I have no idea what planet I was on when I wrote this. But I'm pretty sure I was avoiding working on revising CLIENT RELATIONS for the millionth time! And I was mulling over the possibilities of stem cell research...
Third Prize, 2012 Pikes Peak Writers Fiction Contest
The mud gushed through my fingers. Nothing solid for me to grasp, nothing to keep me from sliding down down down into the pit. I touched something hard but it whooshed by me in a nano-ping. Sticky brown sludge covered my head and coated my eyes. Just as well. The sight of the sharp metal pikes waiting for me below would have destroyed my sanity.
Jinda? She’d been swept away in another sludgestorm, smaller and less powerful than this one but much faster. I screamed for her anyway. Couldn’t anyone hear me? My ping was powerful enough to reach someone a hundred rim-metres away. Nine-One-One, Nine-One-One.The High Code for ‘Urgent’ passed on for generations. Help Radda. Nine-One-One. I pinged over and over while the mud slished around me, heaving me closer toward the pikes. The speed at which I was being propelled was impossible to gauge but it felt like slowmo. Enough time for a crane dozer to swoop me up if someone was listening.
I used my last fiyan of energy to open one smeary-shut eyelid, instead of reaching for something, anything, to grab that might have stopped my descent. That’s when I finally saw the pikes atop the Barricades from the last war, jutting out like giant boot cleats wedged upward along The Border. The relentless torrent of crud oozed toward it, carrying me along with whatever else was trapped.
And then I was impaled, each of my extremities pinned down in excruciating permanence by dozens of giant pointed knives that pierced through my bones and came out the other side. I must have groaned but the wind and the slime overpowered any sound I might have made. No voice in my throat to cry, even if mud hadn’t been invading my mouth. The next avalanche pushed the smaller razor-spikes through me.
My ping is weaker now. Not too much longer.
My eyes tick open. I examine my hands and feet. I run my fingers over my arms, my breasts, my belly, and my legs. I bend at the hips. I twist my back from side to side. I shake out my hair and shrug my shoulders. Everything is fine. There’s not a speck, not a mar on my body. Of course there isn’t. Everyone knows the sludgestorms ended hundreds of rounds ago, right after the seed-maker wars ended and the Last Fire burned out. History class is part of basic training.
Doctor Vassid has given me a trank to calm me down. She’s concerned about my headaches. They’re getting worse all the time. I’ve been lost in other dreams, other nightmares, before, but none quite as horrible and real as this one. The Synod will probably call me in to go over the details. I take a deep breath. I’ve never seen her before, not in person, but Doctor Vassid has. She says the Synod is righteous and worthy, and no harm will come to me. I just hope another doctor is on hand to trank me again if I need it.
I head outside. My sleep-spot, ordinarily so peaceful for me, feels hot and stifling. Maybe I should change the color scheme from golds and purples to greens and blues. Soft colors to quiet me before someone says I’m crazy and tosses me into the red zone. I smile to myself and hum. Not sure about the red zone business. My huddle-partner mentioned it to me during the last round, something about a shelter with red walls, up in the cliffs, where they tie you up and never let you out. I don’t believe her. The Synod would never allow anything like that to exist.
I receive the ping loud and clear. No matter that I had plans. I ping back and turn toward The Venue. Carr is waiting for me. Carr, who pings so loud you can’t ignore her. Who complains non-stop about a speck of shee I missed on my last visit, a morsel of food I threw away by mistake, a box I pushed two kwahs to the left and didn’t re-center.
I wonder if she’s spoken to Doctor Vassid yet. If she has, she’ll probably dump me, depending on how much the Doctor has told her. Or maybe she’ll dump me after I go before the Synod, so she doesn’t have to do it to my face. Another ping scolds me for wasting time. Carr hasn’t bothered to figure out that I’m right outside her door.
Inside The Venue, Carr sits on a raised platform next to Mirum, my old boss. They’re side by side, perched on tasseled cushions. Why so formal? Usually Carr’s half-lying down next to her guests. No tassels, either. A young femm fetches a cushion for me – mine doesn’t have tassels, surprise, surprise - and stands nearby, waiting for the next order. Soon she’ll be old enough to be tested, go away for more training, just like my femm did, and become an ama. But for now, she’s at Carr’s command, day and night, round in, round out. Poor thing. Some people treat their femms like slaves, as if we all hadn’t been someone else’s femm when we were young. Carr stares her down and she melts away.
Carr and Mirum exchange glances and rise in unison. Both of them tower over me.
The femm returns with a silver tray and backs out of sight again. It’s rare for Carr to show off her wealth like this. She pours a glass of koqua and hands it to me.
“We will speak aloud,” Carr begins.
