Again, Survivors, truth be told, I forgot the prompt until it was due. And again, it turned out to be a good one. Sure, the lot of you are strong writers, but this one really introduced some interesting ideas and worlds. Yes, that’s the intent with a prompt like this, but I was impressed repeatedly by the ideas, and sometimes execution, of the stories here.
Weirdly, Novak suggested this was one of the easiest weeks of scoring for him, whereas for me it was one of the toughest. At any rate, we have exactly three immuniteers, as intended. Read on.
A fictional society (or an existing society presented in a fictional way) has a very specific process and event after a baby is born. Show us one such event.
WORD LIMIT: None. Pray for us.
TIME LIMIT: 40 Minutes
“Thanks so much for the help!” Coltello chirped, wiping his chin on his sleeve as Ruddy set the bowl on the table.
Coltello had to express his gratitude; soup was a rare treat for the Cutters, what with the whole “no fingers” thing. If Ruddy, a Stilts, hadn’t poured the contents of the bowl into Coltello’s mouth, it’d be venison all over again. Not that Coltello minded, for life was work, work was life, and all were happy.
As he walked back to his place in the factory he almost tripped over a young Founder. The little guy reminded Coltello of his best friend growing up, Tank. It was odd for Cutters and Founders to associate, much less be friends. One couldn’t hold, the other could barely see—two of the less-able workers in the shop, but him and Tank shared a common amusement in their mutual misery, and seeing that they could both hear, unlike Grinders, the jokes were plentiful.
The thought of Tank made Coltello tear up for a moment—it was almost 8 years since Tank fell into that vat of molten steel.
But, life was work, work was life, and all were happy.
Body mods started right out of the womb, based on job necessity. Necessity was determined by openings, which was often determined, in turn, by mortality rate. Coltello got off pretty lucky, if a Cutter didn’t stab himself, he probably wouldn’t die young. Breeders hated to see their babies become Founders or Flyers, both died by the dozens.
Coltello rubbed his bladed nubs together. He still remembered the day they removed his bindings. It felt so free. The bladed implants a few weeks later, less so.
The only other reason there’d be a big spike in openings would be when a new technology was introduced. Santa hated it when he fell behind the “corporate fat-cats” who “didn’t find the joy in a child’s smile,” and who “only wanted to make a buck.”
Coltello and the rest of his suitemates would often spend nights telling the tall tale of the time Santa almost gave the gig when the humans went through their Industrial Revolution—he just couldn’t keep up. But, he told the Breeders to, well, breed more Breeders. This happened for an entire generation, and with the natural decline in all the other positions, by the early 1800s all we were making were wooden dolls for little Mary and ball-n-cups for little Bill.
When Coltello arrived back at his station he began shaping the face of the plastic Action Man. He enamored himself in intricate details that no small child would ever appreciate—nostrils, boot soles, fine eyebrows. Life was work, work was life, and he was happy.
K: I adore this. The repeated line is used the correct number of times for the space, and the final change to the line is powerful. The Santa reveal is effective, and played straight, without it seeming like the writer is getting all “gotcha” with me. I love a well-built world, and I love a sympathetic character. Normally you don’t get both in Turbo, but here we are! GOLD
MN – This was such an interesting society, until Santa entered the picture. Then that was interesting on its own, but for different reasons. I love the framing of the story with the “life was work” lines. Some more showing over telling would have helped too, but there is soooo much potential here. BRONZE
“I’m with you today, Dr. Ing.” Jakyr adjusted his lab coat with his under pincers. To be allowed to assist in a birth was an immense honor.
“Yes, Jakyr. The Nomlik in labor should be ready to deliver soon.” Dr. Ing stood and balanced on his tail, tapping twice on the hard floor with his hind legs. A male Nomlik came to the door. His slack face turned to Dr. Ing. “Munt, bring me my coat.” Munt shuffled off into the hall. Jakyr never got over the inefficient design of the Nomlik. Only two legs and no tail at all. They had hands, not pincers, but only just the one pair. They weren’t very intelligent but they made great servants. In return, the Benzeeb took care of their needs and kept them from harm.
Munt returned with the coat and held it while Dr. Ing shrugged into it. A loud shriek emanated from behind a closed door. “She’s just in there,” Dr. Ing waived an antennae in the obvious direction. “Shall we?”
Jakyr bounded to the door and held it for Dr. Ing. The naked Nomlik was strapped to a table with her legs in the air. Dr. Ing’s android was monitoring her vital signs and standing watch. Jakyr’s antennae twitched; the smell of fresh excrement was tantalizing. The Nomlik moaned again and her belly tightened and appeared to rise.
“There we are, Donka, just about over.” Dr. Ing patted her knee and she shuddered and shrieked through the contraction. The space between her legs bulged. “Jakyr, come stand between her legs. Once the youngling’s head emerges, you can help it the rest of the way out. Time is of the essence, you know.”
Jakyr stood between Donka’s legs. She sweated and grunted through two more contractions before the small head popped out. Using his lower pincer, Jakyr grasped the child and pulled hard, ignoring Donka’s screams.
