3590 words, short story
I’m on my way to class, crossing the lawn quadrangle with several dozen other caged birds in parka-onesies and boots, when First Station Security chase down another Blackbird.
“The Masters—” she screeches as muscle-enhanced Blues pile onto her “—they’ve lied to us!” She kicks and snarls and spits grass and blonde curls, but these badged boys are good with knees and handcuffs. “No technology is worth this. We must choose for ourselves!”
The flock around me titters and clucks—as though any of us are genetically human anymore—and as Security lugs her off, I join them. I don’t laugh at her politics. Sure, the Masters have deceived us. I laugh because she’s in black and singing, and getting put away seems a silly way of fixing things. The Blackbirds are all song and dance.
Humanity’s willingness to be deceived is our biggest weakness, or so the Makers—they who made me in their hidden glacier laboratories in Aotearoa’s Southern Alps—insist, and I reckon they’re right. We want to believe that everyone else’s just like us. Massive error of judgment, that. Trust’s a shocking illusion.
And see, I’m all about camouflage. Name’s Nick; Nikau Matukutureia. I stand alone and hidden, like my family’s namesake the extinct Matuku heron of my homeland. Only, I refuse to let my kind die out.
Alone, well . . . except for Charlie. I’m human enough to love, and boy, does it keep me awake at night. And I don’t mean sex, or at least, not much. We’ve slept apart for months. Fights and love, beliefs and doubts. See, Masters? That’s human.
When we were first caged into First Station, six or seven hundred kilometers southwest of the Mawson grasslands by tube train into the high tundra of East Antarctica, I couldn’t answer my doubts. Nothing’s changed, there, but I am my purpose . . . and in that, I’m hardly human at all.
Much like my kids. Their boredom jangles, squelched in the back of my mind. They’re why everything’s here, so off I go—to teach them.
The masculine-smelling warmth in the positive-pressure rush of air from our unit drives me to tears for the third time this week. Only six weeks into our three-year contract, and I’m out of energy for quarrelling.
“What’s happened this time, chook?” Nick asks as he rolls from the lounge like a predatory boulder. I don’t know if I love or hate it when he calls me that, and he knows it. Yet he clicks on the kettle, and I do need a coffee.
My half-numb fingers tingle as they rip the velcro seals of my almost-familiar jumper-onesie. “They hate me,” I half-blubber, but it isn’t true—my children are, well . . . they’re different. There are no normal eight year olds here. Knowing what they are makes me doubt my instincts, and as I shimmy free of the onesie, I judge myself unworthy, again. “Why am I here?” I ask, as if asking might bring clarity. “Why are we here?”
“We came because we had to,” Nick says, smooth brown skin crinkling around his wry smile. I wish I had even a fraction of his confidence and equanimity. “The Board, and all that, eh?”
“Not that,” I say, scrambling for any footing at all. I jam my onesie beside his over the drying frame and thrust a black-lacquered fingernail at our tiny living room’s single window. The little perspex circle stares out across First Station’s transparent tensegrity dome, and glares a white-cold light all day and all night. Antarctic midsummer has everyone wrung out. Humans need dark for sleep, and the curtain ban is an abuse of our rights—as is the lack of space. Even our tiny high-rise Melbourne studio had been larger. “I mean, people. Here, in bloody Antarctica!”
“We were here before them,” Nick points out. “Not so many of us, hey, but we were here. You know, Mawson, Davis, Casey, Amundsen, those Russian and Chinese bases. People have been here for ages.”
I make a rude noise, then wrestle a box for a tissue for my dripping nose. “Hear about today?”
“Another Blackbird, in the square!”
“Oh, her. Yeah. Saw her taken down. Nuts, eh?”
“God.” I shake my head. “I wish we were going home.”
“What, Melbourne?” He scratches his cropped curls and tattooed scalp as he nears. “You hated the city.” His strong hands rest too heavily on my shoulders. Does he feel the swellings growing there? Yet his chest is safe and muscular against my face, and he smells sweet and fruity. I’ve never smelled anyone like Nick, and never met anyone like him either. He’s my rock . . . and just as impenetrable. “Give it time, hey? It’s not easy, what we’re doing here.”
