Shiloh

The notice screen lit up, filling their darkened bedroom with a soft blue hue. Quinn ignored it. They had drawn the blinds the night before, when they stumbled into bed exhausted after Quinn had cried, not for the first time, on the anniversary of his mother’s death. He had every intention of sleeping as long as possible, his head still throbbing from too much to drink, from the weight of his grief.

“Quinn.” Elpida’s voice had faltered, as though she had tried to cut herself off from saying his name but couldn’t quite stop. He yawned and rolled over, blinking to bring her into focus. “Quinn, it’s from the population commission.”

He rolled quickly from the bed and crossed the room, goosebumps forming on his skin. She wasn’t wrong — he didn’t think she was, but he’d needed to see it for himself. The official summons for their appointment at the seed library, six months following the submission of their marriage forms.

The screen went dark. Elpida grabbed his hand and squeezed. “We knew it was coming. We’ve prepared.” But her hand shook.

* * *

Quinn’s mother worked until her cancer grew so advanced that she couldn’t lift their wares from the travel pod. She spent her last three weeks in a hospice in Tafos.

“This is the longest we’ve settled since you were born,” she joked a few days before her death, her chest rattling as she laughed. She looked frail and alone in the bed, and he had paced the room, desperate to escape. “Perhaps that was wrong.”

“No. We can’t…” He sat on the edge of the bed and held his mother’s hand. They knew it was only a matter of days, then, and he had to ask before there was no longer the chance. “Do you regret it? If you could, would you go back and choose to report me?”

When she squeezed his hand, her grip was weak. “No, my boy. Being your mother was the greatest joy of my life. I wouldn’t take an easier road.” She had fallen asleep that night, and never woke up.

Quinn stayed in town long enough to view her cremation ceremony, then left without any intention of returning. But each year his wandering took him back to Tafos to hear his mother’s name on the memorial roll call before prayers. During that second year, he met Elpida.

* * *

The administrative offices of Mítra Colony were located at the topmost level; it didn’t require as much space as food management and manufacturing. Like the planets where humans started, more of the population lived in the three major city-clusters in the colony than in the rural sections where Quinn and Elpida made their home.

Quinn knew how to travel. He knew the road. He felt more comfortable sleeping inside his personnel pod than he had in Elpida’s bed, for a time. Elpida had always wanted the farm, though. She wanted the hiss and hum of the misty hydraulics. She wanted the softness of the grain and the stiffness of the roots. She wanted the dirt caked in her nails, and the satisfaction of the harvest.

To live together on the land, they would need to submit paperwork for marriage. Marriage made breeding compulsory, two daughters to replace their mothers. And when she and Quinn got to talking about it, Elpida wanted them too.

So they made a plan, they weighed the risks, and they married without pomp or circumstance. They only had to make it through two visits to the administrative floors: one six months after their marriage, then another two years after the successful birth of their daughter. As farmers, the administration was unlikely to take an interest in them after that.

As the train lift trundled toward the upper layers, Quinn kept that timeline in his head: six months, then two years, then freedom. A family and a home to call his own if they just flew under the radar for three more years.

Elpida laid awake, nestled in the crook of his arm. The soft lights in their cabin, dimmed low to help guide the passengers to sleep, illuminated the deep burgundy that usually didn’t show in her dark hair while shadowing her face’s naturally angular features. When she spoke, she sounded both wary and thrilled at the same time; this business with the population commission had dimmed her usual boldness. “What should we call her? We could name her after your mother.”

“No, that’s ghastly.” Quinn ran his fingers through Elpida’s hair and kissed the top of her head. “What about your mothers? Are there any family names you want to preserve?”

“My uterine mother might. Chara has strong feelings about her cultural identity from Mother Earth, even though her matriarchal line has been born to Mítra for six generations back, at least.”

“She would probably be glad to know that you carried on that tradition with your own daughters if you wanted.”

Elpida worried her lower lip between her teeth, her gaze gone soft and unfocused as she looked off into some private reverie. “Probably, but…” She shook her head and turned her beautiful eyes up toward Quinn. “It’s been tense since I left the city to be a farmer.”

