Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The cure for the plague that killed half of the planet’s population forced mankind’s biology to outgrow what was previously defined as human.

We skipped ahead six chapters in our evolution, overachieving little tryhards that we are. Those scientists were savants without the idiot. The vaccines were rushed to the city centers. Riots followed. Governments were reinstated. It was a long ten years. Giant ‘dead pits’ burned at the centers of most cities for years.

Half of the planet was suddenly vacant. Room for everyone now. It was a new dawn.

Korgath Bigbones looked at the black stripes and zigzags on his thick, pale hand. He stopped thinking about the past and starting thinking about the present.

Coal tattoos. That’s what it was called when coal dust got into a miner’s wound. The cut darkened and it became a permanent black line.

He ate his sandwiches daintily, pinching one corner between each thumb and forefinger, the rest of his black-encrusted fingers raised far away from the sandwich. The dark poisons on his fingertips stained the small corner he was pinching. The ground was littered with tiny black triangles of bread after lunch.

The vaccine let humans be groomed for their jobs. If a job was dangerous, the body could be adapted to endure and even thrive in hazardous environments. No longer did we have to destroy the environment around us to suit our needs. We could, when the occasion called for it, become different to suit where we were.

The coal miners were a pale breed. Their lungs were changed to gain nutrients from the coal dust as well as the oxygen and gasses miles down beneath the earth. Their nostrils were very wide. They had small, greenish white, night-vision eyes that glinted in the darkness like sharks in an ocean at evening.

Korgath realized that there were no mirrors down here except in the tattoo/cutter’s caves.

These were bodies that could take punishment. Bodies with solid fat on them coating muscles borne of pure endurance.

The ones that had been there the longest had the most detailed coal tattoos on their broad backs and huge arms. The workers looked like pot-bellied, hairless, albino, subterranean gorillas wrapped in the black-ridged whorls, initials, and high-contrast designs of their tattoos. Memorials for those crushed in cave-ins, crude portraits of departed friend’s faces, and cultural swirls from the ancient Celts, Maoris, Africa and the Orient.

It took seventeen elevators and nearly a day to get down this low.

They didn’t need many lights to work in the depths and they didn’t need to come for fresh air. The cooling flanges on their back dissipated the constant heat. They’d do six-month stretches down there. They don’t call it the bowels of the earth for nothing. They’d come up stinking.

Korgath was six days away from the end of this contract. The end of half a decade in blackness.

He’d need respirators filled with coal dust and special sunglasses when he was above ground for six months until the vaccines returned him to what was considered normal baseline human. Even tropical temperatures would feel chilly to him until he acclimatized.

Some miners kept their appearance. That level of intensity was hard to shake off no matter what the topside mirrors said.

Korgath was considering keeping the tattoos. But he still wasn’t sure.

The lunch bell rang and he went back to work. Six more days.

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