I searched my memory for anything from school to corroborate this, but came back empty handed. Something we were not considered old enough to learn just yet by the sound of it. He narrowed his eyes, staring into the distance, and went on.
“For the first time, we figured out how evolution works. Genetics, selection, all that stuff. Soon after that, we figured out how to integrate technology into the body, replacing limbs and organs with machinery.” It sounded too fantastical. But given recent developments, I was ready to believe anything.
“It’s no good. Distorting yourself. Polluting the genome. Nature knew best, but we thought we were smarter. The most we can do is gently steer it. Some of the changes people were making to themselves were just….perverse. Like, they weren’t human anymore. Changed their genes so much they became monsters. Or disembodied brains in mechanized armor. Not what the Founder intended.”
The picture began to grow clear. “The Founder put a stop to it?” I asked. “Yep. Burnt away the accumulated horror of man’s technological excess. Swept it into the trash, until only pure humanity was left. All of us then gradually shaped into his image, perfected by the time tested process of judicious pairing. If not for his visionary guidance at that crucial juncture, imagine what we’d be now. There would be no humanity, just mangled, revolting mockeries of the human form wrought by unrestrained genetic tampering and cyber-surgery.”
“Is that why we cannot go to the surface?” He mulled that one over before answering. “It’s connected. The war ravaged and scorched the surface of the Earth to the point that few places remained where humans could live. Part of why the colonies were built. For all we know, they’re still down there. But in the course of our directionless, foolish explorations, we discovered something stranger by far than any product of biological or technological self-modification.”
My eyes widened. He paused, perhaps to torment me with the anticipation. “Even as we tore one another apart, each faction striving to decide the future of humanity, something else watched. Striking when we were weakest, most divided. That thing outside all of this, beyond the beyond.”
“It exists on scales of space and time incomprehensible to our minds, only able to reach us through a few narrow channels. The first is simply to understand what it is. The first human being to do this opened the floodgates. Walking among us undetected, he invented a means of instant travel over long distances, neglecting to mention that it passed through some other place on the way. That’s how his buddies got in.”
A tall tale. It had to be, knowing Dad. Yet there was no trace of deceit on his face. Just a thousand yard stare. “We had to know. That’s our great downfall, you realize. Relentless curiosity, the drive to explore and invent. Never satisfied with what we’ve already built, never content to simply enjoy the good life. Always eager to discover what’s over the next horizon.”
He inhaled through his teeth and winced. “Well, now we know. It was waiting for us. Must patiently wait, wherever it lives, for foolish small creatures like us to open the way for it.” I interrupted him here. “You keep saying “it”. What is it? What did we find?”
He tensed up. “Some say it was our collective hatred and foolishness turned back on us. A richly deserved judgement. But truth is stranger than fiction. What little we managed to learn about it as it consumed the Earth painted a very different picture."
He met my gaze, and narrowed his eyes. "It's deviation itself. Essence of perversity. Whatever force seeks to distort that which is good, pure and noble. Takes the living, the feeling, breaks it down into numbers and categories, sucking the color out of it. The form cannot be described, only the nature. For a long time we thought it meant to replace us. As if what it most dearly wanted was to be mistaken for genuine life.”
Now glued to my seat, I begged to know more. “If it wanted to replace all of us, it could’ve done so. But then what? A world full of facsimiles. There’s no satisfaction in that, as there’s nothing left to pervert. Through fear, it molded us. Changed how we lived our lives, making us regiment every waking minute for security purposes, removing any trace of creativity or flourish for fear of inspiring the dreaded realization through which it enters. That was its real game. Not to become human, but to make us inhuman.”
I couldn’t understand a lot of it. But I could feel the emotional gravity, through senses only recently awakened in me. By this, I knew he was being truthful. “By the time we understood the nature of the threat, the Founder had already led his armies to glorious victory over the deviants, incurring such severe losses along the way that there was no hope of fighting it. We could only flee.”
