Sam’s head snapped up. The room was so dark, she could barely make out the hands on the clock. The computer screen flickered in front of her. She quickly closed out the programs she had open. It hadn’t taken Minny long to clean the bed sheets today.
“Sam?” The housekeeper’s voice drifted from upstairs.
“Down here.” Sam entered the computer shutdown command and got up from the chair. It was only a matter of seconds before their housekeeper would peek down the round staircase and inevitably deduce what she’d been doing. Her footsteps hurried across the main library room above.
“Are you accessing the computer again?” The reproach in her ex-nanny’s voice vaguely brought Sam back to her childhood days. She winced. Why on Earth did this damn system have to take so long? “You know your father’s opinion about unauthorized computer accesses.”
Sam hurried to pick up the books she’d collected earlier and rushed to the staircase. Not a moment too late. She smiled innocently at Minny, who was just starting down the stairs.
“My father has strong opinions about a lot of things I do.” She passed by the older woman and placed the heavy books on the table in front of a bookshelf to put them back in where they belonged. “Mainly because he thinks I can’t do anything without his guidance.” After every book was back on the shelf, she turned around and lifted her chin. “That doesn’t mean I’m not more than capable, though.”
“I really wish you hadn’t inherited your father’s stubbornness.” The old housekeeper shook her head. Sam rolled her eyes and walked towards the door to the hallway. Minny’s footsteps scurried behind her. “You know it’s dangerous to access the system without authorization.”
“Only if you don’t know what you’re doing.” Sam made her way backwards along the small corridor that led to the entrance foyer and her study rooms. “I cracked the algorithm behind the Aschen’s access codes months ago. When I access their system now, it looks as though I’m a shadow. You wouldn’t get suspicious of your own shadow, would you?”
The nanny shook her head with a melodramatic sigh. “You’re much too reckless. And too smart for your own good if you ask me.”
“Some people need to be more reckless. My father’s been working for the Ministry his entire life, and yet he doesn’t dare question their methods.” Sam blew a strand of long blonde hair out of her face. “Sometimes I wish he weren’t such an ass-kissing—“
“Watch your mouth, young lady!” The housekeeper’s eyes hardened and Sam winced. Minny didn’t get angry very often, but when she did, one had to be careful. “Your father sacrificed a lot to provide you and your brothers with the best education and every opportunity in life. Without the money he earns in the Ministry’s service, you wouldn’t have been able to get the books or the teachers you need for studying. Never forget that.”
“Yeah.” Sam scoffed. “And what am I ever going to use that education for? They don’t allow humans, especially women, to work in the sciences. Sometimes I wish he hadn’t paid for all those expensive teachers, because then I wouldn’t be aware of what I can’t have. The best I can hope for is to spend my life tending a farm or improving crop machines in the neighborhood.” She dropped her arms in frustration. “Now that I know my own potential, I know that I have something to contribute. I want to go through the Stargate.”
“Samantha Carter, don’t be ridiculous. They don’t allow human research teams to travel to the Aschen homeworld.”
Damn it, how could she be the only one who wanted this? The big circular portal located at the center of Powhatan City had fascinated her ever since she’d understood its purpose. A gateway to another planet, thousands of light-years away. So far, it wasn’t visible to the naked eye in the night sky. If only she were allowed to step through it. If only she weren’t born human.
“I don’t think the gate leads only to their home planet. I don’t even think that the Aschen are the ones who built it. They say they did, but I’ve hacked into their system. It looks as though the program they use is designed to bridge a gap between their system and the Stargate one. What if there are other worlds out there? Worlds we don’t know about?” Sam looked at the housekeeper. Excitement shot through her as all the possible consequences for such a discovery flashed through her mind. “What if there are other people like us in our galaxy? Or people even more advanced than the Aschen?”
“It doesn’t matter, because they’ll never allow you to use it, so there is no point in even discussing it.”
“Why doesn’t that make you angry?” Sam shook her head. “Earth is our planet. The Aschen shouldn’t be in a position to tell us what we can and can’t do. Only oppressors do that.”
