by Sid Jain
The mushroom mycelia sundering in the pale, hot fermentation medium reminded Hanifa of her apartment building melting in Old Delhi: when concrete flowed like lava and spilled her life onto the streets.
“Hani, you with me?”
Hani blinked twice. “Yes, Gary.”
She stepped away from the sightglass, away from her memories. She was here, now, contained by the blistered grey walls of Mycagen Foods, in Durham, North Carolina. Here, the air didn’t slough the skin off newborns in their crib.
Gary, her night shift supervisor, rapped on his handheld tablet with his four fingers impatiently. “We don’t have all night, Hanifa.”
Well, Gary, she thought, learn to wait as I have. I’ve been waiting to be American for years. We all have our vigils to keep.
Hani limped around the various addition ports of the fifteen-thousand-liter bioreactor. Trumpet mushroom mycelia grew inside, developing flavor, performing an alchemy of fermentation and soup-making that would eventually become packets of meaty mushroom salami.
He peered over his safety glasses low on his nose, silver mustache twitching, reading their Standard Operating Procedure. “Hanifa, open valve-25, close valve-24, and start the pump. Verify.”
She wanted to check the screen in his hand, so that she could visually confirm the instructions he’d read to her were correct, but Gary was a head taller and held the tablet like it was the announcement card for an awards show.
She stood on the tippy-toes of her steel-toed shoes but had to come back down. Her recycled plastic refugee camp prosthetic was weak; her original leg was gone, crushed by a support beam during the nuclear melting in Old Dehli.
“Okay, opening -25 and closing -24.” Hani touched the valves as she said it. Audible verification and tactile confirmation, backups upon backups. All to ensure they didn’t do it wrong, costing the company millions—and for Hani, a chance to convert from a temporary resource to a full-time technician.
“That’s correct. Open -25 and—hmm.” Gary tilted his head, scratching his bare chin with a gloved hand, something that he absolutely shouldn’t do. “Leave -24 open for now. The coagulant’s a new step for this batch, so let me check if the procedure’s still up-t’date about that. You never know since they fired the tech writers. Just open -25 and start the pump.”
Hani broke a sweat. Gary had wanted to work with her on this operation, this being her first week on the job, to get a feel for how she worked. An audition. He tried to show his expertise at every turn, as if this manufacturing operation was held together by the force of his will. She was doing her part. He should do his: follow the damn procedure.
She opened valve-25 and did not close valve-24, which made her leg ache at the seam where flesh met prosthetic.
“Pump started,” she gritted out, praying that Gary knew what he was talking about.
There was no signage to show what valve-24 pumped into the bioreactor; otherwise, she could’ve figured out for herself if it had to be closed or open. In Delhi, Hani was a doctorate-wielding phytochemist. In America, she was adrift.
But she’d claw her way back. If starting all over again on the bottom floor was what she had to do here to reconstitute the flotsam of her life, then by Allah, she’d do it.
“Gary, why isn’t -24 closed?” Ang—the lead and Gary’s lieutenant—vaulted onto the mezzanine level where they were and stared at the valve configuration.
“How long was it open?” Ang brushed past Hani, checking the lines. He closed valve-24 before either of them moved.
“We almost blew the batch, guys. You know how mad management would’ve been if we’d lost the first batch of double garlic?”
Ang had graduated with a master’s two years ago from Canada. Fifteen years Hani’s junior, he was on the fast track to management. He wasn’t intimidated by Gary.
Ang rounded on them both, puffing his chest out, making up for height, punctuating the air with precise, commanding gestures. “Let’s follow the procedure, all right? This campaign is set to launch in two months. We can’t lose material.”
After Ang left, Gary grumbled behind her. “You should have stopped me from going off the procedure. Insisted on closing the valve.”
Hani looked up to the skylight. Snow fell on glass like forgotten tears of an uncaring Being, watching her spinning, spinning like a vortex, hollowed out from within under a pale halogen light.
The batch failed: texture profile not up to spec.
Ang worked fast to get a bleary-eyed engineer, Mala, on video call.
After a few minutes, Ang emerged from his office (An office. Hani remembered her office in Delhi University, a pot of Calla lilies in the windowsill and a shelf full of awards. All lost to the nuclear wind. Somewhere in the wreckage of her department building, a flower’s corpse might be fertilizing an opportunistic dandelion.)
“Hani, Mala wants to speak with you. Just a few questions.”
In the screen, Mala rubbed her eyes, sitting at her kitchen table. Behind her, Hani could see the faint outlines of a sun-yard in her house. Two young, high-skilled incomes could afford that. “Hani, Ang told me about the mix-up at the tank. Do you want to fill me in on the specifics?”
