DP FICTION #77B: “Kudzu” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

A mech could breathe for a person, fill the pilot chamber with oxygen or pipe it through slender tubes that sat in their nose, winding behind their ears. A mech could walk for someone, taking thoughts and the slightest twitch of their muscles and translating them into smooth footsteps that indented the earth. A mech could allow someone to work to pay their debts, giving them employment they long thought was impossible. For Caris, the mech did all Her body had been, still was, still would be, ravaged by cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t so bad that she needed a transplant, but she’d been on disability for some time, each paycheck slim, each breath feeling numbered and tighter than the last.

Her unit was sleek black carbon fiber, ten feet tall and humanoid in shape, albeit with elongated arms and legs. Where the head should be was the cockpit, surrounded by layers of acrylic that was supposedly bullet-proof, not that they were supposed to test that. Both hands had three fingers, perfect for grasping and pulling but not otherwise very dexterous. Someone had painted dark green stripes onto the mech, alongside a unit number, a kudzu winding up one leg. This was the eco-corps.

Humanity had done a very good job of fucking things up, environmentally speaking. By the time people had thought to fix things, it was almost too late. Invasive plants choked the life from the soil, while feral bioengineered animals presented a very real threat to life and limb. It was possible to send people out to manually clear plants and kill animals, but it was safer to send out people in mechs. They did the work of five, and as it turned out, the units interfaced well with people who had disabilities of almost every form. It was an employment option where there wasn’t one before. It was a hint of danger in the air, the possibility that they would have to fight and face down man-made monsters. It was too tempting to resist and for Caris, it meant making a dent in her own medical debt. Three hundred thousand a year, and that was one medication. Besides, the corps had health insurance. Deep down, if pressed, Caris would talk about the books she read as a child, the glossy magazines she received at her house monthly, filled with pictures of animals and places that no longer existed in their unaltered forms. Before reality had set in, she wanted to make documentaries or be a park ranger or save animals. This was the next best thing.

The cadets used clumsy and ancient mechs for their training. There was noticeable lag between the embedded jack that went into your head and actual movement of the mech’s body. Compared to that, Caris’ new unit responded instantly, each step fluid. She had thought she would have to get used to the balance and weight of a body not her own once again, but it was like slipping on a second skin.

She saw her fellow alumni practicing similar movements. They moved gracefully, almost lightly, in the constrained space of the mech bay, knowing they had just a few hours to practice before they were actually sent out into the field. They had to earn their keep, the pressure placed on all their heads all the more heavily for their perceived weaknesses. Prove your worth, some said. Prove your productivity. Prove the value of your disabled life.

“Hey Lungs,” a voice crackled over her headset, “you practicing ballet or you piloting a mech?” Harsh laughter accompanied it. Turning the unit, Caris could see some former students watching every move she made—people who had graduated from the real military, piloting combat units. It was easier, at least financially, to lump every mech together in the same building, rather than build separate facilities, but it was more difficult for the pilots. Sometimes it seemed like the other operators enjoyed showing off their physical prowess, working out conspicuously, always laughing with their eyes on the eco-corps. “How you like playing dress up, Lungs? Feel good to be wearing our cast-offs?” Caris had earned her nickname only recently, when a coughing spasm had overtaken her in the middle of the bay, racking her body until blackness was crowding the edges of her vision.

Another voice cut in. “Shut the fuck up, Booker. Go enjoy being cannon fodder somewhere else.” Jordan, one of Caris’ former classmates, managed to sound permanently pissed off whenever they spoke.

“How is it feeling?” Caris asked, afraid that reality wouldn’t match up to expectations. The small twitches and arm movements that piloted her new robotic partner didn’t aggravate her body, but arthritis was a different beast from Jordan’s own Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

“Feels fucking great. Do you even remember running?”

“Not really,” Caris laughed, and suddenly she and Jordan were running full tilt side by side. It was an extension of her body, more natural than anything else she had felt. She was large. She was powerful. She was prepared to take on the world. She couldn’t even feel the jack in the back of her head, the oxygen tubes that wound around her head, feeling like a permanent tether at all other times. They were all a part of her now, flesh and metal indistinguishable in their purpose.

