(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.)
ORLA THREW THEMSELVES ON their bed with an unnecessary degree of drama. They knew it was wholly unworthy of them, but these days, they couldn’t seem to help themself. Their feelings and emotions seemed to be heightened to an unusual degree of late. Today, more so than most.
All they really wanted to do was lie in bed and daydream about Sorcha. Their hands had brushed as they walked to lunch. It was an accident, of course. Orla would never do something so untoward in public, and they were sure Sorcha wouldn’t either, but accident or no, it felt like it had lit a fire inside them.
Orla knew they were past the age when they should want such things, but they had always craved physical contact. Their entle Neesa had indulged them long after it was appropriate for such things, but Neesa still gave them the sort of touches that you would give a child who had not yet reached first ascension. They would sit in Orla’s chambers and Neesa would put an arm around their shoulder, or pet their hair, or even let Orla lean against them as they watched a video. It had always soothed them, made them calm and happy and relaxed.
Sorcha’s touch had the exact opposite effect. It had inflamed and excited them, and they’d spent most of the laethanta trying not to think of what it would be like to touch Sorcha deliberately. They imagined threading their fingers together and holding Sorcha’s hand, sitting on the couch with their head pillowed on Sorcha’s shoulder as they talked. They even imagined Sorcha reaching up and stroking their ears.
They knew they were being inappropriate. They had no right to think of Sorcha that way. Orla had received a genetic diversity token at birth, which meant that they were required to find an off-world mate, which meant that no matter how much they wished they could be, they would not be paired with Sorcha.
Which was the problem. They were letting their emotions cloud their judgement. They had been friends with Sorcha almost since the moment of conception. They had been gestated in the same birthing den, had played together as infants and toddlers, had been educated together. Orla had always had a weakness for Sorcha’s company, and by the time they had reached first ascension, Orla had been hopelessly in love. When Sorcha smiled at them, Orla had felt as if their heart missed its rhythm. They desperately wanted to be paired with Sorcha, to be free to hold them and touch them and indulge the longing they felt.
Instead, they had to sort through the list of candidates and find a mate that they could at least tolerate. They knew it was their duty to their House, their people, and their species, but that did not make it any easier. A bond mate was supposed to be your friend and partner in all things. They were supposed to be the one you were closest to, the one you shared your joys and sorrows with. They knew many bondings did not live up to that ideal, but that was what they wanted for themself, and they knew they had the foundations of that already with Sorcha. If they hadn’t received a token when they’d been born, they would have asked Sorcha to submit an application to Orla’s parents for their bonding. It would be a horrible breach of etiquette, but hardly the first the two of them had committed together, and being bonded to Sorcha would be worth it.
Unfortunately, they had received the token, which meant they had no choice in the matter. Well, technically they did. They could find someone who was willing to take the token in their stead. Their parent Nuala had even offered to make such arrangements, and at first, Orla had been tempted, but they had investigated how such things worked and been horrified. The tokens were almost always taken by those less fortunate as a way to lift their financial prospects. In the end, Orla’s own sense of duty and fairness wouldn’t let them do it. The token was their burden to bear, and they couldn’t bring themselves to push it off on someone who would only accept it out of desperation. It felt like a shameful thing to do, like something that would dishonor both them and their House.
But choosing to accept their duty did not mean they were eager for it, and Orla had put off reviewing the applications until Nuala had given them a stern word and sent them to their chambers until the task was finished.
They lifted their arm and touched their left wrist. The gesture activated their Augmented Reality Implant.
“Waiting for your command,” their Aug said.
“Pull up the Bonding candidate files, and prepare for review,” they said. The artificial intelligence embedded in the base of their skull linked to the House’s computer network and pulled up the candidate files, displaying the files for them by feeding them directly into the part of their brain responsible for vision.
They looked over the summary page and frowned. “Flag all applications that list the species as Gaolta and mark them rejected.”
The list of candidates was immediately cut in half. They knew if Nuala found out what they’d just done, they’d be furious, but Orla didn’t care. The Gaolta were an offshoot of the Sionnach, a colony world founded almost thirty thousand blianas earlier, and a popular choice for those with the token, because despite thirty thousand blianas of genetic drift, they were still reproductively compatible without any genetic manipulation, and aside from coloration, they looked like Sionnach. Orla also found them unbearably arrogant and smug, convinced of their own superiority. They also had a deep disregard for etiquette that bordered on deliberately insulting. They couldn’t imagine spending their life with someone like that.
They looked over the remaining candidates. Nothing immediately jumped out at them, but they knew they had to actually go through them instead of just rejecting them out of hand.
“Organize the remaining applications by match probability and then display the first one,” they said.
An application opened up, and they scanned it quickly and felt the disappointment well up. It wasn’t that there was anything particularly wrong with the application. It was fine. They could see all the points of compatibility, and it seemed like they would be an ideal match, but as they stared at the images attached, all they could think was that the candidate in them looked absolutely lifeless. Every picture was carefully posed, every expression carefully schooled, and the application itself was equally as bad. They wondered how someone could write about themselves with such disinterest.
They marked the application rejected and moved on to the next one without much hope. If that was the best of the lot, they doubted they’d find anything suitable. A sentiment that the next uair would prove painfully accurate. They reviewed more than eighty applications, and they were all the same. Dull and dry and lifeless. After a while, given how formulaic they were, they began to suspect that the candidates weren’t writing their own applications at all, and just letting the matchmakers do it instead.
