Liv’s thoughtstream, 5/28/2147, third log

Eponine is missing. Gone. Vanished into smoke, and nobody on Miralay has any idea where he is. They locked down all the sectors a few hours ago, searched them down to the very last crumb and speck of dust, and there wasn’t a single trace of him.

Eponine? Are you still out there? Please don’t be dead. Please don’t have killed yourself.

He said that if nobody was going to kill him right there, then he’d “dismantle the systems” that put him here. That means me, doesn’t it? Eponine hates me and Miralay and everyone here and there isn’t a single thing I can do about it because he’s turned into a ghost.

He said he was going to kill me, so now Mirt and two guards accompany me everywhere I go as I make my way through the various sectors as the Providence, greeting the people, a notepad and a pen in my hands. Listening to the people’s concerns, making a list of things to try to convince Amelia to fix.

“The toilets here in Sector Seven always clog more, it seems. Can we get some special attention from the plumbers?” a father of two very young children admits.

“Do you think maybe you could extend curfew by half an hour? I always have trouble finding my way back to my quarters in time, even with the warning announcement,” a plain girl about my age requests. She looks like she isn’t sure whether she wants to be jealous or take pity on me. I’m not sure what I want from her.

“I’m scared for Miralay,” an older woman near her shedding age tells me. “I mean, you- you’re a real blessing, you know that?” She gently takes my face in her wrinkled hands. The guards tense up, but I wave for them to hold off. “You don’t look like a loony. You look like someone who will take your role seriously.”

“I’m trying my best. I can’t make any promises that things will get better, though.”

“I know.” The woman sighs and lets go of me. Her hands return to her sides. Her eyes are focused elsewhere. “I sure hope that what that kid was saying was true. That the real Providence is still somewhere out there, I mean. The last Providences- well, I mean, you probably already know, memories and all.”

Three dissidents ripped out of their homes in the middle of the night, shot, and dumped underground in the autopsy chamber before their protest against the Providence power structure could manifest peacefully.

Two kids claiming that they were the real Providences being wiped and reprogrammed.

My mother.

I understand.

“We don’t need any more violence here. If there’s going to be change, I want it to be peaceful.”

The guards tense up again. I explain to her that I understand, that I hope she has a nice day, and then my guards and I leave the sector. Amelia is still nowhere to be found. Maybe- maybe I can get something done without her?

We stop near the entrance to the public square where I was just four hours ago. “Mirt?” I hand him the notepad. There are nine requests total. “Can you go find the officials in charge of all of this and get them on it?”

Mirt gingerly takes it, holding his hand out for the pen. I give it to him. He bows. “I’ll do my best.”

He turns about-face and leaves me alone with the guards. They escort me back to my private quarters, deep underground and far removed from the rest of the population to help thwart off potential attacks. I go inside and pull the doors shut- they stay posted outside, watching, hoping that maybe Eponine will be stupid enough to sneak off here and fall into their clutches.

He may be stupid, but I don’t think he’s that stupid. Just desperate.

Just completely insane!

My living quarters feels too big for just one person. To my right is a king size bed taking up a full quarter of the spacious expanse. The far wall has a half-empty wall-to-wall bookshelf, books fallen over and on their sides and arranged in a nonsensical mish-mash. On one of the shelves is a smaller mirror coated with dust. To my left is a wide dresser with an oval mirror perched on the wall behind it. The previous Providences left makeup and a hairbrush and various other toiletries that the cleaning crew still hasn’t managed to clean up or dispose of. The bed is unmade, sheets strewn about.

There’s a notebook on the dresser. I go to it and open it up- it’s completely blank, whatever pages were written on ripped out already. A ballpoint pen with only half of its ink left rests beside it.

Isn’t there a way I can call a cleaning crew?

I’ll deal with this later. For now, I take a book from one of the shelves and open it up to a random page, curling up in the corner of the room, hoping to bore myself into sleep until Mirt can get back or someone wakes me up for a meeting or Amelia finds Eponine or…

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Liv’s thoughtstream, 5/28/2147, second log

I can hear the dull roar of Miralayans gathering in the public square- or at least the large hollow chamber they call the public square- through the walls of the dressing room. Two attendants hover around me like moths to a flame, one of them brushing out my hair and debating with the other the proper way to style it for a Providence’s presentation.

