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Before I Was Human

by Gabriela Houston

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3


When I got to the centre, it was getting dark. I was glad of it. I could blend in, in the dark. I wondered if there’d be many guards, but there weren’t. There was a fat man sitting in a little booth at the entrance to the airport. I could see him from behind the thick glass of the booth. He was wearing a protective suit, such as I had seen before being transported to the centre.

I hid next to the large trash cans close to the gate for a long time, watching. Then lights shone on the road and the gate and the little booth, and a line of trucks arrived. The little fat man came out to inspect the screen on the side of the truck. It had lots of writing on it, though I couldn’t see what it was. Whatever it said, it seemed to satisfy the fat man, who waved the trucks through.

I saw my opening and, when the fat man turned his back on me to walk back to the booth, I snuck under the last truck and climbed into a little pocket of space between the middle wheels. It was not lost on me how ridiculous it was to sneak back in after my great escape. But how else was I going to find Tinny, I reasoned.

The trucks didn’t have far to go, They circled around the hangar and stopped outside a large white building next to the centre. I could hear the doors of the trucks open and shut and then the drivers’ footsteps. They were talking to each other through a radio of some kind, but their suits muffled the sounds, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

I slipped out from my hiding space and looked at their feet as they walked back and forth, carrying some packed-up goods into the building. When they had finished, I waited to hear the doors of the trucks slam. I crept out before the engines started.

As the trucks sped away, a door suddenly opened up. I just had a moment to flatten myself against the wall before two figures came out. One of them seemed tired and was clearly trying to project an uninterested look aimed to discourage the other one’s overly friendly and incessant stream of conversation.

The first figure seemed so exasperated you could practically hear her rolling her eyes under the mask. I figured her mask would keep her from seeing me...

I snuck in behind them, just before hearing the thud of the closing door. The room was all white. Machines standing at the edge of the room were buzzing gently.

The place was pretty huge, with glass-enclosed rooms. I didn’t really understand what I was looking at most of the time, but I was determined to find clues to Tinny’s whereabouts. I walked through the room, carefully sneaking about in case someone had stayed in. The light was still on, but I didn’t know what it meant.

I walked across the room, looking into the glassed rooms until I felt something hard against the back of my head.

“Don’t move, or I will shoot!” The voice behind me had a definite sense of threat about it.

“What do you mean, ‘shoot’?” I asked awkwardly. I didn’t move though.

“Uh... It’s what a gun does. A weapon. I will hurt you, if you try anything funny.”

I didn’t think there was anything funny about the situation. I said, “Don’t worry, I won’t.”

“Good.” The voice seemed a little more relaxed. “Did you come here to kill us?”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me. “I’m only seven,” I said, trying at the same time to convey how stupid I thought the question was, while not not making the human angry.

“Well, I suppose that’s all right then. Turn around, slowly. How did you get out of the centre? And what are you doing here?”

I turned around and saw a short, plump woman holding what was, very conspicuously, a pencil. I looked at it with interest. I hadn’t realised that pencils could be used as weapons. What a fascinating world this was. She gave me a rather nervous smile and coughed. “So? What are you doing here?” she said.

“I came to find Tinny,” I said, in what I was hoping was a confident, self-assured voice. “He’s my friend. He finished his presentient phase a few weeks ago.”

The woman seemed flustered. “That is most unusual. Yes, most irregular,” she said, as if to herself. “A few weeks ago, you say...”

“My name is Heeny and I am not going back to the centre.”

She walked up to a chair in the corner and sat down on it heavily. I saw a small roll of fat under her chin wobble a bit as she did so. “No,” she said finally, “I suppose you’re not.” She rubbed her temple in a worried way. “And how did you get in here, if you don’t mind my asking?”

I wasn’t going to be sidetracked. “Can you help me find Tinny? Tell me where he is, and I’ll be on my way. I won’t cause any more trouble, honest.” A thought occurred to me. I added, “You won’t call in anyone to put me back in there, will you?”

“No, no, I won’t,” she said after a while, in a way that made me think she meant more than what she just said. Then she stood up abruptly. She walked up to a desk and picked up a small device, which she then held to my arm. It beeped worryingly. She looked at the number that appeared on the device’s tiny screen and walked back to the desk. She typed something on a big screen there and watched as a stream of text appeared.

“You were transferred here over a year ago from the Gottswald facility.” She wasn’t asking, and I said nothing. “When was the last time you showered at the centre?”

“It is dark now, and I left before night-time yesterday. So that morning, I suppose.” I found the question odd, but responded anyway. Cooperating seemed to be my best option under the circumstances.

“Oh dear,” she said and gave me a long look. “Are you feeling tired?” she demanded, “Any headaches? Dizziness?”

“No,” I replied. “Do you know where Tinny is?”

She looked uncomfortable for a moment. “He’s not here,” she said in a way that I considered a bit shifty. And then she added, with a bit more honesty, “And then again, I suppose he is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I could feel my heart sinking.

