Probabilitea

Ordinary fathers lead ordinary lives. They go to work, they raise the kid, they open their homes for the weekly mahjong and meal that rotates from one family to the next in their circle of Chinese immigrants. When they text their daughters, the cell phone vibrates discreetly. If the phone is buried in a backpack, the buzzing might not be noticeable at all. Katie’s father, however, is a physical manifestation of Order and Chaos. When he wants his daughter to read his text right away, it feels like the phone’s about to shake itself apart. As if when she opens her backpack, she’ll find the phone shattered into exactly one hundred precise diamond-shaped fragments. The phone is always perfectly intact, though, and it will be every time. Her father is too skilled and too practiced at manipulating order and chaos for any other outcome.

How Katie’s cell phone is buzzing right now makes her backpack buck as like a giant jumping bean. She’s ignoring it anyway as she rushes down the block. There’s still too much left to do and not enough time to do it and this is after she saved four hours by leaving her Advanced Topics in Fiber Optics final early. The professor had scheduled his grueling ordeal in mathematical modeling for two consecutive exam slots, six hours. Katie flew through it two hours. The final was way more straightforward than any problem set her father has posed to her in years. She’ll still get the pointlessly high score her father expects, even if his weekly problem sets ate up time she would have spent studying.

His problem sets are always these abstract puzzles where she has to manipulate one probability distribution function to another using only an arbitrary—and, in her opinion, unfair and generally unhelpful—set of mathematical transformations. It’s due Saturday at dinner. Today’s Friday and she’s only finished the first problem. If she’s lucky, the four hours she’s just saved will be just enough to solve the second problem. On top of that, she has several dozen Stochastic Processes finals that her doctoral advisor wants graded by Sunday. Well, she needs them done by Saturday afternoon. Her mom is back in town with a show and she mailed Katie a ticket for Saturday night. Katie wants to clear everything out the way so she can watch the show and spend all of Sunday with her mom. It’s been a year or so since her mom was last in town. With all that, who has the time to check her texts?

What Katie really wants to do right now is to splurge on a pot of fancy tea at Take a Chance on Tea. It’s a teahouse that also serves coffee because they want to stay in business. Everyone else calls it a coffee shop and, whatever it is, it’s her favorite one. For just a moment, she just wants to believe all is right with the world and she can get everything done in time.

She turns the corner. The teahouse is just down the block. A line of cars is parked along the street. She freezes when she notices their license plates. The first character of each plate together forms the string “DU5DTXT3Q”. Her father has told her, in the most ‘him’ way possible, to “Read my text. Thank you.”

It’s one thing to tinker with the timing of a traffic signal or the friction on a set of brake pads, but no one, not even her father, can control what people will do. And yet, here they are, nine specific cars parked in exactly the order her father wants without materially changing the lives of nine people. She suspects a manifestation of Life and Death must have been involved to find the most likely nine. Katie stares at the cars and lets the enormity of her father’s work wash over her. This is epic-scale work—he had to tinker with an absurdly large number of chance events—for such a tiny result.

It hits her that her father knows her too well. Also, any text that comes with such an extravagant request to read it has to be read right now.

Katie unslings her pack and fishes out her phone as a scattering of pedestrians flows around her. The phone seems to project a smug air of innocence as she unlocks it. It’s practically mocking her for not grabbing it the instant it started vibrating. Not that her cell phone is actually capable of projecting an air of anything, mocking her, or looking like anything except the thin black slab that it is.

Her father’s latest text sits in a gray bubble at the bottom of the screen. Katie catches her breath when she reads it. Compared to feat of making nine cars line up just right, though, it’s almost ordinary.

“If you go into that teahouse, Jackson will ask you for the sort of help only a manifestation of Order and Chaos can give. You don’t have to help. If you do, both of you get to find out what it means to be a manifestation. Or, instead, go finish your problem set at some coffee shop. Up to you. Whatever you decide, you’ll always be my daughter.”

