I'm really very lucky. That's what I tell myself, and sometimes I even believe it. I mean, the school is a bit isolated and I don't remember when I last had a conversation with an adult woman, and it's certainly not how I expected things to turn out, but as Marcus told me once, we're all expatriates in our own lives – we're born in one world, and by the time we grow up to appreciate it, it's gone.
I hope the world my boys make when they are grown will be different to this one.
"What did you do to these socks?" I say, scolding gently, poking my finger through the hole in the toe and wiggling it to see if I can make Clade Major laugh. He laughed a lot when he was a little boy, but as he and his cohort grew muscles in odd places and hair in even odder ones, he's grown increasingly convinced of his own importance.
Behind me, the sun streams through the lattice of the containment shield on the window, and makes cross-hatched patterns on my sewing-box. There's a cork board on the wall, its contents ever-changing but basically immemorial: form lists, competitors in the swimming final, signups for fencing and ninjutsu, and a battered faded letter from the government, back when there was a government, that probably ought to be in a document box.
"Choir," says Clade Major, frowning, which means he won't tell me. I don't ask them what they do at Choir. I gather it's a surprise for me, which is really very sweet.
Night is the worst. Particularly the long nights that sweep over for months at a time. I try to keep the little ones busy and amused. Treasure hunts are good. Or they'll sit in a circle and listen to stories, their eyes like candles. I love them best, though I'll never admit it, my adorable serious junior boys.
The older batches make their own entertainment – love affairs, dance battles, secret clubs, duelling societies. They drowned Phyle III in the pool a few months ago as part of an initiation rite: he was livid with the rest of his dormitory, afterwards. I found him sleeping in my infirmary, because he'd filled their pillows with anthrax. I wrote him up for rule-breaking, of course, but actually I didn't mind having someone to talk to. It's when I'm alone in the dark that I remember.
And when I'm alone in the dark here, without even the comforting swoop and stutter of sirens to lull me to sleep, I remember everything.
Well, almost everything.
The senior cohort are old enough to look like men now. At least I think they are: I don't really remember what men looked like, to tell you the truth. I have a fleeting feeling of dissonance when I see them in their uniform jackets and ties, packed together two to a little desk like six-year-olds, but with shoulders and arms like men.
If you look at their faces, though, you can see they're not men yet, they're just privileged boys. They still have that bandbox bloom on them, as if they'd only just been unwrapped from waxed paper. And that arrogance that pushes out from behind their lips and shows itself in the tilt of their heads. It comes from the knowledge that they are little kings now – president of the dramatic society, captain of the football team – and that they have a better than average chance of being kings again in the world hereafter.
Sometimes I hear amateur broadcasts, muttered scraps on the radio – resistance movements, conspiracy theorists, I really don't know – and I think about the state the world is in, that world outside the school grounds.
Soon, it will be time for my boys to make a difference.
I keep my souvenirs of the old days. I make shrines to them, with candles. The masks, the scarves, the fans, the perfume-bottles. When the junior boys are brave about having an injection, I give them a cold dab of near-dead perfume on their wrists, for a treat.
I miss you, Marcus. I remember the last time I spoke to you, in that airless sunny upper-floor classroom that smelled of paper and beeswax and drains. Were we living in Paris then, Marcus? It must have been back when Paris was a city, before it became a date on a calendar. And now there are no calendars at all.
We were like a finishing-school, my sisters and I, and you were our mentor, though I already knew I was smarter than you and had more strength of will. The gifts you gave us – the speed and flexibility of mentation, the endless memory, the drive to survive and succeed – were not gifts you could give yourself. You were limited, and we were not. But still, I cared for you, in the way a child loves a battered toy or a favourite book. I kept thinking that if we talked long enough, I could read the epigenetic essence of you. The texture of memories, the gleam and burnish that only a long life in a world that had only just started to fall apart could give. That bricolage of weddings and graduations and whiskey drunk with friends home from distant wars, and and arguments over coffee on boulevards where leaves fell instead of gritty dust.
I miss you for all your faults, Marcus. When they came to take us away, and told us what you made us for, I was the only one of all my sisters who forgave you.
It's a clear bright day. I don't know how long the day will last. So far, it's been a couple of weeks. Clade Major and Tribe are playing tennis at the nets, clean strong young limbs in whites that shine in the sun. Some of the senior boys are having a scrimmage on the football field.
The juniors are sitting in a circle on the broad front lawn, in the gracious shade of an old willow tree. It's a special treat: lessons outside. The sun is good for their bones. Today it's Bible Studies. They're reading from the story of Noah. And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and the dove found no place to set the sole of her foot.
Soon, I will send them out into the world. But before the doves, the ravens.
There's a globe in the junior dormitory, etched with the outlines of states and territories with names that no one remembers any more. It's really a nightlight. I light it for them, and it comforts the room with its parchment-coloured glow.
Teddy bears on the starched pillowcases. Clear-skinned faces, turned confidingly towards the pillow. Shoulders scrunched up under blankets. Slack young limbs. Steady breathing. My boys. My brood. My darlings. The older ones prowl the corridors at night, but the little ones sleep.
I don't dream. I don't think any of my sisters ever did. But I remember.
I remember the great compressing rush of wind that burst open the windows and and shattered the walls, as if some distant god had slammed down his hand on the atmosphere. I remember the dust. Everywhere, the dust.
I remember the city. The city is below me, and it's burning. Buildings like broken teeth. Swathes of sentient hunting bacteria like bolts of red silk. Pinpoint drones like birds. Wind that whips at my hair and my garments. I spread my hands. I sing.
I sing destruction into being, just as they taught me, after they took me from Marcus. He taught me to fall in love with the whole world, and they took that and used me to destroy it. And the world and I, we fell apart together.
I remember the city's essential shape, the city and the river like a hand curved protectively around a dangling necklace, but I don't remember its name. Isn't that strange?
Perhaps the name is on the globe. But I don't want to disturb the little ones while they're sleeping.
It's strange, isn't it? You destroy cities, and you think that should be the end of the story, but it's not, you just have to keep on living, doing the small things, building up something that matters in a world gone to uncertain dust. I tuck Clade Minor's blanket in. I check the generators. I monitor the systems that keep the air circulating and the grass growing. I know the systems will hold. I built them.
All is well, in my sleepy kingdom.
--I look out of the window in the vaulted hall, past the chapel and the war memorial, and there's a shadow on the horizon. I don't know what it is – a swarm of insects, maybe, or a blanket of nanodrones bringing with it its own microflotilla of dust. A weapon left over from the war, just like me.
I don't really know what there is outside the school gates, to be honest. I haven't looked recently. I remember having to drive off a band of itinerants, horrible creatures with rags and sharpened teeth who said the school was their property, but I don't quite remember how long ago that was now.
I wish I knew if even one of my sisters had survived. Maybe one of them has made a brood too. Maybe somewhere in a bunker or a hydroponic facility or a castle on a precipice, one of them has bred a lovely nest of girls. I tried to make girls, but I don't remember how. I hoped one of my boys might turn out to be a little girl, but if they have, none of them have told me about it yet.
My brood are almost ready to graduate. I watch them with pride. My lovely bright-eyed ones. My strong, clever warrior boys, my seniors like ravens, my little ones like doves.
I've waited a long time for you, Marcus, but I don't think you're coming back. I don't think any of my sisters are coming back either. Sometimes I rest my forehead against the mirror and pretend it's one of my sisters there instead of my reflection, but it isn't the same. I think if I want someone to talk to, I'm going to have to make one. But that's all right. It'll be an adventure.
I'm really very lucky. That's what I tell myself, and sometimes I even believe it.