Cover art by Jeanette Eileen Widjaja
(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
BETH WATCHED THE BUILDINGS pass as the air cab carried her over Los Angeles, taking in the changes the last ten years had wrought on the city. Most of the low-income areas had been bulldozed, and those areas were now filled with alien arcologies. Massive buildings that stretched kilometers into the sky, each one a city unto itself, and in their shadows, the skyscrapers that had once been incredible achievements of human architecture and engineering. The buildings, which had been hubs of human industry and centers of financial empires, were now reduced to little more than playhouses for the backwards primitives who had the misfortune to be born natives of the Galactic Hegemony’s latest colony world.
If they’d had another century or two, things might have been different. Humanity had been advancing quickly. They wouldn’t have been on par with the technology of the Hegemony by any stretch, but they might have been able to dictate better terms. The Gatekeepers hadn’t cared. The gate had drifted into a stable orbit in the outer system, and the Gatekeepers had announced that, like it or not, the Sol system was being added to their vast network of space-fold gates. The first ships from the Hegemony had arrived just a month later, and ever since, Earth had been on the road to becoming the galactic equivalent of a banana republic.
So far, her job and her savings had let her avoid the worst of what was happening, but unemployment was at a record high as alien automation systems replaced human labor in almost every sector. The company she worked for had shifted gears from research and development to reverse-engineering alien tech and had seen a short windfall in profits, but that was starting to vanish as the inevitable inflation drove prices up and the people that they had been selling reverse-engineered tech to could no longer afford it.
Beth wasn’t really that worried for herself. She’d been poor before, and however much she might hate the idea, she could survive being poor again. What brought her to LA today was Sam. Sam was getting close to graduation, and she had acceptance letters from every college that could afford postage. A 4.0 unweighted GPA, high SAT scores, and a couple of impressive summer internships meant that schools were falling all over themselves to offer her full rides. Ten years ago, that would have all but ensured her a bright future. These days, a PhD from Harvard, Yale, or MIT wasn’t worth the cost of paper the degree was printed on.
People still made noise about human exceptionalism and about taking humanity’s place in the larger galactic community, but Beth had spent a lot of time over the last decade studying the history of colonization on Earth, and it never once ended well for the people being colonized. Regardless of what happened to the colonized peoples as a whole, there were always individual exceptions – people who avoided the fate of their brethren. It was her determination to ensure her daughter’s future that brought her to LA today. While billionaires had started buying their kids spots in alien schools the moment they were allowed out of the Sol System, Beth didn’t have that option. She was well off enough that she and Sam weren’t feeling the effects of the colonization yet, but nowhere near rich enough to buy a ticket off-world for Sam, much less pay for an off-world education. Instead, she’d spent years looking into other options. So far, none of her work had paid off, but she hadn’t given up hope. She was headed to a meeting with a broker who helped place kids into programs that offered grants, scholarships, and all expenses paid exchange programs. She was going to find a way to offer her daughter a better future than most of Earth’s children could look forward to. No matter what it took.
“Ms. Murray, it’s so nice to meet you,” the man said as he held out his hand. Beth took it and gave it a quick shake while trying her best not to let on that he reminded her of a used car salesman. She needed his help, and it wouldn’t do to offend him.
“Nice to meet you too, Mr. Cooper.”
“Please, call me Owen,” he said. “Right this way.”
He led her out of the small, brightly decorated waiting room and into a small, neat office. He gestured to a chair in front of his desk as he walked around behind it and took his seat.
“So, I just want to make sure we’re on the same page here, Ms. Murray. You are looking for an opportunity for your daughter to continue her education off-world, is that correct?”
“Yes,” Beth said.
“Okay. I just wanted to make sure that we’re both looking for the same outcome. Now, I’ve gone through Samantha’s records. Academically, she’s in great shape, and the extracurriculars are good, too. I’ve been able to find at least twenty different programs that will accept her.”
“That’s great,” Beth said, though she didn’t believe it. She’d heard the exact same thing from more than a dozen other brokers, and she suspected she wasn’t going to hear anything new. “What are the terms?”
“It varies from program to program. All of them require a period of indenture, but some are as low as eight years.”
Beth tried to hide her disappointment. She wanted to give her daughter a better future, not sell her into virtual slavery for almost a decade.
“Owen, I’m looking for a program without any period of indenture. I know they exist, but you’re the fifteenth broker I’ve talked to and none of them have offered even an application to an indenture-free program.”
“They do exist, but Ms. Murray, you must understand. There are a lot of people who want their children to receive an off-world education, and slots which don’t require a period of indentured service are in especially high demand.”