“Since you left to marry some strange woman,” Quinn corrected with a small smile. He had met Elpida’s mothers once and said very little to them. He hated performance, particularly around older women who looked with more scrutiny. When they thought themselves out of earshot, they complained to Elpida that her intended was “emotionally distant” and “just off, something isn’t right about her.”

“Oh hush,” Elpida said, returning the smile before nestling in and closing her eyes. “I like the name Shiloh. I read it in old mythology when I was a girl, and it’s always stuck with me.”

Quinn said it slowly like he was testing it out. He smiled, quite pleased as he imagined her; Elpida surely heard it in his voice as he said, “I don’t know…”

She laughed and rolled her shoulder into him. “This train ride turns my stomach, and we would do better to rest. We’ll have nine months to argue about our daughter’s name.”

Neither slept much.

* * *

The Seed Library didn’t have a placard to declare it — anyone visiting the topmost floor of Mítra Colony knew it by significance alone. Each woman inside was embarking on a journey, and the anticipation made the air electric. It even managed to undercut Quinn’s dread, and he smiled at each woman he passed. More than once Quinn and Elpida’s differences were noted. He stood taller than her, broader and less visually feminine; he never felt as though he looked like a man until women sized him up against his wife.

The building itself was unassuming, simple and built with basic squares. They waited in a bland room until they were called back to meet with their counselor, a stern and deliberate woman whose every movement conveyed purpose.

“I’m Jade, your maternity guidance counselor. If you have any questions about the legal and procedural elements of childbearing in the next three years, you’ll contact me. Any emotional or medical questions should be directed to your designated obstetrician. You will be assigned one in your locale.” Jade looked over her screen, her whole body still as stone except her flicking eyes. “Tafos has several well-qualified obstetricians who should be able to make the trip to your farm when the time comes.”

Elpida’s knee bounced, and she bit her thumbnail as she leaned forward in her seat.

“You’ve submitted the appropriate paperwork; Elpida, is it?” Jade looked Elpida up and down, then glanced to Quinn and nodded as though she had made internal sense of the thing. “Do you have any questions?”

“Are there ever accidents?” Elpida glanced guiltily over to Quinn, then down at her hands. “Do you ever accidentally germinate sons?”

Jade raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “I cannot, for legal reasons, say that The Seed Library has never missed a Y chromosome. But the occurrence has been so rare that the fear of a son is unrealistic.”

“What becomes of them, if we do?” Elpida reached out for Quinn, resting her hand on his arm and squeezing as she asked the questions that his mother had never been willing to. “If the unthinkable happens, is our son killed? I can’t imagine — ”

“Of course not.” Jade’s mouth quirked into a frown, and she made a note on her tablet. “That would be a barbarism. Any sons are sent to Syllo Colony on the other side of Mother Earth; there are many families there willing to adopt unwanted sons.”

Quinn tried to imagine it but found that he couldn’t. Syllo was known for a population of men and women who lived together, but he had no frame of reference for what that meant. His own mixed gender life had been a series of confused accidents, of learning what their differences meant in their private life and finding that they had more sameness.

“Thank you,” he said softly, keeping his eyes on Elpida. “I’m sure there’s no reason to worry, but it’s good to know what would become of him. What else do we need to do, while we’re here in the capital?”

“Your next step is to choose a seed sample for your children. We’ll do a basic genetic test to make sure you don’t share any common genetics with the seed. If all goes well, the sample will be shipped to your home doctor and you’ll be inseminated by the end of the week.”

* * *

They took Elpida back into the testing suites with a nurse who looked cheerful and kind but was firm in telling Quinn that he had to stay behind in the waiting room. “It’s important for a woman to have some time alone with a professional before becoming pregnant,” she said. Other woman had spoken of it before — it was time alone to ensure that the woman wasn’t be abused, to check if she needed help getting out of a bad marriage contract before entering into the union of childbirth.

