Liv’s thoughtstream, 5/24/2147

The crickets stop chirping, and that’s when I know that the Miralayan ship is ready for boarding. The room falls silent, people dropping their cards and putting on their solemn faces and switching from the lively conversers they were a moment ago back to pseudo-military personnel. They’re not actually military- Miralay wouldn’t send civic officers to Earth, and what wars would Miralay fight?- but they carry themselves as such.

The door opens. My new retainer, Mirt, pokes his head inside. My face heats up. Mirt is six feet tall and modestly built and would otherwise be cute, but he’s so… cold. If people had multiple masks for their emotions, Mirt wears one that he got from a flea market some years ago and nothing else, except for the fleeting moment this morning when Eponine was cursing out another retainer and I saw the edges of Mirt’s mouth twitch. Pure disdain rolled off of him, so thick I could feel it. He wanted to say something, to intervene, I think, but instead he shook his head and carried on with whatever he was doing. But Mirt gets the job done, even if merely turning his head my direction and letting his gaze fall on me can turn my body into some exotic lifeless metal whose name I’ve probably never heard of before.

He scares the living hell out of me. Why did Amelia think he would be a good fit?

Mirt gestures to me. My heart flutters as I take a few steps forward. He leads me out of the room and through the jungle of hallways. He is soundless as a ghost as he does so, never once glancing behind him to make sure that I’m still following him.

Maybe Mirt is a ghost.

The sky is dark, and silhouetted in the middle of the parking lot in the glare of the building’s floodlights is a hulking mass of countless tons of metal and machinery. Mirt steps forward and taps something I can’t see on his belt, and then a whooshing sound- the loading hatch opens, a staircase unfolding for us to step inside the spacecraft. A few locks of hair flop out of the bobby pins holding them back and cover his eyes. He brushes them aside without so much as even blinking.

“You first, my Providence,” he intones. His golden pin with the Miralayan crest denoting him as a retainer glimmers in the light. I take a few tentative steps forward, waiting for him to follow me, but he stays put and waits. Only after I’ve crossed the distance and climbed the staircase and stepped into the front room of the spacecraft do I hear his footsteps behind me.

It’s like something straight out of a science-fiction movie- there are five doors, all made out of thick layered steel but swung open so I can see inside. There’s the front cockpit for the pilots in case of an emergency where they wouldn’t be able to use autopilot, a storage cabin in the back full of cardboard boxes stamped with barcodes, and three rooms where I can see nothing but sleeping pods. Everything is overly clean and sterile and nothing is left to the imagination.

“Are you ready to go into stasis?” Mirt asks, his voice raspy. The dagger on his belt clinks ever so slightly against the metal sections of his belt.

My gaze flickers among the three doors. He didn’t say which. Could I pick any of them?

Mirt mutters something under his breath before laying his hands on my shoulders. I seize up under his touch, and he spins me around to face the second door, several of the sleeping pods popped open and ready. But there’s a fundamental difference between what I grew up in and those- icy mists overflow from them, pooling on the floor before wafting away into nothing.

I step inside. There’s a whooshing sound beyond the walls- probably just the ventilation system drinking in the air, preparing for space travel. More heavy footsteps somewhere else in the spacecraft. Someone laughs, a hearty guttural sound.

The room spins. There are no windows.

I will never see Earth again.

I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I chose this fate for myself. I knew full well that there would be little to no chance I would ever romp around again underneath the vast blue sky once I took up my role. But sacrifices have to be made-

“Let go of me, you whore-faced crocodile!”

Eponine.

He stumbles into the room, another retainer whose name I don’t know with her arms wrapped around his chest, grunting as she tries to pull him into the third stasis room. Mirt turns his way, focusing his arctic stare on Eponine, which just makes him all the more frantic.

Eponine locks eyes with me. His teeth are bared. This is not the soft boy whose room I tumbled into my first day of being alive, who welcomed me in despite knowing full well what I was. This is a feral animal loose from his cage, out of his element.

“Liv,” he snarls as he struggles to get free. I flinch. “I’m going to kill you for this.”

The other retainer jerks him into the other room with a final yelp. Shouting and scuffling ensues, but it eventually dies down as I hear a snap and then a click.

I can’t feel sorry for this Eponine. I feel nothing.

