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.

Reprint Series

Press Play To Watch It Die by Caroline M. Yoachim

This month’s story is one of the originals in Caroline M. Yoachim’s first short story collection. It takes ecological concepts in a far future context to examine not only the damage of colonialism, but also possible reparations. It looks at the entire lifecycle, including death, and life passing from generation to generation; and it made me cry in public. (The dangers of reading on the bus!) I hope this story will move you as much as it moved me. Bogi.

***

Originally published in Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World and Other Stories by Caroline M. Yoachim, Fairwood Press, 2016.

***

Freet peered out from her den. It was dawn, and the ground was striped with the long shadows of the pillarsenormous sun-bleached trunks that spread their roots into the earth and stretched to the sky. What once had been a forest was now a graveyard of dead trees, but it was still the best place for the ratlings to make their dens.

All around her, ratlings emerged from between the roots of the dead-tree pillars. They whistled and chattered as they crawled to the human city for school. Pups and maters and oldlings, all traveling together. Freet was so old that there wasn’t even a word for her generation. This was her fourth autumn, so she was older than the oldlings. Her hindlegs ached when she crawled, and there was no trace of orange left in her silver-white fur.

Soon she would lie down for the long winter sleep, and this time she would not wake.

The sun was high above the tops of the pillars by the time Freet reached the city. She was the last of the ratlings to arrive, save for a few pups who had overslept. The youngsters darted past her, running with a speed that age had long since stolen from Freet.

Zara waited at the door to the school. “I’m glad to see you’ve decided to show up today.”

Freet knew that her teacher was only teasing her, but the words still stung.

“If you would let me sleep in the city, with you, I could get to school on time.” Freet couldn’t make all the sounds of the human language, so she typed the words with her tongues, and her collar spoke for her.

“I asked permission for you to stay, but the council advised against it,” Zara said.

Freet crawled down the long hallway to her classroom. It was a small room. The classes were arranged by generations, and none but Freet had survived to see a fourth autumn, even with all the food and protection the humans provided. Ratlings simply weren’t meant to live for very long.

“I have something different for you today,” Zara said. “Something important.”

Freet flicked her tongues out in anticipation. Most of Zara’s lessons lately had been survival skills and self-defense, interesting for younger ratlings, perhaps, but of little use to one as old as Freet.

Zara got out the vid-player they sometimes used for lessons. Among other things, it held pictures and vids of Zara’s homeworld. Freet had enjoyed those lessons, especially the ones about an Earth plant called trees. Something about the trees appealed to Freet, alien though they were.

“I have other business to attend to,” Zara said. “I will return when you have watched the first section of the vid.”

These days Zara was always rushing off, any time there was a free moment. Freet hated spending so much time alone, away from the comfort of her teacher. She did not know the workings of the human city, but she sensed that something was happening. All the humans had an energy and a purpose that was new, even compared to her mating year. She wondered, watching her teacher rush out, what the humans were doing.

There were words on the screen of the vid-player.

Press Play To Watch It Born

Freet flicked the play button with her longest tongue, and a silver-furred ratling appeared on the screen. The ratling emerged from the base of something that looked a bit like Freet’s own pillar, but instead of being smooth and white, this pillar was covered in rough-textured red bark, and high above the ground there were branches. It did not look quite like the trees Freet had seen in the vids of Earth, and yet somehow it was the most perfect of all possible trees.

The ratling in the vid scurried fearlessly up the trunk and into the high canopy. Here, the branches were covered in broad green leaves and dotted with small purple fruits. There were also a few large black fruits. Freet had never seen fruit like that before, but she found herself drooling at the mere sight of them. The ratling in the vid gorged on purple fruits, eating them whole. When it had consumed its fill, it scurried back down the tree and into its den.

The video skipped forward in time to the next morning.

The ratling climbed the tree again, but this time instead of the purple fruits, it ate one of the black fruits. Only one. Then it climbed down the tree.

It didn’t return to its den. Instead, the ratling ran frantically in widening circles around the base of the tree, until finally it stopped in a patch of bright sunlight.

It used its foreclaws to dig down into the dirt. It dug until it was entirely underground, and then kept digging, not bothering to clear the dirt from the tunnel behind it. Freet waited for the ratling to emerge, but it remained beneath the surface.

