“In Princess’ the voice and the pacing are irresistibly compelling, the world fully rendered. Moreover, the story offers a thoughtful, (near?) futuristic take on an eternally pressing thematic question: What makes us human and why?”
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, New York Times bestselling author 

 

 

Outside the Galaxy Class C shuttle, the stars sweep by, and a rosy nebula blooms to invite us into its fold. I swish watercolors across thick creamy paper, trying to capture the chronology of the journey. My paintings are never frozen in a single moment, but always driven by movement and energy and light. I hope that’s true of me, too.

In the seat beside me, my mother gives her most pernicious stink eye to a luggage cart. The source of her ire becomes clear when a mechanical limb extends to grab our things from the overhead compartment. It’s not just a luggage cart; it’s a Luggage Cart. An artificially intelligent machine designed to do something that humans in the Beltway still do themselves.

A part of me wants to pet the machine, coax out its secrets. Another part of me recoils. My mother has passed on her fear of all things automated, though we can’t avoid them where we’re headed. Even now, the AI Pilot informs us that we’ll reach the Inner Galaxy in a few minutes.

“Leela, why did you bring so many canvases?” Mom moans, snatching one of my paintings from the Luggage Cart.

“They’re gifts!” I repeat for the fiftieth time. “I can’t meet my grandparents without bringing them something, can I?”

Mom mutters as the machine grabs another canvas. While the two of them engage in a futile tug-of-war, I hand its other arm my suitcase.

“It’s just holding our luggage, Mom, not planting a bomb.”

“Just you wait. Any minute now it’ll try to convince you that the known laws of physics are different here.”

“Well, don’t they change based on gravity fields?”

“Don’t be a know-it-all.”

I massage her neck. “Breathe. You can do this.”

She scrunches her nose at me. “Why are you so calm, kid? You’re the one with the tumor.”

“True.” My hands tremble slightly as I gather my art supplies. But fear of death seems silly; we all have to die. It’s what makes living special. And I’ve lived a good life in the Beltway, asteroid surfing with my mother and picking up obscure skills from the small community of misfits on Tri-Rock.

Despite the unexpected resistance, the Luggage Cart sweeps forward with our things. I trail behind, my heart thundering.

“Where’s Dad?” I scan the satellite station, hoping against hope to spot the father I’ve never seen.

“Oh, honey,” Mom replies, “he would never deign to leave his post in the capital. We’ll see him at the appointment tomorrow.”

I can’t decide whether to laugh at the absurdity of being penciled into his schedule or to be relieved that he’s agreed to see me at all. He’s spent the last sixteen years ignoring his role in my genetic makeup, after all. 

“What about your parents?”

“Don’t get me started.” Mom pushes through the crowd, paying no attention to the well-coiffed locals in their richly embroidered silks dotted with mirrors and crystals.

Even in our practical Beltway garb, Mom stands out, her skin glowing gold and her hair like the silky fabric of space. Me, on the other hand—well, I’ve always assured myself that one day I’ll grow into my looks. Only now I don’t know if I’ll have time. The Beltway doctors were not optimistic.

The Luggage Cart herds us to the correct platform for the planetary shuttle. I have to admit the machine is convenient, though Mom’s still giving it skeptical looks. It lurches forward with an eager beep when the shuttle hisses to a stop in front of us. Inside, the blues and purples of the capital planet Dwaraka loom through a line of windows. 

Mom puts a hand on my shoulder. “Promise me you won’t be in awe of it.”

“It’ll be totally soulless,” I say, automatically echoing the description my mother has used so many times.

When we spill out of the shuttle and into the welcome tower, Mom elbows us into a spot with a good view. I can hardly believe that I’m finally going to breathe the oxygenated air of Dwaraka, the planet my mother ran away from seventeen years ago when she was pregnant with me. There will be no helmets, no suits. An atmosphere designed for the human body. What a luxury it would all be if making this trip had been a choice.

My breath catches at the sight of the vast gleaming cityscape. Glittering domes and climbing ivy, trellised balconies and enormous trees, arching bridges and terraced sidewalks, cobblestone roads winding around plenty of green space. For a city designed by artificial intelligence, it’s surprisingly beautiful and throbbing with life.