“Hurry now!” Dr. Ing urged. “She must take a breath!”
Jakyr freed the baby of its mother and the android cut the cord with laser snippers. He held the baby out to Dr. Ing, holding the child still while Dr. Ing took the laser snippers and quickly sliced deep into the soft spot on the top of the youngling’s head. With his smallest, center pincers, Dr. Ing spread the wound and reached into the slit, gently tugging on a wriggling larvae. Smoothly, he removed the foot-long, pink Benzeeb from its gestational nest. Jakyr’s throat clicked sentimentally; it was such a beautiful moment.
Dr. Ing placed the Benzeeb larvae in a waiting crèche, the heated lights automatically adjusting for the optimum temperature. He handed the slack Nomlik child to the android. “See that it is revived and the wound attended to.”
He patted the sobbing Donka again. “Come now, Donka, hush! You’ll have your child back soon enough.”
K: Wow…there’s a lot of exposition to be done here, as you throw a lot of new words at us. I think there’s a limit to the amount of world-building that can be done in a small space if everything has a new name; I think this would work very well if it was about ten times longer, and the unfamiliar words and actions were rationed out at a pace where we could learn the rules slowly. BRONZE
MN – This is an exciting idea. You do a great job revealing the world in bits and pieces until the biggest reveal of all, which was a fantastic concept. You hit the right balance between trusting us and telling us. The only problem is that this needed to be simplified slightly. Because this is a foreign world, we’re playing catch-up as readers. I would have cut Munt maybe? It’s really a pretty small complaint, given how much I love this. GOLD
Jenks stood in front of the door to his unit with hands tightly gripping the railing of the walkway. He stared into the darkening purple sky past the gates of the community with unfocused eyes. A low hum of anxiety, a recent and constant companion, whined away in his brain.
He heard footsteps approaching down the slotted metal walkway, though his head did not turn. The wind brought but the occasional, but steady particulate from the wasteland past the gates as well as the unmistakable musk of Xander.
“Evening, Xan,” Jenks said without taking his gaze from the horizon. He fancied he saw movement past the city walls, though he couldn’t tell if it was the Kreatures or just a trick of the fading light. It didn’t really matter much to him at the moment.
“Pleasant greetings, Jenny,” Xander replied amiably enough. Jenks hated being called that, as he had explained on multiple occasions. He ignored it for the moment. “Have you heard? Lhana’s wife just gave birth to a beautiful healthy young girl!”
This finally caused Jenks’ gaze to break from the horizon. He turned towards Xander and eyed him steadily for a moment, hoping not to give him the satisfaction of betraying any emotion. He turned back to the sky.
“Is that so?” Jenks asked flatly.
“That’s 4 now for the fall harvest. Only one slot left! Guess we must be getting healthier because it seems there’s less and less open spots every season,” Xander said with a smile on his face but not in his eyes.
“I’m aware of the count, Xander,” Jenks said through clenched teeth.
“When was Pantrina due again? Last week?”
Jenks did not respond. Xander knew the answer full well.
“Hmm,” he said playfully, “Mishtrian is fit to burst. I wouldn’t be surprised if—“
Clanging from running footsteps across the walkway rang out.
“Xander!” a young man called out. “Your wife, she has begun!”
“Ha!” Xander cried triumphantly. He turned to Jenks with a wry, sly smile across his smudged face. “Well, it looks like we’ll make it in time after all. I’m sure Pantrina will provide some wonderful sustenance for our community. Better luck next year!”
Xander hurried away, singing a song of praise.
Jenks nails dug into his fingers and his teeth drove through the skin of his lips. He turned around slowly, and entered his room.
Xander in the middle of coaching his wife , turned.
“It’s Jenks! His son is born!”
The color drained from Xander’s face.
“What!” he screamed. “How—“
Jenks walked past Xander’s door with a very bloody young boy and long bloody knife. He stared terribly in to Xander’s eyes, then brought his young son the elders in the village center.
K: I really like the world built and the scene here, but about 70% into it, it becomes extremely clear what’s going to happen, and the dialogue almost jokes along with us about how easy it is to see coming; I think this is a great payoff, but Xander comes off as a pathetic protagonist for making it happen, and if this were the world they lived in, I have to assume he’d have a lot more guile than this.
MN – I love the way you’ve created a ritual that drives the conflict in this story. That’s just… awesome. A few of the lines are too spot-on to happen in dialogue form, and some of the conversation felt a bit wooden because of it. Knowing, or referencing at least, more of their history would have helped flesh it out. I also would have liked to have seen the wives here… Or maybe I wouldn’t have. Another very good entry. SILVER
The baby wasn’t screaming. She still had time.
Blood dripped, puddled, streaked, but even with the burn from the tearing, Rida felt powerful. Powerful and terrified. The worst of the pain was over, but she had only a minute or less left. She took the baby into her arms. Memorize him. Memorize him or kill him now.
