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  1. THE INFINITE MATTER OF KAT WATBURN T.E. Bean Twenty-Two Minutes Before ထ Eight days ago, space and time were things to be relied upon. Universally speaking. Now I sat perched in a far-flung cave halfway up a near-vertical ravine, huddled with my boyfriend, Som, in a fading pocket of light as the sun moved behind a mountain, drawing angles of golden polygons among the sacred ruins before us. Fingers entwined, our backs propped against a monolithic altar, we clocked the morning half-light climbing the empty sky: a fuse igniting life in the crystals embedded within a stone temple. The entire planet plugged into one dazzling circuit. By putting myself at risk, I was putting us all at risk. And despite that being mere minutes away, I couldn’t help but laugh while assessing the chip on my left big toe. Cornflower blue. The woman attending the counter at Walgreens had said the color—royal blue with a purple undertone—would highlight the flick of violet in my hazel eyes, make my toes look fun. Other women had fun toes. I’d never had fun toes. I wanted fun toes. And considering how much not fun my feet had been through this past week, the nail polish had held up reasonably well. I’d have to let the cosmetician know…if I ever made it back to California. In the wake of June 10, Som and I had lived in continental drift for eight days—not quite having fled home but certainly having left in a hurry. And as our beatnik trail followed the sun below a line of distant horizon, we’d watched the thin veil of reality flutter, as if caught by a breeze, right before infinity, bit by bit, came crashing through. Like a tiny tear in the universe slowly pulling everything toward us. My name is Kat Watburn, and eight days ago my brother, Jay, dragged me to a sound bath meditation. But it’s only now that I can admit: on some level, I always knew it would come to this. Chapter One June 10 Eight Days Before ထ I shook the bottle of to-be-applied nail polish. It was early June, and flip-flop season was in full effect. “Does everyone wear bathing suits?” I asked. “There’s no actual bath involved,” Jay groan-laughed. “There’s no water. A sound bath is a figurative bath. We’re bathed in vibrations of sound, which have a healing effect on the link between our astral being and our physical body. I like to think of it as nutrition for the umbilical cord connecting me to my soul.” I threw Som a withering look, then leveled a stare at my brother and smiled a slow smile, blinked a slow blink. “So if I severed your soul’s umbilical cord, would that constitute metaphysical abortion?” I had no intention of going that night. In our late teens Jay had dabbled in the world of transcendental meditation; then, at some point during my university years, he’d joined a group called The League of Consciousness Explorers. These days, when he wasn’t on tour with his band, Billion Watt Burn, he met them at various locations around Joshua Tree for the purpose of doing something that looked, to me, an awful lot like doing nothing. There seemed, to be generous, no actual point. That’s not to say I was opposed to meditation. I wasn’t. It was more, I think, that I’d just gotten used to saying no to it. When we were children, our family moved often—three different countries by my eleventh year. Jay had been my peer-group continuity and I his. Though he was nearly a year older than me (and diametrically contrary in most ways), we’d always been close. Best friends. Forever bound, we turned and twisted in unison, each tied in opposition to the other like a double helix. I was accustomed to setting boundaries with the free-form way he’d leap headfirst into whatever wavy-gravy flower-child trope crossed his path. Over time, saying no to my brother had become an involuntary twitch. A reaction to stimuli, not unlike how tweezing my left eyebrow always made me sneeze. You see, I’d spent a lifetime respecting Jay’s limits—butterscotch, sleeping with his head facing north, board games with Pop-o-Matic domes. But my limits—hitchhiking, polyamorous self-help gurus with non-ironic ZZ Top beards, all people who said The Man and/or did fist-bump hand explosions—Jay felt very much at ease trampling all over. Always had. Because of that, and as much as I loved and embraced the alternately mystical and overripe affectations of his manifest-destiny-hippie-rock-star swagger, I’d long ago learned that if I didn’t occasionally show him some resistance, I risked finding myself sleeping in a barley field outside Fresno, hoping (and failing) to bear witness to the formation of a crop circle. Just a little something I knew from personal experience. From my scholarly perspective (and with that wood tick night terror in mind), meditation looked to be less enjoyable than passing a kidney stone—but with considerably fewer benefits to my physiological well-being. A celebrated therapeutic tool founded on a lack of self-criticism, meditation’s achievements (undiagnosable in any substantive way) had—by finding its way onto smartphone apps—ballooned into a billion-dollar pile of