 Press Pause

Zara had returned from whatever business she had. “Tell me what you’ve learned.”

“I am confused,” Freet answered. “The title of the vid suggested that I would see a birth, but the ratling did not produce pups.”

“You weren’t watching a ratling birth, you were watching the birth of a Redbark.”

“A Redbark?” Freet pondered this information. “The vid was about the tree? You could have told me beforehand.”

“But then you wouldn’t have realized how biased you are, as a ratling, to the perspective of your own kind. When you watch the next section, try harder to focus on the Redbarks. I have more work to do while you watch the vid.”

“Why are the humans so busy all of a sudden?” Freet asked.

Zara barred her teeth in the expression that humans usually used for happiness, but her eyes did not match her smile. “I will tell you soon, my Freetling.”

This was troubling. Zara had called her Freetling only once before, and it was when her teacher had been mourning the death of her pup. Freet remembered it clearly, the day not long ago when her usually stoic teacher had cradled Freet and stroked her fur, sobbing and repeating over and over, “My Freetling, my little Freetling, soon I will lose you, too.”

 Press Play To Watch It Sprout

Freet knew she should pay more attention to the Redbark, but the vid continued to focus on ratlings. She watched a small hoard of pups scurrying about, probably fresh from the nest, eating overripe purple fruits that had fallen to the ground. Unlike the Earth fruits humans sometimes fed Freet, the Redbark fruits had no pits, or if they did, the pups ate them. Was she supposed to be watching the fruits? The pups? What lesson was this section of the vid meant to teach her?

A longbeak fluttered over and landed near the pups. The bird made no move to eat the purple fruits. Instead it nudged aside leaves with its beak and ate the insects and worms underneath. A large predator appeared, one that the humans had named a jagthar because of some vague resemblance to a large earth cat. The pups froze. They were an easy target, there on the ground. Freet could barely force herself to watch, and she, like the pups, held perfectly still, as though the jagthar might leap off the screen and attack her if she moved.

The longbeak took off, and the jagthar shot off after it, running right past the pups. For a long time, the pups remained frozen in place, then they went back to foraging for purple fruit. A tiny two-leafed sapling burst up through the dirt. A Redbark sprout.

 Press Pause

This time Freet had to wait for her teacher to return. She was tempted to watch the next section of the vid, but she had questions. When Zara finally arrived, Freet nearly forgot about the vid entirely. Her teacher was covered in dirt and bits of scorched plants. Before Freet could ask about it, Zara nodded to the vid-player. “What did you learn?”

“Why didn’t the jagthar eat the pups?” Freet asked.

Zara nodded, and Freet was relieved that she had asked a good question. “There’s a toxin in the purple fruit. Ratlings are immune but the poison builds up in the pups’ system to the point where eating them would be fatal to most predators. Over time, jagthars have learned to avoid anything that smells of purple fruit.”

“I still don’t understand what I’m supposed to be learning. Where were these vids taken?”

“Not where. When. These vids are old, from not long after we humans first arrived.” Zara looked at the clock. “It’s late, and it will take you quite some time to return to your den.”

“You could let me stay with you,” Freet said. She knew better than to argue, but she missed the feeling of being cared for, missed the way her parents had tended her when she was a pup. The humans provided for the ratlings, but they were distant. Something was missing from the relationship, though Freet was not sure quite what.

Zara shook her head and held the classroom door open for Freet. Usually Zara accompanied her to the edge of the city, but today her teacher remained at the classroom door while Freet crawled down the school hallway. Many things about today had been troubling. Tomorrow, perhaps, would be better.

*

Freet woke and crawled into the city. Zara was not there to greet her. Instead, another teacher, one who usually taught the oldlings, met her at the entrance to the school and walked her to her classroom.

“Zara will be here soon,” he assured Freet. “Go ahead and start watching the vid.”

 Press Play To Watch It Mate

The beginning of the vid was boring. The Redbark sapling had grown into a tree. It was a distinctive tree, with one stray branch that grew low, well below the canopy. Its other branches blew in the gentle winter breeze. The low branch remained still. This lasted for a long time on the vid. Branches in the wind, nothing else. The ratlings, Freet assumed, were hibernating.

