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Three-World Cantata

Published onOct 26, 2023
Three-World Cantata


I am a storyweaver, standing at the nexus of three worlds, drawing threads from each, beckoning to the man who is simultaneously our victim and our overlord. He is a denizen of World Zero, the so-called “real world.” As for me, Chingari, I straddle multiple realities, so I am here to open the pathways to World One and World Two. These worlds are woven of gritty reality and fervent dreams. What is a verisimulation but an articulation of a dream? Enhanced by IntMRI technology, forbidden and banned in most places, rooted in the mud and blood and sweat of reality, here the world of the individual dreamer intersects with the alternate worlds of the simulation. Neither are entirely controllable, and there are other deceptions we must practice. Even we, who have worked on this Project for a decade, have no idea how the story unfolds.

Quiet! He has begun to interface with the machine…

Manny in the Machine

Manny woke up inside the simulation. He was in a long grey hallway, with a pale, silvery light emanating from the ceiling. Doors lined both sides of the hall, each marked with a peculiar symbol. An electronic voice said, politely, “Please choose your orienting metaphor.”

“What do you mean, orienting metaphor?”

They hadn’t briefed him properly. Heads would roll. He would see to that.

“Please choose your orienting metaphor.”

Manny lost patience. He went to the nearest door, pushed it open, and walked through.

But there was nothing, only darkness and vast emptiness, and he found himself back in the hallway, and the door was closed.

“Please choose your—”

As he cursed, a familiar voice said, “Still not controlled that temper of yours, have you?” and there was his dead grandmother, sitting on a chair in the middle of the hallway, calmly observing him. She held a large, round piece of metal; it was studded with gears and springs, and she seemed to be adjusting the metallic bits and pieces while pinning him with a piercing gaze that he remembered from childhood.

“Grandmother? What are you doing here? What is this place?”

“Calm down, Manas, you silly boy, and think. Obviously the system is interfacing with your brain, likely setting up a memory resonance. Don’t worry, I’m dead and gone!” And the old woman cackled.

Nobody had called him Manas for years. Manny was caught by a memory—standing in the front room of their tiny tenement, his grandmother having stopped him from running off to play on the street with his friends. He needs to do his homework, and she will make him something nice to eat. She puts aside her knitting and sits him down with his books; from the window there are traffic noises, the shouts of his friends, and the smell of exhaust, beckoning him, but she is a tough old woman. When his parents come home, she will retreat to the back room with her knitting, her fierce, hooded eyes averted. She hates the smell of drink on his father’s breath. All these decades later, when Manny had become the proverbial big man, she still had the power—dead or not—to make him feel like a little boy.

“Look,” she said. She held up the thing in her hands: a large clock, the backing removed to reveal the intricate machinery inside. “Each future world is represented by a symbol. This is the orienting metaphor for World One: the clock. You only have a few minutes in the Machine each time, so I suggest you explore the first two worlds. Both represent possible carbon-neutral futures.”

She was so much like his grandmother, even if she didn’t talk like her. She held the clock out to him. Overcome by an unfamiliar wave of emotion and confusion, he staggered forward and took it from her.

Manny in World One: The Storm and the Oak Tree

With jarring suddenness he was in a world so real his heart clenched—because he was going to die—there was a roaring in his ears and everything was grey—the wall of water that reached up to the sky, the mud squelching between his toes—where were his shoes? His clothes? He wore nothing but a pair of ragged pants, and there was water up to his thighs, filthy grey water with slimy plastic junk bobbling in it, and he was clutching a stunted tree growing out of the swamp, its curved roots half out of the water…

“Are you crazy? The wave’s about to hit!” A man’s voice, rough and impatient, against a backdrop of shouts and calls. A man with wiry dark brown arms pulled at his shoulder. “We have to get to higher land, you fool!”

But the wind was so loud and fierce that as they staggered through the forest of stumpy trees in the muddy water, he thought he would be pushed over and drowned. Above and behind him the giant wave began to fall toward them—

And hit so hard he thought he wouldn’t be able to breathe again; there was water over his head, he was choking and gasping, his rescuer trying to raise him up and slapping his back, and the water pulling him seaward with such force he was afraid the man’s hold would break—but there were other people around him, holding him, bracing themselves against the stubby trees, and an eternity later, the water let go. They were on higher ground, a mess of wet mud and broken bits of plastic and other trash, and he was going to live. But his grandmother—the Machine—must have made a mistake. How could this World One be a successful future?

“This is not the World I’m supposed to be in,” he said furiously to the man who had rescued him, shouting to be heard over the wind and water. “World One has achieved carbon neutrality—”

“This world is carbon-neutral, all right!” the man said, with a short laugh. “Carbon is stabilized. Welcome to paradise!”

On the rise, needles of hard rain lashed at them. There was a huddle of thin women in sodden saris, clutching their children, watching the sky. The next enormous wave reared above them, taller than a skyscraper.

“Grandmother!” Manny shouted. “Get me out of here!”

And with the same suddenness, he was somewhere else—standing on a ridge, overlooking a green valley. A train moved silently across the landscape. The mountains were shaggy with pines and the sky was clear, but he thought it sparkled a bit, as though somebody had scattered glitter into the air. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the neat rows of houses with their solar-paneled roofs. Beyond the neighborhood, a highway snaked through the countryside, noiseless traffic flowing along it. Electric vehicles! Somewhere in Europe, he thought.

“This must be World Two,” Manny said aloud, and was startled to hear a voice answer. He turned, but there was nothing behind him apart from a large oak tree.

“Welcome to World One,” said the oak. “I am a fully sensorized carbon-offsetting oak tree. I can tell you exactly how much carbon I have sequestered this year to date.”

“How can this be World One?” Manny asked the tree, in astonishment. “I was just in the middle of a storm or tsunami or something on the coast of India or Bangladesh. They told me that was World One. Someone has made a mistake.”

“No mistake, sir,” said the oak. “The program placed you in a different part of World One, that’s all. Our world has been saved by low-carbon technologies, but in every great effort there is collateral damage. We have carbon well under control.”

“But the storm—”

“Inertia in the system,” said the oak. “But look! Look at the sky above you. Look around. Everything has been sensorized. Carbon is monitored every day, and an integrated system manages the flows. Too much carbon emitted in one place means a carbon trap is operationalized somewhere else. This is the net zero revolution.”

“Impressive,” Manny said, and meant it. “But what about the other parts of the world? Like the place I was in? The storm? The plastic junk?”

“It’s the cost of taking care of the world,” said the tree. “Our primary mission is to manage carbon to maintain safe levels. All other concerns must take second place.”

Manny shivered in a sudden breeze. He was still clad only in his mud-spattered pants. He saw a figure walking up the ridge toward him—a policeman. Tall, strong fellow, pleasant-faced. Relieved, he started forward, holding out his hand.

“Another refugee,” said the policeman into the phone mounted on his helmet. Handcuffs dangled from one hand. “Tell them this is my twenty-seventh. That’s my quota for the day. After this you owe me a break.”

“Wait a minute, there’s been a mistake,” said Manny. “Look, I’m the CEO of UltraCorp Enterprises, the main funder for this project. I need a good hotel and a drink—”

The policeman smiled. It was the kind of smile that makes you trust a man, even if you meet him in a bar.

“They have such stories,” he said indulgently, almost affectionately. Manny realized the man was still talking to the person at the other end of the line. The policemen reached for his gun with his free hand.

“Grandmother!” screamed Manny.

And he was back in the hallway, his heart thudding with shock and outrage. Mud oozed between his bare toes.

“How dare you put me through this…this is your idea of a joke? Wait until—heads will roll—get me out of here!”

“You look a sight, Manas,” said his grandmother disapprovingly. She was knitting something, as she seemed to have done every spare moment of his childhood.

Something about her bent, familiar figure dissipated his anger. The shaking in his knees stopped. He was safe. And she was his grandmother, the woman who had seen him through the difficult years of his childhood. Without her, what would have become of him?

She’s an illusion, you fool, said his rational self. But he ignored it and walked up to her.

His grandmother was knitting with what looked like five or six needles, manipulating each with superhuman dexterity. Rolls and rolls of yarn were piled up around her, and as she knitted, a swath of multicolored material fell like a wave from her knees. The light played hypnotically on her needles as they moved. Colors and shapes appeared in different places, with no discernible pattern. The fabric seemed alive, the yarn moving within the tapestry as it fell to the floor in rolls. He looked up to his grandmother’s face in wonder, and saw that there was no clear boundary between the old woman and the fabric. He could make out fine lines of yarn on her face and arms, as though the fabric was knitting her into being as she knit away. He was filled with fear, but she said, in her no-nonsense voice, “Don’t be afraid, boy. Time to try World Two. The orienting metaphor of World Two—”

He took a step toward her and found himself tripping on the fabric, falling, drowning in it, and again there was a split-second disorientation, and he was somewhere else.

World Zero Interlude

Tinman: Did you expect the grandmother?

Chingari: No I didn’t. Interesting. Memory resonance becoming reified?

Tinman: Let’s see if she shows up again. There was a real grandmother who lived with the family. We know very little about his childhood; it’s one thing he’s reticent about. All we know is that they were poor. Lost his brother at a young age. Father an alcoholic.

Chingari: He’d better be worth all the trouble we’re taking over him…I’m going to find out in a moment.

Manny in World Two: Mud

It was hot, and the light was blinding him. A baked landscape under a fierce, relentless sun, with a few scraggly trees. Ahead was a low hill covered with scrub. His throat felt dry, and he thought, what is this hell?

Then a voice, in Hindi: “Arrey, what are you doing there, young man, the sun will make you ill! Come with me!”

A woman came up to him from the stand of trees, slender and dark, in a red and white sari, her hair touched with gray. “Come out of this!”

He followed her without protest, inwardly cursing the algorithm that had brought him to another wretched part of the world. They climbed the low hill and he stopped, astonished.