The nanny clutched her chest with a terrified gasp. Just for a moment it looked as if she was about to faint. “Samantha Carter, you know how dangerous this kind of talk is. If I didn’t know better I’d say you’re sympathizing with the…” She cleared her throat. “…that you were out of your mind.”
Sam froze on the spot and grabbed her shoulders. “Resistance? Was that what you were about to say?”
“Enough now.” Minny brushed her off curtly. “You know the resistance is just a legend, a rumor that’s been around for almost as long as the story of the ghost in the mill.”
“Yes, except that ghosts in the mill don’t cause power outages.” Sam released her. Minny was right, talk like that was dangerous. Even more evidence as to how oppressed the human population was. “And ghosts also don’t place bombs near the Aschen Ministry, or the district where their government officials live.”
“Those incidents were declared accidents.” Again, Minny started following her.
Sam laughed. “I know. I watched the official reports. But I also accessed the Aschen computer system and their classified files, remember?” She smiled sheepishly. Minny ran after her.
“Sam, you have to forget about… whatever it is that’s going through your mind right now.” Desperation dripped through her voice.
“Minny.” Her tone was urgent now that they’d entered her private room. “Imagine if the resistance really existed. We could get rid of the Aschen. It would be a chance for me to do something with my knowledge other than planting crops.”
“Sam!” She spun around at the anger in Minny’s voice. “Even if they existed, they would be considered traitors and terrorists. Outlaws who’d be sentenced to death once they were captured.”
Sam walked to her mirror and started braiding her long hair so that it wouldn’t fall into her face. From the corner of her eye, she observed her nanny. Poor woman. She’d lived under the Aschen rule for all of the one-hundred-twenty-nine years of her life. And Minny had never been a person to question the existing structure. She took her orders, and at the end of the day went home to her retired farmer husband.
“Don’t worry, Minny. I wasn’t serious. You know me and my mind experiments. I like to think about things.” Sam pulled her top over her head to change into another one that revealed a lot more cleavage and hugged her body like a second skin. “Besides, if I left here, I wouldn’t be able to see Larek anymore.”
The sound of a throat being cleared made Sam turn. Her father leaned against the doorframe. “Going somewhere?”
“Dad, I didn’t know you were back already. I thought the Ministry briefing would go on ‘til the evening. I was just about to meet Larek.”
“Not today.” Her father scowled at her and turned to the housekeeper. “Minny, would you start preparing dinner?”
“Of course, sir.” The nanny bowed her head, and with a last glance at Sam turned and left.
He looked at Sam. “Come with me, please. There is something we need to discuss.” He left the room and Sam followed him, fiddling with the remaining strands of her hair. Why did he sound so serious? Her stomach clenched as she considered the possibility that she might be in trouble. Had one of her unauthorized computer accesses been discovered by the Aschen?
“What’s the matter, dad?” She followed him down the stairs to the ground floor. “Can’t this wait until later? Larek and I actually wanted—“
“Yes, sir.” She sighed, and entered his private study room after him. If she was in trouble, it was better to cooperate and do some damage control. She closed the heavy oak door. “Did I do something wrong?”
Jacob sighed as he sat down in his chair. “No. Come here, honey, sit down. Please.” He pulled a chair close for her.
Unease pricked at her. Her father had never been this serious, not even when she’d gotten into trouble as a child. She sat down next to him.
“Do you remember the medical tests you went through at the doctor’s office a couple of weeks ago?”
Sam nodded. “Of course, the standard fertility tests.”
“Do you know what happens to those who get tested positive?”
“Yes, I read an article about it recently. It’s fascinating, really. Only about eight percent of adults in every generation end up fertile. A side effect of the Aschen vaccinations, apparently.” Sam raised her eyebrows when her father released a heavy sigh. Why was he bringing this up? Could it be…? No, impossible. “Dad, what are you saying?” Her voice shook.
“Sam.” He took her hand between his and looked her in the eyes. “You tested positive.”