They marked another one rejected and looked at the queue. There were still twenty-one applications, but all of them were marked as low probability. They were tempted to just mark them all rejected, but if they didn’t find something, Nuala would be angry, and they were getting desperate enough to reconsider the Gaolta applications, so they opened the first of the low probability listings.
The picture immediately caught their eye. They didn’t recognize the species immediately and had to check the listing. Human. They expanded the listing and saw that Humans were new to the Hegemony. Just ten years since first contact. Not even officially incorporated yet. They hadn’t even sent a member of their species beyond their planet’s major satellite prior to first contact.
They closed the listing and went back to the picture. They weren’t sure at first why it caught their eye. Humans were a bit odd looking. They lacked proper ears, and their faces were a bit soft. The effect wasn’t unpleasant to look at, though. The human, Samantha Elizabeth Murray, was actually quite pretty, for all the oddity. Then they realized what it was about the picture that caught their eye. Samantha was smiling. Not a big smile, but a smile. It was the first application they’d seen where the candidate had anything other than a carefully schooled neutral expression.
They scrolled down just a bit and saw that the human was academically well accomplished by their world’s standards. The genetic profile did indicate a likelihood that they would need corrective work done on their eyes at some point, which was apparently fairly common among their species. The condition was noted as being easily corrected with minor gene therapy. Their intelligence was rated considerably higher than average for humans. All the vital statistics seemed to be in order, so Orla moved on to the section that listed hobbies and interests.
The first item listed was soccer. Orla tapped on the word, and queried the cultural database, which told them it was some sort of sport that involved driving a ball down a field using only your feet. It sounded odd to them, but they closed out of the cultural database and opened the attached media on the application and gasped in shock.
The first item was a still image of Samantha in some sort of uniform, but Orla was shocked at how immodest the outfit was. Samantha’s arms were bare from about halfway between their shoulder and elbow all the way down. They held a black and white sphere under one arm and had a smile on their face that put the one in the profile picture to shame. Orla studied the image for a moment, feeling vaguely like they were doing something they shouldn’t, yet Samantha had included the picture in their application. Orla had to remind themself that different cultures had different standards for what was appropriate and what was not.
Orla tapped on the next piece of media attached, hoping it was a bit less scandalous. A hope that was dashed immediately, as they saw a field filled with other similarly clad humans. Orla spotted Samantha easily. They knew nothing of soccer, but they gathered quickly that Samantha must be quite skilled. Samantha drove the ball the length of the field, dodging anyone who approached them, and kicked the ball past a final member of the opposing team and into a net. Something which was apparently cause for celebration, as there were cheers from a number of people. A moment later, Orla was shocked yet again as a number of the humans in the same uniform as Samantha ran up to them and hugged them. In the middle of a crowd of dozens of people, the others hugged them. One even kissed them on the cheek, right before the video ended.
Orla moved on to the next item. Swimming. This, at least, was familiar ground. They somewhat hesitantly tapped on the piece of attached media and was surprised by an image of Samantha wearing even less. They were in a shiny garment that left their legs and arms entirely bare. It covered most of their torso, though the neck was cut low enough to show the top swell of their breasts. Some sort of tight-fitting cap covered Samantha’s hair, and they had goggles hanging around their throat. They were holding up some sort of statue. A quick tap, and the cultural database told Orla it was a trophy. An item usually awarded for placing highly in a competition.
Orla advanced to the next piece of media and watched as Samantha participated in some sort of swimming competition. There were three more similar videos. Samantha won three of the competitions and came in third in the fourth. Orla was more than a little shocked that Samantha had included a video where they didn’t win.
The media attached to the surfing section was both more and less modest. There were pictures and videos of Samantha in something called a bikini, in ‘boy shorts’ and a ‘rash guard’ and in a ‘wetsuit.’ Orla found themself less interested in Samantha’s attire than they might otherwise have been, because the videos were terrifying. Watching Samantha glide across the face of massive waves which were more than powerful enough to crush them had Orla biting their lower lip as they watched the videos and waited for the inevitable disaster which somehow never came. By the time they moved on, Orla was half convinced Samantha’s entire species was mad for inventing such an activity.
The next few items were less shocking. Electronics and robotics were things Orla understood quite well, and they might not be able to read human circuit diagrams or source code, but watching the videos of Samantha building a robot was fascinating.
The martial arts competition was interesting. Prowess as a warrior was always a good quality in a mate. Camping seemed a bit of an odd way to spend time. Going out into the wilderness and staying for days at a time was frankly a bit bizarre. But it was the final item under hobbies that truly made Orla wonder if all of Samantha’s species had a death wish.
It took almost no time at all to find out what motocross and dirt bikes were but watching as Samantha rode around on bare soil on a two wheeled machine that ran on exploding hydrocarbons, while regularly using speed and acceleration to make the machine fly short distances, was terrifying. That this was an activity that was considered normal was surely a sign that their entire species was insane.
Orla went through the rest of Samantha’s application in a bit of a daze, but when they came to the end, they stared at it for a moment, torn. On the one hand, Samantha and maybe their whole species were clearly mad, but on the other hand, it was the only application in the pile that was even remotely interesting to Orla. The only one that showed that the applicant was actually a person with their own thoughts and interests and desires.
