Year 799 – Aschen Colony Earth: Somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere
Jack O’Neill ignored the two drunken men who passed by him and closed the door. He looked around the foggy bar room. As always, the bar was crowded with a bizarre mixture of cutthroats, criminals and farmers. Gruff looking men threw darts, drank too much and laughed too loud. This wasn’t the place he would have come to had he had any other choice.
Too bad, most establishments like these were banned. It was getting harder to find places to meet, at least in the area around Powhatan City, the center of commerce between Earth and the Aschen.
He passed by a pool table and gently nudged a young woman who had stumbled into him out of the way. Once he reached the counter, he looked at the elderly bartender. The man passed him a mug of beer and nodded toward the back of the room.
Jack turned, and a man ran into him, spilling most of his beer. Great, just what he needed. Ever since the Aschen governor had closed down most of the bars in an effort to limit illegal activities, this place was seriously overcrowded. Time to pick a new meeting spot.
He slid into the shadowy booth at the end of the room and sat down on a bench opposite an older man, who scowled at him.
Jack glared at him. “Not everyone lives close by, you know.”
“Have you heard about the uprisings in the East?”
Jack took a long gulp of his beer and studied the older man. At past eighty, Jacob Carter’s hair bore flecks of gray, his face reflecting the kind of serious relentlessness typical for workers in the Aschen Ministry. “I haven’t. Is that why you wanted to meet me?”
“It’s not, actually.” Carter looked down and fiddled with his hands. Jack raised his eyebrows. This was odd. He’d never seen him nervous to the point of being awkward. “You know I wouldn’t ask you this if I thought there was any other way to resolve the situation.”
“Ask me what?” Jack took another sip of his beer. Over the years, he and Jacob had often worked together, so one asking a favor of the other wasn’t unusual.
“I need you to marry my daughter.”
Jack choked on his beer. “Excuse me?”
“She just had her fertility tests and they came back positive. She’s gifted, Jack.” Jacob closed his eyes.
Damn. Jack winced in sympathy, and put down his glass. “Sorry to hear that.” Like Jacob, he could still remember how he’d found out that he was gifted, and the horror that had come with the test results. That still didn’t explain… “How would marrying her solve that problem?”
“I deleted her test results from the system.”
“Damn, Jacob!” Jack shook his head. “That’s a risk and you know that.”
“What was I supposed to do? She’s my daughter.”
“They’re gonna find out anyway in her follow-ups in a coupla months.” As much as he understood the man’s compassion for his own daughter, in his position Jacob should know better than to take unnecessary risks.
Jacob clenched his beer glass. “Yes, but if she’s already married to a gifted man, I can at least spare her the humiliating experience of the breeding facilities.”
“And you think I’m the best possible choice? I’m not exactly known for winning the husband–of-the-year award.” Jack smiled grimly while he scraped a hand through his hair. “Besides, she’s quite a bit younger than I am. I could be her father, for crying out loud.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Jack, you’re forty-one. She just turned twenty-five. Besides, age isn’t really the main consideration in contracts like this.”
Jack sighed and took another sip of his beer before he nodded. “I know. The curse of being born as a gifted one.”
“Don’t be so sarcastic. You know the deal. Gifted women are married off to the most genetically compatible male and I don’t need to tell you about the standard mindset of those ‘arranged’ husbands.” His dark gaze held Jack’s. “I don’t want her to go through what her mother went through—or what you went through with your wife. Her mother and I could barely stand each other, and she killed herself when our daughter was twelve.”
“It would still be a forced contract. A forced marriage.”
Jacob sighed, and for a moment, his face reflected his age and the sorrows that troubled him; sorrows that came with their work, and with having a family whom one wanted to protect from the Aschen government. “Yes, but to be honest, there are men out there much worse than you.”
Jack shot him a wry look. “Thanks, that helps.”
“What I meant was, it’s too easy to get caught up in Aschen promises and chase after the rewards they offer for fathering children. I myself should have paid more attention to my wife’s feelings when I still had the time. Most of the gifted males are collaborators, and a lot of them will use force to make their wives comply.” Jacob gave a deep sigh. “You’ve never been one to chase after the promotions and monetary rewards for producing offspring. I know you would treat her with respect.” Jacob looked down into his glass.
The years of knowing the truth—of unsuccessfully fighting the Aschen—had taken its toll, Jack knew that. He himself sometimes felt as though the burden of the knowledge crushed his soul.
Still, another marriage? And an arranged one at that? He’d never go down that road again. Not after Sara had…
“I can’t tell you how much I had hoped her test would come back negative. Hell, I even made sure she got a higher dosage of vaccine than other children, in hopes she would not turn out…” He shook his head and gripped Jack’s arm tightly. “Please, Jack. I know you never intended to marry again, but if you ever thought you owe me anything for saving your life, now is the time to repay.”
“Hardly the time to play the guilt card, Jacob.” Jack’s grip on his glass tightened. “You have to understand what you’re asking of me here. I despised my marriage. Every single second of it. Even if I agreed to marry your daughter, the Aschen Ministry would expect her to get pregnant soon. I would have to…” He trailed off and closed his eyes. Never again. The first marriage the Aschen had forced him into was enough.
