My first impression was that it was more of a lab than an office. It was all white tile, glass partitions, stainless steel lined walls. Turning the corner, there was a glass top desk with steel legs similar to the one that was at my mother’s office at the CGP. Beyond that there was an actual lab setting with empty clean counter space, microscopes, empty beakers. It was all set up for someone to come and start researching or experimenting. But until that happened was just empty. The lab was in the middle of the room, beyond that was a cell similar to the ones beneath the CGP. I gritted my teeth at the implication of it being here.
My mother was standing between the two counter spaces in the lab area, staring at a wall of large specimen jars. She hadn’t reacted to me yet, just standing there with her hands clasped, nervously scraping at her nails. I approached her cautiously, this was unusual behavior for her. I stood next to her, studying her face for a moment. She still hadn’t reacted to me. The lines in her face were drawn, an exhaustion in her eyes that I had never seen before. Her lips pressed into a thin line. I followed her line of sight to the jars that lined the walls. My eyes flicked from one jar to the next, each worse than the last. I could feel the dinner I’d eaten trying to climb up my throat. I placed my hand over my mouth, trying to control my rising gorge.
They were fetuses at varying stages of development. But it was nearly impossible to tell what some of them were as they were so horribly disfigured. Some had too many limbs, some missing limbs. The faces arranged wrong, or had double features. Organs on the outside of their bodies, or their heads partially deflated. Not being able to stomach it for another moment, I turned away, stepping in front of my mother. She met my eyes then, just for a moment before walking to her desk, sitting down with a sigh.
“What is this?” I demanded, chasing her heels.
“It was such a simple concept,” she leaned on her elbows, resting her face in her palms. “Reviewing the genetics of every person of breeding age to make sure they weren’t passing on disease or other undesirable traits to the next generation. Sterilizing those who would produce damaged goods. We had learned so much about genetic markers that we thought we knew what was best. We could map intelligence, beauty, physical traits, disease. All of it written in our genes. We could simultaneously could solve genetic disease and over population.”
“I’m aware of our history, mother.” I snapped at her. “But that doesn’t explain what this place is.”
“No, Astra, you don’t even know the least of it.” Her eyes, exhausted and angry flipped up to mine. “We played God. Eventually it wasn’t enough to breed based off pure genetics. Patricians especially. If they had the money to pay for it, they wanted ‘designer babies’. They demanded children to match their vanity. Not caring that it was us, the future generations that would pay the price.”
“And you, being a scientist, had to participate in that? Is that what is in the jars? Failed experiments?” I looked over my shoulder to where they sat on their shelves.
“Failures, yes. But not from trying to figure out how to rearrange genes. We already knew how to do that with the help of Crispr gene editing. No, those are failures trying to fix what they screwed up along the way.”
“What are you talking about?” I went around the desk, pulling her chair to force her to face me.
“A large portion of our society is sterile.”
“Yeah, because you forcefully sterilize people when you don’t like their genetics.” I scowled down at her.
“No, Astra, we don’t sterilize anyone.” She stood then, placing her hands on my shoulders. “They’re naturally infertile. Forced sterilizations was a story we concocted to keep people from panicking while we tried to fix it. But we just keep making it worse. There are more and more people being born infertile every generation.”
“So how are you trying to fix it.” I shrugged her hands off.
“Your father decided we needed to study someone outside of our country. Someone who wouldn’t have been affected by our rigorous breeding program.” She went to a wet bar that was against the wall behind her desk, pouring herself a drink. She drained and refilled it before continuing on. “The council said we couldn’t take from the Sullied. Because that would be risking war. So, we looked to the Borderlands, established clinics to gather samples. You’d be surprised how many people in the Borderlands have Puritan ties. But eventually, we found some that didn’t have any. Your father…. acquired them. Would bring them here.”
“Daddy did?” my heart was pounding so hard I could scarcely breathe around it.
