The Path to Freedom, by Tang Fei
Tang Fei is a writer of speculative fiction born in Shanghai and currently living in Beijing.
In modern Chinese, “story” (故事) and “fiction” (小说) are not exact equivalents. A story is more rooted in the folk and oral traditions, and thus possesses more resilience and vitality. This is why I’ve always called myself a storyteller. Story, for me, is a word infused with magic. Every time I say it, I feel a joy in my spirit and pleasure in my senses.
—Tang Fei (in a Clarkesword interview conducted and translated by Ken Liu)
“Imagining the worst tomorrow makes me happy.
The gloom of the future lights my path.”
The children’s laughter penetrated the walls. They were playing in the garden downstairs. I never opened the curtains. For the last few decades, since Grandmother moved here, the windows had been blocked up. The curtains, however, still hung in place, as though to remind us that there had once been a window.
Other sounds came through from outside. Footsteps, heartbeats, breathing. Crystal clear. As clear as the fall of the cold night rain on the roof. It is amidst these sounds that our old apartment glides down with us into the depths of endless silence. A silence that almost no one can bear.
I was born in this building, and grew up in its shelter. This top floor apartment, barely 70 square metres in size, had been converted by Grandmother way back when my father was still a child. Temperature stabilisation, noise insulation, and – most importantly – a synthetic rubber “Smart Membrane” permanently filtering the heavily polluted air. At the time, the Membrane had only just been developed by a top-secret research group, and was still at the testing stage. No one knew how she managed to get hold of these materials without ever once setting foot outside her door.
Rumour had it that the strings she pulled were heartstrings. The highest level of manipulation a woman could achieve.
Indeed, Grandmother was very beautiful. The passage of time seemed to come to a halt when it encountered her, its ability to wither beauty confounded. When asked her age, she would lie. She lied about many things.
Yet if it were not for her, this apartment would not exist.
We were unsure if we should be grateful to her for it – it was too complicated a question.
All questions about her were thus. Like a snake eating its own tail, the question was the answer, and the answer was linked to the question, fused together in an eternal cycle. Her personality was the same.
Our parents always used to tell us: “You can’t choose your parents. You can only accept them.”
They had done it their way, but we would be better.
Spirit grows stronger with distillation. This is a simple fact.
Our descendants would not have to think about this question. They would not have to think about anything. Except hunger.
The hunger had always existed. It had been lurking in Grandmother’s blood all along, even before it became a problem.
Before the Hiding, she could have gone outside to buy provisions like anyone else, never mind the metal dust in the air. She could have gone for her long runs, making her way through the groups of idiotically grinning dancers in the parks. She could, at least, have acted a bit more normally, and persevered with a job that would support the family, and plunged into the rush hour crowds that surged daily through the city.
Even if that job of hers couldn’t be called a proper job. Even if she wasn’t really making a living.
Grandmother had been a talk show host before the air went foul. Defying the objections of her company, she cancelled the contracts for her few upcoming shows. At the time, most people were unaware of the severity of the problem, and the Dust Alarm System had not yet been invented. She was probably one of the first to feel unwell. The earliest symptoms of Dust poisoning were insomnia, heart palpitations, necrosis, and the regrowth of a cold, gelatinous and oily skin that was whiter than an albino’s. No, her pallor was not something she was born with, nor was it due to the long periods she’d spent indoors.
According to the doctor’s misdiagnosis, those symptoms were caused by her irregular lifestyle. These tormenting symptoms were to be expected, considering her weak constitution.
Nothing had yet been officially announced, but her intuition sensed the true cause of the problem. She shut herself indoors, communicating with the outside world only through the internet, purchasing food supplies and other essentials electronically. That was the first step of her self-exclusion. Most people thought her self-exile was the result of her inexplicable disease.
Perhaps, they were right.
However, she didn’t really understand what she was doing at the time. It was only instinct that made her lock herself and her children at home, and start to convert her apartment.
Not long afterwards, the biohazard was publically announced.
Because everyone’s symptoms differed, there was no mass panic, even though there were so many sufferers. Not for at least the first ten days or so.