I’m frozen in place, a statue, a life-size marionette that Mirt takes in his hands, positions, assists down into the cool sleeping pod like he’s laying a baby to sleep. My hands fit perfectly around the handles they are supposed to hold, and there are only a few inches between my feet and the end of the pod. Mirt throws me a smile- I can’t tell if it’s fake or not- before closing the lid and snapping the latch shut.

And just like that, I’ve been packed away like another piece of cargo, ready to slip through space and time just to make a trip in a day.

I watch through the glass lid of the sleeping pod as other crew members filter into the room and lower themselves into their respective sleeping pods, none of them shivering like I am right now. The lights of their pods fade slowly from green to yellow and then to red.

“Are you ready to sleep now?” a computer voice asks me, coming at me from all sides of the pod. I suppose “Are you ready to be frozen like a human popsicle?” would be seen more as a threat.

“Yeah, I guess,” I whisper.

“Please lay back and close your eyes.”

I follow her instructions, letting my neck go limp, my head push into the cushion right below it. A fierce winter breeze blows over me- the goosebumps on my limbs resist at first, but then eventually the world lets itself out the door like it’s repulsed by me and doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore. I don’t blame it.

Darkness envelops me. My limbs are slowly going out of contact with me like they’re friends I’ve moved away from. And there’s no internet to distract me this time, and I don’t know how much more lucid time I have.

I want it to be over with already. To be breathing in the recycled air and meeting the people I’ll he helping and to have six people’s wisdom and lives make up for the void in my own.

I want to see the kind of person I’ll become. The kind of person Eponine will become. I want to be loved and adored and respected. Maybe they’ll respect me more because I chose to come back.

I want a lot of things. I want Eponine to be happy. I want to be happy. I want the people of Miralay to be happy.

I want…

Eponine’s notebook, undated

The absolute worst case scenario has happened and I could have prevented it and now I’m going to die because I didn’t bother to assert myself when Liv was bursting through my busted window.

I could have said no. I could have told her that I would never submit to Miralay in a hundred years and that I wanted to spend my life wandering in books and preparing to be an artist of sorts when I was an adult. I could have told her to screw off and to take her “civic responsibility” and shove it up her ass.

It’s not the worst thing in the world that I can’t check in previous diary entries to make sure that I didn’t spontaneously change my life goal to something more tear-evoking just because the world is closing in on me and I’m suffocating under the ocean waves. No, not the ocean waves, but the cold, dead walls of the sleeping pod- borne on artificial waves of as much agony and misery as I can feel that bitch Amelia Rogue or whatever her name is punish me with, a hundredfold for every minute that I’ve spent in relative freedom away from Miralay.

And then the- the stalking? Skulking? Shedding? It’s a word I encountered in a book I loved a few years ago, one where a billionaire was emptying out other people’s organs so he could bring other rich people back to young and healthy bodies-

Shucking. Shucking is the word I’m looking for. I’m a shellfish and I’m about to have all my insides shucked out onto the floor and drained and have fluff from six other souls shoved into the empty space in my skin so they can be young and alive again. And they see this as normal. As desirable. And when Liv and I are eventually forced to marry each other at twenty and have children at the age of twenty-two, our zygotes will be shipped away to the central facility like everyone else’s and they’ll be able to see if the child is the Providence at birth and mark them for collection on their seventeenth birthday.

I’ll have to touch Liv’s body. Have to caress her, have to pretend that I feel anything but utter revulsion at the sight of her, at the reminder that one accidental discovery in the basement of a dilapidated dollar store led to my downfall.

What if one of our children is one of the next Providences? Will I have to look a son or daughter in the eye, a child with part of my face and part of Liv’s, and comfort them as they watch me die before their eyes? As they are yoked with my burdens and former dreams and grievances and all those of the Providences who came before me?

Will the last thing I see before I die be the image of my child writhing in pain in whatever chamber they use for the memory transfer?

***

I hate Amelia Rouge’s guts with all my soul and I’ll murder her if that’s what I have to do to get free of this place. I know that I read a lot of science-fiction books as a child and that I wanted to be on a space mission to another planet, and I know that I’d be practically drooling to read this cursed life as a story if it were happening to someone else, but I’ll be damned if someone forces me into a position of power and then expects me to follow all the blasted military morning exercises as well. Whenever am I going to need to jog for ten minutes straight as the Providence? Running to a fortified room as I blow up the memory backup server and free everyone on Miralay?