overhyped group psychosis. Like any obedient cult member, Jay had casually tried to indoctrinate me for years. And it had been easy to refute him. My one-off shot at hot yoga had, after all, ended in barf. But everything changed when Som and I moved to Joshua Tree for the summer. It was then Jay decided mine was a balloon in need of popping. “I say this with love, Kat. Left unchecked, your life-force trends toward anemic.” “I can only imagine what that would look like said without love.” Yeah, my life-force was not anemic. That was just Jay being Jay—dramatic with a splash of narcissism, espousing his state-of-flow, hive-mind drivel. The truth was, I was the happiest, most centered I’d been in years. “What’s so wrong about me that I need meditation?” I asked. Jay pulled a long face and spoke out one side of his mouth. “It’d be more expedient to ask what’s so right about you that you don’t need meditation.” “Bit harsh.” Som stole the words from me. “I don—” he started, but Jay waved him off with a rakish grin. “Seriously, Kat, it’ll be fun. And good for you to elevate your vibrational frequency. To seek a higher plane where all is great.” “Jaaay…” I rolled my eyes at his bohemian rhetoric. “Everything can’t be great. If everything were great, nothing would be great, because everything great would seem mediocre without everything normal, bland, and shitty contrasting it.” “You’re only solidifying my case,” he said. “Why does my perceived state of being—my frequency—even interest you?” I sang the word and made air quotes, abandoning the bottle of nail polish when an alert on my phone caught my eye—that one thing that can make any girl squeal and blush with elation: a new paper by Toshimi Tanaka on twin-prime conjecture that promised to establish a pattern exceeding the known threshold of 388,342 digits, extending into perpetuity. As a mathematician, I was intrigued, eager to dive straight in. After plucking my phone from my hand and swatting me away, Jay read the alert, sighed like he was blowing out a candle, then stepped between Som and me, wrapping an arm around each of us. “I only wish for everyone I love to vibrate at my level? C’mon, Kat, the three of us, we’ll go together.” Som scratched his stubble. “I’d love to try a sound bath.” To Som: “Then the two of you should go, flourish in harmony with the clouds.” To Jay: “I’ll stay here alone, enchanted by my earthbound involvements.” “There are synergizing benefits to attending as a trio,” Jay said. He tightened his grip and squeezed my shoulder, his bluster picking up steam. “The Triad. Trinomials. A triptych. You know, the harmony of balanced coefficients, base three power—and all that.” I drew back enough to lock eyes with Jay. Among his stratagem, a system of tools to be brandished like bottle-rockets, employing half-baked algebra to compel me was a lever he only pulled occasionally. Which spoke to how determined he was. “And if I were to agree to your sound bath, what’s next?” I flung his arm away and broke free. “Walking on hot coals? Creative movement classes? How about ear candling? Oh, hey—let’s chain ourselves to a tree!” I was getting worked up. “I know how this ends with you, Jay: it never ends! It’s best to break the chain right now.” “The chain keeps us together, little sister.” “I’m not your little—” “She’s a quarter inch taller than you; he’s ten and a half months older than you—we’ll call it a draw,” Som said with a smile. The three of us had been in close quarters for nearly a week: Som and I outside the rhythm of UCLA, Jay between band commitments. Back in LA, the two of them had bonded, become fast friends; now, living with us in the Yucca Valley ranch house where Jay and I had grown up, Som had slid into our sibling power-dynamic, grabbing the conversational wheel and pulling us away from the ditch, as required. “This is Jay’s last night,” Som said. “Oh, come on. They’re playing, like, three shows—” “Four shows,” Jay said. “I’ll be gone ten days.” “A ten-day tour celebrating your greatness is hardly cause for a guilt-laden farewell.” When Jay interlaced his fingers in appraisal of my armor, I curled my lip and glared at him. “Maybe I already have plans tonight?” I gestured toward my phone and the assertion of twin prime’s ice-wall breakthrough. “Math is insensate,” Jay said. “Live life lighter.” “Is that your counterargument, or are you quoting Pottery Barn throw pillows at me?” Jay’s mouth pressed closed; Som considered his sneakers; I pushed a fistful of golden-brown waves out of my face. No one spoke for several seconds. “I won fair and square, Kat,” Jay finally said, changing tack. “It was so long ago I barely remember what the bet was about.” “Your failing memory does not negate the terms of our contract.” I rocked back on my heels. “And you’re willing to submit me to forced meditation?” “Yes.” My brother was in peak aesthetic: bell bottom jeans and a tie-dyed shirt with the words THINK BELIEVE ATTRACT RECEIVE in descending order down the front. The wash of colors picked up a glimmer from the prismatic bracelet a fan threw to him on stage at Red Rocks when his band opened