Life on Earth

by Lisa Shapter

The wedding ceremony was over: the judge had filed their license and the regional and global computers had accepted it.  Vester thought he would worry that the farspace Exploratory Corps would know, just as quickly–but he did not worry.  He was married, to Edward, the man he loved: the man he would do everything with, the man he would adopt and raise children with.  His future would be with Edward, no matter what else happened.  Shipwrecked together they’d had nothing, at first, but bare survival and each other.  The ‘each other’ was important: everything else would work out, Corps careers or not.

Now it was time for the informal exchange of gifts, that and the day’s white clothes, the color of new beginnings, were the only marks of this day.  Vester gave Edward his gift and Edward pressed a small flat object with rounded edges into his hand.  It gave a soft bell-like tone and began to phosphoresce, recognizing his genetic signature: the key to Edward’s house, already programmed to admit him.

They turned to their families in the Heppner, North America courthouse, to smiles and cheers and congratulations.  Edward’s family was glad to see him wed: men in the farspace service often put off marrying until their fifteen year’s service was done.  Edward put his gift on the windowsill, a tiny plant in token of the alien one that had kept them both captive (and had inadvertently saved their lives).  There was no requirement to tell what the gift meant: it was usually something important and private.

Edward took Vester’s hand and the din of fifteen jubilant people (with more to join them that evening) was now bearable.  Vester’s family was glad he was happy: he had dreamed of space all his life but farspace service was dangerous; if he’d rather quit early to marry and settle on earth, then they were glad.  Both families had asked when they planned to start the adoption process and teased that one spouse or the other was so handsome that they should instead pay for the immensely vain (and astronomically expensive) option of a cloned son grown in private hospital’s mechanical womb.  Everyone knew mixed heritage people had the best health–and the best looks; Vester and his new husband both laughed and said they needed to get used to g=9.8, first.  Vester’s High School Chemistry teacher was grinning; someone must have mentioned the Skyforce Technical Academy acceptance letter to her.

It was still surprising to see women.  All women had been banned from farspace since the loss of the Hera 27 years before.  The transport ship carrying ten thousand pregnant women had suffered catastrophic hull rupture en route to Proxima Centauri–and the same conspiracy theories Vester had heard before enlisting were still being passed around–but after the accident women had been confined to military service within the Kuiper belt.  Like most farspace servicemen, Vester wanted the normal equality of earth’s monoculture to once again extend across the galaxy, but he could not say so on active duty.  The dominant view, dirtside, was that women should serve only within the range of local system rescue vehicles.  Vester bit his lip on telling civilians how many servicemen died in farspace because there were half as many doctors, med techs, and pilots out there.

Vester’s mother hugged him, crying–he forgot to ask if she was glad he was home, or glad he’d married.

Or glad he was alive.

They were each the last survivors of their crews–Edward’s sent to survey a planet, Vester’s sent on a rescue mission.  They were home, on leave, from a military that had nothing against soldiers marrying men or women–so long as they did not expect any consideration of that fact in their assignments.

After months of safe travel on an interstellar ship and the quiet of a base hospital, everything on earth–the air, the sunlight, the noises of birds and dogs and vehicles, all felt alien.  Edward wasn’t.  Edward’s long hand was warm in his, and the key glowed in the August room, brighter than daylight, between their palms.

#

     Edward’s house in San Francisco was one of those buildings from the era that had called itself ‘modern’: all clean straight lines and blocks on different levels.  It was set into a hillslope garden of low trees and shrubs, giving it a green, ancient, private appearance.  To the Exploratory Corp’s eyes Vester was renting here; as a Master’s degree student he did not have to stay in the barracks on campus.  That was a relief to him, quite aside from everything else this house meant.

The dark wooden door opened for him, with “Hello, Skyman Sergeant Coy.”  It was one of those ‘smart house’ voices from 30 years ago, smooth and obsequious.

“Call me Vester, House.”

“Hello, Skyman Sergeant Vester.”

“Drop the rank, House.”  Vester stayed stock still in the living room, guessing a domestic computer of this vintage wouldn’t have pickups outside the main living area.  “Female, House.”  He added.

“I only have one modality, Mr. Vester.”

Vester sighed under his breath and remembered why the Corps did not use vocal technology on its ships.