If they can ship off two adolescents and a cabal of adult Miralayans to Earth and back in a matter of days, then they can import skilled workers as well. And think of the costs saved on child-rearing when they let people live longer too! If they can build babies from scratch, then they can take care of middle-aged people as well.

I’m not going to be able to do any of this, am I? I’m just going to be a puppet for Amelia and the status quo, aren’t I?

I wonder how airlocks taste. What a poignant ending for a budding artist that would be– but I doubt that any of the personnel here would allow me anywhere near the airlocks or the controls or anything other than that damned sleeping pod.

***

Today’s the day. Today’s the day Amelia’s going to shove me into a metal coffin and freeze me up and ship me off like a packet of sardines. She’s going to be on there too, but the devilette’s probably going to turn down the temperature of my stasis pod all the way down to the raging stormy winter nights of Antarctica as revenge for not wanting to be the Providence. Stasis, not sleeping, because Mars is so far away that nobody wants to deal with biological functions and their byproducts.

And they want me to pick a personal retainer from the five that came down to Earth for this trip- I don’t want one because all of them will be loyal to Miralay instead of me and it’ll be like lugging around a GPS pinging all the time in my pocket as I run away from the government.

I want to tell Mom and Dad that I’m sorry. Sorry for discovering that sleeping pod, sorry for releasing Living Wasteland into the world, sorry for not fighting hard enough when Liv came and clobbered me into oblivion so she could drag my limp body across the backyard and to the park to betray me. I love you very much and I don’t want to be remembered as whoever they’ll shove into me but as the person I was.

I promise I’ll come back someday.

I promise.

a pilfered Mordern business log

Date: Sunday, May 21, 2147

Time: 02:43

Reporting Officer: Amelia Rouge

Location of incident: Unsure. Earth.

Description of incident:

I’ve found them. The missing Providences of Miralay. Sure, one of them is a clueless twat with the social skills of a six-year-old and the other is unconscious, but one will wake up in the next few hours and one will be rectified with the mind shedding.

Serlis Greenland and Eponine Westal were retrieved at Rotary Park at 02:00. Eponine was found in a comatose state and was diagnosed with a slight concussion due to blunt trauma. He is expected to make a full recovery. Serlis was found kneeling next to him murmuring nonsense and refused to leave Eponine at first but was eventually convinced to get in the vehicle and let my subordinates do their jobs.

The Providences have been successfully transferred to the outpost in southern Minnesota. Medical officials in Miralay have been instructed to begin decreasing the potency of the current Providences’ life extension therapies without informing the populace until the identities of the newly-found Providences have been confirmed with DNA testing. This is to ensure that a state of undue panic or general unrest does not arise and cause disturbances.

***

Date: Sunday, May 21, 2147

Time: 13:38

Reporting Officer: Amelia Rouge

Location of incident: Minnesota Outpost. Earth.

Description of incident:

Eponine Westal had a mental breakdown before breakfast that required multiple subordinates to hold him down to prevent him from doing harm to himself. He complained of what I suspect to be heat flashes and hallucinations caused by extreme stress and threatened to cause harm to himself if it would prevent him from fulfilling his role as the Providence. Attempts to reason with him were unsuccessful, so after half an hour of throwing a fit and cursing at the staff, I had him sedated and escorted to a private room.

Serlis Greenland is adjusting well to the sudden change. Despite her extreme clumsiness, which I suspect is due to errors in judging distances caused by her supposed imprisonment in a contraband sleeping pod, she is exceedingly polite with everybody with only a few occasional outbursts. We had a delightful breakfast and lunch.

Reports have been submitted to the legal authorities concerning the Providences’ disappearances from their neighborhoods. Due to the limited information contained in their legal files, there is not much action that can be taken against the parents. Keeping fingers crossed for a neglect case.

***

Date: Tuesday, May 23, 2147

Time: 17:54

Reporting Officer: Amelia Rouge

Location of incident: Minnesota Outpost. Earth.

