Insects jittered in the humid air. Dawn broke. Birds screeched and called. But Menem waited till the sun had cleared the tops of the trees before stepping out of his shelter.
He turned his face up towards the sky, allowing the light to drench the shiny green surface of his skin. Golden energy flooded the young man’s senses as his nose, cheeks and forehead grew lighter. His body powered up. His mind snapped to full attention. It was wonderful to be fully conscious again.
He was standing in the middle of what had once been a broad avenue, in the great and teeming city of … but no: place names were irrelevant. His geo-coordinates were enough. The old boulevard was scarred and pitted, overrun with giant grasses. It was impossible to imagine it as a thoroughfare jammed with monstrous mechanical beasts belching clouds of poisonous fumes.
Behind him was a towering edifice, a type of immense gateway, now completely obscured by elephant-eared creepers. Ahead of him, in the distance, was a cluster of low buildings, also thickly overgrown. From the centre of the mass a smooth dome rose up. It looked like the white skull of a partially submerged swimmer poking above the surface of an unruly green ocean.
Menem sipped water from a tube that led to the bottle strapped to his left arm. Then he stripped off his few garments. He wanted to expose as much of his skin’s surface area as he could. He walked forward, toward the distant buildings, turning his shapely head this way and that. He scanned for movements in the dense vegetation on either side. He was metres tall, lightly muscled and handsomely proportioned, moving with a panther’s liquid grace.
A faint vibration reminded him to tap the outer surface of his right ear. Immediately tiny lights began winking along its curving upper margin. He felt the lights as a prickling sensation: a call.
“Receiving," he said out loud as the call connected. “Hello. Good to hear from you." There was only one person within range. “All well?"
“Safe, certainly," said the voice in his ear. A woman’s voice, young and melodious. They both spoke the common tongue. “Not so sure about ‘well’. Don’t know what that means in our world." She changed the subject. “You must be close. Your signal’s stronger than it was yesterday," she said.
He glanced around: trees, insects, raucous birds. Nothing else in sight. There was no saying from which direction a threat might come. Out in the open like this, he was exposed and vulnerable. But the largest animals he’d seen for several days were herbivores. No big cats, no hyenas, no feral dogs. He hadn’t eaten oral food for several days so he really needed the sunlight. “Yes, I’m close," he said. “Perhaps a short walk from where you are."
“Walk?" she remarked, her voice instantly sharp. “Why aren’t you contained within a moover? You know it’s not safe?"
“I told you yesterday," he replied. “I prefer to walk whenever I can." He paused, wanting to reassure her. “You have nothing to fear from me. You know that." He’d been travelling for weeks. Or months. He wasn’t sure. Time had a different quality for solitary travellers. “I won’t be able to locate you unless you permit me."
“Being suspicious keeps us alive," said the voice. She called herself Faela. It had been a very common name for a while: “a leaf" spelled backwards. “I’m still not sure I want to meet you. You’ve not given me enough reason to trust you."
“Understood," he said, nodding to himself. Being wary was part of their shared inheritance. There were those who had called it a curse. One entire generation had chosen to have the cautiousness edited out of its genes. Its members had perished quicker than those who’d had the quality reinforced. So the cautious ones survived, passing their wariness on to all succeeding generations. “I can remain where I am until you feel sure."
He didn’t know whether or not Faela had the equipment to track his movements. He could modify his outgoing signal to make himself seem farther away than he was. Then again, she may want him to think she couldn’t track him. These games could be played in either direction. As they both knew.
“What about food? Are you finding enough to eat?" she asked. “Meaning, oral food?"
“I prefer the sunlight to eating insects," he said. He’d done that often enough. They were extremely nutritious, if eaten in bulk. Not tasty or pleasurable however. He wasn’t carrying cooking utensils and the prospect of eating the raw flesh of larger animals was utterly repugnant. “I hardly even need to drink water, because of the humidity." He smiled. “I can see how photosynthesis in the tropics makes a person lazy! I keep wanting to settle into a sunny spot and just ..." he chuckled “... vegetate!"
“Don’t say that!" She made a vibrating sound with her mouth. “Brrr. Not even as a joke."
The method for infusing human skin with blue-green algae had been discovered in the final decades of the 21st century. The technique hadn’t been of use to those who invented it. But by conferring the adaptation upon their children, they ensured that succeeding generations would never know hunger or deprivation. So long as a healthy individual had access to air, water and sunlight, his or her survival was guaranteed. Such people would be similar to plants, except of course that they’d be able move themselves around. They could also continue to feed themselves orally, as they had before.
Aggression and ambition had already been cleared out of the genome by previous gene-editors. So the ability to remain well-fed with minimal effort had seemed an obvious next step. It was considered the ultimate triumph of conscious genetic engineering.
No one foresaw the results.
Countless millions began choosing to dig their feet into the soil, remaining rooted to one spot. Merging their consciousness in meditative bliss, they lost the desire to live as independent entities. The urge to procreate dwindled out of sight. Eventually, the entire mass of “vegetatives", as they were known, began fading into the Hereafter without leaving any successors. Being in a state of constant bliss meant that they were genuinely unconcerned about the situation. They were called the OutGoing Tide. Their choices became a mass-movement that could not be halted.
