Student #36 squirms in his cyber-chair, chewing power-gum and texting his robo-friend on his space-phone, trying to pay attention to Teacher’s presentation on Complete World History. Teacher points his laser-chalk at the holo-board and says:

“We believe homo sapiens emerged as a thinking force in nature around 10,000 B.C, but none of them thought to organize agriculture or domesticate animals for 4,000 more years, around 6,000 B.C. It was another 3,000 years before the first written languages began to form.”

Student #36 raises his hand but Teacher does not pause.

“In 1,800 B.C, the Babylonian king Hammurabi created an empire with roads, a postal system, and many other prototypes of modern infrastructure. He also introduced the concept of public laws, but it wasn’t until around 500 B.C that the very basic principles of science started to appear, and art was still limited to wall drawings and the occasional statue.”

Student #36 shakes his hand in the air and Teacher finally acknowledges him. Student #36 asks:

“How could it take people so long to figure these things out? What were they doing with their time all those years?”

Teacher replies:

“That’s a very good question. Please place your palms against your psy-books for today’s psy-film.”

Student #36 places his palm against his psy-book and feels the buzz in his nerves as the book interfaces with his brain and sucks his consciousness into a full-immersion mind-video. He sees floating images of a bearded man in an animal-skin tunic tilling a field, planting rice, slaughtering a goat, while Teacher’s voice echoes through the scene:

Given how little human evolution has advanced in the last few millennia, it can be hard to understand how early man progressed so slowly compared to his modern counterpart. Ancient man had the same brain and same intellectual capacities as modern man, so how could it take thousands of years to learn how to forge iron, and thousands more to harness electricity?

What must be taken into account is the myriad handicaps facing humanity at these points in history. Hunger, disease, war—these are all distant history to us, conquered centuries ago by advances in technology and social sciences, but in ancient times these were daily realities that forced mankind to spend all its time fighting to survive, leaving very little for study, invention, or deep thinking of any kind.

The psy-video cuts to a shot of the farmer standing in his field, watching the sun go down.

But by far the greatest handicap placed on early man’s development was a bizarre and horrific malady known as Somnia.

The farmer enters his hut and lights an oil lamp. He kisses his wife and children. Then he lies down on a flat, elongated chair with no back. He stretches his body out on this cloth rectangle like a corpse on a morgue slab, pulls a thick sheet of fabric over his chest, and closes his eyes.

Despite appearances, this man is not dead. In ancient times, Somnia—or “Sleep” as it was called—ravaged the populous of the entire earth, including most animals, although many species were immune. A human Sleep victim suffered from paralyzing fatigue, which would intensify in the evening hours until he could no longer function at all. Eventually, he would succumb, and lose consciousness entirely.

The video zooms in on the farmer’s face, pallid and utterly blank, eyes twitching faintly under their lids.

This comatose state would last for an average of 8 hours before the symptoms would subside enough that he could even stand up, much less function usefully. And these debilitating attacks would recur every single night for as long as the victim survived.

The video fades to black, then Student #36’s vision snaps back to the classroom in front of him. Teacher continues:

“Somnia was part of life in those times; it had been around since the beginning, a silent death lurking in the DNA of everyone living, and it was never questioned. Amazingly, primitive man, being a highly superstitious creature that loved tradition and feared change, considered this devastating disease a ‘natural’ process, and very little thought was given to curing it. Imagine being born with a bleeding, pus-oozing gash on your face, and thinking that because it had always been there, it was supposed to be there!”

The classroom reacts to this image: a mixture of laughter and “Ewww!” Student #36 smiles to himself. He likes this Teacher.

“So then,” Teacher continues, “imagine, if you can, losing 8 hours of every day to a mysterious neuro-physical disease. Your day would be only 16 hours long. Would you have time to do everything you want to do today if it was only 16 hours long?”

The children shrug and look around.

