From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

The Probability of One

Chained doulas pull a child from the womb in low-gravity orbit; a babe of the Many Mouthed Empire, unencumbered by duty. Defiant, I face the birthing altar—jaw, clamped; gaze, glassy.

(I mustn’t. Look.)

I dreamt of children, once. Now it’s as if Mama Caarine gazes through the newborn’s eyes; as though my brother, Zjor-Anu, thumbed his birthmark through their skin. Wailing, the child twists Ma Sitau’s lips, trembles tiny fists, Black as mine—

End this, I think, swallowing sorrow. End them all, and don’t look back.

“It is done, my Devourer.” Chains clanking, the Head doula addresses our queen, drifting opposite the altar. “Proffered genomes have coalesced.”

From the visitor’s gallery, guests speculate—stodgy ambassadors, gossiping tradesmen. Even God King Myus has come, despite his disdain at my “involvement.”

“Then his talents have passed down?” Clearing afterbirth from her thighs, the queen trembles. “Darius, this rite you mentioned, the one your people wake their newborns with?” She snaps bloodied fingers. “See it done. Unlock your ancestral abilities.”

The chamber quiets.

There’s no damned ceremony. Never has been. But, desperate to conquer my kinfolk, she feasts on lies. As long as I keep to Tenawe family wisdoms—by God, Darius, don’t go looking through the language of particles, they’d caution—I’ll manage this betrayal.

Approaching the altar, I mumble quantum tongues, beginning the “rite” with a verb neither galactic kings nor scholars understand.

The newborn shudders, womb-warm.

Once, I wanted you, I send, quavering quarks in quantum fields. Gravitons cease tunneling, cowed by my consonants. Now, I want their destruction.

The babe whines.

I need but speak aloud, coaxing electrons into a vacuum state, reducing this newborn, the chained doulas, our queen and king, their delegates, myself—into fleeting wavelengths. I need but commit regicide. Infanticide, really.

My vision blurs. Another time, I mouth, in another life, I’m sure I loved you.

With a breath, I blight the God King’s galley.

Or, I mean to.

But the doulas cry in mother tongues of annexed Opanii, Drue’t, and Uru-Wain solar systems; and our queen approaches the altar, curious; and the babe wails with Sitau Tenawe’s mouth, scrunches Carrine Tenawe’s eyes, helming Zjor-Anu Tenawe’s ferocity; and I hesitate a fraction too long, and—

Foolishly, I look.

• • • •

Thou shalt not predict with the language of particles, my mothers warned, well before empire claimed us. Before we fell to armed kings. Before they refashioned our cities, bastardized our dialect.

Before annihilation, there was only—summer. Ceaseless heat, blotting our housing spires with damp. Sweating light rails, shuttling elders from celestial temples. Sunday service, and all.

Worst thing I’d survived was young heartbreak.

Lord, Ma sighed. You lost him, Caarine. He’s in that head of his, again.

Crossing our kitchen, Mama cuffed me. Stop fretting that little ex.

“Ow!” I’d pouted, not realizing I’d miss the weight of her hands one day. “I’m not ‘fretting’ Lamar. I’m good.”

Then listen good, Mama continued. Quantum fields—within, around, through us—stuttered. Back then, I barely strung particle-paragraphs together. Listening was harder. Talk through atoms all you want, she said. It’s how we share ciphers and stories and songs. But look where you shouldn’t, trace atomic trajectories, seeing where they were years ago or where they’ll be? You’ll change everything. You’ll change yourself. Understand?

Ma mm-hmm’d from her stool, salting our kitchen with the scent of smoked collards.

I had so many questions. Would I become the man I’d hoped? Would Lamar take me back; kiss quantum proposals through my skin? Would we do what we’d promised—graduate; join interstellar ambassadorships; grow old together, surrounded by children?

Could I have seen the Many Mouthed Empire coming to swallow us?

Now, prying past electrons, I ignore my mothers’ warnings. You gon’ fuck around and find out, they’d probably say. So, fuck it. I’ll find out.

Matter slows, arresting the diplomats, doulas; even the God King. Time parts, putty-soft, in my hands, and I reach for Tenawe eyes, mouths, and birthmarks; for a child, bearing our genome.

A hundred-thousand-futures daub my eyelids. Atoms—in and around me—reorient, flung aside.

“Let my son be known as Myiad, God Prince of all,” someone—God King Myus, I realize—declares. Gendering my child at imperial conclaves, his words cross time; sharp, yet formless. Suddenly, I can’t feel my legs. Numbness steals my fists.

Fuck. I’m slipping.

Biting my tongue, I grasp at nuclei. You’re alive, I remind myself; futures can’t harm more than your past already has. Like cupping sand through fingerless fists, I string quarks between clauses, emerging someplace, somewhen. Whole, yet heaving.