Spring came, the windy season, and finally the ratlings emerged from their dens. The Redbark branches whipped wildly, releasing clouds of orange pollen that blew across the forest and swirled up into the clouds before drifting back down to the ground. Everything, everywhere, was dusted in a fine orange powder, including the ratlings. Orange was the color of mating. Even at her advanced age, the orange powder-coated males in the vid piqued her interest.

 Press Pause

Zara rushed into the room, slightly out of breath. “I’m sorry I did not come to the door to greet you. I had to be in another part of the city for a meeting.”

“What kind of meeting?” Freet asked. “Where in the city?”

“We must finish your lessons first,” Zara insisted. “These are important lessons. What did you learn this time?”

“The Redbark life cycle is interesting. The pollen is orange, like the color of ratling fur in the mating season.”

“You’re still focusing too much on the ratlings, and not enough on the Redbarks. Did you not hear the mating songs of their branches? Can you not see the conversations they have in the rustling of their leaves?”

“They are trees,” Freet said. “Beautiful trees, but they aren’t even animals.”

“They are the ones who will save you.”

“From what?” Freet asked.

“From all the mistakes we humans made.” Zara pointed to the vid-player. “Keep watching. Soon it will start to make sense.”

 Press Play to Watch It Love

Freet flicked play with her longest tongue, but before the vid began she flicked her tongue out a second time.

pause

She had a question, and Zara hadn’t left yet. “They love after they mate?”

“The winds are in the spring,” Zara said, “and the ratlings nest in the summer.”

“They love the ratlings?”

“Watch the vid.”

play

Two ratlings cuddled in a den at the base of a Redbark. Clearly these were mates, and soon the female would bear her pups. In a pinch, a den would do for pups, but nests were better. Safer. A pup couldn’t crawl out as easily from a nest and wander off.

The female ratling climbed the Redbark, and the male ran in widening circles until he came to the next tree, the nearest tree. Carefully, both ratlings climbed high into the trees, letting their weight bend the branches downwards from the sky, sideways, until the tips of the branches were almost touching. Reaching out with their long tongues, they each grasped the tip of their partner’s branch, and pulled the branches together.

The ends of the branches grew delicate tendrils and the branches wound around each other. When the bond was secure, the ratlings scurried back to the trunk and repeated the process with a new set of branches, each of them bringing several branches to the nest. The juncture where the branches came together grew into the shape a deep bowl, almost a complete sphere, exactly the right size for the ratling parents to raise their pups.

The female climbed into the nest and soon after gave birth to a healthy litter of six. She stayed in the nest and nursed them, and her partner brought immature green Redbark fruit for her to eat. In even the lightest breeze, the nest of Redbark branches rocked, lulling the pups to sleep.

 Press Pause

Freet was starting to understand the lesson, perhaps. “The Redbarks provide for the ratlings.”

“Yes.” Zara said.

“What happens when the nesting is done?”

“The branches grow together, solidifying the bond. The Redbarks begin to pass chemical signals through the branches almost immediately, but as the branches get bigger, the communication is greater, almost as though the pair becomes a single Redbark. It is a more efficient form of communication than the sounds they make on their branches.”

Zara looked at the clock. “It is time for you to go, if you want to return to your den. But there is only one vid left, and time is growing short. Just this once, you may stay in the city.”

“With you?” Freet asked.

Zara nodded. “Yes. Just this once.”

To Freet’s surprise, Zara lifted Freet onto her lap and stroked her fur.

 Press Play To Watch It Die

The last vid moved at a different speed than all the others. It was a series of still photographs. At first there was a photo for every few minutes, then the pace gradually accelerated to a photograph for day followed by one for night. Seasons passed, and the Redbark forest grew ever more tangled together.

Seedlings sprouted and grew, mated and loved.

In the center of it all was the Redbark that had been the focus of the previous vids, the one with a stray branch that hung lower than the canopy. Far in the distance, the tops of cities became visible above the treeline. Green patches started appearing on the trunks of the Redbarks. Freet recognized it as a foodplant the humans sometimes gave her. Nutritious, but with a stringy texture, and not as tasty as fruit.

