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Isabella is eating in the cold cafeteria with the other candidates. She shivers in her dull uniform, and tries to focus on the food in front of her.

“Hey—sorry if this is a weird question—but why do you actually want to be a Mama?” The girl next to her, Leah, asks through a mouthful of potato. They aren’t friends, but they’re close enough. “Like, really.”

“I want to live,” Isabella says simply. “Don’t you?”

“Yeah, but—you could stick with being a Sister for that,” Leah shrugs. “I just wanna be a Sister. It’s all I need. But you want to be a Mama. I don’t get it.”

“Does it matter?”

I think so, anyway.”

Isabella pauses.

“...It might sound silly, but... the children—I want them to be happy,” Isabella says slowly, carefully. “I want them to live their lives as children for as long as possible. It’s... it’s the least they deserve, I think.”

“You’re a nobler woman than me,” Leah laughs.

“Hardly,” Isabella shakes her head, and they both leave it at that.

——————

There’s a reason that Mama candidates have to bear their own child before they’re assigned to a plantation.

The process of pregnancy and motherhood causes chemical changes in women. Isabella knows this, she did her research. The very structure of their bodies and brains are altered, just to bear and raise their children.

It’s part of why Mamas are so effective at taking care of the produce. They’re still able to raise them as children, love them as children—and then, when it’s time, they can let them go.

Many of the Mama candidates don’t survive having their babies taken from them. (They don’t even get to hold them. Isabella remembers the screaming. It rings in her ears on the bad days, and she buries herself in her studies to deafen the noise.)

Isabella survives. Her baby is taken from her the moment it is born, and she survives. She is not sure if that makes her stronger than the others, or just worse, but nonetheless, she survives.

(And if that baby holds a piece of herself, a piece of Leslie with it? If she sang softly to it every night, where no one could hear except herself and her unborn child? Well, then that’s no one’s business but her own.)

——————

She is assigned to Plant Three immediately after her graduation. She is the youngest Mama—in fact, she’s the youngest Mama ever. It is a point of pride, and Grandma tells her so.

“You are going to be great,” Grandma, once her own Mama, whispers in her ear.

Isabella hasn’t wanted to be great since she was twelve years old. She just wants to live.

——————

The scores of the Gracefield children improve dramatically upon Isabella’s entrance into their lives. Isabella carefully does not think about what it means for the children, and instead accepts the praise of her superiors with humble dignity.

Two months into her assignment, she gets the notice. Cara, designated 62494, age 11, score average 223/300, scheduled for shipment, imminent in three days.

Cara didn’t have time to get used to Isabella has her new Mama, and had just called her Ms. Isabella. As the oldest girl at the time, she’d been a great help in earning the trust of the younger children. She’d liked to knit, and often made scarves and mittens and such for her siblings. Isabella has a pillowcase, made for her as a welcoming gift.

(“See, Suzan? Your new Mama can take care of you just fine,” Cara says with a gentle smile as Isabella lifts Suzan up into her arms.

Thank you, Isabella mouths at her, and Cara winks.)

The children are crying when Cara leaves, showering her with drawings and cards and handmade knickknacks.

“Don’t forget us,” Jimmy says, nine years old and trying to stay strong for the littlest ones.

“Please,” four-year-old Suzan cries.

“I’ll write back, I promise! I won’t forget you all!” Cara waves, and Isabella gently guides her out the door.

It hits Isabella with the cold night air.

Cara is going to die.

She will never knit, or write, or smile, or cry, or laugh, or breathe again.

And Isabella’s hand on her back is what is leading her forward, pushing her towards this.

For the briefest of seconds, Isabella feels the world tilt underneath her and her breath leave her lungs before she forces herself to calm.

She hums. Cara won’t be able to tell anyone about her secret little lullaby anyway. It forces Isabella’s mouth to stay shut tight, and it gives her something to focus on instead of Cara, walking next to her. She clings to it.

This is the way of the world. There is nowhere else for her to go but forward. Nothing else for her to do but survive, and this is the only way.

(They don’t make her watch, and for this small mercy, Isabella is grateful.)

——————

A year after her assignment to Plant Three, she receives three new babies. They are the first children that she will be raising completely on her own.

Emma, Norman, and Ray.

