Cast of Wonders 528: Notes from a trans-inclusive gender apocalypse

Notes from a Trans-Inclusive Gender Apocalypse

by Ember Randall

May 10

Firestorm (12:05 PM): You know, given all the possibilities for an apocalypse, this wasn’t the one I expected us to see. At least not first.

Kazumi (12:31 PM): Did you see the good news, though? The Bureau for Magical Mismanagement think they’ve isolated the cause! Some sort of ritual gone wrong, something targeting men–and they think they’ve even identified which story the group was using for a basis for it! They’re calling for any female practitioners who are willing and able to come to Spiregate to join a ritual to undo it.

Firestorm (12:35 PM): Only female mages, huh?

Shapeshifter (12:36 PM): Fuck. I hope it works. I keep waking up and wondering if this’ll be the morning the flowers take over enough that they can’t be uprooted next time it’s a girl day.

Shapeshifter (1:11 PM): Is it alright to say I’m scared? Cause I’m scared. I used to like boy days–so many fewer expectations in presentation–but now? I will spend a bloody hour doing makeup every morning for the rest of eternity if it means my skin stays skin.

Kazumi (1:28 PM): Yeah. I know what you mean. Hugs, Shapeshifter. Hang in there.

Just_some_programmer (2:32 PM): Are they… really sure they’ve isolated the cause? Cause…

Okay. Look. I’m a guy, or at least I’m pretty sure I am, and I haven’t had single plant sprout. I can’t be the only one, can I? It’s not like anyone’s really going outside anymore, thanks to the pollen, but… I don’t know. Like you, Shapeshifter, I keep wondering when I’m going to wake up and feel roots under my ribs, but it keeps not happening. And I know for sure I’m not a Null, I’ve eaten my share of hexes.

Kazumi (2:47 PM): My cousin’s with the Bureau, and she says they’re pretty certain. Too many similarities to a couple of base tales, the kind that make good ritual foundations. But you should reach out to them, it might be useful for them.

Just_some_programmer (3:01 PM): I did, actually, back when they were asking for anyone who might know anything. But they never got back to me.

Firestorm (3:15 PM): Typical

Kazumi (3:19 PM): Be fair. This is the biggest crisis they’ve had in… probably ever, honestly. Something like half the population is turning into walking shrubs before they die–if they miss a couple emails here or there, you can’t blame them

Firestorm (3:25 PM): Sure I can, when those emails might be critical to the solution. But I bet the dinosaurs in charge are ignoring everything that doesn’t fit their pet theories. It’s what they do every time something even vaguely complicated comes up, and something like this… complicated is an understatement. There’s a reason I left, you know.

Shapeshifter (3:53 PM): I didn’t know you’d worked there. You think they can pull off a counter-curse?

Firestorm (3:56 PM): I… gods, Shapeshifter, I really want to tell you yes. And I don’t want to jinx them. I’m watching the branches grow around my brother’s arms and just… I would give a hell of a lot for this ritual of theirs to work. But I don’t know.

Shapeshifter (4:12 PM): Well. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed, then.

May 14

Shapeshifter (9:41 AM): I guess it didn’t work, then

Just_some_programmer (10:45 AM): You doing okay?

Shapeshifter (9:48 AM): It’s a boy day

Kazumi (9:49 AM): Fuck. I hope you switch back soon

Shapeshifter (9:50 AM): Me too. If I had any control over it…

Just_some_programmer (9:59 AM): This may not be what you want to talk about right now, and I totally get it if that’s the case. But… what does it feel like, on boy days? How do you know it’s one?

Shapeshifter (10:33 AM): Besides the flowers sprouting from my inner forearms, you mean?

Shapeshifter (10:40 AM): It’s hard to describe, honestly. It’s… well, what makes you know you’re a guy?

Just_some_programmer (10:46 AM): I don’t know. I keep asking myself that question, given the whole state of the world, but I just don’t know. I never questioned it, you know? I’ve got a body that looks a certain way, and I’ve never been unhappy with that. And I like computers and beer and the other things you’re supposed to like as a guy. I guess that’s how I know?

But I guess the curse is looking for something else, or there’s something weird about me. Or… I don’t know.

Kazumi (10:54 AM): You know, I didn’t think about it either, not till I went off to college. I had a pink phase and everything, wore frilly dresses basically the whole time growing up–as a choice, mind you, not because that was what my parents told me I had to wear. The idea of wearing pants and having people look at my ass made me super uncomfortable, for some reason that probably made sense to teenage me, who hated being the center of attention yet chose clothing that never fit in.

