What is worse? Being born investment, or leftover?
I was born investment-coded. The day I rolled the remains of brown torn shell between my fingers, I understood the investment was wasted.
“Show me,” my mother asked when I told her. I obeyed, because I was good and meant well for the clan's future. Of course I feared what the leaks between my legs might imply, of course I felt her heart beating down her narrow hips and echoing in mine. But back then, I had been fed that truth must prevail, ad nauseum. Since the day of my hatch her yellow worried eyes had followed me everywhere: she knew my insides by heart, and I survived on the belief I could hide nothing. So that day, if my mother's hands shook as she watched the organic failure of my body, I refused to see.
An uncle came the next day, the one who succeeded. My mother had torn her brother off the hospital he worked at in the interior lands, so he could see me fast. It has been years since the last time I saw Veraji step foot in our house of dark stone. The consultation was sharp exchanges and mutters, and a silence that strangled me harder than I wanted it to. He smiled, insisting in whisper-prayers it could only be a result of food poisoning, or maybe a small internal failure due to my late coming of age. Maybe it could be corrected, with the right hormonal drug. “At least you had eggs,” he said. “You would have dried them off anyway, right?” I nodded, as if the choice would have been mine. His smile was too clinical, and males aren't trained to the art of lying as much as we females are. His hands didn't shake, but his eyes sought too hard for an escape road. He worried. Not for unborn eggs, but for me.
That's okay, I blinded myself. As long as the Dalatrass isn't here, that's okay.
When the consultation ended, my mother talked to me with fleeting eyes, she talked about nonsenses so she could hide her own terror. With bile in my mouth I replied, feigning non-consequence. It was her failure as much as it was mine. Betrayal of the genetic pool, a disease someone somewhere injected in our bones. Or maybe it was spontaneous. Maybe I was the first dead-end.
I spent my hour of sleep eyes wide open, staring at fireflies caught in the storm, the roaring of the sea, flashes from the sky through the open walls, and my anguish kept mistaking lightning streaks for spaceships. When Olu sneaked into my quarters a bit later, he was soaked by the rain, his algae-patterned skin stern and angry enough for two. We hugged in silence, so I could soothe my mind in his dampened clothing. My other brothers were all on the boats, piling jellyfishes, hands green from the venomous burns they would grow immune to eventually, or so the old males said –those who were not paralyzed or drowned. Leftovers, the whole of them. I had forgotten to worry for their lives this stormy night, all caught up that I was in my own horizon of unknown.
“That means nothing,” Olu repeated. “And even if it does, that means nothing about you.” We hatched minutes apart, and sometimes I hated that he could read me so easily. That night I didn't mind.
“They're already negotiating my contract.” That was all I could say, all night long, with an unwavering voice. That, and “I'm sorry.”
At dawn my uncle said he didn't have time to process the data from the analysis. The storm had pushed water into the country, and bodies flooded the clinics. The spaceport, too close to the shore, was a one-meter-deep swamp of outdated technology. Us, we lived inside the seaside cliffs above the crests of waves, and our ancestors had known worse storms before. Everything we owned –the few we could still call ours– was safe. All my brothers had made it back home, but the fishing load was drowned and already rotting. My mother was sick all day, so my aunt took over. She shot me hard looks as we unloaded the jellies, wading in their cut-off tentacles before they could dissolve, trudging their carcasses to the storage where we would dry them. Some of their green bulbous hats were discolored and smelled of chemicals. My big brothers cursed every time they found a trace of the disease, throwing them away with disgusted sniffs.
“It's unfair,” Olu hissed. “The Union shouldn’t let that shit go unchecked.”
“The Union doesn't care about us,” I said. I didn't know the full extent of what those words accused, but my mother chewed on them so often, with such bitterness, I supposed they must be true.
“Then the Dalatrass. It's her job, isn't it?!” Olu hated her already for the reaction she didn't yet have about me. She didn't care enough about leftovers to stay for their imprints, so no buried conscience kept him from hating free. I said nothing, because I knew too much and those were female secrets, egg-bearers secrets, and in this gray-skied day it felt as if I had stolen them from my own blood.
Night fell fast, Pranas long gone behind vaporous clouds, leaving our black cliffs cold and moist. My mother was still locked in her quarters, and I worked in the storage alongside my aunt, drying and salting still while the boys cooked the food and repaired the ships. We had a machine for the conservation work, but it sat rusted in the corner as a looming shadow, for we had no money left for routine checkups. Our hands were enough anyway, my mother used to say to cut off protest.
“I've heard,” my aunt said after a day of muteness. Wind washed over me, and I hid the wave of fear under the sudden chill.
“Nothing has been said yet.”
“I knew it,” she muttered. “I knew she wasn't right. And the contract, you've thought about the contract?”
“Nothing has been said yet.”
“How could she do that to us, the Dalatrass?! I thought she wanted us to survive at any cost.” My aunt's fury had boiled under the surface for a long time. It was a secret to nobody she had been left thunderstruck when the Dalatrass picked her sister instead of her for the reproduction contract that gave birth to me. After all she was the oldest. For the Clan's sake she had kept still and efficient, her ocean-born features roughened by labor, yellow head high as she was cast back to leftover silence.
“Nothing has been said yet,” I repeated without hearing myself speak. I left soon after, to see my mother locked in her room. I didn't want to. I had to.
The door slid without resistance. My mother stood in her long reed dress, staring at a faded hologram she explored with dissociated hands. Her short horns glistened in the blue electronic wavers, and I thought she was beautiful in her panic. She startled upon hearing my footsteps, and shut the data. I had seen already. The family storyline, the tree of our circles. She sought the moment it had gone wrong. If it was her fault. If there was something to blame.
“Are you still ill?” I asked, as mean as I was genuine.
She didn't answer and wrapped her cold arms around my own bruised flesh.
“Nothing has been said yet,” I murmured, to calm her and cut myself deeper.
“Iorn,” she breathed. “I'm sorry.”
My teeth chattered and I stopped talking, because at once the cut was hurting too much. My uncle had said nothing yet. Nothing had been said yet. They couldn't know for sure I was damaged.
It was common unspoken knowledge some in our bloodline were born from internal arrangements. Back when our clan had nothing to offer, when the seaside was perceived as resource-less waste by salarians and strangers alike, pushing the bloodline further with a new daughter required mating from within. We didn't talk about that, we lied about our origins in the documents when our clan became relevant again, but we knew.
I was born clean. I was investment. We had given land so our clan didn't die. My father was cultured and handsome, and he left for higher circles of academics in Sur'kesh after seeing me once when I was one out of curiosity. He had smiled and he had left, because his part was done. I had but blurred memories of his Dalatrass, for she had never bothered with me past the initial imprint. I was investment. I was their key to our land, and our way to the crumbs of their profits. This arrangement had washed our blood unexpectedly, and made me valuable to higher contracts. Maybe we would not wither off in the salt, we had dared to believe.
We fished damaged jellyfishes from the deep-sea mining mistakes of my father's clan, for the sake of my damaged ability to offer our own another daughter.
But nothing had been said yet. Later I washed myself with frozen water, chaffing hard, hoping to break my skin open, hoping I could bleed.
Two days later, my uncle still said nothing. The interior lands were dried now.
Olu peered my way too often. That night the boys would catch more of the migratory jellyfishes, and that night he would go along. Some enjoyed the dish deep in the lands. At least we were fed. I hated their paper-like texture, with habit and countenance. But it wasn't important. Jellyfishes was our lot in life, in this massive world of alien stars I had only seen in movies and pictures. Those who tried to join the feverish activity of foreign concerns, they scraped the sea with chemicals so they could stand a chance at survival and relevance. We didn't, and I couldn't tell if it was by pride or poverty.
My mother stood behind me, fragile like pottery that had already broke once.