She picks up Emma. The baby stares at her with wide, wide green eyes. When Isabella holds her, Emma grips her pinky finger with surprising strength, settles into Isabella’s arms, and immediately falls asleep.

Something clenches in Isabella’s chest, and she shoves it down.

Keeping Emma in her arms, Isabella sits on the ground in front of the other two babies. Norman watches her with bright eyes and an inquisitive expression, and Ray just looks confused. Isabella suppresses a chuckle.

“Hello there,” she whispers. “I’m your Mama.”

——————

She knows from the beginning that Ray holds himself apart.

He latches onto Emma and Norman and no one else from the moment they can walk.

(The three of them are something else, Isabella knows—once they’re old enough to take the tests, she’s shocked. Norman’s analytical skills, Ray’s memory, Emma’s adaptability—it’s incredible. And they’re toddlers. Practically babies, still.)

The other children tend to gather together—making certain friends within each other, of course, but they all think of each other as siblings. It’s how Isabella raises them to think. They are one big, happy family.

But Ray holds himself apart. More often than not, he refuses to play with the other children, not even the older ones—especially not the older ones, no matter how much they try. Only at Emma and Norman’s behest will he ever really join in, and it is always reluctantly. He just seems to simply prefer the company of books and his two best friends over anyone else.

(They leaned how to walk together, how to talk together, how to read together, how to count together—if one child is somewhere, another of the trio is always nearby. It’s enough that the other children have started to think of them as one unit. It’s not Emma, Norman, and Ray, it’s EmmaNormanRay, and that’s just how they are.)

But Isabella doesn’t think much of it. For five years, Ray is just another one of her sharpest, highest-scoring Gracefield children—shyer than the others, prone to night terrors, and more sarcastic than any small child has any right to be—but a child nonetheless.

——————

Ray is crying.

It’s the middle of the night. Isabella is honestly worried that the house has started falling down, or that Emma’s finally hit her head too hard, or Norman’s sick again and this time it’s bad. Four years old and they’re already her biggest troublemakers, and—

—And Norman and Emma are with him, just fine, and the house is still standing, so why...

“What’s wrong? What happened?” Emma sniffs.

Ray never, ever cries. Even as a baby, as a toddler, he was startlingly silent—all confused and comically serious expressions, sitting or standing off to the side, hair falling over his eyes. Even with the night terrors (common for small children, Isabella does her research) that left him gasping, he would just stare with wide eyes when Isabella came to comfort him, while he was still in her room with the other littlest ones.

“Ray?” Emma’s eyes fill with tears of her own.

Ray shakes his head, clutching his arms to his chest. Norman, head tilted with quiet concern and tears filling his own eyes, pats Ray’s head in an approximation of Isabella’s own comforting.

“Are you three alright?” Isabella makes her presence known.

“Mama, Mama, Mama,” Emma runs up to her. “Ray’s crying and we don’t know why ‘cause he won’t talk and he said he didn’t need a hug, well he didn’t say it but he shook his head no, but I think he needs one anyway ‘cause you said that hugs are always good medicine and they make lots of things better and I think he had another nightmare but what if something really bad happened and he won’t tell us? Is he gonna be okay? Mama?“ Emma babbles frantically, pulling on Isabella’s nightgown, crying more with every word until she’s openly sobbing. Norman seems torn between comforting Ray, comforting Emma, and just giving up and sobbing himself.

“Don’t worry, he’s going to be okay.” If it’s just another night terror, it’s fine. Isabella lets herself breathe a sigh of relief. “And you’re right about one thing, Emma. Hugs are always the best medicine for nightmares. Come here.” Isabella kneels on the ground and opens her arms. Emma and Norman nearly barrel her over with how quickly they leap into her lap.

Ray doesn’t move.

“It’s okay, Ray,” Isabella says softly. “It’ll all be okay now.

Walking forward slowly, and then all at once, he joins the hug pile. Emma and Norman nearly smother him.

“Okay? You’re gonna be okay? You’re gonna be okay?” Emma says into his shirt.

“I’ll be fine,” he whispers.

“Good!” Emma exclaims. Norman just holds on tighter.

Isabella waits for them to fall asleep, and pretends that the fear and sorrow growing deep within her is because upset children don’t make good merchandise, and these three are going to be her best.

That’s all.

——————

There is an alert on her tracker, and the beeping sound it makes sends an instinctive spike of fear through her chest.

She doesn’t know which child she will see as she hurries outside, towards the alert, towards the child she will have to save or discard before their time—

She passes the low fence, and she is heading briskly towards the trees near the wall when she hears a child humming a song.

A song that sends shock-fear-disbelief-hurthurthurthurt-no, please no-anything but this-please no rippling through her, and she runs faster.

Ray is sitting away, crimson tripping slowly from one ear. A bloodied stick lays on the ground next to him.

No. Please, no. Please, please, please—

“Where did you learn that song?”

(She has never once sung it to a child that isn’t already dead, not once, except for—)

Please, anything but this—

He smiles at her, and somewhere far away she hears the sound of something shattering.

“Mama,” he asks, “why did you give birth to me?”

No.

She breathes.

No.

She forces her expression under control.

He is expecting an answer. Answer him, Isabella.

Why did she give birth to him?

To be a child, she doesn’t say, because it would be a lie.

To be eaten, she doesn’t say, because in a way, that’s a lie, too.

To be my son, she doesn’t say, because that would be the cruelest lie of all.

“For survival,” she says, because it is the truth.

He pauses, and nods.

“Mama,” he says, “I want to make a deal with you.”

——————

Isabella is an expert at burying.

She is an expert at burying children, and she is an expert at burying herself, too.

So she does. She buries herself under the thick, suffocating soil of practicality and rationality.

Ray’s very existence is a knife twisted into her chest. So she will rip out the knife, and she will make it her own weapon.

——————

“Mama,” he asks, “can I talk to you?”

“Of course,” she says genially.

(Robbie has been going behind her back to find out how the adoptions are decided. He’ll find out soon enough, she supposes.)

——————

“Mama,” he asks, “what was the point of all that?”

“What do you think?” She smiles. It doesn’t reach her eyes, and Ray just looks sad, before he forces his features into flatness.

(The little bird they saved is gone, but Ray was not the one to set it free. Their deal lives on. Suzan is gone too, and the house feels oddly cold.)

——————

“Mama,” he asks, “how do you live with yourself?”

“I just live,” she says simply. Her smile is sharp, and his answering glare is sharper.

(The question rings in her ears long after he’s gone. How do you live with yourself, Isabella?)

(Her answer is always the same. She just lives.)

——————

“Mama,” he asks between near-silent sobs, “how d’you do it? Why do you—“ he shakes his head and tries to pull away from her, but it’s three o’clock in the morning and he’s seven years old. He doesn’t have the strength for it. He buries his head in her shoulder instead.

Ray has always been prone to night terrors. For years, she’d thought it was the product of being something of an imaginative child. That he’d grow out of it.

She was wrong. She holds him tighter.

She thinks she’s mourning.

Mourning what?

What has she lost?

(Why do you want to be a Mama?)

(I want them to be happy.)

She just wants to make them happy. Happy and healthy and loved, for as long as they still live and breathe.

And the one child—the one child—she can never, ever do even this small comfort for—

It’s your own son, something in her mocks. The only child you cannot make happy is your own son.

Does she deserve this? Is this retribution, punishment? Are the little ghosts of Cara, Olivia, Jimmy, Suzan, Charlie, Robbie, Michelle, Leslie laughing at her right now? Forty-eight little ghosts, jeering, cackling, this is what you get, Mama—

This one thing. She cannot do this one thing.

Ray has quieted in her arms. She can’t tell if he’s asleep, or just waiting.

She sings to him under her breath before she returns him to the bedroom. Her lullaby, his lullaby, their own little secret.

(It’s the last time she ever sings for him.)

——————

Nature versus nurture.

Isabella wasn’t exactly a bookworm during her time at Grace Field. (Not like him.) But she was a high-scoring child in her own right (like him) and a certain amount of research is required for that. Psychology had been a particular interest of hers. (Not like him, not like his fantasy novels and gadgets and—)

She’d read about nature versus nurture. An ongoing debate in childhood development circles, compelling arguments from both sides. It was always relevant to raising the Plant Three children, because childhood development psychology was and still is her bread and butter, but never relevant to herself.

