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Persephone is a Badass: Writing Contest Winner!

 

This story by Keegan Cassady won the Persephone is a Badass short story contest at Mythraeum.

I loved the way he took the idea of abduction (or an attempted abduction), and turned it into a study on Persephone herself in a sci-fi setting.

There are a lot of layers to his story that I find myself noticing the more I read it—from self-awareness and transformation, to innocence and inner strength, to the way a body can even seem to “abduct” itself sometimes (like when it gets sick) . . .

Thanks and congratulations, Keegan!

Here are the first 1,500 words:

*

The Persephone Project

by Keegan Cassady

*

“It’s what?”

“I’m sorry.”

Terminal had been the word he’d used.

“Terminal.”

She looked out at the room they had given her, so very neat and square.

She ran her hand along the painted drywall, feeling her nails scrawl over it, her muscles and her nerves react to the touch.

“Who are you?”  she had been asked, months ago.  She looked around her square room now, wondering.

Emphasizing its neatness was all the white: the walls, ceiling, and carpet, the dresser, the desk, nightstand and bed.  There were white drapes and white shades over the windows that spanned one wall, and would on a given morning give her the best view of the outside world.  But these windows were solid and did not let her out.

In all that neat room there was one thing that was not white: a mirror, neat, square and secure, which neatly showed her now herself.

Hers was a simple shape.  Strings flouncing in clustered bundles toppled down over a bulbous pod atop her core- her ‘hair, upon her ‘head.’  She could see where the softer layers covered organ systems built around a central skeleton.

The two round jellies on either side of that dorsal ridge that protruded from the middle of her topmost pod were brown, and looked more familiar to her, shaped so like cells.  Hair, they called it.  Eyes, they said.  Nose.

She ran her hand over that collection—face.  Ear, cheek, lips, chin.

Who are you?

She had learned to read and speak simultaneously.  See spot run.

What is your name?

The pomegranate seed had been mentioned everywhere.  A kind of key. Who are you?

From the basics of language had come mythology, history, arithmetic.

The pomegranate had been the fruit that bound Persephone to the underworld.

“My name is Hader,” he had said, months ago across a glass screen, “Professor Nicolas Hader.”

“Who are you?” He asked through a speaker.

He was tall, thin, and had skin like rich fresh earth.  His hair was a shock of white, cropped close to his head. Neat.

It was the question he asked every time they met, regardless.  In her regimen of exercises, classes, and private hours, an hour each day was set to meet with him.

He was remarkable. Day after day, he remained so constant.  His appearance, his incredible store of knowledge, never seemed to waiver.  He was Professor Hader, and this was his world.

She, in contrast, watched minutes transform her.  She was full of aches and soreness, her height, her size, measured daily, changed and changed.  Her face had gone from a chubby mass to a taut and equine sculpture.  Her legs had sprouted up beneath her, her muscles and bone had shown their shape beneath the layers of pale skin that had hidden them in early days.

More impressive, they told her, was how fast her mind was growing.  She learned rapidly—she could pick up facts at an amazing pace, retain and combine them.  But her thinking was they loved the most: how quickly she could put facts together and imagine results.  These were all measured and studied by men in plastic suits with glass plates in front of their faces, the typical attire of every person who entered her neat, white labyrinth.

The others, like the Professor, spoke with her from across a glass screen, and they told her stories.  These figures were all wisps themselves, their shallow pod-forms made of sagging skin. Some were yellow, some gray, some pale, and all came shuffling out of a distant door across a sealed room.

The others all had such different stories, such fascinating lives.  Some would talk with her for hours, others would have brief stories or snippets of song to tell her.  One was a hero, proud and strong, with terrible lumps encroaching on his shoulder, a final dragon sent to slay him.  Another was a child with dreams and fears and a very worrying cough.  It took all sorts.

After about three hours of such story-meetings, she would be escorted by her handlers in their plastic suits to the neat room with its windows and its mirror.

“This is the most impressive aspect of your learning,” the Professor’s voice buzzed over the speaker in the corner of the white interview room.

She sat at a table, as she always did, listening and trying to understand him.

“You have an incredible ability to feel for these people as they talk to you.  That is a rare trait, my dear.  It helps us with our most important question.  If you can understand who these people are, which you can, and brilliantly – then maybe you can help me answer my favorite question.”