for some big legacy act waging a short-lived reunion. Within a certain subset of the population, Jay was a celebrity. But to me, he was my overconfident sibling whose neo-psychedelia fetish had spiraled out of control. “To scale this summit of wonder,” I said, stepping with caution, “would I have to dress in a flowing robe with love beads? Wear a daisy in my hair?” “Wear a latex catsuit with Bedazzled tube socks and a cowboy hat if you like. Whatever you feel comfortable in. It really doesn’t matter.” Som gave me a look, his mouth hitching up on one side. “Do you own a latex catsuit?” Ignoring the question—though making a note to revisit the topic when we were alone, but not because I was curious (I absolutely was curious)—I let the silence stretch while I held my nose to the wind, scenting for a falter in my brother’s tenacity. When we were kids, Jay wiggled with neophilic energy; a performer in search of his spotlight, an experiential rush, transcendence—preferably all three at once. Try as I had to keep up with his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants outlook, my deeply pragmatic personality had never contained enough sharp lurches, freefall plummets, and hairpin turns for his liking. Once I’d moved to LA, being geographically elsewhere from my dad and brother for the first time—big personalities that blocked out most of the sun—I’d slipped wholeheartedly into the structure of university. Rules. Ones I could identify and learn. Rules founded on undeniable logic. Rules, where they existed, I’d always been good with. That’s why I’d sought a life of purposeful mathematics in the first place: the order and clarity of formulas, no room for interpretation or error in an equation, terms in black and white, zeros and ones, functions and forms. Of course, a lot had happened in the intervening years—the jagged edges of adolescence sanded down and the latent energy from the past shaken off. Since meeting Som and falling in love, I’d undergone a bit of a pattern reset. I’d made real strides toward not overthinking every tiny decision—reigning in my internal monologue before it formed a caucus, a council of voices and opinions trying to undermine my authority. After considering that, I tamped down my reluctance. Jay was right, meditation might be fun. Relaxing even. Toshimi Tanaka’s paper could wait a few hours. “Fine,” I said slowly, as if I were trying the word on, still working out if external coercion to seek internal mindfulness even made sense. “We’ll go tonight. All three of us. Let’s meditate.” * * *
  2. Hello! Thanks for reading the first scene of The Cleveland Phoenix, a science fiction/adventure manuscript. The chapter below introduces the protagonist, the antagonist, and the primary conflict of the novel, as well as the setting and tone. Chapter 1: Dortollen Licorice Star Year 2722 – Shaula System – Fifteen Years Ago Cassander of Arkan didn’t believe the Vikaanians. The human’s face bunched to one side, skeptical. Watching the time, he raised an eyebrow behind his portable oxygen generator–a black fabric mask cradling a translator insert and a long, clear tube running to a palm-sized box in the pocket of his jacket. The box clicked every few seconds or so, muffled, marking intervals of time as he waited for the Vikaanians to respond. He tapped his forefinger on the communications console. “Moros,” came the Vikaanians through the communications array’s translator, finally. “We told you; we have no such items on board.” Cass sat in the co-captain’s chair of The Cleveland Phoenix, just outside the Shaula system, half a million kilometers from the nearest planet’s outer rings. The Phoenix, a silver, bat-like mishmash of a Dortollen trading vessel, hovered nose-to-nose with the Vikaanians' Illustra, an insectoid, yellow maintenance ship half its size. But there was more to the Illustra than met the eye. And Cass knew it. He inhaled, muting the channel, and turned to the captain’s chair, to the person sitting in it, also human. “What do we think?” he asked through the mask. The mechanical translator insert made his voice gruff, digital. It spilled out a Vikaanian dialect, but his Earth English underneath rang clear. “Do we believe the Vikaanians?” Dangling her legs from the captain’s chair, Cassander’s almost-six-year-old daughter, Iona of Arkan, shook her head. Eyes bright and blue, like sparks of cosmic dust, her response caused a mass of brown curls to bounce around her face--around those eyes. Cass pulled his black mask down, revealing a smirk. It was all for show: The Moros and the mask. A persona. He squinted his deep brown eyes as he leaned towards her and dropped his voice, low. “I don’t believe ‘em either, Baby Blues,” he said, shaking his head in solidarity, then dropping a finger on her nose. She grinned wide, showing off one single new front tooth, and one gap where a tooth was freshly missing. Another oxygen generator rested in the chair next to her. The girl returned to fiddling with a pair of charcoal, grown-up gloves from the seat next to her, smoothing them on. Wiggling her fingers into the oversized lumps