In the middle of the desertified plain below rose an irregular structure. Despite his urban upbringing, he’d seen plenty of pictures of village India, but instead of thatched-roof mud huts the strangest apparition rose before them. Later he would remember its resemblance to a termite mound, but in that moment, all he noticed was a mud-like texture to the thick walls of the building, which was covered almost entirely by vegetable vines. He followed the woman down the hill. Inside the building, he was enveloped by a deep, cool darkness punctuated by shafts of sunlight. There was a faint fragrance of wet earth. It took a while for his eyes to adjust. In the central room, people were clustered in small groups around tables or in circles on the floor. The woman motioned him to a seat carved into the wall. She poured water into a glass from an earthen pitcher, and he drank thirstily. The water was cool and tasted faintly of earth. Nobody took any notice of him. As the breath came back into his body, he glanced up at the woman. He hadn’t been with people of her class since his childhood in the ghettoes of the city, and later on had only seen them at a distance, as servants or laborers. She stood with a dignity and ease that didn’t fit the pigeonhole into which he had placed her. She glanced keenly at him, said, abruptly, “Wait,” and went off into one of several corridors that led out of this central room.

A young woman came into the room, dressed in a green t-shirt and calf-length brown cotton pants. Her hair was braided and coiled untidily at the top of her head, and her face glowed as it caught a shaft of sunlight. “Hi,” she said, smiling, in English. “Welcome to World Two.”

She turned from him to the doorway, where two men were carefully bringing in a cauldron suspended from a wooden frame. Thin tendrils of steam rose from the edge of the closed lid. Two teenagers came running forward, carrying between them a large, ovoid clay pot with a close-fitting cover.

“We have a parabolic concentrator for cooking, but it’s being cleaned,” she explained, “so we’ve had to use fuel: deadwood from the forest. We boil the khitchri for two minutes, douse the fire, and let it cook in the insulator—oy Shaq, watch your step!“

The cauldron was placed reverentially within the ovoid container.

“Food will be ready in two hours,” the young woman said. “For the first shift. I hope you’ll stay and join us.”

“Wait, this is World Two, right?” Manny said. “Another low-carbon world? But where’s all the tech?”

The young woman smiled. “We have what we call place-contextualized technology in World Two. That means the technology is conceived and developed in communities based on their geography and their needs. Often by local people in collaboration with scientists and engineers. Here we’ve revived local traditions in building with mud, enhanced by biomimicry-based engineering. I’m an engineer.”

Manny found himself annoyed by the note of pride in her voice. “These little local experiments won’t cut it,” he said. “We need scalable solutions to cut carbon, get to net zero—”

The young woman rolled her eyes.

“We don’t scale up, we scale out,” she said. “Each place on this planet is different. Climate is global, but weather is a local phenomenon. So are ecosystems and people’s lives. So why should technology be the same everywhere? And for fuck’s sake, we’re thinking beyond carbon reductionism. Plus, these little experiments, as you call them, now number in the hundreds of thousands, planet-wide. And we’re networked.”

A memory came back to Manny. A meeting with his strategy officers in the neon towers of his headquarters. The all-glass walls, the view he loved: the world a flat carpet stretched out below, people, buildings, and trees like toys. The only unpleasant thing: Shaurya, with his plump, seamed face and clever eyes. Warning Manny, in his too-casual voice, that there was something they had been ignoring. The rise of independent communities, off-system, spawning a movement, networking for their own purposes. Some kind of off-net crypto-web, perhaps. Bad for business. At the time he’d shrugged off his warning. He disliked Shaurya, and the idea was preposterous. But if the World Two simulation was reproducing the same thing, it was in his interest to find out more about it. He composed his facial muscles with an effort, and looked around him.

He saw the high ceiling, its irregularity—flute-like holes rising from it. He felt a cool current, but there was no sign of air conditioning. Small windows let in sunlight, and one part of the upper wall was covered with leafy vines. He could hear water somewhere, a stream flowing, perhaps—inside the building? From high above, a bird called. Butterflies danced in the shafts of light. He was disorientated, as though the skin of his world had been turned inside out.

The young woman was still talking. She must be very young or very stupid to talk like this. He listened with rising irritation.

“… the problem with World Zero—that’s your real world—is that you still think in dualities: human and nature, personal and public, economy and ecology. We are getting past all your blindnesses. We are integrating the rest of Nature into our lives, rewilding ourselves as well as the world. We don’t do things by halves. We’re whole Earth.”

“This is all fine,” he said, struggling to keep his temper. “But you need the proper infrastructure to scale up solutions. Otherwise it is just pretty talk. Where are the funders and managers? Policy people? Who’s in charge? Take me to him.”

The young woman sighed. “You’ve already met the head of the local symbiome,” she said. “The lady who brought you here. If you want municipal officials—”

“I’ve had enough!” he shouted. “Grandmother!”

The scene before him shifted, blurred, and a darkness overtook him.

World Zero Interlude

Tinman: That was a mistake.

Chingari: I’m sorry. People like him—they push all my buttons. I’m best on the sidelines. A watcher rather than a participant. Story of my life.

Tinman: Chingari, really! Stop beating yourself up about it.

Chingari: Like I said. Story of my life.

Manny in World Two: Mangroves

“Grandmother!” shouted Manny, and woke up.

A stretch of muddy beach, a wide curve against the sea. No storm this time. The sea lay flat as a pond, glittering in the late-afternoon sunlight. The beach was full of people. A line of women in colorful cotton saris came down from a rise—an embankment, he realized—carrying clay pots on their heads, above which tiny leaves waved like antennae. A curious mixture of people—villagers and city types, old and young, men and women—were bent over the stretch of mud, planting seedlings. Schoolgirls in red and blue uniforms of cheap cloth handed out seedlings from the pots, fragile little things with mud balls encasing each root. The air smelled of the sea and of mud, and a tantalizing aroma wafted to his nostrils: something roasting, sweet potatoes in spiced oil, somewhere over the embankment. The atmosphere was festive, but completely disorganized, as far as he could see. He looked around to find out who was in charge, and saw a man and a woman a little way ahead, close to the waterline. The woman was a local, her blue sari hiked up over dark brown legs as she stood talking and gesticulating. The man was a pale foreigner with a thick shock of graying hair over a lean, aristocratic face, dressed in the kind of elegant adventure wear that speaks, to the initiated, of the most exclusive bespoke clothing designers. But his pants were muddy, and he held his jacket in his arms with six or seven seedlings nestled in it.

There was something familiar about the man.

Manny strode over with some difficulty, his legs sinking knee-deep into the mud with each step.

“You in charge of this operation?” he said, and the man turned to look. Walter Courant! CEO of a major fossil-fuel company. In the real world, Manny knew him quite well.

“Hey, Walt!” The relief of meeting someone like himself was overwhelming.

The man’s face remained blank, polite, bewildered.

“Don’t you know me, Walt? I’m Manny, CEO of UltraCorp!”

“I’m sorry, you have the advantage of me,” said the man urbanely. They shook hands. Manny’s thoughts were in a whirl. Perhaps he, Manny, didn’t exist in World Two?

He recovered his poise. He waved his hand at the scene around them.

“This must be one of your net-zero carbon offsetting projects.”

Now it all made sense. AllEnergy’s Corporate Social Responsibility people must have won the bid to run this project. This was a cameo appearance by Courant to show support for natural solutions to the climate crisis. It allowed the great engine of modern industrial civilization to keep going, putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while mangrove plantations and other such ventures pulled it out.

“Well, it’s not what it looks like,” Courant said. He seemed embarrassed. “Look, you should talk to Debyani here—she’s coordinating this. I’m just here to earn karma points. My sixth year.”

“I don’t understand,” said Manny. He had completely ignored the village woman standing next to Courant, but now he was conscious of her amused glance. “Karma points? You are Courant, of AllEnergy, yes?”

The woman broke in, speaking in Hindi. “Would you like to help us plant some mangroves?”

And she thrust three of the seedlings at him. He was unprepared for this, and found himself holding three wet, sticky mudballs, while the woman called out to a schoolgirl in pigtails and indicated that she should direct Manny. Walter Courant had already turned away. Manny followed the child over the muddy terrain, to a place where the line of seedlings ended. The schoolgirl instructed him in a clear, imperious tone. If he hadn’t been so bewildered, he would’ve lost his temper.

He placed each seedling in its small hole and patted the ground around it, per her instructions.

“Look, kid,” he said, rubbing his forehead and plastering it with mud before he realized what he was doing, “fuck it! Look, why is Walter Courant here? Who’s in charge from AllEnergy? And what the fuck is a karma point?”

The child—she could have been no more than twelve—gave him a look that could’ve cut steel.

“You are rude and stupid,” she said. “AllEnergy no longer exists. Their leaders were convicted of ecocide. That’s why that man is here.”

“What about UltraCorp Enterprises?”

She shrugged. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“What kind of fucking world is this!” Manny said, appalled. The child was walking off, her shoulders stiff with outrage.

“Wait, kid!” Manny shouted, stumbling in her wake. He tried to moderate his tone. “What are you doing here, for that matter? Why aren’t you in school? Is this a weekend or something?”

She turned and gave him a scornful look. “You don’t know anything! Of course it is not a weekend! It’s a scheduled Great Pause!”

He walked back to where Walter Courant was putting the last of the seedlings into the mud. The woman, Debyani, had gone. He could see her in the distance, calling out to people, laughing with one person or another.

“Look,” he said to Courant. “I’m new in this world. Is it true what the kid said? AllEnergy is gone? My own company…. Why are you here? What’s a Great Pause?”

The man sighed. “I’m working out my sentence. I chose the Truth and Recon option. Hence karma points—a rather colorful colloquial term.”

The man who looked like Walter Courant wiped sweat off his brow with his forearm, leaving a smear of grey mud on his forehead. His eyes were as grey as the sea, but when he looked at Manny, he seemed to be looking through him at something far away.

“My company was among those convicted of ecocide. We were forced to shut down, our assets diverted to support planned Great Pauses. They got the idea from the first pandemic, you know, when all activities had to be shut down perforce. They have them three months out of the year. People do community and ecosystem restoration work. Major infrastructure changes, that sort of thing. This project, for example, it’s focusing on women’s empowerment, community green livelihoods, protecting agriculture from salt-water inundation, plus carbon sequestration, biodiversity restoration, all that. The old socioeconomic structure is falling apart in most places. Net zero is passe. Real zero is the thing. It’s part of what they’re calling the Great Turning.”

