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By Octavia E. Butler
Warner AspectOctavia Butler
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Chapter OneHe was Akin.
Things touched him when this sound was made. He was given comfort or food, or he was held and taught. Body to body understanding was given to him. He came to perceive himself as himself-individual, defined, separate from all the touches and smells, all the tastes, sights, and sounds that came to him. He was Akin.
Yet he came to know that he was also part of the people who touched him-that within them, he could find fragments of himself. He was himself, and he was those others.
He learned quickly to distinguish between them by taste and touch. It took longer for him to know them by sight or smell, but taste and touch were almost a single sensation for him. Both had been familiar to him for so long.
He had heard differences in voices since his birth. Now he began to attach identities to those differences. When, within days of his birth, he had learned his own name and could say it aloud, the others taught him their names. These they repeated when they could see that they had his attention. They let him watch their mouths shape the words. He came to understand quickly that each of them could be called by one or both of two groups of sounds.
Nikanj Ooan, Lilith Mother, Ahajas Ty, Dichaan Ishliin, and the one who never came to him even though Nikanj Ooan had taught him that one's touch and taste and smell. Lilith Mother had shown him a print image of that one, and he had scanned it with all his senses: Joseph Father.
He called for Joseph Father and, instead, Nikanj Ooan came and taught him that Joseph Father was dead. Dead. Ended. Gone away and not coming back. Yet he had been part of Akin, and Akin must know him as he knew all his living parents.
Akin was two months old when he began to put together simple sentences. He could not get enough of being held and taught.
"He's quicker than most of my girls," Lilith commented as she held him against her and let him drink. It could have been difficult to learn from her smooth, unhelpful skin except that it was as familiar to him as his own-and superficially like his own. Nikanj Ooan taught him to use his tongue-his least Human visible organ-to study Lilith when she fed him. Over many feedings, he tasted her flesh as well as her milk. She was a rush of flavors and textures-sweet milk, salty skin smooth in some places, rough in others. He concentrated on one of the smooth places, focused all his attention on probing it, perceiving it deeply, minutely. He perceived the many cells of her skin, living and dead. Her skin taught him what it meant to be dead. Its dead outer layer contrasted sharply with what he could perceive of the living flesh beneath. His tongue was as long and sensitive and malleable as the sensory tentacles of Ahajas and Dichaan. He sent a filament of it into the living tissue of her nipple. He had hurt her the first time he tried this, and the pain had been channeled back to him through his tongue. The pain had been so sharp and startling that he withdrew, screaming and weeping. He refused to be comforted until Nikanj showed him how to probe without causing pain.
"That," Lilith had commented, "was a lot like being stabbed with a hot, blunt needle."
"He won't do it again," Nikanj had promised.
Akin had not done it again. And he had learned an important lesson: He would share any pain he caused. Best, then, to be careful and not cause pain. He would not know for months how unusual it was for an infant to recognize the pain of another person and recognize himself as the cause of that pain.
Now he perceived, through the tendril of flesh he had extended into Lilith, expanses of living cells. He focused on a few cells, on a single cell, on the parts of that cell, on its nucleus, on chromosomes within the nucleus, on genes along the chromosomes. He investigated the DNA that made up the genes, the nucleotides of the DNA. There was something beyond the nucleotides that he could not perceive-a world of smaller particles that he could not cross into. He did not understand why he could not make this final crossing-if it were the final one. It frustrated him that anything was beyond his perception. He knew of it only through shadowy ungraspable feelings. When he was older he came to think of it as a horizon, always receding when he approached it.
He shifted his attention from the frustration of what he could not perceive to the fascination of what he could. Lilith's flesh was much more exciting than the flesh of Nikanj, Ahajas, and Dichaan. There was something wrong with hers-something he did not understand. It was both frightening and seductive. It told him Lilith was dangerous, though she was also essential. Nikanj was interesting but not dangerous. Ahajas and Dichaan were so alike he had to struggle to perceive differences between them. In some ways Joseph had been like Lilith. Deadly and competing. But he had not been as much like Lilith as Ahajas was like Dichaan. In fact, though he had clearly been Human and native to this place, this Earth, like Lilith, he had not been Lilith's relative. Ahajas and Dichaan were brother and sister, like most Oankali male and female mates. Joseph was unrelated, like Nikanj, but although Nikanj was Oankali, it was also ooloi, not male or female. Ooloi were supposed to be unrelated to their male and female mates so that they could focus their attention on their mates' genetic differences and construct children without making dangerous mistakes of overfamiliarity and overconfidence.