“It was as if the Almighty had given each person a tailored cocktail of punishments, according to their individual sins.” This was how Grandmother described those days. It was during this time that she ordered compressed biscuits, tins of spam and energy bars. The courier company had to send a lorry, and because there was no lift, it took four couriers almost an hour to bring all the food up, while the neighbours gathered round and watched.
News of the pandemic was being broadcast almost twenty-four hours a day. Among the deluge of wild tales that induced mass panic, Grandmother’s hoard was a small incident that passed unnoticed. In the face of chaos, no one can predict the impact that a single action will have on history. And it wasn’t as though apartment-dwellers like us knew what was really going on out there.
Little rumours ran rampant. Then, as the panic spread, bigger rumours. The ones who kept their mouths firmly shut were those who actually understood the root of the problem. It was too dangerous a time to jump to any conclusions. Grandmother stood behind the wall, listening to the tumult and commotion of the outside world, slowly discerning the sounds of house clearings, the jostle for emergency medical treatment, crowds gathering for public announcements.
She had stopped using the internet by this point, so that she would not be exposed to any public gaze, even the virtual kind. Later, she came to reject the use of any electronic equipment. Her mind had conjured up a horrific vision where one’s thoughts could be spied on via electric currents, and one could be traced, or even worse, contaminated.
Like a dry sponge, this small, silent and secluded apartment absorbed the hatred and horror of the outside world. Grandmother’s hearing grew super sensitive, and could distinguish sounds within a several-mile radius. What she heard, of course, was death upon death.
Life persisted, but like a scorched weed in summer.
She hid behind her wall, listening to a world in catastrophe.
Grandmother lived in her own world, dipping into her stockpile for the most basic sustenance, treading like a ghost through a room scattered with her books, aimlessly wandering, startling the slumbering dust in the dark. She felt it dance in the air and stroke her face. She no longer read. She had already read every book in that room over a hundred times. Opening them was merely another motion.
Grandmother had her own secret hobby: listening to the suffering and death of the outside world had become the most vivid part of her life.
As the days went on, she became colder. Her skin became as white as snow, as if coated in glaze.
My parents, her two children, had grown up by then, and they lived the same life, becoming as distant, cold and pale as their mother. Most of the time they didn’t notice each other, even after we were born.
I seldom counted how many people there were in the Apartment. They were just these shadows, and those shadows. This tiny world had plenty of room for them. It was not likely that there would be any more children. We didn't have any particularly strong affection for our siblings – unlike our parents. Some human desires were fading from us. We were the first and last generation of the Hiding, and the passions and hopes of mankind would be utterly extinguished with us.
We believed more in eternity.
Time inside passed at a different rate to time outside. Grandmother gave birth to our parents. Our parents gave birth to us. We thought we had a slender advantage over the outside world.
Until a deathlike silence descended. At a certain point in the fabric of time, there was a permanent tear. After that, not a sound came to us from the outside world.
We pressed ourselves against the wall, holding our breaths and listening with pricked ears. Still only deathlike silence. Even the subtlest sounds, like the vibration of the wings on a blowfly, or a falling poplar leaf scraping the ground, even the tiniest whisper in the wind, had disappeared. Grandmother found the courage to connect to the internet and search for news from the outside, but the network had long ceased to function. In one night, the world abandoned us. We were left alone in the silence.
In the dark, some little voices whispered of the worst possibilities, but even they didn’t raise too much alarm. We were already used to living apart from the world. Even if corpses were piled up outside the wall, the apocalypse wouldn’t affect us. We would carry on along our timeline towards eternity. Our clan would be a burning light in the dark, the only one to attain immortality.
But things didn’t work out that way.
Although we pretended to disapprove, although we understood the utter foolishness of longing for the outside world, we had inherited Grandmother’s secret hobby. We liked sounds from the other side of the wall. We didn’t like the quiet, the vacuum-like silence. Without being able to listen and imagine another world, we couldn’t rest. We became aware that it was thanks to the constant commotion and movement from the outside that we were able to sleep. We were too reliant on them. But, how should I put it? We hardly needed sleep anyway.
