Isobel watched in her mind’s eye as she floated above her thin mattress on the stone floor of her private quarters. The pitch black of her room, carved out of the sound-insulating omicron rock, offered none of its usual comfort. If anything, she felt strange—different somehow. She hadn’t quite been herself, not since she had found out she was human. Isobel touched the near-translucent skin on her arm. Her clothes—a light tunic and trouser ensemble—fit her lean and tall body perfectly. Her hairless head was smooth, unblemished. She was an Indigene. But something was pulling her back to her other life, the one before she was altered. Another vague memory invaded her thoughts. It was of him: her husband when she was human. She had begun to remember partial things, like how it felt to be touched by him, or snippets of conversations. But the words, the things they had said to each other, were still out of reach. She concentrated on the sound of his voice, his touch. The one sounded strange, the other lacked comfort.
Her husband’s face was a clear memory, but the detail of it would not come to her. It was difficult for her to hold on to the sounds and sensations that had been natural to her as a human, but were alien now. But she kept trying. The sounds in the district that evening were no more than a series of low murmurs through the rock; it was easy for her to block out the distractions. In one of her memories, which had recently returned to her, her husband had spoken in a voice that lacked clarity: ‘We’re always going out. How about I cook tonight?’ Did her husband cook? She had no idea. But she did remember that they were rarely alone when they ate.
‘I can rustle up something from the replicator,’ he had said. ‘What do you want?’
Isobel recalled having a vague dislike for replicator food, but she couldn’t be sure if that was her Indigene half-talking. Would the reversal treatment change her attitude to human food, to humans in general?
The peace treaty that covered Exilon 5 had come into force in the last seven years. District Three elders Stephen and Serena had made some progress with the humans over that period of time. In 2163, a war between the Indigenes and World Government leaders broke out on Exilon 5. There were many casualties on both sides. The peace treaty grew from that war and covered an agreement to allow the Indigenes to live as they were, and to give them access to exclusion zones where they could hunt without interference. The treaty was initially set up to protect the Indigenes and their districts on Exilon 5, but it was extended to include a promise to reverse the genetic alterations that had been carried out on an Indigene if the individual requested it. Perfecting the reversal treatment had taken time. Isobel hadn’t understood others’ yearning to have the treatment until her own human memories started to trickle back on their own. Ironically, her disconnect from them fuelled her desire to understand more about her former life and she eventually considered reversal. She wondered what the treatment would feel like. For many weeks, she had toyed with the idea of becoming human once again.
There was a rumbling noise above District Eight, where Isobel lived, that sent tiny shudders through the floor and her mattress. The humans were building on the surface to accommodate those who had come from Earth and settled in the last seven years. Over half a billion people had been transferred before the ships had stopped coming. But with new cities came new problems. The humans were encroaching on the Indigenes’ territories again. The peace treaty designed to protect Indigene territory was on shaky ground. The humans were busy expanding their domain, which had started far out in the desert but was inching closer to their environmental bubbles that marked out the allocated safe hunting grounds. Stephen and Serena were keeping the elders in the other districts updated on the progress. Isobel tried to ignore the noise. The memory of her husband was drifting further away. She reached out in her mind and it returned to her, but not fully. She wanted to remember more. This man had loved her once. The urge to know who else she had left behind grew stronger each day.
A dark swirl of black existed in the place where her husband’s face should have been. She didn’t even remember his name. ‘Would you like to order from the machine, miss?’ he had said, pointing to a square black object on the counter. A while cloth was draped over his arm. She remembered asking for something.
He placed a plate of food in front of her. She lowered her head to inhale. It smelled of rock and cold and humidity: her private quarters. She reached out to touch the plate. Her fingers passed right through it. The man and the memory faded. She grasped at both again but they slipped away.
‘No!’ Isobel sat up and screamed. Her heart beat against her ribs. She stood up too fast and toppled back down onto the mattress. She tried again, a little steadier this time. Her quarters—a single room with a mattress and a table with a few items—felt claustrophobic and she couldn’t catch her breath. She walked to the door and rested her head against the cool metal. Her frustration slipped away, leaving her only with embarrassment. ‘I’m more than this,’ she muttered. ‘I can feel it.’
She yanked the door open and stepped out of her quarters located on the top floor of a three-tier accommodation block, a circular space deep underground.
She hesitated on the top step. ‘I need to know who I am.’
A shadow moved below the stairs and she took a step back. ‘Who’s there?’ Speaking out loud gave her a sense of control that telepathy did not. Lately there was a drop in privacy levels in the district, with some preoccupied with the few who were interested in opting for the genetic reversal and when it might happen. The shadow moved and a leg appeared. Isobel relaxed. She should have known it was her. She navigated the stone steps with the grace of a dancer. Margaux stepped out from the shadows and entered the circular space. The elder from District Eight was smiling. ‘Hello, Isobel. I hope I’m not intruding.’
‘No of course not, elder.’ Isobel could sense Margaux attempting to communicate telepathically. But Margaux always spoke out loud. Isobel was used to her strange ways. She wondered what it would be like to live without the ability to hear everyone’s thoughts. Gabriel and Margaux, husband and wife, were the elders in District Eight. It was common knowledge that Gabriel’s wife had been instrumental in helping to prevent a war with the humans. It was her insight—so often overlooked, others had said—that had given the Indigenes the edge when the war for power had occurred eight years ago. She had seen what Serena was capable of when others had not.
Margaux clasped her hands to the front. Her gaze, distant at first, sharpened when Isobel stopped in front of her.
‘I’ve been watching you, Isobel. Gabriel said I shouldn’t, that I was intruding on your life. But I told him I needed to.’
Isobel had felt a presence in the tunnels for a while, but she hadn’t been certain someone was there, until now. ‘For how long?’
Margaux chuckled. ‘I always wondered about you, about why you didn’t question where you came from.’
Isobel had wondered the same thing. ‘Because I couldn’t remember anything.’
‘I’m beginning to remember bits and pieces. It’s still unclear.’
Margaux reached out to touch her, but Isobel stepped out of the elder’s space. She wasn’t comfortable with being exposed to the full extent of Margaux’s ability. When Margaux looked annoyed, Isobel stepped back in and allowed her to touch her. Margaux’s hands were cold but gentle as they cupped her face.
‘I sense something you’re preventing yourself from seeing. In your past.’
‘Like what?’ She could barely remember anything about her old life.
‘Something you’d rather forget.’ Margaux closed her eyes. ‘It’s why you haven’t spoken up before about wanting to change back into a human.’
Isobel stepped away from her. ‘I never said I wanted to change. Who said I did?’
Margaux laughed as if someone had just whispered a joke in her ear. ‘You did, silly girl. You’re deluding yourself if you think you can keep the truth hidden.’
Isobel’s heart quickened and she frowned. ‘I’m not hiding from anything.’
Margaux relaxed her expression and mood. ‘Your mind says otherwise. There’s something you’d rather forget.’
Margaux shrugged. ‘That’s for you to tell me.’
Isobel could feel the anger rise. ‘I thought you were supposed to know everything.’
Margaux smiled and started towards one of the tunnels at either end of the circular area. ‘Contrary to popular belief, I don’t know everything. Will you take a walk with me?’ Isobel’s hesitation caused Margaux to turn round. ‘Please.’
Isobel nodded and followed her. ‘Where are we going?’
Margaux began to hum. Isobel sighed. The elder’s moments of lucidity usually didn’t last long.