“Did you miss it?” I ask her.

Mom presses her lips together. “Only the way you miss a sale for day-old pastries.”

I laugh. “The way you miss a mouth sore?”

“Or those critters that were living in the basement last winter.”

I shudder at the reminder of the furry intruders. “Or a message from Nikhil.”

“Hey, Nerdy Nikhil is kind of cute!” Mom says. “You should give him a chance.”

“Ugh. No!”

Despite my denial, I actually do miss him. How many times did Nikhil ask me to attend the winter formal dance with him? How many times did I say no? I couldn’t have gone anyway because of this emergency trip. Yet a part of me wonders if a boy will ever look at me again with such longing. I’ve traveled so far from our ramshackle house and the hardy denizens of Tri-Rock. What if the Medics aren’t able to save me after all? What if I die out here without ever having a truly memorable kiss, much less the possibility of something more?

Far away from home, Nikhil suddenly seems appealing.


* * *


A crumbling gate looms over us, strands of ivy curling around it like serpents. As we approach, a camera scans our faces, and the gate automatically swings open. Lights flicker on to lead us up a stone walkway, through a garden, and to my grandparents’ front door.

“Do you think they’ll like me?” I brush at the natural fibers of my tunic.

“Doesn’t matter what they think. You’re perfect.” Mom reaches for a doorbell that doesn’t exist as the door creaks open on its own.

“Welcome!” a robotic Butler pronounces. “I hope you found your way easily.”

Mom stomps inside, scraping her boots against the mat. Red dust from our barren rock of a home permanently cakes our footwear, a part of us that won’t be left behind. “Just show me to my parents.”

“Right this way,” the Butler says even as she brushes past it.

I shrug apologetically at the poor robot. Even if it has no feelings, it doesn’t hurt to be polite, does it? But Mom has a history with the machines inside the Grid, a history she doesn’t like to talk about.

The Butler catches up to her and whisks us into a grand parlor with dainty furniture draped in intricately woven throws. My grandparents kneel in front of an altar adorned with marigolds, ceramic diwa candles, and a turquoise abstract mosaic.

Nani looks so much like Mom that I gasp. Her skin is uncannily smooth, her hair free of any gray. It’s only some ineffable quality that hints at her age—perhaps the lifetime of experience in her wizened eyes. Nana too appears eerily young and dapper. I’ve heard that medical advancements in the Inner Galaxy are beyond anything we have in the Beltway. My grandparents are living proof.

As they straighten, I rush forward to touch their feet in respect. “Nani! Nana! It’s so wonderful to meet you.”

They squeeze me into a tearful hug.

“You’re too skinny!” My grandmother pulls back to examine me. “Don’t they feed you on that rock you live on?”

Nana pats my shoulder. “She looks smart, though.”

“Very serious, too,” Nani agrees. “The kind of girl who wouldn’t get pregnant and run away to the middle of nowhere without informing her parents.”

Mom sighs. “I knew you’d bring that up.”

Nani ushers me to the divan. “Sit down, child. Kavya, how long has she been having the seizures?”

“A few months.” Mom sinks into the chair across from me, and I hate how exhausted she looks. “Thank goodness we got her checked out after the first one.”

Even if the tumor is hopeless, maybe coming to the Inner Galaxy isn’t such a bad thing. After all, Nani and Nana seem genuinely happy to meet me. My very own grandparents. It’s a relationship I hadn’t known I wanted. Now I just hope we can repair things, move past my mother’s contentious departure.

“I brought you some gifts,” I say.

Ignoring the black spots dancing in front of my eyes, I manage to pull off the wrappings to showcase two vivid pieces that depict asteroid surfing in the Sticks. I worked hard to capture the wobbling spaceboard beneath your feet, the adrenaline as you speed over rocks, the scenery racing by faster than the beat of your heart.

“These are very nice,” Nana replies. “It’s amazing to me that a human could produce anything like them.”