He nodded toward Debyani, who was up at the top of the embankment with a knot of women.

“She was one of the original signatories to the Manaus Whole Earth accord. Quite remarkable. You should read about it. A network of alliances. Alliance of Indigenous and local communities, scientists, engineers. They argued and fought over details for years, but finally came to a consensus. Self-governance of bioregions, formation of symbiomes. They negotiate with state governments, nation-states, and international bodies. This one has shut down four coal plants in the area and forced a shift to tidal energy along the coast. The network has brought down three of the biggest multinationals.”

He laughed self-deprecatingly. “Once, I used to have so many houses I lost count. Now I only have one apartment. It’s a very different world than what we used to know.”

“How do you stand all this?” Manny said, horrified. The life he lived, the work he did, the games of dominance and strategy, the thrill of the informed gamble, the financial risks, the joystick of destiny beneath his guiding hand, oh, and the utter sweetness of being and having the most and the best—all these, down to the grounding little details of his life: the gleaming teak of the boardrooms, the verdure of his favorite golf course, the luxury interior of his private jet, the toy-world vista from his office tower, even the gold-rimmed porcelain of the cup from which he drank his morning coffee—all these experiences and objects and vantage points formed his identity, the totality of his being. So must it have been for Walter Courant. Look at him now!

The man smiled. “I find, after six years, that—I rather like this world. Many of my colleagues reacted like you, but…well, you wouldn’t understand.”

He turned and walked away.

Manny looked around him. What kind of world was this, where the very engines of civilization had been shut down? In anything but a simulation there would have been chaos, anarchy. A low-carbon world, perhaps—but at what cost? He shuddered. He had been catapulted into a totally unrealistic scenario, some drug-addled radical’s wet dream. But maybe it was only confirming what that asshole Shaurya had been warning him about. That there was some kind of worldwide conspiracy afoot to bring down the megacorporations.

The monitor on Manny’s wrist began to beep.

Thank goodness. A few more minutes and he would be out of this. He climbed up to the embankment. The sun was going down over the orange sea behind him. People were gathering in small groups, and some old woman was singing over a fire in a cracked, tuneless voice. There was the smell of roasting yams and spices again, which distracted him briefly; he had always loved street food. A vociferous argument was taking place around the open door of a small truck that had evidently been used to carry saplings. Shouts and raised fists, and a small crowd gathering, two people being pulled apart, and the truck driver climbed in, revved up the engine in a burst of diesel fumes, and drove away.

“Can’t quite do without fossil fuels, can you?” Manny said, derisively, to a young man standing near him. “Violence and hatred in paradise, too, who would have thought.”

The man shrugged. “‘Jannat nahin kahin, ai yaaron, Jannat to disha hai,’1 as the poet says. Violence and hatred? Yes, we have that, but they are there despite everything, not because of it.”

Before Manas could ask him what the hell that meant, the fellow had turned away and was waving at someone. The newcomer was walking up to them along the embankment, under the trees on the landward side. He came closer and closer, and it seemed to Manny as though his life was hurtling back into the past at the speed of light. A lean, light-footed man, still young, clad in jeans and a mud-spattered kurta. A handsome, serious face.

The man standing next to Manny said to the newcomer: “You made it!”

A slow shock passed through Manny. A scene from his childhood came back to him: bending over the face in the bed, the old clock ticking on the wall, the face becoming smaller and smaller until it was enclosed by a photo frame that hung crookedly over his mother’s sewing machine…

That face, trapped in time, in childhood. Fast-forward to grown up.

Surely it couldn’t be—

Not dead then? Alive, after all these years?

It’s only a simulation, said the rational part of his brain, but he ignored it.

“Sameer?” he whispered. He reached his arm out blindly, but the world was already fading. The last thing he saw was the new arrival’s face, familiar and strange, the mouth open in surprise, perhaps, or horror, he couldn’t tell—and the last thing he sensed was the lapping of seawater at his ankles, the insignificant weight of the seedling in the palm of his right hand, its tiny roots protected by a ball of mud, wet and gritty in his grasp. A rootball. A world.

“Grandmother!” he screamed. “Not yet!”

But the darkness was already descending. For a moment he could see, faintly, the long, grey hallway and his grandmother, knitting away. He called to her again, wanting to ask her about Sameer, wanting to know what it all meant, but she shook her head.

“Manas, Manas. Haven’t you figured out the orienting metaphor for World Two?”

When he woke up, he was in the recovery room, with a solicitous medical technician monitoring his vitals. Outside his window were the dusty skies of World Zero. There was a faint smell of soap, and, incongruously, he could feel grit between his toes as though the sand and wet mud had been real. For a moment that puzzled him, but a wave of despair overwhelmed all other feelings. World Two seemed to be breathing and alive right next to him, separated by a portal hidden from his senses. He thought of it with hatred and an unfamiliar longing. How he disliked things to be mixed up, muddy, outside his control. He wanted clarity within himself, in his feelings and thoughts, but two parts of him seemed to be at war with each other. He was restless with misery and confusion. He sat up and let his head drop forward into his hands.

But now he couldn’t think straight, couldn’t think about work, or even about the Project and whether it should be funded for another cycle. Let the world burn, said a part of him he thought he had buried, I need to find Sameer, find out what he’s doing in World Two. He’s dead and gone all these years. Is he entirely imaginary, a simulation? Why did they make him come alive? What are they trying to do to me?

As a corollary to this newly awakened longing, there came to mind another question.

If Sameer exists in the World Two simulation, so must I. Without Ultracorp, because Walter Courant didn’t seem to know it.

What would Manny be without Ultracorp?

He didn’t want to find out.

World Zero Interlude

Chingari: That was really careless! The mudhow could they forget to clean between the toes?

Tinman: I don’t think he suspects. We told him that the IntMRI experience can be enhanced by tactile interventions

Chingari: Tactile interventions! What a term!

Tinman: Well, I think he swallowed it. For him it’s more plausible than the truth. He can’t imagine we’d have the gall to drug him and take him to a real place. The effects of the drug give real-life images a sort of surreal aura. That’s how we got away with the Walter Courant look-alike.

Chingari: Yes, I know. But I am worried about his reaction near the end. The guy who came up the embankment? Who is he, really? Manny seemed to know him, or thought he did. Sameer. Is there a Sameer in his history? Someone who died as a child?

Tinman: His kid brother.

Chingari Thinks Aloud

They call me Chingari, because when I walked into the Project out-of-control-room, as it is affectionately known, the light of the setting sun hit my face, and apparently made it glow like an ember. I’ve been many things in my thirty-plus years—a renegade engineer, a programmer, a poet, and a listener and teller of stories. And also, a woman tired of holding her stories inside her, tired of seeing the same old destructive stories dominate and destroy the world. Stories are what human societies live by; they are the machine language, if you will, that underlie cultures. Stories can lie, distract, and manipulate, but the real stories, the honest ones, they are a map of the world through which you can navigate through the trials and tribulations of life. No story by itself can do this—you need a network of stories, stories that talk to each other, like patterns on a weave. This is why I collect stories from all the Worlds, to see if I can find the real ones, the true ones, and weave them with all the other people engaged in this task—weave them into something that can make a different world.

How I came to be a storyweaver for this Project…I was an engineer and programmer on the research team that made the breakthrough with modeling human-environmental-climatic systems. But, while the models produced all kinds of interesting what-if scenarios, I felt increasingly distanced from this way of working. Yes, we know that these are massively complex systems, in which a tug here or a pull there can shiver through the entire network and change its state as a whole. Yes, each node is a point of power and influence, consisting of systems of actors that can make different choices and shift the dynamic wholesale. But what always bothered me about this way of working was that I, the experimenter, was always on the outside of the black box (if you will) within which these virtual experiments were run. How can you study a complex dynamic system of which you are a part—human-social, ecological, climatic—while pretending you are standing outside of it? That distance bothered me. It felt dishonest. Elitist.

I was dishonest too. I walked away, but not to a life consistent with my stated values. After a stint with biomimicry, where I learned to appreciate natural engineering—the strength of a spider thread, the design of a prairie dog burrow—I went back to conventional engineering, despite my reservations. One has to eat, I told myself.

I was saved by mud.

That incredible substance, pliable when wet, strong when reinforced with straw and clay and dried in the sun. A product of life itself, passed through the bodies of earthworms, the accumulated dust of rocks weathered over millennia, rich with life-giving minerals, and bacteria—rich with life itself. I learned early on that conventional engineering could solve only well-defined problems. In the real world, so-called solutions often beget new problems, which has always bothered me. But the real epiphany came to me at the same time that my old life ended and the new one began. I was working on one of several new dams in the Himalayas when disaster intervened, an earthquake. It destroyed the dam, and my old life and the last of my reservations.

When it became clear to me that the local villagers and the renegade seismologist protesting the dam had been right after all, I walked away again. I went wandering over the heaving, denuded landscape of the lower foothills, the sun-baked, desertified plains, and found myself, one day, in a village in Jharkhand. There was a woman, a peasant woman in a red and white cotton sari, grey streaks in her hair, watching me from the door of a mud hut. “Hut” is a poor word that suggests something small and shoddy, but while the dwelling was small, it was beautiful, with clean lines that suggested attention to durability and form. The outside was decorated with a mural in white, depicting cows, birds, and a man playing a flute, and the darkness within seemed like an invitation on that searing hot day. The woman’s smile, and her greeting, put me at ease, and I found myself asking about the hut and how it was made, and who had made it. Invited into the cool, dark interior, I found myself surprised by the meticulous attention to detail; here was a dwelling built from local materials with attention to the direction of the sun, guarding against the possibility of the stream (I could hear its music) overflowing its banks in a flood. In the thatched roof were three birds’ nests.

Mud is a remarkable construct, not unlike a tapestry in the way it weaves together materials and histories. It is the ultimate substrate, containing, in its formlessness, infinite potential: a pot, a child’s toy, a dwelling, a thousand-years-old citadel on a hill. Its states, its moods, are as varied as those of a person—a lump of it, held between my fingers, speaks of geographies and histories beyond the human. It is not simple, like steel. It is complex, like the world.

It’s when I got involved with mud that I was invited into this Project. That’s too long a story to tell here, but here I am, an engineer of mud, a programmer of dreams, arguing with my friends, Tinman especially, about philosophical complexities and ethical implications, even as we wander with Manny through terrains both familiar and unexpected.

There are plenty of ethical issues with the current Project. Even using a technology like IntMRI, where you can take a person’s consciousness into a preexisting scenario that you have devised, is potentially dangerous, not to mention manipulative.

But Tinman—as he likes to be known—argues that people like Manny have been manipulating society and the planet for millennia, creating and maintaining the socioeconomic system that is devouring the Earth, and that we have to stop them. Plus, it isn’t as though we have full control over what happens—consider the grandmother! Nobody expected her!

The reason why I’m sticking with the Project despite my reservations is this: first, we don’t depend entirely on simulations and computer modeling—we integrate real-world experiences and situations. Each informs the other. Second, we are a collective, not a hierarchy. We watch out for power-posturing and shut that down among ourselves. Third, we, the experimenters, are always part of the network of complexity that is our model of the world. We don’t expect to change the world without making ourselves susceptible to change. That’s why adjust kar lenge has become a sort of slogan. A constant, bedrock humility must accompany our boldest visions for transformation. Always, always, be willing to admit you have failed, have made a mistake, done wrong, because real change is only possible when you have done so. I’ve seen clips of fossil-fuel executives and financial-investment gurus talk about green energy and green finance as though they are doing the world a massive favor, without a single moment of acknowledgment that they have done incalculable harm. Incalculable harm! And they have the gall to come striding in to save us. How can anyone believe in their intent?

Why we picked Manny had to do with what the simulations told us about the growing power of Ultracorp, but also because of the anti-coal-mine agitations in three continents. In the most likely future, Ultracorp will use geoengineering as an excuse to bring back coal and oil. Not just that—they will likely start a bidding war to run various governments, former democracies, and they will win. The corporate takeover of governments is a current reality, but imagine outsourcing the entire government machinery to corporations! Our World One simulations are terrifying. Right now, Ultracorp, despite the grandiose name, is a relatively small player. But the simulations indicate that it will eat the little fish and become a monster.

There are other pressures that are being exerted on Ultracorp, of course, pressures from movements, citizen and youth groups, but our specific job is to see if we can shift things internally. Could a combination of IntMRI and real-world immersion help Manny see things differently? An epistemic shift of some kind, after which he can no longer go back to being the same person? We have no delusions that we can turn a corporate shark into an empathetic being, or that changing one person is going to change the system. But our research has shown that he is essential to Ultracorp’s success at this stage. In a complex dynamic system within which you are immersed, it is exceedingly difficult to identify parameters of nonlinear, nonlocal change—small changes which can bring about large, systemic shifts. Apparently, Manny is one such parameter for a short time frame. So if he changes enough that Ultracorp—or anything like it—is unlikely to dominate the planet in the future, then that might be a gift to the world.

How we got him on board is too long a story to tell here—enough to say that we had to hype the Project as the ultimate human-environment modeling system, which it is—and put it to Manny that only the most enlightened CEOs of emerging megacorporations would be invited to have the immersive possible-worlds experience of a lifetime. If they funded us, of course. The super-rich (of which Manny is only a small-fish newbie), having ruined the Earth, are now writing books about how to solve the climate crisis. They want to feel like heroes: the elite who will save the Earth. Why not make use of that phenomenal obliviousness to their own role in the hell they’ve made? Their insistence that they are best qualified to shape the future? Lasso that arrogance, that sense of entitlement?

Of course, the Project might bring on other problems in its wake, for which we are preparing—adjust kar lenge. We must be ready to dance with the changes, admit to and learn from being wrong. A responsive flexibility is essential—and humility, always.

Manny in World One: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, a Fable

A beach in World One, somewhere in Northern Europe. It is a bleak, grey day, and the sea is cold as steel. Gathered on the beach is a motley crowd of people in inadequate clothing, hunkered together for warmth. There’s a terribly pungent smell arising from the tires they are burning, but nobody seems to care. The storyteller is a young woman whose face glows brown-gold in the bleak light. She’s vaguely familiar, but Manny is not interested in her as much as in the fellow whom he first saw in the embankment in World Two. The man who looks so much like a grown-up Sameer is sitting in the middle of the crowd.

The storyteller begins.

There was once a woman called Lucy, who loved diamonds and beautiful gowns, and slippers made from the skins of endangered animals. She was an innocent—born to wealth and privilege, ignorant of the alleged suffering of the rest of the world. She did not know animals, except for her beautiful Persian cat, and she did not know danger, except for the possibility of hurting herself through a fall or collision. Among her own people in the tall palace where she lived, she was a kind, laughing creature, spreading joy wherever she went. Her attendants doted on her, and her parents gave her whatever she wanted. She loved flowers, and jewelry, especially diamonds. So she had her own walled garden, filled with exotic blooms and grass as smooth as a silk carpet. And she had diamond necklaces and earrings and bracelets, and diamonds beaded her gowns. She thought: this is happiness, but that was before she grew up and fell in love, and married a handsome prince of a man. He took her away from the palace where she’d grown up, because he wanted her to know the world.

“There is much suffering in the world,” he said, “but we are fixing it.”

She nodded without comprehension, so her husband, shaking his head at her ignorance, had a special luxury plane built for the two of them. It ran on solar energy, and was as delicate as a dragonfly. Through their journeys in this magical airplane, Lucy learned about the beauty of the world, and also its ugliness. Gliding over the landscape, she saw great factories, surrounded by massive, lumbering tankers. “What are those?” she asked, and her loving husband explained about carbon dioxide, and how it was a byproduct of manufacturing all the beautiful and necessary things she owned, but was harmful for the Earth.

“So we capture the carbon, and we store it under the sea,” he explained. “We are trying to upscale this technology.”

He showed her high mountains, deserts, forests, and grasslands. They flew over great cities of the Northlands, and then they flew south. They saw cities here too, but the outskirts were filled with shanty towns, and the factories here did not have carbon-capture technology.

“We’ll get there some day,” her husband said. “In the meantime, we grow trees to trap the carbon. And artificial trees too.”

They flew over a forest of artificial trees. It went on and on, the largest forest she had ever seen.

“But where are the animals?” she asked. “I thought there would be animals in the forest.”

“The local tourism industry is introducing artificial animals,” he said, smiling.

“But I want to see a real forest.”

So they flew over an ocean, which Lucy found utterly entrancing. She loved how the light of the sun glittered on the water like diamonds, and said so.

“Those diamonds don’t last,” he said, kissing her gently. “Do you know, these diamonds you’re wearing are a form of carbon?”

“Really?” she said in wonder.

“Yes. We can actually convert carbon dioxide in the air into solid diamonds. The new pendant I gave you is made that way.”

They flew over a great forest that was thick with trees. She saw the shadows of wild animals in the green depths, and a flock of birds rising from a lake, wheeling in the air, and she clapped her hands with joy.

“Oh, but what’s that?”

Below them, part of the forest was being cleared by enormous machines. The cleared ground was littered with the carcasses of trees, animals, and people.

Her husband turned their plane away from the sight.

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “We have to clear some forests for mining. That’s where we’re mining for cobalt. We need it for batteries for the green energy revolution. It’s all part of reducing carbon emissions.”

But Lucy was distressed, and her husband spent long hours comforting and distracting her.

“I’ll show you something, a surprise,” he said, finally. And he directed the plane toward a part of the ocean far from land.

He brought the plane close to the water’s surface, where it closed its wings and dived beneath the sea. He laughed at her surprise.

“Yes, this plane can fly under water! Below a certain depth we don’t get enough sun for solar power, so we use batteries. That’s why we need the minerals that have to be mined from the Earth! You see, we might have to create a little ugliness here and there, but the end result is good.”

The ocean bed was as bumpy and complicated as the land. Lucy watched, fascinated, and laughed with delight to see schools of fish, and sea anemones, and once, a small shark pass by the viewing windows. As the plane continued its journey, she saw on the ocean floor a vast complex of what looked like flat concrete structures.

“This is where we bury the carbon emissions from our factories,” he said. “The ocean pressure is so great that the carbon stays put.”

She marveled at the boldness and beauty of the idea. Her husband was such a loving, tender teacher! She closed her eyes for a moment in gratitude, and said to herself: this is happiness.

They flew through the water over the sea floor. Below them the sunlight faded into an amorphous darkness. After a while, her husband said: “Look! The ocean bed right below us is in a subduction zone. That means it’s a place where two pieces of the Earth’s crust slide over each other. This actually buries a lot of carbon that’s trapped in ocean sediments.”

As they descended, she saw a dark, irregular furrow in the murky depths, lit by the plane’s searchlight. The water was turbid, flecked and dotted, and a fish or two was revealed in the light, large creatures with bulging eyes. The ocean floor was covered with debris—shells, fish bones, unidentifiable lumps.

“What happens to the carbon?”

“It is pushed into the Earth’s mantle, where it is subject to extreme heat and pressure,” he said, smiling. “Guess what? It turns into diamonds!”

“Truly?” she exclaimed, fingering her new pendant. “You mean, those old shells and things on the ocean floor turn into this? Can we mine for them?”

He laughed and gently pinched her ear lobe.

“No, my foolish one, that’s deeper than we can go!”

“Oh! You know so many amazing things!” she said. It was strange to think, though, that there was something her husband could not do. She had thought that there was no limit to his power, but he said himself he could not dig into the Earth’s mantle. She tried to imagine the detritus on the ocean bed caught in the sliding of the great continental plates, squeezed underneath them, pushed into the mantle, turned into great veins of diamond.

Lucy only vaguely remembered her lessons. Nobody had ever taught her that her lessons in the palace library had anything to do with the real world, so when she lost interest, her teachers were sent away. She could write poetry and play the piano and sing, and a woman like her would have no need of arithmetic. She had never questioned any of this, but now a sense of unease rose in her, a sense that she had missed something important.