“He had a reason,” she drained her glass again, setting it aside before meeting my gaze. “I am infertile. I produce eggs, but they aren’t viable.”
“Well that’s not possible.” I scoffed. “You had me.”
“We made you.”
“I’m aware of the mechanics, Mother.” I said, sarcasm heavy in my voice before it dawned on me what she meant. “You mean in vitro.”
“I mean we literally made you.” Her expression was stone. “We had always planned on telling you. But just never could find a way to. You have three parents. I carried and gave birth to you. But you are only 20% mine.”
“How is that even possible?” I asked, not believing her.
“We needed to breed new genetics into our bloodlines without actually breeding them in. You know how the CGP is. At first your father toyed around with cloning, but there wasn’t enough genetic material from the host ova to fix the source material’s genetic anomalies. So, he spliced two ova together before fertilizing it. It was years of trial and error, countless failures. The jars are from later in the experiments, the closer he got to success.”
“You’re saying that those, they…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. My head was spinning, vision was blurring. There wasn’t enough air in here. My mother grabbed my arm, steered me to the chair at her desk. She pushed my head between my knees, urging me to slow my breathing.
“They’re your siblings.” She said after I managed to get my breathing under control. I met her eyes, tears spilling over my cheeks. “I didn’t carry them all. But some of them I did, when he was so sure he had figured it out. I had had enough. And said I was done. He convinced me to try one last time. He had acquired a new subject. He said her genes were the cleanest he had ever seen before without tampering. She bore a failure. And then we produced you. I watched you in that microscope over there. Your cell division was perfect. So, we decided to implant your embryo into my womb. I was doing hormone therapy to make sure I could carry you. Everything went perfectly. You were perfect. And you are fertile! You are our greatest accomplishment.”
She had said those words to me before, that I was her greatest accomplishment. She had thrown in my face that I didn’t know what it had taken to bring me into this world. I truly hadn’t. I shouldn’t even exist.
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look at her while I was trying to swallow past the knot in my throat, while I was trying to slow my breathing and heartbeat still. Everything was spinning so fast I thought I was going to pass out. A cold sweat broke out across my body, my thoughts racing. Could I even be called a human being at this point? Or was I something more like a chimera? If I had children, were they going to look like the monstrosities in the jars? I made the mistake of looking up at them, their twisted features. I imagined giving birth to one. It was all too much. I pushed my mother out of the way as I scrambled for the trash can that was at the end of her desk. I got to it just in time, heaving up the contents of my stomach. The heaving didn’t stop until my stomach was empty, tears streaming down my face, sweat slick skin and hair.
There I sat, draped over the trash can, catching my breath. It took some time for me to realize my mother was holding my hair, stroking my back. I drew myself together enough to shrug off her touch. I scooted back to the wall, leaning back against it. It was cool to my overly hot skin. My mother handed me a box of tissues. I took it, pulling a few free to wipe at my face.
I closed my eyes, the light threatening to overwhelm me. My thoughts kept threatening to race out of control again, and I kept reeling them back into place. I didn’t even know where to start sorting through the insanity that my life had just become.
“How could you do this?” I whispered.
“I didn’t want to. This was all your father.” She sighed.
“How could you let him do this to you? To those women?” I opened my eyes to glare at her. She was sitting across from me, legs crossed beneath her.
“You didn’t know the real version of your father. You knew the version of him that he invented just for you. He was overbearing, controlling. He was obsessed with recreating his success.”
“That doesn’t sound like him at all. None of this does.” I spread my hands, gesturing to everything around me.
“I know,” a sad smile touched her lips.
“Who was she?” I whispered again, looking at my shoes.
“Who?” I could hear the frown in her voice.
“The woman who was my other mother.” My voice cracked.
“Oh. I don’t really know. I only saw her a few times. This was your father’s lab and office.” She got up, and went to a filing cabinet that was on the other side of the wet bar. Opening it, she rifled through it. Finding what she was looking for, she removed a file and came back to sit in front of me. She opened the file, pulling out a picture. “You look quite a bit like her.”
