I still remember that awful moment, in school, when I realized mathematics is the language of the universe and I could barely speak one coherent word of it. I sensed its beauty, but could never commune with its soul. Mastered just enough of the lingua franca to qualify for the Academy.

Yet the music that enthralls me is mathematics made audible.

If one of my missions has an overload of testosterone, I’ll check the crew’s requisitioned playlist before we go. That monotonous underbeat so many of them like — simulating the rhythm of one’s own heart after a month or two — might start to unravel someone who’s not wrapped too tight in the first place. The human brain has alleyways not even psych evaluations can map.

In the old days, when flight was merely a linear journey, it was irrelevant that women are more comfortable with the elastic nature of time. Designed to engender a universe in small, we can perceive self-contained environments as potentialities rather than prisons. Makes us inherently better suited for the rigors of space. I’ve never seen a woman go space-cracked.

This particular rotation looked to be challenging from the get-go. Two of my best were right now off engendering their own little worlds and it’d be a year afterwards, at least, before they’d even consider getting re-certified for active duty.

I looked at the roster and sighed. It was a long-haul assignment; even with the new route just opened up (someone had finally cracked an old theorem and the commercial implications were dazzling), this would be a three-year tour. More than enough time for mutinous undercurrents to swell into outright challenge to my authority.

It’s not even malice, really. Just that the most primitive part of their brain stems reacts badly to an authoritative female voice.

But you can’t lay on a heavy disciplinary hand. Got to get them to swallow their medicine without ever showing them the spoon.

“Moggie,” I asked, “up for a little subversion?”

I showed him the crew list and he laughed.

You’d never believe a tech guy could be my kindred spirit but in some ways, he was my Siamese twin.

For Moggie, of course, math was the elixir of life, he must have been babbling it at birth. Those metaphors might not emulsify but nothing truer ever said.

We’d been pursuing different tracks in the freshman class but intersected one late night in the library. I was tearing my hair out over a boundary volume problem; he was dreamily contemplating a pile of books whose titles alone would have given me heart attacks. He had a gift for translating the most terrifying concepts with uncondescending simplicity; we had similar tastes in almost everything that matters.

Surprising how much mischief you can hide under a pile of algorithms. We’d been raising subtle sorts of hell together for years.

Right now, his eyes were glowing. I handed him my own playlist, though I hardly needed to. Even as we stood there plotting how to administer the appropriate prophylactic to my officers, The Goldberg Variations were transmuting the cramped cube of Moggie’s lab into an arc of infinity.

“Subliminal,” I said, “all the time. Til they’re pissing in counterpoint.”

“Sweetheart,” he said, “by the time I’m done with them, they’re all gonna be dreaming of cellos and crying for lifetime boxes at the Met. Won’t remember what a poker deck’s for.”

Turned out he wasn’t far off the mark.

I thought about writing it up for The Journal of Applied Neuroscience as a controlled-environment experiment; before-and-after physiological assessments are all in the records anyway. But that would ruin it for the next time.

After all, I certainly have a harmonious crew now.

And got even more than I’d hoped for.

Past the first couple of months out, they’d begun to look a little puzzled, as though something had slipped their minds and they were trying to winkle it back.

That little curling inflection to the “yes ma’am”s and “no ma’am”s faded quietly away into oblivion, and we started having real conversations at mess times.

Nobody needed medical attention after any of our ports-of-call.

The head stayed a damn sight cleaner.

And they’ve all lost the taste for beer.

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds.

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Every Day Fiction

  • Oh yes, the Laws of Music. I’ve written a chapter or two of a novel with that title.

  • Joanne

    This is wonderful—funny and smart. Love the idea of unlikely kindred spirits cooking this up.

  • SarahT

    Any piece of writing that takes so much effort (for both author and audience) should have a bigger payoff. I enjoy hidden meanings, esoteric references, the lot. Big words for the sake of big words, not so much. The complicated language DID help characterize the MC, and for that I give you kudos.

  • Jana Ramada

    I’ll have to go along with SarahT on this one. A lot of work for fairly little payoff. “Oh neat, a simple concept explained complicatedly.” Many wonderful turns of phrase, however.

  • I needed a more straight-forward story in the final analysis.

  • JenM

    I loved this story. It was a definit fiver for me.

  • SarahT seems to have captured my feelings on this piece perfectly as well. Wonderful phrasing, and it did feel like a lot of work went into this piece. But as a reader, my experience can be summed up with one phrase from the piece…”could never (quite) commune with its soul”.

    However, there is a poetry in Sarah’s writing that would intrigue me to read more of her work. 😀

  • Mariev Finnegan

    5 stars for me, Sarah, and I’m hard to please. Tightly written and communicated to me as a woman. One of the best I’ve read here and there is lots of competition.