Do you know how the universe began?

First there was Nothing. Then there was Everything. Not just some of Something, or even a lot of Something. Everything that ever could or would be—all potentialities, all certainties—existed in that incomprehensibly brief, violent moment, that white-hot singularity. Everything.

As Everything exploded and expanded, it also cooled and coalesced. In the hot wombs of the first stars, Everything transformed into the innumerable Somethings of the universe, then split open their mothers and scattered farther. The scattered Somethings came together again in new ways, only to make more Somethings and split apart and come together again and again.

The increasing emptiness of the universe was flecked with riots of color and, in at least one corner, life.

That life started small—microscopic, in fact. Much like the stars that had birthed everything they could be, they came together and fell apart and came together and fell apart over and again in an unwitting mummery of the beginning of the universe.

With each iteration of coming together and falling apart, there was Something New. It took some time, but those Somethings New grew increasingly more complex. Self-awareness burst forth both gradually and all at once in at least one lineage of the complex somethings.

In that self-awareness, the cosmos could observe itself, could come to know itself. It could infer its own Birth and witness the numerous births it gave forth. In seeing its many deaths, it could also infer its eventual Death.

The really interesting bits, though, were between the punctuations of birth and death. That’s when everything happens, and in those Happenings, there arose common themes: affection, repulsion, loyalty, betrayal, happiness, anger, fairness, injustice, serenity, desperation, elation, tragedy. And so. much. more.

The cosmos continues to observe itself through a vast multitude of fractured, imperfect eyes. It does not yet fully understand itself, but it understands beginnings, middles, and ends with some measure of hard-won, awful clarity.

#

My uncle died last week.

Like the cosmos, he had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end still hurts and is still a bit unbelievable, but the fifty-nine years in the middle are really where he existed. He was a complicated individual, and it would take me another fifty-nine years to describe him accurately to you. Anything less and I’d be romanticizing him as much as I romanticized the history of the cosmos.

My uncle was a big part of my life, a fixture. And now that fixture is gone, and I keep thinking it’s some kind of ill-advised joke. He was always a big man, even after the cancer and the chemo had waged their war on his body. Now that he’s reduced to ash, there’s nothing left even physically of that bigness. When I try to comprehend it, I get a 404 error. File not found.

I knew him my whole life, as you might expect, and he was by turns thrilling, annoying, surprising, disappointing, loving, distancing. He was incomprehensible sometimes, but he loved his family fiercely and would do anything for us. He was a wonderfully complicated human being who is now fixed forever in the past tense.

He was made of star stuff, and I think he lived up to that heritage. But even that thought—equal parts Carl Saganesque mysticism and literal truth—is a weak balm against the rawness of the present.

I just hope the cosmos knows itself a bit better having observed itself, ever so briefly, through his eyes.

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Running while a hypochondriac

Posted: November 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

A week ago, I went to Disney World and entered the larger community of runners by running my first 5K. I ran it in 39:00, which is slow as molasses but I did run it from beginning to end. As soon as I saw the finish line, I thought, “Already? Let’s do that again!” I take this reaction to mean I’m ready to face down training for a half-marathon.

For the past week, however, I have had the inconvenience of a very painful knee. Seriously, it’s been hard not to limp at times between my car and the building where I work. This morning is the first time I woke up without the pain, which tells me two things: 1) It’s time to start running again, and 2) Before I do, I need to get a knee brace.

My rational side doesn’t mind doing what I need to do to keep my body in one piece. The only problem is that to find the right kind of brace, I have to do research, which is like catnip for the hypochondriac in me. Here’s how it tends to go:

ME: “For general soreness.” Yep this is probably all I need.

HYPOCHONDRIAC ME: Are you sure? Have you even looked up your symptoms. I mean look at this one. It’s for patella tracking. Do you even know what patella tracking is?!

M: No, but—

HM: If you don’t know what it is, how do you know you don’t have it?

M: Well, then let’s look it up and see if it fits.

HM: I approve of this plan. So, what does Google say?

M: Google brought me to WebMD, which says patellar tracking disorder is caused by “the shape of the patella; too tight or too loose muscles and tendons in the leg, foot, or hip areas; damage to cartilage; and overuse.”

HM: OVERUSE! You were at Disney World! You walked all over that bitch for like three whole days!

M: Well, I suppose, but none of the other—

HM: OVERUSE! And probably cartilage damage too, for all you know.

M: I guess if I wanted to be sure I can always go to a doctor.

HM: And get some quack? Nonsense. You need a specialist.

M: Well, if it’s for my health—

SCROOGE McDUCK ME: Excuse me? A specialist? Will there be follow-up visits? Unnecessary prescriptions? Pointless tests? Will you have to miss work? Exactly how much is this going to cost?

HM: This is an A/B conversation, Scrooge. C your way out of it.

SME: No, no, no. I approved a budget that included one item: a knee brace. I’m shutting this down now before it goes too far.

What can I say? Some people have angels and demons sitting on their shoulders; I have a hypochondriac and an accountant. At least she didn’t try to convince me I have knee cancer or something.

Just out of curiosity, I wonder what Google has to say about knee cancer . . .

I’ve been taking inventory of my books lately (as in the kind of inventory that leads to me cataloging and then arranging my personal library as if it were an actual library—an ordered life is a good life), and I’ve come to realize something rather embarrassing: the number of writers of color are pretty sparse on my shelves. I can literally count the SFF writers of color on one hand: Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and Karen Lord.

I wish I could say, “But that’s just speculative fiction! The books I have outside my home genre are much more racially diverse!” Wrong again. Even there, I only have a little more than a dozen authors represented (of which Edwidge Danticat and Jewel Parker Rhodes might be included in my spec fic group as well, depending on how liberal your definition of the genre is). I own two of Danticat’s works, and my Butler is three books in one volume; every other author is represented only once on my shelves.

To put this disparity in perspective, I have roughly 1,000 books, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction combined (no, I have not read even nearly all of them—think more of Alaska Young’s Life Library). That leaves us with a ratio of roughly 1:50 for writers of color to the number of books I own.

I think there are a number of factors that have led to this little problem I’m having.

First, I read mostly on recommendations. Those recommendations come from family, friends, and bloggers and writers whose taste I trust. While this method is pretty good for general direction in finding something I’ll enjoy, it’s also a tad lazy and can easily lead to a “To Be Read” list that grows more and more insular over time. It’s comfortable, but comfort is not good soil for personal growth.

Second, I’ve focused mainly on finding and appreciating female authors in recent years. Here’s an interesting story. When I was in college I took a class that studied science fiction. Other than Mary Shelley and Judith Merril, there were no women included on the syllabus. The professor, bless his heart, acknowledged how heavily the required reading skewed male and explained that “women just weren’t writing science fiction until recently.” I appreciate that he took one step toward recognizing how unbalanced his syllabus was, but he took the easy way out and said, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” Frankly, that excuse is fucking bullshit. It’s also a cop out because it absolves the excuser of any responsibility in what she reads, as if reading is somehow a passive activity that happens to us rather than something we decide to do and how. This excuse is as bullshit when it’s applied to writers of color as when it’s applied to writers of the womanly persuasion. Ever since then, I’ve been slowly cultivating a mountain of evidence to counter his claim.

Third, our cultural climate is still not particularly friendly to emerging voices from historically marginalized and/or silenced groups. The books I own by writers of color are excellent, but some of them almost don’t count, especially Butler and Delany. That’s not to say that they’re not deserving of their place in SFF canon—in fact, they are brilliant and absolutely deserving of canonical status. It just doesn’t take much effort to find them. You practically trip over them on your way into the genre because they’ve been held up as paragons of writers of both genre and color, which is a dubious honor in a culture that substitutes real diversity with exceptionalism—and exceptionalism leads very easily to that bullshit assumption I just mentioned—that “well, there just aren’t that many [insert members of monolithic-yet-marginalized group] producing.” My personal library is pretty strong evidence that I’ve been complicit in this culture, however well-meaning I’ve intended or imagined myself to be.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying anyone other than me has to diversify their shelves. What I am saying is that I don’t feel like I’m getting as much out of my reading habits as I easily could if I just made more of an effort, and this failure derives primarily from my lazy selection process. Just as I (or anyone, one would hope) would reassess and change failing behaviors in any other area of my life, I’ve decided to change my failing reading behavior.