“The Dalatrass is coming,” she announced to me. Her voice was strangled with resignation. I only shivered, because I didn't want Olu to get angry before leaving to the shore. The fear gnawed at my guts a bit more each day, legs colder and colder, but I didn't know what I feared, and I didn't dare to ask.
“She'll be here tomorrow,” she insisted. Maybe she wanted me to look distressed, so she could have an external reason to feel guilty. “She'll talk to Veraji, for the data.”
“It will rain tonight”, I said, staring at the burdened sky without a blink. “I don't think the boys should go.”
“Veraji means well, he always has,” my mother muttered. “He likes you a lot.”
“Mother, you could stop them from going.”
She swept the first raindrop off her narrow jaw. “Your aunt doesn't think we have enough to last the rain season.”
“Then she should stop them.”
“She goes along tonight.”
I nodded emptily.
With the night came another storm. Our walls of stone vibrated from the crashes of waves. I stood on the balcony, veils off, unable to see the green dots of the ships, wishing the howls of wind could tear me off my feet and plunge me in the dark ocean below. When my mother came to find me, my viridian skin felt liquid.
“Olu,” she said.
I swallowed, holding back the need to scream, and followed her in the uneven corridors to the storage.
His skull was cracked. His whole face was enrolled in white fabric, safe for his mouth, and he laid on his side. The fabric was soaked green. They had lifted the load, and an ocean crest swung the reward for their work right to his head. Blood poured still. I was no stranger to the hardships of fishing, to blood, to crushed legs and drowned bodies. But with Olu it was different. Maybe I went crazy that night. Every memory of my hands trying to save his life are crystal clear in my mind. How I pushed help away. How hard I breathed, how cold my body was. How my brothers told me to do things I ignored, how many of them were hurt too, how my aunt said nothing.
I kept my brother alive until my uncle arrived, two hours later. He had to tear me off, and he apologized. I screamed at him. Told him to shut up, to SHUT UP. My mother took my shoulders and made me leave the room. I walked until I couldn't. I leaned and fell against the wall, shivering, sick maybe. Biting my fist, I wished I knew how to cry the way aliens wept.
I fainted, or maybe sleep deprivation knocked me off.
I awoke in one of the boys' bed, and Veraji looked my way, standing near. We stared at each other a long time before he finally spoke.
“I won't tell them,” he said.
“How is Olu?”
“Alive. He needs specialized medical attention. The Dalatrass arrives soon, if the spaceport is in any state of welcoming her. I will plead for his transfer.”
“She won't transfer him. I know she won't.” My weak body wanted to burn the sea, the jellyfishes, the alien worlds that killed us slowly.
“Iorn, I won't tell them.”
“They need to know.” My throat was harsh, punishing me for the rain, the screams, the deathwishes. “It's our future we're talking about.”
“Our future, yes. Not yours.”
My eyes drilled the engraved black ceiling. “I'm sorry I told you to shut up.”
“Shut up Iorn.”
My head pounded in blurs, and I grinned. Only then did I realize he had been holding my fingers, gently, like breeze.
“Is there anything I can do?” I murmured.
He kept still. “Don't blame yourself, please. Biology doesn't care about our feelings. We will find a way, we always did.”
“Like breeding amongst ourselves?”
He let go of my hand. “Better ways. Profitable ones. We won't starve here.”
“What better ways?”
The wind still whorled outside from yesterday’s storm. “Your aunt,” he dared to mutter. I busted into laughter, for irony's sake, and the sound it made resonated without resistance long, long after I stopped, deep inside myself.
The spaceport had been ready this time, the flood contained far from its grounds. It was midday when the Dalatrass stepped inside our home. The post-storm fog curtained her shuttle, and tatters of rain poured over it at the weather's whims. She was a tall figure, everything elongated –nostrils, and thin lips, and fingers that seemed to never end, and sharp gray eyes that saw beyond what you wanted to show. She was too old to be this tall, too wrinkled to stand, too discolored to be anything but a spirit. I bowed, thumbs intertwined, hands flats on my crumpled clothes I had no time to replace. I bowed low, refusing to meet her eyes. She didn't move until I had no choice but get straight again and meet them. She blinked once.
