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?
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.