She stared at him. Her stomach clenched as though somebody had punched her. What he said couldn’t be true. It wasn’t possible – well, it was, but with a chance of roughly eight to ten percent, it was extremely unlikely. Her heartbeat thrashed in her ears, and her throat constricted. “No. Dad, that has to be a mistake. Mark, James, and David aren’t gifted. It doesn’t run in the family. They have to run the test again.”
“They did, honey. Every test is run three times to rule out false positives. All three accounts confirmed you’re gifted.”
She jumped up from her chair and started pacing the room. It would have never occurred to her working on improving crop machines might not even be the worst outcome of her life. As a gifted woman, she would end up under the strict watch of the Aschen government; she’d be assigned a husband and given the sole purpose of bearing children. And if she didn’t cooperate…
“Oh, God.” The world spun and she closed her eyes. “Please tell me it isn’t not true.”
“I’m afraid it is.” The chair creaked as her father leaned back with a tortured groan.
“What about Larek?”
“Sam, honey, you know how he’ll react once he learns about your test results. He’s Aschen.”
Her eyes shot open and she pressed her lips together. “No, he’ll understand.” She turned around. “Maybe he could help me. If he and I… If we married…”
“Sam.” Her dad’s eyes fixated on her. “You’re deluding yourself if you think an Aschen man will help you.”
She glared at her father. “You’ve never liked him, have you? He’s different. If you’d taken the time to get to know him, you’d understand that.”
“Sam.” Her father lifted his hands. “I don’t want to fight about that now. Aschen men never take human women as their wives, let alone fertile human women. They play around with them as long as it’s convenient, but that’s all.”
“You don’t even know him.” She blinked back hot tears. “He’s not like the rest of them!”
He buried his face in his hands for a long moment and then shook his head gently. “He is.”
“You don’t know him, dad.”
How dare he pass judgment on a man he’d never met. He’d religiously refused to meet Larek ever since she had first told him about their relationship. Even though he’d never forbidden her to meet with Larek, he’d made clear he didn’t support her relationship with him. “I wish you’d trust my judgment just once.”
“He’ll break your heart. Aschen men don’t risk producing mixed-breeds. It’s too much of a legal classification issue.” He rubbed his palm over his face. “They’re obsessed with keeping the races separate, and only intermingle with human women for fun.” He studied her intensely. “Sam. Did you… I mean, have you ever… broken the sexual restrictions law with him?”
“What?” Sam shook her head. She knew exactly what her father was asking. Sex was forbidden for humans until their first fertility tests at age twenty-five confirmed they were not gifted, but it wasn’t uncommon for young adults to ignore the law.
Her cheeks turned hot. Answering a question like that to her father. How embarrassing. Sadly, it was only a fraction of what was about to come. Nothing in her life would be her own anymore. Everything would be government-regulated from now on. The food she ate, when she ate, when she would be allowed to leave the house, the days of the month when she’d have to have sexual intercourse and with whom she would have it.
“No.” Her mind numbed, surrender taking over. “No, I didn’t.”
“Good.” Her father exhaled as though a stone was lifted from his chest. “I wouldn’t want things to get more complicated. Now, please sit down, there is more to talk about.”
“I know the drill, Dad. Ministry officials will come and take me to one of the science labs where they’ll determine the most genetically compatible male.” She recited the proceedings she’d heard about so often. From teachers, from Aschen reports. Never had it occurred to her she might one day face them herself. If only she could wake up from this nightmare.
“No.” Jacob opened the top drawer of his desk to pull out a piece of paper. Sam recognized the official seal of the Aschen government on it. “I made sure your test results would disappear for now. That’s not a permanent solution though. It’ll be impossible to do the same with the bi-monthly follow-up tests, so I’ve come up with a more permanent solution.”
Sam sank down into the chair and narrowed her eyes at him as his expression changed and he leaned forward.
“You’re not going to like this, but it’s the only way to keep you safe, even if they find out you’re gifted.”
