By an Illusion's Fickle Thread
Speculative Fiction for a Wayward Generation
I sift through the panels of prospective partners and wonder just what the hell my mother was thinking with this charade. The pictures don't matter—women showing off their teeth in white arrays, hairstyles that defy the imagination (and gravity), too little or too much make-up from the Generation Markets—but I find myself searching for something. That something, well, perhaps I don't exactly know what it is yet.
Or maybe I just don't want to face it.
A message blips in the corner of my vision, and I swallow a sigh. When I pull up the video feed of the incoming call, my mother's face fills the screen.
"Well?" Her voice is sharp, as agile as any knife. "Have you looked at the list I sent you?"
It's too early in the cycle of the twin moons, but I know I'll regret it later if I lose my temper with her. And, even as a grown man, I'm still afraid of my mother's own anger flares that can decimate worlds quicker than any solar powers.
"Mother," I say, "I haven't even gotten through half of it yet."
"Do you want to be the last boy to bring a girl through her season? Well?" But she doesn't wait for an answer. "It's already been three solar cycles since you've entered your own season. I don't want you to dry up like a weed."
The plant metaphor would probably elude most Generation males, but I grew up on Sansai before the planet was overtaken by human space exploration efforts. My own mother saw humanity overtake the Sansai people, interbreed, and cause chaos across the once-peaceful plains. If anything would hurt my mother most, it would be my taking a human girl in my season.
My thoughts trail back to the summertide when I visited Sansai for the first time. The planet was different from the Generation Ships that fostered most of life now. The air, though polluted, was not the static thing that circulated through the Generation Ship Novice that I called home. A breeze had ruffled my overlong hair, and then I turned—
"Tumi, are you listening?" my mother's voice snaps through the memory. I refocus and hope my face betrays nothing. It would be an awful thing if my mother were like one of those fabled mind-readers who could pluck out thoughts like seeds from star-fruit.
"Yes, Mother, I'm well aware I need to pick someone before the season ends," I say.
My mother's eyes narrow until they look like slits in her face. "I better not find out you're fooling around with AIs when you should be focusing on real girls. Girls of flesh and blood."
Oh, Mother, you have no idea. But I don't say a word. I hope my eyes don't twitch or my lips quirk.
"I have to start the daily rounds," I say, referring to my position as a guard on the Novice. "Give the Vector my love, Mother."
My mother doesn't say goodbye before her end of the feed blinks out of being. I let loose the sigh I'd been holding back. And then I close all the panels of the girls I could never truly want, no matter if they're in season or not.
Then I do the one thing I've been resisting ever since my mother's talks have been needling into my dream sphere. I pull up the interface that allows me to communicate with pieces of memory fragments I've collected from my travels outside the Novice and the Vector. It's like AI—my mother wasn't too far off—but the people inside are real. Or, in many cases, they were once real.
The projection of a girl with hair as red as starfire comes up, her eyes a vivid blue as deep as interstellar shoal caves, and I feel my heart soften even though I saw her die right in front of me. This human girl, one I should never have wanted, still haunts my dreams and nightmares alike.
"Tumi," she says, her voice like liquid silver, and the illusion is real enough that I can touch her skin. Technology may have been a weapon under human care, but the Generation Federation has allowed tech to become a salve as well.
If I did not have this girl, false memory that she is, I would probably go mad from all that I've seen since I've come into season. She is not warm to the touch, nor is she pliable like a real woman, but when the twin moons fall I feel at peace that she's beside me to keep the greater night terrors away.
I press my hand to the soft threads of her hair, feel the hollowness of her skull, and press a kiss to the side of her not-there head. It feels like affection, like something I can freely offer, like something that will last beyond the war in planets abroad.
"Fenn, I'm sorry I couldn't save you," I whisper, and her only answer is a smile that warms me to my core.
"What are you saying?" She laughs, vivid-bright, and even that laugh is something I never heard in reality. It's just something my dream memories concocted out of thin air—or maybe the real girls I've seen in season. "We're together, Tumi. That's what you want, isn't it?"
But I realized I wanted so much more.
When I close my eyes, I remember the refugee camp I saw on Sansai, my first mission off a Generation Ship. I knew the language, so I was thought to be the best choice to descend to the tattered sphere. It was my first season, and I was still too scared to hold any girl's hand.
Fenn was one of the humans helping the relief effort, and I should have hated her for being human. But then she smiled, and I was lost.
The next morning, as bomb fire catapulted through the camp, I watched her be there one minute—and then gone the next, a splatter of blood and carnage all that was left.
This time, I open my eyes and see Fenn bloodied and torn, a divergence from the happiness I had seen only moments before. I start to shake, my limbs feeling weak, but the illusion holds onto me ever more tightly.
"I'm right here, Tumi," she whispers. "I'm right here."
It's a lie, but it's all I have—and I can't even bring myself to cry tears of sorrow.
My season is passing, I know it, yet I am still lost in the one girl I cannot have.
Tragedy binds us, this memory and me, as the twin moons look on.