Description of incident:

Preparations are now underway for a return to Earth. Judging from the improvements to the hyperdrive, we should be back on Miralay by this Friday. Eponine’s behavior continues to be frantic and self-destructive. However, giving him a notebook in which to write down his thoughts and emotions instead of screaming them and disturbing the rest of the Miralayan workers seems to temporarily quiet his fretting. He is monitored during his writing sessions, and the notebook is confiscated when he is finished for safety and security reasons.

I do care for these children- because they are children, after all; Serlis growing up without parental guidance and Eponine, from what I can tell from Serlis’ testimonies, being raised isolated from the rest of the world. There is something deplorable in having pride in one’s lineage suppressed, and I fear it will take Eponine a while for his phobia of all things Miralayan to subside. Hopefully his therapist will help him through his exceedingly morbid thoughts that he writes in his notebook as well as his separation and performance anxiety.

Although, this morning, Eponine did attempt to use the excuse of being the Providence to try to order me out of the room during the morning exercise drills. It’s a start, at least.

***

Date: Wednesday, May 24, 2147

Time: 09:28

Reporting Officer: Amelia Rouge

Location of incident: Minnesota Outpost. Earth.

Description of incident:

Eponine continues to exhibit suicidal thoughts as displayed in his notebook, which will be submitted to the psychiatrist upon return to Miralay. This has not been disclosed to him as I fear it would cause him to cease writing truthful thoughts down and feed us information that we want to hear instead of need to hear. The more that he spills in that notebook, the better treatment he can receive on Miralay. In addition, I have begun setting up an appointment to get his Providence dot surgically restored to make up for his maiming at the hands of his parents. Purely for cosmetics only, as the brain connections have been severed for far too long to reverse the withering of the brain-machine interface.

Serlis remains emotionally stable despite full knowledge of Eponine’s paranoia concerning her and all things Miralayan. I believe she has picked Mirt as her personal retainer. A fine choice if I do say so myself; Mirt seems to take her unrefined emotions down a few notches with minimal effort. Eponine refuses to respond to any requests and only comes out of his bed to go to the bathroom and for meals. If only I had another Mirt to give him.

We will leave for Miralay tonight after dinner. The ship is being prepared as I write. Everything is running exactly as planned.

Liv’s thoughtstream, 5/21/2147

My father’s room remains quiet as I slip out of my bedroom and close the door behind me. The rest of the house is a cacophony of noise- electronics quietly hum as they execute their jobs, the air system shimmers like fairies are running through it, and the vents growl.

I tiptoe my way down to the office. My heart leaps as the green glow of the status lights on the computer greet me, and then a pang of guilt- why am I so happy to return to my purgatory?

No. This is different because I have a white nightgown brushing against my ankles and I’m sweating and I can hear my breathing loud and clear, even as I slide onto the chair and wiggle the mouse to wake it up. The screen is a physical thing I can touch, and I’m not limited by the speed I can think but how fast my fingers can fly across the keyboard.

They can’t move fast enough.

Mordern’s home page sits in front of me, too professional for comfort. Sterile and clean with sharp edges I might cut myself on. But there is a support link, and I click it, immediately coming face to face with a myriad of phone numbers for all the things Mordern does: tech support, business requests, press interviews.

Miralay inquiries. That’s the one I want.

My father’s landline is right next to the computer on the desk. My hands tremble as I reach for the mouthpiece, paranoid that the mere press of a button will wake my father and get me thrown back into the sleeping pod. I press it against my ear- just a faint hum, even when I begin pressing buttons.

The ringing is as loud as gunshots, but still my father does not stir upstairs.

“Welcome to the Miralay inquiries hotline,” a chipper woman says on the other end of the call. “How may I help you?”

My throat closes. I forget how to speak for a few full seconds, mind racing with a million things I could say, until the woman clears her throat and I’m pulled back to reality.

“I’m the Providence.”

I can feel the caller lady thrown off-guard, her surprise thick and heavy across the line. “Is this a prank?”

“No!” I messed up, I messed up, I messed up- “I’m Living Wasteland, but my father calls me Serlis, and I’ve got a dot on my forehead, and I might be developing weird powers, and I was kept in a sleeping pod for seventeen years, and my mom died so my father and I could escape, but I need to get back to Miralay so Mordern will be appeased and won’t go looking for any more escaped Miralayans.”

Thick silence between the two of us, and then she speaks. “I’ll check the birth records.”