I scoff, thinking of the faraway looks he gets. “You’re one to talk, Mr. Exercise.”
“Running’s good for stress. Hey! Why not come with me?” He flexes his arms, squashing my tender back.
“Oi!” I squeak, but I’ve nowhere to flinch to. “Me? With you? On these little legs? You might as well go walking.”
“That’s okay, eh, but. I’ll just go for a run, after.”
With a chuckle he lets me go, and we each carry our secrets to our separate spaces. He buries himself in a book. I sip an awful station coffee in bed while streaming dumb vids, trying to fit my aching shoulder-blade nubs into the rut I’ve dug in my life.
Every day before breakfast and after Charlie’s class, something like dawn and dusk in lower latitudes, I strip to shorts and joggers and fly around the one-and-a-half-kilometer circumference of First station. From the transparent insulation there’s my recreation track running through the landscaped space around the dome’s structural trusses and cables, then the vehicular track—the indirect route between the station’s two triple-gated entrances—then the buildings. Sometimes there’s other exercise-mad people on the path, both hybrids and normals, and around them I keep it relaxed, do maybe four laps—that’s play. But when I’m alone, like today, it’s sprint time.
Sprints . . . they’re work. Four-truss lengths, two hundred and eighty meters flights—each burning my legs and opening my engineered skin pores.
Between sprints I catch my breath in carefully chosen sites—away from cameras and busy areas, where the dome’s gray-painted steel trusses anchor in flexion points. Must look strange, me rubbing my bare back and shoulders against the cold steel. It’s more fridge than freezer, though, and my sweat’s pretty sticky. My chosen sites are gumming over anyway, layers forming a latex as the Makers had designed. So, almost done, hey.
Work. My kids are in gym, enjoying ball-play. Their foreign emotions leave me feeling trapped in my own head. Charlie’s been acting caged for weeks. The dome arcs over us like a snare, like one of my ancestors’ bird-catching basket nets.
I’m Māori, a warrior. Is this a war? Have the Makers made me unworthy of my ancestry? When I die, will my spirit fly to Hawaiki? Or to heaven? By then, I reckon I won’t care much about any of it.
This is all normal, I remind myself, but the children’s expressionless moon-faces, blotchy with black-headed pimples with the onset of their Coming, don’t look terribly normal. Normal, maybe, for them.
Today I led my class out onto the roof of the education building, five floors above the vegetable patch. I’d wondered if the heating inside was too warm for whatever they had done to the children’s metabolisms. God knows I have trouble thinking when I’m too warm. Nick laughed at the idea, but he loves sweat and heat. Me, I need a breeze—even the gentle regulated vortex inside the dome. Yet despite the cool, my children’s faces remain unknowably blank.
Teaching without feedback feels pointless, something like the silent avian whirlpool of gulls circling above the dome. The children are learning, or so they insist. Trust us. But it’s as invisible to me as the thermal leakage under those seabirds’ wings.
Yet those gulls are freer than me. Why can’t I leap from the rooftop and soar? I roll my aching shoulders, stretch my grafts against the confines of my clothing, and sigh. Keep on keeping on, Charlie. My sleeve flashes my lesson plan.
I take a deep breath and wave the kids to the railing. “Okay, children,” I chirp. “Who can show me where cabbages are growing?”
In a whisper of thermal nylon unitards, the children all point down at the long rows of big-leaved plants.
Startled, I stammer, “Y—Yes, that’s right!” My heart races. Emotion is good, and showing it is a part of my role: The children must understand humanity. “Wow, guys! That’s great! What about carrots? Remember their leaves? Short and feathery, right? Where are the carrots growing?”
Vacant black eyes, and sinking, soul-sucking silence.