Well, maybe she wasn’t quite ready to do every task just yet. A scant few hours later, the corps members were dumped in Monterey County, up near the coast. Lots of land had been left to reseed and re-wild, but it needed more help than human hands could do alone. Kudzu duty it was, the incipient vine crawling up trees, its lush green a comforting lie of health. It was not dissimilar to the mucus in her lungs; a little lighter, maybe, but just as choking. Airways and veins, nightmares of a leaflet crawling out of her mouth to face the light, holding her in place more than oxygen ever could. To face all this, Caris had her metal body, by now pumping fluids into her with a small IV, nutrients via her feeding tube. She would never have to leave, if she didn’t want to.

It was going to be an easy in and out mission. The mechs would move forward, tearing out the kudzu as they went. They were supposed to get as close down to the root as they could; everyone was paid per pound of what they managed to pull up. The plant was never supposed to spread this far, but once it made a foothold in the west coast, it seemed to thrive, spreading more and more. It choked out all things beautiful and native, constricting them more and more. Caris’ lungs constricted in sympathy.

The squad leader followed behind, meandering in their own mech, which had a flamethrower attached. Scorched earth policy, fire units standing by. The land would recover from a fire. It wouldn’t recover from kudzu. Caris’ body would recover from the antibiotics that made her so ill she couldn’t physically leave her bed, but they would never recover from the scar tissue the mucus left behind.

There was an easy rhythm to the work, despite rumors passed around by other corps members about strange creatures and danger lurking in the hills⁠—both the real and the imaginary, Bigfoot and big cats. The mechs had music they could play, and Caris felt herself enjoying the physicality of hard labor. She hadn’t done this since she was a kid weeding her grandma’s garden. They’d banned her from playing in the dirt soon afterwards, afraid of the superbugs that might lurk within. Too late and too bad. They were already there, and like the vine, they had made enough foothold to make themselves comfortable. Each plant she pulled out was like extracting the liquid from within. She could even imagine a pleasant ache in her muscles, even as she knew they were perfectly fine. When she imagined herself extending an arm, the mech did it. Every step she took was just a fraction of a second behind thought. Her second skin may have been bulky and metallic, but it was swiftly becoming home. You’d have mental fatigue before physical fatigue doing this kind of work. Before she had fallen so ill, in the distant past, Caris could remember working hard and playing hard, and how it felt this effortless.

The corps members slowly spread out. Jordan had her unit do a comical, three-fingered wave as they marched off to their own section of land. The hills rose gently so that Caris was cut off visually from the others, but they always had open comms. Slowly she zoned out, imagining a future where she didn’t have to emerge from her pilot’s seat at the end of the day, so that she wasn’t going to spend her free time longing to feel arms and legs pumping so easily again.

Move forward, pull up a plant, move a step forward again. Watch the dead trees underneath reveal themselves, the bronchi of branches still reaching up to the sky. The crashing noises didn’t interrupt her until they were far too close. She whirled the unit around in a clumsy side step that nearly overbalanced her.

A wild hog regarded Caris slowly and carefully. It was one of the modified ones, descended from a pig that someone had made bigger and bigger, until it was the size of a small horse. Somewhere along the way, the pig had escaped and bred with existing wild population, bits of wild boar thrown in there for fun. The tusked monstrosity that stood before her was “kill on sight”; there was a fat bonus for killing feral pigs. The hog was next month’s supply of medication, wrapped in hundreds of pounds of muscle and fat.

They didn’t leave the corps members completely unarmed. With shaking fingers, Caris pushed a single button and her mech extended a machete, usually used to chop through unusually thick clusters of plants, but with an edge sharp enough that she could defend herself if need be. She could use that bonus. More altruistically, she knew that the pigs were something else that pushed out anything native and good from the environment, leaving only space for their own kind.

As the blade extended, the pig bolted, and with her heart pounding, Caris urged the unit forward, faster than they had ever done in practice, laughing at the exhilaration. “You need help?” Jordan called out, voice broken up by distance. Caris just laughed in response, imagining her hair streaming behind her, pretending that she wasn’t attached to a glorified oxygen tank.

The pig vanished right away, but she could hear its squeals. War mechs had heat vision; an eco mech had plain old vision and a guide in it that could identify any plant just by turning the unit’s optic receptors towards it.

Faster, faster. She still couldn’t see the hog, but Caris thought she had to be catching up. If pushed, she knew she could get 40mph out of her unit, and she had to be close to that now. Running so freely and so easily was something she had never imagined she would do again, even after a transplant. Pain free, legs pumping, no worrying about choking and having to stop to cough.

