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The Neverland's Library Anthology is now on sale! With an introduction by Tad Williams and stories by Mark Lawrence, Marie Brennan, Jeff Salyards, Miles Cameron, Joseph R. Lallo, Mercedes M. Yardley, William Meikle, J.M. Martin, Teresa Frohock, and many more, the Neverland's Library Anthology is a collection of original works will take readers back to that moment when they first fell in love with the genre.

Miserere is now available at Audible.

My short story "Naked the Night Sings" is only one of the many fine stories in the urban fantasy anthology Manifesto: UF, edited by Tim Marquitz and Tyson Mauermann, Angelic Knight Press, 2013.

Free!

 

Death comes for us all.

Keep her as your friend.

 Read "La Santisima"

Novels

"Filled with show me now and tell me later prose, [Miserere] was one of the finest debuts of 2011 and remains a novel that I remember details from nearly three years later." Justin Landon, Tor.com

Download an excerpt of Miserere here

Entries in gender (15)

Wednesday
Feb272013

Q&A on Gender at Fantastical Imaginations

Dominick's Question and Answer series on gender continues at Fantastical Imaginations (apologies to Dominick for not getting a redirect up yesterday--I was a bit under the weather). This is a three-part interview series where I join authors Francis Knight, Elspeth Cooper, Anne Lyle, and Courtney Schafer to talk about gender in SFF.

You will find all the links at Fantastical Imaginations as well, but just in case you've already read one part and not the other, I'm including links to all three: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Monday
Feb252013

gender today, StellarCon this weekend

This morning, I join authors Francis Knight, Elspeth Cooper, Anne Lyle, and Courtney Schafer at Fantastical Imaginations talking about gender. Also, as much as I love that picture of the mighty warrior woman and the eviscerated male at her feet, I must warn you that no one is getting killed. Of course, there haven't been any comments at the time of this post, so that situation could change rapidly.

Moving on ...

I'll be at one of my favorite cons this weekend: StellarCon 37! I'll post my schedule as soon as I have it available. I'm greatly looking forward to meeting new friends and catching up with old friends this weekend. So if you're in the Greensboro, High Point, Winston-Salem area, I'd love to see you.

Monday
Jan072013

Gender Bending--The Big Reveal

First of all, I want to thank each and every one of you who took a moment to be my lab rat. You guys were simply awesome and gave us a great deal of material to work through. I'm not sure who had more fun with this--the readers or the authors.

So while I'm up here saying thanks, I also want to say thank you to all the authors who participated in this exercise and generously offered their books for the grand prize winner. A special thanks to Myke Cole, who went the extra mile in recruiting authors for the experiment, and to Mark Lawrence for all the wonderful pie charts that he worked up for us.

There were a total of 1,045 guesses. Of that number 535 people correctly guessed the gender of the authors.

Our scientist in residence, Mark Lawrence, kindly analyzed the data and reached the following conclusion:

"Given the 1,045 guesses and 535 correct guesses we can say that no statistically significant power to determine gender from writing has been demonstrated (under the assumption both genders were equally represented - they weren't but it doesn't introduce a large effect).

"With selection of authors drawn with equal likelihood of either gender then a random guessing machine making 1,045 guesses would expect to get an average of 522 correct answers and if it repeated the experiment many times we would expect 95% of the results to lie between 490 and 554 correct answers. So our result is well within the bounds of expected statistical variation for a random set of guesses."

In other words, people can't tell the difference between male or female writing styles based on the prose alone. Without the hint given within a name, people were guessing. Many of you, and thank you for your honesty, point-blank admitted that nothing in the prose gave you a clue. Others suspected we were deliberately trying to outsmart you, so you guessed the opposite gender in order to be right. However, that kind of thinking pushed the experiment off the rails a bit, primarily because some of you lost the prime objective of trying to determine gender through stories or excerpts. [A side note here: regardless of the rationales for answers, if someone guessed correctly, then he or she was entered into the contest.]

For some reason, you didn't seem to trust us tricksy authors, and that made me smile. Alex Bledsoe told me in advance that he was shooting for a Raymond Carver vibe with his piece, "White Spaces." Most of you guessed that "White Spaces" was written by a female. Mary Robinette Kowal submitted a piece that she had been toying with before this experiment came into fruition. She submitted Entry #4, which was a short piece that she had written for herself in an exercise to mimic John Scalzi. She deliberately picked a male pseudonym in order to fool you. When so many of you guessed that the author of Entry #4 was male, Mary chose to submit "Meghan's Bike" in contrast. The majority of you still thought she was a man.

A few of you over-analyzed the excerpts, which was okay too, with the rationales moving in all sorts of directions. A couple of consistent ideas did come up repeatedly in both the comments here and in a few of the forums where the experiment was discussed (yes, I've been-a-lurking about your forums and such). People tend to associate emotive stories with women and "big idea" or action based stories with men. There might be some basis to that argument; however, when statements like that are made, then storytellers like Patrick Rothfuss and Stephen King, who tell very emotive stories, are shot out of the picture. Likewise, people who expect anything less than "big idea" stories from women are missing out on authors like Ursula K. Le Guin or Margaret Atwood. The list of male and female authors who don't fit neatly into these two categories can go on, but the idea here is simply this: not everyone fits a niche or a certain style.

