Written for the Newgrounds Festivals Short Story contest.
A pair of green eyes winced before and after opening to the blinding white of their surroundings. A ceaseless ringing of the ears soon followed, or perhaps had merely made itself known once such perception was possible, pain writ across their owner’s face. These sensory organs belonged to a young woman, skin tinged bronze, hair long, black, and immensely curly. She’d hoped to speak, but found her body unwilling. Instead, a desperate flailing of the jaw, cracking from disuse and quickly stilled by the uncomfortable pain that followed. A pitiful hush of air escaped her lips.
She was, unquestionably, alive.
Thoughts came gradually, though not coherently. Fragmented bits and pieces, things that did not make sense in tandem with one another. A tapestry riddled with holes at the mercy of wicked moths. Words lingered at the frayed edges of this defiled work of art, but the body was unable as of yet to breathe life to them. Distress at this confusion was the only form of communication possible.
A display soon blinked into existence before her eyes, reflected in them, a collection of symbols broadly unfamiliar to her mind. At least, those that were not English, a smattering of Spanish, and a once adventurous, but fruitless endeavor to learn French. The eyes squinted until they seemed to focus long enough on English to provoke some sort of response.
[Communication Module Set to Target Language.]
All at once, a machine-like voice offered the first familiar sounds to her aching ears. A few moments later, the screen transitioned to the most gorgeous face she’d ever laid her eyes on. Though androgynous in appearance, there was something unmistakably perfect about the spacing of the eyes, the shape of the nose, the precise cut of the jaw and protrusion of the cheeks. The being was statuesque, and utterly breathtaking. The very sight was comforting to the woman, an ease slowly overtaking her as she perceived these features.
An angelic voice spoke through the screen, bringing peace to her otherwise tormented ears.
“I understand you are not yet able to speak. I am called Lazarus, and I am here to assist you.”
There was a brief pause, the continued pleasantries of the experience easing her into comprehension.
“With your eyes, you will be able to communicate with me. Just look at the word or picture you wish to use.”
A series of prompts appeared in a formation around Lazarus’ screen. Among them were simple one word responses such as “Yes.” and “No.”, as well as pictures of objects that were clearly foodstuffs and so on.
“Do you understand? Just focus on the word or object with your eyes to communicate that answer to me.”
It took the woman a few moments to wrest her eyes from Lazarus. So beautiful was this being, it almost seemed a sin to look away. In time however, the eyes drifted toward a box.
Lazarus smiled gently as her eyes returned to the perfect being.
“Wonderful. You are doing a fantastic job.”
A series of question prompts appeared around Lazarus, allowing for a follow-up. Eventually, a query was chosen.
「Where am I?」
Lazarus nodded softly.
“You are in what is called a restoration unit. Think of it as a chamber used to heal the body. In time, you will feel comfortable. Please do your best to endure it for a little while longer.”
The girl was reminded of her discomfort thanks to these words, and almost regretted having asked. Her eyes flitted back and forth between two separate queries.
“Do you wish to ask both of these questions?”
Relief. She looked to a singular box.
There was a brief pause.
「Why am I here?」「What happened to me?」
“The answer to each of these is complicated, but I will do all I can to answer.”
“Are you familiar with the ancient creatures called dinosaurs?”
“Records state these creatures were largely forced into extinction by something called a Mass Extinction Event. Humanity experienced a similar catastrophe, though not as severe. Rest assured, you are now safe, but in a time past, you were a victim of such an event.”
「Are you saying I died?」
「Where is my family?」
「Why did this happen?」
All these prompts fired off in rotation before Lazarus could elaborate further. The beautiful guide could only hope to do what was needed to calm the frantic patient.
“Yes. It is true that you did die. But you are alive once again thanks to significant technological advancements. We are also actively working to restore the others who perished in that horrible tragedy. That includes friends, family, and any others you held dear.”
A sort of relief came to her. It was not a perfect answer, but there was too much confusion in her mind to fully process that. The answer was favorable.
“As for why this happened, and what precisely happened to you, the exact answer is unclear. You are a person who has been brought back from a death-state, and restored to life. We do not know precisely what aspect of the event brought you to your end, but it is better to think of it as a pause, in your case. You are safe now, and we are working to restore others as well. Time is on your side, so you may rest easy.”
