"...Load of bollocks, I reckon."
"Post-humans, he called 'em, but yeah-nah, it's a bit hard to..."
"...kinda far-fetched? I'd say..."
As students and other guests vacated the lecture hall, snippets of derisive and unconvinced conversation wafted through the air like cigarette smoke. An occasional affirmative comment gave a breath of fresh air, but for the most part the lecture had resulted in cynicism about the bizarre prospect of post-humans.
Professor Lambton had argued that numerous archaeological finds, when taken in context of numerous mythologies that converged favourably, provided evidence for the possibility of post-humanism - the development of traits, skills, powers and abilities that exceeded a normal human's capability. The credibility of such a theory strained the open-mindedness of many a university student, but it lingered in the mind of David Ward like the graffiti carved into the campus walls.
David carefully wove through the gaggle of youths and faculty cautiously, threading through the tangle of humanity in transit. Along with some others, he was leaving the antiquated lecture hall behind him for now. Another group strode towards the main library to the east, more people cut across from a nearby green space to head west, while others milled around, headed in numerous ways from numerous directions. It was like the green "cross now" man had made his appearance at a busy intersection at midday.
David kept his usual conservative bubble around himself and avoided eye contact. He had never been one to stand out from the crowd, and no exception was made here. Having keept his curiosity to himself once more, he hadn't plucked up the courage to ask the professor about any of the questions now turning in his mind. Where are the post-humans now? was perhaps the most puzzling: surely humans with the overwhelming advantages provided by post-humanism would have dominated the human gene pool? This paradox would throw Darwin into a paroxysm.
Aparangi University had been founded in 1882, the year of the death of Charles Darwin. On The Origin of Species, the ground-breaking work of biological science, which laid the foundation of evolutionary theory, was one of the few physical books David owned. The ideas within were somewhat intriguing to the often downcast teen, who had seen the concept of transforming into something more well-adapted as a sign of better things to come. And it was this that had drawn him to Lambton's lecture - a hope for something to hope for.
His hand reached into a pocket on his backpack and took out his trusty lighter. It was a cheap metallic container topped with a mass-produced ferrocerium rod flint. A steel valve would be opened by pressing the steel button beneath the ferro rod. The lighter had cost a few dollars more than the plastic disposables, but the refills were cheaper than buying an entire disposable, leading to a small long-term saving. Although the biggest saving would have been not smoking in the first place.
Disregarding the false economics of saving money on lighters, David strode beneath the ornate archway which formed the primary entrance and exit to the campus. Victorian typography engraved in the underside announced the university's motto of Mentum supra metallum - mind over metal. The founders had considered intellect, knowledge and wisdom to be "more valuable than platinum, more beautiful than gold, stronger than titanium, more versatile than copper, and more useful than iron". In other words, the pen is mightier than the sword.
And more expensive than all of them, David added, his escalating student loan crossing his mind. Over 12,000 Neo Zealand Dollars a year, times three years for a degree made more than $36,000. Study costs and living expenses piled on top of the loan would likely bring the total damage to nearly $50,000. It was a huge investment and risk during an uncertain economy, but it seemed like the best chance of escaping a life of his current part-time job at the local Shop 'n' Save.
As usual, the main entrance to the Aparangi University campus was a gathering point for the students who polluted their lungs with tobacco. David greeted a couple he saw regularly as he withdrew the half-finished cig, before firing it up to join them in their disregard for their health. In spite of his often reclusive nature, he had a soft spot for his fellow smokers, out here in the cold of a cloudy late autumn day.
Such comrades in cigarette consumption were a perverse side-effect of banishing smoking from virtually all public grounds - creating de-facto smoking areas outside of campuses like this one grouped smokers together and gave them a kind of community centred around their smoking. In a highly impersonal world, social smoking was an activity which delivered much-needed companionship, and had thus become a leading reason why such a harmful activity was still practised. It also threw a peer pressure to continue smoking into the mix, which further fuelled the difficulty of quitting such an addictive substance.
