Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

The Debt of the Innocent

On October 11, 2035, Jamie Wrede, R.N., was the sole employee staffing the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Temperance United in Martinsville’s Pine Ridge district. In the course of her career, she’d been asked to kill nine newborns. That morning, she planned to kill four more.

Jamie woke at 6:45 and began preparing breakfast for her eighteen-month-old daughter, Claire. At 7:34, she picked up a “crank call” and listened for three minutes until a series of clicks on the other end indicated that The Brotherhood of Man’s part in the operation was going smoothly. “I don’t have time for this,” Jamie said before hanging up, the signal that her end was proceeding likewise.

At 8:10, Jamie rode her bike to work. She carried Claire in a bike trailer attached to her rear wheel for the first quarter mile to the babysitter’s. When Jamie went to leave, Claire screamed and stretched toward her. This was a new trick, learned in the past few weeks. Jamie felt helpless before those tiny red palms, those hysterically waving fingers.

“Don’t despair, Claire bear,” she babbled. “We’re a pair whether I’m here or there. I swear.”

Sometimes the rhyme made Claire giggle long enough for Jamie to slip away. That morning, Claire kept screaming. Jamie left anyway, a pair of tears tumbling down her own cheeks. She swiped them away, leaving her face smarting. “It’s for the good of babies everywhere, and that helps Claire, too,” she muttered to herself, a variation on the refrain she’d mouthed daily since making her decision to help The Brotherhood.

When Jamie got to work, her friend Panda, an L.N. in Obstetrics, called out from the nurse’s station. “Here’s the paperwork you wanted on the Feliciano mother,” she said, handing Jamie a stuffed file folder. “I’ll be glad when the shift to nuclear’s done and we can go back to squandering electricity on all the computer hours we can stuff into a day.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Jamie. She squinted at the paperwork. The hospital couldn’t afford electric lights in the corridors. Overcast gray filtered through the skylights, casting a dim gloss on the tile. It was barely enough to read by. “Well, thanks,” she said, trying to brush past.

Panda held out a hand. “The hospital’s holding a memorial for the kids who gave up their places today,” she said. “I just got word, figured you might not know either. Damn internal mail system’s still designed like it’s on email. You had a displaced patient this month, didn’t you?”

“Two.”

“Ouch.” Panda winced. “I remember the second one. Little blonde baby with crazy parents? Looked kinda like Claire?”

Renée Mercer. Born with a premature shock of white-blonde hair. Almost never stopped crying during her short, painful life. “That’s right.”

“Do you want to take flowers? Rudolpho’s working the morning shift at Posies and Petals today, he can get lilies cheap.”

“I won’t be going.”

Panda frowned. “You never miss a memorial for one of yours. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m just busy. I have to pick up Claire.”

“You take it too personally, Jamie. That girl probably would have died anyway.”

An orderly Jamie hadn’t gotten to know yet interrupted. “Excuse me—”

“Can’t you see I’m talking to someone?” asked Panda.

Jamie escaped down the hallway.

She checked her watch. 9:17. She had thirteen minutes to get to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and prepare before The Brotherhood of Man initiated their part of the plan.

• • • •

Andrea Cabral, daughter of Meredith and Brian Cabral. Fourteen days old. Suffers from perinatal asphyxia due to drop in maternal blood pressure.

The first time Meredith realized she was pregnant—deep in her bones realized it—wasn’t when she used the swab test three days after, nor a week after that when a gynecologist confirmed implantation. Nor was it on the bus on the way home, jolting over potholes with one hand under the belt of her waif-waist jeans as she watched a blonde her age fuss over a newborn. Meredith tried to picture the newborn in her arms. What would it be like to coo at a little face that recognized you? An infant who knew you so well it forgot where your body ended and its began?

Experts declared this miracle would happen, was happening inside her. To Meredith, it felt inconceivable. When the baby was born, she (by week ten, the echo-cam told them to expect a girl) would see through Meredith, in that uncanny way of children and pets. She’d know Meredith was only pretending to be an adult, how she missed paying the credit bill last month because she lost it in a pile of fashion catalogs, how only three months ago she’d been considering quitting her job and buying a one-way ticket to the Great Barrier Reef.

By month five, Meredith worried she’d never get over the feeling she was watching the pregnancy happen to someone else. Every time the baby kicked, Meredith jumped, having forgotten there was something inside her that could kick. Sometimes she found herself heading for the bathroom, and realized she’d been subconsciously getting up to take an antacid, trying to soothe the baby away like a bad meal or a touch of stomach flu.

Meredith’s family—both father and husband—was well-off, even though these days that meant taking buses and rationing electricity like everyone else. Seeing so much poverty made Meredith grateful that she could afford the six months off work and still squander electricity on a hot shower when she really needed one, even if it meant an outrageous bill. Money made everything so easy. But it couldn’t help with this.

The moment Meredith realized she was pregnant finally came in her sixth month. Shopping at the supermarket, she found herself pulling down a box of green dye. My little girl will like this, she thought, My little girl will definitely be the kind of girl who likes green. She stopped in the middle of the aisle and thought How do I know that? In Meredith’s belly, the unborn Andrea shifted, like she was dancing or maybe shouting: Come on, Mom, of course I like green! Buy it already!

Meredith became aware of a traffic jam behind her cart. She tossed the dye into the basket.

That night, Meredith decided to lavish electricity on an extra load of laundry. She threw the baby clothes she’d been given into the machine and dyed them all the same searing wattage of four-leaf-clover green.

Brian thought his wife was going crazy when she lifted out the retro zebra print pants which had come out looking like some bizarre kind of radioactive lizard skin. Meredith collapsed laughing. “Your daughter’s one funny lady, Mr. Brian Cabral!” She kissed him on the tip of the nose, but wouldn’t let him take her to bed: “Not when our daughter’s watching, Mister. You can wait. It’ll give you something to look forward to.”

• • • •

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit was one of the few hospital locations where electric lights shone day and night. Expensive air conditioning and heat maintained a balmy temperature, both for the babies in their incubators and the staff. Other nurses called the NICU cushy. Sure, Jamie thought, if watching babies die—and having to kill them yourself sometimes—was cushy.

The Cabral baby showed steady improvement: response up, skin color normalizing. The Shaw and Stepanian babies demonstrated normal progress. The Feliciano baby was worse: vitals and responsiveness remained low; risk of hydrocephaly remained high.

Jamie felt only an echo of her usual maternal tug when the Feliciano baby stirred, trying to turn its head so it could keep looking at her. It wasn’t his fault that he’d taken Renée Mercer’s incubator, any more than it was Renée Mercer’s fault her parents couldn’t afford enough insurance to make sure their baby didn’t get displaced. Four expensive, energy-draining incubators were all Temperance United could afford to run. Under ideal circumstances, newborns born into overfull hospitals would be transferred. Circumstances were not ideal.

How was Jamie supposed to accept that the Feliciano baby had more right to live than Renée Mercer? Yet she had accepted it. She’d displaced eight other babies. What did it mean that it took until Renée Mercer, a blonde baby who looked like Claire, for Jamie to shift from guilt to action?

9:26. Jamie went to the door. An orderly she was friendly with, Laird Douglas, stood chatting with a young nurse. He waved. “How’s Claire?”

Jamie pulled aside her mask. “She’s fine.”

Laird turned back to the nurse. Jamie slipped the pressure lock that The Brotherhood had given her out of her pocket, and pushed it onto the latch. It adhered with a whine. Laird looked over. Jamie tugged her sleeve over the lock and smiled. Laird half-smiled in return.

Shit, thought Jamie. Had he seen? She shut the door. A single, long beep indicated the lock’s activation.

9:29. The Brotherhood would begin storming hospital records any minute now. When the distraction started, security should be dispatched to that wing of the hospital, leaving Jamie alone to do her part. In case someone got curious, the pressure lock would keep them out, short of something that could cut through the reinforced door.

In the last days of the oil rush, the hospital had been built to survive a siege. Back then, people still believed China would try to usurp American world domination by force. Now the hospital’s solid construction would work against its defenders.

9:32. Still no alarm. The Stepanian baby whimpered, one feeble leg kicking out. Jamie didn’t go to her.

9:36. 9:38. Should she start early? But then, if someone saw her, security wouldn’t be divided. They’d get past the pressure lock sooner, maybe before she finished.

At 9:42, red bulbs in each corner of the room flared to warn the staff to stay put—standard operating procedure in case of potentially violent protest. Security didn’t want panicked hospital staff underfoot.

Time to start, then. She began the process of pulling out the Cabral baby’s nasal cannula.

• • • •

Roshaun Shaw, son of Bea and Tamarr Shaw. Eleven days old. Suffers from sepsis with organ dysfunction in the kidneys and liver.

Bea liked being pregnant. Pregnant meant nine months of not having to worry about her damn weight, and getting compliments from strangers at the same time. “You glow, honey”—hell yes she did, shouldn’t she ought to?

Bea had been pregnant six times, and she enjoyed each one more than the last. She did her first two pregnancies as a surrogate mother to pay for her master’s degree. Bea had no complaints about surrogacy, it was just that motherhood was better. Take the two couples she contracted with—friends of her mother’s from church, good people. She lived with them from months five to nine, enjoying free rent and hand-and-foot wait service. She sat with the parents-to-be through baby showers, nervous excitement, joyful outbursts, and fights about child-rearing. Sometimes she wondered if she ought to charge therapist rates along with surrogacy, but she never wanted to cancel the contracts, as would have been her right at any time.

