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Chapter 1

spaceline

The phone buzzed on the bedside table. Tyris sat bolt upright, his heart racing. He took a few deep breaths before reaching for it, his hand shaking. Forcing his eyes to focus, he stared at the message on the screen.

“Appreciate the help, Tyris. Hope you enjoy these tickets to the show next weekend as thanks.”

Relief swamped him. It wasn’t signed, but he knew who it was from. Not the message he’d been dreading. That wouldn’t come by message anyway.

Once his heart slowed, a tingle of anticipation ran down his spine.

He’d got them.

The bed was empty beside him, so Tyris smiled and lay back on the pillows, resting the phone on his knees. An image of the screen projected above it and he swiped his fingers across it several times, checking for the best space fares. It wasn’t easy to find a good deal from Urslat to anywhere else in the galaxy these days, what with the scarcity of anysogen, but price was no object. He couldn’t wait to be far away from here, where messages couldn’t reach him—where he could ignore the niggling worry that something was wrong, at least for a while.

Instead he focused on the fact that he’d finally done it. He had the perfect way to top the anniversary gift Milandra had given him last year. A slow smile curved his lips as he remembered last year. He’d been so disappointed that he couldn’t make the shuttle races on Milat, but his leave application had been denied. He didn’t know Milandra had already arranged with General Harrington for him to have the time off, and had already bought the tickets in advance. Sometimes, being married to a general’s daughter had its advantages.

He hadn’t even minded that they’d spent five of the seven days shopping. The race had been amazing. Hard to top. But he’d done it. Exclusive, invitation only tickets to a show by her favourite designer on the faraway moon of Pilar. He didn’t understand what was so wonderful about making new clothes out of old ones from three decades ago, but that didn’t matter. Milandra loved the stuff. Luckily, the designer’s assistant owed him a favour.

Tickets booked, he set the phone on the nightstand, jumped out of bed, and went looking for his wife.

He found Milandra in the kitchen staring into the freezer. The picture she presented, bending over, white silk dressing gown lifting to show most of her thighs, made him smile. He crossed the room and kissed the back of her neck as she stood up, sliding his arms around her waist. “Good morning,” he said huskily.

Milandra laughed and twisted in his arms to return his kiss. “Good morning to you, too.” She wriggled out of his arms and poured herself a glass of orange juice. “There’s a letter for you.”

Her off hand words sent a chill down Tyris’s spine. “There is?” His voice sounded faint, even to his own ears.

Milandra nodded towards the kitchen bench where she’d thrown the mail, then started buttering her toast.

Tyris stared at the mail from across the room. The pile contained mostly junk, but hidden under the stack was an official-looking letter with a government seal.

He’d been dreading this moment for three days, since the announcement of the government’s radical new plan to combat the chronic overpopulation.

It wasn’t the first time the Colonies had faced this problem. Thirty years ago, before the discovery of anysogen, when they were limited to the half a dozen planets they could reach via slow shuttles, they’d tried to limit population growth by suggesting that people stop having so many children. They paid scientists to draw up frightening graphs of how quickly food would run out.

It hadn’t worked.

Just as they’d begun tossing around ideas for more serious controls, anysogen and faster than light travel had been discovered. This opened up an enormous number of new planets, and in the rush to populate them, the government had encouraged people to have more children. Their population boom had rivalled their expansion.

Until they realised the anysogen was running out. Then they were back to square one.

Worse off really, because almost all of the farming had been moved off Urslat onto distant farming planets. No one knew how they would feed the billions of people who called the central planet home when they ran out of anysogen.

Already, the climbing food prices and overcrowding caused more and more crime problems every day. Milandra had laughed when the government announced that anyone with a criminal record would be denied the choice to have children. It solved all the issues so neatly—reducing the population by targeting the most troublesome areas.

Tyris had been unable to join in her mirth. Even though he recognised the neatness of the solution, a sudden fear had clutched at his heart.

Milandra took a mouthful of orange juice and slid a meal into the microwave. The click of the door closing made him jump.

“Are you going to open it?” She nodded to the letter. Then she stopped and looked more closely at his face. “Is everything okay? You look pale.”

He didn’t trust his voice, just nodded. Trying to act normal, he took a deep breath, and crossed the room.

Milandra leaned back on the bench, tossing her blonde curls over her shoulder. The belt on her silk dressing gown slid open, revealing the lacy negligee that showed off her slim figure to perfection. Moments ago, that sight would’ve stirred his desire, but now it barely registered.

