"What do you think they did here?" We paused panting, looking up at the tall crumbling building.
"Who knows," said Paul. He looked back over his shoulder and bared his teeth at the others behind us. I slapped him on the back and a cloud of dust rose up from his hair.
"We should keep moving," I said.
"I want to go in," said Paul.
"There's nothing in there for us," I said.
"I want to see," said Paul. He glared at me. I glanced back at the others, milling, watching us. They were mostly females. The alpha wasn't among them. He was probably sleeping.
"Fine," I said.
We ran up the plaza that fronted the building. The tiles were cracked through with tall grass. Paul jumped onto the fountain in the center, yelled out, then jumped down deftly. He circled around to get a brief glimpse of the females to see if any showed signs of being impressed. I rolled my eyes.
The doors were degraded to metal frames. Bits of weather worn glass still littered the area.
"Watch your feet," I said. Paul didn't see the need to wear shoes, but I wore them. We went through the frames and into a dimness. Once it was dark, Paul relaxed, knowing the females could no longer see him.
"It smells in here," said Paul, twitching his long nose.
"Yeah," I said. "Fungus I guess. Clinging to the damp. Look, you can see it stain the walls."
"Yeah," said Paul. "Smells like other stuff too. Like humans."
I stopped, feeling a chill.
"You don't think any are still here?"
"Nah," said Paul. "They're all long dead."
"Well, technically not," I said.
"Don't go on about that 'we are human' crap," he said.
"Well we sort of are," I said.
"I'm not getting into it," said Paul, flashing his teeth to me. Even though it was dark, I could see the jagged whiteness quite well.
"All right," I said.
Paul darted towards the elevator doors, and thrust his fingers through the cracks.
"It's not going to work." Paul ignored me. He grunted and strained and pried open the doors. Inside the shaft was dark and empty. "Can't we just find some stairs?"
"Stairs are for females," he said. He leapt into the shaft and clung to the cables. He looked at me quickly, challenging me to follow, then rapidly pulled himself up and out of sight.
"But it's dark..." I said to myself, sighing. I heard a laughing howl from the shaft. "Fine," I said.
I ran and leapt at the cables, which swung too much for my comfort. I pulled myself up. I hated being underneath Paul. When we were young, I was climbing underneath him, completely innocent, looking at flowers and bugs, and he let loose his bowels on me. He laughed about it for weeks.
The cable shook above me. I couldn't see anything, but I assumed that Paul jumped off. I kept climbing. I heard grunting, then a thin strip of light opened up above me. Paul was in the middle, pushing open the elevator doors.
"What's up here?" I asked.
"I don't know, but the elevator is stopped right above. We can't go any further."
"Oh," I said. I was grateful that our climb was short. I pulled myself up further to join him. He held out his arm to pull me to the opening, and we jumped out into a carpeted hallway. The carpet was rippled and patchy. Paper was peeling from the walls. There were animal droppings everywhere. I suspected rats, bats, and birds, which meant this floor was completely open to outside.
"Smells worse here," said Paul. "Is this the way they lived?"
"What? Of course not. Don't you remember seeing the pictures from their books? They generally lived quite cleanly. Probably cleaner than us."
"How could they be so clean when they all died of a plague?"
"You don't know anything," I said. Paul snarled at me.
"Let's go," he said. He ran off down the hallway, careful not to drag his fists in the animal muck. At the end of the hall was a door half off its hinges. Paul kicked it in with his foot and leapt over it. I followed, more cautious. Paul barreled across rotting furniture towards the glassless windows. He stood upright in the frame and surveyed the troupe below. I came up behind him.
"They don't see us up here," I said.
"They don't know to look up," said Paul.
"It's weird, isn't it?"
"Yeah," said Paul. "Why are we so much smarter than them?"
"I think you know how'd like to answer that."
"But we don't look much different than them," he said. We watched them squabble, play, eat, and groom each other. "They speak, but we can read. They talk, but we tell stories. They fight, but we connive." At this last statement he chuckled.
"Maybe the other troupes have smart ones like us," I said.
"Maybe," said Paul, lost in thought. Finally he turned to me, and put his arm around my shoulders. "Brother, at least we have each other to talk to."
Paul ran to the back of the room and started turning over objects, flinging bits of decayed debris in my direction and laughing. I joined him, and started ripping up bits of smelly carpet and throwing them at him. We settled down and gave the room a thorough once over. There several metal utensils we found that might be worth something in the market. We weren't sure what they were used for. We also found some plastic bowls and bottles that were in good shape and could be used for bearing water. We put them in our leather bags. There was no food. I loved human food when we found it, wrapped in plastic or foil, dry, but still tasty.
As we headed for the door to go and check out a different room in the building, Paul stopped, and stood straight up. He sniffed at the air and his eyes narrowed.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Smells like fire," he said.
"Fire in a building?" I asked.
"Odd, isn't it..." Paul crept closer to the door and looked out. "It's not burning wood. I'm not sure what it is." He stepped out into the hallway, looking back towards the elevator. He quickly ran down to the opposite end of the hallway and turned a corner. I followed, my bag clanging with the metal objects.
There was a loud noise, and I heard Paul screaming. Then another noise, and he stopped. I was frozen in place.
"Paul?" I called out. "Paul?"
"Who's there?" said a strange, high voice.
"I--I, Paul?!" I said frantically. I wasn't sure to move forward or run for the shaft.
"I said who's there?! Show yourself God damn it!"