The kids, Mary and Ruby, called her Auntie, and that’s how Bea felt about them. Their parents made up a holiday for her in July to go with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. When the first one, Mary, got drunk on her seventeenth and found herself stranded in Overton, Auntie Bea got called to haul thirty miles out of the city at two a.m. with an extra bus ticket, and to wipe vomit off the seats afterward. That even though Bea had three children of her own by then.

Tamarr hadn’t wanted another kid. It was already hard to manage the cost of raising their herd, as Tamarr called the boys, on the salaries of two high school English teachers. But Bea was decided. She hid all the contraception and said she wouldn’t have sex with Tamarr if he used protection—and hadn’t he listened to Ms. Addison’s health class in the room over? No meant no.

Tamarr held out for a Herculean six and a half weeks. “I’ll name this one,” he said when he relented. “And I declare there will be no more dead poets in the family.”

Bea had been hoping for a DuBois to go with their Neruda, Langston, and Keats. She frowned. “What name do you want?”

“Roshaun if it’s a boy,” he said, “for my grandfather.”

She shrugged and agreed. Three happy hours later, Roshaun existed as one full egg and one self-satisfied sperm.

When Roshaun was born, feeble and unable to cry, Bea wished this had happened during one of those pregnancies she did for money, when she was employee, not mother. She thought about Mary’s red, gray-eyed newborn face, and Ruby’s heart-shaped brown one; if only it were one of them who’d taken faltering breaths, who’d been hauled away by blue-gloved doctors.

“Your name is Roshaun!” she shouted after the people who took him. Weak from the birth, she forced herself to sit up, sweat dripping down her face. “Your father named you Roshaun. Do you hear me? You’re Roshaun, and you’re going to be all right!”

• • • •

The Brotherhood of Man approached Jamie the day after she killed Renée Mercer.

The woman, who called herself Slate, found Jamie on an empty stretch near Washington Street Market where Jamie biked during her breaks. She liked to sit alone there; it wasn’t too near the depressed commercial district, nor the construction site where Martinsville would eventually get one of its very own nuclear power plants so that in ten or twenty years no more Renée Mercers would have to die.

Slate sat on the curb waiting for Jamie to arrive. “I understand you’re unhappy with your job.”

Slate looked older than Jamie by fifteen or twenty years. She had a broad, stern face, and wore her hair in dozens of tiny braids pinned close to her scalp. Thin white scars snaked across her face and arms, interspersed with patches of dry, red skin. She looked as though she spent a lot of time fighting or doing arduous outdoor work. Still, she seemed trustworthy. She reminded Jamie of her mother, the way Renée Mercer reminded her of Claire.

Jamie came to a stop in the gutter. “How do you know how I feel about my job?”

“A friend of yours told us.”

“What friend?”

Slate shrugged. “A friend, that’s all. How many times have they asked you to kill now?”

“I don’t kill anyone. We disconnect them from the machines. They die a natural death.”

“How many?”

“Eight.”

“Including yesterday?”

“. . . Nine.”

“And you don’t think that’s right.”

“I don’t think babies should die because their parents don’t have enough money.”

“I’m here representing people who agree with that point of view. Actually—I think most people agree with it. Yet it isn’t public policy. People pay taxes, taxes go to the government, the government gives money to hospitals, corporations run hospitals, and corporations say poor people have the right to live as long as it doesn’t impinge on rich people. And the government lets them say that, because the people in the government either get paid by the corporations, or they own the corporations. Know how they get away with it?”

Jamie raised her eyebrows.

“They play tricks with voters using misdirection, like a magician using sleight of hand. They remind people what life was like before rationing: private cars, computers running all day with no one at the keyboards, a lightning fast world economy with us at the helm. Then they talk about how much more people would have to give up—how many buses to power another hospital, how many electric lights to run the catalog for a library.” She shook her head. The ends of her braids rattled like snake heads snapping in the sun. “It’s a coin in a voluminous sleeve. The private sector saps more energy than all the rationed households in the nation, and they do it on government subsidy.”

Slate tapped her boot against the curb, disturbing the deadfall. “Why does no one notice? Why aren’t the scoundrels voted out of office and chased through the streets like dogs? Because the government protects the fragile remnants of the middle class from experiencing the most insidious and insufferable indignities. They maintain a luckless, down-at-heel class the majority can look down on and think—at least that isn’t me. And as long as that balance remains, the deplorable policy of killing infants for watts will continue.” Slate sat up straight suddenly, slapping her hands on her knees. “We want to throw off the balance.”

“How do you plan to do that?”

“You want to hear?”

Jamie remembered lifting Renée out of the incubator, cradling the infant’s head as she turned her over to Dr. Oppenheimer so he could ease her discomfort until she died. Hard to believe the hands in those gloves were hers. Her betraying fingers. Her blood-stained palms.

