Octavia Butler is one of my writing heroes. Before her books, I don’t know that I’d ever read a science fiction series that consumed all of my time, all of my brain. I fell into her world and I didn’t think I’d ever come out again.
But when I DID come out again, the piece below is what I started writing. I needed to regurgitate something back, to show how reading what she’d written made me feel. It needs a lot of work* and I feel like the plot and conflict need something more, something to up the tension. This is Octavia Butler meets The Matrix, and where my brain goes when I’m in need of some good queer science fiction. No men. Just women and non-binary folks, queer people, and robots and a desolate, post-apocalyptic, toxic wasteland.
*Please respect my craft and don’t take anything from my site without permission!!! But feel free to give critique or feedback in the comments below. Or send me an email if you’d be willing to exchange manuscripts.
ODE TO OCTAVIA (working title)
From Piece’s Recovered Journal: Logged Entry 1
This I write for me. I found myself after searching a very, very long while. The shadow of me was separated from my being and has been for what feels like years, peeled back and off. This wry, wet, slimy piece of me. I think they cut it out of me, but I can’t be sure. There’s a puckered, light mark from where my seam would be, all the way down my side. It’s a lighter brown than my skin; the meat of me can unhinge and display my wriggling insides. (At least I think so.)
Maybe there’s nothing inside of me. Maybe it’s a clockwork mechanism with gears and metal, scraps of parts cobbled together by human hands instead of human cells. They make robots so well you can’t tell the lie from the biological phenomenon.
No one really knows how the extraction process works. Some say they are soul stealers, if that’s what shadows are. Some call them demons. Some call them aliens. What I know is that I was here before them, and I’ll be here after they’ve gone.
Waking Days (Piece)
She moved through the world alone. For who would want to be with her? She did not know, could not fathom anyone who would. She alone, she caring for no one. For whom would she care? What was her purpose if not to care for and about those outside of herself, children lovers, elders, and ancestors. But the world remained hers. She and the Earth. One brown-skinned woman alone.
Every so often, a pod would rise from the muck, unannounced and so noisy she could feel the rumble in the soupy air. Greenish-black slime slipped from its cool surface in mucusy ropes, sticky like afterbirth. The first time this happened, she bolted from the sight, taking off through twisted remnants of trees, blackened by fire. The second time, she peered curiously from behind a rock, curious as to how the physics of a single glass stem supported the pod, any of the pods. And inside them? People.
Each pod contained a single body. because the atmosphere was too foggy to get her sights on the person inside the pods, she imagined brown-sinned, wild-haired women with big halos of brown hair. Black people. Brown people. Black babies. Black skin. Lightly browned skin. Black essence. Full lips. Smooth curves. Skinny bodies. Wide and round bodies. Big hands. Small hands. Freckled brown cheeks. Crinkled eyes. Breads. Braids. Locks. Brown/Hazel/Blue/Green eyes. Gap-toothed smiles. Dimples. Shades of brown and black so fine and dark.
Sometimes her imagination hurt her it was filled with so much beauty. She curled up behind her rock, staring at the glass stem.
Come down, she thought.
Waking Days (Chase)
“I didn’t think there was anyone else awake in the world but me,” I told my drone. “There’s me and this scar. What did you cut out of me?”
The drones were not known to be conversational. They recorded and collected data, took samples and analyzed them, wrote equations and experimental procedures lost to human people anyway. Droids inserted themselves solidly in everyday life so fully that they could not be counted as anything but essential. Essential as food, air, and sleep, essential as love, speech, sex, fuel, plastics, and electricity.
I tapped my knees with open palms, feigning boredom. They called to me. “Female child,” they said.
When I did not respond to this after several months, they tried my preferred gender pronouns: “Non-binary gendered child. They. Them.” My mouth curled up into a rueful smile because they had remembered not to call me by my genitals. But still, I did not answer.
“Shadow Chaser,” they said. “Chaser. Chase.”
I nodded slightly.
“We woke you to track down the interloper. You need to find peace and serenity.”
I rolled my eyes and curled my lips in disdain.
“Peace and serenity,” it repeated, just one of them this time instead of the whole collective of interfaces.
“Yeah,” I said finally. What peace had the pods ever brought me? I wanted to ask.
