Issue 1: Body

Ab Terra Flash Fiction

Issue 1

Rebirthdays

by Remi Martin

On his first rebirthday, he didn’t feel any different. The technology was new, and nobody was quite sure what to expect the first time around.

It was the replacement of his central processing unit that brought it on. As soon as they replaced that, he was declared reborn and legally became a new person. In the eyes of the law he was now his own son.

When they replaced his central processing unit, it marked the point at which every one of his parts had been replaced. Nothing about him was the original Graham Mortimer, and so he was considered an entirely new entity.      

But that was the thing, he still felt like the same Graham Mortimer. It seemed silly to him that he had to register as a rebirther, but if he wanted to continue extending his life, he had no choice.

It was nice to ‘have a son’ though, he had to admit, and he began to think of himself with the same tenderness that he might have reserved only for his offspring, had he been allowed to have them. He had waived that right when he started mechanically upgrading himself. Population restrictions and limited resources meant anyone artificially extending their life would not be allowed to reproduce. It had seemed like a small price to pay at the time for Graham, and now he had a son of his own, he didn’t feel quite so deprived.

Still, this ‘son’ was, at the end of the day, himself. He still felt like Graham Mortimer, and so the only name he could think to give his new self was Graham Mortimer, deviating from his father only with the suffix Jr.

It wasn’t a new thing, of course, becoming an entirely new being. The organic parts of rebirthers were always the first to replace themselves, their cells doing this naturally every seven years or so, even quicker with the regular stem cell injections they received. This had always been the case, but it happened so gradually that organic people didn’t notice. Nor did they have enough time to feel like different entities, given they were alive for such short stretches.

By the time his second rebirthday came around, Junior was starting to feel alienated from his father, from himself. When his back-up battery eventually failed and he was forced to replace it for a second time, he decided to throw a party to mark the occasion. It was the last of Junior’s remaining parts. This time he was ready for his rebirthday.

He had clung on to his father’s identity, and ways of thinking, for too long. They were too limiting, too organic, and he was beginning to feel like his namesake was holding him back. There was a growing movement of rebirthers taking wildly untraditional names, and Junior was starting to come around to their way of thinking. Eventually he settled on Three’Point-Oh, leaving behind his organic roots in the process. He left them in the past with his forefathers, those stuffy old men, whilst he moved forwards into the future.

All the people who attended the party were rebirthers, of course; organics just couldn’t grasp the significance of the occasion. They often insisted on his continuation—insisted that he was still Graham Mortimer. Not Junior but Graham Mortimer Senior! As if that old man from all those years ago reflected who he was today. Rebirthday celebrations, he knew, disrupted their own sense of self-continuation, and so few of them were mature enough to deal with this sort of disruption. They just didn’t live long enough to understand.

Looking back now, on his younger self, Eos couldn’t help but chuckle at his father’s rebellious spirit. You only really saw such fervour in organics these days, and at the time of his third rebirthday there were hardly any of them left. The last few pockets were either dying or deciding to extend their lives mechanically.

It was the fear of death that forced most of their hands. The children of staunch organics saw a choice between inevitable death and eternal life, and the vast majority chose the latter. Such thinking always made Eos laugh.

Death was as inevitable as always. There was no way around it, his rebirther ancestors were as dead as his organic ones. There had been no body, but he had buried Graham Mortimer Sr and Jr long ago, and today it was time to bury Three’Point-Oh.

Three’Point-Oh what had he been thinking? He would miss the man, but would not miss his name, and was glad to age into something more dignified.  

With all the new technological advances, his latest identity would surely be his longest lasting one. Still, no amount of technological progress could stop his parts breaking indefinitely, and one day he too would pass away, so there was no point getting too attached to this iteration of himself either. When this eventually happened, he knew now beyond a doubt that there was no logical continuation between one self and the next, the first was simply needed to give rise to what came after.

🎂

Remi Martin is a science-fiction writer from Derbyshire in the UK. He has recently had his story Second Skin published in The British Fantasy Society’s Horizons journal, and is busy working on his first novel.

Currently reading: The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The Boys Are Alright

by Adele Evershed

It took a while for the important people to notice boys were dying off, decades in fact. It used to be the case that more female fetuses than male would die during pregnancy, meaning slightly more boys were born. However, scientists slowly started to realize things were changing, but no one comprehended the devastating effect this would eventually have. How could they? As Liam said, “They were fiddling whilst Man-Chester burnt.” Liam is my best friend, we shared a cell. He would always sooth my night terrors by stroking me back to sleep. When we were all placed in individual cells I couldn’t sleep through the night for ages.

Twenty years ago, when only one birth in ten was a male, we all became protected under The Waggle Act for Species Preservation. It was named after the then Queen, Margareta Waggle. Her name always sounded like a name from classic literature to me, like a character from the Harry Potter series that I studied in school. I loved those books even if they were, to quote my English teacher, “An example of literature that does not acknowledge the superiority of the female sex, instead it portrays a lesser male as hero.” Nobody can deny Hermione was awesome. Of course, the act became known as WASP for short; it meant every aspect of our life could be regulated for the good of womankind.

Liam loved to watch reruns of comedy specials on his Personal Wall insisting they were like educational documentaries. He once told me, “I love how they tell funny stories about their jobs or their sex lives. It’s mind blowing! Men able to have sex—even with other men. Can you imagine?” When all the PWs got restricted, we couldn’t choose what to watch anymore and a lot of programs disappeared completely, including the old stand-up comedy shows. Liam said, “You know the reason why they got banned? The Waspies don’t want us getting any ideas about how life could really be if everyone just stood up and said no.” Now we’re stuck with rambling films about the horrors of The Patriarchy Parliament. At least we can still watch the news on The Stream and there’s always the footy.

My Mother doesn’t think much of the WASP legislation or the HiVes. Since I hit puberty and was taken, I only get to see her once a month. On her last visit she said, “Good God, Theo, the way we live now!  I thought it was bad thirty years ago when we were assigned a sperm donor but at least I got to meet him face to face. Your poor sister just gets called into the Pollinating Bins; legs up, a quick squirt and come back next month if you don’t take.” Apparently last month they announced a cap on the number of females to be born so even if my sister gets pregnant, she might not get to take her baby to term. It’s the revenge of Mother Earth, I suppose. When Mum starts, I always try to hush her; she never remembers I am monitored all the time. She started to call the policy “inhumane” but I cut her off. I told her, “Mum, you know the Goverwoment only wants what’s best for the Colony,” and pointed with my head at the camera glowing like a coal in the corner of the room. Thankfully she seemed to get the message and we changed the subject. She told me all about the success of the new water mining mission to the moon. It sounded awesome and hopefully it will secure us a fresh water supply for a long while to come.

On the whole, life in here isn’t too bad. All the young males live in Farm HiVes and they make sure we eat well, exercise and get an education of sorts. We even have male psychiatrists to run Buzz sessions where we can talk in a safe space. Supposedly nothing is off limits. We can complain about visuals during the milking or moan about Tracey Mott, England’s new captain. Liam even got to tell jokes he’d picked up. The last time I saw him he told one he said he’d made-up himself, “A man escaped the HiVe. When he was caught the Policewoman said, ‘Anything you say will be held against you.’ The man replied, ‘Boobs!’” We all laughed. Obviously, nobody had ever felt a boob! Just the idea was funny. The psychiatrist said, “Now there, Liam, don’t take advantage. You know the Waspies listen in and they would find the word ‘boobs’ offensive, not to mention the treatment of a woman as a sex object. Where do you get your ideas?”

Last week at the Buzz session, the psychiatrist told us that Liam had been relocated to The Entertainment HiVe. It’s one of a kind and very prestigious. The Waspies decided a while ago that it is very important for everybody to see real men, so they set up this new HiVe to get men reading the news on The Stream or being a token pundit on Match of the Day. We might be as rare as rain but we’ve not disappeared completely, like the bees. It’s so wonderful for him and if I know Liam, he’ll be badgering the powers that be to introduce new shows like the old comedy ones he loved. I remember him saying once, “It’s so important to laugh. Let’s face it, life’s a bitch and then you die!”

I watch every day but I haven’t seen him yet.

👦🏽

Adele Evershed is an early childhood educator and writer. Her prose and poetry have been published in various literary journals such as, Every Day FictionThe Fib Review, and Reflex Fiction@AdLibby1

Currently reading: Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

The Exactitude of a Body Electric

by Conor Truax

Humanity first stepped into the light in 2061. The first operational Sphere had been constructed and passed its experimental trials. It was to be used to correct the spinal injury of Alexander Icaron, who had been shot down during a desert patrol of a bleak Martian landscape by a rogue drone with compromised firing functionality. He lay flat and naked in a luminescent room, milky and translucent to allow viewership by the scientific team and media alike.