“She’s smart. A lot smarter than both of us. She’s a little spoiled, but kind-hearted. She’s not ugly either.”
“Oh, for crying out loud.” Jack pulled his arm out of the older man’s grip. “It’s not about attraction or beauty. I’ve never seen the girl, or talked to her. She hasn’t seen me. Does she even know you’re doing this?”
“No. She doesn’t even know that her test was positive yet. Chances are so slim, I don’t think she expects it.”
“Great.” Jack grimaced. “So she’d be infuriated at best.” He shook his head, wanting to add something, but Jacob didn’t let him finish.
“She’ll get over it. You’re an attractive man.”
“Oookay. I’m leaving now. This conversation just took a weird turn. No, actually it’s been weird since I got here.” He pulled a few silver coins to pay for his beer out of his pocket.
“Hell.” Jacob yanked him back down, his eyes blazing. “You think this is a joke?”
“Kinda hope it is.”
Jacob sighed. “Jack, what would you do if you had a daughter?”
“For starters, I certainly wouldn’t try to marry her off to you.” Okay, maybe the comparison wasn’t quite fitting, given Jacob’s advanced age. Still, asking somebody to marry their daughter was, at least in his book, not something you brought up in a five-minute-conversation. Jack sighed. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand where Jacob was coming from. As a matter of fact if it had been his daughter he might have come up with a similar solution. And yet.
“What can you tell me about her, character-wise? What does she like? I wanna know what I’d be getting myself into.” Oh great. He was already half-way agreeing.
Jacob was right, though. The older man had saved his lived all those years ago. Not just that, he’d been responsible for the way his life had turned out. He did owe him for that.
“Well, mostly she reads. She has a passion for sciences.”
Jack rolled his eyes. A geek girl. Great, just what he needed.
“I know what you think now, but you two would get along well.”
“I didn’t even know girls were allowed to attend universities again.”
“They aren’t. I had her homeschooled. Margareth and I hired the best teachers once we realized how smart she is. It was one of the few things we actually agreed on.”
“I see.” Didn’t really improve the matter. He tried to stay away from scientists as much as it was possible, and now Jacob wanted him to marry one? “Does she know about your work in our group?”
Jacob shook his head. “No. I never told her about the resistance. As far as she’s concerned, I’m one of the human officials in the Aschen Ministry—a collaborator.”
Jack folded his arms. “That might be a problem. I don’t have a cover job as you do. What do you expect me to tell her? Hell, I’m hardly ever anywhere else but at camp.”
“I was hoping that her knowledge and skills might benefit our cause. We could bring her in, Jack. You wouldn’t have to keep it secret.”
Jack closed his eyes and inhaled. He hadn’t planned on marrying, but it would be cruel to leave the poor girl to her fate. They didn’t have to get along well. They didn’t even have to be friends. They’d just have to have a child in one or two years to satisfy the Aschen government. The rest could be for appearances sake. “All right. I want her to agree to it, though. Otherwise the deal’s off. Do you at least have a photo of her?”
“Not with me, no. She has long, blonde hair, and blue eyes. She’s not very outgoing. I keep telling her to meet some friends, but she prefers to stay home and read. The only time she does go out is to hang out with this guy, Larek.” Jacob fisted his hands.
Jack raised his eyebrows, his jaw clenching. “Are you telling me she has a boyfriend?”
“No, I made it very clear to her that I don’t want her to start a serious relationship with him.”
“Yeah, cause that always works out.” Jack put his beer glass down more forcefully than intended. “Jeez, Jacob! Your daughter’s is in love with another guy.”
“He’s an Aschen.” Jacob held his gaze. “You know what’ll happen once he learns that she’s gifted. Listen, I’m not saying the situation is ideal. But I’d rather her heart was broken now to give her a chance at happiness, than to watch her get caught in the breeding system. You know what they do to women once they’re in those facilities.”
“You really think I’m a good choice? I’m sarcastic, involved in my work, I don’t exactly have a history of working relationships, and according to Dr. Jackson I can be quite an ass—his words, not mine.”
“You’re an honest man, Jack. I know you would never do anything to hurt her. The fact that you have these concerns just confirms your integrity. I want my daughter to have the chance of working in the sciences, and I know that you’ll make sure that happens.”
Jack inhaled deeply and finally nodded. “Alright. Fine. But I want her to consent. I won’t take another crying bride home, understood?”
Jacob lifted his hands in defeat. “Alright. She’s a reasonable young woman, I am sure she will come to terms with it. Do you want to make it official right away?”
“Might as well.”
Jacob pulled out a piece of paper, a formal marriage contract. Jack watched as the older man filled in the details. Jacob signed the paper before he handed the pen over to him. Jack thumped the pen on the paper. This was a bad idea, he just knew it. He put his signature under Jacob’s before he pushed it back over to him.
“All right.” Jacob nodded and his face brightened. “Congratulations. You’re now a married man.”
Jack growled and took a huge sip of his beer. Yep, this was probably one of the most ill advised choices of his entire life.