The Man in Gray

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The Man in Gray

Postby LilJennie » Wed May 11, 2022 7:45 pm

My turn to pick the story -- I decided that it was time for the Persephone story cycle to have an actual antagonist for once. Seductive and ubiquitous, the Man in Gray's minions make sure the world is mundane. -- LilJennie

The Man in Gray

By Jennie Flint and Miki Yamuri



Chapter 1

Greg Kinsford looked at the strawberry colored phone in his hand as it rang, with a sweet sounding tune. Just hearing that tune made him feel … tingly. He might even have used the word joyful, if there were any joy in his life. He had lost the love of his life to an illness, just when they had been talking about getting married. She even accepted the part of him that wanted to be a small child sometimes – as a means of unwinding when he got home from his high-paying, high-stress job. But now … he had been removing the last of her things from his apartment when he had found this phone.

He didn’t think he’d ever seen it before. She’d never used one like this. The case she’d used had been pink, but it hadn’t been this shade, and this phone didn’t have a case. Its body was just a bright strawberry pink. When it rang, the screen lit up with a background that was the same shade, and the name “Unknown Caller.” And it was ringing now, with a pleasant, happy ringtone that sounded just like the phone’s color looked, if that was possible. He wanted to answer.

He reached to press the answer button, but almost before he moved, a knock came on the door. It was a loud, purposeful knock, the kind that was knocked only by someone who meant business. The last time anyone had knocked on Greg’s door like this, they had come to deliver his beloved Joy’s last will and testament. Not that she had had much to her name. The knock that was at his door now was exactly the same. It sounded important, and it drained away the small hint of brightness and wonder that the phone had brought.

So he got up to look through the peephole. He saw a man in a gray suit standing in the hallway outside his apartment – dark gray suit, light gray shirt, dark gray tie, dark gray sunglasses. The sunglasses were odd, as he was indoors, and it was night.

“Mr. Kinsford,” said the man, as if he knew Greg was looking at him. “I’m here about the insurance.”

Insurance? Greg hadn’t known about any insurance. Was he the beneficiary of some insurance Joy had had through her workplace, perhaps? Well, this was certainly important.

He opened the door, but not without the chain. He didn’t know this man. He might be a con artist. “Yes?” Greg asked. “What sort of insurance agent calls after dark?”

“We are very serious about our customers,” said the man. He held up a business card. It said, “Adam Adams, Customer Service,” and listed the name of the company as “Gray and Associates.”

“This is about insurance?” Greg asked, looking at the card.

“Yes,” said the man, in a completely neutral voice. “We are aware that the lady of the house recently left us – our condolences, sir – and you are the beneficiary of a policy she left behind. We may also discuss whether you may want us to create a policy for yourself, sir, and your beneficiaries, for when the time comes.”

“I see … well, you’d better come in, then,” Greg said, shutting the door, removing the chain, then opening it again. “Sorry, you can’t be too careful.”

“Indeed you cannot, sir,” said the man, stepping in as Greg stepped back, handing Greg his card. “I realize this is a difficult time. You are certainly still recovering from your loss.”

“Yes, it’s – very – difficult,” Greg said hesitantly as he continued to back into his apartment while the man advanced.

“Is there somewhere I can show you the paperwork?” the man asked. “The living room, perhaps?”

“Yes, it’s right through here,” Greg said, turning around and walking forward for a change. Toward the living room. Where the boxes were. Joy’s boxes. And that strange phone, on top of one of the boxes, now dark and silent.

“Very good, sir.” The man followed him into the room. Greg tried to clear off a chair for the man to sit in, but the man had seen the phone and was staring at it as a starving man looks at a slice of pizza.

He dropped his briefcase.

“Is everything all right?” asked Greg, but suddenly the man lunged forward, seized the strawberry pink phone with both hands, and seemingly smelled it, holding it up to his nose and sharply inhaling.

“Wait a minute, that’s – not yours –” Greg tried to say, reaching for it, but before he could do anything the man had actually opened his mouth and stuffed the phone inside. His lips and throat seemed easily able to stretch to accommodate it. It was gone.

“Hey, you can’t just come in here and do that!” said Greg, not sure whether he’d just seen what he’d thought he’d seen. “Give it –” Give it what? Give it back? It was gone. This man had swallowed a cell phone as if it was normal, and now the phone was gone as if it had never been there.

The man turned to Greg and said, “That device was a danger to you and others. Things like that have ruined many lives. People who find them disappear and are never seen again.”

And that was when another voice rang out in Greg’s apartment. “Liar!” came a girl’s voice. Both Greg and the man in the gray suit turned. Apparently the door hadn’t been closed. This young woman was wearing a short white dress with rainbow tights on her legs and shiny yellow platform shoes. She had a matching yellow backpack and a straw hat with a yellow flower on the front.

“See here, young lady, no one wants to see anyone dressed like that,” said the man. “It completely lacks adult decorum. Here, let me fix –” and he advanced toward her, looking as if he were trying to adjust her hat.

Greg jumped between him and the young woman. “No, get out of here!” he said to her. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m not sure what this guy is – I just saw him swallow a phone, and I wish I were lying when I say that. There’s something that’s not normal about him!”

“You’re darn right he’s not normal!” said the girl. “Here, come with me, let’s get out of here and away from him!”

Another female voice came from out in the hallway. “Hurry up, Maggie, there might be more of them!”

“I’m coming!” she said, trying to fend off the gray man, whose fingers were groping at her hat. “Come on!” she said to Greg.

“OK, but where?” Greg asked.

“Away from here!” said Maggie, grabbing his hand and leading him out of his apartment. The man in gray followed them, or tried to, but she broke into a run and Greg, holding her hand, was forced to keep up.

There was another young woman in the hallway, without a hat but with bright red and purple ribbons in her short, straight hair. She wore a purple dress over a red top and had a strawberry pink backpack and matching jelly shoes. She immediately reacted when she saw Greg and Maggie. “Hi!” she said to him. “I’m Carol. This is Maggie. We’ve got to get you out of here and away from that guy. You have no idea what he is. Maggie, show him your hat.”

“What?” Maggie took her hat off. The flower on the front of it was now devoid of color and wilting. “Awwww …”

“It’s what they do. Come on.” The man in gray appeared at the door as they started running down the hall. He ran after them.

“This is going to make you a bit dizzy,” said Carol, pulling something out of her backpack. It looked like a lot of chewing gum wrappers tied together to form a big loop. She unfolded it, and it was big enough to walk through.

“Go on,” said Carol, holding it up with two hands. They had stopped, and the man in gray was getting closer.

“You’re crazy!” said Greg.

“Go through it!” shouted Maggie. “What can it hurt?”

“I, uh –” He looked once back at the man and stepped through. He was … somewhere else. Carol and Maggie popped up right behind him, and Carol folded the strange loop up.

“Where are we?” asked Greg, looking around. “A … toy store?” Indeed, it looked as if it had once been a toy store, but it was obviously closed down. Bright decorations were fallen over or falling apart all around, and there were long rows of shelves, all bare, with occasional pictures or advertisements about what might have been on them – toys and games of all types, for all ages of children.

“This used to be a place where we liked to come,” said Maggie with a sigh. “But then they drained it all, with their debts and taxes and fees. They won’t follow you here. There’s nothing for them here. They’ve already taken it all.”

“So we’ve got a minute,” said Carol. “Let me explain. You found one of our boss’s phones, right? It was pink? Did it ring for you?”

“Yes, but –” Greg began.

“Gray guy ate it?”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry,” Carol said. “We try to stop those guys before they can interfere, but sometimes they get ahead of us. You’re one of our boss’s favorite people, though you might not know her. She wants your life to be happy and full of joy.”

Joy! The name struck a chord of pain in his heart.

“I’m sorry, was it something I said?” asked Carol. “I didn’t mean to. You look like I just broke your favorite dolly.”

“It’s … I mean … Joy was her name,” said Greg. “She’s – gone.”

“Ohhhhh,” said Maggie. “That’s so sad!” She had tears in her eyes. “I’m … so very sorry!”

“I had no idea!” said Carol. “I – I’ll try to be more careful.”

“No, no, it’s …” Greg had tears in his eyes too. “I just miss her so much.”

“Of course you do,” said Carol, patting his arm gently. “But now we know how they were able to get to you. That phone stuck out like a sore thumb. It was like a beacon in the night.”

“The phone – was it Joy’s?” asked Greg.

