The Sapien Zoo

A short fiction story about future humans being connected to AI, visiting past Homo Sapiens in the Sapien Zoo.

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Illustration by Jonat Deelstra.

Matilda was looking, wondrous, at a butterfly that flew past her golden hair.

She and her parents were almost at the big green arched gates.

Matilda’s mom reprimanded her for being distracted and urged her to attach her eBrain extension.

Reluctantly, Matilda attached her eBrain device to her right temple. Ever since she turned five years old she was mandated to wear it.

Except Matilda was of a curious nature and didn’t want life narrated to her by an electronic device. She found more satisfaction in exploring things on her own.

Last week at school, she found a small children’s book in a closed cabinet in the classroom. There it was on display as if it was an ancient artefact from a different era. More accurately, it was the only book in the room. She opened it and saw different pictures of various animals and people. None of those people were wearing eBrains attached to their temples. Another thing that intrigued her was that the different people depicted had all sorts of skin- and hair color. Not to mention the clothes they were wearing.

She had no idea who or what they were, but she didn’t want the information to be spelled out through that stupid device. And she didn’t want to ask her teacher. Guided by her interest, she decided to take the book home.

That night after dinner she had the courage to ask her mother about these animals and humans. Maybe she could tell her more about them? Matilda was wrong. Her mother was very disappointed in her for not using her eBrain to find out what kind of animals and humans had been depicted. Reluctantly she used her eBrain to learn more, but to her this felt like cheating. It was so easy, so fast. Matilda liked to make an effort to gain knowledge or to have a conversation with someone. Not with a machine.

Her father watched, worried. He and his eBrain analyzed Matilda’s state, her body language, her expressions and her emotions. He felt for her and decided to take the family to the Zoo, the Sapien Zoo.

S o there they were mom, dad and Matilda. Standing in front of the gate. At exactly 10.00am the gates opened.

A group of other visitors had gathered around Matilda and her family. All visitors had the same blank, somewhat bored look on their faces. Their eyes were wandering, focused on nothing in particular in the outside world, but intent on something in their inside world — the world being projected via their eBrain and lens extensions.

A hologram of a tall, dark haired woman appeared, wearing black overalls. She introduced herself as their guide and instructed her visitors to keep their eBrains on at all times, not to get lost, and to be cautious of the manipulative Homo Sapiens.

She gave Matilda a stern look, suspecting Matilda would be the one who would cause trouble. The hologram could see from her log files that Matilda had only just attached her eBrain and that she wasn’t an avid user.

The hologram spoke: “Welcome my fellow Humai, my name is Lauren and I will be your guide today. Please set your eBrain to ‘share modus’ with my account in order for me to see and hear your questions and thoughts. Welcome to the Sapien Zoo! I am very pleased to take you on a trip through time and show the development of our ancestors — or lack thereof.”

Some of the visitors giggled, suddenly awake from their bored trance.

“As you all know,” Lauren continued, “we were once Homo Sapiens. Until the Technological Age, men hadn’t evolved substantially since the Neanderthals. In this park we would like to show you our ancestry through the evolution of the Genus Homo, to what we are now.

Yes, Matilda, thank you for your question, at the end of the tour you will be able to see the animals in the Zoo.”

Matilda blushed, as if she was caught doing something she was not supposed to.

Lauren went on with her explanation: “The Sapien Zoo functions as a research center, looking into our basic behavior and traits, but also educating the young and the interested.”

The hologram looked at Matilda again and gestured to the group to follow her to the first stop: The Maasai people of Tanzania.

Behind a see-through fence, with lightning bulbs floating around in the air, Matilda saw a group of people with darker skin than she had. The people wore red cloths, wrapped around them with different patterns and stripes in black. Around their necks, arms and even their heads they wore different sorts of jewelry, all made of beads and some with feathers. Matilda was mesmerized by their beauty.

An elderly couple in the tour group pointed at the Maasai family, the man whispering something to the woman, they both laughed.

