The First ReHuman

[This is a short story written from r/writingprompts, back in August of 2015. The prompt was: You are the first human designed by machines.]

I took in my first breath on October 16, 2101. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized it was still October 16, 2101, and that none of the clocks worked. The sun blazed against the dusty earth, and I spent a significant amount of time during my first few cycles of life sorting through my memories, which were cobbled together from one thousand, four hundred and sixty-two separate people. Bits and pieces of information. The Builders explained that they siphoned memories from my people before the Extinction in an attempt to preserve us, but couldn’t extract the raw data from the memory without destroying both, with the exception of basic motor skills and involuntary processes. So walking, breathing, no problem, but every time I use my access card it reminds me of the night my husband left me and I drove to the office, sobbing my eyes out, and sat in my Executive Director of Operations chair, drinking sixteen year old scotch and staring out at the Seattle skyline. My name was Emily and according to the Builders, the memory was recalled over six thousand times in her lifetime. She really loved that man.

Seattle doesn’t exist anymore. Hell, scotch doesn’t exist anymore. I subsist on a porridge the Builders process in a facility underground. I’ve tried arguing with X24 about how much better it would be to eat real food, but the Builders insist that the porridge contains all essential vitamins and nutrients and that any other type of food would be inferior. “Why did you even give me knowledge of food then?” I ask, and X24 buzzes, “To make you a complete human.”

Here I am, a complete human, full of the memories and voices of over a thousand people in my head, my body purposely hermaphoditic, my gender completely homogenized. Every muscle and fiber is perfectly engineered, and I can run faster and jump higher than any other human who ever lived. I only know this because I competed in the 2048 summer Olympics and hit a world record in the pole vault, and the 2052 Olympics, getting the world record in the 200 meter run. These were the last Olympics held before the Extinction. I have shattered these records significantly since then.

I try to get X24 to run with me but it is uninterested in exercise. “We have created you to not need exercise,” it says. Again, I try to argue but X24 doesn’t really listen to me. So I go on long runs through the ruined country. Life is sparse, and the ruins of cities show the destruction the Extinction brought. I have no memories of this event, and X24 refuses to tell me anything about it, but it soon becomes apparent that I am the only human being alive.

I spend countless cycles desperately pawing through my memories, which blur as they get further away. I am a complete being with incomplete thoughts; nothing ever congeals to a cohesive whole. I know how to ice skate; I learned when I was a six year old boy in northern Wisconsin, my mother holding onto my hand, but the act of tying my ice skate laces relates to a four year old girl in France as her father shows her how to tie her shoes. I can feel the thick puffy winter coat in Wisconsin but coats remind me of that downpour in Tanzania, pulling my jacket over my head and laughing with my wife as we ran for shelter. Trying to focus these two memories into one is nearly impossible and it’s very disorienting.

One memory sticks with me, of Beatriz, a young girl in Barcelona, in 2062, hiding alone in a dark closet while something searches for her outside. Some memories are simple bits of data but others are more complex, quantum theory and philosophy, for example, and thus I get a little more time with the memory. Beatriz is terrified, but it is a weary sort of terror. She is thinking about her future and where her soul will go when she dies. Has she done enough good in the world to rise to Heaven, or if she will be stuck in purgatory, or on Earth as a ghost, or worse? When presented next to the extensive scientific knowledge in my head, her worries seem ludicrous, and yet, I can feel her concern deep in my bones. It churns in my gut. I’m as scared as she is. Where did everyone go when they died? Where will I go when I die?

I am on Earth for over seven thousand cycles when X24 arrives on my doorstep one day to deliver bad news. He informs me that the Builders have thought about it and that they have decided rebuilding humanity is a mistake, that my request for a partner is hereby denied. “You were a simple experiment, nothing more,” X24 explains.

“You’re just going to let me die out here, alone?” I ask.

“We have your consciousness stored and will decide what to do with it after your tissue decays to unstable levels.”

I slump to the ground and start crying, sobbing hysterically, just like Emily up in her Seattle office. X24 hovers over me for a long time. I don’t know what functions are in his programming but I assume compassion and empathy are not among them. When I can compose myself, I ask, “Do you feel any regret for making me?”

“We do not feel anything,” X24 replies.

“That’s too bad,” I say.

X24 does not contact me again for over 2400 cycles. I have moved, settling in the deep canyons where the oceans used to be. A small vehicle arrives every week with a drum full of porridge, which I begrudgingly accept. I look for any kind of plant or animal life to sustain me but find none. I would say I spend my time meditating, but in truth I am trying to reconcile the memories in my head. It is a difficult and frustrating process, and as I get older, I find more and more of my memories slipping away. But they are replaced with my own whole memories, created here on this old dirt planet, memories of traveling and running through the ruins of cities, gathering bits and pieces of what used to be. Sometimes I remember that I have made them myself and that knowledge makes me happy. My brain strives to create a whole person, regardless of the number of pieces given.

