Tue 1 Apr 2014
Chani sat on the women’s balcony, racing through her prayers at the usual breakneck speed of the Orthodox. She was bored. She knew there was a Chasidic position that prayer should be as fast as possible, to prevent the yetzer hara, the evil inclination from getting a few thoughts in edgewise between the words. But she could recite at full speed and still have her mind wander.
The men below finally got to the Torah reading. Chani stood. The mechitza was ill-fitting and she could peek out from between two sheets of curtain. The reading was set to be chaotic as usual.
The rabbi yelled, looking for a kohen to say the blessings. Chani rolled her eyes. Yossi was out of town. Uri was traipsing around in space as usual. And who knew what Dovber was up to…
There was a commotion below. Finally they decided there was no kohen to be found, so they had to go with a levi, the next best option. Someone pushed through the crowd. Chani yawned.
Downstairs, the levi said the blessings and Shai began the Torah reading. Chani closed her eyes and leaned against one of the mechitza posts. She liked to listen to him read — he chanted precisely, but with feeling, an otherworldly resonance suffusing his words. He was very young — much too young to serve as a Torah reader, Chani had assumed, but still the community had picked him for this task.
Her attention drifted and instead of focusing on the reading, she wondered about Shai. With his sensitivities, he should be working with the planetmind in some capacity, she thought. But he can chant beautifully, and also…
She got a really bad feeling, like a lightning bolt streaking along her spine, leaving a burning sensation in its wake.
She winced and quickly looked around. The mechitza on her right trembled slightly, as if a breeze was blowing the heavy curtains. She swallowed — her mouth suddenly dry — and tried hard not to think of what was hidden there.
The mechitza on Chani’s right separated a further partition from the balcony. Men below, women above, and… those who were neither in the right corner of the balcony.
They had set it up just for one person. Could it still be called a person?
Best keep the distance — Chani took a cautious little sidestep to the left and slid her siddur, her regular prayer book along the slanted reading surface of the pew. It got stuck in a place where two pews joined. She yanked her hand nervously and the siddur dropped to the floor. She snatched it up, kissed her fingers and touched the cover with them — there was so much dust around that she felt bad about directly kissing the cover, even though she knew her immune mods could probably take care of everything. Best not to risk it, she thought. This is a frontier settlement.
There was a low thudding sound coming from behind the mechitza. She looked — the curtain between the men’s and women’s portions was practically translucent, but for the third partition someone had found an old and heavy brocade curtain. She could not see anything.
She could only feel the distress.
Her muscles tensed with such a force that the breath was pushed out of her lungs. She froze in fear. Why, why did she get up early on Shabbat — why did she decide to attend the morning prayers — why was she aware of other people’s minds —
A groan from beyond the curtain, then a high keening noise. Not very loud — the men below did not even notice it. The two women fussing in the kiddush room behind her back did not drop their pots to see what was happening, either, and she was alone on the balcony.
She swore, then instantly felt bad about it. She jumped to the curtain and yanked it away with one sweeping, theatrical gesture.
Behind the mechitza, Adira was sitting on the pew seat, clutching her stomach. She looked surprisingly human — just like before. Her hair was short and it stuck to her head in tight, dark curls. Her skin was an unusually pale white and her limbs were thin and gangly. She wore a striped shirt and a long flowing skirt in matching dark purples and blues. Everything was just like before.
She was throwing up insects.
Adira doubled up. The insects moved around on the pew rather dazedly — they were all shiny quicksilver and surprisingly large.
Chani had absolutely no idea what to do. Fear tied her tongue. “W-w-w- how can I help?”
Adira tried to speak, but another spasm shook her. The new insects looked even more dazed, and — Chani could not look away from them — slightly malformed. They toppled, their legs of different lengths; they fell on their backs; they dropped to the ground.
Adira gasped. “It’s the- the geomagnetic storm. Take me outside.”
Chani was overcome by the force of the command. She grabbed Adira’s small, slight body — her long limbs exactly like the legs of, no, no, she banished the thought, she would not go there — and dragged her to the kiddush room.
The tables were laid for kiddush. The yeshiva boys would also eat their lunch here, and a pot of cholent already steamed on one table. The room was otherwise empty. Where were Sarah and Liora? Maybe downstairs chasing the kids, Chani thought, and for a moment she was grateful.
Chani grabbed a plastic chair and pushed Adira down in it. Adira threw up again, not insects, only small lumps that wiggled slightly. “Outside,” she said, wheezing. “Beyond the limits.”
We can’t, it’s Shabbat, Chani wanted to say, but thought better of it and managed to keep her mouth shut.
Adira reacted regardless. “Pikuach nefesh,” she said, her voice hoarse. Life-saving, the one imperative that overrode almost all commandments, including all the Shabbat prohibitions.