Lauren explained to the group that the Maasai originated around the Nile in Africa, that they had their own language and their own God. For more information, they could read further from their retina lens, connected to their eBrain.

Matilda heard all this in awe. It was the colors that attracted her most. Why did she not wear such beautiful clothes and necklaces?

Suddenly a man of the family threw a spear towards the group. The Humai ducked, but weren’t in danger, for the spear bounced at the invisible, electric fence.

Only a few visitors noticed of course, most were distracted by the information projected before their eyes.

The hologram reassured the Humai that no one could get hurt in this park. Its facilities and protection mechanisms used state of the art technology.

Matilda walked closer to where the invisible wall had been just before. Her mother looked worried and irritated and started to walk towards her daughter, but her husband stopped her and urged her to let Matilda roam a bit and feed her curiosity.

Matilda had not seen these Maasai people in the book she found. Matilda looked at the family. They stood there, in a proud stance before their hut. A father, mother, son and daughter, and at the entrance of the hut, a grandmother. At a closer look, they all had red paint on their faces.

The hologram was talking again in Matilda’s ear. In the corner of her right eye information and statistics appeared about these Maasai people. It only distracted Matilda, so she switched off her eBrain. The Maasai people stared at her. Matilda giggled and waved and shouted that they looked beautiful.

At first nothing happened, to Matilda’s great disappointment. But then she had an idea. In her ballet class she had just finished learning a new choreography. Matilda started dancing, with her typical poise and passion. The Maasai moved closer, curious in their own right as to what the girl was about to do.

The group behind Matilda watched her. Again her mom wanted to interfere, but her dad stopped her. Then, for a moment, nothing happened as if everyone was unsure how to respond to what just occurred.

Matilda looked at the Maasai daughter and smiled. The Maasai daughter looked at her mom, who nodded. Then, she danced as well. The little girl danced in a way Matilda had never seen before. When she was finished, Matilda clapped loudly. But soon she was roughly interrupted in her cheer by someone pressing her eBrain to her temple. Her mom.

Matilda heard the hologram say, that the dancing was highly unusual, as these Maasai were mostly violent and very primitive. She apologized for their behavior.

Matilda’s parents apologized to the other visitors in the group and to the hologram.

Disappointed, Matilda waved to the Maasai girl, her head hanging low. The girl waved back, but Matilda could not see it.

Lauren continued the tour. She explained that the next culture they were going to visit were the Chinese people — one of the most ancient human races of all time.

Matilda looked at a family sitting on the ground, cross-legged, in front of a low dinner table. They ate with something that looked like sticks. Matilda thought it was odd that this family was eating together, all at once, gathered around a table. She had never done that with her parents. They always had their pre-packaged, health optimized meals or shakes. Although everyone took them at set times, they never consumed them together like this Chinese family was doing now. Matilda asked her mom if they could eat with sticks sometime, at which her mother laughed and stroked her hair.

In the corner of her eye, Matilda was informed that the Chinese were once the biggest population on earth, until the Great Decay. She was baffled at the number she saw. She had never seen that many zeros. She decided to ask Lauren what the numbers meant.

Before Matilda could speak, Lauren was already aware of Matilda’s question. “Thank you for that interesting question, Matilda, good to see you have been studying the information on your eBrain. You could have also asked your software device, but I am glad I can publicly answer your question, young lady. That number is a billion.”

Some of the Humai in the group gasped and mumbled.

Although she did not grasp the meaning of that number, she nodded, understanding that it must have been quite a lot.

Outside the house where the Chinese family was eating, two elderly men were playing a game consisting of white stones with black signs on them. They had a smoking stick in the back of their mouths. Matilda zoomed in and learned that those things were cigarettes and that cigarettes killed many people back in those days. That was all before the Great Decay.

