Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This story contains elements of body horror.
1. Shit twice a day instead of once and watch everyone freak out over your fiber intake. It makes life more interesting for the Chamber Nurses.
2. Keep busy by reading the status updates of other Chamber women. Judge them mercilessly. Can you believe #7 only has 10 follicles growing?
3. Try not to think about the fact that your ovaries are essential to the survival of human civilization on Mars. No pressure, body.
Before I go to bed for my mandatory ten hours of sleep, I read bootleg downloads of trashy Earth romance novels. The other women discourage me from doing this; reading anything so base from Earth is taboo. Our great-grandparents left Earth for a reason, they say. Relationships have evolved.
But I read on, the novels taking me out of the germ-free fishbowl I temporarily live in and onto warm, pulsing landscapes. I fixate on New Orleans, imagining wandering the cobblestone streets for hours before ducking into The Spotted Cat Music Club. The place flows with mellow jazz music, smooth bourbon, and pale, ethereal vampires that stare at me with piercing eyes. Never mind that New Orleans has been underwater for decades.
I wonder what sweaty, slippery Earth sex would be like. I think about Scott.
4. Celebrate the small victories. Hooray, your radiation levels are at a record low! Yippee, you’re ovulating on schedule!
5. Try not to fixate on all the ways your colleagues are undoubtedly messing up your work while you’re on fertility leave. You just know they’re not following your crop watering protocols.
6. Set goals for your post-Chamber life. Maybe it’s time to take that trip to a crater or dune or maybe even that exciting new rock they discovered that is more brown than red.
I start my second cycle. The doctors and nurses feed me chocolate and pineapple. I am an ancient fertility goddess, beaming with an estrogen glow, flaunting my wide hips as I saunter up and down the Chamber hall. We will all complete at least three cycles before the harvest. We’re blocked from any communication with co-workers, and are encouraged to write, read, paint, watch movies, relax. Low-stress environments are the best for egg production, they say.
But idleness takes away my glow and spawns anxiety about my job. I worked hard to become Assistant Chief Researcher of Agriculture and even though my position is protected while on fertility leave, I fear my assistant is planning a coup, purposely messing with the new strand of salad greens I’m developing. He, of course, will never take a leave this long. The other Chamber women do their best to quell my worries; I’m in the network now. They’ll make sure I’m back and better than ever.
As the weeks pass, my job seems further away and boredom sets into my bones, my brain. I regret not downloading more vampire books. I draft a scene for a Martian romance novel featuring a couple sharing their first kiss during the Moons Festival, right as Phobos passes in front of Deimos.
I share it with the other women; most push it aside. But a few read it. One tells me she’s disappointed I didn’t make it trashier.
7. Try not to think about Scott.
One in fifteen embryos will grow to the blastocyst stage. The genetically viable ones will implant in the lining of the TerraWombs, shielded from radiation, surrounded with Earth-like gravity. Only twenty percent of those embryos will develop past thirteen weeks, and less than ten percent of those will make it to full term. The full-term babies are birthed and given to pre-approved family units. I will never know if any of my follicles grow into a child, folding neatly into a cozy habitat, a thoroughly screened life.
The lab tech that draws my blood every day tells me she’s pretty sure one of hers made it to birth. There’s a three-year-old she passes on the way to the Chambers. The girl has her eyes. She’s tried to make private inquiries but nearly lost her job over it. She shouldn’t be telling me this, but she is.
8. Ignore the hormones raging through your body, the weight you’re gaining, the needle bruises on your ass.
9. Watch videos of babies coming out of the TerraWomb. Try not to cry, or throw something.
I am three days away from retrieval. My uterus is full of marbles. It’s painful to walk, to pee, to sit down.
They put me under and shove a needle inside me. The needle shoots out fluid, which detaches my eggs. The needle collects the eggs, pulls out. It’s done.
I’m awake and being sent home. I get a pat on the back on my way out — 18 follicles! They’ll see me again in a year or so if I choose to continue to help us survive.
I go home and think about Scott. I rub my empty womb until my skin turns red, blending with the dust of Mars.
10. Try to silence the part of your body that knows this isn’t right.