"Death may be the greatest of all human blessings."
Proxima hugged her legs and looked over the railing. She was sitting on one of the ‘balconies’ of the Decagon – the highest and most secluded place she could find. Far below her, a pack of wolves attacked their prey – soon killing it and tearing it to shreds. Gore splattered everywhere, the innards spilling onto the green grass; as the wolves snapped their jaws and licked their black lips. Not far from her, Proxima saw that a few crows had gathered, perched on the railing, and waited hungrily to descend and get their share. The carcass of the victim was torn to shreads, gore and flesh flying messily, as the wolves feasted. The wolves sat down and ate their game, a mother wolf eating and regurgitating to feed her cubs.
Proxima looked away, feeling that the sight should have sickened her. But she wasn’t sickened. She felt pity, though, for the disfigured animal that’d fallen prey to the beasts. Indeed, she felt it was a kindred spirit – wolves had torn up the animal, and she’d been torn up by the news of her being half Dyonuxiot. Half pillager. Half murderer. The only thing that Cato had dedicated his life in protecting her from – and she had such a beast’s blood coursing through her veins. She looked at the lighted cigarette between her fingers, and put it to her lips. But she drew her hand back, as the trapdoor slid open.
Cato emerged from beneath, looked around and, on seeing Proxima, steadily made his way towards her, scaring away the crows. There was a slight breeze that followed after they took off collectively. She looked away from him, her eyes blankly observing the feast below. Cato sat down next to her.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said after a while.
Proxima didn’t reply, but placed the cigarette in her mouth and drew a breath.
Cato cocked his head to a side, “You smoke?” he said evenly, lighting his own cigarette.
Proxima, surprised by his indifferent reaction, said, “You… aren’t mad?”
“A little surprised, I suppose, but mad? No,” Cato blew smoke, it curled around his face so that he looked almost sorcerous and magelike, “Though, if you had told me, maybe I wouldn’t have had to throw away all those half-finished cigars. Passive smoking is worse than smoking-smoking.”
Proxima looked at Cato. His once pitch-black hair showed the first streaks of silver, and the stubble on his jowls had gradually grown darker and longer. There were lines in his forehead, and crow’s feet tipped the corners of his calm blue eyes, but the jagged scar across his neck was as prominent as ever. It seemed such a long time since they had first met – Proxima sniffing and trying to hold back tears at the sight of an unfamiliar face, and Cato giving a pro-friendly smile, though… unable to keep the façade because of his serious nature.
Cato glanced at Proxima, not really knowing what else to say and wondering whether she was mad at him for not telling her about her lineage.
Proxima sighed, “Did you know, Cato?”
“I… had an idea,” said Cato, “But I was never quite sure of it.”
Proxima threw the butt of the cigarette away and pressed her chin on her knees, pensive and sad.
“But I probably should have told you,” Cato continued, “that they found you under the debris of a destroyed lab.”
“I was born as an experiment.”
Cato hesitated, without letting it show, and said, “You were born… as a way to remove the invaders.”
Proxima didn’t say anything.
“They ran experiments on adults first – a hundred of them, actually. They tried to make a hybrid of Human and Dyonuxiot, so that we could get people inside Dyonuxiot territory without them being too easily discovered. Like informers or double agents. We called it ‘Project: Half-Caste’. Of the hundred, about twenty died immediately and the others had to be put down because they had gone insane with bloodlust,” Cato put the cigarette in his mouth again and drew in another breath, “Only two people successfully became half-breeds. One of them goes by the name Mose Ruict.”
Proxima raised her brows in shock, “The ambassador for…?”
“Yes: The peace envoy between Dyonuxiot tribes. Stays well clear of the Empire nowadays and quite honestly I can’t blame him. Those people were forced to undergo experiment. The other guy, Roderigo Mayson I think his name is, goes about his days drinking and whoring and basically wasting his life. Doesn’t want anything to do with the Empire.”
