Ilyas’ Egg

 In Short Fiction, Stories

NeuroLog, December 5, 2231, 12:45p.m.

It’s been a week since I discovered evidence of the earliest immigration to the solar system. I mean, the research isn’t really conclusive. It’s dead, of course. It’s not even really a thing. It’s just traces of alloys that aren’t naturally occurring and that happen to be, theoretically, quite useful for interstellar travel. And then there are the complex carbons that might have been blood, bone, skin, hair and… really there’s no reason it should be any of those things, if it was really anything to begin with. The remains, if they are remains, are hundreds of millions of years old. But I’m told people are already talking across the solar system, even on Earth, about the alien I discovered in a boulder on Venus.

This isn’t why I’m standing in front of the green velvet curtain framing the entrance to Zuhrah Orbital Station’s mosque. This isn’t why I’m about to attend jummah for the first time in seven years. Haven’t been since before I moved from ChandOrb. The rote order of people lining up, shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe, bored me out of worship years ago. Now, however, the sight of orderly, predictable rituals is a welcome and calming relief.

I slip off my shoes and step onto the fractal-patterned blue carpet. Golden Venusian clouds scatter their light through the auto-tinting glass dome that crowns the mosque. The structure has traditional cues drawn from classical Earth mosques, like beautifully illegible Arabic calligraphy adorning the walls. The almost-invisible dome lets in stars and exposes worshipers before the heavens in a way that no mosques of Earth could.

The thought of Earth feels heavy. Being here reminds me of the last time I lay on the carpet of the ChandOrb mosque, praying up toward Earth to bring me down to the paradise I’d dreamt of. To feel the weight of my limbs at a natural 9.8 G’s. The failure of my third appeal to the Earth Immigration Commission permanently cut that tether and left this newly minted doctor of archaeology adrift. So I had quietly said my salaams  sneaking on to an atmospheric research vessel. I’d planned to die falling through the silent warmth of white clouds. But fate sometimes takes the scenic route. 

I sit and face the impermanent mihrab. The qibla direction changes, not only throughout the year as Venus and Earth swing in their dance around the sun, but numerous times a day as the station tumbles around Venus. Scholars decreed decades ago that off-world prayers are perfectly acceptable without facing Mecca. But still our communities competitively research and design processes and mechanisms to find the qibla, always tying worship back to Earth, no matter how impractical. 

I yawn at the thought.

Which is a good sign. I’m tiring. Adrenaline from this morning’s “offer” to move my lab to Earth is dissipating. Geodetic owns my lab and could take my boulder with or without me. But they know they might as well take it to the Sun if I don’t come along, so their hostile takeover requires finesse. 

Geodetic can pull strings at the Earth Population Commission for my staff and their families, but their puppetry has limits. Future children are not part of the deal. So, it’s either parenthood or a boulder. Unless one day I earn the literally astronomical amount of money needed to get a flight off of Earth (or pay off the EPC).

I stroke the carpet pile, drawing arcs from one knee to another, trying to block the memory of the fine-grain smoothness of Geodetic’s paper offer letter resonating from my fingertips. This unnecessary extravagance was hand-delivered by an employee sent from Earth. I look around at the grey uniforms and purple badges gathering in neat rows around me. A third of the station’s residents are Geodetic employees, so anyone of them could have dropped off the letter. But I suppose none of them are as charming and handsome as Roberto-san.

I kept my face taut with Roberto. I only glanced at his deep brown eyes once, but it felt like staring into two diamond-shaped flood lamps. My eyes wandered down his frame, feigning recovery. I’m not used to seeing someone with such definition to their limbs. Artificial-grav isn’t quite enough for the nuances of muscle tissue. There are nutritional and exercise solutions to this problem, but I couldn’t be bothered with such things even before our drones recovered the boulder from the surface. 

I tilt my head back and prop myself up on my palms. A lump of regret makes it hard to swallow down my stretched neck as I remember refusing Roberto’s dinner invitation. It’s been months since I’ve had other partners. But, if I cancel on Zhumeena during her peak ovulation days again, I imagine I’ll find myself in here more often, seeking salvation. 

“Brothers and sisters,” the voice of the imam is shrill, “not much is said about unearthly lifeforms in ours, or any old faith.” The white thobe that hangs off his large frame is translucent enough to let his purple Geodetic badge show at his waist.  “Much of what is said deals with angels, demons and djinns.” A dead angel isn’t comforting, and I suppose evidence of demons and djinns is downright frightening to most. 

People are pathetic. 

It’s been awhile since I’ve articulated that. I shudder with adolescent memories from ChandOrb, watching arguments of religious zeal that were really desperate pining for Earth. Why debate the sighting of a new moon on Earth, when the moon’s surface was literally beneath our feet? I preferred the solitude of my bedroom, away from the blue glow of Earth’s oceans that dispersed into the ChandOrb mosque’s glass dome. I’d lean against our indigo walls and hum verses, ignoring parts that put Earth at the spiritual center of the universe. I couldn’t stand that God was meant more for those down there. Or that Earth wasn’t meant for me. 

The iqamah begins. The shuffling of people bumping into rows reminds me of the mosque visits I hated as a child . Each time I questioned any Earth centric ritual, I’d be shown a sharp hand in the air that never resulted in a real slap, but dulled me to indifferent obedience nonetheless. So I’d bury myself in thought and let my body follow the crowd. Until I met AImam. 

I was enamoured by AImam’s story; nir discovery of religion and nir escape from persecution on Earth. Whenever I questioned any religious teaching, AImam didn’t raise a hand or lecture me. Ne’d just tell me a story. 

I haven’t thought about AImam for years, but when I close my eyes I can see every detail of wear on nir hundred and fifty year old face. AImam used to maintain nir prosthetic skin with makeup to help people forget what ne was. On Earth, humans are obsessed with trying to mask the artificial, but Offworlders are used to bare metal utility. So ne began to let the prosthetic skin wear to expose the regenerative beige plastic that padded nir body.

Once, in the midst of one especially broody teenage episode, I asked nem, “Would you return to Earth if you could?” Despite letting nir eyebrows wear away, I could see them arch invisibly. 

“Earth?” Ne sighed and feigned a smile and wave at a worshiper who was leaving the mosque. “I don’t spend much time thinking of my years on Earth.”

“But you do spend time thinking of Earth,” I said, gesturing at the clock tuned to Mecca time and the prayer schedule that glowed next to it. 

“We do still mimic Earth’s cycles, of course.” AImam looked out the window over the Earth-laced horizon of the moon. “Is it wrong to carry our legacy forward?”

“But, the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon aren’t timeless objects. They each have their expiration dates. If we escape this solar system, we escape the timelessness of this religion.”

“Your point, Ilyas?”

“Everything would just make more sense if we were down there.”

AImam laughed at this. “Ilyas, if my time on Earth taught me anything, it’s that nothing naturally makes sense, no matter where you are. You piece together the best story you can and do the least possible harm to survive.”

This wasn’t comforting, but AImam wasn’t always concerned with comforting. 

“Ilyas, do you believe we’re all descended from Adam?”

“I think we all have common ancestors.” I preferred to think of the story as allegory simplified for human consumption.

“Take it literally for a moment. Allah addresses ‘children of Adam,’ not ‘children of Adam on Earth.’ Are they so distinct?”

“Maybe not today. But getting on and off Earth is so restricted, it’s only a matter of time, a few thousand years maybe, before our gene pools completely diverge. Will we all still be Adam’s children then?”

“So our departure from Earth means Adam has disowned us?” 

I didn’t have an answer for nem then. Nor do I now. Prayer is over and the mosque is emptying. Despite the years of neglecting to pray, the motions are so mechanical that I followed through physically without engaging mentally or spiritually, even for an instant. 

I wonder if Adam knew how many children he’d have, would he think it wise to try to advise us all at once?

#

“Ziddi. Ilyas had a child-like way of getting what he wanted. His tantrums were quiet and calm, so you’d never know it unless you were up close. Once you were, you could feel his heartbeats compressing the air between you, suffocating you. When you’d look at him and plead to let it go, to let you breathe, he’d look at everything but you. You’d want to be seen so badly so you could just breathe. So you’d cave and give him whatever he wanted.” – Interview with Zhumeena Moloyana, May 19, 2251.

#

NeuroLog, December 5, 2231, 8:32p.m.

Zhumeena’s lying with her back against the bed and legs flat up against the synthetic wood planks of our headboard.

“You know there’s no research that indicates lying like that makes any difference.” I say as I roll toward her to rest my head on her rosy brown torso.

“Is there research saying it doesn’t work?” She responds, moving her right hand to cradle and stroke my head. 

“Yeah, here, see?” I say, flicking research thumbnails to her contacts. 

“It’s okay, it feels good to stretch anyways,” she says, waving the research out of the way without looking.

I laugh and kiss her hand. The best part about Zhumeena’s defiance of the universe is its bluntness. My defiance is quiet, hidden and usually gets me into trouble. Hers saved my life once. 

I don’t remember much about her from childhood, other than that she was one of the older girls who people would whisper about at dinner parties. The one who left to travel the solar system, alone and unmarried. So I didn’t immediately recognize her when she found me ready to blow myself out of the airlock of that atmospheric research vessel.

“When was the last time you breathed?” she asked casually through the intercom.

I turned around and clutched onto the walls to see her peering through the airlock chamber windows. “What?”

“I mean really breathed. Like the ship’s oxygen sensors would notice and freak out.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how-”

“I’m joking.” She looked my bright green emergency walk suit up and down. “You know from here, you might even drift into a shallow orbit for a bit. It’d be a pretty view.” She released the inner doors and tiptoed into the airlock on her sock covered feet. “The problem is you might starve to death before reaching the surface.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think-”

“I’ve thought about it. But, the odds of plunging into the ocean and being lost forever were too high. I’m only going out that way if I get to be buried in a small crater of my own making.”

That made me laugh. Hysterically. Until I was on the floor wavering between cries and chuckles. At some point Zhumeena managed to pull me into the hallway and close off the chamber. 

“Where are you from?” 

I was still manic, but I managed to squeeze out “ChandOrb.” 

“Thought you looked familiar.” She handed me a bottle of water and as I gulped it down my dry throat, I fixated on her animated fingernails, which swirled red and yellow. “Maybe it’s time to get away for awhile?”

I looked up at her eyes. She was watching me intently, though I’m now sure she was probably also keeping an eye on her research results delivered to the periphery of her pink tinted contacts. 

“Where would I go?”

“Well, what do you do?” she said, tucking her black hair behind her ears.

“I just got my PhD-”

“Oh nice-”

“-in Archeology.”

She rolled her eyes and snatched her water bottle back. “For the life of me I can’t figure out why off-world universities waste money on-” she looked back at me. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright, it’s true,” I said.

“But, you must have some geology and minerals background then, right?”

“Soil spectrology was my secondary field.”

“Listen, our research is based on Zuhrah. Geodetic runs labs there as well. I’d be happy to put you in touch with some friends there.”

“Venus? I’ve never been outside the Moon’s orbit,” I said, feeling nauseous at the thought.

Zhumeena lifted up my chin to look at me closely. “Well, maybe it’s time to move beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity?”

“Thanks, but I should get back to my parents.”

“Sure, but if you change your mind, we’re set to leave from ChandPort at 7 a.m. in three days.”

It was an excruciating three days. I can’t remember the sequence and content of every moment, but I’d say there was a days worth of arguing with my parents, a days worth of arguing with friends, half a day of packing and half a day of hovering around the mosque, uncertain of how to say goodbye to AImam. I never did figure that out. I kept my face forward when I walked by the mosque on my way to ChandPort. I arrived hours early, before the ship had docked. When Zhumeena arrived she was laughing. 

“Here to heed the call of the wild?”

“What?”

“Nevermind, hop on while I talk the captain into taking a stowaway.”

“Zhumeena.” She turned around and softened her smile. “Thanks,” I said.

What I had to thank her for was the coming year. I’d wake shaking every night and call her, rambling about how I needed to get back home. She’d come to my place with halwa and two spoons to tell me stories of her adventures in the asteroid belt until I’d fall asleep. It went on like this for weeks until one day she kissed me and said that I’d be much easier to manage if I moved in with her. We were the closest things to family we had. Which is, I suppose, why we were each so anxious to grow it.

Now I look at her and wonder if a child would really make us less lonely. 

“I went for Jummah today.”

“Your new-found celebrity got you seeking a centered peace?” she says, winking.

“Not exactly. Geodetic sent a rep to my lab today.”

“Oh, nice, here to see if your egg has hatched?” She knows how uncomfortable I am being suddenly so important, so she speaks about my discovery as playfully as possible.

“He came from Earth.”

“How lavish…” She lifts herself up onto her elbows, pressing my nose into her rolling skin.

“They’ve offered to buy out our other funders and triple our budget in the process.”

“That’s fantastic! Would you be okay-”

“They want to move the lab to Earth. Not just the lab, all of us. They’ve offered a full relocation.”

“Earth?” She pushes my head onto the bed and rotates to sitting position to reach for her shirt. “How?”
“They must have some strings to pull in the quotas.”

She’s silent as she studies my face. “No, Ilyas.”

“What?”

“That place is a prison.”

“It’s not a prison, Zhumi. It’s our home.”

“Ilyas, you’ve never set foot on that planet.”

“I’ve never set foot on any planet. And neither have you.” I stand up to pull on my pants and go over to the mirror. “Look, I haven’t said yes.”

“But you haven’t said no either.”

“I wanted to get your opinion.”

“There’s a reason our families left generations ago.”

“Yeah, because someone offered them jobs and a better way of life,” I say, widening my eyes and glancing at the floor to somehow emphasize my point.

“And why couldn’t they get those things on Earth?”

“Well, it wasn’t the paradise then that it is now.”

“A paradise no one can afford to leave?”

“You know the ecosystem, it’s-”

“Oh please, you’re telling me they still can’t figure out how to manage the ecosystem?”

“They can but-”

“I don’t care. I am not going. I won’t…” She looks down at her torso and wraps her arms around her belly.

“It’s been a year Zhumi. Nothing’s worked.” Despite the fact that every doctor has said nothing is wrong. “If we were meant to be parents the old-fashioned way, then we would already be.” 

Zhumeena walks over to the portal window in the far corner of our bedroom. She lowers the dimming to let some of the Venusian reflected sunlight in. “I won’t leave this view.”

I roll on to the plush grey carpet. “I have to go, Zhumi. That boulder belongs on Earth and I belong with that boulder.”

“Would you really leave me here? Alone?” she says, gazing at the hazy swirl of golden clouds.

“Would you really let me leave? Alone?” I say, staring at the orange glowing ceiling.

“Oh, you wouldn’t be alone, would you?” She slams the portal shade button and walks toward the bathroom. “You’d have your egg to hatch.” 

I don’t bother responding as I hear a high-pitched moan spraying water onto her body. I can’t argue. 

#

NeuroLog, December 5, 2231, 11:03pm

I should be in a static suit. I suspended a lab tech for one week without pay for failing to properly seal her left boot to the pale blue fabric of her suit’s cuffs. But I’m here, legs spread across the floor, possibly high, leaning against the boulder, completely unsterilized. Molecules of my breath and skin floating into crevices on the boulder, joining pieces of some long-dead creature that may have never existed.

 I’m staring at the pickaxe that dominates the Geodetic logo stamped with metal sheen atop their offer letter. Pickaxes are crude tools. Ugly and threatening, but necessary to birth my profession. It’s in this way, and not in its innate relation to mineral mining, that it represents an Earth-based entity. The ugly and threatening thing that birthed us all. 

Is that what I’d become as a parent? A tool that bears down on a child until it’s grown and ready to face the world on its own? Is that what parenting is really like? Do we grow a kid physically, meal by meal, atom by atom, only to chisel down their personas into functional pieces deemed valuable to some entity like Geodetic?

I tilt my head up and let it rest against the rough stone. “What were you?” I say aloud, frightening myself a bit as I hear the words reverberate off the lab’s grey walls tinged yellow by the boulder’s amber hue. There’s no response from the lifeless object, because I know I asked the wrong question. 

“Why did you leave home?” This time my question settles into the rock. But ultimately I’m left buried under the hum of the air circulators. Maybe because it’s nothing. Or maybe, after all this time, the reasons don’t seem to make sense anymore. So I pose one last question, “Do you regret leaving?” 

I press my ear against the rock and close my eyes, convincing myself that it’s possible for some essence of consciousness to have survived where all other constructs of life failed. That some invisible energy will emerge to connect these decayed remnants to a tangible form to deliver me a decision. Nothing happens.

I open my eyes and roll my head side to side, attempting to scan this half of the rocky thirty foot circumference. Flakes of dried Venusian dirt crumple into my dyed red hair like eggshells and remind me of Zhumeena’s final words to me this evening. 

She’s a reasonable person. Pragmatic, but precise in the way a terraforming scientist needs to be. Her motto, “every atom has its place,” affirms her belief that her atoms do not belong on Earth. 

It’s usually a nuisance, her motto. A way to chide me for my inability to keep the house organized. But, it repeats in my head as I stare at a jagged end jutting out near the top of the boulder, six feet above me. The rest of this side is smooth, but this piece juts out like a flaw. Every atom has its place, but sometimes someone’s got to pick them up and put them there. 

So why would a creature capable of traversing interstellar space, come to think their atoms belonged on the harsh Venusian wasteland? Every system has these ridiculous planets. If we attract tourists to our system, it’s not for Venus, Mars, or the gas giants. And certainly not Mercury. Earth is our beautiful anomaly. The anchor for our system’s tourism industry, if there ever were one. 

And so, the atoms in this boulder don’t belong on Venus, or Zuhrah. They belong on Earth. Which is where I’m convinced this alien intended to go. And if my atoms didn’t belong on Earth, it wouldn’t have been my team that discovered the boulder.

There’s a line at the bottom of the letter that begs me to sign, but I don’t own a pen. What else will Geodetic neglect to anticipate? My fingers caress the edge of the paper. Despite the soft flimsiness of the material, the edge has an attitude. It’s rough and ridged, like microscopic saw teeth. I’ve heard the expression “paper cut” before, but never thought it’s origins were so literal. I line my index finger to the top corner of the page and let it prick the soft tip. Nothing. But I wonder if I slide —

Fucking-tree-lined-Earth that hurts. But it did the trick. I hold my shaking finger like a stylus and let it hover above the signature line. Is that enough blood? I squeeze from base to tip and let the red drip on to the cream colored surface. I only get through Ilyas before my blood clots. So I slice open my middle and ring finger-tips to get through the entirety of Moloyana Qureshi.

I slide the letter back into the envelope and stand up. Perhaps it’d be a good gesture to hand deliver it to Geodetic’s courteous courier. 

#

“I swear I wasn’t the one doing the seducing. I’m really good at desexualizing my professional acquaintances. But Ilyas broke through that. He hid his dominant nature behind this deceptive layer of naivete, so when you leaned in condescendingly close to explain something you were trapped. And I think Zhumeena would agree that being trapped there was exhilarating. You never knew if he was getting ready to adore you or berate you and that was exciting.” – Interview with Roberto-san Salvadoray, July 12, 2253

#

NeuroLog, December 6, 2231, 4:39a.m.

Someone’s shuffling in Roberto’s dimly lit hotel room and it’s woken me up. I can feel Roberto’s warm torso pressed against my back, so I’m startled to see a silhouette leaning toward me from the corner a few meters away. I want to jump and scream, but my body won’t respond. 

I watch, stiff, as the head of the silhouette snakes closer. Its body remains stationary in the corner. As its neck extends, waving left and right, up and down, I fall into a calm hypnotic trance. When the head approaches my face, I can hear it saying something. The words are far from comprehensible. But, they aren’t the raspy snake-like noises I’d expect given the creature’s movements. It’s more like soft angelic strumming of a harp, dripping into my ears slowly. There are four distinct notes, repeated in a consistent rhythm. The notes stiffen into the harsh edges of syllables. The edges form shards of sounds that pierce through my understanding to say, “Left to start again. Regret is in your hands.” 

My muscles relax. My limbs wake. I reach out to caress the silhouetted head and feel blank, smooth glass, curved in the shape of a face. It rests some of its weight on my palm and I feel its breathless sigh. 

“I will bring you into the world,” I whisper in the darkness.

The creature’s neck retracts slowly, waving right to left, down and up, pulling its notes out of my ears as it returns to its body in the corner. A warm breeze rolls over from the creature to me. My eyes dry and close. Sleep takes hold before I can open them again.

#

“I don’t have much to say about his legacy. AImam once told me his curiosity was inspiring, but without proper grounding, he’d simply float off the path. I can understand that. In a certain light these cages fool us into believing we’re birds who should be set free into the vastness of space. But, I hear caged birds rarely survive in the wild.” – Interview with Pouran Moloyana, June 29, 2254.

#

NeuroLog, December 9, 2231, 2:17p.m.

Zhumeena and I have spoken very little after that night. We have sex on schedule, but we exchange little more than practicalities. I saw her walk by my lab yesterday morning as the movers worked. She said nothing; didn’t even look angry. 

I’ve tried to leave subtle clues that I’d like her to come with me to Earth, but she knows I’m better at convincing her to do what I want than she me, so she keeps her distance. I haven’t spent much time on it, honestly. I know she’ll come around on her own. And besides, I’ve been too preoccupied with moving logistics for the lab equipment and personnel to deal with her throwing a tantrum. 

I’m spending my last day wandering around the station, revisiting all my favorite vista decks. I know I’ll likely never again see the stars without the filter of Earth’s atmosphere in between, but I’m not terribly upset by this. The artificial recreations of such things are awe inspiring enough for me. But still, I ought to savor the sights. 

The mosque is on my way to the departure deck, so I walk by to offer a prayer before setting off. When I approach the mosque, prayers have already started. I watch as the rows of people bend to kneel and I realize there’s nothing more the mosque can offer me. 

So I continue on to the departure area. I look around, knowing I’ll see Zhumi, bags packed, waiting to leave with the usual “I just don’t want to fight with you anymore” look in her eyes. But, when the final boarding call comes she is still nowhere to be found. I’m surprised. I thought she’d at least come to say goodbye. What kind of wife would be so… 

It’s fine–opportunity awaits me on Earth. Which is something I’ve thought surprisingly little of. I’ve gone through my accommodations, but I’ve thought very little of the life that awaits me. Will I be met with open arms, or will the people grimace as I awkwardly misplace words around their customs? I take a seat and flip through the Geodetic welcome materials, as I’m sure they’d address this. They don’t. 

When the shuttle pulls back from the station I look out the window and see Zhumeena standing in the observation deck, staring directly at me. She’s wearing that lime green floral dress I bought her when we had just started dating. I know she knows I have trouble keeping my hands off her when she wears it. My fingertips itch knowing I’ll never help her out of it again. The dress’ puffy shoulders exaggerate her small sloping frame. Its neckline is high, but an elastic band hugs her just above her stomach, gently outlining the curves of her chest and hips.

Her hands are crossed just below her belly. Something about this stance seems off. Zhumeena usually stands sure footed, arms at her side or back. Is she finally showing me she’s distraught? 

I zoom into her face. She’s looking directly at me. Her eyes are free from anger and sadness. There’s no smile on her lips, but no frown either. Her face seems confident or stoic. I can’t read her and that’s rare. 

I look back down at her arms and now that I’m zoomed in I can tell I was mistaken–they aren’t crossed. They’re gently wrapped around her torso as if she’s cradling something.

I feel every spare drop of blood rush to my cheeks, as if my body understands her message before my mind. Zhumeena’s blank face is now split in two. Half smirk of pride from a victorious nemesis; half genuine smile from a well-meaning friend. She slowly raises an arm and waves as I see the glow of the flip engines begin to reflect off the station.

I slam my palms on the cold curved window, but before I can say a word I’m violently thrown back into my seat. The flip drive pulls my life up by the trunk as it slingshots around the horizon of Venus, with no concern for the gentle unweaving my roots need from their surroundings. My gut wrenches as I feel every root that clings too tightly tear apart. The frayed remains lash out in spasms during the entire week-long ride to Earth, desperate to find a new embrace, refusing to take food as a substitute. But I’ll come to forget the attachments those torn tendrils gripped so loyally on Zuhrah. When I feel the pull of Earth’s gravity and the sweetness of its soil, I’ll regrow what I need and fill the gaps of my past.

Sameem Siddiqui is a writer currently living in Berkeley, CA. He enjoys writing speculative fiction about migration, South Asian ancestry, Muslim heritage, gender, and family structure in near future societies. Some of Sameem’s favorite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler and Haruki Murakami. When he’s not writing, Sameem enjoys dancing with his toddler, watching 90’s Star Trek, and tinkering in the music industry. You can find him on Twitter @s_meems.

Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash

Creator Spotlight:
Sameem Siddiqui
Author of “Ilyas’ Egg”

1) What inspired you to write this story?

Last year I was visiting family in Pakistan and I joined a few of them on a walk to the mosque for jummah (Friday afternoon prayers). At some point during the sermon, instead of paying attention, I started wondering about the profound effect leaders have on religious communities and it struck me that an AI based leader could tailor its teachings to a community or individual at a scale that humans couldn’t. So I jotted this idea down as “Short story about an Android imam” and forgot about it for a few weeks. However, when I returned to the States and began trying to build a story around this idea, the core theme began to shift.

The fact that I was visiting Pakistan when the idea came about probably unconsciously influenced me, given how central immigration became to the story. I’ve reflected a lot over the last few years about the permanence of multigenerational migration in my ancestry. It’s made me wonder a lot about how what migration gives you and what it takes away is felt for generations. So eventually, I think that’s what really inspired me and what I really needed to write about. But I’ll definitely come back to AImam in other stories, because I can’t resist exploring the ethical ramifications of AI in organized religion.

2) What do you hope readers take from this story?

One major piece of feedback I got on this story was that there were too many complex themes in too small of a space. While I took this feedback and eventually narrowed to scope more on immigration, I had trouble decoupling love, parenthood, identity and economy from the decision to migrate. All these themes are deeply linked, so I needed them there to convey the depth of such decisions.

All that said, I’m more curious to hear and be inspired by what readers really do take from the story.

3) To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?

At least 4 major edits – the original story was written in third person, past tense. Then I made it narrated from Ilyas’ daughters perspective, but written so you wouldn’t realize that until the end. Then – after some amazing feedback – I rewrote the whole thing as first person present tense. From there I went through a few rounds of workshops and did more iterative edits rather than major overhauls. Additionally, writing for me is like pulling teeth, so the original draft probably took me 3-4 months to complete.

I went through 4 rejections on this story and I’m so lucky I did, because the last rejection came in just a few days before the Euphoria submission window opened!

My main advice: writing isn’t a solitary activity at all – find your writing community, love them and let them love you.

4) Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.

I’m always behind on what people should be reading, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask this question. But, honestly the Levar Burton Reads podcast is how I’ve gotten up to speed on a lot of contemporary authors that have become favorites for me, like Charlie Jane Anders, Jaymee Goh, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Ken Liu. I’m always excited about genre-bending writers who subvert rather than succumb to genre tropes and many of the authors featured in this podcast do this beautifully.

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