MARA

Everyone has a yesterday, but not Mara Loraine. She blinked, and she came into being, because there was nothing before that moment, that blink, that heartbeat.

She wrinkled her nose in thought. A warm, tingly feeling gathered in her chest, and she rubbed her fingers over her heart. The thin bones of her rib cage stood out under her fingertips. A throbbing in her wrist. She looked down to see a little band-aid on her right wrist. She pressed the fabric of it and felt a hard little bump.

“My name?” she repeated. “I don’t know, I don’t remember. What is my name?”

“That’s normal. No cause for alarm,” the woman opposite her said. The woman was heavy, her face jowly. Somehow that seemed wrong, but she didn’t know why. Why did it matter how heavy she was? The woman, whose harsh features seemed softened and tired and worn, opened a file on the little table between them. She spoke in a monotone voice like she’d said these same words a million times before. “That bump on your wrist is a transmitter, and it will help keep you safe. It’s nothing to worry about. After a day or two you won’t even know it’s there. I am your processor, and I am here to help you. Your name is….” she glanced down at the file. “Mara.”

“Mara. Are you sure? That feels… somehow wrong.”

The woman smiled. “It says so right here. And here’s a photo of you.” The woman held up a photo of a glassy-eyed, young woman. The woman in the photo’s head was shaved, and her smooth scalp caught the light. Mara ran her own hand over her head. Smooth. Maybe that really was her in the photograph.

The woman handed her a mirror, and Mara looked at herself for the first time.

Nothing. She felt nothing for the person staring back at her. Was that normal? And why were her eyebrows white? Was that normal too?

“What happened? Why don’t I remember anything?” she asked the heavy woman, setting the mirror down.

“You were born, bred, and bettered in Nova, and you chose to give up yourself in service to Our Eternal Mother. It was a noble and brave thing to do. We are honored by your loyalty. I am your processor, and this is Processing Center 1. Welcome to Windrose City.”


Mara Loraine mounted the stairs two at a time. If she hurried, she could make it to the top and be home before curfew. She had heard whispers about the curfew. A factory had been attacked out in the West region. Far west, just near the Empty Places. Someone had burned it to the ground a few weeks ago. But Mara was new here in Windrose, so she had other things on her mind, like finding her way around the city, learning her new job, and trying to keep up with all the Obligations. She was on her way home from her Social Obligations, and she did not have permission to be out past curfew. The thought of explaining herself to glassy-eyed Windrose soldiers terrified her.

But this empty building, with its windows broken and gaping like empty and dark eyes, called to her. The building must have been abandoned for years and stood like a skeleton of steel and iron against the flashing city lights. Mara had passed this building every evening on her way home from work or Social Obligations, and every evening she wondered what she might see if she climbed to the top.

She wondered what the night sky looked like above the burning streetlights. But a heavy presence had always tugged at her hands and feet and pulled her away. She didn’t have a name yet for that heavy, still feeling that kept a hand on her shoulder, although it was large and strong. But tonight, for some unexplained reason, that heavy presence was a step behind, that strong and meaty hand had not pressed her back. Her courage had surged, and she had stepped from the broken sidewalk into the dark of the empty building.

Inside statues stood veiled in dust and tangles of spider webs. Inside was stone and marble and a smell like mold and garbage. But inside, past the guarding statues, and an ancient front desk of white marble, were stairs. And she climbed.

At the top of the tower, twenty floors later, after climbing round and around and around, Mara burst from the stairwell onto a rooftop. The gravel before her was littered with trash and rubble from abandoned construction crews and nighttime visitors, and the city around her glowed with flames of watery colors. But that wasn’t what she was there for. She walked to the center of the dirty roof and stared straight up into the sky. Her heart caught in her throat—the stars.

Although they were still dim, here above the glimmer and the city lights, they glowed brighter than she had ever seen them. A cluster of stars caught her eye, pulling her gaze irresistibly towards them.

