The Failures of the Human Race
by Priyanka Mashelkar
Priyanka Mashelkar is a female author from India who writes speculative fiction. She has also penned a feminist dystopian novel that is in the process of publication, and is a writer of Asian feminist short stories.
She runs a blog on personal finance and productivity at www.priyankamashelkar.com
‘Only fools choose to have children in this world.’ Katherine Rubin could be very assertive when she wanted to.
‘I understand the environmental damage aspect, but don’t you think that we have so many amazing things to teach, Katherine? All of this knowledge will just go waste, without anyone to carry forward our legacy!’ Thomas knew he had to appeal to Katherine’s intellectual hubris in order to win this one. The two of them were scientists, but Katherine was a lot more accomplished and acclaimed than him.
‘Yes, I do rue that. But the negative impact of having a child on our environment far outweighs any possible benefit our progeny could impart to the world, mastermind as they may be.’
‘Let us continue this discussion later, Thomas. You know it is an important day for me.’
Thomas sighed. Of course she was distracted today – it was the inaugural run of the latest model of her patented time machine. It was supposed to increase the range of time travel to +/- 100, almost double of the existing models. If she succeeded in this today, she would be one of the foremost scientists in the world, if not the one.
‘Of course, dear. I am sure today will be amazing, you have checked and rechecked the calculations, and the only thing remaining is to implement it! I love you in the past, present, and whatever future we have.’
As the scientist who had created the machine, Katherine would have to try it on her own. The laws of the world did not allow the trial of time machines by anyone other than the creator until it had been used successfully to travel at least a dozen times. Safety was paramount. Thomas knew he could lose her today – time machines could be fatal, in fact, were fatal more often than not. Though in his heart of hearts, he knew that she was too clever to fail, a proclamation of undying love was a comforting ritual before every trial.
Katherine walked into her laboratory, feeling the usual jitters that time travel brought. She was confident in her machine; it was the thought of seeing the future of humanity that made her nervous. Till now, all her journeys had been a couple of decades in the future, and the world had seemed fine, though a little unstable. A hundred years was a completely different story though – she could find out that the human race had been obliterated by an alien race, for heaven’s sake! In such extreme cases, they had been trained in ways to get out alive, but it was the thought of her beloved race dying out that distressed her.
The machine stood parked in the center of the laboratory, a black sphere that seemed to absorb all the light in the room. It had a small opening on one side, through which a relatively small person could climb in. It was a tight fit even for a tiny woman like herself. Time travel was so common that there was no fanfare at all. She simply logged in her time on the computer and proceeded with it.
As soon as she entered the sphere, it molded itself around her, so that there was no free air remaining. The less the mass that had to be transported, the farther they could go. It could be a very claustrophobic feeling, even though you could move and breathe freely. The opening sealed itself. She entered her desired co-ordinates in 4D into the blinking console, and she was off.
Time travel was very different from space travel, which, ironically, took a lot of time. Time travel, on the other hand, took less than a microsecond, as long as you kept the space co-ordinates tightly controlled. In her case, that meant that she would travel to her own laboratory, only a hundred years in the future. They tried not to mix space and time travel, though it could also be done.
It seemed that nothing had happened. Her laboratory looked the same. The console was flashing a date in the future, but that could be an error. She felt the utter disappointment crashing down on her; this was a dream of a lifetime. ‘Well, nothing to be done now,’ she thought. Tomorrow she would go through the logs and try to figure out where she had gone wrong – today, she could indulge in self-pity. She wanted to sit with Thomas and listen to him trying to comfort her. He was her biggest cheerleader – he would be able to find the correct words for this situation when even she couldn’t.
She stepped out of her laboratory in a daze and started making her way home. A few minutes later, she looked around to see that she had mistaken her way and started to backtrack. That is when she realized – something was different.
The buildings were the same, with the only change being that they now had huge white hoardings covering their front elevations, lettered in neon. She tried reading the ones immediately around her – to her relief, the language was still English, but seemingly a more simplified version, with most buildings being labeled with a single word. ‘Probably,’ she thought, ‘language needs to be simplified for the robots.’ She was certain that some form of artificial intelligence would have evolved to perform basic tasks. ‘FOOD’, said the next building, where originally the mall had stood.
