One of my hardest jobs as editor here at Futurismic is trying to write the introductions to our new fiction pieces that actually do them justice. This month, I’m not even going to try – all I’ll say is that Eric Del Carlo‘s “Fluidity” totally blew me away when Chris sent it over for me to look at, and that I’ve not read such a strong yet sensitive treatment of gender politics in science fiction for some time. See for yourself.
by Eric Del Carlo
Some prim Prior in Xen’s childhood had made a pulpit-pounding fact of this statement: “To interrupt one’s Cycling is to throw oneself off a cliff!” So often and with such spittle-spraying vehemence was this preached that it had locked in Xen’s mind.
And so when he pulled the braided sash and his burgundy robe heaped the ground around his bare ankles, he stepped forward over the ice plants with that Prior’s fervor guiding, not warning, him. The ocean’s salt-tart wind handled his slim naked body carelessly as he came to edge of the bluff. Cascades of ice plants turned to dark rock below, then colorful sand. Xen paused to touch his exterior genitals. It was a wistful gesture.
Off a cliff…
He went, making instruction of that long-ago thunderous remonstrance. When he struck the dark rocks, he crushed numerous bones; when he bounced and tumbled out onto the beach itself, he lived only long enough for a group of startled concerned bathers to huddle over him.
He didn’t stay dead long, however. He had known that if he didn’t actually splatter his skull, this would likely happen. It took away somewhat from the grandeur and glamour of his action, especially when he woke in the pastel cell and to the bland condemnation of the revivification staff.
Xen lay slabbed, speechless, and was moved through the institution like so much cargo through an endlessly interconnected warehouse. Enough of his traumatized faculties had returned to a functional state for him to start to seriously wonder what would happen to him now. He had managed, with a straining and groping hand, to determine that he still applied. Male. Still.
It had worked! He had thrown himself off a cliff and interrupted his Cycling. And he had that priss of a Prior to thank.
Eventually it seemed his transferrals through the corridors and bays and wards had ended. Xen found himself in a place of seeming permanence, and separateness. He was conveyed across a border of sorts, and heard thresholds clanging closed behind him. He sensed the cage around him, though the surroundings were quite humane. There were private rooms and areas open to the sky. Staffers were on hand.
Xen remained too weak to rise for several days. He was still gently moved about, but merely to tour the landscaped grounds. The staff responded to his every question with noncommittal pleasantries. He found he feared demanding answers from them; feared being told what rights he had forfeited. They knew he had hurled himself from the bluff deliberately. They must. But… did they know why?
While making those turns of the grounds, he saw others in resident attire. Most were ambulatory. Some gave him a glance; none showed particular interest. With the sole possible exception of a male who perched alone on a marble bench. He had brows of an almost blue-black darkness that menaced eyes which glowed a fragile yearning blue. Xen looked over as he was pushed through this male’s fixed line of sight. An intense stare. It alit upon Xen, and a soft chill caressed his flesh. Then he was past, and the man was staring just as raptly at empty space.
Only, did some flicker of acknowledgment appear in those tender eyes?
Xen recovered from his trauma. He could still feel the vertigo-rush of his plunge; and that first impact – the only jolt he had actually felt – was recorded as a permanent sense-memory. But he couldn’t and didn’t fault the revivificationists, nor the convalescence staff. His body was restored.
And he felt whole: for he was still male. And he would evidently remain so, at least until his next Cycling, less than three months hence.
He slept and ate, and stood and walked. He came and went from his room during those scheduled periods when his door wasn’t sealed. After a few days he had explored all of the facility. He waited to see what therapy or rehabilitation or even interrogation would come. He had been injured, and now he was sound; but he wasn’t being released, which meant the authorities must be interested in the circumstances of his trauma.
Xen did not wish to surrender his secret, the ultimate truth about himself. Years of Priors and more years of societal conditioning had made that inmost authenticity about himself a shameful fact. He had long ago determined that no one should ever know.
The pace of events at this sequestered facility was languid. Even on a regular timetable, the hours seem to ooze by. Still, meals never failed to arrive; recreational activities were available at the same time each day. Xen didn’t mind. He was, however, put out by his fellow residents, of whom there were twenty-one, who shared this general lethargy to the point of being as evasive as the staff whenever he tried to ask a question about what treatment he could expect. Was everyone else drugged? He didn’t think so. Why, after all, would they exclude him?
But he could find out nothing. And he was growing frightened. What if this was some sort of primitive permanent detention? He had never heard of such a barbaric punishment actually being implemented, but perhaps it was reserved for criminals like him….