Later, Jamie would learn Slate had been a history teacher and a missionary during the end of the oil rush, running a school in Burkino Faso with her husband, Titanium. Like all great pro-life movements, the Brotherhood had many Christian supporters. Slate called them God’s own radicals. Though the Brotherhood had no traditional leaders, Slate often spoke for them and wrote the essays that became their doctrine.

Jamie learned all that later. At the time, she was just impressed by Slate’s calm, easygoing tone as she spoke about politics, as if she were giving a lecture on something as unemotional as repairing a bike or pruning a bush.

“Let me give you a history lesson,” she said. “You know about Gandhi? His movement wouldn’t have worked if there hadn’t been a real threat of violence against the British colonialists. Martin Luther King’s sit-ins? Backed by Black Panther fists. Nonviolent alternatives don’t become appealing unless there’s something to be afraid of.”

“That’s you?”

“It’s our job to show teeth so the moderate voters who make up the bulk of our great land, the folk making baa noises and chewing on the grass as they let other people’s babies die, will flee to the peacemakers.”

Slate lifted the collar of her fleece and raised her chin, looking Jamie in the eye.

“We call ourselves The Brotherhood of Man.”

Jamie had heard of them.

“You’re terrorists.”

Slate shrugged one shoulder. “We’re freedom fighters.”

“You want me to do to insured babies what I did to Renée Mercer.”

Silence.

“What makes you think I’d work with you?”

“You haven’t left, have you?”

“I’ve got a baby of my own. If I do what you want me to, I’ll get caught.”

“We all have to make sacrifices. At least if you go to jail, your baby won’t be dead, just taken care of by somebody else.”

Jamie stared at Slate’s scars. They formed a pattern like a web across Slate’s shoulders, spider-like tendrils cast across her hands. Scarification. Before the rush ended, Jamie had wanted to become an anthropologist, help people in developing countries. Then the power crises started, funding for international charities dried up with no sign of refilling, there was talk of marching on China, and Jamie figured she’d better help her own people.

She leaned her bike against a tree. Two hours later, she rode away.

• • • •

Darlita Stepanian, daughter of Nadalia Stepanian. Sixteen days old. Birth defects caused by extreme prematurity (twenty-eight weeks) include dangerously low birth weight and Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

When they bought the dairy farm, Brosh Stepanian and his partner, Miguel Espinoza, were banking on a growing market for milk procured by hand. They had no idea. When the switch to nuclear started, politically conscious, well-off consumers clamored for low-energy, conscience-salving milk. Simultaneously, the competition struggled under new limits and rising costs. Life got lucrative for Brosh and Miguel. It also got busy.

They were mucking out the stables together one night when Brosh stopped shoveling shit and asked, “What do you think about becoming a father?”

“What are you talking about?” shouted Miguel from the loft.

“My sister’s pregnant. She doesn’t want an abortion. She doesn’t want the baby either.”

“Nadalia?”

“Yep.”

“But she’s sixteen!”

Brosh sat on an ergonomically designed steel-and-plastic milking stool. A cow lowed and blinked at him. “Mom thinks it would be good to keep the kid in the family. Nadalia agrees.”

Miguel climbed halfway down the ladder then jumped to the ground.

“The kid would be legally ours?”

“Signed contract. What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” said Miguel. “Isn’t this fast?”

“Fast as any yes on a pregnancy test.”

Miguel kicked some straw. Finally he said, “Yeah. Okay. I think this could be good.”

Miguel borrowed an armload of parenting books from the library, then went back for another armload. Brosh took a less intellectual approach—he practiced by anthropomorphizing the calves. “See the little guy with the black head? He is not going to wait until he gets his driver’s permit. Little speed demon will be stealing cars and joyriding to Holstein preschool.”

Brosh steadfastly refused to read. After two weeks, Miguel got upset. “You have to take this seriously! Corporal punishment? Yes, no, or only gently? Elimination? Diapers or toilet or let it fall where it may? Nutrition? Should we hire a woman on hormones to breastfeed?”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“But you need to prepare!”

“Not really,” said Brosh. “I’m just comfortable with kids.”

They bussed into Martinsville once a month to see Nadalia and Mrs. Stepanian. Nadalia spent her time off school relaxing and spending her allotment of electricity on old movies.

“She shouldn’t be gaining this much weight,” Miguel said. “And I’m not convinced she’s getting enough folic acid. I want to put her on a strict diet.”

“Nadalia won’t do that, she likes taking things as they come,” Brosh said. “Don’t worry. My family has healthy babies.”

But something did go wrong. Miguel was in the main house, cooking lunch for the crew on the gas stove, when the call came: Nadalia was delivering early.

Brosh and Miguel left their foreman in charge and paid the exorbitant fee to fly to Martinsville. They visited Nadalia, but the hospital wouldn’t let them into the NICU. “It’s too early,” they were told by a middle-aged R.N. with short, bristly blonde hair. “I’m sorry,” she added, touching Brosh’s shoulder. “I have a little one myself. Just have faith.”

