The moment he’d finished the Test, Victor hopped on his so-old-it’s-rusting bike and raced to the park to meet his secret girlfriend.
He knew how he’d Tested. Intelligence in the top half-percent. Skilled with computers. Creative. Predisposed to fixate on one worthy woman. The Test result he’d dreamed of since childhood. But that was before he’d met Gwyn.
Gods, Victor thought, I’m destined to be unhappy.
Tomorrow, the Senedd would tell him what he already knew. They’d provide all the best training. They’d make him a CreaTech who would one day Devote himself to the most brilliant and beautiful of Queens.
They’d send him away from here. Never to see Gwyn again. He choked on the melancholy.
He had to take advantage of this last chance to be together. She already knelt beneath their tree. Silent. Peaceful.
He dropped down beside her and rested his head in his girlfriend’s lap. He could only call her his girlfriend for a little longer before he’d have to find someone else. Someone society approved of. Someone who’d Tested as a Queen.
He stared into the canopy of five-pointed silver maple leaves above them while she soothed his hair. Will there even be trees wherever they send me?
He closed his eyes against the occluded sun and the veined leaves and the white-blonde hair that obscured Gwyn’s face. He couldn’t look at his perfect world right now. Couldn’t bear to witness everything he’d be missing.
He wanted to be a CreaTech, to Devote. Of course he did! Who wouldn’t want to join the rarefied top-classes of intelligentsia and happiness? But not at this price. Not if he had to lose this beautiful girl, who knew everything about animals and cried for him whenever his father left on a long trip without saying goodbye.
Victor dug his fingers hard into the green grass, determined to drive them in so deeply that they’d strike rock. He wanted to bleed, to scream his agony. The pain would make more sense than this slow death in his heart.
Water fell down on to his forehead. Gwyn. He wrested dirt-crusted fingers from the ground and brushed them against her pale cheeks, smearing her perfect face with brown mud. Even in their shared pain, looking at her made his mouth tremble upwards and his lungs expand.
He sat up to wrap Gwyn in his arms, chancing a brief hug. Their love had been hidden away from the world for the last two years, like water at the bottom of a core-deep well.
‘We can find a way to be together. If not now, maybe in twenty years. I’ll be old enough then to have contact with women outside my Hive.’
She clutched at his shirt. Victor gave up on speaking. He rested his head on her silken hair, rubbing it with his cheek. It wasn’t fair! Why couldn’t Gwyn be a Queen? Why couldn’t he have both a Queen and a love? Gods knew his own often-absent father tried to have both. Though Dad spends more time with his Queen than with us.
She pushed back from him, Their eyes met, dull brown to greening hazel. Her nose scrunched, reddening already.
He had to make this better somehow. Victor leaned forward and slanted his mouth across hers. He wanted to fix things, to make her concentrate on the good they still had left. He wanted to eat her sadness until none remained.
Pressed against her, surrounded by tender sorrow, Victor didn’t notice the interloper until it was too late.
A throat cleared behind him. They’d been found out. His new university would be warned. They’d be told that he was defective, previously involved with a non-Queen. They’d whisper about him in the university halls. They’d never let him see Gwyn again, not even twenty years from now.
Victor’s anxious eyes flitted past grey scaly tree bark. Past his bicycle’s front wheel, tilted at a useless angle. To the newcomer’s heeled boots, graduating into crimson silk harem pants. That style was not at all fashionable in Dyfed’s cities and towns. In fact, he only knew one person who’d wear such clothing.
A strangled breath rushed from him, falling harmlessly to the ground.
Victor pulled Gwyn tighter against his side. Her cool peacefulness stabilised him. ‘Hey, Gav,’
‘We survived!’ Gavin crowed. He held out a hand, palm facing down, for a celebratory handshake. When Victor didn’t reciprocate, the hand fell back to his bulky-trousered side. ‘Ooookay.’ Gavin drew out the word in friendly mockery and flopped on to the grass beside them.
The contented bastard.
Gavin looked up into the grey-blue sky to point towards a shiny cloud cluster where the spaceport orbited. ‘There’s a new ship in at the spaceport,’ he said, apropos of nothing.
Just what I need, another anywhere-but-here rant about leaving our planet behind. ‘What’s this one?’ Victor asked. He wished his friend would go away and leave him and Gwyn to mourn their imminent sundering.
Gavin popped a Tribute in his mouth. Victor and Gwyn both declined the package he offered.
