Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lord of Light part 2: The Prince and the Body Merchants

Last week we met Sam, an ersatz Buddha who was exiled to Nirvana as punisment for opposing the gods on a planet where the ruling class uses mutant powers and super-tech to create a society modeled on Hindu mythology. Sam has been restored to mortal form by his former enemy, Yama, the god of Death. As they plan their next move against Heaven, Sam muses on his past lives.

Cue Flashback!

A wealthy prince named Siddhartha arrives with his retinue in the city of Mahartha. His body, although healthy and reasonably hale, is growing old, and he has come to visit the body merchants to purchase a new one.

The author chose the name quite deliberately; Siddhartha was the name of the Buddha before he embarked upon his path of Enlightenment. This prince is Sam; one of the First who tamed the planet in the early days of colonization. Since that time, for the past century or so, he's been living quietly in his backwater kingdom, engaging in "Tiger hunts, border disputes with neighboring kingdoms, keeping up the morale of the harem, a bit of botanical research -- things like that -- the stuff of life."

Sam stays at the hostel of Hawkana, an opulent place worthy to serve clientele of the highest caste. Hawkana brings forth the finest of wines, brandy from vanished Uratha blessed by the god Krishna himself to preserve it from age. Sam has Hawkana bring forth his oldest musician -- "Old not in body, but in years." A lad who from previous lives remembers the music of another world; and at the prince's request he plays "The Blue Danube" waltz.

The next day, as is his custom when visiting Mahartha, Sam disguises himself as a beggar and slips out into the city. He wants to scout out how things look from the street level and how the city has changed since last he was here, nearly half a century ago. He also wants to look up an old friend.

He first encounters a sea captain, who has recently returned from a voyage to the south whre his ship was damaged by "the cannon of Nirriti", apparently an active and dangerous volcano. The captain is wary and speaks guardedly. The city of Mahartha has become a lot more authoritarian than when Sam was here last; and although the captain decides he can trust Sam, he is still cautious. He warns Sam to beware of dogs that might follow him.

Following the captain's directions, Sam passes a temple where he sees a peculiar sight: a line of people waiting to use a device which, from its description, sounds very much like a slot machine but which apparently is a coin-operated prayer wheel. Sam dubs it the "pray-o-mat."

Continuing on to the Street of Weavers, Sam finds the friend he is looking for, "captain of a ship which did not sail these oceans." Jan Olvegg, or Janagga the sailmaker as he is now known, was once the captain of the Star of India, the colony ship which first brought humans to this planet. Now Jan is lying low, trying to avoid notice by the religious authorities.

From their conversation, we learn a bit more of the political situation on this world. For many years after the intial taming of the planet, the First, with their superior technology, powers, and practical immortality, had neglected the rest of the settlers, including their own children by their successive
bodies. The settlers had fallen into comparative barbarism and have a medieval technology. A split arose among the members of the First between the Accellerationists, who wished to re-introduce technology to the general population and raise their tech level; and the Deicrats, who wished to maintain the status quo of the godlike First maintaining control over their more primitive children.

Sam has missed most of this. Hitherto he has been mostly apolitical, attending meetings of the Council of the First for an excuse to party, but ignoring the infighting. Eventually he stopped going to Council meetings altogether. But recently things have changed. The Deicrats have come out on top; have officially declared themselves as gods and have used their technology and powers to establish and enforce this religion.

Previously, acquiring a new body when the old one grew too aged was simply a matter of going to the technicians who operated the devices to tranfer one's mind into a clone and buying it. Now the body merchants have been re-named the Masters of Karma and are part of the Temple heirarchy. Candidates for a new body are subjected to a mind-scanner capable of reading a subject's memories -- ostensibly in order to judge if the person is worthy of reincarnation. In practice, the Masters of Karma use this to screen out political undesirables. A person with Accellerationist views might find himself denied a new body; or worse yet, be given a body ridden by disease, or the body of a gelded oxen -- or a dog. Sam remembers the sea captain's warning.

This is why Jan Olvegg has been living quietly and postponing his own visit to the Masters of Karma. Sam realizes that he won't pass the mind-scan either, because of all sorts of sins which he hasn't committed yet, but intends to. He's decided it's high time to take a more active interest in politics after all.