He felt beautiful, soft, sticky in her hands. Her blood bathed his body. She shook with hope and fear. He had creases under his eyes, and a slight turned up nose. He favored his father. She must remember this. His ear lobes were separated like hers. His chin pointed like his grandfather’s.
She whispered into his hear. “You are beautiful. Remember me, please.”
He heaved. He opened his little mouth. He screamed.
She wept as the other women entered the room. Ailah was there, and Rida thanked God for the timing. These other women she cared much less for, but her sister she needed. Blood streaked all their naked thighs, but their hands had been cleansed with oils. Clean but unclean, as Rida had been for years; as all women would be at some point. It was something her son would never be. If they made it out of this together, she would teach him better. She would end this.
The women pried Rida’s child from her hands as he screamed. They took him and the placenta, rushed him out of the room. Ailah stayed behind.
“I want him back,” Rida said.
“In time.” Ailah uncorked a bottle of rose oil. “We need to cleanse you now.”
“They can’t take him from me.”
“And what would you do about it?”
Rida contemplated this in silence as Ailah filled a bath slowly from water gathered outside.
“He favors his father,” Rida whispered.
Ailah’s eyes widened, and her whisper was harsh. “You looked at him?”
“How else will I know him?”
“Now you won’t! You looked at him, and you are unclean. Now the spirits will–”
“The spirits won’t have him. He is mine.”
Ailah’s mouth clamped shut . “When the time comes,” she said, mixing the rose water with oil, “we’ll see if you’ve ruined him, or if he was stronger than you. We will see if you recognize him at all.”
“Don’t tell his father I looked.”
“If he loses his child, I won’t have tell him anything.”
When the three days of mourning had passed, Rida entered the village again. Cleaner, healthier, but eyes puffy with tears. She had wept every day as her breasts filled to overflowing, stretched beyond what felt capable. She’d kneaded at them to rid them of the pain, and the women gathered her milk. Perhaps it went to her child. Perhaps another. She cared so deeply which, but she couldn’t ask. She couldn’t pretend to even think of her child. Having looked at him was enough. She would not risk his soul further by mentioning his existence.
As she entered the village, all watched. She passed neighbors, family, the father of her child biting his lip in an uncharacteristic show of fear. She did not look at him. She feared too much the shame she may already have brought.
Then Ailah brought Rida’s son. Rida’s heart swelled, and her breasts ached. She held the boy close, saw him wriggle, open his mouth, wail. Her own tears flowed. She prayed. Please let your soul recognize me.
She lifted her shirt to bare her breast and brought her son to it. He stopped wailing long enough to wriggle, flail. His eyes caught hers for a moment, and she hoped it was recognition she saw there.
She put his face to her breast. He opened his mouth. He latched on and drank.
Rida fell to the ground, weeping openly as the villagers silently watched. Her husband came to her, wrapped her arms around her, and they held each other close.
Her son’s soul had recognized her. It had not left her for another child’s body, another mother, another god, perhaps, in another world. This boy was hers, and the wolves would not feed tonight.
K: That final line is…something. We know a poor fate befalls a child who doesn’t recognize the soul of his family, but it’s hard to get into the stakes of the story if we don’t know what they are. If we have a line or two establishing the wolves even in vague terms, this is much stronger; as it is, when I reached the ending, my eyebrows did the nonverbal equivalent of “Wait, what?” BRONZE
MN – This is a very interesting concept but I kept asking “why” and hoping we’d get an answer that never came. There’s a real physicality to your world here, and I like the way you’ve described things and brought that realism into this world. This feels like a very interesting, flawed culture, where individualism struggles greatly. More clarity about why it is the way it is would have helped sell Rida’s fears. BRONZE
“Get her up!! Get her up!” Billy yelled as we tried to hoist Gina into a standing position. Her belly was about to pop, the baby trying to force itself out.
“She’s gonna have this thing, Billy,” Tom stated, matter-of-factly, one arm around Gina’s shoulders, one on the brick wall of the alley.
Billy turned just enough to show the deep scowl on his face. “Get her the fuck up.” He continued walking ahead of us, trying to get us to a safe place. A safe place for Gina. Where they wouldn’t come get us. Come get all of us, including the baby.
That’s the way things were here now. With no food, water or supplies, The Masters have cracked down on reproduction. It isn’t allowed.
For months now we’d all been hiding Gina’s change in shape. For the last month of those, we’ve just taken turns hiding Gina.
“OWWWWW!” Gina lurched forward, onto her knees, clutching her belly.
I knelt next to her, kept my hand on her back. “It’s ok, Gina…it’s ok.”
“FUUUUUCK!” Billy cried, kicking dirt into the air.
“We will find a place to go,” Tom said, calmly.
“Really?? We will?? Because The Masters have eyes and ears everywhere!” Billy is usually our leader, the force, the muscle. People respected him.
Tom walked over to him. “If we don’t find a place for Gina to have this baby- and quietly- you know what will happen. Be calm.”
Billy bit his lip to keep from crying. This was his baby. He wanted it. Wanted a kid since he could remember. But after the explosion, after all of his friends and family were blown to pieces, he never thought he would even find another human to interact with.
