With that said, here we go.
Depths of Perception
Interlude - Nutritor
She lived a hard, sometimes brutal life for the city. But a very necessary one. When so many offspring were born sterile, those that weren’t became even more vital for the health of the city. It could not guard, it could not protect, if it were bereft of enough citizens to keep the Complex safe.
She knew all this. She had been taught since her earliest memory that her entire purpose was to bear offspring so that the inhabitants of the city could remain strong. Too many newborns died, too many young fell prey to their environment. She knew she must give each child over to the praeceptors immediately to be assigned a caste.
But when she beheld the infant face of her newest born, she didn’t feel the exhausted pride her duty normally lent her. She didn’t tenderly clean its face and check its sex. She didn’t wrap it against the cold scrape of the currents.
Instead, horror filled her.
For the first time in her life, she wished to be anything but nutritor.
The babe fell from her nerveless grasp, the fluids of its birth swirling around it in dark swathes. It flailed its misshapen limbs as it struggled to breathe. She backed away, staring at it in terrified fascination, certain it was going to choke and die soon.
And she wanted it to.
None would question her, none would ask what happened. Life was harsh, and the babe would not be the first she had lost. So she waited, expecting each ragged breath to be its last.
But it didn’t die.
Instead, the first hints of its thoughts spread outwards, touching her as lightly as an Auctor’s psi-probe. A deeply-submerged instinct stirred inside her. Beneath the layers of disappointment, shame, and outrage, she felt the faintest stirrings of motherly tenderness, an emotion long-ago deemed unnecessary for the survival of the city.
But that helpless cry coldhungerfrightenedalone resonated inside the nutritor’s mind, tearing apart her resistance.
Wasn’t she, too, also alone?
Perhaps, she thought, it is not as – as abnormal as it first appeared.
So thinking, she left her corner and reached for the undersized infant. She picked it up and peered into its face. It was, if possible, even uglier on a second examination.
Perhaps it will grow out of it.
But she didn’t truly believe that. The castes were too rigidly fixed to ever accept one as severely handicapped as the child she held. Still, the child kicked strongly, and she guessed it to be strong enough to survive if given the chance.
I must alert the Auctors.
Yet she didn’t.
Hesitantly, as if she couldn’t quite believe herself, she bought its mouth to her breast. It latched on eagerly, its mouth strangely toothless, without the nubby row of teeth proper newborns had.
But then, there was nothing proper about the her actions, either.
Already its mindvoice was growing quieter, secure in the pseudo-warmth of the nutritor’s embrace. While the child suckled, her eyes traveled over its body, noting its too-soft or missing scales, the stunted split-tails, the web-less hands and fins. Suddenly curious, she spread its rounded limbs and saw it was a female.
Nutritor, classification N’Gen23p. A birth was expected this wakecycle. Have you delivered the offspring?
The impersonal voice of a praeceptor burst into the nutritor’s consciousness.
Startled, N’Gen23p looked down at the helpless child greedily drinking from her. As if sensing the nutritor’s regard, the newborn opened her eyes and met the searching gaze.
A wave of trust from the child’s mind touched her, cutting the nutritor as deeply as any psi-probe she’d ever experienced.
Ruthlessly, she shut down the mental echo of the newborn’s mind.
Negative, praeceptor. The offspring was stillborn. Preparing for disposal.
There was a slight pause and N’Gen23p felt herself tensing. But when the voice returned, there was no hint of suspicion.
Understood. Complete disposal. You are relieved of duties until your next ovulation, when you are to return to the foeto seminium facility.
As if she had any choice. She responded automatically, mechanically.
My duty to breed.
The mental echo of the praeceptor withdrew. N’Gen23p went limp with relief, hugging the malformed offspring even more closely to her breast. She had lied to a praeceptor, defying the will of the Auctor’s just to save the slight bundle in her arms. And for what? The child was unlikely to survive, and even if she did, with her ugly features and deformities, she must spend her life hidden away. Was that serving the city?
But N’Gen23p was not designed to think critically. Any attempt at analysis ended back at the belief that she wasn’t harming the city, so her actions could be excused. And truly, one feeble female offspring was hardly going to ever be able to cripple the city and the carefully structures castes that labored inside it.
She knew she’d made the right decision.
The child abruptly yawned. N’Gen23p herself felt the physical exhaustion that followed a difficult birth. But she knew that she had to at least make the appearance of disposing of a stillborn body. So she let the current rock her and the baby for a moment, its ponderous movements lulling the child to sleep.
But the nutritor couldn’t rest just yet.
She wrapped the baby carefully in layers of mashed and braided seaweed, making sure to cover every centimeter of exposed skin. Lastly, she fastened a loose hood to cover the baby’s entire head. No one ever came to her dwelling, but N’Gen23p knew she had to accustom the child now to the extra weight of coverings and the importance of never showing herself. Then the nutritor secured the sleeping child in a hanging net in the darkest part of her sleeping nook. If the child woke before she returned, at least her cries would be muffled.
Finally, N’Gen23p gathered her afterbirth, making sure all traces of blood were absent from her body. She wrapped it securely, making a tiny bundle, which she then placed inside a carryall made from woven seaweed. With a last glance towards the hidden baby, N’Gen23p emerged from her dwelling and began the trek to the food farms. Her tails moved slowly, her abdomen still aching, feeling the pull of every bruised muscle as she swam along the narrow, near-dark avenues. The path was familiar as was the pain. She had delivered a great many stillborn.
After what seemed a very long time, she arrived on the coloni area of the second zone, where the bent farmers lived, tending the food which kept the city strong. As she approached, a lone overseer noticed her.
State your designation and the nature of your business.
N’Gen23p for disposal of a stillborn.
The coloni nodded then stilled. She knew he was consulting other farm overseers for placement.
His tails flicked complacently.
N’Gen23p, you are directed to take your package to the chauliodus-macouni farms, sector four.
He nodded again, appearing to lose interest in her or the sack trailing behind her. She swam on, again feeling the pull of her muscles, but she refused to rest. She was a nutritor. It was her duty to suffer and endure for the health of the city.
When she arrived at sector four, she was given a cursory glance and waved forward. The fish were held down by electrical nets, yet they had been known to escape. So she swam above the field until she felt safely out of reach. But she didn’t let go of her wrapped bundle – not quite yet. Instead, she continued swimming until the gloom of the seafloor surrounded her, safe from the glow of the Complex, with only the lights of the fish below offering any illumination. Only then did she untie the bag, pull out the wrapped afterbirth, and lower it to the hungry swarm. Monstrous mouths opened as the tiny bag reached them. Hungrily they tore into the bloody mass, devouring it in mere seconds.
Only then did N’Gen23p turn around and head back into the city, towards her dwelling in sector seven of the third zone. Only then did she begin to think about her exhaustion. And only then did she realize the task she had given herself in keeping the child.
But N’Gen23p wasn’t designed to worry about the future. All she knew was that there was a tiny, helpless creature waiting for her at home, the first offspring she would ever get to keep, that she would get to feed for more than three months before giving it back into the keep of the praeceptors. She was no longer completely alone. No one need ever know about the child.
The life of a nutritor was hard and brutal, but necessary. N’Gen23p lived to serve the city. She would continue uninterrupted, holding her secret safe in her mind. Her outermost thoughts, though, would be her most effective guard as she offered up a single refrain.My duty to breed.