Then I got to college and learned what the word nonbinary means. Which, to be clear, did not trigger some sort of epiphany immediately! Took me years after that to realize that might be what I was.

Kazumi (10:55 AM): Am. You know what I mean

Firestorm (11:12 AM): Whereas I’ve always been happy in my skin and assigned gender–queer as fuck, yeah, but cis. Even at my most butch, there’s something inside me that says I’m a woman.

And I can’t describe it, really, any more than Shapeshifter can. It’s like… you know how you know when you’re in love?

Just_some_programmer (11:16 AM): I’m not sure I know that, either. At least not romantic love, if that’s what you mean.

Firestorm (11:18 AM): Lol, okay, maybe that was a bad analogy!

Firestorm (11:20 AM): You ever considered you might not be a guy?

Shapeshifter (2:49 PM): You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to, you know! Firestorm, don’t scare him, alright?

Firestorm (2:56 PM): What? It’s a valid question. We’ve got a curse that’s turning men into bushes–if you’re not a bush right now, you’re not a guy. Ipso facto

Shapeshifter (3:00 PM): You know perfectly well that’s not the whole story, otherwise I wouldn’t have these damn roses in my arms. Which, for the record, hurt like hell and I’m really trying not to panic, so excuse me if I’m a bit short, but we don’t know what this curse is targeting. Not for sure.

Firestorm (3:09 PM): Every available clue I know of suggests gender identity as the root of it. Not chromosomes, not primary or secondary sex characteristics. Just identity.

(And, for the record, I’m betting that’s why the Bureau ritual failed. I’m betting the Bureau dinosaurs didn’t understand that.)

Shapeshifter (3:14 PM): Is it even possible to target something as, well, squishy as gender identity? I’m no high mage, but how the hell do you run a ritual over something you can’t define in runes, something that’s different for different people? Rituals need everything spelled out, dammit!

Firestorm (3:16 PM): Well. Not always.

That’s what we tell people, sure. That you need to define everything down to the last hair if you’re going to cast a ritual, or you’re going to get all sorts of side effects. And it’s true.


(There’s always a but.)

If you’re really good and really reckless, you can let the magic do its own defining. Give it a channel, and let it shape itself.

If I was going to try to curse the entire world, that’s how I’d do it. No caster, not even a coven, has the juice to curse more than a handful of people–maybe a small town, at most. (I’ve cleaned up a few messes like that when I was at the Bureau.) But if you let the power take the reins, suddenly you aren’t relying on whatever you’ve got inside you and in the artifacts around you. It can just flow.

Shapeshifter (3:18 PM): You’re saying magic wanted to curse the world? That’s bullshit. It has to be.

Firestorm (3:21 PM): Not wanted to curse the world, exactly. But was encouraged to do so.

Shapeshifter (4:40 PM): Hells. We’re screwed, aren’t we?

May 16

Kazumi (1:03 AM): Hey, Shapeshifter? If you’re online, if you can see this… let us know how you’re doing?

Kazumi (1:05 AM): Just_some_programmer, same goes for you, if you’re still here. You’re welcome here, you know, no matter what your gender is. I mean it.

Shapeshifter (1:19 AM): Hey, Kazumi. Did you know columbine flowers have roots that feel like knives when they wrap around your ribs?

Kazumi (1:23 AM): Oh. Oh, Shapeshifter… you haven’t reverted back to girl yet?

Shapeshifter (1:25 AM): Turns out, if you stay in boy mode too long, you can’t uproot the flowers afterwards.

But hey, they’re really quite pretty!

Kazumi (1:27 AM): Gods. I know this is probably a stupid question, but is there anything we can do?

Shapeshifter (1:28 AM): Find a way to lift the curse?

Kazumi (1:34 AM): Did you see the latest press release? They’re saying the first ritual failed because the curse is too powerful, but they think they can nail it down and try again with more juice. They’re asking for more practitioners and any power-storage units people can spare.

Don’t spread this around too widely, but my cousin says the power isn’t the only issue. She thinks the definitions weren’t tight enough, that they were going off of runes that were too based in biology, because that’s what they were expecting, based on the base tale they identified. You know, Y: the Last Man style. So she and a few of the younger practitioners are trying to convince everyone else to try a new set.

Firestorm (1:36 AM): Sigh. Can’t say I’m surprised by that, but, fuck, Shapeshifter, hang in there.

Kazumi, did your cousin say which set, by any chance?

