The guard gave him a last kick in the behind. Luca fell over the threshold of the cell and slid on his belly along the slimy floor. The guard closed the door, snapped the lock shut and hurried back to finish off his cold dinner.
“What’re you in for, sonny?” a low and hoarse voice said from the darkness.
Luca strained his eyes, trying to make out his surroundings, but he saw nothing. The moonlight shining through the tiny barred window lit up only a small section of the floor.
The boy considered it best not to ignore the man that called him sonny, and answered.
“I threw a stone at an innkeeper’s son and broke his collar bone. Or so they say.”
“What really happened?”
“I was throwing stones in self-defense. He ran off. I don’t know if I really broke anything. But I hope I did. He’s a scumbag.”
His unseen interlocutor laughed. His laugh was deep and guttural. It seemed as if the bars of the cell shook from the sound alone. The prisoner calmed down and moved into the light. He lifted Luca’s chin with a finger and looked him in the face. The whites of his eyes shined in the darkness. He spoke softly.
“What’s your name, little one?”
“Luca Dezisimu. Yours?”
“Terant was what they called me in my homeland. Here I have no name, but that’s another story. How old are you, ten?”
“What? Two-horns take me... Seventeen! Incredible. Gods, how polluted is the gene pool in the Empire?”
“Mom says it’s bad to curse,” Luca answered simply, to continue a conversation barely above water. “Mentioning the gods in vain is bad. Mentioning Two-horns...”
“Is bad! I know, boy. But I swear on the perfect genes of the shining Taira, I’ve never seen such an emaciated teenager in all my life! You look weaker than my daughter, and she’s just seven!”
“You have a daughter?”
“Have... Had... It doesn’t matter! How do your legs hold you up, Luca Dezisimu? I can see all your bones!”
“My father said that you have to always stand up, even if your legs are cut off. And I have legs,” the boy answered and collapsed to the floor.
He could withstand hunger for as long as he wanted, but everyone needed to refuel at least sometimes.
When Luca came to, it turned out he was lying on some kind of cot, and there was something soft under his head. His cell mate held the back of his head with his large and meaty hand.
Luca blinked in response, without the strength to even open his mouth.
“Then hold on.”
The whites of Terant’s eyes darkened.
He placed the palm of his free hand on Luca’s forehead. Then he squeezed the boy’s head as if trying to crack it like a nut.
The boy tried to cry out, but not a single sound emerged from his throat. Terant also was silent. Luca tried to escape, but his body wouldn’t listen.
A strong heat came off Terant’s palms in waves. It pulsed, spread into his head and from there throughout his entire body.
External influence detected!
Forced energy supplementation recorded. Transformed for further use: 64%... 66%... 68%...
At eighty percent, Terant fell back and breathed heavily, hoarsely.
A few heartbeats later, Luca also started gasping greedily for air. He thrilled in every breath of the stuffy, moist gloom of the dungeon.
Opening his eyes, the boy wondered at how clearly and brightly he now saw things. He actually felt overwhelmed with strength, lots of strength. He wanted to run, jump, do something. And the sensation of hunger was gone. Completely gone.
Terant lay a few feet away. His skin looked completely black as if absorbing light, but the gleams from the droplets of sweat covering it made the man visible. A similar image appeared in Luca’s head along with the word ‘ke-har’... His father had fought people like Terant in the Arena. Apparently this was a ke-har.
“Yes, boy. Feeling better?”
“I’ve never felt so good in my life! How did you do that?”
“Oh... Let me catch my breath...” Terant sat up and wiped his brow. It seemed to Luca as if the man was thinner. “What do you know about the world, sonny?”
“Um... I didn’t go to school, but I know that we live in the capital of the Empire. Emperor Ma Ju Ro the Fourth rules the land.”
“Hmm... Alright, let’s say that. Do you know who rules the world? Who the racants, khhars and olaks are?
“I don’t know those words...” Luka thought a moment. “Wait, khhar, that’s it! Are you a khhar? My father fought a khhar, and he was like you!”
“And do you know what lies beyond the Empire’s borders?”
“Nothing. Just water, and beyond that is the edge of the world and the great nothing, where the streams of the world ocean cascade down. That’s what nanna taught me.”
“Son, the world is far larger than that. Do you know what percentages are?”
“Parts of a whole. One percent means one part of a whole split into a hundred parts.”
“Within your Empire lives less than one percent of all the people of the world.”
“Horseshit!” Luca burst out. “Everyone knows that the Great Empire spans the entire world!”
“The Great Empire, son, is a reservation,” Terant pronounced a word Luca didn’t know, but still understood. “Listen.”
The kkhor coughed, cleared his throat and raising his forefinger, began to speak.
“The first family was the Ra’Ta’Cant family. I’ll explain genetics to you later, but for now, remember: the First Family had perfect genes. Flawless. The benchmark for the human race. One-hundred percent perfect!”
“Oh yes, son! They’re ideal. Those that do not quite reach perfection, but strive toward it at all costs — they are the racants. There are very few of them, but they own everything. The racant families rule the entire world, but each has their own part. Each family is responsible to the First Family for its territory. They also divide segments of the economy between them...”
“The economy?” This time Luca understood the word, but had time to ask before the understanding came.
“Remember all the words you don’t understand, I’ll explain them later. There’s more to hear. Most people are olaks. Those are ordinary citizens, specialists in their fields: scientists, lawyers, craftspeople, merchants, servants... They are all united by the imperfection of their genes. They are at least ten percent away from the benchmark.”
“And who are you? A khhar?”
“Yes. Our species was created artificially. The army, combat and security organizations, guards and warriors, athletes and bodyguards — that’s us.”
“Our guards don’t look like you at all.”
“Your guards aren’t khhars. They, you and all the people of the Empire are syahrs.”
“Forgive me, boy. That which I am about to say... it is not my words. I am merely quoting what has been repeated thousands of times.” Terant coughed again and spoke harshly, enunciating every word. “In all the world, you are the genetic pollutants. Outcasts. Pariahs. The recants maintain that all human life is sacred, but they do not allow the syahrs rights to any of the planet’s natural resources or the achievements if modern civilization. To avoid polluting humanity’s gene pool, the only place available to the syahrs is the so-called Empire.”
“Why doesn’t the Empire just attack these racants of yours? Its strength and power...”
“Son, all your strength and power are sticks and stones made out of shit. You have nothing. And you live on an island two thousand miles from the nearest civilization, across a treacherous ocean. You are condemned.”
Luca fell silent for a long time, breaking down the old foundation of his world view and erecting a new one. He believed Terant unconditionally, intuitively, and the intuition he had inherited from Esk was sublime. He had only one question left to ask.
“So how did you get here, Terant?”
“Oh, did I not say? Criminals have no place in the glorious and blessed land of the racants.”
Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a literary agent and a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl.
This account is publishing texts written by authors of Magic Dome Books.
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