He slid his finger under the flap of the envelope, pulled out the folded paper and scanned its contents.

“What is it?” Milandra asked. “Are you being deployed again? Hopefully not to one of the outer planets. Last time you came back from there I swear it took a week of showers before all the dirt washed away.” She wrinkled her nose.

If only this letter contained something as mundane as deployment orders. The words blurred in front of his eyes. He skimmed through them, even though he already knew what they would say—

“Report to your doctor at 3:15 this afternoon for insertion of a contraceptive chip. Damage or removal of this chip will constitute a federal offence, and may be subject to penalties up to and including incarceration.”

This couldn’t be happening. Not to him. He hadn’t killed or hurt anyone. He’d been trying to do what was right. And where had it gotten him? He wiped one hand on his pants, but it still felt damp. The letter slipped from his fingers and fluttered to the floor.

Milandra put down her orange juice and picked up the letter. “There must be a mistake,” she said, scanning the document. “You don’t have a criminal record. I’ll talk to Daddy and get this fixed.”

“It’s not a mistake.” His voice echoed hollowly.

“What?” Milandra’s eyes widened and her hand fluttered to her chest.

“I participated in a protest in college, remember? I told you.” Tyris closed his eyes briefly. It was so long ago, why couldn’t it stay in the past?

“You went to a protest? Are you insane?” Milandra stared at him as though she’d never heard the story before. “Why would you do something like that? What could possibly be important enough for you to risk everything?”

“They withdrew the pensions for those who fought in the Off World Wars.” A flicker of anger stirred in his belly at the thought, but he squashed it. He couldn’t afford those feelings—they’d already cost him too much.

“You took part in a protest for that?” Milandra’s voice rose a notch, and Tyris winced. “Do you have any idea what this could mean for us? For me?” She covered her face with her hand. “What will Daddy say? What will the papers say? How could you be so thoughtless, Tyris? Why would you do something so pointless? That’s what we have a Justice Department for! They appealed the decision and reinstated the pensions.”

Because we protested. But he didn’t dare say the words aloud. “They shouldn’t have done it in the first place,” he mumbled. “Those people fought under government orders. They earned those pensions.”

“What do you care? Because of your Uncle Max? He didn’t even need a pension. He had more than enough money of his own.” Milandra shook her head in disbelief, her mouth a thin, angry line.

How could he explain to her? Explain that while his Uncle Max had never wanted for money, the war had broken him. The guilt, the nightmares, the constant drinking to dull the pain. So many people had come back from that war damaged forever. They would never be able to work again. And without those pensions, children would go hungry, families would be homeless.

He’d already paid dearly for his part in the protests. Ten years ago it had nearly cost him his position in the Space Force. Now it was going to cost him again. But he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he hadn’t spoken up.

Had he made any real difference? He hadn’t been the only protestor. The outcome probably would have been the same without his presence.

He let out a deep sigh. “I don’t know.”

Milandra stared at him. “You don’t know? What kind of answer is that?”

“Look, does it really matter? You didn’t want kids anyway. Last time we talked about it you said that you liked our life the way it was. Just us.”

Milandra had always been the one to say that they weren’t having children. Building her career took all her time. What was left, she wanted to enjoy. He’d accepted her answer, even though he’d always hoped she would change her mind.

Milandra’s eyes were cold. “Does it matter? How can you even ask that? Everyone is going to know. I won’t be able to look my friends in the eyes anymore.”

Tyris shrugged, the movement stiff. “So what? So people will know we’re never going to have kids. It’s not like they couldn’t guess that anyway.”

“They’ll know you have a criminal record,” Milandra said flatly. “This will destroy everything I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am, and this could bring it all tumbling down in an instant. Can’t you see that?”

Milandra’s nose tilted up, the way it always did when she talked about her TV show. As though it made her a star.

“Come on, Landy, it was just a little protest, for a good cause even. It’s not like I murdered someone.”

Milandra didn’t even seem to hear him. “We’ve been married for three years, God, four years next week. How could you keep this from me?”

“I didn’t keep it from you. I tried to tell you about it the night I asked you to marry me, don’t you remember?”

Her nose wrinkled. Then realisation dawned. “You were droning on about the Off World Wars and stuff you regretted. I thought you meant something you’d done in the Space Force. It’s normal for officers to have to follow or give orders they disagree with. I know Daddy has a few he won’t talk about. You didn’t mention a protest or, more importantly, that you’d been arrested. That’s the bit that’s a problem.”