Something ticked in the back of her mind, like the unlocking of a door. An image she could not identify formed in the back of her mind, more like a feeling and a fleeting emotion than a memory or a thought. She stared into the sky for a few moments more, startled by the disparity between the lights above and the lights below her. Then she turned and ran down the stairs—she did not want to be late. Her thighs burned with each step as she plunged down and down and down into the darkness.


Hands. And blood. The world was black and white, grainy and distorted, and strangely shining. But she knew blood when she saw it. The wet shining blackness on his hands was blood. He was dying.

The hands reached out, stretched for someone. Her. She couldn’t do anything to stop them. The hands kept reaching. She raised her head from the bloody hands to see who they belonged to—she needed to see who was reaching for her and dying and—

Mara awoke with a start. Her heart fluttered and knocked against her ribs. Hands. And blood. She was not supposed to have dreams like this. Her doctor had told her so. The Calm was supposed to prevent unpleasant dreams and unwanted feelings. Yet there she sat, in bed, cold and sweating and shaking from the dream she wasn’t supposed to have.

And why would she dream about death?

She got out of bed and groped in the dark for the bathroom. She found the light switch, and with trembling fingers, she flicked it on. White light blinded her for a moment, and she squeezed her eyes shut against the burning ache of light. The pills were in the cabinet. With eyes squeezed shut, she fumbled the mirror above the sink open and found the little bottle. When she opened her eyes, yellow pills stamped with roses filled her palm.

The pills were supposed to make everything better, to keep everyone balanced, and to keep the bad dreams away. She took two and swallowed them dry. With a sigh, she leaned her forehead against the mirror and clutched the edge of the sink. Something prickled under her hand–sharp and cold. She raised her hand. Her pendant. A little flower with five petals, like a star.

She had been with Zoe at an antique’s shop, the owner was a friend of Zoe’s, when she had seen the pendant behind the glass. She had bought it, handing her money to Zoe’s dark-haired friend who stood slurping his coffee. Coffee was a luxury, and she knew he was showing off for Zoe, but all she could see was the flower. There was something reassuring about the delicate petals made out of metal. A metal flower. Somehow, that felt right. Something so delicate and ephemeral made unbreakable and strong.

She leaned back against the wall and clenched the metal flower in her fist, letting the petals mark her hand. Holding something solid calmed her. The dream had rattled her too much. She wondered if she should tell her doctor. He told her to inform him if she started having dreams, or if she noticed strange feelings or strong emotions. He could fix that with a simple adjustment to her medication. There was nothing to worry about—no serious Adjustment necessary. 

Her doctor had said to tell him if she had dreams, but never having dreamed before, how was she to know what was a dream and what was… real? The thought stilled her as she realized: this was more than a dream. 

The more-than-a-dream wasn’t real, but it wasn’t… not real. And she wondered if it was a memory. That was impossible. Burners don’t remember, but… was she remembering? It was so real, so precise, filled with things she’d never seen before and had no name for. Maybe she’d forgotten them, and this dying man. Maybe she should tell her doctor and let him help her.

As she walked back to her bed, she caught sight of the Eternals’ photographs on her wall in the next room. The city lights filtered in through the curtains and brightened their faces, always watching. Yes, that is what her Eternals would want. They would want her to be honest, truthful. 

But something pricked in the back of her throat when she thought about telling her doctor. Something hot and white and sizzling. That solid and heavy presence appeared and laid a meaty and stinking hand on her shoulder.


“Morning, Mara,” Zoe said. 

Mara smiled. Zoe had been waiting for her, leaning against the wall outside her door and picking at a hangnail. Zoe had the kind of face that’s easy to forget. Her mouth was too small, her nose a bit crooked, and her skin was so pale she mostly looked ill. If it wasn’t for her hair, her flame of bright, red hair, she’d be thoroughly average looking and completely forgettable. But Zoe was kind, and that made her lovely.

