Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Transhumanist, a science fiction story, by Jan Páleník

The Transhumanist
A science fiction story

In an alternate history of the 20th century, Brno becomes a sprawling metropolis, where old traditions collide with rapid technological progress and economic growth directly borders extreme poverty. A brief debate commences, concerning a dead body.

The Transhumanist
The synthetic eyeball twitched for the last time, struggling in the orbital cavity of a dying body, before it stopped moving altogether. The bright aura of malfunctioning street lamps in the lower level of the city, together with the headlights of the trains on the elevated railway above created a miniscule reflection on the iris, imitating an artificial starry sky. No original pattern for the lamplights to mimic was visible, the constellations of nature disappeared years ago, covered by layers of black smoke rising from the furnaces of heavy industry.
A swarm of shadowy rats crawled over the corpse with curious interest, examining it with the preciseness of an adept pathologist and the appetite of a sophisticated gourmet. But something about the body felt strange and disconcerting to the rodent family. Its flesh was cold and rigid, as if it were dead for a long time, or more likely, never even alive in the first place.
Another train passed on the rails leading directly over the crooked alleyway, and the gathered consortium of scavengers swiftly scattered. For a while, the narrow labyrinth of blackened walls, dark crimson bricks and grey concrete remained silent, until the sound of cautious, almost shy footsteps broke the armistice.
The unknown figure was hiding under a heavy coat, face covered by a surgical mask and hands protected by medical gloves. Its eyes checked the surrounding buildings and streets, listening and watching for unwanted witnesses, before the looter focused solely on the dead body, adopting a similar attitude to that of the hungry rats.
A scalpel briefly glimmered in the dark, making two quick cuts.
When the patrol of Czechoslovak police finally arrived, responding to the distress call made by the tourist’s neural implants, any sight of the self-educated surgeon was already long gone, and the alley fell silent once again. No useful evidence of anyone approaching the corpse was left behind to be found.
Police patrols usually didn’t venture this far into the slums of New Brno, at least if they could avoid it. Whereas the city centre appeared almost unchanged from the old times of Austria-Hungary, a display of grandiose mansions, ornate, neatly arranged residences and vibrant avenues, seeming like a living history exhibition, around the original town of Brno arose a new one.
This uncanny, unnatural expansion took the form of a bipolar compound, where the businessmen and managers of international corporations could work and live mere metres away from the worst dens of poverty. The city was separated into two levels of different altitudes placed on top of each other: the upper New Brno composed mostly of high-rise buildings spliced together with terminals of the elevated railway, while the lower city down below was inhabited only by criminals, beggars and various gang members, whose territories and loyalties changed every day. In the middle, connecting the two layers, the compromise was represented by a number of platforms hanging on the robust pillars of the upper city, where most of the shops of New Brno were located, mainly fast food restaurants and convenience stores, available to both tiers of the city.
It was a rare sight to spot a tourist visiting the cultural and historical landmarks of lower New Brno. The only event of comparable extraordinariness would be a foreigner surviving such a trip uninjured and alive.
Kučra, an old officer with tired, ill-tempered eyes, dark grey sideburns and a scar marking his bent nose, stepped up to the body and kneeled, his service sabre hitting the ground with a distinguished clink. His weary sight inspected the dead man with a few punctually directed glances, and corporal Kučra stood back up.
“Cuts separated the eyes from the nerves precisely at the point of their connection,”stated the older officer drily. “Whoever took them has now the opportunity to use them freely himself, or sell them on the black market. Either will be probably very profitable, and with little to no effort.”
His colleague, the much younger and livelier Pešk, thin fingers restlessly wrapped around the buttons of his uniform, and wide blue eyes keenly fixed on the tourist’s injuries, eagerly superseded the older man by the cadaver’s side. The white inscription on the synthetic nerve read ‘Mendel Institute for Biotechnology and Genetics
“Why doesn’t he bleed? The knife scraped his skin, but there’s no blood coming out.”
“It’s synthetic, all of him,”replied Kučra indifferently. “Look at the flesh. Pale, almost colourless. I don’t think there’s much blood in him, if any at all.”
“He’s a Robot?”mused Pešk. “From Rossum’s factory? Doesn’t look like one. They’re usually easy to tell apart from regular people.”
“No, he most definitely used to be a human,”assessed the corporal with one particular philosophic paradox in mind: “But after you replace all the original parts with artificial replicas, it’s not that clear anymore. Which one is the human here, the factory-made bunch of synthetic fibers, or the pile of cutted limbs and organs lying in a blood-soaked container behind Mendel’s Institute?”
“I know what they’re called,”Pešk suddenly awoke from his deep thought. “Transhumanists. The ones that have those posters and leaflets all over every clinic in Brno. ‘Technology is only the last step in evolution.’‘There is no room for God, when Man becomes stronger.’‘Upgrade your mind and your body. Become superhuman.’I don’t think anyone else has been issuing that much propaganda like them since the Great War.”
Kučra let out a soft, subdued snicker.
The late Transhumanist remained silent.
He remembered a past where the world was still alive, instead of its current state of clinical death. There, in his memories, the sun wasn’t only a faint, dying outline on the misty sky. The slumbrous days lit by sparkly golden light passed slowly and revelled in the warm embrace of unstirred serenity, with sleep in their eyes and mouth wide open in a long, drowsy yawn.