Until he stumbled upon this city. As the last couple of years went by, more and more people turned up- alone, afraid. Gina had been all alone, starving, having walked so many miles her feet were raw and bleeding. She hadn’t eaten in a month.
He fell in love with her immediately.
I saw the way he looked at her now, afraid. So afraid.
“C’mon, Gina, just a little bit further,” I said, helping her up. Tom and I held onto her.
“Here, here!” Billy gestured towards a break in the wall that led behind an abandoned shop. We filed in, Billy pushing an old dumpster in front of the entrance.
Gina laid down, not even waiting for me to get the tattered blanket I had in my backpack. “AHHHHH!”
And then it was coming. Tom pushed me out of the way and started telling her to just push, let it happen. I grabbed her hand and brushed her hair back.
Billy paced in front of it all.
We couldn’t quiet her screams and it all seemed to last all night.
By early morning, wrapped in my ratted, old, red blanket, was Martin. Already fast asleep in his mother’s arms.
Billy was crouched next to them and couldn’t take his eyes off of his perfect, angelic face.
The next thing I knew, I was being kicked awake. I squinted, trying to shake off the sleep. Billy was yelling, two men were on top of him to keep him down. Tom, too, was being restrained but he wasn’t struggling. I looked to Gina, lying there, staring up at the man who now held Martin.
“Please,” her empty voice cut through the air, so meek, without force. As if she had already given up.
“You know the rules,” a Master said to her, glaring down. He held Martin in his arms. Martin, who had opened his eyes, but wasn’t crying. Martin, who was in this world through no fault of his own. Martin, who would never live to see another day.
Gina tried to stand. “I didn’t plan it!” She couldn’t make it to her feet. She was too weak, exhausted. “He’s just a baby. Please.”
“You know the rules.” The man left. Martin never made a sound.
K: Again, I have to say I really have a hard time with an ineffective protagonist. Having your lead characters not reach their goals is one thing, but allowing them to lose passively is disappointing, as we readers hope to at least see some sort of showdown, whether by force or smarts. Billy is a “leader” but all we see is a weak man who foolishly cries out loudly when a world that wants to destroy his son is his enemy; I’d like to see him be a lot smarter about this. Additionally, there’s a lot of narrative exposition that could have been shown rather than told.
MN – It’s a fairly straight-forward story that works on all the levels it needs to. You might have had too many characters, but we certainly feel for Gina and Martin. My qualm is that it seems like the characters were thoughtful enough to hide and plan, but didn’t plan for this final bit, and that feels a bit, well, out-of-character. It’s an effective critique of China’s one-child policy though, and the emotions are there… it just doesn’t quite make the cut for me.
Pol winced as the sprout broke free of the skin of his forehead. It was too early, but he still settled in the dirt of the field, resting his head against the freshly turned furrows.
“We’ve got a seeder!” the overseer shouted, running across the rows to get to Pol’s side before the pods began to drop. Just as he reached Pol’s side, the first pod opened and a small tinny cry broke the reverent hush that had fallen over the other workers. The overseer muttered under his breath, but didn’t hesitate, grabbing the miniature infant and pushing him facedown into the dirt, pushing on the feet until the body was completely buried. He grabbed Pol by the sprout’s stalk and marched him along the row, pausing every time a pod began to crack to make another planting.
“Sir, another one!” one of the other workers stepped forward to point out a form crouching three rows over, holding their forehead. The overseer’s casual backhand knocked the speaker to the ground. The gun came out and two flashes left both the crouching worker and the speaker bleeding in the dirt. Still, Pol was dragged onward down the row. “Plenty more where those two came from, eh?” the overseer grinned without mirth, planting another pod in the ground.
Pol said nothing, in the time it had taken the man to shoot, he had picked a pod almost ready to hatch and stowed it away in his mouth. Now the pod had hatched, and Pol tried to contain the wriggling infant. “Stay still, stay back.” He tried to communicate with the little one. He was nearing the end of the row, and the sprout was no longer producing pods. The overseer pulled him into the grass at the end of the field, and with one final pull, uprooted the stalk from Pol’s head. Blood gushed out, running into his eyes and mouth. He could feel the little one scrambling back, then sliding, then swallowed.
“You’ve got 5 minutes” the overseer growled, and Pol nodded, there was much less time than that. As the man walked away, Pol scanned the ditch, looking for the graythorn weed. Pol’s internal clock was pinging as the infant struggled in his stomach. There. Without hesitation, Pol pulled the weed and swallowed it, roots and all.
That night in the tents, all the workers stopped by Pol, each rubbing his belly where the little one, unseen, nibbled on the food of the gods.
