52 Project #29: The Last Boy

Based on "The Screwfly Solution", by Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree Jr. That was a very, very dark story, if you're familiar with it. This is... slightly less dark, but that's not saying much. (If you're not familiar with it, it's okay, this story explains the background you need to know.)

Roy is very excited, running, practically skipping, ahead on the trail. “Uncle Matt! This is great! I can see the woods up ahead already!”

Matt forces a smile, because he’s very much afraid of how this expedition might end, but he has to try. He has to have hope. “Sure is. Ready to go hunting?”

“You bet!” Roy turns around and flashes Matt a big, heartwarming smile. His face is pocked with acne and he’s late to have lost his last baby tooth; it’s a gap on the upper left side of his face. He looks so young, so boyish. Which he is; he’s thirteen. Thirteen is still a kid. Matt’s sixty; thirteen’s practically a baby to him. They grow up so damn fast. “You think we’ll bag a deer?”

“We might. Or we might bag a goose. Or we might come home empty-handed. The point to hunting is to be quiet and patient, and let nature bring to you whatever it will.”

They hike up to the tree line. This is one of very, very few forest areas that’s still being tended and managed by people. The rocky hiking trail up to the tree line’s been kept clear of scrub; there are bushes and tall grasses on either side of the trail, but nothing on the wide stretch of packed dirt.

From here Matt can look down the side of the mountain, to the acres planted with corn and wheat, the women working in the rows, a couple of men stationed to sit by the road with their guns, watchful for whoever might come by. He knows them both. Good boys. He took Evan out on a hunting trip like this one, ten years ago, and they came home with a deer and a couple of rabbits. Jase was called Lisa back then, and didn’t need to go on a hunting trip like this. The tradition of the hunting trip when you’re thirteen isn’t for the girls, or the gay boys, or the trans kids. Most of them resent that, until they get to be old enough to understand why.
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52 Project #28: The Court of the Lion King

I returned to the apartment building where Daro and Anzali and I had lived before we went down to the sea.  It had not changed in the way buildings change-- its paint was the same color, it seemed no more or less weatherbeaten than before.  The railing on the 3rd floor balcony still sagged.  But it had changed in the way homes change, because it wasn't home any more.  Because different people lived there now, filling it with their strange scents, and because I had changed.  The scent of the sea was still in my nostrils.  I would never smell the comforts of home again.

Renting the third floor apartment did not present difficulties.  I walked through the silence of the apartment, marveling at its emptiness.  The furniture was still there, the faded rug, the great sagging bed, the tired appliances.  But all the personality was gone.  Anzali's bright prints had been taken off the walls, which themselves had been whitewashed again to remove our cheery yellow paint.  White is a disturbing color, the color of bones and of drowned skin, pink human and green farla alike.  Even the humans of other colors became gray, in death by water. If I needed to be here long, the white walls would glare in my eyes and drive me mad. 

There was a knock at the door, startling me, and I almost fled.  But it wouldn't be the Lion King, not here, not yet.  He wouldn't know I was back.  I opened the door.

A human greeted me.  "Hi there, new neighbor.  I'm Rachael from the second floor apartment.  Just thought I'd come say hi.  Need help moving in?"

Rachael was chubby – not just by farla standards, but by human – with short brown hair and a squeaky tenor voice. She had pale skin, which she covered with more makeup than most humans, and her chin and brow seemed unusually defined for a female human. "Hello,"  I said distantly.  "I'm Ashmi.  No, I don't need help moving in.  Thanks for asking."

"Oh.  Well, sorry to bother you.  You want to come downstairs for a cup of tea or something? I like to get to know my neighbors.  It cuts down on the insecurity, you know.  Living in a place like this-- well, this isn't the best of neighborhoods, you know?"

"I know,"  I said bitterly, and wondered if this androgynous human knew the Lion King.  I also wondered if I could still drink tea.  I was afraid of my bone-white apartment, and loneliness.  "I'll come downstairs if you want, but I don't know if I'll be able to take tea.  I tend to be allergic to nearly everything."

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52 Project #25: Where The Winds of Limbo Roar

When their guard patrol passed the building where the psychics sat or laid on their mats, deep in their meditations, Soffrees snorted. “Look at that,” he said, pointing a thumb behind him at the windows of the battery. “We go out on the front lines and risk our lives. They sit in an air-conditioned room, or they nap in it, and they get served their food without even getting up to go get it… and they get paid three times what we do. What the fuck, man?”

“I know, right?” Baslicos chuckled grimly. “Be born with telepathy! Get the whole world handed to you on a platter! Join the army, get pampered like it’s a resort for rich old ladies!”