“We’re trying to find a way to bring excess carbon to subduction zones, to bury it permanently,” her husband was saying, but Lucy was trying to contend with this unfamiliar feeling, the discomfort that rose up inside her. For once, she did not tell her husband about it.

Later, when her husband got too busy to take her on jaunts around the world, Lucy learned to pilot the solar plane herself. It had an artificial intelligence called Sandy, that was clever and kind. With Sandy she roved the world, and learned much. She was once witness to an enormous explosion in the sea, a seismic tremor that breached one of the carbon-storage devices, but her husband, when she told him, assured her that it was being taken care of. She saw forests burn and the carcasses of whales floating on islands of plastic debris in the ocean. She saw palaces come up in the cities over the ruins of shanty towns, and masses of people moving away from scorching, desertified landscapes toward shelter, where there was none.

“There is no happiness in the world,” she said to herself.

She took off her diamonds and wore only a plain white gown. Her husband was too distracted by the work of saving the world to notice her very much. She grew sadder every day.

One day, the solar plane disappeared. In the frantic attempt to find it, her husband remembered the young girl he had married, the woman he had loved and forgotten, and he was overcome by remorse. He spared no effort to find her. After weeks of searching, they discovered the wreckage of the plane in the subduction zone where he had taken her on that journey long ago. She had maneuvered the plane into the rift, the crack in the seabed. There was nothing he could do. He thought of having the plane lifted out, her body recovered and buried on a flower-filled hillside, but she had loved the sea so much. He would make a memorial to her in the sky instead; the engineered sky, already aglitter with monitoring devices, would be altered to write her name across the firmament in diamonds. One of his engineers would do it. He had so much work to do, saving the world. As he swept up from the water, he thought of the plane, and her body, being gradually taken into the Earth’s mantle, as though gathered to a loving mother’s breast, the carbon of her flesh and bones crushed into dazzling brilliance, a starry radiance of diamonds in the darkness beneath the seabed, forever safe from the machinations of man.

The storyteller stopped speaking, but the waves continued to beat their watery rhythm against the beach. The listeners were silent. Then, slowly, they got up. Some began to speak in little groups, in low voices. Others drifted away.

A woman came up to the man who looked like Sameer. Her windswept hair was the color of sand under cloudy skies, her body as thin as his. The man looked up, surprise in his face giving way to a disbelieving joy. The two held each other and wept. As they walked up the beach, the wind took the words from their mouths and swept them away. They leaned on each other and walked on.

Manny’s legs felt like lead. Was the Sameer look-alike his brother, all grown up, or a wicked delusion? The question seemed less important than what he had witnessed. The encounter between the man and the woman, their blurred silhouettes in the fading light. He was conscious of a loss he couldn’t articulate.

“So there is love in World One,” said an old man who had been sitting next to him. Manny was unable to speak. A young woman, picking up her backpack from the sand, nodded somberly.

“Despite everything, not because of it,” she said.

Chingari Wonders

I doubt he really heard my story. Some people are tone-deaf to fables, and he’s probably one of them. But also, I think half his attention was on that man. We’d better find out who he is, and what he’s doing in the simulation. Another anomaly constructed by Manny, like the grandmother? A construct who is the grown-up version of his dead brother, Sameer?

Tinman pointed out that this man was in the real-world mangrove planting, which means he exists in World Zero. Perhaps a chance resemblance has reified Sameer in Manny’s imagination.

Let’s call the simulated Sameer look-alike X.

We know the grandmother is a construct in Manny’s mind, his response to the simulated world. In real life she’s dead. But this X is based on someone who is alive in our world. Who is he? What was he doing on the embankment? Just a participant in the mangrove-planting project?

Even if the X in World One is a simulation, he’s a simulation with a story of his own—that woman who came up to him. They wandered off together. Is Manny dreaming up all this? We have a number of writers creating storylines to populate each of the IntMRI scenarios, for verisimilitude. Perhaps one of those made-up stories has crossed paths with Manny’s imagined Sameer.

There’s so much we don’t know about the consequences of what we do. In a sufficiently complex system, any move you make can have the opposite of the intended effect. Which is why we must be sensitive to the response of the network. That’s only possible when you acknowledge that you are part of it. It is like dancing with people who respond to you as you respond to them, while neither of you know the steps. Relationships become central. You must relinquish the temptation of absolute control.

So my challenge is this: for us to have any chance of shifting Manny’s perspective, I must really try to understand this man. Which demands a certain degree of empathy.

I’m not sure I’m up for this task.

Trying to work with Manny involves entangling my story with his. It would be nice if I could keep my own story out of this—after all, there is a risk of opening old wounds. But his quest for Sameer is starting to resonate inside myself—we’re all looking for something we’ve lost, haven’t we? Crazy that he and I have something in common, although we couldn’t be more different; our worlds couldn’t be less alike.

At least he can bear to name what he’s lost.

World Zero Interlude

From Tinman’s Crawling the Twenty-First Century Interweb: A World Zero Compendium

All quotes from

When the forests were there, the elephants stayed inside and had enough food. Now, they don’t have enough to eat. I worry, how will they survive? Now even our gods are hungry.

- Konka, forest dweller, N. Bengal, India

The timing of the rainfall has changed…the soil is drying up. We cannot harvest our crops. We don’t have enough to eat. For now, we are eating one time in a day…. How can I find peace for myself? If everyone is happy, only then I’ll be happy.

- Konka, forest dweller, N. Bengal, India

Birds, animals are dying…that’s why we are digging this pond. We decided to do this collectively.

- Parvati Devi, village women’s group, Jharkhand, India

Manny in World Two: The Forest

He followed his guide into the forest. They were at the back of a crowd of people, most of them from the village they had just left behind. The state officials and the company man were near the front, impatient to be done with their day. The forest was a dizzying kaleidoscope in dappled shades of green; there was undergrowth and tall trees, thick trunks and thin ones, a burst of red blossoms here, clustered purple fruits there, calls of wild birds, rustlings, a snake crossing the path ahead—danger! The ground rose up and pitched down, studded with large boulders, the path narrow, winding, apparently aimless, directionless. A narrow stream, busily pursuing its own agenda, rapt in its own music, a thin bamboo bridge and he nearly slipped—unpleasant surprises, nobody looking out for him—the Unknown peering at him from behind this bush, under that rock, over that branch; the forest murmuring, speaking a thousand unfamiliar tongues, pressing upon his consciousness unbearably—nothing familiar, no order, no pattern, no sense of control. He was out of place here. He wanted to cut it all down and turn it into a golf course. But for the distraction of his quest for Sameer, he wouldn’t be here. He was half-listening to the conversations ahead, wanting this excursion to be over, while at the same time his gaze was wandering over the crowd, in case Sameer was here, or would appear at some point. Sameer, his little brother, alive in the world! He shook himself out of a fantasy where he and Sameer were reunited, and Sameer became his second-in-command at UltraCorp.

“Tell me again,” he asked his guide, making an effort to show interest, “why are we here? I don’t understand why we couldn’t discuss the road-building project in the village instead of trekking through the forest.”

“You heard the argument?” his guide said. Manny had noted the raised voices at the village mahagram sabha meeting, but he had been wandering about at the back of the crowd, looking for Sameer. He nodded.

“The symbiomes have a tradition called a Listening,” said the guide. “Those people ahead, the state officials and the company man, they are being taken to the site where the road will cut through the forest. They claim that part of the forest is not an elephant habitat. But we know very well that elephants pass through the region.”

The guide, an elderly scientist who had been working with tribals in this region for a decade, explained that symbiomes were collectives of humans and nonhumans in a specific local environment, in which each entity was a sharer. The flattened hierarchy of a symbiome was deliberate. The sharers of a symbiome were not just humans, but also elephants, trees, mini-ecosystems. And since their speech was unintelligible to homo officialis, among others, there was a need for humans who served as ambassadors and advocates for them—an extremely difficult job that required time, dedication, courage, and immense humility. The largest symbiomes on the planet were Amazonia and the Sahara. But a symbiome was necessarily a composite entity—smaller ones were contained within larger ones. Symbiomes were as different from one another as the landscapes they encompassed, but there were important commonalities. Most crucial was connectivity within and across scales of space and time. The connections. Interdependence rather than independence. The full development of the individual person through symbiotic relationship with the whole. The point of a symbiome was not profit but well-being.

Manny found himself reluctantly interested, but also annoyed. What formula could make such a messy system tick? All his guide would say is that no such formula existed, that the system wasn’t a clock.

Ahead, the state officials and company man had fallen behind, and he could see the yellow, broad-brimmed hat of the company man bobbing over the heads of the others. The sarpanch of the village was speaking.

“Sir, wherever forests are cut down, elephants have no food, they come into the villages, ruin our crops, attack us. Their ancestors and ours lived in peace before the trees were cut. The villages near the coal mine are having a difficult time. Twelve deaths last year, and crops ravaged. If this road is built, the same thing will happen here—”

“I have told you,” the state official spoke with barely suppressed patience, shaking his rolled up map at the sarpanch. “Our scientists have investigated fully. Full environmental impact assessment. No elephants in this area.”

In the crowd behind the state official was a girl in her teens. Her name was Nilu, and today was her first performance as Speaker.

Nilu was nervous. The other Speakers were quite a bit older—the Speaker for the Trees was nearly fifty. The village elder she was walking with, a wiry woman called Radhika, was reminding her that she had no reason to be nervous. Nilu was brought up in a village near the northern end of this great forest, where there was now a coal mine. She had played in this forest from childhood, helped regenerate the southern tract with the other villagers; she had seen the springs rise up again after years of helping build mud and stone check dams; now the trees moved their branches in the air above her, whispering reassurance. She let the tension in her body run out in a long sigh; she felt a familiar ease return as she walked in the dappled light, holding under one arm a long gourd that resembled an elephant’s trunk, which was both her scepter and instrument. She moved as easily as a deer, munching wild berries, turning her head this way and that to hear better the endless conversation of the forest, the speech of humankind mingling with the sounds of birds and the repetitive barking call of a muntjac. The elephant herd was usually away toward the east at this time and season, so the place where they were going should be safe. Aseem-sir, the scientist, had taught her about elephants communicating through low-pitched rumbles beyond the limits of human hearing, and she was familiar with the new research on elephant-human communication, but Nilu’s greatest teachers were the elders of the local herd. Sometimes, when Nilu pressed her body against the ground, she could feel the vibrations of the elephant calls, like the syllables of another language with which she was becoming increasingly familiar. And the long gourd she was carrying—dried and cured by Radhika-ji herself—also trembled with the sounds when the elephants were near.

