Tasha is an offering to the Andreni, and she does not want to go.
It's an honor, one given to only to those among most accomplished in tests at the end of the schooling years. They are filtered, rigorously: academia, fitness, genetic markers tracked on entrance to the Academy. All are destined for great things, they're told: escape from the gravity well, entrance into the Fleet, settlement on far, terraformed planets. Some will have berth on great generation ships, scientists to tend laboratories in the long night between stars.
One, however, every ten years, is pulled from graduation. There is one who must pay the price for the technology uplifting humanity from the cradle of old Mother Earth, and Tasha, red-haired and sharper than any in her class, is the one.
She doesn't know of course. Not until the end of the ceremony, when, after her classmates have been called one by one to their assignments, given their diplomas, given a wreath of laurels. Called last, she is not given her rolled papers, not given the laurels. The old Headmaster, his head wreathed in a crown of implants, his eyes sparking with minute displays of ships between the stars and the vital statistics of his school, embraces her, both smiling and sad. He places a pomegranate in her hand, and she knows, then, that she will never see her classmates again.
Susan tells her it's unfair. Alexis tells her what she already knows: only ten out of the Academies are called every ten years, and she'll be given a ship to captain, they'll be back together in a few months when Selection ends. The Andreni don't ask often for Offerings, and they are selective.
Trig, her boyfriend, is furious. "We were supposed to be stationed together!" he says, accusing her like she'd had a choice. "You've ruined everything!"
Tasha doesn't see how she had anything to do with it, but he slaps her anyway, leaving a hard, swelling bruise on her freckled cheek. The police come to take him away, and the diploma Trig wanted so badly is stripped, condemning him a groundling for the rest of his life.
She hopes, for the two weeks before they come to take her to old Canaveral, that the imperfection will stay, that her supposed beauty will be ruined enough to keep her from the Offering selection.
The imprint of Trig's hand is gone in fourteen days, though, and when they come to get her, she doesn't have the heart to try to talk them out of it.
The Offering class is nine other girls, none of whom are stupid enough to weep with the Minders around them, watching them for any chance of fleeing or madness. They eye each other warily, in the old barracks, territorial, unwilling to commit to friendships in the five days they're confined.
Each day is monotonous, full of medical tests, full of figures on great screens, full of mathematical models and helmets filled with electronics. They are fed on the best foods, prepared by some of the finest chefs in the world. They are treated with great respect. When Au Singh collapses on the second day after the tests, she is taken away carefully. Later, they find out she will be an astrogator aboard the starship Black Crane.
"Lucky cow," Elena curses later, in the dormitory. "Lucky blighter, she's gotten out of it then, hasn't she? Guess that shows how perfect their tests are." But she's got bags under her eyes like the rest of them, and they're all pale from blood sampling.
When Elena collapses the next day at breakfast, she dies before her head hits the ground, and Tasha turns her face away, too tired to mourn.
Treadmills. Tasha keeps running, feels like a rat in a cage, an experiment as the scientists benchmark her heart rate. Vitals flash around her across the screens of the room. Her legs tremble. Sweat pours down her form. Somewhere to her right, a Brazilian girl screams, goes still, passes out. Motes of light dance across Tasha's vision, sparkles of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. She hopes, with every aching tendon and muscle, that she too will pass out and be taken away.
No. The belts wind down after five more minutes. When the Brazilian wakes up later, she smiles like a child and speaks in tongues. She is taken away like Au Singh.
None of them speak Portuguese, and now, none of them ever will.
By the fifth day, there are five frightened girls filing into the conference room, pale and tired from the tests and exertions. The haute cuisine stopped the night before: they are fed nutritious broths and vitamin drinks and given sleeping pills in the night. Later, Tasha learns, entirely by accident, that out of the last girls, three hung themselves and another attempted drowning.
The drowned one survived and was Offered. She refuses to think about it.
There are no diplomas, no laurel crowns. They are simply called one by one, and she is second, daring to hope that it means escape from her duty. The last girl, Tae, is crying and frightened at the table.
Tasha refuses to cry, even when she finds her parents waiting for her, sobbing their eyes dry. They already know. She already knows. She will never see them again.
They are all kind to her for the last few hours, and they take away the exercise pants, the tight-fitting, sensor-ridden top. She is washed clean and sterilized, she is injected with strange things that burn and make her sleepy. The Andreni ship is like a wide, steel-forged coffin in the side of a rocket ship, and she sees herself in the readouts, briefly, red-haired and clutching a pomegranate in her folded hands, a halo of gold and silver around her.
She sleeps for longer than an age, shorter than the blink of an eye, and when she wakes up for the last time, the juice of the pomegranate is sticky between her fingers and the electronics are cool and twining like vines around her arms and her limbs and under the sticky embrasure of her eyes. In the brilliant light of an alien sun, she sees spaceships, like golden petals, ringing the coronal reaches.
Through her watering eyes, they dance like in her field of vision like a thousand angels on the head of a pin. And then her ship is drawn into the network, another petal adrift on the sea of sunfire and data, and Tasha dissolves away.
The network whispers between the ships, picking up the scent of pomegranate, the thousand angels ringing the alien sun murmuring welcome in a spike of bandwidth and raw data before falling into quiescence.
Forgotten, the fruit drifts frozen in space, shedding bloody seeds over Tasha cum Persephone.
The Offering is complete.
Postscript: I dreamed this last year, the girl fired off into the stars for reasons unknown, going through tests and ceremonies and hoping not to be chosen. I remember a girl like poor Elena being distraught, remember frightened, quiet girls and the smell of pomegranates, and Golden Age rocketships waiting for a burden of girl to go off to the stars. This happens ten years later... I think there must have been a different Elena, this time around.
Tasha didn't exist in the dream, just me, and my hair is nothing like crimson.