Orla flagged it as their top choice, before moving on. Thirty noimeads later, they marked the last application as a rejection, and lay back, considering how to approach this with their parents. Samantha’s application was the only one Orla had selected, and the more they thought about it, the more convinced they were that Samantha was the best possible candidate.
It came back, oddly enough, to that soccer video, and to the casual way Samantha and their teammates touched each other. The easy, casual physical contact. Orla’s own people avoided physical contact at almost all times, but Orla craved it like a drug. A bond mate who would indulge their need would be more than they had ever hoped for.
They thought about it for a long time, and decided the best approach was simple. They would tell their parents that Samantha was the only acceptable choice among the applicants, and if they didn’t agree, then they would need to solicit a new round of applications, because Orla would not accept any of the other candidates. It would be bordering on insolence, and Nuala and Tadgh would no doubt be angry, but they suspected entle Neesa and their spouse Fiadh would back them up on this.
They just hoped that Samantha would find them agreeable.
Sorcha sat in the lounge of their apartment, staring at a file floating in their field of vision. The rest of their Aug desktop was empty. The folder currently active only had the one file, but it might as well have been the whole of the Hegemony for all the weight it carried. Sorcha wanted to reach out and touch it, to open it and see what was inside, but at the same time, they wanted to delete it, to pretend it didn’t exist, to go back fifteen noimeads to before they had received the call from Orla that had destroyed their last hope.
Sorcha had known this day was coming. How could they not? They’d known for blianas that Orla had the token. It was just that a part of them had been holding out hope that Orla would do the selfish thing and find someone who would accept the token in their stead. They had known it would never happen. Not once Orla had decided it would be selfish and dishonorable to fob the token off on someone else. But they wanted to believe that Orla cared enough for them to do it. That they were important enough for Orla to, for once in their life, make the selfish choice.
Instead, they’d gotten a call today from an excited Orla, talking about how they’d chosen a candidate for their betrothal. Sorcha had done their best to keep the hurt out of their voice. They had asked all the right questions in all the right places, even as their heart broke. With Orla so excited, it had been an easy enough thing to talk them into forwarding over a copy of the application. It was a stupid thing to do. Looking at it wouldn’t change anything, but Sorcha wanted to see the face of the person who was going to take Orla away from them. Except now that they had the file, and the time to review it, they weren’t sure they could. A sick feeling filled their gut, and they regretted every meal they’d ever eaten.
Sorcha had loved Orla before they understood what love was. They’d dreamed of a life with them. Raising children, traveling the Hegemony, seeing different worlds, growing old together. Even after they found out Orla had the token, they’d dreamed of finding a way around it, or of running off to a colony world where the token wouldn’t matter. Maybe even leaving Sionnach space entirely and simply never coming back.
Now, all those dreams were over. Orla had selected a mate. At least, a potential one. The ache Sorcha felt at the thought of someone else filling the place in Orla’s life they’d wanted for themselves was twisting their stomach into knots.
Morbid curiosity finally broke through the haze, and Sorcha lifted their hand, tapping the file, and watching as it opened and the application filled their Aug’s display field. Samantha Elizabeth Murray. Odd name. Human. Not a species Sorcha was familiar with. Sorcha frowned as they started going through the application, wondering what made Samantha Elizabeth Murray so special, why they caught Orla’s attention.
It didn’t take long to figure it out. Leaving aside the fact that humans appeared to enjoy running around mostly naked, Sorcha could see all the things that would catch Orla’s attention. The half mad sports. Surfing and motocross. The martial arts. The fact that humans were only barely a space-faring species. Sorcha could practically see all the romantic notions floating through Orla’s head. They would picture some barbarian warrior, come to rescue them from all the things that made them miserable.
It was the casual touch that would be the real draw though. Sorcha knew how much Orla craved touch. It was something they’d talked about in hushed tones when no one else could hear them. They even understood it, because every time they looked at Orla, all they wanted to do was take them in their arms and never let go.
Sorcha closed the file, then closed the folder it was in, and instead pulled up their accounts, checking their own financial balances. Their parent Noya was pressuring them to select a mate of their own, but Sorcha was having none of it. Noya was worried about Sorcha meeting their reproductive obligations, but Sorcha had decided a long time ago that if they couldn’t have Orla, they didn’t want a mate.
After the last bounty they’d earned from their job, they had enough money to buy out their reproductive obligations. They would just need to make a donation of genetic material to the gene keepers, then pay the non-custodial fees to the public creches, and as far as the government would be concerned, they would have met the four-child requirement of the reproductive laws. It would wipe out their savings, but they had time. They would stay until Orla married their barbarian. By that time, they would have finished working off their familial obligations, and they could find a job that would keep them off-world enough that the pain of watching Orla with someone else wouldn’t kill them.
It was a plan. Not a good one, maybe, but it was the best they had.
Beth looked up and frowned at the sight of her assistant Emma standing in the door of the lab. Emma usually didn’t set foot inside unless there was an emergency, and Beth’s first thought was that something had happened to Sam, but Emma seemed a little too calm for that.
“What is it?” she asked.
“There’s an Owen Cooper on the line for you. I would have taken a message, but he said it was about your daughter, and that it was urgent.”