If she doesn’t ping, nobody outside the room can hear. I’m confused. No need for secrecy when you’re going to dump me, I think.
“Doctor Vassid came to see me about you,” she says. “I told her the headaches you’ve been having are from the fumes.”
Probably true, I think. Waste disposal isn’t the cleanest job, but it pays. Maybe it’s the koqua warming my belly, but I start to feel lightheaded. My job can’t be in danger if Carr, of all people, is finding excuses for me.
I lower my eyes and nod. “Yes, Carr. Please, please, let me work inside?” I’ve been desperate to get a promotion. I don’t know how much longer I can keep working with the animals. How I scored so high on the animal part of my test, I’ll never know, not when I’m terrified of them. “Cleaning up animal shee for I don’t know how many rounds --“
Enough. Carr’s ping echoes and bounces against my skull. “Lucky for you the Doctor came here first, instead of going straight to the Synod.”
Mirum folds her arms across her chest and clucks her tongue. “I remember how you feel about animals, Radda,” Mirum taps her fingertips against her cushion so the tassels gently sway back and forth. “Maybe you should tell Carr your other dream. About how the animals attacked you during the Last Fire.”
No. I don’t want to relive that nightmare any more than the one I just had about the pikes and the sludgestorm. The sludgestorm one is new, but I’ve had the other one many times. Lucky me. I dismiss the memory of the pack of animals crowding around me, knocking me down, climbing on top of me, drooling and gnashing their teeth. I shudder.
“There was another person who helped you during the attack, remember?” Mirum says.
I shake my head. Why is she bringing this up in front of Carr? I curse Mirum to myself for prodding me to speak of it now.
“I don’t know,” I say. “It was just a stupid nightmare.” I turn at Carr and clasp my hands as I speak. I think about stooping to my knees but I realize I’m already sitting. “Please, Carr, I’ve been working so hard --”
“Tell her everything.” Mirum’s voice is hard. I’ve never heard it sound quite like that before, and it sends a shiver down my back. Fine time to remind me she’s a Gresha like Carr, and I’m just a Vant.
I bow my head lower. The glass of koqua is nearby, maybe a kwah away from my wrist. I reach for it and it tips over. The precious brown fluid dribbles toward my cushion. I yank my wrap from my shoulders and dab it up. My forehead is almost touching the floor as I clean up. I suspect the two Greshas are pinging each other in the silence. Carr will punish me later, I know, after Mirum has left. The scars on my back twitch as I re-wrap the damp wrap over my shoulders. I take a deep breath and wait for Carr’s command.
Carr isn’t interested in the animal part. She doesn’t want to hear how their fangs ripped into my skin or how violently their heads shook as they shoved against each other and moved in for the kill. “Yes, yes, go on, go on,” is all she says, not even pretending to care that I’m drenched in sweat and my voice is shaking. All she wants are the details about the other human who saved me.
So I tell her the human had thick dark hair covering her chest and arms, hair even on her face. Her shoulders must have been three yua-metres wide, with large muscles that bulged out of her arms, especially when she swung an enormous hammer at the animals and smashed their skulls. Her voice was rough and deep, not like ours at all, but it got lower and softer when she took off her own wrap and pressed it hard against my wounds to stop the bleeding. Her eyes were shiny, not hollow like ours, and water dribbled out of them and down her cheeks. Her name was odd, too -- Surrgay.
Carr pumps me for details and her eyes start to shine. “And your name?” she asks. “Did she call you something?”
“Yes,” I answer. “Eeleenah. And each time she said it, she put her mouth on my face, like this.” I get up and show her. It’s a strange, sucking kind of movement with my lips. “Scuse, Carr, but you wanted to know.”
Now three people know about Surrgay and the animals. Three too many, I think, as I return to my place. “Stupid dream, like I said.” I shift around on my cushion. “So am I still stuck working outside?” I can’t keep the begging tone out of my voice. After the koqua accident, I know what the answer will be but I hope she’ll forgive me now that I’ve told her everything. I lay all the way down on the floor, face down. “Please, Carr --“
I tip my face to one side to peek at Carr sipping her koqua. Her toes edge toward my face and nudge it aside.
There is a loud crash outside The Venue as I inch backward on my belly. Carr and Mirum crane their necks to look past me. I turn my head to look, too, even though I know Carr will only punish me more. The femm suddenly appears next to me, and six people wearing long robes with badges are with her. I glance up at the ropes slung around their shoulders. Six more people with ropes file in behind them. All of them are wearing headwraps.
The one in the purple headwrap pings. Stand.
Carr, Mirum and I hold out our wrists. It would be pointless to resist.
The temps and fluid levels in the incubators have to be checked constantly. If the enviro isn’t perfect, the seeds won’t develop. It takes at least one full round before the tecks can tell if a batch of seeds is even usable. Half the time they’re not, which means more tending, more waiting, more testing.
