She was born long after the war—long after environmental devastation had rendered natural human conception impossible. Radiation and its effects made selection necessary. We did not have the food or space inside the dome for useless eaters. We were accustomed to giving up the defectives: infants lacking sight or hearing, newborns tainted by fallout or fertility drugs. When survival is desperate, the unthinkable becomes commonplace.
We were starving. Most of our newborns lacked brains or faces. If we did not feed them, they died. If we did not dispose of them, they rotted. They were dangerous, epidemic, worse than nothing. Modern Typhoid Marys.
The defectives were so obviously lacking, so clearly nothing but a drain on scarce resources. Even the sentimentalists among us had no argument.
The dome was built on cement. We had no place to bury, no way to burn. We combined disposal with nutrition. It was pure logic. Now, the defects give back. They are welcomed into the world. Their cells are cloned to grow food, but it is a slow process.
To grow cultured meat, we anesthetized and dissected the defectives, utilizing the tissue with the most rapid proliferation rate. Stem cells multiplied quickest but were difficult to control. Fully developed muscle was ideal but increased sluggishly. Even with all the cells from all the defectives reproducing in every lab beneath the dome, we only received meat once a year, on The Celebration of Survival.
We crowded together, fifty thousand strong, shoulder to shoulder and cheek to cheek, filling the center of the dome—the only space inside our protective bubble not filled with house cubbies, machinery, meat plants, water desalination and electrolysis facilities. The one place where we could stand together, united in our determination to continue. We raised our voices so loud, harmonies echoed from every wall:
We will survive.
Give thanks to the sun.
We will continue.
Give thanks to water electrolysis.
Thanks to desalination
Our race is not done
We make up our lack
We give and give back
We live afresh
Eat of our flesh
No sacrifice is too great
To build our state.
Then we are each given sixty grams of meat. It is tender—our one luxury, our commitment to continue. It is the same guarantee that an earlier age made when they took Communion: consuming the body of their beloved savior, drinking his holy blood, eating his sacred flesh. We have taken this promise to its rational conclusion, and we are nothing if not rational. When survival is in doubt, fancies fade, and faith dies quickly.
This is our one sacrament. The only time we come together without work. It is brief and powerful. It is vital.
Most of our nourishment comes from algae. It’s healthy but tasteless. Flavor is a luxury we can no longer afford. So, though we need whole and healthy minds and bodies, defectives are welcomed, too.
My first baby, a boy, lacked eyes and ears. The abnormality was detected early on. In the days before meat cloning, he would have been immediately aborted, but as it was, I had to carry it to term. I will not pretend it was easy to be the bearer of food, but survival is never easy.
My second birth, a girl, was missing a small but vital fold in the cerebral cortex. I had no qualms about delivering her into the hands of the State.
While most defectives were obvious at birth, a few conditions did not reveal themselves until much later. That was harder.
Philicautotroph Syndrome, for example, is undetectable until the child is about age six. At first, PS children seem normal—better than normal—as one the earliest traits observable is an outsized ability to love.
“100% of Philicautotrophs are kind-spirited, and 98% empathize with others’ pain. Infants with Philicautotroph syndrome make frequent eye contact. Young children will often hug strangers. Individuals typically have high empathy and are rarely aggressive. They excel in reading intentions, emotions, and mental states.”
–Hypatia Adair, Treatise on PS Detection, 2314
Though I, Hypatia, am credited with discovering PS, their attributes were first uncovered by their mothers, who would not give their defects to the State. Some secreted their babes in basements, where they died. Others concealed their children in window-lit attics, where they thrived. Thus, we discovered they could not live without light.
Each PS sufferer degenerates differently. In some, their eyes are the initial and primary organs affected. It is not so much a diminution of vision as a change of perspective. Their focus narrows. They become less responsive to dull colors.
In others, audio changes are first. They smile and sway as though listening to music.
They cease to react to angry words or tone.
In some, olfactory senses are initially affected.
–Hypatia Adair, PS Problems and Solutions, 2315
It was odd. PS patients seemed to react only to pleasant scents. Not having a warning system could be dangerous. A child who smelled air freshener but not the sewage infiltrating the dome would be imperiled.
As they soaked up the sunlight, listening to the rhythms in their heads, their appetites decreased. They stopped responding to outside stimuli. Eventually, they ceased eating altogether. They stayed where they were placed. Most did not respond to human touch or voice. A few folded their hands when stroked or curled their toes when tickled, but that was all. Their skin grew sallow, yellow gradually giving way to bright green.
From those few hidden children (some discovered when the disease was very far advanced), I learned the secret of their foodless existence. I tested them. I dissected them. It is not as gruesome as it sounds. PS takes not only motion and sound; it takes everything. Every nerve, muscle, and neuron. Every thought, idea, and sentiment.
By the time sufferers reach puberty, they are not human.
I worked on the program, devising the best placement for each PS, spreading them throughout the dome for maximum efficiency. Even though the children were no longer responsive—even though they were no longer really individuals—their mothers protested when I removed them. I did not understand: why would a mother cling so to tightly to her defective? Why would she care where they were placed? So many things I did not understand.
I do now.
I wish I didn’t.
As those with PS grew, they turned light into sugar. They lived on sunbeams, breathing in carbon monoxide and breathing out oxygen, enriching the air inside the dome. And so, we kept them.
I called her Gaia, my first perfect child. She had gazed into my eyes when I’d held her, searching so intently, I felt she could see into my soul. She made me want to suckle her, even though I had no milk (and even if I did, it would have been contaminated).
