Toni looked so tiny as she stalked down the trail, huddled under her dark curls, head bowed and shoulders hunched. Marcus willed her to look back at him, and she did, a quick flash of her pale face. But she didn’t return his wave, and so Marcus dropped his hand, letting it curl into a fist and thump his thigh in irritation before turning around to face forward, into the weak light of the wintry sun.
She. Is. So. Difficult.
Bad thought. He checked his alignment to be sure it wasn’t showing.
All was good. He dialed up his glamour tech just a hair in case he bumped into someone on the way home. He usually didn’t need it, and it was best not to use it at all, unless it was a sp — but TaRAM allowed glamour for daily use, within limits.
Feeling good again, Marcus squared his shoulders and jogged along the moving sidewalk. Running helped him to clear his head, maintain alignment, and — most importantly — balance his own desires against those of TaRAM.
His desire was, and had been since the moment he met Toni, to protect her, but it was getting harder and harder to do that. It was like the extraordinary self control she’d shown when she was a little girl — what had always made him think they were perfectly aligned — was slipping. She didn’t seem able to just BE.
And helping her, covering for her, was less and less fun.
That didn’t matter, of course. He would gladly enter into marital alignment with Toni, if that was what TaRAM wanted. It’s what he wanted to happen, because he had pledged to protect her.
And he was devoted to that pledge.
But her father hadn’t filed his permission, and even if he did, there were a dozen other things that could happen before the marital alignment to derail it.
It wasn’t certain.
If he didn’t maritally align with Toni — for whatever reason — he would feel terrible about it. But, luckily, he would still have his Advocacy career, and it was obvious he would be maritally aligned with someone. There were a dozen young female Citizens he could think of off the top of his head who were likely candidates.
He would be fine. He would just have to use the glamour tech more often, to veil his guilt.
There would be plenty of it. Toni’s CAT scores were not impressive, and if assigned a career, it would likely be something like Laundry, where she’d fold towels for people like him and his future wife, for as long as her joints held out and her pace didn’t slack.
And if she wasn’t assigned a career …
He didn’t want to think about that.
Marcus accelerated to a run, taking the next exit ramp for the wilderness trail. Fewer people, more air.
But even the steady thump of his footgear on the packed dirt couldn’t stop his imagination.
Toni’s genetic code was invaluable. Her own mother, Sarah Shew, had built it herself, with a combination of over a hundred of TaRAM’s most important, talented, brilliant people. Toni’s expression might not be impressive, but her capacities were tremendous. It was not likely that the scientists would let her be a manual laborer.
They’d want her in the lab. Suspended in gel, fed through a tube, suffering experiment after experiment at the hands of someone like her mother.
Cataloged, classified, dissected, minutely flayed, operated upon, run through simulations. And more simulations. Endless simulations, to see if her magnificent genes expressed themselves differently in new environments, with new parental influences, in different climates, maybe even a different gender.
She would be kept physically numb, of course, because the scientists tried to be humane. But there was no way to keep her mind from understanding what was happening to her — so the experience would eventually drive her mad. All Lab Citizens eventually became mentally incapacitated — some in a matter of weeks. Most lasted months, and some even years. But eventually, they would all decompensate under the procedures, no longer able to participate meaningfully in their experiments. Once useless, there was no way to justify their continued existence, and they were scheduled for Completion.
Except for those few who showed exceptional stamina. Those were placed in Sarah’s longitudinal experiment on pain management, the one she’d started right before she gave birth to Toni. There were seven Lab Citizens entombed deep in Caliph’s vaults, being kept alive to the end of their natural lifespan.
Surely, Sarah wouldn’t allow Toni to be used that way?
Marcus shrugged his shoulders, which had worked their way up into a painful hunch. Really, it was better for him not to think about any of this. It was none of his business, in the end, one way or another.
