Issue 179 – August 2021

6000 words, short story

A Thousand Tiny Gods


The minister’s wife arrives at the Bahrain Ministry of Nanotechnology in a black limousine with dark, tinted windows. She normally eschews the hijab, but today, she’s wrapped in a black abaya with a full face covering, a useful method of concealing her identity without drawing attention from those who would question her presence here, of all places. Under her veil, her head turns left and right, scanning her surroundings, before she gathers her skirts and strolls into the building.

I stand with crossed arms at the second-story window with other nanotech developers, jostling for the best view. Animated voices surround me, the air thick with excitement and strong coffee.

“Think any of her security team will leak the story?”

“She wouldn’t be stupid enough to let that happen. Doesn’t she have three degrees?”

“Maybe she wants to be caught. Cause a scandal and embarrass the minister.”

“Her husband hates nanotech, like half of the country. He’d shut us down if he could.”

“Well, she hates her husband, doesn’t she? She’d be crazy not to.”

I slip away, gossip about anti-nanotech protestors and robotic mistresses trailing in my wake. My heels click on the tiled floor. Like most Bahraini programmers, I normally wear a uniform of worn jeans and a faded T-shirt from some obscure Arab metal band. Today is different. I need to convey power, professionalism, seriousness—all that noise that developers usually tune out, lost in the realm of zeroes and ones.

The clothes work their magic—I feel different today. I began my morning with a run along the new elevated corniche on the western side of the island, watching the daily supercavitational shuttle to Saudi Arabia tear across the water. Ate a za’atar and olive oil manaqish from the food stand in the lobby, put flavored hazelnut syrup in my coffee. Walked to work, taking advantage of an unusual cold front. On hotter mornings, I swim in the canal that runs through the condos on the northern tip of Bahrain, reserved for government workers. It’s a good life—I can climb down from my back patio directly into the water and swim between the kayaks and lazy riverboats, popular with young Bahrainis. I pay all my bills and order takeout twice a week.

But I can do better. And today, at last, the perfect opportunity has arrived.

“Assign me to the minister’s wife’s case,” I say without preamble, strolling into Dr. Jawad’s office. His eyes narrow as I lean back on his visitor’s chair, propping my crossed legs on his desk. My heels are red, the color of power. Or so I heard on some podcast.

“She has a name, you know,” the doctor says. He taps his feet with unconcealed impatience. His fingers scroll over the 3D holo-monitor in the center of his desk, pulling up patient files with no regard for privacy.

“I know,” I say. “Mrs. Zainab Bint Hassan al-Mansouri. Aged sixty-one. First wife to the Minister of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Worked for the same ministry after graduating from Cambridge. See, doc? I can do basic research. And I can do more than basic programming. I’ve proven as much. As an added bonus, I’m the only woman on the team, and don’t you think this case needs a woman’s touch? This educated, modern lady would probably be more encouraged to see a woman as one of the main faces handling her care, leading the team. It’ll be great press.”

I deliver this pitch a little too fast, my nervousness getting the best of me. But I can see the grudging effect of my words on the senior doctor. He takes in my professional, well-tailored attire, perhaps mulling the optics of the situation. But he’s not ready to concede yet.

“Aren’t you the head of the Cosmetics nanotech team, Manal?” Dr. Jawad counters. “I don’t know what Mrs. Mansouri wants yet, but I suspect it’s more than some skin treatments. Rumors are that she has cancer.”

“Meaning I’m perfect for the job.” I grab a donut, peppered with rainbow sprinkles, from the box on his desk and hide my irritation behind a hearty bite. It’s been two years since I was moved from Preventative Medicine to Cosmetic Enhancements, but I still feel the sting, sharp like salty water on raw skin. It wasn’t for lack of ability. I coded the main logic—with Dr. Jawad, no less—that allows the nanobots injected in a person’s bloodstream to locate precancerous cells and transmit the findings back to a patient’s medical record. Now, I program rules that help the region’s aging rich preserve their vanity. Nanobots that attack fine lines beneath the skin or destroy follicles for unwanted body hair. The most useless service offered by the Nanotech Ministry and, of course, the most profitable. I can’t prove it, but I’m sure they moved me for the same reason I’m going to be useful with the minister’s wife now—I provide a friendly face for the mostly female clientele.