At last they arrived at the sun-bedazzled clearing, where the small lake reflected the afternoon light, its muddy banks punctuated by footprints both animal and human. Dragonflies rose lazily off the lotuses that grew on the far end. A tall semul tree in full bloom rose from the near bank, and the ground below it was carpeted with its extravagant red flowers. A flock of parakeets flew up from the top of the tree in a green cloud, and settled again, squawking. The state officials looked around, perhaps seeing only the clean, geometrical ribbon of asphalt that they had planned to lay across here. The company man, mysterious in his dark glasses and sun hat, scratched at a mosquito bite on his neck.

The state official shook his rolled-up map like a baton. “Not an elephant habitat,” he declared with a tone of finality. “We have full approval from the Ministry of Environment. No elephants in this area.”

This time, the villagers didn’t argue. Instead, Radhika gestured, and the Speaker for the Trees began.

He started with an ode to the magnificent semul tree, the saal and the dhaak, and ended by connecting the existence of this forest to the hydrological cycle and climate change. He was followed by the Speaker for the Birds and Insects of the Air, and the Speaker for the Leopard and Wild Boar.

To Manny, the entire scene was tinged with unreality. It was not only the slight purple aura of the simulation that (as he’d been told) outlined every figure, every tree—he was completely out of his element here. The villagers representing the fourteen villages of the symbiome were an amorphous mass of dark brown faces against the paler trunks of the trees, the variegated green of the foliage. The state officials and the company man were the only fellow denizens of his world, apart from a few youths who looked like college students, and perhaps a reporter or two. His gaze passed over the villagers to the townspeople, looking for Sameer. Sameer had become an obsession. There were a few people hanging back behind the trees…could he be one of them?

Now it was Nilu’s turn.

She stood on the rise at the edge of the pond, which made a natural platform. She looked at the crowd before her, the people of the fourteen villages. She didn’t see the outsiders at first. Looking at the villagers, she saw resentment in some eyes, veiled scorn in others, an averted gaze or two—the ancient lines of division, the fractures that had barely been smoothed over for this particular occasion, were as clear to her as night and day. What a difficult journey it had been for a young Dalit girl to become Speaker for the Elephants! She took a deep breath and saw looks of encouragement, three children smiling and waving, Radhika-ji looking at her, the gaze steady, as though she was speaking with her eyes what she had been telling Nilu for the last three years of her training.

Didn’t this forest feed you when you were starving? Didn’t these trees shelter you when you needed to escape from the tyranny of others? Haven’t you helped bring it back to life? Didn’t Jhumroo herself choose you for this task? Who has greater right than you?

Just as Nilu cleared her throat to begin speaking, the company man took off his wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, blinked in the light, and wiped his face with a white cotton handkerchief. She saw the face of the man clearly for the first time. Her voice died in her throat.

He was a plump, perspiring man, out of place in his white shirt and grey trousers, his black brows meeting at the center of his forehead, hairy tufts in his ears, clean-shaven but for a bristling black handlebar moustache. In his great, round face, his eyes were small, beady, and opaque. She saw him again through the eyes of the child she was once, the man directing the marauders who drove the bulldozers into her village. She remembered the little dwellings falling to giant metal jaws, the screams, the fighting, the smell of kerosene, the thatch roofs burning. The desperate scramble for the shelter of the forest—this forest’s northern extremity, where there was now a coal mine, which this road project was meant to service. She remembered falling down, somebody scooping her up, but most of all she remembered this man, pointing at the escaping villagers, sending his men in hot pursuit, and the next thing she knew was an emergence from great darkness, his face thrust close to hers, sweaty and triumphant, her entire body rigid with terror. The next few hours, days, and months were unclear in her memory, filled with fractured images of horror, the blood of her rescuers pooling and darkening the ground, while she tried repeatedly to run but kept falling. Eight years had passed since then, and she now lived in this village, adopted by Radhika-ji, but he still haunted her nightmares. And here he was, in the flesh. A cold rigidity took hold of her limbs—she couldn’t move, except for an uncontrollable trembling; she couldn’t speak. He was looking at her—she couldn’t tell whether he recognized her or not.

Radhika-ji came up to her; she put an arm around her, squeezed her shoulder. Held Nilu in her arms, until the trembling gradually ceased. She was saying something, and as the world returned, a desperate shame filled Nilu, because she was going to fail after all.

“Nilu-di! Speaker for the Elephants!” shouted a child’s voice in the crowd. “Speak!”

She had lost her voice. Her carefully prepared speech in Hindi, a poetic interweaving of song and science, story and data, had vanished into thin air. It was as though the language that contained words like “Dalit” and “woman” had become foreign to her. Then she remembered, slowly, the half-learned words of another tongue. With a tremendous effort she stepped away from Radhika-ji’s embrace, and raised the long gourd to her lips. She took in a deep breath and let it out with all the strength, fury, and anguish in her young body, plying her fingers over the small holes along the side of the gourd.

A loud, dissonant, raucous sound rent the air: a deep bass note overlaid with a high-pitched, quavering call. Once, twice. The trees around the lake seemed to shiver with the sound. Again, again. Birds flew off the tops of the trees, calling, circling above their heads.

In the ensuing silence, a rhythmic sound, first very faint, but growing louder: crash, crash, crash. Something large was making its way through the jungle, getting closer and closer. They heard an answering cry. Aseem-sir was with Nilu now, he looked around with anticipation, mingled with apprehension. “Good girl,” he said. “Good girl. But we must be careful.”

The world rushed back into Nilu’s consciousness, and she felt a great surge of strength flowing into her. Now it was the crowd that was paralyzed, and Nilu’s limbs were miraculously free. She turned toward the sounds.

The ground trembled; ripples ran across the smooth surface of the lake. With a resounding crash, Jhumroo, the elephant matriarch, emerged into the clearing, her trunk raised, her enormous grey bulk streaked with mud. Her call rang in the ears, making the leaves tremble.

Nilu walked up to the great beast and stopped; the trunk reached down and caressed the girl’s shoulder. Time seemed to pause: there was only the slim, dark girl and the great beast, against the sunlit lake, with the red crown of the semul tree, the picture framed by the dark green of the forest.

Then, Jhumroo looked at the crowd before her.

“Don’t make any sudden moves,” said Aseem-sir to the crowd. “Move back into the trees, slowly.”

What everyone knew was that wild elephants were dangerous. But what Nilu and Aseem-sir and Radhika-ji knew was that elephants, like humans, were individuals, and that it was possible, using special methods of communication, to build a relationship with some of them. Jhumroo, in particular, was interested in humans.

The company man, who had been standing in place, apparently paralyzed, yelped and backed away. The state officials had retreated slowly with the villagers. Jhumroo moved past Nilu like a vast monsoon cloud, her tree-trunk legs treading softly now, delicate as a dancer. She approached the two state officials and, with the utmost gentleness, prodded the shirtfront of the one holding the map. The rolled-up map fell unnoticed to the ground. The company man had stepped behind the state officials. He yelped again. His shirt was drenched with sweat. Jhumroo pushed him with her trunk, not hard, but he collapsed to the ground as though his legs were made of rubber.

She turned, ponderous as a planet, and looked directly at Manny.

Her great bulk diminishes the rest of the world. She blots out the sun, looming over him, and through his terror he sees the deep wrinkles around her eyes, and the eyes themselves, ancient, curious, filled with knowledge as alien to him as the stars. What does this great being see in him? For this one blinding moment, he is shorn of all pretensions; he knows his true place in the world. His heart is thudding so loudly that the sound fills his ears.

She puffs at him, an exhalation redolent with richly textured vegetable aromas and the oversweet scent of ripe bel. They share breath. In her eyes is an entire universe. His senses swim, but she’s already turned away. She pauses for a moment by Nilu, and some kind of silent communication takes place between them. Then she’s retreating into the forest, which gathers around her absence. The sound of her noisy passage through the trees is punctuated by the calls of the rest of the herd, deep in the jungle.

“This is an elephant habitat,” said the village sarpanch, unnecessarily. The state officials said nothing. One of them bent to help up the company man, while the other tried to rescue his map, which had been stamped into the mud by Jhumroo’s giant foot.

“Let me,” said the sarpanch, who was beginning to enjoy himself. He picked up the muddy remains of the map. There was a partial curve of the elephant’s muddy footprint across the paper. “This is evidence.”

The company man had a heart attack on the way back, and had to be rushed to hospital. The state official who had been brandishing the map decided then and there to resign his job and become a devotee of Lord Ganesh, while his companion wondered whether he could levy a charge of attempted murder against the villagers. As the crowd walked back to the village, Manny followed in a daze. He had survived an encounter with a wild elephant. And in the last moment, just before the forest swallowed up the great matriarch, he had seen Sameer. Watching not him, but the elephant, some distance away. But when he looked again, there was no sign of the man.

Later, Manny learned how the scenario played out. The second state official tried to push through the plan for the road, buttressed by an allegation that the villagers had set a tame elephant on the company man, but someone had taken a video of the whole encounter, and that went viral and put paid to the entire plan. Elephant personhood rights were invoked by lawyers in a court battle, and neighboring symbiomes formed to garner support, so that the plan was finally dropped.

Manny didn’t find Sameer again on that visit, nor any hint as to where he had disappeared. He couldn’t get the experience out of his mind, though, and kept trying to remember what it was he had realized, what epiphany had come to him, when the great elephant stood before him. The part of his mind that insisted this was all just a simulation—or at least, a product of his consciousness interacting with one—seemed to have fallen mysteriously silent. He wasn’t used to introspection. But the sense of something irrevocably lost stayed on the edge of his consciousness, sometimes intruding into his working life in World Zero, stopping him midsentence in the middle of a board meeting, making him pause between sips of his favorite single malt. The sensation stayed with him that he was, in some mysterious and unfamiliar way, utterly inadequate when measured by a different scale of being. But for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what exactly it was, or what to do about it.