Whether they were matched or not, Marcus would have to find a way to let go of his feelings. They were irrelevant. He’d have to throw himself into his work as an Advocate, enjoy his marital alignment to his lovely and genetically exemplary future wife, whoever she was, and devote himself as a father to as many offspring as TaRAM thought right.
He’d have a comfortable life. His only true regret would be that he had ever promised Toni a part in it. It wasn’t his to promise.
TaRAM would do as TaRAM would do.
Marcus slowed, realizing that the hoarse breathing he heard came from his own chest. He stopped and bent over, still panting, next to the wood sign that read “You Are Leaving Scientist Sectorate and Entering Outer Advocacy. Residents Only.”
Something in his groin stirred at the sound of his name. He looked up, still breathing heavily, and saw Sileagh, beautiful Sileagh, gliding up the trail. The sensation in his pelvis blossomed, just like it did whenever he saw her. He always tried to stop it, and usually, he could.
But today, he was helpless. It became more intense as she approached.
“I was hoping I’d catch up with you — but you’re so fast!”
Marcus straightened and checked his alignment. He couldn’t help sending her his most beautiful smile, the one he normally reserved for Toni and his grandmother. But Sileagh’s eyes were like a tractor beam, and he couldn’t look away. She’d done this to him before. It seemed that if she decided that she wanted to touch him, to speak to him, to make him listen, he didn’t have a choice.
Marcus willed a picture of Toni into his mind. Huddled into herself, stumbling away from him with that giant pouch on her slight frame. Toni, his best friend, his most important friend, his confidant, he reminded himself. The woman he wanted to maritally align with, to save.
His effort failed spectacularly as Sileagh slipped into place beside him on the trail, dropping forward to bend and stretch her lovely, long back. When she swept upright again, she was radiant, her hair in a halo around her fine-boned face, her skin glowing.
He wanted to speak, but his tongue was glued to the top of his mouth. All he could do was beam at her in appreciation, and let her take his hands loosely in hers. She leaned in to him, and he watched her mouth, mesmerized.
“Marcus. I’m coming to dinner tonight,” she said, still beaming.
“I’m coming, and so are my parents.”
“To my house?”
“Your grandmother invited us.”
So that’s why Gram had called a family dinner.
“Huh. OK, well, I guess that’s good,” he managed to slur.
“I think so,” Sileagh said, and squeezed his hands. She stepped a little closer.
“I was just heading home to change when I saw you. I was going to let it be a surprise, but … Marcus, I’m just so excited.”
The stirring in his belly was now a whipping sensation, and it made him dizzy. His heart rate picked up, as if he were running again. He tried to keep his alignment, but found himself falling.
When he regained his balance, he was sitting on the trail.
Sileagh, still holding his hands, bent her knees and sat on her heels to to look at right him. So near. He closed his eyes and put his face into alignment.
So beautiful. So not Toni.
He peeked. She was still right there. She held his eyes with hers as she spoke.
“You and Toni are not going to happen. Everyone knows it but you two.”
Marcus listened to the breath moving in and out of his lungs.
“My parents and yours have been talking.”
She had a thin ring of gray around each of her irises. How lovely.
“They think we would be a good match.”
Her teeth were perfect.
“And Marcus, I think we would be, too.”
His mouth grew damp, and he tasted something sweet and slightly metallic, like a sour piece of candy.
“We have a love connection. And a friendship. And we have from the moment we met.”
That was true. The first time he’d seen her face, on her first day at Sherwood Education, he’d felt like she was familiar, as if he’d known her as long as he’d known Toni. Longer, even. Sixty years longer. And when she caught his eye while they waited for Education’s doors to open, she’d smiled at him — and he knew right then, that she recognized him, too.
“That’s true, we do.” he croaked out around his swollen tongue.
“I know you and Toni have been talking about marital alignment for a long time.”
He re-focused on his breathing, trying to ignore the way her soft fingers curled around his hand to stroke his palms.