None of you can say for certain whether K.J. Parker is male or female. You can guess. You can suspect. Ten thousand different rationales can lead down ten thousand roads. I used to work for attorneys where I mastered the art of reasoning both sides of an argument with supporting documentation, so I take it all with grain of salt. As Mark pointed out in one of our emails, it's very easy--not to mention human nature--to skew the evidence to support an individual's point of view. We like to think we know the answers and that the facts support our reasoning, but in the end, it's all conjecture.

My opinion here is simply this: No matter how much we analyze story, prose, or word usage, none of us can say with any certainty whether a specific piece is written by a man or woman unless the author stands up and accepts responsibility for the story.

Perhaps the publishers are right to ask women to submit their stories under pseudonyms. If a female name automatically conjures young adult/romantic/emotive story-lines in someone's mind, and a good part of the audience suffers from contempt prior to investigation before the first line of prose is read, then the novel or story may never make it out of the gates sales-wise.

So the publishers succumb to subterfuge, the authors (tricksy, tricksy, tricksy authors) also participate in the game, and you, the reader, are left to guess. None of this is new, by the way. Female authors have been hiding their gender behind pseudonyms for over a century. Likewise, male authors who write romance or other genres with a predominately female readership are asked to disguise their gender. It may be another century before we can all come out of the closet and be judged by our prose, not our gender.

Those are my thoughts on the matter and do not reflect the thoughts or opinions of the other authors who so graciously offered up their stories and their time for this endeavor. I invite you to post your thoughts on the subject either in the comments here or on your own blogs. I will leave the discussion to you.

If you do decide to comment here, remember this is my online home. I will not tolerate abusive posts or trolls. All comments will be moderated, my judgment is final and is not up for debate. Be respectful of one another, both in your words and your conduct, here and everywhere.

Now for the big reveal. We will begin with Entry #10 and work backwards toward Entry #1. Since so many of you indicated a desire to read more works by the various contributors, I am including links and author bios, all of which were shamelessly plagiarized from the authors' websites.

 Entry #10 -- Meghan's Bike by Marian Westwood and

Entry #4 -- Untitled by Jackson Harris were written by the same author:

Untitled by Jackson Harris and Meghan's Bike were both written by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Mary's debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor 2010) was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2008 she won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, while three of her short fiction works have been nominated for the Hugo Award: “Evil Robot Monkey” in 2009 and “For Want of a Nail” in 2011, which won the Hugo for short story that year. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in her collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press.

Entry #9 -- The Sea-Folk’s Price by Z. Riddle

 

 The Sea-Folk's Price was written by Courtney Schafer, who is the author of The Whitefire Crossing and Tainted City, books one and two of The Shattered Sigil series.

A voracious reader, Courtney always wished new fantasy novels were published faster - until she realized she could write her own stories to satisfy her craving for new worlds full of magic and wonder. Now she writes every spare moment she's not working or adventuring with her family. In her day life, Courtney is an engineer, an avid rock climber, and a figure skater.

Courtney is currently hard at work on the third novel of The Shattered Sigil series, The Labyrinth of Flame.

Entry #8 -- White Space by T.J. Breckenridge

White Space by T.J. Breckenridge was written by Alex Bledsoe.

Alex is the author of The Hum and the Shiver, which was named as one of the best fiction books of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and the popular Eddie LaCrosse series, which includes The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, and Wake of the Bloody Angel. In addition, he has created Memphis vampires with Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood. Watch for his newest novel of the Tufa, Wisp of a Thing, which is coming in June of 2013.

Entry #7 -- The Hated by A.K. Reid

The Hated was written by Damien Walters Grintalis.

Damien lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. She is an Associate Editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Electric Velocipede, and a staff writer with BooklifeNow. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. Her debut novel, Ink, was released in December 2012 by Samhain Horror.


Entry #6 -- Untitled by Kyle Schuler

 

Image by Ayrica BishopUntitled by Kyle Schuler was written by Shiloh Walker.

Shiloh is the author of the following series: The Ash Trilogy, FBI Psychics, Grimm's Circle, The Hunters, in addition to the novels Fragile, Broken, Voyeur, and more. Her latest release is entitled Beautiful Scars and will be released January 2013. Shiloh has been writing since she was a kid. She fell in love with vampires with the book Bunnicula and has worked her way up to the more ... ah ... serious works of fiction. She loves reading and writing just about every kind of romance. Once upon a time she worked as a nurse, but now she writes full time and lives with her family in the Midwest. She writes urban fantasy, romantic suspense and paranormal romance, among other things. Shiloh also writes urban fantasy and erotica as J.C. Daniels.

Entry #5 -- Untitled by S.A. Daniels

Untitled by S.A. Daniels was written by Diana Rowland.

Diana is the author of The Kara Gillian series and The White Trash Zombie series. Diana has lived her entire life below the Mason-Dixon line, uses "y'all" for second-person-plural, and otherwise has no southern accent (in her opinion). She attended college at Georgia Tech where she earned a BS in Applied Mathematics, and after graduation forgot everything about higher math as quickly as possible.

She has worked as a bartender, a blackjack dealer, a pit boss, a street cop, a detective, a computer forensics specialist, a crime scene investigator, and a morgue assistant, which means that she's seen more than her share of what humans can do to each other and to themselves. She won the marksmanship award in her Police Academy class, has a black belt in Hapkido, has handled numerous dead bodies in various states of decomposition, and can't rollerblade to save her life.

She presently lives in south Louisiana with her husband and her daughter where she is deeply grateful for the existence of air conditioning.

Entry #3 -- The Education of Rebecca Cavendish by Alice Leakey

The Education of Rebecca Cavendish was written by Myke Cole.