“Excuse me?”

An older woman stands at the doctor’s door. Her graying hair is tied in an elegant bun, her ears adorned with simple pearls. Her hijab hangs around her shoulders, but she keeps her abaya on. She wears little makeup, a stark contrast to the minister’s second wife, a model in her mid-thirties with a rumored cocaine habit. It should be said that multiple wives are a rarity on the island, an eccentricity of the rich—people like the minister.

Like a street cat on garbage pickup day, I move with lightening reflexes, uncrossing my legs and discarding the donut. Dr. Jawad rises to his feet with more polish and extends a hand. His other hand waves behind him, erasing the patient profiles hovering in the air over his desk. I brush sticky sugar from my fingertips onto my pant legs.

“Madam,” Dr. Jawad says in an exaggerated, deferential tone. “You are most welcome here. Is this office comfortable enough for you? We can close the door for privacy, but there are conference rooms open.”

“This is fine, thank you.” She sits down, an expensive handbag with some bland designer pattern draped over her lap like a shield. Her eyes dart between me and the doctor, soft and curious, and I fix a polite smile on my face. It only takes a sidelong glance at Dr. Jawad for the triumph to bubble in my chest. I’ve won, and we both know it.

“This is Manal Darwish, my senior developer,” Dr. Jawad introduces me. I keep the smirk off my face, just barely, as she shakes my hand.

We get down to business. Mrs. Mansouri speaks in dry, measured tones, addressing Dr. Jawad and I equally.

“I understand that you have a current program, though unpopular, to use nanotechnology to search for early signs of cancer,” she says. “But do you have any technology to treat active cancer?”

I open my mouth to speak, but Dr. Jawad silences me with a warning glare. I lean back, picking at my chewed down nails. He gives her the full story with his diplomatic but direct bedside manner, like the good doctor he is. Yes, we have the technology in a testable state but no, we don’t have a formal program to offer active cancer treatment. Lack of funding, you see, combined with public skepticism about having small robots the size of atoms traveling through one’s body, acting as they see fit. It’s disconcerting and new even for us medical professionals, Dr. Jawad says. The nanotech robots are basically miniaturized nurses and doctors, microscopic colleagues they can’t see or converse with.

“Only you can talk to them,” I chime in. “Through code. As a programmer, I’m a translator between medical experts like Dr. Jawad and the nanotechnology. He tells me what the nanobots should do—where in the body they should travel and what actions they should take—and I program the logic, test it, and optimize it.”

Mrs. Mansouri nods with a satisfied smile.

“So you need sponsorship and a public endorsement of the program,” she said. “And I happen to need treatment. I assume you reviewed my medical record once I announced my intent to visit. I have an aggressive form of lung cancer. I’ve never touched a cigarette, not even in college, but my husband has the habit.” Her mouth twitches and shadows cross her face. “Such is life. The prognosis based on my current treatment is . . . poor. It’s time for me to seek more experimental options, and I am ready to volunteer myself to your nanotechnology.”

I stare at her with an intensity that must unsettle her, but I can’t help it. As the spouse of one of the island’s most powerful government officials, her face is a famous one. But in person, she lacks the remoteness and the gloss of her public appearances. Though she is poised, even on the painful topic of her terminal illness, her intelligent eyes dance with mischief, the subtle curve of her mouth rich with secrets. Feet away from me, she transforms from a public figure into a person, and guilt tugs at me for my earlier, opportunistic comments to Dr. Jawad about her cancer.

Next to me, Dr. Jawad’s weathered features tighten in alarm. He fidgets with his stubby fingers, fumbling for the right words.

“Madam, I have to ask,” he says. “Your husband is not known for being supportive of our Ministry’s mission. He shares, at least publicly, the general population’s distrust for nanotechnology. Forgive me, but is he aware of your visit today?”

“No, and he won’t be aware of my subsequent appointments when my treatment begins,” Mrs. Mansouri says. Her tone isn’t angry, but there is an air of finality to her voice. “Not yet anyway. Don’t worry about the politics, doctor. I’ve spoken to your director and he’s aware of my intentions. In the end, this Ministry will benefit from this step, if it’s willing to stomach some short-term heartburn.”