I work the rise shift, when seeds are extracted from the seed-makers that live in waterbators. It’s my job to sterilize the extractors. After my teck fills them with seeds, Doctor Lotaz injects the mixture into an ama, and then hands the used extractor back to me so I can re-sterilize it. Sometimes they ask me to assist when she divides the kromos into x’s. No xy’s. No seed-maker innits, never ever ever. Any ama who gets an xy innit by mistake has to eject it immediately and, believe me, she’s glad to be rid of it.
The amas are selected by the Synod. It had been my dream to be chosen, but only the healthiest, strongest amas are considered worthy enough to be injected, so I must be content just to be part of the process. It’s an honor, truly it is. Still, I was so close – my hips were only two micro-yuas smaller than the required width, and my estro count was a hair off.
“Too bad, Radda,” my teck had said.
She didn’t understand why I felt so terrible. Even now, thirty rounds into the job, it’s hard not to be jealous when the amas report in after their injections. I watch their bellies swell and I ache from emptiness.
I don’t get to see when the innits finally come out and the amas’s bellies return to normal size. Only special tecks and Doctors are allowed in when it’s time. I know when everything goes well, because the Synod pays us a visit. Very exciting. Some amas get too attached to their innits afterward, and don’t want to turn them over to the feeders. Sometimes they don’t have to, either. If an ama passes some extra exams, she can feed her innit straight from her breasts.
I know I would have passed those tests.
Yossi, who lives in the venue next to mine, agrees with me. “No one would make a better ama-ma than you, Radda,” she says. Yossi is in charge of destroying the seed-makers. All seed-makers are destroyed after extraction, long before they even reach petra-yua size. I’m not sure how Yossi does it, but I’m glad I don’t have her job. I have a soft spot for those tiny little blobs floating around in tiny little tubes, cozy in their incubators just long enough for their seeds to be ready.
A few rounds ago, I named a bigger one Surrgay and gave it extra nutros, but my teck found out and removed it from my sector. I know, I know, seed-makers are bad. Bad bad bad. Bad.
I’ve seen what they did. I’ve visited the Barricades. What Gresha hasn’t? Ever since the first Synod uncovered the Barricades a thousand rounds ago, visiting them has been required. So many Greshas have thrown up at the sight of them that the teachers hand out little bags in advance. Believe me, I was no exception. When I went to the Barricades, I could almost feel the metal jutting into my skin. Part of our tribal memory, I suppose.
I don’t know why the seed-makers made the wars, or why they wanted to kill everyone. The last of them died after the burning finally stopped. Something in the air or the water wiped them all out. Only a handful of femms could tolerate the contamination, but then the sludgestorms almost finished them off, too.
Legend has it that the first Synod saved a seed, and because of her skills, here we are. I believe it. No one is more clever than the Synod. Even then, she knew we would need seeds to make innits, who would grow up to be amas like us and continue the round. But no one, even a Vant, would want the actual seed-makers back. What got into me, anyway, trying to save one of them? If it weren’t for seed-makers, the ground wouldn’t be white now, and neither would the sky. Maybe I’d see other things on the ground besides white dirt and white rocks and white bugs.
I’m so sick of white white white outside all the time. And I’m sick of being cooped up inside at the end of every single round, when the wind whips itself into a frenzy for days and days. My friend Kecki ventured outside during a Windwhip, and later, we found her body, shredded into pieces. No one else has been foolish enough to go out like that, no matter how annoying her assigned huddle-partner is. Kecki’s huddle-partner was too dim to feel bad about what happened. I think mine would notice if something like that happened to me.
People say that the Synod might change her order and allow us to pick our own huddle-partners. Here’s hoping.
Yossi, whose huddle-partner is a Vant like Kecki’s, doesn’t care either way. She says it’s stupid to prefer one person over another. After the Last Fire, many people went crazy and killed themselves. Only the vacant ones stayed alive. So we should be relieved to be vacant, I know.
“Why change what works?” Yossi asks.
“Because a thousand rounds have passed,” I answer. “Because I don’t like being vacant.”
“Really, Radda, that’s a reason?” Yossi shrugs her shoulders and turns away. Like I said, she doesn’t care.
Doctor Lotaz needs a lot more extractors these days. Seems there’s been a drop in our production and no one knows why. More and more innits have something wrong with them. Many of them won’t feed, and so they die. I don’t know anything about med stuff, but I know I could get my innit to feed if they gave me the chance.
But back to the numbers. At some point the Synod is going to find out about our losses, that is, if she doesn’t know already. Round after round, we have to report our statistics: number of extractions, injections, seed-maker disposals, live innits, dead innits. I get dizzy thinking about all those numbers.