One day, with the sky a fine steady blue, all the residents were called to one of the courtyards. It was the first mass event Xen had seen since his arrival. The focus of the gathering was a male of middle years who was obviously readying to enter his Cycling. He had that flushed, unstable look, and his features had started to take on the telltale mercuriality. There was nothing extraordinary about a person in this state, of course. What was bizarre, however, was that the man was draped in the sort of gauzy finery and surrounded by all the elaborate accoutrements of a person’s first Cycling ceremony. No frills had been withheld. It was the gaudy and merry ritual appropriate for a youngster in adolescence’s first blush–not for someone of this man’s age, who had to have been through some hundred and more Cyclings in his lifetime.
It was patently ridiculous, but everyone appeared to be taking it seriously. Or at least those residents assembled were not pointing out the ludicrous nature of this display.
Xen too raised no protest. He stood, perplexed and somewhat uneasy, and merely watched as the Cycling individual lay upon an extravagant dais; and, according to the normal stages of the process, underwent the automatic, genetically mandated transformation. When the middle-yeared woman arose, the staff members applauded and called out those blessings suitable to this ceremony, if not to its age-inappropriate participant. A few residents joined in listlessly. The exception was the male with the delicate blue eyes who clapped boisterously, and perhaps derisively.
The woman smiled shyly as she stepped from the dais. The next day she was removed from the facility.
It set Xen to dreaming that night, or to a roving of his imagination on the darkening border between wakefulness and sleep. He participated again in his own inaugural Cycling ceremony; but it was a warped affair, attended by unfamiliar faces, and when he tried to rise, cloaked in his new gender, he was shoved back down and made to go through the Cycling again. He had done it wrong, he was told by angry spectators – no, by a crowd of Priors, all priggish and prissy. In self-righteous tones they preached on all sides of him now, condemning the sin of mono-genderness as an ancient crime that had driven the world to the brink of destruction. Only through the miracle of Cycling could universal understanding occur. With understanding came empathy and, finally, peace.
But it was all accusatory, for plainly every one of these prudish Priors knew Xen’s secret, and damned him for it.
He fought his way free of the dream but found himself suddenly engaged in another struggle – this one with the person who was on his bed with him, straddling his chest, gripping his wrists. Xen, panicking, thrashed and started to mewl out a terrified cry.
“Shout and you’ll be sorry!” It was a hiss of anger and glee.
With those buttocks riding Xen’s narrow chest, the threat was implicit. The room was night-dim. The door should have been locked. This intruder was definitely not a staffer.
The male weight pinned Xen. He had heard the masculinity in the voice; now, squinting upward, saw the shape of the face and recognized the glow of the fine blue eyes beneath those fierce black brows. He held back his cry.
“I’m Des,” said his pinner. Again the mirth in his tone, underscored with a vibrating violence.
“I’m Xen.” He was still afraid, but he was also alert now.
Des didn’t release his wrists. His fingers were strong. “You think you’re some kind of special rigid? You don’t bend – is that right?”
Xen was less muscular of body, but limber. He had engaged in all sorts of athletics. He was fairly sure he could sweep his leg up and hook his antagonist. That, though, might start a real fight, and he was wary of how that could turn out.
“I’m here because I had an accident.”
Des purred a laugh. “Is that what you said to the ‘vivers, after they dragged you back from death? You were, what – the jumper? Yes. Some accident.”
It sparked a cold anger in Xen. No one, in all the time since his cliffside plunge, had asked him about the episode. He hadn’t even been given the opportunity to claim that the incident was a mishap.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, letting some of that ire into his voice. Another few seconds and he really would hook this male with his leg.
“Just wanted to say hello,” Des said. Then, still astraddle Xen’s chest, he suddenly dropped his mouth and slavered a childishly sloppy kiss back and forth over Xen’s lips. Xen’s eyes widened to the full blue radiance of that gaze.
An instant later he bounded off the bed, crossed the room and slipped out. Xen, stunned, went to his door but found it sealed. Numb steps took him back to bed where he didn’t sleep for hours, though when he finally did, he was unvisited by Prior-haunted dreams.
Still there were no therapeutic exercises, no formal inquiries, no psychological probes of any sort. Xen, it seemed, was simply here.
He started to understand the languor of the residents. Though no one was mistreated or suffered deprivation, this existence was deadening. The recreational activities served only as distractions, time filler. Until… what? Xen wondered.