Katie stares at the message as though if she could exert enough visual pressure, it would give up its secrets. In some ways, life was much easier when she was twelve and her father would just tell her what to do. Nowadays, he tries his best not to impose his expectations on her. And he even succeeds occasionally. If there’s anything worse than unreasonably high expectations, though, it’s unreasonably low ones or none at all.

Making her phone vibrate so hard that it shakes itself into pieces requires more impromptu math than she can manage so she lets that idea go. Besides, she can’t afford to replace the phone. Instead, she just jams it back into her pack, trying to work out why her father even sent a text in the first place. She’s been training for as long as she could remember. Now that she thinks about it, though, most of his exercises have been to make sure she never changed the probabilities of anything by accident. Not a day goes by that she doesn’t get some sort of reminder not to manipulate order and chaos in ways that matter to people’s lives. That all seems the opposite of what manifestations do. If she has to guess, then, he sent the text more to warn her away from the teahouse than to entice her in.

Take a Chance on Tea hunkers before Katie. Giant panes of glass cover the storefront. People inside sit on square black wooden stools in front of high black wooden tables, drinking their tea and eating their pastries. There are eight coffee shops on the same block. One of them even serves bubble tea, which is always fun. Another is literally right across the street with its own giant panes of glass. There’s no question which one Katie will go to, of course. She is going to her favorite. If her father says that, just this once, she gets to manipulate order and chaos in ways that matter, she’s too tempted to pass that up.

Motes of dust dance in shafts of light that stream through the coffee shop’s giant glass panes. The tiny particles swing around each other in absolutely determined yet unpredictable ways. Katie is sitting at a table near the back, studying that chaos to pass the time and to try to ignore the clump of polo-shirted frat boy types who’ve taken over the other side of the room. The midterms she should be grading and the problem set she should be finishing lie untouched scattered in rough piles in front of her. She’s too distracted to work right now, not just by the clump of man boys who should know better but also by her father’s text.

Jackson walks in, cutting through the shaft of light. Dust scatters around him, jagging wildly in all directions before settling back into its normal chaos. It doesn’t take a second for Katie to recognize him. For her, physical manifestations of Life and Death are in sharper focus than everyone else and everything around them. The gray of his sweatshirt and faded blue of his jeans are that much more saturated than even the black of the tables he’s walking past. The tan of his skin is both lighter and richer than the mahogany of the counter where he is dropping some change into the tip jar and picking up his drink. Maybe she appears the same way to him. She has no idea. Most of them, she’s only met in passing through her father and it’d would have been weird to bring the subject up.

Also, Jackson is the manifestation of Life and Death who would be deadly anyway. They’ve known each for years. He was once that gawky kid struggling to fill out his oversized frame. That memory takes the edge off the way he looms now that he’s a basically a walking avalanche. On a first impression, it’s impossible not to expect him to fall on you like a giant pile of rocks.

He spots her and smiles. Jackson’s demeanor starts at overgrown puppy and gets even more enthusiastic from there. His eyebrows rise and his hands spread, opening his palms to her. She nods and waves him over.

“Hey, Katie.” Jackson looms over her, his glass of iced tea in hand. “I didn’t expect you’d be here, too.”

“Hi, Jackson.” She pushes her piles of paper and her tea pot aside to make room for his glass. “Just took a final so now I need to catch up. My dad’s problem set is due tomorrow.”

“Your dad gives you homework?” His face seems to stretch and his jaw hangs. “What for?”

“You know, I don’t know.” Her eyebrows rise as she realizes. “He’s been giving me ridiculously complex math problems to solve for as long as I remember.”

Jackson looks around and steals a chair from a nearby table. As he sits, his expression is downright odd, all furrowed brow and pursed lips.

“Why do you always look at me like that?”

“Like what?” Katie takes a sip of her tea.

“Like I’m a disaster just waiting to happen.” Jackson stabs a straw into his iced tea.

“Am I wrong?” The expression on her face was unintentional, but now she can’t help but tease him to cover for it. “You killed all the pets on your block once. By accident.”

“One, I was, like, twelve, practically a decade ago. I’ve gotten much better since. Two, I’ll remind you that I revived them all right away. Hardly anyone even noticed. Except the pets themselves, I guess.” Jackson tries to be serious but the broad smile gets in the way. “Also, that’s a bit rich coming from someone who unintentionally stacked three mahjong tables’ worth of hands when she was ten.”

Maybe that’s why all her father drills have more to do with making sure she never affects probabilities by accident. In any case, like Jackson, she hasn’t screwed up like that since.

“Fair.”

“Anyway, you see that guy over there?” He tilts his head and gaze toward someone holding court among the noisy frat boys.

That guy is lean, short, and disgustingly dapper in his dress shirt, suspenders, and vest. With neatly trimmed hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he’s a cross between 1920s mobster and barbershop quartet tenor. The only way he could be more Jackson’s type is if he were wearing figure skates and racing through intricate footwork on a sheet of ice. And, yet, Jackson is sitting across from her as opposed to across from him.

The clump of frat boy types slouch in the chairs around him. Their focus never leave him, even as they slam their fists on the table in agreement to whatever point he was making. Dressed in white polos and tan khakis, they look like casual members of some cult that worships mid-range department stores. Nobody who could take Jackson in a fair fight. He could pull up a chair and, even if they minded, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. They can’t be why Jackson’s talking to her when that guy is literally right there.

“You want me to arrange a coincidental meet-cute for you with him?”

Jackson’s jaw drops and his brow furrows. His face starts to flush and he grips his glass so hard, it starts to crack. A couple thoughts hit Katie at once, “This must be what Jackson’s like when he’s angry.” and “We joke with each other all the time and he’s never this touchy.” That he can squeeze hard enough to crack a glass is not surprising.

“I’m sorry.” Katie stifles the useless urge to slide away from the table. “I didn’t realize it’s a sore point with you. I won’t do that again.”

The burst of anger disappears as quickly as it came. His jaw slowly closes, but his gaze grows critical. He sets the glass down. On all sides, thin veins filled with iced tea jag from the base to the lip. Jackson stares at his wet hands for a moment before he wipes them on his jeans. Katie wastes several seconds in thought before she decides to not mess with the Brownian motion of the iced tea. She’d have to keep it up for who knows how long to keep the tea from dribbling down the sides of the glass. Besides, her father would sense the alteration.

“Nah, my love life is in bounds. Go nuts. I don’t even know if we play for the same team but it is kind of annoying that, physically, he’s exactly my type.” He purses his lips and points a finger at her. “You don’t recognize him? Why don’t you… I guess he’s not infamous enough yet. Never mind. I’ll just tell you. No, even better, we should eavesdrop on him.”

“We?” Katie furrows her brow. “I mean, I can, but…”

“Do you manifest Order and Chaos or not?” He has grabbed some napkins from a dispenser and sops up the dribbling tea. “I think my mom has asked for something like this before. Can’t you just—”

“Play with the interaction of air molecules to bounce the sound here? If I were my dad, sure.” She gives into his expectant gaze. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”

Part of her expects her father to notice her playing around and her tea will bubble disapprovingly or something. Her tea, though, continues to behave like a normal cup of tea. As she plays, the screen of multiple overlapping conversation fades. What emerges is faint and spotty. The words would be easier to understand if she weren’t working so hard to get them here in the first place.

“That’s really fuzzy.” Perversely, Jackson squints, as though that will make him hear better. “Is there any way you can clean that up?”

“Fuck you.”

Surfaces. This cafe is full of surfaces. She sees how the sound scattering through the air can bounce toward her. Given the right set of surfaces and the appropriate transformations to reverse the scattering, his words should land right in front of them, except for some energy loss. It’s impossible to amplify without also adding noise. She’ll try that next if she has to.

Part of her is surprised that the only changes in the air seem to be hers. Her father doesn’t seem to have noticed her work, for example. Then the realization hits her. Her father can be so subtle in detecting her work that she’d never notice him doing it. She wonders how well she’s doing or even if she’s supposed to be doing any of this at all.

That guy’s words are still faint. She can pay attention to them, though.

“Wow.” Jackson’s eyes grow wide again. “This is pretty awesome. I may never say anything out loud ever again.”