Just then, a shrill bell rang, and a crowd of about fifty humans walked out of various buildings and into the one that proclaimed FOOD. Katherine was prepared to hide, not knowing how they would react to someone not from their ‘time’, or even if they would be able to recognize her as such, but no one paid her any attention. In fact, a few of them even walked around her without blinking an eye. She found it strange, but maybe they just didn’t realize that she wasn’t one of them.
Feeling a little brave, she decided to follow them into the mall. Although the exterior had looked exactly the same, the inside was a different story. The entire structure had been brought down and made into a single monolithic area – a dining room, for lack of a better word. There were tables laid down, on which were piled heaps of food at distinct intervals. The humans who had walked in were all seated around the tables, helping themselves to the food. There didn’t seem to be any individual servings though – everyone was digging into the common plates with spoons, which were directly brought to their mouths and then back to the plates. ‘That looks unsanitary,’ she thought. ‘But maybe microbes don’t threaten humans as much now.’
Scientist as she was, she decided to be brave and attempt to taste the food. The question was how. Should she wait till everyone was done and gone from this dining room? Or should she join in, attempt to blend in? The decision was taken for her when another bell rang, and the crowd of humans stopped mid-bite, rose as one, and filed out of the building. Katherine quickly grabbed a spoon and shoved a bite into her mouth – the meal could only be described as fodder. She could barely gulp it down, but she consoled herself with the thought that, surely, it would be packed with nutrition.
‘I wonder where all the humans have gone now,’ she thought. ‘Well, as good a time as any to find out!’ Surely, they couldn’t have gone too far in the time it had taken her to chew a bite full – though it had seemed like an eternity to her, trying to swallow the utterly dry meal.
The roads were as empty as before, and she couldn’t spy any movement. She decided to walk towards her house. It was a lush, residential area in her time, maybe some of these modern humans too lived there.
She was right – they did live there. But the beautiful cottages with their rhombus gardens had been converted into one long dormitory-like structure. She peeked in through one of the large bay-windows all around the building; all the humans that had just been eating were now sound asleep on beds laid out in neat rows. She could feel the disappointment come crashing down – so far, none of her exploits had shown even the remotest marvel of science or technology; on the other hand, it seemed that man had regressed even in fields like language and architecture. ‘I bet it is only to make themselves more productive and functional. After all, art and language, beautiful as they may be, do not contribute to the survival of the human race!’ The words that were meant to comfort her only saddened her even further.
Suddenly, someone tapped on her shoulder. ‘Welcome, Katherine. Our systems have been telling us for a week that you are intending on visiting us. Took you long enough.’ The most gorgeous human male that she had ever laid her eyes on, was speaking to her in a dulcet voice. It was as if he was a completely different human being from the horde that she had been stalking till then.
Before she could respond, he continued, ‘We come in peace. We are the Failures of the Human Race. We belong to the same species that you do, we have nothing to gain by harming you.’
Katherine had so many questions that she didn’t know where to start. She decided to start with an easy one – the fifty-odd humans sleeping away in the dormitory.
‘Those are the Successes of the Human Race, Katherine. Those are the humans that were planned to be born. We do not know why, but they are not, should I say, the smartest tools in the shed, to borrow some language from your generation. They can follow simple, repetitive instructions, as long as someone is repeating them. That is what the ringing bells are for, and the giant neon hoardings. We try our best to keep them fed, watered, and rested. Most of their remaining time is spent in mindless activities like chatting or gazing at the world.’
Katherine was flabbergasted. She had spent so much time and effort to travel to the future, prepared to be amazed by the giant leaps of technology made by humankind, and instead, she was confronted by this mindless, almost cow-like, species! Yes, cow-like was the correct word for them, the vacant eyes, the vacuous living, the dry food – everything reminded her of their bovine companions. Her only hope – mankind’s only hope – was in this strangely perfect human being, who addressed himself in the plural.
‘Katherine, do not be disappointed. Though this branch of the human race has deteriorated, I would be presumptuous enough to state that our branch will satisfy your intellectual pursuit. Would you like to accompany us and see our part of the world?’
This was the moment they warned all the scientists about – the choice between discovering tantalizing secrets of the future at the risk of being lured into a brutal death or traveling back in time to safety, with a dozen unanswered questions. Safety first – the motto had been drilled into them since they were mere apprentices.
‘I would love to,’ she responded, going against every fiber of her training. For reasons she couldn’t articulate even to herself, she trusted this human at an elemental level. She didn’t believe in inter-generational karmic connections, but there was something undeniable about her biased disposition towards this man.