Myke is the author of the Shadow Ops series which includes Control Point and its sequel Fortress Frontier, in addition to several short stories. As a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deep­water Horizon oil spill.

All that con­flict can wear a guy out. Thank good­ness for fan­tasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dun­geons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.

Entry #2 -- The Ballad of Sophie Nu by Dirigible Elephant

 

The Ballad of Sophie Nu was written by Mark Lawrence.

Mark is the author of Prince of Thorns, which is his first published novel. It is the beginning of a projected trilogy following the fortunes of Honorous Jorg Ancrath. The second book in the series King of Thorns was published last year and will be followed by Emperor of Thorns in August 2013.

Mark is married with four children, one of whom is severely disabled. His day job is as a research scientist focused on various rather intractable problems in the field of artificial intelligence. He has held secret level clearance with both US and UK governments. At one point he was qualified to say 'this isn't rocket science ... oh wait, it actually is'.

Between work and caring for his disabled child, Mark spends his time writing, playing computer games, tending an allotment, brewing beer, and avoiding DIY.

Entry #1 -- Bearna by Jamie Sears

The story Bearna, which was submitted by Mazarkis Williams, was written by a woman. Mazarkis is the (tricksy, tricksy, tricksy) author of the Tower and Knife fantasy series, which includes The Emperor's Knife and its sequel, Knife Sworn. The Tower Broken, book three of the series will be available in late 2013.

Oh!

I almost forgot!

THE GRAND PRIZE WINNER ...

The great and mighty Random Number Generator chose MC from a comment on Entry #10. MC's comment was "Female, I think."

Based on that comment: can you tell me if MC is a man, or a woman?

Wednesday
Jan022013

Gender Bending Entry #10 Meghan's Bike by Marian Westwood

This is the last entry in the Gender Bending experiment. At the end of this post, I have listed the previous nine entries along with links. Everyone has until 9:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, January 3 to enter your guess as to whether the author of these excerpts is male or female. After that, I will close all the comments to all of the blog posts associated with this contest.

On Monday, January 7, 2013, I will post the big reveal.

Ready?

Last post and this is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

Meghan's Bike by Marian Westwood

Meghan sped down the hill in front of her house on Clinton Road.  Her daddy stood at the foot of the hill, at the intersection, watching for traffic coming down Trinity Street.  Meghan pumped her legs as fast as she could, imagining that she was on a roller coaster, like her big sister rode when they went to the Enchanted Forest.  Meghan wasn't tall enough at the amusement park, but here, on their hill she could fly.  Laughing, screaming with joy, she lifted her feet from the pedals and held them out to the side.

"Look, Daddy!  No feet!"

He grinned and raised his hands over his head with his thumbs up. 

The training wheels of her bike rattled across the grate of the storm drain, as she zoomed through the intersection.  As the Clinton Road began to rise again, she put her feet on the pedals and pumped as fast as she could.  This time she would make it up the hill on the other side of the intersection.  Her bike slowed, the chain barely dragging the wheels around.  She imagined a roller coaster car, clunking its way up the rise.  Meghan stood up in the seat and pushed all her weight down with each stroke.  Slowly, achingly, she climbed the hill.  

At the top, in front of the Emerson's house, she turned her bike around and waited for her daddy to give the all clear. 

He looked both ways and then nodded.  Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted, "Meghan Dougherty, come on down!"

She pushed off from the curb and settled her feet on the pedals.  The pink streamers on the end of her handlebars fluttered out, snapping at her arms.  She zoomed down the hill, giddy with speed.

 As the wind roared past her, Meghan closed her eyes, imagining the great roller coaster around her as she barreled down the hill.  "Look, Daddy, no eyes!"

"Meghan, no!"

She squeezed her eyes tighter as if that would prove she wasn't afraid

Her training wheels rattled across the storm grate.  Meghan heard a car horn.  Her daddy screamed.

For a moment longer, Meghan was flying.

***

Now, if you've made it this far, you have one last chance to guess the gender on Entries 1-9. All comments will close on Thursday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. EST. Click on the link to go to the entry, and remember, one comment per entry:

Entry #1 -- Bearna by Jamie Sears 

Entry #2 -- The Ballad of Sophie Nu by Dirigible Elephant 

Entry #3 -- The Education of Rebecca Cavendish by Alice Leakey 

Entry #4 -- Untitled by Jackson Harris

Entry #5 -- Untitled by S.A. Daniels

Entry #6 -- Untitled by Kyle Schuler

Entry #7 -- The Hated by A.K. Reid

Entry #8 -- White Space by T.J. Breckenridge

Entry #9 -- The Sea-Folk’s Price by Z. Riddle

Tuesday
Jan012013

Gender Bending Entry #9 The Sea-Folk's Price by Z. Riddle

A mystery author has popped into the game with a haunting post about the Sea-Folk. This adds another book to the original list of authors, but this author will remain unnamed for now.

Entry #9 The Sea-Folk's Price is a disturbing tale to set us off into the new year.

Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

The Sea-Folk’s Price by Z. Riddle

Dai stomped through saltgrass and spinewort along the sea-cliff’s edge.  He wanted to howl curses out into the basso roar of the waves below, but this was no night to say such things aloud.  The full moon rising out of the sea was baleful orange, the surf seething and clawing at the land like a wolf roused to wrath.  It was a wild night, a raidheilge night, when the sea-folk would hunt close to shore, and they loved to catch curses and twist them against the speaker. 