K: Well, this is weird as all hell. Did Eric Schapp find his way back in? This is…hard to rate. It’s a little disarming with all its strange rules and revelations, and most of it is an overly-explained short scene that’s mostly expository, but never comes off as overly so, since the prose is strong enough to keep it from being dull. I can’t say this is a favorite – at least not yet – but I think I’ll think about it for a good while. The Pol Pod thing is a little much, but I think it errs on the side of charmingly obvious. SILVER
MN – This is so inventive. I’m… not quite sure how I feel about it. Just so inventive. I felt pain from your descriptions of the stalks and the bleeding. I felt jarred by the gun shot. I felt powerless as Pol was led down the row. I wish I knew a little bit more about everyone’s motivations, and I wish I had know that the swallowing was… a good thing. Because it seemed bad at first, and that threw me. Also “Pol Pod” is probably too close to “Pol Pot”. But otherwise, this is just cool. GOLD
The commlink in my kitchen flashed.
We have record that you have given birth to infant citizen #212-ERT-8832.
They are 7 days old and have not yet visited The Pool.
Please report to The Pool immediately or face expulsion.
I called him Joseph, but he was assigned his Citizen Identification before I even knew I was pregnant. I have always dreaded this day.
We were told that things would be better after That Day. Those of us who survived tried our best. But it seems like since The Collapse, it’s impossible to keep the citizenry together in a healthy way, so we use fear. Fear of being banished to The Flats. Fear of being sentenced to the Lockup. Fear of traitors within our midst.
The Pool was a way for the superiors to evaluate the level of societal engagement that would be expected out of children. We need to do it before someone else gets to their impressionable minds. None of the children who have been in The Pool can tell us about their experience, they’re all so young still. This is all so sudden. This isn’t what I want for Joseph. But we couldn’t last long out there…
“Citizen. Please place infant citizen #212-ERT-8832 in to the chamber for Pool Examination.”
I kissed his head and tried to fight back the tears as I set him in the chamber. The glass cylinder silently took him away from me as the cleansing fog prepared him for The Pool.
The cylinder moved towards the center of the room. It opened so that Mother Superior could pick him up.
“Infant #212-ERT-8832, as decried by the superiors, your fitness as a future member of this society will now be determined. We will see you on the other side.”
She set him on the glossy black circle in the center of the room. He started to slowly sink into the viscous fluid. When he’d finally be fully absorbed, the fluid would trigger intense visions of future scenarios. The way his brain reacted to those would determine if he’d ever return from The Pool.
It was up to his chest now. I love you Joseph. Please come back. His anguished cries stopped as the fluid went past his mouth. Everything was completely silent. His little nose was next. His teary blue eyes. The top of his head.
I will wait here as long as I have to.
K: I normally don’t love an open ending like this, but this story is really about the mother and not the child, and this is a strong dramatic stance, as the uncertainty is probably the most dramatic outcome available given the world of this story. We’ve seen other stories kind of like this at CdL before, but I prefer this wrenching ending and will remember it alongside some others of its ilk; the Pool is an effective tension builder. SILVER
MN – Another baby in mortal danger. I should really ask Kelly to not set this kind of things up for y’all. The ending here came a bit too suddenly for me. I like your choice to stay with the mother, and not reveal how it goes, but somehow it felt too quick. The setting was probably a bit too heavy-handed, with too many The Ominous Sounding Nouns, and a little more character could have helped ease that… did she already lose one baby? Did she always want a baby? Was Joseph her father’s name? Etc. Somet little flourishes like that could have moved this into medal range for me.
“What time is it?” Laterna thought, still under the haze of hibernation. And then she awoke.
Sitting up straight, her torso penetrated the surface of the cool, teal liquid, and there she halted, half submerged, wondering whether it was finally time.
Had it been 300 years already?
“Not yet,” Abraham said coldly, anticipating the question.
Laterna jolted back. She hadn’t seen him there.
“God, you scared me,” she said, uneasily. Laterna had never fully grown comfortable with the Abraham models. Too close to human. But too cold to seem real, as though she had dreamed what a person might be and failed to finish halfway through.
“We still have a ways to go. Another 230 years until we reach the planet, by my calculations,” Abraham said. He stood rigidly. His cold pinkish skin was flawless – almost shiny, reflecting the blips of light emanating from the machines encapsulating Laterna and the crew.
“But why…” she began to say, and he pointed toward her navel.
Bulging below her exposed breasts, her stomach jutted outward, a tan hemisphere, smooth and large.
Gripping the bulge, Laterna began to cry.
“Let me help you out,” Abraham said, and moved toward her chamber. Moving with unnatural proficiency, within minutes he had helped her out, cleaned her and draped her with a violet gown that extended down to her thighs.
Heading toward the exit, she stopped and walked over to Sgt. Clark’s chamber, hovering over his serene face. Even in sleep, he was handsome.
“Yes,” Abraham said, “We matched the genetic material to the Sergeant. You two have violated Section E-17 of the agreement you signed before departure. We will be alerting the captain upon arrival, and he will see to your punishment.”
It was a 10 minute walk across the ship, near the docking bay, to the medical center. The ship was silent, ghostly. Void of waking life. Abraham lead her without speaking, and she trailed behind by a few feet.
“Please, lie on the table,” Abraham said, pointing to the naked metallic cube at the room’s center.
“What’s going to happen to it?”
“You know perfectly well. Code E17-2 made it quite clear.”