I took the picture from her outstretched hand. The woman in the picture that stared back out had my face, my hair. I touched my own face looking at her. She was wearing scrubs just like the ones that I had been given earlier when I went through the CGP’s sorting facility. Her auburn curls were a mess around her tear stained face. My eyes were gray, like my mother’s. But hers were hazel.
The laughter that bubbled up out of me shocked my mother as much as it did myself. It was bordering on hysterics. I had seen her before. My life was spiraling out of control, my frayed sanity slipping right down the drain with it. That there was something that tied both fractions of my life together was on par with the theme this night was taking. I don’t know if anything could surprise me at this point. The laughter just kept coming, tears slipping free from the laughter. My mother just scowled at me.
“What is wrong with you?” she finally snapped.
“Oh, nothing. I just know who this is. Because of course I do.” I looked up at her, laughter slipping out again.
“How can you? Your father didn’t let any of them live.” She frowned at me again.
“I need you to stop dumping new information on me like that for a minute.” I held out the picture for her to look at again while I reeled in my hysterics, wiping the tears from my eyes. “Her name is Tama. I’ve been living with her mother for the last three years. She is a healer in the Borderlands. She took me in, and has been saying how much I looked like her daughter since I met her.”
“Isn’t that convenient.” Her voice was tight.
“Did anyone else know what you and daddy were doing?”
“The CGP, of course.” She slipped the picture back into the file, that she then slid up onto the desk behind her.
“Was that information contained to just the local CGP?” She shook her head no. “The rounding up of Borderlanders, does that have anything to do with this?”
She pressed her lips together, not wanting to answer. I got up on my knees and grabbed her shoulders, shaking firmly.
“What are they doing with them, mother?” I said, my voice rising with each word.
“The CGP wanted to recreate your father’s success.” She said, stroking a hand down my cheek. “That’s why I wanted you matched and mated. So, you’d be having children before they decided they wanted to use you as a template. Then you went missing and they decided to start their own experiments with the help of your father’s journals.”
“Mother,” I grabbed her hand, pulling it from my face. “What are they doing with the Borderlanders?”
“We were successful. Too successful. And desperate. The infertility rates seemed to be rising, especially among patricians.”
“You’re offering infertile patricians hybrid clones. And forcing the Borderland women to carry them.” The pregnant women in the cells flashed through my mind, and the patrician women in the waiting room of the CGP.
“Not all. I carried you. Some women want to carry their own children. Some too vain.” She waved a hand, casually dismissing their vanity.
“But why take so many? And what about the men that were taken? They can’t carry babies.” The casual way she carried on about it all was unnerving, but the calmer I spoke to her, the more she told me. And I needed her to keep talking.
“For variety of course.” She said like it was obvious. “And the men are to study the male infertility, which isn’t as widespread as female. We can also use their genetic material to ensure male children are produced.”
“Because our society was too closed off and we became too inbred.” I closed my eyes for a moment, it all falling into place.
“Not inbred,” she shook her head, frowning at me. “That makes it sound dirty. No, we became too stagnant. Bloodlines need to be refreshed.”
“How do you play into this?” I crossed one arm across my middle, rubbing my temples with the other hand. “You said this was all daddy’s doing.”
“I had tried to prevent all this, burned his journals. Fought with him, begged him to stop. Only he had started keeping the ones relevant to this particular experiment in his office in the CGP, working there rather than here. After…” she hesitated. “After what happened, they made me take lead. I was qualified, and I had participated in his work to some degree.”
“You call rounding up dozens of people preventing it?” I pushed up off the floor. I needed to move, pacing in front of her desk. She stood, but gave me space.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was before. Then I started working on it, working with those women who couldn’t have children of their own.” She was holding her hands out, almost like she was pleading with me. “I came to realize how right your father was. It may seem horrible now. But in a generation or two when we can breed again without genetic interference, it will have been worth it.”