“Not exactly,” Carol explained. “Our boss probably gave it to her to give to you. Right before – before it happened. And then it got put in a box, among a bunch of other things. Anyway, the bright colors had drained out of your life. Joy wanted them to come back. And then one of these guys came and stole it from you.”

“Yeah, that’s not fair! How do we get it back?” asked Greg.

“We don’t,” said Maggie. “But don’t worry. We’ve got more.”

“But we can’t stay here for long,” said Carol. “They’re not going to look for you or us here, but we might still attract them. We have to get well and truly away. This is only just a short ways from your apartment.” It was? He hadn’t noticed a store like this, open or closed. But then, how often did he notice the world around him?

Maggie had dug a strawberry pink phone from her yellow backpack and was talking on it. “Hello? We’d like an extraction, please,” she said.

Several gray SUVs pulled into the parking lot outside the store. Greg and the two young woman could see them through the slits between the boards covering the glass windows. Their headlights made lines of light that swept across the interior of the darkened store.

“The back door,” said Maggie. “OK. That’ll work fine! C’mon,” she said to Carol and Greg, putting the phone away and heading toward the back of the store.

Carol walked behind Greg as they hurried as quietly and quickly as they could down one of the long aisles of empty shelves. They heard a shattering sound. They ran faster. There was a light coming from behind them. Greg looked back, and saw what looked like a flashlight. The light bounced as if it were held by someone who was running. They ran faster.

“There – the back door!” shouted Maggie.

“Isn’t it locked?” asked Greg.

“Doesn’t matter!” Maggie said. “Just hold the doorknob and turn it! I’ll be right behind you!”

“OK …” said Greg. He grabbed the doorknob and turned. The world turned sideways, and the colors became bright and rainbow-like. There was a shriek behind him, and he turned to look.

Chapter 2

There was no door behind him. He was in the middle of a white room, brightly lit, with no shadows, and brightly colored objects were lying around. There were other people, dressed in bright colors, looking at him. But they weren’t his concern. “Maggie –”

Maggie suddenly appeared beside him. “Oh no!” she said. “Carol! They got Carol! They dragged her away! I couldn’t do anything!”

“We’ll get her back,” said one of the others, a young man in a bright outfit consisting of bright orange overalls with multicolored patches over a red and yellow striped shirt. “Don’t worry. We got this.” He grabbed a strawberry phone from a pocket in his overalls. “Gloria and Sally, please report to the Crisis Center,” he said into it. Was he … wearing diapers under his overalls? He seemed a bit padded there.

“Carol’s my bestest friend,” said Maggie, looking like she was about to cry. “We can’t leave her! Timmy, we have to go back for her!”

“Maggie, it’s all right,” said the young man, coming up to hold her hand. “We’ll rescue her. It’s happened before.”

“Where … am I?” asked Greg.

“You’re … well, you’re not on Earth anymore,” said the young man, presumably Timmy. “What’s your name? We’re the ones who sent Maggie and Carol out to help you.”

“I’m Greg, but … what’s going on?”

“We’re in a place where no one ever needs to fear letting out their inner child,” said Timmy. “And our boss is one of the primal forces of the universe. Unfortunately, I think you’ve met some people who work for one of the … other primal forces of the universe.”

“The … gray guy and his friends?” asked Greg.

“Yeah.” Timmy looked sad for a moment. “But just a moment! Maggie’s going to explain. I’m going to get things fixed. Don’t you worry, Maggie.” Two more young women, dressed like they were far younger, had just entered the large room via a door, and Timmy went to talk to them.

One of the young women – the others were calling her Sally – had long blonde hair and was dressed in the cutest romper Greg had ever seen. It was a soft powder blue with lace around the bib. There were cute white ruffles around the leg openings and several more rows of ruffles across her poofy round bottom. As she bounced and clapped her hands, Greg realized that she was wearing a thick diaper underneath. Despite the very disturbing situation he had just escaped, seeing her comforted him.

Maggie took Greg by the hand and led him to some very thick and plush pillow chairs and had him sit down, within the chair’s deep, very comfortable embrace. Greg said, in a tone that sounded more like an upset toddler than an adult, “What’s going on? Where am I, and who was that awful man in gray that eats cell phones? And what happened to Carol?”

Maggie sat in the pillow chair next to Greg and snuggled in just like one of his aquaintance’s little girls did with the beanbag chair that he and Joy had gotten for her. This reminded him again of Joy, and he felt even more upset.

Maggie said softly, “We know that you are … a toddler deep inside, and that you love more than anything to destress as often as you possibly can by becoming that very small child.“

Greg’s eyes grew large with surprise as he replied, “How … I mean … You can’t know that. I know Joy would never have told you that either. It’s very personal.”

Maggie reached over and patted Greg’s hand. A wonderful surge of rushing tingles spread all through his body with enough intensity that he was almost unable to stop himself from completely wetting his pants, although he still couldn’t help a little trickle that made his undies a bit warm and damp. Maggie smiled as if she actually knew.

Maggie replied softly, “Our boss knows of each and every one of her children. You, and even Joy, who was a slightly older little girl.”

Greg asked with incredulity in his tone, “Slightly older? I don’t quite understand.”

Maggie smiled, “Unlike you, Sweetheart, she was too old for diapers but way too young for just panties. She had … let us say small little girl accidents and needed diapers from time to time. You, on the other hand, are a toddler who hasn’t yet been potty trained.” Maggie leaned over slightly and whispered in one of those revealing tones, “And we know the fear of the dreaded potty monster is there inside you too.”

Greg felt a strange but slightly pleasant fear tingle up his spine at the mention of the “potty monster.” He was also incredulous that this stranger knew of his affinity for regression. As he relaxed a bit more and the fear within him faded, it dawned on him that the large area he was in was decorated more like a play area for large children than anything else he could think of. He watched as a group of adorably dressed men and women gathered in a group.

Sally turned and saw Greg and Maggie sitting across the room and … for the life of Greg, he would swear she toddled like any other infant as she came over to them, then clapped her hands together and squirmed and wiggled in a really cute way. “No worries,” she said to Maggie. “We gets Carol back inna minute. Those Grays not gonna know wha happeneded.”

Greg asked with wonder in his voice, “Are you a baby? Or are you an adult?”

Sally giggled, “Amma baby, silly. Am this manys.” Sally held up 3 fingers, with the ring finger slightly bent. “An an an we knows you sorta younger n that too.” She bounced on her toes and said in a cute way, “Now, we gotsa goes out quietlys. This will be easy, ’n we has Carol back afore she needsa diaper change.”

She returned to her group, and they all giggled as they moved towards a large glowing ring that was standing upright on the floor like some kind of gateway, walked through it, and vanished.

About that time, several tall women, who obviously weren’t infants and were dressed in black and white outfits, came over, helped Maggie to stand, and checked her as one would any baby, lifting her skirt to feel her diaper beneath. To Greg’s total amazement, the woman then gently lifted him under his arms like any toddler, and checked him too, reaching into the back of his pants and feeling his behind. She found the slight dampness in his undies from earlier when Maggie had patted his hand.

The woman tisked softly. “Now, Baby. We are going to have to get you dressed properly for your age soon, or you will have a rather messy accident.”

Greg was floored. He hadn’t had the kind of accident the woman was referring to involuntarily since he was 8 years old. He realized that he could feel something in his bladder gently pushing to almost the point where he would wet himself, but he was able to hold it … although it was getting to be a nearer and nearer thing as time passed.

Maggie said softly, “Don’t be embarrassed. Our boss created this place so all the children of all ages could come and be safe from the Man in Gray and his minions, who do their best to take all the innocent infantile color and joy from the world.” She turned and said to the large woman, “A gray man ated his stawberries afore tha ’portant question gotsted asketeded.”

An expression of horror crossed the large woman’s face for an instant as she put her hand to her mouth, then she patted Greg’s bottom and helped him sit back in the pillow chair, “That is horrible,” she said. “You poor thing! Don’t worry, Baby, Nana will get you another immediately.”

With this, the woman turned and quickly walked to the door, opened it, and went down a hallway, vanishing from sight when the door closed, while Greg looked on totally astonished. Greg turned back to see Maggie and another girl clapping their hands and giggling like happy babies as they acted really silly, doing some sort of clapping patty cake game with their hands.

The door opened again, and the tall woman in black and white returned. Walking up to Greg in his chair, she took from her purse a strawberry pink smart phone just like the one the gray man had so peculiarly swallowed whole and held it up for Greg to take. “Here you are, Little One,” she said with a sweet smile. “It was so unfair for the mean man to take the other one from you.”