I was not prepared for the joy burying my face in the nape of her tiny neck gave me. I had never imagined she would smell of freshness, possibility, and hope. It was like breathing 19 percent oxygen.
The air inside the dome fluctuated between 11 and 15 percent. Maintaining adequate levels was one of our most difficult challenges. It had been easier to fill nutritional requirements in our algae tanks, even though we were always hungry. It had even been simpler to provide 1.7 liters of potable water per person daily from our desalination plants, though, despite our best efforts, the dryness was always there: a silent scream, a constant tickle in the back of every throat. The only benefit of the thirst was that we rarely noticed the gnawing in our bellies.
The oxygen problem should have come as no surprise; after The Last War, the only surface to build on had been cement, and with almost fifty thousand people breathing in an enclosed space, it was a wonder we were able to keep up acceptable levels at all.
Electrolysis saved us. We poured seawater and diluted hydrochloric acid into a Hofmann Voltameter and passed electricity through it. Oxygen gathered on one end and was released into the dome. But even with the plants running at full capacity, we never got beyond 15 percent.
Some whispered that the engineers had secret meetings in rooms filled with 22 percent oxygen, but I never believed it. In an earlier age, corruption was as ubiquitous as breathing, but since The Last War, the shortages were too great. We depend on each other to survive now. Perhaps it is our silver lining; having destroyed the feast, we must divide the scraps. Egalitarianism grown from deprivation. Altruism based on need.
Gaia walked and talked early. Her happiness was infectious. I, born after the war, had never considered things beyond endurance. We were too dehydrated to be concerned with beauty. We were too hungry to consider feeding the soul. But Gaia made the world seem full of possibilities. For her, every step was a dance, every word a poem.
Her voice, high and sweet, made me think of descriptions of birdsong. It was a sign, but I wasn’t watching.
I had never expected to find wonder in the everyday; a visit to the algae tanks, a trip up a narrow ladder to adjust the solar panels, but she did, and I saw through her eyes. Every window to the outside became a portal to a magical realm. And I was drawn in, seeing unstable arcs of electromagnetic radiation outside the dome as rainbows, admiring the colors without worrying about what caused them. I was blinded by her light and never noticed the warnings.
She described the most ordinary things in words that made me look at them anew: the droplets of oil condensing on the dome’s surface became tiny, iridescence replicas of our world, the reddish mists rising from the algae vaults transformed into clouds of glory.
The language used by individuals with Philicautotroph syndrome differs notably from unaffected populations, including individuals matched for IQ. People with Philicautotroph syndrome use speech rich in emotional descriptors, high in prosody (exaggerated rhythm and emotional intensity), and unusual terms and strange idioms.
–Hypatia Adair, Further Discoveries on Development in PS, 2315.
It was Gaia’s strange idioms and fanciful metaphors that stopped first. Her speech grew simpler and more direct. I thought it was a sign of maturity and scolded myself for missing her curious, sideways view of life. She had been born into a practical world with no room for illusions. So I tried not to mourn, never realizing it was a sign of degeneration.
Even if I had understood, what could I have done? I could not seek medical help. If she were defective, she would be used for meat. Even as I considered the options, her cells were changing, each thin-walled cell division, metamorphosing from muscle and nerve into meristematic and permanent tissue.
She became less talkative, less gregarious, less adventurous. By the time she was eight, she had stopped dancing. By the time she was ten, she had ceased walking. She liked to sit cross-legged on the floor in a corner, soaking up the wan rays that permeated the dome, rocking slowly back and forth, softly humming to herself. I missed the birdsong of her voice and the rhythm of her skipping steps, but mostly I missed her laughter, that spontaneous burbling up of joy, that contagion of happiness.
Her vision was contracting until she could perceive only truth and goodness. She saw rainbows, but not the sea of trash below. She watched the love in my eyes, but not the tears wearing grooves into my once-smooth skin. In this world, where beauty was so rare, she became blind.
I refused to believe. I brought her food. I read her books. I showed her pictures. I pleaded with her to respond. I shook her and yelled at her, but her eardrums were tuned only to pleasant sounds. She could hear harmonies, but not my sobbing. I slapped her non-responsive face. Her smile didn’t even fade—not at first. But each day, it grew dimmer, not because her mouth muscles were relaxing, but because her features were diminishing, retreating into blankness. My girl, my child, my joy—she was leaving me without moving.
I tell myself that I am fortunate. At least Gaia was born after we understood the benefits of PS. At least I will not lose her to the State, this daughter I love.
And I wonder.
I wonder about movement and sentience. I wonder what Gaia, green head filled with light, is feeling? I wonder if she is thinking? Does she remember? Does she recall our games of hide and seek, our tales of magic and wonder? Does she still love me?
Man looks in the mirror and says, “That is beautiful. That is smart. I am the master of the universe.”
I look at my small, motionless, verdant child. I think she’s smiling, but it’s hard to be sure. I bury my nose in her flesh, trying to locate that fresh baby scent, but unearthing only a vegetable moistness. Her features are so indistinct, her face only a memory. Her brain has dissolved into meristematic tissue. In an earlier time, she would’ve provided food for animals and a place to live for birds. Even now, she cleanses our planet with each breath. And I wonder, which species is superior?
And I wonder—when she so clearly has a reason for being, why this is so hard? Why do I mourn this gift? Why do I feel I have lost her?