This was only a minor irritation. It gave us more time to think. Nothing passed the time better than thinking. We let our minds wander through the books that we knew so well there was no need to turn the pages. Any page turning was merely a comforting habit. One of my little sister’s favourite games was to pick out a few books at random and use them as source material to create an alien civilization. Mine was simply to recite them backwards. It gave me the pleasure of a fresh sense of order. Nobody knew what games Grandmother liked to play; she never invited anyone to join in her games. Perhaps she was more concerned with reality. Again, she was the first one to become aware of the imminent danger.
The enemy that had been hibernating in her blood for many, many years, finally awoke.
Although we required a remarkably small amount of food, restricting ourselves to consuming the barest of essential nutrients, the day had finally come. We finished the last of the food Grandmother had hoarded. The emptiness of the Apartment was terrifying. The hiding places we used in our children’s games had disappeared. The screens that had granted some shred of privacy were gone. The obstacles that obstructed our walkways were no more. Except for rotten furniture and books, there was very little left in the Apartment. We had slowly emptied it, becoming a throng of hungry ghosts, just left staring at each other in dismay. It was true hunger, and the void in our heads only made it worse. There was nothing to distract us.
Hunger, hunger, hunger.
Quiet, quiet, quiet.
Food deficiency overtook us, it gripped our light and icy bodies, it crept into brains that had become completely blank. It seeped into the souls we didn’t possess.
And it pervaded the timeline we had proudly created.
I never thought eternal life would become torture.
Though we’d adapted to the hermit’s life, and the silence, we could not adapt to the hunger.
It was the first time we’d questioned our existence, and questioned the shelter that Grandmother had created. No one spoke out, but loathing, bitterness and resentment began to grow in the dark. Like spores, inhaled into the depths of our flesh, they bred and cultivated. Things had become intolerable. We became irascible, dissatisfied with everything, even the dust raised by sitting on the decaying chairs. Things which we hadn’t even noticed until then.
You had to think of something else to keep yourself from being driven out of your mind.
I heard a scream. A sound of pain, from flesh bloated and torn by hunger. The most visceral sound I’d heard in my life. In an instant, I found myself being pressed flat against the floor, my face covered, and a voice at my ear telling me to shut my mouth, and I realized that the scream had been mine.
It was in that moment, the moment I shut my mouth, when the echo of the scream still shuddered round the Apartment, that we heard another sound, ancient and strange, a sound we had only ever heard in our imagination.
The groan of the chains across the door.
The door opened, and Grandmother left the Apartment.
She left our world, knowing that we would hold our breath to count her retreating footsteps. She seemed impassive. Without a word, she vanished from the shelter she had made.
We were the only ones left. A group of fragile creatures living in an isolated universe, abandoned in our nest by its creator. We hung our heads in shame, not at this act of abandonment, but because we knew we deserved it. She had given us the chance. We could have followed her, into the outside.
I’d never even seen that world. Father said it was filthy. That the air had poisoned others, and would poison us too. Beyond that, I couldn’t begin to imagine it.
I couldn’t imagine anywhere bigger than this apartment. This suffocating space. Just trying to think about it felt like a physical weight on my chest. That – my inability to adapt – was what I feared.
A little later we discovered that one of the portable air filters hidden under the bed was missing. We concluded that Grandmother had taken it. Father was shocked. He doubted those things worked anymore, and besides, it had been so long that any infection out there would have died out by now. He heaved a long sigh. “Fate is like some malevolent eraser. It wiped out everything outside this apartment, and slowly, slowly, it will wipe us all out too.”
He was wrong.
Two days later, Grandmother drove home in an old electric amphibious car, honking the horn noisily. We discovered later that the vehicle was piled with assorted flavours of energy bars, and even some real food with added preservatives. Not that it would have changed anything, had we known: our bodies were so weak that – apart from lifting our heads, or looking towards the door – we couldn’t respond.
The food Grandmother brought back saved us all. And also initiated a fresh breeding wave. The youngest generation among us were conceived on that day.
Along with food, Grandmother brought back unsettling news.