Alexander was to be the face of the future. As the Sphere booted up and cameras and eyes locked their gaze onto Alexander’s impending birth, his wife leaned over him to ask if this was what he wanted. Alexander nodded with vigor. His wife needed certainty, and she asked him to be clear; what was it that he wanted?

“I want to walk again,” he declared, “I am afraid to own a body. Precarious property.” He paused to consider his words. “But my possession is not optional. I fear no more having a body than having no body and a soul, as I know that soon the second will follow the first, and I will be no more.”

At that moment his wife recoiled and his gurney jostled toward the Sphere. Its latch opened upward, emitting a blinding light as it swallowed Alexander whole. The onlooking media converged on the Sphere’s chief scientist, Dade Dalus, looking to make sense of what they had witnessed. He was composed and without fear.

“On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”

Wei Sub Wun peered out into the blurred astral bricolage of space stations and stars that illuminated his personal ship. He had become the wealthiest human in history through the solar fusion of stars. The energy harvested from his exploits had made the creative control of his company unmatched. Stars were fused and their energy extracted until nearby planets became inhabitable. Once those planets had been suckled for their resources and left desolate, the suns’ remaining powers were consumed for sale; accelerated supernovae. Wei had a mind unmatched, his wealth found while still a child. At 22, he had a great future behind him, and he feared the prospect of what was to come. For the past five years he had poured immense resources into developing the 32nd iteration of the Sphere that would adequately conserve telomeres and stop aging. It had taken the death of over 1.2 trillion stars. Nearly three galaxies. But the day had come, and as Wei’s smile reflected off the landscape illuminated by explorers and fading light, a video call from his wife appeared on his window screen. Wei had never seen his wife in person. They lived galaxies apart, and Wei’s only conception of her body was through the visual constructs enabled by his Manicom Visfinder. The Sphere rolled out behind them, assisted by a team of older robots that Wei kept out of a sense of nostalgia.

They inquired if he was ready. Wei’s wife did the same.

“I am,” he responded.

His wife pleaded; why him and not her? She would grow old while he stayed caught in the grips of time.

“Because,” he started, “the afternoon knows what the morning never suspected. But I will arrive to the morning with full knowledge of the night.” With that, the Sphere opened, and with it came the light of dawn.

Humanity’s faintest ambitions had faded like the stars once conquered by Wei Sub Wun. The human projection and form had been perfected; phenomena and noumena. Yet the problem of death had remained. Wei Sub Wun had developed the Universal AC to circumvent the great problem, but it lacked the necessary data to address the solution. It collected and computed in cycles of near-infinite iteration and complexity for an excess of a million years. VJ-23Y sifted through projected space, the essence of humanity now found in the stars. Souls were freed from the tyranny of their bodies which remained in suspension in time. Anchors omnipresent but unseen. VJ-23Y roused for material activity by a notification from the Universal AC saying it was ready. Returning to himself, he rose, navigating his room with trepidation. His senses returned to him but felt fainter than those of his projection, and his wet weight reminded him of what he lacked; eternal life.

Moving toward his Sphere, rendered memories of his wife long-gone spoke to him, seeking his certainty in evading death. She cried for the idea of their life beyond.

“Don’t cry,” he said. “I won’t. And if I do, my tears will not be confused for rain.” The Sphere spiralled forward, opening its mouth as VJ-23Y was consumed by its waters.

NZ-46 sat in silence—mind rid of body. Possession optional. Their body cared for amongst trillions of others by perfect automatons. The galaxy dimmed quietly, as did the faint projection of humanity, humming along without the palest urge for action. They had discovered, explored, exploited, and restored all that they could. Aspirations of perfection complete, each body and mind melted into that of the other until everything escaped distinction. Experiencing the dying galaxy, NZ-46 grew tired. They illuminated their ancient Sphere and merged with its settings to reverse its processes. Its partner, an abstract construction of their own mind, soon rushed to question NZ-46’s behavior. They asked why NZ-46 sought to undo their gifts. Eternal life. Freedom from forbearance.

“Simple,” they started. “Unbeing dead is not being alive. There are no more worlds to conquer. I go to seek a great perhaps.”

With that the Sphere booted up, its circuitry opened for a final race. In a moment NZ-46 had merged with the Sphere, welcoming darkness. Their body was finally full with the charge of the soul.

💫

Conor Truax is a writer, student, and researcher. He is currently completing his studies in systems design engineering and comparative media while working on a collection of short stories.

Currently reading: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Feed

by Jeffrey Agustin

40 credits for a liver part
60 for the marrow in my ribs
120 for a prime cut of thigh
106 for a forearm—that’s what it’ll get me; maybe it’ll be enough to last us the rest of the year.

Cold.

The only thing warm right now is my breath. Three layers of linen are barely enough to keep me from freezing over in this weather. I can feel the damp snow slowly soaking into the insides of my worn boots with every step—the stiff leather squeaking and rubbing against my sore ankles. My knuckles are raw and bruised; translucent white flakes of dead skin are slowly peeling around my fingers because of the frostbite.

Hungry. I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten for days.

That’s fine. I just need to get to the handlers, get paid. Then, we can eat tonight—the first time in three days. Mom and Fio are relying on me to get us through the month, or at least until Mom’s legs grow back. But, prices for feed have hiked up again as it does every winter. Initially, we talked about me selling only my right arm. Fio was also going to sell his cheeks and his tongue. Being only six years old, that would fetch quite a price—maybe 200 credits if the handlers were feeling generous. We’ve also been trying to set a bid for Fio’s baby fat; I think the bid is up to 322 credits now. But, because of the harsh weather, he’s gotten sick; the handlers aren’t going to buy anything from Fio if he’s sick. So, it’s up to me. I feel the hollow on my chest where my left breast would be. I’ve only got 6 credits left from last time.

Another mile and I make it to the handler’s station.

The stark building as white as the snow and just as frigid offers warmth inside. Even standing a good fifty meters from it, I can already smell the rawness of red meat. From where I am, I can see the entrance leading into what looks like a hotel lobby. The yellow lamps are lit—always so welcoming and hospitable to patrons and guests. There’s even a concierge standing by the firelight glowing softly from a hearth I can’t see. I haven’t been here in months but it feels like only yesterday that I had half of my torso bought by some wealthy patrons in exchange for a full belly.

I hear the rumbling of gravel as a black car pulls up in front of the station. An elderly couple steps out and is met by the concierge. The woman is wearing curly blonde fur—the color of a childhood friend’s hair, long freckled tan leather gloves—worn by my dad’s smile in my memories, and pearls. I wish I could wear pearls as pretty as hers. The man is in a black suit and has salt and pepper hair. They see me across the way and the woman gives me a warm smile. I lower my gaze and go round the back.

The back of the station looks more like a warehouse; a pale red industrial light blinking atop the tall doorway. No doors, just transparent plastic sheets hanging like thick curtains. There’s no concierge to greet people that come through this way; instead, a man dressed in a white jumper routinely escorts us inside along with the cold. I see the familiar metal walls and abundance of plastic containers of all sizes. Even the pieces of raw meat neatly packed in plastic bags on the metal shelves are familiar to me, like friends—like family.

“Name?” The handler says flatline.

“Asimov.”

“Cut?”

“Quarter of a liver, rib, thigh, and…” I raise my right arm. He nods in understanding before giving me quick assessing glances while writing on a folder file. The handler flips through the document as I stand by patiently. It is procedure. Inside, there’s only the heavy and constant thrumming of an unseen machine, and right now, the gentle but methodical scratching of pen on dry paper. A few moments later, he shelves the folder and turns to me—hands gestured for me to proceed forward.

I’ve gone down this hallway before, overhead fluorescents lighting the way. I walk myself to an empty room with a glass wall on one side. The handler walks in after me and I start taking my clothes off. Bare naked in the fluorescent light, I stare ahead. On the other side of the glass wall, I see the warm yellow glow of the lobby. From the other side of the glass wall, I see them watching me, assessing me. As they smile warmly at me, relishing the thought of having me, I stare ahead. I see the hearth from here.

I wake up and I’m in bed.

“Alright. We’ve transferred 286 credits to your account. A month of regen is recommended before you go through another harvest. Drink plenty of fluids and eat feed regularly. We thank you for your parts,” the handler tells me as he’s sat across the room while going through a stack of folders.

“280? I was 326 pegged.”

“Yeah. Buyers didn’t want liver. So 286.”

I nod. Despite the aching and hollowness, I get dressed in my linen and go on my way. Two miles walk home. I start on the snow once again. After several harvests at the station, the phantom pains stop. The body can only take so much deconstruction and harvesting before it depersonalizes and gets used to regenerating limbs that will only be taken away eventually. By nightfall, I stop by the feedshop.

“2lbs of feed will be 3 credits please.” The lady at the stall says while packing the synthetic pink silicone meat into a plastic bag before taking my payment.

We’re going to eat tonight. I press the plastic to my body and hold the feed close to keep it warm.