As miraculous as Google is to this end, however, I still want recommendations—I’m just being more specific about it this time around. I’ve been following Aliette de Bodard, Saladin Ahmed, and Wesley Chu on Twitter, so I’ll probably start with their work. That’s a start, but only a small one. Carrie Cuinn put together a list of Asian and Asian American authors earlier this year, and I think this list can serve as another good starting place. (Also, if you’re not reading Carrie Cuinn*, you really ought to. She’s wicked smart, and her style is refreshingly crisp and poignant.) While I’m finding my way through these starting places, I’d like to hear from anyone reading this post what else I should be reading if I want to expand my perspective as both a reader and a writer. Latino(a) and American Indian authors are most definitely my weakest points, if you have any direction there. I’m not looking for a dissertation or anything, but recommended good starting places (including blogs, websites, or other online communities) are welcome.

 

*I am keenly aware that in a post asking for direction on reading writers of color I’ve recommended two white writers. Both John Green and Carrie Cuinn are excellent, and I stand behind my recommendations of them. These facts/opinions are both independent from and indicative of the fact/opinion that I need the recommendations I’ve asked for to be a better reader and a better writer.

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2008. Well, I’m not sure writing a few hundred words really counts as “participating” for my first year, but at least my word counts have risen significantly with each passing year. And with each of those passing years, I’ve also learned something different about how I write and how I don’t write.

In previous years, I’ve learned that I am most definitely a planner; any attempt I’ve ever made to write a novel-length story on an image or a feeling has failed after about five pages. On the other hand, I’ve also learned that I’m susceptible to planning too much; I can get wrapped up in writing about the story I want to tell instead of just writing it.

Last year, I learned that I don’t write well with daily word counts, but I do write more with them. Kind of. I deleted a good 13,000 words of last year’s work and then had to make up that ground. So, while it’s true that I got good practice with what I’ve heard some writers call “butt glue,” I was also willing to let absolute shit onto the page just to reach my goal.

The true advantage to NaNoWriMo for me, then, is self-awareness: I’ve learned a bit more about the kind of writer I am with each passing year. I write during the rest of the year, as well, but the challenge of getting 50,000 words down in a month is a good way to gauge how much I’ve grown. It’s a test in fire.

One other very important tidbit I’ve learned about myself is that I do rather well with goals. In fact, the more specific and measureable the goals, the better I’m able to achieve them.

The overarching, baseline goal of the challenge is to commit 50,000 words of an entirely new novel (i.e., no actual writing has been done on it, apart from general planning documents) to paper / word processor. While I used to stick to this challenge religiously, I’ve learned to appreciate the spirit of the challenge, rather than the letter. I will always fail at someone else’s goal, especially when it’s one that will not benefit me either professionally or personally. The challenge will only be beneficial if I can take real ownership of it and try to achieve what I actually want to achieve.

So, nowadays, I work within the framework of the challenge, but I make it my own. These are the challenges I’ve set for myself this year.

Goal #1: Write 40,000 words to my current novel

Yes, I realize it’s short of the challenge, but my other goals will put me well above 50,000 words. Furthermore, it’s more in line with my general writing schedule of 1,000 words every weekday and 2,500 words every weekend day, which is more manageable with my daily commitments. That puts me at 10,000 words every week, which is a sizable chunk by itself.

This goal is the priority because it comes down to one basic premise: “Finish your shit.”

Goal #2: Finish revising one short story, and write the first draft of another one

While short stories and novels share many of the same elements (e.g., plot, character, resolution, etc.), they require and hone different skill sets. I wouldn’t normally try to write both so enthusiastically in the same short time period, but NaNo is a challenge! Challenge accepted!

I also find that writing shorter stories gives me the feelings of accomplishment and confidence that help me continue with my longer projects in good spirits. It’s a good feeling.

More to the point, however, I’m eager to improve my short-story writing skills because short-story markets are a good way to build writing credits. Yes, I know, I’m supposed to be “about the art” and “above being paid,” and to a certain extent I am. I truly enjoy the art of writing and find fulfillment in it. This feeling is the reason I aim to be a professional, not a hobbyist, and a professional gets paid, has a resume, and strategizes for opportunities. Part of my strategy for becoming a full-fledged professional is publishing in short-form markets, which is why finishing revising one story and writing the first draft of another is my second priority for this year’s challenge.

Goal #3: Write on this blog at least once a week

I enjoy writing on this blog, but it’s often a much lower priority than working on my fiction. Unfortunately, this hierarchy of importance has resulted in months-long spans in which I haven’t written anything here, especially when I’ve had contract work competing for my time.

The reason I don’t just give up on this blog, though, is because I really do enjoy it. I’ve learned to express opinions bravely here. I’ve learned to interact with strangers in the comments. I’ve exercised my nonfiction writing muscles, which have in turn benefited my fiction writing muscles.

I don’t share the opinion that blogs are necessary platforms for authors nowadays, but I do see a personal and professional benefit in them for me in particular. I’d like to spend this month committing myself to this blog at least once a week. That seems pretty reasonable, right? Still, it’s my third goal—and third priority—because my fiction writing will always be more important. I wish I could love all of my goals equally, just like I did with my dolls growing up (I had to, otherwise they would murder me in my sleep), but I’d go crazy if I tried to do that.

So, these are my goals. It’ll be challenging to meet them all, but that’s the point of NaNoWriMo. I’ll have to pass on social events, make sacrifices with my time, and maybe even lose a bit of sleep. It’ll be work, for sure, but that’s the covert aim of NaNoWriMo: to turn art into work so that we can finally work on our art.

Good luck, writerly types. It’s going to be a good month.

When I sit down to work, I invariable have music playing in the background. The noise drowns out other more distracting noises and provides a beat that I find keeps me focused. Pandora is a good tool for this because I can’t stand the commentary on normal radio shows, but sometimes I have a particular song or set of songs that I queue up to set a desired mood either for me or for the bit I’m writing.

One song that has made a frequent appearance on my queues lately is “Starships” by Nicki Minaj. I’m not a particular fan of Minaj, other than a handful of songs and her pleasantly weird persona. However, there’s a line in the chorus of this song that is a surprising reminder that I’ve added to my wall of writing advice: “Starships are meant to fly.”

Taken out of context, I like to think this line is a good reminder that something happening is part of what makes good stories good. For me, “Starships are meant to fly” equals “Make shit happen.” And considering that my chosen genre is science fiction, this line is relevant on more than just a metaphorical level.

The song itself isn’t particularly notable for me (other than that one line), and the official video is, um, enigmatic. But, there is a video by bironic on LiveJournal that is just about perfect in its ability to ignite both giddiness for my favorite works of science fiction on film/television and excitement for all the imagined futures that see us flung across the universe. I’ll just leave it right here for you to enjoy at your leisure.

New House Rules

Posted: August 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

Good day, kittens!

Well, that last post got quite a few views. Only one comment, and although it wasn’t a particularly bad comment, it did put me in mind of something I’ve been meaning to do for some time now. I’ve created a new page with what I think is a pretty good (starter) commenting policy for this site.

Don’t worry! I wasn’t thinking of any of you when I wrote the policy. I was more thinking of worst-case scenarios informed by some of the more horrific stories about abuse in comments sections that I’m aware of. I don’t expect I’ll need to enforce it very often (and hopefully future me is not shaking her head at my naivety), but I think it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Yes? Yes.

Now that that’s out of the way, how are you?

Because it’s really starting to turn my stomach at this point.

Yes. Her performance was an utter failure. But here’s an idea. How about we judge her as a performance artist and not as a slutty slut who sluts herself in public.

Here’s what I can’t grasp about the public reaction to this performance. Robin Thicke grinds against a girl sixteen years his junior as she performs live the choreography he already has in his music video—which has how many views again? Oh, right, nearly 153 million for the “clean” version and another 15 million for the “unrated” version. Got it—but all anyone can talk about is how Kanye was right about Cyrus ending up on a stripper pole.

Great job, everyone. Do you feel better now that you’ve let everyone know the things you do in bed or at the club are in no way similar to what Cyrus did?

