This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on October 10th 2014.
by Richard Holliday
Neophytes aren’t born as such, rather they’re gestated then emerge into the wilderness that is the world. They start their lives very much as they will continue them – as an incomparable bond of chromosomes and machined parts. Nothing more, nothing less.
The sentinels of what’s left of humanity reside on a toxic planet called Monokia; chosen generations ago for its apparent sanctuary from the natural and artificial fates befalling the Original Planet. A dark side reared its ugly mane only when the metallic appendages of civilised industrialisation threatened to smother the rock and earth below. Now the city holds up to the sky, the sky looks wistfully back down and the surface a fetid cluster of rock and ore.
Neophytes have augmented bodies designed over time to combat the ills of the planet. Respiration gear is welded into the very alveoli of the lungs to better filter the acrid air and harness the last molecules of clean oxygen and nitrogen for organic functions. Metal shoes harking back to humanity’s primitive formative years make the pools of waste traversable, where flesh would simply melt away. The eyes too are a blend of natural retina and non-natural sight enhancements that give the being a form of infrared vision but strips out all colour. The brain in the skull is left to ponder it’s assigned purpose; survival, admittance and a sense of acceptance. The brain is conditioned to live in a base form where there is no room for imagination or creativity. These aspects are deemed superfluous and redundant in the face of survival. Life in the endless city is grim, each Neophyte a cog in the machine that makes new Neophytes to replace those who are life-expired.
A happy accident was a rarity on Monokia, though it only took one to spark a change that humanity hadn’t seen in three hundred years. Packs of Neophytes roamed potholed streets and ravaged alleyways for scraps of food and cloth to protect them from the cold. It was a hard life; each being could barely see in front of it and thought only of survival at an hourly horizon. There was no reason to think bigger than that, and certainly no impetus to fight against an artificial instinct. Neophytes merely lived until they didn’t any more.
Exploring the dilapidated catwalks of what was once an ore refinery, a group of hardy Neophytes thought they could see a hidden cache of foodstuffs in the warehouse beyond. It was too tempting to ignore; the programming within their augmented bodies actively encouraging them to seek it out (and not worry about other, bigger things). The catwalk shook under the weight of twenty hungry Neophytes. The metal wailed and sagged. With the resonance of each footstep pacing further from the supports, the props loosened and bolts worked out of their fixtures, the rust and oxidation holding them in breaking like dirty wafers.
Emitting a noisy din of crashing metal, the walkway collapsed, tossing the group of adventurous Neophytes down to the hard, baked ground with a thud. A cracking sound, too, but not of bone. Accidents like this happened all the time; these Neophytes were lucky not to have landed on anything sharp and pointy, and were merely bruised by their failure.
Getting up, each felt dizzy. Disoriented. A flood of information hit their retinas. Electronic buzzing came from the appendages attached to their heads, forming visors and helmets of grafted technology. It was no longer functional, but the organic parts of the Neophyte form was.
Light energy was painful to naked eyeballs in the first instance but perseverance overcame the shock.
Accidents were commonplace on this planet, and most were tragic. Unhappy. Desperate. Painful.
This accident had been happy.
Twenty Neophytes became the first humans to see in colour for three hundred years. But the ramifications were far more widespread than that.
Seeing the wild and varied hues and colours of the barren landscape was just the start. These beings now felt alive again and at one with the world. There was no mechanisms left grafted to their nervous systems to regulate what they should feel.
They felt… relieved. Euphoric. Released. And angry.
This small accident had awoken a subdued emotional tidal wave that the augmentations had held back. For the greater good. For survival.
How could generations of human being be slaved this way, reduced in their very existence to pack animals hunting for scraps of food in the trash of this ceaseless city. Answers were needed to these questions. The rediscovered sense of inquisition in the Neophytes demanded them.
The city itself seemed so alive, but this was false. Brightly lit buildings had stood empty for centuries The Neophytes cruising the underworld were all that was left of the human race. Latent memories of vocal communication in the language called English a long time ago reactivated from the deep, hidden subconscious.