Beth took a moment to clean off the tip of her soldering iron and dropped it in the stand before turning off the soldering station. Then she pulled off her safety glasses and stood up, following Emma out of the lab and down the hall to her office. She stepped inside and sat down at her desk, then hit the button to take the call on speaker.
“Hey, Owen,” she said.
“Hey, Ms. Murray,” Owen said. “I have good news for you.”
“Your daughter has been selected for the program we discussed.”
Beth leaned back in her chair and stared at the phone for a minute as she processed what she’d just heard. Sam had been selected. Sam would be going off-world, possibly for years. It was something she had been working towards since the day Sam started high school, but faced with the sudden reality of it, she felt her stomach heave and she wanted to throw up.
“Ms. Murray, are you still there?”
“Yes! Yes, of course. I’m sorry, I’m just a little surprised.”
“Honestly, so am I,” Owen said. “Like I said in our meeting, I’ve never heard of a Sionnach selecting a human candidate.”
“What do you know about the one who selected Sam?”
“Not much. They’re about seventeen Earth years old. They’re from House Leargas, which is one of the older Houses. Lots of money and influence. Your daughter will be well taken care of if they get through the initial meeting.”
“That’s good to know.”
“I know this is short notice, but there is a transport leaving for Talamh Monday, and the family would like Sam to be on it.”
“We’ll be there,” Beth said.
“I’ll email you the details. There will be a boarding shuttle waiting for you at San Francisco Spaceport, so it should be fairly convenient.”
“Yeah. Just a quick cab ride. Owen…Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Ms. Murray. I hope this works out for you.”
“Me too. Have a good day.”
She heard the call disconnect and let out a sigh. Sam was going to hate her. Graduation was Friday, and she and Jenny had been planning a post-graduation trip down to Baja for months. Sam was going to miss her trip, and get an arranged marriage sprung on her at the same time, and Beth was pretty sure the yelling was going to be epic. Probably worse than the grounding her sophomore year, and Beth’s ears were still ringing from that shouting match.
Whatever Sam’s reaction, she’d deal with it when the time came. Right now, she needed to call her boss, and get the time off.
Sam sat on a beach towel, nursing a coke and watching the waves roll in as she listened to the sound system someone had set up blaring out Bishop Briggs. She’d stopped on her way to grab a burger, and by the time she’d made it to the beach, the party had already been in full swing. Guys and girls she’d known for years were dancing around like idiots, swilling beer, making out on the hoods of cars or in the back of pickup trucks. Almost the entire senior class was there, and half of them were already drunk off their asses.
Any other time, Sam would probably be out there with them, beer in hand and a good buzz going, but today, she just felt like relaxing and enjoying the moment. Four years of work, of advanced placement classes and online classes and summer internships, of busting her ass to maintain straight As, of science fairs, sports, extra credit assignments, sleepless nights, and exhausting weekends was finally over. She didn’t have to crack a textbook or do an assignment for at least two months. The best part, though, was that in five days, she’d be on a beach down in Baja with Jenny. Just the two of them with no one else around.
Which was another reason she wasn’t drinking. The night of Jenny’s birthday party, Jenny had told her that she had gotten into MIT. Sam had been surprised, because Jenny hadn’t even mentioned that she was applying, but since she got accepted, she’d suggested the two of them get an apartment together off campus, and Sam had agreed eagerly. Which left her with something of a problem. She wasn’t sure how she was going to make it through a week of sharing a hotel room with Jenny without telling her how she felt. The thought of sharing an apartment for four years and keeping it to herself was torture.
Part of her thought she should just put on her big girl britches and tell Jenny how she felt, but a bigger part of her was terrified that Jenny wouldn’t want anything to do with her. They’d been friends for a long time, and she didn’t want to lose her, but on the other hand, she felt like she might be missing out on something amazing and she just didn’t know what to do.
Sam turned around and smiled as she saw Jenny walking up behind her.
“Hey,” she said. “I was just thinking about you.”
“Good things, I hope,” Jenny said. She held out her drink, and Sam took it, holding it while Jenny sat down beside her.
“Always,” Sam said. She handed Jenny’s drink back and tapped their cups together. “Just thinking about the trip next week.”
Jenny smiled. “Looking forward to seeing me in a bikini?”
Sam felt her cheeks heat up a bit, because yes, she was definitely looking forward to that. Before she could answer, Jenny swayed towards her, bumping their shoulders together.
“I’ve got something for you,” she said. She set her drink down and unzipped her purse and pulled out a Bic lighter and a white and purple tube.
“Is that what I think it is?” Sam asked.
“That depends, do you think it’s your favorite type of pot?”
Sam laughed and gave Jenny a small shove. “Where’d you get it?”
“One of the advantages to having an older sister. She can hit the dispensary and get me the good shit.”
“You’re trying to make me regret going to MIT instead of Berkley, aren’t you?”
“Maybe a little bit,” she said. “We could have had all the weed we could smoke, but instead, you’re moving us to a state where we don’t have anyone to hit the dispensary for us.”
“Hey, you’re the one who’s following me.”
“Sorry if I’m not ready to give you up yet,” Jenny said as she broke the seal on the tube. Sam watched as she popped the top off, then dropped the joint into her hand. She lifted it up and put it between her lips, then lit it and took a long pull off it before passing it over to Sam.
“Thanks,” Sam said before taking a hit. She closed her eyes, savoring the flavor, a mix of watermelon and grape, before passing the joint back to Jenny.