“And I am sure that it’s … complicated for you to think about any other match.”
Stirring. Fluttering. Her lips.
“But I’m here to remind you that if TaRAM wants this, and you want it, and I want it, then we are very lucky. Luckier than most. Because what we want is the right thing to want, because it’s what TaRAM needs. So, no guilt, no regrets … in the end.”
He breathed deeply.
“No guilt, Marcus.”
“No guilt,” he whispered back, and then, finding strength returning to his limbs all at once, he pulled her hands toward his heart, until she was sitting on the ground next to him. He lifted and kissed her fingers, let his hands run up her arms, her shoulders, encircling her neck to cradle her head, winding his fingers in her hair, cradling her head so they could look at each other. She put her arms around his shoulders and held him back, held his gaze, radiant.
“No guilt, only love,” Marcus breathed, and slowly moved toward her, as she moved toward him, and when their lips touched, it was like they kept moving, into each other, as if they were joining each other’s bodies through this kiss, these lips, these tongues.
They kissed, and pressed, and hugged, and something inside Marcus released Toni, and something inside Sileagh released her, too, and they were one person, indivisible.
Their kiss over, they sat smiling a little foolishly, suddenly shy at their ardor.
“I feel like I’m in perfect, effortless alignment,” Sileagh finally said.
“Me too,” Marcus sighed.
“Like I’m perfect, naturally, just as I am.” She pressed her arms over her head in a luxuriant, slow stretch. “My mother told me that’s how it felt when she first kissed my father.”
The fluttering sensation came roaring back, and Marcus pulled her in for a hug to try to stop it. He buried his nose in her curls to whisper in her ear.
“You have to understand I will do as TaRAM decides, Sileagh.”
“I know,” she whispered back.
“I’ve got a long history with Toni, and a good friendship, and I can’t just turn my back on her, especially not when nothing has been finalized. You know what she’s probably in for, if we don’t get maritally aligned.”
“I know.” There was a slight, smug bite in her voice, but when he pulled back to look at her face, she was perfectly aligned. Shining with good will, and grace, and just a hint of sympathy for Toni.
“So, I owe it to Toni to be willing to maritally align with her.”
“No. You owe that to TaRAM.”
“Hey.” Marcus cupped her chin. “I owe it to Toni. She’s someone I have made promises to. I can’t betray her.”
“All right. You owe it to Toni. AND to TaRAM.”
She beamed up at him, and laughed her pretty laugh.
“I’ve still got to change, and it’s sooo late!”
She jumped up and out of their clutch, playfully jogging in place.
“Go home, Marcus, and compose yourself. Because when you see me tonight, I will look like your perfect match. Because, Marcus, whatever you’re hoping for, for you, for Toni, for TaRAM? … I’m hoping that we are aligned.”
She whirled back toward Scientist Sectorate, and Marcus watched her round the bend in the trail. The warmth in his belly cooled, turned to a stab. Guilt, returning. Toni’s face glowed in his memory, skin nearly transparent, her beam tinged with anxiety.
He turned for home, sprinting, keeping Toni’s face in front of him, counting his steps, refusing to relive the delicious, warm feelings of the interlude with Sileagh.
His sister Shasta, age ten going on thirty, was waiting at the entrance to their compound. He flopped to his hands and knees just inside the security gate, as if finally safe at the end of a race, huffing and puffing for her amusement.
She waited. He finally gave up and rose, looking at his tiny, dignified sibling with his own faux solemn expression. She made him wait a moment before finally intoning, “Grandmother wants to see you.”
“I’ll go up,” Marcus said, starting the long hike up to the main house.
“She’s in the Atrium,” Shasta called. “We’ve been watching you from there.”
“Got it,” Marcus beamed back at her, continuing up the pebbled path.
As he climbed, he felt a languorous relaxation spill out along his limbs, creating a loose, rolling motion to his walk. The sensation was difficult to identify at first, but finally, he had it.