Story: Winner! The Persephone Project
Keegan’s story won the Persephone is a Badass short story contest. 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-esque setting. She is both innocent and intimidating in and of herself.
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) . . .
The Persephone Project
by Keegan Cassady
Terminal had been the word he’d used.
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.”
“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.”
“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:
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.
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.
The meetings and lessons came to her room through a computer that she kept in her desk. They would not come near her now, so full of rage she was.
In her spare time, Persephone did some rearranging. The drawers of the dresser were scattered around the room, helter-skelter, their signature marks made, denting and chipping the once perfect drywall.
The mirror, though it could not be moved, could be cracked.
She bled, Persephone discovered, as the cracked glass left nasty gashes down her palm and fingers. The wounds stung with each twist and flex of her arm.
She leaned against the wall and looked around at her room, rage and grief still sweeping over her.
To have so many questions and only to be told how little time you have to answer a single one.
She felt her body sob around her, the tears sweet and salt-warm on her lips.
She took a ragged breath in, and—
A crazed ringing filled the room. Raaw-err-raaaw-err it sounded, blasting into her ears. On it rang, urgent and automatic.
The door to her room slide open, and two attendants appeared—a man, taller, and a woman. They took in the room for a moment, and then the tall one turned to Persephone.
“Miss, the Professor requests your presence.”
They led her out of the room and through the labyrinth of passages that was Persephone’s home.
She knew out of the hallways by heart, but with a sudden left, they were in a new room. It was lit by an orange light and had clear plastic tarps draped over the space.
The woman attendant pulled out a plastic suit from a storage cabinet.
“Put this on,” she said, “we’re taking you out of containment.”
They suited Persephone up in a suit, sealed airtight with plastic wraps at any joint or seam, a breath filter provided on the suit kept out any external air. Persephone guessed that it also kept in all the air in her suit.
Once the suit was on, the room was sprayed down, including Persephone’s suit.
Having fully insured they were each their own sealed and closed system, the man opened a door behind one of the tarps and the three of them stepped through.
The door was sealed again, and the attendants led Persephone through a labyrinth entirely like her own, but now entirely new.
It was a crowded place. People came and went, passing the plastic suited trio as an assumed course of business.
And there were so many of them, travelling freely. And they looked so healthy. The others that Persephone had seen before all were frail or discolored, these were dynamic forms of all ages, with such fire in their eyes!
Finally, they found their way to another sealed door, which the woman unlocked. Another showering room where the three were sprayed down, another sealed door behind clear fabrics.
Before Persephone stood a room of people in plastic suits, and a little girl on an operating table.
“Persephone, we have a problem.” It was Hader voice from a suit right behind the operating table. That meant that three of the other suits were Jenny, Harold, and Severin. The fourth suit was still unknown to her.
Persephone looked down at the girl as Hader spoke.
“Her name is Helen.”
The girl was sickly pale, and awake. Her eyes scanned the room, not seeing anyone around her. They were cloudy and dull. Her hair was falling away in patches, and Persephone could see the girl’s fingers were a deep purple from their tips up to the second knuckle.
“Her blood is not travelling its natural course. The sheer number of other symptoms is staggering, but we are lucky that her heart is still pumping blood.”
Persephone looked over the girl . . . the one who had the dreams. And the cough. She couldn’t be anything over twelve.
“What do you want me here for?” Persephone asked. This girl wasn’t going to be telling stories any time soon.
And here, the silent Severin spoke up.
“Your dosage of the Pomegranate strain was not the only sample we had. Several other renditions of it have been tested. Doctor Pirithous was working on an inverse model of you . . . your study . . . This is his result.”
Persephone gave Severin a perplexed look. The woman’s tight grey eyes looked back from beneath the glass visor.
“He was testing a means to transfer human consciousness into bacterial clusters, based on the question of Theseus’ ship. The idea was, if the sentience were same, the bacterial clusters could be left to their devices and the humanity might be retained. The virus they made to transfer this sentience has taken over this girl’s body.”
“So why do you want me here?” Persephone asked.
“You’re the only other entity with anything akin to the Theseus infection. We need your help.”
Persephone looked around the room.
“Now knowing the worth of your own life, do you want to save another?” asked Hader.
“How is this supposed to work?”