“Any idea what you’re doing tomorrow?” Jenny asked.
“I honestly hadn’t given it a lot of thought. It’s the first time in years I don’t have something to do. I thought I might just stay in bed all day, just because I can.”
Jenny took a hit and passed the joint back. “That is a terrible idea. You should do something.”
“Got any ideas?”
Jenny gave her a look that she didn’t understand. “Ask me again once the pot kicks in.”
“Okay,” Sam said before taking another hit.
Jenny smiled at her and threw an arm around her shoulder as Sam passed the joint back. The two of them sat there like that for a while, just passing the joint back and forth, taking hits and just enjoying each other’s company without really talking until the joint was gone. It took about fifteen or twenty minutes for the pot to really take hold, but as it did, she leaned into Jenny a bit more, resting her head on Jenny’s shoulder, her worries about how Jenny would react to her feelings suddenly distant and almost silly.
“Hey, Sam,” Jenny said.
Sam lifted her head up off Jenny’s shoulder and turned to look at her. “Yeah?”
“Pot’s kicked in.”
It took a minute for her to figure out what Jenny was talking about, but then she remembered. “So, what should I do tomorrow?”
“Me,” Jenny said.
“What?” Sam asked, wondering if the pot was hitting her harder than it usually did.
“Fuck it,” Jenny said and leaned in, and Sam wasn’t sure if she found a sudden burst of courage, or of it was the pot keeping her from panicking, but she leaned in and met Jenny’s lips with her own. The kiss was clumsy and sloppy and Jenny tasted like pot smoke and beer and that god-awful grape lip balm she loved so much, but Sam loved it. She turned and wrapped her arms around Jenny as Jenny climbed into her lap, running her fingers through Sam’s hair.
“God, I’ve wanted to do this for ages,” Jenny mumbled before kissing Sam again. Sam would have told her she should have said something sooner, but one of Jenny’s hands slid down and cupped her breast, and she lost her train of thought, because Jenny was kissing her and kneading her breast and straddling her and how had they never done this before?
She wasn’t sure how long the kissing went on. Between the pot and the ache building low in her gut, keeping track of time was impossible, but at some point, she ended up on her back, and found herself wondering if they were going to have sex right there on the beach in front of the entire senior class. She’d wanted this for so long, she wasn’t sure she cared, and when Jenny finally did pull away, she found herself chasing Jenny’s lips.
“Easy, tiger,” Jenny said. She placed a hand between her breasts and pushed her back down. “I need a minute.”
Sam stared up at Jenny, turning things over in her head. She had so many questions, but all of them could wait, because she just wanted to kiss her again.
Jenny leaned down, resting her forehead against Sam’s and closing her eyes. “Thank you,” she said.
“For what?” Sam asked.
“For not freaking out. For not hating me. For kissing me back.”
“I could never hate you,” Sam said. “I just wish you’d said something sooner.”
“I was too afraid,” Jenny said. “I kept thinking maybe you liked me, but I read all these things about how gay girls get crushes on their straight friends, and they misinterpret thing and end up ruining friendships and I was just so scared of losing you and your mom kept talking about sending you off-world and I just…”
“I get it. I used to sit at home and dream about telling you, but…” The sound of her phone ringing cut off what she was about to say, and Sam groaned.
“Don’t answer it,” Jenny said.
“It’s my mom,” Sam said.
Sam smiled and kissed Jenny again, ignoring the ringing until it stopped.
“See,” Jenny said. “I’m full of good ideas.”
“Yeah. I…fuck!” Sam yelled as her phone started ringing again. Jenny sighed and Sam reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. She hit the accept button and put the phone to her ear.
“Where are you?” Beth asked.
“I’m at the beach party,” Sam said. “The one I told you about weeks ago and reminded you about this morning.”
“I need you to come home.”
“I got a call from the broker I talked to last month. You’ve been selected for the program you applied for.”
“Yes, but there are some things we need to talk about.”
“Can it wait?”
“No, sweetie. I’m sorry. I know you were looking forward to the party, but we really have to talk about this now.”
“Fuck,” Sam said. “Mom, I’m going to need you to come get me.”
“I’m not safe to drive.”
“Did you drive to the beach?”
“Yeah, but I expected to be here for a while, so…”
“Okay, sweetheart. I’ll call a cab. Where are you at?”
“South of the lighthouse. Just look for the thousand or so drunk teenagers.”
“Okay. I love you. I’ll see you soon.”
Sam hit the end call button and shoved the phone back in her pocket. “Can you let me up?” she asked. Jenny rolled off of her, and Sam sat up, trying her best not to cry. Why the fuck did this have to happen now? Jenny liked her. Jenny had kissed her. They were going to go to Baja for a week, and then in the fall, they were going to get an apartment in Cambridge and it wasn’t fucking fair. She didn’t want to go off-world, damn it.
“What’s wrong?” Jenny asked.
“Mom got a call,” Sam said. “I’ve been accepted for one of the off-world scholarships.”
“You’re going off-world?” Jenny asked. Sam could hear the pain in her voice, and she hated it.
“Maybe,” Sam said. “I don’t want to go, but…”
“Then say no.”
“Just tell your mom you want to stay here,” Jenny said.
“It’s not that easy,” Sam said.
“Yes, it is! Just tell her you don’t want to go. You don’t need anything from the ETs, Sam.”
