The beginning of the end for Grandma Cherished had appeared in so ordinary a form, no one could have seen it coming. They had been playing all afternoon, the young boy, who had recently gained his first scar, the two little girls, and their grandmother. They were all tired out, lying in a heap on the floor of the hidden attic where the girls spent their days, and the boy, who hadn’t yet taken the name Stranger for himself, was trying to work out a way to ask an impertinent question. It had been bothering him for a long time, but he wasn’t sure it was the kind of thing he should ask.
“Grandma Cherished?” he said, when his curiosity finally overcame his hesitation.
“Why do Warlike and Hopeful have Sixer names? Most Mixer kids don’t get them, do they?”
Grandma Cherished had rolled onto her stomach, putting her chin in her hands and looking at Stranger with an oddly sad smile on her wrinkled face.
“Can you keep a secret?” she asked, and he nodded.
“Warlike and Hopeful are special. Remember I told you, you were never to speak to anyone about them?”
How could he forget? He valued his friends for their own sake, but in the heart of a twelve-year-old boy, the fact that he had to keep them a secret gave Hopeful and Warlike a sort of forbidden appeal they wouldn’t, perhaps, have had if he could have run around with them in the open.
“And do you know why all Sixer children are named after some wished-for quality?”
Stranger thought about it. He had always wondered, but that, too, seemed the kind of thing that it wasn’t polite to ask.
“Because their mothers want them to grow up and be what they’re named to be?”
Grandma Cherished laughed, reaching out to ruffle his hair.
“Clever boy. And that’s a part of it. But for a child to be considered well-named, not only must he or she be named for a desired quality. He or she must be named for his or her fate, and to come up with the right name, the namer must be able to see into the child’s true spirit. It is important for a child to be well-named. If they are, the name they are given will prove to be an expression of their inner spirit, and the fulfillment of their destiny.”
The smile slowly waned from Grandma Cherished’s face, and she looked suddenly tired, and a little sad.
“But when Hopeful and Warlike were born, there were those who would deny them the right to be given true names. Because, you see, they were born to a human mother, and my son was their natural father.”
Stranger felt his eyes grow wide. He was only twelve, but even he knew enough about the way of the world to see how dangerous a secret he had now become privy to.
Human women were notoriously low on fertility – it was one of the reasons why the humans had left their own planet, in search of a compatible species whose genes they could use to improve on their own, thus reviving their winnowing blood-lines. But the humans guarded their species’ purity fiercely, and there was no aspect of life on Planet Six that was more carefully regulated than that of creating new life. This was particularly true when it came to the creation of mixed-breeds.
Mixer children were always the product of a breeding-tube gestation. In fact, the ruling classes and the bioengineering labs that relied on and underbuilt their power, very much wanted to give the impression that offspring between species could not be produced the natural way, by a human’s sexual congress with a Sixer or Mixer. The way the rulers went about enforcing their preferred world-view was perhaps counterproductive, in that it drew attention to its own inaccuracy, but it certainly discouraged spontaneous experimentation with cross-species fertility.
Any parent of a mixed-species child, that had been born and bred the natural way, was liable to be put on trial for the crime of tampering with human genetic material. If they were found guilty, the result of the trial was always a speedy, and extravagantly public, execution.
The offspring, like the Mixers who were properly bred in gestation tubes, were the property of the bio-engineering labs, or else of the humans who had paid for them to be created. Unlike the lawfully custom-designed specimens, however, the natural-born Mixers were considered as nothing more than simple genetic material. They were lawfully not living beings, and due to the circumstances of their creation, they were genetic material, moreover, that was considered inherently defective. They were, in fact, considered a threat to the genetic purity of the entire human species, and as such, the law not only allowed for, but recommended, their immediate eradication.
The Sixers had their own name for such children. They considered them dead at birth, and until true death occurred, the Sixers called them the soulless.
“Yes”, Cherished said, sitting up and pulling her granddaughters toward her. “My son and his woman were killed, but I managed to rescue the children. I hid them away, and I named them, so wherever they went in the world, everyone they met would know that they have been named. They would know that my granddaughters have great souls, and great destinies, and that I could see them. Don’t you think that they are well-named?”
“I do”, Stranger had said.
He felt he had been given a gift of great trust, and he swore to himself never to speak a word about the sisters who lived in the attic. And he never did. But for a boy who is as closely watched as the heir to a City, keeping secrets from those who watch is not always simply a matter of giving nothing away.
Nearly two decades later, as he lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling in his room at The Rotten Core, Stranger couldn’t help but imagine what had come of his ill-judged questions, because though he never knew how it was that one of his bodyguards came to find out about Hopeful and Warlike, he had no doubt it had been his fault.
Stranger hadn’t been there when the knock came on Grandma Cherished’s door, in the middle of the night. He hadn’t seen the men in palace guard uniforms who stormed her modest little house, and he hadn’t been there when they found the hidden door to the attic, where Warlike and Hopeful slept. He hadn’t been there when his friends, and the woman he had loved like a mother, were carried out of their home, but it had been a juicy enough story that it became fodder for gossip, and from the palace servants, the young boy Stranger had been had heard enough details to be able to imagine it all quite clearly. And to feel the first stirrings of hate for the system he had been born to become a part of.
And of course, he had been forced to attend the trial.
It had been swift, and the judgement, decisive. For obstructing the course of justice in providing a haven for the abominable discharge of her son’s criminal liaison, Grandma Cherished was put to death. Warlike and Hopeful, girls of thirteen, had been judged blameless. After all, Stranger’s father, who was the Ruler of Hahn and sat in judgement over all of his people, had said:
“They could hardly have been expected, as newborns, to realize their existence was unlawful, and to end their own lives.”
On that rationale, the Mixer girls’ lives had been spared, but in the days to come, both Stranger and the girls themselves found reason to doubt that the Ruler’s leniency had been motivated by anything so pure as justice, or so admirable as mercy.
Outside the shuttered windows, there was a loud clatter, and Stranger identified it as the sound of a garbage bin, being picked up by the wind and sent tumbling down the street. He blinked, looking up at the ceiling. He had been walking for days, and needed so badly to sleep, but he knew the memories wouldn’t leave him in peace, not on this night. He thought of the boy, sleeping soundly in the room across the hall, and about how small and helpless he had seemed, tossed out in the street by the filthy old slaver who owned him. Stranger thought of how he had just curled up there, and had made no move to get away from the storm, even though it was bringing his death.
And he remembered the night when Hopeful had come into his room, weeping. At that time, the girls had been in his father’s palace for three years. It was a punishment for their sins that, in the minds of the people, had been proof of their Ruler’s great mercy. If so, it had been an odd brand of mercy, and one that Hopeful had begged Stranger, the Prince who had once been her friend, to relieve her and her sister of. That last night in Hahn, Hopeful had begged for death, and as he lay awake, listening to the screeching of the desert demons outside his window, Stranger thought he could hear in them the echoes of familiar voices. Voices that were forever screaming, as they begged him for release from pain, and for vengeance.
It was a long time before he was finally able to go to sleep.
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