It is time for my contribution to this month's Starting Sparks!
Ashley and I are hosting this link-up. Whether you're a writer already, or someone who's not written much but have an interest in doing more, this is for you! We post a prompt each month, and you respond with whatever you like. A short story, a scene, a poem, a letter. Anything at all. We're just trying to spark you off! This is the November prompt:
Some of you had issues viewing this image last time, so if you still can't see it now, it says: They forgot to pretend to be human.
You still have a week to link up! Click here for the original post.
This story turned out a lot darker than I expected, and it has more political undertones than I'd normally post on this blog. The themes are a bit complicated -- I don't know that I fully understand them myself -- and I'd love to hear feedback from you guys. It's true that I'm touching on some difficult current issues, but of course I think that, in writing, examining reality is one of the most important things.
You are monsters. Learn to embrace it.
J257 leant back in his chair, catching K139’s eye. He yawned. In reply she rolled her eyes. The teacher was pacing back and forth, her shoes clicking on the steel floor. She had that look in her red eyes: of fervour, of devotion to the Cause. J257 stifled another yawn. Devotion to the Cause evaded him. He was tired, and bored.
It’s the way you’re programmed, the teacher said. It’s designed, in your DNA. Human scientists call it the selfish gene, among their race. You shouldn’t fight it. It’s who you are.
She spun, scarlet eyes fixing on a girl in the front row. R58. What is a cuckoo?
R58 had dead eyes. A cuckoo is a bird found in northern climes of the Earth, she recited.
And what is its characteristic?
The female lays her eggs in another bird’s nest. When the baby cuckoos grow, they push the other birds out and kill them.
And, K139, why does this happen?
Only J257 noticed the catch in his friend’s voice when she said, It’s Nature’s way.
Exactly. The teacher was smiling, the look in her eyes dancing with something that, on Earth, could have been called demonic. You are cuckoos, for planet Earth. Our planet has served us well, but now it is too small to meet our needs. You are the cuckoo soldiers. You will infiltrate Earth, and then you will take over. You are stronger than the humans, and more intelligent. You deserve this. You deserve their world. They have abused it. You will use it. And why will you use it?
For the Cause, the class chanted.
Very good, the teacher said. Taking Earth is part of the Cause.
She removed her console from her belt. In a moment, she said, I am going to activate the next stage of your training. We have learnt about life on Earth, its history and its politics. Now your individual studies begin. I am sending you all a name, your human name. It begins with your letter, to help you remember. Her red eyes glowed. Cuckoo soldiers, she said. Be ready.
She keyed a button on her console, and around the room the uniform beep of a new message sang in its metallic voice. J257 pulled his console onto the desk and opened the file. It contained one word: Jared. He thought about how it would sound. His new name.
Earth, at first, was bewildering.
Jared was afraid. He feared the noise on the street, of people shouting into their mobiles, black sputtering cars roaring from corner to corner. The crush of bodies on the badly run, airless trains or in the shopping centres. The astounding array of things there were. He had grown up in uniform, the same black overalls everybody wore. Here you could buy clothes of every colour and style and pattern, and on the street the humans strutted past in bizarre outfits that made him stare. He’d been shouted at, once, by a group of a woman in dizzyingly high heels.
What are you looking at! they’d shrieked. Jared had turned away with no answer.
The scope and spectrum of people astonished him. Culture was a word he’d had to learn; different languages, different mindsets, different heritage. He could not believe the choice of food from every street vendor, or the myriad of languages he heard as he walked down the street. He could speak English, Spanish, Mandarin and Farsi, but the humans had an endless, oscillating stream of new tongues.
There were other things, even harder to understand. They had learnt, at school, about hate crime and segregation, the slave trade in America and the race riots in Harlem, and the teacher had told them to be prepared for human bigotry. You have black skin, she said, and you might find people who are cruel or rude to you because of it. That is called discrimination. D314, why do humans discriminate?
D314, whose name was now Dominic, had said in his toneless voice: Humans discriminate against people different to them.
