Chapter 4Mature

A mild breeze tumbled spent leaves and empty bioplastic food wrappers, wafting them across the rectangular pavers which formed the pathway. The debris danced across the ground and swirled around the local student, before twirling past the foreign professor. Man and nature alike seemingly paid little heed to what they threw away once it was used up. All of this would decay eventually, but in the meantime the objects pranced along the pathway indifferent to their fates.

It was here that Jacob Lambton offered to explain David Ward's conundrum. "I must be heading off soon, but if you were to walk with me to my vehicle, I would be pleased to share some possible solutions. Plural, you see, as I suspect there could be many factors influencing this particular issue."

He indicated along the path that lead through the main entrance of the University and out to the main carpark. David noticed he was in the way, and moved aside to accommodate, before falling in line with the academic. As they began the walk to the vehicle Lambton had referred to, the silver-haired professor inquired "I take it you're a student?"

"Uh, well yes, but not in biology or anything. Sorry. It does interest me though." David admitted sheepishly, hoping he wasn't wasting the man's time. His tattered sneaker kicked an empty Ares Bar wrapper as he walked along the pathway.

"No need to apologise. The sciences often overlap, so there's a definite benefit in retaining a broad scope. Post-humanism actually draws on numerous fields - archaeology, biology, mythology, and anthropology to name a few." Jacob's unpolished black dress shoe deftly ploughed a native fuchsia leaf aside. "The more perspectives you add, the more you're likely to see - which brings me back to the purpose of this little chat. Where ARE the post-humans today?". He emphasised the "are" with the same rhetorical tone he had used in his lecture, to the same intriguing effect.

"First, we need to look at the sociological piece of the puzzle. It would be easy to assume that a human with unparalleled attributes would win a game of Darwinism, but humans are complex creatures with an unfortunate knack for fighting dirty and turning on those who deviate from the norm. Remember, of course, that a human - or any animal for that matter - with genetic superiority over their contemporaries presents a threat to the chances of their inferior rivals to procreate."

"This could drive the non-post-humans to revolt and remove this threat to their own genetic legacy - by killing or otherwise excluding them from their societies. I am working on a theory that this was part of what drove so-called witch-burnings in previous eras - the killing of people who were accused of utilising abilities which were not understood, and thus feared." He tsked and shook his head in dismay.

David agreed that such things were a shameful facet of human history, but wondered how much of Lambton's expression of reproach was due to his ability to study post-humans being hindered. "So, it's a kind of tall poppy syndrome, then?" David inquired - before evading a young man too busy checking his cyPhone messages to check where he was walking.

"Tall poppy...? Ah, yes, certainly. Tall poppies being cut down to equal the lesser flowers. Although this alone is not likely to be the sole cause of the current drought of post-humanism."

The pair strode down the widening pathway towards the arch of the main entrance. They passed by the towering flagpole that marked an eroded monument with a corroded plaque. Laid during the 1882 founding of the university by John Hall, the prime minister of the time, it commemorated the establishment of a place of higher learning for the Aparangi settlement and Waitaki province of New Zealand. However, these days the flag atop the pole was that of the nation which had succeeded the commonwealth of New Zealand a generation ago.

In the shadow of the Aparangi University gateway, leaves discarded by their trees mingled with cigarette butts discarded by their smokers. Together they formed a carpet of yellow and red and brown that piled around the off-white stone columns and walls. David's smoking buddies had gone off to their respective classes, homes or part-time jobs, leaving the familiar haunt unattended for the moment. Lambton passed through the archway with David in tow. His direction veered to the left, along the footpath that led along the narrow one-way street that bordered the campus to the north.

The perfume of spent hydrocarbons soon filled the autumn air. A rambunctious bustle of traffic squeezed along the street, with a gamut of vehicles competing for the inadequate space. Scooters, motorbikes, bicycles and mopeds daringly weaved through the unforgiving tangle of metal, glass and rubber, and horns tooted and exclaimed over the din of dozens of engines.

"A drought of post-humanism?" David pondered what Lambton had meant by this metaphor. "Not an extinction then? Are you saying they could still be out there?" David's voice picked up a subtle tone of excitement as he probed the professor's statement.

Lambton's sigh was lost in the whoosh of a passing Aparangi Metro bus as it applied its heavy pneumatic brakes. "I cannot say with certainty one way or another. But this brings me to the next point: perhaps post-humans could still exist, but live in isolation, like some desert, alpine or rainforest peoples do even today. Or perhaps they live among us, but live with their remarkable skills kept secret."

"Why would they... oh right - witch hunts" David remembered the earlier point the professor had made about misunderstood talents leading to lynchings. But he also considered the sheer diversity of the world they stood upon. His own country of Neo Zealand was an ecosystem of multiculturalism with a pantheon of faiths and spectrum of ideologies. Could difference really matter that much in a melting pot? "Would they really be that worried about that today?"

A frown spread across Lambton's face, and David recognised his own naivety. "It's unfortunate, but humans are often known for possessing over-active amygdalae. We evolved to see threats where they may not exist, as this strategy of caution helped to keep us safe. The legacy of this, however, is apparent wherever reason is overcome by fear."

"So the post-humans are afraid they'll be feared?"

"Indeed. They may very well fear fear itself."

A passer-by gave them no heed as they discussed matters of conflict and humanity's dubious record. Most people were too busy worrying about bills and relationships and work to even consider how the theoretical revelation of an exceptionally powerful being could throw a spanner in the works. "But that is only one aspect of what a post-human would want to hide from. If a post-human were discovered, every group with any agenda may want a post-human to themselves to further their cause."