“Dad?” Her voice was almost toneless. What could possibly be worse than the Aschen regulations imposed on gifted people? “What did you do?”
“An old friend of mine who’s gifted happens to be available for marriage. If you’re already married to a compatible male once they find out you’re gifted, they won’t break that bond up. It’s the only exception to an otherwise very explicit rule.”
Sam shook her head. “Oh, God.” He couldn’t be serious. He could not have done what he insinuated.
“I talked to him a few days ago. He used to be married, but his wife ran away after their first child died in an accident. They’re officially divorced, which makes him eligible for re-marriage, though his name hasn’t been on the gifted list for years. Since I was the one who took it off the list back in the days, there was an easy way of fixing that.”
“Oh god. Dad.” Sam fisted her hands. He really expected her to marry a stranger, a man whom she had never even met before. “Dad, please no.”
“He agreed to take you as his wife, Sam. We’ve already signed the contract, and I handed it in to the authorities two days ago. I got confirmation today, the Ministry signed it off. Since he’s gifted, they won’t force you to go through official procedures, even if they find out about your test.”
“Why didn’t you…” Her voice broke, and she took a shaky breath. Why hadn’t he talked to her beforehand? Why hadn’t he let her make the decision herself?
“Sam, honey.” Her father squeezed her hands softly. “It’s the only way to—“
“No!” She blinked against her tears. “Why did you even erase my test results if you planned on doing their job? I know you think it makes a difference. But there’s really none from where I stand.” Her words had to hurt him, she could read it in his eyes, but she didn’t care.
“He’s a good man. Wait until you two get to know each other. You’ll see that he has a lot to offer that can benefit your future.”
Sam pulled her hands out of her fathers and shook her head. “Why did you go behind my back? You could have talked to me about the possibility and then let me make the choice. Instead you made it final without consulting me. It is my life, and my future, dad. Why couldn’t you just let me make my own decision?”
“Decision?” Her father’s voice hardened. “What decision was there to be made for you? Did you think you’d have a say in who you’ll marry with the Aschen Ministry? Did you think they would let you choose anything?”
“No. I know they wouldn’t. But now you’re no better than them.” Her hands slammed down on his desk as she got up. “Did it ever even occur to you that I might be able to make my own choices? You could have brought this guy home, and I could have met him beforehand.” Another thought occurred to her. An old friend, he had said. The image of a man her father’s age sprang to mind, and she shuddered. Surely, he wouldn’t have… “God, how old is he?”
“Sam, calm down. He’s only sixteen years older than you. I know, at your age that sounds like a lot, but once you get older, it won’t matter that much anymore. He’ll treat you with respect. And he promised to protect you.”
“Oh for god’s sake. I don’t need protection, Dad. I can take care of myself.” She paced the room again. Sixteen years. That wasn’t as bad as she’d feared. Still. Bad enough. “That is just the problem. You made sure I got all those expensive teachers to learn everything about the world, and the universe. But you never trusted me to be strong enough to use all that I learned to stand on my own feet.”
“Sam, enough,” Jacob snapped. “I’ve never wanted anything less than the best for you, and for you to be happy. You know that.”
“Marrying an older man I don’t even know? That’s what’s best for me? That’s going to make me happy? We live in the year 799, and not in medieval times. Forced marriages went out of fashion centuries ago.”
Jacob jerked up, his jaw clenched. “Not for gifted people. You have to stop thinking like a non-gifted woman.”
“It is my life, gifted or not.” It was the first time she dared to openly oppose one of her father’s orders. She couldn’t just accept it. Not this time, when her future depended on it. “You can tell this friend of yours that the contract is off. I won’t be his wife.”
“The contract is binding.” Jacob’s voice rumbled. “As I told you, it has passed the approval phase.”
Sam stared at him and pressed her lips together. This was useless. He was unwilling to compromise, and so was she. Lifting her chin, she turned around and walked to the door.
“Sam! Samantha! Where do you think you’re going?”
“I have a date with my boyfriend, Dad.” Without looking back, she slammed the door shut in his face.