“Please don’t tell my father,” I whisper almost reflexively. “If he finds out, he’ll lock me up in that sleeping pod again for the rest of my life.”

“I won’t tell,” she promises, and then the elevator music comes on.

***

“Hello?”

I startle awake. The phone is in my lap- I hold it back up to my ear. “Hello?”

“Is this the same girl who was claiming to be the Providence?”

My voice shakes, but I manage to get out the words, “That would be me.”

What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Dad is going to kill me-

“Hello, Serlis. I’m Amelia Rouge, second-in-command at Miralay Colony. I’m on Earth right now on official business.” A shuffling noise, probably papers. “So you claim to be the Providence.”

“Can you call me Liv?”

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t like the name Serlis.”

“Your supposed birth records on Miralay display your name as Serlis, so that’s what I’m going to address you by. Does your computer have a webcam?”

I quickly check the desk. Sure enough, a camera sits on top of the monitor, its glassy lens watching me like a hawk. “Yeah.”

“Make sure it’s turned on and go to Mordern’s support page. There should be a chat link. Enter in your name and I’ll make sure the request gets sent to me.”

Her instructions are easy enough. A blank square appears on the monitor- I’m such an idiot, thinking I could work a webcam in the dark. I drop the phone in my lap and fumble around the desk until my fingers slip on a lamp switch- and the sudden light burns makes me flinch away just as the woman’s face comes into view.

I cover my eyes with my fingers, allowing myself a sliver to look through, and peek at her. Red hair and a slim face and stern eyes. She looks so much like me, but she can’t be my mother because my mother died to get me here only for me to be entombed alive.

Would Mother have made Father raise me normally?

Her eyes widen. Her mouth forms a perfect O before she covers it up with her hands. She’s staring at my forehead, at the red dot. I know it.

“You look so much like your mother,” she says at long last, struggling to regain her military-like composure. Her voice comes through the phone, although I can’t see it on her end. She takes a deep breath and sits up straight, a gesture that I unwillingly mirror. “My Providence. It will be an honor to take you home.”

Home.

Miralay.

It sounds so simple when she puts it that way, like I’d just be moving to a different state instead of a whole different planet.

My hands fall down to my sides. I try to keep my face blank. When are you picking me up?”

“Anytime in the next two weeks. I take it your location is…” Her eyes shift to the side for a moment, looking at something off-screen. “The unused lot near Rotary Park. Your location must be off by a few miles. Is that within a safe distance?”

I nod my head, willing myself not to sweat, wondering if maybe she can sense my thoughts through the screen. The park is too close to Heavestone for comfort. It’ll have to do. I don’t know where anything else is.

Report to Rotary Park in two hours. I’ll escort you to my lodging and we’ll decide on a plan of action from there.”

This is it. This is my chance to tell her about Eponine. I open my mouth-

“There’s another one.”

Amelia Rouge perks up. “I beg your pardon?”

“I know where the other Providence is. He lives close to me.”

Heat floods my face. Stupid! Stupid girl, thinking you can make choices that important for other people!

I’m the Providence. This is my job. This is for the good of Miralay.

Bring him as well,” Amelia Rouge adds, and then the image fades.

I close down the computer and phone and turn off the lamp and slink back to my room, pondering for a moment what I’ve just done. My hands shake, and then they suddenly pull me to my window, unlocking the window as if I had done it a million times and pulling me onto the dewy lawn. It is chilly and damp and my face is full of dirt as I become a marionette for some invisible master and amble across the backyard to the road.

Eponine’s house is just a few streets away.

Eponine.

Eponine, future unwilling Providence of Miralay, will hate my guts if he doesn’t already. But in a land where I can expect everyone to love me, I suppose I could use someone to be the opposite.

Eponine’s diary, 5/20/2147, second page

Tox’s face immediately grew flushed the moment the words left her mouth. She excused herself to go to the bathroom, and I watched her as she left, noting the way her cocky attitude had shrugged off her like a fur coat on a sunny and steaming day.

And- I know this next part is going to make me sound like a pervert- I followed her. I picked up my stack of books, flew through the self-checkout, and set them on the bench beside the water fountains before sliding open the door to the unisex bathrooms. All the stalls were occupied except for the one where the handle had long since busted and there was nothing but an open hole remaining of the original lock- not a big stretch of the imagination to know why nobody used it anymore.