Chani helped her to the door, supporting her weight, then the two of them stumbled down the stairs.
They had to rest in the grass outside the synagogue courtyard. Chani gasped for air. She knew she should’ve gone for those other mods — her body felt frail and she was sure she’d pulled her back on the way down the stairs, trying with all her might to keep Adira from toppling forward.
Adira attempted to get back on her feet, but she could not maintain her balance. Chani got up, tried to help her. Both of them ended up facefirst in the grass. Chani swore in Arabic.
“At least you’ve stopped throwing up,” she said, turning back toward Adira.
Her skin was coming off. Chani watched in horror. It looked like her flesh itself was peeling away, large slices of plastic-looking meat, entirely unreal. Underneath, the shiny silver substance of planetlife itself was glowing in the sunlight.
“What’s going on?!” She was close to screaming.
“Get me beyond the city limits,” Adira said, her longest sentence so far.
Chani jumped up. Some things were simply beyond comprehension. She tried to summon a floater pallet — she could sense there was one in the shed just behind the building.
The pallet responded. Its status message helpfully pointed out that it was locked down for Shabbat.
Chani swore again, something graphically obscene. Then she hit upon a better choice of words. Pikuach nefesh, she sent.
The pallet whipped around the corner, landed in front of them with a smoothness belying its speed. Chani rolled Adira on it, jumped up — almost tripping in her skirt –, issued the right set of commands, then held on for dear life.
There was no forcefield at front and Chani lacked the skill to make one herself. The wind tore at her face, her eyes. She grimaced, looked down. The pallet obediently evaded obstacles. Still, they almost hit a young boy, and Chani could feel his gaze on her back for a long time.
Adira was shaking. The skin and flesh stopped falling off; instead, her body changed — she was turning into something noticeably less human, and Chani forced herself to squeeze her eyes shut.
“What’s going on,” she asked again, more of a demand than a question.
“If I cannot — maintain my shape, the body gets broken down into — less complex lifeforms,” Adira said. She spoke with eerie calm, but her voice was changing, acquiring odd overtones.
Chani gripped the edge of the pallet with all the strength in her hands.
You are now leaving the settlement limits, the pallet said.
Chani ignored the warning. They flew on. Adira was entirely silent and Chani forced her mind away from her — there was something about her that was profoundly nonhuman, and the other, local mind was more and more apparent in her, beyond her, through her.
You are now leaving the protected zone, the pallet said.
The world acquired a subtle saturation, all colors suddenly more vivid. Chani took a deep breath. She would be exposed to the planetmind here, with no mediation, no metaphorical curtains and veils protecting the awareness of those in the settlement. And she was habitually aware of other people’s minds. She would be —
She lost her balance. Her grip on the pallet did not loosen — her fingers felt completely stiff — and her elbow and knuckle joints protested the sudden tearing motion. She did not fall off. She did not fall off. She tried to breathe.
She was overwhelmed.
The planetmind drew back from her in an instant that still felt much too long. There was no attempt to communicate. Would we even be able to communicate, without Adira? Chani looked down. Was Adira conscious? Chani struggled to sort out her impressions. What would happen with her gone?
“I’m not — dead yet,” Adira said, with considerable difficulty.
“Where to now?” Chani was clumsily trying to hide her embarrassment.
“Find a lake.”
The lake was filled with the oily quicksilver fluid of planetlife. Chani parked the floater, then noticed with a fright that Adira had lost consciousness. She looked up to the sky, desperate for instruction.
The planetmind was all around her, keeping distance for the time being. Getting ready to swarm in for the kill? She was an intruder here.
Long, long seconds passed. The planetmind was anticipating something, she realized with a startle. Maybe the two of them could not speak in words without Adira, as she’d assumed.
The planetmind indicated the lake.
She tried to undress Adira. Her hands were shaking. She wanted to find an override for that–
The planetmind communicated urgency.
She took a deep breath and pushed Adira into the lake.
A heartbreaking crunching sound from the depths. Was Adira being digested? The surface of the lake was artificially calm.
Minutes ticked by.
Adira resurfaced, floating like an inflatable toy. She looked human. She opened her eyes, but made no attempt to look around.
“We can now speak,” the planetmind said through her.
“What’s going on?” she demanded.
“A solar flare causes a magnetic storm planetside.”
“There are instabilities in the māwal.” The planetmind used the standard Alliance term, not the Hebrew. “It is hard for her to maintain her shape even during more peaceful times. Now it is even harder. Automatic processes have been set in motion. We have been concerned.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Expectations shape reality,” the planetmind said. She could feel the disappointment. The alien sentience was disappointed by her ignorance.