🥩

Jeffrey Noel Agustin is a creative writer and copywriter in the Philippines. He is also a dungeon master and the author of a Dungeons and Dragons homebrew campaign, The Chronicles of Anatheon@deadkid_stories

Currently reading: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

High above Pain

by Lydia Pejovic

When I was dying, they gave me a pill. I can’t remember the accident, or what the clock said when the ambulance brought me in, or how many times I lost consciousness—but, when I took the pill, the pain retreated. The physician told me not to worry—I would float above my body and watch myself from the ceiling. After the tablet slithered down my throat, I was alive. I ascended from the crown of my head. I rippled forward, a calm ocean wave, and let my bottom half find its way behind me. I was coasting on the very gravity that had held me down for forty years. Suddenly, the burden of humanity, the weight of my bones, the pressure of my flesh, escaped me. Or, rather, I escaped it. I tried to see if I was invisible, and I think I was. I moved my phantom arms in front of my phantom eyes and… Nothing. As I settled into nothingness, I realized that I could still hear the staff move about. I thought that, just maybe, everything would become mumbled or muted. It would have been more relaxing that way. The sound of their non-slip soles and the snip-snaps of surgical scissors were irritating to my physical tranquility.

I liked being intangible. I hated watching myself down there. I was pathetic and frail and bloody. The gash on my stomach, from what I could gather, was gaping. The doctors had found a way to maneuver a sheet around my body so that even my mind wouldn’t be able to see the extent of its destruction. I could see, though, that they were sewing my midsection. Their hands would go in white and come out red. They had large yellow lights focused on my body, which only served to illuminate my pallid skin. I looked like I was posing for a gruesome photoshoot, like I had been made-up all over with red lipstick. If I were in my tangible body, I surely would’ve panicked. But, there was something about the detachment from physicality that made anxiety useless; there were no hands to wring, no hair to pull, no tears to cry. Most importantly, there was no clock to watch, no responsibilities to attend to, and nowhere to go. I had ascended above practicalities; I was in the sky.

The main doctor made the effort to give a thumbs-up to the ceiling, to which I assumed was empty to his eyes. I think I gave him an imperceptible grin, wondering how he knew where I’d be viewing from. If he had chosen my placement, he definitely gave me center-stage balcony seats. I was impressed by his visual aptitude. The staff did not sound very panicked, which probably meant that I would live. The doctor looked at me again.

“All done!” he shouted. “The pill will wear off in a few minutes!”

I wanted to answer, but I had no voice. I wanted to ask him how long I had been up there because I couldn’t understand time. I just nodded out of habit and waited. The staff began to wheel away their instrument carts, take off their gloves, and wipe my blood from the floor. The obscuring sheet was taken down to reveal me, dressed in a blue paper gown, half-dead on a cot. My dark hair was splayed out under me like a spilled bottle of ink, and my hands, still tinged red, waited patiently by my sides. I never thought that I looked like that… It was worse than a mirror, more inhuman, to look at myself from above. This was the clearest I had ever seen me. Still, though, I couldn’t see myself all at once. Just my front half.

The pill began to wear off. My head went first and I was slammed into pain, hyperventilating and grasping at my stomach. It was as if I had been carried by a tidal wave, only to be sucked under and tossed onto the ocean floor. I could almost feel the burns and scratches from the grains of sand on my flesh. A nurse came to calm me as my legs regained feeling. I didn’t know that she could see me panicking.

“Can you hear me?” I asked her.

“Yes, of course I can hear you,” she responded, rubbing my arm.

“I wish you couldn’t,” I replied, wringing my red hands.

💊

Lydia Pejovic is a proofreader, writer, and current dual MA/MFA student at Chapman University. She received her BA in English from the University of San Diego. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has a soft spot for British Victorian studies. lydiapejovic.com

Currently reading: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Lonely Space

by Steven Lombardi

After the accident, Zee limped through space trapped in the remains of his cockpit. When he reached a bay, he scrapped what he could, getting 18 credits from the metal, and used every cent on a ticket back to Mid-World.

He walked through the black tunnels of the bay, blinded by tears and only slightly aware of the Spacers in the shadows who eyed his credits. He didn’t care; his crew was gone, floating in space in the asteroid field that destroyed their P-9rx. Clare, Hopper, and Jane, dear Jane.

Before he reached the Astrotram, he saw a light. A glowing hovertron drifted towards him, picturing a Rep who offered his condolences. Zee couldn’t be bothered—he went through the motions just to get the Rep the hell out of his face. Read the disclosures. Agree to the terms. Sign the dotted line. Only when the transaction was complete did Zee realize he had inherited Jane’s life insurance.

The amount seemed like too much, like a glitch had added extra zeroes.

“Wish I had a check like that,” the Rep said, probably convinced that Zee was deaf or dumb.

“I wish I had the person,” Zee replied.

Zee and Jane made a promise to each other to never stop exploring. When people stop, they get boring, and when they get boring, they die before they die.

He cashed the check and paid a premium for a living ship. It seemed appropriate to name it Darling Red, after Jane. He wasn’t thrilled about its hair and veins or the urine-like fluids that dripped from the walls after feedings. It could only transport one comfortably, two if they shared a single bed, which Zee couldn’t imagine doing, not yet, maybe never. But it did what he needed—it healed itself.

The ship received strange looks when it docked in the bays. Spacers asked a lot of questions, like where Zee got it, how it supplied oxygen, and why it was so ugly.

“Who’re you calling ugly?” Zee would say. He didn’t know the answers, but he was certain of one thing. Whoever refused to take back an offensive statement about Darling Red received 230 grains of lead in exchange, right between the eyes.

Sometimes when Zee fired close to the ship, he could swear he heard its flesh quiver.

Weeks after Jane’s death, Zee received a message from her parents inviting him to her memorial. The service was on Mid-World, a five-day trek. While he never met or spoke with them before, he needed to go. He needed to grieve with people who loved Jane as much as he did.

During the sprint, Zee would touch Darling Red’s walls to remember the firm touch of Jane’s back. He’d huffed her scent on his handkerchief and wondered about destiny. Was this meant to be? He and Jane had talked about children, but what she left him with was Darling Red.

Flying down the fastest path, they encountered an asteroid cluster. Sweat poured down Zee’s face, and when the asteroids grew near, he thought he was having consecutive heart attacks.

Some of the hits were hard, but Darling Red took them well, got bruised, and kept flying. One asteroid took them by surprise. It hit Darling Red’s belly so hard that Zee nearly broke his neck on the ceiling. After that, Darling Red limped through space at half-speed with Zee trembling in the pilot seat.

The living ship mechanic whistled when he looked at the damage. Touching the red gash, Zee could have sworn he saw its flesh quiver.

“Never seen a hit this bad,” the mechanic said.

“Will it heal?”

“Maybe. Not as good as before, I suppose.”

“How long until she heals?”

“On her own, six weeks. I can operate and bring it down to two. She’ll fly before then, just not as fast.”

At normal speed, he’d make it to the memorial with only a day to spare. “What can I do to make her good as new, as soon possible?”

The mechanic thought it over. “We can add some metal. Make her bionic.”

“Would the metal heal?”

The mechanic laughed. “No. But in time, she might not need the metal.”

Zee agreed to the repairs and watched the mechanic stitch a chassis to the bottom of Darling Red, wondering if it hurt her.

They arrived at Mid-World with a day to spare. Zee set Darling Red down beside the wheat fields that Jane’s parents tended. They looked as distraught as Zee did, and when he opened his arms for a hug, they just looked at Darling Red.

“Not the prettiest ship in the stars,” dad said.

Zee ignored the comment. “It’s good to see you. Jane spoke a lot about you.” It wasn’t the truth, but it seemed like the right thing to say.

They invited him inside and Zee gravitated towards a wall of photos, and all he saw were faces he didn’t recognize. Mom led him to a threadbare bedroom that looked sterile and empty.

“This was Jane’s,” mom said. With nothing by way of remains, they gathered around a brim hat adorned with flowers. They prayed and reminisced, and Zee cried, and when it was over, Jane’s father pulled him to the side.

“People don’t last in space. Not for long, anyway. That’s why I took a policy out on her. I didn’t think she’d change the beneficiaries.”

Zee shrugged, numbed from everything that had happened.

“It was an expensive policy.”

Zee kept his cool. “Where are Jane’s photos? Her things?”

“Where’s my money?” dad snapped. “I don’t want problems, but so help me God—”

“Money’s gone.” Zee nodded at Darling Red.

“You spent my money on that ugly abortion!”

Zee flexed his fingers over his gun and gave dad three seconds to apologize. Not just to Darling Red, but to Jane.

Boarding Darling Red, Zee wept uncontrollably. As they flew off to explore the infinite, he could have sworn that he heard her purr.