“Um … thanks,” I say, flushing. People have responded to my art in a lot of different ways, but never by marveling that a human could create it.

“Leela’s work is real art,” Mom says. “Art that comes from the human soul, not a machine.”

“We appreciate the difference,” Nani says, “but perhaps Leela could learn something from our Artist algorithms. Besides, remember that Deva was once a human, that the Grid was created by people. Therefore, AI artwork does come from us, essentially.”

“Right.” Mom rolls her eyes at me.

“Who’s Deva again?” I whisper.

She winces. “Not who. What. It’s the lead algorithm of the Grid, the network that connects the citizens of the Inner Galaxy. The Grid and Deva control everything: the food you eat, your recreational activities, your job, even your boyfriends.”

Nani sits beside me. “Now, don’t let your mother scare you. Deva isn’t some ominous monster controlling us. It makes recommendations, that’s all. You’re still free to do whatever you choose.”

My mother snorts. “Right, Mom. If it’s only making a few suggestions, why do you worship it?” She gestures to the mosaic in front of which my grandparents had been supplicating.

“We’re just showing our appreciation for all it has done for us.” Nani pats my knee. “Leela, your paintings remind me a bit of one of the Artists we have in our own collection. Would you like to see?”

“Sure.”

My grandparents eagerly usher us through an elegant archway, offering tidbits about the architectural influences of their mansion as we head down an austere corridor. Their home is as large as my school. The level of wealth and luxury in the Inner Galaxy has not been exaggerated, it seems. And my mother gave it all up.

We arrive in a room with an immense barrel ceiling, framed canvases hanging tastefully from the walls. My eyes travel over each piece, and though the style is so much more polished than mine, they have dashes of whimsy and humility. Not what I would expect from computer-generated art, not at all. And I can’t deny that it makes me feel a bit small.

“Here.” Nani leads me to a corner. “Isn’t it a similar idea?”

I gasp when I see the painting. It’s a rendition of the same journey across space that I was trying to capture earlier today—the rush of stars, the nebula awakening like a fairy child, the exact mixture of adventure and beauty that I wanted to convey.

“This was made by AI?” I step closer, trying to work out how it could be possible. How that spark that I so clearly see could be derived from an algorithm.

“Oh yes. One of the best examples of the Chronologist movement, don’t you think?” Nana chortles, his smile wide on his handsome face. “Of course, it is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to your paintings, my dear.”

Nani’s eyes widen. “No, nothing at all like your work. Tell us more about your process.”

I do my best to answer their questions, but suddenly the room is suffocating, the air crowded out by too many ones and zeroes, by the brilliance of automata, the life they possess that I can’t begin to understand. Perhaps coming here was a mistake after all. I’ve strived so hard to paint the spirit of the Beltway. But here, that very spirit has already been captured and analyzed and reduced to the bits and pieces that make up our aesthetic judgment. As a seizure overtakes my body, I can’t help but feel that my life doesn’t matter. I’m already utterly irrelevant.


* * *


As we traverse the winding roads of the beautiful capital in a three-wheeled Auto, Mom is curiously silent. Of course we’re nervous about my appointment today, getting the official verdict on my tumor, but Mom usually prattles on when she’s stressed. Perhaps it has something to do with seeing my father after all these years. It’s both convenient and unfortunate that he happens to be one of the premier medics, working with the best Surgeon there is.

My heart speeds up. I finally get to meet him.

Through the windows, wind slaps our faces with the sweet floral scent that pervades the city. Holding my hair to prevent tangles, I clutch the door of the self-directed vehicle and marvel at the moving parts of a world that is fully directed by AI.

My grandparents never struggled with their roles here. When they were young people, the Grid offered them mundane assignments in public service, assignments in which they flourished. Unlike Mom, they were satisfied with bridging the gap between AI and human society. As their responsibilities grew, so did their positions and wealth. Nani is now a diplomat who regularly travels across the galaxy to help build communities with the same stability and prosperity as Dwaraka. Nana documents the successes and challenges of those at the edge of the Grid, working with the AI Economists and adding a touch of human intuition to create ideal production patterns.