Severin laid out the plan. This is what she had been doing, all those years sitting there, silent, thinking of ways to use Persephone, analyzing her like some leech. Having heard the plan in its entirety, Persephone faced it with understandable disbelief.
“But you have worked so hard to tell me who I am.” Her words were flung at Hader, meant to bite. Was she only some instrument, was she simply a weapon?
But rather than let the words sting him, Hader turned on her with something like love in his eyes.
“All our lives are short, Persephone, and it is not how we appear, but what we have done, that defines who we are.”
She felt his words sink into her. She had done nothing so far. She had thought and grown and wondered and learned. All her life had been preparation, some sort of sick determination of her own identity, and now, she was supposed to face death, or worse, the loss of everything that made her, her.
Then she looked down at the girl, at Helen. She was twelve, both seven years older and three years younger than Persephone, and in her, there was a foreign body feeding off of her like a parasite.
Persephone saw how, under the skin, the blood shifted and pooled in a strange battle of wills. She watched how a child fought against something greater than herself, fought against a foreign invader, and Persephone felt that same rage consume her again. But this time, she felt it not for herself, but for her sister in misfortune.
“I’ll do it.”
And with that, the plan moved forward. Severin led the rest in undoing Persephone’s suit, and like some inverted knight, Persephone lost all her armor—all Helen’s protection against that virulent sentience.
The importance of Persephone’s identity came into sharp focus. As much as she was now human, she had begun her life as a collection of interacting bacteria, forming symbiotic systems. These bacteria were all their own entities, mindless and given to function, until they were exposed the pomegranate virus. From there, that sentience collected all the parts into a unified whole, morphing their existence into a driven and unified totality.
However, she was still a bundle of unified bacteria. This is was the reason for the glass, the suits, the showers – she may think and look like a human, but what she was a massive of infectious microorganisms operating under a single mentality.
Persephone was now, for the very first time, in the same room as an unprotected person. Between her and Helen there was no glass, no plastic armor. The sheets around the room and the suits that watched did not keep them from each other. And as she stared down at Helen, Persephone felt herself compelled, and bent over the girl, and held her.
As only her sentience was the main trait binding what was otherwise a symbiotic bacterial cluster, Persephone could be as infectious as the common cold, and so her exposure to Helen would allow her easy access into the girl’s bacterial streams.
Her task here was entirely one of identity—it was Persephone’s task to take on the Theseus bacterium into her own bacterial cluster and transmit it entirely into her own body, leaving Helen’s sentience and bacteria intact.
And in the instant she held Helen, she felt Theseus.
He was infectious. A twisted thing whose color, if it had any, was a twist of blue and purple,
Swarming up from the skin, his mind rose, his presence regal and very, very old. He was dominant, and cunning, and sure.
There were two key dangers here. One, that Persephone might lose that identity when exposed to these new ones. Facing her now was one such danger—Pirithous had created a means of turning Theseus’ pre-existing sentience into a bacteria, which was warring with a native sentience, both of which would most likely be hostile to Persephone.
The other danger was that Persephone, being a virus that infected bacteria, might so rapidly grow as to consume other bacteria systems under her own identity—she might wipe out Helen. And yet, it was this infectious aspect of Persephone’s existence gave her a chance of saving Helen. Between these extremes lay the minefield into which Persephone had plunged, headlong.
Persephone was not sure how to handle the incredible encroachment over her as Theseus struggled his way in. She felt him fighting her first in her elbow, whittling away piece by piece, warring on her presence.
And she felt fear, and knew, suddenly, that she was dissolving. Her body was under contention, it was no longer safe. Theseus was too strong!
Persephone felt herself falling into the worst scenario she could imagine—giving up her physical form, and transferring her focus entirely to the bacterial realm inside of Helen—expanding rather than retaining. She fled into the girl’s body as her own form collapsed into a film-laden bramble.
In this safer place, Helen’s bacteria were already affronted, Persephone could hide from the strange and sudden war between two minds.
Now she was back in the world she had known before she had known anything. Walls and corridors of the body, platelets and cells, and herself, a mass of masses, a nation, a cause.
Cell by cell they came to her, with their complaints and their remarks, their entreaties, threats, and warnings, an army of personas . . . Just like the others she had met in the human world. She listened, she felt for them, she made them hers, but still their own.