Post-humans: the ultimate human resource. The idea gave David some second thoughts about just how positive a post-human's existence might actually be.

"But ultimately, these implications are not the only factor affecting the apparent lack of post-humans in the public sphere." They wandered past a graffiti-saturated power transformer cabinet. This collage of innumerable tags, street art and guerilla marketing displayed a technicolor canvas to the hustle of pedestrians around the premier academic centre of the South Island. "Post-humanism is a complicated biological subject. You're obviously familiar with genetics, but are you versed in the science around epigenetics?"

David shrugged as they turned into the grey asphalt fields of the university's main carpark. Beneath a darkening grey sky, rows of beat-up sedans and hatchbacks alternated sporadically with vacant rectangles of concrete. "It's something about changes to how genes are activated, right?"

The professor concurred. "Indeed. Genes can be expressed in different ways depending on environmental factors and their influence on an organism's biology. Modifications can be made to genomes and the resulting phenotypes without altering the underlying DNA, thus resulting in an equation of genes, environment and expression."

The drone of a nearby engine drew David's attention away for a moment. The rumbling was characteristic of an older, petrol engine. He looked on in envy as the machine revealed itself to be a Japanese sports car, probably a Taiheiyo, driven by a lecturer trying to navigate his mid-life-crisis.

It was the kind of transport David aspired for - something propelled by nothing less than the harnessed flames of burning liquid hydrocarbons. He was left inhaling the smog from the vehicle as it drove past, and wondered when he would have the money for both a car and the sky-rocketing cost of fuel. David returned his attention to Lambton, who, unlike himself, was left mildly choked by the improperly combusted exhaust.

Lambton coughed, and remarked "...How uncouth" about the receding vehicle, before resuming his conversation with the student. "At any rate, I suspect that without the necessary environmental pressures, a person possessing the necessary genetic code to manifest post-humanism would remain essentially dormant until something adequate triggers their abilities to fully emerge. This is... an ongoing branch of my research, however. While I am here, I hope to study the local lore and artifacts that may provide hints about the questions around post-humanism."

They came across a rental car - a modest white sedan emblazoned with invasive branding and advertising for Karma Car Rentals. The men came to a halt. David observed one decal that boasted of utilizing "patented alco-fuel technologies", while another claimed the car belonged to one of the safest rental car companies in the country. The two were mutually exclusive as far as David had researched - the alco-fuel was known to be a volatile compound that could explode if accidentally (or intentionally) mixed with other fuels.

"This is the vehicle I've been using. An eyesore, but it does get me where I need to go. I must be off now, but I hope I've managed to illuminate a few concepts for you..." the professor gestured to the younger man, indicating he was awaiting his input.

"Oh, David. My name's David". David responded, distracted. What is that smell? he wondered, peering at the vehicle.

"David. It's good to know my theories are not falling entirely on deaf ears." Lambton smiled behind his bookish frames. He reached out his hand to David, who removed his suspicious gaze from the car in order to reciprocate.

"Thanks. It's been... interesting" David replied, his mind elsewhere. Something seemed out of sync - like a deja vu or an intuition. Some part of him was resonating, an instinct or process that washed over him like a wave of uncertainty - or perhaps he was only imagining it. A sceptical dismissal of the unexplained appealed to his mind, but he couldn't shake this sense of foreboding.

Lambton withdrew the keys from his side pocket, remarking "Hopefully next time we meet, we will be able to discuss discovering the ever-elusive modern post-human." He grasped the remote-unlock keyring, promptly locating the button to unlock the rental car. He pointed past David and triggered the device, sending a pulse of radio signals to the awaiting car...

The following moments were a blur, but David knew from his studies of physics that the light from the explosion must have reached him a fraction of a second before the sound and blast-wave generated by the burning fuel. Flames must have followed in another moment, being pushed outward by the expansion of heating gases. A blast wind would then suck displaced air back towards the centre of the blast as the superheated vapours raced upwards, lifting a plume of smoke and debris above the burning husk of the rental car, which would have thrown rubble and soot in every direction.

But much of that would have happened in the split-second it would take before anyone could react to it. For David and Lambton, who were standing only a couple of metres away, the fireball should have enveloped them before they could even recoil. But as David cowered on the concrete beneath the awesome fury of a volcano of flames, he felt no pain. He felt nothing - he was somehow, inexplicably, incomprehensibly untouched by the roaring hell around him, the roaring hell that should have engulfed him.

Panic setting in, he looked desperately through the smoke and raining chunks of molten aluminium and smouldering plastic. Under a cloud of black that choked the skies above, he blindly reached a hand for something, anything - whatever he could find. A hand grasped his and yanked him to his feet, dragging him to cover behind the intact far side of a van, which was parked next to the smouldering ruin of the blasted rental car.

"You're ok? We're ok?" It wasn't a question. "I don't... What is this?" Jacob's composure was as fractured as a lens of his glasses, but physically he was completely intact, without a scorch on him. "...look" the professor pointed at the spot they had been standing.

David shook himself to try and get his wits back, wondering how he was still alive. He gazed at the patch of concrete and saw that where they had been standing was an immaculate island amongst the burned, soot-stained ground that surrounded the burning vehicle. It was as if a barrier had been erected at the moment the explosion occurred. As if something had wrapped them in a fireproof shield - or someone.

"David, I suspect our post-human may be closer than I imagined."

The End

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