‘The Ceridwen’s Cauldron. She’s an in-system hauler right now, but she’s about to change her complement completely. I hear she’s being put into the Hive-training system. Only needs a Queen and five Devoted crewmembers. Wish I was one. What I wouldn’t give to get away from Dyfed! I’d even be a toilet scrubber to get out of this crazy place. What was Mam thinking when she brought me here?’
He struck a pose. ‘Was she thinking my face was old and tired? I wasn’t normal, but I was happy,’ he declaimed. Gavin’s mother was a renowned and well-traveled actress, so Gavin’s schooling came from plays and foreigners. It showed whenever he quoted supposedly famous plays that no one else had ever heard of. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, Gav.
Victor’s heart had finally slowed to its original steady pace. He’d been half-relieved to get caught with his beloved. It made him wonder. Maybe he should do what his dad didn’t. Maybe he should skip going to university, skip finding a suitable Queen. Maybe he should bow to his Devoted nature, should give himself to his true love. He could hunt for a Queen later. If any still wanted him.
But to do that, he and his love—his Gwyn—needed to escape Dyfed. Needed to get away from the society whose life-planning linked the brightest male minds with a brilliantly charismatic female. Young Hives depended on their members’ romantic love for a Queen. It unified them. But at the price of outside relationships. Victor didn’t want to be like his dad, who split his love between his family and a woman Victor had met only once. He didn’t want to feel this way about anyone other than Gwyn.
What choice did he have? But Gavin had roused an idea. They could go somewhere far away from here in the Ceridwen’s Cauldron, could come back when they were old enough to raise no questions of propriety. Gavin knew all about off-planet living. Even though his mam was Dyfed-raised, he’d only moved back this year.
If the ship needed a Hive crew and captain, all they needed was a Queen-captain who would accept them all.
‘Did you know?’ Victor said. Casual as mentioning a tree’s growth. ‘Rhiannon Tested as Queen and Commander this morning.’ Scores weren’t supposed to be released till the next day at school, but the pathetic security guarding them was made to be bypassed. He’d checked all his friends’ results.
Gwyn straightened from her cuddled position against his side.
‘She did?’ she asked, incredulous. ‘Good for her.’ She settled against him again with a sigh. ‘I’m glad one of us got everything she wanted.’
They weren’t getting it.
Victor tried again. ‘So if she’s a Queen, she and her Hive qualify for the Cauldron. We three make most of the crew, even if Gwyn can’t technically Devote. We’d just need two more to fit the ship’s requirements.’ He gripped Gwyn’s shoulders tightly. Rhiannon’s the perfect solution. She won’t try to steal my love away from her best friend. ‘We could do this. We could stay together.’
Gavin stood, his blue eyes focused on the sky-speck above. ‘Far away from here, in a better place.’ His shoulders hunched forward. ‘I wouldn’t really have to Devote to your friend, would I? This whole stupid planet with its stupid Devoted Hives and stupid expectation of everlasting obsession makes me sick.’
Victor shook his head, dark brown hair flopping into his eyes. You don’t even know Rhiannon yet. You might end up loving her as a Devoted should. What are you worried about? ‘We’ll pretend. I mean, Gwyn’s a girl and can’t Devote at all, and I’m not sure about splitting myself between two women. But it’ll work. We can pay lip-service to Devotion and still get everything.’
This time when Gavin held out a hand to perform a victory handshake, Victor let himself be pulled into the motions. Even the cheek kiss and hop in a circle. When he tried to get Gwyn to try it as well, though, she moved away.
‘Hey, no.’ He reached for her again, but she danced backwards. ‘What’s wrong, cariad?’ He caught her delicate wrist in the noose of his thumb and middle finger.
Her face was cautious. ‘We don’t know that Rhi will even go for this. I don’t want to ruin her life. She made Queen and Commander. Do you know what that must mean for her?’
Victor didn’t care what it meant for her. He just knew what it meant for them. Rhiannon was their ticket to freedom and the perfect life. ‘Of course she’ll go for it if you ask her. Call her, right now. Ask her to meet us here. The worst she can say is no.’
He’d never seen Rhiannon deny Gwyn anything. Two years ago, he’d wondered if he even had a chance with the shy, sweet Gwyn or if the girls were dating each other.
Gwyn thrust her hands into pockets too small for her long fingers. But after a bit more wheedling, she pulled out her pad and flashed the message to Rhiannon.
The new Queenlet would never know what hit her.