Before I Was Human
by Gabriela Houston
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
It all began before I was human.
The other presentients located with me at the detention centre seemed blissfully unaware of our own lack of importance, but I knew better. You see, I remembered being significant.
I remembered feeling like more than the half-formed creature that was kept isolated in a converted hangar. The airport was still functional, but only the poor travelled by planes now, and the conditions in the area reflected this.
I liked to listen to the sounds of those big machines though, their old engines’ laboured whirring, and the squeak of the tyres once they landed. I liked to listen to that thud, which announced the arrival of another plane.
I thought it would be like that for me. That when I finally became human, I would hear that loud thud that would let everyone know that I am here and I am real. I expected some kind of a noise to make up for the overwhelming silence in my life.
I was six when I was brought to the detention centre. I was flown in, my first and only time on a plane. When I was told I would be flying, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep for two nights before. But the cabin where they put me was dark, and I never got to see the clouds.
When we arrived they transferred me straight to the centre. A woman in a red sweater and a tired look on her face explained to me in clipped tones that I was to stay there until my presentient phase came to an end.
I didn’t understand what she was saying. She didn’t touch me and didn’t use my name. She waved me across the room to a door in the back. I asked when I could go home. She looked disgusted and said something to the guard that made him frown and push me through the door. It was the last time a human touched me.
From then on my days followed the same pattern. The turning on of lights would wake me up, and then a trail of small hanging lamps would lead me towards the disinfection room, where a helpful video would play. It instructed me to take my clothes off and step onto the wet steps as the water with the cleaning agents was sprayed on me.
I tried disobeying the first time and found that the door I entered through was already closed. All I achieved was getting drenched. I had to keep moving forward. I spent the whole day shivering in my wet clothes.
I remembered a lot from my life before the detention centre. In this, it would appear I was unique. The other presentients seemed to know no other home and never questioned why they were there in the first place.
But I remembered a different life. A life where I was touched with tenderness. Where I was spoken to and taught things that we were not told at the centre. You see, I remembered that I was, in fact, prehuman. And no change of title could take that away from me.
All the presentients were divided into groups of six to eight, but the members of the groups changed often, presumably so that we would never grew close to one another. I don’t know if it was done on purpose, and I didn’t question it. Simply one day the lights would wake me a little earlier or a little later and, on my way to the disinfection area, I would encounter a new group of presentients.
Each group had presentients of different ages, with the older ones making sure that the rules were adhered to, although the entire centre was designed in such a way as to make disobedience very nearly impossible.
That’s how I met Tinny. He was in my fifth rotation group. Tinny was not his real name, of course. The first time I asked him his name, he opened his eyes wide and laughed nervously, looking around to see if anyone else heard me. He was tall, two heads taller than I was, and although at that age it was no great achievement, I still felt awed by him. Not that it stopped me from trying to boss him around.
Tinny was mild-mannered, and he liked my energy as much as I did his reserve. He revealed to me that he was only a few months or so away from completing his presentient phase and would then be allowed to leave the centre.
He had brilliant blue eyes that would glow sometimes and a hollow, tinny kind of laughter that made you want to give him a hug. That’s why I started calling him Tinny. He didn’t like it at first. It was against the rules, he said, but I thought he just made that one up.
Unless I was told by the screens on the walls that I was specifically not allowed to call him “Tinny,” then they could stuff it. I told him so and then he laughed that little hollow laugh, and looked me in the eyes as if I were important.
He nodded and said, “Then I will be Tinny.” And that was that. I told him my name and he would use it, quietly and with great reverence, but never with other presentients near by.
We stuck together for the entire time we were in the same group, and it made it all a little more bearable somehow, having someone listen to me for a change. It is hard to be six and have no one interested in what you think.
I talked to him about how I found it curious that the water from the disinfection chamber smelled different every time you went in, and how it would make your skin feel tingly or hot or cold, depending on the day. The instruction videos during our education time said nothing about it, and you can’t ask a video questions.