Suddenly, a large tree was looming too close, an oak draped in kudzu, standing in a clearing. She managed to stop, but barely, skidding and falling, feeling the jostle of the mech hitting the earth in her very bones. Getting up would be tricky, but not impossible.

Had she lost the pig? She managed to get her mech up again, damage report on her screen. Nothing too bad, but she’d scratched the hell out of it. Paint was just paint though, right? She needed that money, still had the machete out…

There was no sign of the pig, but as she pushed past the oak, letting the vines catch the blade and then snap against it, feeling a sense of strain, she thought she saw something else, something running towards where the ground was still open. The pig? She had to see, had to find out.

Caris tried to creep now, but there was no stealth in a giant robot. The crashing sound of her own footsteps filled her ears, drowning out the music. So close… there. Just there.

It was a lone zebra, something that would have made more sense in Kenya than here. Caris raked her mind for an explanation; was she hallucinating from a lack of oxygen? No, her O2 stats displayed were good. She could feel the rub behind her ears from the tubes. It was a real zebra, the description filtering over the screen.

Memories from a childhood field trip filtered into her mind. Down south, there used to be a big house. They called it a castle, a publisher’s monument to hubris from decades ago. The owner had filled his land with wild animals, and long after he died, the zebras had remained, breeding and carefully managed. Then, about five years prior, wildfires had burnt the whole thing down, destroyed the fences. No one knew what happened to the zebras that lived there, but here one was, miles away from home and looking at her, eyes rolling in its head, white foam at the corners of its mouth.

No pig, but her eyes were riveted on the animal, watching as it slowly backed away, then turned and ran, galloping across dry earth and grasses that would probably burn in a few weeks. It might have been the last one, for all she knew, and in every movement there was beauty and sadness. Zebras were meant to live in herds, from what she remembered of long-ago nature documentaries. Then again, this zebra wasn’t meant to be alive at all. Not here, not now. It was supposed to be a relic of the past, something not meant to last in the current environment. What would happen to it?

Was adaptation possible when the environment kept shifting beneath its hooves? She watched the zebra for a few minutes more, its eyes searching for an escape. It had long scars along one of its flanks, the sign of battles fought, yet it appeared healthy otherwise. Like so many other creatures, it had survived. It had carved out a niche for itself here. Where the world would not willingly yield, the zebra had made it. It had survived.

Then, perhaps, so would Caris. Survival was not made for them. They existed on a plane that denied their very right to endure, but there were no other options. As the zebra pushed and pushed to make a space for itself in these kudzu-choked hills, so too did Caris. It was not cowardice, she realized, to make the world accommodate you. It was not asking too much to survive.

The zebra was alone, but so vibrantly alive. Its muscles quivered, preparing to run. It would be so easy to give in without the support of the herd or facing a robotic terror armed with a blade, yet even now the zebra sought a way out. Escape was possible. Life was possible.

Sheathing the machete, Caris turned back. There was kudzu still to cut, bounties to be earned. There was a group of corps members that waited for her. Most importantly, there was the power, the autonomy that the mech gave her. The world had not made space for her. Instead, Caris would punch a woman-shaped hole into it. She was not alone, as the zebra was. She had her friends, the other corps members. She had the memory of the zebra springing away, the sound of its hooves hitting the dry earth. One improbable survivor. Two, if she counted herself.

With another laugh, she ran back simply for the joy of running, of feeling the oxygen in her veins and knowing that the mech too, was a part of her body.


Author’s Note: I was thinking about the future of assistive tech and also thinking about giant robots, as I usually am. Somehow the two conflated in my mind and managed to weave their way in and around my sometimes day job of writing about the native environment to form “Kudzu.” 

Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers is a California based writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Creative Writing and has since worked primarily as a nature/conservation writer. Her essays have also been in the Mary Sue and Strange Horizons, while her fiction has appeared in Translunar Travelers Lounge. Her poetry can be found in Strange Horizons and Kalediotrope.


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DP FICTION #60B: “The Cliff of Hands” by Joanne Rixon

“Lhálali’s bloody viscera,” Eešan cursed. She searched the cliff face for a hold and found nothing. Finally she spotted a thread-thin crack and wedged her wingtip claw in it so she could reach upward with her stubby grasping-hands.