“You’ve got to put it in braids!”

“No, you’ve got to curl it into ringlets and let her hair fall gently off her shoulders.”

“We don’t have enough time to get the hot curlers working!”

The door opens, and Mirt steps in, just managing to keep his arms around a bulky metallic box. He sets it down on the ground beside my stool with a thump and turns to the first of the stylists, the one who isn’t messing with my hair.

The uniform, fresh from the cleaners,” Mirt says, his gaze blank. “Don’t wrinkle it.”

The stylist gasps and bends down, unlocking the box as Mirt exits, presumably to go on stage and calm down the crowd. She flips the lid open, contents outside of my peripheral vision, and then the hair-messer retreats from me and joins in her gawking.

A half-made braid, quickly untangling, flops over my shoulder as I turn to them. “What-”

They stand up in unison. A simple blue cape is draped across their arms. Spilling out of the box is what looks like the top half of a plain faded white dress and a green frilled jacket. A few memories pop up- the cape catching on a chair’s edge and knocking over an official, the dress’s skirt whooshing out as a more heavy-footed Providence whirled around with a dance partner, a few tears made here and there and promptly mended before the public could notice. Simple and perfect and yet far more extravagant than the plain blue workclothes of Miralayan civilians.

I stand up and stretch my arms out, allowing them to strip me down to my underwear and slide on the clothes. The dress pulls on, and although it isn’t itchy, it certainly isn’t soft. The jacket goes over, long sleeves reaching all the way down to my wrists and then some. The cape comes on with a golden clasp, snapping into place. It’s all a little too big for me, and the stylists notice, because the hair-messer clucks her tongue and goes back to undoing the braid.

The other stylist checks her watch. “Five minutes left.”

The hair-messer pulls away. “I can’t do anything in five minutes!”

“That’s not my fault!”

She gives my hair one more stroke with the brush and then turns me to her partner. “Do you think that’s presentable? I hear the other team had a doozy of a time trying to get him into his uniform.”

Eponine.

God, Eponine, what did you do?

But Serlis here-” and the hair-messer pats my shoulder- “she looks alright. Not stunning, but certainly not the ugliest Providence we’ve had to dress.”

Well, if you’d bothered to use any makeup-”

I close my eyes, try to pull up memories of the other Providences looking in mirrors- but all their faces are blank, a black void. It’s not hard to compete with nothing.

It goes well with her pendant, don’t you think?”

Mirt enters the room again- and immediately freezes in the doorway, his eyes fixated on me. The words “my Providence” just barely come out of his mouth in a squeak. He reaches forward, and I give him my hand, and he leads me out of the styling room and helps me slip backstage without making a single sound.

The lights are dim here, and a curved and rumpled and sectioned black curtain hanging from the ceiling separates us from the gaze of countless Miralayans.

“Mirt?” I whisper. “How many people live here?”

“The census last year estimated about five thousand inhabitants. This chamber can’t seat more than a few hundred. Everyone else will be watching through the cameras.”

“Will anyone from Earth be watching?”

Mirt leans in close, close enough that I can smell the mint in his breath. “Only employees from Mordern, and there will be quite a lag on the video stream. The farther away Mars is from Earth, the longer it’ll take to establish a secure connection to Earth’s internet, let alone transmit all that data without losing a single bit.” Mirt pauses. “Don’t bother trying to contact home. Any internet usage by you and Eponine will be monitored by the officials.”

A quite disheveled person- a retainer, seeing as he has the same golden pin as Mirt- stumbles over to us, panting, his breath heavy. “You ready to begin?”

Mirt pulls away from me and rolls his eyes at this retainer- maybe they’ve got some kind of bad blood between them. “Yes, Noi.”

Moi disappears somewhere. Mirt takes my shoulder and, without saying a single word, thrusts aside the opening in the black curtain and pushes us forward.

The lights are blinding- I have to cover them for a few moments before someone adjusts them to a tolerable level, although they still burn a bit. The crowd stands up, silent, every single eye on me. There is a microphone at the front of the stage, poised and at the ready. Mirt leaves me at center stage and clears his throat before approaching the microphone.

