by Sadim Chelwood
La Boivre, Poitiers, Old France
It would be happening soon and she would be watching.
Watching and recording.
The girl known as Tyr-10 shifted her weight more evenly between her forearms, carefully flattening the long grass in front of her to optimise the view of the tiny pond that had formed in the bank of the brook that meandered through the quiet wood.
A mellifluous melody seeped quietly through her earpiece and the lyrics from the ancient song soothed her like a lullaby.
Filtered sunlight fell through freshly-budded leaves and glinted in golden patches on the gently eddying water. The droning of bees merged pleasantly with the measured metre of the archaic cadence. In the warmth of the late spring afternoon the fuzzy insects drifted in and out of her peripheral vision.
Bobbing gently in time with the languorous tune, Tyr-10’s big toe brushed a frond of felon herband was tickled by the delicate white hairs on the underside of the silver leaf.
She felt completely at ease. Her last examination had gone well and if she maintained this progress for the next four years she would stand a good chance of entering the Pool. Without the aid of her ORS she could recall all the native flora and fauna by heart. Felon herb – artemisia vulgaris. In the water she could identify eels, pike, perch, carp, roach. A foot to her right grew some macchia or ‘maquis’, Without effort Tyr-10 could mentally break the shrub down into all its separate chemical compounds and list every single one of its medicinal and nutritive properties.
As she could do for every tree, flower and grass as far as the eye could see and beyond.
The name ‘maquis’ triggered thoughts of French resistance fighters and subsequently her mind skipped over the last three thousand years of history of the ground on which she lay, a history spanning Roman invasion through Allied bombardment past the Sacrifice right up to today.
But it would not do to be complacent. Knowing everything about her natural environment and its impact on the planet; how to strip down and repair every piece of technology she used; how to find all the materials to build and maintain her homestead; how to make and mend her garments; how to construct and fix her means of transport without relying on outside help… that was all very well and good, but would she be able to do it during the Test?
Tyr-10 sighed and turned her attention to the willow-shaded beck.
Visiting the same spot yesterday, she had seen the gelatinous globules with their squirming black occupants start to writhe and she had known that soon the tadpoles would be wriggling from the spawn to begin their new life in the limpid water.
But that was not what she was waiting for.
She peered more intently into the twitching, oozy mass.
More of the glistening pollywogs slipped from their milky sacs as she scanned the dollop of gooey bubbles.
Then, something else moved.
Oviposited in the seething, viscous froth, the moment had come for it to emerge.
It struck. Faster than she could see.
But she could see the results.
A thrashing panicked newborn was held fast by powerful pincers, the top of its tiny head punctured and chewed by mandibles that Tyr-10 knew would deliver digestive enzymes so that the killer could suck out the liquefied remains.
Dytiscidae larvae. The water tiger.
She watched. She recorded. And even before the crescent-shaped killer had finished consuming its first victim, it snapped again, gorging itself on another helpless quarry.
But this was good. This was how it should be. It was her job was to watch and document. There were very strict rules. She could not intervene, even if she had wanted to.
She retuned to the macabre spectacle.
Again, the water tiger darted forth, ripping into the tender flesh of another tadpole.
The crystalline water began to turn the faintest shade of russet pink.
She rubbed her eyes. Though she had been there for several hours, it was not yet dusk. Perhaps it was the fatigue. She looked again. Strange. Tadpoles don’t bleed that much. Yet the water was definitely becoming more ruddy. Had something disturbed the stream bed?
Then she saw it, drifting languidly around the bend of the stream.
Preceded by swirling crimson clouds, a child’s lifeless body glided towards the startled spectator sprawled on the bank.
In a gesture she had made hundreds of thousands of times, Tyr-10’s fingers few to her ORS, the optical readout screen on the goggles she sometimes wore when she left the compound. The fleeting touch next to her right ear refreshed the scanning device and she read the projected information. It confirmed that there were several living creatures over 1kg in weight in the vicinity as well as herself. But no people. This was troubling. She would have been informed of the presence of anyone else within a radius of three kilometres. So this object was no longer living. Unless it had never lived and the thing in the water was not a human corpse. It must be some ridiculous hoax.
