Tonight Beena and Sigrun stood side by side, watching Q. Gul stir as the Systems nurses woke her. The queen was afforded minimal cognizance from her usual rendered state. At 280, she was now chemically lulled most of the time, but she’d be awake for hours tonight. It was her birthday.

Beena glanced at her petite partner Sigrun, who’d recently shorn her silver hair into a clean orb, uniform and straightforward like her. Beena’s heavy gray braid lay in subtle contrast down her spine, atop the cool cowhide vest she wore for special occasions. This same braid she’d woven for a hundred years tethered her to some dimming nucleus of herself.

Beena had felt nothing for Sigrun recently. When Sigrun slipped her cold hand around Beena’s waist at night, she’d burrow into sleep’s abyss. When Sigrun whispered sweet words in her ear, she felt a rising nausea. Sigrun seemed not to notice the absence of Beena’s affection and carried on as she always had, exacting and habitual.

It was Selle who consumed Beena’s thoughts now. Selle and her herbaceous scent and cascade of wild, nut-brown curls. Selle and her verve, her sex. With growing frequency, Beena slipped into the shadowy pine forest, where Selle waited for her among the amber needles, her mountainous body warm, her thick limbs offering a steely embrace. Beena would climb and caress her, worshiping the wild majesty that awoke in her an ardor long dormant.

Beena longed to join Selle’s raw and tactile life, her own impotent in contrast. Selle’s life in Systems carried an inherent danger as mutinous rogue cells rose and fell in constant swells outside the Court. But her life also had an intrinsic vitality that Beena’s existence lacked. As part of the nutritional division, Selle dealt in verdant energy, giving life. Beena’s currency was caution and defense, always looking for danger. Beena had helped Selle achieve Court verified status to be closer to her more often, intermixing their worlds.

Beena longed to switch divisions, hop the fence, and start over with Selle. But switching divisions at midlife was ill-advised, resigning from the inner Court ludicrous. Nonetheless, she saw only death ever-nearing, inalterable, on her life’s horizon, just a million obedient steps away. As depression darkened Beena’s life, Selle became the light she longed for, unable to see without. And the more she reached for Selle, the more Sigrun felt like a mooring chain.

Beena and Sigrun met in an early season of life. As children, they caught the eye of the Caretakers for their vigilant nature, setting them on the path towards Court, where they climbed the ranks to become Sharpshooters IV and X. Their life’s mission was ensuring queen Q. Gul met a natural death. They lived comfortably in exchange for her protection. They paired soon after their appointments, which seemed inevitable with their similarities so stark and endless. They moved in together, sharing quarters on the Court campus for over a century now.

Q. Gul had reigned over the planets of Essouk Circle since 6140, following her mother’s natural death at 308, when she’d gone out like a snuffed candle in her rendered sleep state. Her daughter Gul ascended quickly but failed to sustain the adoration of her people. She’d inherited her mother’s throne, but not her charisma.

Beena and Sigrun shared an easy partnership with their home and Court duties easily divided and their passions — Beena’s time travel and Sigrun’s meditation — readily fulfilled. For nearly 130 years, this was plenty — and something other Court partners admired in them.

But their passion was more a steady glow than a flame and no longer enough to warm Beena from the chill of age that had set into her bones. She saw her own decline in the wrinkled hands of Sigrun, her fading beauty in the creases around Sigrun’s ice-blue eyes. Resentment gave way to repulsion for her orderly, predictable partner, whose habits — once appealing — came to look sickly in their predictability. Beena longed for Sigrun to indulge in something outside her meal pills, cast meditation aside for a day, and break from the structured life they’d built that now felt like a prison. Beena felt a mounting urge to flee.

Tonight Beena watched the Systems workers fill the cellar for Q. Gul’s event. She hoped and feared that Selle would be among them and, sure enough, those nut-brown curls appeared, her two strong arms carrying bowls of berries. Electricity coursed through Beena as she watched Selle place them aside a mountain of cell-cultured meats and numerous elixir fountains. Selle bit her lip, sending a longing through Beena so great she could barely breathe.

Beena and Sigrun sat together, their pistols hidden and flat against their abdomens, unneeded tonight when only the verified had access. Beena watched Selle as she smiled at a fellow System, jealousy nearly blinding her. Selle exited through an archway then. Beena could remain seated, there with Sigrun, or steal a moment with Selle. Without a word, she stood and followed her young lover, who wound through a long corridor to the cleansing room. Beena found her waiting, and in a flurry, they expressed their passion, feverish and reckless.

As Beena returned to her seat, the holographic strings quartet blinked in advance of their final song. A sense of invigoration flooded Beena as she cast her eyes around this stone vault, thinking it might be the last occasion she spent inside its tomb-like walls. She knew then that she’d leave it soon. She’d switch out of this monotony, abandoning its silvers and charcoals for deep emeralds and amber shades with Selle.

She noticed the towering figure of her love approach Q. Gul, nearly floating as Beena watched her, thinking she might be the most lovely creature that ever existed. Selle gazed back, locking eyes with her just as Beena felt Sigrun’s fingers on her leg, tapping.

“Look,” Sigrun said. With her eyes trained on Selle, she bounced her leg, shooing Sigurn away like a bug.

She then noticed a glint at Selle’s side, a dagger drawn up in Selle’s grip. Its blanched hue matched the exposed white throat of Q. Gul, and she realized with terror what Selle had planned.

Her Selle was not her Selle at all. She was Selle’s pawn, an old fool who simply paved the way for mutiny in the Court. Before she could move, Beena saw specks of skin and blood fly onto the stone wall behind Selle and Q. Gul.

“It’s over,” she whispered. The queen was dead. But then she saw the oblivious queen reach for a lingonberry as Selle collapsed behind her, lifeless. She disappeared but not before Beena glimpsed the dark red hole on her temple.

“Try to exercise better judgment with the next one,” said Sigrun through gritted teeth as she set her pistol atop the great granite slab before them. Selle’s blood pooled in a dark ruby sea as Beena reached for Sigrun’s hand, and Sigrun flicked her away.

(round 2 Honorable Mention short story for NYC Midnight 2022. prompt: sci-fi about a midlife crisis)



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