That guy is talking about how they will not be replaced and how they will take back the white homeland and—

The words squeeze the air out of Katie’s lungs. She recognizes that guy now. He goes around the country failing to speak at college campuses so that he can claim in bad faith that his free speech rights are being violated. Anger jolts through her and, whether she wants it or not, the screen of conversation overwhelms his words again. This is the first time she’s ever felt thankful that her father put her through all of those drills. Even angry, she didn’t do more than let things return to the typical. The twelve-year-old her might have shattered the shop’s giant window panes or something.

“Katie.” His brow furrowed, this may be the most annoyed Katie has ever seen Jackson. “When you’re asked to help, it’ll always be because someone awful is nearby. You can’t just bail because that guy is being irredeemably evil.”

“Okay, okay.” She holds her hand up and takes a deep breath. “Let me try it again.”

The screen of conversation parts and that guy’s words are now front and center as he walks through his plan. From here, he and his clump are going downtown. There’s a rally protesting a speech one of their elders is giving. As the alpha males they are, surely, they have to make sure no one at the rally can’t ever protest again.

Her grasp on the air slips and the screen of conversation overwhelms that guy’s words. Anger is cranked tight like a vice around her gut. Her mind races through the many, many things she could do to that guy, especially now that he’s sipping his tea. She’d never do any of those things though, no matter how much he deserves it. Several billion memories of her father warning her of all the ways interfering with someone can disrupt innocent lives are too deeply ingrained in her. She forces herself to whisper because otherwise she’d be shouting.

“Jackson, you have to stop them. People are going to get hurt or killed.” Her hands grip the table as she leans toward him. “If you wanted to, you could drop that guy from here, right?”

“Funny you should say that.” Jackson pushes his glass aside, leaving a skid of iced tea on the table. “It’s not that straightforward. There’s a process for figuring out what to do.”

Manifestations of Life and Death have human bodies. They breath and bleed and sweat and hurt, but, as Jackson explains himself, Katie’s still not convinced they’re entirely human. They do die within a human lifespan but only at a moment of their choosing. Her father tried to show her what they do one Saturday when she was twelve and he was driving her back from Chinese class. For a moment, the machinery of civilization surrounded them, their multi-colored ribbons twisting and billowing. Then it disappeared and everything was typical again. Katie was genuinely unsure what had just happened and her father didn’t explain himself. Afterward, they continued home leaving her with the strong conviction that he could control not just the coefficient of friction but also the weather.

It’s been a decade and, infuriatingly, her father still hasn’t shown her how he made it rain that day. Stressing the virtues of letting stochastic processes remain stochastic takes up a lot of time. Weather control was—and still is—more interesting than the machinery of civilization. Nevertheless, she suspects she’s about to get a lot of the latter right now and none of the former.

Like her, Jackson is more manifestation-in-training than manifestation-for-real. Still, when he spreads his hands, a mass of thin glowing, translucent ribbons appears between them. Based on the scale, this has to be a model of some portion of the machinery rather than the real thing. The ribbons swirl around each other just above the table. A few of them strangle themselves into a knot right next to Jackson’s right hand. The knot cinches tighter and tighter until it’s a bright dot and the ribbons tied up in it start to tear. Even Katie knew that was Not Good.

“Left to his devices, as you can see, he’s going to fuck up this corner of civilization. I could drop that guy at a glance right now.” Jackson is absolutely matter of fact about this. “Look what happens, though, if I do.”

The knot disappears, which has to be good. The now freed up ribbons tear away. They whip around and tangle into other ribbons that strangle yet others in a cascade. Katie’s guessing, but that has to be bad. The “so you see what I mean” expression on Jackson’s face pretty much confirms it.

“What’s the point of being you then?” Katie starts to sort the papers on the table into actual stacks. “You can’t do anything about him?”

“Whoa, I didn’t say that.” He holds as his hands up as if to surrender and the ribbons fall to the table then fade away. “We just have to do something else. Besides, I want the consequences of his actions to hang around his neck for the rest of his days. This is the last part of a plan my mom has been working for a while now. If the conditions are just right, it could go like this instead.”