And years ago she cursed herself for a fool, because after she learned the truth of her own child she couldn’t unsee it. It’s so obvious. The shape of the eyes, the the slant of the brows, the slope of the jawline, the point of the nose, the way the hair falls, it is all the shape of Isabella in Ray.

His eyes are violet. They are shadowed, so dark as to nearly be black, but when the sun shines on his face his eyes are undeniably violet.

(He started to wear his hair to cover half of his face when he was three. She doesn’t blame him.)

Isabella remembers feeling faint, seeing that. And it only got worse as they both grew older.

(He laughs like her. He has the happy giggle of ten-year-old Isabella and the dark chuckle of Isabella the Mama. She wonders which came first. She wonders which is his real laugh.)

(Nature versus nurture—)

She sees the calm, cold mask, as smooth and porcelain and tired as her own, and knows that this—this, she gave him.

She sees the dark fury and the spite and buried-deep fear that he glares at her with, when it’s just the two of them, and knows that this, she gave him too.

And she sees, somewhere underneath the apathy, a vicious sort of caring and a harsh kind of determination, and... this, she gave him, for better or worse.

But—

She hears the deadpan humor, the cynical twist to his smirk, the single raised eyebrow, and thinks, this is not something that I gave him.

She sees the books upon books upon books, sees him drink in the words like water with the desperation of a man abandoned in the desert, and thinks, this is not something that I gave him, either.

And she watches him smile, small and hesitant and genuine, as Emma grabs one of his hands and Norman grabs the other, and knows, this is not something that I gave him.

(She’s thankful for that.)

——————

Over the years, four children are ‘adopted’ ahead of their time because of ‘technical issues’ with their trackers.

With each shipment, Ray’s expression grows emptier. Less stricken and horrified, more blank. Cold.

Isabella cannot officially trace the tracker malfunctions back to him. But when she hugs the smaller children goodnight, she is sure to brush their hair behind their ears.

Ray stares at her. Flat. Only vaguely questioning.

She smiles at him. It’s a porcelain thing, she knows. A doll’s expression of contentment.

Ray opens his book and starts to read as he walks away.

Interesting.

——————

“Thoma and Lani tried to get past the fence.” Ray leans against the doorway, casual to any passing observer, but Isabella knows better. “They weren’t tall enough.”

“Did you discourage them?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.”

“Oh, also—Colin figured out the trackers. Saw you with your ‘pocket watch’ one too many times.”

“Unfortunate, but inevitable,” Isabella sighs.

Ray turned ten a few weeks ago, and it shows. He doesn’t stand in front of her like a soldier at attention anymore, he just slouches, lazily smirking, like Isabella is just another bother that’s keeping him from reading.

“He talked to Margot about it, but she didn’t believe him.”

“Good. Make sure it stays that way.”

“Already done.”

“Noted. What do you want?”

“Handheld gaming device. Nothing too fancy.”

“Done.”

——————

Colin is scheduled for ‘adoption.’

When she announces it, she spares a glance at Ray. She sees the stubborn set of his clenched jaw and the chipped ice in his eyes and realizes, with a dawning sort of horror and the slightest twinge of pride, that she cannot read him.

And for the first time, she wonders what exactly she has created.

——————

She has no reason to think that Conny’s adoption will be any different than the others. In hindsight this is, perhaps, the beginning of her downfall.

——————

Isabella finds Little Bunny at the gate, and she is very, very afraid.

She’s not sure what scares her more—the fact that two children now know, or the fact that their discovery had to have been orchestrated.

She takes a deep breath, and prepares herself for the long game.

——————

Krone is easy enough to get rid of, once she has outlived her usefulness. She could never become a Mama, anyway. There’s a delicate balance between selfishness and love that a Mama has to stand on the thin edge of, and Krone stretched too far in both directions.

Should she feel something about that? She might have, once upon a time.

But Isabella doesn’t have the strength or energy for that kind of empathy, anymore.

(Farewell, Krone. You deserve this just as much as I do.)

——————

She wonders if she should have seen it coming.

She wonders if she did see it coming, and something in her ignored it, buried it deep deep down for the sake of letting the (her) precious commodities (children) survive another few months.