Each group would eat their meals together. After disinfection, we would dress quickly and follow the lights along the corridor to the mess hall, where we’d collect our trays of food from a little hollow in the wall.
Even after what must have been months at the centre, I couldn’t tell with any sort of certainty what the layout of the building was. The multitude of corridors made it all look like a huge anthill, and the care that clearly went into alternating routes that each group took baffled me. It wasn’t as if we could get out of there anyway; even if the thought of escape could occur to any of my companions. To be honest, I very much doubt that it could.
At the mess, a lift of some sort would carry our trays through a tunnel in the wall. I once stuck my head into the hollow and looked up. There were beams of light at several points in the tunnel. I figured there must be other mess halls there. I tried calling out once, but there was no answer.
Tinny said I must not make noise. He said that making noise is a sign that one is still a long way from becoming a sentient. And that it would be recorded in my files. “You must keep your files clean, Heeny,” he said solemnly. “It is the only way you can progress to being a sentient.”
“And how do you do that then? By dying of boredom?” I asked him. Just to show him I didn’t care about his admonitions, I stuck my head into the tunnel again, only to hastily take it out, narrowly avoiding being beheaded by a compartment filled with trays.
I was a little testy with Tinny sometimes, especially when he told me not to do things I wanted to do. But he was never sharp back. He would just look at me sadly, as if I had hurt his feelings. But he never refused to talk to me or answer my questions the best way he knew how. He was a good friend, Tinny.
I always looked forward to the education sessions. It was our opportunity to try and piece together why we were all held there. Not that the lady on the video would tell us, of course. The videos we were forced to watch were mostly about keeping clean and following the rules of the centre. They would tell us that once we passed our individually assigned age targets, we would become sentients and would be released from the centre.
The other videos they played us showed what life outside was like and the various tasks and pleasures we had to look forward to, if we followed the rules and were granted leave to enter that strange and foreign world.
I was young, but my superior life experience allowed me to cut through the lies and the concealed truths better than most. “Presentients” they called us. And that is how they treated us. Though they clearly thought us all dimwitted, I could see the truth behind the indifferent stares of the women and men on the videos. They were afraid of us. I just didn’t know why.
I told Tinny about this one day at the mess and he shrugged. “What do they have to be afraid of?” he asked. “We are here and they are distant. They never need to look at us or talk to us. Besides, what is so terrifying about us?”
“I’m not sure, but I will find out!” I replied. I poked at my food with the white fork. It bent when I pushed at it, and was barely sturdy enough to impale the last bit of tasteless meat on my plate. I chewed that last bit of food carefully.
I could see the logic behind Tinny’s words. What could be so terrifying about us that would make all of this — all this effort at keeping us away — worth it? They called us “presentients” But that meant they knew we would become sentient. But those who took care of me before called me “pre-human.” And though unspoken, there was an understanding that it was all a part of some process, that I would become human in time.
If I would eventually become like them, why were they scared of me now? I tried to explain my confusion to Tinny, but he just smiled and said, “I suppose, when they let me out, I will find out.”
“Have you been given a date yet?” I asked, feigning indifference. I envied him his impending freedom, and he knew it. A tall girl sitting next to him scowled at me, as if it was my fault that Tinny was due to leave soon and she wasn’t. She had nasty little eyes and an annoying habit of listening in to others’ conversations and then making out as if they did or said something wrong. I would not miss her come the time for my next rotation group.
“Yes, I was told the process was accelerated for me. I am due to leave the centre next week.” He smiled with pride. “I will be in your group till the end. Isn’t that something?”
“Something what?” I asked, even though I knew what he meant. It was something to have someone to talk to until the end. It was something to not have to worry about joining a whole new group of strangers.
“You will leave and never even look back,” I accused him. “You will go off to your brand-new sentient life and never think that I have years until I can go outside, too!” I felt tears welling up, and forced them down. I wanted him to think I was angry, not sad.
