Before I Was Human
by Gabriela Houston
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
As the days passed and the time of Tinny’s departure drew nearer, he was becoming more agitated and nervous. He was filled with a new energy, such as I had never seen in him before.
I, on the other hand, was becoming morose and not a little depressed, for I knew I would soon be losing my only friend. Secretly, I started looking around our rotation group, considering the others there as potential companions, but I rejected the candidacy of each and every one. None of them was Tinny, and I was becoming sad and serious, quite frankly wasting the last few days I had with my friend.
Then the day I had feared came. One morning, I reached the mess hall and looked around me. Tinny was not there. I inhaled and sat down in silence, not looking at the others in my group. One of the girls moved closer to me and looked like she was about to say something, but I shot her a hateful glance and she shrugged and moved away. I instantly regretted it. Perhaps she meant to say something kind. Perhaps she meant to talk.
I looked down at my plate and felt the tears I’d been holding back drip heavily onto my already cold food. Drip. Drip. A bell rang and we all stood up. I waited for the others to go in front of me.
I couldn’t stand the thought of all of them just looking at my back and perhaps thinking that I was sad, that I was little and sad and lonely. I could feel the threat of their as yet unthought thoughts like a razor blade across my sweaty shoulders. I imagined their pity and rebelled. I was more lonely than they, but only because I had known a time when I was not alone. And none of the others could say the same.
And I had Tinny’s promise. There was that at least. The day before he left, Tinny swore solemnly that he would try to arrange to meet me when it was my time to leave the centre. And I told him then, at long last, of my suspicions regarding what would happen. Of what I remembered from before I was put in the centre.
He looked at me with wonder and hugged me, awkwardly, like someone following written instructions on how hugs work. He nodded and said, “Guess I will find out soon, Heeny.” And then he left.
I wondered what it must have felt like, that last night in the hangar. Did he fall asleep, or lie there, staring at the darkness, dreaming of green terraces?
The next few weeks were like a blur to me. I was rotated to a new group, one with a few quiet, sad-looking presentients. I tried making conversation, but I met only with confusion and blank stares.
For a while I followed quietly the monotonous routine of the life in the centre. I ate quietly and tried to ignore the stink of the water in the disinfection centre. Then, one day, a thought occurred to me that I was now seven. I didn’t know the exact date of my birth, but I was certain that I had spent more than a year in that miserable hangar.
I thought of the months in the centre, months of waiting to be told that I was ready to leave. And something inside me broke. I sat in my room one evening, staring at the clean white wall. As the light was turned off, I moved around my room, one hand touching the wall. If I was truly prehuman then it should make little difference whether I turned human here or there.
With some hesitation I tried to imagine the faces of the people who had taken care of me before I came to the centre. There were two men and a woman. And then there was a room. A room with soft furnishings and a picture on the wall and a lamp that worked sometimes, and a shelf with books that I had little interest in except for the small book with ducks in it. I wished for that book now. To have something that was mine.
I knew not what had happened to the humans that took care of me before. Nothing, I assumed. They were humans. Nothing bad could happen to them. Nothing bad would happen to me, once I was human too.
And that’s when I made the decision. I would no longer wait at the centre for the change, day after day, labouring at stupid tasks, talking to nobody. I would leave and join Tinny. And then maybe he and I would find the gardens together.
Deciding to leave was easy. Figuring out how I could leave was not. I carefully considered all of my options. There were few. My first thought was to try to smuggle myself out through the lift that picks up all the food trays.
During the meal times I inspected the lift, as I pulled out my tray of food. I tried not to draw attention to myself, as I couldn’t trust any of the other presentients in my group. I aimed to be the last in line when giving the tray back, dilly-dallying at the last few morsels.
The lift was large enough to fit me, and, using a chair, I would probably be able to crawl in fairly quickly. But how to do so inconspicuously? The door out of the mess hall opened only when all the trays had been put into the chute. That meant that it would be very difficult for me to crawl inside without one of the other presentients in my group noticing. And they might then raise an alarm. I sullenly followed the others out of the mess hall.
As I walked towards the workshop, I thought that even if I managed to get into the lift, I had no plan for what would happen after the humans found me inside it. There would presumably be someone on the other side, collecting the trays and putting the food in. What would they do if they found me inside? What would I do? I couldn’t hurt anyone, that much I knew. Even if I wanted to, I was barely seven, and small at that. No, it was all hopeless.
I swallowed the tears that were welling up in my eyes. As we entered the hall, a small, rotund little boy from my group noticed my red eyes and looked at me curiously. He had a large, stupid face and it angered me that he should see me sad. I ignored him and walked straight towards my project. I had been working on it for over two weeks and I found it as boring as it was frustrating.