His hands spread before him again and the mass of ribbons reappears. The knot next to his right hand is back. His fingers wriggle. The ribbons crowd the knot. The patterns they form as they twirl and untwirl around each other grow more complex. Subliminal flashes of color become substantial. The ribbons scatter and the knot is gone.

Jackson’s expression careens through pleasantly surprised, settles for an instant at smug before it finally arrives at its final destination: relieved. The ribbons that had been caught up in the knot flutter away. His gaze follows each one as they thread themselves into the increasing complex patterns formed by the rest of his model.

“So how do you make sure you’re around when the conditions are just right?” Katie pushes a pile of exam papers to one side and sets about tidying up the problem set from her father. “Do you have to follow him around until then?”

“You do know why you’re here, right?” Jackson glares with disbelief. “You can make the conditions anything you want.”

“Well, not literally anything and my dad kind of frowns on—” Katie’s grip on the papers in her hands tightens. “Oh…”

This is what her father meant by “find out what it means to be a manifestation.” If she does what Jackson wants, she’d be responsible for how that guy’s life will change, not to mention the lives of who knows how many else as a side effect. Yes, she suggested Jackson kill that guy not even a minute ago but this feels different even though it really isn’t. She knows that and the shame settles on her like sweat on a muggy day.

“What’s the use of being you then, Katie?” Jackson does not smirk as he echoes her words back at her. “This is clearly the daughter of Order and Chaos and the son of Life and Death conspiring to fix one tiny corner of the machine that is civilization. Do you know how to set up the conditions we need?”

Jackson has his model replaying on a loop. Every few seconds, the knot reappears only to be untied when the conditions are right. Katie studies the play of ribbons, the way they push and pull against each other as though attracted or repulsed by static. Within a few replays, the conditions that Jackson wants fall into place in her head. She can see how one gets there from here, in theory. It’d all be easier if it’d conveniently start thunderstorming or if that guy and his gang suddenly re-convened on a sheet of ice.

“You’re basically asking me to manipulate one probability distribution function to another using only an arbitrary—and, frankly, unfair and unhelpful—set of mathematical trans—” Katie’s gaze falls on the first problem her father asked her to solve and a near-electric thrum of excitement vibrates through her. “Actually, yes, I do.”

Katie finally understands these endless problem sets she’s been solving for years. Her father has been drilling her for as long as she can remember on the various ways to manipulate order and chaos, always with the stern warning never to manipulate the real world in any way that materially affects anyone. He has also given her ever more ridiculously difficult math problems to solve. Put the two together and Katie can manipulate one set of real-world conditions into another. Not that her father has ever mentioned this to her. In particular, the solution to the first problem he asked her to solve by tomorrow sets up the conditions Jackson has asked for. Not only can Katie do what Jackson wants, she actually knows exactly how to do it. Well, at least in theory. If she’s solved that problem right.

“You need to decide a bit quicker, Katie.” He wilts a bit under Katie’s glare. “They’re about to leave. If they actually make it to the rally, there’s not a whole lot either one of us will be able to do to save lives.”

“Can’t you just stomp in and beat the crap out of all of them?”

“Sure, but that won’t help.” Jackson pats his right arm. “Not to brag, but my arms are more or less the size of that guy’s legs. Me beating them all up is not exactly going to deconstruct their toxic masculinity or racism.”

That guy and the rest of his horde shuffle their chairs too loudly as they get up to leave. Katie is not, strictly speaking, paying any attention to their preening, strutting exit. She’s staring at her teacup, hoping for some sign of approval or disapproval from her father. A helpful nudge about now would be great. The motion of the tea, though, is stubbornly chaotic, utterly uninfluenced. The motion of the thundering horde, on the other hand, is ostentatiously obnoxious and impossible for her to ignore. Jackson is rolling his eyes but no one else in the shop is paying them much attention. At most, the other customers have looked up for a second then went back to their conversations, phones, or laptops.

