In a post-apocalyptic world the human race has evolved beyond us through genetic engineering – and we’ve been left behind to make amends for the damage inflicted on the earth. The reversal of the extinction of long lost animals is key to our reparations and all of these are housed in the Museum of Evolution, along with another species of human that hasn’t existed for 30,000 years.
Elise belongs to the lowest order of humans, the Sapiens. She lives with her parents in an ostracised community of impoverished, ecological houses, built to blend with an idyllic landscape. Deciding to widen her stagnating life in the manufacturing base, she takes a chance opportunity to become a Companion to a previously extinct species of human.
But Elise has secrets of her own that threaten to be exposed now that she is away from the safety of her home. And while living in the museum, Elise realises that little separates her from the other exhibits…
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Elise stared at the Museum of Evolution's heavy side door as it closed behind her. It was unassuming in design, unlike the grandiose entrance at the front of the building, but it still held her attention. She had finally been offered a job that she wanted; her first and only chance to escape the daily eleven-hour shifts fixing handles onto the end of brooms and coaxing splinters out of the palms of her hands. She would have agreed to start that day, but as she was expected to live at the museum during the week, she had matters to settle at home first.
Reasoning that she couldn't continue to stare at a closed door, no matter how fond she had recently become if it, she bent over her backpack and dug out her favourite grey hooded top. Pulling it on over her shirt, she zipped it all the way to her chin. She drew the hood over her cropped brown hair and pushed her thumbs through the holes in the sleeves that she had created years ago. Her actions were carried out with intention; she never dithered outside her home. 'Purpose and Productivity' was Thymine Base's motto and she always adhered, in public anyway.
Straightening, she slung her bag over her shoulders. The straps had been tightened so it sat high on her back, the best position to allow her to run. She then set off at a steady pace towards her parent's house.
As Elise navigated the small winding paths she watched the sun preparing to set over the low roofs. The sleeping quarters were dug into the ground and only the kitchens nudged their way above the surface to catch the natural light. Each building was angled to maximise its exposure and to take advantage of natural windbreaks; there was no symmetry or aesthetic considerations in their positioning. To the untrained eye, the effect was of children dropping their building blocks and abandoning them as they fell.
This was Elise's favourite time of day. It was when she felt that she might just keep on running, past the circular boundary line marked by dense ferns and into the unknown. It was an idle thought though; one she teased herself with at the production centre to pass the time. People like Elise didn't get to leave: they weren't important enough to warrant the supplies needed to make the journey to another base.
Pushing the thought away, she allowed herself to be soothed by the noise of her feet steadily hitting the soft rubber pathway. Ignoring the splashes from the small puddles that had formed after the brief autumn shower, she allowed her mind to drift.
She had only told her parents about the interview that morning, to limit their time to object. Weighing her options, she reasoned that her only way to win them over was the extra tickets. She guessed that her mum would understand her reasons for wanting to work at the museum, but would try to persuade her to stay. Her dad would just ban her from taking the job. The tickets would make them both think again.
As Elise rounded the corner to the narrow path that led to her house she slowed to a brisk walk to cool down. Although it was a short run, it was all up-hill. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she turned to look down over the only base she had known. The grass and wildflower-covered roofs of the distant houses blended so well with the landscape she could barely pick them out. The only indications that this was a settlement were the public buildings in the centre of the valley that were allowed two or three floors of indulgence. No higher though, as the natural slopes of the valley had to conceal the settlement from afar. From only half a mile away, Thymine did not exist: it was just another valley in a vast, unpopulated landscape.
There were only eight Sapien families who lived off this tendril of the pathway. Each had their low slung home made of panels of recycled materials from old car tyres, plastics and glass. These were then covered in packed earth and vegetation where possible. The houses were unevenly settled around a small stream. This positioning near the water was merely coincidental though as it no longer held any practical purpose. Despite being so clear that you could see the round pebbles resting on its bed, none of the locals would drink or swim in it. The fear of reinfection was too great. Instead, each house had its small tank replenished every day with treated water that tasted so sharp it was only drunk out of necessity, not refreshment.
Elise's home was at the far end of the lane. They had a little bit more land to the side of the house, which her mum and dad used to grow vegetables. Their neighbours were amused by the family's insistence on growing some of their own food, one of the many reasons they were shunned. The neighbours couldn't fathom why anyone would spend their spare time doing something so unnecessary as growing fruit and vegetables. All of their staple food was evenly distributed by the most advanced species of human, the Potiors. Tickets would buy the rest. Free time was for relaxing, to prepare for the next day, not for unnecessary digging.
As Elise neared her home she could see her mum, Sofi, kneeling next to one of the borders of spring onions with a small trowel. She was still, and her grip on the trowel was so loose that it was almost falling from her hand. Staring into the forest edge, she looked lost in her thoughts. As Elise approached, Sofi turned to smile and motioned to go inside the house.