“Dalatrass, our clan needs all the help we can get,” I said. “Olu needs you.”
She nodded, and stepped away. I watched the left half of her naked back, pictured her arm under the sleeve. The lines, diligently traced inside her flesh at each fallen soul. A lot of us died of unnatural death. The patterns of self-inflicted pains told everything of what we endured, and just by looking at her ice-carved demeanor I could sense the unspoken weight on her shoulders. I told myself I never asked for this weight, so in a way I was losing nothing. And nothing had been said yet. Not aloud.
As she remained with my mother and Olu's broken body, the rest of us waited behind. I wished my breath would stop to quiver.
Veraji was called in, and so was I. My aunt entered alongside without invitation.
My mother looked at nothing. The Dalatrass scraped each of us with her stare, leaving guilt behind. Already part of me wanted to beg for his life, or for mine. I bit my tongue and disconnected body from mind. So I would keep still. A Dalatrass keeps still, always. Nothing had been said yet. Maybe I could still be used somehow.
“Mother,” Veraji said. “Olu needs a transfer to the inner lands. Fast. Or else he won't make it.”
“We don't have that sort of money,” my aunt trembled. “You know we can't afford that.”
“I can pay for it,” Veraji insisted.
“If you pay for him, you can't pay for the rest of us.” My aunt scratched her mid-horns the way she did when she was nervous. In her wide open eyes I could see Olu's skull being fractured over and over. I hoped the memory would burn her mind if he died.
“Mother, you have the authority on resources here,” Veraji sniffed, lips twitching. “Or maybe you'll have an idea. A contract project. A way to reach outerspace banks.”
“What about the reproduction contract, Mother?” My aunt's haunted eyes were on my face, devouring me whole in their gleam. “What about it?”
My mother held a wince, and the Dalatrass' stare pierced me through. Drowning in her eyes I thought of the storm, how the wind had smashed my skin, how the salt had cut me, how the sea had howled in my stead, and how I wished I could faint again.
“Veraji?” My aunt muttered. “She's sterile isn't she?”
White noise, or maybe it was the waves outside.
“The data is not processed yet,” he said.
Her yellow mouth twitched.
“Veraji, Veraji. You don’t know how to lie.”
“The data is not processed yet,” he said.
“She could have saved Olu, right Mother?” My aunt’s words rung in my head, as if it was empty. “But it's like with krogan offspring. Her eggs are rotten, I've seen them.”
“The data is not processed yet,” he said.
My head pounded faraway, and the Dalatrass' eyes squinted. She stared at me, for a very long time.
“I see,” she croaked.
They all left. I was left alone in the storage, in charge of checking if Olu was doing well. He was. What else could he be doing but do well, or die. I stared at his broken face, detailing how he didn't look like himself anymore. His skin, lime and translucent, like a jellyfish. The smell of them was everywhere, their wetness a deposit on every surface, and I wanted to scratch them off the planet. Olu was so peaceful when he had never been anything but angry. Looking at him made me ill with resent. I think I hit my forehead against the wall, at least twice, the second time wishing I could split my skull as well.
I stayed there until sunset, alone with some half-corpse I loved. My mother came back and I was sitting on the ground, counting every white dot on the black stone in case I missed one every other time I did that in my life. 8796.
I swept my dry eyes, wishing they would moisten more.
“I'm watching over him now. Go to sleep.”
“I don't want to lose you. Please forgive me.”
It could have been wind, or my own mind.
I clenched my teeth, hard, and pretended I didn't hear. I left the room pretending I wasn't running. In my quarters I roamed the room with impossible terror. Everything I tried holding fell and cracked. Maybe I was throwing them. Maybe I whimpered in my hands, nauseated by my own body, that foreign lump of flesh and cartilage and bones, that body that would force me to witness my failure until the end.
