by Kaas Baichtal

Someone once compared them to fireflies, or shooting stars: a random flash against the darkness, and then gone forever. There are so many of them, nameless, short-lived.

Right now I am zlinning thousands of them, and to me, they are substantial and powerful. Meat and scent and urgent animal vitality. It is I who feel fragile and temporary. The heavy wood of the stalls, the flesh packed within, their bright alluring nagers are all that seems real in this world.

When I'd nearly come of age, my parents took me shopping for my first Kill. The first, they said, burns its name on your soul. A hundred more might pass through your hands, but still you'll search their eyes and hearts trying to find that one again. It is important, they said, to choose the first one well. Choose well, and your life will be good. Its strength will become your strength. Its spark of hope becomes your spark of hope. Choose well, and you will always choose well in the future.

The facts are straightforward: I have a letter of credit in my pocket. I must choose one of the Gens and buy it. Then I must bring it home and Kill it. I have to Kill once a year or I'll die. But it didn't use to be that way. It used to be that I Killed every month, an orgy of Killing. Thirty six times in three years. I could have gone on that way forever.

Everything in my life, everything that is my life, changed when I met a man. A man possessed of such lyric beauty, such skill in seduction, that I fell for him instantly. He brought me to his home, far from the ugliness of the city, and there he showed me that we do not have to Kill. And there it was that my innocence was truly lost, for if we do not have to Kill to live, then everything I am and ever was is an abomination.

Oh, cruel revelation. I knew for one moment a great joy, thinking that I myself might never Kill again, but then he told me that I was too old to give it up for good. And that if I truly learned to see the Gens as people rather than animals, then I would die an ugly death, unable to Kill but still needing it.

I hurry past the stalls containing the lower grade stock. They are skinny, drugged, some of them not very clean. Those are the ones it is most difficult to believe are human. They have no tongue, no intellect, no hope. The hunter in me, crippled as it is, doesn't even stir a whisker.

I remember my first Kill. They said it cannot be forgotten, and it hasn't. It wasn't what I expected. I thought it would be beautiful, and it was. But it was also brutal, quick, and afterward it was ugly, with the broken and used body lying dead there. I did not feel ashamed, not then. I wanted more.

Now along the corridors of stalls, Prime Kills lean over the divisions, trying to get the attentions of those not yet deep in need. Enticement beats from all sides, and desperation and despair.

One of them focuses on me. Oh, they cannot know what it feels like. I shiver, and turn to face it. Her. A female, dark-skinned and bushy-haired, her eyes locked onto my ring. She must know that the ring means Naros, and potential freedom. Many from Naros do not Kill at all, but set their purchased Gens free.

More of them notice, and they begin crowding in my direction. Someone must have told them about Householdings. A cruelty. The knowledge cannot save them, and they will die as Kills.

"Take me, take me," they seem to cry, in their lowing tongue. They push each other, trying to get nearer me. Their seller nods in satisfaction as the customers around us zlin the desperation and their need is whetted.

I cannot help but look for my first among the stock. A female, indifferent in color, brown eyes. Nager like a streaking light, falling, falling. She is not there.

Suddenly it is all too much. I push through the other Simes and thrust my letter at the seller.

"Give me one of them. Any one. The dark one."

The dark brown female is caught, and they put the yawal on her and fasten the chain around her neck. When they bring her to me, she is frightened and cringing, no longer sure I won't try to kill her. She casts a furtive glance at a pen of bawling pre-Gens. She must have young there.

Outside of the fair's crush, I can zlin that her feet are bruised and tired, her udders swollen with milk. She is near exhaustion. When we are some miles out into the countryside, I halt my horse so that it, and she, can rest. Two years ago I would never have given a thought to her discomfort.

They say the guilt eats at you. They say that month after month of receiving life through channels, rather than Killing, makes you weakened, until finally in remorse and self-loathing you cannot bear to take the single Kill per year that makes it possible to remain alive.

I have often asked myself how a man filled with such compassion as I have zlinned in him, could unleash such devastation upon me and look me in the eyes as he did it. He has gray eyes, sultry as a summer storm and somehow innocent, as if he does not know perfectly well what he does.

And every day, I must face him as my Sectuib.

I am five years past changeover, and at times like this I feel I must be a thousand.

The Gen asks me a question in her own language, maybe about what I intend. I ignore her, staring instead into the descending dusk. On the edges of my vision, a firefly winks, then fades out.

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