“Drop the ‘Mister’.”  No response.  Oh god, this was one of those older houses that had only primitive tone of voice recognition: hysteria or wild fear would get its attention but otherwise every command had to be accompanied by a direct address.  “Drop the ‘Mister’, House.”

“I will do so, Vester.”  It said in its slightly metallic voice.  Manufacturers had deliberately put a mechanical edge to their synthesized voices as not to alarm elderly clients or unsuspecting house guests.

“Sorry.”  Edward murmured, taking his kilokit.  “I don’t know how he put up with it.”  His nephew had housesat while Edward was away, worried he’d inherit the place once Edward was declared dead.  The nephew had moved out to attend the university in Ilorin.  Vester was glad to know they weren’t throwing anyone out.  The rest of the house was also old-fashioned: dark, substantial furniture with gently oval lines, deep oranges and browns, white walls made to look like plaster, like a magazine’s idea of home from a generation ago.  The furniture style was durable and genuinely comfortable: Vester smiled, it was his now.

Edward returned and put a substantial sum of cash in his hand.  “There’s your security deposit and first month’s rent.  Don’t put it in the bank.”

“And don’t spend it on campus or base, only my own pay.”  Vester replied.

Of course he wouldn’t: his account had been debited the sum and Edward’s had been credited it (they kept separate accounts for exactly that reason).  Edward had five marooned years of officer’s pay built up; he had, understandably, taken out a large sum–to spend on some large purchase, out of post-traumatic insecurity, to make a bedspread out of, he didn’t need to explain.  The rest of Vester’s ‘rent’ would be paid back from that sum over time, gradually supplemented from ordinary withdrawals his husband made.  Certain a man who had been stranded might react by always keeping a healthy amount of cash on him.  The money was keyed to Edward but a bank addendum meant the bank noted his marriage and no alarm would be raised by Vester having it–not unless Edward disappeared and Vester began to make unusual or large purchases.  Vester had seen enough films that he knew he’d better keep the finances of a penny pinching grunt.  He did not mind–the noises, smells, and opportunities of civilization dazed and wearied him–San Francisco was a thousand times worse than his hometown of Helix.  He was glad to be inside the large quiet house–or mostly quiet.

“Is there a way to turn it off?”  He asked in a low voice, the tone Edward was using must be below the house’s pickup capacity.

“Not without throwing the breakers and cutting the supply wires.”  His husband said with a little shake of his head.

Vester knew either would bring the police as the house cried sabotage–robbery, murder, fire.

“Oh dear.”  He said, already tired of the feature.

“He only speaks when spoken to.  Here, let me show you your room.”  His husband led him into a comfortable guest room with a window onto a green and secluded corner of the garden.  “He doesn’t have cameras or recorders.”  Edward murmured, “I checked no one changed him while I was away.”

That made Vester happy: while they were here it was private and they wouldn’t always have to remember to tell the house’s computer to ignore them.  Some people would feel insecure that any stranger who managed to get in or any sign of illness would not immediately be acted upon–Vester supposed a similar sense of nakedness had first developed during the Telephone Age, when people could first call emergency services for any kind of trouble–but Vester didn’t mind.  He’d grown up in a rural place where it was still easier to run next door for help.  The vintage of the house’s computer didn’t bother him.

“And this is your real room.”  Edward said, arm around him, walking him down a short hall into a large, beautiful room with a huge bed with a deep brown quilt made of something soft and inviting.  It felt like down and the fabric had a chenille surface that caressed his skin.  Vester couldn’t wait to …. he almost pulled his husband over that instant.

Instead he sat down on the bed, suddenly tired, covering his eyes.

“Edward, everything is so strange.”

“I know.”  His husband said softly.  “It is for me, too.”  He was silent for a moment.  “You were in long enough to feel base shock; being planetside is just the same thing, only longer.  It’ll pass.”  He sat on the bed, his eyes kind.

Vester moved closer to the body that had kept him warm on cool alien nights, to the man who’d been his only company on an empty world–and in the Corp’s second-largest class of farspace ship, also empty, for the long trip home.  As a grunt he’d been trained to meet the strange with action; this man had joined in his maturity, as a research scientist, and met the strange with calm consideration.  That had always been Vester’s response, which the Corps’ basic training had tried to drill out of him.  He and Edward would see this through and nothing could be stranger than what they’d already been though.  He knew his husband felt the same way.  They laced their fingers together.