“Watch out,” Aušidh said. “If you fall now you’ll get hurt, won’t you?” She dipped in a little swoop less than a winglength away from Eešan in the air. The shadow of her wide membranous wings rippled across the uneven stone and the little burst of wind ruffled the sparse black fur on Eešan’s back.

The others circled farther away, the curves and points of their silhouettes slowly churning the air as they gawked. Eešan was putting on enough of a spectacle that half her hatchmates had turned up to watch.

“Yes,” Eešan said tightly. It made her feel sick to have to speak her fear out loud. “If I fall, I’ll die.”

“Oh.” Aušidh circled up and around again, landing on the cliff face just beneath Eešan, her grasping-hands and wingtips confidently catching in a clean four-point landing on the irregular stone surface. “I didn’t think you were that high up yet.”

“Don’t be stupid, you wouldn’t die,” Xhufu called down from her perch on a little outcropping several winglengths higher than Eešan. “You might break a bone if you didn’t slow yourself at all, but anyone can glide if they try.”

“Of course she would die if she fell,” Dhabelh scoffed, dropping to hang upside down from her grasping-hands to get her face closer to the conversation. “Eešan is pinwinged, what do you think pinwinged means?”

Eešan clenched her jaw and reached up. For her hatchmates the sick terror that twisted in her chest might as well be a vague rumor. As far as Xhufu could understand, anyone could glide. She couldn’t comprehend the hard, boring reality of life with only one functional wing.

Eešan’s left wing wrist had broken as she hatched; her shell had been too thick and her eggclaws too weak. The complex joint had healed as gnarled as a wind-sculpted eešanyalh bush on the edge of a canyon. Now, she was so pinwinged that she could barely get herself around the rookery on the ropes and baskets used to ferry babies and the elderly up the cavern sides. She had never had the strong, flexing shoulders that propelled her hatchmates as they ate up the sky.

“We could get you down, Eešan,” Uliinh said. She launched off the side of the cliff and into the air, flying across Eešan at a diagonal and latching onto the rocks above her. The turbulence of Uliinh’s wings almost knocked Eešan loose. For a frantic beat of her heart Eešan clenched at the stone, pulling her misshapen left wing as close as it would come to her body to keep from falling to her death.

“Between the four of us,” Uliinh said, “we could glide you down again. You don’t have to prove anything, you know. Just be patient with the Choir, they’ll persuade themselves.”

Eešan huffed out a bitter laugh and reached up again, hauling her body another winglength up the cliff. Uliinh was wrong, twice over—Eešan wasn’t sure even this dramatic scene she was throwing would be enough to convince the Choir, and she was sure Uliinh couldn’t catch her if she fell—but she didn’t have it in her to argue and climb at the same time.

Twenty winglengths above her, the orange-brown sandstone turned red with the handprints of every adult in the rookery. Sun beat down on the painted prints; the heat on her back and head was making her dizzy. The sunlight on the dips and protrusions in the cliff face cast tricky small shadows, fooling the eye into seeing room to maneuver where there was none.

The color difference between the dark gray siltstone at the bottom of the cliff and the paler white and orange sandstone layered above it created temperature fluctuations that made the drafts here unpredictable and sharp. That combined with the strange shape of the cliff was what made it the Cliff of Hands, where each child of the rookery flew into adulthood. Only a skillful flyer could come at the Cliff at just the right angle to make a pass at the Hands and, without landing, leave a handprint there on top of the cloud of handprints left by the rookery’s ancestors.

Only a skillful flyer could earn adulthood, the right to raise their voice in the Choir, and the rookery’s respect. She knew that respect would only ever be partial for someone pinwinged, but she wanted it desperately anyway, craved every speck of it she could get. Thinking about it twisted the fear in her chest into rage, and she channeled it into her muscles, powering her another winglength upward.

There—a crevice in the cliff face gave her holds for both the clawed digit at the tip of her right wing and her right grasping-hand.

She concentrated on the rock, ignoring her hatchmates chattering and fluttering around her, and stretched her left grasping-hand as far up as it would go. That wasn’t very far: grasping-hands were good for landing, latching on to a surface and clinging, but climbing steadily upward wasn’t a movement that came naturally. Her short lower limbs could only reach half as far as her wings, making her progress slow and awkward.

“This is so pointless,” Dhabelh said. “Even if you make it all the way up to the Hands—and I don’t think you’re going to—it’s not going to count.”

