In partnership with Silver Press and The Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust, Granta publishes the winner and runner-up of The Space Crone Short Story Prize for speculative and science fiction. ‘Sever Babylon’ by Fer Boyd is the winning entry.
I awake in my rental bed and immediately run the tongue over the teeth. They feel fleshy and bend slightly when pressed with the finger. Last night I’d suckled on the plump part of someone’s thumb, on that precious mound connecting digit to lifeline and clearly some skin cells had infiltrated the enamel. I hold up the mirror, to see what else I will find. On this fine, hazy day, the eyes are hazel, the tongue long and spackled with a white coating. I curl backwards off the bed, straining to look down the throat. It is empty of tonsils. I smile and an unfamiliar, blackened filling winks back. The eyes roll, conveying a learned satisfaction at how it feels to live in this newly evolved world.
As I do most mornings, I head down to the cooling pool on the corner of True and Grease. Natural materials made their comeback a while ago. It’s too hot for anything else. The chill of stone alleyways is sought with the intensity once reserved for lovers. Haphazard partitions of scrap wood guide the architecture of the neighbourhood, and corrugated metal discarded in the first part of the century has been hunted and bent, creating motley assemblages of shade. The cooling pools are an official addition to this chaos. Every body already carries all possible strains of disease, making the pools an equalising zone of nullified infection and necessary repose.
At the beginning of the evolutions, theories were thrown from balconies like gristle after breakfast. Down the bars people gave their opinions readily, but only after a period of gestation. You had to first run it past a handful of individual listeners before the podium would hold the weight of your words. Now we’ve got the pools, we can say whatever we want. They were originally created to help us cope with the heat, but they are also the main place to cruise, to swap and to try and make sense of what’s happening to us.
This morning I’m joined by Elemental, who, like me, was born in the time before. I recognise Elemental by their gait, each arched step, each curlicued gesture, weighty with age, with well-practiced seduction. Elemental’s perpetual skin is that of a body whose life has been lived outside, buffed tan accented by the slick of crimson always painted onto whatever pair of lips are worn. But as the ripples of my entrance into the pool subside, I notice new shapes. Additional bulges reveal themselves – a distended liver, a swollen crotch – along with a serpentine grin.
Evolution sped up, along with everything else. Communication, travel, forgiveness, contagion, tornadoes, remission, the ability to forget. Some said that when the context heated, everything bloomed. Others blamed plastics and pesticides. Babies are now born with the ability to recompose the body. I was brought into the world without it, but over the course of my lifetime the possibility has seeped into my cells. Of course, I can’t call them mine anymore.
Two adolescents descend the ladder to enter the pool. I haven’t seen them around before. I try to gauge their ages. They would’ve been conceived right as the changes came up like heat rash across the skin of the world.
I begin my speech as they stretch into the soupy water. I play the part I’ve been dealt. I know that’s what they’ve come for, to hear our opinions before we die out. I clear the throat that has stayed with me since last week. ‘As you two probably already know, the shift into this evolutionary stage, or should I say, stages, has lasted almost fifteen years.’
When I falter, two sets of eyes close. Parroted authoritarianism doesn’t work anymore, so instead I edge into the personal, which always hooks souls from the stream. ‘While others were already swapping, throwing parties and shouting matches to jump-start their organs, I lived in denial. Nausea kept me in my room, my gut not yet tuned to pull apart fear from excitement like ripe fruit.’ I pause, awaiting their reaction. One of them reaches over and lightly brushes the nipple, and so I continue, ‘This was the case until one day I woke up without a pinkie finger. It’d left me, my denial only serving to rot the meat from the bone. That was the second stage: denial had become impossible! Everyone was involved in the instability, whether they wanted to be or not. Body knowledge overrode mental beliefs, which take far longer to corrode. Our flesh knew before we did.’
‘What did it know?’ One of them spurts, lazily.
I wave the question away. ‘I remember early on I heard an ATOM-SPLITTING scream of understanding. I felt it fall from the dark bed next to mine and onto the floorboards, the wood grain shifting to accommodate its imprint: OUR CELLS BELONG ONLY TO THE UNIVERSAL POOL! This was followed by a gasp, an inverted death rattle. Do you understand what that sounds like? Relief on a grand, transformative scale, happening within a small municipality of the flesh.’
I watch as one of them sits atop the other, giggling. They were letting me wash over them. Good, because now Elemental was starting to crank the gullet. ‘In order to swap organs, you can align over anything: pleasure, identity, even hatred. I remember my first swap. I’d never met someone that lived with the same genre as me spread across their face, practically drooling from their mouth. I saw myself in them and my mirror neurons fired. Before the evolutions, hardly anyone understood that by shucking reproduction from pleasure we were trying to save us all. I’d already abandoned the project of procreation, which demands difference be iconised. I found myself in a sky burial of delight when I loved someone of the same genre. This was followed by the euphoria of group sex, which was filled with fleeting bodies who promised to share themselves right down to the minutiae.’