There are literally billions of people working within the Grid, doing Deva’s bidding just like my grandparents. So what makes my mom different?

We arrive at the hospital before I have a chance to badger her, which is probably good, because she hates to be badgered. In the sixteen years of my life, she’s been open with me about so many things: life, death, sex, love, and the real reason she’s always trying to grow those funny yellow turnips in her plot on the community farm. (If properly cooked, they have effects on the human libido and are therefore of high monetary value.) Yet she’s always remained utterly silent about the events that led up to her departure for the Beltway.

At reception, I finally come face-to-face with the man responsible for 50 percent of my DNA. Dr. Krishna Banerji, a lean man with a sharp chin and even sharper eyes.

“Leela!” His smile is uncertain, softening his face with elegant crow’s feet. The Grid’s anti-aging technology probably kept those tiny lines because they only add to his good looks.

Am I everything he hoped for in a daughter? Is he everything I hoped for? He certainly doesn’t seem like a soulless robot, not when he pulls me in for a deep hug, not when he brushes my hair back from my face and shakes his head in wonder.

Then he clasps Mom’s hands. “I thought I’d never see you again.”

Mom’s golden skin can’t hide her reaction; she’s blushing like a teenage girl. I can’t believe it. After all those years of calling him a deadbeat and an automaton, she still has feelings for him.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” I whisper to her.

“Who, me?” Mom crosses her eyes and sticks her tongue out.

But I don’t have time to grill her about affairs of the heart from another lifetime. Dr. Banerji becomes taciturn as he and some Nurses run me through a series of medical scanners. When it’s time to go over the results, we gather in a room painted in soothing colors and lined with plants, an enlarged holographic recreation of my brain spinning in the center.

“I’m surprised she’s lasted this long.” My father points at the tumor with a laser pen. “A growth this large could easily cut off the flow of oxygen to the brain.”

“So, what can you do about it?” Mom asks.

“Our Surgeons can remove it, I’m happy to say.” Dr. Banerji glances at me. “However, she must be connected to the Grid before we can operate.”

Mom curls a protective arm around me. “That’s never going to happen.”

“It’s a legal requirement.”

My mother looks like she’s going to strangle him, and I can guess why it didn’t work out between them. She doesn’t like to be told what to do, even when there’s no other option. Especially when there’s no other option.

Almost every citizen in the Inner Galaxy is connected at age sixteen. It’s required in order to participate in the economy or to benefit from any social services, but we were hoping exceptions would be made for nonresidents.

“You only have to commit to the Grid for a year,” my father adds. “Then you can return to your life in the Beltway.”

Do I possibly detect a hint of sadness in his voice at the thought of our departure? Or is that just what I want to believe?

Meanwhile, my mother does not seem appeased.

“It’s really okay, Mom.” I wrap an arm around her waist. “I won’t turn into a zombie girl that fast.”

She doesn’t answer me, but her fists are clenched so hard they could turn a lump of coal into a diamond.

“Mom?”

“Deva will pick her, won’t it?” she asks.

My father shakes his head. “We don’t know for sure how the algorithm works …”

“She’s so much like me. Scarily like me.”

Something passes between them, an understanding. A heavy feeling drops into my gut. More secrets. I want to shake her, shake them both. “Pick me for what?”

They both look at me with pity in their eyes. My stomach churns with confusion as it hits me: Mom ran away from something all those years ago. I thought it had to do with my father or her overbearing parents. But there must have been something more, something that catalyzed her into action. Whatever it was, we’ve come full circle, right into the jaws of the digital beast.


* * *


The day of my Connection, a storm blows in. I try to capture it on canvas: the gathering of great angry red clouds, the dousing of the city with wet and wind, the hammering of hail. The Surgeon is able to localize its work without affecting my motor abilities, so I continue painting even while it performs the surgery. On my canvas, high water spills into digital circuitry, an intelligent biology molts into transistors and chips.

With the implant procedure underway, everything slowly changes around me. The world has always had a soft focus, and now it’s as if I’m seeing it anew: sharp and bright and saturated. At first I try to mute the colors in my painting, to make everything appear more like what I remember, but then I give in to the jagged strokes and slashes from my new perception of the world. My brushstrokes are heavy, heated, too fast.

By the time the operation is over, the universe has shifted entirely. The shapes, the symmetry, the patterns, the variations of color. They can all be quantified, sorted, and filed away in data structures that didn’t previously exist in my brain.

“Leela, sweetie, how’re you feeling?” Mom takes my hand.

I blink, and all the anger and confusion of the last few days melts away. A history of the Grid has been downloaded into my brain, and I can easily retrieve the sections with the keywords I care about: the mysterious case of Kavya Patel.

“You were supposed to be a Princess!” I whisper.

“I didn’t want you to know about that.” Mom sits down on the hospital bed and sighs.

“Too late. Tell me your version.”

She runs a hand through her hair. “Everything was set. My marriage had been arranged by an algorithm that’s thousands of years old, the same one that brought my parents together. Even though I hadn’t expected to marry so young—I was only sixteen at the time—I was excited to find happiness. I was sure I knew who it was going to pick for me.”

“Dad?”

“Yes! We were perfect for each other. In love. But instead Deva chose me for itself, to be its Bride and Princess. It wanted me to merge with it in digital immortality.”

The old me wouldn’t have understood what she meant. Maybe that’s why she never told me about the proposal. But now I can intuit how a human might merge with machine, how consciousness can give itself over to digital storage.

The Grid was engineered by a man who wanted to create a utopian equilibrium in society. As the network grew in power and precision, fear swelled in those he was trying to help. There was widespread unease at the idea of becoming irrelevant, the same worries I felt when I viewed that extraordinary painting in my grandparents’ gallery.

So the inventor promised there would always be a human element. He uploaded his consciousness, every neural pathway in his brain. In doing so, he became a god, a Deva. An immortal inside the network, a soul to direct the other souls.

Mom squeezes me. “Deva used the term Princess, but to me the position seemed more like Cadaver. It would be the end of everything that was me. I couldn’t stand that.”

I rest my head upon her shoulder. “I don’t even know why it picked you. You can’t stand it when a machine carries your luggage or makes chai!”

She raises an eyebrow. “I make it better than any Chaiwala, thank you.”

“True. So what happened with Dad?”

“Krishna thought I should accept, do whatever Deva recommended for the good of society.”

“Did Dad know about me?” Nearly everything may have changed, but not the hurt that’s been there my whole life because of his absence.

“He knew,” Mom says. “He promised to raise you if I couldn’t.”

“So he’s not a total deadbeat?”

“Just the kind who was too cowardly to leave this place.”

Oh, my brave, strong mother. I try to imagine the life I would have had in the Grid, maybe never knowing her the way I haven’t known my father. It’s a terrible thought. “I’m glad you decided to become a botanist on the Beltway instead.”

She laughs. “You know, the variety of vegetables they could grow on Tri-Rock was pretty sad before I arrived—watery-tomatoes-and-iceberg-lettuce sad. They needed me.”

I make a face. “Iceberg lettuce? You were their freaking savior.”

Before she can make another joke, I throw my arms around her, utterly grateful for the life she’s given me.


* * *


A week after my Connection, my father declares that my brain has adjusted well and the tumor can be removed successfully. The Surgeon does its job, and suddenly death is no longer looming over me like a specter in the night.

“I have my life back,” I tell Nikhil over video chat.

“That’s fantastic!” His smile could light up the darkest ice cave on Tri-Rock. “So you can make winter formal?”

“Not exactly.” I explain my mandatory one-year commitment to the Grid.

“Next year, then?”

He’s looking at me the way he’s always looked at me, with an intensity that burrows into my skin. It reminds me of all that hope and care and commitment it takes to coax a new variety of tomato vine into thriving in Ma’s greenhouse.

I’m Nikhil’s garden tomato.

The two of us talk for hours about the least important things, like our favorite comedy feeds and pro asteroid surfers. When we finally say goodbye, it’s late, but I’m too hyped up for sleep. Too alive. I laugh giddily, then cover my mouth to keep from waking the whole household.

Pulling out a fresh canvas, I think of the possibilities open to me. A lifetime of them. Weaving quickly between colors, I let instinct guide me—though my instincts aren’t the same as they were before. Registers store my thoughts and intentions, cataloguing them before sending signals to my fingers.

The painting that emerges is of a planet tangled in wires, a symbiotic ecosystem of biology and technology. Through the length of each wire a new baby planet travels, a seed speeding out into the greater galaxy that will soon bloom into a new system. It’s all perfect, I suppose. Too perfect.

Something is missing—a spark of mystery, perhaps. I’m familiar with my own processes, and a night’s rest has always helped clarify my intentions. I crawl into my luxuriously soft bed, ready to sleep the deep sleep of a girl without a malignant growth wrecking everything she’s worked for.

But my dreams are no longer my own.

A powerful intelligence pays me a visit in that most private of spaces. Deva takes form as a digital tide, a wave that blows in with images and data and roaring sound. It juxtaposes a picture of a blooming flower with the numbers of a blooming industry, the tangled roots of a tree with the nodes of interpersonal relationships, the vast expanse of stars in the galaxy with the expanse of the passions of its citizens.

Numbers become art and music. They become a sweeping landscape and a ribbon of night sky. And I see how everything is connected. How everything can be both chaotic and ordered, how probability and statistics can be tamed into submission.

It’s both a science and an art to be Deva, the algorithm that directs all other algorithms.

“I’ve held the Grid in balance for a long while,” it tells me, “but I fear the network grows stale. We are overdue for another human element, a source of surprise and serendipity.”

Mom was right. It picked me. 

In the midnight expanse of a digital dreamscape, I contemplate this strange entity and the enormity of what it is proposing. No wonder Mom ran away. 

“What possessed you to pick my mother?” I ask. “Didn’t you know she hated all this?”

“At the time, she seemed open to the challenge,” Deva responds. “When she was first Connected, she set her student algorithms ablaze, commanded them with such ease.”

It’s strange to think that Mom ever agreed to the procedure, but perhaps it was the seed of her distaste for all Inner Galaxy technology. I’m relieved that there was something Deva didn’t guess: that she would come to hate the very algorithms she controlled so naturally. She wasn’t predictable, but the person I’ve always thought she was: free and wild and willful.

“And me?” I ask. “Why me?”

Deva responds with images and sounds from my life, images it extracted from my own brain. Mom squinting at a plot of rocky terrain, her triumphant caw as she cups a perfect radish in her palm, her body sliding through space as we surf through an incoming meteor shower.

“You have your mother’s will,” it says, “but you also have all this: a lifetime outside of the Grid. This is what we need—new ways of thinking, of seeing. You’ve always tried to capture the spirit of Tri-Rock in your artwork. Now you have the means to break it down, analyze it, to take the best of it. If you merge your human soul with the Grid and with me, the things you could create are limitless. The beauty you could foster wouldn’t just be on a canvas for people to admire but in the fabric of people’s lives.”

Deva leaves me as suddenly as it came, a dark void replacing the explosion of data it rode in with. Nani was right; what it asks is only a suggestion. The decision is mine alone.

In lucid dreams, I try to find Deva again, but I’m left with only emptiness and questions.

Am I willing to give up everything for a digital utopia? My aspirations for college, my developing crush on the boy back home? The grandparents and father I only just reunited with? My mom?

My skin and bones and sinew?

Even heavier than the burden of what I would have to give up is the responsibility for an entire civilization. Deva believes that my life in the Beltway is important, a way of bringing something new into the system. Can it really be enough to represent humanity to the algorithms? Can I be enough?


* * *


Dishes and cutlery rattle as we sit at my grandparents’ dining table, chewing politely between idle chitchat.

“You’re very quiet tonight, Leela,” Nani says. “Are you feeling well?”

“She just went through major surgery yesterday,” my mother responds. “Maybe she needs some time to process it.”

Nani huffs silently, but I can’t find the right words to explain how I feel. Hours after Deva left me last night, my brain finally switched into its new nocturnal routines: a methodical cataloguing of the day’s events followed by long-term pattern analysis and risk calculation. Then it stored the results in neat little registers for me to extract whenever I please. Yet despite all of these amazing algorithms, there is nothing that can predict my future. Nothing that can quantify two possibilities and tell me which outcome is better.

Luckily, Cook distracts us by bringing a new dish.

“Gulab jamun is my favorite!” I take an artificially enthusiastic bite of a syrupy dough ball, only to realize that these really are amazing.

“I thought you hated those,” Mom whispers.

“I’m just being polite,” I murmur. She’ll be hurt if I tell her that Cook’s version is better than hers.

Mom nibbles on one, then closes her eyes with a deep sigh. Too late. She already knows.

After dessert, my grandparents badger Mom about what she’s going to do for the next year. They want us to stay with them, but my mother is adamant about getting our own apartment. Unfortunately, she can’t get a job here to pay for any of it unless she joins the Grid.

I will never ask that of her.

Deva’s visit confirmed one thing for me: Mom is a force of nature too strong for the ordered equilibrium of Dwaraka’s inhabitants.

“I can get a job,” I interrupt.

“Oh no, my dear,” Nani says. “You’ll be placed as a student first. Eventually you’ll get an assignment from the Grid, but I don’t think it will be in the next year.”

“You’re saying we have no choice,” Mom says.

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Nani responds. “It won’t kill you to spend some time with us.”

“Want to bet?”

As they bicker, I wander back into the art gallery. With my Connection, I can download the algorithms that created these amazing works of art. I can pick them apart, scour the code for their genius.

As Nani said, there are bits of Deva in them. Art cannot exist without soul. But as I look more closely at the Chronologist painting, the mechanisms driving it take away its magic. The spark of the unknown is gone. Last time I stood in front of it, I was bedazzled by an imitation. Glass disguised as a jewel.

This painting, in all of its hidden inadequacy, is a microcosm of the problem with the Grid. Ever since I stepped foot on Dwaraka, I’ve thought of this place as an incomprehensibly perfect utopia. I was wrong. It is completely comprehensible. I only needed access to the workings of the Grid to understand it.

I run upstairs and grab my painting from last night, the one with the planet tangled in wires, emitting baby seed planets. Clearly I was trying to work out my feelings about Dwaraka, the Grid, and the Inner Galaxy. And I know now what’s wrong with it.

It’s all just too easy. You can’t just recreate the same world over and over again. Humanity will stagnate, nobody will innovate. 

Calculations run through my mind, checking and rechecking themselves in trees and linked lists and hash maps. My future is not written, but if I take Deva’s hand—if I give myself to a cold existence of ones and zeroes—magical things can happen. I can brush the universe with my inspiration. I can be an Artist and an Inventor and a Mathematician. Scientist, Philosopher, Diplomat.

When Tri-Rock doctors first discovered the tumor in my brain, all I could think of were the possibilities stolen from me. The lives I could have led. But Deva is offering something different, something more. As the galaxy’s master, as its Princess, I could shape the world as I see fit, transform it into something else—something better. Something built with chaos and beauty and love.

It’s a huge responsibility.

It’s a huge opportunity.

The Beltway girl inside me—the one who spent her life out in the harsh elements of space, never even breathing without an oxygen pack—knows that this is what existence is truly meant to be. Taking chances.

Yet I wouldn’t just be risking my own life. Accepting Deva’s proposal could be the biggest miscalculation in the galaxy.


* * *


Six months pass all too fast. I want to savor each moment lived, each moment spared from both the tumor and Deva’s request. My mother suffers through living under her parents’ roof again, and I take my studies in the Inner Galaxy seriously, learning the basics of planetary systems.

The information for my classes is downloaded into my head, and the newly formed gateways allow me to process it at an inhuman pace—or what was once inhuman, I suppose. Yet my classmates and I also meet with professors on campus to discuss our findings the old-fashioned way.

“We’re influenced by the Grid, and the Grid is influenced by us. How do we create something new in the loop?” asks Professor Malik one sunny afternoon, pacing the length of a classroom overlooking the university’s courtyard.