Finding others, the first group repeated the accident and smashed the machines with broken bricks, and greeted each other in an intelligible way for the first time. Soon attention turned to the Tower which loomed above the landing site of the first evac craft years before. From here it had all begun. This was the command centre where the Planners had engineered humanity’s so-called future.
Having now accidentally released their latent intelligence, the time had come to intentionally discover why it had been shackled.
An imposing shutter covered the door to the Tower. Years of rain and pollution had welded it inexorably shut, the seams between the panels fused into a lump of solid, immovable door.
One group of Neophytes chose to scale the tower, hoping to gain ingress above street level. Another eyed the sewers and drains, finding the covers movable, and clambered in.
A trickle of dirty water ran along the very base of the tubular sewer, keeping to a gouge that the acidic content had eroded in the metal lining. Footsteps rang hollow and reverberated eerily. Low, teal-coloured lights prickled through drain covers and through dim service lamps. Round a corner, the cylindrical sewer opened into a rectangular staging area. A ladder beckoned, with a hatch that creaked open at the top.
Inside, there wasn’t the opulent, grand entrance hall the group were half-expecting; this was an industrial complex that was filled with tanks, vats and pipes that leaked steam, water, and possibly chemicals. A blue glow came from the roof, far above, though the nest of pipes, tube and cables. A passageway littered with dirt needled its way through the mechanisms of this place. A fog filled the upper stages, shrouding the lights. What shone down on the processing floor had an eerie, lunar feel about its luminance.
Deeper in, a metallic thud and organic squelch became audible through the echo. Running toward the sound, the group found a solitary machine with a translucent tank. An opaque cover was fastened over the end of the machine, and activity could be seen within. A pale, ghostly light shone through the material. One of the Neophytes lifted the cover. A creaky manipulator arm was revealed. It reached into the brine-filled tank and pulled a pink ball from it, depositing it on a conveyor.
It was a baby. Fresh from gestation but also free from augmentation.
Winds whipped the upper sections of the tower, but the balcony beckoned. A warm glow spilled over the parapet, inviting the climbers in.
From the base of the tower the spire was invisible, shrouded by a cloud that lingered low in the atmosphere. A product of ceaseless industry that had bleached this world.
Rappelling hooks grasped the concrete balcony, and the threshold was easily ascended to. The great room beyond beckoned, and the group of climbers ventured into the warmth.
Humidity pelted the cold skin of the Neophyte climbers as they entered the environmental shield. Clothes and documents were scattered, untouched by the still, tale air. It was as if the occupants had left the room yesterday; the dates on the paperwork and computer terminals belying the truth.
Nothing had happened in this place for three hundred years.
They were all dead. Former occupants now dry bones in chairs. Almost three centuries ago, all the Controllers who had occupied the tower, at first as overlords of the colony but subsequently planners of the never ending community that girdled and encased an entire surrogate planet, had died. From the evidence, the initial stages had ostensibly started as a plan to prolong the survival of the last chunk of humanity but corruption had soon set in. Preservation became control, with those at the top playing deity with those whose lives depended on their very plans.
That was the human condition.
The trail led from the suite to a series of computer banks that linked with the industrial gestation machines in the basement. It took the plans for the ‘new’ humanity and transmuted them into reality. Some thought the machine was evil in its very purpose but a machine is no more evil than those that programmed it. The judgement was not against the machine, which had performed its role faultlessly for centuries, but those who built it to pervert the very race it was saving.
The two groups soon met during their exploration of the Tower, and shared their discoveries. Given thought, a combination of the technology upstairs and the augmentation-free children in the basement could allow the realisation of the dream.
Humanity could rise from the temporary stasis it had lived in as Neophytes. Maybe, in three more centuries, Monokia could be the surrogate home it seemed destined to be, however unwilling.
© Richard Holliday, 2014