She looked at me for a while. With two brilliant blue eyes. Tinny’s eyes.

I suddenly felt sick. I bent down and retched, though nothing but bile came up. She looked at me with what seemed like sympathy. And just like that, I knew that Tinny was not waiting for me in a garden.

“That nausea is due to the missed shower, my lad.” She cocked her head to the side. “I should be able to find the medication you need if you give me a moment.”

“Wait,” I croaked. “Why... Why do you have... They’re...”

She stopped, with her back to me. “There has only been one presentient to... graduate from the centre in the last month,” she said. “It might be hard for you to understand...”

“Why do you have Tinny’s eyes?” I asked weakly. “Who are you?”

She walked to a tall cabinet by the wall, and opened it by inputting a code. Checking the device she had used to scan my arm with, she started taking out items from the many shelves inside and putting them on a small tray. It was a while before she spoke. “My name is Kendry Williamson. I am a researcher and employee of the Gottswald Centre. I specialise in transplantology and immunity suppressants.”

That meant nothing to me. I stared at her blankly.

She sighed and sat on a swivel chair next to me with the tray in her lap. She picked up a syringe and reached for my arm as she talked. I held it out to her in silence. “I am sorry about this, but you missed the medication that we apply topically to each of the presentient during each ‘disinfection session’.”

“Prehuman. Each prehuman,” I said automatically, thinking of the shower water at the centre, its odd changing smells and the way it used to tingle on my skin.

She looked at me funny. “Is that what you call yourselves then?”

“No, that’s what I was called,” I said, without looking at her. “Before.”

“I see... The place you were in before had slightly different... approach, I hear.”

There was a silence between us, and then I asked, “Am I a child, Kendry Williamson?”

She seemed taken aback. “Good heavens, no! What an idea!” And then she stopped, realising, I think, that she had hurt my feelings. “Uh... I suppose you want to know what will happen now?”

“Not yet,” I said. “First tell me what we are.”

She stared at me for a while. Not unkindly, I suppose, because it would have been really hard to look unkindly through Tinny’s eyes.

“Do you want to know what you were meant to be or what we have managed to make you?” she asked.

“Is there a difference?”

“Oh yes...” She hesitated, “What you were meant to be, I suppose, was the next generation of humans. You were supposed to be us, only better. Our future children, resilient to the changes in the atmosphere, immune to radioactivity and pollution and all the things that make us hide in our suits and behind airlocks...” She took a deep breath.

“But?” I nudged her slightly.

“But what we got was a range of half-wits, malformed and unstable, barely fit for assembling the solar batteries that power this centre.” She looked at me and said quickly, “No offence meant.”

I thought of my companions from the centre. The slow-moving, obedient creatures. I steeled myself to form the next question. “And after? This thing you are not telling me, Kendry Williamson, you who look at me with my friend’s eyes?”

She reached out with her hand and touched mine. “We keep you alive as long as we can. The water you shower with, the food we feed you. We constantly assess each presentient’s physical state, and then take you out of the centre when your bodies start to shut down.”

I thought of the poor creatures in the centre, waiting patiently and working ceaselessly to be released. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I did not wipe them away. “And then you take our eyes?” I said defiantly, looking at her.

She seemed shaken, but regained her composure quickly, “Yes. That, and more besides. The presentients are not like us in their minds and abilities, but their bodies are useful to us. Although your bodies don’t manage to keep their own life in very long, the individual parts help us to deal with the changes in our environment.

“These eyes” — she pointed to her eyes, guiltily, I thought — “these eyes help me see in the glaring sun outside. These lungs,” She pulled her shirt down to show me a long scar on her chest, “will let me breathe the air. We do not kill you, and we do not waste you, either.

“But you are different. You are more clever, more inquisitive. But you will die soon, too. Too soon. I’m sorry,” she finished lamely.

I pondered it for a moment. Then I wiped away my tears with my arm, because I was not going to waste the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself. “I am ready. Tell me what happens to me now.”

* * *

The sun sets, leaving a purple glow above the horizon. I stand as the water starts falling from the sprinklers and slowly drenches me and the ground around me. It smells sweet. I hold out my hands and the dirt on them slowly washes off. I’ve noticed my hands shake more these days, but as long as they can dig, I’m happy.

Kendry pulled some strings, called in a couple of favours, perhaps from people whose eyes could see through the haze of the red sun, or with a kidney that could handle the poisons that seep into the ground water. I could not return to the centre, not with what I knew. They let me work in the gardens on the edge of a city I will never see.

Most people stay away from me. And that’s all right with me. Because I know who I am. I talk and I work, and I think, and I feel.

Regardless of what they call me, this is a kind of humanity that I’ve found, for however much time I have left. And that is enough.

Copyright © 2015 by Gabriela Houston

Proceed to Challenge 635...

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