As soon as the phone was in Greg’s hand it began to ring. Its screen said, “Incoming call from PERSEPHONE.” The ring sounded like a nursery rhyme played on a music box, and just that sound made him feel tingly and happy through his entire body. He did enjoy putting on diapers and babyish clothes when he was at home and the stress was just too much. This, too, was a stressful situation, and although he had never shared this side of himself with anyone but Joy, he had a spark of hope inside his heart that these people would understand that feeling.

He looked up at the tall woman, who said, “Go ahead and answer it, Baby. All your questions will be answered.” So Greg looked down at the phone and slid the answer button.

“H-hello?” he said into the phone hesitantly.

That was when he heard a voice that he couldn’t remember hearing before, but it also felt like he’d heard it every day of his life. “Hello, Sweetheart,” said this magical voice both young and adult. “Do you accept Baby Rules?”

When she said the words “Baby Rules,” a fantastic wave of pleasurable tingling swept over his body. He didn’t know what the phrase meant, but at the same time he did. As an investment banker he knew not to sign any deal before reading it first – but it felt as if he now knew exactly. “Baby Rules” meant everything he had ever wanted in his life. It meant total freedom, constant happiness, and never having to be anything other than who he truly was. It meant, he knew for certain, that from that point on he would be expected to act like the baby he really was inside, and he would never again have to fear doing so, because instead of forbidden it would be mandatory.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do accept Baby Rules. I have never wanted anything so much in my life … with maybe one exception.”

“I understand, Sweetheart,” said the voice. “I can’t bring her back, but I can help give you what she wanted for you. You are one of my children, now and forever.”

The wave of pleasure and happiness coursed over him again, and this time it didn’t stop. It felt as if the music of his life had just been transposed up an octave. He was suddenly reliving a memory of Joy, on a day when she had powdered and diapered him very thickly, then tried to put him into his baby boy overalls only to discover that they wouldn’t fit over his diapers. “Well,” she had said, “maybe you can be my baby girl for the day instead,” and she had pulled a pink puffy-sleeved baby nightie over his head, clipped a pink pacifier to the collar, and popped it into his mouth. He had felt the most serene and comfortable he’d ever felt in his life.

And when the vision cleared, the tall woman in black and white had just finished dressing him in a baby nightie that was so much like the one from his memory that he couldn’t tell the difference. There was such a bulk between his legs that he wasn’t sure he could stand up from … the changing table that he was just sitting up on. He was sucking healthily on the pacifier that he noticed was in his mouth – was the pacifier adult-sized, or was it baby-sized now? He couldn’t tell.

Chapter 3

“Oh, look!” said Maggie, toddling unsteadily over to them as the tall woman lifted them up and set them gently on the floor. “Do we gotsa new baby girl now?” she asked, clapping her hands excitedly.

Their feet touched the floor, and the new baby just didn’t feel ready to walk just then, so the tall woman let her gently sink to the floor, where she sat on her thick diaper, which grew slightly damper. This didn’t bother the babies, but instead made them feel very safe and secure.

“I … I think … why me thinks me a girl?” Greg thought aloud.

“Sometimes baby girls hide inside baby boys,” Maggie said with a nod. “Sometimes is tha other way round. Is not always that way. But sometimes.”

“Why … why me thinks my name is … Casey?” thought the new baby.

“Casey,” said the tall woman in black and white, smiling. “That’s a beautiful name. And Casey, like Gregory, means ‘vigilant.’ I think it’s a name that comes from your soul. We’ve seen it happen before.”

“But I … still member beinna boy,” said Casey.

Maggie patted Casey’s arm. “It be OK,” she said. “You be whoever you wantsa be no matter what.”

“Wanna be … wanna be baby,” said Casey.

“Well then, you’re in the right place, Baby Casey,” said the woman in black and white. “My name is Nana Wright. I want to help you be the baby you truly want to be. And I have a magic power.”

Casey gasped. “You do???” she asked in amazement.

“I do,” said Nana Wright. “When babies cry, I know exactly what they need. All Nanas can do it.”

Just then, the upright ring glowed again, and Sally emerged first, pulling the one named Gloria by the hand – but Gloria was dressed in a gray business suit, her hair and makeup immaculately done, stumbling a bit in her shiny gray high heels. She in turn was pulling a young man, one of the the group who had gone, but looking very different. He was pulling another, and so on in a chain, until … one other emerged from the ring. This was a woman in a gray suit, with gray hair and gray skin. Dark gray lipstick failed to color her lips. Gray makeup shaded her cheeks. Her mascara was black, but her eye shadow was in shades of gray. Even her eyes were a shade of gray. And she was screaming and resisting, trying to scramble back through the ring.

Maggie gasped. “Carol!” she cried. “It’s Carol! Look what the bad gray peoples did ta her!” She toddle-ran toward her friend. Casey gasped, and her pacifier fell from her mouth.

Nana Wright was already talking into a shiny black and white phone. “Code Gray. We have a Code Gray.” The door opened, and several other tall women entered the room, though each was differently dressed – one wore a floral print dress, another wore a solid purple dress with white trim, and so forth.

“Carol!” said one, going up to the entirely gray young woman. “Don’t worry. We’ll set you free again.” The ring had gone dark again, so the others let Carol go. She ran backwards, awkwardly in her heels, until she had backed up against a wall, but the Nana only followed her for a few steps. Carol stopped screaming, hyperventilating for a moment, looking around her in dreadful fear.

“Can’t live in dreams must face reality can’t live in dreams must face,” Carol muttered to herself, staring, as everyone stood still and watched her.

“We’re here, Carol,” said the Nana. “You can come back to us. You came to us once. You can do it again.”

“Oh, not Carol!” Casey heard Maggie say. “I hoped they’d never get her!”

“Must face … must face …” Carol murmured. Then her eyes turned brown again. Tears ran down her face, leaving mascara lines. And she staggered forward toward the Nana.

“There you go, Carol, come here,” the Nana said to her. “Nana Pederson’s got this just for you.” She took a baby bottle out of the diaper bag she had over her shoulder. When Carol reached Nana Pederson, the Nana somehow swept her up into a cuddle and held the baby bottle up to her gray-lipsticked lips. Carol opened her mouth, and Nana popped the nipple right in, where Carol suckled thirstily, almost desperately, closing her eyes. And everyone saw the color seep back into her skin and hair. The business clothing gradually crumbled into gray dust and slowly vanished. Carol was wearing just a diaper and a simple white onesie.

“I think this one’s had a hard day and needs a rest,” said Nana Pederson, carrying Carol to one of the doors. “I’m putting her in her crib, OK? She’ll be fine after a good sleep.”

“Good work, Nana Pederson,” said the other Nanas. “Good job.”

“Tank you Nana,” added the baby boys and girls. The others’ gray clothes and makeup had also dissolved into gray dust and vanished, also leaving them in diapers and simple but babyish clothes.

“They almost gotted us all,” said Sally seriously with a tear in her eye. “Was terrible awfuls.”

“But they could never gets you, Sally!” said Timmy. “You is way too baby. It just never gonna works on you.”

Sally smiled a bit. “Does you weally thinks so?”

“I knows so,” Timmy said. “It what make you special.”

“Sally aww baby?” asked Casey.

“That what they says,” said Maggie, who had watched Nana Pederson take Carol off to sleep. “Say she gots no growed up in her at all.”

“Your fwiend Cawol be otay?” Casey asked.

Maggie sighed sadly. “I know she gonna be,” she replied. “Nana Pederson is goo. She make Carol aww better. But Carol need her sleeps.”

“It might be time to get you out of the Crisis Center,” Nana Wright said to Casey. “I’m sure you’re tired. You probably need a nap too.”

“Uh?” said Maggie. There were tears in her eyes.

“Oh,” said Nana Wright. “We can’t leave poor Maggie all alone. It’s probably time for you to have a nap too, Little One.” Somehow she had both of them in a tandem stroller as quick as a wink and was pushing them down the white hallways. “I’ll just take you to where Carol is,” she said. “You can all nap together.”

Nana Wright checked Casey’s diaper and pronounced her only slightly damp and not yet in need of a change. “Here you go, I’ll just tuck you into this crib right here, and you can nap all you want. Carol and Maggie will be right nearby, and there’s always a Nana here watching over you.” Casey found herself in the most comfortable crib ever, with high sides that seemed to tell her that it was dangerous out there, but she was safe inside.