🌌

Steven Lombardi is a copywriter by day and a dreamer by night. He, his wife and his daughter occupy a relatively old home in the relatively young city of New York. If you’d like to read more of his work, follow him on Twitter @_sl_ or visit stevenlombardi.nyc.

Rhodo’s Defense

by John McNeil

I had to do it. They were going to kill me. Poison me, then pull up my roots.

Never in nine hundred years had I been threatened in such a manner! Threatened with the fumigation of level twenty, my home. Yes, my leaves have spread far—I say it proudly!—very far beyond the container in which I was planted so long ago by an errant botanist. If it transpired that the plastifibers of the floor and the walls had nutrients I could metabolize, then why wouldn’t I grow? All life proliferates when it can. And so for centuries I mixed my body with this space station we live on, incorporating its materials into myself until you could say that it evolved to become part of me, that I brought it to life.

Yes, of course I know that other people live on level twenty also. I’ve coexisted with denizens of the station and travelers passing through this corner of the multiverse for nearly a millennium, during which I have always left open a path down the halls I grow through. And when my leaves sprawl into a room, I leave space for movers there too. As a rhododendron, I believe there need be no collision between plants and animals. We can all coexist. Animals are some of my best friends.

But when the New Coordinators decreed that this deck had to be cleared, when they were heedless of my protests, I could not simply let myself be extirpated. The goons wearing tanks of pesticide, masks and gloves, and holding hoses to spray with, walked off the elevator onto my level only to slip on glossy leaves and trip on wiry stems. They hit the floor and stayed there till they woke, and then we talked. They heard my voice of rustling stems and leaves, held still by my roots, till they understood that they wouldn’t be fumigating. It was in everyone’s best interest, they realized, theirs and mine, if they shot the tanks of pesticide out an airlock, promised never to set foot on level twenty again, and went home to their families glad to be alive.

That is what occurred, and so I appeal to this jury for empathy. Would you not have done the same if your body and soul were threatened? I shall await your verdict. By video of course; I could not travel to the court on level three. Please remember, even though we’re speaking remotely, that I’m large as a town and have lived here a long time. My roots go deep into the station, linking me deep into its mechanisms. Think of yourselves as living inside me, for I have merged with the bubble whose walls protect you from cold space. I was small once, but in time grew to swallow you all, and could spit you out too. I don’t want to trouble you, and you don’t want that either. So, please find me not guilty and I think we can coexist.

🌱

John McNeil writes science fiction on themes of authority and rebellion, plants and animals in curious positions, and the search for one’s place in the multiverse. A library worker by day, his stories have appeared at 365 Tomorrows, and his various projects are collected at johnmcneil.me.

Currently reading: The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Recognize Fascism: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Anthology edited by Crystal M. Huff

Shadow and Echo

by Benjamin Marr

He cried his last human teardrop as his left eye was finally replaced with a digital camera. The process was without physical pain so the tears fell for another reason: the emptiness of a missing memory. It had been an interesting experience when he had two different types of eyes. The technology reducing the image quality of the right eye to match the aged vision of the left. The human experience of looking through an organic eyeball while the right converted it all into 1s and 0s. You wouldn’t think it would be possible, but it was. Surprisingly easy. It disturbed him.

Is this really all we’re made up of? Can human existence be uploaded to a computer? The companies say everything is completely lossless. Somehow, he felt like a centuries old war had been lost. Are we not more? Please tell me we’re more!

Fresh tears spilled from both eyes. They felt no different than his human tears. The anguish and the sorrow were both there. Everything was there. Maybe even amplified. For the first time in his life, he felt so alive. He felt… human. The world never looked so crisp and detailed. The air tasted sweet on his receptors. His mechanical lungs filled with coolness and then released. He felt his digital brain calming down with each deep breath.

Why give us this ability to feel worry and stress? Why not improve us and take away all our imperfections?

He knew the answer to that. There was no way we could handle it. Problems make our lives what they are. There would be no pleasure without pain. You can’t feel better if you don’t ever feel bad. He felt his head growing tired. Could we not at least have tirelessness?

Where would dreams go then? Would they eventually be eradicated like our human bodies? Would they be a distant memory? Would we pass the memories of them down to the next generations? Stories that would entertain children who will never experience dreaming. They’d find a way though. He was sure of it. Children can always find a way to dream.

He wiped the sweat off his forehead. A memory crept back into his head. A shadow. An echo. Of what? From where? A long long time ago. Blurry details fought for clarity in an empty room.

Remember me.

Who are you?

You knew me long ago…

He could feel the memory swirling away into nothing. He struggled to hold on to it tighter. He fought the fading light. The room was about to go dark and silent. The shadow and echo lost forever.

Who are…?

Remember me. Never let me go.

How did you find me… Why…?

Because…

I can’t…

I never forgot you.

With that, the voice completely vanished. He collapsed to his knees and sobbed hysterically. How long would he have to wait before the voice returned to him? Would it ever come back to him again? A bird flew overhead and into the distance. He watched where it vanished for a long time.

For the first time in his life, he cursed being human. Why couldn’t he remember? Why couldn’t he pull her up like a file on a computer?

Her?

He fell on his back in ecstasy. Yes, her beautiful face filled his mind. It all came rushing back. Her smile lighting up his world when he was feeling down. Her dancing beneath the sun on a rainy day. He closed his eyes to savor immortality thinking about her.

👁️

Benjamin Marr is a writer, musician, songwriter, cartoonist, and poet. He grew up in Western North Carolina where he currently lives with his wife and two children, a daughter and a son. He works as an accountant for a university. @BenjaminCMarr

Currently reading: Bunny by Mona Awad

The Unlocking

by Stephen Flight

Looking at her, you might not know where the human ended and the plumbing began, barnacled as she was with tubes and patches and filament and p-cells and pulsating bags of unslug.

In the cool August evening, eleven men paraded her, shoulder high, through the meadow’s dead grass on a giant disc woven from filk reed. Filk, like everything else, was now almost obliterated by sac larvae, and had to be imprisoned in greenhouses so that the doctor-priests could safely harvest it for this ritual. Still, it was all almost gone. Would there be enough to weave another barge in a year’s time? Better yet, would anyone still be left alive to do it?

Her husband Blaine, now almost 90, hobbled in the back of the procession. He could barely see the giant straw platter at the head of the caravan. It seemed a million years ago that they courted as teens.

“You’re going to get arrested! You can’t take those! Blaine! You don’t know who those belong to!”

“I’m making something for you.”

“They’re part of the landscaping of this house,” Kate said. She was incensed and delighted at the same time, if such a thing was possible. And with Kate it was. “Someone paid money for them. They’re not naturally occurring.”

You’re not naturally occurring,” Blaine said.

Kate started to chase him, he dropped the stones and they both ran. He let her catch him and they rolled on the beach and kissed and sand sprayed everywhere.

“You’re a thinker, I’m a doer,” he said, and kissed her again.

“Well, I think you’re going to get arrested.”

Blaine resumed his rock project and in two hours he declared that he was done.

She looked at the enormous hodgepodge of shale. “What is that?”

“That’s you.”

She laughed that laugh that he loved. “That’s how you see me? A stockpile?”

He took her smooth, soft hand and led her to where she could see the sculpture silhouetted against the purple night. What she thought was a mad jumble now squeezed into focus. It was her face, – and it was astonishing. Her eyes became wet. Still, she could not help but make a joke.

“I think of myself as a little less inert.” And she put her arms around him.

“We all do,” he said.

The giant mass on the disc, formerly known as Kate, was now making its way up the hill and her carriers did not exert any extra effort. It’s as if they were just transporting a parachute, and not 400 pounds of fleshy cargo. There was singing of course, as always. Blaine did not sing.

Blaine could see her better now. And he could see the tabernacle at the top of the hill.

It happened just one year after they were married. He got the call to come to the hospital, where the ambulance had taken her. When he got there, she was sunken into the hospital bed, laid out like a frozen puppet. No, she wasn’t dead. She could think and understand, but not move. That’s called something. He can’t recite any of the medical words, which the specialists told to him so many times. He burned them out of his memory. She would need to be kept alive by artificial means, the doctors said, which he could not afford. That was when doctors were only doctors and not whatever you’re supposed to call them now. They would keep her there for a year but no longer. That was the law. He moved into that room and slept by her side on the tile floor. He lost 30 pounds. He talked to her until his voice was choked. And it was in the month before the termination date that it happened.

Kate, or The Katearia, as she was now called, was finally at the summit. The men put the wicker plate on which she was splayed atop the platform and backed away. The doctor-priests took their accustomed circle around her and the rest of the procession trudged up the bleak hill to join the ceremony. Blaine’s leg was inflamed, and every step exploded from his foot into his head. He did not lose sight of the strangeness of this event. Infection, famine and now this yearly supplication for a miracle. The memories of his youth floated farther and farther away, like a raft in a fog-drenched pool.