She hid out there, and traveled, gaining followers, cells scared and contentious, wheedling and cajoling and demanding and assuring her way through Helen’s body.
Some places contained Theseus, and she and her followers fled those spots, seeking out the girl. With another entire body to seep into, Theseus was battling on two fronts, but against two inexperienced foes.
However, while Helen’s consciousness was designed simply to retain her own body, Persephone’s was naturally adept at invading other cells. She just had to find that other persona, and to conquer her own fear.
Persephone welled up her courage to approach the nerve cells, where she knew the fight would be the strongest. And she was not wrong.
It was luck alone that she found a piece of Helen, bewildered and cowering, fleeing an onslaught from that viral persona.
It was not language, but feeling, that flooded into Persephone. The girl’s terror and confusion washed into her, but under it all, like a tonic chord, came an intense desire to live.
Persephone wrapped around that feeling and let the fear that flooded over her froth into fury. She remembered that anger that came first when she was told she would die, and poured that out into the thrum of the girl’s desire to which she clung.
The nerve cells lit up like lightning, and together, the young girls, burning with the rage of a sentient body, flung themselves full force at the encamped armies that bore the banner of the virulent Theseus.
He was a strong virus, but had been born human, and traveled to this place. Helen, while a newcomer to war, had lived here all her life. Armed with Persephone’s natural virulence, they slaughtered that mental hold that Theseus bore over Helen’s body, returning order first to the brain through wretched and disorderly coups, and then rent their way down the nervous system and out into every limb.
Having flooded the girl’s body full of herself again, Persephone now cornered the unnatural Theseus strain in its warped places and forced his losing forces into her own bacterial cluster.
At last, she looked out, her sentience nestled with Helen’s. They shared the girl’s eyes and saw the strange mass that had been Persephone, now a tumble of organs and grease atop the girl’s body.
As they gazed together, reveling in their victory, they saw the goo-stitch form of Persephone slowly ravel itself together. Skull, hair, shoulders, skin, hands, nails.
They saw the collection rise up and look at them with eyes that had been Persephone’s. But the smirk on that face was Theseus.
Someone in the crowd addressed the risen mass.
Together, the girl and the virus watched as the figure above them nodded, and began to turn.
Persephone was quick, and Helen matched her. A single pale hand latched onto the exposed wrist of the rising body that had been Persephone. Through that grip, the viral Persephone launched all of herself back into the fight against Theseus.
In her own body, Persephone found Theseus in his height, demanding and strong. To see as she saw now was to see with a thousand eyes in one mind. Within her own body, she saw the bastion of barricades and defenses Theseus had built against her return, and though the turf was naturally hers, he had made the going hard.
The body of Persephone turned to one of the attendants and gestured for help.
Persephone felt Theseus’ rush of adrenaline and knew he meant to expose himself to as many people here as he could.
Persephone was flushed from her fight to regain Helen, but here she had little quarter to give, for should she fail, she was unsure that Helen could fight a second onslaught.
Pirithous approached her body.
Persephone felt Theseus commanding her vocal cluster, and in that moment, began her assault to regain her body.
“Help me,” said a voice that should have been her own, but dripped with a sense of pride she had never felt.
She let him have the words, for she had ripped through into her own feet.
This was her cluster, her origin. And yet Theseus had so many more years as a persona, he wore it like a second skin. So intimately entwined were they that from the fletch of feeling, quivering language arched its way out.
“You don’t honestly believe you can win this.” Theseus mocked at her.
Persephone’s hand beckoned to Pirithous.
“I wouldn’t be so cocky, old man.”
One of her feet flung out sideways as Persephone recaptured her knee.
The crowd lurched back from the rabid form.
Theseus screamed in anger, so much so that Persephone’s body let out a primal groan.
Theseus changed tactics. In the enmeshed think space of her own body, Persephone saw his plan: he was going to kill Helen.
The watchers in the room cowered back to the walls as the teenage girl in the middle of the room began to strangle the child beneath her.
Helen, recently in control of her own body, was still disoriented. Her hands pulled against the tight grip that Theseus was exerting, but too late. She struggled to breathe as Theseus pressed Persephone’s thumbs deep into Helen’s windpipe.