Kazumi (1:41 AM): I can ask in the morning

Firestorm (1:42 AM): She probably isn’t allowed to say, but, if they’re still working off the standard sets…

Firestorm (1:46 AM): I don’t want to jinx it. But the standard sets don’t have what I think they’d need. I’ve been trying to dig into the traces, but I don’t have a lab, and I’m not getting far enough. There’s something very subtle about the way the curse evolves, and I’m 99% sure the original ritualists did do what I thought they did–let the magic take control. But that whole ritual changed the definitions just enough that finding the counters is… Ugh.

Sorry. Babbling. I’m running on about two hours of sleep and enough caffeine to drown an elephant.

Just_some_programmer (2:05 AM): Firestorm. Are these closer to the rune sets you’d need? [files attached]

Kazumi (2:12 AM): Oh, hey, Just_some_programmer, glad you’re still here!

Firestorm (2:43 AM): Where did you get these?

Just_some_programmer (2:48 AM): Drew them up. I’m no practitioner, but I’ve always been good at API and system design, and I’ve dabbled with runes. They’re pretty similar, when it comes down to it, and… I was thinking. About what you asked me, and what gender really is, and all that.

Firestorm (3:15 AM): They’re not perfect, I won’t ever say perfect, but fuck. These are what I’ve been trying to create for the last four days.

Can I play with them? Tweak them?

Just_some_programmer (3:17 AM): Sure. Like I said, I’m no practitioner, I couldn’t do anything with them even if I wanted to. I just wanted to do something, you know?

Shapeshifter (4:22 AM): Firestorm, you need a test subject? Happy to volunteer!

Firestorm (5:37 AM): I’ll let you know

May 17

Firestorm (8:12 AM): So, I have good news and bad news.

(Yeah, that’s cliched. But isn’t that always how it goes?)

Shapeshifter (8:20 AM): Well, don’t leave us in suspense! What is it?

If you need added incentive, I’m happy to send along some pictures of the lovely topiary my chest is becoming. It’s really quite gorgeous when it flowers, when it’s not making me scream and want to die.

Firestorm (8:23 AM): Sorry. Trying to figure out how to say it.

Basically, I think I might know how to structure a ritual to undo the curse. It won’t be simple or easy, but the rune setup from Just_some_programmer actually provides a pretty solid foundation for something that might just work. (Maybe. Seriously, I need to emphasize the maybe here.)

Bad news, apart from that maybe, is twofold. First, my old Bureau contacts pretty much laughed me off when I tried to suggest this to them–it is, according to them, the most harebrained, cockamamie scheme they’ve ever heard. And the reason for that is the second piece of bad news.

(Ugh, explaining this is hard!)

Basically… those rune definitions are perfect, *for Just_some_programmer*. And they’re pretty close to something I can use. But.

Just_some_programmer (8:24 AM): Wait. You’re saying we need personal rune definitions?

Shapeshifter (8:25 AM): How’s that gonna work? You can’t have everyone operate off their own rune set in a ritual, can you? Everything would go haywire!

Firestorm (8:29 AM): Well.

Not necessarily.

Not if what I think is right is right.

But, look, I don’t actually disagree with my Bureau contacts on how batshit this is. This could be the terrible idea to end all terrible ideas, and I don’t want to ask anyone to participate in something this likely to blow up in our faces.

Shapeshifter (8:34 AM): But you don’t think the Bureau’s gonna cure us, do you?

Firestorm (8:44 AM): No. No, I don’t.

Shapeshifter (8:46 AM): Fuck it. Tell me what you need, Firestorm, I’m in. Can’t be worse than slowly dying as roots burrow through my muscles and thorns drink every drop of blood I’ve got.

Kazumi (8:50 AM): Firestorm… please tell me you weren’t the one to come up with the idea of substituting humans for runic definitions? And that’s not what you’re talking about now? My cousin went on an hour-long rant about that idea going around the Bureau…

Firestorm (8:52 AM): I said it was a terrible idea!!

Just_some_programmer (8:59 AM): You. Want to use people instead of runes.

Shapeshifter (9:00 AM): Um. What the fuck? I know I said I’m in, but…

Firestorm (9:03 AM): Anyone here got a better idea?

Look. I had to bury my brother yesterday, thanks to a damn thorn bush tearing apart his lungs, and I’m looking at a half dozen other people I really, really, really don’t want to lose. Yeah, this is batshit. Goes against everything we know about magic. Going to get everyone in the ritual killed. I’ve heard all that! Don’t you think I haven’t been saying it to myself over and over and over?