“I understand that, but I haven’t gotten high demand, I’ve gotten completely unavailable. I’d like to know why no one will even consider letting her apply.”
Owen looked at her for almost a minute, not saying anything, before he finally leaned back in his chair and let out a weary sigh.
“Honestly, Ms. Murray?”
“Those slots go to the kids of billionaires, presidents, CEOs, ambassadors, kings and other high level government types. Each year, a handful will go to some poor kids from the ghetto so that they can parade them around as part of a puff piece about how generous the aliens are, but that’s just window dressing. The truth is, your daughter is neither rich enough, nor poor enough to ever get one of those slots.”
Beth had to bite her tongue to keep from swearing. She wasn’t surprised at all, but she was angry and frustrated. She’d half suspected something like that was going on, but hearing it spelled out so clearly was still enough to make her blood boil.
“Isn’t there anything, any way that I can get her off-world without selling her into slavery?”
“Ms. Murray, indentured service is hardly slavery.”
“It’s close enough.”
Owen stared at her for a moment, and then shook his head.
“It’s something,” she said. “Please.”
He sighed. “It’s not something I would normally offer to someone of your background.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that some aliens have cultural practices that people of Western European descent find unpalatable, while those from other cultures would find those practices perfectly normal.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Ms. Murray, you are aware that, much to the surprise of every biologist on the planet, there are a number of species with whom humanity shares a degree of reproductive compatibility?”
“I am,” she said.
“Well, there is a species called the Sionnach. They’re native to a planet called Talamh in the Grian system, and they bear a rather striking resemblance to humans. There are differences, of course, but the basic morphology is the same. The reason I bring this up is that about eighty years ago, Talamh suffered an environmental catastrophe that wiped out nearly ninety-five percent of their population in the span of a few weeks. Because of their reproductive practices prior to the incident, the Sionnach found themselves facing a sort of genetic bottleneck, and they decided that the best way to alleviate this was to seek an outside infusion of genetic material.”
“They’re looking for breeding stock,” Beth said.
“You can’t be serious.”
“And this is why I don’t offer this option to white people,” Owen said. “Ms. Murray, I’m not suggesting you sell your daughter off as some kind of broodmare. The Sionnach take selection of their mates very, very seriously. They gather applications from a number of candidates, and the Sionnach in question reviews them, and selects the ones they like. Then, their family reviews their choices, and selects a candidate. The candidate is then brought to the House of their prospective spouse, and they spend a period of time together. Roughly five hours. During that time, they talk, get to know each other, and decide if they want to proceed. If both parties agree, they enter a five-year engagement. During those five years, the candidate is treated as a member of the House. They are given a stipend, they’re educated, they’re housed, fed, provided with medical care, and they undergo medical procedures which allow them to survive on Talamh without special equipment.”
“What sort of medical procedures?”
“Talamh is a high-gravity world with a higher-than-normal concentration of heavy metals in the environment. Your daughter would need procedures to be able to stand up to the local gravity, and to be able to filter out metals she would not normally be able to purge from her system. She would also undergo a type of gene therapy which would make her more resistant to radiation and give her the ability to see parts of the infrared spectrum and hear sounds normally outside of the range of human hearing.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“The Sionnach are one of the founding species of the Hegemony. Their technology is thousands of years more advanced than ours, and they’ve been doing these procedures since before humans built their first cities.”
Beth shook her head. “An arranged marriage…I don’t know.”
“If I’m honest, it’s a long shot. You would have to take your daughter for a screening. She’d have to pass the screening for any sort of genetic issues that would eliminate her, then she would have to be selected by one of the Sionnach. If that happens, you and your family would have to travel to Talamh at the expense of the Sionnach House that selected her, and your daughter would have to get through the initial interview. But if she does, she would get the education you want for her.”
“And what happens at the end of the five years if she decides she doesn’t want to marry the person who selected her?”
“Then she’s free to walk away. She’d be given a small amount of money, and passage to anywhere within the Hegemony, but she’d be free to do what she wants.”
“No indenture? No repayment of expenses?” Beth asked.
“No,” Owen said. “But again, it’s a long shot, and I take my normal fee just to put you through the application process, whether she gets selected or not.”
“How many humans get selected?” Beth asked.
“She’d be the first,” Owen said.
“What’s your fee?” Beth asked.
“Five hundred Hegemony credits.”
Beth winced. Given current exchange rates, that was almost ten thousand dollars.
“How quickly would we know?” Beth asked.
Owen turned and woke up his computer. She watched as he pulled up a page and scrolled through before clicking on a link.