The green patches spread over the trees. Humans came and stripped it away, but it grew back. Branches began to rot and fall off the trees. There was less purple fruit, but the ratlings ate the green foodplants instead, and for a time they thrived. Even so, as the seasons turned, there were fewer ratlings. Humans came again, and this time they collected not the green foodplants, but the black fruits of the trees and any ratlings they could find.

Branches fell away from the Redbarks. In the wind, their now brittle branches cracked and the only song they sung was one of pain. Bark peeled away, revealing the wood beneath. The trees became the pillars, and the landscape in the vid matched the world that Freet knew.

Press Pause

“It was our plants that destroyed your trees,” Zara said sadly. “We didn’t mean for it to happen.”

“But we don’t need the trees, now that we have you to care for us,” Freet said.

“We cannot stay. Our foodplants would kill the Redbarks again.”

“There aren’t any Redbarks.” Freet wiggled free from Zara’s arms and ran around the room in tight circles of distress. “We will all die. Your survival classes and self defense, they will not be enough. If you go, we will all die.”

“You don’t have to die,” Zara said. “We saved seeds from the Redbarks. We’ve stopped planting our food crops, and yesterday I burned the fields that have already been harvested. We have enough food stored to stay until the Redbark seeds grow and start producing fruit, and to feed ourselves on the journey home. We can’t live here anymore, but you can.”

“You picked Redbarks over ratlings,” Freet said. She bared her teeth and growled softly.

“My father translated the songs the Redbarks sang with their branches, and recorded the chemical messages they sent down their trunks. We didn’t know it at first, but the Redbarks were the most intelligent species on the planeteven after we humans arrived.”

Freet bristled at the insult. “If the Redbarks were so smart, why didn’t they save themselves from your plants?”

“They kept the ecosystem of their forest in balance for tens of thousands of years, but they are slow thinkers, slow speakers, slow as sap in everything they do. Humans are not as smart as Redbarks, but we are far quicker. Besides, they did save themselves, after a fashion. They asked us to make the vids and taught us how to care for you. When they started to die, we collected as many seeds we could.”

Zara opened a small box and held out one of the black fruits, harvested from a Redbark tree. Not a fruit, Freet realized, but a seed pod.

The smell, oh the smell. Freet wanted nothing more than to swallow it. She even reached for it with her tongues.

“Not here, my little Freetling,” Zara said. Her eyes glistened with tears as she put the seed pod back into its box. “And not quite yet. It must be soon, for autumn is almost over, but not today. First you must decide, you and the other oldlings, if this is what you want. They’ve been watching the vids too, but I think they will do whatever you decide.”

Freet flicked out her tongues at the lingering smell of the seed pod.

“If we refuse, will you re-plant your food crops and stay to care for us?”

“Yes. That was the meeting we had. If you refuse to eat the seeds, at least some of us will stay behind when the ship returns to Earth. It will wreak havoc on the ecosystem, but it is your planet and your ecosystem. We will stand by what you choose.”

*

Freet slept at the foot of Zara’s bed. It was warmer than her den, with soft blankets, like cuddling beside a mate. The first light of dawn angled in through the window.

Images from the vids crowded into Freet’s mind. What was the proper choice? The ratlings in the vid had been dependent on the trees. They did not have lessons and cities. All they had were the Redbarks. But the trees had tended them as carefully as humans ever had, perhaps even more so. Was returning to the old ways a step backward, or sideways, or forward into a better future? Freet didn’t know. She was old. It was almost time for her to sleep the longest sleep.

Zara stirred. “Good morning, little Freetling.”

Freet nestled up to Zara and smelled her human smell. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, and while she liked the familiarity of her teacher’s scent, it did not pull at her the way the seed pod had. The Redbarks had tended to ratlings for a long time. They fit together in ways that humans and ratlings did not.

“If we choose the Redbarks, and you leave, what will become of the cities?” Freet asked. “What will become of the school?”

“The cities will be yours, and the school as well,” Zara answered, “The Redbarks believed that after a period of adjustment, the ratlings would regain all the advances you have made. They have promised to do the best they can for you.”

“My pups are oldlings now, but what of their pups? What will happen to them?”

Zara shook her head. “The first few generations will probably run wild. It will take the Redbarks time to grow back into what they once were. But they store knowledge in their seeds. They will remember their promise, even if the ratlings don’t.”