“Vester, did you see the bathroom?  And the kitchen?  You can ask the h-o-u-s-e if you need anything.  Let’s not do anything else.”  He pulled Vester close.  “Today’s over, it’s OK.”  A kiss.  “Everything’s done.”

Having a few days’ honeymoon at his Uncle’s, in that beautiful loft full of SF books that Vester had spent his boyhood reading, had put this feeling off; Vester could alternate between memories of being a boy and memories of life, so far, with Edward.  He’d been prepared for planetfall as best the Corps could; but there was little he could do now but wait out the acclimatization shock.  There was no smugness from Edward’s longer time in space, in fact there was a bit of white-rimmed over-alertness to his husband’s eyes—the latter looked drained from an easy day of travel and a casual orientation at the Farallones research station he had been posted to.  Vester knew his spouse well enough to know both were out of proportion: he knew he looked no better.  He sighed.

“You’re right, let’s have dinner and go to bed early.”

The house made them a lovely light dinner: the advantage of having a house sitter with a week’s warning meant they returned to a house stocked with every missed civilian nicety.  They spent the evening in the living room over hot cups of mulled apricot juice and Vester tried to will down the sheer sense of strangeness–not simply an unfamiliar house and city but all of earth, itself.

Then they went to bed, and there was nothing strange about that.

#

     “Mr. Vester, wake up. It’s 0445, Service Start of Day.”

“Female.”  Vester prompted, before remembering he wasn’t in a hotel.  No service bed was this wide or soft; a civilian bed made it harder to get up.  “No ‘Mister’, House.”  Vester grumbled.  He wondered why houses of this vintage sounded so cheerful.  This was the second time he’d woken up this morning: Edward had left an hour earlier for an evening obligation in Perth, Australia.  He would be home before Vester got out of class.

“What would you like for breakfast, Skyman Sergeant Vester?”  The house inquired, sounding like a primitive voice synthesizer trying to put on the tones of a butler.  “Coffee?”  It suggested.  “Piñon porridge?”  It followed him as he stepped into the field shower.  He shivered at prior fashions in food: it might as well have offered him a beef patty with cottage cheese and a primitively preserved pineapple ring.  “Dehydrated strawberries in chunky blueberry juice?”  He reminded the house not to use his rank as he put his underclothes into the laundry chute and took out a clean, regulation-pressed uniform.

Vester stepped out of the shower and tried to decide what he did want to eat as he thought over his morning class schedule.

“You need your hair cut to keep it at regulation length, Mr. Vester.  It is 3 millimeters too long.”

Vester shut his eyes and prayed for a brick or an electrical cutter.  Instead he obediently sat under the hair appliance for the minute it took to restore his hair to grunt’s pride.

“How about eggs, House?” he suggested.

“How about them?”  The house replied, sounding either mocking or totally bewildered.  Vester woke up enough to remember: houses of this era weren’t that smart.

“House, make me two eggs for breakfast.  Please fry them.”

“Omelette or pan fry?”

“Pan fry, House.”  Vester said, dressing quickly, feeling he had mastered talking to the domestic computer.  Not quite:

“Sunny-side up?  Over-easy? …”

“Just pick one, House.”  Vester said over its lengthy list of options.  He looked over the seams and creases of his uniform, aligning everything neatly, and checked the placement of his patches.

“You don’t need to use so many words, Mr. Vester.  ‘Two eggs: fried’ is also–”  The house’s flat voice sounded hurt.

“Thank you, House.”  He tried to cut it off.  It kept talking, in the manner of primitive voice-sensing telephone menus.  It would keep calling him by some title unless he reminded it not to with every command cycle.  He could never decide if smart houses had been marketed to those who wanted to pretend an ancient class consciousness or, more likely, the manufacturer had not wanted to startle customers by making their product too human.

Vester, a longtime ancient SF fan, had already tried asking the house if it planned to take over the world: to his disappointment it replied with a simple ‘no’.

He put his coffee in a cup he could take to class, felt the soil around Edward’s gift (the little plant was fine, perfectly tended on the kitchen windowsill by the house’s computer), and took his breakfast to the table.  He ate, listening to a news item that Maj Gen Judith Edinburgh had been given a now uncontroversial less-than-honorable discharge for advocating the return of women to farspace service.  Vester reminded himself to say nothing about the entire topic to anyone (civilian or military) and hurried out the door to his first class of the morning.