By a quirk of genetic irony the only people to survive were those who were naturally antisocial. People who had specifically shied away from the company of others discovered, somewhat to their displeasure, that they had willy-nilly become the last hope for humanity. They were the SVS: sexually viable solitaires.
Save for the “vegetative" impulse, they all had the same genetic advantages of their combined forebears. Glorious physiques, resistant to infections and age-related degeneration. All inheritable disorders had been edited out of them. They had the mental capacities of the greatest scientists, artists and philosophers the world had ever known. And they had all been implanted at birth with bio-electronics such as the one which enabled person-to-person radio transmissions.
What remained unknown was whether enough of them could overcome the anti-social impulse to bring their species back from the brink of extinction. They had the physical organs to produce new life. But the very fact of being an SVS meant that each one of them was uniquely unpredictable. Their DNA contained some rogue element that had either not been identified or was the result of an unforeseeable mutation.
Menem said, in a soothing voice, “You’re right. Such things should not be joked about." He wondered what he could say to allay Faela’s fears. Even expressing the desire to effect a meeting could weaken his chances. Nevertheless, he asked, “Is there anything I can do? To strengthen my case?"
“You could tell me where exactly you are," retorted Faela at once. It was clear that she’d expected him to ask.
She might be bluffing, he thought. She might be pretending not to know his coordinates so that, when he told her, she could check his position, to see if he was lying. “Not a problem," he said. “I’ll get back into the moover." Once he was in it, the vehicle would reveal his exact position to her on whatever equipment she had.
A day later, Menem had successfully followed Faela’s instructions for reaching her underground bunker. It occupied a vast space, beneath the presidential palace he had seen in the distance from the boulevard.
The two sat across from one another, in a spacious and well-appointed room, filled with bright artificial lights and growing plants. “I am not used to such elegance," remarked Menem, looking around. Privately, he felt claustrophobic. He couldn’t wait to leave.
She was predictably beautiful, like every other human still alive these days. The thoroughness with which their progenitors had applied genetic “improvements" had left no pockets of humanity untouched. There were no “lost" tribals anywhere, nor any underground communities of Luddites left alive. She was as tall as Menem, slender, smooth-muscled, perfectly proportioned. They were both fully clothed, both in soft flowing robes.
“How do you generate electricity?" he asked.
“Solar during the day and beast-labour at night or whenever the sun’s not available," she said. “By beast-labour I mean giant squirrel wheels, you know? Connected to generators."
“Where do you find giant squirrels?" he said, smiling to show that he was joking. He assumed she used traditional draught animals such as cattle or horses. Though he had to wonder how she fed them and where she housed them.
“I gene-edited regular squirrels," she said, not smiling. “It’s not difficult. What was done to us can be done to others. Not cruel either," she said, “in case that’s what you’re thinking. I feed them well and fix them up so that they believe they’re running around in the forest living their normal squirrely lives."
“Impressive," said Menem. Privately, he was repulsed.
“Don’t bullshit me," said Faela. “I know your type: you don’t approve. Only because you didn’t think of it first! Come on, let’s just do the deed shall we?"
“My ‘type’? How many of ‘me’ have you hooked up with anyway?" he asked. He was starting to think Faela was unworthy of passing on her genes after all. Too manipulative. Too controlling. Why would he want those traits to be perpetuated? Via his cooperation?
“That’s for me to know and you to wonder about," she said, not taking her eyes off him. “But don’t worry. I have a device we can use, without having to touch. No infections from me to you."
Menem had only managed two successful couplings in four years of constant travelling. He wished it wasn’t so fiendishly complicated. He just wanted to get away. At the same time, he was curious about her technique. If it was reasonably effective, he could overpower her, take it away and use it on others. Thereby increasing his success rate and advancing the cause of humanity’s survival.
Faela rose to her feet. She approached him, holding out a tubular contraption for Menem to inspect. She led him to a double-sided sofa. It allowed two seated individuals to face one another in close proximity while leaning comfortably back.
Both of them remained fully clothed. Faela handed him a flexible attachment and placed the other end of the device within herself. The transfer of reproductive material took a couple of minutes. Menem had not yet caught his breath when Faela leaned forward to plunge a tiny needle into his jugular vein. He fell into semi-consciousness with his eyes still shut in the attitude of someone about to sneeze.
Faela tidied herself up, then helped Menem to his feet and led him out of the room. He followed without resisting. She took him to a brightly lit, well-ventilated room in which a half-dozen giant squirrel wheels were turning drowsily.
“Hello, boys," she said, softly. “Look! A new team member."
Manjula Padmanabhan is an author, playwright, artist and cartoonist. She is the author of several books including the 2008 novel Escape and its 2015 sequel, The Island Of Lost Girls (both books are published by Hachette India), centered on gender conflict in a brutal future world.