Elise followed her into the small kitchen, the centre of their home. There were no cupboards to tidy anything away and consequently all of their pans, utensils and plates either hung from hooks on the walls or displayed on narrow shelves. Even the carving knives were strung along the edge of the highest shelf like macabre bunting. It was Elise's father, Aiden, who insisted on this open cupboard policy; he would arrange the heaviest pans so they were the easiest to grab from the walls. Sofi and Elise did their best to soften this severe display by dotting the room with small hand-tied bunches of seasonal flowers; this week it was cornflowers. They would even drape ivy along the shelves as long as it didn't cover the pan and knife handles.
It wasn't until they closed the door that Sofi spoke. 'So, how'd it go?' she said, leaning against the door with both hands behind her, her cheeks rosy from the chafing wind.
'I was interviewed by two Medius and they offered me the job, is the shortened version.'
'Do you want it?'
'Course I do,' Elise said, half-smiling, trying to soften the impact of her words. 'Can you imagine what it might be like? Getting to work with all those species of animals that've been brought back again? I can help "restore what should never have come to pass,"' Elise recited before noticing Sofi's frown. 'And if I do well with Twenty-One they might even let me be a Keeper one day.' Sofi's frown deepened and Elise continued, 'And I want to help out with the extra tickets too.'
'Change can bring you down as well as up, Elise. Don't think that because something's different it's also better. And don't pretend that you wouldn't do it for half the tickets.'
Elise knew this was true.
'Your dad is out with Nathan collecting seeds, but he should be back soon. I would save the long version for when he's home and we'll talk it through as a family.'
Sofi pushed herself away from the door and walked over to the sink to wash her hands. As she passed Elise she rubbed her shoulder, which didn't have its usual settling effect. She knew if her mum wasn't convinced, there was no chance of persuading her dad. She pulled out a seat at the kitchen table her uncle had made before she was born. Tracing her fingers on the underside, she found the familiar grooves of where he had carved his name and glanced at Sofi's turned back. Deemed an adult from the age of fourteen, she knew she didn't technically need her parent's permission, but she didn't want to cause a rift in the family either. If she just left, her dad might not let her see her younger brother, Nathan, when she came home to visit. If her dad even let her visit.
Knowing she would have to wait for him to return, she picked up the household screen filled with the news articles her parents read every day. Resting her forehead against one of her hands she read the first headline: 'No Sapien Dies of Starvation for Over 50 Years.' Elise scanned the article that confirmed this achievement had happened for the first time in recorded history. It went on to contrast this with the Pre-Pandemic figures of 20,000 Sapiens dying every year from starvation. The reporters always contrasted the pre and post Pandemic figures. As usual, the article had a sobering effect on Elise as she thought of all those who died even before the Pandemic that nearly wiped out her species. She could never escape the Sapien's legacy. Her previous elation dissipated and she felt drained of energy, as if she could lay her head on the table and fall straight to sleep.
Making an effort to rouse herself, she flicked over to the next article, 'Only Two Violent Crimes Recorded in Thymine Base in the Past Year'. There was only one outcome for anyone committing these offences. Expelled from the base, they would die within days without supplies. Elise didn't bother to read further. The reporters never described what the 'violent crimes' were and she didn't want to know the Pre-Pandemic figures, it would only depress her further.
'Can the Medius and Potior choose enhanced genetic traits to help them know what we're thinking?' Elise said, flicking over to the next article as she considered whether she had even thought about committing a violent crime.
Sofi turned abruptly from the sink, water dripping from her hands onto the floor. 'What happened? What'd you say in that interview?'
Elise wasn't surprised by Sofi's tone, she was used to her mum leaping to the worst conclusion. She didn't want to upset her though, so she used her most soothing voice. 'Don't worry, I didn't say or even think anything wrong. I just said what they wanted to hear, as you always told me.' Once her mum had been appeased, Elise held out the screen and continued, 'It was just this article I was thinking about.'
Sofi pulled out a chair from the table and perched on it, considering Elise's question. 'As far as I know, there's nothing they could do about that except teach them how to read body language and the like. But not the mind. That's always safe. As long as you keep the face still at all times and –'
'Never, ever, react,' Elise finished for her.
Sofi leant forward and put her hand on her daughter's knee. 'I know you think your dad and I over-worry, but if you take this job you must be careful. While you're in the museum compound you'll be monitored at all times. Everyone is. Think carefully about whether it's worth the risk.' Sofi squeezed Elise's knee and leant further in. 'This life might be stifling, but it's safe. At the museum you might as well be one of the displays.'
Elise jumped when the door burst open and banged against the wall. Her younger brother, Nathan, ran in, followed closely by their dad, Aiden.
Nathan went directly to Elise and signed: 'We bought pumpkin seeds and are going to try and grow them.' He was grinning. 'Dad said they should grow bigger than my head, maybe even bigger than my body if they get enough sunlight and water.'