“I know, I know,” she grimaced and looked away. It was no use — the planetmind was everywhere. Lush green and red vegetation rustled, but this was only the surface — Chani knew if she were to cut any plant, its insides would show her that beautiful, lustrous shade of silver.
“If you understand this relationship, then why do you act the way you do?” the planetmind asked.
“What do you m–” she said, then froze, understanding what was coming.
“None of you have been helping her maintain her shape,” the planetmind said. “We were promised the community would help her maintain her shape.”
“The–” She could not bring herself to say what she wanted to say. She lashed out instead. “The community, the community is afraid! We don’t know how to deal with this! Cut us some slack!”
“These processes are automatic on our behalf. If your community no longer belongs to us, it is consumed.”
“How can you just–” She sputtered. “You are a sentient being!”
“We told you about this in advance. She is a part of us. She is a part of your community. If she is no longer a part of your community, we are no longer part of your community, and you are no longer part of us. Then you are consumed. You have always been aware of this.”
“But what do you want?” She turned around to yell at the forest, even though she knew the mind was probably even more present in the lake. “What do you want?!”
“We want you to help her maintain her shape, with your expectations.” The planetmind sounded tired. “You are all avoiding her. None of you would even touch her. You put her behind a separate curtain in your hall of worship.”
“But we can’t– Halachically–” Did the mind even know these words, know about Jewish law? If Adira was a part of the mind, then probably yes. Still Chani felt compelled to clarify. “She is a shapeshifter, she can be both male or female, and there is a ruling that in cases of indeterminacy we have to go by the stricter– She can’t just sit on the men’s side, but she can’t sit on the women’s side either, so–”
“This is a problem for you to solve,” the planetmind responded.
Chani sat on a stool in Rebbetzen Mushka’s kitchen and gobbled up one brownie after another. Adira was lying on the large leather sofa in the living room, tucked into a children’s blanket decorated with little cartoon spaceships, and comfortably asleep. The door of the kitchen was closed.
The rebbetzen sighed. “I can tell you — I’ve been there. Maybe you can even… how do you say that… sense my thoughts? Read my mind?” She gestured with short little fingers.
Chani shrugged, her mouth full of brownie mash.
I can bind you together even closer, the planetmind said. Chani choked on the brownies.
“There, there.” The rebbetzen handed her a glass of water. “A few stray crumbs?”
Chani swallowed. “Not really…”
Her thoughts were rushing ahead furiously. Have you followed me here?
I am aware of everything in the settlement. Now you are aware of me. The planetmind made an impression of calm reason. No anger. No practical jokes.
You were exposed. No choice. No alternative.
Was the rebbetzen saying something? Chani tuned her out. I didn’t want to–
You are sensitive. You are that which you are. A pause. Is this such a problem?
Chani shook her head, tried not to grit her teeth. I guess not. “Sorry?” she asked the rebbetzen. “You were saying–?”
The memories were unexpectedly clear — Chani wondered how much was interpolation by the rebbetzen’s mind, by hers, or by the planetmind.
Not much, the planetmind said. We can compensate.
Thanks, just what I needed to hear.
Adira wore a simple white cotton robe.
“…white like a kittel and a shroud? That’s not necessarily the best choice of color for the occasion,” the rebbetzen said.
“The experience is in many ways similar to death,” the Ereni responded on a calm, even voice. She was short and stocky, yet there was something fragile in the way she moved, in the way her eyes flicked around the cavern, restless. Who was she? Probably the Rebbe’s advisor, the one who helped organize the move from Mars.
Yes, this is Esawāyun ta Udufayiwe. The Rebbe’s liaison who negotiated with us.
…Thank you. Such a strong mental link, that an unfamiliar person’s lengthy name made it across… Chani was surprised.
The planetmind did not say You’re welcome. Chani refocused on the memory.
“Look, I’m ready, can we just begin? All this talk is making me nervous,” Adira said. Chani could feel she was trying hard to suppress an involuntary shaking of the muscles.
Hey, how come I can feel her emotions? The rebbetzen is not māwal-sensitive.
We are overlaying our experience. Did the planetmind hesitate, just for an instant? Some of it.
She mentally shrugged.
The Ereni pulled out a knife from her elaborate robes. “The custom is for the person to make an entry wound themselves, so as to indicate consent and commitment.”
The rebbetzen’s mouth opened in protest, but the Ereni raised a hand. “I know deliberate self-injury is not allowed in Jewish law. Self-injury by proxy is also explicitly disallowed. But surgery in general is allowed. We had a long discussion with the Rebbe and we finally decided it would be permissible for me to do it. Adira–”
Adira stepped closer to the Ereni.
Rebbetzen Mushka looked away.