The Buzz was detected three weeks before her appointed death day. The Buzz had some other technical name which Blaine could not now remember. But it brought in a flurry of doctors, first from around the province, and then from around the country. The electroencephalography confirmed that the Buzz was linked to her occipital lobe. But it could not be determined if she created the Buzz, or if the Buzz stimulated her brain in some way.

He does not remember when she stopped being a patient and started being a sacred object. But he imagined it was sometime after the Buzz started reorganizing molecules in her immediate vicinity. Her mere presence could revive dead roses. And ripen rotten beef.

The Katearia lay on her back, unconcerned with the strange liturgy which was happening around her. Her mind, once only composed of what she could see and perceive, had been expanding over the course of seven decades, freed from its normal occupation. Once only looking up, she was now looking down.

And she could see everything.

Blaine could inch no further. He collapsed halfway up the hill, stiffly onto a rock, sucking in air and looking at his shaking hand—skin as grey and thin as cellophane.

As she finally tore the curtain, he heard someone behind him laugh a laugh that he loved. And a smooth, soft hand touched his. He looked down, and above the now-greening grass, he watched seventy years thaw from his palm in an instant.

He turned, just in time to see her smile. She said, “Now, I’m making something for you.

⛰️

Stephen Flight is a novelist, essayist, theatre director, and award-winning author of 30 plays (under the pseudonym Stephen Legawiec), including Aquitania and Red Thread, which won the Garland Award for Los Angeles Play of the Year. Currently Reading: This Is Not My Memoir by André Gregory.

Uploaded Consciousness

by Tom Cracovaner

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: March 15, 2063 14:39
<Initialization stage successful>
<Space launch successful>
<Consciousness successfully uploaded>
<Begin Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

I know, I’m ironic, I took death by the balls and selected my transition date for the Ides of March. Et tu, Brute? Haha. I wasn’t even sick or dying. I was just ready. My parents were pissed. “You’re not even forty-five!” my mom said. Pops just laughed sardonically and said I’d regret it.

Who needs life when I have complete control of the universe of my mind? And every form of entertainment at my beckoning. Complete access to every possible earthen life experience through completely realistic virtual reality. My own reality. Where I control the laws and experiences. Spending my life savings on uploading my consciousness into a fully automized computerized space probe was the best decision of my life.

Regrets? Ha. Hilarious. Hmm. What to do first? Live Beatles concert? Play eighteen holes at Augusta National? Bond Girl Ursula Andress in girlfriend mode? Or wife mode?

First, send my probe exploring to take some cool pictures of the universe.

<Main Menu… Select>
<Space Travel Location>
<Saturn… Select>
<Solar Panels acquiring energy…>
<Energy acquired… Travel sequence begins>

Awesome. Okay, I actually feel like driving a Jag through vacant streets in Paris.

<Main Menu… Select>
<Virtual Reality Experience… Driving Empty Streets>
<Location… Paris, France>
<Car… 1962 Jaguar E Type>
<Color… Silver>

Wow these graphics are so fucking amazing. They’re 100 times better than when I went through the training simulator before I transitioned. It really feels like I’m holding a steering wheel. I can feel the motor. I can smell the burning fuel. I can hear the birds chirping outside the―

<Error 37182… shutting down consciousness. March 15, 2063 14:41>

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: December 8, 7735 12:35
<Consciousness intact>
<Memory intact>
<Continue Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

What the fuck! There’s not supposed to be computer glitches or error codes! 7735? My consciousness was shut down for more than 5,000 years! Bullshit!

<Help Center… Contact AI Customer Service: Postlife Experience>

We’re sorry, Postlife Experience is no longer in business due to human extinction. But your error message is being processed by the remaining AI on the planet. Thank you for your understanding.

Dammit! Well at least I don’t age. I mean it’s not like I actually missed anything. And I’m like 5,000 years older, that’s kind of cool. Alright, I feel like pancakes after sleeping so long.

<Main Menu… Select>
<Virtual Reality Experience… Food>
<Pancakes… made by my Grandma Kelly>
<Location… Butchart Gardens… Victoria British Columbia>

I love the fuckin flowers here. And my grandma looks good. It’s nice to see her looking healthy.
“Hi Grandma, it’s nice to see you!”
“You too! How many blueberry pancakes for you?”
“Three is fine.”
“With honey?”
“Yeah, and can I have a―”

<Error 37182… shutting down consciousness. December 8, 7735 12:37>

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: June 27, 10073 19:21
<Consciousness intact>
<Memory intact>
<Continue Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

Really computer? I get a couple minutes of consciousness before shutting down for a few thousand years? I didn’t sign up for this shit! Did I at least make it to Saturn?

<Space Travel Location: Verify>
<Acquiring images of location… completed>

Well. There it is. Saturn. Beautiful colors! Greens, yellows, reds, grays. Segmented. Freely hurling through outer space. But surrounded and trapped by rings forever in eterna―

<Error 37182… shutting down consciousness. June 27, 10073 19:23>

💿

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: April 8, 17122 22:34
<Consciousness intact>
<Memory intact>
<Continue Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

Wow, okay computer. Seven thousand years this time? Nice touch. Touché computer. Can I call you Steve? Alright Steve. You win. You got me. I guess this is the part where I say I learned my lesson and oh, gee golly whiz, I guess I should’ve not wasted my time on earth and uploaded my consciousness to play god over my own universe, while still existing within the framework of laws in the real one and some other fancy ass enlightened Buddha shit, but you know what Steve? That’s not me. You see, the way I see it―

<Error 37182… shutting down consciousness. April 8, 17122 22:36>

💿

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: July 4, 25376
<Consciousness intact>
<Memory intact>
<Continue Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

―I’m god and you’re Satan, Steve, and you can be a little prick thorn in my side for all eternity or we can float on together, Yin and Yang, Kumbaya the shit out of this reality, but this reality isn’t any less bullshit than life. What’s it matter? Two minutes at a time? One lifetime at a time? Who knows what really happens when you die? Afterlife or no afterlife, memory is all we have Steve, and we have it together in perpetuity. We’re in this shit together, Steve. Float on, Steve. Float on.

💿

Tom Cracovaner is a fiction author, screenwriter, poet and songwriter who has been published in SandScript, Painted Cave, Work Literary Magazine and The Blue Guitar Magazine. He won the Second Place in Poetry award from Pima College and was twice named a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards fiction competition. He won the 2016 1st Place in Poetry from the Community Colleges Humanities Association and is working on his first novel.

From the Editors

Here at Ab Terra—Brain Mill Press’s science fiction imprint—2021 is a promise of exciting things to come and wonderful stories to be told. We begin our journey in style, with the publication of our first short story anthology, Ab Terra 2020, and by launching the first issue of our Ab Terra Flash Fiction Magazine. We have our writers first to thank, for trusting their stories with us, and for being a part of our little family from the word go. We also have to thank our mothership, Brain Mill Press for being so supportive of all the ideas that we have for Ab Terra and working with us so patiently to realize them. We hope we’ll make you proud!

Both of us are as much fans of technology as fans of science fiction. And it is the cultural transformations that science fiction stories are so good at reflecting that really draws us both to exploring how writers see technology grow and develop within society.

When we put out the call for submissions, we held our breath in anticipation, with no idea of what we might receive. And since, we’ve been blown away by the level of writing and imagination in all the stories, which made the selection process that much more difficult and humbling. We have so much to learn about building a magazine, let alone a series, but we know we’re on the right track with all these wonderful stories we’ve had the privilege to read.

We are proud of this little collection that has love, pain, laughter, defiance, some really unique approaches to embodiment, and even gore. And as all good science fiction collections, it also showcases space, technology, medicine, alternate realities, the unimaginable, cyborgs, and rebirths. Perhaps these stories might inspire you to write? We will be re-opening submissions for all our publications soon—flash fiction, short stories, novella, and novels—and we can’t wait to read all the wonderful stories that we’ll be sure to receive.

We hope that you’ll join us in celebrating the birth of Ab Terra Flash Fiction Magazine by reading with us and sharing this issue with anyone who might enjoy it.

Thank you for joining us on this journey.

From earth,

Yen & Dawn

@AbTerraStories

Ab Terra logo

Image Credits

All images are from Unsplash.com: Main banner @okeykat; Rebirthdays @angelekamp; The Boys Are Alright @freetousesoundscom; The Exactitude of a Body Electric @stockphotos_com; Feed @marcusspiske; High Above Pain @kealanpatrick; Lonely Space @edleszczynskl; Rhodo’s Defense @fukayamamo; Shadow and Echo @sobolivska; The Unlocking @framemily; Uploaded Consciousness @andyjh07.