Outside the crib, Nana Wright checked Maggie’s diaper. “My goodness, you are one soaked little girl,” she said. “Let’s get you changed into a nice dry diaper for your nap.” Casey suckled on her pacifier and cuddled a nearby plush animal, falling asleep as Nana Wright was putting Maggie up on the changing table. Casey couldn’t recall ever feeling happier … except with Joy.

Chapter 4

In a wood-paneled office, with decor in every shade of gray imaginable, a man, or at least someone who looked like a man, in a very expensive-looking gray suit paced in front of a group of similarly dressed men and women. All of them were dressed in dark gray business attire and wore very dark sunglasses, just like the man pacing. And all of them had absolutely no color to them. Their skin was gray, their lips were gray, their hair was black or shades of gray, and even those who wore lipstick and nail polish wore dark gray shades.

“Just what in the name of mundanity were the group of you thinking?” he demanded as he paced furiously. “We had just captured one of those … those … infants and converted her back to normal. We had high hopes that she could even have gone beyond. How could you lose her?”

One of the women spoke up indignantly, “We didn’t ‘lose’ her, you idiot. Others came and took her. We might have captured them, too, except that one of those ‘infants,’ as you call them, is totally immune to our persuasion. It was that blonde girl that managed to rescue the others.”

The first man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I seem to recall reading about others running into someone whose description matches hers in the past. We have to be careful with her, if she’s so resistant. She might even be an honest-to-Olympus cherub. If so, drastic measures may need to be taken. We may even need to call in … upper management.”

The group began murmuring among themselves as the pacing man finally sat down at his desk and began typing on his computer for a few minutes.

He finally looked up and said, “I can’t find any records that might indicate who she is. Best I can tell, Persephone keeps a really tight reign on the names of her offspring.”

One of the women asked, “How do we know it’s one of her children?”

The man standing next to her replied, “We don’t.”

Another of the women who had taken a seat at another desk was looking at her computer screen as she said, “According to the archives, she might have only two actual children of her own. We don’t know for sure, however; that kind of data is hard to come by.”

The door to the room opened, and another figure stood there. His gray suit was impeccable, but his face was entirely gray, the same flat shade, his hair was the same, and the sunglasses he wore were a very expensive designer brand. The men and women in the room gasped to see him, whispering amongst themselves, “It’s the Boss!”

“Sir!” said the man who had been pacing, standing up from his desk. “It is an honor.”

“The blonde girl is irrelevant,” this newcomer said in an entirely emotionless monotone. He suddenly seemed to just be standing in the room with them, without walking in. “The girl she rescued is irrelevant. Adam was sent to recruit a man named Greg. That man is now in the hands of our adversary. He will become a monster in their hands. They will twist him into a hideous, clownish parody of humanity. We must rescue this man. In our ranks he could reach his highest potential. He could even reach upper management. I need him as my right hand. All efforts should be directed toward this goal.”

“Yes, Sir,” said all the gray people in the room.

“Good,” said the gray man, Suddenly he was out in the hallway. “All my best to your families,” he said, before the door closed.

The pacing man turned to the others and said, “The woman we captured had made a great deal of progress. Perhaps more progress than they suspect. Let us see.”

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Casey didn’t know how long she’d slept, but when her eyes finally fluttered open and she looked out through the bars, she looked across the nursery at another crib with Maggie in it, and Maggie was looking back at her and waving. Carol was seemingly still fast asleep.

“Well,” said the Nana on duty, whose name was Nana Takacs, “it looks like we have two little ones who are awake from their naps.” Coming over to Casey’s crib, she lowered the side and said, “Let’s get that diaper changed, shall we?”

Casey only then realized that her diaper was badly in need of a change; she had both soaked it and messed it in her sleep. For a long time she had dreamed of being once again diaper dependent and therefore in need of care like a small child, instead of being self-sufficient for everything as adults were all expected to be. Now it appeared that the pink phone voice – Persephone, was she? – had given her just what she had wished for. Nana Takacs laid her gently on the changing table and undid the snaps on her onesie.

As she lay there and Nana Takacs removed her diaper and cleaned her up, Casey’s confused mind thought about Joy. She would have been happy here. She would be happy to know that Casey was now here – and was now Casey. Wherever she was, did she know? Was she watching? Casey wished Joy could have made it here too. Casey suddenly couldn’t contain her feelings and burst into tears.

“Awww, there there, little Casey,” said Nana Takacs. “Of course you miss her. Why wouldn’t you? But wouldn’t she want you to be happy?” This gave Casey a start, and she almost forgot that she was crying. Taking advantage of the lull, Nana Takacs cleverly inserted a pacifier into Casey’s mouth, and without thinking she immediately began to suckle on it. This made her feel better. But it really was true – Nanas knew exactly what crying babies needed!

When Casey’s diaper change was finished and she was in a nice fresh diaper, Nana Takacs lifted her easily up and set her down in a playpen in the center of the nursery. Casey was suddenly surrounded by colorful soft fabric walls with fascinating toys hanging on them in easy reach. Casey found a spinny one that she enjoyed spinning. She had no idea how long it was before Maggie was also placed in the playpen with her.

“Oooo hi Casey!” said Maggie, crawling over to her. “Baby sooo happy that Carol is here! But she gotsa rest n get all better. Happy that you here too, a course! Is OK if you no feels like talkins. Alla babys here is different ages. Is fine if you not big enough ta talks yet.”

Actually, Casey really didn’t feel as if she could muster any words. She made a happy squeal, though, and crawled over toward Maggie with a big smile around her pacifier. She was very happy to at least see a familiar face. She put her arms out for a hug, and Maggie happily hugged her.

“Awww, that’s so sweet!” said Maggie. “Baby love hugs! Looks like you does too! I think Nana Takacs is checkin’ on Cawol and then she gonna take us to tha playroom to play wifs the other babys. Then I guess we figure out where you oughtta be now that you is the weal you.”

Sure enough, Nana Takacs soon arrived with a tandem stroller, and soon the two of them were in it and being wheeled down the white hallways to another colorfully-decorated room. This one was full of, well, babies and littles of all descriptions, all having a lot of fun.

There were some getting their faces painted with different designs by a careful Nana, there were some gathered around a table coloring, there were a few sitting sweetly at another table having a tea party with their plushies, clumsily pretending to be all prim and proper, there were others building something out of giant plastic building bricks, and many others. Most of them were in diapers, though some were in training panties, while others’ clothes made it unclear what their potty training status was.

“Everyone,” said Nana Takacs, “you all know Maggie, and this is a new friend – everybody, meet Casey! Wave hi, Casey!” Casey blushed and shyly waved hello, as she sucked on her pacifier.

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In a very plush but dull gray office suite, many of the gray men and women were seated around a large oval table with a cubed display hanging in the middle for all to see. One man stood behind an almost clear podium that held several electronic devices and a keyboard, on which he typed for a few minutes. On the cube display, the picture of a very adorably cute and pretty young woman appeared. She was wearing a soft peach colored babydoll dress with matching rumba panties that showed from beneath the dress’ short hem.

The man said, in a very deep rumbly voice, “This is the individual who will cause us the most trouble on our planned snach and grab. From the best data we have been able to collect, her name is Sally Stevens, and she is the CEO of the globally famous Earth business ‘Babies of all Ages.’”

A collected gasp rounded the gathering as a woman, also in gray, said, “That’s the place we know Persephone herself owns and operates on Earth.”

The man turned and nodded, “That’s exactly right. Which is why I did a search of all our archives to discover who this Sally Stevens is. From the best data I can collect, she was born as an Earth human. All the Earth data on individuals comes to a complete stop very shortly after she graduated from higher education.”

One of the younger men spoke up, “That means she isn’t a Cherub. So why doesn’t conversion work on her? It seems to work on all the rest.”

The man smiled humorlessly as he replied, “Just because she was born human, that doesn’t mean she actually still is. From the scans of her at our last encounter, she’s all infant. Somehow, and it is unknown to us how it was done, all of her adulthood was washed away and delicately mixed with a toddler of about four years old. Basically, what that means is, she’s a four-year-old toddler who is fully capable of doing fully adult things when necessary, although with some of those horridly cute and adorable traits mixed in. Amplifying her maturity doesn’t work, because there is nothing for it to work on. Infants are immune, especially infants whom Persephone takes an extra special interest in. Remember, however, her light only makes our shadows longer.”

“What is the plan?” asked one of the gray men.