Dr. Jawad and I exchange a glance. The opposition to nanotech in the country is both simple and complicated—it was pushed top-down by the government, and people don’t trust the government. Given the island’s history, there are good reasons for that distrust. Conspiracy theories spread like viruses through Internet chat forums and social media, along with the island’s coffee shops and bakeries. I’ve bitten my tongue more than once on my morning coffee runs, overhearing old couples discuss how the government’s plotting to control minds or test new bioweapons. I itch to spin around, with my stained clothes and messy hair, and ask if I look like an evil, bureaucratic mastermind.

But I never do. It wouldn’t make a difference. I can’t change minds. But Mrs. Mansouri, beloved from the island’s poorest villages to its wealthiest villas, is another story.

“Do you see them? Those two over there. They keep stealing glances at us.” Dr. Jawad takes a nervous sip of his Heineken, eyes darting across the bar. Foam coats the bottom of his thick mustache.

“They’re not security agents,” I say in a light voice.

“How do you know?”

“They don’t have the look.”

“That’s the mark of the best agents,” Dr. Jawad says, his voice laced with dark fatalism. “They must be in the elite branch with the Ministry of Intelligence. What do they call them? The Phantoms. The defense minister can call in a favor from the intelligence bureau and get their best psychopaths on the case—whisk me away in one of their black vans. They’ll have the darker cells and the higher voltage cattle prods.”

I snort into my own beer. This is a ritual of Dr. Jawad’s and mine. Not the paranoia—that’s just his thing—but the end of week happy hour at Byblos, a trendy waterside bar near the Ministry building. Even after my reassignment to Cosmetics, we continue to meet after work here. I won’t let a grievous betrayal get in the way of a cheap drink—or five. And the poor man needs a night out once a week. He’s a married man with two high school-aged daughters, so he doesn’t get out much.

“This isn’t a joke, Manal,” he says with a sour look. “If the minister gets word that we’re in collusion with his popular first wife, one he’s probably hoping will die off soon, we’re going to be the ones who pay for it. Not the Minister of Science, not our director. They always go for the middle tier in the organization. You and I.”

“I’m just flattered to be middle tier at last,” I say. And I am, but it’s more than the ego boost of a promotion. Lines of code and routines spin like whirling dervishes in my mind, strong enough to drown out the loud pop music in the bar and the hum of happy patrons. My fingers itch to pore over the documents Dr. Jawad gave me over the weekend, to start wireframing the first prototype for the active cancer-fighting nanobots. When I studied programming years ago, I just wanted to get out of my parents’ house and earn some income. I never thought I’d be curing cancer, with a side of political intrigue.

Realizing that I won’t indulge his theatrics, Dr. Jawad stops talking and keeps drinking. We’ve been here before. Fights with the wife, work stresses, and general existential malaise—I’ve helped the good doctor through it all, to the point where my salary should include therapist’s fees. Tonight, I help him into the tram car that will take him to Saar Village, his stretch of suburbia, and exit the station with a lightness to my step. Streaming lights pave my way home, reflecting onto the smooth, dark canal water. The air is crisp, the smell of shawarma and hashish smoke perfuming the streets as people gather on sidewalks and balconies, ringing in the weekend.

I’ll spend the night alone, lost in the world of machines smaller than the human eye can see, but drunk with possibility.

We move quickly. It helps that I work day and night, pushing the developers assigned under me to do the same. We test after two weeks and deploy the first release into a cache of nanobots after three. Mrs. Mansouri returns for her first injection days later. Since I’m not a medical professional, I have to paint the scene based on what my friends in nursing tell me. The minister’s wife reclining on a medical bed, clutching an examining robe tight around her shoulders, while a monitor displays a live scan of her body. It contains many layers—press one button to see the skeleton, another to display the circulatory system. Organs, tissue, bone, nerves. All visible with code.

Imagine, then, a nurse tilting her chair back, telling her to relax. A syringe filled with liquid, and in the liquid, thousands of microscopic machines, tiny gods powered by programming. Ready to search for cancerous cells and attack, soldiers on a hilly battlefield of blood and tissue. A needle pierces skin, the soldiers are released. Their path is tracked by a stream of blue light on the monitor, traveling through blood across the body while separate clusters of blue seep into muscle tissue—all of them on a journey to the lungs, where the cancer rages.