Charlie won’t look at me through breakfast. I play with a teaspoon, watching her shovel cereal like she’s starving. The stuff tastes okay, but with everything else the Makers engineered into me, couldn’t they have included lactose tolerance?
Her empty bowl gives way to her coffee, but she grimaces at the flecks of UHT floating atop it. “Going for a run?”
“Class’ got art . . . so, yeah. Probably just a jog.”
We’re both still chewing on last night’s argument. I get her frustration with her kids, but she won’t accept my experience with my older class, and I can’t share my lifetime of training in resisting them. “Be patient,” I’d finally told her, after we were done shouting about dumb things like the state of our toilet and kitchen. “They’re listening. Trust me, hey? This is a phase. They’ll get over it soon. You’ll see.” She doesn’t know I’m right yet.
It’s all the Masters’ mess. They’re breeding conflict here, not peace. Humans becoming aliens, or maybe aliens becoming human? How can humanity’s problems be solved like this? The Makers had bred me, too . . . but I’m no system of incremental genocide.
She drains her mug while scraping back her chair. “I start in ten.”
“I’ll clean up, chook.”
“Thanks,” she says, but her eyes rake me like talons. She’s thinking I’ll put things away wrong again.
“Oi,” I call after her. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll Awaken today?”
She winces into her onesie, and doesn’t bother sealing it before leaving.
My teaspoon bends beneath my thumb. Fighting with Charlie clears doubts, but it hurts.
Straightening the spoon distracts me, as does cleaning up. After, I sort teaching notes on my sleeve and check for the presence of any of them through my encrypted station worm. The Masters usually alert Control of their approach, and with my head in a mess, I’d rather not risk facing one.
In the back of my mind, paint squelches between half-furred fingers. It makes me angrier, and despite the few walkers about, my run becomes another sprint. My sweat latexes on the trusses feel warmer, scavenging traces of activators from the dome’s atmosphere—which means that my system’s working. I’ve days left, at most.
Oi, Charlie, I’m sorry. I should have known better than to fall in love.
Several children have fuzz sprouting across their cheeks, now, even the girls. They’re like little unshaven men on my classroom’s gray linoleum.
“So, can anyone name one of these rainforest animals?” I ask their bland expressions. A bright human child half their age might have gushed over the projection on my learning wall, but these kids’ slow-blinking black eyes reveal nothing, let alone comprehension. “This forest is in Asia, so these are Asian animals—like we were learning about yesterday?”
Silence. One of the hairiest boys scritch-scratches his cheek.
I stare, exasperated, then throw up my hands. “Oh, why do I bother? Do you lot even hear me?”
*Yes?* squeaks a little voice in my head. Another joins it, then another. The mental murmuring grows and swells until, in a single exultant chorus, the class declares, *We hear you, Ms. Blake!* I’m falling off my chair, and they’re jumping and dancing with pure delight on their bristly little faces.
*I can hear you, too! And you!*
*Hey, what about that new Park Robots last night—*
*Yes!* Impossibly, I remember a red cartoon robot doing a humorous dance. There’s a strange mental giggle. *This is so great!*
*Huh? What ball?*
*Down-ball!* Words and impressions blend, somehow clearer than mere speech. *During break?*
And with that, my children Awaken—and I finally understand. They had said the children would not respond aloud, and that it might happen like this. Nick, too.
The children’s happiness is giddy, uncomplicated, and very human. When had I last known such joy? For a minute or two, I bask in it.
Then I clap my hands. This is school, after all.
“Children!” The mental hurly-burly subsides, leaving me feeling alone. “Well done, everyone. Shall we continue learning about rainforests?”
The children settle cross-legged—only now, without planning or effort, they arrange themselves into a four-by-five grid. Twenty voices mumble together, *Yes, Ms. Blake.* Now that they are pushing it into my head, their eagerness astonishes me. I can feel it.
*Tigers live in rainforests,* declares a girl—Sophie.
“Yes!” I gush aloud. “Can you show everyone?” I’d expected her to point, but instead her mental impression of a tiger flashes around the room in an instant. I tap my wall to activate the animation, and receive a satisfying, *Ooh.*“Very good! Anyone else?”