Eešan was glad that at least Dhabelh wasn’t trying to imagine how Eešan was going to get down. At the edge of her vision, sweat blurred the shapes of individual bushes and rocks below together with their own shadows into a rust- and copper-colored blanket.

More sweat gilded the tough membrane that stretched along her sides from the long tips of her wingfingers to the outer edge of her grasping-hands, but her broken wing couldn’t stretch out to let the sweat evaporate in sheets. She’d always had trouble regulating her body temperature because of that.

“It has to count, doesn’t it?” Aušidh flitted behind her, one side to the other side and then back again.

Eešan scowled and pointedly oriented her ears away from Aušidh, ignoring her.

“No.” Dhabelh hung from one grasping-hand, then switched to the other, making climbing look easy. Of course, if she lost her grip and fell, her wings would catch her. “That’s not flying the Hands. She’s not flying it.”

“There’s no rule about flying it.” Aušidh sounded puzzled and Eešan squashed an intense flare of frustration. Aušidh was always so frustratingly naïve. “You just have to put up your handprint. That’s what I did.”

“No one’s been stupid enough to try this before,” Xhufu put in. “Who knows what people will think.”

“But Aušidh, you flew it. How does the ritual go?” Dhabelh’s question was rhetorical; everyone knew how it went. “You take off a child and fly into the cloud of ancestors and land an adult.”

“It would still count,” Aušidh insisted.

“We would need a Choir to decide,” Xhufu said. “Eešan, did you ask what everyone thought? I didn’t hear about it.”

“I didn’t hear about it either,” Uliinh said.

“If you didn’t hear about it, obviously I didn’t ask for a consensus yet,” Eešan muttered. She did not have the patience for this conversation right now. “You fire-shit sun-eaters.”

The dust from the cliff stained her belly and chest a dusty orange, bright against her black skin. Sweat gathered under the bandolier that crossed her torso. To save on weight, she’d taken everything off it except for a hand-sized grass basket full of paint. She’d woven the basket herself, spent weeks collecting clay, watadh eggs and the eešanyalh bark that gave the paint its bright red color.

It had taken help, another way she was ruining the ritual. She couldn’t fly, so she couldn’t gather eggs from the watadh nests on the cliffsides herself. Although Pwabeš hadn’t asked why Eešan wanted the eggs, Eešan hadn’t been keeping her plan a secret. But she hadn’t tried to present it to the whole rookery either. She’d been too afraid they’d tell her she wasn’t an adult so she wasn’t qualified to make the decision to risk her life for social status.

She was so shitting tired of being a child.

Eešan climbed silently for several minutes and Dhabelh and Xhufu flew off—not far, just catching a thermal until they rose above the clifftop and soared there, in sight but beyond talking range. Aušidh and Uliinh stayed on the cliff face with her.

Ten winglengths to the bottom of the Hands. Uliinh shifted on the rock impatiently, flapping out into the air and then returning to the same spot. She was waiting for Eešan to give up; she probably had some stupid plan to call the others in to carry Eešan to the ground when her limbs gave out. The bottom of the canyon was too far below for that heroic plan to work, though, Eešan knew. If she reached the sunset alive, it would be because she’d climbed not just to the bottom of the Hands but all the way to the top and over the lip of the Cliff. That way she could rest and then shuffle down the slope on the other side.

Her chest was tight with fear she was losing the will to ignore. She reached up, her pulse loud in her ears. The movement triggered the ache in her limbs that would eventually weaken her. Eventually, she wouldn’t be able to climb.

When she’d been planning, she hadn’t thought she could be this terrified, not the whole time. She’d imagined herself as more courageous, as losing the fear once she began. Now it was too late to back down. She would be strong enough, or she wouldn’t.

It was almost funny. She’d trapped herself into seeming brave.

Six winglengths below the Hands, the rocks jutted out from the cliff and she had to climb up and out, clinging under the rock over empty space. Right wing, left grasping-hand, right grasping-hand. Her left wing membrane caught the air and the wind tried to suck her out into thin air. She flexed her shoulders, twisting hard to pull herself back flush with the stone above her. Right wingtip again, and as she pulled herself up the protrusion, a gust of wind threw a scatter of sand in her face.

“Be careful,” Uliinh said. She half-spread her wings then paused.