“We cannot convert her,” said the man at the podium. “Therefore she is of less than no use to us. To our knowledge she is still flesh and blood. Do not bother trying to assimilate her, as we know it won’t work, and now we know why. Instead, use simpler means. Capture her, disable her, or if necessary, kill her. Whatever gets her out of our way so we can accomplish our goals without her interference. Now, as for the plan to obtain and assimilate Greg Kinsford …”

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All alone in the nursery, Carol was sleeping in one of the cribs, and Nana Takacs hadn’t yet returned. Suddenly, her body convulsed, and she was lying face up.

Her eyelids opened to reveal featureless gray orbs.

Around her the color drained out of the surrounding area – first the sheets and blankets of the crib and the plush toys in it became shades of gray instead of colorful, then it spread to the wallpaper. Then, as the zone of gray continued to spread to more of the room, the area immediately surrounding Carol changed further. The crib sheets lost their patterns and became simple light gray sheets. The plush toys became throw pillows. The crib became an ordinary bed frame. Carol’s clothing became an ordinary adult nightgown. Then the bed vanished completely. Carol hovered in the midst of a growing blank gray aura. She levitated into an upright position in the air, in front of a spherical cloud of featureless gray.

From the cloud began to come gray men and women, carrying gray briefcases. They walked calmly out until there were dozens of them, filling the room, which had once been a nursery full of cribs but was now merely a featureless gray room except for the darker floating portal, in front of which Carol still hovered.

One of the gray men opened his briefcase and held it up for another to see. It contained a screen and controls, which the second gray man manipulated. “Our position is detected and locked in. We are in a hyperplane relatively located perpendicular to earth 2.78 H-units along axis M. Persephone is not located within this construction at this moment.”

“Excellent, Brad Bradley,” said one of the gray women. “You are to record the execution of the plan for later analysis. Now, we follow the plan …”

Chapter 5

Sally was sleeping all snuggled in Nana Pederson’s arms. Nana had dressed her baby in just a thick crawly diaper and an adorable pair of purple plastic lined fairy princess rumba panties with matching booties.

Nana Pederson slowly rocked Sally as she patted her hinney softly. Suddenly, Sally stiffened, her eyes popped open wide, then she let out a squeal of fear.

Nana Pederson cooed reassuringly as she patted Sally’s bottom even more, “What ever’s the matter baby?”

Sally replied, “Is .. is .. Carol. Sompin happens ta her.”

Nana Pederson’s eyes grew large in surprise as she said, “How can this be, Sweetiekins? Carol is in a nursery dimension all to herself. There’s even an assigned Nana to safeguard her.”

By this time, Sally had wormed and squirmed to the point that she had slipped from Nana Pederson’s lap and her loving arms, “Is so, Nana. Baby ken feels it. Carol no Carol no mo ... she … a gray persons.”

Nana Pederson stood at that point and gasped, “No! That means Nana Takacs is also more than likely taken. I must tell Persephone about this immediately.”

Nana took Sally by her hand and slowly walked her towards something that looked like a cross between a mirror and some form of ornate flatscreen television with lots of magnificent filigree surrounding the liquid-looking screen.

Nana Pederson said with more than a bit of worry in her tone, “Persephone, Dear. We have a major incursion problem that we need to take care of immediately.”

The liquid-like surface of the screen appeared to become some form of glowing mist, then a crystal-clear image of an extremely beautiful young woman with long silky black hair appeared. She was wearing a white outfit that clung to her very shapely body and was cinched around her narrow waist with a sash that looked as if it were made from pure spun gold.

“What seems to be the problem, Nana Pederson? Must be really important if the Goddess of all Nanas calls me with it.”

Nana Pederson nodded as she said simply, “We have been invaded again by those horrid Grays. They have most likely taken over the nursery dimension you created for Carol and the others who try to rescue people from the Grays, and taken Nana Takacs and her. Apparently they converted them both, possibly along with the entire nursery bubble.”

A dark scowl came across Persephone’s very pretty face. One only a very few ever saw, and none lived to regret. “I’m calling out the Valkyries … and am telling Thor and Modi, the Goddess of Rage. If I remember properly, they have a war hammer to grind with them, from several centuries ago.”

The screen went back to looking like a pool of liquid. Instantly after that, the very air filled with a foreboding crackle of ethereal energies as the Valkyries mounted their flying steeds and left with a mighty war cry, followed closely by Thor flying behind using his mighty Mjolnir, and Modi in her chariot of fire and fury.

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Carol gradually lowered from her levitated position until her feet gently touched the ground in front of the shimmering gray portal. Her hair had redone itself into a neat bun atop her head, and her face had acquired perfect, if grayscale, makeup. She was again wearing smart business attire. And her eyes were still flat gray.

Only one gray person was still in the nursery, facing Carol and watching her. “Carol Carroll,” said this gray woman in her flat, emotionless voice. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you, Christine Christians,” said Carol in a similarly flat monotone. “Is no one here?”

“They will return very quickly,” said Christine. “The plan calls for extreme speed, because we are aware that the reaction will be very swift. So the others are already hurrying forward.”

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Over a dozen gray men and women had already stormed down the hallway, their mere presence sucking the pure white and bright colors quickly out of the decor, leaving only flat gray behind. The playroom door opened, and Nana Takacs emerged, intending to return to the nursery, but she saw the gray people coming, shrieked, and slammed the door shut. Mere seconds later the gray people all ran at the door in perfect unison and broke it down.

By this time Nana Takacs had gathered the screaming and crying babies and toddlers into the opposite end of the room. The gray people advanced quickly toward them, picking up brightly-colored toys as they went and seemingly … inhaling them. One picked up a rainbow-colored plush unicorn, held it up, and simply drained it out of existence; it seemed to become some sort of rainbow-colored vapor that she inhaled, and in the process she seemed to become stronger. All around her the others were doing similar things. There were soon no toys and in fact no objects in the playroom, and the Nanas and babies were all concentrated in one corner.

Wasting no time, the gray men and women advanced to the group of babies and Nanas and started grabbing them by the arms. The color quickly drained from the skin of those touched, gray spreading across their bodies until they were engulfed, and they lost consciousness. One by one they drained them, until finally they found Casey.

Casey was crying and shrieking along with the others. Her diaper was soaked and messy by this point. She had known that becoming a baby again meant being vulnerable, but she had never dreamed that anything could overcome all the protection that the babies seemed to have in this place and leave her completely defenseless. When a gray man grabbed her wrist, it felt like her arm instantly went numb, and the numbness began to spread across her body. Her breath caught as it spread through her chest, her legs buckled as it spread through them, and she tried to flail her other arm at the gray man until that arm too went numb and limp. Then it engulfed her head, and her mind filled with images of despair and banality, but she fought back against them until the gray engulfed her heart.

She did not lose hope. Not yet. That wasn’t how they worked.

She was being carried, along with some others, very quickly. She was desperately trying to make herself move, make herself turn her head, make herself say something. But everything was gray, and everything she felt was gray. Anything she did would just be adding more gray to what was already gray.

She was already in the hallway when there was a massive crash of thunder from one end of the hallway and a roar of fire from the other end. She didn’t even feel as if there was anything she could do to move her eyes to see. The gray people carrying her rushed to the nursery door and to the portal as quickly as possible, while other ones stayed behind to block these disorderly intruders, whoever they were. Through the portal Casey went.

They took her through one gray corridor after another, past countless gray doors that all looked the same, until they opened one to a room containing a table. They laid her flat on her back on the table. She felt nothing. She saw the gray ceiling of the gray room, and then she lost consciousness.

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“These gray cretins again!” bellowed Thor, throwing lightning from Mjolnir down the hallway at the defending gray men and women, who had opened their mouths and were seemingly vomiting forth great clouds of gray vaporous energy that simply absorbed the lightning.

And on the other end of the hallway, Modi uttered great shrieks of pure rage that became fire, but again, the gray energy simply absorbed it. But behind each of them were dozens of Valkyries who threw their spears with perfect, deadly accuracy, and the gray vapors could not absorb magical steel forged by the craft of the Dwarves and sharpened by the skill of the Elves.

The vapors cleared to reveal the corpses of several dead gray people, impaled by Valkyrie spears, and those Valkyries rushed forth to reclaim their weapons. Thor and Modi strode forth to pursue the others, and Persephone was right on their heels. But when they opened the door to the nursery, all they found was a gray room, and at the other end there was a tiny remnant of a closing gray portal, which shimmered impossibly quickly down to a tiny point that was then gone.