On the way out, that guy reaches into the tip jar, grabs a handful of change and stuffs it into his pocket. That small, thoughtless act of casual privilege fits exactly into the pattern of that guy’s life. The realization sharpens Katie’s mind. It settles her down and tells her what she has to do. At least for the moment, she doesn’t care whether her father approves. Tomorrow will be a completely different story. There’s a good chance her father’s reaction will devastate her, but she can deal with that later.

“Okay, Jackson. I’ll see what I can do.”

Katie’s senses follow them as they descend into the subway station. Jackson is staring at a spot in space next to his slowly leaking glass of iced tea or, rather, watching that horde deform the machinery of civilization. Its ribbons flutter at the edge of Katie’s vision. The machinery of civilization fills in for her some of what she can’t quite sense. Her father could sense it all by himself but he’s also been at it for far longer.

There’s already a sparse crowd waiting on the platform. It’s a pretty typical mix of people. Some of them are clearly college students. They’re more or less Katie’s age and carrying backpacks. A parent is telling their child in Mandarin to sit still on a bench as two people sit next to them and hold hands. The sign attached to the ceiling says that the train will arrive in less than a minute.

The horde tromps down the stairs. They fill the steps, pushing past anyone else who happens to be in the way. A turnstile slides open when that guy presents his fare card. He walks through, the turnstile shuts, and doesn’t open again for anyone else, no matter how often they tap their fare card. None of the turnstiles do. Their little video displays just say to try again or to see the agent. They’ll work properly again once she stops futzing with them but Jackson wants that guy separated from his minions and, well, the turnstiles are right there.

Not that anyone there notices the malfunction, especially not that guy. He’s barely on the platform before he senses the vulnerable. They sense it, too, as the parent reflexively pulls their child towards them. He mocks and jeering as he pushes himself into their faces. Katie can’t help but feel his slurs and death threats rip the air and her heart breaks as the child cries. It’s easy for her, sitting in the teahouse, to be disgusted at how banal the same old codewords and dog whistles are. But he doesn’t need to be any good at this. His smug hate, the way he presses himself up against them as though they were his for the taking, the surety that no one will stop him does the job just fine. Kate’s memories of white boys pulling their eyes into slits as they closed in on her and flush-faced white men screaming at her to go back where she came from collapses the distance between the teahouse and the platform. Her stomach twists and she’ll be damned if she lets that guy make her cry. The translucent ribbons in front of Jackson grow stiff and taut like the bodies of the people on the platform. Some stare back but don’t say anything. Others just ignore what’s not aimed at them.

“Jackson, can’t you do something about this?” Katie’s voice is on the verge of breaking.

“Well, nothing else that will ultimately make the world a better place, no. It hasn’t even been twenty seconds yet. Give them a chance.” Jackson shrugs. “Sometimes, all you can do is set up the right conditions and hope that people do the right thing.”

“Hope? All we have is hope? I trapped a bunch of people with an unrepentant fascist with no regard for personal space based on your hope that someone will do the right thing?”

“When I gamed out this scenario with this specific set of people, about seventy percent of the time, hope was enough. It’s the best I could do.”

“Seventy percent.” Katie isn’t even bothering to hide the disgust in her voice.

“Hey, things with a seventy percent probability happen all the time. Well, they happen seventy percent of the time. You know what I mean.” He frowns at Katie’s tear-filled eyes and his voice grows mournful. “Whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it. Someone will come through.”

The train’s headlight is a growing pinprick in the dark. Its rumble starts to drown out that guy but that just makes him scream louder, cover more ground as he presses on one person, then the next.

Everyone on the platform, except one, is a decent person. There’s about a dozen of them. And they only need one to do something.

The overhead speaker announces that the train is about arrive. Someone, hardly bigger than that guy himself, starts walking toward him. They shed their backpack and their fists clinch as they talk back to him, blocking his every threat. That guy stumbles backward. He looks around for support. In his zeal to get in a few pointless jabs before the rally, he’s only just noticed his minions aren’t on the platform. No one is on his side.

The turnstiles finally start to function when Katie’s attention breaks for a moment. One by one, the horde starts to stream through. She grimaces. This was all much easier when it was just a bunch of equations on stacks of paper.