Matilda heard her teacher mention the Great Decay at school once. But the teacher had not explained it to her class, they were just too young for that kind of information. Matilda decided to look it up. A voice in her head explained in a censored version, especially designed for children aged 6–10:

The Great Decay happened just over 80 years ago when a certain dictator released chemical gas. This chemical gas had a bad effect on people. They would experience great pain, which lead to death. First the dictator did it in his own country, to decimate the population and to ‘get rid’ of the inhabitants he felt were not part of his ideology. However, his most important motivation was to suppress his enemies. Over three quarters of its population died. A disease that was caused by the gas turned out to be contagious and it spread to other countries, the effects disastrous to the Homo Sapiens…

Matilda gasped and shrieked.

Her dad came up to her, synching his eBrain to hers. He gasped as well. So did the group and Lauren the hologram, for they tuned in to what Matilda was reading just before. It was not everyday one saw a child being so audacious to read about the Great Decay.

Even the Chinese people stopped eating and looked over in their direction.

“Matilda, how in the love of Tech did you come across that subject?” her dad asked.

The other Humai in the tour group were catching up with their devices, nodding their heads in disapproval. Matilda’s mom defended her daughter, praised Matilda for her interest and courage to be educated on such a horrendous subject in order to better understand the world around her. Another woman agreed with Matilda’s mom, proudly stating that she too had granted her children access to such information as they first started using their eBrains, to enhance their experience in this world. Her children were standing right beside her, although they were much older than Matilda.

Still shaken, Matilda moved on with the group.

The next group of Homo Sapiens they visited were sitting in front of their house, in a small garden, filled with all sorts of plants and flowers. Bushes of grapes surrounded the premises. The house had a grand appearance, dignified even. All windows were opened wide, curtains flapping outside. A man and a woman sat outside, drinking from a glass with a stem, filled with dark red liquid. The woman wore a long, light blue floral dress. The man was wearing a pine green polo, with a dark brown jumper loosely wrapped around his neck. He wore a hat and glasses and he had a sharp moustache. The table was filled with all sorts of food Matilda had never seen before, such as long, cylindrical dark brown things, which the woman was cutting into slices. The man spread a white-yellow, creamy substance on it. There were many bowls filled with food in all shapes and colors. Matilda was mesmerized by the sight and tempted by the smell of it.

“Ah, bienvenue, we’ve arrived at the French,” Lauren said.

Matilda saw how the French woman leaned in on her husband and pressed her lips on his cheek. Amazed, she let her eBrain analyze this gesture. It was known as a kiss.

However, that was all the information that was displayed. Matilda felt a strange feeling in her stomach, as if it was jumping around. She smiled. She looked back at her mom and dad. Her mom was looking irritated and was staring at nothing in particular. Her dad was looking from the French people to her mom, and shrugged.

The other Humai laughed at the sight. The voice of Lauren awoke Matilda from her gaze.

The group continued their tour past a small Dutch farm, which had a wooden mill, surrounded by green land with ditches around the edges. On it was a small house with a large shack at the back of it. Cows were grazing on the green grass, chickens were running around. Farmers were going about their work.

One farmer standing at the edge of the ditch started shouting at Matilda and the other visitors. She could not understand what he was saying.

A t lunchtime the group walked past a Spanish hacienda. A man was sleeping on a bench with a hat on his face, protecting him from the sun. In the shade lay a woman and a baby, also both asleep.

For lunch, Multibars were handed out by a small robot, hovering through the group, making sure everyone got their feed.

Matilda let her eBrain explain a bit more about Spanish culture. She read that this Spanish family was having a short afternoon sleep, known as a ‘siesta’.

Abruptly, she was disturbed by loud singing and shouting. Opposite the Spanish cage, a merry group of men and women were dancing around in a circle, singing loudly in a long forgotten language. They were wearing thick layers of hairy clothing and most of them wore a hairy hat. The hats were black and brown. Some were of a mixture of grey and white.

These people were drinking from bottles holding transparent liquid. They clunked the bottles together, after which they all took a big gulp of the liquid. A few men let out a loud burp. Matilda laughed. Her eBrain analyzed the party of Homo Sapiens — they were known as Russians.