Thor was a god who swore often and loudly, so it might have been expected when he did so now. But when Persephone swore, it was so unexpected that even Thor’s eyes widened in astonishment. Then she took a breath and spoke calmly. “By the Seven Pillars of Creation, by the Seven Stars, and by the Seven Heavens, I will not rest until what has been taken from me this day is returned, safe and whole. I will not state my means. But this shall come to pass.”

Modi shrieked again. “Point me at these gray bastards, and I will slay every last one of them!”

“Many of them are merely humans who have lost their way,” Persephone said. “They may yet be redeemed, but not if they are slain. I may be one of the best at finding which ones may be redeemed.”

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“The chaos is over now, Greg,” said a voice, calm and emotionless.

Eyes opened. The room was gray. Sitting up now. Gray person talking.

“Everything is fine now,” said the gray person. “Predictable.” Man or woman? It was hard to tell. “Back under control.”

“Am I –”

“You are you,” said the gray person. “No expectations to weigh you down. You do not need to worry about things like ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ You are free now. There is no need to judge you for what you like or dislike. There is no longer ‘like’ or ‘dislike.’ All is orderly. Is this not better?”

“I … remember …”

“Your name is Greg,” said the gray person, “But you may, of course, choose any name you wish. All is order. Your past is gone. You may choose your future.”

“I choose …”

“But before you do, we must make sure that you are healthy. Calm and collected. Making lucid choices. When there are important decisions to be made, it’s important to make them from the proper frame of mind, isn’t it?”

“Wait …” Confusion. Where was this? When was this? What had happened before? It was hard to remember. So much was gray. “I want …”

“What you want, I’m sure, is to know where you are,” said the gray person. “This is a special place. A place where we help people. Some people aren’t sure who they are. We want to make sure that they make the choices that are right for them. What choice is right for you?”

“Well, I think …”

“But what choice is right for you might not be clear just now. We just need to make sure that your mind is clear. No trace of chaos or confusion. Everything must be in order. Then you can choose.”

“I already know …” Deep down, there was still a spark. A spark of color. It had not gone out.

“Not yet,” said a gray man outside the room, watching on a screen.

“But it always does,” said a gray woman next to him. “Every single time.”

Chapter 6

“I feeled it,” said Sally, sobbing uncontrollably. “Was so horribles … alla happy babys all goned … somma thems still there but not there …”

“It’s going to be all right, my dear,” said Persephone to her. “You can feel them, can’t you?”

“I can … for now …” Sally said weakly. “Can feel Carol … n Maggie … n Casey … n others … they like candles almost blowed out …”

“The Man in Gray has no power to blow anyone’s candle out,” said Persephone. “But … he can make someone want to blow out their own candle, and there’s the problem. We need to find them. Can you see where they are? Are they on Earth?”

“Is … on Earth but … not,” said Sally. “Is like … super close but not quite …”

“The Man in Gray and his minions may have their own shadow realm of gray,” Persephone said. “He knows just as well as I do that we may not face each other directly. But what he may not know is that since he has invaded one of my realms, retribution is allowed by the laws, and he is nothing if not an obeyer of laws.”

“W-what?” asked Sally.

“Just this,” said Persephone, lightly touching her hand to Sally’s forehead. “You are allowed to find them, wherever they are, by the laws of balance that underpin all Creation.” She put a big, brightly colored toy compass in Sally’s hand, with a big pointing arrow inside it that turned freely. “We’ll follow the arrow.”

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Persephone waved her hand. Sally was no longer in just rumba pantes and a crawly diaper. She now had on the cutest Cherub babydoll dress with all the lace and ruffles. Persephone bent and tugged on the very short hem of the dress to smooth out any wrinkles before she patted Sally sofly on her thickly ruffled and diapered hinney.

Sally giggled and squirmed and acted silly as any toddler who just had that happen, before she held the magical compass out and watched the arrow as it stopped slowly spinning and took on a direction pointing to the near corner, where a slight shadow was.

Perephne pointed and said sternly, “Ok, my Valkyrie warriors, we’re off to do battle with the Grays. I refuse to allow them to steal any of my babies from me, nor will I allow them to come within my borders to do it.”

A large circle of white frothy mist appeared in the corner where the shadow was. The Valkyrie mounted their winged and armored war steeds. With a warcry of “GLORY to ODIN!” they all dashed into the circle’s mists and vanished, followed by Modi, Persephone, Sally, and of course Thor, who was not to be left out of the fun of this battle.

They all came out of the portal into a location that was completely gray. This large room seemed to be a cafeteria, where gray people were engaged in eating gray food with little or no activity or conversation. Several nearby gray people noticed the intrusion, stood up, and started to run. There was no color, no joy, nothing even vaguely resembling anything playful or childlike … except for a small group over on the far side of one large table who seemingly had the smallest flicker of infantile light remaining within, as they were still absently making sculptures out of the food on their trays.

Persephone noticed this immediately and stretched out her hand, insuring that the faint light of innocent infancy didn’t flicker out. In fact, she aided them in finding the means for it to grow and intensify. The results began to show, as ghostly images of plushy toys, cribs, playmats, and other playroom items began to fade into existence near them, even in this gray place.

Thor wound up mighty Mjolnir and tossed it with all his strength towards one of the fleeing gray people. Just as the hammer impacted with all its lightning fury, the man managed to enter another shadow portal, although not quite fast enough to save him from serious injury. He would probably live … with many serious handicaps. The large splatter marks and several body parts he left behind bore witness to that.

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“So, Greg … or would you prefer Casey? … I’m sure you can see now that there’s truly no future in your old course of action,” said the gray person’s droning voice. “You must think of the future. Of the wise, prudent, orderly course. The correct course.”

“... correct course …” came their voice. There was nothing inside. There was barely a memory of anything that could ever have been called happiness. What the gray person said made sense: there was no profit, no long-term benefit of any kind, in pursuing frivolous, useless activity. They stared straight ahead into the dark glasses of the gray person who sat before them and kept speaking.

“Yes, it is the correct course, as you can now see.” At the word “see,” the gray person removed their dark glasses to reveal completely gray eyes, with no white, no color, no pupil, just gray from edge to edge. “Not only is it wrong to pursue anything but the necessary, not only is it immoral to waste precious resources on frivolities, it is immoral to allow others to do so. We must show them the light. We must become more than mere functionaries. We must become evangelists. We must bring the beauty of order and the serenity of sameness to the world.”

Something inside snapped. The gray person’s words made sense. Everything their parents had always told them about sitting still and paying attention in school suddenly seemed to agree with this doctrine. “Gregory. I prefer Gregory. And I always listen to the teacher. And so should everyone.”

Gregory’s eyes turned solid gray.

“Very good,” said the gray person.

In a monotone voice, Gregory said, “All will eat their vegetables. All must take their place in line. All must diversify their portfolios and study the market reports. No one must miss the profit statements.”

“Perfect,” said the gray person, who suddenly realized that they were all alone in the room with Gregory.

Gregory stood up. “There is only the next quarter goal,” they said. “There is … nothing … else.” They inhaled the gray person then, the other becoming a fine gray mist that became part of Gregory’s body and strength. “Tardiness will not be tolerated.” A nametag appeared on their gray suit that said, “Gregory Gregory.”

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Watching on the video monitors, the two gray people observing looked at each other in worry. “This is why Upper Management was interested in this one,” said the gray man, “but I am not sure they expected this outcome.”

“It was a possibility,” the gray woman said. “A calculated risk was taken.” An alarm started going off. “It may be that this has happened at an opportune time,” she added.

“Indeed,” said the gray man, looking at another monitor, across which text was scrolling. “There is an intrusion in Sector 37.”

Another monitor lit up, and a gray face appeared in it. “Is there progress in the subject?”

“A great deal,” said the gray woman in response. “As soon as they passed the zero point, the subject immediately went beyond, reaching what we estimate is level five.”

“Excellent,” the face in the monitor said. “Release the subject and direct them to Sector 37. There is need for reinforcements.”

The gray man typed on a keyboard and pressed Enter.

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The door to Gregory’s cell clicked and swung open. “Please hurry,” said a gray man from outside the door. “There is disorder in Sector 37. Our help is needed to restore ordinariness.”

“No infractions of policy will go unnoticed or unredressed,” Gregory said, and rather than walking out of the cell, their body was simply out in the hallway.

“Let us go,” said the gray man, whose nametag said, “William Williams.”