But I don’t think there’s a spark’s chance in an ocean that the Bureau is going to solve this. You all read what Kazumi said, that most of the Bureau staff still think this is based in biology. And my contacts confirmed that. That’s what all the stories say should happen, and they’re utterly convinced that the original ritualists were drawing off of one or more of those stories.

But we all know that’s not how this damn curse works. Maybe that was the original intent, but when they opened themselves up to the magic, the magic took over and made its own definitions. And it didn’t use biology to do so.

Kazumi (9:11 AM): I don’t think anyone disagrees with you on that last point, Firestorm. But I’m not sure why that means we need to do something so risky. Could you explain that a bit more?

Firestorm (9:15 AM): It’s all about definitions. To undo a curse, you need to give it the same definitions as the original curse, right? That’s basic spellcasting. But, since these definitions were written by the magic itself in some massively screwed-up ritual, we can’t just use a set of runes and a traditional, concrete definition of gender.

Bottom line, gender is personal, and this curse seems to go after that. So the counter needs to be equally personal.

Just_some_programmer (9:18 AM): Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t the runes also guide and shape the raw energy? Can a person even do that?

Firestorm (9:39 AM): Do you want the comforting answer, or the real one?

Shapeshifter (9:42 AM): Oh, hells, I’m dead either way. But I would like to know the real odds beforehand, if you don’t mind.

Firestorm (9:56 AM): Truth, then. Truth is, I have no clue.

Shapeshifter (10:01 AM): It’s an adventure, then!

Firestorm (10:10 AM): I really appreciate it, but you don’t have to. I mean it. The more people I can gather, the better it’ll be, but I can try this on my own if I have to. I’ve written down all my notes, and they’ll be sent to a few practitioner friends and my ex-colleagues if things go sideways. One way or another, this’ll be useful.

(I don’t mean to sound self-pitying there. I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone into this, I swear! Volunteers only.)

Shapeshifter (10:12 AM): Stop trying to talk me out of this

Just_some_programmer (11:54 AM): You really think it’ll work?

Firestorm (12:34 PM): I think it has the best chance of any idea I can think of, and better than anything the Bureau’s doing

Just_some_programmer (3:08 PM): Alright. I’ll help. Tell me what to do.

Firestorm (3:12 PM): …Are you sure?

Just_some_programmer (3:14 PM): I have a chance to measurably, actually affect the course of this apocalypse. There’s no way I can stand aside and do nothing.

Besides. If you need a breadth of definitions, as I suspect you do, you’ll need someone like me. I’m still not sure I’m not a guy, but I’m not sure I am one, either, if that makes sense? It’s like… poking a tooth with your tongue, but the tooth isn’t there, has never been there, and you never realized it was supposed to be there, either.

Kazumi (3:18 PM): Welcome to the club <3

Kazumi (3:19 PM): I’m in, too. Like Just_some_programmer said, who’s gonna stand by and watch the world burn if they have a chance to save it?

Firestorm, I trust you. Let’s do this

Firestorm (3:25 PM): Don’t make me cry, I’ll get splotches on all my notes!

Seriously, though, I love you all. I really, truly hope this doesn’t blow up in our faces.

May 25

Kazumi (12:46 PM): So. Um. Was that supposed to happen?

Shapeshifter (12:48 PM): Oh good, you felt it too!

Well, not the flowers vanishing, I assume you didn’t feel that. (For the record, they hurt nearly as much shriveling as they did growing, but no longer having roots in my bones… gods, words cannot describe that relief.) But that question. You heard that, right? Or… felt it?

Just_some_programmer (12:49 PM): It worked, though, didn’t it? The curse is gone?

Firestorm (12:54 PM): Oh, it definitely worked. Take a look outside.

But… I think it had a few unexpected side effects.

Shapeshifter (12:55 PM): You can say that again! I’m not complaining, though, this is a dream come true! Any idea how long it’s going to last?

Firestorm (12:56 PM): Ah. About that. Could you possibly clarify the exact nature of your current predicament? I…

Alright, I’ll be honest, I have no clue what happened at the end there. I felt the magic pouring down the new channels we’d created, erasing the curse from the world, but then… something shifted. The magic wanted something more, and… I guess you all answered it?

Shapeshifter (1:00 PM): Well, I can’t say that fills me with confidence, but I’m going to enjoy this while I can! I never thought I’d actually get to shift shape.

Firestorm (1:01 PM): Shift shape. As in, actually change your shape, not your mental image or your spirit-self or an illusion projected about you.

Shapeshifter (1:02 PM): Yep! Just to variants of human, but this is great! Do you know how much time I’m going to save on contouring and makeup and clothing?

