User:Robotech Master/The Last Human Being
|Chakona Space story universe|
Author: Chris Meadows
The Last Human Being
|The Last Human Being|
On Thursday, April 24th, 2431, I woke up to find I was the last human being on earth.
My implants let me know, flashing the message in neon across the inside of my eyelids as I blinked and rubbed my eyes to clear the sleep out of them. The only other holdout, Jacques Reynard in New Francais, had finally given in. I was alone.
Well, figuratively, anyway. At the moment, I was still cuddled up against my wife Marlene, who was a four-breasted foxtaur this month. She murred in her sleep, her tongue lolling out of one corner of her mouth. I carefully disentangled myself from her arms and legs and made my way into the bathroom so I could splash some water on my face. I could have had my nanocloud remove the lingering aftereffects of sleep with only a thought, but after that wake-up e-mail I felt like doing a few things the old-fashioned way.
The last unmodified human being. Well, how about that. Who thought it would be me? I sighed. It wasn't that I hadn't known it was coming. There'd been only about thirty of us left at the beginning of the year, and their numbers were only shrinking. Dwindling like the old Quakers. I'd set an alert to be notified as each one gave up the ghost, halfway considering joining them. But somehow, I just never saw the need.
I thought back thirty years, to all the panic and chaos of the Chakat Plague outbreak. Half the city had been affected and it was spreading outward from the airport. It had just been sheer dumb luck I'd gone uptown for lunch, or I would have been growing fur and a taurso along with the rest of them. I remembered standing out in the street, watching the silvery mist roll slowly in from the horizon while others were fleeing all around me—and feeling an incredible weak-kneed relief when the counterprogramming pulse finally dissipated it three blocks away.
And I remembered what it had been like going back to work after it was all sorted out to find that I was the only human left at the shop. That old familiar feeling of alienation was coming back again. It was silly for that to happen now, of course; when you got right down to it there wasn't all that much empirical difference between a world with two plain-vanilla homo sapiens in it and a world with one…but having your nose rubbed in it all of a sudden doesn't help.
I stepped into the shower and dialed it up to maximum. It was largely an affectation these days, given that the nanocloud could have removed every foreign particle from my body molecule by molecule, but sometimes you just needed to feel a needle-fine spray of hot water on your neck. I did at least bow to modernity by having the 'cloud remove all the water from my body when I was done, so I was bone-dry before I stepped out of the shower stall.
Marlene opened one sleepy eye as I came back out of the bathroom, sensitive to my moods as ever. "You okay, hon?" she murmured.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." I flopped back down on the bed, tucking my hands behind my head and staring at the ceiling. I'd talked about this before with Marlene, back when she'd still been human. She sympathized with my point of view, but she didn't fully understand. I wasn't sure I understood it myself, the importance I attached to my "humanity". Maybe it was all tied back into those plague days—issues I never had resolved. We'd finally just agreed to disagree, because it hadn't been worth arguing over in the end. Marlene was still the woman I loved, even if she wasn't a "human being" anymore.
And even that was a matter of definition. I wasn't going to argue that furries weren't people. For God's sake, I was married to one, the father of two more, and loved them all dearly. In the sense of "human being" that was a synonym of "person," the world was still full of plenty of "human beings". And there were actors who went human for roles, and even a number of live-action role-players or period re-enactors who put themselves in human form for the weekend.
But now I was the only one left on this world who'd never been anything else.
While Marlene fixed breakfast in the kitchen, I pulled up my seat at the oak dining room table and pulled up the daily news on the battered old PADD that I kept around for reading. I could simply have my implants project a 3D manifestation of a newspaper in my field of view, but I prefer reading on a physical artifact—something I can hold in my hand and actually tap to refresh the screen. (No v-books for me—I'm just old-fashioned that way.) I could have had the nanocloud whip up an actual wood-pulp newspaper, of course, but that would just be silly.
I paged through the news, looking for the official mention of Jacques. I halfway didn't expect to find it, but there it was, buried in the tertiary items that would have been the back pages of an old-style newspaper. Just a little human-interest (heh) blurb: the second-to-last old-style human had gone nano-recom, and was now a happy skunk-morph. They even mentioned that this made me the last never-changed human left on earth. I expected that when I checked my email, I would probably find it full of interview requests—I had suddenly gone from an interesting curiosity to main circus sideshow event. But I was going to put that off as long as possible.