She watches Emma, Norman, and Ray (EmmaNormanRay and all the ‘ands’ in-between, because it is ever appropriate to separate even their names?) sit underneath the trees, talking and gesturing and doubtlessly planning.

She cannot stop them, not in this careful little game they’re playing, but she can watch. And wonder.

Because she didn’t see it coming. Not properly. Not in its entirety. Not these three. She should have, but she did not.

(Ray told her that he wanted to live out his twelve years as happy as he could, and like a fool, she’d believed him.)

They can’t escape. Isabella’s very survival depends on shipping these three out.

And Isabella has always done anything to survive.

——————

She gets the notification.

Norman, designated 22194, age 11, score average 300/300, scheduled for shipment, imminent in three days.

It’s for the best. It’s for the best. It’s for the best. Isabella can do this one thing right, and she can live and breathe another day.

——————

“I no longer have any use for you,” she tells Ray, and she feels nothing at his stricken expression. It’s true—he’s more of a hindrance than a help now. If only he cared more for his own survival, this wouldn’t have happened.

She says, “In a perfect world, I would have loved to keep you by my side until the very end,” and he doesn’t look like he believes her. That’s fair. (She means it, though. Every word.)

(Please forgive me for what I’m about to do.)

She feels nothing when she snaps Emma’s leg. Nothing when the bone cracks under her fingers, and the flesh starts to swell. Nothing when Emma screams, more heartbroken than in pain.

She feels nothing when she tells them about Norman’s upcoming shipment, and she is stared at with the most horrified expressions that eleven-year-olds can make. EmmaNormanRay will become Emma, Ray, and Norman, with commas and ‘ands’ in between, and it will be done by her own hand. She feels nothing.

And she feels nothing when she walks back to the house with Emma in her arms and Norman and Ray trailing behind. (Something in Ray has been broken and something in Norman has been stolen, and Emma, limp, is just drained.) Don and Gilda stare at her and she stares right back. Dares them to say something, to do something. Anything.

(She feels nothing. These are the lies she tells herself. And if she believes them? All the better.)

——————

Emma and Ray have gotten desperate, but Isabella knows the cold steel in Norman’s eyes. He’s already made his decision, and he will not be swayed.

She doesn’t bother trying to stop their plans. She doesn’t need to. Not when Norman will stop them all for her.

And when the day comes—

(She wonders what he looked like, when he saw the cliff on the other side of the wall. When he realized it was hopeless. All hopeless.)

—Norman faces her with a smile.

Emma tries one last stunt and Ray doesn’t even say goodbye. Norman remains perfectly composed. Isabella lets herself admire this, and as they step out into the cold night are, she even tells him so.

“Hey Mama,” he asks. “Are you happy?”

(She can’t breathe.)

“Yes, I am.” And the thing is—she isn’t even lying. It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not a lie, either. “I was able to meet someone like you, after all.”

EmmaNormanRay, her pride and joy, her geniuses, her children. Norman has cut himself away just as much as Isabella has broken them apart. It is this kind of sacrifice that Isabella will never understand, and this kind of sacrifice she will always admire, for whatever it’s worth.

Of course, Norman isn’t going to his death, not really—but from what she’s heard of Lambda, it’s similar enough.

——————

It’s painful to watch what Norman left behind.

If it is painful for herself, it must be agonizing to the younger children.

Emma, blank-faced, sitting in the shade with her broken leg, unresponsive, nearly catatonic. Ray, exhausted, books slipping from his hands and a sardonic smile on his face. They barely speak, not to each other or to anyone else.

Isabella watches them, because she’s not naive, she’s not stupid enough to think that this is the end, but—but they do nothing.

She tries to talk to Emma but she’s tearfully shoved away. Emma could be the perfect Mama if she wanted to. She has both the fire to survive and the kindness to care for the children. She could stand perfectly poised on that balance.

But she’s just so stubborn.

Don’t you want to live, Emma? Don’t become just another meal on a platter, Isabella thinks, you fool. Stand up and survive.

But Emma just cries.

——————

Isabella doesn’t talk to Ray. They don’t share a single word in the months after Norman is shipped.

She finds him once, collapsed, asleep on the floor of the library. She puts a blanket over him and doesn’t let herself stop to wonder why she’s still going through these motions.