“Do you think you’d be able to play 10 hours of Ultragalactic Devilcreeps and still finish all your homework?”

Muted chuckles ripple through the classroom as children shake their heads sheepishly.

“No, I don’t think you would. So imagine how this illness affected ancient man. Each day was functionally only 16 hours long, each week only 4 and a half days. Humanity lost 121 days a year to Sleep. That’s 33 years every century! So when you wonder why ancient man took so long to advance, keep in mind that a millennia of history during the Sleep plague equaled only 670 of the full years we enjoy today. Does that answer your question, Student #36?”

Student #36 nods, awestruck.

Teacher continues:

“So, let’s jump forward in history a little to the first year  A.D, when a Persian alchemist named Khalid ibn Yazidby made by far the most important discovery in human history: the cure for Sleep. The circumstances surrounding his cure are shrouded in myth and legend, and since Somnia has never made a resurgence in modern times, modern scientists can not analyze it and can only theorize how Yazidby accomplished the cure. Was it magic? The panacea or Philosopher’s Stone of alchemical lore? Was it some shadowy ancient science so deceptively simple it eludes the modern mind, like the construction of the Pyramids? Or was it some incomprehensible feat of sheer will that somehow broke the rules and scaled the fences of the universe? We may never know. What we do know is that Sleep no longer troubles us, and humanity is free to move forward uninterrupted. So, let’s continue our timeline—which after the eradication of Sleep, accelerates rapidly…”

Student #36 begins to daydream. He imagines what it would be like to be a Sleep victim. To feel his life bleeding out of him every evening as if he had a serious wound and no auto-healer, to feel gravity dragging him down like death. Collapsing onto those soft burial slabs and struggling, clinging desperately to his mind as Sleep slowly claws it away from him, tucking it into blackness. And then disappearing—just disappearing for a whole third of a day, collecting dust and flies and feebly trusting in the obscure inner mechanisms that might bring him to life again…

Student #36 shudders and thanks Space-Jesus that he was born in this modern age of miracles, no longer a slave to his crude and unenlightened biology.

Teacher says:

“In 1145 A.D, Thomas Newcomen created the first practical steam engine, ushering in the Industrial Revolution. The United States declared independence from Britain in 1188, and concluded its Civil War by 1247. Ten years later, electricity had been fully harnessed and Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulbs were lighting every home. The first affordable automobile rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line in 1280. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1317. The Apple iPod was released in 1338, and the U.S elected its first black president 5 years later. Cancer was cured at the turn of the Fourteenth Century, followed by AIDS and heart disease in 1412. By the end of the 1400s, self-powered food synthesizers were ubiquitous, ending world hunger, renewable energy sources had completely replaced fossil fuels, and a re-engineered United Nations had achieved sustainable peace throughout the world…”

Student #36 tunes out the lecture and begins drafting an outline for his report. His atom-pen makes brilliant ultraviolet strokes across his neutron-notebook as he scribbles notes in super-shorthand. History is not his favorite subject, and he can’t wait till the gravity-bell rings so he can go home to his sky-pod and watch hyper-films until his bio-mother makes him take a vitamin-bath and eat his muscle-sprouts, but he does find today’s lesson somewhat intriguing. He sketches a quick note:

So much has happened in such a short time, but so much time wasted! What if Sleep were cured sooner? At the dawn of man, 10,000 B.C? What unimaginable future age would we be living in today? What blinding wonders would compose our lives?

Student #36 presses Stop Record on the cyber-chip in his ear and begins playing back the lecture, jumping from key point to key point with a few simple thoughts. He places his fingertips on his electro-pad and interfaces with it, then closes his eyes and begins to turbo-compose his cyber-report:

 

 

“HOW SLEEP STOLE 3,315 YEARS FROM HUMANITY AND COULD HAVE STOLEN MORE”

 

By Student #36

 

November 28, 1776

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isaac Marion, 2009

isaacjmarion@gmail.com

www.burningbuilding.com