“Sam.” His bellow echoed through the thick wood. The chair scraped across the wooden floor as he got up. “Don’t you dare leave this house! … Sam!”
She didn’t care what else he had to say. He’d made clear the matter wasn’t open for discussion. Well, she’d have to see about that. She ran to the front door.
When it slammed shut behind her, she inhaled the warm, humid summer air. The scent of fresh cut grass filled her nostrils. A fog lifted from her mind.
She would take care of the problem in her own way. She would talk to Larek. They’d dated for almost a year. He was her best friend, her lover. Surely, he’d be able to help her. He had connections. His father was one of the Aschen officials, and if they talked to him, he’d be able to pull some strings. And if there was no other choice, there was always the option of eloping…
Darkness swallowed the wide open fields. Sam slowly walked back towards her father’s house. Pouring rain and mild fog prevented her from seeing the lights of Powhatan City in the distance. Not that she cared for the lights, or the rain and thunder, or that her clothing was soaked.
Her chest shook with sobs. Her entire world had been shattered to pieces in a matter of hours; first her father’s revelation about her being gifted, and then Larek’s reaction to it. The expression on Larek’s face had turned distant when she’d told him the truth.
“Larek, you’re serious about our relationship, aren’t you?”
“Of course, sugar.” He leaned in to kiss her, but she evaded his lips.
“You really love me, don’t you?”
He laughed. “Of course I do. What’s the matter?”
“You wouldn’t leave me, would you? No matter what?”
“Sam, what’s going on?”
Then she’d told him about her test—and his face had changed. Just like that, from one moment to the next, he’d looked at her as though she were some kind of freaky mutation. He turned away from her, withdrawing his hand from her touch as if she had some kind of rare infectious disease.
Deep inside, she had known the truth then. But she didn’t want to believe it. She’d tried to talk to him, tried to assure him nothing had changed, but he’d looked at her with contempt and disgust in his eyes.
“Nothing has changed? You just told me you qualify for breeding, and yet you say nothing has changed?” He gave a bitter laugh. “I’m not willing to risk producing some kind of inferior mixed-breed with you.”
“Inferior?” Her voice had been almost toneless, and she shook her head when the implication of his statement left her dizzy. “You think of me as inferior?”
He stood up and glanced down at her the way one would look at a stray dog. “I am Aschen. You are human. Your race is only still here because we need you to work our fields.” With those words, he turned and walked away.
She jumped up to run after him and grabbed his arm. “You dated me for almost a year. You said you love me.”
A sardonic smile crossed his face. “It was fun, Sam. You were easy to get, and easy to keep. Granted, it was a pain you refused to sleep with me, but all things considered now, I guess I should be thankful for that. I enjoyed having you around while it lasted.”
“Like… a dog.” She’d turned numb, as her world had started falling to pieces around her.
“Well, dogs certainly don’t make a scene once they are given away. Did you really think that it was more than just for fun? You are human. You have the social standing of a slave. Go home Sam. Go to your own people.”
She’d turned around and walked away from him. Her eyes had burned and she didn’t want to let him see her cry.
His words cut deep. He’d been the first man she’d ever fallen in love with, the first man who’d ever made her feel beautiful. And it was all a lie.
All this time his tender words and affections had been little more than a fun pastime for him. He’d never considered her anything other than a slave.
And she hadn’t even realized it. Her father was right. Larek had played with her, like a child played with a toy. Once it lost its appeal, it was discarded.
Rain soaked her clothes. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Her entire life, all her hopes and dreams for the future had moved into an unachievable distance.
She was so out of it she didn’t realize she’d reached her house until she felt the cold doorknob of the front door in her hand. The door opened with a tiny squeak.
She didn’t bother to ring for Minny. Chances were, the housekeeper had already gone home, especially with the thunderstorm raging outside. She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, and walked through the entrance hall straight into the kitchen.
She found what she was looking for without turning on the light. Her hand closed around the wooden handle of a large knife, and she drew it soundlessly from its wooden block.