“Yeah, thanks,” Eešan couldn’t help snapping. Uliinh, with her strong symmetrical wings, wasn’t the one with something to fear here. Yawning emptiness ached underneath her.

Without a spare hand to wipe her eyes, she had to wait for the breeze to dry the blur of sandy tears. When she could almost see again, she reached with her right grasping-hand and dug her fingers into a thin crack in the stone, moving herself sideways to get around the edge of the protrusion and back to a section of the cliff that was merely vertical.

The tricky wind blew up against her, pressing her helpfully into the stone. She wrapped her left grasping-hand around a knob of sandstone and hauled her body up.

Then the crack shifted under her right grasping-hand, the whole layer of stone sloughing away from the cliff. The wind caught her right wing membrane. It sucked at her, pulling her out and away.

Her left wing scraped uselessly against rock. Her left grasping-fingers began to slip off the round knob of stone.

No. Staying a child forever was a kind of death, and she had rejected it. She rejected the wide open space just as strongly, with sick sharp twist of her guts.

The gritty stone tore sharply at the pads of her fingers, bright red flashes of pain in a thundercloud of fear.

“Ancestors and descendants,” Aušidh swore as she finally noticed that Eešan was falling.

Eešan’s flailing right wingtip claw caught on a small divot in the stone with an agonizing twist—caught, and held.

Her right grasping-hand found another small flaw in the stone. She shoved her fingertips into it, grinding the rough stone into the raw scrapes on her fingers like friction could fuse the two surfaces into one.

Breath rushing in short, panicked pants, Eešan pressed her torso and wings as close to the cliff as she could. Her heart drummed in her ears, fear and relief fusing together. It had happened so quickly. Death one second, and then she’d caught herself.

“Skwayašúliwa’s shitting mouth,” she breathed. She was alive.

Aušidh hopped belatedly into the air and fluttered to a spot just below Eešan like she thought she’d be able to catch her if she fell.

“Dhabelh, Xhufu!” Uliinh whistled, calling them down from the thermal.

“Stop worrying,” Eešan said. When she risked a glance up she saw bright red blood seeping out around the base of her right wingtip claw. She’d splintered it. “Shit.” She laughed, a little hysterically. “If I fall that means the Choir will have to count me as an adult, right? If I die in the middle of this they’ll talk about my corpse like I’m a real person?”

“No!” Aušidh said. “Stop talking like that, Eešan.”

“I’ll talk how I shitting want to.” The giddy panic rush was making her rude. Ruder. She didn’t care. The Hands were right there.

Two more painful winglengths up and the stone in front of her face turned red with old paint.

“Need a hand?” Xhufu snickered as she landed a winglength away. “Get it? A hand?”

For Xhufu there was nothing dangerous happening here. The reminder hurt like an old, deep bruise. Eešan squeezed her eyes shut for a second, then opened them to grope for her basket of paint.

“Here.” Aušidh shifted closer and reached out, turning the loop of bandolier that had migrated as Eešan climbed until the paint was behind her back. “Can you reach it?”

“Thanks.” Eešan dug the fingers of her left grasping-hand into the thick paint. It was almost too dry to use after baking in the sun so long, but she spit into her palm and made a fist, squishing the paint in the moist saliva and spreading it around.

Then she reached out and pressed her hand to the Cliff. When she pulled it back, a fresh red print shone out at her.

It looked exactly like every other handprint: three fingers, a thumb, the pads of her palm forming a sacred three-sided circle. For once, she was no different than anyone else, now or at any point in the tangled nest of history that cradled the rookery. Eešan shut her nostrils flat like she was in a sandstorm, an indescribable feeling rising up in her lungs. Relief and anger all mixed together with pride and the spitting bluster that had gotten her all the way up here.

She’d done it.

“How much longer is this going to take?” Dhabelh asked.

“Why? Getting hungry, lump-ass?” Aušidh said.

Eešan took another long moment to memorize her handprint. She would probably never see it again; she couldn’t just fly past it to confirm it existed like everyone else could. Then she reached upward for her next hold.

“I saw you put your handprint there,” Dhabelh persisted. “So you don’t need me here anymore.”

“Right,” Eešan said. Her grasping-hands throbbed. “You can go if you want to.”

“Stay, Dhabelh.” Uliinh rolled her neck worriedly. “She isn’t down yet. What if she falls?”