“You interrupted me before I could get that far! You said that nothing I could do would stop you loving me. Guess I was naive enough to believe it. And to think that after nearly four years together, something like this wouldn’t be a big deal. It doesn’t change who I am or how we feel about each other. It’s not really going to change anything in our lives.”

“Maybe not in your life. But when this comes out, it could ruin mine.”

“Celebrities have scandals all the time,” Tyris said. “It’ll blow over. Besides, you always said that any publicity, even bad publicity, would still bring in new viewers. You can use this, can’t you? Make a point of it. There are a lot of people out there who will be angry at this decision. Work with it.”

Milandra shook her head. “My viewers support the new laws. They aren’t the sort to be dealing with this issue themselves and they don’t want to be sympathetic to criminals.”

Her words cut. “So I’m a criminal now?”

“What do you think Tyris? You’re forbidden to have kids. You’re going to have a contraceptive chip implanted, whether you like it or not. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen to people like me!”

“It’s not happening to you. It’s happening to me.” Anger bubbled in Tyris until he lost his usual sense of self control, releasing the pent up feelings he’d been suppressing for years. “Can’t you stop thinking about yourself for one second and realise that I’m hurting here too?”

Milandra stared at him. “You’re hurting? You should have thought about that before you went to a protest.”

“I should have known you wouldn’t understand.” Tyris’s shoulders slumped. Suddenly he was very, very tired. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s just forget about it, okay?”

Milandra stared at him. “I can’t forget about it. This changes everything.”

The complete lack of emotion in her voice scared him and spurred him to action. “Look, I’m sorry Landy. I should never have gone to that protest in the first place. I know that now. I can’t go back and change the past, but we can work this out. Can’t we?” He reached for her hands, but she backed away, shaking her head. The fear growing in the pit of his stomach intensified.

“I… I can’t right now, Tyris.” She shook her head again.

This couldn’t be happening. He searched for the right words, the ones that would fix this.

“Daddy will have a fit,” Milandra said quietly to herself. “But he’ll get over it. I can stay there for a while until I decide…”

This sounded serious. Milandra didn’t make plans. She blew up, let off steam, and stormed out. Then when she calmed down, they worked things out.

Or they always had before.

“Landy, are you leaving me?” He hated the way his voice sounded.

She didn’t even flinch. “I don’t have any other option, Tyris. I’m not giving up everything I ever worked for.”

Tyris licked his lips. His mouth felt like sawdust.

Milandra tied the belt around her dressing gown and grabbed her purse. “I’m never going to forget you, Tyris.” Her voice wavered and he wondered if she was about to cry. Before he could reach for her, she whirled around and ran out of their apartment.

Tyris stared after her, flinching when the door slammed.

He took a step towards the door. He wanted to go after her, to try to make her see reason, but he stopped himself. She wasn’t even dressed. She’d be back. Hopefully she’d be a bit calmer. Maybe they could discuss this then. They could sort it out—they had been married for four years.

It couldn’t be over that quickly.

He paced the room, anxiety crawling along his veins, making every part of his body restless. He couldn’t imagine life without Milandra. There had to be some way to win her back…

Life had always just fallen into place for him. His parents paid for a good school and he’d achieved high marks with little effort. Since childhood, he’d dreamed of being a pilot and of flying a spaceship. The only thing that had ever gotten in his way had been that stupid protest. Fortunately, General Kendal, a friend of his Uncle Max, pushed for the board to accept his application despite his record.

He’d met Milandra in his first year in the Space Force, when she’d been visiting her father. Their romance had been one of those whirlwinds everyone talked about, sweeping him up in its inescapable vortex. She’d been everything he hoped for in a wife. So free and vibrant, so focused on what she wanted to achieve in life. They’d had so much in common.

They still did. This was just a glitch. Temporary. He’d find a way around it. Once the news wasn’t so new no one would care that he’d made one stupid mistake.

He sat down, flicked on the TV, and stared at the news of protesters in the Urslat streets. He shook his head. They didn’t even care about it going on their records anymore. They had nothing left to lose.

The video feeds switched from country to country, the images all the same. The numbers were too great. When Space Force officers tried to disperse the protestors, the situation escalated into riots.