They came for me late at night. The Dalatrass, my aunt, my mother. Three shadows in my room, unavoidable.
“Come with us,” said the unfamiliar croaking voice.
I stood still. The storm of fear narrowed to a single point deep in my throat, and a pulse that fought against myself. Gills caught in a hook, yet I breathed still.
“Where is Veraji?” I asked. “Where is Olu?”
“Veraji left for the clinic.” The voice floated –disembodied. “Olu will live, if you come with us.”
“What if I don't?”
“Olu dies, and that's your fault.”
“You don't care if he dies,” I said.
The Dalatrass was immobile, a monolith of strength I wished I had. She paused, and the darkness hid all of their expressions from me.
“Will I die if I follow you?”
The rain poured on the stone through the open walls. They would not speak anymore. I thought of jumping from the balcony, out of spite. My mother stared at me, through the night I knew she did, and she was shaking. Something in me broke. I could not take two of her children away that night.
I wanted to fall at her feet. Beg her. Beg her to do anything. Beg her for my life. I followed them instead. My shoulders shook, sob-like, yet I couldn't make a sound.
We walked in the corridors, then outside. Rain poured over us, heavy and cluttered. Beneath our soles the dampened foam stuck to the ground still, and the tortured bushes remained unbroken. Clouds leaned on us as we entered the Dalatrass' shuttle and ascended into them. Soon the windows showed nothing but rags of blackness.
“I didn't say goodbye to the boys,” I muttered.
The Dalatrass piloted through the sky. My aunt massaged her horns. My mother stared at the floor, expressionless. There was a bag against the wall, a black bag I had never seen before.
“Mom.” My voice broke, but that didn't snap her back here, with me.
We landed on the spaceport's mud and could only hear wind. The rain had kept to the coast. We stepped outside, in the dark. For some time it was only cold.
Then I saw the spaceship. There was moss over it, but it was lit, fired to life, reactors a blue fire. The heat struck me first, and then smells of burnt grass and foreign gas. There was people within its open doors. I shivered to see aliens amongst the passengers, aliens I had never seen before for real. I turned to my family, my clan, and my mother stepped towards me with the bag in her feeble arms. She gave it to me. Her yellow eyes stared deep inside mine.
“Leave,” she said. “Don't come back,” she said. “Don't come back alive.”
The hook rived off my lungs. They tore. Paper-like.
My first thought was that Olu would die. They had lied to me. They couldn't afford to fly me off and save his life. I was dirty. He was leftover.
He was a cost worth spending.
What convinced Veraji I wondered then. I stared at my aunt, and she refused to hold my empty eyes. It was the rotten blood. If people knew about it, they would never risk another contract with our clan. What if they learned about the inbreeding. The clan couldn’t afford to loose the illusion of a clean genome. Outsiders would not risk blood, risk investment, not with the alien worlds pressuring them to measure up or disappear. There was still her, my aunt. No matter how she had come to life, what had kept her from being the Dalatrass' investment back then.
The Dalatrass held my stare. It was her call, that I was to disappear. I gave up hating her before even trying. She blinked, and there was no faltering in her incised flesh. Would she slit another scar for me? I still wonder. Sometimes it keeps me up at night.
My eyes fell back on my mother, my meek mother that I loved deeply, still, beautiful in her indecent acceptance of loss. I hope she's still alive. I hope she survived killing me.
I walked to the ship without another word. Or another stare to the muddy mist. No need. They would haunt me long enough. The mist, the storm. Them.
I needed time to mourn my brother. I needed time to mourn myself.
The ship flew off fast and swift, past the wind and past the rain. The sky was black, dotted with stars and satellites. Alien worlds I had never wished to see.
We exited the atmosphere, and gravity let go of me. Sur'kesh laid beneath, glowing blue, the ground of my birth, the ground that saw me die.
I was born investment.
But investment or not, we are leftovers all the same.