No, she didn’t. But Hani explained anyway, in the most neutral and thorough way. Mala asked clarifying questions. Was she sure it was only open for a few minutes? Why didn’t she follow the procedure? Hani apologized: it was only her first week, you see, the step got skipped by accident. Won’t happen again.
Mala sipped from the steaming mug in her hands, blue light flickering on her glazed eyes, as she studied the Process Controls Diagram. “That wouldn’t have done it. Looks like that was the flavoring add port. Shouldn’t have affected the texture.”
Hani wanted Mala’s job, having the data and tools to solve such engineering problems, being essential to the company. She had tried accessing the PCD by herself and found she was locked out and wouldn’t be given access unless she was hired on full time. When she was hired.
Before Hani was excused, Mala gave her a warm, sleepy smile. “Thanks for your help, Hani. If you can remember anything else, call my extension.”
While taking her cleanroom gown off, Hani scrolled through Mala’s social media feed. Mala’s father had come to America from Chennai to study back when one still could. She had been born a full citizen here and had escaped the worst in her old home. Hani’s jealousy embarrassed her and kept her mood at a steady sour.
Gary didn’t wish her his traditional “good morning-night!” when they left that morning. Instead, he gave her a thin-lipped nod. “Let’s do better tomorrow night.”
Ang overheard that and walked over. “Don’t mind him, Hani. You’re doing fine. Hey, have you heard of the book Factory Girls? It’s about migrant women who worked in Chinese factories to make a living for their families. I just read it and thought you might be interested. Want a copy?”
Hanifa looked away. It was hard to be angry at well-meant condescension.
“I’ll check it out.”
A winter storm held dawn back. Hanifa left the grey manufacturing plant, driving into darkness and sleet. Through the blizzard, she made out the outlines of neighborhoods changing from posh Durham to Henderson’s refugee camp, two hours away. Light diminished as she drove, streetlight frequency widening to emptiness near her home.
Every house she passed in Durham had a sun-yard. Attached to the back: a temperature-controlled greenhouse to enjoy the foundering world in comfort. Americans never had to deal with the fallout from the east.
In Old Delhi they hadn’t shielded against the blistering air in time. In a week, everyone who didn’t live in glass and steel was turned out to dirt and slag. Hani was at the stove when it happened, making parathas for lunch. The building swayed and she thought, earthquake? Then the ground gave way and she fell through, taken by an abyss. She’d survived with a crushed leg, but in the wreckage she never found the crib with her twin sons. Thankfully, Meher, her eldest daughter, was in school when their home collapsed. It was a week before Hani learned she was alive. When the poisonous cloud swept over the neighborhoods of Chandni Chowk and Punjabi Bagh, Hani thought the world had heaved humanity off the board, out the game, saying, You are done, you had your chance, and now playtime is over.
When Hani picked up her torn degree in Phytology and her father’s tasbih sebha from the ruin, she knew she had to go. Her degree was her shield, sword, anchor, and kite. It saved her from a death on the street, fended off those who would keep her out, rooted her to earth when she almost gave it up, and brought her family to safety, here.
In Henderson, her home was a glorified camp. Until citizenship was offered, they had to stay there, in squalor, amid drugs and larceny. She was saving for a house, but too much of her income went into the rust heap with the outdated auto-nav she drove to work because there was no lightrail to Henderson.
By the time she pulled into the driveway of her printed home, Hani was ready to crawl into bed and not talk to another soul. So, of course, Mama was awake smashing pots and pans together to make breakfast and burning incense to ward off the evil eye.
Their neighbor Ghulam’s voice sneaked through the noise, warm like a hug and fresh bread. “Oi Nobel laureate! How was the night?”
“Terrible.” Hani, winced, knowing she’d stretched it this time. She dashed to her bedroom that she shared with Mama. “I mean, it was fine. I was kidding. Give me a second—” She went straight for the painkillers she couldn’t take while at work and which she couldn’t keep in her car, lest a policeman stop her and steal them.
Hani splashed cold water on her face and swallowed the pills. In the mirror staring back at her was a gaunt, grayer version of the picture on her diploma. Permanently bloodshot eyes blinked. She needed sleep, but the walls were thin, and Ghulam and Mama were the same amount of talkative in the morning, fresh and bright.
Ghulam’s family was his wife and five children. He insisted on having chai with Mama and Meher every morning. He always told Mama, “I’ll be there for you until our genius gets home. Not safe for the two of you during the devil’s hour around here.”
To Hani, he said, “So when are you taking these ladies out of this dump, hmm? They ready to hire you full-time yet?”
Mama yelled, “Hani! Can you bang on that brat’s door and get her up? School bus will be here any minute. Did you pay rent yet? Come have chai with us.”
They always shotgunned questions like that in Urdu, forcing her to stay and engage with at least one of them. “Yes, mama.”
Hani checked her bank feed as she ambled out of her room. It was Friday, so money went in, went out, but only: no money went in today. How—
Gary had neglected to approve her timecard, meaning she wouldn’t get paid until next week. Hani could rend steel. She smashed her fist on her daughter’s room. “Get up.”
The kitchen stilled, save for faint crackling of cumin and caramelizing onions in the pan. Mama quietly asked, “Is it the money?”
Ghulam had a pained, helpless expression. He would give the shirt off his back to help them, but he needed that shirt to pay for his kids’ school.
“I have some money.” Mama reached for the flour-tin-piggy-bank above the fridge.
“No, Mama we’re saving that for—”
“We’re not going to the street again. Pay rent. Worry later.”
Ang worked with her for the next harvest.
Ang liked explaining things. He was full of new knowledge, and new knowledge shared easy.
“Did someone tell you what happened last time?” he asked as they monitored the filtration step. The mycelia were out of the tank, getting the liquid pressed out.
Hani shook her head. And she was tired enough to have left it at that, but her scientist’s curiosity made her say: “Tell me. I might be able to help. I studied phytochemistry.”
“The texture was all wrong. The coagulated ‘shrooms gummed the filtration system all up. It got so bad we had to get new filters.”
Hani hid her panic. “Mala said it wasn’t related to valve-24 being open.”
“Yeah, that was the garlic slurry. If anything, it probably made it taste better.”
“So did Mala fix it?”
Ang snorted. “Apparently. She up-sized the filters so they won’t gum up that fast. That’ll preserve the texture, she said.”
“You don’t think so?”
“I don’t really care. I just don’t want her sending half-baked processes to production. Makes us,” he said, vigorously pointing to her chest and himself, “look bad.”
Hani looked down. Both were wearing pitch dark overalls over dark shoes. If this were medicine, they’d wear white, but after several dark mushroom soup splashes, the company decided that black was better. “No one looks bad in black, Ang.”
He laughed. Both stared at the monitors, arms folded. Ang leaned in. “Hey for what it’s worth, I’ve been talking to Gary about getting you on full time. But it’s a process, takes time.”
Hani knew about processes that took time. Fermentation. Immigration. Her daughter should be in tenth grade, but the three years lost being held at Camp Atlantis, the climate refugee port of entry in Puerto Rico, were never coming back. In her constellation of losses, it was Hani’s faintest.
An alarm blared. Pressure spike at the inlet of the filters. They were clogged—again. Ang swore, furiously tapping the screen as if he could break the mushroom strands apart with his fingers.
Hani watched, reticent to jump in. In her lab at Delhi University, the crises were smaller, bench scaled. Here, a pressure spike could split apart plastic and leak tens of thousands of liters of black slurry to the floor. As a scientist, though, it was impossible to stay away. She rushed to the filters to watch the numbers, feel the slurry’s weft and flow in the data, search for answers.
At least, that’s what she would’ve liked to do. Two minutes after the alarm blared, her own cell phone blared. Mama’s face popped up on the corner of her screen, and she was shuffling fast out the door. “Hani, child, something terrible has happened. Ghulam’s been shot. I’m going—come home, please. Meher is alone and it’s—it’s not—”
Hani had already started walking, de-gowning, ripping the black off her skin, but she paused, doubt and guilt hitting her like furnace winds. She needed this job. It was a little past three. Her shift would be over in three hours. Should she wait? Allah knew her daughter could do a simple thing like staying shut in her room for that long. But if Ghulam was shot—
Some things were more important.
She turned, clutching her collar, ready to zip off or zip up. “Ang, I have an emergency at home. I have to go. Can I?”
The split second longer that Ang took to process angered her. She liked him. He explained everything, wanted to be helpful and liked people calling him helpful. But sometimes, he just couldn’t take the hint. He was a good kid, though, and he just nodded. “Go, go. I’ll take care of this.”
I-40 menaced her the whole way home. A snowstorm descended on it, slicking the road treacherously. Car wrecks periodically dotted alongside the road: hubris-made twisted steel. She relinquished control to the nav system and let the car carry her since her leg hurt too much to floor the pedal.
Abandoned manufacturing plants littered the highway like mammoth caverns, mined clean of their usefulness. Barren oaks lined the road, knives out. She called home and forced Meher to stay on the line with her, so she could see her.
The car slowed to a crawl to traverse the black, perilous ice. One hour more to home.
“Mama, can I go back to sleep?” Meher begged. “I still have to go to school in the morning.”
“They didn’t cancel it?” Hani could barely see five feet in front of her car.
Her daughter’s eyes slid shut as she shook her head, rested on a pillow.
“Dadi-Ma has gone out,” Hani insisted. “You can’t be alone.”
The world was conspiring to make life dangerous for her beautiful child and Hani would be damned if she wasn’t up to the fight. She had to get this job. Get her family out of Henderson.
When Mama came home, Hani hugged her tight, wicking off the wetness from the storm and her grief.
“They just—smashed his door in and…”
“Have some chai, Mama. Breathe.”
Mama absently sipped, spilling some down her chin. “Begum is okay. Kids, too. They were in the other room.”
“Was it a robbery?”
Mother shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“I’m going to get us out of here. We’ve almost saved enough.” The word almost was doing so much work.
“When I get the job, I can apply for citizenship for all of us and leave this cursed camp. And we’ll be safe.”
As safe as one can be in this world: burning here, covered in ice there, nuked everywhere else.
The second consecutive failure made Gary call a meeting on their shop floor.
“Heeey, team,” Gary said in his expansive drawl. “I know this is a tough job, and we rely on the work of others to get our work here done right. So, I don’t want anyone to be too hard on themselves for what’s gone wrong. It’s a team effort, we all work together, succeed and fail together.”
Hani was once fooled by Gary’s earnestness. He probably believed what he said, but he’d also argued for limiting refugee intake to the rest of the team when he thought she wasn’t listening, so fuck him.
“One thing, real quick. When we lose batches like this, we have to prioritize where the product goes, and some sacrifices need to be made.”
Everyone on her team knew what that meant, and the bastards couldn’t help but turn to her. A portion of Hani’s salary as a temp resource was in company scrip: mushroom salami to feed her family. The first to take a hit with insufficient production would be Meher’s lunch, unless someone figured out their harvest issue.
Ang split up the tasks between the team and assigned himself with Hani again.
At home, her mind was fixated on immediate safety. She barely got any sleep and couldn’t think about anything else until Meher came back home from school. Now she was at work, so she recast herself as scientist, a problem-solver.
“Ang, anything from engineering about the last harvest?”
Ang shrugged. “Filtration system, again. Mala showed all this data at a meeting today to us. She had no issues in their lab, but as soon as it came to us in production everything broke.”
Hani bristled at not being part of such meetings that used to be her life as a phytochemist. Someone who asked questions and coaxed answers. “So, it’s a scale-up issue?”
“Yeah. The filters. You should’ve seen Gary. He really laid into Mala for messing up twice now.”
Hani felt sorry for Mala, but this only redoubled her desire to solve this issue. This one conversation exhilarated her like no other. This was a simulacrum of a life she was denied, a life she may yet get to have. “But what if it wasn’t the filters—what if it’s the coagulant? Isn’t this garlic process a little different from the last flavor, sriracha?”
“Hanifa,” Gary’s voice behind her said. “Why don’t you focus on understanding the process first, before you get into this high-level stuff? Let the engineers and Ang work it out.”
Hani steeled herself to turn around and shoot back, “It helps me understand the process.”
Gary raised an eyebrow, as if surprised that this quiet Indian woman would have a mouth on her after all.
Hani plunged through the cold she suddenly felt. Either she’d solve this and get the job, or she’d be out. “We grew the ‘shrooms for this process the same way we always do. The flavoring’s added the same way. The difference is the coagulant. You said yourself it’s new to this process. Yes, it works for Mala in her lab. But what’s different in large-scale is—”
Gary held up a palm, right in front of her face. “I think we’ve spent enough time in talk. Let’s do what we’re paid to do, all right?”
Hani squared up to Gary, keeping her balance steady, feeling her weight press down on her weaker leg. “I want to be paid to solve these problems.”
“Is that why you went home early that night? Is production work beneath Doctor Hanifa?”
Careful, Hani. Think of your mother, think of your daughter. Don’t let him goad you into saying something rash.
“This is the only job you can get, Hani. You need me to vouch for you. You think Engineering wants you? They already have their own non-performing Indian woman to deal with.”
“I’m going to get back to work.” Hani felt light-headed.
She turned away, took a few steps, and paused, straightening her spine. Without turning to see his face, she said,
“And Gary? Fuck you.”
No winter storm, no wall of ice could hold Hani back that morning. She turned auto-nav off and floored the gas out of work, crying through the pain shooting up her half-leg. All manners of alarms and traction warnings blinked, but her eyes were puffy, and her vision was blurry, and Ya Allah what had she done?
The shattered remains of the Durham nuclear plant came up on her right and she swerved in, got out. She had a bone to pick with burst atoms.
Cold wind slapped her across her face.
The exhaust tower made of white concrete covered in green moss loomed ahead, a cannon pointed to the stars.
Radiation was coming for them all, so she wasn’t afraid of what she might absorb here. She already felt like the trumpet mushroom mycelia, being rent apart by heat, then compressed against an unrelenting filter, wringing out all that was good in her.
She wanted to explode nuclear, cast a shining light over this rich city, this both necessary and inhospitable country. She wailed to the building, drawing a line in the snow with her metal leg. Witness me. I have been broken down by destiny, I have been picked clean by nuclear heat, and I have remade myself by my will. I will prevail.
Dawn broke, but was engulfed by a sky-spanning cloud, choking off the light.
The skies answered, bring it on.
The steady rhythm of a knife against wood was the only sound that greeted her at home. Mama was quiet, no shotgun of questions.
Meher was in her room, still asleep. It was the weekend. Let the child be.
“Merry Christmas,” Mama teased when she heard Hani stomping around the house.
Hani mumbled the wish back, then sighed. Refocus your anger, Hani. Mama has it no easier. She walked into the kitchen, forced a smile, and showered Mama with kisses.
“Move, child! I have a knife in my hand.”
“Mmm. Rogan Josh?” Mama had the largest pot on the stove and a mountain of lamb and vegetables on the kitchen table to cut and the telltale cumin scent of a curry being readied.
“It’s for us and Ghulam’s family.”
Despite having worked an entire twelve-hour shift, Hani sat at the kitchen table and cut the vegetables for Mama. By the time the curry was cooked, Hani was ready for bed.
Before Mama turned the stove off, she started ladling into lunch boxes.
Hani gave a sleepy smile. “What’s the rush, Mama?”
“Fool girl, you have to do this fast, otherwise the ghee congeals at the top.”
Hani frowned. “You don’t do that when you make it for us.”
“It takes me less time to do it when it’s for three people. For nine, it’ll take a while.”
Hani shrugged and nodded, sure. And then: electricity jolted her upright. “Mama! You’re a genius.”
Hani checked the time: 9:43. Mala would be well into her day by now. She found her cell and called her extension.
The third harvest was a success. Mala made a last-minute change to increase the flowrate so the mycelia didn’t sit with the coagulant for too long. In the lab and in pilot scale, it took Mala two hours to harvest the mycelia after it coagulated. But at fifteen-thousand liters, it took Hani’s team ten, and the mushrooms had been congealing into a gummy mess, occluding the filters.
Mala stayed late that night to meet Hani in person.
“Hani, I saw your résumé and wanted to talk to you.”
Gary had wanted to talk, too, but to him she was a cheap brain with working arms. Hani didn’t know if it was the dark circles under her eyes, or the tired sag of her chest, but Mala reached out to squeeze Hani’s shoulder. “Thank you. You saved my skin.”
Hani gathered her shield, her sword, her anchor, and kite. “I remembered what it was like in a lab, the slowness and quickness. Experiments ran for months, but a single reagent was dispensed in an instant. This is the first time I’ve worked in something so large, so I—”
Mala waved the rest of her explanation away with a nod. “I started in a lab, then went to manufacturing and now I’m back in a lab.”
But did your lab melt in a nuclear strike? Hani felt the familiar shell of anger forming at the injustice of their divergent lives. Yet how long would she hold onto her pain? Sometimes being like Ghulam, soft as a pashmina shawl, was the way to heal. Hani helped Mala, and now the engineer was holding a hand out, waiting for Hani’s reply.
To Mala, Hani said, “Could you give me a tour of your lab some time? I’d love to see it.”
About the Author
Sid Jain is a biotech engineer and writer based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. He has composed music for stories written by his friends and hopes to score the soundtrack to an adaptation of his own work someday. When not making medicine or writing, he’s testing recipes for a five-course vegetarian dinner, practicing martial arts, or listening to progressive rock. He can be found at sidjain.info.
About the Narrator
Nadia Niaz is a writer, editor and academic who teaches creative writing to everyone from preschoolers to postgraduates. In 2018 she founded the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, which publishes creative work that mixes languages. When she’s not working with words she’s either lifting heavy things or dancing.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.