"Be careful," he heard Nikanj say. "He's studying you again."
"I know," Lilith answered. "Sometimes I wish he'd just nurse like Human babies."
Lilith rubbed Akin's back, and the flickering of light between and around her fingers broke his concentration. He withdrew his flesh from hers, then released her nipple and looked at her. She closed clothing over her breast but went on holding him on her lap. He was always glad when people held him and talked to each other, allowing him to listen. He had already learned more words from them than he had yet had occasion to use. He collected words and gradually assembled them into questions. When his questions were answered, he remembered everything he was told. His picture of the world grew.
"At least he isn't any stronger or faster in physical development than other babies," Lilith said. "Except for his teeth."
"There have been babies born with teeth before," Nikanj said. "Physically, he'll look his Human age until his metamorphosis. He'd have to think his way out of any problems his precocity causes."
"That won't do him much good with some Humans. They'll resent him for not being completely Human and for looking more Human than their kids. They'll hate him for looking much younger than he sounds. They'll hate him because they haven't been allowed to have sons. Your people have made Human-looking male babies a very valuable commodity."
"We'll allow more of them now. Everyone feels more secure about mixing them. Before now, too many ooloi could not perceive the necessary mixture. They could have made mistakes and their mistakes could be monsters."
"Most Humans think that's what they've been doing."
"Do you still?"
"Be content, Lilith. One group of us believed it would be best to dispense with Human-born males altogether. We could construct female children for Human females and male children for Oankali females. We've done that until now."
"And cheated everyone. Ahajas wants daughters, and I want sons. Other people feel the same way."
"I know. And we control children in ways we should not to make them mature as Oankali-born males and Human-born females. We control inclinations that should be left to individual children. Even the group that suggested we go on this way knows we shouldn't. But they were afraid. A male who's Human enough to be born to a Human female could be a danger to us all. We must try though. We'll learn from Akin."
Akin felt himself held closer to Lilith. "Why is he such an experiment?" she demanded. "And why should Human-born men be such a problem? I know most prewar men don't like you. They feel you're displacing them and forcing them to do something perverted. From their point of view, they're right. But you could teach the next generation to love you, no matter who their mothers are. All you'd have to do is start early. Indoctrinate them before they're old enough to develop other opinions."
"But ..." Nikanj hesitated. "But if we had to work that blindly, that clumsily, we couldn't have trade. We would have to take your children from you soon after they were born. We wouldn't dare trust you to raise them. You would be kept only for breeding-like nonsentient animals."
Silence. A sigh. "You say such godawful things in such a gentle voice. No, hush, I know it's the only voice you've got. Nika, will Akin survive the Human males who will hate him?"
"They won't hate him."
"They will. He isn't Human. Un-Human women are offensive to them, but they don't usually try to hurt them, and they do sleep with them-like a racist sleeping with racially different women. But Akin ... They'd see him as a threat. Hell, he is a threat. He's one of their replacements."
"Lilith, they will not hate him." Akin felt himself lifted from Lilith's arms and held close to Nikanj's body. He gasped at the lovely shock of contact with Nikanj's sensory tentacles, many of which held him while others burrowed painlessly into his flesh. It was so easy to connect with Nikanj and to learn. "They will see him as beautiful and like themselves," Nikanj said. "By the time he's old enough for his body to reveal what he actually is, he'll be an adult and able to hold his own."
"Able to fight?"
"Only to save his life. He'll tend to avoid fighting. He'd be like Oankali-born males now-a solitary wanderer when he's not mated."
"He won't settle down with anyone?"
"No. Most human males aren't particularly monogamous. No construct males will be."
"Families will change, Lilith-are changing. A complete construct family will be a female, an ooloi, and children. Males will come and go as they wish and as they find welcome."
"But they'll have no homes."
"A home like this would be a prison to them. They'll have what they want, what they need."
"The ability to be fathers to their kids?"
Nikanj paused. "They might choose to keep contact with their children. They won't live with them permanently-and no construct, male or female, young or old, will feel that as a deprivation. It will be normal to them, and purposeful, since there will always be many more females and ooloi than males." It rustled its head and body tentacles. "Trade means change. Bodies change. Ways of living must change. Did you think your children would only look different?"
Excerpted from Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler Excerpted by permission.
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