The intercom buzzed and he jumped up. Milandra must have left her key card behind when she flounced out. He tried to keep the smile off his face, so she wouldn’t hear it in his voice. If she thought he was laughing at her, she’d be furious.

He pressed the button. “Landy?”

“Why would I be Landy? Doesn’t she have a key card?” Kerit’s voice responded.

Tyris sighed and buzzed his brother in.

When he opened the door, Kerit thrust two bottles of soda into his hands. “Hey, bro. Put those in the fridge.” He walked through to the living room and threw himself onto the couch, plopping his feet up on the coffee table. He picked up a half-eaten bag of chips Tyris had left out last night and tasted one experimentally. He shrugged then munched noisily.

Finally, he looked over at Tyris, still standing in the doorway. His eyes narrowed and he stopped, handful of chips half way to his mouth. “What’s up, Ty? Something wrong?”

“Milandra walked out on me.” He needed to tell someone, and there wasn’t anyone he felt closer to than his brother, despite their differences. He lightly touched the jade dolphin hanging at his neck. “Guess the luck doesn’t work for me.”

“Give it time, bro. The dolphin works in mysterious ways.”

Tyris gave a laugh. His brother was firmly convinced the dolphin had brought him luck. He didn’t believe in that kind of thing. He believed in things he could see. But he liked the charm because it reminded him of the bond he had with his brother.

“Maybe this will work out for the best somehow,” Kerit suggested. “What happened anyway?”

Tyris put the drinks on the coffee table and sat down opposite Kerit, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “I’ve been banned from having kids.”

Kerit winced. He reached for one of the soda bottles and took a swig. “That protest thing? I can’t believe that’s still following you around. Can’t you get them to take it off your record?”

Even though he was stressed, Tyris smiled at his little brother. He reached for the other soda and took a mouthful. “I don’t have that much clout. I’d have to do something pretty impressive to have that one wiped.”

“Well, do something impressive then. You’re always going around doing impressive stuff.” Kerit waved a hand. As though it were that simple.

Tyris couldn’t help a small laugh. He didn’t think his problems would be solved that easily, but talking to Kerit calmed him down somewhat. “About the only thing that impressive would be to find a hidden source of anysogen. Then I think the government would do anything I asked.” As he thought about it, he warmed to the idea. “If the record was wiped, then Milandra wouldn’t have anything to worry about. Then she’d definitely come back.”

“So find some anysogen,” Kerit said. “Didn’t you say something about a planet no one talks about? Can’t you call in a favour of some sort? Failing that, you could always find the right person to sleep with. You can charm the socks off a snake.”

Tyris stared at his brother. Why hadn’t he thought of that? Not the charming the socks off a snake bit, the lost planet.

He’d first heard of it by chance. In his second year of college he’d begun an assignment on the development of the anysogen engine, but hadn’t been able to find information on the planet where the precious gas had first been discovered. Since the breakthrough had been made a mere thirty years ago, around the time of his birth, it should have been public knowledge.

The mystery had intrigued him, and he’d even gone so far as to write his entire paper on the lack of information. His professor returned the assignment, unmarked, with only the note that if he wanted a job in the Space Force, he should resubmit the paper. He’d been given a two week extension. Though this only increased his interest, Tyris promptly obliged and submitted a safer report focusing on the first interstellar space flight.

He’d dreamt of flying into space since before he could speak. In fact, his parents claimed that his first word had been ‘star’. He wouldn’t do anything else that might potentially damage his career.

Since that time, anysogen had become so scarce he didn’t think finding it would damage his career at all. In fact, it would probably save it.

Only four planets had been found containing the precious gas that allowed their ships to fly faster than the speed of light. They’d searched in vain for more planets, but ironically, their range was limited by the fuel shortage. Now there wasn’t even enough to reach beyond explored space, to search out new planets that might solve their overcrowding problems. There was barely enough to keep ferrying settlers and supplies back and forth from the currently settled planets.

One day soon, they’d run out. Then space travel would go back to being painfully slow, with passage between the colonial planets taking months or years, not weeks.

“I think you have something there, Ker.”

“I do?” Kerit’s face registered surprise then approval. He winked. “I take it you have someone in mind?”

“Something like that.” He suspected that going after the planet he was thinking of—one that had been removed from the history books despite the riches it contained—had its risks. No point in embroiling Kerit in it.

His brother’s record was clean. Best to keep it that way.