As Laterna lay on the table, she could hear the whirling begin and within minutes the previously vacant space was alive with helpers on treads and wheels, and floating silver spheres, injecting her here, suctioning there. Her stomach twitched and she began to experience contractions and the pain was intense and….
She lost track of time. The room was again Was the procedure already over?
And again, she looked down to find a surprise: a tiny girl cuddling against her bosom, asleep.
“Yes, she’s alive,” Abraham anticipated.
“And she’s healthy?”
“Surprisingly, yes,” Abraham said. “She grew unfettered in the hibernation process, though it took quite a bit longer. Almost 70 years.”
Laterna remembered. It had been during her last woken year. Only a tenth of the journey left, she recalled saying to the sergeant. They would be there soon enough. And she remembered how he touched her arm after the others had entered hibernation. She had stared back into his hazel eyes, and she didn’t want to slumber again.
“Her name is Connie,” Laterna said.
Abraham approached and took the girl, and Laterna gave her over willingly. No point in fighting it. There was no room for new crew members anyhow. Better to make it quick.
“Follow me now,” Abraham said, passing Connie off to a helper, which whirled away. “You’re weak from the birthing. We need to strengthen you up.”
And the two made their way back to Laterna’s pod.
Laterna laid back in her chamber, and soon she felt the tubes slowly creeping down into her throat and veins, sliding in easily with automation.
And as the liquid began to flow into her, lulling her into hibernation, for a moment she thought she could feel Connie’s spirit rejoining her body.
K: I kind of wanted Abraham to show mercy here; though I didn’t get what I wanted, I appreciate very much that I actually wanted something. This one did a very good job of creating characters, some of which whom were sleeping for the duration. Pointless exposition – like the facts of the trip – are left out, and what remains is a pretty sleek moment that will seem like a blip in the mother’s life given the length of the trip, but has plenty of emotional resonance. GOLD
MN – So why wouldn’t they just abort the baby sooner? Seems like they probably have that technology… Sorry for the quibble, but somehow it really distracted me throughout. That said, the concept of waking up and being 70 years pregnant is really really cool. I wish the conflict in the story had gone a different way… she can’t wake anyone else up, has to survive on her own or something… I don’t know, but where you started from was very neat. And the setting was well-realized too… a nice light touch with that.
The only time I ever remember being infantile was while I was in the dark tunnel, twisting and scrambling out by right of instinct. As soon as that gash of light split open, my consciousness blinked into existence. As I recollect my first week of life, or shall I say, “re-life”, I sit here swaddled in velvets and anointed oils, for I am Volos.
Shall I recount my trials for you?
The first words I had ever heard were “He has the mark.”, spoken by a palsied man in robes, attending my birth. He was referring to the birthmark on my neck. “Take him to the sanctum at once.” he commanded to the medical staff. At the sanctum, my mark was scrutinized and deemed trial worthy, matching closely enough to the scriptures. My sweet Velantine people had prayed for my return for more than 300 years and I could sense they were excited. The anticipation in the room was palpable.
That excitement grew into a frenzy as I passed the First Trial that day. My crib was placed in the aviary and a finch had landed on its wicker rim. I had been chosen by our Holy bird.
The second day I was given to a wet nurse, in truth a holy woman of my Faith, and grasped first at the left tit. On the third, my hair sprouted into existence, black as midnight coal.
By the fourth day, the entire town was there to witness my presence. “Could the prophecy truly be taking place?” they pondered. Having a fully mature mind rest in the head of a babe is no pleasure – oh, how I longed to reach out to my children and confirm their hopeful suspicions. Yet, my maturity made the Fourth Trial a simplicity. Laid in the town square, I made not a sound, uttered not one cry, despite being deprived of sustenance until dusk.
By the fifth day, all were in awe – they truly believed. None had ever passed all Seven Trials of Volos since I had last departed. Yeah, I truly wrought this arduous First Week upon myself through the commanded words and actions of a past life.
Yet they are necessary.
None other than myself had ever passed even the Third. Oh, I do feel sorrow for those cursed young ones, cast from the Cliff, unlucky enough to bear my mark and yet not be me. Still, as I have decreed, they are the Blessed who compose my servant body, forever to bask in the Ethereal Plane.
The Sixth Trial was the most painful, given my soft and tender flesh. When pricked by the divine kris, I cried at last. What would I be to my people if I could not experience pain? Still, I offered up my other palm as an ashen-bearded priest wept tears of happiness and brought the golden blade down again.
That night I pondered the Seventh Trial and felt genuine fear. I had truly left this final test up to a fate not dictated by me. This morning, I was placed in padded basket, gently bobbing on the undulations of the Arlos River. My people sang hymns and tore at their clothes, weeping on the ground in devotion. As I set upon my journey the Sun tickled my face and made me smile, reminding me of my Father. The birds chirped and the emerald boughs overhead truly made me glad I had returned.
I became somber as I approached the fork; I could hear the current gurgling and picking up speed. Would I sail to the the holy Left-side, or would I be whisked away to the evil side of Chost, to be cast off the fall and join my servant brethren?