#

     He got home as it was getting dark and put his datatablet down on the back of the couch, wishing it were a satchel of heavy books because the ‘tablet was too light to express his weariness.

“Good evening, Mr. Vester.  Welcome home.”

“Thank you, House, I feel at home.”  Vester replied politely.  Edward was in: a small indicator was on over the coffee nozzle and there was a welcoming light from the office.  Vester waited to see if his husband wanted to be interrupted.

Edward turned the chair and got up, giving him a kiss and a long hug.  They had asked the house to opaque the windows whenever either or both of them were home: it was a good effect, from the outside it simply looked like a handsome interplay of natural shade (or shadows) and reflections, as if the light never quite had the correct angle to cut into the house.

“I missed you,” Edward said, not letting go.

“How was it today?”

“Good, after the demotion I’m still the highest rank at Farallones, but rank doesn’t matter in the sciences.”  His husband’s eyes sparked in amusement that the Corps’ ‘disgrace’ had put him in this post.  “How’s school?”

At Edward’s suggestion, Vester had added up the credits on his record: a language taken to impress a cute date back on earth, a math course to keep a buddy up for a Corps exam company, a literature class taken to have an arbitrary list of something to read while on an industrial moon–they all nearly added up to a Bachelor’s of Space Science.  He’d been able to complete college during their months’ trip home together by taking an exam, finishing a very small number of skipped assignments, and filing the paperwork requesting verification.  His S.C.I. test scores were average but several schools had accepted him and the Corps Technical Academy campus in San Francisco was the closest and the best.

The Corps took this as a sign that Vester had returned from his difficult assignment ready to advance: his next half-hitch would be devoted to his Master’s of Science.  He had completed his last hitch with distinction and in less than seven years had been promoted to the rank where most grunts retired.  Two hitches–ten years–in space was long enough for most enlisted men: a good, safe, civilian career and long honorable days of reminiscing at a Veteran’s Center or before pie-eyed schoolchildren stretched before them.  Vester had taken his promotion to sergeant and come back for more: he didn’t mention his marriage (he wasn’t stupid) and no one asked him.  Their families knew but he couldn’t tell his classmates or their acquaintances and neighbors.  They had to think ahead about when and how they left the house and returned home and about the subscriptions they requested and the orders they put in for groceries: they had to maintain the fiction of two separate households.

The part Vester hated worst was not acting married: not going out to eat together unless it was under the most occasional and casual circumstances, not walking around the city together (especially since Vester didn’t know the place and Edward had grown up here), not going to galleries or films or live music or art museums together.  Vester had ridden a reproduction cable car–alone.  He had gone to the island–alone.  He’d been to the famous chocolatier’s, and Fisherman’s Warf, and the miraculous taffy shop on the water–alone.  He had visited the science museum on Missouri, the city’s Chinese heritage museum, and the small 18th street museum devoted Gay culture–alone.

Vester had stood for a long moment in front of the screen that showed the Gay cultural museum’s first exhibits in the old calendar’s 21st century.  He did not take the VR tour but he touched the image to read about the wedding clothes of the first two women to marry in the ancient administrative district and the assassinated city official from a generation before.  Past the screen the modern, larger museum began with a reminder that in early human history there had been a variety of separate sexual minority cultures, and (incredibly) people who fell in love with their own sex were seen as diseased or willfully contrary.

The museum’s exhibits were overwhelming displays of positive art from every place and era, the archaeology of common burials and symbols of love, and a selection of poems, wedding ceremonies, and radiant declarations of love in popular music, literature, plays, films, and opera.  It also told the story of San Francisco as a safe haven and a social and legal pioneer and revealed that all of the exhibits had some connection to the city and were the work of local or locally-trained scientists, archaeologists, scholars, photographers, musicians, actors or artists.

It made Vester feel he owed his new city something more than keeping quiet and staying home.

He stopped in the museum’s small shop to read and wonder at the poster explaining the rainbow emblem: ironically, the Judeo-Christian god had never promised not to destroy all gay men, although one could imagine that was covered by a pledge not to wipe out all of humanity a second time.