A sleek platform arrived on the road right by their feet, quiet as a whisper. The man gestured for Katherine to climb on with him. Within seconds, they had whizzed past her entire neighborhood, and into another neighborhood. At first glance, it seemed like more of the same – some of the older buildings had been replaced with newer ones, but nothing too ‘modern’. The platform stopped in front of a structure, and the man led her in.
It was like walking into heaven. All around her were milling beautiful people – men and women. Katherine had never seen such athletic bodies, such clear skin, such luminous eyes. Each strand of hair on the heads of these alluring humans was shining with vitality. Every person was engaged in conversation with a few others, their voices perfectly modulated to a soothing chorus.
‘This is us, Katherine. The Failures. The ones who were never meant to be. But it is us who are running this world, keeping the Successes alive, for no other reason but because they are humans too. We are the ones who are reproducing to keep our race evolving towards even greater heights. And Failures as we may be – we will succeed in being the best human beings we possibly can.’
There was only one question remaining in her mind now – but before she could say a single word, the man spoke, ‘It is time for you to leave now, Katherine. If you have received the message that you were meant to on this little sojourn – well, it isn’t a question of if, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. And, thank you for everything you did for Dad.’
And suddenly, Katherine was in her time machine back in her laboratory. Without looking around, she knew she was back in her own time.
Thomas and Katherine were entertaining another couple. Joshua and Brigitte were two of the very few non-scientist friends they had. Brigitte had been Thomas’ neighbor when he had been a child, and they had remained good friends over the years, despite being in very different intellectual bands. The spouses had just gotten added to their friendship, and it was fun to relax once in a while with a couple that had nothing to do with stressful launches and safety trainings. Joshua and Brigitte weren’t gifted in the way the two of them were, but they were good people. Secretly, Katherine had to admit that she did enjoy the fawning admiration that was so innocently given by the sweet, unassuming couple – scientists, who were her usual company, were not known for being the most expressive people. On their part, Joshua and Brigitte valued these evenings away from their three kids – though they were amazing parents, an adult-only dinner with no tantrums or meltdowns, was just what the doctor had ordered.
The evening was proceeding well, and the drinks had been served. Their guests looked like they were enjoying themselves, as Thomas regaled them with stories of his laboratory. ‘In fact,’ thought Katherine, ‘they do seem too happy. Thomas’ story isn’t really that funny!’ But she smiled and nodded along – maybe it was just her. Ever since her ‘successful’ time travel, she had been in a dour mood – she still didn’t know what ‘message’ the gorgeous man had been talking about. She wasn’t used to not knowing things, and to admit defeat in an intellectual sphere went against her very being.
Suddenly, Brigitte interrupted Thomas with a coy giggle, ‘Sorry Thomas, please don’t think that we aren’t interested in your story, we really are. But we are both just so deliriously happy that if we don’t share the news with you guys, we are liable to burst from all this excitement!’
‘We are pregnant, guys! Make way for the fourth Delaney!’ Joshua interrupted her.
The next few minutes were spent in a flurry of squeaks and hugs. The dinner passed by with the expecting couple oscillating between anxiety at parenting four children and hysterical laughter at being parents again.
It was only when the guests had left and the tables cleared, did Katherine get a chance to express her misgivings to Thomas.
‘Don’t you think it might be too much for them to handle, Thomas?’
‘Well, it seems to me that they are happy. Let us give them some credit – maybe they have planned for this baby.’
‘I wouldn’t call it a very successful plan then, with the amount of anxiety that they just expressed over having four kids!’
Thomas was about to respond with a clever comeback when he saw the look on her face.
‘That is it, Thomas! These are the Successes – the children born from parents who decided to have them despite knowing the negative impact on the environment – or rather, without knowing or even thinking of it! Whereas the Failures are the results of people like us – who rationally think of our impact on the Earth, and decide not to have kids – failing in implementing that decision!’
‘But what was the message that you were meant to receive, Katherine?’
‘That Failure is the only thing that can save the human race. That people like us need to choose Failure.’
‘And?’ asked Thomas, not believing that everything had worked out quite so neatly for him.
‘And that we are going to be amazing parents to our son, and have the most gorgeous grandson who will help the human race survive.’
‘And? You are still missing a vital part of the puzzle, Katherine!’ Thomas said goadingly.
Katherine looked at him, puzzled. Then, her expression cleared. Trust Thomas to make her eat her words.
‘Yes, Thomas, let us have a baby!’