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.”
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.”
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?
“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.