Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Vermilion Years: Chapter 2


Unman

I looked down at the unconscious girl, contemplating my next course of action.
To my irritation, the girl’s breathing had stopped. Reviving Fleurette was an inconvenience I did not require, as once I became her savior, societal obligation then made her continued existence my burden. The maid’s fate meant absolutely nothing to me, but allowing her to die now would make my previous inconvenience a wasted effort.  I still don’t know why I made that initial dive. Perhaps it was a leftover reflex.


Extending a long steel spire from my left wrist, I carved a tiny yet deep hole in Fleurette’s chest. I took an orb of compressed oxygen from one of the many leather pockets on my pantaloons and plopped it down the area of incision. The girl awoke immediately, wriggling and screaming like a newborn child. She was covered in blood and severe burns, writhing in an agony that trumped all the pain she’d ever known. I drove the palm of my hand against her temple, applying just enough force to knock the maid unconscious.
The next step was to solder a metal graft over the area to prevent the air from escaping. I’d used human metallurgy frequently for my own repairs so the process was quick.
I sat by Fleurette for three hours until she awoke. During this time I did clean her up, but lacking painkillers and bandaging I braced myself for the maidservant’s painful reawakening. The girl returned to consciousness in complete silence, taking me by surprise. Seeing that she was alive, I started off, listlessly heading for the town’s outskirts.


After an hour, I realized Fleurette had ventured off after me and had somehow managed to catch up.

“If you proceed, you will die,” I said.

The girl said nothing. When I looked back I discovered that she’d donned a silver exosuit, complete with goggles, a breather and a pair of ornamental sporting revolvers.

“Take off the gas mask. You no longer require breath.”


After a day’s worth of ceaseless trekking across the harsh marshy strip of land, I stopped to rest out for my companion’s sake. We’d come across a collapsed volcano that had since been used by travelers as a temporary outpost. Such camps were often left by nomads, corsairs or chevaliers across the wilderness. This one, however, was an oddity. It seemed to have been abruptly abandoned by a squad of royal cartographers, freshly lived in. Given the close proximity to Lyonnais, its presence did not bode well for a settlement wishing to remain neutral in the wars.  

“The suit you wear is for poaching fisher falcons via steamsteed,” I informed as I rummaged through the crates for supplies. “It’s supposed to be fashionable, not protect you from real danger.”

“It’s Lady Etienne’s parting gift,” Fleurette replied, the first I’d heard her speak since venturing from the floating Châteaux Pasiphae. “She figured once the unmans have overrun Lyonnais, 
she won’t have much need for a frivolous hobby like game hunting.”

“And so your new pastime became posing as my devoted shadow.”


Amongst the surplus of canned meats I found a flask of Dover Whisky. An excellent find, considering that agriculture existed only as a luxury. In place of alcohol, the common vices suffered in the Vermillion years were various grades of bottled exhaust fumes and other homemade hallucinogens. Tobacco, marijuana and wheat had become endangered millennia ago, being preserved only by a pair of Im brothers: Edgar and Dover October.
Edgar Allen October, the more charitable brother, developed a resilient tea leaf that could be grown even in the harshest conditions, giving the world a drink with taste and a means to eek an existence outside of factory work. Guns, prosthetic enhancements, mining submarines, arthro-pods, airships and war machines were the primary products of Earth’s industrial economy.  Virtually everything in existence was either churned out by a machine or assembled via conveyor belt. Even cattle were raised in such a way— mooing, living components of giant meatpacking machines. Sickeningly, chevaliers were manufactured in a similar method.
Thinking of such things often made me regret never migrating to Mars or one of the Asian colonies when I had the chance, but hearing of the turmoil those civilizations faced daily in outer space made such feelings short-lived. Life was harsh yet simple on Earth, and its wars tamer. Actually that wasn’t true at all. In truth, I just preferred bullets to lasers. More of that Im sentimentality, I suppose.

“Wipe those fantasies from your mind, Im,” ordered the girl, using a bucket of boiling hot water to power the steam furnace and cook up a can of canned cow. “I won’t credit you for saving a life that you put in danger. I owe you no favors. Sexual or otherwise.”

“If it’s any comfort, I’d sooner take your life than your virginity,” I replied, standing at the mouth of the cave. “You are neither pleasing inwardly or outwardly. Do not get any ideas of your own. Saving a child with such grating voice was a mistake and was conceived through the accidental mating of impulse and boredom.”

Upon finishing her unsatisfying supper of broiled meat, Fleurette nestled into a nearby cot. “So where are we headed?”