They went outside and sat on the steps. Miguel held Brosh. “Nadalia’s fine. The baby will be, too. And if not—we can get a surrogate or adopt. We’ll get a baby.”

“A baby?” asked Brosh. “A baby?”

He fell silent. For the rest of their visit, he refused to speak. On the bus ride back to his mother’s, over their dinner of cold leftovers, all night as the two of them lay restless in Brosh’s childhood bed. Eventually, Miguel paid to change his ticket and flew back to the farm.

• • • •

Jamie disentangled the Cabral baby from the wires and machines—the baby’s first taste of freedom—and set her on the metal exam table. She started on the Shaw baby.

9:51. She wondered how far along Slate and Titanium had gotten in their mission to burn the paper copies of the insurance records. The plan was mostly symbolic. Slate knew they couldn’t get all the reams before security stopped them. Even what they managed to destroy wouldn’t be gone permanently. Recovering and reprinting the data from a remote site computer would be expensive, but it would get done eventually.

But burning the papers served another purpose, as well. “The Brotherhood has taken responsibility for many acts,” Slate said. “But we’ve kept ourselves faceless. Now is the time for us to come forth.”

Slate and Titanium would lead the force to destroy the papers. They’d be the ones to get arrested. Them and Jamie. Twin trials. A married couple of missionaries and a young mother.

“During the civil rights movement, many black women refused to give up their bus seats. The movement picked Rosa Parks, the best one to swing public opinion,” Slate explained. “We want to be frightening but familiar. People must understand that times have gotten so bad that ordinary, rational citizens can commit acts they once would have considered evil. Why do you think we study the Holocaust? History is rife with genocides. We are fascinated, terrified, by the idea that people just like us marched innocents into gas chambers. That’s the demon that makes the Holocaust more frightening than Armenia or Rwanda or Venezuela.”

Slate gave this speech the last time Jamie saw her alone. They sat together in a deserted park. The neighborhood’s residents had fled when maintaining detached, suburban-style homes became too expensive.

“Do you worry we shouldn’t do this to innocents?” Jamie asked. “I mean, babies . . .”

Slate tightened her hand around the arm of the bench. She could be frightening when she sat so rigid, every muscle taut. “No one is innocent,” she said. “From the moment of conception, those babies benefited from their place in the country’s hierarchy. They grew in well-fed bellies, drank water free of dangerous chemicals, reposed in the safety of a womb untaxed by the arduous physical labor of field hands or the unrelenting hours of a sweatshop. Other people made that possible. These babies are born perched atop a pinnacle of human grief. Have you any idea how many suffer to support even America’s middle class? And even here, where we bemoan our lost status as economic superpower while still enjoying our privileges as China’s second fiddle, even here we sacrifice more lives to the altar of these babies. We toss the uninsured out with the bathwater, as soon as they inconvenience us. These babies are not innocent!”

Jamie looked away. To stare into the heart of Slate’s arguments was to stare into the sun.

She lifted the Shaw baby. Jaundice from kidney problems yellowed his dark skin. His eyes slid to her face, then lost focus. She set him down and went to work on the Stepanian baby.

• • • •

Jonathon Feliciano, son of Petra Feliciano (deceased) and Leonard Feliciano. Nineteen days old. Suffers from low birth weight, prematurity, and complications arising from spina bifida.

Leo believed in Jesus. More than he did in sky. What was sky? Just blue air. Your eyes could be tricking you about sky. Jesus was in your bones. He was the startle when you woke, the moment of trust before you squeezed your brain into sleep. If Jesus wasn’t real, nothing was real.

Petra died in childbirth. She bled a lot. But there was no blood in heaven.

Leo stayed at the hospital. His mama brought him clothes. Black sweaters and black sweats with the tags still on, just bought. He forgot to take off the tags. Petra died, but Jonathon was still alive. Call him Jonathon, Leo told the doctors. Jonathon is a good name. Jesus would like the name Jonathon. Mama liked it. Petra didn’t at first, but she’d come around in heaven.

Petra always wanted to fly. She watched birds, any bird. She watched geese when they went overhead honking. If they got too loud, she put her fingers in her ears. She watched airplanes, too. She’d never been in one. By the time she got enough money, they were only for rich people and emergencies. They flew past so rarely now. If she heard an engine, she’d step into the street, look up at them like a kid looking for God, and spin and spin.

Leo’s mama tried to trick him into going home by saying she needed him to carry something heavy in her car. Leo figured it out. He didn’t go home with her. She sent his sisters to sit with him while she was gone. They came in shifts.

Petra always wanted to play music, but she couldn’t. She was tone deaf. She owned a harmonica. She asked Leo to play the harmonica. She smiled when he did. Sometimes she danced. Leo liked it when she danced.