“There’s only one family looking right now. Applications are due by the end of next week. You’d know in a month, tops.”
Beth thought about it for a moment. It was a long shot, and she wasn’t entirely sure it was a good idea, but it was better than an indenture, so she reached for her credit card.
Sam looked up from her homework at the sound of a light knock on her bedroom door. The door was wide open, and her mother was standing there looking at her. Sam couldn’t quite place the expression on her face, but given the appointment she’d had earlier, Sam didn’t have any doubt about what it meant.
“No luck, huh?” she asked, trying not to let the relief she felt creep into her voice. She knew an off-world education would open a lot of doors for her and give her opportunities that she wouldn’t have otherwise, and she really did want to go off-world, travel in space, and see other planets someday, but the idea of living on another planet for four or more years was both frightening and overwhelming.
“Not much,” Beth said. “He did have one program you could apply for that doesn’t include an indenture period. I emailed you the link to the application. I need you to fill it out today, because I made an appointment for tomorrow for you to go for the physical and psych scan that’s required.”
“Tomorrow? Mom, tomorrow’s Jenny’s birthday party.”
“I know, sweetie, and I’m sorry. I know you were looking forward to the party, but you might have to miss it. I’ve already got us portal tokens, and tomorrow is the only day we can go before the deadline without you missing school. I made the appointment for as early as I could, so you should get home in time to go.”
Sam wanted to argue, but she already knew it was useless. She hadn’t missed a day of school since halfway through the eighth grade, and she knew Beth wasn’t going to let her start less than a month before graduation. She also knew Beth wasn’t going to let her pass up a chance at an off-world scholarship just to go to a birthday party. Even if the birthday girl was her best friend who she’d been crushing on since kindergarten. Of course, Beth didn’t exactly know that last part, because she hadn’t told her she liked girls. She’d considered telling her a few times, but she’d always changed her mind at the last minute, because if Beth knew she liked girls, she might decide that Jenny was a distraction that Sam didn’t need in her life and that wasn’t a battle she wanted to fight.
“Fine,” she said, reaching for her laptop. “I’ll do the application now.”
“Thank you. And Sam, I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom,” she said.
Beth left and Sam opened up the email link, which took her to a form that asked her for an invite code. She checked the email and sure enough, there was a code for her. She copied it and pasted it into the form, and when she did, it took her to the next page, and a lot of the information was prepopulated, including her latest ID card photo, name, and age, along with her school transcripts and medical records. The stuff that was left for her to fill out read more like a dating profile than a college application.
The first section was hobbies and interests and activities. She thought about it for a minute and decided to just be honest instead of going through all the BS she usually did for the college apps. She put down soccer, swimming, surfing, electronics, robotics, reading, martial arts, camping, and motocross. She attached pictures of herself in her soccer uniform, along with a couple of video clips from some of the team’s games, then she added a few videos of her swim meets, and a couple of pictures and some videos of her surfing. She pulled up her YouTube folder and attached a few build videos for some of her robotics projects, along with the parts lists, schematics, models for the 3D printed parts, and the source code for the micro-controllers she’d written. She added a picture of her holding two trophies from a local Karate tournament where she’d placed second in sparring, and third in bo staff, and added a few videos of her matches. She also added a few pictures from her camping trips and a picture of her sitting on a dirt bike, along with a video Jenny had taken of her running one of the beginner courses, then pulled up her eBook library and dumped the list of all her books, listed her favorite movies, and attached all her playlists from her music library.
The next section was a little weird. It asked about what sort of foods she liked, so she gave a list. Then it asked whether she enjoyed various activities. Most of them were fairly common things. Theater, music, art. A couple she had to check the cultural database link. She was surprised and excited when she found out that whoever was sponsoring this program apparently considered dragon racing important enough to put on the questionnaire.
All in all, she spent about two hours filling out the application, and once she was done, she hit submit, and then pulled out her cell phone and opened up her text messages with Jenny.
Sam: ‘Bad news. I might miss your party.’
Sam: ‘Mom’s dragging me to New York in the morning for a physical and a psych scan for a scholarship.’
Jenny: ‘She’s still on that off-world college kick?’
Jenny: ‘Girl, you don’t want to go to college with ETs’
Sam: ‘I’ve got to get accepted before I have to worry about it.’
Jenny: ‘Come by my place when you’re done. Even if you miss the party, I want to see you.’
Sam: ‘Will do. See you tomorrow.’
Sam set down her phone and looked at her homework. She’d wanted to finish before dinner, but there was no way that was happening now. She grabbed it anyway and went back to work, trying to get as much done as possible before Beth called her downstairs.