Smiling back at Nathan, Elise pulled out a chair so he could sit next to her. She lifted her hands to sign to her brother, 'Maybe we can go out and plant them together before it gets dark. All four of us.'
She looked around to Aiden, who was leaning against the kitchen dresser with his arms folded over his chest. It was only when he was at home that he stood straight and his size could be fully comprehended. When he was outside he had a tendency to stoop and almost fold in on himself. Elise could see that he had already guessed her news and there was no chance of this day ending with a normal family activity.
'So I got the job.'
'I didn't doubt you would, but you know you can't take it.' Before she could even respond he had changed the subject. 'Did you run back from the museum? What was your time?'
'Forty-two minutes,' Elise signed. Normally she would be a little concerned about telling him this, but today it had become trivial.
Aiden rubbed his eyes. 'You can't let your fitness levels slip any further. You have to concentrate on this over the next few weeks.'
He pushed himself from the dresser. 'You never know when you'll have to get out of a situation and your body could easily let you down if you don't keep up your training.' Turning, he reached for the skipping rope hanging from a hook by the front door. 'I'll come up with a new programme and we can start work on it tomorrow.'
When Elise was younger, she had willingly complied with her dad's relentless regimes and training, eager to please and win his approval. Then slowly, as she spent more time away from home, first at school and then work, she came to realise that there were no dangers out there for her to contend with. No plain-clothed officials came knocking at the door in the middle of the night. No one had ever threatened her or her family. She could walk through Thymine Base at four in the morning and anyone she met would wish her a good day and make a pleasant comment about watching the sunrise. It was the thought of her dad extending his suffocating hold over her that she feared, not Thymine.
'My new job starts tomorrow.'
Aiden visibly bristled. 'I suppose they'll want you to live at the museum as well, eh? Don't want to live with your mum and dad anymore? How about your brother?'
Elise winced, and turned to Nathan. 'I'll be home every Sunday and we can spend all afternoon together. Do whatever you want, I promise.'
'You can't work in the Museum of Evolution. I won't hear anymore about it,' Aiden signed, he was barely controlling his voice when he spoke the words at the same time. He held the skipping rope to Elise expectantly. She didn't move to take it and instead gently put her hand on Nathan's arm when he started to reach for it, never taking her eyes from their father. Sofi started rearranging the jam jars on the lowest shelf: her small way of trying to diffuse the situation. The clinking of the glass containers was the only noise for a full minute.
Sighing, Aiden continued slowly as if explaining to a small child. 'You'll be one of the few Sapiens in the museum compound. This'll mean that you'll be watched more than if you were working with say, two hundred Sapiens in a production centre. The best place to hide a knife is in a cutlery drawer. Same applies to you.'
Elise had heard a similar speech nearly every day of her life; it was difficult to try and hide her frustration. 'I don't need to be hidden and this level of secrecy and protection isn't needed. The Rising ended nearly twenty years ago. You've said yourself that we have to move on, be grateful for what we have and not pine after what could've been. I can't live with this paranoia anymore.' Aiden opened his mouth to respond, but she quickly continued, 'They won't be interested in me anyway. I've passed all the Neuropsychological tests and nothing was flagged: no feelings of resentment, no exceptionally high IQ, no Borderline Personality Disorders or sociopathic tendencies. I'm completely mundane.'
'You know why I'm doing this, we've already lost too many people in this family.'
'That was twenty years ago, before I was even born.'
'Okay Nathan, I think it's time for bed. Go and get ready and I'll come and check on you in a minute,' Sofi signed, trying to brighten her face.
Elise could see that Nathan was thinking about protesting, but after glancing at his mum decided against it. Instead he turned to Elise and signed: 'Have you got a new job?'
'Maybe,' she signed back, 'but I'll tell you about it in the morning.'
Elise leant over and hugged him close.
'I'll see you in the morning, I promise,' she signed, nudging him to his bedroom.
Once the door had closed, Sofi went over to Aiden and reached for his hand, giving it a little tug to get his attention. 'I think we have to remember that Elise isn't a child anymore, she hasn't been for years.' She paused to see if her words were having any affect. 'We can help her with decisions, but we shouldn't make them. No good'll come from that.' She squeezed his hand. 'Everything is settled, it's not like before.'
Elise turned to Aiden again and tried to keep control of her voice. It was better to reason with his smudged view of the base than try and convince him that her excitement about working in the museum was a valid reason for taking the job. 'You can't protect me forever dad. And there isn't much to protect anyway. I'd get to see more of Thymine as well, not just the Outer Circle. And at the museum I'll just fade into the background as I always do; you know I'll keep my mouth shut.'
'It's not what you say, it's what you accidentally do that I'm more concerned about.' Aiden hunched in on himself.
Elise decided to ignore this comment. 'You know we need the extra tickets. We've hardly any Medi-stamps.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Museum of Second Chances"
Copyright © 2017 AE Warren.
Excerpted by permission of Locutions Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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