Suffering in Silver
by Mary Pseud
The Kaled Infant Production Room was behind the same massive radiation barriers that sealed the Women's Quarters away from the rest of the Dome, and the poisoned planet Skaro. In this single massive room, with white-enamelled beds worn to bright metal from a thousand gripping hands, women in labour were brought, and drugged unconscious, and then awoke to start the drug treatments that would bring them back to fertility as soon as possible. They were never awake through their child's birth: they never knew if their child was male or female or alive or dead.
'Child of one, child of all.' That had been a propaganda slogan in the first century of the war, a slogan that had become a way of life. Nobody knew who their mother was, or their father. Fertilisation was done using anonymous banked semen; men and women never touched, except for the sterile hands of doctors on their unconscious patients. Children were raised with the State as their only parent and teacher.
The Production Room had been in constant use for hundreds of years. Its walls had sucked in more screams than could be counted. But there were some new additions to it: portable screens had been rolled around the beds, giving a tiny measure of privacy. There was a large, half-painted mural covering part of a wall; it showed a sun, and rising above it the Kaled Dome, smiling as though it were a face.
There was a woman lying in one of the beds, looking straight up. Her breath came a little too fast, her face was a little bit too flushed, and tears ran back through the corners of her eyes, into her long dark hair. And strangely, the room was empty except for her.
"Hello?" she said, at the sound of a footstep. She looked up and smiled.
"Hello, Ronson," she said.
"Caso," he said, trying to be formal and failing miserably. He was a dignified man, silver-haired and grave, a Senior Researcher assigned to the Kaled Elite Bunker. There were few higher positions for a man to aspire to. He wore a stiff white laboratory uniform, severe and plain. But his dark eyes were anxious, and he sat down in the new chair beside her, hunched forward a bit more than was quite dignified. "Are you sure you want to see me?"
"They told you I wanted to see you, didn't I?"
"Yes, but," Ronson flailed for what to say next. He had corresponded with Caso via letters for several months, but this was only the third time they had met face to face. "I thought that you would want to be alone, now."
"No." She sighed, deeply. "Before, the other times I was here, there were always people fussing, getting me ready for the needle. And then I'd wake up, empty. And surrounded by more people, waiting with more needles. Drugs to make me-"
"I'm familiar with the process," said Ronson hastily. "But do you want me here now?" Now of all times seemed the worst imaginable time.
"I want someone here I can talk to. Someone different. Not a woman." Her tone was much less formal than it had been when they first met. Either she was more used to him, or she felt that she had reached the time when all such formality was useless.
There was a long silence, and when she looked at Ronson, he simply looked back, his face open. Her face was tired, and sad, and confused.
"Do you know," she gave a little smile, "I can't even remember why I got pregnant? I knew the equipment was still there, the technicians, but all the other women were talking about being able to rest. And the ones who wanted to have babies were all excited about the support vats. That they could have a baby grown in the vats, and not have to carry it around inside them. It's - draining, to bear a child. The weight, the way your body changes, the feeling that your life is literally being drained away…"
She looked around the empty room. "And then they do drain it away. Did drain it. And so, I guess I wanted to go through it, all the way, at least once. To get pregnant, no, to choose to get pregnant, and then to be awake for the birth. To see my baby, to see my own little baby's face."
She was weeping silently. Ronson's lower lip quivered, and his dark brows, startling against his pale skin and white hair, were a solid bar of pain across his face.
He swallowed, and then cleared his throat, and finally managed to ask, "And, how," he fumbled. How could he ask?
"How did I find out that the baby was a Muto?" Her face froze, and when her lips moved to speak it was like watching a statue come to life. "They had been doing tests, and always sharing them with me, and then one day I went to the doctor, Doctor Serh, have you met him? He's very kind, and it's good to see his face, finally. He used to always wear a surgical mask."
She recaptured her thought, not that she would ever forget that meeting. "And Serh was there, and three of the Daughters, and they explained that the baby was developing - badly. That they couldn't fix it."
"And gene-cleansing?" Ronson said, and then wished he could take it back.
"They explained that to me. That the baby was - growing so wrong - that they would have to transplant him from my womb into a support vat. Which would be dangerous for me, but I would have done that! I would have!" She did not sit up further, but her eyes were hot.
"I believe you, I do," said Ronson hastily. It was impossible not to believe her; her sincerity was palpable.