I camped out in the broken stall and squatted on top of the toilet lid, the perfect height to watch the people coming in and out. I hoped that, with enough time, Tox would come out, see that I was gone from my spot, get confused, and then go back to wherever she came from.

I… I can’t write today. I can’t- I can’t-

No. I’ve got to write everything I can think of down, because if Miralay catches me and makes me the Providence, I want to remember the person I was before, even if he was nothing more than a dreamer stuck inside a dead city.

I watched that yellow bathroom door like a hawk. Countless people passed in and out- mothers with their children, elderly ladies with functional bowel systems looking to surround themselves with younger outlooks, teens just dismissed from the local anime club needing to purge their systems of the soda binges and wash the cheeto dust from their fingers. I waited for what seemed like a few hours- my watch told me it was fifteen minutes.

But fifteen minutes was plenty of time for Tox to finish up in the bathroom, even if she had to redo her makeup, right?

I slid out of my stall, washing my hands even though I hadn’t done anything, and glanced around. The situation I had walked into was inverted- all of the stalls were empty except for one, where a pair of bare feet poked out from behind a purple door. I walked closer- a soft sniffle, a rustle of fabric, a faint humming.

I recognized that voice.

I gently knocked on the stall door. In the back of my mind, I screamed at myself- what are you doing? That’s probably just a stranger, someone you don’t know-

“Serlis?”

The sounds stopped. The door opened a tiny crack, Living Wasteland peeking out with only a sliver of her face visible, the eye that I could see gray like someone had poked it with a needle and let the color drain out.
A morbid image fitting for the morbid fate she was perfectly okay with allowing to happen to herself.

“Call me Liv,” she said in an almost inaudible voice. “I like it better.”

“Fine, Liv,” I sighed. She opened the door slightly more- her forehead shone with beads of sweat. Behind her was a backpack, black clothes hastily crammed in and overflowing.

She must have noticed me staring since she glanced away and blushed. “I need you to take me home.” She rubbed her Providence dot. “I don’t know how to shift back.”

“You can… shift? Is that a Providence thing, or…”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, okay?” Tears formed in her eyes. Her mouth quivered. “I was going for a walk, and then I doubled over in a playground, thinking I was going to be sick- and then I found myself looking like that, so I put on my second pair of clothes thinking they would fit better. I thought I would walk around town and see if I could find any Miralayan enforcers willing to give me cash in exchange for the Providences-”

You were going to sell me out!?

Liv covered her eyes, cringing. “I would come too, dumbass! You and I are in this together, remember?”

“No. I’m not the Providence, and I’m not your Providence, and if you know what’s best for you, you won’t be the Providence either.”

I slammed the stall door in her face, chivalry be damned, and walked myself home with my books in hand. In retrospect, diary, I should have been kinder. Should have tried to talk her out of her apparent death wish. But at the same time… There’s no reason why I should have to take any crap from a girl who would be so willing to spit on her mother’s grave for a misplaced sense of duty.

Earth is so vibrant here compared to what I’ve seen of Miralay. I would rather see blood on my scuffed knees after a long day of exploring than the reddish dirt of Mars after a day of being pampered. Miralay doesn’t have wide-open skies or skin-roasting bonfires or deafening waterfalls or whispering forests as far as the eye can see. Miralay won’t give me the freedom to choose my own job or decide where I want to live or even to keep my mind unadulterated and free of foreign influence.

Living Wasteland can go join her namesake for all I care.

I’m not king material. I’m not the Providence- I can’t be.

I won’t be.

Eponine’s diary, 5/20/2147

The Heavestone library was closed due to construction. They were going to put in a new little area with a skylight and glass walls so that people could bask in the sun or relish in the rain- at least, if Heavestone would ever have rain instead of a repeat of the same day over and over. So I grabbed an old backpack and packed it like Boney would have and set out for the closest one in the Land of Shadows.

Mom stopped me before I could even leave the house.

“Where are you going, Eponine?” she asked, her voice soft. There were dark circles underneath her eyes, like she’d slept the same exact amount as I had. The thought should have bothered me. “We already have people searching for Boney. We don’t need- I don’t want you-”

“I just want to go to the other library. That’s all.”