of fabric. Cass placed the mask and translator back over his face, then reopened the channel to the Vikaanians, clearing his throat. “The Garton ice mammoth you stole those tusks from would disagree,” Cass said, raising both eyebrows. “Black market price right now is one hundred…one-fifty credits per tusk? Let’s see. And the average Garton ice mammoth has…” He turned to his daughter again, holding up five fingers, waving them in the air. She shook her head, revealing all five gloved fingers on one hand, plus another on the second: Six total. “Six tusks,” Cass said into the communications array. The girl nodded. A Garton ice mammoth wasn’t something he had ever encountered alive; they were endangered, elusive. Not that he shied away from the clandestine. But the credits for their tusks were lucrative. And he knew the Vikaanians knew that. Especially when they’d picked up the contraband a few lightyears back, right under the nose of the Mining Magistrate–his boss, for the moment. “What do you want, pirate?” came the Vikaanians’ lagging response. Cass wagged his head side-to-side, not so much a pirate as a privateer. But he let it slide. “Well, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of six to nine-hundred credits they’ll fetch,” said Cass, the Moros, leaning back in his chair. “It’s worth at least that to stay off the radar of the Magistrate. You wouldn’t want them to know one of their Vikaanian service ships is dealing in illegal commodities.” Silence followed Cassander’s ask. “Or maybe you would?” He shrugged, folding his hands together. “You hold our vessel hostage to extort us?” the Vikaanian asked. Cass snorted. “That’s…that’s a bit dramatic,” he said, reaching over to a bay of green and yellow switches. “You call it extortion; I call it doing you a favor. But you’re welcome to leave any ti-...oh, but your fuel stores are empty. Huh.” The Phoenix’s magnetic fuel decontainment system had done its job, causing the Illustra’s plasma tanks to hemorrhage precious fuel out into space. “How’d that happen?” He finished turning a few switches off and gave his daughter a wink. She winked back, flashing a tooth and a top row of pink gums. “What do you want, Moros?” the Vikaanian asked, growling. Iona climbed out of the captain’s chair, revealing a copper booster seat underneath her. She skipped over to the co-captain’s chair and pulled at her father’s shirtsleeve. Cass turned his head. The girl stood on her tiptoes against the side of his chair and whispered into his ear. He nodded, mouth curling up as her hair tickled his ear. The Moros lifted her into his lap and opened the manifest of the Vikaanians’ ship he’d been hacking into on a holographic display. Iona scrolled through the lines of orange lights and pointed at an item on the list. “Let’s say seven hundred credits and the three kilograms of Dortollen licorice you have in that cargo hold,” Cass said, looking his daughter in the eye. Iona grinned, nodding. An alarm sounded on the sensor array. Cass jumped to the interface to look at the source. He pulled his mask down, furrowing his brow at the ship’s proximity scanner, blinking an angry red. The human’s eyes grew wide. Another ship approached: The Maelstrom. “No, no, no, no–not again,” Cass breathed from outside his mask. “Sir,” said the Phoenix’s computer, Argos. “I see it, Argos,” he said. Cass pulled his daughter off his lap. “Harness up, kiddo.” The five-year-old trotted back to the captain’s chair, climbed in, and pulled on a pint-sized green cloth harness. “Illustra,” he said, reopening the channel, “better make it fast. We’ve got visitors.” “And if we don’t?” asked the Vikaanian ship’s captain. Cass squinted at the time, running a hand through his chestnut hair. Ten solar minutes. “Up to you,” he said, keying coordinates into the gray navigation console’s concave white buttons. “You can hand over the items and we’ll leave you alone. Or we can stick around a little longer and let our new guests see you hobnobbing with The Cleveland Phoenix. I recommend the first option if you’d like to sleep in your own bed again. Ever.” “Sir, the slipstream signature is Communion,” Argos said. “Gathered that, thanks Argos.” The human inhaled, preparing The Phoenix’s slipstream drive for emergency activation. Then, he used both hands to scratch his head and kept his hands on the back of his neck, frozen. Waiting. Either way, he was ready. Quarry or no quarry. “Stand by for transport, Phoenix,” said the Vikaanian ship, at last. Cass exhaled, checking the distance of the incoming Serpens Communion ship. He figured he had ten solar minutes, tops–plenty of time to grab the licorice, the credits, and run. But still. “Congratulations,” Cass said, initiating the external docking gear, “you made the right choice. But shake a tailfeather, Illustra.” The docking port extensions began groaning into place on the outside of the ship. He entered slipstream coordinates on the console in front of him, just to be ready. “Tail…feather?” the Vikaanians asked. The translator sometimes fumbled with Earth English, especially the figurative. “It means hurry up.” The pirate shook his head. He tapped a finger against the console again and looked at his daughter. She saluted her father with two gloved fingers at her temple. Cass returned the salute with a half-smile, but it faded as he eyed the time again. He re-opened the channel. “By the way, Illustra…The Cleveland Phoenix was never here. For both of our sakes.”