*Ms. Blake?* Which pair of dark eyes is asking? *Why is your back hurting?*
I hesitate, wondering how to answer. “Even adults grow up,” I say, and in my back, new muscles twitch and tingle to the spark of new neural connections.
I’m halfway around my circuit, flight curtailed to jog by the Maintenance gardeners, when I see one of them.
No warning pings or zaps, because I’m in shorts—but the dome’s mostly clear of snow and I spot it on the permafrost.
At a glance you can’t pick a Master from a Maker. They’ve the same shaggy white hair, the same stubby legs, the same truck-squashed faces. Big enough to stop a truck too, maybe half a ton, trudging like a drunken glacier. But hidden deep in its fur this Master’s skinny arms would be wrapped in gloves, and the Makers disdain clothing.
The blurry glimpse slams the bars of my mental birdcage. No illusion’s better than the truth: I sweep panic aside with worry over Charlie and her children.
Ahead, a Maintenance guy stiffens—an instant before the Master pushes into my head. They’re rude like that, even through foot-thick insulation, but you get used to it. I’ve seen them holding four mental conversations at once; all, if you believe it, while sharing thoughts and impressions with the nearest of its kind.
*EDUCATOR, YOU ARE TROUBLED?* Its alien thoughts feel like spaghetti might, to someone expecting a steak.
“On schedule,” I hear the Maintenance guy say.
I slow to a walk, presenting a memory of last night’s argument, a focused peek between the bars. “It’s nothing.”
*DISAGREEMENT WITH YOUR MATE.* Its statement comes tangled with disapproval. Makers and Masters both use disagreement like a dirty word. Maybe conflict feels rougher between shared heads, or maybe it’s a hangover from the schism that divided their species—whatever that had been. *RESOLUTION IMMINENT?*
“Yes. We strive for commonality.” They love phrases like that.
*APPROPRIATE,* it judges. *CLARITY OF EXPRESSION PROMOTES HARMONY.*
“It does,” I agree.
It pulls its thoughts and trundles off, shaking the ground . . . or maybe that’s me. When I jog away in the opposite direction, my rhythm’s off.
My head feels besieged, like a Pā of my ancestors making war against invading pākehā . . . but my struggle’s almost over. The encapsulated bacteriophages that I’ve been crapping into the dome’s sewerage bioreactor have been doing their job, generating gaseous activators. The smell of them in the dome is stronger than I would have believed possible, so my sweat latexes must be near primed—yet I don’t dare check on them.
Time’s short, it’s almost Charlie’s knock-off time, and like a homing pigeon I fly home.
After dismissing my excited kids early, I head home cross-dome, but there’s a peculiar acrid chemical stink hanging in the air. The Maintenance guys are usually over-protective of our sealed environment, and I can’t find any station updates on my sleeve, so for the hell of it—maybe it’s the cloud of painkillers I’m on—I sniff around like a biosecurity dog. Unsurprisingly, the smell’s strongest around the bioreactor plant and vegetable garden, where the waste of four hundred people is processed for both power generation and fertilizer. That must pong sometimes.
I take the long way home; amid the vegetation along the recreation track my writhing and shrugging doesn’t look so strange. My burgeoning grafts cramp, outgrowing my clothes. I wish I could stretch them, but . . . they’re not ready. I’m not ready. And . . . Nick doesn’t know. I don’t see him on the track, so I head home.
The smell hasn’t penetrated our apartment yet. As I twist out of my parka-onesie, I feel like I’m floating.
“Someone dropped one out there, eh?” His voice startles me, but there he is stepping out of the bathroom, wet and muscular and naked but for a towel slung about his hips. He knuckles his short curls in the hallway mirror, and in the spotlight of afternoon sunshine through our window, his wing-like Māori tattoos shimmer and ripple across his back.