Their fist connects with that guy and he falls backwards onto the floor. Katie has done nothing to make that happen. That was all them. The only thing she’s doing is making sure that guy doesn’t actually fall off the platform. Much as she might want him to be run over by the train, that’s more interference than Jackson has asked for. Also, she imagines, if that guy fell in, her father might take her to task for failure of technique.

One or another of the horde stares at that guy for an instant as they break up and scatter. It’s as though they are a just random assemblage of men who don’t know each other at all who just happen to be wearing the same polos and khakis. Most of them don’t even board the train when it arrives. For them, that punch pounds in the final nail in a coffin more experienced manifestations have been hammering together. Katie can see it in the way they are reflected in the ribbons fluttering away from each other then beyond Jackson’s still leaking glass of iced tea.

“That’s it?” To her annoyance, she still sounds like she’s on the verge of tears. She shakes her head and takes a gulp of tea.

“Well, there won’t be violence at the rally and I don’t know if you noticed but people were taking video on their cellphones. I’d made sure to pick people who might do that. The videos will go viral and all he’ll be remembered for, if at all, is being punched for being a racist, misogynist asshole.”

Katie’s tea begins to bubble. Jackson shifts his gaze. He stares at the teacup puzzled. Katie just sighs.

“What the fuck is that?” Jackson points at the teacup, just in case it isn’t clear what he’s talking about.

“Oh, that’s just my dad.” Katie slumps into her seat. “Apparently, he’s been paying attention to us all along.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Beats me.” Katie shrugs. “If it were, you’d think the bubbles would look happier.”

The instant Katie comes home on Saturday, she’s hit with the scent of heaven. It smells like beef and star anise. Katie’s mouth reflexively starts to water. This is her father’s deluxe beef stock. It takes the entire day and an amount of beef, six different cuts, he has to special order from a butcher.

As Katie’s stomach growls, her heart sinks. Her father tends to outdo himself when it’s time for them to have an Important Chat. The more serious the topic, the more delicious their home smells. The last time her father made her mouth water before she’d even closed the front door or taken off her shoes, she was nine and it was to tell her that he and Mom had separated.

The weekly rotating mahjong game is here today. Her father might have gone through all this trouble for the folks coming. She doubts it, though. Also, everyone should be here already. The driveway is empty, though, and the house isn’t filled with chatter and the sound of crashing tiles.

Katie shuts the front door and takes off her shoes. She inhales deeply, clutches her backpack for dear life, and goes into the kitchen to meet her fate. She has no idea what it will be. The way her father made her tea bubble yesterday could have meant anything.

These days, the way their schedules work out, about the only time Katie and her father are both awake and at home together for more than a couple minutes is Saturday afternoon. She decided to come home a little late, so the game would have already started. That way, she could just hand him the problem set in her backpack and he would be too busy to chat.

Unfortunately, her father is alone in the kitchen. Two tall pots sit on the stove, one with noodles, the other with beef stock. Two large, chipped bowls, one filled with beef, the other with suancai, sit on the slightly warped plastic table that’s older than she is.

“They’re all late.” Her father puts some beef and noodles into a bowl then ladles in some broth. “Held up by one thing or another.”

“Really.” Katie does not roll her eyes. It would be disrespectful. “What a coincidence.”

“Oh, please. The delay is not going to change their lives in any meaningful way.” Her father tops the bowl with some suancai then sets it on the table. “Come on, you must be hungry.”

Katie grabs a pair of chopsticks and a spoon from a drawer. As her father fixes himself a bowl, she sets down her backpack, sits, and digs in.

It’s delicious, unfortunately. The acid of the suancai cuts through the rich, slightly salty stock. The beef is beautifully tender and impossibly savory. The thick, round noodles are the perfect canvas, bringing all of the flavors into harmony. This may be the best meal she has ever had in her life. Whatever they need to talk about must be serious.

“I shouldn’t have helped Jackson?” Katie, uncertain, looks up at her father.

