EVAN slowly crawled from his hiding place in the rock outcropping, keeping his eyes on the clearing ahead. He had been watching a Common, one of the race that used to be human, but the Common ancestors had stayed on the surface after The Bang had ravaged the planet. With all his fur, the Common looked like a gorilla. But the clothing he wore gave him away to be something more than an ape. And gorillas weren’t native to the jungles of Texas.
The Common disappeared into the tree line of the forest.
Evan had emerged from his bomb shelter earlier in the night with the goal of sedating one of the Commons and collecting some tissue samples, but watching the figure as he worked with something on the ground had piqued Evan’s curiosity. He was more interested now in what the Common had been doing.
With no further sign of the beastly figure, Evan stayed crouched and crawled his way toward the canopy of trees. Keeping his eyes ahead, Evan crept into the clearing. He felt something give under his foot, heard a snapping noise, then something grabbed his leg and yanked him into the air.
“Oh, great,” Evan groaned aloud, feeling like an idiot as he dangled upside-down by the ropes of a snare trap. His hat fell off and into the grass below. He heard rustling in the bushes, but his back was facing the trees and he couldn’t see what had made the noise. Suddenly, the Common moved in front of his face, staring at him.
The Common looked him over, appraising him. Evan struggled and took in a lungful of air that was filled with a strong odor—a hairy male odor.
The beast looked worried. Then he spoke in a husky male voice. “Bad Vaultee?”
Evan was completely surprised to hear the beast utter English words. But feeling dizzy from the blood draining down into his head, Evan ignored the question and asked, “Can you cut me down?”
The Common considered the request for what seemed a long time, then asked, “You run?”
Evan usually ran on his treadmill several miles a day—it was important to exercise when living inside the shelters—but he thought the Common was asking if he would try to flee. “No, I won’t run,” Evan said, trying to reassure the beast. “I’d just like to talk.”
The Common worked on understanding his words, then stood to his full height. He was over six feet tall, nearly a foot taller than Evan, and his whole body was covered with thick, sepia-brown fur. He walked forward and wrapped one very strong and hairy arm around Evan’s waist to support him as he sliced through the rope with what looked like a bone knife. His masculine musk enveloped Evan. The combination of his strong arm and scent caused a strange warmth in Evan’s groin. The Common slowly lowered Evan to the ground.
His head finally clearing, Evan reached down and untangled the ropes from his leg while the Common slid the knife into some kind of leather holster on his hip. The Common watched him with open curiosity. Evan reclaimed his hat, then looked up into large, silvery blue eyes. The Common thumped himself on the chest and said, “Rourke.”
“Rourke?” Evan repeated, thinking through all the languages he had learned in the shelter’s database archives before he suddenly realized it must be the beast’s name. “I am Evan.”
“E-van,” Rourke repeated, like he was tasting the word in his mouth.
The two studied each other. Rourke watched the strange, mostly bald Vaultee squirm around in his jumpsuit. He did have some sandy brown hair flowing from the top of his head, but the rest of him looked nearly hairless. He looked only big enough to be a juvenile. Rourke had never actually seen a Vaultee up close before. He’d only heard the stories told by other tribes of the raiding parties emerging from other Vaults to harass and steal from the tribes.
Evan was drawn to Rourke’s eyes. The silvery sheen was also in the whites of his eyes. It must be an adaptation to the sun’s increased gamma radiation, he thought to himself. Along with all that fur. The dead cells of the hair would protect the sensitive skin underneath. The Common was also wearing some kind of vest and a woven wrap around his waist that reminded Evan of the kilts he had seen pictures of in the archives.
Rourke carefully assessed the Vaultee, trying to understand him. He wore blue overalls, fancy black shoes, and something blue on top of his head, but didn’t appear to have any kind of weapon or means of defense. And then he was dumb enough to step right into the snare trap Rourke had worked so hard to set up here in the deer run area.
Rourke inched closer. “You not come to steal and kill….”
Evan wasn’t really sure if that was a statement or a question. In his own shelter, they were mostly scientists, and as far as Evan knew, he was the first one to venture outside in many years. The other residents were afraid of the Commons, having long speculated they had reverted to some sort of subspecies. The residents were also concerned about the sun. Their bodies had no defense to the increased radiation, and would suffer from direct sunlight exposure.