A clatter of displaced furniture pulled me out of my reverie. My 14-year-old son Chip had just come galloping into the room, his four-legged black-and-white skunktaur form knocking over chairs and an end-table in his enthusiasm. The room dimmed as the lamp shattered. I sighed, mentally cuing my nanocloud. The furniture shimmered and reappeared upright, the lamp whole again. "Chip! No running in the house!" I scolded.
"Sorry, Dad," Chip said, slowing to a halt. "I'm just…well, you know. Hungry."
I sighed. It wasn't entirely Chip's fault, I supposed. The boy (well, usually boy) had been raised in a world where anything that broke could be made whole again with a thought. You didn't have to learn to be as careful when you didn't even have to pick up furniture you knocked over—you could simply have it disassembled and reassembled upright in place. The ultimate Rubik's Cube solution, I thought wryly, though nobody who hadn't studied ancient history would know what a Rubik's Cube even was.
I'd used to make a point of picking things up instead of reassembling them, but I'd finally just given up and started going the lazy way myself. Was that how people like Jacques saw it, in the end? I wondered in a flash of insight. Just one more concession to modernity? I polled my own feelings on the matter. Nope, no urge to give up my human body as a matter of convenience just yet. Ask again later.
"Chip!" Marlene emerged from the kitchen, holding a skillet full of scrambled eggs in two pot-holders. "How many times have I told you, we go biped at the table in this house." She had already suited words to deed; she was a two-legged foxmorph now (though she still had the four breasts). It was easier to maneuver in the small kitchen and dining room on two legs.
"Aw, Mom," Chip grumbled. "We could just whip up 'taur pads, you know."
"It's tradition," Marlene said, putting the scrambled eggs on a stoneware trivet. "Put your taurso away and have a seat." She returned to the kitchen for the bacon and sausage. Chip rolled his eyes, then his centaur torso shimmered and shrank as his nanocloud subtracted mass from it and stored it elsewhere until Chip had need of it again. A few seconds later, Chip was a two-legged skunkmorph. He still had a blue pawprint on his shoulder, though these days that was more a cosmetic affectation than truly meaningful—the nanocloud could give anyone any of the skunktaurs' abilities now (or abilities enough like them to make no difference). With exaggerated bad grace, he slid into one of the chairs across from me.
"Where's your sister?" I asked, barely glancing up from my PADD.
"Oh, you know," Chip said. "Still up in her room, deciding who she's going to wear today."
"I've paged her," Marlene said, putting a platter of breakfast meats on another trivet. "She'll be down in a few moments."
"Hi, Dad!" A blonde-haired ocelot morph bounced into the room and slid into the seat next to Chip's. If I hadn't had my implants to confirm her identity, I would have sworn it was my daughter's friend Marietta. Lorelei was usually a foxtaur like her mother, but she'd decided to wear Marietta today.
"You remember what today is, Dad?" Chip asked as Marlene dished out food. "Your turn with the virt-school lecture?"
I started, and checked my implants. As it happened, I had forgotten. The news about Jacques had driven it right out of my mind. But that was all right. my lecture had already been prepared for me.
It was the current thinking in child-psychology circles that kids did better learning from familiar faces—members of the family, rather than anonymous teachers. A lot of people did computer-aided home-schooling these days, but those who didn't have the time formed a sort of collective called a "virt-school"—virtual school, school held in virtual reality. The parents took turns giving lectures or providing lessons, with a professional teacher to handle the coursework.
I had originally looked at it as just another one of those chores you took on when you made the decision to have kids, but to my surprise I had found I really enjoyed it. My chosen subject was history, and it interested me to learn more about how the world had gotten into the shape it was now just before I taught it to the students. Perhaps it appealed to the same sense of tradition that kept my body unmodified (beyond the ubiquitous implants, of course). My lecture today was going to be about the early space exploration period after the Gene Wars had ended.
As if reading my mind (I checked—no, my implants were definitely locked down), Chip said, "So what you gonna talk about today? I've been getting lots of blips from my classmates about the news—I guess you already know about that other unmod, right?"
"You mean Jacques Reynard, in France?"
"Yeah. That means you're the last unmod left, and we were sorta wondering if, well—maybe you might tell us why. The virt-school, I mean." Chip looked down at his plate, as if suddenly embarrassed.
"Hey, yeah!" Lorelei put in. "I've never been able to grok that myself. I might audit this."
I raised an eyebrow. "I'm pretty sure I've told you both why, lots of times."
