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Childished

Jez Patterson is a teacher and writer currently alternating between the UK and Madrid. Links to other things with his name at the end can be found at: jezpatterson.wordpress.com.
Nyah found the news so shocking she stopped walking. Luisa took several more steps without her until she noticed she was walking alone.
"Something wrong?" Luisa asked.
"A cull? They're really suggesting they cull the children?"
Luisa frowned, the source of the annoyance not clear. They were both on Gannan to work with the abandoned children, were both on the same side here.
"Are you religious?" Luisa asked. Nyah wanted to say it wasn't relevant but, of course, sometimes it was.
"No," she lied.
"Children of your own?"
"Two. Twin girls." Nyah didn't ask Luisa the same question, would only later seethe at its intrusive nature and how it allowed Luisa to categorize her, judge her reactions.
"There are extremist parties here," Luisa said. "Most of them are just mouthing off, looking for easy votes by shouting sensationalist things."
But as they resumed their walk, Nyah knew Gannan wouldn't be the first planet to resolve its child overpopulation by culling. It wouldn't be official, but that didn't mean officials weren't involved at some level.
The child markets here weren't regulated, which meant children were produced and sold openly. They passed one stall, the babies categorized by color and sex. The producers didn't need a license on Gannan, which meant they used the same templates over and over, and so catered to the immediate needs of childless couples rather than attracting the collectors.
The rows of identical babies suckled, watching Nyah with big eyes. She had been fortunate, able to get pregnant the traditional way, actually wanting to endure the nine months of pregnancy before giving birth. For many others with the urge, lab-produced babies were the answer. Nyah sympathized with them, supported them even.
The collectors were another story though. Buying babies to complete their set, displaying them to their neighbors and friends. It was the collectors that turfed the children out when they were no longer cute, when their personalities developed to make their screams for attention more articulate, more critical. Collectors weren't parents.
Gannan's problem came about through simple overproduction. Babies sold, infants less so, adolescents never. It was illegal to kill them--these were human lives--and so when they were too-old-to-be-sold, they were turfed out of the producers' holding facilities to survive, somehow, on the street. Some were put to work in factories and fields, again illegally, again overlooked by the authorities.
Most, though, came together in parentless communities.
Communities which, inevitably, bred.
"This is one of them," Luisa said, referring to the street and not the child who was begging. "So many are from the same genetic coding that, when they mate, their offspring suffer mutations."
Nyah felt her chest squeeze, her emotions a mixture of sympathy and revulsion for those she saw sitting in the gutters, doorways.
Are you sure you're cut out for this job? she asked herself, saw that Luisa was asking the same question with the look she was giving.
They were facing a continual tide and were trying to waft it away armed not with a stick, but a white flag.
"There's more to see," Luisa said, but despite her dread, it wasn't what Nyah expected.
"They're working together, looking out for each other," Nyah said, impressed by what she'd been shown.
"It's more complex than that," Luisa said. "They're not a hive, there isn't the division of labor that comes with eusociality. They haven't even got leaders. Their community is more a kind of collective."
"One mind?"
"One purpose would be more accurate," Luisa said. "We've found ourselves more and more on the periphery, pushed out. The children simply don't need us. They have their own language, one we can't decipher because it seems intuitive rather than tutored."
Nyah understood. The twins were the same. A unique form of joint cooperation and understanding between them, and unintelligible burbles that transmitted information somehow they each understood.
The children on Gannan were twins multiplied a thousand-fold.
"We're here to document, to let the local population know that their actions are being recorded. Gannan is a signatory to the Code of Universal Rights. It means that if there's a cull, individuals can be prosecuted by the Universal Court."
It wasn't that simple, of course. This time Nyah noticed something nibbling at Luisa's eyes.
"You're worried about how this might end?" Nyah asked her.
"I'm worried about the parallel communities. We've already taken hundreds of children off Gannan for adoption on other planets. We're not taking the babies but those on the streets, those that are already part of this collective." Luisa swallowed. "They've had trouble settling in their new homes."
"You think there's a separation anxiety? They miss their siblings?"
"It's more than that," Luisa said.
"They haven't got special powers. They're not like those children out of Village of the Damned."
"No," Luisa said, sharply--angry at Nyah's frivolous reference.
Nyah saw it herself then. The reason to be worried. The children of Gannan had a bond that was unbreakable. And when a family numbered thousands, that was no longer just a family--but an army.
The residents of Gannan were teaching the children an unfortunate lesson: you shunned what didn't belong to your community. And then you did away with them entirely.
And a scythe could be turned to swing either way.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, December 28th, 2017


I was passing one of those traditional greengrocers--the type that displays trays of perfectly arranged and polished fruit and vegetables in front of the shop--when I had an image of babies being offered for sale in the same way. The key to the tone and circumstances of the story was that those passing the display would see this as commonplace. For those that might not know: Village of the Damned (1960) is the film version of the John Wydnham novel, The Midwich Cuckoos.

- jez patterson

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