“What do they even do that’s worth that kind of money?” Soffrees shook his head. “They tell us ‘they defend us from psychic attack.’ Well, you know, I wear this chain—” he took out his charm chain, with his tags and all the charms on it, and waved it a bit – “to protect us from attacks from pink hippoceroses! And see, it works great, because when was the last time you were attacked by a pink hippoceros? Now gimme more money!”

“I knew a guy in basic training, always used to claim he was under psychic attack. Turned out he was just nuts, man.” Baslicos turned the corner – and ran straight into a tall, heavily-muscled man in a top brass uniform. She backed up. “Oh, sorry, sir—” and then her eyes went wide, as if registering who he was. “General Marcus! Sir! I apologize for running into you, sir!”

Marcus waved a hand. “At ease, private, no need to fall all over yourself apologizing. Just watch where you’re going next time.”

“Sir,” Soffrees said, almost reverently. “Can I tell you what an honor it is to meet you, sir? I went into the army because of the stories I heard about you!”

Marcus was a 60-something man with a shock of white hair that apparently rank and age allowed him to get away with not combing into regulation haircut or shaving; it was wild and bushy on his head. There was a small black bird sitting on his shoulder. Stories had it that he had been in combat since he was a young child; that he was immune to psychics; that he’d single-handedly captured the commander of the Ferlan army and forced them to surrender, twenty years ago… and many other stories that made him legendary. “I agree, sir!” Baslicos said. “It’s an honor! You’re a great hero!”

“You kids,” Marcus said, shaking his head. “You focus on the wrong things.” He gestured over at the psychic battery. “I heard what you two were saying about the psychics. You talk about what a great hero I am because I’ve been out on the front lines my whole life, but you don’t even think of who supports you, who lets you go out and serve without poking your own eyeballs out of your head.”

“Sir, I’ve never met anyone who’s been attacked by psychics,” Soffrees said.

“Sure you have. Right now. Me.”

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52 Project #24: The Princesses and the Peas

Surely you have heard a similar tale before, almost but not entirely like this one, of the queen who sought the perfect wife for her son, the crown prince.

The queen had ruled the land alone since the death of her husband. She was praised for her wisdom and her benevolence toward her people. But she was no longer young, and it was time to make sure her son made a politically beneficial marriage, to strengthen his position when it came time for him to take the crown. Many in the land whispered that the young man would make a terrible king, and wanted him to abdicate in favor of his younger sister, who was beautiful and bright and smiling. Celia, the young sister, could look anyone in the eye and make them believe that in that moment, they were the most important person in her world. Arien, the prince… could not do that.

The prince had a talent for mathematics, and it had expressed itself very young. Some said he should be the chancellor of the exchequer rather than the king. But Queen Leyta knew her son would make a compassionate and wise ruler as well as a prudent one. He also had a gift for seeing the humanity behind the numbers he calculated, of being able to think of the impact they would have on the people he would one day rule.

Once, when he was a child of six, his nursemaid lost him. Leyta found him behind the kitchens, picking through the garbage bins to find table scraps. She would have punished the kitchen staff for allowing such a thing, but Arien insisted that she should not. “It’s not their fault, Mother. I ordered them to let me, and I’m the prince, so they had to obey me. I told them that if you became angry at them I would tell you that they were only obeying my orders. They can’t get in trouble for obeying their liege.”

Leyta sighed. She could punish them for obeying their liege, when their liege was 6 and the thing he wanted to do was eat garbage, but she wouldn’t, because she knew why they obeyed. When the prince was thwarted, he would ask why. And if he received an answer, he would argue with it and present his position. Sometimes, this debate would lead to him accepting the necessity, and calmly going about his business, seeming to forget all about what he’d asked. More often, if he didn’t get an answer to “why”, or he didn’t like the answer and thought it didn’t make sense, and he was still thwarted, he would start to scream and hide under tables, or scream and run around and break things, or scream and slam his head into the wall, and he wouldn’t stop even when offered the thing he wanted. It was very, very hard to calm him once he started shrieking. So instead of punishing the kitchen staff, she asked Arien, “Why were you eating garbage?”

“Our food is bought with the taxes we take from the people,” he said seriously. “If we wasted less food, we wouldn’t have to tax the people as sorely as we do, and they would have more money to buy things for themselves.”

So she took him aside and told him that the scraps were fed to the dogs, who helped the palace huntsmen bring down game, or the goats and fowl, who gave the palace milk, meat and eggs, or they were tilled into the ground to make the fields around the palace more fruitful. They did not, in fact, go to waste; food that wasn’t wholesome for humans to eat could still feed animals, who would turn it back into wholesome food.

Then she had a lengthy discussion with him about tax policy, and listened gravely to his suggestions as to how they could ease the burdens on the people, and told him what the problems with his ideas were. And when some of his ideas didn’t have significant problems, she told him so, and discussed them with him, and even implemented a few as policy.

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52 Project #23: Firedance

With rings of light surrounding me, with rings of darkness covering me, I dance. Perfectly and long I dance the firedance. There is no fire in my veins, there are no flames around my body, but I see nothing. Hear nothing but the throbbing of the music, feel nothing but my body and the hard ground under my feet, I dance.

Hands catch me, lead me away. The world comes back in a hum of motion, in cold sweat drying on my naked body. I hear the crowds roar. There are other dancers, to come after me. I cannot see them. I slump on the ground next to the dancers who came before me, exhausted with hardly the strength to breathe, racked with the pain of the dance. O but it was beautiful.

The music stops. Hands reach for me again, lead me to the stage. The crowd is cheering, chanting for me. The priest rings my neck with the winner's garland. I shall be the firedancer.

The crowd's cheers are music. My body is too weak to dance, but I must respond. In my mind, I get up, I dance wildly to the music of the cheering. They surge onto the stage, lifting me and spinning me and chanting my name. I see a blur of heads and collars and faces beneath me. The chant pounds through me. They carry me through the village, screaming my name. I will be the Fire-goddess, the dancer. I will save them all.

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52 Project #22: Lynx

Her name is… she’s sure she can remember it, if she tries hard enough. It was something that started with a sound she can’t make any more, which lets out all the vowels, and r, and m and n, and s, so… something else. Was it Lisa? Maybe it was Lisa. Or could it have been Laura? It’s so hard to hold her memories in her head.

The people she’s living with gave her a name, since she couldn’t exactly tell them what her name used to be. They call her Athena. This is awfully ironic. Athena was the goddess of wisdom and craft, she can remember that, even if she can’t remember her own name. And now, with her memories shattered and stuffed into a brain vastly smaller than it once was, and all her dexterity gone forever, she has no wisdom and she cannot do crafts.

One of the people she lives with, a woman named Jane, opens the refrigerator. Athena smells delicious food. Ooh, is that a rotisserie chicken in there? If she times this just right, she might be able to grab the chicken and run off with it. The fridge is one of the kind with a pull-out freezer drawer on the bottom, making a convenient ledge for Athena to sit on. She waits until Jane is busy trying to get milk off of the door, and leaps, standing and stretching to grab the chicken, using the shelves of the fridge to keep her erratic balance.

“Athena, what are you doing? You ridiculous cat. Are you trying to get the chicken again?” Jane asks, in the tone of voice humans use to talk to little children and pets, and it grates on Athena’s nerves fiercely. You don’t have to talk to me like that. I understand you! But of course, she has no way of conveying that. At one point she tried to rip keys off a keyboard so she could spell out the truth of what she was, but her cat brain couldn’t handle making sense of the symbols on the keyboard and she wasn’t sure she still knew how to spell anything. What sound did a D make, again? Was it the buh sound or the duh sound?

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52 Project #21: A Visit To The Doctor

“Now. Why don’t you sit down and relax. You can have a drink if you want. Bottled water? Juice? Soda?”

The thin boy shook his head. “No,” he whispered.

“That’s fine. You can sit down wherever you like.” This was obviously not 100% accurate, as the therapist herself was sitting in one of the chairs, so Jason couldn’t have picked that seat if he’d wanted to.

“Look, aren’t I supposed to be lying on a couch or something? That’s the way I always read about it.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have a couch, but you can lay on the floor if you want to. This is a non-judging space, Jason. You can do whatever makes you feel comfortable.”

“Well, I don’t want to! And what kind of a doctor are you if you’re offering kids soda and juice? Those things are really, really bad for you! They’ll ruin your teeth, make you fat, give you diabetes…”

“As I said, this is a non-judging space. Many children feel more comfortable with sweetened drinks, but it’s perfectly fine if you don’t want any. Nobody’s forcing you to do anything, Jason. I just want you to relax.”

“You’re forcing me to relax!”

“If you don’t want to relax, that’s fine, too. It just makes it somewhat harder to help you. You do want me to help you, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said reluctantly.

“Well, then. Please sit down wherever you like. You can call me Jan, okay, Jason?”

The boy sat on the least soft of the three armchairs in the room, on the edge, with his arms tightly folded and a sullen expression. “I wanna call you Dr. Michaels.”

“All right. That’s fine too.”

“Is there anything that wouldn’t be fine?” he exploded. “I killed my little sister and you think everything I do is great! Well, it’s not! You should be punishing me, not – not telling me everything I do is fine!”

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52 Project #20: The Lake

Based on the Kate Bush song "Under Ice" and a poem of mine, "entropy reversed".

It's so fresh and clear, out here on the ice. I feel so free. There's no one around, for as far as I can see.

The cold is crisp, bracing, and the ice on the lake is unbelievably clear. Not  the sort of transparent clarity that makes it untrustworthy – a thick, wavy, distorted sort of clarity that tells me the ice is strong. Under it the lake is dark, winter black and sluggish, so cold looking. But I am free and clear above the ice, skating.

As I skate past trees and bushes, the wind bites at my face – good, clean cold! It's so sharp and refreshing. I can feel my face turning red, but it's not uncomfortable. After the stuffy heat inside, the cold air is like water, running through the clogged channels of my mind. So fresh and bright... The cool wind whips through my hair, teases at my earmuffs, as I skate faster.

The world is so open before me   I feel as if I could do anything. This is like new territory, unexplored. My skates make little white lines on the dark ice   I am here! I have gone here! the lines say. There is not another living soul around. I could skate to the other side of the lake, the far side I cannot see in the morning fog, and never see another person. It's such a wonderful feeling! I am a pioneer, going where no one has before. I can do whatever I want, and no one will see me, or stop me. My skates place my mark on virgin ice, frontier territory untraversed by humanity. So exhilarating!

And as I skate, I think about entropy.

Entropy is often thought of as chaos, but what it actually is, is a measure of the energy within a system that’s unavailable for doing work. The molecules become more disordered as the energy is expended. Because energy can’t be created or destroyed, the energy is still there, but in a useless form, because the molecules are too disordered to get anything done. Heat is the last step energy takes before it becomes entropic. Decay releases heat, and then the heat dissipates, transferring from the place where there’s a lot of heat – the point of decay, the thing undergoing entropic breakdown – to the place where there is not. It merges with the universe, and is lost.

The sun shining up above does not make me think of decay. It makes me think of positive energy and negative entropy – endless transfer of heat and light energy to our planet, allowing everything that is alive to re-order their molecules in a way that does work. It’s not actually endless, of course, but humanity will probably be gone long before that light runs out.

In reality, I know, the sunshine should warm the ice and weaken it, turn it into liquid like the cold dark water underneath.  But the sun is life and energy. The water is cold death.

The sun is strengthening the ice. Protecting me. Shining down on me, making the chill exhilarating, the experience of skating fun. I expect it to burn away the fog at the far side of the lake and let me see the other shore. Any minute now.

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52 Project #19: No Lullaby

Based on the Jethro Tull song of the same name. Warnings: Implied child death in past.

"Good night, baby," the mother said to her child, stepping out of the room and turning off the light. "Sleep tight."

Bobbi Ann hugged Leelee Lamb tighter. Leelee Lamb wasn't scared. Leelee was big and soft and ready to fight. In the darkness, Bobbi Ann reached for all of them. There was Burgundy, a bear almost as big as Bobbi herself, but not quite, because Bobbi was a big girl now and she could almost walk. Burgundy had a funny rumbly voice. Mylis was a cat pillow with pretty green eyes that felt funny when Bobbi stroked them. Then there was Special Blanket, which was pink, and Silky Blanket, which was white and felt like Mommy's shirt when Mommy got all dressed up and went away. Greenie wasn't green, he was a little stuffed dog, but he talked just like the leprechaun in the TV commercials about the cereal. Sheena was a pink rabbit in a short skirt. All of them were there, lined up in their proper places to go into battle.

"Ready?" Bobbi Ann asked them all. It was hard to talk and make the right sounds, but her animals and friends could hear her even when she just thought it. "Ready, guys?"

"Yes, we're ready," they all said.

"Okay, let's go."

Bobbi Ann used to be scared to go There, because it was dark and scary and the Child-Stealers lived there. She would try to stay in the light with Mommy and Daddy, and when they put her in the dark crib she would cry and cry, because that was the gateway to There. But now she had warriors to fight with her, so she was safe. Bobbi closed her eyes and went through the Gate.

On the Other Side, everything was different. She could walk just like a big girl on the Other Side, and she never went peepee in the diaper, and she could say anything she wanted to. The others were there at her feet. They looked sort of like animals in cartoon shows, except that those kind of animals never killed anybody, and Bobbi's friends were warriors. "Everybody be careful," Bobbi Ann said. She was holding Mylis in her hands. Special Blanket was tied around her neck, like Superman's cape, and Silky Blanket was tied around her chest. "I smell Child-Stealers."