Then, with a sudden snarl, Persephone rolled off the operating table, her feeling giving out below her.
Helen was flung from the table, Persephone’s nails scraping through her skin.
Persephone’s body let out a mad howl and crawled after the girl, dragging her entire body with both hands.
But her own feet suddenly planted themselves, and her legs whipped her body up her spine, and she stood.
And then, she began to speak, her whole body rigid with an internal struggle.
“You have no right to this body!” Wailed Persephone, her language etching its way into Theseus walls and parapet.
“Girl, let it go,” said the thorned castle, becoming a serpent. “What are you, after all? You’re someone’s creation, a virus,” and the serpent struck out, “an infection”
The teenager’s right hand whipped down and tore into the right thigh.
Inside Persephone’s body, the serpent’s venom flowed through her sentience. “I was a hero, child, and could be still.” And now the venom, too was a snake, constricting around her throat. “I saved lives. I helped humanity reach the stars.” She was losing, not only consciousness, but herself. “I had such a life!”
And suddenly, the teenager’s entire body crumpled to the floor, and lay there, a huddled mass.
Inside, Persephone had changed. She had begun this assault out of rage. She was righteous. She was fighting for herself. But here, in this shared moment, at the end of herself, she remembered this man.
In that long line of visitors, one had been a proud and failing veteran, a war hero, a prince. He had had such stories, and so much pride.
“It’s terminal,” he had said, gesturing to the growth on his shoulder.
“All stories end, child. Even heroic ones.”
The memory washed over them both, and in that shared mental pathway, Persephone changed Theseus’ vice grip into an embrace. Together, they swept through her body, both minds feeling the youth and possibility that waited there.
She held him, sharing his entire sentience, dressing his naked memory in her soft potential. He trembled in her arms, afraid. Not of her, but of what he might become.
“Theseus,” she whispered to the viral entity that huddled within her, “I was given twenty seven years to live.”
“Every story ends, child,” he said, now simply sad.
“Tell me what happened, Theseus.”
“It was cancer. We can conquer the stars, but we can’t best our bodies, child. Pirithous found a solution for me, preserving my sentience in a virus. We needed a host. I needed someone young. I wanted a full life.”
Persephone had to ask the only question that mattered.
“Did Helen volunteer?”
She felt the shame leak out of him, wetting himself.
“Pirithous fooled her . . . she thought she was getting a routine checkup.”
“You’re a thief.”
“I am an explorer.”
And here, the matronly Persephone, a cloak of empathy, sealed up the walls of reproach around Theseus ’ strain, tightened with thick barriers of righteous shame, building her house around him, neat and square, and white with emotion, and set him there.
She gave him a memory of light and heat, she gave him her store of books, she gave him every memory of the windows to that outside world.
And when he tried again to take control, he found himself locked in.
“What have you done?” He moaned.
They could still speak. They were a shared presence, now. But only she could control herself, only she could infect the world around her.
“Theseus, you will not die. Not for a while yet. But you will stay here, and be my guest. You will not be an explorer again until I deem you ready.”
“What?” his temper rose, and he lashed his purple will at her white walls, but he was so isolated now, and she so concentrated, he could not so much as stain that square white room she had made for him.
“Who are you?” He shouted. “Who are you?”
And then she sealed up the doorway to his little room, and looked out.
They all still waited at the edge of the room, uncertain. Jenny, Severin, and Hader with the wounded Helen. And there, off to one side, Doctor Harold Pirithous.
Limb by limb, Persephone stood again.
“Well,” asked Hader, “Who are you?”
In one fluid motion, the teenager walked across the room and ripped through one of the plastic suits. The figure she touched writhed and buckled, convulsing on the floor.
Moments later, the body of Doctor Pirithous stood.
“I am Persephone,” said the two infected figures in unison, “and these men are my guests.”
It would be a month until Helen was released from quarantine, but sure enough, the entire Theseus strain had been removed from her. The Persephone strain was also conspicuously absent. Pirithous, however, was riddled with two viruses, one that railed at him, and another that kept him externally complacent.
During the quarantine, Persephone had kept Helen company in the usual way. Hours of chat, and games, and stories. But for the time, both girls were allowed a rare treat. They shared a common room, without glass, or suits, or any separation—just two children, sharing a space.
© Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of Keegan Cassady.