“Your time will come too,” he said with a smile. There was no fooling Tinny. “Don’t worry. I will be there when you’re out. And who knows, your time might come sooner than you think. It all depends on how well you do here. I was first told that I’d have to wait another year or so, but then, near the end of my time at the last rotation group, I was told the time would actually come much sooner. Could be the same for you.”
“Yeah, right. It’s easy for you to say.” I looked at him closely. I couldn’t help feeling comforted at his words but was reluctant to believe him.
A red light started flashing above our heads, signalling that it was time to put our food trays back in the little lifts and move to the exercise area. A voice droned the instructions, as if we didn’t already know what was expected of us. As we were walking to the after-meal class on weaving, I walked with Tinny in silence for a while and then asked, “Do you know what happens after we are no longer presentients?”
He looked at me in surprise. “Of course! We leave the centre and join society! Everyone knows that! That’s why we have to learn all the skills that will be necessary on the outside!”
“Yes, weaving, soldering and sewing is all very well, but what else is waiting for us out there?”
“I can’t say for sure,” Tinny started hesitantly, “but from the care that goes into our upkeep here, I cannot believe they would just let us loose to fend for ourselves outside. You saw the videos about the life in the different habitable areas. We could be assigned to live in the inner city or grow food in the higher areas. I think I would like that.” He smiled shyly. “Growing things.”
A video from a few days ago had clearly made a huge impression on Tinny. He’d mentioned it a few times already since then, which was unusual for him. The video showed a high, terraced farm, lush and green, and so different from our lives in the cold and scrupulously clean corridors of the centre that it made your eyes water.
I instantly became intensely jealous. I could feel my cheeks growing red. So I said nonchalantly, “Why would they put you in a farming community? It’s not like any of our experience here makes us well prepared for it. They probably have other centres where they train presentients specifically for those tasks.” I said it looking away from him, but I shot him a furtive glance just to see if my words had any effect.
Tinny wasn’t looking at me, but I could tell I had hurt his feelings. His pursed lips formed a thin line and he hunched a bit. I instantly regretted what I’d said. We all stopped at a huge metal door. After a moment, a light started flashing above it, and the doors opened. We all entered a small room, and the door shut behind us. The lift started moving.
“I suppose you’re right,” he replied, very quietly. “I suppose I have no right to just expect to be put somewhere like that.”
“Oh, stop it, Tinny,” I said, without much conviction. “I don’t know any more than you do. I was just jealous.”
The lift stopped and we waited for the other presentients to leave before we followed them at a small distance. Neither I nor Tinny wanted to have our conversation heard.
“But you do know more than I do,” Tinny said finally, looking at me strangely. “Don’t you always say how you remember your life from the outside? But you always stop short of actually telling me anything specific. Did you live in the city?”
I didn’t like where this was leading. “No. You know I couldn’t have. But say, when you are let out, do you think we will meet again?”
“You’re changing the subject. Where did you live then?”
“In a house. There was not much green there,” I said that quickly. I didn’t like telling Tinny the particulars. I felt like I was already forgetting my life before the centre, and that with each detail I gave out I was losing the connection to what came before. But perhaps that was a selfish way of looking at it. I decided to throw him one more morsel. “There were humans there.”
Tinny’s blue eyes lit up. “Humans? And not on videos either? What were they like?”
One of our companions shot us a dirty look. We were at the weaving room and everyone but us had already assumed their positions at the wire chests. Each of us had been assigned a project and we were to follow the on-screen instructions faithfully for the weaving and connecting of the various wires inside our individual large containers.
Tinny’s container was almost finished, and I looked at it with admiration. The tiny wires and metal sheets inside were arranged neatly, fitting perfectly into each other. My own efforts were a sorry sight, I was ashamed to admit. I couldn’t make the bits of metal fit exactly, and my small fingers found the job of weaving and soldering the wires awkward.
For a while, we worked in silence. When I felt certain that nobody was eavesdropping, I turned to Tinny and said in a little whisper, “The humans talked to me. And they touched me. And they gave me a name.”
He nodded, pondering this little tidbit in silence.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Gabriela Houston