Manny in World Two: Wastrel, a Telling

Chingari is reading the script of a story from World Two, one that unfolded several years ago. After all, we must weave across time as well as space. Of all the stories she’s been reading for the next Telling, this one has spoken to her most stridently. She doesn’t quite know why, because there are other strong stories, more recent ones too, but by now she’s learned to trust her instincts.

In World Two she sits on the dais before a great tree, and gathered around her are many people, including Manny. She clears her throat. The low afternoon sun makes the gold-brown of her face shine like fire, and she feels the heady power of the story like an intoxicant in her veins. At the back of the audience is a man she’s seen before, the one she calls Sameer-X, but Manny has not seen him yet.

Manny’s gaze is fixed on her, but his thoughts are far away. She must catch his attention with this story.

“This is a tale from the histories, a true tale,” she begins.

Once there was a boy, Faizal, who ran away from his village home to the big city, where he got a job as a rag picker. He’d run off because his widower father remarried and the new wife took an instant dislike to the lazy, shiftless boy. Times were hard—the sea had inundated their modest field last year and instead of going to the town to find work, Faizal hung around the village, climbing the old banyan or fishing in the narrow canal with the crumbling walls. He would watch the ripples in the water spreading out, meeting other ripples, making patterns, and wonder about the world. What if he hadn’t been late one day going home, and because of that helped a man on an oxcart with a broken wheel, and ended up inviting him and his daughter to their small house? The woman wouldn’t have become a permanent fixture in their home. “This boy is nothing but trash!” the new wife would say, heavy with pregnancy, and Faizal’s father, aging prematurely with the effort of desalinating his ruined fields, had no spirit left to defend his son. So one day Faizal ran away.

Faizal hates the city noise and the poisonous air, he hates the mountains of waste on which he and the other street boys sit crouched, picking apart the stinking debris of your life and mine in search of anything remotely valuable. He hates the oiliness of the middlemen, and the street mafia that demands allegiance. But he keeps his head down, and at night he sleeps under an ancient banyan a little way from the main road, with a street dog for company, the fearsome Sheru. Imagine them in this moment: the boy cross-legged on the fine dust of the sidewalk, leaning back against the main trunk of the tree, the dog’s head on his knee. Sheru and Faizal are sharing a meal of rotis and vegetables, hot and spicy, that Faizal bought from the thelawallah down the street. They are in a room of their own, made by tree branches and their shadows, and the fractured gold light of the streetlamp, as though the neon-bright city, the rumbling traffic on the road a few feet away, have nothing to do with them. Here, they are perfectly happy. The other street kids are afraid of the alleged ghost in the banyan tree, but our boy loves it, ghost or no ghost, for the coolness of its shade, and the reminder of his village home. Sometimes he talks to the ghost, and he’s convinced that on more than one occasion the ghost has protected him, whispering in his ear as he slept, warning him of storms and violent street gangs.

One day he’s taking his jute sack of discarded phones, broken toasters, and rusty saucepans to the junkman, hoping they’ll earn him enough for a proper meal, when a young man stops him. Faizal is suspicious of people; by now he can distinguish the sex traffickers and drug pushers from the various other kinds of thugs, but this man looks like a burra sahib—maybe he wants a private sexual transaction, but no, there’s none of that sideways glancing awkwardness about this fellow. He’s cleanshaven, brusque to the point of rudeness without actually using any rude words. He wants to see what’s in the sack and will pay just for a look. Must be mad, but what’s it to Faizal? So they sit under the banyan tree and Faizal lays out what he’s found. The young man is impressed with how Faizal has taken apart the toaster and old phones and so on—as neatly done as one can manage with nimble fingers and a rusty screwdriver. Faizal tells him that he’s figured out which parts are valuable to the junkman, and that he hopes to get some extra cash for his efforts to separate the materials. They talk for nearly three hours, during which the stranger’s brusqueness seems to dissolve into enthusiasm. It turns out the young man is an engineer, a specialist in waste management, and he has a proposal for Faizal.

Fast-forward six years, and you won’t recognize Faizal. He’s not the older boy in the electronics shop over there, working behind the fat man at the counter. He’s not the fellow in the shiny car either; this isn’t a fairytale. Faizal is the lanky boy standing with the large street dog by his side, dressed in long pants and a t-shirt, supervising the excavation of the waste mound. As the bulldozer creates smaller piles of refuse on the empty ground near the waste pile, a metallic creature, somewhat rusted and creaky, moves with brisk efficiency through the small piles, sorting the useful debris from the rotting junk. There are six other such refitted robots working on the waste mound.

“Is this the last one?” says the engineer who changed Faizal’s life.

“There are three more supermounds in this area,” says Faizal, “but we’ll get to them. The neighborhood kabariwallas are taking e-waste directly to the sorting stations. The kitchen refuse is going to the local compost centers. We still have to deal with packaging.”

Faizal is at the edge of a revolution. Every year in World Zero—which is the starting point of World Two, after all—millions of tons of material are mined from the Earth and turned into toasters and phones, cars and furniture. When these things wear out, they end up in huge piles of garbage. And as the “imperial mode of living” becomes the norm in World Zero, more demand has led to more mining and more trash. World Zero is a world where value is created by turning the living Earth into trash.

But in World Two, they are changing that. It’s stupid to bury precious metals and minerals in piles of trash and then have to mine for more. But it’s also hard to extract use from old materials—there’s no uniformity in composition or age. With new engineering processes, real recycling is becoming a thing. But still, there’s no way that recycling can keep up with rising demand, or flout the laws of physics. There’s also culture change underway: change in values, change in city design. Not everyone has a mobile phone, but your neighborhood community center will loan you one if you need it. Not everyone has a car—there’s electrified public transport using green energy—but if anyone really needs a car to go visit a relative somewhere beyond the public transport network, there are EV rentals in most areas. By the standards of the privileged in World Zero, World Two is a poor place. These privileged few might say, what’s the point of living in a world where you have to give up things?

Let me introduce you to Kartik.

Kartik—which is what he calls himself now—is the engineer who changed Faizal’s life. He is the son of an industrialist in World Two. His mother died when he was thirteen, so he was raised mostly by the domestic help. On her deathbed, his mother shattered his sense of his place in the world by telling him that he was adopted. After that revelation, which seemed to explain everything he had found puzzling before—his father’s remoteness, the persistent feeling of being a misfit—he spent most of his time with the head gardener, a man who had been displaced from his home due to a flood, who would regale him with fantastic stories. Later the kid found other talents, other mentors. He had a way with computers and wanted nothing more than to contribute to the AI revolution. One day he created an app for a college project where you could track back the impact of everyday products on the environment and people. (Actually, what he created was an AI that did most of the work). The app worked with a mobile phone and (for an immersive experience) a VR visor, where pointing at anything with your phone would reveal company and environmental records, but also short clips from the internet relating to the consequences of its production. In testing the app, he pointed at the teak furniture in his parents’ ostentatious living room and saw ancient trees leveled, undergrowth torn up, the dead bodies of animals, people of the forest shot in cold blood. He pointed at their new all-electric fleet of cars and saw the dead bodies of fish and a whale carcass under the ocean, where a dredging machine worked to extract minerals for the green revolution. Pointing at the most ordinary things—a packet of crisps, for example—took him to forests being cleared for palm oil plantations in southeast Asia, an orangutan fiercely protecting her baby from a bulldozer. Everywhere he pointed—books, tables, appliances—everything was covered with the blood of humans and other beings, the green sap of forests, the gold of grasslands, the open veins of rivers heavy with filth, the ocean teeming with plastic and the engorged bodies of multifarious innocents: whales, dugongs, otters, fish. Kartik tore off the visor, flung his phone against the wall, ran to the bathroom and was violently sick.

Some years later he would tell his fiancée, the woman who would eventually walk away from him in bewilderment: I can’t live like a parasite any more.

So if you ask Kartik this—what motivation do I have to live in a world where I have to give up things?—there are two replies he would make. Be prepared: Kartik is blunt to the point of hostility, your typical angry young man. People have told him that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and he responds by saying he hates flies. Anyway, this is how he would respond to your question.

  1. Sure, you are giving up being part of a hellishly destructive, cruel, and suicidal way of living. You are giving up having blood on your hands. That’s what you’re giving up. You have a problem with that?

  2. You’re forgetting what you are getting out of this. Yes, everyone has less stuff, but more people have stuff they need. And what we have more than anything is community. We’re building that back. Check your research in World Zero on happiness and income. We’re satisfying a basic human need, a guarantee against loneliness, anxiety, depression. The shelter of community, and not just human community. You’re giving up existential dread. You’re giving up a system where large numbers of humans and nonhumans are considered trash. What’s not to like?

When he’s calm enough, Kartik will say, with the passionate intensity that marks almost everything about him:

“The fundamental recognition in World Two is that the climate crisis, all our social-environmental crises, are centrally about power. Do you know that the top 10 percent of the richest people in the world, everywhere in the world, are primarily responsible for these crises? Why do you think the world-destroying systems they maintain are still with us, the greatest barrier to needed change? At the root of all this is the narcissism, fear, and dominance of a small group of power-hungry people, within and across nations. In World Two, we confront that at every scale. Because when you recognize this, a universe of alternatives become visible and possible.”

But of course, none of this has been simple. Nobody, except the richest and most powerful, has been forced to give up things—World Zero history has taught us how easily that backfires. World Two folks aren’t into authoritarianism. No, it’s been legal restrictions and fees, tax and financial reform, radical education, culture change, shaming the rich and ostentatious, resisting, with our whole lives, the machinations of the powerful. You have to work all those threads simultaneously, like an experienced mad weaver or knitter, except that at the same time you’re a thread too, caught up in the weave. You might think this process would take very long, and we don’t have time for that, but what World Two folks know is that you need to intervene—actually, intravene is the term they use—in just the right way, in the right context and at the right time, for systemic change to shiver through the entire tapestry. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve made mistakes and learned from them. And people have been silenced, been disappeared, paid with their lives. But more about that another time.