“No,” Evan tried to reassure Rourke. “I just came to talk, and maybe get some samples.” He unconsciously covered his pocket with his hand, trying to hide the pouch that held needles and scalpels and concealed his tranquilizer pistol.
Rourke looked at him. Then in a surprising move, he stuck his tongue out at Evan. “Silly Vaultee, snare for deer,” he said, chuckling aloud.
Evan felt himself smiling at the joke; if it hadn’t been at his expense, he might have laughed as well. This Common seemed to have a sense of humor.
“What you do?” Rourke asked.
Evan wasn’t quite sure what Rourke wanted to know. Rourke seemed to be struggling with the English language. Maybe it was a question of Evan’s occupation. “I’m a scientist. I study biology and genetics.”
“Bi-olo-gee,” Rourke repeated. “Like animal doctor?”
“Yes.” Evan nodded. Rourke’s grasp of language seemed better than Evan had thought. “Where did you learn English?”
Rourke glared at him, like that was a stupid question. “Books. And Aunt Idelle.”
Evan was quite surprised at the answer. He had always been led to think that the Commons were illiterate and subhuman. Despite his more animal-like appearance, Rourke seemed very human. “You have very many books?”
Rourke pulled in his legs to sit more comfortably. “Tribe did have many books; most rot now, but we copied important ones.”
Evan took a deep breath, suddenly struggling with a moral dilemma. His original plan was to find a Common and tranquilize it, then take blood and tissue samples from the unconscious victim. But that was back when he believed them to be barely more than animals. In the light of new evidence, that kind of action seemed unethical.
It couldn’t hurt to ask, he thought to himself. It was doubtful Rourke would give up a skin or blood sample, but maybe he could collect something less invasive, like spittle, or even better, semen.
Rourke was staring down at Evan’s feet, studying the leather boots he wore, so Evan cleared his throat to get his attention. “I was wondering,” he said, but he was beginning to have second thoughts. Those sparkly blue eyes just looked so innocent. “I was wondering if maybe you’d like to give me a sample?”
Rourke’s brow tightened, suddenly on the defensive. “What kind?”
“Blood would be nice, but I’d have to stick you with a needle and you probably wouldn’t like that.”
“Needle?” Rourke didn’t seem to know that word.
Evan slowly removed the satchel from his pocket. Careful to keep the scalpels hidden, he removed one of the vacuolated tubes. He pulled off the plastic jacket to reveal the metal needle inside. Rourke looked at the needle, but he didn’t seem to grasp its purpose.
“This pokes inside your arm, and blood fills up the vial.”
Rourke’s brow furrowed and his eyes grew wide when he understood. “No needle, no poke,” he said firmly.
“I understand.” Evan searched the satchel and removed some plastic collection tubes. “How about some spit?” He popped the top off of one of the tubes and handed it to Rourke.
Rourke kept his eyes on Evan as he sucked in his cheeks then dribbled his spittle into the vial, filling it nearly halfway. He sucked in his cheeks again, but Evan stopped him.
“That’s enough.” He took back the vial and closed the cap, then put it back in the satchel. He stared down at the other empty vial.
“That all?” Rourke asked.
“Well,” Evan stammered, not sure how to proceed. “A semen sample would be good too.”
“Semen?” Rourke struggled with the word.
“Um, ejaculate?” Evan couldn’t think how else to describe it. He curled his hand and held it down by his crotch, then made the up-and-down motion of masturbation.
Rourke’s face lit up. “Oh, spunk-juice!” he exclaimed. He studied Evan closely a moment before he declared, “Yes, we can jack-it.”
Evan was surprised by the reaction, but he knew from reading the historical database that in tribal situations, sex was much more than just a means of procreation; it often had many political and social functions. It might be typical for Common males to masturbate together, maybe like some kind of youth ritual. He felt Rourke staring at the crotch of his overalls. Rourke definitely expected this to be a group event.
Evan rose up onto his knees as he noticed the kilt in front of Rourke’s crotch tenting in anticipation. Rourke moved forward, also resting on his knees, and raised his kilt to reveal a throbbing pink erection. Like a curious turtle, the head of his cock emerged from the folded flesh of his uncircumcised hood.
Evan undid the buttons of his overall fly and removed his own swelling cock, surprised at the shiver of excitement that ran through his groin. He held the collection vial in his left hand and watched Rourke begin massaging his cock, pulling the hood up and down over his swelling head.