Sam changes back into his personna of Prince Siddhartha and goes to visit the city's temple. Slipping the chief priest a heavy bag of gold, he requests to use the temple's telephone. "Communication system. If you were of the First, such as I, you would understand my meaning." The promise of another donation convinces the priest to give him access to the video screen connecting the temple to Heaven.
Sam's former collegues, the gods, are ruled by the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, with Brahma being pre-eminent. So it is Brahma, relaxing by the pool with his harem, who takes Sam's call. Brahma was originally a woman, before becoming a god.
But though his special and improved body permitted feats no mortal man could duplicate, still he felt uneasy in the presence of an old war horse like Lord Shiva -- who, despite his adherence to the normal body matrix, seemed to hold far more attraction for women. It was almost as if sex were a thing that transcended biology; and no matter how hard he tried to suppress the memory and destroy that segment of spirit, Brahma had been born a woman and somehow was woman still. Hating this thing, he had elected to incarnate time after time as an eminently masculine man, did so, and still felt somehow inadequate, as though the mark of his true sex were branded upon his brow. It made him want to stamp his foot and grimace.
Okay, that last sentence was a bit gratuitous. But this links into a point that is brought up elsewhere; that a person carries more than just memories when his mind is transferred to a new body. In a later chapter, Yama explains:
"Because your really have only one body-image, which is electrical as well as chemical in nature. It begins immediately to modify it's new physiological environment. The new body has much about it which it treats rather like a disease, attempting to cure it into being the old body. If the body which you now inhabit were to be made physically immortal, it would someday come to resemble your original body."
Brahma greets Sam cordially, and invites him to join the rest of the gods in Heaven. "A pantehon has room for many, Sam. There is a niche for you, if you choose to claim it." Sam is wary and reluctant to commit himself, to Brahma's growing irritation. Sam finally comes out and states some of his concerns:
"...I felt that we should be doing something about the passengers, as well as the offspring of our many bodies, rather than letting them wander a vicious world, reverting to savagery. I felt that we of the crew should be assisting them, granting them the benefits of the technology we had preserved. rather than building ourselves an impregnable paradise and treating the world as a combination game preserve and whorehouse."
Brahma counters that the people are not ready for advanced technology. "Had we acted immediately -- yes, this thing could have been done." But by the time they addressed the question, too much time had passed. "They are not ready, and will not be for many centuries."

They continue fencing, with Brahma becoming more and more piqued at Sam's argumentative stance, when Sam comments: "Yes, Madeleine... and did anyone ever tell you how lovely you are when you're angry?" He's been trying to figure out which of his former companions Brahma was, and now he makes a guess.

"How could you? How could you tell?"

Sam teasingly tries to mollify the angry deity, but he has struck a nerve. He talks Brahma down, agreeing to accept Heaven's offer, and Brahma grudgingly forgives him. He promises that when Sam reports to the Masters of Karma tomorrow, he will be given a new body without having to undergo a psych-scan and that an aircraft will be dispatched to carry him to the Celestial City.

That evening, Sam dines with another guest at Hawkawa's hostelry; the Shan of a province neighboring his own kingdom. Sam plies him with good drink and has his servants slip drugs into the Shan's dessert to make him susceptible to post-hypnotic suggestion. Sam tells him that the Shan is Prince Siddhartha and has an appointment with the Masters of Karma to pick up an new body.

The next morning, part of Sam's retinue accompanies the false Siddhartha to the Masters; while Sam's warriors scope out the defenses of the Hall of Karma and some of his other staff perform another secret errand. When the Shan leaves the Masters with a seemingly young and healthy body, Sam fears that he has misjudged Brahma; but almost immediately, the Shan falls to the ground in a siezure; he has been given the body of an epileptic.

Sam storms into the Halls of Karma, demanding to see the chief of the Masters. He defeats the Master in combat and his men raid the facility. Sam then forces the technicians to give him a healthy body, and provide one for Olvegg as well. Once this is accomplished, Sam has his men sieze as much of the body-transfer equippment they can load onto their caravan, and burn the bodies of the dead.

"This day your sin account is filled to overflowing," Olvegg tells him.

"But, ah, my prayer account!" Sam has sent his people to every pray-o-mat in the city. "Future theologians will have to make the final decision... as to the acceptablility of all those slugs in the pray-o-mats."

He has officially declared war on Heaven; and has left the gods with one last parting message. Before Sam left the hostelry that morning he told Hawkana:
"If any ask after me, tell them to seek me in Hades... It is the southernmost province of my kingdom, noted for its excessivey warm weather. Be sure to phrase it just so, especially to the priests of Brahman, who may become concerned as to my whereabouts in the days to come."
NEXT: Chapter Three: A new Teacher appears, bearing a message of Enlightenment; the goddess Kali dispatches her personal assassin to put an end to him; and when that fails, Death comes to visit the Buddha.

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