Leo’s mama said he was going to move in with her, don’t argue. Petra could have taken care of a baby, she said, but Leo couldn’t do it alone. That’s okay, said Leo, Can I still change the diapers? Leo’s mama said he could.

Petra said that when she got to heaven she was going to read the Bible all day, and she was going to make Jesus read it with her because she always wanted to know what He really meant. Their friend Becky said she shouldn’t say that, the Bible meant exactly what it said. Petra said, Don’t fret now, Becky. I don’t think Jesus will mind a question or two.

The hospital people tried to get Leo to go home. He said okay and left, but then he just went to sit in the parking lot. People didn’t drive like they used to when Leo was a kid, so there was lots of free asphalt where he could sit and think. He fell asleep on the asphalt once and a car almost ran into him. There was only one person in it. Leo had trouble believing it at first. Someone had enough money to drive alone? The person honked and Leo went to sit on the curb. A pair of EMTs passed, pushing an empty gurney. One asked, are you okay? The other said, His baby’s sick, and the first one asked, What’s wrong with it? Leo tried to explain, but he couldn’t remember the right words. He tried to get close: Jonathon got born early and his spine fell out.

Petra and Leo went to school together. Leo wasn’t supposed to go to public school, but everyone knew his family. They did something funny with his test scores and said, Okay. You can go to school. Leo and Petra knew they’d get married by second grade. All the boys wanted to marry Petra when they got to high school, but Leo was the only one who was always nice to her, not just when he wanted something.

When Leo tried to do sports and he got clumsy, or when he was dumb in class, people made fun. Petra watched and sighed. She said, It’s okay, you’re better than them. That made Leo feel better. Petra watching and loving him made everything okay. She was going to do that now, up in heaven. And if Jonathon died, Petra would raise him in heaven, and they’d both watch Leo.

Leo’s mama found him in the parking lot. Don’t do that you’ll get dirty, she said. She brought him inside. I made this for you, she said, and gave him a pie. Leo wasn’t hungry so he gave it to one of the nurses. That was nice, said his mama, I brought you up nice. She put her hand on his knee. Things will be okay, you know, she said.

I know they will be, said Leo.

His mama looked at him sideways, eyes narrow in her big, fleshy face. You do know it, don’t you?

Leo didn’t answer. It wasn’t really a question.

• • • •

As Jamie finished loosing the Feliciano baby, she heard someone pounding on the door. Jamie looked up. Loud, metallic thuds reverberated through the room. So they’d found her. Would the pressure lock hold? No time to be paranoid. The damn things had been invented in India to let wealthy women lock themselves in their bedrooms in case gangs broke into their apartments. They were meant to keep out violent criminals armed to the teeth with illegal weapons. Jamie had to have faith they’d keep out a few security guards for a little while longer.

9:55. The evacuation alarm sounded: a pulsating, screechy whine. The babies kicked and shifted.

“I know,” murmured Jamie. She set down the Feliciano baby and grabbed a sterile blanket. She placed it under the babies’ heads, fluffing it up so that it gave their tender ears some protection. “It’ll be quiet soon,” she promised.

She opened the cabinet on the back wall and sorted through the boxes she’d restocked a few days ago so that no one would have any reason to reach to the back of the cabinet. Behind the boxes, she found the hypodermic needle of morphine she’d stashed there.

“Use tools you put there yourself,” Slate had told her. “That way no one can mess with them. This may seem silly to you, but remember: Redundancy’s the name of the game. Surprise is the enemy of success.

“When you took the other babies out of their incubators, you let nature and time do the dirty work,” Slate said. “This time, you’ll have to kill them yourself. Do you think you can do it?”

9:57. The slamming subsided, replaced by the shrill of vibrating metal. They were sawing through. Jamie didn’t have much time.

• • • •

Renée Mercer. Teratogenic disorders of the heart due to maternal exposure to Pentathorinol in the ground water. Deceased, six days.

“I don’t understand,” said Shawna Mercer. “You’re going to murder my child?”

“No, Mrs. Mercer,” said the nurse. “She’s been displaced from her incubator. She’s resting now, with drugs to reduce the pain. We won’t do anything to make her condition worse.”

“She’s just been displaced?” asked Shawna’s husband, Trent. “Just like that?” He pushed past his wife, staring down at the runt chink of a nurse from almost two feet up.

Shawna glared at Trent, then moved to the side to get a clear view of the nurse, “The Doctor, what’s his name, Mr. Opera—”

“Oppenheimer.”

“Oppenheimer,” Shawna repeated. “But the doctor said she wouldn’t survive without care,” said Shawna. “He said that when he was talking to us about how we’d be going into debt.”

“We needed the incubator for another child, Mrs. Mercer.”

“Renée needed it, too!” said Trent.