Dai saw no sleek dark heads bobbing in the roiling foam, but lightning flashes of green and indigo lanced along the breakers, a sure sign of the sea-folk’s presence.  At the promontory’s highest point a mile distant, where pinprick lights outlined the Dragonhead Inn’s stacked, overhanging balconies, sightseers from the city would be pressed against the balcony rails, chattering like eager children and peering out into the waves. 

Old Owain, proprietor of the inn, would’ve warned them not to climb down to the beaches.  Cityfolk might think the sea-folk were ethereal sprites who granted wishes and seduced seamen, but the fishers knew better.  They’d buried the savaged corpses of capsized friends and relatives, seen the water churn red with the blood of fools who ventured too far into the waves.  Some, like Dai, had seen more. 

Flat black shark’s eyes staring into his, a fanged grin amid seaweed hair, and blood blooming in the water, so lovely, so terrible…

Dai’s breath came short.  His stride increased until he was almost running along the clifftop despite the chancy terrain, but the desperate anger burning in his chest didn’t ease.  By rights he should be working at the inn tonight, same as he had the last two years.  Carrying cinnamon cider and mulled wine to the guests crowding the balconies, and keeping a weather eye to make sure none were so foolish as to disobey Owain’s warnings.  But his father had gotten to Owain first.

Your father needs you, boy, Owain had said when he turned Dai away.  He can’t work the nets with his hands pained bad as they are, not alone. You’re done here.

I don’t work the boats, Dai had insisted, through gritted teeth.  Not anymore. I told you that when I first asked for a job.

You do now, Owain said, a terrible sympathy shining in his dark eyes.  Or do you want those pretty little sisters of yours to starve?  Now Andras has run off, you’re the only hope your father’s got. I can’t pay you half so much as he can earn with you in the boat. 

Andras.  Without slowing, Dai snatched up a stone and pitched it off the cliff.  The rock arced through the air and disappeared without a trace into the cauldron of waves.  Better if the rock had smashed his older brother’s head.  Andras, with his hard strength from years at the oars, his rough mockery, his wild, flashing grin -

Andras, who’d run off with Dilys the butcher’s daughter, leaving only a scrawled, barely readable note about seeking his fortune in the city.  Dai didn’t hate him for running.  Didn’t even hate his brother’s typical selfishness in forcing Dai to take his place. 

Dai hated that he’d lacked the courage to run first.

He could still run now.  His steps slowed, thinking of it.  Get away from the sea, before -  

But, no. He wasn’t Andras, who never thought beyond his latest passion.  The twins’ small faces wouldn’t leave his mind’s eye.  If Dai left, six-year-old Cadi and Efa might not starve outright; the other fishers would help as they could.  But they’d see to their own families first, and coin was scarce for all living on the Skali Coast.  Even Owain, with wealthy merchants bedding down in his inn, hadn’t much extra.  Dai knew, because he’d helped Owain with the ledgers.  The inn devoured money, with all the constant repairs and food orders and wages for cook and groom and maids, and most months the rooms were near empty.  Only now, in the fall, when the sea-folk came close to shore and the idle rich flocked to the coast to see magic flicker along the waves, would Owain make enough to see the inn through the rest of the year.    

Cadi and Efa had never been strong, born early as they were.  Living on scraps, they might survive a while, but when the winter plagues swept through the village…they’d die, as Dai’s mother had the winter after the twins’ birth. 

Old grief knotted his chest at the memory.  No.  He couldn’t simply slink away.  But what could he do?  His father thought it was simple fear that kept him from the sea, and so did Owain.  None of them understood.  None knew the truth of that terrible day two years ago, when Jakin had died and Dai had rowed in alone, numb and shivering with shock.

Against his will, the sea drew Dai’s eye.  He stopped dead, staring.

Someone was walking on the slender silver crescent of sand between cliff and waves.  A girl, in a pale dress already sodden with salt spray, thin fabric clinging to breast and hip.  Tendrils of dark hair rose and whipped in the wind like kelp in a storm-tide.

She had to be one of the gapers from the city.  Dai had heard the stories they told at the inn.  Dreamy, utterly false fancies of sea-folk granting heart’s desires, healing the sick, bringing lovers back from the dead.  Just the other day, he’d been washing the common room windows and overheard a pair of city girls sighing over a tale of a maiden with a sea-folk lover – in the tale, a darkly handsome man whose cruelty was limited to simple abandonment of a maiden yearning for his touch.

Through long practice, Dai had held his tongue – helped by his desire not to lose his view of the bountiful cleavage so enticingly displayed by the girls’ tight-laced corsets.  Something must’ve showed on his face, though, because the room’s other occupant, a man with corn-gold hair and silken clothes nearly as covered in fripperies as the girls’ dresses, had cast an ironic glance Dai’s way. 

Not a fan of folk tales? the man had asked, flipping a silver coin idly back and forth across his slender knuckles. 

Dai wasn’t.  Not that he said so at the time.  Owain didn’t like him talking to the guests.  But for all the foolish tales helped Owain drum up business, Dai thought them dangerous as rip currents.  Look at that idiot girl down there.  She was far, far too close to the water.  The sea-folk didn’t often leave the waves, but on nights like this one -

She was walking into the water.  Dai’s throat locked.  Oh, lords of the ocean, no!  One part of the tales was true: sea-folk could cast illusions.  The creatures used them to lure prey into reach. 

Dai flung himself forward along the clifftop.  There, the precipice’s angle wasn’t so steep – he slithered over the edge and skidded down crumbling limestone.  Saltgrass sliced his palms, stone grating against his skin, his breath harsh in his ears as the roar of the surf swelled. 

Sand beneath his feet now, and he was running.  The girl was waist-deep, and beyond, dark heads bobbed up in the foam.

Dai shouted, wordless and frantic.  The girl didn’t turn.  What illusion blinded her, stopped her ears?  He kicked off his boots and splashed into the surf, red blooming behind his eyes.  The icy shock of the water slammed the breath from his lungs. 

A wave slapped his face.  Hungry currents sucked at his legs.  He lunged for the girl’s arm.  Her skin was icy beneath his hand.  He pulled, and she turned at last.

Bone-pale face, lightless black eyes, and a wide, fanged grin –

Dai couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, as understanding crashed in.  She wasn’t the prey.  He was. 

He threw himself backward, but she had both his wrists in an iron-hard grip.  She dragged him deeper, and the illusion blurred away, leaving dark, scaled skin and weedy hair.  He fought, not wasting breath on screams, but cold tentacles snaked around his legs, jerked his feet clear of the sea bottom. 

Ours, came an icy, alien voice in his head, just as it had that day two years ago.  Ours.  Dark heads were all around him, brine flooding his mouth and nostrils.  The creature who held him yanked his left hand up to its lipless mouth. 

A snap of gleaming teeth, and he screamed, then, as his smallest finger disappeared and blood sprayed dark into the water.

Ours, the voice said, silky soft.  We touched you once before, and we claim you now. Your bone and blood is in us.  You do our bidding, mortal man, or all who share your blood will pay the price.

A vision swam into Dai’s head, of little Cadi and Efa, his stern father, even vanished Andras: all of them shrieking, blood running black from their mouths and eyes as their flesh sloughed away.   

“No!”  Dai spat seawater, kicked and twisted in the creature’s grip.  It hugged him closer.  The stump of his finger throbbed, pain rising through shock.  Cold breath reeking of carrion washed over him.  He turned his face aside, squeezed his eyes shut.  “Don’t. Please. You – what do you want?”

Another vision: the rich man at the inn, lamplight gleaming on his golden hair, his pale eyes sharp and shadowed, the coin flicking back and forth over his fingers.

Kill this man.  Kill him, and bring us his corpse before the dark of the moon.  When we taste his dead flesh, your blood will be safe.

Dai sputtered, his surprise so huge his voice wouldn’t come.  They wanted him to murder some rich city man?  Why? 

The creature dragged Dai’s maimed hand up again.  Indigo lightning flickered, bright enough to blind, and agony melted Dai’s bones.  

The grip on his wrists, his legs, released.  The pain vanished with it, leaving Dai choking and flailing, abruptly alone in the surging waves.  He thrashed toward shore, terror still beating bright in his veins, but felt no touch other than that of the sea itself. 

He staggered up onto the sand.  Dizziness sent him to his knees, his head reeling.  How much of his blood had spilled into the sea?  He should stem the flow.  If he died here on the sand, the sea-folk might well cast their curse on his kin regardless.  He fumbled for his injured hand.

His breath stopped again.  Bone gleamed white at the severed joint, but no blood poured from the wound.  The ragged flesh was blackened – not as if seared by fire, but as if dipped in ink, or tar. 

Something was bound around his wrist.  A bracelet of smooth, dark shells, so tight to his skin he couldn’t get a finger under it.  He yanked at the shells, struck by the unreasoning, desperate conviction he must get it off – and was assaulted again by a vision of his baby sisters screaming, dying.  For remembrance, the sea-folk’s voice whispered in his head.  He retched, bile sour in his throat. 

Two years ago, as he’d been screaming the last air out of his lungs, struggling against the cold grip holding him under, they’d said, You beg to be spared? We’ll grant your wish, but there is a price.

He’d thought Jakin’s life the price.  He’d been wrong.

Monday
Dec312012

Gender Bending Entry #8 White Space by T.J. Breckenridge

I normally don't post on the weekends, but given the number of entries in this little contest, I took the posts through on Saturday and Sunday this week. If you missed the weekend entries, you can still read them and have your vote counted:

Entry #6 by Kyle Schuler

Entry #7 by A.K. Reid

How much longer will the experiment continue? There are a total of ten excerpts and the final excerpt will be posted on Wednesday, January 2, 2013. At that point the experiment will end and I will use the weekend to assess the data and choose a winner.

Without further ado, here is Entry #8 by T.J. Breckenridge. Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

White Space by T.J. Breckenridge

Margot knocked on her neighbor’s door.  While she waited, she stamped her feet to dislodge the snow. Their dogs barked inside, and a moment later Evelyn, her white-haired neighbor, peeked out.  She unlatched the door and said, "Oh, dear.  You must need something pretty bad to brave all this snow."

Eighteen inches of fresh snow totally enveloped their small town, as it did the rest of the Midwest.  But that wasn’t the worst thing about the day.  The worst thing was that Margot had to do something that went entirely against her nature: ask for help.  And all because that jackass husband of hers hadn't bothered to get the snowblower fixed.  She said, "I wondered if we could borrow your snowblower when Tom is finished with it.  Ours is out of commission, and Fred's likely to kill himself shoveling the driveway."

"Of course.  Tom's off clearing the sidewalk by one of our rental houses right now, but I'll have him bring it over when he finishes."

"Thank you.  It means a lot."  Already she was calculating the proper reward gift, probably a casserole or a batch of fresh oatmeal cookies.  She would never accept charity; her universe was entirely quid pro quo.

