The year is 3289. It is spring, and a boy sits on a chaise-longue with his arms clasped around his knees. He-
“Phineas! Aren’t you proud of your brother?”
He blinked, snapped back from his private narrative. His mother stood over him, hands on hips; something challenging in her posture, and her eyes.
“Yes, it’s very impressive.”
“It is. It really is,” she said wryly, turning away. “We have to focus on the victories, don’t we?”
Phineas felt the burning shame and perversity of congratulating Felix, given the circumstances. What could he say? He couldn’t disagree; that would be to cast himself as beyond redemption. All he could do was nod bleakly.
Felix smiled at their mother. He didn’t gloat – he didn’t have to. He had barely spoken to Phineas since his return from the Academy with his news. Their father had lavished Felix in gruff praise; exaggerated, Phineas thought, with scornful glances in his direction.
He wished he could be anywhere else. This chair, this food, this house – he had been made painfully aware that he didn’t deserve them, and the act of taking up space here filled him with shame.
He had come home in disgrace several days ago. ‘The worst pupil at the Academy’, the schoolmaster had described him as while his mother had sat opposite, knuckles clenched white. Phineas had sat there next to her, cheeks burning.
Why am I here, as though I’m taking part in the discussion? He had thought. I’m the subject, not a participant. I’m the problem, not one of those trying to solve it.
The litany of infractions had been read out for this term. As usual, none were glamorous or interesting; just an endless series of minor non-compliances, petty acts of rebellion, lying, stupid displays of defiance and constant impediments to the smooth running of the institution. Nothing was noteworthy. Just a long list – evidence of a poor character.
When it was over he was suspended. The ride in the transporter had been silent and seething; the heavy quiet punctured occasionally by his mother’s exasperated comments or questions.
Why do you do it?
Well, that’s it for the Academy. You can’t exactly go back next year.
How do you think your father is going to face them? He’s on the Board. Don’t you know how embarrassing this will be for him?
And, most painfully:
I have to think about my own health, Phineas. I can’t keep doing this. This was the last time I’ll be your safety net.
He had sat there next to her, feeling utterly overwhelmed by the burning weight of it.
And then Felix had come home with his news. A scholarship to Imperial Naval Academy of Facece. Technically awarded for athletics, only three places for their year group had been awarded, and were keenly contested. The applicants had been vetted for their extra-curricular participation, community spirit and strength of character. The testimonials of his teachers and peers had been publicly displayed and Telera had looked about to burst with pride at seeing how they had spoken of her other twin son.
The Souvarines were determined that the prevailing atmosphere in the house would be jubilation. Phineas was barely spoken of, and wandered dumbly through the building as calls were made and congratulations given. Strangers and family friends asked him whether he was proud.
How does it feel, their eyes seemed to say, to be the black sheep?
Later that day they sat at supper. Slaves flitted quietly about the room as Father held court at the head of the table. Phineas prodded silently at his broccoli. The conversation tittered between what the Viscount had done, when he himself was a student at Facece; who was there now, which instructors he’d studied under. The patter washed over Phineas innocuously. He liked that – it made it seem like they were a normal family. Every now and then Telera’s voice would ring out in contrast to Father’s baritone, gleefully remembering something from the prospectus that had thrilled her.
“And what will you do next year Phineas, when you’re brother’s on his scholarship?” His mother asked mockingly, directing her attention to him for the first time that meal. “Looking for a job, most probably. Oh well,” she sighed in faux-despondency.
Felix looked sidelong at his brother from the other side of the table, his green eyes glinting.
“Phin, what is the point of your life?” He asked mischievously.
Phineas was struck by the inanity of the question.
“What ‘point’? What ‘point’ does anybody’s life have? What’s the ‘point’ of yours?”
Before Felix could reply Telera chimed in again.
“Felix’s life gives pleasure to lots of people. Pleasure and pride – didn’t you see the scholarship report? He has a point, Phin. Does your life actually have a point?”
Phineas stared at his mother for a second. This was so far beyond the way mothers were supposed to be, but he knew he had pushed her to this point over many years. She looked nearly manic, her eyes sparkling with exhaustion.