So, Quinn waited, unworried except for the proximity of a secretary that kept glancing his way. After the third time, she finally sighed, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to stare. You have such long legs. I wish I were tall.”

Quinn offered a smile and shrugged. “Genetics.”

Other than that, they sat in silence for what seemed too long a time, the secretary slouched at her desk and reading something that didn’t look very much like work — a notion she confirmed by sitting up and rapidly swiping the screen to a different item when the doors from the medical suites opened into the waiting room. Jade stopped in the doorway, looked from the secretary to Quinn, and then around the room as though assessing it. She took a long breath before she spoke.

“There’s a problem with your wife’s testing,” Jade said. She kept her hands tucked into the pockets of her trousers as she indicated the halls behind her with a tilt of her head. “If you could follow me, please.”

“Is she okay? Is there a problem with her fertility?” He thought of his mother’s cancer, the first signs little more than a persistent, chesty cough when she slept. A doctor had dismissed it as nothing to be concerned about. “Is it more serious?”

“Just come back, and I will explain.”

Quinn followed with his arms crossed over his chest, peeking into every open door in hopes of finding Elpida. They had both purchased counterfeit doctor’s notes that cleared their health for the marriage paperwork — but Elpida had never been sick before. More tired in recent weeks, perhaps, but planting season kept them both running all through the day cycle for weeks. “Where is she? I need to see her.”

The room Jade took him to was empty. The door clicked shut behind them, and she turned the lock. Quinn noticed the slight tremor in her hand as she did so. When she sat, she tapped a toe staccato against the tile floor.

“Where’s my wife?” His voice fell from the practiced alto that helped him traverse society, and the rumble of it surprised him. Jade twitched, and he stepped back from her, taking a seat in a parallel chair at the opposite side of the room and folding his hands in his lap. Distance and stillness, his mother had taught him that young; both could make him less threatening. “Please. I need to know what’s wrong with her.”

“Nothing, precisely. She’s already pregnant.”

He tried to speak, to find words for the idea that his wife was already with child. Warring emotions of horror and curiosity and the faintest flicker of excitement made his chest feel like a drum too tightly bound. He looked to Jade for some sense of guidance.

Something in his expression must have eased her rattled nerves because she leaned forward with her knees on her elbows and sighed. “What do you know about sexual reproduction between men and women, Quinn?”

He cringed and he shook his head. “Nothing. Please, don’t…” Don’t tell anyone? That plea may have worked for his mother, decades ago in a small town with a doctor with more want of money than rightness. In the administrative heart of Mítra it would surely fall on deaf ears. “We didn’t know that it could happen like that.”

She nodded. “How did you — no, it doesn’t matter. Her pregnancy complicates the matter, but the consequence is unchanged. You will be deported to Syllo, and from there you can make your own destiny.”

“But I was born here.”

She looked up to the ceiling and closed her eyes, exhaling long before looking to him again. “We feared as much. In that case, you will need to submit to sterilization, to protect the proprietary genetic codes developed in Mítra, before deportation.”

He fidgeted in his seat and licked his lips, unable to bring himself to look up at his bearer of bad news and too anxious to sit perfectly still. His mother had always been wary that an outburst of temper might draw attention to them. “This is my home.”

“Be that as it may, you do not belong here. Mítra exists for a very specific purpose: it is a home for women. If we allow you to stay, we violate the trust of every woman in the colony, and betray the goals of our founders.”

“I’ve hidden for almost thirty years. Elpida is due to have a child anyway. No one at home will question us if you let us return to the farm.” After all of the hope, all of the careful planning and the fear — to have his very biology betray him made him sick.

“We cannot, Quinn. I’m so sorry.”

He leaned forward in his seat, blowing out a long breath as his mind raced through possible solutions. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t fight. He couldn’t escape his fate without proving them right — that he could not be trusted on Mítra Colony. “Can’t she come with me? If she chose, could she emigrate?” He had never heard of such a thing. Trade and news between colonies were common, and every year a handful of women moved in — however many the colony could allow when accounting for unexpected deaths and women who did not choose to bear children. But no one ever chose to leave.

