“You could be my daughter.”
For an intense second she stared into my eyes, not saying anything. My hands were on her waist, I felt her soft skin under my fingers as she straddled me. She laughed lightly and kissed me.
“You already have a daughter,” she said with an impeccable British accent, even though—I know for a fact that—she never set foot in what was once the United Kingdom. She was from America.
America, at least, was still America, which gave me some sort of satisfaction. Yeah, both Canada and the United States were lumped together into one giant unit (they refused to have Mexico, and the rest of the southern parts were definitely out of the question), but still, it was something familiar. I never intended to wash away the national borders, and I cannot tell to this very day whether it was a good idea. And it wasn’t me, specifically, I only lead the colonization. Of the Solar System, that is. And beyond. We didn’t really get to the beyond part yet, but I had my little plans and dreams
Annika—that was her name, Annika—was right, of course. I did have a daughter. A son too. And a wife whom I loved but that was marriage and this was this. Everyone had someone else. Even my wife. Felt like it was the natural order of things and not because we left behind the 21st century. It was the way of life since the dawn of men; sometimes it went on with less, sometimes with more secrecy and charade.
I exaggerated, of course. Annika was only fifteen years younger than me, but at first—or second—glance you couldn’t really tell that the difference is that big. I didn’t look thirty-nine, people could easily mistake me for someone in his early thirties, and they did. Theoretically, she could have been my daughter, yes, but it was a far-fetched idea. With all the birth controls and genetic planning nobody really had kids at the age of fifteen anymore. Under twenty, really. Maybe people from Africa. I don’t know. Nobody really cares.
She got off of me, and out of the bed, then went to the balcony. She started those relaxing breathing and stretching exercises. Like sex wasn’t relaxing enough! This was the latest craze. I had a feeling it came from the Martians—all the stupid ideas came from Mars, they had too much free time on their hands—but I never really felt the need to ask. There have to be some mysteries left unsolved, after all.
There were some mysteries, though, that did piqued my interest. Why is she with me? was among them. I spent countless hours trying to figure it out. I could always ask but would that really yield the answer I desired or would I get some twisted, masked version of the truth? The latter was of no interest to me. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t in love—not any more than she was, anyway—but human nature has always fascinated me.
What are the most common things that drive people? Money. I had money. But so did she. She had a generous fund that she could already access and she was the heiress of a huge consortium. Her mother was one of my best business associates. I preferred to keep our relationship a secret in front of her and Annika felt the same way.
She could have wanted to gain leverage over me, to blackmail me in the future, but nothing we did would have had a serious impact on my career. Maybe her mother would have a fit of rage or something, but she was a sensible woman, she didn’t get her position by making unnecessary scenes. The others simply didn’t care.
There was always the lust for power. But she could have power of her own, she didn’t need to manipulate me into anything—not that she could, anyway. Her mother always kept that door open for her, inviting her to step into the world of technological advancement and conquest, but she never really cared about it that much. In time, she always said.
It could have been sex, I guess, but I’ve never been good at self-deceit: I was as average as it gets, in the positive sense of the word, of course. Nobody ever complained, but then again, I always thought of sex as more than just simple physicality. I don’t mean love and all that crap, I mean there always had to be a certain drive to make it exceptional—and exceptional didn’t come from a pure skin-on-skin, body-to-body connection. It’s difficult to put your finger on it, the feeling of exceptionality.
“Hey babe? Would you like to come with me to Bradburgh?” she asked when she returned from the balcony.
Mars again! What on earth does she want there? Or rather what on mars. I was never really good at cracking jokes. It’s been quite some time since my last visit, but I wasn’t particularly eager to return.
“Why?” I asked cautiously.
“Mother wants me to check on some construction or board or whatever,” she shrugged. “It all seemed rather dull when she explained it. By the time she got to the end of a sentence I already forgot what the beginning was about.”
Sometimes she sounded like a spoiled little brat, which she was, and a stupid little twat, which she was not. She was quite intelligent and—in her own way—rather wise. Her way of looking at the world was just different from that of ours. I cannot say of our generation because I wasn’t exactly another generation, her mother was more than ten years older than me. She was a very attractive woman, her mother, and I did feel that certain electricity crackling between us, but with no words uttered we agreed that it is best not to mix business with pleasure. It rarely ends well.
“Is this one her schemes to get you interested in business?” I asked. I touched my wrist, enabled the holographic display and started scanning my messages. Nothing interesting, nothing urgent. Life was slow these days.
“It’s not that I’m not interested,” she protested. “It’s more like… There’s so much going on in the world… no, in the universe!… and I just don’t want to end up like her, you know?” She stopped abruptly, like she said too much, let me too close. Maybe she did. “I mean I love my mother. But sometimes it feels she lost sight of what’s really important.”
Did I lose sight of that, as well? She didn’t imply that, but what was I doing differently than Odina Johansson? You care about your kids. That much was true. I always found time to be with my children. Only when I got close to Annika did I learn that Odina was more of a businesswoman than a mother. Not that I condemned her—she made sacrifices to get to her current position. I could understand that. I did feel slightly bad for Annika, though, who could have turned out just like her little sister: deeply embedded in an artificial world, lost between ones and zeros. The most potent drug of our age.
“I guess we can go,” I said eventually. “There are some things that need my attention there anyway. I can reschedule the other stuff.”
“Lovely,” she said, then came closer and planted a kiss on my cheek.
Why are you with me? I wanted to ask plain and honest. But I didn’t. That is not how this world works. You aim for something that is straight ahead and you get there by twists and turns, deceit and lies. I asked her once, in a tentative, smooth sort of way. People tend to think men are always crude, direct; that manipulation is the world of women. I disagree. I saw an equal number of men and women among those who play this game the best. Men simply have a different set of arsenal.
Fun, she said. That was her answer. She was with me because it was fun. Maybe it was. It must have resulted in a certain kind of exhilaration, given her a rush.
“Mother wants me to get married,” she said abruptly.
She stood next to the bed in her panties and loose shirt, hands on her hips, her posture a mixture of nonchalance and rigidity. Her reddish hair came down in cascade-like waves and her eyes shone like emeralds. I did not know what to make of that sentence. It was hard to say what she felt under that mask of hers.
“Does she?” I offered a neutral reply.
“I guess it’s time,” she said quietly.
So that’s it. One minute we’re planning a trip to Mars, the next we’re breaking up. Are we breaking up? Or did she want to marry me? But I already had a wife. Was this her endgame? Or did this turn out to be the endgame? I could not say.
“Do you want children?”
The voice that asked the question was not my own, yet the words came out of my mouth. It surprised us both; I saw her bewilderment in her eyes, felt my own in my chest.
“Maybe. Eventually,” was her answer.
“You could have them on Mars.”
“I could,” she agreed.
I imagined her children—red-haired, full of freckles, like they were born from the planet itself, finally bringing it the much needed fertility. They would represent life on that dead piece of land. I liked the idea quite a lot.
She lay down next to me, and I automatically lifted my arm so that she can rest her head on my shoulder. Silence enveloped us like a warm blanket, and I watched as the last of the sun’s rays gave up their fight for the day. I saw the city come alive again, with its lights shimmering in the fast-approaching night. I loved the sight. Earth was the only home I knew. I wondered if I could ever give it up for red dust and barren land stretching into infinity.
“When do we leave?” I asked, breaking the silence.
She turned her head to see my face.
“When do we leave for Mars?”
For a long moment she said nothing. She turned her head back to its original position and put her hand on my chest.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
Art by rich35211