Chip rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but it's not something we can really pass on, ya know? We can't explain it like you can. The signal degrades in retransmission. We just end up looking…"
"Incoherent," Lorelei supplied, gesturing with a fork full of scrambled egg.
"Hmm." Virt-school teachers did have some flexibility in what they cover when. I could shift the lectures around and come back to early colony ships later. And…now that I thought about it, maybe it might feel good to talk about it today—not to a gaggle of heartless reporters, but to school kids really eager to know. "I'll see what I can do."
I appeared in the virtual classroom precisely at 8:15 a.m., time for class to begin. The classroom was full of recombinant kids of all possible species. Morphs, chakats, foxtaurs, skunktaurs…even the odd wolftaur or three, though they were among the last to adopt to the new tech-centric lifestyle. All the kids were seated in their desks—or at least they appeared to be. It was just an image they were projecting. For all I knew, they could actually be playing a holodeck game with most of their attention—but I doubted it. The biometrics showed their attention level had spiked and they were mostly focusing on me, and those were supposed to be as hard to hack as the identity sensors—you don't take chances with the health of your kids.
"Hello, everyone." I nodded to Chip, sitting upright in the front row. I thought I saw a suggestion of Lorelei, sitting in the back in one of the blurred-out "audit" desks, too. "Today, I had planned to lecture you on the early colony ships of the 22nd century—but I've had a request to speak on something a little more personal. So if you don't mind, I'm going to jump about a century forward and cover the most recent hundred years instead. So if there are no objections—?"
I waited until the cheers and applause died down. "All right. Actually, in a way it starts right in the period we were supposed to cover, with the creation of the chakats." I nodded at the chakats in the classroom. "Or maybe even further back with the creation of all the other recombinants. But chakats were special. Really, they had to be special. You all know that it was important they not be able to catch bio-warfare diseases, they be less susceptible to radiation poisoning and pollution, and they be equipped to thrive in enviroments where others would have a hard time even surviving. They were meant to put a friendly face on genetic engineering, to help us forget the excesses and horrors of the previous century." The students were nodding. They'd heard all this before, of course.
I went on. "But when you get right down to it, the Turners and the other geneticists they worked with did their job too well. The chakats were seen by many as too perfect. They were…well, a term many have thrown around is 'Mary Sues'. The origin of the term is lost to pre-Gene Wars history—but it generally has connotations of a mild insult, often born of envy, and usually relates to portrayals in fiction. Weirdly enough, this may even have been the root of a lot of Humans First-type chakat hatred, even if the H1'ers themselves didn't know it: a deep-down desire to have what they'd got, and the knowledge that it just wasn't possible."
I grinned at the smug looks on the faces of the chakats. "Yeah, I thought you'd take it that way. When you think about it…it's like the Turners wanted to create something that was the exact opposite of the people who'd caused the war. Chakats don't feel jealousy the way non-recom humans do—at least not sexual jealousy. I've seen plenty of chakats get envious of their friends' new clothes or car, but that's the extent of it. Being furry, their bodies are pleasant to the touch. And as hermaphrodites, they've got something for everybody, no matter their gender or orientation." And that wasn't even getting into the huge breast fetish some attributed to the chakats' creators, but there was a limit to how far I was willing to go with the explanation.
I still felt a little awkward talking about even non-fetish-related sexual matters in front of 14-year-olds, but tried not to show it. I had no doubt that at least half of them had hacked the age interlocks on their nanoclouds and made fully-mature bodies for experimentation with themselves, friends, or even nanocloud-instantiated and possibly gender-changed copies of themselves. When I'd been their age, I had just masturbated in my room to an illicit copy of Playbeing on my PADD.
When you got right down to it the nanocloud made possible some fantasies that could only have been imagined a few decades before. I still remembered the time I'd accidentally walked in on a couple of older students during a home visit to find a chakat being swallowed whole by a larger wolftaur, an expression of bliss on hir face as shi slid backward into his gullet. I backed out before they could see me—and they were both in class the next day as if nothing had happened. I wonder if every generation seems so alien to the one that came before, or there's just something special about this one.
With an effort, I jerked myself back to the present. "Anyway, some people theorize the chakats were everything the Turners wished they could be themselves. Since the technology to create the change wasn't there yet, they put as much of their fantasies into their creation as they could. But it's only a theory. The only ones who know for sure are the chakat historians who have access to the Turners' journals, and they aren't telling." I grinned.
"Regardless, chakats were just so perfect, or at least so attractive to non-chakats, that once things had settled down, a lot of non-chakats—humans and other recoms alike—ended up in cohabitational relationships with them. Some of them organized into large clans, like the Goldfur-Klines, who went on to found nations or colonies of their own. Of course, this tended to polarize the people left over from the Gene War who weren't so fond of recombinants, leading to the Humans First uprisings and the HCK War. You've learned some about those already in elementary school; we'll cover them more fully in a later unit.
"But what we're going to talk about today starts with an incident about a hundred years ago—" I paused, checked my implant, and blinked. "No, wait, scratch that. Exactly one hundred years ago today. Huh. I hadn't seen any mention of it in the news, but really, this should be recognized as an important anniversary. In a way, the founding incident responsible for our entire modern society took place exactly one century ago." I glanced at the expectant faces, looking for a reaction. I got it.
"Was that…just a guess, but maybe the Dale Perkins incident?" a foxtaur in the back room asked. "It's the only thing on Wikipedia's 'today in history' list that seems to fit."
I grinned. "Good research, Lydia. That's exactly right. A hundred years ago today, a Star Corps explorer named Dale Perkins was beaming over to a space station when a terrorist bomb disrupted the transport mid-stream. Thanks to the quick thinking of Goldfur—the same Goldfur who co-founded that clan I just mentioned—his life was saved, but only by downloading his mind into Goldfur's transporter body-pattern. He—or, rather, shi—had a lot of adjusting to do to hir new body and the new culture shi'd just been dropped into. But shi did adjust, and later—after renaming hirself Goldendale—co-wrote a book on body-change culture shock that is still well-regarded to this day.
"But the important thing is, the accident showed it was possible to do the same thing on purpose. So the other co-author of that book, Shir Oceanwalker, developed a process to do just that. In hir autobiography, Oceanwalker says shi started out trying to help Dale, then got interested in the process for its own sake. Shi thought it could be used to help extreme medical cases—people with wasting diseases, or who'd been in bad accidents, that made saving their original body not an option. Of course, like any new surgical procedure, it ended up getting put to uses Oceanwalker could never have foreseen."
Lydia spoke up again. "You mean the spaceport bombings? And the Testpattern case?" She really liked doing research. I thought she might end up as a cybrarian or teacher herself.
"Exactly so. People trying to abuse the process for espionage or terrorism." I shook my head. "Shir Oceanwalker really did open a can of worms with hir process. I guess shi didn't really think through the implications when shi came up with it. It's bad enough when you do that in fiction, but even worse in real life. Of course, the process saved thousands of lives, so on the one hand that's a good thing. On the other, it moved the question of 'what is identity' from a philosophical to a practical problem pretty darned quickly. When all it took to alter someone's identity beyond all trace of physical discovery was a transporter, spies and terrorists everywhere got a lot more scary. There were a lot of methods developed to try to counter this, and they were largely successful—but some always got through. And there was another 'problem' use of the technology, too—less dangerous, but possibly even more disturbing."
I cued my implants, and the virtual blackboard behind me lit up with a series of paired images labelled "before" and "after". Most of the "befores" were humans, and most of the "afters" were chakats, foxtaurs, or wolftaurs, with the odd bipedal furry or even weirder form interspersed among them. "Cosmetic bodyswapping. You lot do this almost every day—in fact, I see a number of you are wearing your classmates' bodies, and there seem to be three of Nancy in class today. Don't you girls know it's tacky to show up wearing the same thing as someone else?"
I chuckled. "As I was saying, you do this almost every day, but back then it was considered extremely gauche. Largely because the only way to do it was with transporters—brute-forcing it, using up a lot of energy that could be better spent on other things. They didn't have the nanoclouds we do, that can do the same thing with a lot less power. So the Oceanwalker process was restricted to cases of medical need, or the super-rich who could buy their way into trusteeship in the clinic." I shook my head. "That didn't last long. When you got right down to it, all you needed to do it was an ordinary transporter and a little knowledge. The Oceanwalker institute's 'porters were built with larger-than-usual pattern buffers, but that was only to make things easier; Goldendale's transformation was through a bog-standard space station 'porter, after all. So what we got was—yes, Jeremy?" A kinkajou-morph in the front row had raised his hand.
I nodded. "Exactly." Jeremy was interested in the ways history repeated itself, and had just been reading up on the 20th century. Naturally he'd twig to that comparison. "Back in the twencen, when abortion was outlawed, you had all sorts of underground quack doctors poking around inside women with coathangers." I noticed the winces on the faces of a number of the students, especially chakats, and quickly moved on. "It was the same way with the Oceanwalker transformation. Any quack who thought they could run a transporter started to operate underground body-change clinics for everybody else. Some of them were actually decent operators. Others…well, I won't show you the pictures, but they weren't pretty."
Taking a deep breath, I went on. "In the end, no less a personage than Oceanwalker hirself begged the Federation to add limited cosmetic bodychanging to the officially sanctioned uses of transporters, and to train operators in how to do it. Shi didn't like cosmetic uses of the process, but each death that could have been avoided if people had been free to be changed legally weighed heavily on hir conscience. In the end, the Federation agreed, and the first legally-sanctioned cosmetic-change clinics opened in 2341. Even then, the process was expensive, but the socialized health care system covered most of the cost if psychologists agreed the subject had a genuine need for a new body."
Chip frowned and raised his hand. "But how did they decide if you needed a new body? I like this body, but I'd hate to be stuck in it if I felt like being something else."
"It was a different time back then. People weren't as flexibly-minded—and again, we didn't have the nanocloud." I cued up a picture of a transporter platform. "Even with the 'porter, bodychanging was a lot more complicated and involved than it is today. They had to adjust to the new body, learn how to walk and talk and move all over again—it was a process that could take weeks. It wasn't like today when you can change your body more easily than you can change your clothes."
"Ugh," Lydia said. "That's…almost as bad as surgery with knives."
I chuckled. "Isn't it, though? It's funny what you can get used to." I prompted my implants, and the picture changed to a random chakat model—a tiger-striped 'taur peering regally at the screen. "And here we get to the spectre of chakat 'perfection' again: now that they had the means to make the change, lots of people were suddenly finding that long-desired chakathood at last within their grasp."
I faded the picture and threw up some population figures over it. "It might interest you to know that between 2331 and 2401, the population of chakats on Earth more than quadrupled—and that's even with lots of them being driven away to Chakona and elsewhere in the early 2330s by the Humans First problems. Part of that was the chakat tendency toward having multiple children—but about a fourth of it can be laid at the feet of 'nouveau chakats'—humans and the occasional morph or other 'taur who voluntarily decided that was what they wanted to be." I changed to a different set of figures. "Foxtaurs, stellar foxtaurs, wolftaurs, and other morphs saw their own 'nouveau' population increases, too, but not as dramatic as chakats did. I imagine there were also a number of ex-homo sapiens Caitians, Rakshani, and Voxxans, too—but most of those would have been found on their homeworlds, not Earth.
"Naturally, this caused a lot of anger among the Humans First crowd. Something that made them even angrier was that a number of their members who had been pinched during the underground and Kingdom War years for taking part in terrorist acts or war crimes had been offered a rather unusual sentencing option: they could be sentenced to years in prison, or they could be changed into chakats or other furries and released on probation. There were a lot of protests that this was 'cruel and unusual punishment,' but the courts found that since it was entirely voluntary and they could choose prison instead, there were no grounds for rejecting it." I grinned mirthlessly. "It's funny, when you come right down to it, how many of those ardent fur-haters suddenly found being furry wasn't as bad as they'd thought if the alternative was ten or twenty years in a cell.
"There were a few more terrorist bombing incidents, but nothing like what it had been before the Federation cleaned house in the Holy Christian Kingdom. And these, of course, just accelerated the rate at which Humans Firsters were imprisoned or transformed. It's not easy to change people's minds, even after you defeat them in war." I shrugged. "Things continued on that way in central North America until the Chakat Plague—but I'll come to that in a bit."
I prompted the blackboard display to show a vat of silver goo, like liquid mercury. "During the last half of the century, restrictions on use and development of nanotechnology—many of which dated back to the pre-Gene Wars 'science fiction paranoia' era—were finally lifted. You can thank the Stariionae for that—given that their bodies are extensively nanotechnological, we had to learn more about nanotech just to understand them better. Our nanotechnology gradually improved until 2391, when advances in quantum computing and subspace research combined with nanotechnology to create the first primitive ancestor of the nanocloud: the Portable Nano-Assembler Stations, or P-NAS.
"Aside from having an unfortunate acronym, these closet-sized nanoboxes meant you could turn just about anything into anything else, with the right material inputs. Including human beings. They might take a little longer than a transporter, but were just as good about being able to take a mindmap and store it, duplicate it, and rebuild new bodies around it. And if you hooked a P-NAS up to the new high-bandwidth subspace transmission lines, you could have one box take you apart on one planet and put you together on another. Or even copy you to the other planet without taking you apart here. Or copy you here without taking you apart. Basically, do almost anything that your nanocloud can do, without being as portable. Or as safe. On the other hand, it used a lot less energy than transporters did, if you didn't care about the atoms that arrived being the exact same as the ones that left.
"With the advent of the P-NAS, it didn't take an expert transporter technician and enough energy to run Los Angeles for a week to make a body change anymore. So even more people started changing themselves into other species. Some of them just did it for a lark, others changed permanently. As the process became much more widespread, cheap, and easy, no longer requiring institutions with whole support structures and weeks to adjust to new bodies, we saw the emergence of what psychologists termed the 'Star-Bellied Sneech' syndrome."
I threw up an illustration from an old children's book, showing two crowds of furry creatures: some with stars on their chests and others without. "The term comes from a Dr. Seuss story, a sermon against cliques and discrimination on the basis of what someone looks like. But here, it came to refer to the problem of people who thought, gee, wouldn't it be great to be a chakat, or a foxtaur, or a wolftaur, without bothering to research the basic culture of those groups. Suddenly communities of all three of those 'taurs were deluged with ex-human know-nothings."
"Noobs," Jeremy supplied.
"Yes, exactly. People who didn't know anything about real-life 'taurs—or worse, had the wrong idea. People who thought foxtaurs were 'cute,' or wolftaurs were some kind of 'noble savage,' or chakats were—well—nymphomaniac furry sex toys. Chakats were, by and large, compassionate enough to guide their wanna-bes into greater harmony with the culture—or else convince them to turn back to unmod-human or whatever. Most foxtaurs were at least civil, though not all of them had the patience for newcomers—tods tended to be better tolerated than vixens, for obvious reasons. Most wolftaurs…well." I shuddered.
"In the late '90s, the Sneech syndrome was remedied a little by the availability of cultural memory downloads, so people could start with what they needed to know already in their heads. This got some people more than a little worried, though: if you could download information into your head, who was to say you couldn't download some kind of virus that would mess you up, rebuild your brain in ways you wouldn't like? The P-NAS makers built in all sorts of safeguards, but I'm sure you all know how effective most anti-virus software is." This got a chuckle out of most of the students. I continued.
"This in turn set everything up for another problem—the Chakat Plague of 2401." I flipped to a map of the United States, with a big red splotch taking up most of the center of it. "We still don't know whether it was intentional or an accident, but the site of first outbreak—the heart of the former Holy Christian Kingdom—would seem to suggest it was intentional. And there was a gestation period that meant people had carried the contagion to other parts of the world before anybody knew what was going on.
"As far as we can reconstruct, someone had been experimenting with the technology that later led to our nanoclouds—trying to make free-floating nanite 'utility fog' that would be able to do anywhere what up 'til then took a P-NAS. The end result of the experiments was a fog programmed to turn plain-vanilla human beings into chakats—then replicate itself and seek more humans to transform. What's more, it would subtly adjust their mind-matrices so that even though they remembered being human quite clearly, they thought of themselves as chakats now and had no inclination to change back.
"Perhaps the creator meant to use it on himself alone—though I doubt it. In any event, he forgot to encode an off-switch. So the fog started at the heart of North America, with secondary outbreak points all over Eurasia and Amazonia, turning every human it found into a chakat and leaving other recom or alien species alone. By the time nanoscientists were able to come up with a way to shut it down, it had turned about 2/3 of the human population of Earth into chakats—chakats who knew, rationally, they had once been mono-sexed humans, but no longer felt any inclination to go back to it. Save for a few family-staged interventions, not many did—at least, not until the nanocloud made it possible to change and change back practically at a whim."
I glanced over the classroom. Most of the students were staring wide-eyed. The idea of someone being forced into a different body, and then mentally adjusted to like it, was a lot to swallow. If they had heard of the plague up to this point, it had presumably been a redacted version of the story. Even though most human or chakat families these days had at least one plague-changed in them, it wasn't surprising most of them might feel reluctant to talk about what it had been like. I could certainly sympathize.
"This led to a bit of an ethical debate in the Federation council: given that this plague messed with its victims' minds, was it right to mess with their minds again to change them back to 'normal'? Were the victims still in their 'right minds' or had they been 'brainwashed'? Did two 'wrongs' make a 'right'?
"It was the weirdest thing. Every test the Feds could throw at the victims showed they were still every bit as sane as they had been before the change. But they were now entirely sane chakats, who simply didn't want to be human again—even once they rationally knew their minds had been messed with to make them feel that way. A number of them did feel guilty that they didn't want to be human again—but they still didn't want to be human again all the same.
"In the end, nothing was ever decided in regard to reversing the change, and no Federation action was taken—though scanner and P-NAS security protocols were beefed up to protect against another plague like this in case someone tried it again."
I again smiled mirthlessly. "On the 'bright side,' if there is such a thing, that pretty much marked the end of the whole 'Humans First' movement. With the head of the snake transformed into the thing it had once hated, and loving it, the rest of the organization just died out. Another bright side is that, given another few years to perfect it, nanite engineers were able to harness the plague into the invisible cloud of self-replicating utility nanites that now surrounds each and every one of us."
A number of the students were staring at the air around themselves now, eyes crossing in an attempt to see that invisible cloud. I chuckled. It had freaked me out the same way, the first time I'd gotten my nanocloud. I almost hadn't done it at all—the memory of that silver fog still fresh in my mind—but it had gotten to where you couldn't get anything done anymore without having a nano-interface, and I wasn't one of those neo-eschatologist nutbars going off about yet another 'mark of the beast'. In the end, it hadn't been as bad as I'd thought. I guess it was true, what I'd said earlier: it is amazing what you can get used to.
"Anyway, in the decades after that our society has…homogenized, I guess you would say. Not entirely, as the 'taur tribes still maintain their separate land divisions and cultural traditions, but we all know a lot more about each other now thanks to those cultural download packs. It's no longer quite as easy to tell a 'nouveau' from a trueborn, and like the Sneeches of Seuss's story, we're starting to find it really doesn't make much difference anymore anyway. We're all people, whatever body we decide we want to try on. As long as nouveaus respect the culture of the trueborns, they're more likely to take it as a compliment that someone else wanted to be like them than they are to be upset. I suppose the ultimate expression of that is the cross-species body-trading fad going on with you girls right now.
"So I guess what you're wondering is, where that leaves me." I sighed, and took a seat behind the teacher's desk. "The answer goes back to chakats'…perfection, I guess. In the wake of the Plague, a significant chunk of the human population turned on earth turned into chakats. Certainly there were no more homo sapiens human beings anywhere between California and the Eastern Seaboard, and most of the settlements with unmodified humans were now at least half-chakat. Even with all the remaining bipedal morphs, there were a lot of human amenities that there just wasn't as much call for after that. PTVs rigged for bipeds, for instance, and furniture. Factories closed down or shifted production, and biped products got harder to get or more expensive.
"And it was like…humans were suddenly on the receiving end of everything furries had been getting for the last hundred years or so before that. We started getting shoddier service at restaurants, or even denied service altogether in some cases. It was as if being a minority meant that others could look down on us—even the ones who'd once been us." I shrugged. "It's not like there was an organized 'Humans Last' movement or anything—but when community sizes change so dramatically, so does the power dynamic.
"Some people got fed up and left for colonies—including Chakona, where I gather there's still a decent-sized unmodified-human community—I guess the trueborn chakats are still a lot better at the tolerance and cohabitation thing than the plague-changed. But a lot of us just told our nanoclouds that we wanted to be something else now." I shrugged.
"It wasn't to escape persecution or fit in better or anything like that, at least not for most of the ones I've talked to. In some cases it was a simple matter of wanting to rejoin families that had suddenly become 90% chakat." I thought for a moment about my own family. Many of us had been off in Star Corps or Starfleet when this happened, or in cities outside the contagion zone, so I was hardly the lone hold-out—but we all had tough choices to make when it came to how we got along with the half of the family that had been changed by the plague.
"For others…well, a lot of people were still falling in love with the 'perfection' of the chakat lifestyle. And with the nanoclouds, it was easier than ever: if they didn't like being a chakat, they could try life as a foxtaur for a while.
"The number of us who preferred to stay exclusively in our old bodies gradually dwindled, through attrition. Not so much from deaths—those who were opposed to life-lengthening had died out decades earlier—but from more people leaving for the colonies, or else the whole 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em' thing. The remaining unmod-humans moved together into foxtaur-tribe-like settlements, just so the remaining unmod amenities could be concentrated on us. And over the last twenty years or so, well…here we are."
"Why didn't you ever want to try changing?" Lydia asked.
"That's kind of a personal question," I said.
"Oh, come on, Dad," Chip said. "That's why we asked you here."
"I guess part of it is I was there when the plague rolled through the streets," I said. "I was one of the lucky ones…it didn't quite get me. But seeing your friends and relatives turned into something else, and liking it, kind of has an effect on you. So does coming back to work to find all your friends and co-workers are now 'taurs, your entire office is being rearranged, and you're the odd man out because you're still the odd man."
"Weren't you even a little tempted to change then?" Lydia asked. "I mean, if everyone else was doing it…"
I chuckled. "I was, actually. Almost went home to play with my P-NAS at least a dozen times that first week. But in the end I guess I was too stubborn. Since then, well…I don't know. Sometimes I tell myself it's all about keeping the 'tradition' alive, making sure the planet still has a representative of its original species on it…but now that I think about it, I guess it's just that I've never really had the urge to experiment."
"Are you sure that's all it is?" Lydia asked.
I shrugged. "I don't know," I said. "Maybe it was also…a little bit of fear, I guess. Maybe I was afraid that if I changed into something else, even for a moment, I'd lose some essential part of my perspective that kept me who I was." I shrugged. "Silly, really. My wife, my kids all changed, and they're still the same people. But it's just one of those things that there's no going back from."
"Isn't that kind of a false distinction?" one of the other students asked. "People change back to unmod-human bodies all the time, when they need to. With the nanocloud, we could all be unmods in a second if we wanted."
"And don't you think the emphasis on being an 'unmodified' human, as if it's somehow purer than being something else, is a little insulting?" someone else asked from the back row. "There's nothing all that special about being 'human'. We're all human, even the ones whose species aren't originally from Earth."
"Hey, whoa," I said. "First off, you know I always try to draw a distinction between 'human' the race and 'human' as in 'person.' There just aren't that many other good words that mean homo sapiens; it's an artifact of our language. Second, I never said my feelings were rational. We all have irrational feelings, likes or dislikes that wouldn't make any sense or might even seem insulting if we tried to explain them. My son Chip, there, has an irrational dislike of broccoli." This drew a chuckle from most of the room, relieving the tension. "I'm not saying I'm better or 'purer' than any of the rest of you. Just that I've been, up 'til now, kind of attached to my body the way it is."
"So when are you going to try a change, Dad?" Chip asked.
"I don't know. I don't know if I ever will." Suddenly I was tired of the whole thing. Why had I stayed unmodified all this time? Did I really believe what I'd told the students about it not making much difference what body a person wore anymore? "Do you want me to change? Right now?"
"I do," a voice behind me said. I blinked and turned to see Marlene leaning against one wall of the virtual projection, in her foxtaur form. "But only if it's something you want to do." She glanced at the rest of the class. "Not because of peer pressure—from us or anyone else."
I stared at her. "You mean, you—? But you never said anything." At least not since the argument we had when she'd told me her intention to change herself. She'd stayed human when we met, and through the first few years of our marriage—long enough to have Lorelei and Chip. Then she'd told me she wanted to try life as another species. I'd been afraid the flaming row that followed might have damaged our marriage, but we both got over it. I realized that I didn't really care what shape Marlene was as long as she was still Marlene at heart—and she was. I'd thought she felt the same way about me, but I'd been wrong about a lot of things before.
"I know how you've always felt. I didn't want to make you uncomfortable. But I've often thought it would be nice if…well…you got over things." She shrugged.
The students picked that moment to set up a chant. "Change! Change! Change!" (Except for Chip, who sank in his seat and looked embarrassed.) Marlene glowered at them, and they subsided.
For the longest moment, I just sat there, staring at her. So, all this time, she'd been waiting for me. Hoping I would get over clinging to the human form and come around to making the change. I guess it made sense I would be the last man on earth to figure it out—I sort of had to be, since I was already the last man on earth. And when I looked again at my reluctance to change my body, I found it dwindling right away.
"Then…what would you like me to change to?" I asked.
Marlene shrugged. "That's up to you." She whispered in my ear, "I'm sure we'll have fun whatever you choose."
I closed my eyes and thought for a long moment. If I were going to change, what would I…? "Then I pick—"
And the last unchanged human on earth…changed away.