Mara smiled and glanced over Zoe’s shoulder as she locked her apartment. The hallway seemed to stretch on and on and on, with countless doors on either side. She was grateful that her apartment was near the stairwell, so she didn’t have to walk too far down the hallway. She hated walking past all those doors, wondering who and what lay behind each one. So many doors, so many stories. A single window at the far end glowed white with the anticipation of the sunrise.

“Morning,” Mara said through a yawn.

“Rough night?” Zoe asked. Her green eyes wide with concern. While Zoe’s gentleness made her utterly unique and special to Mara, her coloring, her maple leaf hair, and her green eyes, made her stand out in a crowd. They must have looked a strange together, Zoe with her red braid, and Mara with her white hair just beginning to sprout over her shaved skull.

Sometimes Mara looked in the mirror and tried to see what she might have looked like before she had been Burned. Sometimes she tried to picture what Zoe would look like Burned, but that always made her sad. Like leeching all the color from a songbird.

Mara shook her head. “No, just stayed up too late, that’s all.”

And she’d had the dream again, the one with the dying man. But she couldn’t tell Zoe. She couldn’t tell anyone. As they descended the stairs to the lobby level, her hand went to her neck, where the little flower hung.

“Don’t make it a habit,” Zoe said. “We don’t want the Analysts thinking you’re up to something.”

Mara shivered at the thought. Like the Watchers, Analysts were supposed to keep everyone safe, but Mara did not feel safer with their ever-watching presence. She rubbed the little bump on her wrist: her vital signs transmitter. All citizens of Windrose were implanted with a chip that sent back data to the Analysts at the Agency. Heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature were monitored and analyzed for anomalies. The Analysts reported anyone who showed consistent signs of anxiety and unstable emotions to the Watchers.

The Watchers then decided if the citizen was doing anything illegal or treasonous, or if their medication just needed to be adjusted. If medication was not enough to suppress emotion and anxiety, the offenders were taken in for further treatment. Adjustment. Mara has never heard of anyone returning from an Adjustment.

“Don’t worry, no Adjustment necessary,” Mara said. “Coming over for dinner tonight?”

They usually ate their rations together in the evenings. One or the other would drag a chair to the other’s apartment, and they’d sit around a table for one. Their apartment building only allowed one chair per unit as these were single apartments, but they made due.

Zoe shook her head. “Can’t—we have an extra-long lecture for Continuing Education tonight after my shift, and that’s on top of my Volunteer, Exercise, and Social obligations—”

“I guess that’s the better part of, born, bred, bettered,” Mara said.

“We are blessed indeed.”

“Indeed. Next time, then.”

“Next time. Be ever watchful,” Zoe said.

“Ever watchful,” Mara said, and the two women parted ways to begin their days with the rising sun.

Mara’s Work Obligation was ten hours a day. After Work she attended Continuing Education Obligation, lectures on peace and wellness and Novan history in the auditorium in the basement of her Work building. As well as Work and Continuing Education, Mara served a few days a week at the Rearing Center, Volunteering to help the children with their lessons. She was also expected to keep up with her Exercise and Social Obligations. All this left little time for thinking or even just being. Most days flashed by in a blur of color and sound and energy, like the vibrations of a million drums, and a million heartbeats.


On the train ride home, Mara tried not to drift off to sleep. She couldn’t miss her stop. Her Work Obligation wasn’t necessarily difficult, but it was draining. Her placement was with the Office of Accounting and Mathematics, but not that she did any of that. Most of her work was making copies of documents and handing them out. Fiddling with a coffee machine (not that she was allowed any), and doing whatever else she was told. After a full day of Work and other Obligations, which included Volunteering, Continuing Education, and Socializing, Mara was more rundown than usual.

The night before, she’d dreamed about the dying man again. And she had been unable to shake that strange and intangible image left by the stars from the tower—how many nights ago now? Too many. She had barely slept the night before. As she had lain awake in the early hours of the morning, jolted awake by dreams of blood and hands, she had turned the image from the stars over and over in her mind like strange an alluring puzzle pieces. She felt like it was a problem that she could solve if she just tried hard enough. She had all the pieces, but they didn’t fit together.