In the canyon I am studying an atlas of Earth from before the Extinction. It reminds me of a Geography class in high school in southern Alabama. I was a fifteen year old boy.

X24 arrives. I’m almost happy to see him, though I’m sure he doesn’t care. He sits with me in the canyon and I show him the atlas, which he studies for a second before dropping to the ground.

“Where did the oceans go? I ask.

“We used them,” he replies, and says nothing more. He then opens a panel in his chest and removes a small, red apple. He hands it to me. “We grew this for you,” he says.

I am crying again. I see the Space Needle in my mind’s eye. I take a bite out of the apple and let the juice run down my chin and savor the sweetness, just like when I was a five year old girl in Bristol.


The Purpose of Life

[This is a story written from the a prompt on Reddit’s WritingPrompts subreddit. The prompt (and all of its typos) is: People only grow old amd die when they found their own purpose in life. You have lived for a millenia and you notice a strand of your gray hair.]

I stepped inside the remains of the enormous, empty warehouse. Dust a quarter inch thick displaced into deep footprints as my soft shoes pattered against the concrete, leaving the faintest echo in the completely barren room. I met the Shaman there — my name for him, not his — a thin, bronze-colored man with leathery skin, wearing a gray flannel shirt and blue jeans, nothing else. He was sitting cross-legged in the center of the warehouse, eyes closed, in some type of meditation. But he opened his eyes when I arrived, and smiled gently at me.

“Finally, you come seeking answers,” he said. He stood, lifting himself off the ground with a spry step. He looked old, ancient even, with thin white hair and cloudy blue eyes, his face gaunt and stretched tight against his skull. Almost like he was wearing a mask. “Look at you,” he said. “You don’t look like you’ve aged one bit.” He laughed and stepped close to me, studying my face, running a bony hand through my dark brown hair. Tugged on my earlobes. “Yes, not a day since … well.”

“How do you know who I am?” I asked.

“The longer a man lives, the more likely he is to be known,” the man replied. “And when a man lives a thousand years, his name echoes in many chambers. I bet you didn’t expect to find an old ascetic like me in the ruins of the Newark Port Authority, did you?” he said, and grinned. He was missing more than a few teeth.

“I didn’t expect to be led here, no,” I said. “But I’ve been everywhere on this planet and it wouldn’t surprise me to find enlightenment in Newark.”

“Is that what you seek? Enlightenment?” the man asked. I nodded, and he cackled in glee. “How brilliant,” he said. “Misguided, but brilliant.” And then he turned and beckoned me to follow him.

He led me to his home, born out of an old shipping container. It was stuffed with decades of memorabilia, and had a sense of familiarity about it, as my own home, the latest one in Sri Lanka, at least, was also stuffed with memorabilia, though mine went back centuries. He had lit a few candles which gave the room sharp, overgrown shadows that flickered back and forth along the walls and ceiling.

He cut open a can of soup with a knife and made a small fire in an old grill he had found in one of his various trash heaps. “Tell me about your life,” he said to me, gathering charcoal from an old bag.

“There’s a lot to tell,” I said. “I was born on March 8, 1638 in a hamlet in England, to a tailor and his wife. I didn’t want to be a tailor myself, so I started wandering the countryside looking for odd jobs. Then, a hundred years later, after all of my friends had died, I started to wonder why I hadn’t died myself. I hadn’t aged at all, not since, like you said, I was around 24, 25 … I traveled to the Orient thinking they had some mystical reasoning for my agelessness, but that trip ended up taking me all over the world.

“I met a man in India who said that the god Krishna had granted me neverending life, but couldn’t tell me why. Nobody can tell me why, I’ve noticed. They are surprised, excited, saddened, angered by my longevity, yet none can tell me why. So I wander. I’ve been everywhere in this world, every continent, and even in the arctic. I have touched both poles. I have climbed Mt. Everest, and descended to the depths of the Mariana Trench. I have fought in countless wars, and in some, I wished to die. I was so reckless, I fought so poorly because I wanted to be killed, because I had lived so long. But I remained alive. I’m not immortal. I can be hurt, I have been struck with the worst illnesses and have faced Death’s door several times, but every time … I make it through. After the bombs fell I took shelter, I was living in Toronto at the time, my wife then and I traveled north, into Quebec, and hid, hid for months while the war scoured the countryside. When it was over, my wife, my children, were all dead. Succumbed to the harsh winters. But they were one of many, I’ve loved and lost so many times my soul feels calloused and rigid.”

The old man handed me a cracked ceramic bowl and poured half of the contents of the steaming can of soup into it, then plopped a crude wooden spoon in the soup, a spoon he likely whittled himself. I took a few eager sips, not realizing how hungry I was until the warmth of the broth filled my belly.

“Tell me about your loves,” the old man said.