In addition to our lower production, which Doctor Lotaz insists is just a temporary setback, I hear rumors that some of the amas are having problems. Not physical ones, of course. Everyone has plenty of food and water, and we all live in beautiful venues and have more than we need. We’re very content with our lives -- even if we don’t get selected for injection. Scuse, couldn’t help throwing that in again.
I think the problem is that not many amas want an innit as much as I do. In fact, I don’t know anyone who wants it more than me. I keep talking about it and thinking about it all the time. My teck told me I must have had a thousand innits in a former life. Very funny. As if anyone could get injected successfully more than once.
Maybe I should talk to Doctor Lotaz about re-testing me. It wouldn’t take that much to clear me for injection. Just add another dot to my measurements, that’s all. In fact, it wouldn’t take much for me to extract the seeds myself. Someone would have to inject me, I know – I couldn’t do that to myself. I could find someone who likes my venue more than her own. If I swapped with her, and snuck a full extractor out of the hospital, all she’d have to do is inject me with the seeds.
I know, I’m sounding like a crazy person. Please, somebody give me an injection before I do something really stupid. Like try to raise a seed-maker again.
My teck’s calling for me now. The sterilizer’s overheating and she needs eight extractors right away. Gotta sign off.
This is the last time I’m being recycled.
Yes, it’s me. Radda again. My shoulders ache from hours spent hunching over my microscope. I adjust my eyepiece to sharpen the resolution of the nuclei, stained blue-ish green on my slide. I jot down my calculations -- an adjustment is needed before I evaluate the next sample. It’s a double-blind study but there’s no mistaking my own cells under 500,000-x magnification.
Brains cells are highly resilient. They can survive as many as twenty recyclings with decreasing efficiency, depending on the condition and structure of the cells, and how many supporting glial cells are present. My brain cells have a particularly high concentration of both neurons and glia cells, especially astrocytes. And my neurons have an unusually large number of molecular components. But no one, not a single teck or multiple Synods, ever analyzed my cellular data to determine the strength of my memory chain.
I doubt they would have tossed me out with the trash, even if they had done the analysis. There were so few of us left after the Last Fire, we couldn’t afford to lose anyone, no matter how damaged. We couldn’t afford to discard any decent brain cells, either, even if they originally came from seed-makers. For the handful of us who were still able to perform the procedure, we knew it would take thousands of rounds to recuperate and re-evolve. Five thousand rounds and twenty recyclings, to be exact.
But with proper analysis of my cells, the Synods might have avoided some costly mistakes. Like the sixth recycling, when I was implanted into a talkative Vant who remembered when the darkwolves attacked me during the Last Fire, and when I was sucked into the Barricades by a sludgestorm. No wonder the Synod had me put down then and there, and restricted my future recyclings to the worst-case Vants.
And then there was my twelfth recycling, after the line between Vants and Greshas started to blur. Of course, I caused more trouble. I was recycled into a Gresha who wanted to make an innit more than anything in the world. A huge evolutionary step forward in our emotional complexity, and right on schedule, but no one else in the tribe was ready. They caught me trying to self-inject. For a Gresha close to the one-thousandth round, I wasn’t too bright.
Disrupting the tribal order, interfering with our rounds when there were so few of us to begin with -- I had a bad reputation. It wasn’t my fault I wasn’t properly screened, although none of the Synods saw it my way. Good thing the hospital staff lost the final termination order and stashed my test tube with the other recyclings, or I wouldn’t be alive today, looking at my cells under high-res magnification.
Because this time around -- number twenty, of all the numbers -- I got lucky. I am the Synod. The odds of brain cells surviving twenty recyclings without impairment are twelve million, nine hundred and three thousand to one. The odds are even lower for recycling those fully intact brain cells into a Synod, the highest functioning member of our society. Twenty three million four hundred and ninety seven thousand six hundred and ninety eight to one, give or take a few decimal points. How I beat those odds is beyond me.
As I examine slide after slide, I see nothing but healthy brain cells. I confirm in my notes that the recycling program has been a complete success. It is officially over. The last vestiges of our hollow, bruised populace are gone forever, just as the first Synod planned. Of course, I wasn’t part of the plan. I wasn’t supposed to be alive, let alone be the Synod. But here I am. And I’ve re-written the Order.
I used to wonder how to put the power of my memories, stretching all the back to the Last Fire, to the best use. I used to think, maybe it’s not a fluke that I’m still here.
It’s not. Because I’m the only one who understands what we’re still missing.
I cross my lab to check the incubators. The monitors are blinking green. A warm feeling passes through me and I smile to myself.
Sergei and his brothers are growing bigger.
Copyright Terri L. Weiss. All rights reserved.