He remembered the lost relics of history and shivered, trying to shake off the unwanted feeling of melancholy and nostalgia for the last time, before his consciousness suddenly evaporated into the cold air filling the faceless labyrinth of lower New Brno. With a simple stir of matter that shattered the fragile arrangement of interconnected neurons, an entire little universe of thoughts violently imploded, and all of its imaginary inhabitants ceased to exist.
Pešk quietly observed the dead man’s thoughts.
“Do you think we’ve really reached the end?”the young officer asked after a significant period of silence. “Is this the pinnacle of evolution, impossible to go beyond? Has history ended, and we’re now just stuck here, living the humanity’s surplus, redundant days?”
Kučra laughed, briefly and brusquely, although in a way that was also unusually sincere.
“Nonsense,”he grinned. “Those exact words were said countless times before. In the 19th century, people used to think the same thing as you do now. In mere decades, the world has changed more than in all of the preceding history. Progress never rushed forward more rapidly than in these times, but since people haven’t seen a new invention or discovery for an entire week, they all of a sudden get the feeling that science doesn’t have any more horizons to cross. It’s in our nature. Humans are awfully impatient. And stupid.”
The Transhumanist didn’t necessarily agree with the old corporal, who was staring at him with a combination of disgust and a desperate desire to understand.
“What do you think leads one to do something like this? I wonder what happened to him.”
“The way you say it, it almost sounds like he did something terrible,”chuckled Pešk doubtfully.
The eyeless cadaver, despite his hatred for the past, wished more than anything to return back. The memories of a safe sanctuary, where he could be finally at peace, tormented him and disunited his mind, forcing it to endlessly fight itself in a maddening cycle of uncertainty. This obsession, in the end, fuelled more than anything his zealous devotion to human enhancement.
But not even technology could help him. All the implants that should have allowed him to reminisce with the sharpness of ordinary sensory perception, the mental triggers supposed to unearth even the last of the forgotten sights in his mind, the voyages into virtual reality, where the sun shined cold, nothing of that felt right. Maybe, if it were possible to truly break free from the shackles of reality, then he would relive his happiness.
Something moved in the shadows surrounding the debating trio. A cautious noise wavered the still air, originating from more than one place in the darkness.
Kučra was quicker to draw his pistol, immediately recognizing the danger.
“Who goes there?”
The night didn’t answer his question, at least not for a while.
After almost an entire minute, several silent figures emerged from the dim grey walls around them, seemingly without movement, as if they simply faded into existence. They looked like statues, motionless faces the colour of marble, but instead of facing the outside of their formation, they were turned inwards, observing the midst of their circle.
In their hands, the lights of New Brno drew a number of shining, ecliptic silhouettes belonging to the edges of sharp cutting weapons: knives, razors and even one stolen sabre. All of the attackers seemed rather young, some even looked more like children than adults. That was in most cases the standard for gang members from the slums, who usually never made it into retirement, or at least over the age of twenty-five.
Both of the officers were now holding their weapons ready. In their heads, they had already correctly calculated that not even two pistols and two swords could fend off the offensive of ten ambushers. Some of the felons would probably perish with them in the fighting, but that was hardly a satisfactory compensation for the lives of the two patrolmen.
“Can we help you?”inquired Pešk innocently.
The criminals didn’t seem to be impressed by his composure. They were used to similar self-confident and assured attitudes in the face of a direct threat, often even in one’s last moments.
„You’re not supposed to be here,“proclaimed accusingly the leader of their group, a young woman dressed in dirty greyish jeans, a black shirt and a denim jacket. Her pasty, sickly white face appeared indifferent, almost apathetic, with a jaded expression and circles under the eyes. „These streets are off limits to you.“
The policemen had no response, no witty remark for this accusation. They knew all too well on whose side rested the power to decide who is in the right, and who is not.
„Why did you come for this one?“asked the gang leader irritatedly. „Every other stray hiker you leave for us to take care of, so why not this one as well?“
„It’s the implants in his brain,“explained Kučra with a sigh. „Apparently, they can cry for help.“
„Even the rest of him looks all high-tech,“peeked the woman over the old officer’s shoulder. „I don’t s’pose you could just hand the corpse to us. Synthetic meat is sold by weight on the black market down here, and organs usually have entire waiting lists of DIY transhumanist grinders and biohackers. That bloke over there is basically just couple thousand crowns, maybe more, in a human-shaped sack from faux leather.“
„We’ve been sent to recover a body,“reminded them Kučra. „It would be suspicious to return back without one.“
For a while, nobody said anything.
„Do you think you could find us a substitute? Some spare corpse that you have stored somewhere? I don’t think anyone will be called to identify it. Just mess its face up a little, and we’ll be alright.“
Kučra tried to ignore the disgusted, appalled looks his younger colleague was giving him.
„They’re in quite a bad shape unfortunately, all of those we have,“shook the gang leader her head. „They’ve been cut into too many times. Unless you make up an operating theatre out here in the cold, no-one’s gonna believe you.“
„You can’t be serious.“
„Well, what should we do then?“
„What should we do?“
The Transhumanist waited.

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