“Who are you?”

The importance of the question had been underscored by its daily ritual, so today, having an answer, she allowed herself a few private thoughts.

First, that she finally knew the answer.

Second, that her having an answer was important to them.

Last, that she would like some information.

“Professor Nicolas Hader,” she said, her voice pouring liquid, “I should like to know why that matters so much.”

There was quiet across the glass.  He had three other figures in there with him.  Jenny Erebus, who ran the diagnostics team, Harold Pirithous, who was in charge of Longevity Studies, and Ms. Severin, who he only ever mentioned in passing, and who never spoke.

Professor Hader whispered something away from the microphone, and there was a little laugh from the group, but not from Ms. Severin.

“We find it funny,” clarified the professor, “that you should ask why, given that most girls at your age –”

“What age is that?”  she demanded.  He was not giving her an answer.

“Why, fifteen,” he answered.

“Do you mean years?”

“I suppose so, yes,”

“I am not that old,” she told them, “ask Jenny.  She has the numbers, am I right?”

“It’s where we place you—” Pirithous chimed in, as he always did “—in your mental age.”

“Professor,” answered the girl who was supposedly fifteen, “Please answer my question.  Why is who I am so important?”

Again, the brief conference behind the glass.  The professor had pressed a button which the girl guessed had turned off the microphone.

A click and a series of pops later, the professor was back.

“Who we are, my dear, is what most defines us as people.  We want to know what you think defines you.”

“Why?”

“You are very important, my dear.”

Now Jenny interrupted.  She only ever did this when the Professor was expressing himself poorly.

“My dear, can you just tell us, what you would like us to call you?”

The collection of hair and eyes and skin and bone and arms and nerves and nails and feet and guts and thoughts and questions, sat there.  It looked over all the stories it had learned, all the history it had been taught, and told them.

“Persephone,” the girl answered.  “You can call me Persephone.”

“Alright, Persephone,” smiled Professor Hader.  “Why your identity is so important is that you’re a human girl now, mostly, which means that you can feel, you can learn, and you can think.”

He paused.

“There is a catch.”

“Sentience . . . it ends.  The body wears down, the brain . . . Who you are, that is right now.  It is immediate.  And sadly, Persephone . . .

“It is terminal.”

*

It had taken them five years and ten days to get her to name herself, and in that time, she had developed the brain and body of a fifteen year old girl.

The Professor explained to her more of her situation.  She was not born a human girl, not in the typical sense.  She had been, initially, a specially tailored collection of bacteria.  This bacteria had been exposed to a virus called Pomegranate, a strain designed to create sentience along the level of human intelligence.

“This is why that question of who is so important,” Professor Hader explained, “Because without that identity, whether we’re made in a petri dish or in a womb, we’re nothing.”

The Pomegranate virus imitated the human structure almost perfectly—the human body was identical, and the mind.

The problem with the Pomegranate strain was that it worked at an entirely different timeline from the human genome—roughly one third the time.

“So how much time do I have?” she asked.

“Who knows?”  rang the voice on the speaker, “most people live about eighty years, so you’ve probably got twenty-seven, I suppose.”

She sat there, contemplating her own mortality, when she felt herself flushed with something sudden and new:

Rage.

It boiled up into a sudden burst, taking her body up with it.  The table she had sat at slammed up into the glass, and the chair beneath her shot back across the room.

It wasn’t until the attendants were on her she even realized she was screaming, she even knew that the wet mask on her cheeks were tears.

And now, being swept back out of the room, a new sensation flooded her, now from the back of her head onto her lips.

“Wait!”  she shouted across the room.  “There has to be something we can do!”

The speaker clicked out a single word.

“Wait.”

The attendants stopped moving, but held Persephone fast.

“Persephone, I am so sorry, but there is nothing any of us can do.”

She slumped in, and the attendants, after a moment, let her go.   They escorted her dull and aching form to her square, white room.

*

Click here to continue reading!

*

© Copyright 2016.  All rights reserved.  No part of this work may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of Keegan Cassady.

Mythraeum.com explores mythology and archetypes, and hosts bi-monthly short story contests based on archetypal themes. Once a year, one of the six winning short stories is produced as a short film.

 


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