Welcome, my fellow Miralayans. My name is Mirt Talen, and today I will be taking up the role of Retainer of our seventh Providence, Serlis Greenland.”

He looks over his shoulder at me, gestures for me to step forward. I do, and with every step I take, the applause grows louder and louder until I could have sworn that Mars had thunderstorms roiling miles above us on the surface.

Mirt waves his hand, cutting off the applause. One person prostrates themselves in the back of the audience. Someone woops. The black curtains flutter again, and this time, the retainer I saw just a few minutes ago appears

“No! You can’t make me be the Providence!”

A murmur rushes through the crowd. Noi, Eponine’s retainer, drags a boy clad in red and orange tones onto the stage. The boy unleashes a shrill noise from his mouth as he feebly pounds away at the retainer’s hands, tries to kick him away, but all in vain.

Eponine, come on,” Noi hisses, pleading with him. Eponine digs his fingers into the stage floor, but Noi continues to pull him towards the microphone by his ankles. “You have to do this.”

“No!” Eponine wrests one ankle away and kicks at Noi, freeing the other. He stands up, defensive. “I don’t want to be the Providence. Make someone else do it. I don’t care who.”

“Eponine!”

Everyone in the audience, everyone watching through the countless glassy cameras interspersed throughout the chamber, sees me standing up, sees me rushing over to Eponine.

Everyone watches him clobbering me in the face, watches me collide face-first with the floor, caught completely off-guard.

My head has turned into one giant beating heart, spikes of pain ebbing and flowing with every single thump thump thump. Something is broken. I can’t tell if I’m bleeding. I can’t see anything because I’m red all over just like Eponine’s clothes.

I’m the Earth he wants to go back to and he’s the Mars I gave up a sheltered and peaceful life to save.

You!” He’s yelling to the audience, I think. “All of you! I was happy on Earth! Our parents risked their lives hoping that we’d never have to be standing on this stage, that we’d never have to be forced into this damn role! Her mother died so that she’d have the chance to live sixty, seventy, even eighty years free! You killed her! Doesn’t that make you feel something?

The audience begins to murmur.

She wants to be your Providence. She believes that there’s something fixable in the whole lot of you, in this blasted goddamn colony. If she wants to throw her life away chasing a fantasy, then let her. But I refuse to be shoehorned into a role I never wanted.” He pauses. “I’m not the Providence. I never had a dot. This-” I assume he’s pointing to his forehead- “This is fake. Amelia Rouge and her cabal of tyrants forced the surgeons to implant this. Your real Providence is still running out there, still at large.”

Why would Eponine lie? Nobody’s going to believe him. The mind-shedding machine would refuse to give him the memories if he wasn’t the intended recipient.

Although that one human who got memories and then went insane…

No. That had to be a malfunction. Eponine is the male Providence.

You have two options, people of Miralay. Either you send me back to Earth alive and unharmed, or you kill me right here and now and deal with the chaos of only having one Providence. And if you choose the third route and let me live, I will do everything possible to dismantle the systems that forced me to be here in the first place.”

There’s a scuffling. Eponine bursts through backstage, running, and disappears. I can’t tell if he’s being apprehended or not.

Mirt rushes over to my side along with a nurse. They roll me over, and someone yells for a stretcher to carry me out.

I didn’t complete the ceremony. I’m not the Providence. Are they going to reschedule it? Do it from the comfort of my new living quarters? Or am I going to be stuck inside a limbo of not-quite Providence forever?

Eponine…

Mirt,” I whisper as the light goes darker behind my eyelids. “Promise me that Eponine will be okay.”

“He hurt you! Why would you-”

“Because I didn’t have to betray him to Amelia. I could have come here alone. I thought I was doing the right thing…” Someone puts an ice pack wrapped in a towel on my forehead as bile rises in my throat. “I ruined his life. This is my fault. He didn’t choose to be the Providence. All he wanted was to live a peaceful life-”

“Liv,” Mirt whispers. “Stop talking. There are cameras everywhere. They’re recording. Amelia’s going to be livid. Don’t make it worse.”

“But I didn’t do anything!”

His voice drops even quieter. “Any sign of rebellion from you will put your life in danger right now. Just stay quiet.”

We return to the medical ward. Doctors wipe down my face and make sure that none of the bones in my face are broken and then implore me to lie down on a bed and rest until they can get ahold of Eponine and figure out what they can diagnose and medicate him with to make him less of a complete wreck.

Oh, Eponine…

Liv’s thoughtstream, 5/28/2147

I sit on a stool in the memory shedding chamber, waiting for the soon-to-be-dead and decrepit Providence to make her way here. Her body, past her prime, has already begun to break down. At least, that’s what everybody says. It’s what Mirt said, and what Amelia repeated, and I don’t see any reason not to believe them.

The curtain flutters, and Mirt comes back holding the hand of a woman with long tangled black hair. Her face is full of wrinkles. She lumbers over to me, unsteady on her own two feet, and gasps when she practically falls backwards onto her own stool.

She gives me an awkward smile. A few of her teeth are missing. Mirt goes to the back of the room and opens a panel, retrieving two packets of sterile white circular bandages with minute circuitry exposed. Nodes? I’ll call them nodes. The woman, knowing what’s going to happen, holds out her arms and lets Mirt begin sticking them in seemingly random places on her body.

My chest constricts. Where is Eponine right now? Did he already get his memories? Is he being swarmed by makeup artists and dressers trying to mold him into some illusion of royalty?

The lady’s got at least five nodes on each of her limbs now. One of them pokes out from underneath her shirt, hugging her collarbone. One of them covers her Providence dot. Mirt leaves her and comes over to me, ripping open a new packet of nodes.

“Hold still,” he whispers, sticking the first one on. “This won’t hurt.”

I wince as the node makes contact with my skin. There’s a little jolt every time a new one touches. My fingers twitch. Maybe I’m actually a robot and I’m about to be electrocuted to my death. Overloaded. Short-circuited. Mirt is putting nodes in places he probably shouldn’t be touching.

Mirt falls silent as he pulls away from me. He bows to both of us and then leaves, the curtains fluttering behind him. Two metal panels in the opposite wall slide away, just big enough to display the handprint scanners.

“Go ahead,” the Providence says. “Put your left hand to the one closest to you, and I’ll do the same with my right.”

I don’t move. Mirt’s made me a statue. Statues don’t move unless you look away.

Her eyes are tired, focused on a point somewhere far behind me. Nobody can get much sleep on their final day alive. “Don’t worry. There’ll be enough time for me to explain what I need to. The memories will do everything else.”

Before I can convince myself not to, I put my hand to the scanner. She mirrors my movements. Two more metal panels slide out of the walls behind us. Two alcoves, each with what looks like a repurposed electric chair.

She takes her seat. I take mine. My heart is digging its way out of my chest. My head feels light. The ventilation system must be malfunctioning. I have to fix it. That’s my job. I’m the Providence.

I’m the Providence.

I’m the Providence.

The straps on the chairs come to life and snake around and bind down my legs and arms and my chest, presumably so I won’t thrash around when the memories come. The metal panels slide shut, thrusting me into darkness until another one of those damned red lights comes on somewhere above me. It’s hard to look around. There’s nothing for me to look at.

“Serlis,” the soon-to-be-dead Providence says, her voice tinny through the speaker somewhere behind me and slightly to my left. “Why did you come back after all this time?”

My throat is glued shut, but it’s the weak glue from an envelope licked shut with a dry tongue, and it comes apart with little resistance. “I wanted to fix Miralay.”

“You can’t fix something that’s not broken. Unless you’re seeing something I’m not?”

“I- The Providences-”

“Go on. Admit it. You’re not the only one with special powers, dear.”

My stomach churns. Is this being recorded? Am I being framed for treason already? I didn’t do anything wrong.

“I think it would be better for Miralay if the Providence wasn’t selected by birthright.”

The woman guffaws, an incoherent stream of noise from the speaker. “But then how would we get a leader?”

“You could elect-”

“And where would that lead? Soon, people will want to have different jobs. They’ll want to breed as they choose. And then Miralay would fall apart. This isn’t Earth, Serlis, and we aren’t humans.”

“We came from humans!”

“But we aren’t human anymore. Face it, Serlis. You’re Miralayan. You’re the Providence. When you step out of this room and take on the uniform and title, it’s going to be your duty to keep the people tranquil and healthy unless Mordern tells you otherwise.”

So I’m not in complete control, then? Just a mouthpiece for Mordern?

I can’t change a corporation. Not in twenty-three years.

“Did you leave anyone behind, Serlis?”

Is this a test?

“I already know the answer, so don’t bother responding. Those people have committed reprehensible crimes against Miralay by attempting to make the power structure of Miralay collapse. You’re better than that. You’re loyal. Stay that way, Serlis.”

The speaker shuts off. There’s a whirring sound from above, and then a plastic helmet of sorts descends and encapsulates my head. Solid foam grows from the neck hole until it’s secure and there’s no way that even a strong light would let me see my body anymore.

I’m not glowing. I don’t have any feelings. I am just a vessel for this woman.

There’s a soft whispering in my right ear, slowly growing louder until it’s at a normal talking volume. Then another voice joins it, and another one, and then images of Miralay’s many corridors and sectors flood across my vision, six different movie screens all playing and shouting for attention at the same time, all at double speed, triple, quadruple, one hundred times over and over and over. A birthday. A forced romance. A plague. A premature death of a friend, a child, a parent. Heartlessly signing away several dissidents to death row without a thought. Adult pleasures forced and childish pleasures ripped away. Speeches. Nights spent strained to make a hard decision.

A few revolts here and there, people wiped of their memories and then reshed as if they were mere computers in need of a factory reset.

The faces and voices changed, but Miralay never did.

It’s only when the helmet falls silent that I notice I’ve been screaming. My throat is raw and burns when someone’s frozen fingers touch me, make the foam retreat and lift off the helmet, loosen the straps. The other woman is slumped over, her eyes vacant.

Dead.

Mirt’s brought a wheelchair. My limbs are so tired. It’s a temporary condition, he explains as he removes the nodes, leaving them in a neat pile for the janitors. He helps me onto the wheelchair and wheels me out of the memory chamber, leaving the former Providence to be cleaned up by someone else. I’ll be fine by the time everyone’s ready to start the ceremony.

My head lolls backwards. My eyes slide shut, but I don’t fall asleep. I have my memories. I have the complete and hopefully unadulterated record of everything every Providence up to now has ever done. I know these corridors like the back of my hand.

But I’m still Serlis.

I’m still Living Wasteland.

I don’t know whether I should be disappointed or not.

Liv’s thoughtstream, 5/27/2147

Mirt pokes his face into my partition, jolting me out of whatever daydream I was having. I’ve already forgotten what it was. He’s got just the slightest bit of emotion- a crinkle at the edges of his lips, a slightly less furrowed set of eyebrows. Thawed on the sidewalk as opposed to straight from the snowstorm.

“Serlis,” Mirt whispers. “I need to show you something important.”

I slide off my bed, ruffling the sheets. Mirt’s finger flies to his lips, motioning for me to shush, so I pull on the slippers someone left beside my bed last night. I follow him out of the partition, out of the room- and there’s a dizzying array of hallways we could go out of, opening from every direction possible except for straight up and down.

Mirt places a hand on my shoulder, the hospital gown crinkling under his fingers. I hadn’t even noticed I was dizzy. Everything is dizzying, my body far lighter than it should be even with the artificial gravity, the planet spinning at a different velocity and threatening to throw me off because of it.

“Before every voyage,” Mirt says, guiding me down the rightmost corridor, “we have to spend a week in the back of a gym in a specialized chamber. We strengthen our muscles and acclimate ourselves to Earth’s gravity.” His grip on my shoulder increases, and we take a left turn, which leads to a spiral staircase I can’t see the bottom of. Or maybe that’s just my vision failing me. “Miralayans are not meant to live on Earth. Their… biological functions have deviated too far in the mere century and a half since we’ve split to survive for extended periods of time outside Mars.”

I want to tell him about Heavestone just to prove him wrong. Self-contained Heavestone, living in peace, removed from the world around it. I want to tell him about the people I came here to protect. They didn’t go through whatever muscle-building regime Amelia and Mirt and the other people went through, and they turned out happy.

Happy because they left Miralay, or in spite of it?

Parents do what they think is best for their children. My parents and Eponine’s left to keep us from being Providences. Whatever the risks, they thought that bringing us to Earth would be better than staying here.

I’m living proof that Mirt is wrong. But I’m not going to tell him that to his face.

We reach the end of the spiral staircase. I don’t feel dizzy anymore- at least, not until I look up and see how far we went in my reverie. Mirt nudges me away from the staircase and through a double set of doors. The lights change from fluorescent white to a dim red.

I instinctively take a deep breath. There are countless racks in front of me outfitted with tanks, spinning them slowly like a rotisserie met an aquarium the size of two adults laid out end-to-end. Mirt nudges me closer, close enough that I can just barely make out my reflection in the glass. Inside each tank is a myriad of tiny little grapes, all tethered to a mucus-like branch stretched out from one end of the tank to the other. Or maybe they’re fish eggs? I can’t tell. The light is too weak. They sway gently like a lazy ocean current is unsure whether it wants to blow over them or not.

“Is this how Miralay grows food?” I turn around, facing Mirt. “This is… inefficient. How do you deal with the lack of air? How do they get nutrients? How-”

Mirt shakes his head. “Look again.”

I turn back and take a second look, leaning close enough to the glass that my breath leaves fog. The grapes are translucent, each housing a little white streak inside. Some of the streaks are blobbier than others.

“I don’t get it,” I admit. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”

Mirt takes my shoulder and directs me to the next rack. I take a look- the white things are more swollen but still unrecognizable. Grape cancer? Some new kind of food that only grows on Miralay?

I turn my head, glance at Mirt, hope for some kind of explanation. He gives none, just points me to the next rack. And the next rack, and the one after that, the grapes progressively growing more and more misshapen until I’m looking at sacs the length of my thumb and there are too many coincidental lumps inside each one to be anything else.

I am staring at an unborn Miralayan child in gestation.

Mirt must notice the curling of my lip, the revulsion and yet refusal to look away, because he clears his throat. “You and Eponine were never in these. The Providences always stay in their own mother’s wombs. They can detect a Providence as early as two weeks after conception. That’s when all the other babies are taken and placed here to grow.”

I shiver. “But why-”

“Thanks to this system, parents can work without having to worry about their child being injured in a workplace accident or dying thanks to a maternal illness or a miscarriage. Every child gets the nutrients they need. Every child gets an equal footing in life, and they get assigned a memory line at birth, and they spend their formative years learning to live up to it, and then they receive their memories and work until they die and pass off their lives to someone else. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it always will be.”

I’ve slipped to my knees. The racks still rotate above my head, taunting me with future generations. All the articles I found in my two-week obsession with birth as a twelve-year-old resurface, gasping for air. Babies bond better with their mothers if they have a natural birth, they all scream as they splash around.

How can you bond with a mother who your assigned memories say isn’t your mother? How can you bond with a mother when the concept brings up six or seven people who gave birth to people who were just your vessels?

Which one is the real mother? The long-dead one who gave birth to the first person? Or the one who contributed an egg and nothing else?

How are you supposed to tell?

“Serlis?”

I’m crying. I’m sobbing because I alone got the chance to have a genuine mother-daughter connection and I never got to use it because my damn mother died while trying to escape from here and yet I came back anyways and spat on her grave.

Dead Miralayans don’t have graves. Dead Miralayans are harvested for implantable organs and then cremated in special chambers that contribute to the electricity supply. Miralayans help the colony to the very end.

I have to stop this. I need to stop this. This isn’t right-

But it is for the good of Miralay, isn’t it? It is the most efficient way to make sure that babies keep churning out. The most efficient way to stabilize the population.

Serlis. I understand your distress. But this is the way Miralay has been from the beginning. Time has proven this to be the best way. Natural birth is inefficient and dangerous for most Miralayan lifestyles. The lack of a bond helps otherwise emotionally brittle children who haven’t received memories yet move past the shedding of their parents. Miralayans don’t cry. They act.

Miralayans don’t cry. They act.

I’ve somehow managed to work and cry, but none of it will make me not Miralayan, not the Providence, not wishing that all this were someone else’s responsibility.

It’s so easy to say that I want to do what’s best for Miralay. But I have no idea what to do. And anything I could do would take generations to stabilize if the public even goes along with it and the next Providence might not be so weak and might reverse everything.

Mirt rests a hand on my shoulder. I’m trembling. I’m glowing. He asks me if I want to go back to the medical ward, says that I need to rest before tomorrow. I dry my eyes, my sore and throbbing eyes, and go with him, leaving behind the silent embryos in purgatory.

This is a breeding worthy of insects. Am I an insect? Am I a queen bee commanding all the worker bees? I don’t want to be. I want to be a human. I want babies to be born from their mothers and to grow up with their mothers. I want the inefficient way because Miralay was supposed to be humans propagating their race on other planets and maybe one day outside of the solar system, not a beehive.

I sound like Eponine. And Eponine hates Miralay and everything about it and will be subdued tomorrow and replaced with someone else entirely and so will I because it’s what Miralay wills, what Miralay needs to stay stable, what Miralay thinks is best.

I sound selfish. This isn’t about me or my dead mother or my feelings. This is about making sure that Miralay stays healthy and reproductive and primed for data collection so eventually Mordern can launch another Miralay clone on a different planet.

I have to preserve the system. This is my destiny, my birthright, my fate.

It’s for the good of Miralay.

Liv’s thoughtstream, 5/26/2147, second log

Everything smells like lemon window cleaner and the void of space and I’m still lethargic despite my limbs being liberated from the frost. My mind feels like a brick of concrete, neither human nor Miralayan.

What am I supposed to be? A doll, perhaps? A mannequin, maybe?

A hand brushes aside some of the hanging sheets denoting my partition in the medical ward, and then I see Mirt- first his face, then the rest of him as he approaches me and hands me a thin rectangle of shiny black plastic.

“What’s this?” I ask, turning to him.

Seeing that I’ve bothered to acknowledge him, he bows, keeping his gaze averted. “Serlis. You haven’t had any formal Miralayan education. Seeing that you’ll be receiving your memories in the near future, I didn’t think you wanted to spend your last few days before taking up status crammed inside of a classroom.”

Being crammed inside a medical ward isn’t much better. At least in a classroom- from what I gathered- there are teachers to listen to and knowledge to absorb.

Mirt gestures to the black plastic, taps it- and a screen comes on. “One of the security consoles the guards use. I thought it might be in your best interest to take a quick look around. I… can’t imagine the internet had much information on Miralay that wasn’t adulterated with mere speculation and conspiracy theories.”

I pick up the plastic… device. It fits perfectly in my hands. The screen has a neat little menu with muted colors and a basic font. There are hundreds of security cameras available for me to snoop around, all sorted by sector, purpose, resolution, latency. Too many options, so I go with something easy, something familiar.

The wide room that houses this very medical ward.

There are three cameras I can peer though, all of them designed to see through the curtains that keep me from snooping on the other patients, rendering the fabric as translucent gray shimmers. It must be a slow day for the medical crew- only about five or six people in here, including myself. Three adults I recognize from the outpost back on Earth; I don’t remember any of their names.

And a boy in the back with bandages over his eyes bearing soft little pinpricks of red stains and an IV in his arm and a quarter-size bald spot at the back of his head where the hair was shaved away to make for an incision site.

And the gauze taped to the space in between his eyes and up a little.

Eponine?

But I thought it would only be-

I look up at Mirt, and he clears his throat, already knowing my question. “Research done behind closed doors to try to emulate the brain-machine interface of the Providence. It won’t be as functional as yours has already demonstrated itself to be…” He shakes his head. “But we need to keep up appearances, and having a cripple as the Providence isn’t going to help much.”

Keeping up appearances?

Is there something wrong on Miralay?

Because then I need to fix it!

Eponine is too still to be lucid- I can just barely see the faint up-and-down as his chest as he slumbers on, probably still hopped up on the buckets of sedatives they must have used to keep him calm. He’ll probably wake up confused and scared and very much like I was when I first crawled out of a sleeping pod and tasted life. A directionless larvae fresh from the egg.

I go back to the list of cameras. There are no classrooms- there really isn’t much point in learning more than the absolute basics if you’ll just get all the other knowledge handed to you along with a life plan. The memory shedding lobby is empty, and a plastic sign in the far right corner proclaims that no recording or camera devices are allowed in the actual shedding room. There’s a black curtain swaying gently from the breathing of the ventilation. It probably leads to where the shedding machines are.

I guess I’ll find out in a few days.

I change the scene. A sector pathway, a hallway, countless pristine doors marking off residential quarters with numbers in the triple digits. This is Sector Three. All of the doors are closed. It is the same in Sector Four and Five and Two and the other three sectors I don’t want to bother checking because I know they’ll all just be the same old sterile walkways.

There isn’t a throne room. There is a meeting room with slightly more adorned chairs for the Providences- one with a swirling red and orange back and one as a mirror reflection of its mate but in blue and green. I can’t tell which one is supposed to be for me and which one will be for Eponine. Maybe we’ll get to choose?

“The ceremony’s going to be on Sunday,” Mirt whispers. “You’ll receive your memories and then be prepped up and presented to the public. That’s where you’ll receive your uniform and your cohabitation quarters with Eponine and become acquainted with the various officials on Miralay.”

“So I won’t have to do everything alone?”

Mirt sighs and rubs his forehead. “Fortunately. There are seven officials that answer to you, one for each sector, and they each have a retainer who answers to them. They operate without you for the most part, but they’ll approach you and Eponine for the final word on important matters. And, of course, you can always intervene.”

I can always intervene.

But there are set rules somewhere, I’m sure. Like, I can’t just have anybody murdered on a whim, can I? Executed for treason? Could I be executed for treason if I decided one day that I’d had enough of being Providence? If Eponine became so unhinged that I’d have to force him to step down for the good of Miralay? If I didn’t want there to be any more Providences, period?

I don’t… I don’t know anything trustworthy about Miralay. About the Providence’s duties, about what memory shedding entails, about the culture I’ll have to mold myself into.

About myself.

But I have all the stories I read during my purgatory- of birth permits and mistakes, of kids illicitly born to parents without a birth permit who had to hide pregnancies for nine months and then were busted when they tried to smuggle the babies off to Earth or abandoned in a forgotten corner somewhere and mistakenly shipped off to Earth. Of people who refused to give up their memories to shedding and were forcibly strapped down and gagged, of people who refused to receive someone else’s memories and station in life and resisted to the point of suicide.

Someone received memories that weren’t supposed to be theirs and suffered through dysphoria all their life because of it. Someone who was my age tried to kill as many people in the waiting lobby as possible to save them from shedding. An Earthen smuggled themselves to Miralay, got someone else’s memories, was deported back to Earth, and spent the remainder of his days running around and proclaiming that he was a prophet.

I’m surprised that, assuming all these stories are true, there hasn’t been a fully-fledged uprising yet.

“Mirt?” I whisper at long last.

“Yes, Serlis?”

Can you make me a promise?”

He kneels beside my bed, his eyes focused on a point above my head. “What is it?”

“That once I become the Providence, that you’ll help me do what’s best for Miralay. And that you’ll support me. Even if it means that I have to commit treason to make things better.”

Mirt’s eyebrows go up slightly, but he closes his eyes anyways and puts a hand on his knee. “As long as it’s for Miralay’s benefit, you have my unwavering loyalty.”

My throat chokes up. I can’t force any other words out, so I softly whisper, Thank you.”

I pat his head- I think he tolerates it, but just barely, because he stands up again right after I retreat my hand and switch to a different feed. It’s the loading bay in Miralay, positioned countless miles above our heads at this very moment. Just small enough for a few ships like the one I came in; nothing hulking huge- but then again, it’s not like there’s dozens of alien civilizations we would need to cater to. Just shipments from Earth to Miralay and back again.

I wish Eponine could have been a pilot instead of the Providence. That would have been incredibly more helpful. But then… I’d have to learn to work around someone who might not be as loyal to Miralay.

Who might be too loyal.

I turn the device facedown on the sheets and close my eyes, leaning back until my head hits the pillow. The partition sheets ruffle. Mirt is gone, leaving me to rest, and I’m all alone without anyone to talk to.

I’ll get friends in two days. All the friends I could possibly want, and then I’ll never be alone ever again.