“All those lives are wasted, Cato,” Proxima mumbled.
Cato nodded, “They were. But after the experiments on adult Humans failed, the lot in the science division decided to create hybrids from the embryonic stage. The Legion was involved in this too – they sent us out to capture Dyonuxiots who would ‘donate’ sperm or eggs.”
Proxima mood darkened further, “You were a part of this?”
Cato nodded grimly, but tried to explain the situation, “At the time, we were drowning men clutching at straws. Anything labeled ‘solution’ was all we saw it as. We kidnapped seven Dyonuxiots, who weren’t altogether thrilled by the idea of helping us. Two of them actually committed suicide.”
“And what happened to the other five?”
Cato rubbed the back of his neck, “One escaped after donating, and the other four were executed publicly. Their heads were sent back to the Dyonuxiots as a warning.”
“Hmm… So my mum or dad is basically a severed head stuck somewhere on a pole…? As though being a part of those monsters weren’t enough.”
“I’m sorry, Proxima, but I’m just trying to explain…”
“There were twenty of you.”
“Twenty guinea pigs.”
Cato flinched at the remark, “Only two of you were born on time. Another stayed in a test-tube for nearly four years, before also being born.”
A tear streamed down Proxima’s face, “Three? After that entire struggle! After those defiant Dyonuxiots committed suicide! After this stupid state killed one of my parents as a ‘sign’! Only three of us survived?”
Cato sighed, but nodded, “Yes.”
Proxima bowed her head, eyes burning and blood furiously racing through her hybrid being. She wanted to fall into some unknown abyss and die, and lie with her unfortunate brothers and sisters. She wanted to kill the idiot who came up with the ridiculous idea, but most of all she wanted to go and find this Roderigo guy and join his club – just waste her life and refuse to serve such a corrupt Empire. How could they do such a thing? Make a hundred people suffer and only have two of them survive; and then cast another twenty onto their platter?
She felt an arm around her shoulders.
Proxima looked up at Cato.
He wasn’t a very sentimental person, not very sympathetic and not much of a hugger either. She didn’t understand why Cato was still with her now either… especially since he’d been killing Dyonuxiots for eleven whole years of his life – and with passion. He should have been killing her also. But Cato only stared out into a distance; like he was remembering something he’d wanted to forget for some time. And Proxima gasped a little when she saw that there were also tears in Cato’s eyes. She felt warmed by the fact that Cato – as annoyingly organized and protective as he was – had a human side.
Cato cleared his throat, “Proxima… do you remember that time we went camping? It was ages ago, I know, but –”
“Yeah, I remember,” said Proxima hurriedly.
“You remember that cold night? When we went and stole those mugs of hot chocolate from that cottage windowsill?”
Proxima gave a sad smile, “Best hot chocolate ever.”
“Ha, yeah, that old lady must have been pretty mad about us taking them. But that’s beside the point. Proxima… there are no mugs of hot chocolate just waiting to be stolen in the real world. Things are different when you’re trying to save your own skin – from invaders, from your comrades, and from nature. All the things I did when I was with the Legion… I did them because I thought they were the only things that would keep me alive. Like this,” he made a sour face at his cigarette, “I didn’t start smoking because I thought it looked good or any of that media bullshit they tell you about. I did it because it kept me warm in the cold, and now I can’t let it go – because of all the scientific, biological mumbo-jumbo. I know you feel used, upset and basically violated, but… we didn’t know what else to do.”
Proxima nodded, “I… understand… I think.”
Cato stroked Proxima’s hair, “I’ve always hated the thought of you growing up, because I knew you’d have to face harsh reality but the world isn’t stopping for anyone.”
“I’m just going to have to get used to it?”
“So… what happens now?”
“Well, after I gave Sheldon a broken nose, he said that you needed to be quarantined until everyone can be sure you’re safe to keep.”
“If I wasn’t a guinea pig already, I’m sure sounding like one now.”
“The Senate decides what happens after that.”