Sam closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to clear it, but she was still riding the buzz from the pot, and it was hard to put the words together, and she needed to go. She needed to be with the car when her mom arrived.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she stood up. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Sam sat in the car, not really seeing the scenery passing as Beth drove them home. She was still high, and it was making it hard to think, because her mind kept bouncing from topic to topic. There was a little consistency, in that most of the topics were Jenny related. Jenny had kissed her, Jenny had grabbed her boobs, Jenny’s thigh felt great between her legs, she wanted to kiss Jenny again, she was losing Jenny because she was going off-world, she didn’t want to go off-world because she wanted to stay with Jenny.
“Sam,” Beth said, and Sam turned to look at her. She was a little surprised that they weren’t moving anymore. She hadn’t really noticed them stopping. She glanced out of the windshield, and saw they were outside of a drug store.
“Sam, look at me.”
Sam turned back to her mom. “Yeah?”
“Are you drunk, or did you take drugs?”
“Smoked a joint,” Sam said.
“That’s all? No alcohol? Nothing else?”
“Just pot,” Sam said.
“Okay. Stay here.”
Beth got out of the car, and Sam leaned back and closed her eyes, and her mind wandered back to Jenny again. Jenny on a beach in Baja, Jenny in a bikini, Jenny out of a bikini, kissing Jenny while she was out of the bikini. She didn’t want to lose Jenny. She wanted to get an apartment with her in Cambridge and make out every night after class.
She heard the car door open and looked over to see Beth climbing in. Beth closed the door, opened the bag she was carrying, and took out a small box. Sam watched as she tore the box open and took out what looked like a bottle of nasal spray.
“Have you ever used this before?” Beth asked.
“What is it?”
“Soberquick. It’s an alien drug designed to clean intoxicants out of your system.”
Sam shook her head. “No.”
“Put the end up your nose and give it two pumps.”
Sam took the bottle and pulled the cap off, then slid the end up her nose and squeezed twice. For a moment, she didn’t feel any different, but the next moment, she thought she was going to die. Her brain suddenly felt too big for her head, her head felt like it was being squeezed in a vice, and everything hurt. Then, just as quick as it came, the pain was gone and it took the high with it.
“Oh, God, that sucked,” Sam said.
“I know, sweetheart. I’m sorry.”
“How much trouble am I in?”
“You’re not in any trouble. We had an agreement. If you couldn’t drive, you wouldn’t get in trouble as long as you called me to come get you.”
Sam smiled at her. “I didn’t really believe the ‘wouldn’t get in trouble’ part.”
“I only want what’s best for you,” Beth said. “Part of that is wanting you to be safe.” She reached up and started the car. “Is this a one-time thing?”
Sam sighed. “No. I don’t do it often, but sometimes I can’t relax. I get so wound up over a test or a project, and when it’s over, I just need something to help me unwind.”
“I wish you’d told me the stress was that bad. If I’d known, I would have gotten you a medical card and a prescription.”
“I didn’t want to disappoint you,” Sam said.
“You could never disappoint me, sweetheart, and I’m sorry if I made you feel like you could. I know I push you hard, but I only do it because I want you to have a good life. I don’t want you to have to worry about money or finding a job or being able to afford a place to live. I just want what’s best for you.”
“What if what’s best for me isn’t going off-world?” Sam asked.
Beth glanced over at her for a moment, then looked back out the windshield. “Let’s save that discussion for when we get home.”
Sam wanted to have that discussion now, but she knew from Beth’s tone that arguing with her on that point would be worse than useless. It would only make her dig in her heels so that when they actually did talk, it would be impossible to change her mind.
They rode the rest of the way home in silence. Now that her mind was clear, she spent the whole time trying to get her thoughts together so she could convince Beth to let her stay on Earth. The problem was, most of her arguments boiled down to ‘I don’t want to go because of Jenny,’ and that would mean telling Beth that she was gay, which wasn’t very high on her list of conversations she wanted to have tonight.
Once they got home, Sam got out of the car and grabbed her backpack. She didn’t wait for Beth, just headed into the house and went upstairs to drop her backpack in her room. She took a minute to change clothes, figuring Beth wouldn’t want sand or the faint smell of high-end pot on the furniture, then headed back downstairs.
Beth was waiting for her in the living room with a couple of bottles of water, and a thing of brownies from the store. Sam felt her stomach sink at the sight. She loved brownies, and Beth knew it, and always used them when she was trying to soften the blow from bad news. She sat down and opened the water bottle, taking a sip before she grabbed one of the brownies, eating it slowly while her mother waited. Once she finished it, she washed it down with a little more water, then looked at her mom.
“Okay, what’s the bad news?” she asked. Beth took a deep breath, and Sam braced herself, because the news must be really, really bad.
“Sweetheart, you know I love you, and you know I only want what’s best for you. I know you don’t want to go off-world, that you’ve been planning on getting an apartment with Jenny and going to MIT. I understand wanting to be with your friend, I do, but I really believe that getting an off-world education is the best thing for you.”
“I know, Mom,” Sam said. This was going to be worse than she thought.
“I got the call from the broker today, and the people who are offering you the off-world education want an in-person meeting.”
“Okay. What’s the catch?”
“They want you to come to their planet. They’ve already booked passage for you and me on the next transport. It’s a four-week round trip.”
Sam winced. That would eat up almost half of her summer. If she wasn’t going to school with Jenny in the fall, that meant they wouldn’t get a lot of time together.
“When do we leave, and when do we come back?” she asked.
“If you make it through the face-to-face meeting, you won’t come back. You’d stay there.”
Sam thought about it for a moment. That made sense. No use paying for two trips. That would mean even less time with Jenny, though, and she hated the idea.
“When do we leave?” she asked again, sure she wasn’t going to like the answer.
Sam stared at Beth for a minute, not quite able to believe what she’d just heard.
“No. No. You can’t be serious! The Baja trip starts Monday.”
“We’ve been planning this for ages! We paid in advance! We bought portal tokens!”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
Sam stood up. “You’re sorry, but not sorry enough to tell them we need to take a later flight.”
“They want you there as soon as possible. Sweetheart, I know this trip is important to you, but this is your future we’re talking about.”
“My future? I’ve done nothing but worry about my future for the last four years! I’ve done everything you asked. Took every extra class. Gave up every summer for summer school or an internship. Took night classes. Took online classes. Took dual enrollment classes. Signed up for the soccer team and the swim team and the academic decathlon. Went to every science fair, every open house. I have letters of recommendation from a dozen teachers. I’m seventeen years old, but between AP classes and dual enrollment, I’m halfway through a college degree, and I’ve never even been on a goddamned date, all because you are so worried about my future! I’ve been looking forward to this trip for a year and a half, and you promised me that I could go! You promised!”
“No, you don’t! You don’t have any fucking clue what you’re asking me to give up!”
“Don’t! Just…Fuck it. No. I’m not going!”
“Sam, you need to think about your future.”
“I am sick to fucking death of thinking about the fucking future! That’s all you’ve let me do for four fucking years and I hate it. I don’t want to go off-world. I want to go to Baja on Monday. I want to spend the week surfing and getting drunk on cheap Mexican beer and being with Jenny. I want to spend the summer being the teenager you never let me be. I want to go to MIT and get an apartment with Jenny and spend the next four years doing all the stupid shit that college kids do. I want to go to a frat party, I want to go to class wearing sunglasses because I’m hung over, I want to go on dates and go to an all-night diner at four in the morning because the club I was at closed down and I want a milkshake and fries.”
Beth just stared at her after she finished ranting. Sam knew she was giving her minute to calm down, and it just pissed her off that much more, because she didn’t want to be calm. She wanted to yell and throw things, but Beth just sat there, not giving her an excuse. Finally, it got to be too much. Sam couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t just stand there, stewing in her anger, so she turned and stormed out of the room.
Three hours, a crying jag, and two long showers later, Sam was lying in her bed, staring up at the ceiling. She wanted nothing more than to crawl out of the window and find Jenny, then just run away together and never come back. They could go to the bank first thing in the morning and empty her college account, then use the portal tokens to go to Baja, and just stay there forever. Be beach bums for the rest of their lives. Surf and make love and forget the rest of the world exists.
It was a stupid fantasy, something she knew she’d never do, but at the same time, she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. For four years, all she’d done was work and slave and obsess over being the perfect student Beth wanted her to be, and she’d been able to do it because there was an end in sight. Graduation. The day she could finally rest. The Baja trip wasn’t just a vacation. It was a chance to be free, to live for something other than the next quiz or test or paper or group project.
And now, Beth wanted to take that away from her, too.
She heard the knock on the door and ignored it. She didn’t want to hear what Beth had to say. She’d heard enough, and she was done. She wasn’t going. She refused. She had given up too much. She wasn’t giving Jenny up, too.
She heard Beth drag the chair over from the desk to a spot next to the bed, but she didn’t look at her.
“Sam, I need you to listen to me.”
Sam rolled over, turning her back on Beth.
“Maybe you’re right,” Beth said. “Maybe I don’t understand everything I’m asking you to give up. I love you, but I know we’re not as close as I wish we were, and I know there are parts of your life you don’t share with me. I wish that were different. I really do. And I know you want to stay here, I know you want to be with your friend, and to be honest, I don’t want to send you off-world. I hate the idea of you leaving, of not being able to pick up the phone and call you, or pop through a portal and visit. I hate the idea of not being a regular part of your life, of you not coming home for the holidays. I don’t want you to go.
“I love you, and the idea of sending you two thousand light years away is horrifying to me. But part of being a parent is making decisions that are best for your child, even if they hurt you. And sending you off-world is the best thing I can do for you.”
“Why?” Sam asked. She rolled over so she could look at Beth. “Why is it so important?
“Do you remember all those books I made you read? The ones about colonialism and the impact on the native populations?”
“Yes,” Sam said. She remembered them a little too vividly. Especially the ones on King Leopold’s Congo and the Sepoy Mutiny. She’d had nightmares after reading the one on the Congo.
“Do you understand that Earth is being colonized?”
Sam sat up. “Of course,” she said. “But it’s not like those books.”
“Sweetheart, I wish that were true, but colonization doesn’t always start with murder and slavery, and it doesn’t always end with things like the Haitian Independence Debt, or South African Apartheid. But that doesn’t make the outcome any less ugly for the people who have to live through it. The Gatekeepers didn’t ask if we wanted to be connected to their gate network. They just showed up. The Hegemony didn’t ask if we wanted them here, they just showed up. We didn’t have the power or the technology to say no to either of them, and I don’t like to think about what would have happened if we tried. Things haven’t gotten violent yet, but unemployment is skyrocketing because alien tech is putting people out of work, inflation is killing the economy, and people are starting to get desperate. There are already anti-alien groups popping up. It’s only a matter of time before there’s violence, and when the violence comes, I don’t know what will happen.
“But I do know that I don’t want you to be one of the desperate people. I’m sending you off-world to get an education because when you come back, if you come back, you’ll have skills the aliens value. You’ll be able to find work in one of those alien towers. You’ll be able to support yourself instead of ending up in the same welfare line that I’m going to end up in.”
“But you have a good job.”
“For now, but sooner or later, either inflation will put the company I work for out of business, or the trade restrictions will be lifted, and people won’t have to settle for the scraps we can reverse engineer. Either way, once the trade restrictions are lifted, no one is going to buy human-made technology anymore. Not when they can get better, cheaper gear from aliens. I’m not sure how much longer we have, but between inflation and alien goods coming onto the market, I’ll be out of work inside of ten years. We can live on my savings for a while. I converted my savings, investments, and retirement accounts to Hegemony credits years ago, but without a steady income, I don’t know how long we’ll be able to last before we end up on welfare. That’s why I’ve been so desperate to send you off-world. Because I don’t want that to happen to you.”
Sam sat there, completely stunned by what she’d just heard. She knew the unemployment situation was bad, it was all over the news and social media, but she had no idea it was as bad as Beth was saying. She thought about the books Beth had made her read, about how bad things got for the locals, and it made her shudder. If that was what Beth was afraid of, if that was what Beth was trying to protect her from, then maybe she should go. She knew Jenny would be angry with her, but if she could go, and get through school, she could come back for her. She could find a good job, one that could protect them, or maybe she could even take Jenny and Beth off-world before things got bad.
“Sweetheart, there’s something else.”
“What?” Sam asked, not sure she wanted to hear it.
“The application I had you submit…I lied about it. It wasn’t for a scholarship.”
“What was it for?”
“An arranged marriage.”
“What?” she asked, sure she’d heard her wrong, because Beth couldn’t be saying what Sam thought she was saying.
“An arranged marriage. The family is paying to have you travel to their planet so the two of you can meet.”
“Are you…you…No.” Sam shook her head. “No…”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds.”
Sam sat there, trying to say something, trying to respond, but she couldn’t find any words, couldn’t form a response, because she couldn’t believe what Beth had said. She couldn’t believe that, after telling her over and over again that she wanted what was best for her, that Beth would force her to marry an alien she never met. It didn’t make sense.
“I know it sounds terrible, but these people, the Sionnach, believe in long engagements. Five years. You’ll go there, you’ll meet him and the two of you will spend a few hours getting to know each other. Then if both of you consent to the arrangement, you’ll get engaged. Once you’re engaged, the two of you will live together in his family’s House for the next five years. You’ll be treated as a full member of the family, given a formal education, an allowance, clothes, food. Everything you need. Then, at the end of the five years, each of you will be given a chance to opt out of the engagement. If you opt out, you’ll be given a small sum of money, and the family will pay for your passage to anywhere in the Hegemony.”
Sam didn’t say anything. She just sat there, staring at Beth in disbelief. She could see Beth’s thinking and could follow the logic. Beth thought she could go, get engaged, get the education and other benefits, and when the time came, walk away from the engagement.
The really shitty part of it was, it made sense. It was a chance to get an off-world education. A chance to make sure she had a secure future. A chance to make sure she could take care of Beth if what she thought would happen actually happened. Maybe even a chance to make things better for everyone on Earth. Sam hated the idea, because she would be making a promise that she had no intention of keeping. Just the thought left her feeling dirty, but did she really have the right to say no when saying yes could help so many people? Even if she only ended up supporting herself and Beth, wasn’t that worth a few years of her life?
She would be giving up so much, though, and that didn’t even get into the fact that she’d be engaged to a man. And not just a man, to an alien that she’d never met before. She’d have to give up Jenny, have to give up the identity she was just starting to get comfortable with, have to give up her freedom for five years, and have to give up on the part of her that said that you don’t make promises that you don’t plan on keeping. Something Beth had drummed into her from a young age.
“Sam, please,” Beth said. “Just go and meet him. If you get there, and you hate him, and you decide to come home, I won’t say another word. But just go and meet him.”
Sam closed her eyes, trying to hold back tears, because she already knew that she would stay if she went at all. She didn’t want to go, but hearing Beth beg, hearing the situation laid out in such stark terms, hearing the fear in Beth’s voice, all made her think that she should go. Not just for her sake, but for Beth’s. And maybe for Jenny, too. Maybe she could come back and find her again, and they could still have a life together. A better life than they would have if she didn’t leave.
She didn’t really believe it. She knew Jenny too well. If she went, Jenny would never forgive her. But she had to cling to the hope that maybe she was wrong, maybe Jenny would understand. Five years wasn’t that long. Not really.
She took a deep breath. “I’ll go,” she said. “But you have to pay Jenny back for her half of the Baja trip.”
“I can do that,” Beth said.
Sam lay back down on her bed and closed her eyes.
“I’d like to be alone,” she said.
“Okay,” Beth said. She got up, and put the chair back where it belonged, then left without another word.