Mrs. Mansouri returns for checkup visits and tests. I’m getting my usual coffee and manaqish breakfast on the Ministry’s lobby floor one morning, sinking my teeth into that blissful mix of bread and za’atar, when she passes me. She pauses, recognizing me from that first visit.

“How’s the treatment going?” I ask in a chirpy, loud voice. I’m speaking to the minister’s wife, and everyone within hearing range will know about it.

“I’ll know more today, but it looks like the tumor is shrinking.” She beams, incoming sunlight from the windows emphasizing the laugh lines around her mouth. “My energy has improved as well. Soon, I’ll be able to attend public events, God help us all. And on that note, tell me . . . Dr. Jawad mentioned that you’re also familiar with nanotech that helps with physical appearances, yes?”

An hour later, we sit in a conference room, Mrs. Mansouri outlining her concerns. Dark circles under her eyes, wrinkles on her face, a lackluster shine to her hair. I chew my lip as I take notes, fighting the urge to tell her that she needs none of those things. If her husband wanted to take vacations with coked-out supermodels and have children with immature young woman he could manipulate, that said nothing about her and everything about him. He had robot girlfriends, for heaven’s sake. But I bite back my opinions, letting my pursed lips do the talking. I’m a public servant, as Dr. Jawad loves to remind me, and I’m not paid to opine.

My concerns prove misplaced, however. Sitting in Byblos at the end of another week, I cackle into a plate of baba ghanoush, earning scandalized stares around me, as I watch Mrs. Mansouri on the television over the bar. The Minister for Defense and Veterans Affairs is leading the opening ceremony for this year’s Grand Prix, his first, loyal wife at his side, waving to cheering crowds. She extends an elegant arm out to shake hands, while the minister’s remains pressed at his side. His power is limited to his title—no one reaches for him, begging for a photograph or a smile.

Several bar patrons gasp. Mrs. Mansouri, rumored to be sickly and dying, is radiant, glowing from within. Literally within, as microscopic nanobots go to work on her skin with the same zeal as the cohort attacking her tumor.

“It is wonderful to see you well, Madam,” a reporter says with breathless awe at the conclusion of the formal ceremony. A microphone drone hovers in the air between them. “How are you feeling?”

“Wonderful and dissatisfied at once,” she replies with a sparkling wink at the camera. “Wonderful that my cancer is retreating, thanks to the incredible innovations at the Ministry of Nanotechnology. Without the diligence of their staff, I could have been in a hospital bed right now. They perform miracles. But dissatisfied that our nation’s veterans, who I once served as a government employee myself, don’t have access to the same treatments that I do. Many of them are suffering from similar cancers, having inhaled toxic chemicals from burn pits in the war. I hope the coming parliamentary session will debate the issue and approve funding to expand the nanotechnology program to extend this treatment to them—those who wish to partake, of course.”

The camera shifts from her smiling face to linger on the Defense and Veterans Affairs Minister, her husband. His salt and pepper beard can’t conceal the sickly pallor spreading across his face, the quiver of indignation under his mustache. He opens his mouth, but only spluttering sounds emerge. I laugh again, spewing a chewed carrot stick across the table.

“This is it,” Dr. Jawad says, gesturing to the bartender for another shot. “That cat’s out of the bag, and now we go into a body bag.”

But the black vans with their secret agents don’t come. Instead, we become busy. Public opinion shifts, just enough, and politicians follow. Laws are passed and policies fly down from the Ministry’s top floor like hungry gulls over still water. The program expands. I write code for other types of cancer and different stages of illness. My development team stays late, missing family dinners and school plays. My nanobots become more intelligent and ruthless in their hunt for cancerous cells.

I work late nights, back in my usual uniform of T-shirts and soft pants that accommodate the bloat from late-night pizza runs. The team eats more dinners in the office than at home, coding late into the night. On those late working sessions, energy crackles in the air between us, the kind of energy ignited by a shared purpose. The sense of doing something great.

The entire team is invited to the veterans’ hospital on the southern tip of the island by Mrs. Mansouri. We board a bus with the energy of children on a field trip, eating sweets and taking pictures. The maglev highway gives way to older concrete streets, and then to gravel, as we travel south. Flames pour out of active oil wells as we cross open desert, empty stretches of land that feel like they belong to another place and time. The hospital, like the military base, is at the edge of the island—out of the public’s daily view, easier to ignore. But not today. For once, cameras and eyes turn to the forgotten.

We pass veterans in hospital beds, stopping to chat with several currently receiving the nanotech treatment. Several eyebrows raise when Mrs. Mansouri introduces me as the lead developer, but the soldiers are trained well—they rearrange their faces into polite interest and shake my hand. I thank them for their service, and they thank me for mine. I see hallowed out faces and inhale the sickly, sweet scent of antiseptic and decay, the smell of the dying, but I leave the hospital with a warmth in my cheeks.

Even Dr. Jawad gets into the spirit of the day, although not without a bittersweet note.

“It’s a conflict of interest, don’t you think?” he asks me in a low voice on the walk back to the shuttle. “Being both Minister of Defense and Veterans Affairs? One side is focused on creating soldiers, breaking people down into fighting machines, while the other side tries to put them back together again.”

I sit next to Mrs. Mansouri on the bus ride back to the Ministry. She asks me about my work with an interest beyond the scripted politeness of a politician’s wife. Her questions are probing, built upon a foundation of knowledge about programming and healthcare. She speaks little of herself, shifting the conversation toward her work with veterans. Her dark eyes dance as she speaks of extending the program to refugees and civilians impacted by the region’s burn pits, noting the higher rates of cancer in neighboring countries. Her words are positive, but unease gathers inside me as I take in the dark circles around her eyes, the yellowish undertone to her skin. Her breathing is labored as she talks, her arms unnervingly thin. The healthy pallor from the Grand Prix is gone. Are the cosmetic nanobots not working? Or are they unable to keep up with the cancer spreading across her body? I won’t dare ask her directly about her cancer, but I make a note to bug Dr. Jawad during our next happy hour.

I’m so rapt by the conversation that it takes me a moment to register that the bus has crossed the island, the sand-colored block of the Ministry building rising above a maze of tight roads and white, concrete homes.

A loud cracking sound outside the window snaps me out of my murky thoughts. Startled cries rise throughout the bus.

Before I can turn my head, another loud noise reverberates across the bus. The driver honks the horn, the muscles on his arm taut. Tension spreads like smoke through the confined space, a collective shiver traveling through the passengers.

I gasp. Outside, through the vehicle’s dusty windows, a large crowd gathers. The driver honks again, struggling to keep the vehicle in forward motion, but there are too many bodies congealing the road, blocking the path to the Ministry. A man lunges forward toward the front of the bus, hands slamming against the hood.

“What’s happening?” I gasp. Dread pools in my stomach, thick and heavy like tar. Through a choking surge of adrenaline, I force myself to look out the window, in search of faces. To understand. The protestors’ expressions are tight with anger, all rigid limbs and focused eyes. I meet a young man’s glare and turn away.

“Let’s go,” Dr. Jawad yells, rushing to the front of the bus. He claps the driver’s shoulder, before retreating under the cold scowl his behavior earns.

Next to me, Mrs. Mansouri’s shoulders tense, but she remains in her seat, her face inches away from the window.

“They’re hired protestors,” she says in a soft, wavering voice. “Paid to cause trouble. Keep going.”

I draw in a sharp breath, flooded with doubt. Hired actors are a common accusation wielded by the region’s politicians at any sign of opposition. No criticism can be based on real grievances. But in this case, could she be right?

Either way, we have no other choice but to do as she says. We can’t leave the bus, and we can’t stay still and be overrun. The bus advances at a crawling but steady pace, pushing through the crowd without running over feet. I grip the side of the seat, closing my eyes and drowning in the sound of my own pounding heart. I cling to the sensation of motion beneath me, of the engine rumbling forward. If it stops, my darkest thoughts scream at me, it’s over.

I jolt as warm fingers circle my wrist. Forcing my eyes open, I find the minister’s wife patting my arm with a reassuring smile.

“Everything will be alright,” she says. “You’ll see. This isn’t your time, or mine.”

I inhale audibly, looking back at the crowd, smaller than it first appeared. The pounding on the sides of the bus sounds frightening, but half-hearted. Maybe she’s right, and we’re in the middle of theater. Terrifying theater.

The bus pulls up to the Ministry building in a plume of blue smoke. Security guards with bulletproof vests spill from the doors, firing canisters of tear gas into the crowd. We charge out of the bus and into the shelter of the building. I choke back a sob at the familiar mustiness of the gray lobby, with its food cart and fake plants. A headache creeps up the base of my neck, a release of tension. Nearby, several colleagues mutter prayers.

Outside, the security guards get the upper hand, the crowd dissolving. A helicopter hovers over the scene.

Mrs. Mansouri paces back and forth, fuming.

“This will be all over the media,” she says to me. A dark glint shines in her eyes. “International news, peddling a false story about this country. Do you know how many letters I’ve received in the last week from families who want their loved ones to receive this care? How many calls from charity groups around the island? But no . . . they’ll only show this. They’ll only tell one story about us, the one they always tell.”

She sways, pressing a hand against a nearby armchair to steady herself. Dr. Jawad, apoplectic with shock moments earlier, springs into action.

“Come lie down,” he says, steering her toward the elevator. “You’re due for another scan.”

But alarm reverberates through my chest at the resignation on her face. She allows herself to be steered, but the fluorescent lighting overhead catches every line in her tired features, the dullness in her eyes.

I call to her across the hallway. “I’m coming out with an upgrade next month,” I say. Heat spreads to my cheeks. I sound like a child showing off a crayon drawing.

She turns to me with a sad, polite smile.

“Tell me,” she says.

Through the waning adrenaline, I muster some of my old confidence—the same confidence that made me prop my feet on Dr. Jawad’s shiny desk the day I met her.

“Machine learning,” I say. “Instead of constantly reprogramming the nanobots to look for every new thing the doctors think of, we’ll make them think for themselves. Get smarter, develop their own rules, and make their own decisions based on what they learn in a human body. It sounds scary, I know, but we’ll test it and make it work. It’s the future.”

Dr. Jawad shoots me a frustrated look, but Mrs. Mansouri’s face beams.

“I’m sure it is, Manal,” she says. “You’ll make many people’s lives better and longer.”

She turns and follows Dr. Jawad into the elevator.

Several weeks pass after the incident at the Ministry. That’s what we call it—the incident. We have no proof that the minister bribed a crowd to cause trouble, except that no similar protests followed. Not in the impoverished villages around the island, not after Friday sermons. The public, if the media was to be believed, is becoming cautiously receptive to the idea of nanotechnology, after seeing the success in the veterans’ hospital. Positive stories and counterarguments start to dampen some of the conspiracy theories on chat rooms. But like anything new, many don’t know what to think about nanotech, teetering between hope and fear. Its support will wax and wane like an evening tide.

Mrs. Mansouri divorces the minister. Or the minister divorces her. No one willing to go on record knows the exact details. Feverish gossip flies around the Ministry at the news, accompanied by the terrible realization that Mrs. Mansouri, as a regular civilian, will no longer be able to receive treatment with us. The pilot doesn’t yet extend that far, despite her best efforts.

Anxiety gnaws at me from the inside, until I can no longer cope with the constant knots in my stomach. I go numb. I dissolve into a state of emotional permafrost, everything cold and distant. I go through the motions of daily life. I run in the morning, I eat breakfast, and my body stills for work meetings. But food tastes chalky on my tongue and each day blends into the next, draped in a heavy, invisible fog.

And then, the fog lifts and the anxiety climbs, triumphant, back into my chest.

I grab the newspaper every morning on the way to the office, spilling coffee over the pages as I scour for news about her. A recent picture, a paragraph. Any clue to her current health—whether the cancer or my nanobots are winning the battle. Rumors fly that she’s left the island, flown overseas to Hong Kong or Paris for treatment. I don’t believe it. She took pride in our local potential. And she wouldn’t allow herself to be driven away. The divorce was not a retreat, or even a concession to the minister’s staged protest—it was an emancipation, a decision to walk away after setting a course that even the minister couldn’t redirect.

Rumors eventually reach us that she’s dead. That her children held a private funeral, knowing a public burial would invite both supporters and the minister’s detractors, a circus they wanted to avoid. I don’t want to believe it, but I still wear black to work the next day. It would be like her, to face death with quiet dignity. The people on this island loved her, but few of us really knew her—it’s fitting, I suppose, that she’d leave us with a touch of mystery surrounding her death. At Byblos, I raise my wine in a silent toast to her, wherever she is.

“We should have moved faster,” I say to Dr. Jawad. “On the machine learning. It could have overturned her cancer.”

“Possibly,” the doctor replies with a shrug. I turn to him in shock, the words sharper than a physical slap. I expected reassurance, not a confirmation of my worst fears. My fingers twitch against the urge to hurl my drink in his dejected face.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he says. “That’s not a criticism. We’ll never know if we could have done something differently. But frankly, I don’t think she expected to beat the cancer. Or at least, that would have been a nice benefit, but not her ultimate goal. She wanted to get us off the ground, to benefit others. To change how this country sees nanotechnology. And she did. And maybe, just maybe, she also wanted to get a last dig at her useless husband,” he adds with a sly wink.

“You’re ridiculous,” I say, but glance over my shoulder to see if anyone overheard our conversation. The incident on the bus changed Dr. Jawad, and me. He openly mocks the government, while I mind my words. I’m playing a long game. I must be tactical.

“You know, you weren’t taken off the Preventative Medicine beat because you weren’t good enough,” Dr. Jawad says.

“I know,” I reply. “You all wanted to put me under a more traditional, feminine role and let the boys shine on the heavy-hitting stuff.”

“No, Manal.” Dr. Jawad leans toward me, his breath thick with alcohol, but his eyes sober, unusually serious. “You cared too much. Took every failure personally. A number of us, your colleagues, saw you as a burnout risk, and you’re too talented to lose. So you were put on a project with lower stakes.”

I lower my glass, chewing on his words. There’s truth in them, but an incomplete truth. I could have burned myself out, but I also may have left if I hadn’t been assigned to Mrs. Mansouri’s case. She unlocked my potential, as well as a streak of resiliency. I’ve seen what it means to fight for a cause, even if you’re not there to see it won. I’ve seen that it takes time to turn vision into reality.

I have time, but I need more. I see now that time is a finite thing, like the glass compressed under my white-knuckled grip, and I must hold on to every second I’ve been given and not let go.

I order some shawarma to go and ask for the check. Dr. Jawad gives me a bleary smile but assures me he’s sober enough to get to the tram car alone, shuffling toward the exit. Tapping my fingers, I overhear the conversation next to me along the bar.

“There’s no way the minister’s wife would have taken that nano-stuff and filmed herself with veterans if it had viruses,” a man says with heated hand gestures at his date. “If anything, the minister assassinated her—she had too much popularity, and probably knew all of his secrets.”

“I’m not saying she was involved in it,” the woman replies. “I’m sure she meant well. But what if the government used those nanobots to spread her cancer faster? And the veterans were just a sick experiment—you know, to create a perfect assassination tool. I wouldn’t put anything past them.”

My fingers still, before I slam my hands on the bar counter. The couple spins around in alarm, and I draw eyes across the bar. Heat crawls across my face, but I clear my throat.

“I work for the Ministry,” I say in a loud voice. “I worked with Mrs. Mansouri. And while I can’t speak for the entire government on the island, I can say that we did everything we could to keep her alive. We could have done more, with proper funding and time, but no one wanted to give us that—including the government. She was kind, she was brave, and despite everything she went through, she saw the best in everything and everyone. If she were here and heard your stupid conspiracy theories . . . ”

My voice fades. I don’t wait to see their reaction—if I shamed them, or only fueled them to argue further. It doesn’t matter—I spoke up, at long last. My jaw tightens, but a surge of grim satisfaction warms my chest. I stand before hot tears escape my eyes, grab my food, and leave them to their drinks.

Outside the bar, the air is cool, and I breathe a little easier. Lights dance over the canal’s promenade, the glittering skyscrapers of downtown Manana winking across the bay. Mosques, business offices, and villages stretch beyond it, a complex tapestry of past and future. One that I must build upon, if I’m to make something new.

Author profile

Nadia Afifi is a science fiction author whose short fiction has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Abyss & Apex magazine. Her novels include The Sentient and The Emergent, with the third novel in her trilogy scheduled for release in March 2023. She grew up in the Middle East but current calls Denver, Colorado home. When she isn’t writing, she loves to hike, cook and get lost in a challenging jigsaw puzzle.

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