Humanity had nearly wiped itself out during the Starving Times: the valorization of gays and lesbians as people who would not overpopulate the planet, who were generous and loving adoptive parents, had begin then; but more importantly no petty differences among humankind made sense after the series natural and man-made disasters that nearly took the entire planet back to the Mesozoic era.  Vester gravitated towards the store’s ancient SF section.  He flipped through a copy of Crome, considered buying Becoming Human, then thought about his student budget and settled on a postcard: the museum’s logo of the two women smiling, newly married.  Vester talked a while with the docent, a straight man who’d loved the vibrant, heroic place as a boy.

Then he rode the reproduction 1940’s streetcar back towards the wharves, thinking about the museum’s historic photos and wishing his husband were there to tell him when and why the Castro had become a district of skyscrapers.

There was no reason for Edward not to be with him: no one saw anything separate or unusual about two (or more) married adults: some very traditional people had resisted laws permitting non-pair marriages and Vester still couldn’t see what the fuss was–consenting adults were consenting adults.  He personally didn’t want to marry anyone but Edward and couldn’t foresee adding anyone to their union, but if they both wanted it he had nothing against it.

The problem was the Corps: it wanted fidelity and loyalty to it and it discouraged any form of marriage for any active duty member, Daysky woman or Nightsky man.

Vester?

He looked up, startled by the rare recurrence of the plant’s alien symbiosis: the Corps had scanned their neurons until they squeaked but couldn’t find a reason for their captor’s strange gift.

Vester sighed, wondering how to sum up his thoughts and the long school day, “The h-o-u-s-e tried to give me Piñon porridge,” was what came out, instead.  His husband smiled, understanding.  “Edward, I’m sick of being alone.”  Vester took his husband’s offered hand.  He pulled Edward closer.  “I miss you so much.”  He kissed the man hungrily.  “I’m tired of ….”  He tried to remember that phrase the city’s Gay museum had used, he couldn’t.  “How did you ever get a Ph.D.?”

Edward smiled.  “Vester, I’ve been wondering how to tell you: I don’t want to stay here.  I thought maybe we should get away, visit family, be together for a while …. but I don’t think that’s it, completely, is it?”

“I don’t want to be on earth.”  Vester said, to Edward’s nod.  “We should be used to this place by now–or maybe we should just report back to the base shrinks?  Say it hasn’t taken, being planetside?”

Edward shook his head, sad.

“I loved this house, I loved living here, I missed my family and old friends, my neighborhood.  I looked forward to bringing you back here, to stay, forever…”  He sighed, his eyes just starting to tear.  “I’m not who I was.  And I want to go back to space–farspace.”  Edward shook his head, a real note of concern in his voice.  “I’ve got to be crazy.”

“Then let’s go to the shrinks–individually … although knowing the Corps we’re their kind of crazy.”  Vester said.  He thought over the year of classes still ahead of him.  “Seriously, how did you finish a Ph.D.?”

“Coffee.”  His husband replied.  “And patience.”  He thought, also.  “I should start to look restless: the Corps likes my xeno/terra comparative work–and teaching Private Skymen their science basics and planetary farspace survival… but they keep, occasionally, mentioning ‘retirement’ rather than a route back to ‘captain’.  Maybe they mean this as a humiliation…”  Edward said in a soft puzzled voice: Vester knew his husband’s grief over his crew’s death was separate from any sense of military pride.  Whatever this was meant to steer Edward towards he wouldn’t get; Edward Philips’ standards were his own and being free from the plant’s captivity, falling in love, and being home were all the success he could ever wish for.

Vester hugged him.  “Do you think they’d refuse if you asked to go back to farspace?”

“No… no, I don’t they would.  The Exploratory Corps might like me back out there–they’d get rid of me.”  Edward’s eyes lit up merrily.

Vester looked around at the little room, its soft upholstered furnishing and its bookcases lined with reference and technical books–not printouts but books.  He looked at the wide dark boards of the wood floor, the pleasant orange and yellow rug, the soft, steady flame-colored light of the lamp.  For once he felt like the more cautious spouse.

“Maybe all we need to do is change the h-o-u-s-e computer; we can talk about how to pay for it…”

Edward shook his head, smiling gently.  His parents had put it in; and that wasn’t the real problem, Vester knew.