“She asked the same thing, and it’s… possible.” The woman looked uncomfortable herself — even though the idea that in another room Elpida was trying as hard to get to him as he was to her gave Quinn hope. “We do not allow human genetic material to leave Mítra Colony. She could leave, but she would have to terminate her pregnancy and submit to sterilization.”

He stood. “I need to speak with her.”

“Sit down, Quinn. You cannot. We cannot by law allow you contact with any citizen.”

“She’s my wife!”

Again, Jade winced but managed to keep her voice calm as she spoke, as though she was facing a herd of wild animals. “Lower your voice, please, or they’ll send guards. As for your marriage, it exists by fraud. You have no standing, and to allow you to speak with her would be coercive. Seeing you may force her hand toward termination of her daughter. We will not allow anyone to influence her. Even our own doctors have left her alone with her choice.”

“A daughter?” He thought of those long conversations, of Elpida’s earnest desire for daughters, of the farm they had been so proud to call their own. Of all of the things Elpida had been willing to sacrifice for their life together, to ask her to give up her children, even hypothetical as they were, was too much.

Jade nodded. “Testing shows that you’ve conceived luckily. The birth of a healthy daughter is cause for joy, even in such dark circumstances.”

“If she stays on Mítra, can she keep the child?” 

“Yes.”

Quinn took his seat again and breathed slowly until he could find calm in the mess less of his heart. When anger abated, he found only grief of his own. For a moment, a brief second, he had been offered a family: a wife and a daughter. And now he had to let them go. If staying was not an option, if asking Elpida to leave would be asking too much, then perhaps the birth of their child would ease her burden.

“Could she be registered as a widow? She could tell people that I died in an accident here in the city. Allow me to be registered as the girl’s mother, and I’ll leave quietly. I won’t fuss. I’ll submit to whatever sterilization and other tests you require.”

The silence ran long, and Jade seemed more consumed in examining Quinn than she was in answering his questions. Whatever she was looking for in him, he didn’t know that he could offer it. So he waited, and let her look.

“We could do that,” she said finally. “If she chooses to stay, we could ignore this… deviation, and let her go about her life. It is a solution that would be the least embarrassing for all parties.”

He looked her in the eye and crossed his arms over his chest. “Elpida and I were never ashamed.”

Jade had the decency to look uncomfortable, to look away from him and collect a thin medical tablet and stylus from the counter beside an array of medical equipment he hadn’t noticed when they arrived. Now that he surveyed it, he realized that they had prepared for his arrival before they retrieved him.

“We have to ask a few questions, some standard of male visitors to Mítra and some specific to this unusual circumstance. Have you been sexually active with any other women here in the colony? We need to know if there’s a risk of further population distortion.”

“No, not before Elpida.” There had been few women that turned his head, and none who had made him feel safe enough to reveal the secret of his sex. The thought of her in that tender moment made his heart ache. They had been out in the farmlands for the first time, deep in unharvested corn where the world couldn’t see them. Waiting for her response had been the longest held breath of his life.

“That’s good. Do you have any known illnesses, disabilities, or allergies that we ought to know before you undergo medical care?” She looked up at him when his answer was little more than a derisive snort. “I know you think us heartless right now, Quinn, but we do not wish to see you harmed, especially by any unnecessary negligence.”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve avoided doctors all of my life. My mother patched up what ills she could. We both got lucky that I wasn’t a sickly child.”

“Cleaning on the genetic level takes care of the worst of it, but yes. Quite lucky.” She cleared her throat and juggled the stylus between two fingers while she looked down at the tablet. When she asked her question, it was all in a rush, and it took Quinn a moment to suss out the individual words: “Would you care to donate to our seed library?”

Quinn balled his hands into fists and considered for a moment that he might fight his way out after all. “The audacity — ”

“The more diversity we can add to the population, the better,” Jade interrupted, the words obviously rehearsed. Her next plea was less practiced, more tentative, “I will continue to be Elpida’s genetic counselor, if she marries again. We don’t transfer cases. If she should choose to have another child, I could… I would be in  a position to guide her hand.”