“Some hunkered down in the concrete domes, originally built to sustain life against lingering radiation from the bombs. I shudder to think of what’s become of them. The rest of us took to the skies, frantically leveraging forgotten technology to rise above the writhing, teeming black mass of impossible unlife which now envelops the surface.”
Whenever I’d asked teachers about it before, they’d just lied. I knew they were lying because they all gave different answers. “The ice caps melted and covered all land in water”, one said. But then, why not live on the water? “A terrible plague”, another said. But would it not eventually die off with no human hosts? They must think children are stupid, rather than simply inexperienced.
“Why do they keep all of this from us for so long?” My curiosity now provoked, I felt insatiable. He sighed. “There….are some elements of society….who feel, for wrongheaded reasons, that the Founder had no right to purge the world of deviation. That it was nobody’s place to decide for the rest how humanity would continue. If I had my way, they’d be tossed over the edge so they can discover firsthand where deviation gets you.”
He declined to say more. Which frustrated me as I’d only just gotten a glimpse of something larger which I felt was the key to understanding why I’d been changing recently. But, satisfied that I knew as much as I needed and as much as he wanted me to know, Dad warned me to keep it to myself, then sent me to bed.
I awoke the next morning with still vivid memories of a bizarre nightmare. Of ionocraft controlled not by human pilots, but intelligent machines, who also performed every other menial task. Of injured soldiers regrowing arms and legs lost in war, perhaps adding a second set if they saw fit.
Changes upon changes, accumulating until the creatures undertaking all of this were no longer recognizably human. I recoiled from the idea, understanding to some degree why, in recognition of where that path was taking us, we’d refused to continue down it. But could I really justify…?
Besides which, I was now one of those deviants. Wasn’t I? I knew of nobody else in my class who could move things without touching them, much less fly. Skills I guessed would not be well received, should I reveal them. So, I lived in hiding. Surrounded by others who outwardly looked like me but who I found it increasingly difficult to relate to.
Somehow, word got around that I was sick. A deficiency of any kind, however slight, was reason enough to heap ridicule on someone. This was not discouraged but reinforced, to make clear to us the price of succumbing to weakness of any sort. The price of deviation from a singular ideal.
“Why don’t you die already?” A girl with three bright red pigtails shrieked at me, laughing thereafter like a manic gibbon. “She’s right. Don’t pass it on to your kids. They’d never let you anyway. Nobody wants to be paired with a sickly deviant.” I cringed. Never before had I been the focus of collective scorn like this. I felt very small and fearful, but knew better than to show it.
“The Founder never got sick!” one of them shouted, hurling a rubber ball at my head. Reflexively, I stopped it mid-air. It hung in place for a moment as everyone present stared, jaws hanging open. Then it fell and bounced away. “Let me tell you something about the Founder….” I began.
I didn’t get to finish. “The Founder couldn’t do that” one of the girls feebly whispered, still stunned. Then, reinforced by the outraged cries of the rest, she screamed “DEVIATION! DEEEVIIIAATION!!” I don’t know what they might’ve done to me, had a teacher not seized me by the collar and frog marched me to the doctor’s office.
“Did you take your meds this morning?” the kindly looking grey haired man inquired. I’d seen him only once before when I skinned my knee playing cloudball in second grade. I appreciated that he hadn’t made some remark about how much I’d grown since he last saw me, an irritating habit most grownups seem to share.
I affirmed that I’d swallowed the little grey pill as instructed. He stroked his chin, deep in thought. Then set about taking my blood pressure, measuring my cranium and administering tests similar to the ones I remembered from the hospital. As before, I deliberately restrained myself. “If you can do anything like that despite the meds, it’s a severe case. You look stable for the time being, but there’s no telling. It sometimes happens without warning.”
He didn’t clarify, but I could guess at his meaning. I recalled the boy from my hospital room, now contained in some unfamiliar form within that great metal sphere. “Can’t afford to make it any stronger than it already is”, the doctor mentioned in passing. That perked my ears up. “Pardon?” He made eye contact, surprised by my interest.
Stay Tuned for Part 6!