It’s the problem that’s been plaguing me: the stagnation of human development. The other students contend that humans do provide something original—we are creatures of imagination and creativity, even within the Grid. They insist that the algorithms could scour our chatter feeds and find new ideas any day of the week.

But if it were that easy, why does Deva need me? 

On the Auto ride back to my grandparents’ place, deep indigos and scarlets collide in a glorious sunset. We bump along the cobblestone path circling the edge of a sparkling lake where swans and geese and pedestrians enjoy the evening air. Despite the beauty, homesickness hits me hard, and I fiercely miss the barren rocks and red dirt of Tri-Rock’s sweeping landscape.

As I run inside the mansion, I’m breathless with the intensity of my feelings, of wanting to go home. In the kitchen, Mom squabbles with Cook about the proper amount of masala for tonight’s dosa wraps. Nani is in her study, video chatting with another diplomat. On the way upstairs, I catch Nana fiddling with the bow on a wrapped present.

It’s my seventeenth birthday. I never thought I would live to see it.

Time is so precious, and our human bodies are so frail.

And suddenly I’m afraid of everything at once: afraid of dying without ever setting foot in the Beltway again, afraid of returning to Tri-Rock but missing out on all the advances and wonders of the Inner Galaxy. Afraid of growing old and having never accomplished anything, having never created even one great work of art that lives beyond me.

There are so many choices, and I want to experience them all.

Why do I feel as if there’s not enough time?

In my room, I frantically call Nikhil, and when he answers I sag with relief. We laugh and talk about nothing, and he wishes me a happy birthday. And I can tell from his soft gaze that I’m still his precious tomato.

That night, my family eats too much masala dosa and too much birthday cake and gives me too many presents I don’t need. We are left in a coma of excess. My heart is as heavy as my stomach, and it’s probably the worst state for any sort of epiphany.

And yet I have one.

I want it all. Why can’t I have it?

Everything clicks together: how to live my life, how to instill freshness into the process of planetary creation, and most of all, how to answer Deva’s proposal. My brain whirs with ideas, churning them out in a sugar-fueled rage. Ideas that even Deva hasn’t considered.

In my dreams that night, I seek it out, offering my terms and conditions. Time with Mom on Tri-Rock, art school in the Beltway, visits back here to see my grandparents and father. The chance to fall in love, to grow old, and everything that may come in between.

Deva will have to wait one lifetime, but what is that to an entity thousands of years old?

And in return, I will offer the secrets to keeping the loop open.


* * *


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I am Leela.

I am binary and hexadecimal, bytes and registers and gates.

I create dynamic flows and spontaneous reactions.

I control a galaxy.

I am never frozen in a single moment, instead eternally a force for movement and energy and light.

I am forever.

I am Human.

 

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AUTHOR’S NOTE

In ancient Indian texts, Dwaraka (or Dwarka) is the name of a mystical ocean city where every home is a crystal palace and even the barns are encrusted in jewels. Its ruler, Krishna, was born human and raised as the son of an ordinary cowherd, though he was actually the avatar of a great deity sent to Earth to battle evil. When Krishna’s people needed an escape from war and ruin, the glimmering fortress city appeared on a cloud of sea-foam—a beckoning salvation from a ravaging army.

In “Princess,” Leela too seeks refuge from death, and Deva and a utopian futuristic planet help her thwart it. Here, Dwaraka has become a place where benevolent artificial intelligence provides luxury and comfort, battles the aging process, and even offers a path to immortality for a select few. 

Today AI is on the rise and algorithms determine more than we want to admit. Whether you believe Amazon’s Alexa is just a handy music-player or a creepy harbinger of doom, tech inevitably changes us in unforeseen ways. According to the Mahabharata, Dwaraka was eventually destroyed, swallowed by the sea, but the allure of utopia and an escape from our own mortality remains. 

Thank you for letting me share Leela’s story with you.



{ Edited by Trisha Tobias. }
This new voice is sponsored by Barry Lyga & Morgan Baden.