Do I have to watch this? Chani felt that somewhere, outside, her body was shaking.
You don’t have to watch anything you don’t want to.
The moment had passed. Adira kneeled down and simply toppled into the silver pool, seemingly slower than what the local gravity would allow for, more floating than falling.
The viscous fluid began to move. The pool was relatively shallow and Adira struggled to stand, the fluid pulling her back. There was a series of cracks — the sound of bones snapping? — and Chani expected to hear screams, an inhuman howl, but there was nothing of the sort, just eerie silence. She could hear the rebbetzen’s breathing. The fluid still moved, and at one point Chani could see something like an arm sticking up, with one joint too many — a bone broken in half? She gagged.
Then everything was calm once more. She looked, straining her mind.
Where is she? She’s– she’s not there anymore– She knew the rebbetzen could not sense this, so why was the planetmind showing her now, all of a sudden, showing this and nothing else– You haven’t shown me how you felt, how she felt beyond the slightest surface awareness, why are you–
That would have been too much, and hardly relevant to the issue at hand.
But now you’re showing me she’s not there anymore–
She has been incorporated.
The Ereni bowed her head and said, “It is done. She has been incorporated. Now we can only hope for the best.”
“I thought I’d feel something,” Rebbetzen Mushka said, looking flustered. She pulled at her pink headscarf. “Since she’d merged with us, first… I’m not sure what the word is… she’d bound us together, and to herself…”
The Ereni raised her left eyebrow. “And you hadn’t felt anything?”
“I’m not sure…”
“She must’ve kept it from you.”
“Can that be done?” The rebbetzen was confused.
“Yes, that can be done.” The Ereni turned away. “Now we need to wait some time, for the reconstitution. There shouldn’t be any complications.”
“Reconstitution,” Chani whispered. The kitchen was suddenly small and cramped around them. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know she was…” She bowed her head. “She was gone. I saw it. She was gone…”
“I’m sorry?” The rebbetzen pushed back her own kitchen stool with a loud creak.
Chani looked up, her eyes filling with tears. “This is even worse, don’t you get it? If this gets out–” She waved her hands around. She normally looked up to the rebbetzen, but now all her decorum was gone, forgotten, digested in that lake. “The entire settlement, everything will be all gone! If the others realize–”
The rebbetzen did not see the point. Chani felt a sudden urge to grab her annoying pink pullover and shout at her — she had been there, how could she have been so ignorant, how–
“I’m sorry? What do you mean?”
“Don’t you understand, halachically, I’m not sure she can even be counted as human anymore! Male, female, whatever, I’m not sure she counts as human!”
The rebbetzen paled. “But why?”
“I saw it, she was gone, she was completely absorbed!”
“I didn’t see that and I was there!” She stood, her short frame trembling with a mixture of anger, indignation, and… fear?
“The planetmind showed me! And the Ereni talked about reconstitution!” Chani was shouting, beside herself. “Reconstitution! Didn’t you realize the implications?!”
Rebbetzen Mushka covered her mouth with a hand, gasping. Chani went on. “She’s gone and what there is– I’m not even sure she is a Jew any longer, her entire body was gone, the planetmind ate her– it’s not just a transformation, she was gone, and what’s there now is just a reconstruction! If word gets out–” She ran out of breath.
“Sit down. Let us think.” The rebbetzen made a pacifying gesture with both arms. “You know the Rebbe says every sentient being can convert to Judaism, that means they can in principle be Jewish. So why would Adira lose her Jewish status if she became… another kind of sentient being?”
“Because it’s not her any longer,” Chani whispered, then sat, her eyes fixed on the rebbetzen. “Because it’s not her any longer.”
“And how can you say that?”
“Because I saw it and she was gone. And if the other people realize this, she will only become more isolated, and the planetmind will no longer sense us as part of itself, and we will all be killed!” Her voice rose and rose.
“Ssh. We’ll wake her up.”
Chani looked away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“We’ll solve this situation. I’m sure the Rebbe knows, I’m sure the Ereni had told him and he’d considered every detail. We can just contact him.”
Chani pointed up. “The storm.”
The rebbetzen sighed. Messages going in and out of the jump point had indeed been disrupted for days. “Still, I’m sure he’d considered everything and found everything permissible and workable. He wouldn’t have asked her to do this if it were asur. I’m sure she still counts as Jewish, still counts as a member of the community…”
“Yes, but if the others catch wind of this– look how much trouble it caused when they realized she could shapeshift! In shul, they put up an extra curtain just for her because they didn’t want her on the men’s side and they didn’t want her on the women’s side either!”
“I’m okay with the mechitza,” Adira said from behind her. “I never liked it when people tried to chat me up while I was busy davening, anyway.”