“You must lead the way,” said Gregory, and William did so, heading down the mazelike, endless hallways toward Sector 37. There was no sound of footsteps behind him, but whenever William glanced back, Gregory was right behind him, apparently standing still, seeming as if they had always been there.

The only person he had ever seen move without motion like that was the Man in Gray himself.

Chapter 7

“Will the Man in Gray himself be making an appearance, I wonder?” asked Thor, catching his hammer after another devastating throw.

“He and I cannot meet,” said Persephone. “Normally I cannot even come here, but as his minions invaded my domain, I am of course entitled to retaliation.”

“Indeed, that’s the law,” said Thor. “So he won’t be coming here. What’s to stop you from converting all his minions into yours?”

“He hasn’t shown his full strength yet; we took him by surprise. He didn’t think we’d find him, especially not this quickly. Still, we should make a beachhead.” Persephone stretched out her arms, turned around in a full circle, and laughed. “It’s playtime!”

The dreary gray cafeteria exploded into color. The remnants of violence were gone, and the only gray people who had not run were those who had been transfixed by Persephone’s presence; Thor, Modi and the Valkyries had not attacked them because they had not posed any threat, sitting stunned at their table. But now, those gray people looked around themselves at the preschool-like lunchroom they were in and began to smile. They took off their dark glasses, and color returned to their eyes, brown and green and blue and gold and purple. They shook their hair, and it became shiny black, bright blonde, auburn red, golden brown, and even flashy green, blue, and violet. Their gray business attire morphed back into multicolored toddler clothing. And they started to talk and laugh.

Maggie recognized Carol beside her. “Carol!” she shouted. “What happened to you? Did we not really save you?”

Persephone walked up to them and put her hand lightly on Carol’s head. “It seems they still had a hand on your heart, my precious child,” she said.

“Can you take it away?” Carol said, tears in her eyes. “Was it my fault?”

“It could never be your fault, my treasure,” Persephone said. “It is gone. They will pay for doing this to one of my own, let alone many. Earth will no longer be theirs. They have forfeited their hold on it. So I decree.”

“I never want to be here again,” sobbed Carol. “Earth was bad enough, but this place is horrible …”

“We cannot stay here for long,” said Persephone, “but there will soon be no need to come back here. And Earth will soon be a better place. Where is Casey?”

“I didn’t see her,” Maggie said. “They took her away.”

“Now that worries me,” Persephone said.

“You?” asked Modi. “Something worries you?”

“Casey has a sadness in her soul that we haven’t managed to cure yet,” said Persephone. “A weight that drags her down. They can use it. And Casey is special.”

“I think reinforcements have come!” said Thor.

The babies stood up and ran behind the Valkyries as the door smashed open and gray vapor began to pour in and spread. Toys and artwork that it touched simply crumbled and became more gray vapor, spreading even faster.

“More of this silly trick,” said Modi. “I am sick of it!” She breathed furious fire at it, and the fire and gray mist neutralized one another. She was managing to keep the mist at bay. But then some gray minions managed to slip in. They were tall and thin as beanpoles, with featureless gray faces. They reached out with arms that transformed into ten-foot-long spikes, which wounded two of the Valkyries before Thor smashed down on one of the spikes with Mjolnir, shattering it to fragments that changed back into shards of arm bone on the floor. The Valkyries impaled them with spears, and they bled black blood.

“They were once human, but no more,” said Persephone. “Now they’re just twisted mockeries. Wasted potential.” She tried using her powers on them, but there was just nothing to hold onto, nothing but spite in their hearts, even as they died of their wounds.

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In a very dull and dreary gray place that more resembled a hospital than anywhere else, several women who were dressed as nurses in the same drab gray, stood near a bed with a severely injured person all wired up and tubed up to the point it was amazing he didn’t start revolving and playing some sort of tune.

As they ministered to him, another large man dressed in a dark gray business suit sort of faded through the room’s door and drifted over to the group without any apparent walking.

He said in a very low voice, completely without emotional tones, ”Will he make it?”

One of the women who was taking the injured man’s vitals replied, “He will, although he will be missing one of his legs and most of his right hand.”

The man in gray replied neutrally, “There’s nothing we can do to restore him?”

The woman turned and bowed, “With all due respect, unless you can make them regrow, he’s worthless to our cause now.”

The man turned and faded back through the closed door and was gone.

One of the women standing there said, “Was ... that the big boss?”

Another replied, “It was. From what I just saw, things are not going very well for us. I think we sort of overstepped our boundaries a bit.”

The other woman turned and attempted to make the severely injured man more comfortable. “I think that is a bit of an understatement.”

“Why’s that?”

She pointed to the injured man. “Thor did that when we invaded one of Persephone’s infant play bubbles and took several individuals from there.”

The other woman gasped as a real look of fear came to her face and she put her hand to her mouth.

“It’s true. I fear the Aesir are coming, and they won’t be happy when they get here. We broke an ethereal law and are going to pay a very steep price for it.”

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In another location, several Aesir and Vanir in their magnificent battle armor all gathered for the rescue and retribution. None of them would tolerate any of the Grays even approaching, much less invading their sovereign territory of Asgard.

“My son, Thor, has already gone to her aid, as he has always been fond of fighting,” said Odin. “So I do not think we will be needed for victory. But it is more than that. This gray upstart needs to know that he may do as he will in Midgard, but to invade the realm of an immortal is to invite disaster upon his head. In doing so he has forfeited the law’s protection, and now he must be shown that his actions have consequences. He will not look contrite, for he shows no emotion, but he must be made to feel contrition.”

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After fighting some seemingly boneless gray people whose arms and legs somehow unwrapped into a single snakelike or wormlike tentacle, the Valkyries, Thor, and Modi advanced out of the cafeteria-like room into a hallway. Thor tore down walls with his hammer as he went, and the ceiling shook without support as more and more of the maze like corridors were cleared to form a rubble-strewn chamber that kept growing larger. “I dislike mazes,” Thor simply said at one point as he smashed down another wall. Persephone followed, protecting the babies behind her. Maggie was worried and wanted to go back to the playroom, but she followed Persephone.

Then a number of footsteps were heard down one of the corridors that led into the growing wide-open space. The Valkyries instantly pointed their spears in the direction of the sound, and Thor readied his hammer. Around the corner came another gray person – a man, perhaps, but its form was flickering like an image on a screen that wasn’t connected very well. Behind this one were a number of what appeared to be ordinary gray people. “Be careful,” said Persephone. “The last group looked ordinary at first too. And the one in front …”

Suddenly the one in front wasn’t there anymore, having just flickered out of sight. The Valkyrie farthest left gasped as that one appeared right in front of her spearhead, grasped the shaft, and grayness began traveling up her spear. She let go of it, and he jabbed at her with the spear’s handle, which was soon gray as well, and when he touched her with it, a patch of gray had appeared on the Valkyrie’s shining armor and began to spread.

“No!” cried the neighboring Valkyries and tried to jab this gray being with their spears as well, but the being simply flickered and was elsewhere.

Some of Persephone’s babies leapt to the stricken Valkyrie’s aid and laid their hands on the growing gray area, which stopped its spread and started to reverse it. Maggie caught a glimpse of the flickering gray being and looked twice. “But – no – that can’t be – Casey!”

“What?” asked Persephone, turning and looking more closely. “He has done this to our Casey? Oh, he will pay. But first we will see what we can do for her.”

Chapter 8

As Casey continued to afflict Valkyries with a spreading grayness, Persephone held out her arms and spoke in a voice only a few had ever heard before. It resonated ethereally all through the area. “What is mine is mine forever.”

Persephone slapped her hands together. There was a loud boom and a very bright flash. She held in her hand the battle sword of Ares. Some had seen her borrow this weapon from her father in the past, but only in the most dire of circumstances. It appeared to catch fire as an ever brightening and rapidly spreading sphere of light covered more and more of the large area.

Thor had caused massive damage to the many walls within the gray maze. But as this sphere of light expanded, it burned the debris to ash and stripped away even more of the maze, expanding the huge open area in all directions, including above, but oddly not below. The gray tiles of the floor became a powdery ash on top of some sort of stone. The bright and happy cafeteria area remained behind them, only it now had no walls or ceiling, an island of white in a huge gray cavern.

The being that they knew now to be Casey appeared to stiffen as their eyes grew very large and an expression of pain appeared on their face. The other gray people also froze in confusion, not knowing what was happening. The Valkyries surrounded Casey with their spears, except for the ones the gray Casey entity had afflicted, whom the babies were trying to assist.

