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J'ae's Solution

Ciro Faienza is a podcast editor at Strange Horizons. His reviews, essays, and fiction have been featured in Reflection's Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and Kzine. He also works as an actor and director of film and theater. Find him on Twitter @cirofaienza, and blogging at freneticlicense.blogspot.com.

***Editor's Note: Disturbing***
Austin approached J'ae with a Dixie cup full of blue, slurring something to her about "urban" culture--read "black." How had that word persisted?
"It's like," he said, "what was your paper at the ISH Conference?"
"Marxist Biology and Black Identity." Well received, but some blank stares. When J'ae said she could "fold," she meant both protein problems and reconfiguring her Self; most in the crowd understood only one or the other. White MIT undergrads.
She reminded herself. Worth doing at an East Campus modding party--piercings and psychotropics and saline injections, yes, but mostly naked white skin.
The paper was a euphemism for the work she did breaking into campus labs. Risky for a black girl, but still better than the indie lab collectives in the city, where some kid always invited a raid with unfortunate uses of hydroponics bays or Erlenmeyer flasks or stolen equipment. And with the Big Pharma fight, what she couldn't get on campus, she could find on the deep web.
"Yeah, J'ae, but you gotta think identity like the Ship of Theseus." Theezuhtheesus, he said, talking over her. Could still manage her name, though. ZHAY.
"Uh-huh," she said, but no, not like something to be exchanged. Something with a core, with roots--what she didn't know when she began her work, a magic molecule to help her unlearn toxic culture, the legacy of multivariate oppressions. Her first ideas were crude, neurotransmitters and chemical Zen. Better forgetting through chemistry. Then she moved on to selective demethylation, turning on the switches turned off by her mother and grandmother and great-greats. She farmed the grunt work out to personal genomics and bent her genius to the hard stuff.
And J'ae could fold. When the other kids were on bean sprouts, she was on chiral centers. She never pretended ignorance. She knew it was her ticket out of crumbling exurbs. But she did pretend it never made her sad.
The great-greats had been survivors. What their bodies had learned was adaptive, hard-won. Maybe still useful, she began to think.
And real change, she discovered, meant growing new branches; it did not mean killing the roots.
So she started again, this time with oxytocin. Amazing how much of the research had already been done--cognitive correlates, neurochemical mechanisms, gene targets--and not put together. What strangled mirror neurons, what protected fundamental attribution error, what wrote the script that fear followed. What produced the sensation of power.
It wasn't hard to like Austin. He really tried with her, like now, even if trying wasn't enough, and in all other ways he was so rarely self-conscious. But when he stepped out it was at best like playing Scrabble with an elephant, and he was one of the better ones. She could win the game of fitting in, she could survive it, but it still meant being alone.
Her final product was a masterwork--precise, complex, nearly perfect. With so many tailored receptor sites, though, also delicate. Unlikely to survive submersion in the fusel oils of cheap liquor.
But rohypnol would. Austin leaned in, and she dropped one into the blue. When he stumbled down the black-lit hallway to his room, she would follow him. He would collapse in his bed and she would press her needle into his vein and give him just the thing he looked for from her, the hidden plea in all his posturing and privilege. His body would learn, unlearn, and it would not be hard-won.
It would be a gift.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Author Comments

I wrote this, my first flash fiction, to a prompt from PRIís 3-Minute Futures Contest, which called for near-future hard science fiction under 1000 words. I hoped a premise in interpersonal neurobiology might help distinguish the piece, and as it turns out, it made it to the top 25.

- Ciro Faienza
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