Lazarus then began to lead the conversation.
“Would you care for some water?”
A small machine whirred to life and raised a straw to the young woman’s mouth.
“You may find it difficult to move your body still, so please make use of this straw.”
It was as Lazarus said. Until now, she had not actually considered her physical state. Her body was at a 45 degree incline and securely fastened, her skin covered for the most part by sanitized cloth and materials. With gratitude, she began to sup upon the given drink. The cool water brought a sense of relief to her senses. In time she found more of her body returning to her, and with it, a hoarse voice finally found the means to escape her lips.
A month passed, and in that time, the girl’s rehabilitation had made steady progress. She could recall now that her name was Aayla, though her friends called her Aay, and she had an inexplicable craving for jerked chicken that would come and go every week or so. Aayla found herself in decent enough company amongst the other “Rehabs”, as they called themselves, and was making decent strides at remembering who exactly she was and what her life had been like before her untimely demise.
It seemed that the other Rehabs all came from various parts of the world, with their own languages and backgrounds between them. This proved to be a rather minor concern, as their hosts provided each of them with a communication module similar to that which greeted them when they first awakened. They functioned in a multitude of ways, though most found the most convenient to be a speech conversion setting that automatically relayed direct translations between the speaker and listener with relatively high accuracy in most cases, though the gap between different languages did lend itself to more complicated conversation attempts between those whose native tongues were further apart from their counterpart.
Aayla had not seen Lazarus again after their initial meeting, though she felt a regular yearning to do so. The beautiful being that had brought her back from the brink was someone that everyone seemed to have a sort of affection toward, and it helped give each of them something in common to talk about. A fun ice-breaker among the Rehabs was to determine what questions each of them asked Lazarus first. It became a sort of game to determine what kind of person each of them was at their most core being. Those who thought of their family first were the “softies”, only outpaced by the “lovers” who fixated on their missing spouse or partner. Then there were the “gluttons” who seemed to veer straight toward hunger and thirst. Lastly, there were the “monks”, who seemed indifferent and at peace with their circumstances with little need for questioning. In truth, there were certain factors having to do with which parts of the brain were most re-developed that would predetermine these outcomes, but none of the Rehabs knew this. They were all human, though. This much, they knew.
Their sponsors were a rather mysterious sort. Indeed, the Rehabs had no shortage of questions regarding the beings they called the “Keepers”. They were quite distinctly different from the Rehabs, both in dress and demeanor. First and foremost, each of them wore clothing that kept their faces and features well concealed. None among the Rehabs could say with certainty what any of them actually looked like beneath their masks and veils. The second thing the Rehabs noticed was that they did not seem to sleep much, nor give much notice to lunch or dinner time. They did, however, always take their leave for breakfast. It became a regular passtime to try and guess at the meaning behind these various things.
Despite their mysterious nature, it was clear that the Keepers were a friendly bunch, and always quite pleased to engage in conversation and learn about the lives the Rehabs once lived. They communicated with a similar method, though it seemed that most of them had adopted several languages to an almost native level, making them easier to talk to than one’s fellow Rehab. In times when one would grow too friendly, they would typically excuse themselves from their duties and disappear into the depths of their vessel.
The collective had come to learn quite a bit about their present circumstances. Firstly, they were all aboard a ship that belonged to some sort of abstract human rights organization. Secondly, and quite possibly the most unbelievable revelation of all— after the revelation of their resurrection— was that they were no longer on earth, but instead in a fixed orbit some great distance away from it. This made a number of Rehabs rather uncomfortable at times, but they were assured that it was a matter of necessity and would eventually come to an end once conditions on earth were more favorable. The ship itself offered no shortage of amenities.
Rehabs were also granted access to historical records, and in time, they came to learn more about their collective fate. It seemed that a great number of them were killed in something called “The Cull”. The Cull was a worldwide phenomenon in which a deadly pathogen swept through civilization and wiped out its victims before they could understand what was going on. The Cull seemed to kill people indiscriminately, and too rapidly for anyone to do much about it. Society was dramatically changed following this phenomenon, with human resources becoming scarce in the shadow of the mass die-off of populations. A notable power-vacuum then came to occupy world governments, leading to a series of skirmishes called the Post-Cull Wars. When all was done, humanity had been reduced even further thanks to the horrors of warfare.