“So I finish my M.S. and…”  He squeezed Edward close.  “I don’t want to lose you.  I’ll take a civilian career, the longer we stay in the Corps the longer they have to find out.”

“Sit,” his husband said, loosening Vester’s grip.  He sat back in his chair, his back to the lit screen with an article on a technical aspect of the reproduction of Komodo dragons.  “Vester, I knew two men in the Corps who’ve hidden themselves right under the noses of planetary colonial staff for almost two decades, now.  And if they were discovered–who would take them from their children and the planetary work only they know best?  In the E.V.E. program I’ve known others who tried to tell the Corps, only to be ignored or acknowledged with ‘well what can we expect when we ask men to have children’.  Colonies are different, let’s apply to that part of service.”

“Edward, no part of the Corps is going to welcome us.  Founding colonial teams are small–but two?  And isn’t the Experimental Vivip–-the program to get around the ban on women in farspace–aren’t they looking for male couples?  No, not that way.”  He said to Edward’s dry smile.  “The men have children in a lab: I can’t picture any part of the Corps encouraging us.  Individually, yes, I’m a rising officer–but you they want to put out to pasture.”

“Not necessarily: if I stay in long enough and don’t make any other ‘mistakes’ the Corps will have to promote me.  I’ll be a captain again, at some point.”  Edward smiled.

Vester remembered the judge’s warm congratulations and their first kiss–and their time on the planet when Edward could not speak or smile.  (Base doctors had fixed that but the most affection Vester could show at the hospital once they’d returned was worry for the one man he’d rescued.)  He smiled back: he felt comfortable with this man, he loved him, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with him, and he spent a long moment weighing their choices in his heart.

“Vester, the Corps isn’t forever.  If they put us on an assignment we can’t endure, a separate assignment, an unlivable colony world, then we’ll put in to retire.  We can work for a civilian liner or some other nearspace work.”

“There’s very little of that kind of work, especially for scientists like us.”  Vester mused.  “But spending the rest of our days on a cruise ship giving lectures about the terrors, I mean wonders, of farspace–and doing our duty by saying the ban is worth it-–perhaps wouldn’t be so bad.”  He was willing to do anything while Edward was here–and he’d done a lot of things when the Corps had ordered it.  They’d both survived on a dangerous new world–but it was better to be honest at a new colony site than to spend however long it would be lying on earth or in nearspace.

His husband watched his face.

“Women aren’t returning to farspace within our lifetimes,” Edward said.

“Women are–”

Vester had grown up with girls and women a fully equal part of human life: women were half of every group, team, and profession.  Half of his fellow enlistees had been women, as were half of his drill and piloting instructions as well as nearspace support, supply, and medical staff.  Women were terrific friends, level-headed co-parents, sensible pubic officials, tough but fair officers, and had a history of excellence in the sciences and space exploration from the earliest beginnings of both.  It was absurd for women to be kept out of any human endeavor and Vester missed how they reasoned, perceived and prioritized every minute he was in farspace, before and after they had been shipwrecked.

“I agree, women should return–but notice how everyone who advocates for it gets voted out of office or discharged.  I thought the panic would have died down by now, but it’s become irrational and reactionary.”  His husband sighed.  “Global politics.  So, I’ve researched the literature on E.V.E.–”

“We could have a kid here, if we married a woman.”

“I don’t know any woman that well … to ask her to carry a child?  Even if we didn’t marry our child’s mother she’s still our legal co-parent.  Do you know anyone that well, to trust that she’ll agree with us for 18 years, be a daily part of our lives?  It’s a close thing, raising a child with someone.  That’s also true on colony worlds, I’ve seen it.”

Vester shook his head: he had many female friends but the only person he wanted by him at the neighborhood clinic at 1 a.m., or deciding what science camp or sports team to send the child to, or debating colleges with, was Edward.

“I lived on a colony world for six months.”  Edward turned his chair partway back to the screen and opened an official Corps interplanetary message, a note from a colleague on a farspace colony.  “Here: ‘No modern E.V.E. gestation uses artificial, or rather mechanical, wombs: all of them are built from the male mother’s body.’”

Vester nodded, from Edward’s description of the classified colonial population program, that was no surprise.  His husband turned back to him.

“To this day,” Edward remarked, “there is no variation on the E.V.E. program that rules out non-artificial fatherhood.”