Elemental sighs, memories misting the face, before lying back and opening the eyelids, showing the corneas to the heavens. ‘When we fucked, language blistered. The silvering of our shared aura broke a sweat that slid down to our heels. We flared the same colour, as our hearts jumped out of our chests. We briefly swapped them, something I had never done before. Afterwards, I thought of their heart often, wanting to feel it heavy inside my chest again. My identity has always been in flux, gathering pace, gaining, losing . . . But it was in their shifting skin that I first recognised both myself and the world.’
I let Elemental enjoy the spotlight, before offering a memory of my own. ‘Ideas of ownership fell away from me. I remember how my gut dropped into my thighs when I understood that my body was no longer mine.’
The kids are staring at me with mouths agape. I wonder if their teeth are still the ones they grew themselves. I pluck at the drama. ‘It clanged so hard I spat blood. My parts would leave me and be replaced with those of other people. Always kin, I told myself, always they will be kin in some way. I watched as my nipples left me, along with my collarbone. I retched as I mourned, willing my tears to soften the leather of ownership’s grip. ‘My’ parts were still living, after all and so before long I rejoiced in the collective composite kick. I felt us all go click, click, click, interlocking! The stability of the body unsettled forever in this century.’
Holding hands, the teens slump in pleasure under the waterline, mouths bubbling at the rim. I continue the rapture with a question curling coyly at the edges, ‘How did this evolution come into being?’
I grin as they sit up fast, thirsting for answers. Elemental looks at me and winks, ‘To return to those moments is to place your tongue to the frayed end of an electric cord.’
‘What do you think happened, really?’ The one on the left asks quietly, as the eyeball starts to roll down the cheek, looking for a new home in Elemental’s moist socket.
‘They still come to us as the ones who tell the truth. We always have!’ Elemental cackles slickly as the eyeball begins to crawl up and over the golden, crenellated neck, leaving behind a snail trail of determination.
‘We don’t know for sure. But we’ve got some theories. Some say it was caused by the overheating of everything, both the land and the language.’ I pause for effect, hanging on the edge of the cause, but the one on the right jumps in, killing my chime.
‘It probably happened because of organ donation don’t you think? Your bodies got used to accepting them and then it just sped up?’
‘How strange,’ Elemental muses, ‘you were born with an inherent knowledge of the instability and yet this is what you think! I would’ve thought by now your footing would be so lost that you couldn’t even breathe in binary.’
As the conversation breaks down, Helix enters the pool. I’d swapped with them multiple times but no matter how they shifted, Helix always retained a rawness that dropped my bravado to its knees. I puff up the chest, scrabble for a more grandiose thread. ‘We are the evolutionary result of the phase when battles were fought with the body, yes, but also linguistically. This was done at a time when many were out of practice, and so the battles were unedifying and unresolved. Since this head trauma, language is no longer how we communicate our selves.’
Helix is looking at me wide-eyed. Obviously! I’m a charmer. Wanting to reminisce, the vocal cords start up, ‘I remember, do you? My tongue turned blue and my brain flickered, and then, the word I was looking for just wasn’t possible anymore.’
‘Language got sick of us, didn’t it? It turned us down, blocked us.’
‘And in doing so it gave us these . . . bullet holes for breathing.’
We stare at the sky, feel the sun burn the retinas that chose us.
One of the young cuts across our trance, gesturing to Helix, ‘Do you ever miss the liver that you believed was yours?’
‘No, although sometimes I miss my memories.’
‘Has your brain ever swapped?’ They turn on me.
‘No,’ I lick the lips, ‘that hasn’t happened yet. I’m scared of it happening.’
‘I’ve got a theory,’ Helix announces, breathing a shroud over my sentence, ‘that evolution begins in rumour. Suggestibility, that’s our new form of reproduction.’
‘Did you hear,’ they ignite simultaneously, ‘that since the last drought, apparently reproduction has started up again? But now you need four or five people to do it!’
Elemental rises, ‘How interesting! I thought the next thing for us would be self-reproducing!’
‘Nah, it went the other way. I’ve got a cousin from Lejos who says you need that number to get the pleasure high enough for conception to take place.’
Helix’s hand hovers over the stomach. It’s either time for a swap or they’re getting sick from the heat. ‘Some people won’t want to do it though, will they? I hate when people want to keep themselves clean to try and avoid regret. It’s so offensive to what it means to be living.’
‘Let’s wait and see, shall we?’ Elemental juices voice from memory, as a fresh eyeball clicks.
I crawl home from the pools, passing bodies delighting in the exchange, in the liberation from purity. Blood drips from the head and silvers in the blazing night. I awake on what seems like a rental bed, and finger the bedclothes to find a mirror facedown next to me. It’s been a long time since I looked in a mirror.
Image © David Strom