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An exclusive short story set in the world of our current Book Club pick: Astra by Naomi Foyle
On the seventh day of training the officer took them to a park on the outskirts of Atourne. It was noon, the sun an interrogation lamp high in the sky. He felt the heat far more than the others. At home he had slipped often through the garden sprinklers, but here, in his new white uniform, he couldn’t hide the dark stains beneath his armpits. The clothes were a damp, wrinkled skin he wanted to tear off, but with the rest of his cohort he trooped after the IMBOD officer, crossing the practice lawn and lining up on the crumbling lip of an old stone pond.
Approaching the dazzle, he had imagined diving in, but there was no room for him: the water was swarming with flesh. The fish were like living pipework, a gleaming gold and copper game that dared him to keep up with its perpetual interweaving motion.
On the other side of the pond, the officer spread her arms. “Feast your eyes,” she exulted in his earpiece. “On your sacred creature. Coded to welcome you, the Sec Gens, and fulfil the legend of this place.”
Yes, this place. This Abrahamic cesspit. Last night’s lecture was still smouldering in his mind. The Old World prophet had been thrown on a furnace in Atourne, but was saved when his god turned the fire to water and the burning coals to fish. In honour of Abraham, for centuries the pond had been kept stocked with golden carp: Gaia’s precious sun drops imprisoned in filthy water, stressed and infected, livers bloated by a diet of breadcrumbs, while beyond their over-crowded cell a jealous god gutted and filleted Gaia down to the last spiny bone. For years after the Dark Time, the pond had stood empty, the bottom littered with the dried sediment of Her sacrifice. When the Gaians rebuilt Atourne they had cleansed it with crystal-fresh water and now the pond was thick with a thriving new beast.
“Carpirahny,” the officer announced. “As fierce as the sun, as graceful as water. Coded, like you, to revel in each other’s company, to move as one. Together, to defend Gaia from human arrogance and greed.”
The fish looked like his Birth-Code-Shelter mother’s hair, he thought, those glossy red coils he had not inherited along with his dark skin. His own hair was black like his Code father’s; cropped now, but left to grow, a soft fleece all his parents adored. “Wild and free,” they had whispered whenever he’d shouted, stormed, seethed. “We wanted your mind to be free. That’s why we gave you the antidote.”
Across the pond, the officer opened her supply pac. Like electricity through water, a shiver shot down the line of Sec Gens. He had to be alert, constantly, for external signs of that instinctive muscular current – sighs, slow blinks – never let himself be the broken link in the chainmail. He twitched alone sometimes, at night in his bed, a spasm rooted in fear.
The officer plunged her hand into the pac and raised a fist above her head. “Let this bleeding alt-goat represent the rotten hearts of the meat-eaters,” she cried. “Let the meat-eaters meet their own fate.” As if aiming for the sun itself, she hurled the chunk of alt-meat into the centre of the pond. An arc of red juice scattering in its wake, it hit the shimmering surface. The water frothed like a boiling pot.
“Let the meat-eaters meet their own fate,” the Sec Gens roared.
The officer’s head jerked toward him. His vision blurred. He had missed the cue – not echoed the cry. Sec Gen reflexes were connected like a network of underground conduits, and their collective responses sprang forth like fountainheads of liquid sun. The Sec Gens were taller than he was, stronger and faster, even the girls. They could drink less water, eat less food, sleep fewer hours. But though their wounds healed more quickly, they were not invincible. While his fear made him weak, theirs made them more powerful: more acutely connected, more determined to protect and defend. How long would it be before he panicked, let them all down?
Sweat prickling his every pore, he drew himself up, stared into the cool shade of the trees behind the officer. Her hand dripping with alt-blood, she threw chunk after chunk of alt-meat into the pond. The smaller fish leapt, slapping the water with their solid lithe bodies as the surface churned and foamed. The Sec Gens were breathing hard. In a minute they would be rubbing each other’s arms and backs. When the officer turned, they would turn with her and run berserker out on to the practice lawn.
He, though, was trembling. He felt dizzy now. Did his parents want him to die, to cause the deaths of his friends?
The officer glanced in his direction again. Between them, the carpirahny were thrashing like eels, fat, glistening eels with gold and bronze and copper scales, their snapping jaws revealing raw red gullets and razor-sharp rings of flashing white teeth.
“Some say Abraham was a man of peace,” his Code father had once told him. “That he was the prophet of mercy and one-ness. That his was path to reconciliation between nations.”
Abraham, though, had been willing to sacrifice his son. And for that willingness, his son was saved.
“Gaia forever,” the officer roared.
“Gaia forever,” he mouthed. The sweat was pouring down his forehead now, spreading through his clothes. At his feet, the carpirahny were lashing water over his boots. As the Sec Gens beside him reached to clasp his shoulders, he grasped the neck of his shirt. Ripping his uniform open, he lifted his face to the blaze of the sun and stepped out into the flaming field of fish.
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