Until the next queasy fabrication of an inaugural Cycling rite, he soon figured out. These, then, were the only significant happenings at the facility. They occurred at the given individual’s normal three month interval; and afterward that person, sporting a new gender, disappeared. It was cunning, Xen came to grudgingly appreciate. It forced the residents, himself included, to look forward to the next ceremony. And thereby to anticipate their own inevitable Cycling.
Though the residents remained uncommunicative, Xen gathered enough knowledge to confirm what he had suspected: everyone here had made some attempt, usually through semi-suicidal means, to interrupt the physiologically programmed Cycling. Evidently drastic bodily trauma could effect just such an interference.
Only Des among the residents spoke regularly to Xen, making haphazard and somewhat grotesque overtures of friendship. He told revealing stories about the other residents. The blue-eyed male could be fawningly amiable one moment, such as when the two would walk the grounds together; and the next Des might succumb to a fit of temper over something as insignificant as a food stain he suddenly noticed on his blouse. The same occurred during recreations. More than once in the course of one of the harmless games, Des erupted into such a fury that the staff had to gently intervene. Des was also given to episodes of curiously intense lifelessness, where he sat and stared and spoke not at all.
Xen wondered, but didn’t ask, when the male’s next Cycling was due. He certainly knew when his own was set to overtake him, when, as had already happened so many times over the course of his relatively young life, his cherished maleness would be taken from him.
New arrivals occasionally appeared, still recovering from whatever physical damages they had put themselves through. Once, when Xen was accosted by one of these newcomers, he found himself barely responding to questions–not out of aloofness or apathy, but simply because he couldn’t quite bear to speak the truth about this place.
“You’re all docile,” Des said one day as they sat side by side on the marble bench where Xen had first seen him. “Sheep. Cabbages.” Des was in one of his potentially dangerous energetic moods. He seemed to thrum next to Xen.
“We live in a peaceful world.” Despite Des’ behavior, Xen willingly spent time with him. He was a better distraction than any of the recreational activities; and it was possible he had valuable information. “We are products of a peaceful social order,” Xen continued. “I think most people, here in this facility or elsewhere, are… docile.”
The blue eyes swung toward him, and the dark brows above gave the appearance of a storm gathering over a tropical ocean. “And you credit Cycling with that, do you? Straight out of your first prayerbook, I’d bet.”
“Understanding. Empathy. Peace. The opposite gender is no longer a mystery.” Xen, reciting this, again felt that same secret spark of cold anger.
Des was in a state of hyper-alertness. He either caught some telltale on Xen’s face or imagined one. “Don’t quote that at me! I’m talking about you – all of you, in here. You know how many escape attempts have been made here in the past five years? None. None. You’re not peaceable, you’re not empathetic – you’re complacent! The only courageous thing you’ve ever done in your life was to take that dive so that you could hold onto your dingus a little longer!”
Des was shouting now. It would bring staff members.
He jumped up from the bench and wheeled on Xen. He shoved his face forward, features pulled into a taut maniacal mask. But his next words were soft, almost tender-sounding. “You believe yourself to be male. Male and only male. You feel disembodied in feminine form. You wait out those three months by secretly sobbing and cursing and uselessly trying to convince yourself that the Priors are right and that you’ll adjust eventually. At least that’s what you did until you – just – couldn’t – take – it. Not again. Not one more time.” A small tight smile seized a corner of Des’ mouth as a staffer’s hand closed on his shoulder; and his final words were a faint whisper. “You’re not the only one….”
Xen sat dazed on the marble a long while after Des was led away.
That night he did sob, soundlessly, thinking of the truth about himself which Des had so directly addressed. Of course there were others! He had known that. He had even known that this facility must be a place specifically to hold individuals like himself, ones who had tried – successfully or not – to interrupt their Cyclings. Yet he had persisted in thinking of his condition as his secret, his lone peculiarity. He felt in his heart he was male. That had always been his clearly burning belief, since the programmed age when he had started to switch back and forth betwixt the sexes.
But he felt no solidarity, not even in here, among – presumably – others of his ilk who held similar proscribed beliefs about their gender identities.
So he wept in loneliness.
And later, as he lay limp and spent and unsleeping, he heard his door disengage. And when Des came bounding up onto his bed, Xen pivoted and caught the blue-eyed male and spun him and landed on top of his chest, straddling and pinning him.
Des didn’t respond with a cry of surprise. Instead, he laughed, a shrill edge to it.