Vester thought it through.

“No…”  He said, in the tone of a ‘wet spacesuit’ suspecting a hazing.

“I just checked the literature and made some discrete, and very technical, inquiries with old colleagues: all their replies are in.”  Edward nodded to the screen.  “There’s always a chance that the genetic samples, a ship’s whole medical bay, could be lost, or contaminated, or could simply lose power.”

“But what about the male mother?  Who’d want to give birth under such primitive conditions?  Or watch a teammate do so?”

“Many women have: some still do.  None of the E.V.E. variations require C-sections, not now.  When I was stationed on their world I missed my friends’ births but I’ve seen parthanogenics give birth–their children, a similar process but it’s inborn rather than induced–and I’ve seen films.  I wouldn’t let any man, even a stranger, give birth without the best technology we have.”  The screen beeped it was about to close access to the Komodo dragon article, Edward turned to tell it he wasn’t finished with his work.

“We’re not doing that part.  If we’re signing up to found a colony we’ll go as scientists, there’s plenty of work–”

His husband turned back to him with a sympathetic smile, “Vester–this is the Corps.”

Edward was right: taking an assignment meant accepting all it might require… Vester should know that after losing all the men he’d been sent out with, his fellow, more experienced, rescuers.  He thought over all their options, one by one.

He didn’t ask Edward about being in a crew, together.  Even on the second-largest class of farspace ship that held 20, at most, any couple would be obvious to their teammates, even with the sexual suppressives given on such long voyages.  He thought over the recruitment brochures he’d read–on joining and now, on campus.  He couldn’t think of a better suggestion than Edward’s.

“I knew I married you for all the right reasons.”

“I know I did.”  Edward said, smiling gently.  He stood up and took Vester’s hand, inviting him to dinner.  “Tell me all about school: remember, it’s not permanent.  Another year and you’ll be done.”

“I never would have done this without you: I never would have thought to, at eighteen I just wanted my years and my ‘honorable’ and hoped I’d know what to do, by then.”

“You wanted children.”

“Not at eighteen, not alone, and not with any of my female friends.  I have to pretend I’ve never heard of any of this?”

“Right: the Corps says all of a colony’s first children are cloned and lab-grown; not a viable option on the frontier.  But it is true that no one starts a family on a new world until the service feels completely assured human habitation is safe and viable.  The two men I knew had five children, together, no love would make them bring babies into a wilderness that could not support them.  The world and site had been screened with a nanosieve: the most dangerous thing at the colony was a cat-sloth that, well, wasn’t aggressive at all.  Their oldest had one as a pet that he rolled around with, sat on, tugged on–his baby sister gummed on its ears when she was teething.”

Vester thought of alien cat earwax.

“It didn’t do anything to them, just flicked its ear away and started licking her, very slowly.  Remember, I was sent to Thurinquia to see if it could be a colony: no, ten times over.”  Edward paused, sad for the men he and Vester had buried, there.  “But a colony planet has to be safe as a cat-sloth before any team would be assigned there.  After basic, and the Hera, no one reminds you how dangerous interstellar flight is.”

“Edward, I’d spend the rest of my service on an industrialized moon if I thought I could spend it with you.  If we can be together I’ll volunteer for anything.”

His husband smiled.  “So will I.”

Vester felt a world better and his day of classes felt far behind him.  They sat down together at the kitchen table.

“House,” Edward said, “tell us our options for dinner, for two.”

“Second Lieutenant Philips, for two let me suggest a Radish Consommé, or a Tofu Fondue–followed by–”

“Mute, House.”  Vester said.  It kept talking.

“Quiet, House.”  Edward said.  They kept repeating it until the voice was a discrete, but not inaudible, mutter.  “How about we call out for pizza,” Edward murmured, “there’s nothing unusual in that.”

“I’ll call, they’re used to me and I’m the student.  What’s a good thing to watch before a one-way trip into farspace?”

Lost in SpaceRed Dwarf: ‘Marooned’?”  Edward suggested.

Vester stopped laughing long enough to order dinner and they talked about it, suggesting terrible–and not too terrible titles–all the rest of the evening.

In the future Vester looked back on that day as the true start their marriage: with that plan in mind they went to bed and dreamed of the night sky full of alien stars.

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