“I know, Mr. Mercer. Temperence United is very sorry.”

The nurse was short and fat and had some stupid parody of an Asian name like Wei Wei or Chongella or something, but she didn’t look Asian. She had dark skin and big, squashed features, like a black. When she was a kid, before the crash, Shawna thought racism was bad. Now she didn’t care. Would Chongina’s kid get tossed out like a piece of garbage?

“Look,” said Trent, jabbing his hand into the nurse’s face. “I’m telling you, put her back in right now.”

“Mr. Mercer. Please calm down. I’m trying to work with you.”

“Well, I don’t want to work with you. You go get your boss.”

The nurse waddled off. Shawna felt so tired. There was hope, there wasn’t hope. Renée was going to be okay, Renée was being “displaced.”

“We’ll get this settled,” said Trent. “No way they’re doing this to us.”

Shawna looked up at him. Trent had been such a catch. He’d never even looked at her in high school. The day he asked her out, three years after graduation, with her still pumping gas at the station on Hyacinth Street, that was the best day of her life. She was smart. She should have been able to get office work while he did manual labor. They should have been able to get by.

The doctor arrived. Short, Jewish, glasses perched on a blunt nose, curly hair flying. Trent barreled toward him. “You tell me what’s going on,” he insisted.

Shawna ignored them, went straight for the blonde nurse trailing him.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

The nurse eyed Trent, and Shawna realized she was nervous. Shawna rolled her eyes and grabbed for the nurse’s hands.

“Tell me,” she said.

Some expression Shawna couldn’t read crossed the nurse’s face. “I’m sorry. You should have known about the possibility of displacement. Didn’t you read the waiver?”

“What waiver?” asked Shawna.

“The one you signed when you came in.”

“In the load of papers? When I was pushing out the kid?”

“I’m sorry.”

“But the doctor said the Pentathorinol, it’s all over in our area. It’s illegal to dump near water. Some company must have broken the law. Shouldn’t we get paid for that?”

The nurse shook her head. “You might be able to, if you sue the corporation. But the hospital doesn’t acknowledge claims until they’re settled.”

“So that’s it? My baby’s dead?”

“Not yet.” The nurse glanced at the doctor, saw him still engaged. “But soon.” She glanced again. “She’s comfortable. I promise. She’s not fussing or crying.”

“You’ve seen her?”

That expression again. Suddenly, Shawna realized what it meant.

“You did it! You killed my baby!”

“Mrs. Mercer . . .”

“Don’t you finish that sentence! Don’t you tell me to calm down! God damn you to hell, you did it, you killed my baby!” Shawna felt the red rise into her cheeks. She knew everyone was staring. She didn’t care. “What kind of woman are you? How could you do that to a little baby?”

The nurse looked down, looked away. Good. Let her be shamed. Shawna became aware of Trent standing over her. The last thing she wanted to deal with now was his stupid hulk. What was he going to do? Hit the cunt?

Shawna collapsed into a chair. She covered her eyes, tearing at her hair. Her throat felt raw. “You fucking bitch. I hope you rot in hell.”

• • • •

After she killed the babies, Jamie would be arrested. She would be booked with Titanium, who’d tell her, in his terse fashion, that Slate had been shot. He wouldn’t know Slate’s condition, but in fact she’d die on a Temperance United operating table in seven hours. By then, Jamie and Titanium would be in separate facilities. They’d be informed separately.

Jamie would ask for her husband and Claire to be allowed to come visit her. This would be denied. She’d spend her short call on the phone with Claire instead, trying to coax a few sentences, maybe a giggle. Her call would be cut short by a tall officer with cold eyes who’d be unnecessarily brutal when escorting Jamie out of the room.

Titanium would stand trial alone, an intimidating, silent figure. Yet he’d fulfill Slate’s requirements for familiarity as well, a solid, familiar shape, with the build of a football player, the pale skin and blue eyes of a corn-fed boy. The cross around his neck would wink gold into the court TV cameras, drawing the viewer’s eye into a brief flash of realization that here was a terrorist who’d spent three years in seminary school, whose tongue and heart were reverent to the words of Jesus.

Jamie wouldn’t stand trial. She’d be beaten to death in a prison brawl. A guard would later be tried for standing by and watching her die. The charges would be dismissed.

• • • •

Afterward, Meredith Cabral developed panic attacks. They cornered her in grocery stores, on buses, at gardening meetings, at church.

When she got pregnant again, they got worse. Stress led to a premature birth, six weeks early. When the obstetrician arrived to give her a pain suppressant, she thought he was trying to inject lethal drugs into her arm. She screamed and tried to flee. Brian and two orderlies pinned her down as the physician sedated her. Afterward, the obstetrician told her that if she ever decided to have another baby, she should schedule a cesarean. Against Brian’s wishes, she opted for tubal ligation. Throughout her daughter’s childhood, she loomed as a frail but frightening figure: impossible to read, liable to break down at nothing, in and out of mental hospitals the way other girl’s mothers were in and out of salons.