"Yes, but they said there was so much wrong that they would have to - stop and start his heart. Take it apart. Take his brain apart. That they would - they would have to kill the baby, and then build a new one out of the parts. That the baby would be genetically identical, but the life would not be the same. And that there might be - pain."
She licked her lips.
"They offered me choices…they said I could terminate the pregnancy. An induced miscarriage. But safe, not like the women who go mad and throw themselves against walls or try to-" and she stopped talking as Ronson's face showed pain. New pain, rather. After a pause, he gestured for her to go on.
"They told me that the baby would probably not make it to term. That even if the baby was born full-term, it would have - minutes, hours to live. If that. But they promised me, no matter what, that I could choose. To be asleep or be awake, to see him or not see him. And I chose. As I chose to ask you to come here, now." Her eyes searched his, to see if what she had asked was too much.
His superiors had often told Ronson that he was too caring. Too empathic. It was the Daughters who had said that this was not a weakness, that this was strength. And he had chosen to come here and be with Caso, now.
Finally he swallowed, and asked the question he had to ask.
"May I see him?"
Slowly, gently, she pulled away the blanket from her chest, and let him see what was sleeping there.
* * *
The baby was so tiny. Ronson thought he could cover the entire body, the barely fuzzed head and curved back, with one of his own hands. He went to raise his own hand to touch, and then quickly returned it to his knee. He wanted to, but he was afraid as well.
"He - I shouldn't uncover him more. His mouth is all…wrong…and the rest of him. They gave him a drug, just a tiny bit. He won't feel pain." Caso was crying; Ronson was crying too. "But he'll feel me, for this time we have together. I can see him, I can touch him. I can say goodbye to him. And I'll know that he was here, my baby, the first baby out of so many that I can see and hold."
The baby snuffled in his sleep, breath hitching, and the two watchers held their own breaths in fear and sympathy. But then the baby nuzzled closer to his mother's breast, and seemed to breathe easier.
They waited together for an endless time. Watching the baby sleep, watching the tiny rise and fall of his back under the thin sheet. Listening to the soft, oh so soft and impossibly gentle sound of his breathing.
The baby's breath hitched again, and without looking Caso reached out and took Ronson's hand in a hard grip. With her other hand she brushed the baby's head.
"Goodbye," she said, softly, as the last breath ran out into silence. "Goodbye." She touched the baby's hair again and again, touched his bare shoulder, touched his terribly still and tiny form.
Then she finally looked up at Ronson, through the blur of her tears, and said, "You can call them now."
When Ronson went, or rather stumbled to the door, the Daughters were already waiting for him. They held his hands, brushed the tears from his cheeks. He looked at them and suddenly his lower lip shivered in weeping and a horrid attempt at a smile, as he gestured to their faces all wet with tears, and mimed trying to brush them all off.
They smiled back, pained and brief smiles that washed away as they went to sit with Caso. Ronson sat down, and let his hand be taken back.
"Thank you," Caso said. "Thank you all, so much, for giving me this time with him."
"You earned it. He was your baby, Caso." The Daughter looked sorrowfully at the tiny form. "We are sorry that we could not do better. That we could not give him a full life. But what he had, we are glad to share with you."
They sat there for a long moment, all of them, silently looking at the little child who might almost be sleeping.
Caso broke the silence. "I suppose you need his body for processing."
"Is that what you want?"
Caso blinked. "It's the way it's always been." She moved a little, as thought to take the baby from her breast - and hands flashed out to stop her.
"We aren't putting people's bodies into the rendering machines anymore. He can be buried, can become a part of Skaro's land; or he can be cremated, be a part of fire. You choose. When you are ready."
"I had thought," Caso cleared her throat again, "that if he were to have a name, it would be - kind, to name him for his father." Her worlds came tumbling out, expecting outrage, shouts, demands that she stop. "And I know that Muto babies never get names, that we just put them out, pretend they never existed, nothing to remember them-"
The women leaned close but not to silence her. They pressed their faces to hers, held her, rocked her back and forth. They made wordless sounds of soothing, and one of them went to Ronson as well, put her arm around his shoulder, let him bury his face against her and weep.
"He will have a funeral. And if it pleases you, we will name him as the son of Caso, who would have been Jeen. That was his father's name. His late father, unfortunately. We tested your child's DNA, and matched it to the military databases, you see."
