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August 2022
 
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In Their Eyes

by Ian Cordingley



An ugly, distorted sunset: yellows turned into putrid green, the sun a smeary orange haze. The dome had only just been extended, thin, cheap plastic, greasy to the touch. It kept the less than perfect air and chill out. Frost had only just started melting, a thin film on the outside, trickling off the warmer plastic.

He ran ahead where the water was thicker. At first he had poked around the perimeter of the dome, where native and recreated creatures interacted. He watched them fight: bugs and arachnids biting or scratching or blasting bitter slime at each other. His parents were walking ahead, supervising his younger brother.

"No, get that out of your mouth!" his mother cried.

His brother had attempted to feed himself a stalk of grass. Swimming in heavy metals, making the bad ground good. Mother wrestled it out of his hand. His brother howled.

It was warm. The main dome would be extended over the temporary dome when the time came. When the ground around them was pure and the water warm enough. Grass would be replaced with larger plants, trees. Only pockets were, as his teachers and textbooks described it, as "green as intended, as green as it will be."

He ran ahead of his parents. "Stay where we can see you," his father said.

"Yes, Dad."

Proud of his independent streak, trying to be seen as his own individual and not a child. Although he did want to keep ahead of his mother, or, he was certain, she would restart the conversation:

"How much thought have you given to selecting your mate?"

"Enough, mother."

"Neil, the time is coming..."

"I know. I know."

And then he would flip through the list of candidates, trying to look as if he took it seriously.

Enough time for squeezing the last drops of being a child for all they were worth. Even now he knew such outings were privileged and few. Before too long he would get his module installed (already he looked forward with dread to the procedure) and then he would be an adult.

His family walked along, noticing some familiar people up ahead. Family friends.

"Oh look, Neil. Rachel's here!"

She stood at her parents' side. She smiled, slowly and weakly.

Neil went up to her.

Their parents began to talk to each other, pleasantries, how they kids were doing.

"Hey."

"Hey," she said. "How are you?"

"Not bad."

As they talked, his mother's words echoed in his head:

"She's a nice girl."

"Yes, mom."

"You won't have to worry about compatibility."

And so on.

"How's school?"

"Not so bad," he said. "Same for you?"

"Yeah, but it's getting...well, you know."

Neil nodded. "Which do you hate the most: science or history?"

"History," Rachel said, "hands down."

Neil laughed. "Well, be thankful you're not in my family!"

His grandfather was part of the first generation of settlers. He had the calluses, the wrinkles, the spots and the hair loss to prove it. He looked as if he had been taken from a freezer and thrown into a furnace to thaw.

"It was tough in the old days," Grandfather had said.

Neil was always pressing his grandfather for exciting stories of the old days -- more interesting than how he lived now. And Grandfather was always eager to oblige.

"We couldn't bring everything: we anticipated we would have to make to make at least some things in situ. That means 'on the spot'. But we thought we'd have more room to maneuver. Imagine our surprise! Buyer's remorse!

"If only the advance probes had been faster than us!"

The old man shook his head. "Turned out the raw materials we needed were a lot harder to come by than we ever expected...

"We had to blast out a shallow scrape in the planet, melt the ice (which was frozen hard as steel!) and hope we'd make enough of a dent in the planet's atmosphere to sleep soundly without fear of choking to death on toxic gas."

Challenging days, days of purpose and adventure. When the first attempts to make a home on this rock failed, after the weaker ones died. Neil hated how it was taught in school. The pompous sense of inevitability and triumph, the emphasis on sacrifice and duty.

"Well, I do prefer math," Rachel said, bringing Neil's attention back to the present. "It's nice and straightforward. Every problem has a definite answer, even if there's ten ways to get there."

"Not my favorite subject," Neil said.

"It'll get easier with the module," Rachel said.

"I'll probably get mine soon. My mom says next year or so."

"Yeah," Rachel said.

Neil thought he saw her shiver. His mom said that getting a module was always harder for girls: hormones and chemicals, and other difficult facts.

With a module implanted in their brains, their minds would be more pliable and more efficient. Great calculations would be done at lightning speed; facts would be instantly acquired by their minds from the colony's central data stores. Necessary if there was going to be a future here: every person needed to achieve his or her full potential, physical and augmented mental.

