The Sonoran desert was not fit for human habitation. Temperatures regularly rose above 100 degrees, and the arid heat cut to the bone of every creature that had the misfortune of living in it. Once, Native American tribesmen tried to tame the desert. They built primitive canals before sinking back into the sand.
When the first Europeans arrived, railroads and canals were built with the ferocity of an animal fighting for its life—and with the same motive. A century later, glittering skyscrapers rose from the dust where the tribesmen had once futilely toiled.
The city was called Phoenix.
Matteo Arete was not born in Phoenix. Matteo Arete was born in the slums of San Juan. Matteo Arete saw corrugated iron shacks and a rotting dog carcass in the street and Matteo Arete saw boys armed with sharp objects and empty machismo and Matteo Arete saw turgid decay engendered by people who had given up living and had no reason to live and yet by inertia did not die. Matteo Arete saw that there was evil in the world and that it was not the evil that the priests warned about, not a strong and powerful evil, but something weak and pathetic and much, much worse.
He knew there was something better. There had to be. In the faded and graffiti-riddled textbooks at school were pictures of skyscrapers and spaceships, and someone had to have made them. He didn’t know who they were or how they came to be, but they had to be out there, somewhere. They had to be.
Sophia Adler was not born in Phoenix, although she once attended an international math competition there, and she was definitely not born in San Juan, although she had fond memories of zip-lining thereabouts when she was twelve. She was born in Cambridge. Her father, Jonathan, chaired Harvard’s department of computational linguistics while moonlighting as a social critic; her mother, Esther, briefly had a career as a psychologist before discovering that discussing Foucault at cocktail parties was her true vocation.
Sophia received an education that any aspiring meritocrat would envy. It began at the Montessori pre-K with a sticker price impolite to mention in mixed company. It culminated at a high school that was one-third Howard Zinn, one-third differential equations, and three-thirds a zero-sum death match over who’d be stuck going to Brown instead of Princeton. It all seemed so empty, and she was no nihilist by temperament.
And so, like many an apostate from Acela Corridor high society, she headed West.
Matteo Arete stood in the center of a concentric plane of circles and rotated his body with geometric precision. To his left, pristine water burbled and gushed from a fountain. To his right, pillars of marble flanked angular structures of glass and steel. The air was crisp and clear; the sun pulsating beams of light against the glass. In the distance, beyond the plane of circles, stood a massive limestone edifice engraved with two words:
It was a long way from San Juan.
Matteo knelt in reverence. “To this—to a temple of the mind.”
The amen was implicit.
Matteo stood in a room that felt as vast as a cathedral; it was of ordinary size. Matteo felt electric energy coursing through the air; there was only the expectant tension of the crowd. They had gathered to listen to a talk by Jason Dare, the cryptocurrency billionaire and founder of Denim Genomics. Matteo understood for the first time the devotion of the religious to a holy cause.
Sophia stood in the room somewhat uncertainly, alone in unknown territory. Her gait was hesitant; her eyes were shining. As Dare began speaking, her body leaned in as if in embrace of the world she found herself in. The crowd felt united by a common cause in a way she had never experienced.
Dare was midway through his speech: “People said we were playing God, that we were going against nature. Investors fled. Regulators tried to shut us down. What did we do? We fought for freedom. We fought because we believed no one’s destiny should be determined by a random quirk of their DNA. We fought so people could live their own lives, free from the tyranny of nature’s whims. Public opinion was against us, the governments of the world were against us, but we fought—and with the emergence of the Phoenix Autonomous Zone, we won.”
As the crowd cheered, Sophia looked around her, and saw a boy who looked as though he was in rapture. He had the aura of an amphetamine addict and a smile almost feral in its tautness. His eyes were in violent contrast against the rest of his body—they looked like those of a solemn saint. On an impulse, she took his hand; the crowd’s energy coursed through them.
Dare was concluding: “We are now living in the most exciting era of human history— and you are at its epicenter. Thanks to the work done in Goldwater University and the Phoenix Autonomous Zone, more scientific progress has occurred in the past ten years than in my parents’ and your grandparents’ entire lifetimes. The trend isn’t linear, it’s exponential—and I cannot wait to see what you will do.”
The applause slowly came to an end. The solemn saint and Sophia left together.
It was midnight and darkness was over the surface of the deep. The reflection of two bodies intertwined hovered over the waters.
Matteo said wistfully, “I wish this could go on forever.”
“Who says it can’t? I mean, cell death is an obstacle, but if I can crack senescence by thirty, we have till the heat death of the universe.”
Matteo looked at her admiringly. "That's the most arrogant thing I've ever heard."
Sophia blushed. “It’s funny—when I was a kid, people thought it was cute that I was idealistic. But now that I’m able to actually begin making a difference, I’m not idealistic anymore—I’m arrogant. You’re the first person who’s said it like it’s a compliment.”
“I think,” said Matteo, “that we’ll have a lot of firsts.”
And there was evening and there was morning, together in Eden.
They were in the courtyard when the trouble started.
Sophia was introducing Matteo to her new roommate, Fatima, and the conversation turned towards their majors. Matteo’s, physics, was not an issue; Sophia’s, genetic engineering, was.
Fatima said in surprise, “Wait, you mean engineering people? Don’t you think that could endanger their souls?”
Sophia paused. “I don’t expect that to be an issue.”
Fatima looked at her half-quizzically, half-indignantly. “You don’t believe in souls?”
Sophia spoke earnestly. “When you step on a worm, its worm-soul doesn’t go to worm-heaven. The 200 or so neurons in its worm-brain stop sending each other electrical signals and it dies. We don’t have 200 neurons in our brains; we have billions. The electrical signals sent between them let us think and talk and love. Those neural patterns and signals could be called ‘souls’—but when the signals stop, the ‘soul’ is gone. That’s incredibly sad, but reality is what it is. Pretending it's something else is comforting, but if we want to change things for the better and truly live forever, we first have to recognize them for what they are.”
Fatima had an expression of disgust on her face. “That’s the most arrogant thing I’ve ever heard. May Allah have mercy on you.” She turned and walked away.
Sophia glanced at Matteo. “I probably could’ve handled that better. What do you think?”
Matteo smiled wryly. “Probably. I agree that we’re made of matter and not some sort of vague spiritual mush, but that disproves nothing about souls or God. The soul may be physically instantiated as an electrical pattern—but what makes you think it’s irretrievable after death? Just as atomic configurations can change from being constituted as a living person to being constituted as ashes, the reverse is equally true from a purely material standpoint. Once we crack entropy, as long as a person existed as a pattern of atoms on Earth at one point, there's nothing stopping us from rearranging atoms into that person’s pattern to bring them back at a later point. Sure, we don’t have the technology to do so at present, but we may well have it in the future. And if it’s theoretically possible for us to resurrect the dead, it would be no harder for God to do than it would be for a human programmer to resurrect a character in a video game they made. Fatima’s right, you’re arrogant—but not arrogant enough.”
Sophia looked bemused. “Living forever isn’t arrogant enough for you?”
“No. The dead must be raised. Whether through God or through science, our loved ones and their loved ones and their loved ones’ loved ones deserve to be saved. The alternative is accepting the permanent destruction of over a hundred billion people throughout history.”
“You think that’s possible to achieve?” “Yes.”
“Aren’t you basing that at least somewhat on faith?”
“I have faith that we eliminated smallpox. I have faith that we landed a man on the moon. And I have faith that death will be defeated. This isn’t the end.”
A flat voice said, “It ends. Everything ends.”
Two shots rang out, and the screams began.
Nobody cared who Owen Kander was. His family hadn’t cared—he was put up for adoption. His teachers hadn’t cared—he aced every standardized test there was, but was consigned to rot with the trash from the ghetto. Girls—the less said of how much they cared, the better. But none of that mattered, in the end. He had read Evola, and the Bhagavad Gita, and could say with Oppenheimer that he had become death, destroyer of worlds.
He had started with a squirrel. It had looked at him inquisitively, its cheeks puffed out, and he had held out an acorn laced with cyanide. After the convulsions had stopped and the light had faded from its eyes, he cried. That was it, then: Kali Yuga, Ragnarok, the heat death of the universe—all at once. What held true for the squirrel would hold true for everyone—eventually. Why delay the inevitable?
He had noticed the girl, Sophia, from the moment she had first stepped foot on campus. She was truly beautiful.
He walked forward from the shadows and looked at her with deadened eyes.
“It ends. Everything ends.”
He fired at her once.
Another shot, and for Owen Kander, everything ended.
The solemn saint was clad in black. His eyes were dry as the coffin was lowered into the ground. After the ceremony was over, the officiating priest looked at him sympathetically. “Were you a friend?” Matteo smiled then, a feral smile that made the priest step back in shock.
He left alone.
Goldwater University was cast in an amber dusk as the sun sunk beneath the horizon.
Matteo stood in the center of the concentric plane of circles and watched the gold-glinted water burble in the fountain. Softly, a hand brushed against his.
Sophia murmured in his ear, “I wish this could go on forever.”
Matteo placed his hand in hers and gazed across the temple of the mind and beyond it, into the distance.
“This won’t. But we? We’ll rise.”