• • • •

Bea Shaw screamed at the hospital staff. She screamed at the policemen. She screamed at her husband. “You didn’t try hard enough! You aren’t trying hard enough! They aren’t trying hard enough!”

But it was Tamarr who went into the garage where they stored his dad’s old car on the grounds that getting rid of it was more fuss than keeping it around, confirmed that an ancient sixteenth of a gallon lingered in the antique gas engine, got behind the wheel, and turned it on without opening the garage door. Bea found him that afternoon, crying over the kitchen table. He hadn’t had the strength to finish.

They sat together, Bea with her arms around Tamarr, until the boys came home. “Make dinner,” Bea told them, “You can take care of yourselves one night.”

Bea took Tamarr into the bedroom and lay with her arms around him. The sun sank, leaving the room grim and dark. The moon rose, casting a ghostly glow on the sheets and curtains.

Bea held Tamarr some more.

• • • •

Brosh Stepanian sold his partnership to their foreman and moved to New Zealand to raise sheep with his mother and sister. Neighbor boys flocked around Nadalia like flies to honey. She picked one before she was eighteen, and swelled to a happy, wifely pregnant on his parent’s farm.

Brosh found an Aussie partner to love in action instead of conversation. Their bond grew in the silences of sweat and straining muscles. When they decided to hire a surrogate mother to give birth to the child they wanted, they searched around and brought a traveling Japanese artist to the farm.

Brosh sent a picture of their baby girl to Miguel, along with a short letter. Miguel wrote back: Congratulations. Wasn’t it funny how things worked out? Miguel couldn’t see himself as a good father. He liked control too much. Maybe a baby would have forced them together when they should have been apart.

Brosh tucked the letter into the drawer where he kept official papers about the farm along with his one photograph of Darlita: tiny, blue-skinned, crying. He never wrote Miguel again.

• • • •

Leo went home. He moved in with his mom and helped with his sisters’ babies. Someone else was always around, just in case.

The children grew older. The sisters weren’t home much. Leo was. Weird Uncle Leo. Always smiling. Funny how he looked like a boy, when he was so old.

He prayed all the time. So deep it was like sleeping. Once, when Maria Renata was eight, he prayed so hard that he wouldn’t wake up. Grandma sent Maria Renata to get a mirror to make sure he was still breathing.

“Why does he pray like that?” Maria Renata asked grandma.

“He’s lonely.”

“Oh,” said Maria Renata. “Maybe I could fix him up with the hunchback lady. She’s always nice to him. She gives him plums from her yard.”

“Not that kind of lonely,” said grandma.

Maria Renata stuck her nose against the window. “She’s out there now. I’m going to go tell her about Uncle Leo.”

Maria Renata had her hand on the doorknob when grandma caught her by the wrist. It hurt. Grandma’s eyes were dark and flat, like mud drying in the sun.

“Don’t do it,” grandma said. “Leave the poor man to his peace.”

• • • •

Another baby was tangled up in the whole mess: Claire McFadden, née Claire Wrede. After Jamie was killed, her father changed their name and moved them to another part of the country where he thought Claire could grow up normally.

As an adult, Claire moved back to Martinsville. She found herself moving eerily in her mother’s footsteps: She too went into health care to work with infants, though as a pediatric oncologist, not an R.N. She made no special effort to keep her identity secret.

Twenty years after Jamie killed the babies, a woman putting together a documentary showed up at Claire’s door. Buzzing followcams hovered behind her in the entryway, careful not to illegally cross the threshold into private property.

“Could I ask you some questions about your mother?” the documentarian asked. Without pausing for an answer, she went on, her tone rehearsed: “In recent months, some rehistorians have been vocal in their claims that it was the Temperance Massacre that turned public opinion eighteen years ago to pave the way for the Energy Redistribution Act. As one of the key figures in the massacre, your mother could be on her way to becoming a hero in some circles. What do you think of that?”

Claire smiled. She set her knee behind the door so the documentarian couldn’t force her way in. She said one thing before closing the door.

“My mother was a monster.”

• • • •

10:04. Jamie held the babies for a moment as she slid the needle into their flesh. Each warm, fleet heart beat near hers for a few seconds before she set the infants on the cold exam table.

Andrea died. Roshaun died. Darlita died. Jonathon died.

Jamie watched the life flicker out of their bodies one after the other, and then went to turn herself in.

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Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky holds a masters degree in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and graduated from Clarion West in 2005. She’s published over 50 short stories in venues including the New Haven Review, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the Sturgeon Award, and in 2010, her novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window won the Nebula. If it were an option, she might choose to replace her hair with feathers, preferably bright macaw feathers.