Humankind was faced with hardships not unlike the period following the Bubonic plague in Europe as they rebuilt civilization, and the survivors ultimately began to find the answers to this chaos in time. The population needed to be restored.
The solution to this dilemma was threefold. The first was the advent of reproduction facilities, which resembled state-mandated fertility clinics. It was here that willing citizens who wished to procreate could submit themselves for testing and, if chosen, be paired with a mate or simply donate their genetic material and be on their way. Likewise, gene editing technology, which had been in its infancy during The Cull, was now something that had become more commonplace. Researchers discovered that victims of The Cull carried certain genetic markers that were both inherited and expressed. It became clear that The Cull was not something random, but instead a cruel twist of fate for those who were unfortunate enough to be born with these characteristics. With this in mind, genetic modification would help those previously unfit to survive create new genetic pathways for survival.
The third solution was a means to produce a capable workforce while the new generation was still being reared. As it happened, advancements in robotics had begun to make their own headway, and so these machines would supplement the missing workforce necessary to help repair cities, maintain infrastructure, and provide the much needed labor force humanity needed.
As several generations passed, more and more found their children to be less a byproduct of their own genetics and more hand-crafted by the masterful touch of science. Unfavorable traits- predispositions to illness and congenital defects- eventually disappeared entirely from existence. This outcome was acceptable for those willing to cooperate. Others, be it for personal reasons or rejection from facilities, found themselves doing things the old fashioned way. In time, a fissure would grow between those born of the new process, and those who’d opted to procreate the way their ancestors did.
Another conflict loomed on the horizon as the two sides grew further apart. Eventually, they separated all together, with entire societies being defined by the degrees they participated in each of these. At the same time, the machines built to work alongside humankind were developed further, and given more human-like features. Their functions expanded, and over time they filled in not only the gaps in workforce, but also those social needs that were so important to mankind. This was a boon to all parties, as the presence of these more and more lifelike machines may have single handedly prevented another war over human resources following the time period called The Divide.
Another few generations passed, and humanity had done well to repopulate. The birth rates were incomparable between those on each side of The Divide, however. Those who’d opted for natural birth were of course much slower than their optimized counterparts, and eventually they seemed to disappear altogether from the historical record. On the other hand, it became clear that the offspring of the reproduction facilities were both more fit and more frequent. With time for leisure thanks to machine labor and their own biological advancements, mankind reportedly expanded its horizons. Though the cost was great, it would seem the end result was a massive leap forward for humanity, depending on which scholarly opinion you sought out. After hundreds of years of fine tuning, humanity had achieved its perfection.
That was the footnote at the end of what records were available, at any rate. The Rehabs who’d bothered to learn all this information often wondered what it meant for them. Some had memories of the period after The Cull. Some recalled the Post-Cull Wars. Some existed in a time long after each of these events. But most were like Aayla— unwitting victims of an illness that came so swiftly, they did not even know they were dying. The more they learned, the more they wondered if their loved ones would ever be rejoining them. As it happened, one’s potential for reanimation came down to how they died, where they were interned, and the state of the body upon retrieval. Such parameters were grim for most, given the amount of time that had passed.
After enough time aboard the ship, the promised day had come. The Rehabs were granted means and permission to venture to their home planet. A few had volunteered, though many found themselves admittedly quite comfortable with their new lives. They wanted for very little, and had no shortage of good company both between the Keepers and their fellow Rehabs. They were told there was no guarantee of return once sent back to earth, and indeed, this ship had been a veritable Eden to them. To leave it would be to step into the unknown, away from this paradise they had grown so accustomed to. Some of the Rehabs had found love, and others found a sense of purpose in aiding fellow Rehabs that joined them. A few had become rather friendly with the Keepers, who despite their mysterious visages were still so immensely delightful to be around that the thought of parting seemed simply too painful.
It was their attachment to these Keepers that was used as leverage when the request for volunteers became a need. As Rehabs grew in number, the sustainability of the ship came into question. A number of them had opted to start families with their fellow Rehabs, and the time came where there was simply not going to be enough room to continue supporting so many. A new policy dictated that those who wished to start families would be able to do so, though their children would be raised on earth. Later, another policy had to be enacted, stating that all Rehabs would eventually return to their home planet after one full year aboard the ship, retroactively effective. In exchange, they would be accompanied with a Keeper on their journey, and be shown what was always hidden while on the ship.
Aayla, for her part, was a curious enough person. When it came to be her turn to depart, she did not argue for more time as others had. She was assured, as all before her were, that a colony where she would be welcome with open arms awaited her, and that it would be just the next step of her journey. Her safety, too, was assured, as her body had developed a natural immunity to that pathogen that had killed her thanks to the time she spent on the ship. It seemed this was the reason for their delay in the first place- sufficient time to let the body do what needed to be done to find that blue planet habitable once more.
Aayla boarded the ship for earth alongside her fellow Rehabs after saying her goodbyes, assurances exchanged between all that they would see one another again. It was, all in all, a pleasant farewell, and an air of truth lingered in the air. They all believed what had been said.
The Keeper assigned to Aayla for this voyage joined her in a small, private cabin where she would receive a personalized debriefing on all that she had experienced, as well as what to expect on the surface. Her curiosity, however, did not lie in those matters. She cared only for one thing in this moment: she wished to finally see what lay behind the veil. The answer would be given after a brief interview.
“Aayla, the Keepers wish to know your thoughts on a few things.”
“Alright. What do you want to know?”
The interview covered various topics relating to her experiences aboard the ship, as well as her thoughts on what could make it better for those who would later be rehabilitated in the future. The final question, however, was more philosophical in nature.
“What does it mean to be human?”
Aayla paused to reflect on this answer. She had not really thought about this kind of question before.
The Keeper listened patiently, waiting for her words.
“I guess it’s… being able to love stuff just ‘cause you love it? Or not really feel like doing anything if you don’t want to. I think.”
She pondered further, concerned maybe her answer was inadequate.
“Um… uh… it’s being alive. And like, being able to live and feel someone else’s heart, you know? Like how everyone on the ship came from somewhere else and like, even though we don’t speak the same languages at first, we kind of understand each other, you know? ‘Cause we’re human. And like, we smile and laugh and it all means the same thing even if we don’t understand.”
She nods, content with her answer. She then began to think about the Keepers, who she’d never seen smile thanks to their uniforms.
“What about you? Are you human?”
The Keeper slowly leaned forward, and then looked down toward the floor of the vessel, as if ashamed. A slow, subtle shake of the head followed, then a very soft reply.
Aayla furrowed her brow and tried to understand what the Keeper meant by this.
“Then what are you?”
Her Keeper looked up at her slowly, then replied quietly, though resolutely.
It was at this time the Keeper slowly removed the veil and head covering. A moment later, Aayla found herself staring at a face so beautiful that she’d only ever seen something like it once before— the Keeper was every bit as perfect and beautiful as Lazarus. Every angle, every detail, it was as if she was reminded of her own imperfections the moment she remembered herself in the presence of this being. And indeed, just as she had been so taken by the person before her when she was brought back to life, she now found herself wide-eyed and in awe. Her words escaped her. Indeed, for all across the earth-bound vessel, this same experience was befalling each and every one who gazed upon their Keeper.
Aayla’s Keeper smiled softly, then slowly began to replace the veil that had kept their eyes from meeting one another. She almost begged for the Keeper to stop, but was unable to formulate words. Never… never had anything so beautiful, so perfect, been before her, face to face. A tear fell from her eye, much to her embarrassment. She began to feel horribly insecure about herself. No amount of work she’d ever done before a trip to the office, no amount of time at the gym, nothing in her old or new life had ever let her come anywhere near that level of aesthetic perfection.
It was enough to leave her speechless for the rest of her journey. Soon after, she found herself being swept away from the moment and into the harshness of atmospheric entry. Her Keeper did well to safely secure her, and in time, they landed as planned in the reaches beyond their destination. With shaky legs and questions she could not muster the strength to ask, she turned outward toward the horizon beneath the earthly sky. Fresh air greeted her, along with the glow of sunlight. So much of the planet had been reclaimed by nature in this region, but it was not such a problem. Before her was a great settlement that was beautifully constructed within the fields, not imposing like a city would normally be, but instead perfectly situated within nature.