***

Fred wiped his face.  It was twenty degrees, but he was sweating like the proverbial pig beneath his layers of protection.  He'd already discarded his scarf and woolen hat, and debated whether to unzip his outer coat.

He took another look at the task ahead of him.  There was a foot of snow on the driveway at its lowest point, and it drifted up to a yard high along one side.    It was heavy, wet snow, too, the kind that made Dr. Oz warn people like Fred to take it easy to avoid a coronary.  Fred had already been working for an hour, and had barely cleared a third of it.  He adjusted his grip on the ergonomic shovel’s gracefully bent handle, and dug in to shift another load.

Then he heard the sound of a pull string on an engine.

He looked up.  At the far end of the driveway, near the godawful pile the town's snowplows always left there, his wife stood adjusting the thrower spout before settling the snowblower's big red mouth against the snow.  A plume rose fifteen feet into the air before landing in the yard, on top of the drift. She moved it forward slow and steady, carving a perfectly straight line that would eventually catch up to his erratic hand-made one.

"Hey, hey, HEY!" Fred called.  He jammed his shovel down into the snow blade-first and stomped his way to Margot.  "What the hell are you doing?"

"What you should be doing," Margot yelled over the motor.  "If you'd gotten the damn snowblower fixed, that is.  Watch your feet, I don’t want to chop off your toes."

He started to turn away, then instead pried her hand away from the kill switch.  The motor sputtered to a halt.  He said, "Look, will you stop helping me?  I've got it under control."

"This will take you all day,” she said.  “That is, if you don't have a heart attack or a stroke first.  I'll be done in fifteen minutes."

"So what if it takes me all day?  It's not like we have to be anywhere, is it?"

"You're not a young man anymore, Fred.  You'll be fifty on your next birthday.  Just use the damn snowblower, and then get ours fixed tomorrow when the roads are clear."

"No!" he shrieked, like a child or a maniac.  "That ... it's not the point!"

Margot leaned on the snowblower's handle and sighed, with the exasperation only a long marriage could provoke.  "So the point is not to clear the driveway?"

"No, it's ..." He stopped, considered whether to keep going, then charged ahead.  "Ever since they told me I was diabetic, I've been eating right, losing weight, exercising more, all the bullshit the doctor insisted on, right?"

"Yes, as long as I buy you the food and make your dinners.  I even have to write down your snacks for you."

Normally he'd snap back at this, but he was onto something bigger.  "This was my first test to see if I was really getting healthier and stronger.  I don't want to use the snowblower, I want to shovel it myself.  A year ago I couldn't have done this.  I have to see if I can now."

"That's stupid, Fred.  Really.  I don't mean to be harsh, but you're going to be down with your back for a week after this, and I won't be able to take off work to help you."

They looked at each other.  The gulf between them had never seemed so wide; the distance from her pragmatic realism to his idealistic belief in meaning was so great that they heard only the indistinct echoes of each other's voices, not the actual words the other was saying.  He sagged, defeated, and she kicked the snowblower in frustration.

"I'll finish with the snowblower," he said, and waited for her to move aside.

"No, just stay out of the way," she said, and reached for the pull handle.

Sunday
Dec302012

Gender Bending Entry #7 The Hated by A.K. Reid

The Gender Bending continues with A.K. Reid. Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

The Hated by A.K. Reid

The boys at the bar glare at Fisher when he walks in. Fisher knows they hate him. Everyone in town hates him. Hell, if he were in their situation, he'd probably be filled with hate, too.

Need makes many enemies. Magic, even more.

After Fisher sits down and orders a beer, the boys go back to their chatter. They’re old enough to know about the world, but still young enough to pretend it's not as bad as they've been told. Give them another five years and the laughter will be gone, along with any sort of light in their eyes. Fisher's seen their kind plenty of times, in plenty of dusty little towns like this one.

One of the boys lets out a hoot of laughter and slides a bottle cap down the length of the bar. It ends up in front of Fisher. Nothing but a harmless bit of fun, but fun isn't in Fisher's vocabulary. Fun can get you killed on this side of the river.

The boys are watching him. The bartender, too. Fisher picks up the bottle cap, rolls it around his fingers until it vanishes.

The boys look away. The barman pulls a face.

Just because they need Fisher doesn't mean they like reminders of what he can do. Or maybe they don't like that it reminds them of what he can't.

The beer is strong--one benefit he'll give the town. It isn't strong enough to keep the taste of the magic in the river from creeping into his mouth, but it helps. The river magic tastes like a bad hangover minus the pounding head. If the boys at the end of the bar could taste it, they wouldn't be chattering like magpies on a vine, and they probably wouldn't hate him so much.

But it is what it is. Fisher is who, what, he is. Gift, curse, or dumb luck, it doesn't matter.

He drains the last of his beer, tips his hat to the barman, and walks through the town. He passes a woman wearing tired on her face like yesterday's fashion. She doesn't smile, doesn't meet his eyes. A group of kids are kicking around a few stones. They fall to silence when he walks by, the stone forgotten.

As he draws closer to the river, the foul taste in his mouth grows stronger. When he was younger, he'd try to spit it out. He knows better now.

He stops about five feet away from the water and crosses his arms over his chest. The river itself is a wide black snake oozing along the edge of the town. Some say there used to be a bridge spanning across long before Fisher's time. About the only one in town who might remember would be Old Lady Twist, and she went mindfuck a few years ago. The only things she's capable of now are shitting in her diapers and drooling in her lap.