Realising she had been holding her breath, Tyr-10 allowed herself to breathe out slowly and then took in a large gulp of the woodland air. An analysis of the water would reveal what coloured dye had been used to frighten her and so she approached the gurgling rill carefully and dipped the index finger of her sampling glove into the water.
Tyr-10’s tension rose markedly again as the results of the analysis appeared in front of eyes. Amid the usual organic matter of the otherwise crystalline water, the readout showed the presence of a considerable trace amounts of Rh-D positive human blood. Though she didn’t believe in luck, Tyr-10 nevertheless felt fortunate that this was a day when she was permitted the ORS. Had it been yesterday she would have had to rely on her own senses.
Trembling slightly, Tyr-10 looked more carefully at the figure bobbing face-down in the stream. The body was naked. It was neither bloated nor discoloured and seemed to have pale skin. The head had been shaven in the fashion of all the natives of this region. She could not tell if it was a girl or a boy but she guessed from the size of the cadaver that the child had been no more than seven or eight years old. What was very clear however was that the blood seemed to be coming from around the neck area.
Normally so decisive and self-assured, Tyr-10 hesitated. People, and certainly not children, simply didn’t meet violent ends. It must have been an accident though she couldn’t imagine how it could have happened. Swimming was always supervised and always in designated areas bordering the larger river several kilometres to the south.
Maybe it was something else. There had been whispers and rumours over the past year. Children dying in strange circumstances.
Keeping apace with the morbid flotsam, Tyr-10 crept stealthily along the bank, swishing through the waist-high grass. She should contact someone, an elder but at the same time she had been raised to be independent to solve problems herself. And what was this if not a conundrum to fathom out? Besides, everything she did was being recorded by the ORS and would be seen by all the members of the commune. She would hate to be reprimanded for inaction or considered a coward.
A few metres further the bank of the brook dipped and here Tyr-10 stepped into the chilly stream. She took six long strides through the water and grabbed the child’s arm, dragging the body towards the bank.
After struggling on some slippery, moss-covered pebbles, Try-10 managed to heave the child into the lush vegetation. Only then did she flip the body onto its back. As she did so, she gave a strangled gasp as the head flopped backwards revealing the hideous gash that yawned open across the child’s throat. But it was not just the mutilation that shocked Tyr-10. Despite the lifeless eyes staring into nothingness she recognised the child as Silica-24, the daughter of one of the families from a neighbouring commune.
‘What has done this to her? Am I in danger? How did she end up here? What do I do now? Do I just leave her here?’ A myriad questions zipped wildly around her head including one that could not be avoided, ‘Who will replace her to maintain the balance?’
Flicking a finger to her temple she triple-checked the ORS and flash-read the information. There were some larger animals around within the scanner’s range: foxes, snakes, badgers, buzzards even a lynx. But it was too early for the herds of aurochs that annually passed the compound and the pride of lions that shadowed them. Tyr-10 seriously doubted that any creature in the vicinity could have inflicted damage like that to the fragile flesh of Silica-24.
She should go and fetch help but a powerful desire to stay with the pale corpse rendered her immobile. How could she abandon this vulnerable child to whatever out there had done this? Tyr-10 realised the futility of such sentiments and acknowledged that they hindered her capacity to react efficiently. At twelve years old herself she simply hadn’t been trained in such a scenario, nor could she recall of any teaching remotely appropriate to help her deal with this grisly situation. Even her advanced medical skills were now woefully redundant.
A single inquisitive ant scuttled up Silica-24’s smooth-skinned cheek and flitted between the faint freckles on her nose.
Making sure that the ORS had saved a highly detailed scan of the scene, Tyr-10 sprinted back towards the compound.
Though his expression remained impassive, Dihyd-52 smiled on the inside. He was impressed with the progress his young charge had made in acquiring their local dialect and the boy also seemed genuinely respectful and inquisitive during the monthly ceremony of thanks to the Sacrifice. Though it was a shared global act that had been practised for well over six hundred years, Dihyd-52 knew that some visitors to their commune and even members of his own compound merely feigned gratitude; others didn’t even bother to disguise their disinterest. His own daughter being a case in point.
‘And so, if I have understood correctly, each family unit has committed the names of one hundred individuals to memory and are duty-bound to select the stories of five of them each year, during your Occupancy, and recount them during the Festival of Memory?’ The boy’s obsidian-black eyes held Dihyd-52’s gaze serenely.
‘Quite so, Eumala-43. Our family has chosen to relive the stories over a twenty-year cycle and we have opted for the simplest alphabetical method of recalling them.’ Indicating with a long slim finger he continued, ‘This year we are here at Warion Charles, Wartelle Jérôme, Wass Eugène, Wathelet Véronique, Watson Graeme.’
Both of them turned to contemplate the Sacrifice. The wall of smooth grey granite rose imposingly above them. It stretched in a gentle curve almost one hundred metres long and loomed ten meters high. The immense monolithic structure was carved with hundreds of thousands of names. Next to each name was a tiny air-tight alcove which contained all the recorded information of that person’s life and a DNA sample. The alcove could be accessed by pressing the engraving next to it and the contents removed for consultation. This was generally done once at the beginning of each Occupancy, the information copied and then the contents would be replaced where they would remain undisturbed until the next generation undertook the duty of Remembrance.
Every commune had a monument to the Sacrifice and Dihyd-52 was secretly pleased that his family lived so near to this one. Some had to travel many kilometres to visit their nearest Wall, although, wisely, people living too far away, or in compounds where access and egress were difficult or impractical, had been given special dispensation to perform the ceremony within their own domicile.
The Sacrifice was a collective name for all those who had volunteered to give up the most precious thing they’d had in order to allow the Era of Assuaging to begin. It was also used as a name for the act itself which had occurred over six centuries ago when the vast majority of the world’s population had renounced their right to reproduce. The details of the event had become hazy over time but everyone knew the essential facts. The priceless gift of quasi-universal impotency would guarantee the future of mankind. In return for refraining from procreating, the Sacrifice had been allowed to enjoy lives of hedonistic self-gratification, without limit or impediment, and they had been encouraged to record everything they thought, felt and did for posterity. As this generation died out each person’s digital existence was collected and archived, ultimately finding its resting place in the Walls that had been erected throughout the world. The survivors were duty-bound to honour this forfeiture and it was expected that this ultimate gesture of selflessness be eternally recognised. Thus, the ceremonies of Thanks and Remembrance had evolved.
The memories of each individual honoured on the Wall had been recorded on a tiny flash-drive and principally served three functions: firstly, the information was used to resurrect the deceased in animated form during the ceremonies of Thanks and Remembrance; secondly, they were used to aid scientists to help them with their research into ancient illnesses and diseases; and lastly they would be a potential source of cloning should the time ever come when the planet could support an increased population, or when a suitable exo-planet had been discovered to colonise.
Dihyd-52’s moment of dignified reflection was interrupted by a gasping voice in his ear.
‘Père? You are not the compound. It is imperative that you come at once!’
‘Tyr-10, what is so urgent that you must disturb us before the Sacrifice?’
‘There has been a terrible accident. I desire your council.’
‘Eumala-43, would you excuse me for cutting short our act of gratitude? My daughter seems agitated and I should attend to her needs.’
‘Naturally, Dihyd-52. Shall I accompany you?’
‘As you wish, Eumala-43. You may stay here to meditate or join me.’
‘Then we shall travel together, if it please you,’ replied the young man.
Turning their backs on the towering edifice, the two men set off at a brisk pace down the steep track home.
The black-skinned youth strode easily alongside his gangly, grey-haired host and took the time during the short walk back to the compound to survey his surroundings.
What had apparently been houses, shops and churches lay in ruins around him. Crumbling and deserted, they were barely discernible as artificial constructions, even more so since they were almost completely enveloped by rich, verdant vegetation. He had learnt that this particular city, ‘Poitiers’, had once been known as the city of a hundred bell-towers but apart from what appeared to be the shattered dome of a cathedral, all other spires or steeples of any sort were now dwarfed by massive oaks and giant silver poplar trees. Their lush, springtime foliage obscured any remains there may have been to see.
This was Eumala-43’s first trip to Old Europe and he was finding it a rewarding experience. The local dialect ‘français’ had been very easy to pick up and after four months here he could speak it almost without an accent. In another two months he would be returning to his allocated Occupancy in Kenya and a month after that, having reached the age of sixteen, he would be tested on the knowledge he had acquired during his residencies, including this one in ‘Poitiers’.
Eumala-43’s research had been fruitful so far. Working in close collaboration with Dihyd-52, the young man felt they were approaching a significant breakthrough in the longevity genome programme they had both been assigned to. Their working styles were compatible and the older man brought an interesting perspective to the work. In this positive work environment, they were bound to make real progress.
Buoyed by this optimism, his thoughts turned towards the Pool. In a matter of weeks he would know if he were eligible to join it. Everything depended on the Test. As the champion of several sporting events in his region, Eumala-43 knew that physically he was well-placed in the rankings and his numerous residencies had gone well.
Like most young people on the planet, Eumala-43 was perfectly comfortable travelling and living in exotic locations. From the age of 5, children were expected to spend increasingly longer periods of time away from home. Generally, children stayed for a month in another compound and then moved progressively further away each year until by the age of twelve or thirteen they would be sent to the distant continents, and sojourns could last anything up to a year.
Apart from studying and experiencing the broadest variety of local cultures, young people were expected to build up a network of contacts during their trips and develop romantic involvements where possible. Flirtation and sexual attraction were encouraged, since part of this juvenile migration was to provide fertile ground for the ultimate prize.
During a young person’s residencies, the goal of finding a potential mate was high on the agenda. Social and sporting events were organised on a regular basis in order to facilitate this. Then, at 16, after the results of the Test were announced, those with the highest scores would be allowed to produce offspring. Partners would be chosen depending on their ranking and once a choice had been made the one with the higher ranking could determine the region of their Occupancy, depending of course if there was the necessary a shortage of children so as not to overpopulate a particular region.
The Test allowed the population to determine those physically and mentally apt for breeding. Athletic prowess and intellectual brilliance alone would not suffice. Young people also had to display a sophisticated level of social interaction and were tested for desirable traits like affability, generosity, musical and creative talent.
Those who did not succeed were not allowed to enter the gene pool, or the Pool, as it was more simply referred to.
All this had come about at the beginning of the Era of Assuaging. More than half a millennia ago the difficult but necessary decision had been made to allow a period of ten thousand years to begin. This new age was to be a time of healing for Earth that had been ravished, polluted and plundered of her resources by a greedy and ignorant human population. In order to save the world, only the very best humans had been chosen to tend the planet’s wounds. The rest were the Sacrifice.
Every square metre of habitable land was allocated to its hundred million human inhabitants: every life form was now monitored and registered, respected and nurtured.
The seas had been given the time to replenish themselves and they were already teeming with thousands of species that had almost disappeared from the oceans through overfishing and the destruction of the sea-beds.
Ten millennia had been designated to enable cloned creatures, driven to extinction by the ruthless expansion of Homo sapiens, to repopulate their lost territories. Majestic black and white rhino now roamed the African plains; Stellers sea cows grazed kelp in large numbers off the coast of Alaska; sabre-toothed cats eyed woolly mammoths ravenously in colder climes; dodos and Great Auk squawked unmolested by humankind on far-flung islands.
It was not enough to undo the immeasurable damage mankind had inflicted on the planet and bring back the incalculable number of species that had perished during humanity’s reign of destruction but it was in some way a step towards atonement.
Eumala-43 broke from his reverie and picked up his pace to fall into step with his long-limbed colleague as they arrived at the entrance to the compound.
Don’t miss Part 2 of our Notflix serialisation in the next instalment of Glibstuff