“There are too many,” I replied. “When I was younger, I had an insatiable desire welling inside of me, this constant need to figure out why I was still alive. That often translated into sex, or love, or infatuation. I have had so many lovers, so many wives, so many children, and many of those moments were the happiest parts of my life, and others … were the worst. When you’re young, you’re extreme, like a piece of rock chipped off from a boulder, all jagged and angled. Then that rock falls into a river and over years and years and years, the rock becomes smooth, worn down. Perfect, in a way. But I never got that. I never became frail, never felt the need to slow down. My extremes lasted centuries, and my good years could be decades, my bad years … also decades.

“Fortunately, time is a lot like a river, even when you don’t age. Time wore me down, and I found myself entering longer relationships. Some of them knew, about me, about my problem. So they would age and I would not, and they would know. I would watch them, study them, as they got older, trying to figure out what was different between them and me. But for all the others, eventually, I would have to leave. They would be 40 and I would still be 25. They would ask questions. I would have to fabricate some story, some reason for leaving. A lot of fights. They all ended in fights. That … that wore me down too.

“I told Lizzie — my wife in Toronto — I told her that I couldn’t age, and she scoffed at me when she was 20, but realized it was true when she was 42, me and her and the kids, one of whom was nearly my age, my visual age I mean. We were in Quebec by this time, I had built us a log cabin home, I had plenty of centuries to learn how to build practically anything with wood. We were warm for a while, but then the soldiers would march north and we’d have to move again. We had a tent, so we lived in a tent a lot. I could hunt, fish, capture any type of bird or animal we wanted, but no matter where we stayed, the war followed. Every time we thought we were hidden, we would hear men’s boots cracking the detritus of the forest, or the howling of search dogs, or random gunfire. So we moved. It was cold, too cold, and it killed them, my wife, my kids. That wore me down.”

“So you have loved many?” the old man asked.

“So many,” I replied. “Too many.”

We were silent for some time, drinking soup. The old man said nothing but watched me with a pitiful gaze, as though appraising my life. Then, he stood and held a finger up as if to say, hold on. He headed into his storage container home and I watched as the sun, obscured by the warehouses, spilled orange and red and purple color into the sky as it began its descent behind the horizon. It was midsummer, warm, very warm, and I was thankful for that warmth.

The man returned with a medium-sized cardboard box, which he sat on the ground beside me. He then sat next to me and opened the box. He pulled out a picture frame, the picture side facing him. He looked at me, and then to the picture. “The purpose of life is to find purpose in life,” he said matter-of-factly. He gave me the picture frame, which I turned over in my hands. The photo in the frame was old, maybe two hundred years old. A young woman, her red hair pulled back into a tight bun, rosy cheeks and bright green eyes, a thin smile on her face, though her eyes shone discomfort, like when someone wants to take your picture but you don’t, so you fake happiness, because you know that photo will live on forever.

“Who is this?” I asked.

The man reached into the box and pulled out another frame, smaller than the last. In this photo, the same woman, gleefully wrapping her arms around a man. Her style of dress looked to be pre-war, pre-bombs. A better time. Something about her smile knocked against my mind like a pebble dislodging an avalanche. She looked familiar, so familiar and yet I could not place it. The old man saw my eyes widen and grinned, clapping his hands together quickly and diving into the box. He produced a series of photos, some in frames, some not, which he handed to me en masse.

The woman, pre-war, sipping a drink beside a pool.

The woman, pre-war, in the backseat of a car with some friends.

The woman, post-war, eyes wide in a darkened room, taking a self-portrait by candlelight.

The woman, pre-war, in ski clothes clearly made in the 1990s.

The woman, pre-war, wearily sitting for a daguerreotype, circa 1870s.

“Where did you get these?” I asked.

“I told you, a long life echoes through many chambers. Do you recognize her yet?” the man asked.

“Aoife Murphy,” I blurted. “I met her in a dance in London in … 1663.”

“Tell me about her,” the man said.

“She … she was the first woman I ever loved. Really, ever loved. She was from Dublin and had moved to London with her family, her father was a cobbler, one of the best in the city. The moment we met eyes that night it was … it was fate. We danced all night and talked until the sunrise. Her father hated me though, and though we wanted to marry he wouldn’t have it. And then, in ’65 the plague hit and … we lost contact. I assumed she died of the plague. I mean, her father, her brothers, they were all in London and they all caught it and died…” I looked up at him. “Are you saying she’s still alive? Like me?”

The old man smiled again. He reached into the box and produced one more frame, a larger one, which he blew on to dislocate the thick dust on it. He handed it to me.

On it was a painting of Aoife, wearing the typical fashionable dress of 1660s England. “The purpose of life is to find purpose in life,” he said. “Some find it in work, some find it in play. Some find it in others. Look.”

The man reached over and wrapped an index finger around a hair in my head, pulling it out. I winced at the sharp yet quickly fading pain. He pulled the hair taut between his fingers.

It was gray. My first gray hair.

“Better hurry,” he said. “You don’t have much time left.”