Bridge or no bridge, doesn't matter anyway. The river, like hate and fate, is what it is. Fisher is the only one who can get close, and he's the only one who can keep it from creeping closer.

No one knows what's on the other side of the river anymore or if there's even another side. The air there is all hazy grey. No signs of light. No signs of life.

Like a bullet or a bad choice, the wrong kind of magic sticks. You can't change it. You can't erase it. You can only deal with the fallout. The magician who broke rank and went haywire is long dead, but his ghost is a path of destruction half a country wide.

The dry soil crunches beneath Fisher's boot heels as he checks his wards and the marker he left on the shoreline. So far, his magic is holding firm. He takes a deep breath, digging deep inside to find what he needs, and extends his arms. The taste in his mouth changes, the foul vanishing beneath something similar to honey and orange water. When the magic starts to flow, his fingers tingle and warmth seeps through his limbs.

Maybe one day there'll be a magician strong enough to put everything to right, but right now, he'll have to do.

Saturday
Dec292012

Gender Bending Entry #6 by Kyle Schuler

The Gender Bending continues with Kyle Schuler. Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

Untitled by Kyle Schuler

She wouldn’t look at me.

Standing there, lost in the trees, all I want her to do is give me one sign…just one.  If she so much as whispered my name, or glanced at me, I’d be there.  If she said, kill…I’d storm that fucking fortress and everybody inside it would be dead in a moment.

But all she did was sit there, huddling behind that big-ass tiger and clutching a borrowed coat around her narrow shoulders.  It was dark out but not dark enough.  I could see every bruise on her and I wanted to break something. 

If somebody breathed too loud, she flinched and I couldn’t stand it.

This was the mean, ball-busting little bitch who’d once pulled a blade on me.  When she was afraid, she kicked people in the teeth.  When she was nervous, she mouthed off.  And if she was pissed, you better check her hands for sharp objects.

And now…

Screams raged inside my head and I turned away.  No matter how many times, I tried to block it out, I kept seeing her as she came tearing out of the big pile of stone behind us.  I’d thought…

No, man.  Don’t go thinking.

If I started thinking, I was going to remember what she’d almost done.  What she might still do if she thought she had a chance.

And if I kept looking at her, I thought maybe I was going to be the one to lose my mind.  I couldn’t do this. But I couldn’t walk away from this place, either.  Shifting my attention to the fortress in the mountains, I flexed one hand, felt the monster inside me roaring, trying to come to the surface.  He was a mean-ass bastard even under the best circumstances.  And when another broken gasp came to me on the wind, I had to admit…these weren’t the best circumstances.

She wouldn’t look at me.  Wouldn’t let me get near her and any time I tried, she backed away like she thought I might hurt her.  The bitch of it all…I even understood that.  If I didn’t do something, I was going to explode.  The monster raging inside me saw to that.

I didn’t bother stripping out of my clothes as I slid off into the night.  The shift took care of them.  They fell in shreds around me and I paid about as much attention to them as I did to the snow blasting again my skin.  I knew it was there, but I didn’t fucking care.

There were only two things that mattered—one of them was behind me…and she didn’t want to see me.

The other was in that huge mausoleum of a house and as soon as he came out, I didn’t care if he was under guard or not, I was going to rip him apart.  I’d bury my claws in his gut and then rip him apart.  I could already smell the acrid, rotting stink of his blood and the burn of anticipation was the only thing that had made me feel good since this nightmare had started.

Hiding myself in the shadows, I looked back at her.  She huddled against the tiger and I whispered, “I’m so damn sorry.”

But it didn’t matter.  I hadn’t protected her.  The one thing I’d promise her and I’d failed.

No wonder she didn’t want to look at me.

I didn’t think I’d ever be able to face myself again, not after this.

Friday
Dec282012

Gender Bending Entry #5 by S.A. Daniels

Some of you have questioned whether we (the authors) are deliberately trying to trick you, so for the record:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have something lying around, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

Untitled by S.A. Daniels

The woman in the doorway of the small grocery leveled an uncertain frown at us as we crossed the street. Brown hair heavily streaked with gray had been pulled back into a stubby ponytail. Her denim capris looked to be about a size too small, but her dark blue t-shirt—emblazoned with Mirelle’s Grocery on the upper left—was large enough to hang halfway down her thighs. “Sabina Moore?” I asked as soon as I was on the sidewalk.

“That’s me,” she replied. Sweat dotted her upper lip, and her complexion seemed pallid. Maybe what I’d taken earlier as a disapproving frown was more a grimace of anxiety and upset. “You wanna talk to me about the dead man?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I’m Detective Alan Taylor, and this is Detective Rick O’Cull.”

A frown puckered her forehead. “I already told the other cops what I saw.” She lifted her chin toward St. Cyr and Simpson.

“We’d like to hear your account for ourselves,” O’Cull said, tone friendly and soothing. “We only need a few minutes of your time.”

She looked him over, seemed to be satisfied with what she saw. Clean cut, kind smile. Nice-looking with dark hair and blue eyes. O’Cull could be a tight-ass neat freak, but he knew how to charm a witness. “Sure, that’s fine,” she said then glanced over at me. “Sure,” she repeated, though this time she didn’t sound as if she was.

“Why don’t we go inside,” I suggested, partly because I didn’t want to conduct an interview out on the sidewalk, and mostly because I could feel the air-conditioned air flowing out around her, and I hated sweating this early in the morning.