“Nobody’s life has a ‘point’! How fucking stupid,” he snapped, and threw his fork down.
“Sod this. Just fucking sod it,” he muttered. He ignored the bellowing roar from the Viscount’s end of the table and the screech from his mother, and stormed from the room.
Phineas shook his head, trying to see the corridor clearly. It was blurred. he dimly realised he was crying.
How fucking pathetic, he admonished himself.
Where to go? Not his bedroom; no freedom there, he’d be cornered. He turned around and headed for the front door. Happily, springtime was warm enough that he wouldn’t need a coat.
He strode off into the sunshine, leaving their hateful, formulaic world behind. His internal monologue started again quietly as he stomped into the garden.
The voice was soft, from behind him. He turned on the lawn. Standing in the flower bed was Sinjen, his home instructor and sometime gardener.
He stood looking at her and suddenly all the words left him. He was dimly aware that more tears were coursing their way down his cheeks, the sobs threatening to convulse his frame.
“Oh, Phineas.” Sinjen bent and dropped her cutters onto the soil. Brushing her hands together, she stepped on to the lawn and towards him. “Come here.”
The hug felt awkward and odd. Sinjen wasn’t family, she was a slave – indentured to his father. She had been a constant throughout their childhood. Phineas knew the Viscount didn’t like her, but they had shared a common understanding over the years that hadn’t needed defining. She was cerebral in a way the Souvarines could never understand. She understood the spaces between people, somehow; whereas Phineas’ family seemed to see people only as chin-jutting lists of achievements.
She led him over to an ornate, peeling bench and they sat down. Phin drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. She absent-mindedly put her hand on his hair and began to pat him. It was odd, slightly humiliating, kind and reassuring, all at the same time.
“It’s ok, Phin,” she said, the sun catching the silver in her hair. “We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of. Everyone. And you’re in a particular type of environment and it seems like the whole world, but it’s not.”
“What do you mean?” Phin snivelled.
She hesitated, finding words. “Well, it must seem as though the Academy is the world to you, right now. It must seem as though all of life is this house and the Academy. And the expectations of both must seem the most important things in the world.”
“I’m shit,” Phin blurted, more tears tracing their way saltily into the corners of his mouth. “I don’t know why. I’m just shit. Shit at life.
Speaking like this felt good. It felt cathartic. Swearing and self-loathing were a powerful concoction.
Sinjen didn’t react. “You’re not shit, Phin. The Academy just isn’t for you. Perhaps even this house isn’t much for you,” she mused.
“I know you. Being there brings out the worst in you. You hate it and you’re miserable there, but it’s all you can remember and it seems as though it’s all of life. So because you can’t fit in there you feel as though you can’t fit in to life.”
Phin sat quietly, her words settling into his mind.
“But that’s not ‘it’. Your parents’ expectations, and the Academy, and your marks, and sports, and ‘playing the game’ aren’t everything.” She sighed. “If only I could make you understand.”
Above them, the sky was cloudless, with no sign of the glowing orbs that would emerge at dusk, signifying the other planets. Sinjen nodded upwards vaguely.
“You know my brother’s out there?” She asked. “He’s a pilot. He’s been to other stars. He goes where he likes. He doesn’t worry about not being in a sports team, and he doesn’t have a school number. He doesn’t have to go to roll calls or wear a uniform. There are other ways of life, Phin. If only I could show you.”
Phin gazed at her, the tears drying on his face.
What, the way of life of slaves? Of the poor? How can that be the choice? He wanted to say, but knew it sounded churlish and hateful. She was trying to help.
He wanted to believe she was right, and that choosing any of these other lives wouldn’t come with massive condemnation from his family. How wonderful it would be to be that free, he thought – without knowing that, somewhere, his parents and their friends would be tutting knowingly, vindicated in their belief that he was never really ‘one of them’.
Her patting continued. “Just know that this isn’t all there is, Phin. Just know that one day, you’ll find a way of life that you love. You’ll be able to leave here. You’ll find something that brings out the best in you, not the worst. You’ll discover that you’re not ‘shit at life’ – this one just isn’t for you.”