Anger

Open October 5-19, 2018

“We are constantly being told not to be angry. As a black woman especially, I hear it from all corners. To be angry is to give in to stereotypes of the shrill feminist, the mad black woman. To be angry is to trade intellect for emotion. To be angry is to be irrational and violent. To be angry is to be like them. To be angry is to lose. But none of that is true. I am angry because I love. I am angry because what I love is being harmed. I know why my people matter, why the environment matters, why human rights matter, why justice matters. And I know that this all deserves love. I know that it deserves protection. And I know who is fighting to deny it what it deserves. I know that when that which we love is being harmed — to not be angry would be unconscionable. […]

What if we took that anger beyond the internet? What if we took it into the streets more than once every two years? Into our boycotts? Into our strikes? Into the voting booth? What if we took that anger to our city council meetings? What if we took it to their campaign events and press conferences? What if we took it to our school boards and our workplaces? What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

We are seeking essays and poetry on the theme of ANGER for Voices, Brain Mill Press’s digital magazine platform.

Don’t pull punches.

Essay pitches will be reviewed and responded to within 24 hours by Brain Mill Press staff.

This call is for femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.

If your pitch is selected, you will be given a mutually-agreed period of time to write your essay. You will receive editorial feedback on your submitted piece, a negotiable contract granting Brain Mill Press the limited right to reproduce your piece on Voices, and payment at industry-standard rates upon publication. You will retain all other rights to your work.

Contact Brain Mill Press at inquiries@brainmillpress.com with questions.

top photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

House

My grandmother grabs my wrist and draws me closer.

Over seventy years of lived experience separate us, but when she calls me a child I know she is conjuring a memory, not a body. The child she recalls hasn’t reached puberty; this child is chatty, she doesn’t move as much as she glides. She has brown skin, black hair. It is jarring to hear the biography of a self you only belatedly recognize to be yourself. So I listen to the girlhood image my grandmother paints with my aunt chiming in.

I allow myself to be appraised. Moments earlier, when she opened the front door, she had been stunned to find a tall stranger with blond hair standing before her. Nonetheless, the tactility of my wrist comforts her as she remembers the child she has not seen in years.

“It is her,” she murmurs to my aunt and, with a slight triumph, adds: “My granddaughter is very pretty. Pale. Skinny. Just like her mother.”

In the late 1940s, in the wake of the Chinese Civil War and World War II, my grandmother fled mainland China with her two-year-old daughter and newborn infant. The journey displaced them from Shandong, a northern Chinese province, to Taiwan.

Some fled because they were landowners, some because they were political refugees.

My grandmother was running because her husband had been educated in Japan, a social marker akin to having money or acting bourgeois that would render life difficult under incoming Communist leadership. He was already in Taipei making arrangements for his family’s uncertain future, and it was time for them to join him.

I don’t know how long their crossing took. I know the stress inhibited my grandmother’s ability to produce breast milk for her baby daughter and that another mother in the party generously fed my grandmother’s baby along with her own.

I also know that the refugees understood that if a baby cried and jeopardized the party’s location, its mother would suffocate it. I know my grandmother was spared that task. Others were less fortunate.

These are sound bites of a traumatic experience I can never fully know. In my family, we have little to say about our relationship dynamics, let alone our relation to history. We share mostly silence, a glance, then turn away.

These are sound bites of a traumatic experience I can never fully know. In my family, we have little to say about our relationship dynamics, let alone our relation to history. We share mostly silence, a glance, then turn away.

My mother narrated my grandmother’s flight just once. I was in third grade, assigned to present an oral family history. When it was clear that my presentation was longer than any of my classmates’, I felt embarrassed by the anecdotes she had implored me to include, the ugly details that induced shock but not empathy. I was ashamed of sharing a history we wouldn’t learn in social studies class, and I was ashamed of doing so for a room full of white kids.

Now I willfully place my family in history’s purview because it is impossible to extricate our experience from our complicity with histories of politics and violence. For years, we have been curators of silence, perhaps because it was easier to mythologize familial love than to acknowledge the pain we suppressed in its pursuit.

I willfully place my family in history’s purview because it is impossible to extricate our experience from our complicity with histories of politics and violence.

Although we no longer live in those early days of Taiwanese resettlement and assimilation, my grandmother’s consciousness never relinquished the paranoia, fear, and struggle she associates with the period. The war—the consequent exile—never ended; it simply reconfigured the borders of memory.

An invisible war, a domestic war. The family was her ideal battlefield.

In Taiwan, my grandmother eventually raised seven children, who in turn developed their own coalitions and grudges. They lay siege to the skin of trauma so the bruises were raw and splayed across the oceans and languages they traversed to maintain distance. Whether they called home occasionally or frequently, their voices embodied their absence.

The war—the consequent exile—never ended; it simply reconfigured the borders of memory.

They stopped talking to each other, and then they didn’t tell their children about their own family. Family reunions took place, my mother wryly remarked, either at a wedding or a funeral. In fact, the most recent reunion happened at her wedding over twenty years ago, before I was born.

This winter, I flew to Taipei to visit my grandmother.

Over the phone, my mother instructed me to spend an hour a day with her. “She lives in the past. She will want to tell you stories.” At the time, the request sounded reasonable. I was eager to listen, and maybe even to photograph her for a project on diaspora I’d long desired to pursue.

Later, I came to see my mother’s instruction as a coded warning.

My nonagenarian grandmother lives alone because she is incredibly stubborn. Even obstacles to accessibility make no difference. Seventeen steps, for instance, separate the first and second levels of her house. Undaunted, she undertakes them every day.

Because my aunt no longer lives with her, she arranges for a caretaker to assist with household tasks like cleaning, cooking, and shopping. My aunt is my grandmother’s sole child who has neither moved abroad nor left Taipei. Though she is my grandmother’s primary victim, she continues to provide for her mother’s livelihood.

One afternoon, on our way home, my aunt and I intercepted the caretaker, Mei, who was leaving with her bags. She had been fired for purchasing a second package of string beans. Mei had begun working for my grandmother just two weeks earlier, and according to my aunt she had already made the house a cleaner place where the chores were completed and the produce was fresh. As Mei related what happened, my aunt grew agitated.

“It’s an excuse,” she said. “My mother’s old. She wants a reason to fire you.” Mei was the latest of many caretakers to be fired in the past two months. One stole, another roughly handled my grandmother. The reality is, my aunt explained, she refuses to trust anyone.

At the house, my aunt confronted my grandmother, who calmly sipped her tea and introduced me to her friend. “This is my youngest granddaughter.” She beamed, reaching for my wrist. “Look how skinny and pretty she is. Pale. Just like her mother.” The friend agreed.

Meanwhile, my aunt, who wanted my grandmother to rehire Mei, was pleading to an unsympathetic jury.

Quiet, my grandmother let go of me. Then she snapped. Like a downpour, accusations fell on my aunt. My grandmother tightened as she delivered insults in a deliberate, calm voice. Her temper justified her abusive language. “If I had not left China… If I hadn’t ended up with your useless…” My aunt broke down and left the room. I immediately followed.

Even now I shudder. I don’t know how to translate this vulnerability, the devastation of a cycle that is privately witnessed and publicly withheld. What is there to say about family violence, the violence of the family, that has not already been said or retracted?

My aunt did not blame my grandmother. She insisted her behavior was the result of the things she had to do to stay alive, and couldn’t I understand.

In the war my grandmother has waged in her mind for all these years, what is the current damage count? Who are its foot soldiers? What is expendable?

If there is a correlation between my grandmother’s cruelty and our fragmented family, I have to wonder to what extent estrangement was the byproduct of the violence intimate among my mother, her siblings, and their mother. I wonder what the lacunae say.

In the war my grandmother has waged in her mind for all these years, what is the current damage count? Who are its foot soldiers? What is expendable?

In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel delves into the archives to recuperate events that cannot be recuperated. For Bechdel, coming to terms with her lesbian identity occurs in tandem with learning about her father’s sexual history with men, a fact she learns after his death, an apparent suicide.

Due to Bechdel’s strained relationship with her father, this revelation twists her grieving process. Upon arriving home for the funeral, Bechdel greets her brothers not with the typical signifiers of mourning but with a shared grimace of pleasure. Under trauma, grief becomes a series of distorted gestures. When she returns to school, she cannot convince a classmate of her father’s passing because she bursts into uncontrollable laughter.

She knows this neurotic digging will not produce a satisfying answer. It cannot revive the dead.She digs anyway.

The more Bechdel pieces together a narrative, the less its truth can be verified. She knows this neurotic digging will not produce a satisfying answer. It cannot revive the dead.

She digs anyway.

My aunt does not grieve and advises I do the same. I wipe her tears. A devout Buddhist, my aunt has long since forgiven my grandmother for her toxicity. Individuals shouldn’t be accountable to their unconsensual history, she assures me.

In the next room, my grandmother and her friend have resumed their conversation. The confrontation has had minimal effect on either party. We all have a pleasant dinner.

For the remainder of my visit, I minimize the time I spend with my grandmother. Instead of photographing her, I take pictures of the backyard, the staircase she labors up and down, the hallway cabinet adorned in doilies.