Rourke reached out his other hand and took hold of Evan’s circumcised cock. “You have big dick,” Rourke mused aloud, while squeezing gently. Evan felt another shudder run down his spine. Rourke’s hand felt so tight and warm as he moved it back and forth.
Getting caught up in the moment, Evan reached forward and touched Rourke’s cock. It felt so solid, like a steel rod wrapped with pink, hairless flesh. Rourke moaned and began jacking faster. His face tightened, then he let go of Evan’s cock and grabbed the hand holding the collection vial, pulling it under his cock as the head swelled even larger and began shooting thick ropes of semen into the plastic container. Rourke let out a jagged moan, then sat back onto the ground, panting heavily. He watched Evan expectantly.
Evan put the lid on the vial and set it aside. His swollen cock demanded attention, so he jacked himself. Much sooner than he expected, he felt his balls tighten. Rourke reached out his hand and brushed it under Evan’s cockhead. A cry squeaked out of Evan’s throat as a huge burst of semen squirted out of him and all over Rourke’s hand.
Rourke smiled at him. Evan had to fight against revulsion as Rourke licked his semen from the hairy hand. Such an unclean action just reminded Evan of Rourke’s Common origins.
Evan rose up and buttoned his fly closed again. Rourke was still smiling at him. “You have good sex, Vaultee,” he announced.
Evan picked up the sample, placed it in the satchel, and squirreled away his prizes in his overalls pocket. “Thank you for the samples.”
Rourke seemed disappointed. He watched as Evan stood, then jumped to his own feet and grabbed Evan by the neck and leaned down, touching his lips to Evan’s lips. Evan quickly pulled away in disgust at the unsanitary act. His own people would never have such reckless body contact, and who knew what kinds of diseases lurked in the mouths of one of the Common.
Rourke seemed hurt by the reaction.
“Sorry.” Evan tried to explain. “We can’t risk that kind of exposure. I mean, we might infect each other.” Rourke didn’t really seem to understand what he was saying, but at least he didn’t look so wounded.
Evan turned to walk back to the shelter.
“You leave?” Rourke asked.
“Yes, the sun will be up soon, and I have to get back underground.”
Rourke looked disappointed. “You come back at night?”
Evan glanced back at Rourke, who seemed to think they were buddies now. Despite a million reasons why such a meeting should never happen again, he found himself saying, “After dark. I’ll come back when the sun sets again.”
Evan noticed a faint pinkish glow to the east, the beginning of dawn. “Okay,” he said, then he hurried back to the hills and the shelter entrance.
EVAN entered the airlock entrance and closed the door behind him, then hit the button to begin the decontamination cycle. He suddenly had a mental image of Rourke just sitting in the clearing all day long, waiting for his return. Of course, that was a silly idea. Rourke had said something about an aunt and a tribe—he most certainly would have returned to them.
The chamber hissed, and the inner lock door opened to the subterranean expanse. Evan walked down the stairs and turned down the hall to his left, making a beeline for his lab. He wondered what Rourke would tell the other Commons about their encounter. Or maybe like him, Rourke would keep the meeting to himself and never mention it. Evan couldn’t predict what the Common would do. Psychology and sociology had never been his strong subjects.
His mind wandered back to the beginning of their conversation. Rourke had told him that Vaultees stole and killed. Evan wondered which of the shelters was responsible for those actions.
Those thoughts faded away as he walked into the lab and opened the satchel with his prizes. He began the laborious work of preparing the spittle and semen for analysis.
An hour later, as he waited for the spectraband machine to cycle through the sequences, Evan fought back a yawn. He had stayed awake all night, but now sleep was catching up with him. He knew the analysis would require several more hours, so he set the machine to send an alert signal to his quarters when it finished, then he turned off the lab lights and walked down the hall to his room.
Not surprisingly, he didn’t encounter anyone on the way. This shelter had been built to house a thousand scientists and their families. With only eighteen residents living here now, he could wander around for hours and not bump into anyone else. The residents rarely saw each other unless they purposely sought out one another.
His thoughts wandered as he strolled the empty hall. If he wanted, Evan could consult the computer on exactly how many minutes it had been since The Bang, but he didn’t really care that much. The Bang was an event more than ten millennia in the past. Even with the computer’s meticulous records and documentation, The Bang was just a historical story to Evan, like a distant myth.
His mind drifted back to Rourke. Did the Common race even remember The Bang? Evan suddenly found himself curious to know. He would have to ask Rourke when he saw him again.