“She may still choose to leave.”

Jade looked to him, and they both knew it wasn’t likely. Elpida wouldn’t just be giving up one child, but her entire past and any hope of a future as she knew it. She was a good woman, kind and more giving than Quinn had earned in his wandering life. But she was no saint, and he wouldn’t have ever asked it of her.

Jade said, “She may. But even if she does, it would still be good for Mítra to have a more diverse range of seed available. We cannot force your hand, but your donation would be most welcome.”

Too tired to argue further, too resigned to the future that had materialized in such a short time — no Elpida, no daughters, no farm — Quinn consented.

* * *

The notice screen by his front door lit up in yellow when Quinn returned from his work shift. He wiped his dirty hands on his coveralls, still dressed from the farm work he had secured via a recommendation in his immigration paperwork. Syllo had turned out to be similar in many ways. The two colonies had been built and launched near Mother Earth’s orbit around the same time, and their regimentation of work and population were comfortably familiar to Quinn. They were, perhaps, the only thing comfortable and familiar in his new life.

Yellow meant a package. It was his first time getting one; he had never lived in one place long enough, known enough people to receive digital letters — let alone have someone go through the expense and effort to send a physical good. He made his way to the lift; it opened to his neighbor Cara, heavily pregnant and struggling to balance a load of groceries in a paper bag from the market and a sleeping child.

“Quinn!” she said, clearly relieved. “Do you mind…?”

“Allow me.” He swept in to take the slipping child from her arms and hoisting him with a grunt while she saved the groceries. “He’s getting heavy.”

“They both are,” she said with a laugh as they made the short walk to her door. “Two boys, can you imagine? They’re both going to be as tall as Hank, I just know it. We’re hoping a family house opens before the new one is four or five.” She pressed her finger to the lock, and set the groceries inside the door before reaching for her son. “Speaking of, any plans to settle down? You’ve been here long enough, and I have had some pointed questions from concerned aunties hoping to set up their wild sons and daughters. New singles are a hot commodity in this part of the colony.”

“No, I…” His life was still a secret, carefully guarded in his heart, even from the few friends he had made since his immigration. “Not for now, anyway. Perhaps someday.”

“Ah, well. I’ll keep telling them that you’re adjusting to life on the colony. That’ll buy us one more year, perhaps.” She smiled and patted his shoulder. “We’ll see you for dinner tomorrow?”

“As always. Get some rest; I hear you’re supposed to sleep when they do.”

She laughed. “Who has time for that?”

Once she was safe inside, he made his way down again to retrieve his package. It was a slim, hard box about the size of the tablet, and the office manager seemed just as curious about it as he handed it over as Quinn. “Who do you know on Mítra Colony?”

Quinn’s spine straightened, and his hands shook as he looked at the scuffed surface, with his name and apartment location printed by a machine on the front. “How do you know — ”

The manager took it out of Quinn’s slack hands and flipped it, showing an array of symbols and postage marks alongside a stamp: Approved for Inter-Colony Shipment – Mítra Colony. “I’ve never seen anything from Mítra that wasn’t foodstuffs or medicine. I hear getting approval to send anything else is a nightmare. You got a sister out that way or something?”

Quinn took the package back and rushed from the office. He took the stairs, eager to get to his apartment faster than the lift would take him, but after six flights he sat on the landing and carefully pulled on the release tab. The strip tore around all four edges, and the two pieces of hard boarding came apart to reveal a note and a photo.

The girl was young, her newborn skin still wrinkled and red. Her hair was thick and blond, so light that she didn‘t seem to have any eyebrows on her red face. Her eyes were scrunched shut, her fists tiny against her chest. She seemed so small, and he ached to pick her up. He ran a finger over the rough paper, then flipped it over carefully. On the back was a date, months ago, and a single word. A name.

Shiloh.

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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