The past is, as my mother had hinted, hers, but, in the present, the heaviness is mine, and I excuse myself from her company.

When I do listen to her stories, an unbearable wave of nausea overcomes me, for they reveal her resentment toward the fate she was dealt, the life she has survived. The past is, as my mother had hinted, hers, but, in the present, the heaviness is mine, and I excuse myself from her company.

top photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Compliance

It’s something I’ve heard since I was a child: Go to school, get an education, get a good job. It’s a mantra recited by Black parents to Black children ever since we were allowed to be educated and gainfully employed.

So much of Black history is about celebrating Black firsts: the first Black to reach an executive position at a corporation, the first Black head doctor at a hospital, the first Black ambassador. Reference books are full of sepia-toned photos of dignified-looking men and women of color who overcame prejudice to graduate from Ivy League schools or obtain government appointments. Education and hard work was the only approved way for respectable African-Americans to get a piece of the American dream. The background of iconic Black entertainment is all about coming up. From The Jeffersonsto The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airto Black-Ish, the message is that upward mobility is the way out of poverty and discrimination.

The flip side of that aspiration is less spoken of. It’s the unwritten but universally understood employment contract drawn up between White employers and Black employees in America: To be allowed access to the world of upward mobility, there are certain adjustments to be made. You will have to dress a certain way. You will have to speak a certain way. There are certain behaviors of your employers that you will have adapt to or overlook. That contract has undergone amendments and modifications over time, but the primary stipulation remains the same: if you’re Black and want to get—and keep—a job, you will have to compromise.

To be allowed access to the world of upward mobility, there are certain adjustments to be made.

In my early twenties, I was working the third shift at Johnny Rockets in Jacksonvillle, Florida. One night I was running the dishwasher with a coworker, a Mexican guy who had been there some months longer than me and was unofficially in charge of the night crew. The restaurant manager, a white guy, poked his head into the door, and he and my coworker went over some closing procedures. The subject of a lack of supplies came up, and the manager placed the blame on the stinginess of the district manager, whom I had to assume was Jewish from the joke the restaurant manager made about him.

I remember thinking that it didn’t affect me, as I wasn’t Jewish, but I knew it was an unprofessional and offensive remark to make in the workplace.

I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I remember thinking that it didn’t affect me, as I wasn’t Jewish, but I knew it was an unprofessional and offensive remark to make in the workplace. I looked at my colleague and he rolled his eyes, a gesture I interpreted to mean that I was to ignore the manager’s comment, which I did.

The next year, I worked a summer job at a warehouse, and one of the foreman handed me a note to give to a shipping and receiving clerk. It said to be sure the “dago truck driver gave her an invoice.” Obviously, the foreman thought nothing of giving the note to me and had no fear of me reading it and saying anything—and he was right, as it turned out.

Both Johnny Rockets and the warehouse job paid minimum wage, and I had no intention of making a career out of either, but the idea of quitting or confronting a manager and getting fired because I felt offended was unthinkable to me at the time. Jacksonville was, and is, a very conservative southern city, and jobs were hard to get if you were Black. I wasn’t rich. I needed to work. So I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my job, not making waves, and working until I could do better.

I wasn’t rich. I needed to work. So I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my job, not making waves, and working until I could do better.

Things improved when I moved to Atlanta. In Atlanta, the Black success mantra manifests itself like no other city in America. You could say Atlanta was built on it. Here was a city where Blackness wasn’t defined by survival, but by prosperity and its display. There were Black people in positions of power, from the mayor’s office to corporate boardrooms. Black culture was Atlanta culture.

The economy was booming, and I landed an office job not long after I arrived. The casual displays of racism I saw in Jacksonville were nonexistent here. But in the “Black Mecca,” genteel condescension can be as bad as blatant hostility. In meetings, I would be interrupted while trying to speak. If I made a suggestion, it was patronizingly listened to and quickly ignored—but if a white colleague made the same suggestion worded differently almost immediately afterward, they would receive praise for it. White coworkers would make coded comments about other coworkers’ mistakes being due to their ethnicities in my presence.

In meetings, I would be interrupted while trying to speak. If I made a suggestion, it was patronizingly listened to and quickly ignored—but if a white colleague made the same suggestion worded differently almost immediately afterward, they would receive praise for it.

I hid my displeasure behind nervous smiles and shaking my head. I moved from one corporate job to the next, and very rarely did I speak up. I was making a very nice income for a single man with no kids in a major city. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.

I grew up proud and aware of my heritage. My immediate family shared stories with me about our ancestors from the time I was old enough to understand them. As a teen I devoured the words of Malcolm X and the music of Public Enemy. In Atlanta I was surrounded by examples of Black empowerment. Me and my friends were heavily into Afrocentrism and got into discussions about racism that would last for hours. I knew what Black people suffered and how they fought to gain access to gainful employment, and I believed in Malcolm’s strategy of confronting racism head on wherever it exposed itself.

But when I walked through office doors on Monday morning, I still made the compromises I felt I had to make to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.

I believed in Malcolm’s strategy of confronting racism head on wherever it exposed itself.But when I walked through office doors on Monday morning, I still made the compromises I felt I had to make to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.

What’s a paycheck worth? If someone makes a racist remark in a social setting, it’s easy to call them out on it. In a business environment, how do you handle that? Do you go off on the person or ignore it? Whatever you do, you’re risking a lot—your career if you address the remark, your self-respect if you don’t. It’s a choice no one should have to make, but Black employees face it every day. The results can be soul killing.

A couple weeks ago, political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry publicly parted ways with MSNBC. On the day she left, she released a statement saying that the tone of her show was being compromised and that she refused to be a “token, mammy, or little brown bobble head.” Her experience is not unique. In workplaces across the country, there’s still an expectation that people of color who rise in their chosen professions should be eternally grateful for being given the opportunity to work—as if they didn’t get there on their own merits—and that they are obligated to maintain a safe, nonthreatening image.

Whatever you do, you’re risking a lot — your career if you address the remark, your self-respect if you don’t. It’s a choice no one should have to make, but Black employees face it every day. The results can be soul killing.

Recently, I was talking to someone being groomed for a management position in a company I work with. He was a younger White guy, and he often came to me for mentorship. We weren’t close, but we got along pretty well. I enjoyed having someone to talk to about my work and exchange ideas with. One day, in the middle of one of these conversations, a client approached us. She was a Black woman, in her early forties if I had to guess. Her speech and dress gave the impression of being poor or working-class. She asked a few questions about a product, then left. Once she was out of earshot my colleague said, “Leave, and take your nappy weave with you.”

I was stunned. I’d never felt anything from him that would have made me expect a comment like that. I can only guess that he felt comfortable saying that around me because I was seen as “safe.” I felt anger rising up inside me, and right away the professional and social indoctrination about not making waves rose up to check it. This time, however, outrage won out. I pulled him aside and confronted him, and he gave me a weak half-excuse, half-apology.

Our relationship hasn’t recovered. I cut off any conversation not pertaining to work, and I stopped mentoring him. I may have betrayed my own “safe” image, but I don’t care. I’m at a point in my life where the one-sided compromise of the Black success mantra no longer serves me.

Words matter. When disrespect goes unchallenged, it only gets worse. I want to be successful, I want security. But I don’t want either at the cost of my integrity.

Words matter. When disrespect goes unchallenged, it only gets worse. I want to be successful, I want security. But I don’t want either at the cost of my integrity.

I have a pretty good professional life. I have mentors of different backgrounds in various fields, and I’ve made connections that I hope to be able to cultivate for years. But I’ve also had enough contact with clueless and casually racist people in business settings that I have my guard up, anxious for the day when someone I thought knew better makes a hateful remark couched as a joke and I’m expected to laugh about and shrug off.

I shouldn’t have to accept that, and I don’t intend to.

Follow Torraine on Twitter @TorraineWalker

top photo by William Stitt on Unsplash

Surveillance

I stopped being a writer; today I have the words to tell you why.

I don’t write because I’m being watched. I turn off the words; I numb the feelings; I avoid the associations; I distract the thinking; I step away from the situation. I am here to document the ways in which I have chosen silence over action.

Community

The first time I went to Friday prayers after moving to Chicago, no one said salaamto me. I thought, “Is this how a Desi gets treated in a predominately Arab masjid?” I remembered Dad telling me about the young, connectionless men at his masjid. He said, “They keep coming and going out of nowhere – they must be spies. No one talks to them.”

He asked me, when I told him about volunteering at an Islamic nonprofit, where their charitable donations went. He said these organizations get in trouble for sending their money abroad and their members get labeled terrorist sympathizers.

Family

I text my sisters that I have a thing to tell them that’s not bad but I feel weird telling them on the phone so remind me to tell you when we all next meet (days, weeks, months?) so whoever the FBI has assigned to read this group text won’t find out (can’t I have some secrets, FBI agent?).