Evan shed his overalls when he got to his room, then fell asleep just after turning off the lights.
AN incessant beeping pulled Evan from his strange dream. He tried to recall the details as he sat up and turned off the lab alert, but all he could remember were foggy images of jungles and hairy men in kilts. And he still had an erection.
The erection surprised Evan more than the dream. Life in the shelters didn’t have a sexual component, and most residents, including Evan, outgrew such physical urges during the post-teen years. He hadn’t had a morning erection in a very long time. Maybe he had been infected by some illness that was affecting his penis.
He jumped up and dressed quickly, thinking of the test results. If he had been infected, the answers should be ready in his lab. Evan walked briskly down the hall, his footfalls leaving a ringing echo against all the metal and glass of the tubelike walls.
Evan hurried into the lab, checking the oral samples first. The computer screen showed forty-two positive matches for bacteria and virus, but a quick scan of the list showed only standard benign inhabitants in Rourke’s mouth. The oral scan was so nearly typical of a shelter resident that it could have been mistaken for one, which seemed odd to Evan. After some eleven hundred years of living in isolated environments, one would expect to see some kind of variations, especially if the test subject had despeciated.
The data definitely left Evan with much to ponder, but he could analyze that later. Now he turned his attention to the genetic profiles, very curious to see the results.
In bold letters, the computer examination concluded:
Homo sapiens (standard variant M3)
“What?” Evan thought aloud. He scrolled through the lists of gene mates and sectional groups, looking for anything the computer might have misinterpreted. Not that the computers would normally make such a mistake, but the data just seemed so unbelievable to Evan. But all the data supported the computer’s conclusion.
The Commons were completely, 100 percent standard human.
How could that be possible? The Commons couldn’t have such apparent physical variations without some alteration to the genome. Could they?
Evan moved over to another computer, pulled over the results file from Rourke, then pulled up his own profile and began a genetic site comparison. There must be some difference, besides the obvious.
He knew that some of his genetic profile wouldn’t match because of the tweaks performed on the shelter residents. The shelters had only been designed for short-term survival and had never been intended to support generational living. But the planetary damage of the Quantinum bomb had gone far beyond what anyone had speculated, requiring the residents to continue living in the shelters indefinitely.
With such possibilities never considered, many of the initial shelter residents were extended families, most of them elite or government employees. The first genetic screenings revealed only a paltry number of separate bloodlines. A breeding program was quickly outlined and instituted, but after only two generations, the residents dwindled down to seventeen distinct bloodlines.
After much debate, a new plan emerged, and the geneticists changed their goal to life extension. They tweaked and altered the four hundred remaining shelter resident’s genomes, increasing their life spans over threefold. With the longer lives and tight breeding control, the shelter might be able to survive long enough for the planet to repair itself and return to more hospitable conditions while preserving as many bloodlines as possible.
It was a sound plan. A plan that would have worked well, if not for the fungus.
The tweaks had left a fatal vulnerability to the cave fungus that slowly spread through the underground shelter. Before the symptoms began, many of the residents had already been infected. Quick analysis revealed the fungus wasn’t airborne; only physical contact could lead to infection.
Strict personal hygiene and body contact restrictions were quickly applied, but not before losing nearly two hundred residents.
A new genetic tweak that provided immunity to the fungus was eventually found. Yet the fears of infection and the ban on procreation had already created a new culture in the shelter, one of “no personal contact” for the residents. A non-touching culture that persisted even to Evan’s generation. His mother got pregnant through in vitro fertilization, and she never even once touched his father.
At this point, the eighteen remaining shelter residents only comprised two bloodlines. One more generation was all they had left. That dismal fact was what prompted Evan’s quest to study the Commons’ genetics, seeking a solution.
EVAN pulled himself from his thoughts and glanced over at the screen. The readout stated 2 percent comparison completed, the color barely showing on the thermometer-style progress bar. He also noticed the computer’s screen clock read 22:00 hours. It should be dark now, Evan thought, remembering his “date” with Rourke. Leaving the computer to its task, Evan left his lab.
He stood in the hall, reviewing his clothing. He hadn’t taken a shower after waking, but his outfit was clean and the scans had showed no harm from interacting with a Common, so Evan decided not to leave Rourke waiting any longer. He did scoot back to his quarters and grab the tranquilizer pistol, just in case he ran into any trouble on the outside, before walking up the stairs to the airlock.