Alas, I have deprived you, as you know what has happened. Waiting on the banks of the Volos river, my welcoming party showered me with adoration. Their Savior had truly returned! He would finally revive their failing crops, finally rid their society of the ubiquitous ill-doer, bring peace to their existence at last!
As soon as I have a mouth to speak with, I will tell you it is so, my dearest children. Lo, behold the Divine One, behold Volos!
K: I kind of love the arrogance of Volos; we don’t see this quality in narrators very much at CdL, but I think it’s underutilized (it would be irritating for the course of a novel, but it can hold for a short story. Fun Fact: when I just typed the word “novel” I instinctively first typed “novak.”). It’s a fun bit of cultish glee, but I do wish more was in the now; we spend entirely too much time in a passive stance. I’ll read something like that for twenty pages in a novel – or a novak – but it probably shouldn’t last for an entire story.
MN – I love getting into this character’s head, and the tests all seem like completely believable things. The style limits our ability to connect somewhat, but at the same time, that distance from Volos is completely appropriate, given the world you built. The first half of the story doesn’t have the same amount of emotion as the second half, which is too bad. The addition of how he’s feeling in the second half definitely helped the story along. SILVER
With a scream, Jordyn exploded into the world. The midwife looked at her for a moment and said “it’s time to do that crazy thing that we do to newborns!”
“Are you sure?” replied Pancho, “that shit is crazy”.
“yes, we need to”
The crazy thing they did was slathering the baby in worchestershire sauce. Then they put crispy cereal on her. To an outsider, ritual chex mix babies were weird, but to the Argians, this now east the baby was sanctified in the eyes of the snack gods and the girl’s mother could be considered delicious in the eyes of her peers.
…it was still pretty fucked up, though.
K: I hate you, writer #10. But I love you, too. I know this was the product of rushing or internet issues or time constraints, but all the same, there are legitimate laughs here. BRONZE
MN – Sure, it’s funny, but is it maybe a little too funny? The answer is no. But also that it is not quite funny enough. “Pancho” though. Good choice for the name.
Nisha heard the mother take a breath, but it was not for relief. Her ordeal was over, but her daughter’s had just begun. Nisha quickly tied and cut the cord and stole out of the room. It was time to prep the girl for the offering.
She moved to the next room and took the sponge and wiped the babe of the afterbirth. Next she reached for the spices and leaves. The finishing touch was the lace bunting placed around her on small bassinet.
Nisha paused at the threshold of the hut and pondered at the sky above. The moon shone brightly in the eastern sky, while the sun just began to wane in the west. Patches of clouds speckled the indigo sky. It was up to the heavens now.
Nisha ran to the clearing. She dared not be the sacrifice herself. The babe would intermittently cry as she ran. She hushed her, daring not wake up that which lurks in the woods. At least not before the proper time.
She arrived at the clearing and placed the babe on the side stump of an ancient oak tree. She glanced to make sure no one was in the area. She gently placed the bassinet on the stump. Nisha took one last look at the babe, and she swore that the babe smiled at her. She lingered just a moment to savor the beauty of the newborn babe in her pink fatty skin.
Nisha ran back to her hut. The last thing she saw was the pale white moon disappear behind the cloud.
The morning came and Nisha put on her mourning clothes. She prayed to the heavens and sprinkled ashes and blood as she walked back to the altar to see if the offering had been accepted. She walked slow and deliberate, desperate to put off the sight as long as possible.
She hadn’t yet reached the clearing when she heard it. She dropped her ashes and bolted to the altar. When she reached the clearing, her feet tripped and her heart stopped. Before her lay the babe, still in her bassinet, and she was surrounded by four large animals: a bear, an elk, a wolf, and an eagle. She immediately fell prostrate to the ground and prayed. The chosen one had come.
K: Again, I think the reader knows what’s coming, so I’d love to linger a bit more at the end, to see the reactions and fallout to this finish; alternatively; we as readers could have some idea as to the lone possible positive outcome in this situation. As is, it comes off as an intended surprise, but one we saw coming.
MN – The sacrifice theme is one that’s been done to death (eh? eh?), so I was glad that wasn’t all you did here. The switch away from that was a bit of a sharp turn though, and some foreshadowing of the possibility would have helped structure the story in a way that felt more honest. Even just a few lines of dialogue might have really stood out nicely in this story.
“Do you want to hold him?” the nurse asked out of habit.
Mr. Hendrick looked up nervously. “I thought that wasn’t allowed?”
Abele looked behind her at the cameras. She was pretty sure they weren’t even functional, but the new dad’s caution was probably warranted. “Oh, yeah. Sorry,” she said.
She placed the newborn on the scale and completed the measurements. That is she noted the measurements. The system was automated now to “enhance accuracy and relieve nurse burden.” In other words, to quash dishonesty. Another nurse grabbed the baby and wrapped it up.
Abele turned to the monitor and placed the customary call. Jork’s repulsive face appeared.
He smiled. “How may I help you today nurse Abele?” he said, with increased condescension on each syllable.