As she climbed the stairs to her room, the door to her father’s study creaked open and she froze. He had to have heard her footsteps. Why was he still awake? Normally he called it an early night.
Sam remained motionless until the thin line of light leaking from the study into the entrance hall disappeared. Her father had closed the door again.
Much more careful not to make a sound, she climbed up the last flight of stairs. When she entered the room, she shut the door behind her and turned the key in its lock from the inside. If she was going to do this, she didn’t want anybody to come in and find her before it was too late.
She dropped to her knees in front of her large mirror and stared at her reflection for a long moment.
Her vision blurred as the word echoed in her head. How accurate that insult was… how accurate it had always been. There was nothing she could do against the Aschen.
There was no way to prevent them from taking control over her life, her body, every aspect of her being. Her worth from now on would depend solely on how many children her body was capable of bearing before she either died from physical strain, or reached an age where she could no longer conceive children.
There was only one way for her to take control. Only one choice that was still hers to make.
She pressed the cold steel blade to her wrist and inhaled as she tried to gather the courage to make the first cut. It would probably hurt, but if she cut fast and deep enough, it would be only a short moment until she’d fall into a drowsy half-consciousness as the life slowly drained out of her. Just one quick cut. Her only way to be free. Her only way to escape the hell lying ahead of her.
She shifted and her foot hit something. There was a thud and she whipped her head around. A book from the pile sitting next to her bed had fallen to the floor, opening to the middle. She reached out and ran her fingers over the page. A picture of the Milky Way galaxy with its billions of stars stared up at her, each one representing a dream that had moved into the realm of impossibility. Or had it?
She fixated her gaze on her reflection in the mirror. There was another choice, another option she hadn’t considered.
Earth needed to get rid of the Aschen. That was the only way for her to live a normal live, to someday walk through the Stargate. There was only one way to do that.
Her heart started pounding in her ears as she lifted the knife.
The first hank of long, blonde hair dropped to the ground. She became frustrated with the knife and got up to grab the scissors from her desk.
Skein after skein dropped to the floor. As she looked at her reflection again not ten minutes later, her eyes widened. A halo of short blonde hair hung wildly around her head. She dropped the scissors.
She looked like a boy.
This would work. She touched her face. Was that really her? The woman staring back at her looked so different. Stronger. And a lot more independent. If only she’d been born as a man… Well, she had to deal with things as they were her way.
From now on, Samantha Carter was no more. Samantha Carter had been a slave, a stupid, naïve girl. Sam Carter would not be a slave. Ever. To anybody. She would stand on her own and find a way to join the resistance if it existed.
Fisting her hands, Sam went to her closet and searched through her clothes. Tank tops in dozens of bright colors, long and short dresses, shirtdresses. All girly, naïve, and innocent. She slammed the drawer shut. That wouldn’t work. She quietly opened her door and peeked out.
Silence. If her father was still in his study, at least he was absorbed in some kind of work.
On her bare feet, she sneaked to the balustrade to look down into the entrance hall. The small yellow line under the study door told her he was inside. She had to be careful. She continued to the other side to her older brother Mark’s old room. Her father hadn’t known what to do with so much space so her brother’s rooms had remained untouched since they’d left. Hopefully that would work to her advantage now.
She entered the room, and momentarily, images from her childhood days flashed in her mind. How Mark had hated it when she’d sneaked into his room to play with his collection of justice agent dolls. She smiled at the memory—fragments of a happier past—and closed the door.
She opened the wardrobe and pulled out one garment after another. Most of them were teen clothes. Mark had taken all of his clothing when he moved out. Only old, oversized pants and a shirt came close to her size.
Sam took them and quietly closed the wardrobe. They would have to suffice. On her way out she took one of Mark’s old overcoats hanging on a rack behind the door. Perfect.
Less than two hours later as her father slept, Sam slipped out of the house. The soft click as the door shut behind her sounded so painfully final. She would not return. Not until she had found what she was searching for.
Not until she had shown the Aschen, and her father, that she was nobody’s slave.