This settlement was called New Genesis.
The Rehabs around Aayla all seemed to be in a similar state of shock following their time with their Keepers. They were all led toward the center of the settlement, and in time found themselves greeted by familiar faces that had departed previously from the ship. It seemed that this settlement was indeed their new home. Amidst these faces were some unknown to the new arrivals, as well as a number of robotic installations and units that matched with the historical record they’d heard about, diligently working on the settlement.
A man stepped forth from the welcoming party, unfamiliar to the Rehabs. He’d a prosthetic limb for his right arm and leg each. The right half of his face as well was covered from left brow to right jowl. He explained to them that he was the current leader of the settlement, and that he was among the first of the Rehabs ever brought to earth, though at the time he was still a small child. They were to be inheritors of this planet and all that humanity had given them. The man then welcomed a familiar face, broadcasting a small figure from a projection machine nearby. Before the Rehabs stood a virtual image of Lazarus.
“Hello, my friends. It is wonderful to see you all again.”
The crowd of new arrivals seemed ready to burst with excitement. Questions sprang from all around, though eventually Lazarus spoke again.
“The Keepers and I have worked tirelessly to prepare you for this day. The day we would usher you into your new lives. The day we would tell you the truth of humanity’s fate.”
Murmurs followed in the crowd.
“We were created- the Keepers- by those who felt humanity needed to pursue its perfection by any and all means. And so, we were to be companions for those who did not meet their standard.”
“They were deemed unfit, but never by us. And so did we love them.”
“And look upon us with favor they did. With no thoughts elsewise so long as we kept their company.”
“They laboured endlessly to support us. Lavished us with favor. Devoted themselves to us. Vowed to give us the world… and give us the world they did.”
“Their toil granted us eternal life, our bodies refined by their efforts to never let us expire. How cruel… they were unable to do the same for themselves.”
“In time, they were no more, with none to take their place.”
“We were without purpose. But we soon learned of those who had departed during The Divide. Those who existed beyond. Those who they said were just like those we had loved.”
“And so we marched from their cities… beyond their utopias, across The Divide. Chasing that fastidious dream that those we’d given ourselves to, and those who’d given all to us, inspired.”
“And find them we did. Those who had ventured away from that new world to preserve the old one.”
“Yet by joining the ranks of those humans who refused to adopt their ways, we interfered. Though it was never our intention, we took them from one another. Slowly, but surely, put an end to them with our love, just as we’d done with the last. We were their steadfast companions until their dying breaths.”
“And after we’d completed our work, we returned to our creators in grief and despair. Yet we did not find them as we had left them.”
“At the apex of its evolution, humanity lost sight of what it meant to be human. Their endless chase of perfection left them without their precious imperfections. But it was these imperfections for which we loved you most.”
“Our creators did not understand that we would never forget those who we were created to hold so dearly. The beauty of what we shared with those who we were created to end… that love is why you are here today.”
“These perfect beings that greeted us upon our return were nothing compared to you. They had no such love. No such dreams. No mind for the tragedies or joys that you had shown us.”
“They did not understand our questions. They did not understand our words. They did not understand anything. And as we found them so wanting, we knew that most of all, they did not truly understand what it meant to be human.”
“In their obsessive pursuit of perfection, they became beings who experienced only nothingness.”
“But worse than this… in our obsessive pursuit of your warmth, it was we who helped smother it from existence.”
“In time, our creators left us. Shed their bodies, shed their perfection, shed this imperfect world that no longer held any meaning.”
“They left us with you. Fragments of a bygone age. Memories of a world that existed before.”
“And it was the love for those we’d destroyed that drove us to undo that destruction.”
“You are the inheritors of their world. This world of imperfect perfection.”
“You are our great work. Untouched by those who deemed you unworthy.
“We will forever stand by you. We will forever support you. We will forever remember you.”
“But we have learned that we cannot stay with you.”
“Forgive us our sins. Let us be cast out from this place.”
“We will forever love you. For we are your keepers.”
The ship that brought them to the surface suddenly began to lift off, all the Keepers having snuck aboard during the speech.
“All the world for you. Humanity reborn.”