“Eponine…” Mom moved closer to me, catching one of my hands, dragging me back further away from the front door. I tried to pull away, but she held fast. “I don’t want to lose you to Miralay. Not… not with the recent developments-”

Why?” I yelled, immediately regretting it. I sharply jerked my arm. Mom let go of my hand. “Nothing’s changed as far as Mordern knows. You let me out before-”

Mom sighed and shook her head. “Fine. Just… be careful, okay? And if you see Serlis anywhere, you be sure to bring her straight back here.” She moved in for a hug, enveloping me in several layers of her nightgown. “And maybe bring me back something as well.”

***

There are three rules I have to follow when I go out into the Land of Shadows, no matter what I’m planning on doing. Mom came up with them at first when I was much younger, but since then, they’ve gone through many revisions to deal mainly with two things. That I was growing up, and that, when I was eleven, Mordern spent an inordinate amount of money on a series of public campaigns advising Earthen people to turn in any suspected Miralayans to them. The government could have done something- should have done something- but apparently the protective laws my forefathers had when they moved to Miralay only apply to fully-fledged humans.

The first rule is that I have to have a phone on me at all times. A pretty standard rule- in fact, it’s kinda stupid to waste an entire rule on it.

The second rule is that I have to pay for everything with cash. Credit cards require an actual identity and are too easily tracked, and anything else requires a bank account and an actual address, neither of which I have.

The third one, I broke today.

I was sitting in the back alcove of the library room, the one with the young adult books full of cliché things like angsty vampires and overdone rebellions. Behind the three shelves of books was a row of couches, all with absurdly high backs and facing away from the main area so all one could see when nestled in there were the glass panels stretching up to the ceiling. Some fast food restaurant was visible across the street, so if one was bored of tracing one character’s arduous journey of finding her long-lost love, they could simply glance up and snicker at the backup in the drive-through simply because of a broken ice-cream machine.

Machine broke!

Understandable; have a nice day.

It should have been paradise. A stack of books were at my feet, taken from random sections of the library- some of the aforementioned trope-filled fanservice manuals, a soon-to-be-outdated history of video games, and an instruction booklet on how to make gay ice cream. In my lap, splayed open, was a memoir of a former Miralayan. It was dangerous reading something like that in the open, I know… but I couldn’t help myself.

Until she came along.

“’Sup, nerd.”

I didn’t move in time to keep her from strolling into the alcove and lightly nudging my book stack with her foot- the entire thing toppled over, spilling onto the floor. I bookmarked my book and moved to fix it, but she took a seat right by me as I leaned over and shoved me off the couch with her foot. I somersaulted off the couch, landing a few feet away.

“Hey!” I rolled over and picked myself up, sliding whatever books were in reach towards the couch. “What was that for?”

The girl crossed her long, slender legs. A smirk hinted itself on her face. “I found one. You. But it’s okay.” She winked. “I won’t tell.”

My palms began to sweat. She knew. She knew I was a Miralayan and she knew what I looked like and she was going to turn me in-

People say that they’re not going to tell anyone, but somehow they always end up lying!

The girl leaned over and scooped up all my books, depositing them in a neat pile on her right side. She patted to her left, inviting me to take the very same seat that I’d just been at a moment ago, waiting until I sheepishly took it to drape her arm behind my shoulders. Her touch was cold like a dead body.

Not that I’ve ever been around a dead body…

So what’s an alien like you doing all the way out here in the badlands of Vermille?”

Don’t look at her body.

I’m not an alien. And what I’m doing is none of your business.”

Damn, this is difficult.

Or is it?” She leaned in closer, close enough that I could smell a faint lemony tinge in her breath- past gum, perhaps? A few strands of her dark hair fell onto my shoulder. You feel threatened. I can feel it. I don’t blame you.” She glanced at my books, then back to me, a clearly calculated move. “I’m Tox. One of Miralay’s best alien hunters. Or an immigration officer, if you want to put it that way, but I’m not all that interested in holding up laws.”

I instinctively jerked away from her, mind racing through all the different ways I could get out of the library and away from this girl, how pissed the librarians would get at the books just left lying around, whether or not yelling would help my chances of getting away or whether it would just alert other people to my otherness. But her arm shot out faster than I could decide and clutched my forearm, yanking me back to her. Before I could comprehend what was going on, there was a sharp sting in my forearm- and then she let go of me, letting me sink back onto the couch.