“No, mother.” I stopped, turning to glare at her. My hands fisted at my sides, my voice starting to rise. “There is nothing that will make the atrocities committed worth it. If the Matron saw fit to take away our ability to breed, then we should die out. We meddled too much and should pay the price. Human beings are not perfect, by nature. And that is how we should have stayed. We traded imperfection for extinction.”
She drew herself up, slipping back into the mask she always wore. It was always a mask, I realized. I had seen the real version of my mother just now, not even realizing it until she flipped the switch and put her away again. She had been hoping to persuade me, to get me to agree with her. I had seen too much and was a threat now. My friends were a threat now. No matter what she might have promised if I had agreed with her, they would not be making it out of the country alive. And if they had, they’d be hunted down. The whole of the CGP might know of what was going on, but the general public didn’t. If they did, it would ruin everything they had been working on. Did that mean the patrician women didn’t know the full story behind their children? Judging by how quickly she switched back into her old self, I’d guess not.
“You don’t get it,” she pointed an accusatory finger at me, her own voice rising above my own. “Everything I did was for you. They wanted to study you since I burned part of his work. I gave them an alternative. I pushed you to mate, so we could see that through. Your offspring would be proof of concept. They got impatient, so I went to work on the problem myself to keep them from you. Your own father wanted to harvest you for study. But I took care of him too!”
Realizing what just came out of her mouth, she slapped a hand over her mouth. Fear filled her eyes.
“What do you mean you took care of him?” I narrowed my eyes at her. She came around the desk towards me, trying to grab onto me. I dodged her out stretched hands. “Daddy killed himself.”
Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true. Why would he? He had a successful experiment to study. That is what I was to him, I realized. All the time he spent with me, he always had a notebook, taking notes. He was studying me. How similar was I to him? To either mother? Which mother’s genes were dominant? Mother was fending off the CGP while he was studying me. And when I had reached maturity, the next step was to what, take me apart and look at me under a microscope? Of course, making his death look like suicide would be easy considering the horrible things he had done. It wouldn’t be hard to claim that his conscious had finally caught up with him. Being desperate for someone to lead their project, the CGP would have overlooked any inconsistencies in my mother’s story. But her admitting it out loud was a different story. Can’t overlook a confession as easily as it is a lie.
Everything I was thinking must have been written all over my face. She stopped trying to approach me and just watched my eyes. I watched as she went from being the cold mother I grew up knowing, to the version she had revealed in this room, and back again. Everything that she had told me was ringing in my head, but I couldn’t feel anything. She stole my humanity, admitted to her and my father’s atrocities, admitted to killing him. The horror of it all had overwhelmed me at first. To the point that I couldn’t breathe or keep down my dinner. But now there was just so much of it, none of it could touch me. I was numb beneath the weight of it all. I was tired.
I grabbed Tama’s file from her desk, and turned to walk away from her. I had planned on coming to beg for my friends. But now I saw there was no point. Their best chance was now with Darian getting them out. We would be leaving soon enough. And then I’d tell Darian everything she had told me. We would use that information to stop her from hurting anyone else. I didn’t know what that was going to mean for me. What place did I have in this world? How many had already been born? Could we have a life here? Anywhere? I couldn’t let myself go down that road right now. It only led to an endless spiral. Right now, all I had space for was getting my friends out, and then bring down the CGP.
My mother grabbed my arm, whirling back towards her.
“Don’t walk away from your mother!” she snapped at me.
“You’re not my mother. You let daddy kill her.” The ice in my words shocked even me. Her face fell as I turned away again.
“Everything I did, it was for you! To have you, to keep you safe!” she shouted up at me as I started up the stairs.
“So, you said. Everything for me.” I murmured even though she couldn’t have heard me, letting the bookcase door click shut behind me.