“Wait, what? The Senate? I don’t want to serve the Senate.”
Cato shrugged, “Apparently, I don’t have any hold on you anymore. You’re a ‘ward of the state’ now – the Emperor’s your daddy, basically – and I can’t do anything about it. I look out for you all these years, feed you, clothe you, discipline you, and I can’t say a single word on your behalf,” he sighed, “I’m sorry.”
“But… wait… I don’t want to… Whatever happened to freedom?”
Cato laughed lightly, “Freedom? What freedom, Proxima?”
“You know, Freedom of Speech? Freedom of Expression? Liberty? The Statue of Liberty? Freedom, Cato! They talk about it all the time.”
“Bloody lip-service,” said Cato contemptuously, “Lies to make people happy. Lies to blind people. Lies to give off false hope. A tooth fairy with no money. A Father Christmas with no gifts. A barren she-wolf for Romulus and Remus. Lies. Lies. Lies. There’s no such thing as ‘freedom’, Proxima.”
“But… if it doesn’t exist, then… you can’t be the only one to have noticed!”
“What? You really think it’s that hard for a big man like our Emperor to shut someone up? We might as well get Caligula back – at least we knew he was bonkers.”
“Let me explain, Proxima: Freedom is meant to be unrestricted, without bounds, no strings attached. Limitless. It’s supposed to be absolute. But nothing – in this world, at least – is without bounds. If you're not following the Law of God, then you’re following the law of man. And, even if you’re some anarchistic prick living in the middle of an unnamed jungle, you’re still bound by nature. Nobody can just decide to survive without eating, can they? The only way I can possibly see how a person could be ‘free’ is if they die. Maybe that’s why Socrates said it was the greatest of human blessings. Laws bind even the inanimate planets. Freedom is a lie, Proxima, and it’s what people have been chasing after for so long – but only in vain. You can’t chase after something that doesn’t exist. It almost seems like our prime ministers and presidents, our emperors and senators have used this ‘freedom’ façade to divert us from something we should be looking for.”
“And… what’s that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said Cato, “Peace.”
Proxima paused a while, letting the information sink in, “It sounds cynical coming from you.”
“Why? Because I was a legionary?”
“No, because you’re big, anxious, violent Cato.”
Cato shrugged, “I’m still looking, Proxima, and it’s better said than done.”
“Okay… so what do I do now, Cato?”
“The right thing.”
“I was talking about the situation at hand. Do I go into quarantine?”
“My answer’s the same, Proxima.”
“But… What is the right thing?”
“Oh, don’t sound so flustered! Just think, Proxima.”
Proxima looked at Cato like he was talking gibberish.
Cato shook his head, “Which would cause more of a fuss: agreeing to be quarantined or refusing?”
“Oh, well whether I agree or disagree, they’ll still put me –”
“When I said ‘think’, I didn’t mean ‘think out loud’.”
Proxima nodded, “I just have to hand myself in, right?”
“I hate to say it, but: yes. They aren’t going to trust you until you undergo a series of tests. I don’t know how long it’ll take, and I don’t know if you’re going to be the same afterwards. All I know is that – as much as an idiot Sheldon is – he’s reliable; and, God knows, I never thought I’d hear myself saying that.”
“I’m scared out of my wits, Cato.”
“Don’t be scared. I’ll be waiting for you. And if anything bad happens, Proxima, I guarantee Sheldon will be on crutches for the rest of his life.”
“Good, old, violent Uncle Cat.”
“Hey, you know you love him,” Cato got up to leave, “Are you coming?”
“Um… give me a second, Cato.”
“Alright, but don’t be out long,” he pointed up at the sky that was filled with dense clouds, “You’ll catch a cold.”
Proxima looked up at the cloud-strewn sky as Cato climbed back into the Decagon. Thunder clapped, and Proxima smiled as tiny droplets pelted her face. Cato never lied to her. If he trusted Sheldon, then so could she. If he mistrusted the Empire, then so would she.