“Why would you say that? I might quibble about the lack of subtlety but that comes with experience.” Her father sits next to her with his own bowl of beef noodle soup. “Now that you’ve had a taste, you need to decide whether helping is something you want to do. Manifestations of Life and Death know to come to you now. Helping them won’t always be as straightforward as that and you’ll always be complicit.”

“Hey, Jackson and I saved lives. And all we did was humiliate a fascist.”

Her father frowns. He slurps a strand of noodle, chews, and swallows before he speaks again.

“It doesn’t always work out that neatly. Sometimes, we kill. And, if you remember, you wanted to before Jackson talked you out of it. In any case, your mother couldn’t share a life with someone who manipulated the lives of others. It’s a completely reasonable position. I should have warned her about manifestations and what we do long before we married.” Her father lays his chopsticks on his bowl. “When she left, I promised her you’d be so trained that you would never affect probabilities by accident. Of course, if you never affect probabilities intentionally again, you also get to keep your relationship you have now with your mother. How ever you decide, you need to tell her when you see her this weekend.”

Katie set down her own chopsticks and lets her father’s words sink in. It makes sense, she supposes, that what one tells a nine-year-old about why her mother is leaving is not what one tells a twenty-two-year-old. Her mother’s acting gigs bring her close to home. Now Katie understands why her mother never stops by and why her father never goes to see her perform. When her mother is in town, she only ever sends them one ticket and Katie always visits her and never the other way around. None of this makes her needing to make this decision reasonable. If it weren’t for her parents, she could just do what she wants. At the very least, they could agree about what they want for her. Coincidentally or probably not, her mother is in Beverly right now finishing her run as Desiree at a theater in the round. Before Katie sees her again, before she decides what to do and tells her mom, there’s something she wants to know first.

“Are you responsible for her Tony Award?” Katie cocks her head. “That was bizarre. The original leading lady fractures her foot in a freak accident swinging on a lamppost on stage while they’re here tuning up the show, Mom takes over with no notice, and she opens the Sweet Charity revival to rave reviews.”

“Of course not! If I were, the sequence of events would have been far more plausible. Your mother is incredibly talented and freak accidents happen. They’re almost never some manifestation’s doing unless that manifestation is inexperienced or incredibly careless.” Her father forces Katie to meet his gaze. “I have never interfered with your mother’s life and neither will you. It doesn’t mean you can’t stay in contact with her if that’s what she still wants, but you will never interfere. Understood?”

“Yes.” Katie’s tempted again by the disrespectful eye roll but she’s apparently just made up her mind and what she does instead is take the problem set out of her backpack and sets it on the table. “I’ve solved this set. The problems you’re going to throw at me from now on are just going to get even more difficult, aren’t they…”

“Well, life is messy. It took a certain amount of advance work to get those young men to the point where humiliating the fascist might disillusion them in the first place. Eventually, you’ll have to deal with long-range changes yourself. And you need to develop the experience to find more subtle solutions.”

Her father produces a thick sheaf of paper and sets it next to the now solved problem set. It takes Katie a second to realize that the sheaf has been sitting on a chair next to him all along. Her father is capable of some amazing feats but whipping things up out of thin air is not one of them. The sheaf of paper is the next problem set. The first problem is all about the math of turbulence and she can see the analogy to the currents of circulation cells. Weather control. Her gazes shifts back and forth several times between the problem set and her father.

“You knew I was going to decide to continue?” Some part of Katie would not be surprised at all.

“No. If anything, I kind of wish you’d decided to go to some coffee shop instead. I suppose that would have just postponed your choice.” Her father looks down and sighs before he meets his daughter’s gaze again. “Life is messy.”

Tendrils of steam rise from their bowls of beef noodle soup. Katie twists them into calligraphy. A Tang poem floats to the ceiling before it disperses. It’s not the first time she’s played with steam like this and, as usual, it earns her father’s reproving glare. This time, though, it dissolves into a resigned smile.

(Editors’ Note: John Chu is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

John Chu

John Chu is a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator, and podcast narrator by night. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Boston Review, Uncanny, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Tor.com among other venues. His story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

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