——————

The morning of Ray’s birthday, just past midnight, Emma screams. Loud and gut-wrenching and raw.

She’s screaming for Ray.

Isabella throws open the door to the dining hall and is hit with a wave of heat and light, and—and it’s on fire. The dining hall is on fire, it’s roaring with flames and smoke, already burning too bright and hot to put out. She can smell something that she’s starting to think is burning flesh and hair, the awful smell is sticking in her lungs. The fire is spreading faster, too, faster than Isabella could have ever predicted, too quick and eager for it to have been a accident, and—

“RAY,” Emma screams. “MAMA, HELP! RAY’S IN THERE!” She’s sobbing, her tears are evaporating in the heat, and what’s worse—

It’s not a trap. The trackers match up. The smell—

Oh. Oh, no. Oh no no no please no—

Ray, why would you ever—

...Why is she surprised?

She shouldn’t be.

(Your son just set himself on fire, and he’s burning everything down with him. Why are you surprised?)

She knew what she was doing, after all. It’s not difficult to break the spirit of a child that’s already been broken.

But—

(Why are you surprised? You broke him.)

She hadn’t thought that—

(You thought he would be like you now. You thought he would want to survive.)

She didn’t realize—

(You forgot what it was like to die, Isabella. You forgot what it was like to spit in the face of your torturers and throw yourself off of the wall with a grin. You wanted to fall, Isabella, and now Ray wants to burn.)

He... she doesn’t...

(What kind of mother is surprised when her son turns out just like her?)

——————

Isabella asks the children what they want to be when they grow up—a simple, normal question for children. After he turns three, Ray says ‘architect,’ but he pronounces it wrong. After he turns four, he mumbles ‘I dunno.’ After he turns six, he refuses to answer the question at all.

——————

Pull yourself together, Isabella.

She runs for the fire extinguisher.

Are the past twenty years of your life going to amount to nothing? Are you going to let them eviscerate you for their harvest?

She throws herself into the flames.

But it’s useless. She can’t see, the flames are licking at her dress and face and she can’t find even a trace of Ray, not his brain, not his body, not even bone.

She turns around to call for Emma, and—

Emma is gone.

Emma is gone.

Isabella holds up the bloody cartilage. Emma cut off her own ear, and she is gone.

So are the children.

And...

And Ray.

The relief that floods her nearly knocks her off her feet and it is with utter desperation that she tears out of the house and radios for help.

She doesn’t know how they’re going to do it because even now the cliffside is stark in her memories, but—

“Mama!”

She whips around with a gasp caught in her throat.

“Phil?”

He takes her to where the youngest children are. Twenty-two children, all under the age of five, all frantic and sobbing as they watch their home burn.

She leaves them behind. She cannot, absolutely cannot let anyone leave. She will not be just some more meat.

(At the very least, she needs to see how they’re getting across the cliff.)

She reaches them just as Emma gives one last look to the wall, to Gracefield, to her, and then dashes into the forest.

Sheet ropes again... and discarded hangers...

Oh. Clever. More clever than Isabella could ever think of.

(Or maybe Ray’s not the only one with a tendency to give up too soon.)

She returns to the littlest children, falling asleep in the forest to the firelight and the stars, and she gathers them close. Hums a lullaby, because if this is her last night alive, then surely Leslie will forgive her breaking that promise.

——————

She is twenty years old, and she is humming to the baby. She doesn’t wonder who it will be, or what it will be like. This song is all she will leave for it.

She is twenty-one years old, and she is humming as she guides a little girl to the gate. It keeps her from screaming.

She is twenty-six years old, and her son is watching her with her own eyes, humming the only real gift she ever gave him.

She is twenty-seven years old, and she is holding her son in her arms, and because there is nothing she can do to comfort him she hums instead.

She is thirty-two years old, and she sings to the children gathered at her feet while their home burns around them because she has nothing left to lose, anymore.

——————

They call for her. She’s been waiting for it.

She walks down the field, feeling oddly peaceful. She wonders if this is how Norman felt.

Isabella leaves Plant Three and steps out of the gate, into the open air. Seventy-seven little ghosts follow her, and all of them are humming the same lullaby.