Chani spun around. How much did she hear?
All of it, said the planetmind.
“All of it,” said Adira. “I’m potentially aware of everything that happens in the settlement. I just need to decide what to focus on.”
“You’re making it worse,” Chani yelled at her.
“Now, now,” the rebbetzen stepped next to them. “It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right, she will fail to maintain her what, her consistency, and we will all die!”
Adira frowned. “I thought you’d made a promise shortly before I woke up, out beyond the perimeter.”
She had. She had promised the planetmind she would intervene, try to convince the others not to push Adira aside. “Sure, but– none of this is helping, you have to realize it’s not me, the guys in the kollel spend their time debating technicalities all day, if they learn of this–”
Adira smiled. “If they learn of this, they’ll soon realize that if not for me, there would be no kollel, and they’d have to go back to Mars and full-time drudgery.”
Chani was speechless. Then she finally blurted out, “That sounds… utilitarian.”
The rebbetzen smiled. “That sounds workable…”
Rebbetzen Mushka and her husband, Rabbi Tzvi sat on kitchen stools while Chani paced, describing the situation. The rabbi nodded along, murmuring assent every now and then; Chani thought distractedly that he’d always been the malleable type. This might just work…
“You understand the danger, but most of the other men don’t,” she said. “A simple explanation wouldn’t sway them, but there is a way to demonstrate the danger without permanent harm…”
The rabbi picked a brownie crumb out of his beard. “Mmm. The Rebbe said as much.”
Chani jumped. “What did the Rebbe say?” The Rebbe said something? And you’re telling us just now?
Rabbi Tzvi was fortunately unaware of her roiling throughts. “That you would probably rise to the occasion,” he said mildly.
“What?! I would rise to the occasion?!”
“Yes, he said you would… not stand by the blood of your fellow,” he quoted the Torah.
“And the others?” Chani was again close to screaming. “Shai is also sensitive to, to the māwal– and Miri– Dovber–”
The rabbi looked away and picked up another brownie, put it in his mouth. He shrugged. “The Rebbe didn’t say anything about the others,” he said with his mouth full.
Chani felt like she could explode at any moment. “So this was expected of me? Couldn’t he in all his precognitive greatness have told me about it? I’m sure that would’ve helped!” She huffed, then turned and marched away, all her thoughts about explaining her plan evaporating in a haze of rage. Even still, she could feel the rebbetzen’s thoughts of concern, but Mushka remained silent.
Chani plodded along the main street of the settlement. Who could she talk to? The settlement was small and there were only a handful of māwal-users on the planet. There was Miri, about her age, but the two of them had never got along well. There was Nechama, who was probably surveying the detritus of their huge family lunch at the very moment; she’d best not bother her. Besides, Nechama constantly told her she was all too reckless and her plans were little more than harebrained schemes. Nechama even disapproved of the move away from Mars, she was so conservative.
How about the men? Could she even manage to find an opportunity to talk to them one-on-one? Jewish law did not allow two unmarried people of opposite genders to spend time together in the same room with no chance of someone else walking in. Who could she accidentally run into? She could’ve talked to Dovber, but as far as she knew, he was off-planet, busy with harebrained schemes of his own. He definitely did not show up to shul earlier that day, because then he would’ve said the blessing on the first reading.
Then there was Shai… Maybe getting Shai involved with the plan would be a good idea. Word was that he had been the Rebbe’s first choice for what ended up being Adira’s position. Chani could not fathom why Adira had no backup — if something happened to her, the entire settlement would be in danger. But the Rebbe was famous for his unusual decisions — his insistence on an Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew even when most of his followers were European Ashkenazic Jews, his ban on wigs that almost split the community, his decree that extraterrestrials could convert to Judaism… and, of course, his decision that his followers were to settle planets all across the galaxy.
Shai should’ve been the one picked to mediate between the planetmind and the community. Instead, he was studying and serving as the community Torah reader. Certainly, being a baal koreh was not an easy task — one had to memorize all the vowels and the cantillation marks which were absent from the scroll one used to read. On Shabbat Shai wouldn’t even be able to use his network interface, since it fell under the prohibition of electricity. Yet Chani couldn’t recall him making a mistake, while their shul on Mars had had a baal koreh who was constantly corrected by the people following along in the marked text. Shai was good at it, very good, but still it felt like such a waste. To Chani it felt like the māwal organized itself around Shai, and to waste all that potentiality, all that natural skill… Why couldn’t he serve at least as backup?
Chani could not understand the Rebbe, and she was beginning to become furious with him, safe with his retinue back on Mars, safe and ignorant of the situation here. She’d best get back to Adira and continue working on her plan… she was starting to disapprove of her own thoughts.