I crept forward, my fingers sinking into the layer of crusty animal droppings. I reached the corner and looked around. Paul was on his back. His mouth was open. His head was bleeding and I could see the pink of his brain.
"Paul..." I gasped. Behind him stood a tall figure wrapped in cloth. It held a long metal object in front of it.
"You speak?" asked the figure.
"Yes," I said.
"This one has a name?" said the figure, shaking the long metal object in Paul's direction.
"Yes," I said. "Why is he dead?"
"I thought he was an animal," said the figure.
"Was he family?"
"He's my brother. Did you do this?"
The figure said nothing. I looked back down at Paul's lifeless eyes.
"Are you human?" I asked.
"Yes," said the figure.
"Are there more of you?"
"Not here. Not anymore. But elsewhere I think, maybe." The figure sighed, and leaned the long metal object against the wall. "You should leave."
"I--I've always wanted to meet one of you," I said.
"Oh really? The way you speak, I'd thought you'd already met some of us."
"No. Mother taught us to speak. She knew humans, during the plague."
"I guess you have questions then."
"Come in." The figure picked up the metal object and turned into a doorway and disappeared. The way that he moved I could see he was a man, though of great age. I looked at Paul's body, lying in the filth. I touched his chest. It was warm, but unmoving. I walked past and into the doorway.
The smell of smoke was more intense. There was a little fire in the middle of the room. I had never seen one contained like that. There was frame around the fire, and chunks of something suspended over it.
"How did you get up here?" asked the man.
"The elevator shaft."
"You climbed up the cables? Well..." The figure sat down in a nest of rumpled old cloth. "Can I offer you food? It's pigeon, but it's good." The man pointed at the chunks over the fire.
"That's pigeon?" It looked black, and there were no feathers.
"Yes. But you don't cook your food, do you."
"Not with fire," I said. "That's interesting." The man flashed it's teeth at me.
"What do you do when you cook?"
"We leave it out in the sun to dry. That way it's safe for later."
"I'm impressed." The man pulled at the chunks, and freed one and put it on a plate. He shoved it in my direction. "Hungry?"
"Isn't it hot?"
"Haha, yes, but that's the point. Try it, but don't burn your fingers." I took the plate and sniffed the pigeon. It smelled wonderful. My stomach immediately grumbled. I picked at the surface with my teeth, and pulled away tender meat. I found I didn't have to chew it too long.
"Do you like it?"
"It's good. The next time I find fire I'll try cooking this way."
The man laughed until tears were in his eyes.
"Oh my, humanity sure picked a great way to preserve itself! You can make fire if you know how!"
"Oh," I said. I was uncertain how that could be, but humans had left behind so many things that made me wonder. Maybe there were many things we didn't know how to do.
"But you have questions don't you?"
"Are you more curious than your fellows?" I wasn't sure what he meant by this. I did not asnwer. "Do you think you're smarter?"
"Yes. Paul and I both. And mother. She looked more like you. She was taller."
"Hmm. She might have been one of the originals. You should find another like her, to breed with."
"Why was there a plague?"
The man looked into the fire, and poked it with stick, sending sparks up at the burning pigeons.
"Hubris," he said.
"I don't know that word."
"I'm surprised. You seem to know a great many words."
"Is that so? Well..."
"But what did you mean?"
"We thought we were so special. That we could do anything. But we couldn't. We created the plague by accident. It was awful. I remember my mother, reduced to a gibbering infant, foaming at the mouth. It was a blessing when she died. By then there was little left of society. We separated into pockets and conclaves of healthy people. A vaccine was developed, but it left everyone infertile. At least conventionally."
The man looked over at me, frowning.
"I'm sorry about what happened to your brother. I thought he was about to attack me."
"He probably was," I said. "He'd never seen a human either."
"Do you hate me for it?" asked the man. He eyes glistened. "Because I caused his death?"
"I'm sad," I said. I wasn't sure what I felt.
"I'm sorry. If I'd known...I was just scared." We both gazed into the fire, watching the pigeons drip their fluid into it.
"How did we come to be? Those like us?"
"It was complex. I'm not sure exactly what it was that went on. By human standards, I'm not that smart. But we took baboon cells--baboons were you're other ancestors--and mixed them with human cells, and we got a hybrid that could reproduce. Many survivors donated their cells. We also tried sheep and pigs, but those experiments weren't as successful. But there were other survivors that thought you were an abomination. There was a lot of fighting over it."
"But we're here now."
"Could I come here sometimes? To ask you more? Humans knew so many things."
"I don't know," said the man.
"I don't have much longer left. And you should forget human history. It's not for you. You should follow your own destiny. Maybe you'll be better than us."
"It seems a waste."
"Maybe it is." The man stood up, and looked down at me. "Finish your bird. Then leave, please." He went to another pile of cloth and laid down it it. "I won't be here tomorrow."
I watched the man pretend to fall asleep. I ate the rest of the pigeon, and wiped the grease from my hands on the hair of my legs. I went into the hall and picked up Paul. The blood was sticky now. I cradled him in my arms, and found the door to the stair case.
When I was out in the sun again, the troupe ran up to me. They squealed and screamed. They touched and poked Paul, unable to believe that he was dead. The young ones explored the hole in his skull, touching his brain. They asked me what it was inside him, and if it was in them as well.
As the day wore on, the troupe started wandering back to the trees. The females took Paul's body. They wrapped him in flowers and grass and strips of leather and carried him off towards the hill where we put the dead to dry in sun. I stayed back and watched the building. I wanted to see if the man left and where he left to. I decided to leave the troupe permanently. I would be human.