“I saw other people on the streets,” she said.
“People?” someone asked.
“People. But not like us.” Her expression was complex. This was incredible, but not altogether bad. “Out there, some people survived. A lot of them live by the western roundabout. There are some stray cats and dogs too, and plants, and they don’t need to wear any protection at all”.
The impact of those words stirred up a whirlpool of emotions that refused to ebb away.
No one spoke; each of us was trying to process Grandmother’s words.
“They looked… well,” she added.
This could only mean that the people who survived, who hadn’t succumbed to the Dust, had adapted to resist the hazardous environment.
Humans had evolved.
On both sides of the wall, the world had been erased, like in Father’s metaphor, but a new hope for survival had taken its place.
This was something worth celebrating. Hunger had driven us to the edge of insanity, but we had made it through and now everything filled us with joy. We and they, separated and seeking different routes on the road of evolution, had all survived.
The world was more than big enough for these two clans who had survived along separate timelines.
My brothers and sisters grew excited, frolicking in the shadows of the Apartment and exchanging whispered descriptions of tiny movements from afar. This was a trial at first, and we all struggled to hear anything, but hearing them gradually became automatic. Later, we couldn’t help but hear everything. The sounds from outside the wall were clear, diverse, and never-ending.
But by then, we were tired of listening.
Things remained unchanged. These were golden times compared to the harsh days of hunger. Or so everyone except Grandmother thought.
Grandmother was both question and answer. She was the snake that eats its tail.
One day, the door of the Apartment opened again, and as we heard her footsteps retreat into the unseen wider world, we realised what she had concluded, after all this time, sitting in the corner, silent as a shadow.
She wanted to go back, to return to the outside.
Grandmother didn’t tell us that when she went out in search of food by herself, she had taken her mask off for a second and been totally exposed to the filthy glittering air. In that instant, the opaque sunlight pierced her skin through the smog. On her face, her shoulders, her wrists, on every inch of exposed skin it planted a burning desire. Calling out to her love for the outside world, the filth and the noise. A world full of fragrances and odours, a world that was alive.
They might have been oblivious to time and death, but Grandmother wanted to return and be amongst them.
So this time, she didn’t bring her mask.
She tried to breathe the air as happily and freely as the outside people. To enjoy the sun, to go wherever she wanted. We had no idea how far she went. From outside the wall, the sound of her footsteps was different. They were heavy and clumsy, easily confused with those of the outside people.
We began to worry that we were about to lose the creator of our world once again. We stared at one another, not knowing what to do, unsure of our thoughts and feelings. We were so engrossed in our imagined loss that even as she stumbled back into the Apartment, we didn’t immediately notice her.
“Get the bed ready,” she gasped, and then collapsed.
We hadn’t used beds for a long time, since we had dispensed with sleep. Even during the terrifying famine, we only laid down when we completely collapsed.
Undoubtedly, she was sick. Her skin had ulcers, her nostrils and lips were burned. She was confused and her heart beat irregularly. These were apparently the symptoms of Dust poisoning as it entered the blood. We watched her lying unconscious on the bed we had prepared for her. It was the only thing we could do.
This was the real joke. Just when we thought she was safely back with us, something else seemed to be snatching her away. Death was a subject we had contemplated with respect. Now that it was imminent, it was even harder to comprehend than Grandmother’s return to the outside world. The irony of it: that we, the eternally faithful, were finally facing Death, whilst the outside world was now thriving in the Dust.
But Grandmother didn’t succumb.
She miraculously pulled through. “Do you know how sweet it is to breathe the outside air? I’ve still got that metallic taste in my mouth.” These were the first words she spoke when she woke up, pausing repeatedly for breath. Some us were convinced, just as my parents had been convinced to stay in this apartment with her, all those years ago. She was so resolute and obstinate, so persuasive – it was as if… as if we were born to be her followers.
The third time Grandmother tried to enter the world outside the wall, she took with her five of her acolytes.
They were my father, my youngest sister, and my older brothers, the triplets.
I will always remember their footsteps. Always – because I believe in eternity, and they didn’t.
Grandmother was the only one who came back. Her condition was no different from the way it had been after her previous journey. She tried to tell us that she had stayed out longer than she did before. But we had no concept of time. Neither did she. She just wanted to believe it. No one ever mentioned the others again. It was as if they never existed.
There was a fourth time. There was a fifth time, and then the sixth.
By the seventh time, She had found a clan member strong enough to return with her. My mother was the only person who left and came back with her.
But perhaps she should have come back sooner.
We put her on the bed and watched her draw her last few breaths, and die.
At that moment we clearly understood that things had to come to an end.
Grandmother was the only one who could survive the outside. Mother almost did. The one who succumbed first to the air was my little sister, the youngest of Grandmother’s followers.
I sat down next to her. She turned her eyes towards me. By that point I had managed to figure things out. That was why I’d sat down next to her. She gazed into my eyes. There was no need for words. She understood me. I believe that she had already worked out my thoughts long before I managed to untangle them myself. She was sharp in that way, and her will was that strong.
She had led us through disaster and we had survived. Under her leadership, we had found our own means of self-preservation. Our clan had become new humans. Unfortunately, we had chosen an evolutionary cul-de-sac. We were not the race who survived by adapting.
This was not her fault. But perhaps she didn’t see it that way.
And so, time after time, she tried to lead her clan into the realms of death.
“This can’t go on any longer.” I stubbornly voiced what we all understood.
Grandmother turned her face, and looked away from me. In that instant I thought I saw hint of a smile pass her lips.
I felt a chill I had never felt before.
But we weren’t facing a total catastrophe just yet. For us, nothing really changed. The Apartment was the same as before, and so were we. The outside world was happier and freer, but it needed us to pay a price we had never paid before, and were unable to afford.
From then on, Grandmother never left the Apartment, and never spoke to anyone. She retreated into herself. That dreary place that no other person could enter. More than ever before, she came to resemble a shadow. It became harder and harder to pick her out from the rest of us, even if you were looking carefully. In a certain sense, it was as though she had died a different kind of death.
I thought I was doing the right thing. I had persuaded Grandmother to give up trying, even though it felt a little cruel, especially to her. But I was wrong. The overconfidence I had inherited from my father led me to make an error in judgment. We thought we knew more than her and had more sense.
From time to time, a useless, stupid idea would rear its head.
“It would be so nice to live freely in the sun like the outside people.”
The thought was always accompanied by resentment towards Grandmother, but at last we persuaded ourselves to magnanimously forgive her. On the other side of the wall, order was gradually being restored. We were developing in parallel with the people outside, neither side disturbing the other.
But one day, there was a knock at the door.
“You need to pay your electricity bill.”
“What?” This conversation, my first contact with the world outside, felt like a blow to my head. I had to lean against the wall to stop myself from keeling over. It had taken almost all my energy to open the door. I hadn’t kept any reserve left to make sense of these very alien words and concepts.
What’s an electricity bill? How does one pay it? And how was I supposed to determine whether I should?
A youth with a waxy yellow face stood before me. At least, to me he was a youth. Astonished, he looked me up and down, and sighed. When he breathed out, viscous yellow pus trickled out from the secondary nostrils on either side of his nose, following the deep folds, down to the corners of his mouth. The youth swiped the back of his hand across his face, wiping off the secretion, before breezily informing me of what must have been common knowledge. He patiently explained: usually the bill is paid via direct debit from the bank, or alternatively it can be paid online, and if neither of these happened then the energy provider would send someone to collect the money.
I must have looked dreadful, and probably terrified. If I could, I would have dashed back into a hidden corner of the Apartment and covered my ears until he went away.
He couldn’t help but try and comfort me. “Actually, after the Depression, many people have been unable to pay their bills.”
“We stopped using electricity a long time ago,” Grandmother reminded me from behind. I repeated this, without really understanding what I was saying.
He laughed. It took him quite a while to realize I wasn’t joking. He cleared his throat, awkwardly. “If I can just take a look at your meter, we can clear this all up.”
He stood in front of the meter for a long time, checking and checking again. The readings must have bewildered him.
“This is really weird. You’re right. According to your meter, you really haven’t used any electricity. Since… well, since before the Company existed. This is too weird.” He gave his head a good scratch, and screwed up his face. “Even if your usage is zero, you still have to pay the basic facilities maintenance fee. It’s just the rule.” He shrugged, indicating that he didn’t want to make things difficult for us.
“Fee? Of course. Of course.” As soon as I understood his agenda, I eagerly showed my willingness to comply.
“That will be… three hundred and seventy eight yuan please.”
A new problem opened up and took us by surprise.
We didn’t even know what it was. Most of the people in the Apartment were born after the world had crumbled and currency had lost its meaning. When we had needed food, the only obstacle we had to overcome was the foul air. However, now that order was restored, things were back as they were before. No one could doubt the importance of money.
“Are you feeling unwell?” He was staring at me quite intently.
I lowered my head, but he had already seen the look in my eyes.
This put him on alert. Almost subconsciously, he lowered his gaze until it was on my nose. He was looking for those tiny holes like his own. Of course, he didn’t find any. His heart raced. The sound of blood rushing through his arteries was like rolls of thunder. I could smell the sweat from his palms – or maybe it was the scent of something else – and it made my heart tighten in my chest.
I licked my wet lips. “We don’t have money.”
To him these words probably sounded more reckless than I intended. He slowly reached into his pocket for his walkie-talkie, just in case.
“It can wait till next time.” He said, backing towards the stairwell, ready at any moment to bolt down the stairs.
“How much did you say that was?” Grandmother leant over the lintel, looking dispassionately at the young man from the energy company.
I had no idea how long I’d existed in a desert of wilted desires.
An ecstasy, the likes of which I had never experienced in my life, coursed through my whole being, attempting to shake off the shackles of my body, burst out of my chest and fly towards the firmament, so it could be shared by all beings under heaven. No matter who or what they were. My head was spinning as if I was drunk, my body limp on the floor. When I lifted my head I saw myself splitting apart. Moss, fungus, flowers and plants gushed out like floodwater through the wounds, growing with wild speed. I had only read about this beautiful floral blanket in books, a sublime device in myths of the Golden Age. Yet it was right before my eyes.
“You almost got us killed. We’re lucky he was an idiot.”
Grandmother looked down at me coldly. Stood behind her, the rest of my clan looked at me with the same expression in their eyes. Distance, loathing, terror. I didn’t care. At that moment, their golden brown eyes looked exquisite.
I bent my head to one side, lazily wiping the lukewarm droplets from the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand.
“Leave us a moment,” Grandmother said to the others.
Once again, they faded into the shadows, once again returning to their withered state of being. I had once been among them. Not any more.
I felt tears drip silently down my face.
“This isn’t your fault.” Grandmother bent down.
“Should I have told him to come back in a few days?”
Grandmother smiled airily. We both knew the answer. In a few days time, we still wouldn’t have any money. Very soon people would find out how different we were from them. We knew very well what their reaction would be. How they would treat a different species. Our several hundred dusty and cobwebbed books were not short of those types of stories.
We must never be discovered.
If we were to survive, we had to disguise ourselves as them.
And breathe the outside air freely.
“We will be exposed more quickly if we don’t have money,” Grandmother corrected me. We couldn’t fake that. Not having money was the biggest problem if we were to interact with the new humans. Before they even found out we couldn’t breathe the air, they’d find out we couldn’t pay the bills. Not having cash was our greatest vulnerability.
Our special biology meant we couldn’t leave the Apartment and earn money to pay the bills, like normal people could. Our food supplies would be gone in a few days.
“We’ll need money to buy food, too.” The euphoria was dwindling inside me. I started to think about the problem.
“Food?” Grandmother’s countenance began to flit, and I was unable to read her rapidly changing expressions.
The drops that followed the raptures began to slowly erode me from within. Once I’d experienced what true joy felt like, the remainder of my life could only mean one thing. I felt cold, and trembled uncontrollably. Tears flooded out as if from a broken dam, and – before they were absorbed into the floor – mingled with the dark stain of spilt blood.