*****

Tyris kept his back straight as General Kendal paced the room. The chip in his upper arm still stung, but he didn’t wince. Before he approached the general, he’d made sure to keep the appointment to have the chip implanted. It looked better if he appeared to be obedient. He needed every edge he could get. What he was asking for wasn’t exactly by the books.

He tried not to let his eyes follow the man, tried not to let any hint of desperation show in his face.

“You know how short of anysogen we are,” the general said finally, turning to face him. “This is a big ask.”

“I know, sir.”

The general sighed. “Why couldn’t you ask for a normal ship? We only have two HSLD-SV’s, and both of them are prepping for immediate dispatch when the results of the current outer space survey come in. There are hopes that the scientists might have found another habitable planet, and lord knows we could do with one. There are plenty of ships assigned for pilot’s rec leave. Won’t one of them do?”

Tyris didn’t want to give away his reasons. Not yet. “How about the Mark II’s? Surely they won’t be sent that far? They’re just sitting in port gathering dust. Wouldn’t it be better that they get a bit of use now and then?”

The general pursed his lips, his brow creasing. “The Mark II’s don’t have the capacity of the Mark III’s, no. Every planet that’s within their fuel range has already been explored. Officially, they’ve been retired.”

Tyris ran over the specs for the Mark II in his mind. Their scanning capability was slightly limited due to a weaker signal. They could only scan when the shields were down, leaving the ship exposed for the duration of the scan. But that shouldn’t pose a problem for his plans. So long as they could detect anysogen. That was all he needed.

The general searched Tyris’s face, then sighed. “The Hylista is due for a maintenance flight next week. If I schedule that with your vacation days, we just might be able to swing it.” His face grew serious. “You’re not planning anything stupid are you?”

Tyris shook his head. “No, of course not.”

Chapter 2

spaceline

Even the warmth from the fire couldn’t combat the winter chill in the air. Holding in a sob, Marlee stared out the open window at the few goats picking at the dying vegetation, and shivered.

The fields were bare, the harvest done. The trees had all lost their leaves.

The bleak view suited her mood perfectly.

She heard boots stomping mud off on the rush mat outside the door and drew in a shaky breath. Scrubbing at her eyes with a corner of her apron, she jumped off the end of the bed to pull the patchwork quilt over the mattress. The front door was out of sight, but she could imagine Nelor walking in as clearly as if he stood in front of her.

She smiled sadly at the image. The beard he’d been growing dominated his face and made him look a little like his father. Would it last the winter, or would he shave it off half way through because it itched, as he had last year? She ached at the thought that she wouldn’t be around to see which it would be.

He hummed softly, a sound that usually made her smile. “Six eggs today, Marlee,” he called out. “Looks like the lanterns in the barn are making a difference. We just might eat eggs this winter after all.” They clinked together as he placed them in the basket on the table.

“That would be a nice change.” Marlee hoped her voice was steady. How could she break the news to Nelor? She took another shaky breath and focused on the bed. She tugged at the corners of the quilt, pulling out the wrinkles. The familiarity of the task comforted her a little.

Nelor’s footsteps crossed the room, and his hands touched her shoulders turning her around. “Marlee, what’s wrong?”

When he pulled her into his arms, she couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. “I’m not p-p-pregnant,” she managed to say.

Nelor held her while she sobbed uncontrollably. “Oh, Marlee…” His voice broke. “Are you sure?”

Marlee nodded, not trusting her voice. She’d tried to convince herself when she’d felt the first hint of cramps in the early hours of the morning that they might be a sign of pregnancy. They weren’t.

Nelor remained silent. What could he say? Their best efforts had failed.

They had already been together for the allotted eighteen months, even though the time had seemed so short. Marlee cursed the silent, invisible gas that covered the planet. It wasn’t even any use to them, since the ship they had arrived in couldn’t use it. Her stepfather had always said it would save them. That someone would come looking for it and rescue them at the same time. But that had never happened.

The council told them they were lucky that the only side effect of the anysogen was reduced fertility. They were lucky that Zerris was so close—close enough for them to be able to make it here when the meteor had hit Semala. Maybe they were right. It was better than being dead, like everyone who had been left behind.

Right now, that was a small comfort.

Right now, she had to accept that her time with Nelor was over. No matter how much she wanted them to stay together, the council wouldn’t allow it, not if they couldn’t have children.

“They don’t know yet.” Nelor’s hands slipped down her arms to clasp her fingers. “If we can just stay low for another week, maybe we can have one more chance? You could tell them you’re late? Buy us some time?”