  3. Name: Laird Harrison Titles: Only the Millennia Will Cure Her Messing with the Multiverse Exotic Matter Genre: Upmarket Science Fiction Comparables : The Midnight Library by Matt Haig The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu Hook Line: Deprived of funding because of his awkwardness, physicist Pascal gets money from an unscrupulous time traveler who wants his help returning to the future. Short Pitch: On the verge of a pathbreaking discovery, brilliant physicist Pascal Rahali has neglected to publish. Socially awkward, he has lost his funding. So, he can’t ignore investor Zipporah Goldblum’s bizarre offer: She will provide all the money he needs. But he must ask no questions, accept all payments in cash, and quit his prestigious position at a national laboratory. With no alternative for continuing his life’s work, Pascal accepts the sketchy deal and sets up his own new lab. No sooner does he make the expected breakthrough than he discovers that Zipporah has traveled backwards in time from the sixth millennium. Her time machine was destroyed on the journey, and she has fallen ill with a 21st century virus. If he doesn’t help her return to the future with its superior medicine, she may die. But if he does, she may bring back colonists whose advanced technology will allow them to take over the present-day earth. He longs to take the next step in his research. But if he makes use of the powerful physics she is teaching him, he may cause the universe to split into alternative realities – and separate him from the woman he loves. Prose Sample Pascal Rahali could predict the path of a proton. He could read radiation from a vanished star. He expected very soon to find out why the universe exists. But Zipporah Goldblum confounded him. From her emails, he had pictured a coiffed and gym-fit thirty-something in a tailored jacket. Instead, she had showed up in a bellbottomed pink pastel leisure suit that stretched to cover her thin figure of at least six feet. Her pale skin showed no sign of a wrinkle, but her close-cropped hair had gone completely white. The address of her investment firm, Tiller Angel Associates, was in Israel. But that wasn’t enough to explain the disorientation he sensed as the restaurant host led her to his table at one of the poshest restaurants in Berkeley. He rose. "Ms. Goldblum? Pascal Rahali. Pleased to meet you." She blinked twice and repeated his greeting in an accent that didn't sound Israeli or really like anything else he could place. Then she studied him for a moment that lingered into awkwardness before asking him to sit. Only then did she smile, as if just remembering that she was supposed to. "I am a fanatic of your work." "Thank you. I'm just— Where did you hear about it? Are you a physicist?" "A physicist? Not exactly. An investor. I would like to make you big." "Make me big?" Someone must be writing her emails for her. When her invitation had come out of the blue, it was polished enough that Pascal’s curiosity had overcome his skepticism. But in a time of daily phishing attacks, syntax like this would have stopped him for responding. Her eyes widened. "Make big your project. To help you with the money you need. To buy equipment, assistants, travel, all you need." No one who knew anything about physics would make such a sweeping offer without asking a lot of hard questions. He should probably leave before the conversation became embarrassing. He just needed to know how she had picked him out of all the physicists in the world. She sounded more naïve than conniving. Maybe instead of conning him she had conned herself, dreaming that he could make her rich. Or was this all part of the act, like card sharks who make you think you're taking advantage of them until they suddenly go in for the kill? He picked up the menu. "Have you eaten here before?" White drapes hung in the floor-to-ceiling windows. Red armchairs and chandeliers contrasted with ionic columns and black-and-white checkered tile. A hamburger was $21. "No, I have not. But many users of help recommend it." "You mean users on Yelp?" "Yes. And many people say compliments about you, too, Dr. Rahali." "Not on Yelp, I don't think." "But in our research." “Who?" Only a handful of people in the world knew what Pascal was doing, and only one or two believed what he believed: that he was on the verge of discovering what led to the Big Bang. The work could place Pascal among the most important physicists in history. Caught up in that excitement, he had lately neglected to publish his work. The Lab had cut off his funding, putting an abrupt end to his life’s work and making him desperate enough to take his meeting. But how could she have known that?
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