Robots don’t understand concepts like heat, cold, and hunger—not really. They understood “enough to survive,” but humans want more than simple existence in a solitary pod. We’d rather suffer hardships like starvation and physical danger than be subjected to outside forces telling us what we can and cannot do. Many choose to sleep in a continual dream state than realize that there are no choices anymore. In the mind of infinite possibilities, one could battle foes, fuck, or become superhuman. “Society” did not exist except for in the mind.
New minds—those who did not remember old society like mine does—were free to create, to dream new possibilities. There were no norms, no influences, no social constructs. Only solitary worlds. Heaven, the robots said, human minds are what our description of heaven means. Bliss. Serenity. Personalized utopias. With the shadows cut out of us, there could never be a hell. No nightmares.
“Chaser,” they said.
“Wander. We will give you a map of her migratory patterns for this Earth rotation and drop you near where she will be.”
“Is she a bird?” I smirk. “Does she have a flock?”
“Negative.” Robots don’t understand the concept of jokes. The drone continued, “She is not avian. Those have been extinct for twenty years. She is one human woman.”
“Are you sure she’s a woman?”
“You will collect that data of…gender preference.”
With that, the walls of my glass pod went dark and the glass stem holding me up in the air lowered, inch by inch at a rate of about a half inch a second. At this rate, I expect to be near the ground in about 2 to 3 days. There’s nothing to do but suck on my feeding tube and stare at the inside of my eyelids.
They drained my pod four days ago. The liquid poured out bit by bit and my pod gently flipped me from an upside down fetal position to an upright crouch sitting at the curve of the teardrop shaped coffin. The drones removed my breathing, spinal, heart, and feeding tubes, but left my excrement tubes in, presumably so I wouldn’t shit or piss myself during my journey to the surface. Too much mess. The spinal tubes prevented movement and neurological sensations like pain, even if I woke in my fluid sack cocoon, I would be in bliss. The heart tube provided blood and vitamins, were spontaneous hemorrhaging to occur (this happens about 4% of the time, I’m told). The others are self-explanatory.
I woke in my pod, thrashing. The drones apparently did not expect this movement and reached out to settle me back into a dream-like state. I fell half into my old universe, but the split-second of the new world had felt so authentic, I couldn’t reach euphoria.
My lover gave me a sleepy smile and a kiss. “Mmm, Chaser, what are you doing up so early? It’s not even daylight.” She laughed her musical laugh and turned her head back towards her own pillow without touching me. She knew how I felt about touching, especially after a nightmare.
“Eh, I’ll make breakfast,” I said, rolling over and throwing my legs over the side of the bed. “You want some?”
“Chase.” She turned back and reached for my shirt, but found I wasn’t wearing one, so she set her hand at the base of my spine. “It’s sleeping time. Don’t go.”
I wanted to tell her “No.” I wanted to explain that I was hungry right at this very moment and that it could not wait. Instead, I slid my legs back under the warm sheet and tucked my body back into hers, into the covers and the imprint I’d left on the soft mattress.
My mind got stuck on this repeat: The bed is empty, the bed is not real. Thebedisempty,thebedisnotreal. Thebedisemptythebedisnotreal. Thebedisnotreal. Thebedisnotreal. The bed is not real. THE BED IS NOT REAL . . .
I slept for another couple of hours until the sun was well on its way across the sky. A triangle sliver of light fell over her body as she painted naked in the corner of our loft. She had this look of concentration, a paint smear over her cheek and eyebrow. The weight of her seemed to fill the entire room, the heaviness of whatever feeling she was channeling to fill her canvas with rage. Some painters are meticulous with their work, but her hands left angry sweeping strokes, quickly filling in a mob of figures. I wasn’t even quite sure what her images were supposed to be. But they left me with this delicious feeling of discomfort.
The lurching in my stomach wouldn’t stop, no matter how I turned. It was as if my belly was moving though I lay still. I leaned over and retched over the side of the bed onto the cold concrete. I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t hear me. The tinny sounds of tiny musician and instrument sounds came from the buds in her ears. I quietly cleaned up my mess and wobbled my way to the bathroom for a shower.
Once inside, I grimaced and leaned against the door. The room tilted on its axis and the
movement sent me to my knees.
“Wake up,” said the console.