“This is the plan,” Chani said and leaned forward. They were sitting in the deserted kiddush room in the synagogue, on opposite sides of a table. “We’re going to give the people a fright. We just need you out of the picture for a bit. Just for the connection to weaken. When things start to go wrong, they will realize how much they need you. I could…” she hesitated, “injure you, then make sure you recover.”
“I don’t feel comfortable playing such a trick on them,” Adira said but didn’t flinch. “They are good people.”
Chani was awash with the heat of righteous anger. “They put you in a corner behind a brocade curtain! No one would even touch you!”
Adira blinked. “I don’t like to be touched.”
“You know it’s not about that! How will you marry?”
“We’d discussed this with the Rebbe back then and he said I’d probably find it impossible to marry. I said I was all right wi–”
“The Rebbe discussed this with you?!” Chani took a deep breath, then another, tried to calm down, without success.
“Yes, of course,” Adira said innocently, “I don’t understand your surprise… We’d talked about everything, with him, his wife Rebbetzen Michaela, the Ereni advisor… mostly the four of us. What did you expect?”
No one discussed anything with me! “I don’t like being left out of the loop.”
“If this helps any, I didn’t know anything about you either. The Rebbe only said I should not worry, Hashem would provide protection. I should just keep in mind that Hashem is Elokim, there is none besides him…”
Quotes, quotes, more quotes. Chani liked Torah quotes, but this was a time for action, not for words… She gnashed her teeth. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life alone? With no husband, no–”
“What would I do with a husband? Watch him die?”
“Eh?” That was not the response Chani had expected.
“If I can preserve my consistency, I can potentially live as long as the planet lives.” It sounded like a rehearsed phrase.
“I’d– I’d never thought of that.” Chani paused, just for a moment before marshalling the force of her argument again. “Still. You should not be alone. You should not allow the others to leave you alone. How will you preserve your consistency then?”
Adira looked away, out the window. “…Fair enough.” Then she turned back. “Your plan still sounds too risky. If you’re with me, you can’t be with the others and who knows what might happen to them. Can you just involve someone else too? How about Shai? I’m sure he could help.”
“Shai just wants to sit in a corner and study!”
Adira stood. “And why is that a problem? Isn’t that what men do?”
This is not your personal vendetta, the planetmind said.
Yeah? Wait until you see this, Chani responded.
Adira hesitated before the door. “I don’t see why this is necessary…”
“You want to participate in a women’s shiur, right?” And I want to talk to Shai, Chani thought at her.
Adira nodded, flustered. “Mhm. I’m just not sure it’s appropriate…”
“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Chani grimaced.
“I suppose…” Adira bit her lower lip. “They could throw me out.”
“Do you think such pious women would throw you out?” Chani snorted with derision. “They’re much too cowardly and meek for that.”
“Don’t say such things–” Adira blushed.
Chani stepped next to her and pushed open the door. “Come on!”
Adira entered with trepidation. Inside, the women were sitting in a loosely organized circle, some on a large sofa, some on pillows on the ground, some on simple plastic chairs and stools brought into the living room from the kitchen. There was still no consensus about whether shapeforming chairs were permitted on Shabbat, so most people sat quite uncomfortably.
When Chani and Adira entered, people stiffened, and Chani could tell Adira noticed too.
They said their greetings. Chani looked around for spare chairs. “Is there something we could sit on?”
“We’re all out,” a woman said frostily. Chani recognized her — her name was Malka something and she was the mother of four children, all boys.
“All right,” Chani responded with as much iciness as she could muster, then sat down with her back to a wall. Adira also sat after some hesitation.
Shai’s mother hosted the shiur in their house, but it was held by a different person; a young brown-skinned woman with Ethiopian Jewish features. Adira remembered that her first name was Rachel, and she was from Earth, not Mars. Rachel cleared her throat and began. “Today we’re going to study the midah of rachamim…”
See, I told you they wouldn’t throw you out, Chani thought.
I didn’t exactly get a warm welcome either.
It will come with time… Chani smiled. Time, and something else.
I can’t believe you want to do that. Adira’s body went rigid. I’m not going to stand for deception.
Who said anything about deception? Chani had to lift a hand in front of her mouth to cover her broad grin. It’s going to be as real as possible.
The grin eventually wore off, and as the shiur went on, Chani realized that Shai was not even in the house, so that they could talk afterwards. Where was he? Time was running out; it was already late afternoon, and on weekdays, it would be much harder to get a large crowd in one place. She had to make her move soon…
Shabbat was coming to a close with the havdalah ceremony. Blessings were said on candlelight, cloves and wine in the usual disorganized manner. Very few women turned up for the occasion; most were at home, tending to the kids. Chani and Adira stood in one corner, away from the rest of the people.