Firestorm (1:05 PM): Ah. Um. Can everyone else do that, too?

Kazumi (1:08 PM): Continuously shift, no, or at least I don’t think so. But the magic did shift me, a little.

It’s silly, but I’ve always hated the way my hips make me get misgendered. But now they’re gone! Well, not gone, but you know what I mean. It was like the magic asked what shape I would feel most comfortable in to match the definition I was giving it, and then helped me get it.

Shapeshifter (1:09 PM): Well, that explains why I can still shift, there’s no single body type that I feel happiest with! It all depends on the day. Firestorm, you’re a miracle worker.

Kazumi (1:10 PM): Just_some_programmer, what about you, if you’re comfortable sharing?

Just_some_programmer (1:17 PM): I heard the same question you both did, but I guess I wasn’t sure how to answer it. I don’t think I’ve changed, but there’s this little spark beneath my breastbone that feels like it’s still waiting for an answer. I suppose, unless that dissipates, that change might still be waiting.

Kazumi (1:19 PM): It’s alright not to know, you know. And it’s alright not to want to change anything about yourself, even if you decide you’re not a guy!

Firestorm (1:20 PM): I’d love to claim credit for this, but I definitely didn’t plan it. It’s honestly rather terrifying (not that the whole ritual wasn’t), magic doing something entirely on its own like that.

I have to apologize–I should have tested things more thoroughly.

Shapeshifter (1:23 PM): No apologies needed, at least for my part! I’m loving this. And if there are side effects, who cares? We just saved the world! I’m gonna celebrate that, celebrate being plant-free, and worry about the future after I’ve had a big slice of cake.

Maybe not gonna tell any Bureau agents, though.

Firestorm (1:24 PM): Eminently sensible. Speaking from experience, the Bureau does not like things it doesn’t understand, and I don’t think anyone here wants to be a guinea pig.

Kazumi (1:27 PM): We have to tell them something, though. Every practitioner in the world will have felt that, and we did gather a few thousand queer and trans folk together for it. Virtually, sure, but someone will talk.

Firestorm (1:32 PM): Let me worry about that one. I have plenty of experience misdirecting Bureau investigators.

Just_some_programmer (1:34 PM): That sounds like a story I’d love to hear, at some point. If you want to share, of course.

Firestorm (1:35 PM): Happy to! Right now, though, I think Shapeshifter has the right idea about cake. Stopping an apocalypse deserves a reward, after all!


Host Commentary

This is a story I’ve been wanting to read for so, so long. Biology is complex, and whether considered on a chromosomal level or in terms of purely physical characteristics, gender binaries are always more of a suggestion than a rule. Endocrinology and hormones, neurology, the complexity of how individual genes are expressed in the human body… it’s messy, and beautiful. While simplistic categorisations of who is what, and why, might work for the cisgendered majority, they will never be enough for everyone. On the level of individual identities, gender is a question that only an individual can answer.

That’s an idea that Ember’s story seizes and runs with. Science fiction has given us many different stories where human populations are affected on specific lines – Y, the Last Man, was given a nod in this story, but the idea of societies splintered along gendered lines goes right the way back to the roots of science fiction. Back in 1970-ish, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness took different routes in their explorations of the nuances of gender expression and gender identity, and are well worth reading if you’re interested in the fiction of that time. Unfortunately, many more recent works take the idea of a gendered apocalypse and apply it through rigid, binary tropes that were dated half a century ago. It’s inexcusably reductive to erase the existence and lived realities of trans, non-binary and genderqueer individuals. There’s certainly nothing novel about it. I see this story, in part, as an active response to some of those works. It’s celebratory of diversity. It’s creative and thoughtful in its exploration of what a gender apocalypse might really mean. The characters are rich, loving, caring, brave, and real, they tackle a problem together and find acceptance and fulfillment in themselves, and in each other.

And that’s exactly the kind of thing we need more of.

About the Author

Ember Randall

Ember is a senior software engineer who specializes in user-centered design and accessibility. They got into tech to make the world a better place, which happens to be the same reason why they write – if their stories or the products they work on make at least one person happy, they count it as a success. In their free time, they enjoy reading, running, hiking, and generally exploring the outdoors, as well as creating new tales via larping. Their stories have been published by Zombies Need Brains, Future SF, and other venues. Find them at

Find more by Ember Randall


About the Narrator

Jordan Kurella

Jordan Kurella is a queer and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Cairo and Chicago). His work can be found in Apex, Glitter + Ashes, and Strange Horizons.

Find more by Jordan Kurella