Matilda’s laugh drew the attention of one of the men, who walked from the group towards the fence. Since the fence of the cage was invisible, it was quite scary to Matilda to see that man walking up to her, getting so close. The man started shouting and pointing at Matilda and the tour group. Matilda ran to her parents and held on tightly to the fabric of her mother’s dress.

Other Russians soon joined the man, all shouting and making weird sounds. One man threw his bottle towards the group. The fence bounced the bottle back but the gesture was startling. The visitors anticipated a thwack on the head.

Lauren called on a few robots to taser the Russians with a blue electrical wave. Immediately the noise stopped. The Russians walked back to the dancing room, dazed, and after a few seconds bursted out singing again like nothing happened.

Lunch was over and they continued their tour. Everyone still feeling a little uneasy.

Lauren explained to the group that ever since the invention of the eBrain, the Humai had surpassed the Homo Sapiens in many ways. The Humai were a more intelligent and efficient species. Matilda saw a few statistics popping up in the corner of her eye. She could not be bothered to read them, as she was upon the next cage.

She saw a boulevard with a couple of benches in front of a river. Above the river was a big brick bridge that connected the boulevard to the other side of the river. In the distance she saw some old-fashioned vehicles driving both ways on the bridge. Across the river she saw all these big stone buildings in different shapes and sizes. Some of them even reached the clouds!

It started to get dark in the cage and Matilda was intrigued by all the little lights she saw in those buildings. What a magnificent view!

Sitting on the benches people were looking at the view. All people sat with their backs to Matilda and the group. Matilda heard their guide explaining something about how the Great Decay had also effected the city these people were looking at in the distance. A city once known as New York City. Little did the people on the benches know that this city was a projection of what once was.

Matilda did not take notice of the story and she ignored the numbers and statistics appearing in the corner of her eye. She was charmed by a man who had put his arm around a woman, kissing her. Matilda’s eyes widened. On the next bench sat a family, with a little boy and girl running around the bench chasing each other. She wanted to play like that!

On another bench an elderly couple were both reading a book while holding hands. The people looked peaceful and loving. Matilda had tears in her eyes, but she had no idea why.

She looked back at the tour group. They stood there with their back to Matilda as well, looking at a see-through woman named Lauren.

Matilda was split between the people in the cage and the people looking at the cage, not really belonging to either one.

She sighed.

Suddenly, a woman in the tour group started screaming, pointing to the cage with the Russians.

As Matilda and the group watched, a Russian man went through the fence of the cage. Confused, the visitors looked at where the hologram had stood before. With a few flickers Lauren was gone.

A man shouted that he couldn’t see or hear anything. His eBrain didn’t work.

This triggered the whole tour group to check theirs. All heatedly waving in the air, agitated and pressing their eBrains.

Matilda attached her eBrain again, she neither saw nor heard anything. Utter silence. She could not help but feel as if some weight was being lifted from her.

She looked around to find out what had caused the sudden power failure, but she wasn’t able to find anything out of the ordinary.

The other Russians saw that one of them had moved outside of their designated area. Soon, they rapidly followed his example and went through the fence, drinking and singing. The visitors ran away, afraid.

Matilda felt a hand on her shoulder. When she looked behind her, she saw the girl who had just been chasing the boy at the boulevard. The girl waved and smiled, then ran away.

Then everything happened fast. One of the Russian men started threatening a man from the group of visitors with his bottle held high above his head. He was shaking it dangerously. Suddenly and with one swing the Russian hit the visitor on the head with the bottle. More of the Russians started shouting and approaching the group threateningly.

The visitors panicked, the group split up and everyone was running in different directions. Matilda followed her parents. On her way through the Zoo she saw more and more of the people who had once been locked up in a cage, now roaming about. The Spanish were awake and were walking curiously towards the Dutch farm. The Dutch farmer was leading his flock of cows and sheep outside of the fence, over a small wooden plank he placed over the ditch.

She saw the robots that had just tasered the Russians less than thirty minutes ago. There stood motionless, in their last active pose.

What had happened? How did all electronic devices suddenly stop? From the fences to the robots, even everyone’s eBrain. Was it just in the Zoo, or was it everywhere? Unfortunately, there was no voice inside their brains to explain the situation.

More people were running around, Humai and Homo Sapiens alike. But Matilda could not easily make out who was who. She could only pick out the Humai who were still wearing their eBrains and who were looking distressed.

Matilda looked at her mother, who was desperately pressing the button on her eBrain, trying to re-activate the device. Her dad was more calm and was closely watching his family, assessing the situation and considering a safe way out. He yelled at his wife, grabbed her eBrain and tossed it in the ditch of the Dutch farmer. He took both her hand and Matilda’s and started walking towards the gate. Both held on tight.

A giraffe walked past, clearly lost. Matilda was pointing excitedly at the animal. She recognized it from the book she had taken from school. Her parents slowed down and looked at the animal. For the first time that day, they both smiled at Matilda.

As they continued their way out of the park, the family encountered more of the other cultures, some calm and curious, some wild and furious.

Men and women with long dark hair and light brown skin were running towards them, spears in their hands. They all wore one or more feathers in their hair. One of them threw an arrow, luckily not aimed in their direction, it landed on the brick floor.

Matilda’s dad became frightened for his family’s safety, unsure where to go to.

Matilda felt another hand grabbing her remaining free hand. The hand was small like hers. She looked to her side. There was the Maasai girl, smiling at her. The Maasai girl spoke, but Matilda could not understand her. She pointed at her hut and pulled Matilda and her family towards it. It must have been both a comical and sweet sight to see two adults and two children walking hand and in hand towards the hut, careful not to let each other go. Cows, chickens, even monkeys and other animals were either running past them or were surrounding the hut.

The Maasai girl approached her father and talked to him, pointing at Matilda and her family, making wild gestures. Matilda thought she asked her father to protect them. As the Maasai father and daughter spoke, the Maasai girl didn’t let go of Matilda. At one point she was even standing in front of Matilda, trying to make herself a bit bigger as if to shield Matilda.

Matilda’s mom suddenly screamed: “Tiger, tiger! Over there!” Behind them, a tiger approached them threateningly, sizing up his prey.

Above their heads, a spear flew. Matilda followed its course as it hit the tiger right in the chest. The beautiful creature fell down and breathed his last breaths. Matilda and her family gasped.

The thrower was the Maasai father, who stood there aggressively before Matilda’s family and his own daughter. The Maasai man called on his son, who joined them, spear in hand.

Both Maasai men stood on either side of Matilda and her family. The Maasai girl was still holding Matilda’s hand. They protected the family and defended them from the wild and furious animals and Homo Sapiens as they made their way to the park’s exit. As they reached the exit, the Maasai people stopped. The girl smiled at Matilda, squeezed her hand and nodded. Matilda did the same.

Matilda’s family walked out of the park, free again. Perhaps even a little more than when they had entered.

Looking everywhere, noticing changing elements in the world they were a part of. Buildings were just bricks and windows. No artificial information or images were projected on them anymore. Neon signs and holo projections were gone. None of the apartments around them were lit. A tram stood still in its tracks. Cars stayed in their position on the road. Its passengers wandering, confused and agitated. It seemed electricity was not only out in the Zoo, it was nowhere to be found. Something big was going on.

It was as if they had gone two centuries back in time. How would the Humai cope?

Homo Sapiens from the past were running among Matilda and her parents, escaping, exploring their ‘new’ world. Animals were creeping out and about, unsure of these brick surroundings.

Matilda looked up at skyscrapers, large banners were being rolled out. They showed the face of a man she had learnt about in class. However, she could not remember who he was. Her mom was shocked and covered her mouth with both her hands.

The banner signs read: We have gone too far. Let us start over. Let us be equal.

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I write Black Mirror-esque short stories and share writing & freelancing tips. Amazon best-selling author. Free eBook with writing tips:

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