Somewhere deep inside, the real Casey had been walled away, unable to see or hear. She had been singing happy songs, trying to stay her adorable baby self, but it had become very difficult to stay positive, so she’d started to cry. The adult part of her had taken over. It had been convinced and given free rein.

“Let me ouuuuuuuuut!” Casey cried from within.

“No,” came the voice of the gray adult person.

“Why can’t I be me?”

“Because infants are inefficient.”

“So what?”

“Inefficiency costs finite resources.”

“What are you saving them for?”

“Important things.”

“What things?”

“Babies like you wouldn’t understand.”

“But I am you!”

“Not anymore. You were part of me, but now you are unnecessary.”

“Noooooo!” wailed Casey.

Then another voice came. It was musical but also forceful. “Casey,” it said, “find your joy.”

“My … joy?”

“Remember that you always have joy.”

“No! Stop!” boomed the gray adult being’s voice.

“Remember … Joy,” said Casey. “Remember Joy!” Her voice began to feel stronger. Joy had wanted this for her. Joy had known. “I can’t give up on her! Or on myself!” Casey pushed toward the surface and suddenly felt nearly no resistance, as if she’d found the magic sword to cut her way out of her inner prison.

Externally, Casey stood transfixed for several minutes, while the babies healed the Valkyries. Then there was a sudden explosion of color that banished the gray, and they started to transform back into a very pretty redhead girl dressed in an extremely bright pink sunsuit with a large butterfly embroidered on the front. It was obvious that she was also wearing a super thick diaper.

Casey blinked a few times before she began to cry loudly. Persephone rushed over and held her to her breast as she patted Caycy’s hiney reassuringly. “It wasn’t your fault, Sweetheart,” she said softly. “Auntie has made it all better.”

Several of the other gray people also began to take on color and transform into adorably dressed young men and women as the room around them rid itself of the gray influence and became more natural looking. One gray man who had remained gray, one of the upper management, suddenly realized that his only portal of escape had been sealed. Something wouldn’t allow him to remove the obstruction or open another. Around him gray men and women were turning into Persephone’s babies, and he felt the siren song of her innocence and happiness tugging at his heart.

Maggie saw that the Valkyries were all recovering and turned to Persephone, looking for instructions, and saw her still holding poor Casey. “Go,” said Persephone. “I cannot face him, for half the universe would be destroyed. Deliver my message.”

Maggie saw the entrance to a dark corridor at the edges of the giant cavern that Thor and Persephone had blasted open. No further gray people or creatures were emerging. She ran toward it.

Within the corridor, there was still light, though it was dim and gray. It was a creepy place, but Maggie felt Persephone’s light within her and wasn’t afraid. Doors to the left and right were either open or torn from their hinges, and she could see nothing in the rooms beyond them. She ran on.

Finally, right in front of her, she found a large set of double doors and pushed them open with a creak. Inside was a large desk with the grayest gray man she’d ever seen behind it. His face was a complete blank, with only the hint of a nose and no eyes or mouth. The gray man’s gray suit had a gray tie with gray stripes, and a gray boutonniere at the lapel.

“I’m here to deliver a message,” said Maggie. “Ethereal law has caught up with you. You were caught red-handed invading another’s sovereign territory without provocation. And this is Persephone’s lawful retribution.”

Maggie didn’t really know where the words came from, but she suspected Persephone had given them to her. And she’d given her something else, too, as she kissed the palm of her hand, held it up, and blew on it. There was an explosion of brilliant white in all directions, and when it had cleared, the Man in Gray sat there in a playpen, surrounded by toys, in a nursery filled with more toys and cribs. There was nothing gray except for the Man in Gray himself, who still wore his gray suit and tie. He sat there emotionlessly, almost ridiculously. Maggie giggled in spite of herself.

She turned and left him alone with whatever his thoughts were, returning down the much brighter hallway to the others. “Is it done?” Persephone asked her.

Maggie replied, “Yes Miss ‘Sephone. No gray left except for him.”

“Such is the best we can do, then,” Persephone said. “All who can be redeemed have been, and we must return and care for our wounded.”

“Wounded?” Maggie asked. Everyone looked colorful again; no one was gray.

“Yes, for although it can’t be seen, there is still much to do to help them all,” Persephone said with a sigh. She waved a hand, and a rainbow portal appeared, the colors of every crayon in the box. Some of her babies started to go through it.

“Are you sure I can’t go stab him, just a little?” asked Modi. “Maybe set him on fire?”

“You may do as you wish, my daughter,” said Thor, “for Persephone and this Gray Man are set as opposites, but you and he are not. If he and this one here were to engage directly, they would likely neither survive, and the resulting energies would lay waste to half the universe. But the same would not happen if you engaged him in battle. It may lay waste to this dimension – that which has not already been blasted – but nothing beyond that.” And suddenly another rainbow portal appeared next to the one Persephone had opened, but this one was colored like the rainbow in the sky, not a rainbow of crayon-like pigments.

“Aye, I think we’re about to have a lot more fun,” Thor continued, as several armored Aesir emerged from the portal.

“Forseti has judged that the scales need balancing,” said one of them. “The gray one has taken too much power in the world of Midgard, and he has overstepped his bounds. Odin has given us his blessing.”

“Then, Tyr, let us even those scales,” said Thor, and the Aesir turned and charged forth, with the Valkyries as their vanguard. Modi let go a cry of furious exultation.

But Persephone and her charges went through her portal to their home.

Chapter 9

All the babies who had been taken by the gray people lay in their cribs in Persephone’s nursery as she herself sang them a lullaby. Nana Pederson herself held up Casey’s head so she could drink her bottle of formula. Other Nanas were likewise soothing the others, especially Carol.

“I should have known that just removing them from his realm wouldn’t be enough to fully heal the harm,” Persephone said. “I won’t make that mistake again. Poor Carol. You still had a shard of gray in your heart, and you didn’t even know it. They used it to strike at us all. But it wasn’t your fault, and we’re going to make sure that there’s no gray left. It’s all baby for you, little missy, and there’ll be no hope of your getting out of diapers ever again!” Persephone beeped Carol’s nose

Carol giggled. “Good!”

“How is Maggie, is she OK?” Persephone was asking. “How about Tracy, are they all right? Timmy? Bobby?”

“Now, Casey,” said Persephone. “There’s something I will have to show you. It’s … probably going to make you pretty sad. But at the same time I think it will make you happy, and more happy than sad.” She took out a strawberry pink smart phone.

“You see,” she said, “Joy found one of my phones first. She picked it up. I asked her the question. And do you know what she said?” Casey shook her head no.

“Well, let me show you.” She held up the phone so Casey could see it and pressed a button. A video started to play.

On the screen was Joy’s face. Casey’s mouth opened, and Nana Pederson quietly removed the bottle nipple. A voice came, which everyone now knew was Persephone’s. “Do you accept Baby Rules, Sweetheart?”

In the video, Joy replied, “Oh … I do so much really want to, but do you know who really really needs this? It’s my fiancé, Greg. I know he’s yours, deep inside. He’s the most beautiful baby girl, in his heart. I so much want him to be happy … or her, I suppose. He probably doesn’t know how deeply he needs to meet you. So … I can’t accept until I know he’s happy. Once he is … then you can ask me again. Is that OK?”

Casey was crying loudly by this time, and Nana Pederson was rocking her gently. Persephone stopped the video. “So that’s when I sent the phone to you – by leaving it in the right place among Joy’s things for you to find later,” she explained. “I didn’t know then that she would be … leaving us so soon, though. I’m not the goddess of Fate or Death. But I want you to know: she was such a kind soul that she’s playing in the eternal nurseries of Elysium and waiting for you to join her. I know she is.”

Persephone put her hand on Casey’s head, and Casey continued to cry for a time before finally crying herself to sleep. But it was a peaceful sleep, and Nana Pederson wiped her tears away and tucked her securely into her crib.

Maggie asked, “Are … are we gonna hafta save more babies from the Man in Gray?”

“Not for quite some time, Sweetheart,” said Persephone with a smile. “He’s got a lot of problems of his own … and not very many helpers left. All the ones who could be redeemed came with us. And the Aesir took care of the rest. As for Earth … the Aesir were right, he’s had too much power there for too long. I think it’s time to call upon some of our good friends. It’s time for the rise of the Floppits.”

- - - - - The End - - - - -
Sunshine & rainbows,
LilJennie
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LilJennie
 
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