"Jeen is a nice name," said Caso.
They stayed together a long time, Caso and the Daughters and Ronson, with the baby who would have been Jeen. They all said goodbye to him, softly. And when Caso finally was ready to retire to her quarters, they reassured her, again and again, that the baby would be treated with honour, with respect. That they would let her say goodbye to him, again, before they gave him to the earth.
Ronson felt like he had beaten. Beaten into dust. He would gladly have accepted a dozen actual beatings rather than go through this agony again. And yet he knew that if one of the women called and asked him to sit by them in their darkest hour, he would not be able to refuse. A streak of masochism, of self-punishment? Perhaps.
He was on the last leg of his trip back to the Bunker when something that Caso had said finally pulled together a dozen disparate thoughts and stabbed them right through the heart of him. He could feel that pain, as certainly as though he was watching the blade go into his chest, watching his lifeblood run out along it, red on silver.
Without a single emotion on his face, he turned on his heel, stepped into the lavatory he was passing, went into the farthest stall and crushed himself down as small as possible, as tiny as he could, in the corner.
And he screamed.
* * *
Cleni was not a doctor or a healer or a psych tech: she was simply the Daughter who was closest when a random Dome inhabitant contacted Central Control and complained that a man was crying his head off in the lavatory in Blue Five, and how could a man take a piss listening to that? His callousness was ignored, but once the security cameras were reviewed and the identity of the weeper confirmed, Cleni was called.
The sound of weeping was very loud, as Cleni went into the lavatory and locked the door behind her. "Ronson?" she asked, and went into the furthest stall, following the heartbreaking sounds.
Senior Researcher Ronson was in the corner, squashed inbetween the toilet and the cold tile wall. He didn't appear to be bashing his head against the wall; instead he was pressing himself against it, as though trying to crush himself flat. And he was weeping, weeping like a child lost and alone.
The sight of his agony struck at her like strands of razor wire. Without flinching she went to him and laid her hand on his shoulder. "Ronson?" she asked. "Please stop, you're hurting yourself." She tried to pull him back from the wall, but he had wedged himself in too well. The tiles were going to leave a bruise on his forehead. So she just moved close to him, and waited.
Finally he spoke.
"Them whom?" Cleni said, not entirely grammatically.
"Them. The Mutos. Living out in the Wastelands. They, they have nothing, no food, no shelter, their bodies are riddled with deformity and disease, they starve and they die. They're hunted like animals, used as slaves, disposable labour."
"They were," she dared to interrupt. "We try to prevent that sort of abuse now."
Ronson went on as though she had not spoken. "And they, they take the babies."
"The ones we cast aside, the ones we say aren't fit to survive! Our babies. The ones that we put out. The wounded ones, the ones born deformed or damaged, or just with too many genes that don't match the purity standards, the ones contaminated as children, the ones whose lives will be nothing but suffering and pain, they take them, they take them and raise them as their own and how can they!"
Ronson was screaming into the tiles now. "How can they give so much, I can't imagine it, I can't imagine what it would take to raise a healthy child, but a sick child! And one you choose, one that you take knowing that it will be sick and probably die, and still you love it, still you give it your warmth and your food and care for it as your own!"
His words were a knife through both their hearts now. "How can they give so much, when we give so little. When we are so little!"
The screaming made him jerk back a little bit from the tiles, and Cleni immediately put her hand against his forehead, warming it, preventing him from hurting himself again. She could feel the cold imprints of the tile on his skin. Hot tears were starting to run down her cheeks.
She answered him as gently as she knew how. "They are you, Ronson. They are people, just like you. People with next to nothing, who choose to share what little they have because they know what it is to have nothing. And the children they raise, some of them they do raise to hate the Norms, hate the Kaleds and the Thals. And some they raise because their own children die, and they want a child, a child to love and be loved by."
"They are impure," Ronson choked. "They drum it into our heads, that the Mutos are to be despised, that because their genes are flawed they are flawed as well. But if every Kaled died and they lived, I think they would build a better civilisation that we ever could. They are so much stronger than we are…"
She pressed closer to Ronson, feeling him shiver: the cold tile wall must be sucking the heat right out of him.
"You are strong. Why do you think we gave you Caso's name as someone you might like to correspond with? Because she is strong, and she needed someone strong to help her."