“Even if you force the Choir to admit you, everyone is still going to know you didn’t fly it,” Xhufu said. She spread her wings, ready to launch. Eešan could see the sun glowing through Xhufu’s wing membranes, the light picking out each vein that ran through them, before she dove sharply to the side and came out of it a hundred winglengths away.

Eešan would never know what that was like, to dive like that. To get the last word in a conversation because she could just escape it.

“That rotten intestine was supposed to stay until you reach the top,” Aušidh grumbled. She climbed at Eešan’s pace, a few winglengths below her. “She’s selfish. I don’t know why you told her about this.”

“The Choir will listen to her,” Eešan said, although she wasn’t sure it was true. Her wingtip was leaving small streaks of blood on the half-faded handprints she was climbing over. It would take months for the claw to recover from this abuse. It would probably blacken and fall off before it healed. “She’s not a liar—she’ll confirm that she saw me place my Hand. It won’t be just my friends witnessing for me.”

Aušidh cleared her throat of dust and spit a hunk of phlegm off to the side, obviously a commentary on Xhufu. Uliinh drifted into a shady spot and clutched at the stone, watching, waiting for Eešan to fall. Dhabelh surprised Eešan by joining Uliinh instead of following after Xhufu.

The top of the Cliff waited several dozen winglengths above her. Eešan climbed.


© 2019 by Joanne Rixon

Joanne Rixon organizes the North Seattle Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Meetup and is a member of STEW and the Dreamcrashers. Her short fiction has recently appeared in The Malahat Review, Fireside, and Terraform, and you can find her on twitter @JoanneRixon.


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ESSAY: Not Quite Superman

written by S.B. Lakes

When I was young, whenever I would get frustrated with something, my parents would say, “It’s hard, but you can do it.”

Throughout life, I’ve taken this to heart; I powered through and did the things, even when there was a crushing amount of work to be done. Friends called it “superpowers”, and I found myself using it more and more often. Superpowers always have their cost – get the power of the Dark Side at the expense of your morality, get magic powers when you sacrifice the thing you love most, and so on. For me, I’d be exhausted the next day, a gibbering baboon who looked like they’d stayed awake for three days straight, but the feeling was always that it was worth it because that’s what you gotta do to get it done. It’s hard, but you can do it.

Today I both write SFF and work in a high-powered slice of tech. In tech, superpowers are the norm. Superpowers are expected. Superpowers are your basic prerequisite, because of course you’re going to work-hard-play-hard, you’re going to go-go-go and get-shit-done. (You probably have a t-shirt or mug with at least one of these phrases, possibly handed out by your employer.) There is no place for weakness in this environment.

There is no place for disability in this environment.

In the past 5+ years, working with a wide variety of client companies, I haven’t seen a single person with a visible disability. Any invisible ones have been carefully hidden away.

Even without my disability, I’ve never been healthy. In the past five years alone, I’ve dealt with a bizarre constellation of medical issues. Car accidents, emergency appendectomy, shingles… nothing connected, but many things. Some I can hide. Some I can’t, but there’s still an expectation to push through. A regular sick day usually means working from home, smiling and cogent on the video conference, trying to ignore the fever heating my cheeks or my nose that’s been rubbed raw from tissues. The last time I had a real sick day, I was two weeks after major surgery and on serious painkillers. The following week, still high as a kite on vicodin and barely able to shuffle to the fridge and back, my then-client insisted that I get some work done and I’d been out long enough. But at least all of these issue were temporary, and none actually disabling.

Which brings me to my actual, invisible disability. I’ve struggled with sometimes-crippling depression since high school. I’ve checked myself into two different hospital programs, one of which included a week of inpatient care. It’s hard enough to smile and pretend I’m stronger than I really am when recovering from a physical illness. It’s excruciating while depressed. In my field, depression is an unheard-of weakness. People acknowledge that I can’t help it if I was hit by a car, but depression is still seen as a personal failing.

I am not “out” in tech, because I would stop getting business. This piece is the first and only work I’ve ever written under a pseudonym – I can’t afford the risk. Who wants to work with someone who might one day just be too sad to come in? What’s the point? Just get over your bullshit and get this shit done. Superpower your way through and you’ll be fine. So I grit my teeth and smile, smile even when my cheeks feel like they each have a one-ton weight smuggled within them, smile when it’s all I can do to keep the tears from squeezing out and rolling down my unprofessional face and dripping onto my unprofessional laptop that would fizzle and sizz in the very reaction that I’m now suppressing in myself. (Superpower through it. It’s hard, but you can do it.)