Plastic cups of wine made their rounds; a young man stepped to them and offered Chani some. She politely declined and picked up a bottle of grape juice from one of the tables; the man stepped back into the crowd, visibly uneasy. No one asked Adira. Chani filled two cups with grape juice and handed a cup to her. They drank, and Adira wiped her mouth with the back of her hand — such a human gesture it made Chani’s heart ache. How could she have doubted…?
“It’s a good thing they’re doing kiddush levana today,” she whispered to Adira. “That’s a great opportunity.” The men would set out to bless the moon; it was usually not visible from the shul’s courtyard, and they customarily hiked up a small hill every month.
“You want to kill me,” Adira whispered back.
“If you don’t want to fake it, we can only do it for real,” she said. “Besides, I don’t want to kill you outright.”
We would advise against this course of action, the planetmind told them. We cannot predict events with the instability caused by the storm. But we sense danger.
Chani looked out the window and grimaced, as if staring directly into an invisible camera.
The crowd was thinning out as people were beginning to move outside; the stairs that led downstairs from the kiddush room proved to be a bottleneck. Chani shifted her weight from one leg to another; she was nervous, even though she did not appreciate the planetmind knowing that. Likewise, Adira was rolling some dried cloves in her fingers, smelling them again and again.
Finally, they could make their way downstairs unobstructed. Below, the men were talking with animated gestures. People were running to and fro with stacks of prayer books. Chani grabbed one and handed it to Adira.
“I know the prayers,” Adira said.
“Even for kiddush levana?”
“I had a network interface even… before.” She nodded in the direction of the forest. “I can just access the local net. Not on Shabbat, but Shabbat is already over.”
“You mean you still have your implants and stuff? In some way?”
“My body template was recorded with everything inside.” Adira began to walk as some of the men set out on the short hike to do the blessing; many were still shmoozing in the courtyard.
Chani fell in step. “I guess I never really thought about that. That’s kind of cool.”
It helps us integrate into the community even closer, the planetmind added.
“So you can read our email?” Chani chuckled.
We don’t need to read your email when we are already aware of your minds.
“Yeah… right. Hold on,” she said and ran forward, looking for Shai. Adira did not change her pace.
He was there, walking almost at front. Eager to pray?
“Shai,” she gasped, slightly out of breath. “We need to talk.”
Shai fixed his clear blue eyes upon her, just for a second — his cool, calm gaze penetrated all the way into her soul. He had a thick red beard — unexpectedly thick for his age — and long curly sidelocks, and he played with his tzitzit fringes as he walked. “Yes? Do explain.”
She was afraid Shai would become aware of her plan prematurely, with his exemplary command of the māwal. But apparently even he could not sense her plan through the chaos of the geomagnetic storm. He was clearly beginning to grow suspicious, though.
Chani began. “Something unexpected is going to happen. You’ll need to stay calm and–”
“How do you know something is going to happen?” Shai smiled. “Maybe because…” …you are the instigator yourself?
“Yes,” she wheezed. “Look, there’s no time. I can’t explain. You will understand everything soon. I just need you to know one thing. When I give you a signal, you will start shepherding everyone back toward the settlement. Do anything you can to keep them moving.” She looked around nervously, but no one seemed to be listening in on them.
Shai raised a hand, his smile unwavering. “I’m keeping the others from hearing this.”
Chani nodded. All right. “There will be… a measure of chaos. Some of the planetlife might mount an assault. It’s only going to be temporary.”
“Is this about Adira?”
Chani nodded again, her head bobbing up and down, and then a flash of understanding passed between them.
“I see,” Shai said with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “I should’ve realized. Count me in.”
Chani could’ve hugged him if not for the rules of modesty that kept her from engaging in any physical contact with an unrelated male. She ran back to Adira, grinning to herself all the while.
Just a few steps until the ravine that opened on the right side of the path up the hill.
Warn me before you push me, Adira thought. I want to cushion my fall somewhat, with the māwal… I don’t want to die outright. In this weakened state… just an injury, okay? A little loss of consciousness, a bit longer than back at the lake. Just to give them a fright. And then you can hurry back and down the slope to me and help me gather myself together.
Sure, Chani replied. But we need to take some risk. On a count of three, right?
One, two… three.
Chani pushed Adira — then her own feet slipped on the wet grass, she toppled against her and both of them fell tumbling into the ravine. No–
Thoughts ran through her mind, faster than prayer — this wasn’t planned, she wasn’t supposed to fall alongside Adira, she’d die–
Adira grabbed her, wrapped herself around her. I won’t let you.
They landed at the bottom with a sickening crunch.