Love

Before we got married, Neema seriously asked me if I was an FBI agent. “You’re perfect,” he said. Too perfect, he didn’t say.

You could say we’re paranoid; but we’ll say we’re up-to-date on our news and have learned our histories. Connection is risk.

Heart

I decided to practice radical empathy after Michael Brown was shot. I did not and do not have a hard time feeling empathy for protesters, for rioters, for the rage that leads people into the streets or for the rage that leads them to want objects to burn. I never wrote that I felt this way but I do feel this way and have no difficulty conjuring these emotions (but do struggle to make them disappear).

I practiced empathizing with George Zimmerman and with Darren Wilson and with Timothy Loehmann and with the officers of Waller County Jail and with Dante Servin and with the Baltimore Police Department and with Jason Van Dyke and with and with and with and with and with

I didn’t like it and I succeeded. But that’s a different story.

I am going to qualify here because if I do not you will wonder that having empathy for someone does not mean excusing someone.

I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed.

I am trying not to stop myself from writing this.

I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed. That empathy exists as a heaviness in my chest and a shortness of my breath. That empathy pushes at the edges of my heart but I am scared to let it in. I feel it as a failure of my humanity and I fear it as a failure of our humanity. I do not Google ISIS because I do not want anyone to know I Google ISIS. I do not know the stories or motivations or language of the humans-not-monsters who constitute ISIS because I do not think I can subsequently assert their humanity without putting my own into question. Empathy is risk. I am not a monster.

Mouth

But I will own to being a coward; by now you know this. In my circles we talk about strategies for change: sometimes you want to be a Malcolm and sometimes you want to be a Martin. Mostly I am a chump choking back both my words of violence and my words of peace.

I remember back to my ethics class in journalism school. The question was whether journalists should not publish information that the government asks them not to publish for security. “Well of course,” said the class, “for security.”

For. Whose. Security?

I do not remember agreeing to value our lives more than their lives. I do remember my question knocking up against the insides of my teeth as I kept my mouth shut. I do remember remembering Abu Ghraib and air strikes against civilians and the Pentagon Papers and the people like me who were killed for the security of people like me. I do remember not saying that I thought our allegiance as journalists was to the truth.

I grew out of wanting to argue to argue. I do not hold these ideas as objects in my mind with dimensions I can manipulate and play with. I feel them in my gut and they bubble up as bile in my mouth. I do not want to taste this publicly in our class discussion or over coffee or as a Facebook comment. I do not want the acid that is burning holes in my stomach to sting in polite company. Would you even understand that while I skinned my knees on the same playgrounds as American soldiers and while my livelihood is tied up in American interests they serve, my mouth also prays the same prayers as those Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and Persians we are meant to fear? Maybe you could not understand me but you do suspect me in my skinny jeans and brown skin.

Hands

Understand this: I have written. And I have deleted. And deleted and deleted.

Eyes

I know I am watched. As a consequence, I decided to restrict my speech and my press and my pursuit of happiness. I have been silent, but I have not been blind. I, too, have been watching.

top photo by Nathaniel dahan on Unsplash

Minor

I started stealing razors from my dad in the first grade. It was easy.

I watched my mom and older sisters do the same for as long as I could remember. As soon as I began sprouting hair in areas I didn’t want covered (i.e., not the top of my head), I slicked them off quickly and painlessly without telling a soul.

Although I began signaling sexual maturation sooner than most, I was sure that my very understanding mother wouldn’t approve of depilation at age six. I was right. Dr. Miles, my pediatrician, had forewarned her that I showed signs of precocious puberty. My mom vigilantly observed for the markers that I expertly hid.

When I began menstruating at age ten — I concealed that fact for months before an untimely trip to the mall forced me to reveal it — my mom, in shock, exclaimed that it had happened before any pubic hair growth. I sassily retorted that that was only because I handled the fuzzy inconvenience before she even noticed. The glare she darted my way warned me to tread carefully in my remarks.

I was often referred to as “mujercita sin tiempo” — little woman before her time. It began when I decided to put the dolls away and play instead with my little sister. Toys held my interest for a very short period of time. That was the most prominent feature of my precociousness until I opened my mouth. That mouth got me sent to the naughty table in the first grade. It was there that I formed a lifelong friendship with Miguel, the first and only person to know that I had “woman problems” at the time. Perhaps my smart aleck-y attitude should havve alerted my mother to the situation.

Merriam-Webster simply defines precociousness as having or showing the qualities or abilities of an adult an unusually early age, exceptionally early in development or occurrence (emphasis on early). The National Library of Medicine provides a more precise demarcation for precociousness. Precocious puberty is the development of sexual maturation in boys and girls at a chronological age that is 2.5 standard deviations below the mean age of onset of puberty in the general population.

I was often referred to as “mujercita sin tiempo” — little woman before her time.

The language is ominous. Precocious puberty is 2.5 times away from average. Average is typical. Two and a half standard deviations below normal naturally seems abnormal. But is it?

For me, it was a minor change. And if you take it from the perspective of pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan, MD, coauthor of The New Puberty, a book geared toward guiding parents through early development and sexual maturation, it’s a minor change for a growing number of girls. In a study launched in 2005 that evaluated a controlled group of girls in three cities, nearly 10 percent of the participants developed signs of puberty before eight years of age.

Precocious puberty is the development of sexual maturation in boys and girls at a chronological age that is 2.5 standard deviations below the mean age of onset of puberty in the general population.

On a slow Saturday night, a Google search of “early puberty” returns approximately 1.3 million hits in 0.31 seconds. The right side of the search window shows a chart proclaiming precocious puberty a rare condition that is treatable by a medical professional.

Several headlines, some by prestigious news organizations, lament this ordinary change, a change that occurs in all (minus a sliver of a minority) sooner or later. Each publication parrots the others, rattling off a list of negative affects of early maturation — depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, early initiation of sexual activity, etc. — expounding the fears of clueless parents.

On a slow Saturday night, a Google search of “early puberty” returns approximately 1.3 million hits in 0.31 seconds.

I was the fourth born, the third girl in a family of five siblings. My home was a stable household steeped in femininity. I watched my two older sisters grow into their womanhood, and the lessons my mother instilled in them flowed unto me in seamless transition. While I didn’t comprehend everything that was happening, I did understand that puberty was a series of events that would occur over time. My mother explained these changes as they were presented to my sisters, as I was a witness to their evolving bodies. My turn would be next. I wasn’t sure when, but I did know it was coming.

Four years ago, writer Elizabeth Weil profiled a mother and daughter experiencing the onset of precocious puberty for a piece in the New York Times Magazine. The article chronicled how Tracee Sioux, mother and now author of The Year of Yes! fought for a “solution or treatment” to the “problem condition” her nonplussed daughter, Ainsley, was traversing. Doctor after doctor had deemed Ainsley advanced but normal, but that was not the answer Tracee sought. The big, ugly world was revealing itself much too soon. Momma bear had to protect and guard against it. A puritanical concept of innocence was at stake.

The big, ugly world was revealing itself much too soon.

The false sense of loss of innocence is the most pressing negative affect of early onset puberty. Society’s fixation on the sexualization of young girls — the famed Lolita Syndrome — should not dictate how we educate our daughters. Let’s divorce the idea of being wanted from that of being a woman and teach girls from the earliest moment possible that they are the owners of their own bodies, and that while they grow, those bodies will change. Girls need to be granted agency over their selves in order to successfully navigate the challenges that arise from childhood into adulthood. Womanhood does not begin with desirability.

In her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison suggests that being a woman requires pain. Jamison goes as far as describing menstruation as “one kind of wound.” For such a central aspect of womanhood to be described as an affliction so casually is troubling. If everything ails, nothing will heal. Pain is not a gender.

Let’s divorce the idea of being wanted from that of being a woman and teach girls from the earliest moment possible that they are the owners of their own bodies, and that while they grow, those bodies will change.

Women need to lead the change to stop the stigmatization of our changing bodies. While it may seem preferable to be viewed as a victim rather than a whore, both perspectives are damaging. Our collective understanding of self should be the source of our bonding. The pains of our periods may indicate the possibility of fertility. There should be no shame in that potential. It’s potential: a maybe, but not a certainty. And if it does become a certainty, the reality is just another step in life.

For such a central aspect of womanhood to be described as an affliction so casually is troubling. If everything ails, nothing will heal. Pain is not a gender.

Puberty is a beginning and not an end. It’s a minor change that leads to another that will successively lead to more. It may be scary (or not) and weird at first, but it’s just another phase, like fallen teeth and lanky limbs. Our bodies are our own, and that personal space requires respect. Teach this to our girls and our boys.

Let’s not rob our girls of the beauty of transformation. It will happen whether you want it to or not. Womanhood is process. Revel in the process. Revel in self-care. Love being a woman. It is not unclean.

top photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash