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 #27: The Pale Bro 1/2

Five friends drove up the mountain into the forest, where the vacation cabin waited for them. It was their senior year of college, so it wouldn’t be long before they’d be graduating and going their separate ways, and who knew when they’d all be able to hang out together again? So they’d decided that this year, instead of going on spring break someplace where there were a ton of other people, they’d spend break together in a cabin in the woods, because there was no possible way that that could go wrong.

They were just five totally ordinary college guys. Steve, a white dude with brown hair who loved video games and playing guitar; Trevor, a black dude with short hair who was on track to graduate magna cum laude and had already been accepted at a top medical school; Harrison, an outgoing, short, red-haired white dude who played soccer, but not, like, at career athlete level or anything; Evan, an Asian dude who kept his hair in a long ponytail, and whose family owned the cabin, who was planning on taking a year off after graduation to backpack around Asia and had sold it to his parents as an exploration of his heritage; and the Pale Bro, a twelve-foot tall dude with paper-white skin whose fingernails were like long razor blades and who was completely covered with eyes and mouths, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, cut-off shorts that would have been nearly pants on any other guy, and a pair of Vans on his feet. Just five ordinary young fellows, like anyone you might know.

Steve was driving the minivan, kinda wishing it was his dad’s SUV because of the effort of getting a minivan up the slope, but his dad’s SUV was in a different state and besides, it wouldn’t have had room for the Pale Bro. The minivan was the kind where you could put down the back row of seats to expand the cargo capacity, and the Pale Bro had laid out a thick sleeping-bag style blanket on top of their suitcases and was laying on them now, curled sideways because there was no dimension where he could stretch out in the van. Must be rough for him, Steve imagined, always having to bend down or curl up to fit into buildings and vehicles with his bros. He never complained about it, though. He was a great friend.

“How much farther is this place?” Harrison asked. “I gotta piss like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I’ve been unfortunately next to you at the urinals,” Trevor said. “I’d believe it.”

Steve checked the GPS. “Shit. The GPS has just decided to get the vapors because it’s up too high. It’s telling me I’m literally in the middle of nowhere. Like, look at this.” He showed the screen to Evan. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. It isn’t even drawing the road.”

“Don’t worry about it, I can guide you in from here,” Evan said. “Just stay on the road another 20 minutes or so.”

With a voice that rumbled like the sound of tectonic plates grinding together and the hiss of static from the birth of the universe behind it, the Pale Bro conveyed that there had better be some fucking food at the cabin, because he was starving.

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52 Project #27: The Pale Bro 2/2

The group returned to find that Harrison had wandered back to the hot tub as soon as it was clear that no one was being killed except maybe a large number of innocent bottles of beer, and was sitting outside the hot tub but right by Y’lehna, who was in the hot tub eating chips.

Nandini said, severely, “Y’lehna! Ashlee told you not to do that!”

“Ashlee can tell me herself,” Y’lehna said with chips in her mouth.

“I’ve been watching,” Harrison said brightly. “None of the crumbs have fallen in the water! It’s all good!”

Trevor snorted. “Well, of course you think so, Har,” he said. “You’ve got it bad, haven’t you?”

Nandini frowned, and then scowled, and glared at Evan. “Wait, you told me he was gay!

“You said what?” Harrison was shocked.

Evan held up his hands. “Sorry, Har. But…” He looked over at Nandini. “I thought that if I told you that he only likes really unusual girls, you’d feel hurt because it would sound like I was telling you you were basic or something, and that’s totally wrong. You’re gorgeous and you could probably get any guy you wanted, except Harrison, because you don’t have scales or feathers or six eyes or something.”

“Well, you could have said that,” Nandini said.

Kayla said, “I get it. Rhiannon’s like that, too.”

“To be fair,” Harrison said, “I am bi.” This was information Evan had not known. “I just haven’t yet met any weird dudes who aren’t related to Pale here, and it’s just way too weird to date one of your bro’s actual brothers or something.”

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52 Project #26: Marc Snowfrolic and the Quest for Biscuits

Marc Snowfrolic wanted biscuits.

It was really odd for him to want biscuits at a time like this. Also, very inconvenient, because he was a wolf, and couldn’t bake his own biscuits like he could have if this had been last Thursday. Not that he actually knew how to bake biscuits, but on Thursday he could have read a recipe book, and used his bipedal stance to stand at a kitchen counter and opposable thumbs to use tools and pour ingredients and put cookware into the oven and take it out, with appropriate oven mitts on. Today, and for most of the rest of the month, he couldn’t do any of those things, because he was a wolf.

If anyone in the town of Rema had been able to bake biscuits right now, Marc could have gone to that person and made his desires clear. He could read the Bisquick logo even though he was a wolf. There wasn’t any in his own pantry, but he was sure someone in town had some, and had some guesses as to who. And if, say, Heather Digswell or old lady Janice Eyehowler had some Bisquick in their pantry, he could go to their houses, knock on the door, walk into their kitchen when they let him in, go grab the Bisquick out of the pantry with his teeth, bring it to them, and point to the picture of biscuits on the back, and they’d get the idea. They’d be happy to make him some biscuits. If only they weren’t wolves too, right now.

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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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