Depression feels like the opposite of superpowers. Instead of being able to burst through expectations and accomplish superhuman amounts of work, I’m saddled with some sort of superkryptonite. Not only can I not do things that are super, but I find it hard to do incredibly basic things. Showering is difficult. Dishes nigh impossible. Dragging myself to work is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, because the weight of the burden wants to crush me to the ground. And I want to let it, because it would be so much easier to let myself be pulverized into mush than fight for just one minute longer. (It’s hard, and you might not actually be able to do it. That’s a scary thought.)

And in a scenario where I have to hide my disability for fear of losing my job, I feel like a backwards Clark Kent. Masquerading amongst the superheroes, ever afraid that someone would notice that I squint a bit and sometimes bump into things and really if I put on glasses I’d look just like that non-super reporter guy. Nobody needs to bring in that non-super reporter guy to get things done.

Which brings me to the SFF part of my life. There are many issues with disability in science fiction and fantasy. Evil people are disabled or disfigured almost by their nature: see Star Wars’ Snoke, Wonder Woman’s Dr. Poison, Doctor Who’s Davros, and so on. Cons still don’t do enough for people with disabilities. I can’t count the number of times a panelist has decided they’re naturally loud enough to “not need a mic” so I can’t hear them (much less be heard by those with hearing limitations), or seen a panelist in a wheelchair struggle to get onto a ramp-free stage. There’s a lot that needs to be improved.

But despite all this, the SFF world has been my disability salvation. This was the very first world where I was allowed to be “out” with no consequences, and met a number of folks with the same struggle. I could have depression and still be OK, a person worth working with. Hell, I could have depression because I’d been cooped up for too long dealing with yet another illness (my current situation), and still be OK. I was able to open up about my difficulties, my clashing needs to be productive and also practice self-care, in part because so many others were openly fighting the same battles. In the past few years, the SFF community taught me about the concept of spoons, and saving your energy for the things that matter most. This is the community that lovingly yelled at me to stop being ridiculous while I was berating myself for taking too long to finish a novel draft. They told me to start taking better care of my mental health, which included taking breaks.

Not only did I not need superpowers to be accepted in this community, it seemed like nobody did. The outpouring of empathy and love became one of my strongest sources of support, with the echo of “it’s hard, and sometimes you don’t need to do it. It’s OK if you don’t.”

This contrast is startling.

When I had a week-long crippling migraine, an editor sent me copy edits to review. I knew it would be OK to request a few more days, because I wasn’t able to concentrate very well with the pain, and they were fine with it. That same week, my tech job showed no such courtesy, and I had multiple skull-shattering, painfully loud video conferences.

When I was depressed and struggling to make it through the day, I had another editor ask for a revise-and-resubmit for a story. I’d seen others do it, so I knew it would be OK to ask for another few weeks because I was too depressed to make progress. He told me to take care of myself. At the same time, not being “out” in my day job, I was juggling three very demanding clients with no way to get a reprieve. I dragged myself forward on each new project, each new request, whispering “it’s hard, but you can do it” as I trudged through.

When I was extremely depressed and was in a hospital program, getting intense therapy for four hours every weekday, my corner of the SFF community sent me love and support. It was clear that all writing had to come to an indefinite halt. In fact it should’ve been clear that all work had to come to an indefinite halt. But instead I found myself dragging my wrung-out carcass directly from the hospital to a client planning session. Depression, which gives your frontal lobe a whallop and makes it hard to concentrate or think, had me scraping together my remaining neurons (already frazzled from the hospital session) to focus not on rest and my own health, but on a soon-to-be-dead company’s plans for their next product launch.

The SFF community still has a way to go towards eliminating ableism, both in its media and within its community. But for me, this has been the one place in my life where it’s completely OK that I’m not quite Superman. I can drop the fake smile and the veneer of hypercompetence, and have one less burden to lift. I can take care of myself and my health. Things are hard, and I’m OK whether I can do them or not.

It’s good to be home.

 

S. B. Lakes is a fantasy and science fiction writer who works in tech. They’ve been dealing with depression for about twenty years, and have been hiding it from their professional tech life out of necessity. They’ve published under another name at several magazines, including Lightspeed and Analog.