Humans had made no promises, and they did not need the ratlings as the Redbarks did.

“I will swallow the seed,” Freet said. “Take off my collar and walk with me to the proper place.”

*

 rewind

 Press Play To Watch It Born

Freet swallowed the black seedpod. She ran frantically in widening circles around the base of a pillar, the sun-bleached core of a long-dead Redbark, until finally she stopped in a patch of bright sunlight.

She used her foreclaws to dig down into the dirt. She dug until she was entirely underground, and then kept digging, not bothering to clear the dirt from the tunnel behind her.

 pause

Zara watched the vids in her quarters, over and over again on the long ride home to Earth. The new generation of Redbarks was bearing fruit, and the ratlings had gone wild. She hoped that the forest would recover, that the ratlings would thrive and the Redbarks would sing in the wind. She hoped that the Redbarks would keep their promise, and help the ratlings make use of the cities. Perhaps someday they would send messages to Earth, vids of a healed forest and an even stronger symbiosis.

***

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Asimov’s among other places. Her stories have been finalists for the Nebula Award, included in year’s best anthologies, and translated into several languages. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out with Fairwood Press in 2016. For more about Caroline, check out her website at http://carolineyoachim.com

Reprint Series

The Adventures of Ja’far al-Barmaki by Sofia Samatar

Bogi Takács’ Reprint Series begins with an original flash fiction piece by Sofia Samatar.

The Galli Books short stories series will offer one short story reprint each month. This initial offering, an original, is somewhat of an exception. I read this story in an advance ebook copy of the anthology In Other Words, edited by Saira Ali. I felt this anthology of microfiction and poetry was brilliant, but it was never released due to the publisher going out of business. I thought Sofia’s story was saying something especially important in very few words, and I kept it in mind for my future editing projects. Now you get to read it too—it is a take on a famous story that I needed in my life. — Bogi.

***

I was the servant and friend of the benevolent caliph Harun al-Rashid whose court gleamed like a lantern in a field. I was his beloved companion, adviser and accomplice. Together we wandered the streets of Baghdad in disguise. With him, I watched the mysterious lady strike her dogs and weep. I heard the marvelous story of the winged horse that ate from a manger of crystal. I solved the mystery of the three apples, I defended the wronged and took pity on the wrongdoer, I scattered wisdom like a scent.

One day I awoke and found I had grown very tall. My lips curled like poison in a glass. HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO KILL YOU, BOY? Laughter whirled in my throat as I attacked a youth with my magic staff and trapped a princess in a vial of sand. A SNAKE, AM I? Beyond my glowing cage, in the darkened theater, the smallest children had begun to cry. Their older brothers and sisters pinched them and hissed at them shut up shut up, mesmerized by the snapping of my teeth.

That night I wept so fiercely the tears cut into my face like needles. Oh Lord, deliver me.

It was my destiny to walk far, very far. It was my fate to become unrecognizable to myself. It was my fate to be broken like a reed.

A PUBLIC EXECUTION! I shouted. A young girl faced me, trembling, the color of wheat. Outside, beyond my cage, shadows passed to and fro. The shadows sat down with bowls in their laps. Someone turned out the light. Hey, said a voice, shut up, it’s starting. There’s Jafar.

Jafar. I heard my name. Sometimes I heard the name of my city, Baghdad the Fair. Numbers floated about me like dark constellations. February 22, 2006. 6:55 a.m. 170,000. 7,000 years. I tried not to hear the numbers and I tried not to hear my name. I was Jafar now, not Ja‘far. My name had been stripped of its central letter. That letter, the ‘ayn, was once the heart of my name. Is that why I am heartless now? Dear God, where is my heart?

Ayn, the throat sound, the intimate one. Once, long ago, she murmured to me Ja‘far, and it was the sound of running water.

Ayn which means a well, and also an eye. I am always thirsty now, ‘Aziza, and I can hardly see.

The shadows are gathering in the room beyond. It is almost time to enter the cage. Perhaps the letters of my name will be wiped out one by one; perhaps, when they have all vanished, I shall be free.

Until then, night after night, I must strive to reconcile myself to evil.

***

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, and the short story collection, Tender. Her work has received the William L. Crawford Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Her latest book, Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar, is now available from Rose Metal Press.