“I don’t understand why you’re doing this.” Valeria spoke in hushed tones, though no one other than Nolan was within earshot.
“Because I can.” Nolan’s fingers worked against the cuff on his wrist with a slim metal splinter.
“Nolan, please, can we talk about this? Just wait a moment.” She glanced around the park. Beyond the walkway, short trees basked in the artificial light of the dome.
The cuff was a gift from the Overseers, one of many they had bestowed upon humanity since the Fail. It provided everyone with instructions and guidance. Her fingers nervously traced the intricate filigree of her own cuff. She remembered her tenth birthday, when she’d been blessed with the title of Wife and Nolan’s name had appeared in delicate scroll.
For seven years, they’d shared the room in her mother’s house, and in all those years he’d been a perfect Husband. Had defended her virtue, honored her mother, comforted her fears. In just a few more days, she would finally be old enough for the title of Mother, and all of his patience would be rewarded. She had been excited for that day—nervous, but excited.
Her throat constricted against the sweet smell of the park’s freshly mown lawn as she watched him struggle against the cuff. Against their marriage. She’d thought he’d been happy with her, but this earnest determination proved otherwise. She did not know what he would face beyond the dome, alone. No one did. Valeria tried to think of the thing she could say to change his mind, but all that came out was: “Do you hate me so much?”
His perfect gray eyes peered at her from under his brow. Then he set to prying again. With a resonate hiss his cuff fell away, bouncing lightly against the concrete walkway.
They arrived within heartbeats. The Overseers. Tall and naked with gaunt limbs, shimmering skin, and too many eyes. The foremost addressed Nolan, “Your species has been placed under our protection until you can pass the tests. To refuse our gifts is exile beyond the dome. Do you understand this?”
Please, she did not say. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know what he’s done. But she could not say these things. These things were untrue.
He glanced back only once as they led him away.
Valeria lay listless on her bunk. Mother combed light fingers through her hair. Nolan’s own mother had been beyond grief when Valeria explained Nolan was gone.
“It’s all right, my love,” Mother cooed.
“It will never be all right.”
Though she stared unmoving at the bunk above—Nolan’s bunk—she could hear the smile in Mother’s voice. “Of course it will be. The Overseers will select another for you and he’ll be just as good.”
“Nolan is my Husband.”
“By this time tomorrow, you’ll have a new Husband. And by this time next week, you’ll have a baby growing inside you, mark my words.” Mother patted her shoulder. “Cry no tears for Nolan—he was a fool.”
Mother had been right. A new Husband was selected. He might have even been a nice Husband. But she didn’t want another. She wanted Nolan. And even if he didn’t want her, she could not stand her new Husband’s smile or his eyes on her face.
She clutched the thick needle between finger and thumb, probing and attacking her cuff’s hinges until it sighed in release.
Outside the dome, lush vegetation sprawled over rolling hills in every direction. The pristine blue sky was brighter than the artificial light inside the dome, its warmth comforting. Opposite the exit portal gleamed a metallic structure, all filigreed beauty.
Valeria’s breath caught in her throat as she approached and saw Nolan sitting on the grass outside the Overseer’s structure.
Though she’d vowed to be calm and collected if she found him, her voice broke free, “Nolan!”
His head snapped up, and then he was on his feet rushing toward her. She worried he might knock her over, but he stopped just short, scooping her up in his arms and spinning her once before settling her back to the ground. He took her face in both of his hands.
His fingers trembled against her skin. “I didn’t know if you would come.”
Her brow crinkled. “But I thought you didn’t…I don’t understand. Why did you leave if you wanted me?”
He stroked her cheek with his thumb, a sad smile playing across his features. “I wanted you to have a choice.”
Her vision blurred as she nodded, pressing her lips into a tight line. He kissed her forehead.
When she was ready, they approached the Overseer’s structure. A disembodied voice announced: “Congratulations. Self-determination is the first requirement for sapience. Would you like to proceed to the second test?”
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