Marlee bit her lip. She wanted to. Wanted that extra time so much. One more chance could change everything.

Who was she kidding? After eighteen months, how could one more month make any difference? It would just be putting off the inevitable. The last week had been bad enough, waiting and hoping, constantly on edge. She couldn’t face it again.

When they first moved in together, she’d been optimistic, parroting words about the time it took to conceive, ignoring the fact that Nelor wasn’t her first partner and this wasn’t her first attempt. But she couldn’t fool herself any longer.

Someone knocked at the door and they both froze. Marlee’s heart skipped a beat and Nelor’s fingers tightened on hers.

“I’ll get it,” Nelor said, his voice heavy. He walked to the door, his shoulders slumped.

When he opened it, Marlee wasn’t at all surprised to see Yasmyn, her mother, and Nerris, Nelor’s father, standing in the doorway.

“Can we come in?” Nerris asked.

Nelor nodded and stepped aside to let them in.

An awkward silence hung in the room. Nerris cleared his throat, but Marlee’s mother spoke first. “Do you have an answer yet? Is there any chance you could be pregnant?”

Marlee hesitated for only a moment. Lying would only prolong the misery. “No, I’m not.” She reached blindly for a seat, collapsed into it, and dropped her head into her hands to hide her tears.

“I’m sorry, lass,” Nerris said, and he spared a look at his son as well.

Numbness seeped into her bones. She was tired. So tired.

“Just one more month,” Nelor pleaded.

His father shook his head. “I’m sorry, son,” he repeated. He put his arm around Nelor.

Her mother reached out to hug her, but Marlee pushed her away. Even as she did it, she knew she wasn’t being fair. Her mother hadn’t made the rules. She simply helped to enforce them. But right now, the difference seemed inconsequential.

“Now, Marlee,” Yasmyn said. “You know this is the only option. It’s time to move on.”

“Move on to what?” Marlee glared at her mother, her vision blurred. “There’s nothing to move on to. Find another partner, another chance of having a baby, right? Who with, Mother? Everyone here has either proved infertile, or is too young or too old. Or they already have a family.”

“Calm down, Marlee. Don’t be dramatic. You know as well as I do that we need more children. Everyone is in the same situation, and we all need to work together if we are to survive.”

As a child, her mother’s no nonsense way of dealing with problems had helped pick her back up. No matter how bad things seemed, her mother found something positive to say, even if it was just to remind Marlee that it could have been worse. It had always helped her to keep her chin up.

Today, it wasn’t working.

“You’ve made your point. Can’t you just leave me alone now?” Her voice wavered and her throat ached.

“Come on, son,” Nerris said. “A clean break is best. Get your things and come home.”

Marlee’s head jerked around. “Can’t you at least give us a minute to say goodbye?”

“Of course,” her mother said quickly, when Nerris opened his mouth to object. “We’ll be waiting outside.

The door closed behind them and Nelor heaved a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry, Marlee. I wish I’d been able to give you a baby.”

“It’s not your fault,” Marlee squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. “It could just as easily be me.” She reached out to take his hands, not caring if he saw her tears. She didn’t need to pretend in front of Nelor. Of all the people in the village, he was one of the few she could be herself around. And now he had to leave.

Tears glistened in his eyes too. “I hope things work out for you next time.” It was a standard response. Expected.

She didn’t want to hear it. “I don’t want to do this again,” she said quietly. “I can’t.”

Nelor brushed her hair out of her eyes. “Yes you can. You’re one of the strongest people I know. And I know you’ll make a wonderful mother someday. Don’t let what we’ve shared stop you from achieving that.”

She didn’t feel strong. She wasn’t like her mother. She couldn’t live the way her mother had. “It’s not just about having a baby. I don’t want to be with someone else, live a life with them that should have been with you.”

She didn’t want to spend her days with someone she couldn’t be open with, couldn’t cry in front of, or, worst of all, someone she was afraid of. Someone like her stepfather.

“We don’t have any choice, Marlee. The council’s rules apply equally to everyone. And if they didn’t, where would we be? Our population would drop even more quickly. We might not like the idea of changing partners so often, but it’s the only way to make sure there even is a next generation.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

Marlee shook her head. She didn’t want to hear it even though she knew it was true. She and Nelor could have been happy together. They had been.

“I can’t keep trying anymore,” she said, her voice dull. “I won’t go through this again.”

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