please. His voice wavered, high-pitched on the why. A teenager’s voice, just breaking. He had been twenty-three when these last recordings had been saved. Twenty-three and just starting out on life as himself. Too young to be lost. Too young to form the Hive mind. 

She exhaled slowly, willing him to leave her alone. You couldn’t even trust your dreams any more. 

Her dream-self kept walking. Silicon and plastic debris washed against her bare legs. The land sloped gently into the ocean. Chest deep in the water, the stronger waves pushed her back. Kanoon kept going. Suddenly, the ground dropped sharply from under her feet. She began to swim against the waves that tried to wash her back to the neon city on the shore. 

Why? His voice echoed by her side, unaltered underwater. Sister, why? We built this world together. Why would you abandon us? She listened as the chorus of anonymous metallic voices gathered, beneath his distinct one. 

Kanoon swam on, ignoring her brother’s lonely, beautiful voice. Deeper and deeper into the ocean. 

Abruptly his presence ceased.  

In the murky saltwater of her ocean-dream, Kanoon shivered. They knew. Now, They would come for her. 

“Scan the tracking systems,” intoned the metallic chorus. 

She betrays us. The last Architect. Silence. Scan the security systems. Static. Why would she choose death?  Silence. She couldn’t have got far. Static. 

Amidst the cacophony of metallic voices, the strong voice wavered. Angry. Hurt. Betrayed. It was true, then. There was weakness in holding on to his individuality within the Brahman.  

Her perspective is valuable. The last of our Architects. We require her to Merge. The Brahman spoke as one. A metallic chorus. Rational. Objective. Send out the drones. Decisive

Kanoon woke, panting, as though she had indeed been swimming in the desolate ocean. She took a moment to breathe and slow her heart. There was very little time. 

She pulled the twin internet devices from her ears and set them aside. She had weighed the risk and gone online the previous night. She knew Azad would worry if she stayed away too long. It had been their ritual, ever since he had been lost, unable to re-enter his physical body. They spent time together online, in her dreams.  

As the time for her to Merge approached, she knew he longed for her. He was of the Brahman now, but something lingered of Azad as long as she remained physically alive. 

Kanoon splashed her face with water, scrubbed her teeth and rinsed her palate. Outside the grimy glass of the window, the steel-grey clouds glowed a faint orange, lit from beyond. 

She had disabled the GPS unit in her survival-suit. If They wanted to find her, though, it was a simple matter of triangulating her location from the other suits’ feedback. Anyone outside would be wearing one. Their suits would identify hers. Their inhabitants would never know they had participated in capturing her. 

Kanoon was lucky, one of the rare few whose body had rejected the surgically inserted AADHAR chip, grafted to the skull. It would have made it possible for her to connect with the online world without external paraphernalia. And impossible for her to go undetected this long. At the time she had felt her biological rejection of technology as a personal failure. Now, she was grateful.
In the end, she decided against wearing the suit. She donned a thick jacket and a face mask, to filter the air of miniscule shards of glass and concrete. The only thing she carried was the jar with Azad’s ashes. 

“You want to know why?” she asked the jar in her lap, sitting cross-legged on the sand, facing the ocean. It had been a hard journey to make, undetected. 

“It’s difficult to explain...” her voice trailed off. She gazed out towards the ocean. Dark, endless and unknowable.
“When we made the Brahman, it was revolutionary. No one had ever thought this way before. Not even the first researchers with their idealism about exchanging consciousnesses between bodies as a way to foster empathy and solidarity...” 

Kanoon gazed at the jar. On its lid was a hologram of her brother’s face. Wide eyes and a delicate jaw, with fresh stubble from the hormones he had just started taking before he was lost. It had been over five decades ago. Back when Switch technology was not freely available and had to be purchased at a prohibitive fee.  

The hologram did not capture the uncertainty behind his eyes. The years it had taken him to tell the world that he was not a woman and to start being himself. His desperate struggle to access the technology they could not afford... Kanoon blinked back her tears. 

“Azad, can you understand?” she whispered, “I believed in the Brahman. We all did!” They had taken down the failed democracies, the corporate-run governments voted repeatedly to power by people polarized and primed to hate whichever new other they were prompted to. 

“We shook people out of their little echo-chambers. We were invincible. And you... you started it all, Azad. That was a good name you picked,” she added, a small half-smile crossing her lips. 

She inhaled sharply, feeling light headed from oxygen deprivation. The harsh air rasped through her lungs. 

“I don’t know how you did it. Pulling yourself together from the corners of the internet where your consciousness was scattered...” 

En-route back to his body, Azad’s pirated version of Switch technology had glitched. His consciousness had been stranded, unable to re-enter his body. 

It took years for him to contact his twin-sister, in her online dreams. Kanoon had long suspected that something of Azad lingered online. She had spent the years researching and exploring the technology that had snatched her brother from her, and from life. 

Together they pieced together its origins: In the time before, when their democracy had functioned as a counting of votes assigning power to the most popular, there had been a small uprising in a University in Hyderabad. A young man had died, because of an identity he was born with. A young man full of hope and potential. A movement had sparked around his death to bring the powers that had engineered his ostracism to justice. During this time of heightened political polarization on the campus, researchers at the University were experimenting with neural linking technology. They designed Switch as a way to swap consciousness with another person, inhabit their body and experience the world from under their skin. It was designed to further empathy and solidarity. To transcend identity. 

But the government mired its use in bureaucracy and sold it to social media giants. Corporates acquired it and Switch became just another technocratic tool to polarize populations and keep governments in power. 

The technocracies were collapsing, when Azad and the other lost ones banded together to form a hive mind. With Kanoon’s help, they made Switch freely available. Together, they used Switch to set up a new political system. Governance by the hive mind. They named it Brahman, a merging of consciousnesses. The Brahman, unlike democracy, took the whole of a person’s experience into account. Not just their vote. Citizens lived out their lives in the physical world. Once they Merged, their unique experiences and perspectives became part of the Brahman. Every consciousness that Merged, widened its perspective. It became a truly objective government, taking into account every subjective perspective. A benevolent decision making-entity. 

In time, Merging after living a full life, was made mandatory. For the good of all, all perspectives were needed. 

Kanoon herself had helped create the Brahman. It left citizens to live their physical lives in peace, unfettered by regular elections and shifts of power and privilege. The only small price: mandatory technological nirvana. Merging their consciousnesses. Becoming part of the Brahman at the end of their physical lives. A duty and an escape from death. An elegant solution. 

And yet, here she was. Talking to Azad’s ashes, gazing out to sea. Considering oblivion.  

“I don’t know how to explain it to you,” she whispered, “You’ve been part of the Brahman for so long… but surely you can see it too? There’s something to having it all end. Something human.”  
In the distance she could hear the mechanical chatter of the drones. Clicks, whirrs and static. 

They had found her. 

Quicker than she expected. Azad must have put all of the Brahman’s formidable resources to work. He had to know why his sister, his one true ally, would abandon them. Right at the end of her physical life. When he need not maintain his individuality within the Brahman anymore. They could both finally experience the peace of Merging. Rest. Ceasing to be. 

“I think I want to hold on to that, Azad. To being human. Individual. Even if it means ceasing to be.” she told the ashes.  

She paused. Tired. Triumphant. She had finally put it into words. Her growing uneasiness with the benevolent objectivity of the Brahman. All her mundane thoughts, experiences and memories would be lost if she Merged. The particular peculiar meanings they held for her would no longer matter. 

Kanoon stood. She began to walk into the waves. Toward the promise of oblivion.  
As the drones approached, the jar of ashes lay on the beach. Just out of reach of the waves.