His mom really needed to get off of his back: this district was reputed for its genetic homogeny. Everyone here was strong, preparing for (as his teacher's bored voice always recited), "the day when the dome is cracked and we walk out with pride onto the new land."

"Yeah, my mom has been giving me grief too."

Rachel smiled. "At some point they'll shut up."

He saw Rachel less often than he would have preferred. He had known her for years, since they were small. Together they had shared many childhood adventures, been mistaken for siblings on some occasions.

But again he heard his mother's voice, chiding him.

"You're not looking for a playmate. This is for real, this is serious."

When he was the right age and formally mated, when he and his partner were producing babies (the right babies, genetically superior) and otherwise being good contributors, then and only then would his opinion matter.

"I would like to be able to pass trigonometry this year."

"Wouldn't we all?"

"How's your sister?"

Not much older than Neil's brother, she poked from between her parent's legs. She ignored Neil's brother and he reciprocated. A pout on her face, hair dangling over her forehead and into her eyes.

"Annoying."

"Well," Neil said, "at some point you could program yourself to like her more."

Rachel laughed. "One advantage to it."

His mother said not to worry. His teachers assured him this would not just be an obligation, but an advantage...and an honor. Still, he lay awake sometimes wondering what it would be like to modulate himself. Would he know? No, but there were be moments when the module would be out. He would know then. Would it matter?

His Dad said it was hard to get used to at first. Like your head was full of water and each thought was like a drunken fish. But he could fly through columns of figures at great speed, and he always smiled a lot brighter at his mother.

"You wouldn't be here without it," his father said. He chuckled giving a light tap to the input module on his right temple.

When the module was in his parents drifted closer together as they walked. Tonight they had their hands clasped, but at the same time seemed to teeter on the edge of their feet. Without a strong hold, they would fall. Hard to tell what that meant: they were smiling.

Rachel sighed. "Mom's been giving me...what she calls ‘The Big Talk.'"

"You got a list too?"

Rachel nodded. "I know most of them. Personally I find it hard to be in the same room with them."

"Yeah. A lot of the girls I know on the list are...difficult."

"Yeah, girls suck," Rachel said.

They laughed. Rachel brushed some hair out of her face.

"I don't know how I'm expected to choose, and soon."

"I can think that..." Neil's words trailed off. Rachel raised her head a notch.

"Sorry?"

"Just...it's going to be hard to make a choice."

"You are thinking about it?" she asked.

"Kind of," he said.

Victoria was a bright, charismatic girl. He saw her from a distance, laughing with her friends, always getting into mischief. He watched her from a distance, with her friends. Few words had been spoken between them. He hoped that he could walk with her sometime, participate in some adventure.

He wouldn't tell Rachel about Victoria. Maybe it would be a surprise.

"I don't know yet," she said.

"Wait till after your module. You'll think better after."

"You won't need to think," she replied. "That's the thing."

"What if you found out you made the wrong choice? Like if they annoy you or something."

"I can dial it out, if that's what you mean."

"Well," Rachel said, standing with her arms loosely hanging behind her back, "maybe you won't. Maybe I won't as well."

Their families were drifting apart.

"See you later, Neil."

"You too, Rachel."

He wondered what Victoria was doing right now. If she was walking along the same beach. He hoped to see her, to talk with her. Making his choice seemed so exciting now.

And even if he had to choose from a list that someone else provided, it would be his choice.

"It has to be your choice. I can't help you."

"Pardon?"

His mother stood, arms akimbo. "No matter what you choose, this must be your decision alone."

Maybe. Rachel was walking behind him now.

His mother said she truly loved his father. All parents probably said that. They walked together, hand in hand. Modules conspicuous absent. No one on the beach was wearing theirs. Everyone smiled.

As he walked down the beach his choices seemed easier to make.

THE END


© 2010 Ian Cordingley

Bio: Ian Cordingley's work has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Estronomicon and, of course, Aphelion (most recently, Or Nobody Does, December 2010 / January 2011).

E-mail: Ian Cordingley

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