“We’ve talked too long on this issue already,” my mother, the Governess, repeats to her assembly. Her mask emphasizes her keen, intelligent eyes, morphing around her expressions but never clouding those eyes of hers. At first, the masks were worn for survival, the air too full of pollution to breathe, but now they’ve become part of our very makeup, especially for those of us who were born inside the Cloudspire.
Some Spireborn paint elaborate details and form decorations into their masks, identifying what family they come from by the animals and plants with which they chose to adorn themselves. My mother is an eagle, her mask made of mesarthium, a highly malleable metal Boronos invented to move and breathe with us. The metal feathers of her mask look soft to the touch; they flutter in the breeze. “The Mask Program is necessary,” she says. “None present here would give up their mask if they were to set foot outside the Spire. Am I wrong?”
Grumbling voices roll down the assembly from one specific area at the top of the amphitheater, Boronos’ sleek fox mask shines copper at its center. The rest of the assembly shows their Governess support through silence. Mollified, for now. It seems there is yet enough empathy left among the Spireborn to garner support for those living in squalor outside the Spire. Those criminals and whores who steal precious rations from the Spireborn families.
“Good. We’ll allocate four additional scientists to the Program,” my mother says. Protests erupt from the topmost seats and, now, seats closer to the stage. “They will focus on acclimation as well as adjustable masks that can grow with the wearer for longer.”
The hospital-grade masks are fitted over newborn’s face immediately after birth. The new masks, my mother argues, will be networked with AI to keep track of vitals, emotions, habits that may inform us of future medical issues, career allocations, even food preferences, so we can better prepare for the needs of our growing community.
I sneak out a side entrance, unable to entertain the arguing any longer. My mother instituted The Mask Program two decades ago, when the Spire was still being built, and it’s clear the support she receives from outside the Spire walls is still directly connected to their access to masks. She needs their support. The populations inside and outside the Spire keep growing, and their resources are limited. The dissent will only increase with time. At least with these new masks, she tells me, she’ll better know when they reach critical mass.
“And then what?” I ask her, angry.
She puts up her hands. “Population control,” she says.
Rumors often float up from the medical wing that it’s harder for babies in the Under City to acclimate once they grow out of the hospital masks. The Spireborn argue that Under City babies shouldn’t be given masks anymore. Instead, we should allow the babies to begin life choking on the over-polluted air we live in and leave it up to fate. Granted, they argue, there would be higher infant mortality rates at the hospital, but mothers in the Under City are less attached to their infants at two, three, four days old, as opposed to the six-twelve months babies reach before they outgrow their Spire-issued mask, depending on the baby’s access to nutrition. Plus, families wouldn’t have to worry about funeral arrangements if the deaths occurred in the hospital. The babies could be disposed of, saving the families money that could go toward buying food and shelter and other basic necessities.
That’s the argument I hear from atop my mother’s Spire, breathing filtered air above the cloud line.
The hospital wing separates the Spire’s living quarters from the food supplies. We house cattle, pigs, and chickens on the lowest levels of the Spire, closest to the earth, using their dung to feed our energy supply. Edible greenery grows hydroponically up the sides of our glassed-in world, growing best just above the cloud line, but not too close to the upper atmosphere where the sun is too direct for their fragile sprouts. The top levels of the Spire, where I live, are reserved for the Makers, for my mother, the Governess, and her friends who helped build the Spire and saved our lives. Boronos, the loudest protestor of The Mask Program, invented the malleable metal that make up our Spireborn masks, as well as the Spire itself. He thinks himself a god. I think, an unforgiving one.
His son, Remy, finds me outside the medical wing. With most inhabitants of the Spire at the assembly, just as we hoped, there is a skeleton crew keeping watch of the patients. The lights are dimmed, classical music plays softly overhead as we step through sliding glass doors, which I have access to because my mother is the Governess. Remy grabs my hand to pull me out of sight of the receptionist. We walk quietly down a corridor of closed doors, hearing the occasional beep from AI keeping track of patients’ vitals. Remy doesn’t drop my hand.
The only access to the ground, to the Under City, is through a single elevator inside the medical wing. We Spireborn are very protective of our living quarters, and we wanted to make sure no one from the outside could simply walk in from the medical wing and refuse to leave, or do something worse, like rape our children and murder anyone who fought back. The doors lock from the inside, and metal gates stand ready to drop from the ceiling if alerted. Next to the debate about supplying masks to the Under City, is the one about closing down the elevator shaft and sealing it shut forever.
Never had the Spireborn imagined someone from the inside would want out.
We take the elevator down, pressing the only button available and dropping further and further down to the ground. Outside, there’s a locked gate we hadn’t counted on, but we’re Spireborn, and the gate opens for us automatically. As our masks morph into a resemblance of the Spire-issued ones found in the Under City, a voice comes over the intercom back inside the elevator. The doors haven’t shut yet. The gate hasn’t shut yet. Remy is still holding my hand and we walk outside for the first time in our lives.