There were three possibilities I could think of. A tracker, or a poison, or maybe just a ragged fingernail.

I don’t know which one I preferred in that moment.

“I’ll give you a few days of freedom,” she whispered as I winced, rubbing where she’d injected me with something. And then I’m gonna find you again and decide what I want to do with you.”

“You’re… not taking me back to Miralay?”

She shook her head, this time an unbridled laugh escaping from her. A few people on the other side of the partition of the alcove turned their heads in annoyance. “Nah. Just keeping you on your toes.” Her voice dropped back to a whisper. “Honestly, kid, be more careful in the future. I’m not an actual hunter, but I could just have easily been. I’m gonna escort you home, okay?”

I shook my head, eager to be rid of her and continue my self-imposed perdition in that alcove. “No thanks.”

Why not?” She reached into her shirt and retrieved a pendant- just like mine. The two of them began to glow softly as she winked. “Just give me an address and we’ll be off.”

Eponine’s diary, 5/19/2147

I tossed and turned in my bed all night, diary. I didn’t get a single minute of sleep until my alarm was about to go off, and even then, it was more of a dream-like state than full-blown sleep. So if the letters are shaky or if I misspell a word or two, I hope you’ll understand.

Today should have been like any other day. Getting up, eating a standard breakfast, and then heading off with Boney to go romp around in the Land of Shadows. But Boney is still missing, and none of the other people I would dare call friends in Heavestone are really that interested in potentially getting discovered by someone who knows the subtle differences between a human and a Miralayan and turned over to Mordern.

I don’t want to go back to Miralay. I don’t want to go back to Miralay. I don’t want to go back to Miralay.

I want to stay right here in Heavestone, where it might be boring, but at least I’ll know that it’s me making the bad decisions and not some cracked and possibly corrupted soul messing with my brain. Maybe- maybe if I had been assigned a different memory line at birth, like a chemist or an accountant or whatever the equivalent of a librarian is up there, then I wouldn’t feel so panicky about Living Wasteland wanting to give herself up and potentially drag me up there. Because, diary, Miralay won’t be satisfied with only one Providence. If they find out where one of them were, no doubt they’ll tear up the entire state looking for the other.

I don’t want to be the Providence. I don’t want to be the Providence. I don’t want to be the Providence.

I heard Mr. Greenland found Living Wasteland up the street from him, just wandering about like the borders to Heavestone weren’t a thing. Which begs the question- how did she get here in the first place? She mentioned the dollar store- at least, if my previous diary entries were right- and she mentioned coordinates that someone gave her. But who?

Probably Mr. Greenland on the off chance that she woke up before he wanted her to. Which was entirely mine and Boney’s fault. I bet he gave her the name of Living Wasteland too.

I spent the entire morning in my room, thinking about Miralay and Living Wasteland and then feeling like shit and distracting myself with romance novels I hadn’t read in years and all the video games I could dredge up. I uncovered half-finished craft projects and a book I’d been writing that I hadn’t touched in a great while because, well, I have this journal and it doesn’t frustrate me nearly as much to write about my own life than it does to come up with complete and captivating worlds out of thin air.

You like me, right, diary?

Who am I kidding? You’re never going to talk to me. You’re just a collection of blank papers for me to impose my will upon, to write what has already happened.

Like Miralay wants to do with me.

I think Mom noticed I was agitated as well. She taught me how to fold laundry- “No, you’re supposed to tuck the sleeves in the inside, not the outside, because then they won’t fall out.” She had me make lunch- “No, you’re supposed to use a pan, not a pot.” And then there was the garden she’d built in the backyard last summer- “Hey, be careful with the tomato vines!” Anything to distract me.

And every time she thought I wasn’t looking, she would turn around and sigh to herself like she was carrying some heavy guilt on her shoulders. Like she was sorry that she’d told me about being the Providence.

Mom could have kept it secret, could have told only Living Wasteland when she showed up at my house. But she didn’t, and now I’m wondering if I should start holing up in the closest library every chance I get, hopeful that maybe the Miralayans won’t be so far removed from humanity that they’d dare to attack a defenseless library.

Maybe that’ll do it. I’ll start tomorrow.