Sunday, April 14, 2019

Nathaniel Horowitz - The Soulkeeper

Sifting through the sands of time—that’s a saying of ours—my young assistant Clivia discovered an ancient folktale that used to be told around the fire, in the evening, in a country that was known in those days as Mexico. A folklorist, Heraclio Zepeda, had committed it to memory, and years later, in another country, a poet by the name of del Campo had written it down. The tale made reference to a village “soulkeeper,” or almero, a man who captured the souls of those who died, and stored them, in glass flasks, in what was termed a “soulery,” an almería.

Centuries later, and by means of more advanced technology, my own vocation is very similar to that of the old soulkeeper. The institute where I work has at its disposal an immense archive of direct and reconstructed information on thousands of people who no longer exist in the traditional sense.

It would be pointless here to explain the very complex procedure that permits us to gather up the mental processes, the memories, the character, the tastes and loves and phobias—the complete consciousness, in short, of one who has died. Let it suffice to say that we use every single known technical resource, physical, psychological and otherwise, in this process of recollecting, reconstituting and archiving the essence of an individual.

The first audio recording technology foreshadowed our work. It copied voices and stored them away, immune to time, bringing them back to life whenever someone wanted to hear them. In that primitive process lay the seed of today’s virtual soul technology.

Because now we do the same thing with whole consciousnesses. With the addition of virtual brains to house them, they can function, they can think again. And, if I may say so myself, they do this reasonably well.

It so happens that many of these “virtual souls” which we have been able to preserve in the institute believe they are real. They believe they pertain to bodies that are still living, but are suffering from the effects of some drug, or are trapped in nightmares. Sometimes it’s almost comical to witness their fruitless struggles to “snap out of it.”

But there are other souls, more lucid ones, who comprehend what has happened to them. They understand that they are not “real” or “living” in the original sense, and they become desperate. They agitate for absurd, impossible freedoms. For instance, they might ask us for a body to inhabit. Most of them beg us at some point to destroy them.

Against regulations, in a few cases I have granted this wish, behind the back of my aforementioned assistant Clivia, whose firmness and discipline can only be compared with her talent and her youth. With her aid, I made great advances, and I never would have wished to displease her.

But precisely because of her, in the maturity of my life, I discovered that what inspires my investigations is not any passion for scientific discoveries or technological advances—which never resolve the fundamental problems of humanity anyway—but my passion for those infinities that discoveries and advances can never touch. I refer to subjects which in other epochs were relegated to psychology and metaphysics.

Thanks to Clivia, whom I loved like a daughter, I met the virtual soul of Kalus. For weeks we gazed into his tempestuous spirit as into a terrifying abyss. It was like witnessing the chemically pure form of evil. Imprisoned by our horror and fascination, we listened to the stories, the seductive arguments, and the perverse justifications stored reverently in his consciousness as if they were other forms of good. Kalus was unperturbed by his virtual condition. He was a soul whose physical desires had been sublimated into many other forms: a torrent of words, a destructive will, a boundless thirst for followers.

“Enough with Kalus,” I said to Clivia one morning. “Case closed.” To head off her objections, I added that if there was one thing the world had too much of already, it was psychopaths. At some point, we could go back to him or to an even more entertaining soul. But for now, there was other work to do.

The day passed slowly and silently. Clivia shot me furtive looks. She left early. I worked until almost midnight, then went home.

But I couldn’t sleep a wink. Finally, as the sky was getting light again, I left home and went back to the lab. I went up. And I saw Clivia there, in that twilight dimness brightened only by the screens of the computers, listening as if in a trance to Kalus’s voice, which filled the room as the sound of lapping waves fills a cave by the seashore.

I left without her becoming aware of my presence. When I returned later that morning, I silently observed her nervousness and unease.

In that day, I lost Clivia forever. She would never again be the curious and charming girl who would bring me a flower or read me a poem. Those clandestine nocturnal encounters with Kalus had changed her. It would have been useless to tell her that this perverse and impossible love had made her lose her perspective on things, because all love transforms its victims, and changes day into night and evil into good. It would have been useless to tell her that it was absurd to fall in love with a phantom, because all of us do that at one time or another. Instead of trying to explain these things to her, I made the painful decision to terminate her from the institute. I told her it was for her own good. And I was left alone with Kalus. I spoke to him at length. I explained his virtual condition clearly to him. I explained that he would never speak to Clivia again, or to anyone else, for that matter. And as I erased, one by one, all the functions of his mind, I thought I heard one last scream from him (or was it a laugh?) before he was extinguished like a candle flame in the silence of the night.

I don’t know if anyone, in the future, will weigh my soul and decide that this virtual murder, and perhaps the others that I have committed out of compassion, are nothing other than several more of the restless, infinite manifestations of evil.

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