She yawned, stepped off the train, and turned towards her apartment, pulled along with the flow of people all headed to their own homes. A stab of anger seared her as she wondered if she could have solved the puzzle of the stars before she had volunteered to be Burned. But there was no way to know. All she had were these glowing, shimmering puzzle pieces: stars. There were so many up there, staring down at her, unnoticed. 

Mara wondered how long they had been up there, watching. She wondered what was before the stars, where they came from, and why there were images up there? And what was there before Windrose? 

The before always left its imprint on the now. Even on something as massive as a city. Before the city had been empty land, it must have been. Hills and valleys and trees and rivers, all from before but persisting to the now. The city had built itself around a river, a force powerful and unstoppable from before, now calm and gently flowing.

So what was before Mara?

She struggled to remember before but only found a string of memories that began and ended with the day she had been given her name by a nameless jowly woman behind a desk. She pondered this with a yawn and turned a corner down a quiet street. The streetlamps flickered.

That strange metallic tick in the back of her mind, the world softened to green and gray, and her eyelids began to flutter.

Sky. 

And stars. 

A voice, singing.

A white scarf over eyes, a staff. A song of sorrow and sea billows.

A man selling papers. 

“Evening. Paper?”

“No, thank you,” Mara said and walked past. 

“Paper—hey!” the man selling papers yelped as a young man bumped into him, spilling a sharp smelling drink all over himself and the papers, which sailed through the air like giant gray snowflakes in the lamplight. “Watch it!” the paper seller cried. 

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” the young man said calmly, trying to wipe away the brown liquid from the papers. 

“Forget it, it’s ruined—you owe me for the papers you’ve ruined!”

“It was an accident. And you stepped into my way.”

“Oh, did I?” the paper seller stepped towards the young man aggressively. 

The young man narrowed his eyes at the paper seller. “You don’t want to do that.”

“And why not?” the paper seller asked, shoving the young man. 

The young man stumbled back but regained his balance. “You seem to be feeling… aggressive. Unbalanced. I’d hate for the Watchers to find out. You wouldn’t want an adjustment, would you?”

The paper seller pulls his fist back to punch the young man and—”

Mara blinked.

The paper seller stood before her, papers in hand.

“Evening. Paper?” he asked, extending a paper to her.

Mara blinked again.

“No, thank you,” she said and walked past like she was in a dream, wondering what had just happened. She had seen the paper seller and the young man argue. She had seen him shove the young man. But had she? Or did she just imagine it?

“Paper—hey!” the man selling papers yelped as a young man bumped into him, spilling a sharp smelling drink all over himself and the papers, which sailed through the air like giant gray snowflakes in the lamplight. “Watch it!” the paper seller cried.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” the young man said calmly, trying to wipe away the brown liquid from the papers. Mara watched the event unfold, like watching a dream play out on the street.

“Forget it, it’s ruined—you owe me for the papers you’ve ruined!”

“It was an accident. And you stepped into my way.”

“Oh, did I?” the paper seller stepped towards the young man aggressively.

The young man narrowed his eyes at the paper seller. “You don’t want to do that.”

“And why not?” the paper seller asked, shoving the young man.

The young man stumbled back but regained his balance. “You seem to be feeling… aggressive. Unbalanced. I’d hate for the Watchers to find out. You wouldn’t want an adjustment, would you?”

The paper seller pulls his fist back to punch the young man and—”

“Wait!” Mara said, grabbing the paper seller’s arm before he punched the young man. “No, it’s fine. I’ll pay for those,” she said, offering all the money she had to him with her free hand. “No one here needs an Adjustment. We’re all friends.”

The paper seller’s eyes softened, coming back into focus, as he looked at her. He unclenched his fist and slowly lowered his arm. “Forget it. Keep your money. But you had better leave,” he said, scowling at the young man.

Mara nodded, put her money back in her bag, and walked quickly to her apartment building. Her heart pounded, and she wondered what had just happened.