We  are headed nowhere, and will continue to do so until the ‘w’ in the word gets turned upside-down and that becomes my company,” I replied, taking a hearty gulp of Dover Whiskey. I hadn’t felt the buzz of booze in years, so I did my best to down the liquid quickly rather than savor it.

 “I must see the dangers first hand,” declared Fleurette firmly. “I want to become hardened by it like you, and someday gain the strength to protect Lady Etienne. That way she won’t need to rely on the protection of selfish Ims.  I will accompany you until this desire is realized and I will not falter. If you mean to tire me or weaken my resolve, you’re wasting your time.”

“Time is commodity that I’m willing to waste,” I said as I walked out of the cave.
The stubborn girl attempted to get up, but exhaustion caught up with her. Her battered body was as lead, made even heavier by her silver suit. 

I walked out of the cave with mixed feelings. On one hand, I was happy to be free of the girl’s annoying presence, yet on the other I was opposed to the notion of giving an unman a free meal. A pack of sand wolves ambushed me, trying to gnaw off my flesh. Their teeth broke on my skin, sending the hairless canines baying off in fear. Before it could retreat with the rest of the mutts, I killed the biggest one with a sweep of my iron claws, just to get the kinks out of my wrist. As I wiped the blood off my hands, I heard three successive gunshots coming from the cartographers’ camp.

 “Die already,” yelled the girl, unloading an entire clip into her assailant. “Wow, still alive? The flesh is like clay, my bullets just sink in. The black blood is so goopy and sticky, patching up the wound in seconds…”

A creature stood still in front of Fleurette, staring at her expressionlessly. It resembled a human but with foggy cat-eyes, long black hair and no mouth. It wore ratty, bloody clothes patched with human and animal hair. Its skin looked greasy and was as filled with holes, snags and blemishes as its garments were. In addition to donning scrappy rags, the mutant clutched a saw crudely fashioned out of shark fangs.

“Talking to yourself?” I asked, rather amused.

“It’s just standing there, reacting to my bullets with mere winces… Like they were harmless medical shots.”

“I take it this is your first unman,” I said, walking over to her.

“Just kill it already, the thing bothers me to no end,” the crass maid commanded, treating the unman as if it were a cockroach. 

“By that logic, I should be killing you.” I replied, eying up the unman. “Murder requires justifiable motivation. A good rule of thumb is to kill only that which wishes to kill you. By doing do, you avoid unneeded conflict. I believe that applies here.”

While I could tell the mutant had been around longer than Fleurette, he was  actually much younger. The ridiculously long biological lifespan of the unman made human age seem dog years in comparison. To put it on a scale, a twenty year old unman was roughly the same as five-year old child. This meant death for an unman was almost always due to human intervention.

“Uh yeah, that’s I’m taking preemptive action against being its meal,” Fleurette snapped, retreating behind me. “That’s what uns do, they EAT humans. It’s not murder when you kill monster.”

“Debatable. Food is hard to come by outside of civilization. The only thing preventing mankind from consuming unmans is its innate moral code. Like their bodies, the brains of the unman do not function the same as a human’s. That natural aversion to cannibalism does not exist.”

“So it’s a gross zombie,” Fleurette shuttered.

“It’s a common misconception to think they are mindless or undead. Unmans’ eyes see a world of black and white and their brains think on terms of survival. They simply aren’t programmed to care about things like hierarchy, culture, wealth or any other societal concepts… but they are still very much alive.”

“A zombie is the perfect name for it,” the maid insisted. “Unthinking and unfeeling. Putrid and repulsive. Every time it breaths its nostrils flare up in such an inhuman way. No matter what I do, it makes no response. It just drools vegetatively… ” 

“And in his opinion, your behavior is bizarre.” As I said this, the unman boy peered at me warily, sensing I was no ordinary human. “Stasis is the ideal state of being for unmankind. They wish to conserve energy, doing as little as they possibly need to do. Uns are by no means dumb. They spend their existences thinking constantly, and have a brilliant capacity for strategy and analysis. Allow me to demonstrate.”

I walked away, causing the monster to immediately leap at Fleurette, pressing its blade against her throat and shaking her repeatedly. The creature’s neck and head unhinged, revealing a gaping mouth hole with three rows of tiny razor sharp teeth. It let out a ghastly, high-pitched whine, and its long black tongue slinked out of its esophagus and coiled all around the girl’s body.

 “KILL IT, JEAN-LUC,” Fleurette bellowed. “KILL THIS HIDEOUS  THING BEFORE IT EATS ME!”

“See what he’s doing now?” I asked the girl nonchalantly. “He sees me as superior, so he’s trying to exploit human sentimentality to overcome me. This is purely self-preservation. This unman is full, likely having eaten the squad of cartographers that made this camp. If the unman wanted to eat you, he would have already.”

“I’M NOT KIDDING, SLAY THIS THING OR I WILL HAUNT YOU WHEN I DIE,” she howled, desperately trying to wriggle free from the slimy tongue hog-tie that bound her.

“Life or death, you’ll haunt me regardless,” I sighed, getting quite tired of the girl’s frequent interruptions. “I thought you wanted to be hardened by the horrors of the world.”

“HARDENED BY NOT CONSUMED BY, YOU TWISTED IDIOT.”

Fleurette’s tactless response put a legitimate smile on my face, so I adjusted my bronze mask to convey this. It had been ages since someone had shown me such flagrant irreverence. Not for lack of hatred, I was well aware of the general disdain for me and my kind, but being unkillable had a way of suppressing the sentiment. If humans knew a way to kill Ims, I am absolutely certain their loathing for us would match that harbored for the ‘unmans.’ Ironic, really. In a forgotten era, both the uns and Ims were initially championed as the harbingers to the end of human mortality.

As mankind accepted the truth of its home’s eventual inhospitality—due to the ever shortening gap between the sun and the Earth— it sought out various ways to circumvent the species’ extinction. The Japanese and Chinese developed cybernetics to enable space life, and Russia and America collaborated to convert the red planet Mars into a livable green one. While a good chunk of humanity had migrated into space, most of mankind was not ready to up on the planet that housed them for millions of years. The European Union was the most opposed transition, concerned more about preserving tradition.

After countless failed attempts to bolster our planet’s survivability via technology, a German genetic-biologist proposed our species try once again to awaken its stagnant evolution. The scientist and his team boldly broke taboo, rebooting the genocidal failure known as Project Immortality. Just a short century prior, mankind’s futile attempt to play God ended up causing the death of millions. His plan was to crack the genome of the survivors, who at the time were buried alive under unlivable desert sands like lead canisters of nuclear waste.  
Through his research, the German discovered a mutation that added an additional strand to the traditional double helix of human DNA. He called it ‘SNA’, or ‘supplemental-DNA.’ Claiming he could not only make man immortal, but perfect in all aspects, the man’s project received an unprecedented level of funding.

What happened from there was never made public and therefore lost to time. Considering I was in hiding, I wasn’t exactly privy to the finer details. What I do know however, was that the research continued until the man fell deathly ill. Desperate to live to see his dream realized, he prematurely deemed the project finished and green-lighted his plan for synthetic evolution. The ensuing havoc resulted in enough bloodshed to raise the Earth’s water level.
The last words heard from the German biologist were ‘Homo Erroneous’— the official name for the deadly new species his selfish ambition created.


Using a fold-out machete clipped onto my bicep, I pierced the unman through its heart. I acted just quick enough to prevent the monster from moving its central organ out of its body and into the maid. Had I hesitated any longer, I would have been forced to kill Fleurette.  Four other mutants sprung from the shadows, hoping my victory would dull my senses. Unfortunately for them, my millennia of battle experience wizened me to their tactics. Ripping Fleurette’s gun from her hands, I tracked the moving bulges in the emaciated monster’s chests and put a well timed bullet in each one. Once she realized all the unmans were dead, Fleurette lunged at me.

“You call yourself mercenary?” Fleurette yelled, shoving me. “How could you not tell there were five of those things here lurking in the dark? No wonder you’re all Lyonnais can afford. You’re pathetic.”

“I’ve never once called myself a mercenary, that would imply I get paid,” I said, pulling the bodies out of the cave. I planned to skewer the unmans’ corpses on one of their spears outside the cave. Though barbaric, the action would ward others off.
The beleaguered girl looked at me perplexedly.

“My service as an unman killer is merely a pretense I use to facilitate travel from settlement to settlement,” I explained. “The true aim of my travels is something else entirely.”

“Something you’re looking for,” said Fleurette.

“You could say that,” I replied, stacking the bloody corpses atop each other. 

“And you can say more,” growled the maid. “Don’t get cryptic with me, Jean-Luc. I’m far too tired to piece anything together right now. What is it that you’re searching for?”
I finished off the last of the whisky that I’d left behind. I set my mask’s mouth to frown and its brows to arch down.


“I seek the way to end an Immortal.”