“Shut up!” Xen commanded. “Or I’ll make you shut up.”
A fearsome grin split the other’s face, but he quieted. In a hushed tone he said, “So, not so docile after all.”
“Evidently not. I want to know how you get in and out of my room. And in and out of yours for that matter.” Xen also wanted to know how Des knew there hadn’t been an attempted escape from this facility in five years.
Des said, “Before, when I said about you not being the only one of your kind” – the grin died on his features – “I didn’t mean to imply that I was a wretched rigid like you. I’m not. I’m a fluid. I’m normal. I just happened to try to exterminate myself when my next flip was due, so they assumed I was a mono-gender deviant.”
Xen had never engaged in heartfelt physical violence toward another person before, but he felt the tremendous urge to do so now. Instead, he kept this more muscular male pinned helplessly to the bed.
Des’ words had hurt – wretched and deviant and even normal. But he asked in a menacing voice, “How did you get in here tonight?”
“Through the door.” Spoken in a smarmy singsong.
“How do you know things nobody else here does? Where are you getting your information?”
The grin came back, more sinister than before. “What’ll you do when your Cycling comes? Climb obediently onto that stage draped in gauze? Are you looking forward to it yet – the pageantry, the gaudiness – ”
The anger, long smoldering, rose higher in Xen. He didn’t know how much longer he would be able to stop himself from striking out at Des. He gripped the male’s wrists tighter. “Answer. Me.” The words choked in his throat.
Something relented in Des. Or else this was merely another turn in the man’s unstable ever-changing temperament. The resisting tension went out of his body, though Xen didn’t let his grip slacken.
“I watched… ” Breath left Des’ body; when he drew another, it was ragged and the words which came were quavery. “I watched them come, one after another, different faces, different ages. They seemed so lost to me. Sad. Pathetic. At first – and for a long time – I felt a secret revulsion, though I kept up the proper caring front. I pretended, like a rigid pretends. But eventually I started to see. After thousands of faces I saw.” The yearning blue eyes suddenly glittered in the room’s nightly dimness. “You people really are what you say. You’re male. Or female. Not both. You can’t be both. You pitiful degenerates… ”
But this last wasn’t accusatory. Or at least, Xen thought, the accusation wasn’t meant for him or those like him. He stayed atop Des and watched the guilty tears spill. And finally he sat back, and the blue-eyed male shuddered awhile as he wiped his damp cheeks.
“You were a staff member at this facility,” Xen said.
“That’s how I can get through the doors. And how I access files.”
“Didn’t they change the codes?”
“I know the thinking behind those changes.”
Xen felt tremendously tired of a sudden. But he had one more question he needed to ask. “How does one escape from this place?”
Des’ black brows had been pulled down tightly; now they lifted. With a ghostly trace of mirth the madman said, “Kiss me first. Then I’ll tell you.”
Xen shifted toward him on the bed. He put his mouth upon Des’, and the kiss lingered a long, long moment.
He didn’t think it coincidental, not for an instant, that Des’ Cycling occurred the following day. The two dozen or so residents dutifully assembled for the formal ceremony. Des behaved as an excited unruly adolescent would, just as though this truly were his first time. He laid down on the dais; and when, later, Des rose, it was to the enthusiastic ovation of the staff and the rather more subdued applause of the residents. Xen called out a blessing.
Xen had two and a half weeks left until his own next Cycling. He had that long to use the information Des had given him, though even if he did escape, what was the good? How could he interrupt his Cycling except by another drastic act, which would only return him here. Still, it might be the trying that mattered. It might send a message to the authorities. It might, at least, be the start of a message….
Des, grinning, descended from the ornate platform. She was brawny but decidedly feminine, with supple swelling breasts and flaring hips. And thin dark brows over long-lashed eyes of a sweet fragile blue.
Her gaze sought and found Xen in the encircling onlookers. She called out giddily, “Find me and be a man to me!” Then she laughed; it was girlishly raucous laughter.
She was gone from the facility the next day.
Eric Del Carlo is the coauthor, with Robert Asprin, of the Wartorn fantasy novels. His solo s-f, fantasy and horror fiction have appeared in numerous publications over the years, including Sybil’s Garage, Electric Spec, Brain Harvest, Necrotic Tissue, Talebones and Kaleidotrope. A final novel with Asprin and Teresa Patterson, a murder mystery set in New Orleans’ French Quarter entitled NO Quarter, is being published by DarkStar Books. Check out ericdelcarlo.com for further info.