Let me end this account with Faizal, because we started with him. He grew up to learn that the world was endlessly astonishing. In the school he attended after Kartik found him, he learned not only reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also how the world was woven together. He learned that there were women who were scientists, and old men without any formal education who were instructors, and that teachers took many shapes and sizes, from humans to dogs to banyan trees. His lessons were sometimes within buildings and often outside in the world, working with other street kids and gardeners and dreamers and housewives to transform the concrete wasteland of the city. He helped propagate the notion that the city could be reimagined as a micro-symbiome, and worked to make that idea real in the world. He discovered that he often had good ideas, and people listened to him, although not all of his ideas worked. When he earned enough money to live in reasonable wealth, he sent much of it to his father back in the village, and found a small apartment not far from the banyan tree, which he shared with three other boys. His dog Sheru refused to live there, although he visited often. Faizal enjoyed the evening community gatherings, the shared food that had been cooking all day in the solar ovens, and the music that rose into the air, but sometimes he craved solitude. On those days he would lay a thick cloth under the banyan tree, and lie in the dappled streetlight with Sheru next to him, listening to the rustling of the leaves above, and—in the new hush—the distant rattle of the city train. A bus would occasionally speed quietly by on the road near him, and he would wonder about the strangeness of transformation: a no-good, piece-of-trash boy becoming someone in the world, and the world itself turning under the now-visible stars like a new thing, alive, renewed.

Has she caught him with this noose, the weave of the story? He’s been listening, actually listening. Afterwards he remains sitting on the folding chair, as though under a spell. He gets up at last, turning to go, and there’s Sameer-X, also turning to go, at the back of the crowd. For a moment their movements are synchronized. Manny shouts: “Hey!” But the man he seeks has got on a little electric bus plying the road beyond, and is lost.

“Who was that man? What is his name? Where will I find him?”

The Storyteller also wants to know. The fellow who was standing next to Sameer-X looks at Manny and Chingari, puzzled.

“Didn’t you know? It’s his story you just heard. Kartik. That is him now, a decade after the story.”

A World Zero Interlude

A story is a place where many lives intersect. A nexus of world-lines that makes a world, for a moment in time.

But after the story is done, the lives go on. What happened to so and so? What happened next? Whose stories are the most important? Is Manny really the protagonist of this one?

There are other questions. Back in the reality of World Zero, Manny pondered endlessly on one: Was Kartik actually Sameer? It seemed clear to Manny that the coincidence was too remarkable for it to be otherwise. His impulse was to immediately track down Kartik-the-simulation, find out whether there was a real counterpart (he remembered being told that some real people had been scanned into the Project’s scenario setting, like staged crowds in movies), and question him. Yet, something made him hesitate—an uncharacteristic diffidence, a sense that this passionate, rebellious man would turn out to be Sameer, but not the way he had hoped. Kartik, who stood against everything Manny was, not the brother he had hoped to groom to be his second-in-command in his fevered fantasies. Not the brother he had loved and protected in his childhood, but a stranger who would rail against him. An unfamiliar sense of being inadequate to the task swept over him. He thought of the mystery of the encounter with the elephant matriarch Jhumroo.

But the question of Sameer didn’t let go of Manny. He spent a long time with his grandmother in the Machine, trying to remember what it had been like in the old days, why his father had been an alcoholic, why his mother had died young—things he had pushed away all his life. When he questioned her directly, she could tell him nothing he didn’t already know, but slowly a terrible truth began to be clear to him, things he had half-heard, not understood, and forgotten, as a child. And those buried memories gradually found their way to his grandmother’s tongue.

“Your father sold him,” she said bluntly, knitting away. “Sold him to the doctor who saved his life in the hospital. Doctor was a rich man, doing charity work in that hellish hospital, and his sister wanted a little boy to replace the son she’d lost. He was a sweet, charming child, our Sameer. Your mother—”

She sighed.

“Your mother never forgave your father. But the money got you admission to a much better school. You did so well. And look where you are now—”

He had always thought himself a self-made man, but it seemed that all he was he owed to his parents’ desperation, his father’s greed, and the man who had bought his brother. His brother, who had suffered, a renegade, a rebel.

Manny’s hair went prematurely grey, and he began to think about his mortality, that time was rushing by him faster and faster with every passing moment, shortening any time to find Sameer, to rebuild their relationship, if ever he found him; there was less and less time for questions deeper than stock market numbers or profit margins. He was conscious also of World Zero hurtling toward disaster as the poles melted, forests burned, and fertile land turned to baking desert. Something had to be done, many things had to be done quickly, and surely the world’s most powerful people were the right ones to do it. There was no time—no time at all.

He said so to his grandmother, once.

“Time is thick,” his grandmother said, knitting away. “Remember I used to tell you that?”

“I never understood what you meant.”

“Let me remind you. You had to help in the kitchen, and in the shop. And I made you do your homework. I used to let you play, when your loutish friends weren’t on the streets. I would knit your winter sweater while I stirred the daal on the stove, and you would have your maths homework on the counter.”

It came back to him vividly. The hot, smoky kitchen. His grandmother knitting while the rice boiled and the daal bubbled. She would lean over to smell the aroma—cumin and ginger, garlic and tomatoes—and stir, her head wreathed in clouds of condensing steam. He would write in his notebook, and then, when he needed to think about the next problem, he would get up and slice the cucumber for the raita, eating slices on the sly. She always caught him, whacked his hand, and they would giggle. They would recite the multiplication table together. And his grandmother would say, time is thick! In a professional lifetime of scheduling watertight compartments of time one after the other, he had come to think of time as necessarily sequential, an infinitesimally thin line, stretching out into the horizon. But now he felt at the edge of a revelation. If you looked closely at the time axis by yourself, it remained a long, thin line stretching from past through present and into the future—nothing changed. But look at it, engage with it along with other people, other beings, and you would see it thicken, acquire structure.

“Time is thick,” he repeated.


There are no easy endings. If you expect that Manny became a transformed person who saved the world, you would be wrong. The blindness of power is not easily cured; it requires tremendous courage and even more, an elasticity of the imagination that dares to ask the question: who or what am I outside my insulated, comfortable reality? And, following that: what other viable realities are possible?

I got to know Manny because I had to, for the Project. But a relationship is a two-way thing, by definition. Getting to know him in World Zero was extremely uncomfortable for me; he represents all that I despise. And relationships of any kind involve some degree of vulnerability. But I stuck with it—Tinman kept pushing me to get in with the action, not just sit on the sidelines and weave other people’s stories. I became a participant-observer, if you will. That’s how I know that Manny’s Sameer obsession got to him, much more than the other experiences in and outside the Machine. Our efforts to shift his perspective didn’t directly succeed. But Sameer was a humbling experience. Instead of the fantasy of a beautiful reconciliation, after which he would bring Sameer into UltraCorp as his second-in-command, Manny had to contend with whether Kartik-Sameer would ever want to have anything to do with him.

As for solving the world’s problems, I like to think he was wiser than before, but not wise enough to be a real hero. And anyway, there were heroes galore; he had met some of them (as he told me once, without elaborating). What resulted from his Sameer obsession was the gradual neglect of his dream, his pride and joy, the once-great megacorporation-to-be, UltraCorp. The slow collapse on the inside was exacerbated by the massive resistance to UltraCorp’s mining and building ventures from the newly formed symbiomes, whose emergence Manny had scorned and ignored once upon a time. UltraCorp’s remains were bought by bigger fish in the sea of sharks (with due apologies to chondrichthyes) that was the modern industrial economy. But local collapse, in a connected system, can sometimes affect the system as a whole. And I think we are at the edge of that great change, when the mighty dinosaurs must make way for the humbler beings of this Earth, human and otherwise.

The Project, after all, is only a small part of a wider network of action by the Coalition. We are renegade scientists and engineers, students, scholars, Indigenous leaders and other activists, and so-called “ordinary people,” farmers and homemakers, small traders and street vendors, who have got together through overt and covert gatherings, across differences, through arguments and tears, laughter and epiphanies. There are symbiomes forming everywhere at multiple scales, some joining larger ones, others little islands in the sea of modern industrial civilization. In my own hometown, a group of schoolchildren have started with their neighborhood, building a tiny micro-symbiome, where they are confronting pollution, treelessness, waste accumulation, and hierarchies of caste, religion, and economics. They are serious, idealistic, and brave, and fully cognizant of their ignorance, their great need to learn. If only our so-called leaders were like that!

Once, after a pause in our conversation, during which the ticking of his gilt-edged wall clock sounded loudly in the silence, I asked Manny whether he had ever figured out the orienting metaphor of World Two. He shrugged, and took a sip of single malt.

“A tapestry,” he said. “A living tapestry.”

“Your grandmother told you, finally?”

He shook his head. “It was a girl who worked in a stone quarry,” he said. He paused, took another sip. “When I was looking for—”

I hadn’t heard that story. It shocked me, because I’d thought I knew every story he had experienced in the verisimulation. True, sometimes there were delays and interruptions in our linkage with Manny as he lay in the simulation room. Could that mean that parts of the simulation were hidden from us, the Principal Investigators-Instigators of the Project?

I laughed to myself. Humility. How many times do we have to be reminded of it!

As to how that larger story works out, your story and mine, here in World Zero, right here, right now, as you read this, as you breathe the air that is the collective breath of all the sharers of the mega-symbiome called Planet Earth—

That depends, in part, on what you do in that softly glowing hallway within the Machine. But of course, you don’t really need the Machine. You don’t need to wait until a comprehensive, fine-grained human-environmental modeling algorithm has been invented. And you surely don’t need to wait for a mega-billionaire to introduce a carbon-spewing, addictive virtual-world-Matrix and thereby entrap you in his version of reality.

Look around you. World One and World Two are right here, in World Zero.

A polite voice sounds: Please choose your orienting metaphor.

Which will you choose?

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