That was my first time. And the first time was never clean. There was bound to be wastage.
I lay curled up, weeping uncontrollably. The young electrician lay beside me. His eyes wide open and empty, glaring past me to some spot in a dark corner. An empty spot, but maybe the dead could see what we could not.
If Grandmother hadn’t called him back, what would he be doing now? Having dinner with his family, or exercising in the smog? If he hadn’t come inside, he wouldn’t be dead. Everything happened in the instant I closed the door, before I even became aware of what was going on. No. I was aware. It was exactly what I wanted. In the depths of my conscience, a pair of eyes was always watching, watching me… rip open that boy’s throat, and then…
“We do indeed need food. We can pretend to eat human food,” Grandmother said. “Yes, pretend, listen to how they talk, learn how they walk, eat as much as we can outside, put some make-up on if needs be. And use up a certain amount of electricity.”
“Just then, I felt a hunger I’ve never felt before. Like a disease,” I sobbed.
“You’re not the first to do this. When I went outside with your father, they all collapsed. I tried to get the ones who were still alive to an abandoned warehouse nearby. Not long after that, it went dark. I didn’t think there would be anyone there, but a tramp suddenly appeared. I wasn’t any better than you. I did the same thing. Before I came to, it had already happened. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I believe that tramp was one of the reasons I survived.”
“So it wasn’t an accident? You knew what would happen, and you led him into it on purpose…”
“We have walked our path for a long time. We can’t turn back. Sometimes I think we only need to walk a few more steps. Make some changes to make everyone happy. Perhaps this will set things right. Only a little change.”
She bent down, and grinned into the empty eyes. At that moment, the shadows surrounding her gathered and crisscrossed, like heavy black gauze curtains dancing and tangling in the wind, rippling to some mysterious rhythm, disappearing and then reappearing.
And please believe me when I tell you that there were tiny golden fragments of light floating within those darkest depths.
The laughter of children in the street began to fade. It was dinner time, and their parents were calling them home. My little sister once asked me whether, if I had the choice, I would be “people like them”.
“We already are people like them,” I replied, caressing her icy cheeks.
But we weren’t.
Of course, we no longer had any choice. No matter where our timeline was taking us, it was impossible to reverse. Grandmother was the one who’d made the choice. She had led us down a deep, dark and frightening path, and now she was determined to keep us alive.
We had paid our price, experienced our failures, and we had found a solution. Even though it was by accident.
In old medicine, people sought mysterious connections between unrelated objects. If a particular organ of their body showed signs of decline, they would ingest food that resembled that organ, such as walnuts for the brain, or eat a corresponding organ from another animal. Many prehistoric warrior clans believed that the enemy’s blood and skulls could bring them courage and power. Although these beliefs had been refuted by hundreds of years of science, organ transplants, blood transfusions and vaccinations didn’t seem so different from these ancient practices to us. Imbibing part of their bodies, in order to gain their immunity and survive in this new environment.
Grandmother hadn’t thought that far ahead. It was mere providence. She had just wanted to stop everything from falling apart; it was her appetite that compelled her.
We didn’t know what had awakened the desire for this new food in her, but that gnawing hunger that was like nothing else, flooding her body, washing away any deeper questioning.
Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence.
The instinct for survival propelled Grandmother to find a new path for us, a path to become the new humans.
“I’m hungry,” grumbled my little brother.
“We’ve already ordered the takeaway.”
“Is it the tall one from last time? I like the way he tastes.”
“It might be someone else.”
It would be best if it were someone else.
We could already hear his footsteps. When he walked past the convenience store and through the garden, a child nearly ran into him. He was nearly at the gate. Now he was climbing the stairs.
I would open the door. He would smile at me, as if he was meeting me for the first time. He wouldn’t remember that we had met before. Every time, we would carefully wipe their memory (we’d got very good at hypnosis), and every time we would dine on them very carefully.
Not taking too much, leaving just enough for them to remain alive, but taking enough to give us all immunity to the air, so we could live in the world carefree, breathing and moving freely.
We would be like them, but we would always know who we were.
Now, and forever.
We would survive.