The large box contained a large number of wires and chips. It was the third one I’d been given to work on, but I found it no easier than when Tinny was around. I prodded the wires with little enthusiasm. I was doomed to spend months, maybe years, doing such foolish work, work which purpose I couldn’t understand, for people I would never meet.
I wondered how long it would be before they intended to release me from the centre. I tried to think of the time before, but my memories were becoming blurry, and I found it hard to picture the faces of those who took care of me before.
I sighed and picked up a wire. The room was filled with the industrious sounds of six pairs of hands labouring. Since we didn’t know what convinced the powers that be that we were ready to be considered sentients, most tried to impress with any way they knew how. Following the routine, not complaining, working fast. If those were the conditions of my release, I would spend the rest of my life in the hangar, I thought bitterly.
I looked up at the metal box, and then it struck me. I had been looking at the means of escape all the while. Once the project was finished, all we were told to do was close the lid of the box. It would then be removed overnight and a new one ready for assembly would show up. The box could easily hold someone my size.
I shot a furtive look at my fellow presentients. Would they notice if I stayed behind? Doubtful. There was no trigger for opening the doors like in the mess room. This was the last event of the day, and if I didn’t show up the next morning, they would simply assume I had been released. I could hide inside the box and nobody would know. And then, once taken outside, I could wait for the cover of the night. I liked the sound of that: the cover of the night, as if the world would cast a protective veil over me. And I could escape.
I was in the back, closest to the wall. I turned the box a bit, scraping the floor, so that the open part faced the wall. One of my companions looked up at the noise without much interest, and then frowned, as if I had broken the rhythm of her work on purpose, and looked away again.
As the bell rang, we all stood up obediently. I waited for those around me to take the first two steps towards the door. I waited for them to make just those two steps. Two steps put their feet in a rhythm. They would walk and no longer look around them. And then, quietly and quickly, I slid inside the box, my heart thumping in my chest.
I tried not to move, not to breathe. After I heard them all leave the room, the door slid shut and the lights went out. Fumbling in the darkness, I stepped out and moved the rest of the wires and chips from my project onto a heap belonging to the presentient working next to me. Having thus cleared the floor next to my project, I went back inside the box, shut it, and tried to settle myself for the night.
I thought of the adventures ahead of me and Tinny. Once I was out, I would find him, I told myself. He would teach me all it meant to be a sentient... to be a human, I corrected myself. I smiled at the thought. Outside of the centre I would grow, I would learn. I smiled as sleep came to me and I believe I was still smiling as I slept the sleep of a child, dreaming of gardens.
I woke up with a headache, probably from having slept in a tiny, uncomfortable space, I thought. My head was pounding, and my palms were sweaty. I heard voices around me, muffled by the metal, and the box I was in started swaying gently.
That was it. They were taking me away. One of the walls of the box slid a little. I pulled on the screw in panic and held it close so the panel wouldn’t bang against the box frame. I could feel a bead of sweat sliding down my face, but I didn’t dare wipe it. Suppose they heard me and opened the box. They would toss me back into the centre, and I would never get out again! It wasn’t exactly spelled out as a rule, but I had a strong suspicion that an escape attempt would blemish my record somewhat.
I heard a loud noise and the box stopped swaying. I strained to hear, but I heard nothing. After a while I felt brave enough to let go of the screw, allowing the lid of the box to lean back and let me peer out. I did so fearfully, and my courage was rewarded with the blue of the sky and a light that almost blinded me. I gasped and, using my fingers, I unscrewed the side of the box so that I could come out.
I inhaled deeply. The air smelled sharper than at the centre, but I was grateful, oh so grateful for the wind.
As I moved out of the box, gingerly at first, and then with more confidence, I saw nobody was around, I could feel the sun’s blazing heat as it battered on my head. I looked around me. I was standing in the middle of a field, with boxes, many boxes just like mine, standing in rows as far as eye could see.
I walked among the rows, my bare feet feeling every stone, every blade of dry grass. I squinted and looked up. The sky was grey and yellow, rather unlike the pure blue from my duck book. But it was the sky, and it was infinite. I turned my head and saw a plane lift off just above the horizon.
I sat down and thought about what my next move should be. I had to look for Tinny, that much was clear to me. But where?
I reluctantly looked again towards where I thought the centre lay. Another plane took off. It looked ungainly, and then it seemed to wobble in the sky a bit, before straightening up. I thought every journey might have to start like that: a little wobble, a moment of uncertainty before you find the right path.
If anyone knew where Tinny was, it was the humans at the centre. There had to be records. His impeccable files had to be stored somewhere, after all. I started walking back towards the centre, guided by the plane’s flight.
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Copyright © 2015 by Gabriela Houston