My jaw drops and I’m aroused for the first time in months . . . but what if he hates what I’m becoming? His shoulder muscles are like a magnet to my fingers, moisture slick across the swirling designs. He winks at me in the mirror, then turns and captures my waist.
“Oi, that’s bright,” he says, squinting over a sparkling grin. His hands slide down to cup my backside. “Want to go . . . somewhere darker?”
“Mmm-hmm,” I murmur, and stand on tiptoes to press my cheek against his. We rub noses, and kiss. I shiver, delighted, and then—
*Fudge, Fudge, call the judge,
*Anna’s having a baby.
*Seth’s going crazy.
*Wrap it up in toilet paper,
*Send it down the elevator.
*What’s it gonna be?
*Boy, girl, triplets, alien—* A tinkle of mental laughter, and then Sophie’s in my mind, tangled in a skipping rope. I can’t help it, I break off the kiss and giggle. Where—how—had they learned that game?
Nick looks bemused. “What?”
“Kids. How do I keep them out of my head, now?”
“Ha! Not easy, eh? They must love you.” He picks me up, his towel flopping to the carpet. I replace it with my legs. “Keeping busy’s the trick.”
His jaw is half smooth and half-stubbly. “Suppose you’ll help with that?”
“Sure, chook.” We kiss again, and he tugs down my suit’s zip while backing us up. “Yeah.”
Then we’re toppling onto his bed, aflutter, trilling with laughter and sensation, and I fall with him, atop him. My back prickles, old blood through new flesh.
Either I had answers, or I was fooling myself. Truth’s mostly delusion and self-affirming ideology anyway, and I’d been made for a reason. None of it matters much as Charlie makes love to me for the first time in months. She’s had work done on her back, tender to my probing, and I keep clear. They’re long and weird, but they’re just flesh, her flesh. Flesh is all we are, all our ancestors ever were, just water and electricity wrapped in fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Yet, we’re important, too. We are humans, trying to be as human as we can. In the end, humanity’s always been best at serving itself.
And it is the end, hey—or, almost. Who knows how long we have? The threshold concentration could be days, hours, or mere minutes away. Tonight would be fitting, but tonight Charlie and I are one, yet not; so completely human. We’re no Masters or Makers, or their strange children, all muddled in one another’s heads. When humans die, we die alone.
I smile as she shudders and comes. Her song is the sweetest sound in my forest. She flicks back her hair, grins, and—
Whump! An explosion rocks the dome. Something clatters to the tiles in our little bathroom.
She jerks in my arms. “What the—? Was that an earthquake?”
“Reckon,” I lie. Lying is very human. “Kind of felt like one, eh?”
“But aren’t we plate-central—?”
A second and third latex detonate, and the dome’s structure succumbs to my body’s fires. Something twangs and swooshes, a parachute-like sound, and a tremendous crashing echoes. I imagine tension and compression failing, crumpling metal bones and transparent insulation sloughing like scales off a deflating fish. Molten and frozen cage bars groan and heave, howling like angry gods battling across the sky. Everything shakes.
I close my eyes against the children’s pain and fear. I was never theirs. I am my own, the Makers’, and Charlie’s.
She squawks as I hold her tight, whispering human words about love and freedom. Her wings—what she’s had grafted onto her back—flail and slap, featherless, against my locked forearms. She is my Mātātā, my fernbird, who will guide my spirit—if I have one—to Hawaiki. My sweat hardens across our skins, and her struggles fan the bedsheets to smoldering.
As our walls collapse I roll atop her. In the end I am not merely Matukutureia—the vigilant bittern—but also the Nikau, palm tree of my ancestors, giving shelter as the cold, bright night rushes in with purifying flame, blasting skin and hair and cotton.
Maybe, I think—and it is my last thought—
A. Brym is an Australian writer, illustrator and scientist who lives in motion: between towns, across countrysides and continents, and through worlds real, imaginary and metaphorical. The Clarion West Workshop of 2010 was one such journey, but more common travels include dreams in the creative corner, typing or reading in bed, and nurturing sourdough.