And let’s go ahead and stop the concern trolling, Huffington Post—you’re supposed to be better than that. Because you know what I hear from a “concerned mom” telling a young woman she’s allowed to be sexually independent but go put some clothes on now—the same “concerned mom” who has nothing to say to Thicke, by the way? I hear the high-pitched caterwauling of hypocrisy. I hear the bone-shattering screech of someone who’s part of the problem that women face in our culture—that our bodies are not our own to do with as we please, but are public property up for consumption, debate, scrutiny, and consensus.

But oh how we love to clutch our pearls. How we love to deny women performers the liberty their job titles are supposed to afford them when they make a bad performance choice. How we love to make it personal and to attack personally. Because when a woman artist creates something, whether it’s a novel or a performance, it’s obviously a two-dimensional, mirror reflection of themselves, and nothing more than that. Accordingly, our judgment of the creation—in this case a performance—is indistinguishable from a judgment of the creator herself—in this case Cyrus. Thicke’s sorry excuse for an erotic music video in which he and his cohort (both fully clothed by the way—what kind of sexytimes are they planning to have exactly?) watch almost entirely naked women (in the explicit version) walking around and looking at the camera? A bold, controversial performance choice. Cyrus doing the same performance? Total slut. Thicke grinding on Cyrus—again a woman sixteen years his junior? Not worth a batted eye, let alone a grossed-out comment. Cyrus being the object of that grinding? Go find a pole, skank.

The public reaction is just about as embarrassing as the performance was at this point. It’s embarrassing that a major news source like CNN cleared the front page of their website to call a performance artist a slut and to encourage as many people as possible to do the same. Think about that for a second. They took the time and the real estate to let the nation know that a twenty-year-old woman—specifically one who has been an object of mass consumption most of her adult life—had the audacity to dance provocatively to a popular song about sex. Furthermore, we as a nation lost our shit over it. For days now. We might be on the brink of World War III, but OH MY GOD SHE DID WHAT AT THE VMAs, AN AWARDS SHOW THAT IN NO WAY HAS EVER ENGINEERED SCANDALOUS PERFORMANCES?! Further-furthermore CNN, the “worldwide leader in news,” is totally down with this journalistic priority, and the only people to call them out on it is The fucking Onion, not the public itself.

This thing—this extended conversation about what a slut Cyrus is for doing something that’s by no means as salacious as what’s on half of television at any given time—is a national embarrassment and it needs to stop.

Science Is Not Your Bitch

Posted: August 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

Like so many other people, I follow I Fucking Love Science on Facebook and Twitter. I’m not a scientist, but I consider myself moderately scientifically literate and a science enthusiast. I know a little bit about a lot of things scientific, but not enough about any one thing to consider myself even remotely an expert. Still, what I do know allows me to keep up with IFLS’s posts, which is great because they always make my day better. Reading her posts are for me, I think, what a daily devotional might be to a Christian: they’re a source of comfort, optimism, and awe. I mean just three weeks ago IFLS let me know that scientists in Germany STOPPED. LIGHT. Using crystals and quantum superposition, folks. How is that not the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard (until, of course, IFLS posts the next most amazing thing ever)? How can you not be humbled by an achievement like that?

If you follow IFLS, you may have seen her post today about the scientists in Hawaii and Turkey who took protein from jellyfish and inserted them into the DNA of cloned rabbits. One in four of the cloned rabbits born to this litter now glows in the dark. If we knew nothing else about why the scientists did this experiment, this feat in itself is freaking amazing. They took protein from one specie. They put it into another species. That second species now expresses exactly the trait it was meant to, and everyone is happy and healthy! Implications, people! All of them!

Even USA Today picked up the story. Here are some of the comments I came across with regards to the USA Today coverage:

  • “Good to know scientists are doing such useful things with their time.”
  • “Who needs a cure for cancer? Sheesh.”
  • “BTW science cancer is still not cured yet.”

And I am baffled. I have happened upon the exact sort of people who are completely unimpressed by the “awesome machinery of nature,” as dearly departed Carl Sagan put it.

I am also baffled by the question about why these scientist—who are studying ways to make hemophilia treatments more effective and efficient for patients, and glow-in-the-dark bunnies are just a cool-card carrying confirmation—have not yet cured cancer. Do diseases need to be cured in a certain order? Are hemophiliacs out of luck until cancer is cured?

I wonder also if these commentators on the goings on of the scientific world are aware that there are, oh, one or two other fields of scientific inquiry besides cancer. There are literally as many areas of expertise as there are experts because a scientist’s work is often her life’s work, regardless of who is giving her a paycheck. Did these people ask NASA about how their cancer research was coming when Curiosity landed on Mars? Was the fact that we hurled a robot from the Earth’s surface at a moving target that is 78.3 million kilometers away at its closest and that it landed in tact lost entirely on these people? Do these same people ask Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson to stop their silly science advocacy and get back in the cancer lab?

Yes, cancer is an important area of research, especially for a world in which medical advancements have given us lifespans long enough to actually get cancer at a higher rate. But it’s not the only conversation going on. Nor should it be. As humans, we have access to as many talents and perspective as there are minds willing to apply them toward as many ends as we can imagine; some of those minds will have no interest in curing cancer—or any other thing these people and those like them think everyone should be working on instead of whatever it is they are doing—because that’s neither their training nor their skill set. It behooves us as a people, as a species. to allow the people who are brilliant at what they do to continue being brilliant in exactly that thing that they do.

It disheartens me when I see people who are confronted with their own ignorance and choose to reinforce it with disaffection instead of treating it with curiosity (an attitude I am not claiming absolute immunity from, btw). It disheartens me when I realize that many of the people and organizations who have this particular affinity for ignorance also hold the checkbooks that fund research like the kind that was done in Hawaii and Turkey.

Then I go back to IFLS, and she has a cookie made of science and a cold, tall glass filled with awesome waiting for me to make me feel better. I find comfort knowing that despite all the odds, all the obstacles, all the naysayers, we are still doing science. We are still pushing back the boundaries of the known world. We are still solving puzzles and finding whole new veins of discovery. We are still trying to be better.

If that doesn’t work, I head to Symphony of Science until I am sufficiently inspired again. Here, you can have a cookie too.

“And, time,” said a bearded old man holding the syringe that would restore life to the year-dead patient on the table.
The syringe slid easily into her carotid artery, and after another thirty seconds, her eyes flitted open. The old man with the syringe frowned and set down his tool. “It’s taking longer for you to wake up each time, Priya.”
The young, previously dead woman looked around the sterile room, still dazed and black-lipped. Her mouth moved, but her vocal chords seemed still to need warming up before they could work. Her hand went limply to her throat and she began to massage it. The old man took her hand away gently and put it back at her side.
“You know the protocol,” he said and looked at her sternly. “No movement for at least an hour.”
A throat cleared itself on the other side of the table, where a woman in a fitted, pinstripe suit stood holding a leathern briefcase.
“Oh, yes, please forgive me. Priya, this woman standing beside you is Ms. Adele Singh, CPA. I’m sure the two of you have a great deal to talk about.”
Ms. Adele Singh smiled warmly at the supine young woman and brought her suitcase down heavily on the steel table.
“Congratulations, Ms. Kamala. You are the world-record holder for most years spent dead to avoid paying taxes. Thanks to some new tax legislation, you will remain the world-record holder, I believe. I suggest we take some inventory on how much your Douglasing has saved you.”
“I’d much prefer it if you discussed how much it’s cost her,” said the doctor loudly under his breath.
Ms. Adele Singh pretended not to hear him and clicked open her briefcase. “Dr. Needles over there has made no qualms over his objections to the toll being dead has taken on your health. But I assure you, Ms. Kamala, I’m on your side. If someone is going to go to the lengths you have to keep their money, I say they should be able to keep it. To that end, I have prepared a suite of options for you to continue your defiance of the tax collectors,” she removed a thick packet from the open briefcase and extended it to the woman on the table. “Oh,” she said and bit her lip, “well, I supposed I could just read them to you.”
Priya nodded and closed her eyes.
Ms. Adele Singh cleared her throat again and flipped through the pages. “Ah, here we go. The best option for you, I think, might be donating organs. You’re obviously a strong young woman who can undergo the rigors of death. In another six months you could be a prime candidate for growing organs while dead. If you do, the government has promised to forgive all taxable income for such a worthy, life-saving endeavor. You see, Ms. Kamala, we have not been asleep at our jobs while you’ve been dead.”
“I object absolutely, Priya,” said the doctor. “You promised this would be the last time you spent a year dead. I don’t know how much longer I can continue to bring you back. And besides, suppose I was hit by a car or a massive heart attack while you were gone. Would you trust anyone else to bring you back unharmed?”
Ms. Adele Singh sneered and continued, “Financially speaking, this is the best option for Ms. Kamala. It’s by no means the only one, doctor.”
“You’re wrong. It’s not an option at all.”
“Very well,” the accountant said and sighed. “Item number two: Widows and widowers who bequeath their estates to—”
“Ms. Singh!” shouted the doctor.
Priya was beginning to come out of her dazed state and blinked her disbelief.
Ms. Adele Singh’s hand went to her mouth and she gasped. “Oh my! I am terribly sorry. I thought it was an exciting challenge to try to beat the tax laws. It never occurred to me you didn’t know.”
“Ms. Singh, I’m afraid we’ve kept you too long. I’m sure you have somewhere else to be.”
The woman in the pinstripe suite opened her mouth to protest, but stopped. She nodded, replaced it the packet in her suitcase and clicked it shut. She turned and left the room without another word.
The bearded doctor took Priya’s hand and put his other hand against her head. Tears were already beginning to stream down her cheeks.
“This isn’t how I wanted you to know,” he said and squeezed her hand.
After a moment of quiet sobbing, Priya looked over at the table with the syringes and then back at the doctor. He followed her glance, then shook his head.
“Give it some time,” he said. “You can always dodge taxes some other day.”

Dagmar’s lungs began to burn again, so she took another breath from the tank. It was easy to plan to ration breaths from the tank before the mission; it was always different once she was in the field. She made a note to hold back until she could get some better compensation from her client.

“Aren’t you curious to know what this rare ingredient is?” the synthesized voice in her ear whispered.

“The parameters said I’d know it when I saw it, Essi. I don’t make a habit of asking questions my clients don’t want to answer.”

“That seems like a dangerous standard operating procedure.”

“Believe me, it’s no more dangerous than asking questions.”

“This seems like a lot of trouble to go through just for a gourmet dish.”

“Well, you’re an AI. What would you know about food?”

“And you live on freeze-dried nutrients. What would you know?”

“I think that’s exactly why I’d know about it. Now shut up. I have to concentrate.”

She took another breath and approached the final door. She entered the passcode she’d memorized, and the door slid open. The instructions had been right: there was only one thing in the room.

“I don’t think that’s what you’d normally call an ‘ingredient,’” the voice in her ear said.

In the middle of the floor was a rothari youth, maybe female based on the color of its skin. Dagmar sighed and shook her head; the little tentacled thing didn’t look like much, but she could fetch a handsome price in some of the higher social circles that wanted the delicacy of eating a sentient species without the taboo of cannibalism. The young rothari spoke, but Dagmar had no comprehension of what she said. It sounded more like popping bubbles than words.

“Maybe a question or two was in order?” the voice in her ear said.

“Shut up, or shut down. Your choice,” she murmured as she closed and sealed the door behind her.

The little thing looked up at Dagmar and began to knot and unknot its tentacle-like appendages. She rubbed her eyes in the palms of her hands.

“You have a contract, Dagmar,” the voice reminded her.

“I know!”

“Why is she here, anyway? Why isn’t she at home? She’s obviously too young to be in a place like this one on her own.”

“I don’t know!”

“What are you going to do?”

Dagmar looked up again and peered at the youth. She had no idea why this child was here in this locked room alone, but she couldn’t think of a single altruistic reason for it.

The young rothari extended its tentacles toward Dagmar, not unlike a human toddler asking to be picked up. She reached for the outstretched tentacles, and the small thing moved surprisingly fast up her arms. It wrapped itself around her rested its head against Dagmar’s shoulder. This close, she could hear the child struggling to breathe and felt her tremble.

“Ma’am?”

“Houdini protocol, Essi. We’re going to have to lay low for a while. And it looks like we have a new addition to the ship.”