"Yes," Leelee said. "I see one coming."

All of them got into a fighting stance as the Child-Stealer approached. It was horrible, of course, and Bobbi got scared, like she always did. It had so many heads she couldn’t count them, with eyes on top of tentacles coming out of everywhere, and it smelled real bad. Bobbi stepped back into the ring of her animal friends, as Special Blanket and Silky Blanket wrapped themselves around her, like armor protecting her.

"Charge!" Bobbi yelled.

Greenie leapt at that, snarling and barking at the Child-Stealer. It swung an eye at him, and he bit it. Burgundy pounded the Child-Stealer with his fists. Bobbi picked him up and threw him at one of the heads, where he could do more damage. She threw Mylis next, spitting and clawing like the real kitty did when Bobbi pulled its tail. Leelee charged, shaking the bell around her neck as she baahed a war cry. And Sheena hopped at the thing, battering it with her little paws. Bobbi herself threw herself into the fray with a scream, biting and clawing and pounding, picking up friends and beating the Child-Stealer over its heads with them, until finally it vanished in a puff of mist.

"Well, we did it," Burgundy rumbled. "It's dead."

"How marvelous! I'm so glad," Greenie said.

"Let's go have a picnic!" Bobbi Ann suggested.

"Good idea," Sheena said. "I want some carrots."

The group of friends strolled into the park, and they all sat down to have a picnic.

But as they were eating, they heard something terrible -- the horrible throbbing Sound the worst of the Child-Stealers made, so low it bit into their bones. Leelee Lamb turned to Bobbi. "That's the One! You have to run, Bobbi-- we'll hold it off!"

"Okay!" Bobbi Ann ran and ran, away from the Sound and from the noise of her friends fighting it. Soon she had to slow down, because she was tired. The Sound was so far away she couldn't hear it anymore.

She walked until she came upon a graveyard, where the little angel children were playing. The little angel children all had halos and wings. They had all lost their battles with the Child-Stealers, and gone up to Heaven as angels. "Play with us!" the little angel children called.

"I can't," Bobbi said. "I'm not dead."

"Oh," they said disappointedly. Then they said, "But it's great fun in Heaven. We play all the time. Don't you want to come?"

"No," Bobbi said. "You'll never grow up. I want to be a big grownup, and I can't do that if I'm dead."

"Who needs to grow up?" they asked.

"Grownups are big and they can do everything. I want to be one."

"You're no fun," they whined.

Bobbi walked up out of there and into a green field, trying to find her way back to her friends.

Then she heard a roaring, and turned. A Child-Stealer with a mouth like a vacuum cleaner was running toward her, and her friends and protectors weren't here. Bobbi ran and ran as fast as she could. But it felt like her arms and legs were tangling together, that something had wrapped around them so she couldn't run.

She tripped and fell hard to the ground. The Child-Stealer landed on her back, and she began to scream. It pressed her down, strangling the air out of her lungs.

Then Mommy's hands came out of nowhere and ripped the Child-Stealer to shreds. They lifted Bobbi Ann up, pulled away the blankets wound around her head, and carried her out of There.

Bobbi began to cry as soon as she could breathe. Mommy held her and patted her. "There, there, honey, it's all right. It's all right. You’re safe now. You’re all right."

Gradually Bobbi closed her eyes and slid back to There. She was protected from the Child-Stealers by the warm circle of her mother's arms. She laughed and taunted them, until from a distance she felt the arms relaxing away from her, and she was set back down alone on the cold ground of There. "Noo!!" she wailed, but couldn't make herself wake up and call for Mommy again.

The Child-Stealers advanced on her. Suddenly, she heard her friends behind her. "Bobbi! We were worried!" Leelee Lamb said.

"Look at all these Child-Stealers," Greenie said nervously.

Bobbi looked at her friends, her protectors, and a hot joy bubbled up from somewhere within. "No problem," she said. "Let's take them!"

She and her friends leapt forth in a savage, snarling attack. Gone was the fear from before. All there was now was anger and savage joy. Bobbi Ann and her legion of stuffed animals fought violently, laughing and crying, with the blood of the Child-Stealers running down their paws and hands. And the air rang with screams and Bobbi's war whoops, as the nightly battle was joined in earnest.

The mother put the baby back in her crib, and looked down at her. Her husband stood next to her. "Thank God she's all right."

"Yes. Thank God I got to her in time." The child moved slightly in her sleep. "Look at her," the mother said tenderly. "So peaceful. Without a care in the world. Don't you wish we adults could sleep like that?"

"Yeah." He smiled at his daughter, and turned to his wife. "Better leave her now, or she'll wake up." As they left, he turned out the light.