“Stop fussing. I feel like a goat being dressed for sacrifice.” Lakshmi moved her head just enough that Aditi couldn't attach the last earring. The crystal pendant swung against her neck.
“Oh hush. You are not a goat.” Aditi managed to catch Lakshmi’s earlobe and thread the heavy earring through. They’d been her grandmother’s earrings, brought back from the other side. Everyone had seen that footage—the day the bride returned, alone, disgraced and pregnant even before she’d crossed over. The only one ever to come back. Aditi held up a small mirror by its slender wooden handle. “Here, look at how goat-like you are.”
The face looking back at her was not her own. Was she in there somewhere beneath all the gold and crystal, behind the kohl and foundation spread by Aditi’s sure little fingers across her face like so much plaster? A princess stared back at her with eyes sadder than she'd ever seen. Flecks of light spun like stars within the earrings, as if whole galaxies were suspended within the dark crystal. She felt a twinge of annoyance. For this family, it always came back to the stars.
Aditi laughed and took the mirror away. “Maybe you are a goat. A sad, stupid goat.” Lakshmi swallowed and the gold choker pressed into her flesh, more like a vise around her throat than the finery her parents had intended.
“Do you know what an honor this is?” Aditi said. “How proud Father is! To have another from our family chosen for the harem--the prestige you will bring us.” Aditi’s hand squeezed her shoulder. “The medicines will flow again, the technology. Finally, we will be released from Grandmother’s shame.” She shook her head. “You might be pining for Manuj, but this is more important. And when you’re my age you’ll realize he's just a stupid, silly boy. He was never for you.”
“You are only two years older than me—”
“This is what you deserve. A future among the stars. To live with them, out there. I’m so jealous.”
Lakshmi's chest contracted. “Manuj is a good boy.” The image of his grinning face filled her mind. It was never going to work with him. But even though it hurt, it was easier to think about breaking up with him than to think about the visitors—about crossing through the portal. Why was it so hard to breathe?
“He’s a boy.” Aditi’s voice had a shrill edge. “Not a man.” Lakshmi winced as Aditi pulled her hair taut, but the long, sure brush strokes felt good. “And not for our Lakshmi. Not for our space princess.”
“How many times must you brush it? You’ll wear it away to nothing.” Nothingness, just like the inside of the portal. What distance would she travel in the blink of an eye? Would it hurt? She shuddered.
They would walk her from this room, security people keeping the cameras and crazies at bay. They would take her to the stage they’d erected in front of where the Spike had materialized again, forty-seven years to the day after its last arrival. The elevator would lift her to the gantry where the fey lavender and aquamarine beams emanating from the cold, metallic pillar played across the air as if searching for something, for her. Then what would she do? In her mind, she’d played the scene over time and again. She could break free and...fall. Or leap off the gantry, sailing with her sari arcing out behind her. Not the peacock’s tail they all imagined, but a falcon’s pinion. It was that or step through the veil, and no one knew what was on the other side except Grandmother, and she’d died giving birth to Father. Whatever she knew went with her to her grave.
Why was she resisting? Surely this was the privilege of a lifetime? To be one of the chosen thirteen. To break the chains of poverty for her people that resulted when Grandmother returned and the tech flow stopped. She thought of the officials, clasping hands and looking pleased with themselves now that the tech would flow again, and all of it bought with such a small sacrifice.
“If you are a goat, you are a most beautiful goat.” She felt Aditi twist her hair into a tight bun and pin it in place. “They say the Russians have chosen again.”
They had. The first ballot was said to have been rigged and then their delegate was found dead in her hotel. An image of the gantry rose in her mind. Foul play, they said. Lakshmi knew better. All thirteen brides must be feeling the way she did, their lives traded for the alien equivalent of glass beads and shells, but oh so necessary for their continued survival.
“Father told me he’s so proud. Everyone at the agency is.” Aditi grabbed her shoulders. “I am also very proud of you, sister. They are so wise and handsome!”
Only no one knew what the visitors really looked like or even what they did with the women who were sent. Some experts agreed the images used in their videos were composite CGI renderings designed to entice. Others were sure the aliens really were that beautiful. If they were, it was an otherworldly, eldritch beauty. Maybe Grandmother had known the truth, but Mother said she’d come back in deep shock, barely able to eat by herself. No one had been able to get her to speak. She’d died soon after when her father was born. This was supposed to be a privilege, an honor. Why then did it feel like she was heading to her demise?
“Come now.” Aditi tugged and tweaked, flitting around her like a honeyeater around jasmine. With a final flourish she dropped her arms. “It's time.”
Lakshmi was led through the hotel, past the cheering crowds, the reporters. Past the beautiful and famous, the rich and powerful. And finally past her family. All the while the Spike grew larger, rising from the skyline of the city like an enormous iron stake.
The time to run was past. And where would she go? To a life with Manuj? She didn’t want that either. Since the choosing, she had one of the most famous faces on the planet. There was nowhere to hide.
Her father’s lips felt cool on her forehead. She barely heard the words he whispered to her, but his eyes were wet, face glowing with pride. He, the director of the Indian Space Research Organization, his own daughter one of the chosen few to journey among the stars. She followed the scent of sandalwood, looked into her mother’s eyes, and saw fear there. Good. At least her mother wasn't totally crazy. She waited for an outstretched arm, for her mother to cry out and beg her not to go, but her eyes only followed her silently.
The elevator motor whirred and clanked as the platform moved into place. Before her, the portal loomed like the mouth of a cave, the rim surrounding it gleaming like mercury. She touched a finger to her earring and a clear image of her grandmother as a girl filled her mind. Startled, she stopped mid-step. In the vision, her grandmother laughed, hugging a young man Lakshmi did not recognize, but somehow knew was her father’s father. She recognized hope in her grandmother’s eyes. Realization flooded her mind, burning its way through all other thought like molten lava. Her grandmother had left love behind--had left all behind-- for the sake of her people. This was not a future she wanted, but here, now, she could make a choice.
She took the long step toward the veil. Not a goat.
The beautiful photograph I've included at the start of this post that was the inspiration for this story was the winner of @gmuxx's art contest, @thatindianlady. This is a photograph of her cousin on her wedding day.
Once again, this story would not be what it was without the wonderful crew at the PALnet MSP Fiction Workshop at Discord. If you are a fiction writer and not spending time in the workshop, I highly recommend that you drop by.