Unfamiliar skies stretch, overhead.

Myiad, God Prince of all, materializes, too, blurred and wavering as though his atoms can’t bind. Leaden tongued, I’m incapable of asking if he is even correct—kinfolk gender ourselves as a rite—but there he looms, between bosons, steering some massive ship.

Chemicals rain from the gun ports, drizzling crops—dying okra and now-diseased tomato. Flattened green beans. Wilting turnips.

“More.” Myiad grimaces. Grins, maybe, bearing teeth. Snot carves his lips, marring the gum line. “Let ‘em starve.”

No, I quantum-scream; fling; shout, unwilling to watch another world die. I beg for flesh and sinew; for a birthing chamber, orbiting uncaring stars—when I’m pulled, navel-first, through sunlight.

• • • •

Language pries me out of darkness. A quantum plea, piqued clumsily.

Ouch! Dad, this mess is hot.

Summer swaddles me; floors and walls bleed into focus. Sunbaked concrete peeks in from an open window. Opened, because this place is not a ship. Opened, because neither smoke nor bombs cloy the air here.

“You really just gon’ watch me struggle?”

It’s Myiad, I realize, speaking quantum pidgin.

I sway, creaking floorboards underfoot. It’s those checkered tiles Mama always hated. The ones Ma promised she’d replace.

It’s—home.

Inside a kitchen that once savored of salt, Myiad stands, fractal-sharp, wearing Ma’s old apron. Stay out my damn kitchen, faded lettering reads. Steaming yams burn his fingers. Myiad tries—fails—to properly knife their boiled skin. “Little help?”

“What?” I ask, hoarse. Bereft. Bewildered by such clear skies; by Myiad’s desperate Dad, still tremoring quantum fields.

“The yams.” Shifting, Myiad kisses his teeth. “Can you help?”

Butter softens near discarded pots. Bowls of cinnamon and nutmeg teeter at counter’s edge. They’ll fall, if he’s not careful.

“Mitts.” I frown. “Y-you need oven mitts.”

Myiad wipes yam on Ma’s apron. “But how do I get them in the pan?” Look! He exclaims, tickling my arm hair. “They’re falling apart.”

“Why are you doing this?” I ask, broken.

“What? Cooking?” Myiad whips around, grinning more brilliantly than starships, than glittering, colonized worlds. “You said: we must eat before practicing quantum conjugations. All serious, and shit.” He laughs with Ma Sitau’s lips.

Upended by his gentle ribbing, so much like Zjor-Anu’s, I stutter: “You speak the language of particles.”

Myiad regards me for sixty-two seconds, wherein I bleed into this moment one blood vessel at a time. “Well, yeah. You’re teaching me.” He frowns. “Remember?”

My throat constricts. I don’t know when I am. Only that Myiad could raze universes with quantum tongues, if he willed it. And, apparently, I’m complicit.

You’ll break worlds with it, then. Spoken words escape me; I send only photons, threading us with light. You’ll reave, at your Many Mouthed Empire’s behest.

Sensation leeches from my pores. Again, I slip, a granule adrift in Myiad’s maelstrom of lives. Yams splatter between us, slipping from his hands.

“Never.” He blinks, face blurring. Fading. “Dad, I—never again. We talked about this; you, you showed me—histories. Legacies. I wouldn’t—don’t you remember—”

• • • •

A sigh, and a laugh, and something resembling the distinct cuff of Ma’s palm, remakes me inside the birthing chamber. In my arms, Myiad cries, infantile. The queen gathers him, unknowing of where—and when—I’ve been; ignoring my sweat-slick brow.

“Did it work?” she asks. My ears ring around Myiad’s mewling. “Darius, does the child bear your gifts?”

He has the makings of a hundred travesties—and one triumph, I want to say. Instead: “It’s there,” I manage, licking tears. “He has it, Queen Devourer.”

Visiting dignitaries applaud. Shackled doulas ululate, on command.

Somewhere, somewhen, I must blight this room. A final cataclysm, furiously rippling spacetime. Possibility prickles my skin. Never again will Many Mouthed diplomats gather, so unguarded.

Here, now—I bow, embryonic before my son.

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Jen Brown

Jen Brown. A Black woman with a dark coiled afro, wearing glasses, nose piercings, and a white blouse, sitting and smiling at the viewer.

Jen Brown (she/her) weaves otherworldly tales about Black, queer folks righteously wielding power. An Ignyte Award-nominated author, her short stories have appeared in FIYAH Literary Magazine, Tor.com’s Breathe FIYAH anthology, Anathema: Spec From the Margins, Baffling Magazine, and other places. Find more of her stories at jencbrown.com, or follow her tweets about cats, media, and libraries at @jeninthelib.