Reprint Series

To Follow the Waves by Amal El-Mohtar

This month’s story reprint is from multi-award-winning author Amal El-Mohtar, and it originally appeared in Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft (Torquere Press, 2011).

This was one of the first steampunk stories I ever read which buckled the genre trend of white, Anglo colonialism. The author’s programmatic essay Towards a Steampunk Without Steam, from 2010, created controversy simply by pointing out that steampunk could be more than Victorian England. Then this following story illustrated how it could be done. Now there are diverse steampunk anthologies, websites, cosplay and more. But this story was at the forefront of the change, and it stayed with me ever since.

I am happy to say that there is a free audio podcast of To Follow the Waves in Podcastle, but I was surprised to learn when I wanted to link it that the text itself was not available anywhere online. This reprint will hopefully fill that longstanding gap.

– Bogi
To Follow the Waves by Amal El-Mohtar

Hessa’s legs ached. She knew she ought to stand, stretch them, but only gritted her teeth and glared at the clear lump of quartz on the table before her. To rise now would be to concede defeat—but to lean back, lift her goggles and rub her eyes was, she reasoned, an adequate compromise.

Her braids weighed on her, and she scratched the back of her head, where they pulled tightest above her nape. To receive a commission from Sitt Warda Al-Attrash was a great honour, one that would secure her reputation as a fixed star among Dimashq’s dream-crafters. She could not afford to fail. Worse, the dream Sitt Warda desired was simple, as dreams went: to be a young woman again, bathing her limbs by moonlight in the Mediterranean with a young man who, judging by her half-spoken, half-murmured description, was not precisely her husband.

But Hessa had never been to the sea.

She had heard it spoken of, naturally, and read hundreds of lines of poetry extolling its many virtues. Yet it held little wonder for her; what pleasure could be found in stinging salt, scratching sand, burning sun reflected from the water’s mirror-surface? Nor did swimming hold any appeal; she had heard pearl divers boast of their exploits, speak of how the blood beat between their eyes until they felt their heads might burst like over-ripe tomatoes, how their lungs ached with the effort for hours afterwards, how sometimes they would feel as if thousands of ants were marching along their skin, and though they scratched until blood bloomed beneath their fingernails, could never reach them.

None of this did anything to endear the idea of the sea to her. And yet, to carve the dream out of the quartz, she had to find its beauty. Sighing, she picked up the dopstick again, tapped the quartz to make sure it was securely fastened, lowered her goggles, and tried again.

#

Hessa’s mother was a mathematician, renowned well beyond the gates of Dimashq for her theorems. Her father was a poet, better-known for his abilities as an artisanal cook than for his verse, though as the latter was full of the scents and flavours of the former, much appreciated all the same. Hessa’s father taught her to contemplate what was pleasing to the senses, while her mother taught her geometry and algebra. She loved both as she loved them, with her whole heart.

Salma Najjar had knocked at the door of the Ghaflan family in the spring of Hessa’s seventh year. She was a small woman, wrinkled as a wasp’s nest, with eyes hard and bright as chips of tourmaline. Her greying hair was knotted and bound in the intricate patterns of a jeweller or gem-cutter—perhaps some combination of the two. Hessa’s parents welcomed her into their home, led her to a divan and offered her tea, but she refused to drink or eat until she had told them her errand.

“I need a child of numbers and letters to learn my trade,” she had said, in the gruff, clipped accent of the Northern cities. “It is a good trade, one that will demand the use of all her abilities. I have heard that your daughter is such a child.”

“And what is your trade?” Hessa’s father asked, intrigued, but wary.

“To sculpt fantasies in the stone of the mind and the mind of the stone. To grant wishes.”

“You propose to raise our daughter as djinn?” Hessa’s mother raised an eyebrow.

Salma smiled, showing a row of perfect teeth. “Far better. Djinn do not get paid.”

#

Building a dream was as complex as building a temple, and required knowledge of almost as many trades—a fact reflected in the complexity of the braid-pattern in which Hessa wore her hair. Each pull and plait showed an intersection of gem-crafting, metal-working, architecture and storytelling, to say nothing of the thousand twisting strands representing the many kinds of knowledge necessary to a story’s success. As a child, Hessa had spent hours with the archivists in Al-Zahiriyya Library, learning from them the art of constructing memory palaces within her mind, layering the marble, glass, and mosaics of her imagination with reams of poetry, important historical dates, dozens of musical maqaamat, names of stars and ancestors. Hessa bint Aliyah bint Qamar bint Widad…

She learned to carry each name, note, number like a jewel to tuck into a drawer here, hang above a mirror there, for ease of finding later on. She knew whole geographies, scriptures, story cycles, as intimately as she knew her mother’s house, and drew on them whenever she received a commission. Though the only saleable part of her craft was the device she built with her hands, its true value lay in using the materials of her mind: she could not grind quartz to the shape and tune of her dream, could not set it into the copper coronet studded with amber, until she had fixed it into her thoughts as firmly as she fixed the stone to her amber dopstick.

#

“Every stone,” Salma said, tossing her a piece of rough quartz, “knows how to sing. Can you hear it?”

Frowning, Hessa held it up to her ear, but Salma laughed. “No, no. It is not a shell from the sea, singing the absence of its creature. You cannot hear the stone’s song with the ear alone. Look at it; feel it under your hand; you must learn its song, its language, before you can teach it your own. You must learn, too, to tell the stones apart; those that sing loudest do not always have the best memories, and it is memory that is most important. Easier to teach it to sing one song beautifully than to teach it to remember; some stones can sing nothing but their own tunes.”

Dream-crafting was still a new art then; Salma was among its pioneers. But she knew that she did not have within herself what it would take to excel at it. Having discovered a new instrument, she found it unsuited to her fingers, awkward to rest against her heart; she could produce sound, but not music.

For that, she had to teach others to play.

First, she taught Hessa to cut gems. That had been Salma’s own trade, and Hessa could see that it was still her chief love: the way she smiled as she turned a piece of rough crystal in her hands, learning its angles and texture, was very much the way Hessa’s parents smiled at each other. She taught her how to pick the best stones, cleave away their grossest imperfections; she taught her to attach the gem to a dopstick with hot wax, at precise angles, taught her the delicate dance of holding it against a grinding lathe with even greater precision while operating the pedal. She taught her to calculate the axes that would unlock needles of light from the stone, kindle fire in its heart. Only once Hessa could grind a cabochon blindfolded, once she learned to see with the tips of her fingers, did Salma explain the rest.

“This is how you will teach songs to the stone.” She held up a delicate amber wand, at the end of which was affixed a small copper vice. Hessa watched as Salma placed a cloudy piece of quartz inside and adjusted the vice around it before lowering her goggles over her eyes. “The amber catches your thoughts and speaks them to the copper; the copper translates them to the quartz. But just as you build your memory palace in your mind, so must you build the dream you want to teach it; first in your thoughts, then in the stone. You must cut the quartz while fixing the dream firmly in your mind, that you may cut the dream into the stone, cut it so that the dream blooms from it like light. Then, you must fix it into copper and amber again, that the dream may be translated into the mind of the dreamer.

“Tonight,” she murmured quietly, grinding edges into the stone, “you will dream of horses. You will stand by a river and they will run past you, but one will slow to a stop. It will approach you, and nuzzle your cheek.”

“What colour will it be?”

Salma blinked behind her goggles, and the lathe slowed to a stop as she looked at her. “What colour would you like it to be?”

“Blue,” said Hessa, firmly. It was her favourite colour.

Salma frowned. “There are no blue horses, child.”

“But this is a dream! Couldn’t I see one in a dream?”

Hessa wasn’t sure why Salma was looking at her with quite such intensity, or why it took her so long a moment to answer. But finally, she smiled—in the gentle, quiet way she smiled at her gems—and said, “yes, my heart. You could.”

Once the quartz was cut, Salma fixed it into the centre of a copper circlet, its length prettily decorated with drops of amber, and fitted it around Hessa’s head before giving her chamomile tea to drink and sending her to bed. Hessa dreamed just as Salma said she would: the horse that approached her was blue as the turquoise she had shaped for a potter’s husband a few nights earlier. But when the horse touched her, its nose was dry and cold as quartz, its cheeks hard and smooth as cabochon.

Salma sighed when Hessa told her as much the next day. “You see, this is why I teach you, Hessa. I have been so long in the country of stones, speaking their language and learning their songs, I have little to teach them of our own; I speak everything to them in facets and brilliance, culets and crowns. But you, my dear, you are learning many languages all at once; you have your father’s tasting tongue, your mother’s speech of angles and air. I have been speaking nothing but adamant for most of my life, and grow more and more deaf to the desires of dreamers.”

#

Try as she might, Hessa could not coordinate her knowledge of the sea with the love, the longing, the pleasure needed to build Sitt Warda’s dream. She had mixed salt and water, touched it to her lips, and found it unpleasant; she had watched the moon tremble in the waters of her courtyard’s fountain without being able to stitch its beauty to a horizon. She tried, now, to summon those poor attempts to mind, but was keenly aware that if she began grinding the quartz in her present state, Sitt Warda would wake from her dream as tired and frustrated as she herself presently felt.

Giving in, she put down the quartz, removed her goggles, rose from her seat and turned her back on her workshop. There were some problems only coffee and ice cream could fix.

#

Qahwat al Adraj was one of her favourite places to sit and do the opposite of think. Outside the bustle of the Hamadiyyah market, too small and plain to be patronised by obnoxious tourists, it was a well-kept secret tucked beneath a dusty stone staircase: the servers were beautiful, the coffee exquisite, and the iced treats in summer particularly fine. As she closed the short distance between it and her workshop, she tried to force her gaze up from the dusty path her feet had long ago memorised, tried to empty herself of the day’s frustrations to make room for her city’s beauties.

There: a young man with dark skin and a dazzling smile, his tight-knotted braids declaring him a merchant-inventor, addressing a gathering crowd to display his newest brass automata. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he called, “the British Chef!” and demonstrated how with a few cranks and a minimum of preparation, the long-faced machine could knife carrots into twisting orange garlands, slice cucumbers into lace. And not far from him, drawn to the promise of a building audience, a beautiful mechanical, her head sculpted to look like an amira’s head-dress, serving coffee from the heated cone of it by tipping forward in an elegant bow before the cup, an act that could not help but make every customer feel as if they were sipping the gift of a cardamom-laced dance.

Hessa smiled to them, but frowned to herself. She had seen them all many times before. Today she was conscious, to her shame, of a bitterness towards them: what business had they being beautiful to her when they were not the sea?

Arriving, she took her usual seat by a window that looked out to Touma’s Gate, sipped her own coffee, and tried not to brood.

She knew what Salma would have said. Go to the sea, she would have urged, bathe in it! Or, if you cannot, read the thousands of poems written to it! Write a poem yourself! Or, slyly, then, only think of something you yourself find beautiful—horses, berries, books—and hide it beneath layers and layers of desire until the thing you love is itself obscured. Every pearl has a grain of sand at its heart, no? Be cunning. You cannot know all the world, my dear, as intimately as you know your stones.

But she couldn’t. She had experimented with such dreams, crafted them for herself; they came out wrapped in cotton wool, provoking feeling without vision, touch, scent. Any would-be dream crafter could do as well. No, for Sitt Warda, who had already patronised four of the city’s crafters before her, it would never do. She had to produce something exquisite, unique. She had to know the sea as Sitt Warda knew it, as she wanted it.

She reached for a newspaper, seeking distraction. Lately it was all airships and trade agreements surrounding their construction and deployment, the merchant fleets’ complaints and clamour for restrictions on allowable cargo to protect their own interests. Hessa had a moment of smirking at the sea-riding curmudgeons before realising that she had succumbed, again, to the trap of her knotting thoughts. Perhaps if the sea was seen from a great height? But that would provoke the sensation of falling, and Sitt Warda did not want a flying dream…

Gritting her teeth, she buried her face in her hands—until she heard someone step through the doorway, sounding the hollow glass chimes in so doing. Hessa looked up.

A woman stood there, looking around, the early afternoon light casting a faint nimbus around her, shadowing her face. She was tall, and wore a long, simple dark blue coat over a white dress, its embroidery too plain to declare a regional origin. Hessa could see she had beautiful hands, the gold in them drawn out by the midnight of the blue, but it was not these at which she found herself staring. It was the woman’s hair.

Unbound, it rippled.

There was shame in that, Hessa had always felt, always been taught. To wear one’s hair so free in public was to proclaim oneself unbound to a trade, useless; even the travellers that passed through the city bound knots into their hair out of respect for custom, the five braids of travellers and visitors who wished themselves known as such above anything else, needing hospitality or good directions. The strangeness of it thrilled and stung her.

It would perhaps not have been so shocking were it one long unbroken sheet of silk, a sleek spill of ink with no light in it. But it rippled, as if just released from many braids, as if fingers had already tangled there, as if hot breath had moistened it to curling waves. Brazen, thought Hessa, the word snagging on half-remembered lines of English poetry, brazen greaves, brazen hooves. Unfamiliar words, strange, like a spell—and suddenly it was a torrent of images, of rivers and aching and spilling and immensity, because she wanted that hair in her own hand, wanted to see her skin vanish into its blackness, wanted it to swallow her while she swallowed it—

It took her a moment to notice the woman was looking at her. It took another for Hessa to flush with the understanding that she was staring rudely before dropping her gaze back to her coffee. She counted to seventy in her head before daring to look up again: by the time she did, the woman was seated, a server half hiding her from Hessa’s view. Hessa laid money on the table and rose to leave, taking slow, deliberate steps towards the door. As soon as she was outside the coffee house, she broke into a run.

Two nights later, with a piece of finely shaped quartz pulsing against her brow, Sitt Warda Al-Attrash dreamed of her former lover with honeysuckle sweetness, and if the waves that rose and fell around them were black and soft as hair, she was too enraptured to notice.

#

Hessa could not stop thinking of the woman. She took to eating most of her meals at Qahwat al Adraj, hoping to see her again—to speak, apologise for what must have seemed appalling behaviour, buy her a drink—but the woman did not return. When she wasn’t working, Hessa found her fingertips tracing delicate, undulating lines through the gem dust that coated her table, thighs tightly clenched, biting her lip with longing. Her work did not suffer for it—if anything, it improved tremendously. The need to craft flooded her, pushed her to pour the aching out into copper and crystal.

Meantime, Sitt Warda could not stop speaking of Hessa, glowing in her praise; she told all her wealthy friends of the gem among dream-crafters who dimmed all others to ash, insisting they sample her wares. Where before Hessa might have had one or two commissions a week, she began to receive a dozen a day, and found herself in a position to pick and choose among them. This she did—but it took several commissions before she saw what was guiding her choice.

“Craft me a dream of the ruins of Baalbek,” said one kind-eyed gentleman with skin like star-struck sand, “those tall, staggering remnants, those sloping columns of sunset!” Hessa ground them just shy of twilight, that the dreamt columns might be dimmed to the colour of skin darkened by the light behind it, and if they looked like slender necks, the fallen ones angled slant as a clavicle, the kind-eyed gentleman did not complain.

“Craft me a dream of wings and flight,” murmured a shy young woman with gold-studded ears, “that I might soar above the desert and kiss the moon.” Hessa ground a cabochon with her right hand while her left slid between her legs, rocking her to the memory of long fingers she built into feathers, sprouted to wings just as she moaned a spill of warm honey and weightlessness.

Afterwards, she felt ashamed. She thought, surely someone would notice—surely, some dreamer would part the veils of ecstasy in their sleep and find her burning behind them. It felt, awkwardly, like trespass, but not because of the dreamers; rather, it seemed wrong to sculpt her nameless, braidless woman into the circlets she sold for crass money. It felt like theft, absurd though it was, and in the aftermath of her release, she felt guilty, too.

But she could not find her; she hardly knew how to begin to look. Perhaps she had been a traveller, after all, merely releasing her hair from a five-braided itch in the late afternoon; perhaps she had left the city, wandered to wherever it was she came from, some strange land where women wore their hair long and wild and lived lives of savage indolence, stretching out beneath fruit trees, naked as the sky—

The flush in her cheeks decided her. If she couldn’t find her woman while waking, then what in the seven skies was her craft for, if not to find her in sleep?

#

Hessa had never crafted a dream for her own use. She tested her commissions, sometimes, to ensure their quality or correct an error, but she always re-cast the dream in fresh quartz and discarded the test-stone immediately, throwing it into the bath of saltwater-steam that would purify it for re-working into simple jewellery. It would not do, after all, for a silver necklace or brass ring to bear in it the echo of a stranger’s lust. Working the hours she did, her sleep was most often profound and refreshing; if she dreamt naturally, she hardly ever remembered.

She did not expect to sleep well through the dream she purposed.

She closed shop for a week, took on no new commissions. She hesitated over the choice of stone; a dream crafted in white quartz could last for up to three uses, depending on the clarity of the crystal and the time she took in grinding it. But a dream crafted in amethyst could last indefinitely—could belong to her forever, as long as she wanted it, renewing itself to the rhythm of her thoughts, modulating its song to harmonise with her dream-desires. She had only ever crafted two dreams in amethyst, a matched set to be given as a wedding gift, and the sum she commanded for the task had financed a year’s worth of materials and bought her a new lathe.

Reluctantly, she chose the white quartz. Three nights, that was all she would allow herself; three nights for a week’s careful, loving labour, and perhaps then this obsession would burn itself out, would leave her sated. Three nights, and then no more.

She wondered if Salma had ever done anything of the sort.

#

For three days, she studied her only memory of the woman, of her standing framed in the doorway of Qahwat al Adraj, awash in dusty light; she remembered the cut of her coat, its colour, and the woman’s eyes focusing on her, narrowing, quizzical. They were almost black, she thought, or so the light made them. And her hair, of course, her endless, splendid, dreadful hair, curling around her slim neck like a hand; she remembered the height of her, the narrowness that made her think of a sheathed sword, of a buried root, only her hair declaring her to be wild, impossible, strange.

Once the woman’s image was perfectly fixed in her thoughts, Hessa began to change it.

Her stern mouth softened into hesitation, almost a smile; her lips parted as if to speak. Hessa wished she had heard her voice that day—she did not want to imagine a sound that was not truly hers, that was false. She wanted to shift, to shape, not to invent. Better to leave her silent.

Her mouth, then, and her height; she was probably taller than Hessa, but not in the dream, no. She had to be able to look into her eyes, to reach for her cheeks, to brush her thumb over the fullness of her lips before kissing them. Her mouth would be warm, she knew, and taste—

Here, again, she faltered. She would taste, Hessa, decided, of ripe mulberries, and her mouth would be stained with the juice. She would have fed them to her, after laughing over a shared joke—no, she would have placed a mulberry in her own mouth and then kissed her, yes, lain it on her tongue as a gift from her own, and that is why she would taste of mulberries while Hessa pressed a hand to the small of her back and gathered her slenderness against herself, crushed their hips together…

It took her five days to build the dream in her thoughts, repeating the sequence of her imagined pleasures until they wore grooved agonies into her mind, until she could almost savour the dream through her sleep without the aid of stone or circlet. She took a full day to cast the latter, and a full day to grind the stone to the axes of her dream, careful not to miss a single desired sensation; she set it carefully into its copper circlet.

Her fingers only trembled when she lifted it onto her head.

#

The first night left her in tears. She had never been so thoroughly immersed in her art, and it had been long, so long since anyone had approached her with a desire she could answer in kisses rather than craft. She ached for it; the braidless woman’s body was like warm water on her skin, surrounded her in the scent of jasmine. The tenderness between them was unbearable, for all that she thirsted for a voice, for small sighs and gasps to twine with her own. Her hair was down-soft, and the pleasure she took in wrapping it around her fingers left her breathless. She woke tasting mulberries, removed the circlet, and promptly slept until the afternoon.

The second night, she nestled into her lover’s body with the ease of old habit, and found herself murmuring poetry into her neck, old poems in antique meters, rhythms rising and falling like the galloping warhorses they described. “I wish,” she whispered, pressed against her afterwards, raising her hand to her lips, “I could take you riding—I used to, when I was little. I would go riding to Maaloula with my family, where almond trees grow from holy caves, and where the wine is so black and sweet it is rumoured that each grape must have been kissed before being plucked to make it. I wish,” and she sighed, feeling the dream leaving her, feeling the stone-sung harmony of it fading, “I wish I knew your name.”

Strangeness, then—a shifting in the dream, a jolt, as the walls of the bedroom she had imagined for them fell away, as she found she could look at nothing but her woman’s eyes, seeing wine in them, suddenly, and something else, as she opened her mulberry mouth to speak.

“Nahla,” she said, in a voice like a granite wall. “My name is—”

Hessa woke with the sensation of falling from a great height, too shocked to move. Finally, with great effort, she removed the circlet, and gripped it in her hands for a long time, staring at the quartz. She had not given her a name. Was her desire for one strong enough to change the dream from within? All her dream-devices were interactive to a small degree, but she always planned them that way, allowing room, pauses in the stone’s song which the dreamer’s mind could fill—but she had not done so with her own, so certain of what she wanted, of her own needs. She had decided firmly against giving her a name, wanting so keenly to know the truth—and that voice, so harsh. That was not how she would have imagined her voice…

She put the circlet aside and rose to dress herself. She would try to understand it later that night. It would be her final one; she would ask another question, and see what tricks her mind played on her then.

But there would be no third night.

That afternoon, as Hessa opened her door to step out for an early dinner at Qahwat al Adraj, firm hands grasped her by the shoulders and shoved her back inside. Before she could protest or grasp what was happening, her braidless woman stood before her, so radiant with fury that Hessa could hardly speak for the pain it brought her.

“Nahla?” she managed.

“Hessa,” she threw back in a snarl. “Hessa Ghaflan bint Aliyah bint Qamar bint Widad. Crafter of dreams. Ask me how I am here.”

There were knives in Hessa’s throat—she felt it would bleed if she swallowed, if she tried to speak. “…How?”

“Do you know,” she was walking, now, walking a very slow circle around her, “what it is like,”—no, not quite around, she was coming towards her but as wolves did, never in a straight line before they attacked, always slant, “to find your dreams are no longer your own? Answer me.”

Hessa could not. This, now, felt like a dream that was no longer her own. Nahla’s voice left her nowhere to hide, allowed her no possibility of movement. Finally, she managed something that must have looked enough like a shake of her head for Nahla to continue.

“Of course you wouldn’t. You are the mistress here, the maker of worlds. I shall tell you. It is fascinating, at first—like being in another country. You observe, for it is strange to not be at the centre of your own story, strange to see a landscape, a city, an ocean, bending its familiarity towards someone not yourself. But then—then, Hessa—”

Nahla’s voice was an ocean, Hessa decided, dimly. It was worse than the sea—it was the vastness that drowned ships and hid monsters beneath its sparkling calm. She wished she could stop staring at her mouth.

“—Then, you understand that the landscapes, the cities, the oceans, these things are you. They are built out of you, and it is you who is bending, you who is changing for the eyes of these strangers. It is your hands in their wings, your neck in their ruins, your hair in which they laugh and make love—”

Her voice broke, there, and Hessa had a tiny instant’s relief as Nahla turned away from her, eyes screwed shut. Only an instant, though, before Nahla laughed in a way that was sand in her own eyes, hot and stinging and sharp.

“And then you see them! You see them in waking, these people who bathed in you and climbed atop you, you recognise their faces and think you have gone mad, because those were only dreams, surely, and you are more than that! But you aren’t, because the way they look at you, Hessa, their heads tilted in fond curiosity, as if they’ve found a pet they would like to keep—you are nothing but the grist for their fantasy mills, and even if they do not understand that, you do. And you wonder, why, why is this happening? Why now, what have I done—”

She gripped Hessa’s chin and forced it upward, pushing her against one of her work tables, scattering a rainfall of rough-cut gems to the stone floor and slamming agony into her hip. Hessa did not resist anything but the urge to scream.

“And then,” stroking her cheek in a mockery of tenderness, “you see a face in your dreams that you first knew outside them. A small, tired-looking thing you saw in a coffee house, who looked at you as if you were the only thing in the world worth looking at—but who now is taking off your clothes, is filling your mouth with berries and poems and won’t let you speak, and Hessa, it is so much worse.”

“I didn’t know!” It was a sob, finally, stabbing at her as she forced it out. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—I didn’t know, Nahla, that isn’t how it works—”

“You made me into your doll.” Another shove sent Hessa crumpling to the floor, pieces of quartz marking her skin with bruises and cuts. “Better I be an ancient city or the means to flight than your toy, Hessa! Do you know the worst of it?” Nahla knelt down next to her, and Hessa knew that it would not matter to her that she was crying, now, but she offered her tears up as penance all the same.

“The worst of it,” she whispered, now, forefinger tracing one of Hessa’s braids, “is that, in the dream, I wanted you. And I could not tell if it was because I found you beautiful, or because that is what you wanted me to do.”

They stayed like that for some time, Hessa breathing through slow, ragged sobs while Nahla touched her head. She could not bring herself to ask, do you still want me now?

“How could you not know?” Nahla murmured, as she touched her, as if she could read the answer in Hessa’s hair. “How could you not know what you were doing to me?”

“I don’t control anything but the stone, I swear to you, Nahla, I promise,” she could hear herself babbling, her words slick with tears, blurry and indistinct as her vision. “When I grind the dream into the quartz, it is like pressing a shape into wet clay, like sculpture, like carpentry—the quartz, the wax, the dopstick, the grinding plate, the copper and amber, these are my materials, Nahla! These and my mind. I don’t know how this happened, it is impossible—”

“That I should be in your mind?”

“That I, or anyone else, should be in yours. You aren’t a material, you were only an image—it was never you, it couldn’t have been, it was only—”

“Your longing,” Nahla said, flatly. “Your wanting of me.”

“Yes.” Silence between them, then a long-drawn breath. “You believe me?”

A longer silence, while Nahla’s fingers sank into the braids tight against Hessa’s scalp, scratching it while clutching at a plaited line. “Yes.”

“Do you forgive me?”

Slowly, Nahla released her, withdrew her hand, and said nothing. Hessa sighed, and hugged her knees to her chest. Another moment passed; finally, thinking she might as well ask, since she was certain never to see Nahla again, she said, “Why do you wear your hair like that?”

“That,” said Nahla, coldly, “is none of your business.”

Hessa looked at the ground, feeling a numbness settle into her chest, and focused on swallowing her throat-thorns, quieting her breathing. Let her go, then. Let her go, and find a way to forget this—although a panic rose in her, that after a lifetime of being taught how to remember, she had forgotten how to forget.

“Unless,” Nahla continued, thoughtful, “you intend to make it your business.”

Hessa looked up, startled. While she stared at her in confusion, Nahla seemed to make up her mind.

“Yes.” She smirked, and there was something cruel in the bright twist of it. “I would be your apprentice! You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To make my hair like yours?”

“No!” Hessa was horrified. “I don’t—I mean—no, I wouldn’t like that at all.” Nahla raised an eyebrow as she babbled, “I’ve never had an apprentice. I was one only four years ago. It would not—it would not be seemly.”

“Hessa.” Nahla stood, now, and Hessa rose with her, knees shaky and sore. “I want to know how this happened. I want to learn—” she narrowed her eyes, and Hessa recoiled from what she saw there, but forgot it the instant Nahla smiled. “—how to do it to you. Perhaps then, when I can teach you what it felt like, when I can silence you and bind you in all the ways I find delicious without asking your leave—perhaps then, I can forgive you.”

They looked at each other for what seemed an age. Then, slowly, drawing a long, deep breath, Hessa reached for a large piece of rough quartz, and put it in Nahla’s hand, gently closing her fingers over it.

“Every stone,” she said, quietly, looking into her wine-dark eyes, “knows how to sing. Can you hear it?”

As she watched, Nahla frowned, and raised the quartz to her ear.

~~~~~

Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning author and critic: her short fiction has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and her poetry has won the Rhysling award three times. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies including The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories, and The New Voices of Fantasy, as well as in magazines such as Tor.com, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside, as well as in her own collection of poems and very short stories, The Honey Month (Papaveria Press, 2009).

She also writes the Otherworldly column for the New York Times, reviews books for NPR, plays the harp, and lives in Ottawa with her spouse and two cats, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa. This is How You Lose the Time War, a novella co-written with Max Gladstone, is forthcoming in 2019 from Saga Press. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com or on Twitter @tithenai.

Call for Submissions

Call For Submissions: Rosalind’s Siblings

Rosalind’s Siblings is an anthology of speculative stories about people of marginalized genders/sexes who are scientists: scientists doing good, changing the world, or just getting on with their work of expanding human knowledge in a speculative context, presented in a positive light. This anthology is named for Rosalind Franklin, the so-called Dark Lady of DNA, one of the most famously erased female scientists in history, and a direct relation of the founder of Galli Books. The anthology is being edited by Bogi Takács.

The stories do not need to problematize gender/sex, though this is also welcome, and we would like to publish a mix of approaches. We are generally interested in positive portrayals of science and the protagonists doing research, but this can include a critical reappraisal. (E.g., we would very much like to see stories in which science is decolonized and/or Indigenized, or in some other ways incorporates approaches beyond Western neo-positivism.) We are not interested in “mad scientist” tropes or “evil science.” We are also not interested in disability cure narratives and related tropes, unless they are actively subverted / deconstructed.

Stories must contain a speculative element. We are happy to read works from any speculative subgenre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, magical realism, fabulism, mythic work, Weird fiction and so on. Any amount of science detail is welcome with thoughtful engagement.

Protagonists can be trans and/or nonbinary people, women, intersex people, genderqueer or gender-nonconforming people, people of culturally specific genders/sexes, and any combinations thereof. They do not need to identify as women, feminine or femme specifically, but those stories are particularly welcome; as are stories with trans, nonbinary and/or intersex men or masculine protagonists. Protagonists can have any sexual orientation.

You do not need to belong to any marginalized group to submit, but we are very happy to consider submissions from people who belong to underrepresented / marginalized groups in speculative fiction, including Black, Indigenous people and/or people of color, non-Western and/or non-Anglophonic people, migrants, QUILTBAG+ people, disabled, chronically ill and/or neuroatypical people. We welcome people from all letters of the QUILTBAG+, including trans, intersex, asexual, aromantic and bisexual people, who are more commonly ignored. Please don’t self-reject!

You do not need to disclose your marginalizations in your cover letter, but you are welcome to do so. Please send submissions to galli-books@galli-books.co.uk with “ROSALIND” in the subject line and the story title. Format submissions reasonably close to Standard Manuscript Format, and send them in .doc, .odt, .rtf formats, or .pdf if the story has unusual formatting that needs to be preserved. Please do NOT send .docx files.

Submissions open on 1st November and close on 1st December. Please do not submit outside that window.

We pay £0.08/word upon signed contract and are interested in previously unpublished short stories between 500 and 7500 words, and nonfiction essays on our theme.

Reprint Series

Cutting by Ken Liu

This month’s reprint is a fantasy flash story by Ken Liu that originally appeared in Electric Velocipede, 2012 (ed. John Klima).

I am a fan of experimental formats, and this story achieves much in a space of just 500 words using the cutout technique: an examination of religion, memory, tradition. It was one of my favorite flash stories the year it came out, and I was sad to see it go offline, though it was reprinted in the Best of Electric Velocipede anthology. Now you are able to read it online again. (Make sure you scroll all the way to the end.)

I cannot unhear that last sentence.

– Bogi.
Cutting by Ken Liu

At the top of the mountain, far above the clouds, the monks of the Temple of Xu spend their days cutting words from their holy book.

The monks’ faith originated a long time ago. They deduce this by the parchment on which the Book is written, which is brittle, wrinkled, and damaged by water in places so that the writing is hard to read. The Abbot, the oldest monk in the temple, recalls that the Book already looked like that when he was a young novice.

“The Book was written by people who walked and talked with the gods.” The Abbot
pauses to let his words sink into the hearts of the young monks sitting in neat rows before him. “They recorded what they remembered of their experiences, and so to read the Book is to hear the voices of the gods again.” The young monks touch their foreheads to the stone floor, their hands splayed open in prayer.

But the monks also know that the gods often spoke obscurely, and human memory is a fragile and delicate instrument.

“Think of the face of a childhood friend,” the Abbot says. “Hold that image in your mind and write a description of it, giving as much detail as you can marshal.

“Now think of that face again. It has changed subtly in your memory. The words you used to describe that face has replaced some portion of your memory of it. The act of remembering is an act of retracing, and by doing so we erase and change the stencil.

“So it was with the people who composed the Book. In their zeal and fervor they
wrote what they believed to be the truth, but they got many things wrong. They were only human.

“We study and meditate upon the words of the Book so that we may excavate the truth buried in layers of metaphor.” The Abbot strokes his long, white beard.

And so, each year, the monks, after many rounds of debates, agree upon additional words to cut out of the Book. The bits of excised parchments are then burnt as an offering to the gods.

In this way, as they prune away the excess to reveal the book beneath the Book, the story behind the story, the monks believe that they are also communing with the gods.

Over the decades, the Book has grown ever lighter, its pages riddled with holes, openings, voids where words once rested, like filigree, like lace, like a dissolving honeycomb.

“We strive not to remember, but to forget.” The Abbot says, as he cuts out another word from the Book.

# # #

At the top of the mountain, far above the clouds, the monks of the Temple of Xu spend their days cutting words from their holy book.
The monks’ faith originated a long time ago. They deduce this by the parchment on which the Book is written, which is brittle, wrinkled, and damaged by water in places so that the writing is hard to read. The Abbot, the oldest monk in the temple, recalls that the Book already looked like that when he was a young novice.
“The Book was written by people who walked and talked with the gods.” The Abbot
pauses to let his words

sink into the hearts of the young monks sitting in neat rows before him. “They recorded what they remembered of their experiences, and so to read the Book is to hear the voices of the gods again.” The young monks touch their foreheads to the stone floor, their hands splayed open in prayer.
But the monks also know that the gods often spoke obscurely, and human memory is a fragile and delicate instrument.
“Think of the face of a childhood friend,” the Abbot says. “Hold that image in your mind and write a description of it, giving as much detail as you can marshal.
“Now think of that face again. It has changed subtly in your memory. The words you used to describe that face has replaced some portion of your memory of it. The act of remembering is an act of retracing, and by doing so we erase and change the stencil.
“So it was with the people who composed the Book. In their zeal and fervor
they wrote what they believed to be the truth, but they got many things wrong. They

were only human.
“We study and meditate upon the words of the Book so that we may excavate the truth buried in layers of metaphor.” The Abbot strokes his long, white beard.
And so, each year, the monks, after many rounds of debates, agree upon additional words to cut out of the Book. The bits of excised parchments are then burnt as an offering to the gods.
In this way, as they prune away the excess to reveal the book beneath the book, the story behind the story, the monks believe that they are also communing with the gods.
Over the decades, the Book has grown ever lighter, its pages riddled with holes, openings, voids where words once rested, like filigree, like lace, like a dissolving honeycomb.
“We strive not to remember, but to forget.” The Abbot says, as he cuts out another word from the Book.

# # #

At the top of the mountain, far above the clouds, the monks of the Temple of Xu spend their days cutting words from their holy book.
The monks’ faith originated a long time ago. They deduce this by the parchment on which the Book is written, which is brittle, wrinkled, and damaged by water in places so that the writing is hard to read. The Abbot, the oldest monk in the temple, recalls that the Book already looked like that when he was a young novice.
“The Book was written by people who walked and talked with the gods.” The Abbot pauses to let his words sink into the hearts of the young monks sitting in neat rows before him. “They recorded what they remembered of their experiences, and so to read the Book is to hear the voices of the gods again.” The young monks touch their foreheads to the stone floor, their hands splayed open in prayer.
But the monks also know that the gods often spoke obscurely, and human memory is a fragile and delicate instrument.
“Think of the face of a childhood friend,” the Abbot says. “Hold that image in your mind and write a description of it, giving as much detail as you can marshal.
“Now think of that face again. It has changed subtly in your memory. The words you used to describe that face has replaced some portion of your memory of it. The act of remembering is an act of retracing, and by doing so we erase and change the stencil.
“So it was with the people who composed the Book. In their zeal and fervor they wrote what they believed to be the truth, but they got many things wrong. They were only human.
“We study and meditate upon the words of the Book so that we may excavate the truth buried in layers of metaphor.” The Abbot strokes his long, white beard.
And so, each year, the monks, after many rounds of debates, agree upon additional words to cut out of the Book. The bits of excised parchments are then burnt as an offering to the gods.
In this way, as they prune away the excess to reveal the book beneath the book, the story behind the story, the monks believe that they are also communing with the gods.
Over the decades, the Book has grown ever lighter, its pages riddled with holes, openings, voids where words once rested, like filigree, like lace, like a dissolving honeycomb.
“We strive not to remember, but to forget.” The Abbot says, as he cuts out another word from the Book.

~~~~~~

A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is the author of The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (The Grace of Kings (2015), The Wall of Storms (2016), and a forthcoming third volume) and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016), a collection. He also wrote the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker (2017).

Reprint Series

RE (For CEO’s Approval) Text for 10th anniversary exhibition for Operation Springclean by JY Yang

Today’s story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 launch issue of the sadly short-lived Bahamut magazine, publishing literary fiction with an international focus by many noted speculative authors.

These days, JY Yang is best-known for their queer silkpunk novella series, The Tensorate, while this story could be best described as contemporary bureaucratic horror. It uses an experimental format that will nonetheless be familiar to most of us, that of work emails and document revisions. Despite the grim subject matter of a mutant rat invasion, I found myself grinning and nodding. Enjoy seeing the mechanisms of civil service laid bare…

– Bogi.

Content notice: The story involves animal attacks on people, including children, and animal extermination.

RE (For CEO’s Approval) Text for 10th anniversary exhibition for Operation Springclean by JY Yang

From: CHUA Kee Yong (NLB)
Date: Monday, 24 June, 2024 at 2:15 PM
To: Siti Noriati bte AHMAD (NLB)
Cc: TANG Yen-Nee Lisa (NLB), Arianne MARTIN (NLB), Magnus CHEN (NLB), Dorothy POON (MINDEF)

Subject: (For CEO’s Approval) Text for 10th anniversary exhibition for Operation Springclean

Siti,
See my changes & comments. Please discuss with Lisa before sending to me again.
Tks.


From: Siti Noriati bte AHMAD (NLB)
Date: Monday, 24 June, 2024 at 10:56 AM
To: CHUA Kee Yong (NLB)
Cc: TANG Yen-Nee Lisa (NLB), Arianne MARTIN (NLB), Magnus CHEN (NLB), Dorothy POON (MINDEF)
Subject: (For CEO’s Approval) Text for 10th anniversary exhibition for Operation Springclean

Dear Kee Yong,

We’ve edited the text for the panels to be put in the 10th year anniversary exhibition in August for National Day, and are seeking your approval before we send it to print.
Thanks!

Regards,
Siti

INTRODUCTORY BILLBOARD

Ten years ago, Singapore faced its biggest crisis since the Communist conspiracies of the 1980s and the escape of Mas Selamat in the early 2000s. For two weeks the nation united to fight the scourge of Grenade rats. The enemy was small, nimble, and deadly, tunneling under our hills and homes and threatening our lives. But eventually Singaporeans, and Singapore, prevailed.

In this special exhibition curated by the National Library, we take a look back at Operation Springclean, and the people who made it possible.

PANEL 1

Heading: Attack On Baby Clarice

Text: It was a normal evening on the 6th of December, 2014. 23-month-old Clarice Lee was out on a Saturday evening walk with her mother in the Bukit Batok Nature Reserve when the toddler was set upon by a dozen rats on a walking path near the playground, and pulled into the trees nearby.

Several bystanders heard her mother’s screams and immediately came to the rescue, plunging into the forest and fighting off the rampaging rats, some of them with their bare hands.

Although Clarice was immediately sent to KK Hospital, she unfortunately succumbed to her injuries and died later that evening.

NSman Amos Chua was out for his usual evening jog that evening when he heard Mrs Lee screaming. “I didn’t even think about it. I wanted to save that little girl. After jungle training, you think rats are nothing.” He suffered cuts and bites in the incident.

There were signs around warning us about the rats,” said Ms Sadhana Kapoor, another one who came to help. She usually did her marathon training at the nature reserve on weekends. “So we knew we were taking risks. But none of us expected the rats to actually attack and kill a child. It was horrifying.” delete

The five heroes who rescued Clarice from the rats were later given an Outstanding Citizen Award.

Media:

– Photos of Clarice from the family
– Sunday Times, 7th December 2011, front page, “Shock over baby killed by wild rats” (visual)
– Straits Times photos of Clarice’s funeral & cremation procession, including picture of the PM
– Interview excerpt from The New Paper, 8th December 2011, Pg3, “They were a nice, ordinary family”

“You don’t expect something like that to happen, especially in your neighborhood… they invited Clarice’s first month. She was very cute little girl, even though we don’t see her so much because both parents are working.

“Actually, we knew there were a lot of rats around already. Last time, got a lot of monkeys, but now all rats. Sometimes they will run out onto the pavements, I heard they snatched things from people before

.Now I’m also scared, I asked my two sons to avoid that area. I hope the Government can do something.” —Mrs Chan, neighbour to the Lee family

PANEL 2

Heading: Enter The Exterminators

Text: The incident shocked a nation used to that took pride in its safe and clean parks. Calls for action came from every quarter, some more strident than others. A task force was immediately assembled to address the problems, headed by NParks and helped by the Bukit Batok Town Council.

The Sunday after Clarice was killed, a team of 21 pest exterminators assembled at Bukit Batok Nature Reserve. The reserve had been sealed off to public, but a large group of concerned bystanders and gawkers gathered to watch the proceedings. Many people were invested in seeing the threat to the local area contained.

The exterminators were armed with ropes and poisons and traps. It seemed certain that the situation would be resolved simply.

But it was not to be.

Media:

– Video loop: Channel 5 and CNA news reports, including interview with one of the exterminators transcript??
– Photos of the extermination operation from various media sources (including citizen journalism photos) please vet this with me

PANEL 3

Heading: No Ordinary Rats

Text: On the first day the exterminators killed 71 rats. The public welcomed these results, but the exterminators knew they had only scratched the surface. From the size and complexity of the warrens they found in the dirt they knew this rat colony numbered in many hundreds. It was one of the worst rat infestations they had seen in their lives.

On Monday, the day many had to return to work, disaster struck. The exterminators, digging in the ground in the centre of the warren, triggered a concealed pocket full of noxious gas and toxins. The rats had sprung a trap of their own. Two exterminators had to be sent to the hospital.

Grenade rats are not like normal rats,” said Mohd Hassan, one of the exterminators in the team. “They’re very smart. Sometimes they can use tools. Macam fighting army like that, not easy to kill. I got rid of some nests before, but this one, is king, first time I saw something like that.” Edit this quote, we are not a fish market

But worse was to come. The exterminators, digging further, found that the tunnels led straight to the drainage system of the Park Connector Network. The bulk of the rats had escaped the hill. The hunt was on.

That night, the Prime Minister took to the airwaves to make an important announcement.

Sidebar: About Grenade Rats

Grenade rats are a special breed of rat that were designed by scientists for use in experiments. They were specially modified and selected for their high intelligence and complex brains, and are used in scientific laboratories worldwide to help understand human behaviour and the human brain. Because they are so smart, however, it is sometimes a challenge to keep them contained. There have been instances of Grenade rats escaping from labs all over the world, despite the best efforts of their minders. However, due to the tight social connections they form with each other, In the wild, they are highly unlikely to mate with normal wild rats, and generally pose no problems to the public. This is why the attack on baby Clarice was particularly shocking.

Media:

– NParks photo of the 71 rats killed on day 1
– Stock photos of Grenade rats
– NParks photos of the day’s operations

PANEL 4

Heading: Operation Springclean begins

Text: On the evening of 8th November, the Prime Minister appeared on national television to announce the beginning of Operation Springclean. The rats were a threat to public safety and they could be anywhere on the island. It was a situation that required swift and drastic measures.

The armed forces were mobilized. A state of emergency was declared, but only because rats are nocturnal and a curfew needed to be implemented so the army could hunt safely at night without endangering the public. Life would go on as usual for as much as possible, he promised.

The hunt for the rogue rats faced many challenges. Although Grenade rats are larger than ordinary rats on average, it is difficult to differentiate the bigger wild rats from Grenade rats by sight, so the army had to cull wild rats too, just in case. They were also now dealing with drains in housing estates and built-up areas, and not just forested areas.

To help them, animal experts were called in. The exterminators who had front-line experience with these rats provided advice. Operation Springclean was a tightly coordinated team effort.

Can we have interviews with army commanders & the experts please??

Media:

– Straits Times, 9th December, Pg 1 “Time For Operation Springclean” (visual)
– Operation Springclean photo documentation from MINDEF archives
– Wholesale clip of PM’s televised announcement
CNA doorstop interview with Chief of Army, 8th December context???

“We take our job very seriously. Nothing less than the peace and security of our nation is at stake.”

Take out this whole panel. We do not give credence to unsubstantiated rumours. Replace it with Jonathan’s story pls

PANEL 5

Heading: Controversy Arises

Text: Not everyone was on board with the operation. Criticisms and conspiracy theories came from many quarters, but particularly from Netizens. Animal behaviourists said that the rats were being unfairly maligned for the actions of a few bad ones. Some pointed to the dead bodies left behind in the warrens, which had signs that they were killed by fellow rats, as proof that the rats had already taken justice into their own hands. “They want to co-exist with us, and we should give them a chance,” said Vernon Chua, an expert on animal behaviour with the SPCA.

A particular rumour that gained a lot of attention was an essay posted anonymously online, written by a person who claimed to be a former research scientist with DSTA. The letter claimed that the rats had been part of experiments to study the control of human behaviour, and the army operation was just a cover-up for the fact that these experiments had taken place.

True or not, these rumours started campaigns to end the operation and spare the lives of the rats, with hashtags on social media such as #OperationClearMinds and #RatsAreCreaturesToo gaining some traction.

Media:

– Screenshot of “Save The Rats, End Operation Springclean” petition

– Interview excerpt with Vernon Chua, CNA The A.M. Show, 11th December

PANEL 6

Heading: The Public Chips In

Text: The majority of the public, however, The public fell in step with Operation Springclean. People worked together and supported the soldiers as they scoured the streets, laid rat traps and put down poison in the day. The curfew was kept to so that the roads and void decks were clear for the troops to carry out their operations at night.

Many also volunteered to help the army with their rat-culling efforts. However, it was considered too dangerous for people to catch and kill rats on their own, so citizens were asked to help by reporting rat sightings to the army instead. A hotline was set up, and a mobile app was developed for members of the public to send in tips.

There were other ways citizens could contribute to the effort. The Health Promotion Board started an anti-littering, anti-dumping campaign to cut down on available food sources for the rats. Several hawker associations pledged to keep clean stalls to stop vermin breeding.

But the most important part was this: People carried on with their affairs as much as possible so that the nation was kept running. Even in a state of emergency, business went on as usual, and investors kept faith in the country the lives of ordinary citizens were minimally affected.

Media: This panel needs to be more detailed. I want interviews with members of the public, soundbites etc. Check w/ the national archives please

– “Don’t invite additional guests!” posters from HPB archives
– Screencaps of “ I Smell A Rat!” mobile application, iOS and Android
– TODAY, 15th December, pg 3, “In fight against rats, a pledge for cleaner hawker stalls” (visual)

PANEL 7

Heading: Endgame

Text: 18th of December. Christmas was fast approaching, but none of the Operation Springclean task force was in a festive mood. Something far more important had happened—they had located the leaders of the rat colony in Bukit Brown. Several of them had been microchipped in the lab, and scientists from DSTA were able to track them down via the chips. with help from local scientists, who were able to track the rats down.

Two hundred men were sent into the forest, fully equipped. They were the best Singapore had to offer. The battleground was dense and difficult. They knew that the enemy was fast, clever and elusive. They expected the worst.

But it did not come to pass. Our troops found the scourge of rats defenceless, perhaps weakened by weeks of running. and overwhelmed them completely (pls rephrase) The soldiers dug up the centre of the warren and killed the five rats scientists had said were the leaders and founders of the group. All in all, more than 300 rats were gassed and rounded up. It was almost as if they had given up without a fight.

But at least, the threat to Singapore was over.

Can we have more in this section? Doesn’t National Archive have interviews w/ soldiers who were there that day? This description sounds too anti-climatic, we need to play it up a bit

Media:

– Straits Times, 19th December, pg 1, “Victory for Springclean” (visual)
– Photo of soldiers with culled rats, from MINDEF archives
– PM’s doorstop interview on CNA’s news at 10pm, 18th December

PANEL 8

Heading: A Nation Moves Forward

Text: It was ten days that changed the nation. Ten days where the mettle and determination of the people were tested. At the end of it, we emerged victorious. Swift action from all quarters meant that the threat to the country was neutralised effectively. Singaporeans woke to a cleaner, calmer city, the streets cleared of vermin. It took many years before the wild rat population of Singapore returned to normal.

Many lessons were learned in this saga. The most important was the throughout it all, Singapore continued to function as normal. Trains ran, businesses functioned, children went to school. If anything, it proves that when the public does as its told, great things can happen. It showed the importance of the citizenry participating in Total Defence (pls rephrase)

– List of media for this panel???

SIDEBAR

The Hero Of Operation Springclean As mentioned, expand this section to replace Panel 5

Jonathan Lui of the 1st Commando Battalion came to be known as the hero of Operation Springclean. Part of the elite team that tackled the problem in the most challenging areas, Jonathan distinguished himself through his boundless energy. His tireless devotion reaped rewards: Throughout the ten-day campaign, Jonathan killed over a hundred and fifty rats by himself.

Siti Noriati bte Ahmad :: Associate Librarian :: Programmes And Events :: National Library Board :: DID: +65 6374 7346 Fax: +65 6473 3287 :: Website: www.nlb.gov.sg
L I B R A R I E S O F T O M M O R O W: Embracing the Public, Equipping the Nation
To empower citizens with the knowledge to shape their future
This e-mail and any attachments are only for the use of the intended recipient and may be confidential and/or privileged. If you are not the recipient, please delete it or notify the sender immediately. Please do not copy or use it for any purpose or disclose the contents to any other person as it may be an offence under the Official Secrets Act.


JY Yang is the Hugo and Nebula-nominated author of the Tensorate novellas from Tor.Com Publishing (The Red Threads of Fortune, The Black Tides of Heaven and the forthcoming The Descent of Monsters). They live in Singapore and identify as queer and non-binary. Find them online at http://jyyang.com, or on Twitter: @halleluyang.
Reprint Series

Né łe! by Darcie Little Badger

This month’s story is a reprint I picked from the wonderful Love Beyond Body, Space and Time anthology of Indigenous LGBT2S+ speculative fiction. I have been following Darcie Little Badger’s work since her first short story publications, and I also really enjoyed Né łe! with its themes of queer relationships and women in STEM, and that it also presented Indigenous people as heterogenous, with both differences and commonalities. In space. With dogs. Good reading! — Bogi.

***

Originally published in Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An Indigenous LGBT and two-spirit sci-fi anthology, edited by Hope Nicholson. Bedside Press, 2016.

***

Enamored with promises of red Martian canyons and a hefty pay raise, I ignored the scary part about leaving Earth until I actually had to board a starship. There’s nothing too risky about interplanetary space travel. In fact, it’s rather mundane; passengers relax in stasis for nine months. I just hate speed. Won’t ride a roller coaster. Won’t bungee jump. Won’t even hop off a diving board.

No drop can outrace the ascent outta Earth.

Security wasn’t making things easier. The pre-boarding screener found my pills. “What’s this?” he asked, plucking a rattling tin from my jacket.

“Those? Acebenzine.”

He squinted, probably skimming a list of drug names on his ocular screen. “Sorry, how do you spell that?”

“A-c-e-b-e-n-zine. It’s for dogs. Often prescribed to reduce anxiety before routine checkups or grooming sessions.”

“Are you smuggling a toy poodle in your jacket, too?”

“Acebenzine is effective on humans. Trust me: I’m a doctor.”

He squinted again. “Passenger registration says you’re a veterinarian.”

“Yes. Animal doctor.”

“Okay. Dottie King, DVM, you’ll be unconscious during launch and won’t feel a thing.”

“Not necessarily. One in ten thousand people experience unintended intra-stasis awareness during the six-hour acclimation period after—”

“We can offer you human sedatives.” He dropped my tin in a contraband chute and handed me a mint-sized pill.

“Much obliged.” I swallowed the medicine and proceeded to my stasis pod. Tragically, it resembled a technophile coffin. An attendant secured my limbs, applied bio-monitor stickers, and snapped the lid shut, her face scowling through my porthole. It did not take long for the other passengers to settle in. The Starship Soto was first and foremost a cargo carrier. This trip, which carried thirty Earth emigrants and forty-one dogs to Mars, was probably more crowded with life-forms than all of its predecessors.

Not a tremendously comforting thought. Was the crew sufficiently trained? If something went wrong, would they know how to rescue thirty landborn civilians? More importantly, why wasn’t the sedative working?

“Everybody ready?” chirped a speaker near my ear. “Stasis initiation. Ten. Nine. Eight…”

I know what you’re thinking: it’s safer to visit Mars than the grocery store. However, midflight disasters, albeit rare, are a special breed of terrifying. If Starship Soto exploded between Earth and Mars, I’d go gentle into the interstellar vacuum, my body and mind slipping from stasis to death. Helpless. Thoughtless. At least, during a highway fender bender, there’s a chance to react, even if the only reaction is a passionately uttered “Sh—”

“Six.”

I tried to focus on a pleasant memory: our chickens, a lamb, a rooster crowing. The desert warm beneath my feet. Mother’s sweet tea. Father singing in the kitchen. Our collie herding sheep. Family surname—King—painted across a tin mailbox. A coyote, his muzzle wet and red. A needle and thread…

“Three.”

Wait. Mail. Damn!

“Two.”

I forgot to setup my forwarding address!

“One.”

Sh—

*

—ucks.

Stasis pod spiritualism ain’t what it used to be; at its height, SPS churches appeared in every major city, on- and off-Earth. Their leaders preached: the Sleep is sacred! Encounter long-dead relatives! Witness blinding white light, heaven and hell! Hear prophesies, threats, and undying voices! All praise the pod!

Of course, SP experiences are caused by altered brain activity during the stasis wake-up phase. Once scientists replicated the miraculous hallucinations with electrodes, SPS interest dropped. It was all over the news.

Despite that, I nearly praised the pod as I regained consciousness on Starship Soto. Through the porthole, I saw silhouettes—my parents?—standing against a brighter-than-sun light. Mom and Dad were born before nannite revolution, when itty-bitty wonderbots surged through our bodies to elongate telomeres, degrade cancers, repair DNA, and accelerate healing. In other words, my parents aged. Died.

The silhouettes waved; I tried to reach for them, but out-of-body hallucinations don’t come with hands. The light intensified, and its radiance drank their bodies.

Does it always take this long?

Ten to sixty minutes.

This is an emergency! Throw water on her face!

Horrible idea, Cora.

Look! She’s scowling!

Are her eyes open? Bother me when that happens.

A face peered through dimming light: brown-black hair in a tight bun. Black eyes under thick, serious-looking eyebrows. Mouth pursed with watching-a-pot-boil concentration. Skin a warm ochre brown, adult-aged: could be anywhere from thirty to one hundred years old. Either ghosts resembled starship pilots, or I wasn’t actually dead. “Are you awake?” she—Cora—asked.

“Working on it.” My voice cracked twice. I hadn’t felt so thirsty since the water crisis of ’09.

“She’s awake! Can I take her?”

My pod was open, my restraints unlatched. None of the other passengers had been roused from stasis; the only person there besides Cora was a peeved-looking man with a virtual reality headset around his neck. “Wait,” he said. “I’m checking vitals. Get her water and explain the situation.”

“Sorry,” Cora said, bounding to a water dispenser across the room. “Doctor Dottie King, we’re still five months away from Mars, and the dang puppy stasis pods malfunctioned, so we got forty-one dogs barking to high Pluto, and Pete—he’s the engineer—can’t get things working again. So—”

“Are the dogs okay?” I climbed out of the pod; Cora put a steadying hand on my arm and handed me a water bottle. I chugged the entire half liter.

“Probably,” she said, “but you should double check. And… well, we don’t know what to do! There are supplies in cargo—kibble cubes, beds, kennels, squeaky little toys—but this operation is one bad choice away from chaos.”

“Vitals check out,” the man said. “You’re clear to leave.”

I delicately removed Cora’s hand as we walked out the door. “What’s the staff situation?” I asked. “How many people can help?”

“Skeleton crew, Doc: just my copilot Lishana, Pete, and our stasis monitor, Vic’quell—you just met him.”

“Can we recruit other passengers? If I recall, there are several sleeping veterinarians and med techs on board.”

“Theoretically, but resources are tight—that includes space—and humans take priority.”

“So the dogs will suffer if too many people wake up?”

“Right! Speaking of suffering: liquids have to be recycled. How quickly can you potty train forty-one dogs?”

“You’re kidding.”

“Don’t worry. Pete and I will assist. Unfortunately, Vic can’t be distracted. Too much of a liability.”

“VR isn’t distracting?”

“You noticed, huh?” She threw up her shoulders; the movement was more passionate than a mere shrug. “Blame bureaucracy. No worries. I’ll do the work of two people!”

“I somehow believe you.”

We turned a corner; the passage terminated at a sealed door. A thin, densely freckled man leaned against its hand wheel. The fine creases around his mouth deepened with anxiety.

“Pete,” Cora said. “I told you to wait inside animal bay. What gives?”

“It’s too much,” he said. “Woman, the last five minutes have made me a cat person.”

He turned the wheel; as the door cracked, a flood of yaps and whines swept into the corridor. The egg-shaped doggy stasis pods had opened, exposing forty wiggling Chihuahuas and a blue-eyed husky, his irises like glacial ice. The husky keened; they’re a chatty breed, prone to howling, barking, and shrill vocalizations that mean everything from “pay attention to me” to “I said pay attention to me, damn it!”

“Move kennels in here,” I said. “Cleaning and caring will be a full-time job; remember that dogs like routines. Playtime can happen in shifts of twenty animals—”

“I’m going to unpack supplies from storage,” Pete said. “Good luck, Cora.”

“Don’t forget water dispensers!” I called after him. “Also, remember my medical supplies! Thanks! Hey, Pete? Can you hear me?”

From the corridor, he shouted, “Got it!”

“Cora?”

“Roger, Doc?”

“Who ordered the husky for a Martian settlement?”

“What’s wrong with huskies?”

“They’re an energetic breed.”

“I dunno who bought him, but they paid handsomely; he’s worth more than all forty chi-chis. With that money, I could purchase a house in the decent part of town.”

“What town?” I asked. Cora had an accent I couldn’t place; it was probably from off-Earth. Orbiting cities, with one foot in their founding nations and the other in the starry frontier, had a knack for cultivating unique phonologies.

“Any of them,” she said. “I’m not picky.”

“Right. Well, until we land, Blue Eyes will be your responsibility. Keep him close.”

“Doc, no! I’ll get attached and be really sad when we land.”

“Your choice: one big dog, or forty teeny ones.”

“Husky it is! What should I name him?”

“All mine will be Né łe,” I said. “Dog.”

“I prefer Conan. Here, boy.” She unstrapped Conan lowered him to the ground. With a shrill yawn-whine combo, he affectionately leaned against Cora’s legs.

“Suits him,” I said. “Time for routine checkups. Sick bay?”

“Right this way!”

I plucked a black Chihuahua from his pod and followed Cora; the metal floor clanged beneath her boots and clacked under Conan’s nails. In contrast, I moved silently, barefoot. Waffle-shaped ridges underfoot bit my skin. My soles had gone plush after years in compression socks and supportive clogs. I tread mindfully, afraid to stumble and traumatize the Chihuahua. He huddled against my chest, squinting at the motion-activated light strips on the walls.

“This is it,” Cora said. She opened a sliding door so quickly, it clanged. Sick bay had three examination tables and a tech resource center. Sealed cabinets along the wall contained equipment and medicines. With my portable kit, I’d make do. Heartbeats are heartbeats; you can use the same stethoscope on people and dogs. It is, however, more difficult to convince a dog to sit still.

“Let the marathon begin,” I said. When I carried the Chihuahua to an exam table, he kicked his legs, as if treading water in the air.

“I think he’s confused,” Cora said.

“Not unusual for his breed. Thermometer, please!”

Forty-one clean bills of health later, Cora, Conan, twenty dogs, and I relaxed in the observation deck. Its outer video wall projected more stars than I’d ever seen before: the view behind Starship Soto. Among them, Earth shone the faintest shade of blueish white. Born in landlocked Utah, I rarely visited the ocean. Beaches were too crowded, windy, and hot. However, from afar, I admired the radiant sea.

“Why Mars, Doctor?” Cora asked. She was doing sit-ups, despite Conan’s best efforts to eat her ponytail. I’d stopped counting her reps after three hundred and fifty. How many sit-ups could a human body tolerate, anyway? Maybe Cora had cybernetic abs. It was impossible to tell under her bulky white tracksuit.

“Eh?” I asked. “Why not?” I threw a monkey-shaped toy, and four Chihuahuas latched onto its squeaky limbs.

“Where I’m from, people play the lottery for a chance to live on au naturale Earth.”

“I didn’t live on natural anything. Houston is a towering concrete behemoth. Might as well be in an orbiter.”

“You could still travel, though. Visit parks. The Gulf.”

“Sure.”

“Mars is nine months away from all that.”

“It’s away from lots of things. I needed a change.”

“Personal issues?” She paused mid-sit, all her attention focused on me and the blanket of Chihuahuas warming my lap.

“Yeah,” I said. “Especially one named Addie.”

It’s never easy to end a ten-year relationship, but few things are more awkward than a breakup in virtual reality. The simulated bench Addie chose for our “we need to talk” moment overlooked a forest trail that shone like the Vegas Strip. Illuminated VR ads, each tailored for my career, sauntered back and forth in the guise of pedestrians wearing sandwich boards. One blinking sign caught my eye:

NOBODY KNOWS BARBODIES LIKE WE DO! PET-PRESERVER MAKES CALICO CLONES!

Clever pun.

“Sorry, Dottie,” Addie said. “This conversation can’t wait.” Four months earlier, her company—satellite city engineering—sent her to their swanky branch on Orbiter Lux. Ostensibly a temporary position. Sadly, she loved the off-world accommodations. Me? I didn’t care how many hydroponic gardens or ambient noise generators an orbiter contained; it was a scary chunk of metal. Meteoroid deflectors malfunctioned? Radiation shield weakened? Gravity failed? Baddie carried a bomb on board? Catastrophe!

“This is almost like reality,” I said. Addie’s VR avatar was taller and more symmetric than her physical self; I found it disconcerting. Granted, my avatar had a pair of ram horns and feathered wings.

“Did you remember to buy ad blockers?” she asked. Clearly, Addie couldn’t see the street performer twirling a sign that promised: NATURAL INGREDIENTS = HAPPIER DOGS! SHEPHARD KIBBLE DOES NOT USE GMOs OR TEST TUBE MEAT!

“Mmmhm.”

“It’s not easy to say this,” she continued. “You’re a wonderful woman, but …”

INTUITANKS COME WITH OPTIONAL FISH CAMS!

“… you’ve worked in every hellhole in North America, but draw the line at an orbiter? We have different priorities …”

LEARN PARAKEET PSYCHOLOGY.

“Goodbye, Dottie.”

Neon letters, halo bright, rose over Addie’s head. A VR man had lifted his sandwich board, desperate to share the message: MARS NEEDS VETERINARIANS! COMPETITIVE SALARIES, INCOMPARABLE ADVENTURE! APPLY TODAY!

Bittersweet memories—Addie sharing my cream soda, Addie strumming a lute, Addie bowling, Addie kissing, Addie, Addie, Addie!—were replaced with visions of the red frontier. I imagined visiting dome-encapsulated hostels that overlooked the empty Ophir Chasma. There’d be warm earth underfoot—not Earth-earth, but close enough. Could I manage the first animal clinic on Mars? Support a burgeoning pet population? First dogs and then cats and then potbellied pigs! Goats, bison, passenger pigeons: dense flocks migrating through engineered skies. I’d build a paradise, one better than the home I lost as a child.

“Goodbye, Darling,” I agreed.

Tactfully, I explained the breakup to Cora, “Addie and I had different goals in life. She wanted to live in Orbiter Lux, and I simply can’t live in Orbiter Lux. There’s no work for veterinarians! The only pets allowed are self-sustaining ecosystems: bacteria, GMO fish, and plants in sealed glass terrariums. We split amicably.”

“Relationships are tough,” Cora said, moving to a recliner beside me. The black Chihuahua, who’d been monopolizing its plush seat, relocated to her lap. “I once dated another pilot. Great chemistry, but we were too competitive. I called it off after my third speed violation.”

“That’s not good for my nerves.”

“They were solo missions, Doc! I’d never put a civilian at risk!”

“Just teasing.” I regarded the swathe of universe projected on the wall. “You were a lot of help today. Thank you.”

“Are you kidding? I’d pay to goof around with forty puppies. It’s awesome! Right, Doodles?” She poked the donut-shaped Chihuahua on her lap.

“You named him?”

“I named all of them.”

As time passed, the daily dog routine—playtime, feeding, kennel cleaning, training, playtime, feeding, bedtime—staved off cabin fever. Cora’s personality helped, too. She wasn’t like the other skeleton crew. Vic lived in VR, only emerging to eat or shower. Pete did help with most dog chores, but he rarely strung more than ten words together. In contrast, Cora chatted insistently, and I wondered how she would have survived the trip without my company.

On the ninth day of doggy daycare, I finally asked, “How often do you do this?”

“What?” she said. “Grooming?” Cora combed a long-haired Chihuahua, its wavy coat glistening under the tangle-proof brush.

“Interplanetary travel,” I clarified.

“This is my first trip. Don’t look so horrified. Lishana has nine flights under her belt. Plus, it’s all autopilot until landing, and I’m great at that. See, I normally fly shuttles between Earth and Diné Orbiter.”

“You’re Navajo?” I said. The Diné orbiter, a spool of residential and industry modules rotating around a zero-grav core, was sovereign Navajo territory, completely inhabited by Nation citizens or their guests. Among the first space colonies, it lacked the bells and whistles of newer models. “Sturdy enough,” Addie once said, “but nobody uses stacked models anymore. The gravity’s unreliable. Sometimes, it’s like walking on the moon, and other times, you’re fifty kilograms heavier than you should be.”

Cora unzipped her flight suit from neck to mid-chest; she wore a silver squash blossom necklace, its turquoise-embedded metal bright over her black tank top. “Yeah,” she said. “I never mentioned it?”

“Never. Are you on the lam?”

“Nothing that exciting.” She fluffed the Chihuahua’s cowlick and tied a pink bow around it. “I just wanted to know what a long haul feels like. The answer is: boring. Until this happened.”

“Lucky emergency.” Too lucky? I could accept the stasis pod failure. Dogs had never been transported to Mars before; new technology malfunctioned sometimes. But with five veterinarians on board, Cora chose me. I’m Lipan Apache, and though my tribe is markedly less centralized and powerful than the Navajo Nation, we have a lot in common. Matrilineal roots. Respect for wisdom and family. A history rife with suffering.

My expressive face betrayed me.

“What’s wrong?” Cora asked.

“It’s awfully convenient that you woke me up, considering all we have in common.”

“The lesbian thing? I had no idea, if that’s what you’re—”

“No! Our cultures.”

“Doc,” she said, “are you suggesting that I was motivated by a burning desire to pal around with another Native?”

“Were you?”

She squinted. “Let’s review your credentials. You have forty-seven years’ experience with small animal medicine. Volunteered in twenty-nine urban pounds. Patients and colleagues provided glowing recommendations. You’re thoroughly familiar with nannite biotech and ER techniques. There may be other vets on this ship, but you’re the most qualified. That’s why I chose you. Our repartee is just a perk.”

“Wow. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Cora said. “When enough people look down on you, doubt takes root. It makes you question every accomplishment and blame success on luck or favors.” She zipped up the flight suit, hiding her squash blossom. I felt a flush of appreciation. A twinge of pain.

When she drew me into a quick hug, I felt her squash blossom press against my chest.

We passed evenings in the observation deck, betting our dessert rations over checkers. When Pete felt sociable, he projected movies on the wall and half-watched our game. Sometimes, even Vic joined us. There were minor setbacks. During week four, the thermal system malfunctioned, and temperatures dropped: 21 to 18 °C. I didn’t notice until the short-haired Chihuahuas began shivering and burrowing under their kennel blankies. Fortunately, there was an easy fix; we opened a crate of dog costumes—little tuxedos, dinosaur hoodies, superhero sweaters with handkerchief-sized capes—and they were the most fashionable dogs in space until Pete fixed the heat regulator.

After a few weeks, I forgot to worry.

Of course, that’s when a real crisis struck.

It happened during a jog around Starship Soto. The passenger-habitable area was shaped like a spinning ring; centrifugal force grounded us. The pilot’s cabin and several cargo carriers, all held steady within the gyroscope belly, were off-limits to anyone without zero-grav training.

“The simulated gravity here is just seventy percent Earth-strength,” Cora said, her voice steady as we lapped the ship. “I’ll be outta shape when I return home.”

“Huh. No wonder I can carry so many Chihuahuas at the same time.” I gulped a hungry breath, already winded after ten minutes. “Mars gravity is even weaker, right?”

“Sure is. You’ll feel like superwoman. By the way, will the doggy nannites protect them from bone loss?”

“They protect them from almost everything.” The nannites stopped bone degradation, cancer, tooth decay, and aging. There were no parasites on Mars. No puppies, either; all pets were sterile. That said, did Mars really need a superwoman veterinarian? It would be centuries before wildlife could survive outside the domes. I’d hoped to stake a claim on prime land, but since when did being first guarantee anything?

“No wonder the Mars dogs cost a fortune,” Cora said. “The ones on my orbiter rarely live past fifteen. It’s too expensive to engineer nannites for them all.”

“Orbiter Diné allows dogs?”

“One per family. That’s how I learned to tie a bow.” She jabbed a thumb at the five bow-bedecked Chihuahuas who scampered after us; Conan was ahead, leading the jog. He moved so quickly, I couldn’t see his feathered tail anymore. “What about you?” Cora asked, agilely leaping over a Chihuahua that veered in front of her path. “Obviously, you’re swimming in pets, but they belong to other people. Ever had your own?”

“Once,” I said. “On the family farm, we owned chickens, sheep, and a collie named Kirby. All lost after the urban relocation measure passed.” Cities were efficient; during the resource crises—no water, no food, no space—very few people could afford the country life.

“The U.S. government moved your family? You didn’t live on a rez?”

“My tribe never had one,” I said. “I’m descended from people who fought or fled the invasion. Isn’t it funny how ancient history still screws us over?”

“You don’t have to talk about the farm if it’s a sore spot.”

“I like remembering. Say, have I ever mentioned the… shoot! Look out!”

Rounding a bend in the corridor, we nearly stumbled over Conan. He lay on his side, body taut, as if his tail, legs, and head were stretched by invisible strings. “God!” Cora said. “What’s wrong? Help him, Dottie!” She dropped to her knees and cradled his head on her lap. His paws twitched, and he snapped at the air, frothing. I knew the symptoms well.

“It’s a seizure,” I said. “Don’t move.”

After a scramble down the corridor, I grabbed a diazepam injector from my emergency kit and returned, wheezing and fighting through twinges of runner’s cramp. As Conan twitched in Cora’s arms, I shot the medicine into his leg. His blue eyes turned to me; their dilated pupils resembled two frost-dusted pits.

“Why is this happening?” Cora asked.

“I don’t know.”

Once Conan stopped thrashing, we carried him to the medical bay. The Chihuahuas crowded our legs, squeak-yapping. “Oscar,” I said. “Rosie! Snowball! Doodlebug! Shoo! Go find Pete!” Only Doodlebug listened.

“They know that he’s dying!” Cora said, hugging Conan tenderly. “Dogs have a sixth sense!” She turned her head, hiding her tears from me.

“Nah. Chihuahuas are just pests. Put him on the table. He had a seizure; that’s not a death sentence. If it happens again, we’ll give him daily phenobarb. Easy treatment.”

“I thought all Mars dogs are healthy. Is it something I did?”

“Animals aren’t machines.” I checked Conan’s gums and listened to his heartbeat. His hips were aligned, his stomach felt right, and his eyes scrutinized my work, alert. “Life is complex in unpredictable ways, Cora. It changes and surprises.” I scratched Conan behind his ears, pleased to see his tail wag. “He’s healthy. Well. Aside from the possible epilepsy. Poor boy. Are you okay? Can I get you water?”

“No thanks. I need to visit the flight deck.”

“Right now?”

“His buyers must be informed.” She shook her head. “They won’t be happy, Dottie. Can you watch Conan until I get back?”

“Of course,” I said.

Pete and I crated the Chihuahuas—it was nearly bedtime, anyway—and I moved Conan to my closet-sized personal room for observation. Though I put his dog bed on the floor, he hopped onto my narrow bunk, curling in a furry donut at the foot. “Cora spoils you,” I said. His ears perked up. “What, you miss her already? It won’t be long.”

Actually, a knock on my door woke us five hours later. “It’s me!” Cora called. “Is Conan alive?”

“You can’t hear him barking?” I slipped a robe over my pajamas and opened the door. “What’s the verdict?”

Cora barely managed a half-shrug. She zombie shuffled into my room and slumped on the bed.

“Come in,” I said. “Make yourself at home.”

“Sorry. It’s bad. The buyers requested a different pup.”

I turned off the ambient cricket sounds that had been chirping through my intercom and sat between Cora and Conan. “That’s what I was worried about. For his price tag, they expect perfection.”

“He is perfect.” She grabbed my hand firmly. A shade darker than mine, it felt noon sun warm. “What’s going to happen?”

“He’ll find a new home,” I said, “with somebody who loves him. Like you.”

Her posture straightened as we basked in contemplative silence; Cora was probably planning his homecoming on Orbiter Diné. All the kilometers they’d jog together, all the toys he’d rip apart. When she spoke, however, the subject surprised me. “Before the seizure, you were going to tell me something. What?”

It took a moment to gather my memories. “I’m not spiritual. Don’t believe in gods, ghosts, or divine retribution. It’s hard enough to have faith in people. But …”

Her hand was still on mine, our fingers entwining. It took a moment, but I eventually recognized that not-quite-platonic intimacy wove our touch, and I did not want to pull away. In fact, I wanted more.

Usually, when I fell for somebody, I fell fast. Maybe that’s why I hate rollercoasters. Just five minutes after Addie introduced herself, I gave her my VR ID number and thought, “If she doesn’t call tonight, I’ll cry!” Cora was different. Her gravity pulled me gradually, gently. Unlike the darlings in my past, I grew fond of Cora without infatuation magnifying her positive qualities. Who knows why our relationship progressed so strangely. Maybe she was special. Perhaps the yapping, needy Chihuahuas stalled our romance. Either way, Cora’s warm hand felt nice.

Blushing, I continued, “…something special happened when I was a child. It makes me entertain notions like destiny.”

“What?” Cora asked. So told her my story.

I was eleven years old, home alone, when I heard shrill cluck-screams, the kind chickens make as they’re dying. I charged outside with my baseball bat. A coyote stood beside the coop—little coop, just enough for thirty birds—with a chicken in his mouth, a white silkie that I hand-raised from the egg. The coyote stared at me. I thought of owls: bad luck, owls. They also have yellow irises, like headlights bearing down on you, a warning or a threat.

Worried that he’d escape with Silkie, I lowered my bad and said. “Put. Her. Down.” Kirby always responded to a firm tone, yet I scarcely expected the coyote to listen.

Tricksters are unpredictable.

He opened his mouth, and Silkie fell onto hard-packed dirt with a cluck-shriek. Blood matted her downy feathers; something solid and ropey dangled from her belly. I screamed. Couldn’t help it. With a snort, the coyote licked his wet muzzle and trotted away.

I rushed Silkie to the kitchen and placed her in the sink. Mom sliced vegetables in the metal basin, so we kept it fastidiously clean. As if exhausted by the attack, Silkie quietly allowed me to part her wispy feathers and examine the injuries, four gashes. The most serious wound had freed a loop of intestine; gently, I tucked it back inside her body. What else could I do? My parents had no money for a veterinarian house call.

Silkie thrashed once. If she moved too quickly, her innards might fall out again. She needed stitches.

I found a needle and nylon beading thread in Mom’s clutter bin. We kept bacteria-kill spray under the sink; I used it to disinfect everything: my hands, the needle, the thread, even the blood-matted feathers. Silkie didn’t even cluck when I rolled her over and pinched her injury shut. “It’ll hurt a little,” I said. “Sorry.” I could feel her fluttering pulse under my fingers, her little body’s warmth. The needle reflected sunlight, a glint of silver light shooting from my fingertips. I worked quickly to spare us both anxiety. Five stitches closed the wound; just minutes later, Silkie was tottering around the kitchen, clucking and ruffling her wings

Three years later, when my parents told me that I could take just one chicken to Houston, I chose Silkie. She sat on my blanket-draped lap as we left the farm, our life—all the life we could bring with us, anyway—packed in one van and a trailer. The coyote stood alongside the dirt road, his headlight eyes trained on mine.

I waved goodbye.

“That’s why you’re a veterinarian,” Cora said. “The coyote.”

“He certainly opened my eyes.” I extricated my hand and grabbed a pillow, burying my face in the cotton-wrapped foam.

“What’s wrong?” Cora asked.

“I’m not sure about Mars anymore.”

“Why not? The domes are gorgeous.”

“Because I didn’t become a doctor to twiddle my thumbs. Those nannite-hearty Chihuahuas don’t need me like Silkie did. This was a mistake. Never make big decisions during emotional rebounds!”

“A mistake?” Cora asked. “Or—don’t laugh—destiny?”

I lowered the pillow. “How so?”

“Animals have it rough on Orbiter Diné. We always need help.”

“I’m not sure I belong there.”

She threw up her shoulders in the passionate manner I knew well. “We have three weeks until landing. Plenty of time for decisions.” Cora stood, trailed by Conan. “Goodnight, Dottie,” she said.

That night cycle, I dreamed about the red desert, but home did not comfort me. I ached for company.

For Cora.

Landing an interplanetary starship is a gradual process. Sixty hours before touchdown, the gravity generator slowed. Six hours before touchdown, Chihuahuas were bouncing around like they had invisible rocket boosters on their backs. “It may be time to strap everyone down,” Cora said, plucking Doodlebug from the air before he smacked into the wall. “We can use the stasis pod restraints.”

“I’ll sedate them, too,” I said. “Er. What about me?”

“Rare honor, Doc! Lishana invited you and Conan to the flight room during descent! Don’t worry. We land slow.”

“Unless the ship crashes.”

“Hey! None of that!”

We wrangled puppies left and right, securing them in open pods. I gave each Chihuahua a fond pat on the head. “Good luck,” I said. “You little Martians!”

From the intercom, a voice boomed, “Three hours. Report to landing stations.”

“That’s us,” Cora said. She hoisted Conan with one arm and helped me maneuver through Starship Soto at ten percent Earth gravity. As we passed the observation deck entrance, I paused to admire its wall. Mars, a canyon-cracked, crater-pocked ball, loomed on the projection screen. From our vantage point, there were no signs of life. No breathing green blankets over loamy continents, no white shimmer in waters thick with glinting phytoplankton.

Nothing like the view of Earth.

I made my decision.

“I want to be awake during the nine-month return trip,” I said, “in case Conan has another seizure.”

“And after that?” Cora asked. “Where will you go?”

“Wherever I’m needed. The orbiter sounds promising.”

As we kissed, the last trace of gravity slipped away, and my feet escaped the metal ground. I felt—I was—weightless, unbound by anything but the memories I carried and the tender warmth against my lips. Cora and I parted when the intercom insisted, “Report to landing stations.”

Hand in hand, we turned our backs on Mars.

***

Dr. Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache scientist and writer. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple places, including Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time (Nicholson, ed.), Strange Horizons, The Dark, Mythic Delirium, Lightspeed (POC Destroy Fantasy), Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Cicada Magazine. Darcie’s debut comic, “Worst Bargain in Town,” was published in Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 2. She also has comics in Relational Constellation and Deer Woman: An Anthology by Native Realities. She can be reached on Twitter at @ShiningComic.