Chani was stunned for a moment, then she instinctively rolled off Adira, who was lying underneath her.
Chani was alive, in one piece, but as she moved, pain shot through her body. She quickly examined herself in the sparse illumination afforded by the lamps lighting the path up the hill, well above. Her left leg was broken, an ugly open fracture. She could feel her mods already knotting up the bone and the flesh, toning the pain down to manageable levels, but she knew from experience that her leg would be useless for at least a day, and the blood loss would make her dizzy.
She did not dare look at Adira.
She forced herself to.
Her body looked — it was hard to tell in the dark — mangled, already disassembling itself. Her neck was bent at an impossible angle and her face was expressionless.
“Adira– I’m sorry–”
Don’t look at me, talk to me, keep on talking to me, Adira thought.
Chani could not look away.
You need to preserve my individuality. I am here as long as you talk to me. Turn away.
What you see works against your expectations, the planetmind answered.
She obediently turned her head; she could not move her leg.
I need to — there’s not enough māwal for me to– She could tell Adira was panicking; her thoughts had acquired a feverish quality all of a sudden. I cannot maintain contact with the rest and at the same time repair my–
“Take mine, take mine!” She turned back toward Adira, grabbed her hand. “I have a lot of māwal, take as much as you need!”
It was hard enough to keep you alive. A gurgling chuckle coming from the broken throat.
“Then I’ll call Shai, he can get down here fast, he can–”
You will need Shai to protect the men above, the planetmind said. It is starting. We are sorry.
“What are you talking about?!”
We cannot preserve her and keep up her contact with the community at the same time. Talk to her. Shai will protect the group on the hill. She will be restored sufficiently soon; the settlement will not be destroyed. Only the group on the hill is in danger.
Chani craned her neck but she could not make out anything in the glow of the lamps. She felt nauseous from the sudden head motion. Then she heard the screaming.
She could reconstruct the events from the participants’ memories fairly well. Immediately after Adira was cut off from the community, planetlife swarmed the men walking uphill. Shai screamed at them to run. They yelled and cried, but obeyed. Shai held off the assault and ran with the men, protecting them all the while. The planetlife sensed that he was holding it off and targeted its attacks on him.
We can assure you this is purely instinctive behavior, the planetmind said. This is our immune system. This is not a conscious decision on our behalf. We are sorry.
Chani talked to Adira, talked and talked. Recounted her life story, offered divrei Torah, ranted about the unfairness of life. She wanted to rail against Hashem, but she needed to focus on Adira. She went on, her throat sore, her eyes dry from the tears.
The men made it back to the settlement.
Shai did not.
He was lying on the ground, the settlement limits just a stone’s throw away. He was coughing up blood. He waited for the angel of death.
“Shema… Yisrael,” he said with his last effort, not covering his eyes.
We can attempt to incorporate you, the planetmind said. We are sorry for the damage caused. We would prefer to incorporate you.
Shai stopped saying the ages-old prayer. He closed his eyes and was completely still. He felt at peace.
You have already turned us down once before. Please do not turn us down again.
Chani had no idea what the planetmind was talking about, but she supposed this was between the two of them.
“Take me,” Shai said with his last breath.
Adira, Shai and Chani sat on the steps in the synagogue courtyard, enjoying the late afternoon sun and a bit of Shabbat rest.
“At least this Shabbat is less hectic than the previous one,” Chani said.
Shai laughed, the sound like pearls falling from the sky. Then he rubbed his nose and looked up at the clouds. “Are you coming to the Gemara shiur? It should start soon, at Dovber’s place.” That’s a long walk.
“I thought the Gemara shiur was for men only,” Chani said.
“No, anyone can come,” Adira said. “Tzvi specifically told me, a few weeks ago.”
Chani blinked. “Then why didn’t you attend? Before, I mean.”
I was not sure I was welcome anywhere. Adira sighed.
“There’s only going to be more of us,” Shai said. “People would better get used to it. The Rebbe himself said so, he’d expected something like this.” He coughed nervously. “He wanted it to happen… if not with me, then with someone else. He wanted to force the issue.” That’s why Adira didn’t have backup.
Well, that solves the marriage problem, Chani thought.
“I’d elbow you hard, but I’m still not sure I’m allowed to touch you,” Adira said, grinning.
“You’re not allowed to hurt her, either way,” Shai pointed out.
“True enough!” Chani got up, brushing the dust off her skirt. “Let’s go, we’ll be late if we don’t get going…”
She still could not look Shai in the eye.
Copyright 2014 Bogi Takács
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish author, a psycholinguist and a popular–science journalist. E writes both speculative fiction and poetry, and eir works have been published or are forthcoming in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Apex and Jabberwocky, among others.