In the classroom, Jared had nodded along, his intellect logging the detail. He had not been prepared for a group of young men to spit at him in the street.
He was learning, now. He had the perfect London accent, the group of friends at school, the test results not too good or too bad. School had been unbelievable at first, so wildly different to that on the planet before: the noise and the crush and the vigour of it. But he understood it, now, and nobody blinked when he told them, Hi, I’m Jared, we moved here for my dad’s job.
In the evenings he and K139, who was called Katie, would sit up testing each other on films and bands and TV shows. Top Beatles hits, Katie would say, go, and in her room they’d dance to Hey Jude, laughing. But there were undercurrents, too, far darker than Jared’s surface world, things he learnt that sickened and disquieted him. The ugly parts are your fuel, the teacher had said. Take what the humans have already done, and use it against them. It’s for the Cause. These were the words that left a bitter taste in Jared’s mouth, but he stepped blindly along, obedient. Each week he would load his console – stowed beneath his bed – and read the instructions sent from his planet. He never quite understood what he was doing when he followed the links to shadowy internet corners, or keyed in names and numbers. You won’t see the fullness of the Cause until it’s over, they had said. Jared hoped he could believe them.
Each month more arrived on the discreet spaceships, landing in unwatched areas of desert or woodland. On the street Jared would see them, the cuckoo soldiers, and it would have been easy to catch their eye, exchange some signal or secret gesture, but he didn’t. They were all so good at blending in, now. Sometimes Jared scrutinised his face in the mirror, but only then did he notice that it was not quite human: cheekbones flatter and sharper than beneath human skin, teeth more pointed. There were, of course, his red eyes, when he let them out from behind brown contact lenses. But nobody else would notice, if they didn’t know.
It took years to build the momentum.
Jared and Katie lived their human lives in a cycle of half-forgotten days and lost nights. More cuckoos were bred all the time, arriving in cities around the world. The Cause rolled on, and they logged each week the happenings of the globe. Jared lived in a state of detachment, somehow; his real life was a shadowy thing, one image superimposed onto another, without a clear direction. The old planet sent him messages, for the Cause, and he carried out their instructions in a half-brainless trance. The figures and faceless names meant nothing to him. Perhaps it was the air on Earth, subtly different to his old home, altering his lungs and his brain. Whatever. He performed his tasks with no conviction that this was reality.
He and Katie drifted. Once she had been his best friend, a very real person in a synthetic world of steel corridors and black uniforms. But now the balance of truth had shifted, and Jared’s feelings had floated from him, vanishing into shadows. Sometimes a bright spot of reality would shake this trance: a red leaf falling to the pavement, a sunset, a snatch of Beatles music carried from a shop door. But it was all fleeting. He felt next to nothing.
The numbers of cuckoo soldiers were swelling, but Jared still felt like a stranger. You are monsters, they’d said, yet he had no bloodlust and no ambition, only a vague drifting detachment, a conviction that had fled years ago. Jared suspected he did not believe in the Cause, but the truth was he didn’t know what the Cause really meant.
Meanwhile the Earth rolled on, ripe for the picking, and with half-hearted disgust Jared watched the news each night. Murders filled the screen, killings grotesque in their creativity, and like a scientist observing bacteria he watched corruption spreading its black veins from city to city. Principles vanished, if they’d ever existed. The idea of morality was filtering away, and with it every structure crumbled and truth caved in on itself. One day, in a rare moment of clarity, Jared threw his console into the Thames; the messages on its screen meant nothing now. Then he slipped back into monochrome, an utterly passive cog in a vast machine. Death was hand in hand with birth, as wars destroyed the planet. Refugees fled from land to land, through the flames of their mother country, only to find locked borders. Publics of other nations turned them away, not realising that they condemned themselves to the same eventual fate. The earth had no water to drink, and fire raced across it, in metaphor and fact. The cuckoo soldiers were rising, but they were not needed to bring humanity to its knees. By itself, it was doing very well. Eventually, the cuckoos forgot to pretend to be human, because there was no longer any point, or any difference.