"I could never be as strong as her," Ronson said, his voice very small.
Cleni could not cup his face in her hands, so she laid her free hand atop his head. "You underestimate yourself. I seem to recall you arranging to release two alien prisoners and smuggle them out of the Bunker, knowing that it would certainly result in your death as soon as it was discovered. And you weren't even betting your life that they would be able to bring information about Davros' secret research to people who would stop it in time to save you. You were willing to die."
"I - wasn't particularly interested in living. At the time." He forced the words out between the gulps of his fading sobs.
"And now? Caso still needs your strength. The Kaled people need your strength: and not in some abstract fashion, that demands you give all for a faceless concept. We need you for Caso. We need you for Caso's sons and daughters yet unborn, who will need teachers and playmates and counsellors. And fathers too."
Ronson's eyes got very big, and he gulped again.
"And you can't have that if you just stay here in the corner, crying. So please, come out."
* * *
When Cleni had finally coaxed Ronson out into the corridor, Security Liaison Esselle was waiting. She looked exactly like Cleni, except for being a little bit shorter and much more solemn. She was dressed in a black Security uniform, and Ronson flinched at the sight of it.
Esselle flinched as well, inside. Her face was impassive, but her voice was gentle as she said, "I'm only here to confirm the earlier analysis, Ronson."
"What?" he said; he'd never heard that much warmth in Esselle's voice. Normally she was an emotionless little shadow of her Commander.
"The analysis that you were unwell and would not be returning to the Bunker tonight. I will inform Commander Nyder. You know how paranoid Davros was about disease: still is. I can just put down 'unwell, non-contagious' on the pass." In fact, she pulled a pass out of her jacket, and started marking it. As she wrote, she said casually, "Are you considering not going back?"
Ronson felt like someone had just stolen all the blood out of his head, and replaced it with air. Surely there must be a reason for him to feel a throbbing empty void between his ears. "What?" he asked, not understanding.
"Are you thinking of quitting your post?" she asked slowly, making each word perfectly clear. "You could, you know. Your work assignment could be changed, now. We would need to train a Daughter to take your place, you'll have to bring her up to speed on your projects, but if you want to, you can walk away and never step foot in the Bunker again."
With shocking suddenness, Ronson fell. He collapsed to his knees: he literally could not stand. Cleni was beside him, and Esselle, talking to him, but he couldn't hear them.
Leave the Bunker. The place where he'd created monsters, done experiments that had burned him down to the bottom of his soul - and they said he could leave it? Leave it behind?
"Davros would never let me go." Ronson's voice was flat.
"We will persuade him. There is a debt between us." Esselle sounded completely confident.
Ronson fumbled at the idea of not being employed in the Bunker, tentatively. "My - what would I do?"
Cleni snorted. "Believe me, we can find you work."
"Do you want me to send for your clothes and personal effects?" asked Esselle.
"No." He swallowed, hard, and rubbed his white sleeve across his face, feeling the crusts of salt from his tears crumble loose. "I need to think. I need to sleep on it. Can I stay here somewhere, tonight, please?" A bare room would have been fine, the corridor floor even: he was tired from sobbing, his chest hurt, his eyes hurt. His heart hurt.
And they gave him a room, in the Dome, where he had never been before. A bed where he had never lain awake, thinking of what abominations he would have to create the next day. A door that Nyder and Davros had never come through. A table that had never been touched by Dalek diagrammes, or gene charts, or orders that made him die a little inside.
A ceiling that had never borne a noose put there by his own hands.
In the middle of the night, he woke up and found his clothes in the dark. He threw them out the door with a rather unsatisfying light thud, and then went back to bed.
He never wore the laboratory uniform of a Bunker Senior Researcher again.
Notes on the Tale:
A heartbreaking article on perinatal hospice in the New York Times was the trigger of this story.
In the original Doctor Who episode 'Genesis of the Daleks' Commander Nyder says, in regards to the origins of the Mutos: "We must keep the Kaled race pure. Imperfects are…rejected. Some of them survive out there." A terrifying line, and wondering exactly how a baby would survive if rejected into a contaminated environment led to Ronson's terrible realisation.
While looking to see if the title was used elsewhere, I came across an oddly applicable Bible verse, Malachi 3:3 (KJV): "And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness."