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CHapter TWO: TRYSTAn

Eden One

I’m out of the pew the second the priest finishes the service, almost running out of the church. I need to be outside, away from the words that want to make me feel guilty about my existence. A sermon about being good children to our parents, good citizens to our government. A variation on a theme that has framed my entire existence.
My mother calls after me but I don’t stop until I’ve cleared the church gate and emerged into the park beyond, the trees swaying softly in the breeze. It’s a beautiful day: too clear, too sunny, and I want nothing more but to get out of the open. I never feel more exposed than in moments like this, in my church best, the skirt grating against my legs, everyone’s eyes snagging on me.
My mother grabs my wrist, whirling me around, a look of utter disappointment on her face. Behind her I can see my father lingering by the church talking to senator Pense, his own son by his side.
Once upon a time, Nathaniel and I had fled the church together, laughing. When we’d been children and still allowed to be friends.
“Where do you think you’re going?” my mother demands.
I resist pulling my wrist free.
“I needed some air,” I say, trying to smooth over the edges of my tone. “I’m sorry.”
She looks a little mollified, her blue eyes so dim even with all the bright sunlight. She lets go, fixing her wavy bob in that fussy way she has. I tidy my own hair behind my ears before she reaches over and does it for me.
“You need to have more decorum than that,” she tells me, and I cast my eyes down. Better to look contrite than to roll my eyes and get her twice as annoyed. “The daughter of a senator needs to comport herself properly.”
“I know, mother. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” I go through the motions, but I don’t know if she believes the lie. I’ve made too many such promises and never kept them, but the dance has been danced and she turns away, looking for my father who is meandering towards us, Senator Pense at his side.
Nathaniel meets my eyes and I look away, feigning shyness.
“Mom, I need to go to Uncle’s laboratory,” I say, before my father is within earshot. “Would it be a problem if I headed there now?”
“Why do you need to go there on a Sunday of all days?”
“I need to finish some homework. I want to make father proud with my grades.”
My life has been a great web of lies and carefully concealed truths for the last three years. I’m practically a pro. Sure, sometimes I fumble my lines, but today my delivery is flawless, my composure impeccable.
“You and this science stuff,” my mother sighs. “You realise you will never need this again after school, right?”
“I’m sure it might help me help my husband,” I say with a tight smile, my eyes trying so hard to not fall on Nathaniel.
The boy I’ve been promised to since we turned ten.
The boy I never want to marry.
“Fine, fine,” my mother relents. I spoke the right words and I’m free to turn away, to escape an uncomfortable conversation with my father and Pense and Nathaniel. “Go on, I’ll tell your father. Be home for dinner, though. No staying out late, young lady!”
“Of course not, mom,” I say brightly, although the way she says ‘young lady’ makes me feel sick to my stomach.
I all but flee towards the automated taxis waiting to take the churchgoers home, not caring that I shouldn’t be running, that I should do everything with poise.

The city seen from above is almost beautiful. A forest of metal and glass, white concrete decorated with greenery. It glitters like a jewel in the sunlight, clean and perfect, but I know its soul, and the darkness it houses dims its beauty.
I tear my eyes from the view and grab my phone, bringing up the message Uncle sent me during Mass.
Tryst, come to the lab. Project U is ready for testing.
The aura of a migraine blossoms behind my eyes, but I wouldn’t postpone this for anything. It’s been our little secret for three years: since he came back from his exile following the war with Ishnira.
I didn’t just gain an uncle when he did, but words for everything that I knew without knowing about myself. I never believed there was power in words until then. Now I know how much words can empower. And how much they can hurt, too.
Outside the window, the city seems so vast that it’s almost impossible to grasp. In the distance I catch sight of the space port, not quite outside the city but almost. I can’t see it from here, but I know the sign that greets anyone landing there.
Welcome to Eden One. A new Earth. A new Heaven.
Eden One. My home. My prison. A place that worships an Earth that was already outdated by the time my ancestors left on their generation ships. A place where everyone must fall in line and stay in their place.
I wonder how many out there feel as out of place as I do. Would we outnumber the ones who truly fit this system?
As we descend towards my uncle’s laboratory, I watch the quiet street. Not many people work on a Sunday, but my uncle isn’t a believer and is old enough to skip Mass without bringing about the wrath of his parents. I’m not quite that lucky yet.
I make a beeline for the lift as soon as I’m out of the taxi, heart racing. The lift is the slowest thing today, and I take a few seconds to lean my forehead against the cool metal, a futile attempt at soothing my headache.
When the doors slide open, I’m greeted by the clean and familiar scent of chemicals and tech.
My shoulders relax even if the migraine doesn’t, rendering my thoughts a little fuzzy, but I’m here, in the one place I can be myself, and it’s all that matters.
I spot my uncle, hands flying at his holoscreens as he rearranges formulae that are beyond my level. To one side a 3D image of my brain, to another the map of wires and chips that artificially mimic it. Getting the equipment for this without people asking questions hasn’t been easy but my uncle is far more cunning than most give him credit for.
“Left,” is all he says as the door whispers shut.
I turn, heart stuttering. The android–my android–is standing up, eyes closed, features so realistic that it’s almost like looking into a mirror.
It’s perfect.
He’s perfect. Last time I saw him, the synth-skin was missing, his chest cavity revealing the android beneath, cables spooling out his brain, linking him to the computer as I uploaded optional software I wasn’t sure I’d be able to use.
Now the illusion of life is almost complete. I reach a hand to his flat chest, almost expecting to feel my heart beating beneath. Before I can stop them, tears roll down my face. The migraine stabs but it can’t hurt me, nothing can right now. My uncle wraps his arms around me from behind, giving me the space to pull away. I don’t. Today it doesn’t matter how wrong this body feels, because I’m looking at something that gives me hope.
“He’s perfect,” I whisper.
My uncle chuckles. “You make a very pretty boy.”
I let out a laugh that is half sob.
It’s my face but not my face: same grey eyes but a sharper jaw; my body but not my body: same milky white skin but not even a hint of breasts. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to see when I look in the mirror.
“What tests do you need to run?”
Soon, maybe, I can feel better.
“Let me show you.”
Soon I won’t just be looking at my android self.
But through him.

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