She forced a smile back. “A baby was born at thirty-two hundred hours. It is well.”
“Very well,” he replied. “And its vitals?”
She looked down at her pad. “2,911 grams. 48.9 centimeters. Healthy heart and lungs.”
Jork checked his pad, confirming the information. He frowned. “A little on the small side, eh?”
She looked at him plainly.
Jork sighed. “Anything else of note?”
“Yes sir. The baby is missing its fifth toe on the right foot.”
“What?” Jork slammed his desk with his primary tentacle. “That’s the fifth baby this year with a deformity!”
“I’m sorry sir. The mother was very malnourished throughout the pregnancy.”
Jork sighed. Or gurgled. She could never tell. “We sent three tonnes of food to your district earlier this year.”
Abele winced. Holding back was growing increasingly difficult. “I know. And it has been greatly appreciated. Perhaps the administrators need instruction on how to distribute the rations more equally.”
“Perhaps we need new administrators?” he said, focusing his eye intently on her.
Abele shivered. “Perhaps. What shall I do with the newborn?”
“Go ahead and give it back to the parents. It’s defective, but should still be able to procreate eventually. See to it that it is well fed. Jork out.”
“Yes sir. Abele out.”
She nodded towards her partner, who delivered the little boy to its parents. They allowed themselves their first emotion since the birth. Her partner shared their tears, their joy. Those emotions had been lost on Abele.
When they recouped, the dad approached her. “Thank you,” he whispered, and reached into his coat. She noticed the currency.
“No!” she whispered, harshly. “Not here. At the reservoir tomorrow as planned.”
He nodded. “Thank you,” he said again and joined his family.
Abele turned, so as to not reveal her self-loathing. She looked up at the monitor where Jork had recently accosted her. She wasn’t sure whom she resented more.
K: Surely Jork has to be aware of this on some level? Abele is conflicted, so there’s the skeleton of a strong character here, but she’s surrounded by archetypes and the dialogue was flat and predictable; a little subtext from Abele would have been a very welcome addition.
MN – I appreciate the accessibility of this story, because it’s honest to human nature. I think the ending scene could have been handled differently to be a little more effective. We know when the emotions are lost on Abele that she’s conflicted about it all, so telling us that takes something away. I do like that you don’t tell us what horrible fate awaits the babies. We don’t need to know, so that was a smart choice. BRONZE
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. . .”
Cecily peered through the doorway. She could barely make out the shadows surrounding the bed.
“Marshall! There’s too much blood. . .there’s too much. . .”
The shadows thrashed around violently. Something knocked heavily against the dresser and the room was filled with the sound of glass shattering.
Cecily slipped through the doorway and stepped closer to the bed.
“We will abide by the law. I know you understand.”
Heavy, rhythmic breathing filled the room.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh god. . .”
Tears welled up in Cecily’s eyes. She wanted nothing more than to reach out, touch the hand of the women lying in the bad.
The breathing grew more sparse and then stopped. The room was silent for just a moment until a cry cut through the dark.
“Oh, thank the Lord. Thank the Lord. . .”
Cecily watched as one of the men of the men carried the child to the sink. He turned the faucet on and began to rinse off the afterbirth. The other man stood near the bed, head held low.
“She’s gone, Marshall.”
“Don’t talk,” said the man cleaning the child. “Just go. Let them know that it is done.”
Marshall sat the child on the bed and touched it’s forehead.
“A girl. A beautiful girl. . .”
He walked toward Cecily and leaned over.
“I didn’t see you there, my lovely one. You have a new Sister. Kindly keep an eye on her for a moment.”
He leaned over and kissed Cecily on the forehead. She winced and watched out of the corner of her eye as Marshall left the room.
The newly born child lie on the bed, wiggling it’s arms and legs and opening it’s mouth rhythmically. Cecily pursed her lips.
You deserve more, she thought.
Cecily leaned over and grabbed the child. It was to weak to cry. She looked briefly through the doorway to make sure no one was there, and then walked through.
K: Misusing “it’s” in place of “its” is a pet peeve of mine, and we have it three times here. Beyond that, it’s kind of a beginning more than anything, as it didn’t take the next step that so many other stories did this week. I feel like we just got started, and by the time you’ve got me hooked, it’s over.
MN – There’s a lot of mystery here. Some of it we can work with, but this probably is a bit too far. Cecily seems fine, so what terrible fate awaits the sister? Though I do like that you’ve introduced the sister character… everything else this week focused on parents and doctors and such.. but siblings was a nice, fresh take. In a strong week, this falls just a bit outside the medals for me.
Good stuff, gang. No horrible scores from me, and it seems like Novak enjoyed himself as well – probably because he’s always looking to identify with a story, and the very first one involved elves.
Three of you were sexy enough for immunity this week:
Brooks Maki (8 points)
Brendan Bonham (6 points)
Annette Barron (6 points)
Vote for anyone but these three mensches by Saturday night at 10pm Central. Results might go up late thanks to my work schedule, as often, but I’ll post on time if I can.