David took in a breath of the cool autumn air, contaminated by smouldering dried leaves and filtered by the iconic tan cylinder. The carcinogenic vapours penetrated every centimetre of his lungs, delivering the nicotine and tar and ash and carbon monoxide to where they could do tremendous damage. He paused for a few moments while the poison filled his chest, then slowly exhaled a cloud of smog. The haze of passive smoke drifted upwards, momentarily obscuring the sign that boasted about the smokefree campus metres away.
Lingering amongst the cloud of smokers and the cloud of smoke they produced, David contemplated the lecture and its implications: a world where people soar in the sky, grow plants from their bodies, and wield fire in their hands. Looking back to the lighter in his hand he gave a bemused smile. One out of three ain't bad, he thought. For one moment, he had been Prometheus come to earth, stealing fire from the heavens to gift to man. And then, after releasing the button to let the flame die, he was once more a mere mortal, puffing on an item that might deliver him to his early mortality.
David lapsed into a trance-like state, smoking on auto-pilot while he wrapped his mind around Lambton's theory. Carl Sagan had famously said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This "Sagan Standard" demanded that theories needed to be justified with proof, which in itself was a cornerstone of the scientific method. Lambton had provided clues which could point to a post-human explanation, but it was so far from definitive that it lacked credibility. But what evidence could justify this extraordinary theory? Only something which was equally extraordinary - something that would demonstrate absolute irrefutability of the premise. Something like a live post-human.
David flicked the ash from his dying cigarette and rubbed his prickly stubbled chin. Again, he'd come to a wall in his attempts to analyse the theory. Where are the post-humans now? The question revolved in his mind like the loading icon of his cyPhone. He wanted to believe in the possibility but couldn't think of an answer to this deceptively simple question. The cognitive dissonance might as well have been written in bold type across his face.
"Confusing lecture?" The scruffy student beside David asked casually, between puffs of silvery-white smoke. His earphones hung lazily around his neck, belting out some kind of barely audible music. The man's long, greasy straw-toned hair covered half his face when he looked at the ground.
David grunted an affirmative. "That's putting it lightly, Seth." he calmly replied, matter-of-factly.
"Well, my bioethics class just had a chat about GE transplants. Something about rich people getting supercharged organs and the sociological implications thereof and whether something-something-something... I wasn't really listening." he gestured in a subdued manner, waving his own cigarette in circles.
"Yeah, maybe they should GE you a new brain" came a light-hearted jab from another student, between puffs of her own cigarette. Ann was a young woman with abnormally red hair but an ordinary everything else, dressed in an eclectic mix of designer and op-shop attire.
David looked back at the university grounds, ignoring the ribbing of his acquaintances. He had caught sight of a small group of staff leaving the lecture hall he had just attended. There appeared to be a few moments of nodding, handshaking and general banter before the group dissipated, leaving one man free to check his tablet for messages and schedules, presumably. The man was European, with a silvered ponytail of receding hair, wearing a grey jacket and matching pants. He was just who David had hoped to see.
Dropping his spent cigarette in the trash receptacle provided, David bid farewell to his fellow smokers and headed back onto the campus, perfumed by his burnt tobacco. He approached the professor gingerly, awaiting the older man to finish his digital errands.
"May I help you?" the ageing academic asked - not unkindly, but without taking his eyeglass-framed eyes off his gadget. David was unprepared for this, and he stammered for a moment before clearing his throat.
"Hi, uh... excuse me, I ... I just attended your lecture and uh, I wanted to ask you... something?" he managed to get out, immediately chiding himself for sounding like an idiot.
The more well-dressed of the pair acknowledged the lesser with a nod as he slipped his tablet into a large pocket inside his suit jacket. "Certainly, though I do need to get going soon. Other engagements." he insisted. His eyes found David and analysed him through his thickly-rimmed glasses.
David swallowed in an attempt to calm his awkwardness and plucked up the courage to ask "Where are the post-humans now? Why haven't they dominated or replaced humanity?"
A sparkle twinkled in Lambton's eye. He knew he had succeeded in making at least one of his audience ponder his theory and consider the possibilities. But the reply David received wasn't quite what he was hoping for.
"That's what I'm hoping to find out."
"...Load of bollocks, I reckon."