She turned and entered the store, the denim between her thighs hissing with each step she took toward the front check-out stand. “There’s an office but there ain’t no room for all of us in there,” she said, looking back at us as we followed her in. “Barely enough room for me,” she added with a wheezing laugh. “I hope y’all are okay with standing out here.”

“That’s fine,” I replied. It wasn’t an issue since there was no one else in the store yet. “Can you tell us what happened this morning?”

She blew out her breath, crossed her meaty arms over her breasts as she leaned back against the counter. “I live about half a mile from here—walk here every day. No car,” she explained, looking to O’Cull. He gave her a sympathetic nod and she continued. “I always cut through the alley, but today I come out of there and the first thing I saw was that man lying sprawled on his back.” Her throat bobbed as she swallowed. “I didn’t touch him, ’cause I saw all the blood. I could see he was dead. I called nine one one and then came right over here.” She uncrossed her arms and spread her hands. “And that’s pretty much it.”

“Did you see anyone else in the alley or the parking lot?” O’Cull asked.

“No. Just me.”

“Have you ever seen that man before?”

Her lips pressed together as she considered. “No. Don’t think so. And I know that car wasn’t in the lot when I left last night.”

“And what time was that?” he asked.

“Nine o’clock.”

I looked toward the door, then back to her. “Ms. Moore, the hours on the door say that the grocery closes at ten.”

She swallowed, gave a jerky nod. “I wasn’t feeling too good, and there was no one here so I closed up early.”

“I see. The hours also say you open at five a.m. Yet you didn’t call nine one one until after six.”

A droplet of sweat snaked down her temple. “I was running late. I was still feeling bad. I ain’t been sleeping too good.” She gulped and hunched her shoulders. “I was running late,” she muttered.

I gave her a reassuring smile. She looked anything but reassured.

“One more question, Ms. Moore,” O’Cull said gently. She yanked her attention to him like a drowning man seizing a life buoy. “Do you always work from five a.m. until ten p.m. here?”

Some of the tension left her, and she shook her head. “No, the owner—Mirelle Jefferson—she works the mornings most of the time, but her daughter just had a baby, and she’s in Mississippi for a few days.”

“I see,” he said. He glanced my way, and I gave him a slight shake of my head to let him know I didn’t have any other questions. “Ms. Moore, we appreciate your time.” He pulled a business card from his notebook and handed it to her. “If you think of anything else that you think might aid our investigation, please give me a call.”

She took the card, gave him a weak smile. She didn’t look my way.

We left the grocery, closed the door behind us. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sabina Moore flip the sign over to Open. “You think she was telling the truth about why she didn’t call until after six?” O’Cull asked.

I nodded. “It would have still been dark at five a.m., and there aren’t any lights in that lot. I don’t think she’d have seen the body that early.”

He considered that for a few seconds. “That makes sense. Good thing she was feeling sick, I guess.”

I didn’t answer. Sabina Moore probably felt sick because she was going to have a fatal heart attack in the next couple of days. Sabina Moore needed to see a doctor as soon as possible, because if she did so, it would very likely save her life. But I didn’t turn around to tell her to go see her doctor. I didn’t go back and give her some story about how I had a aunt who’d had a heart attack and how she’d felt tired and sick too, how she’d had the same sallow expression and tremor in her hands.

I had rules about that sort of thing.

I continued across the street and didn’t look back at Sabina Moore. I knew she was still watching me—like the rabbit watches the coyote to make sure it’s really leaving, to be certain that it’s found other prey.

It was almost a relief to return to the comforting peace of the dead man.

Thursday
Dec272012

Gender Bending Entry #4 by Jackson Harris

Some of you have questioned whether we (the authors) are deliberately trying to trick you, so for the record:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have something lying around, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

Untitled Entry #4 by Jackson Harris

Chet hung his EVA suit up in his locker, checking over it to make sure there were no new signs of fraying. The far end of the locker room had a group of newbie passengers crowded around Brokedown Sal.

"Reliable." Sal nodded his head ominously. "That's what we all thought of Starky. When the dude missed last night's roll call, therewas more than panic, there was fear. Yousee..."

"Oh, what utter bullshit," Chet said. He slammed his locker door, holding a handstrap so the momentum wouldn't push him across the room. The clang echoed through the room. "You aren't going to start the newbs out on the station with a freaking' ghost story are you?"

One of the newbs had drifted free of his footholds and was pawing at the suit of a friend, trying to pull himself back down to the floor. The station wasn't zero g, but it was close enough this far in to the hub that it would take him a long ass time to fall back down.

Sal folded his arms the way he always did when he got stubborn. "Dude. Not a ghost story."

"Dude. Starky is in his bunk nursing a hangover." Chet said, pushing off. He aimed his long leaps for the door. "Teach your passengers how to hold on instead of trying to scare them."

He should not let Brokedown Sal get on his nerves. The man couldn't help being a chronic liar and it didn't interfere with his skills as a shuttle pilot, but still, it made Chet crazy. Especially when rotation put Sal in charge of giving newbs the tour. Chet hop-floated through the corridor until he got to the down tube. Snagging a rung, he started climbing down to the next level. He wanted some real gravity and a drink.

#

Crammed into a single room on level 4, the Sheltered Fish had tried to create the ambiance of a down-planet bar through a clever use of paint. If you didn't look too closely, the plasteel counter gave the impression of a fine oak grain and the ducting overhead could pass for brass. They'd painted the airlock dog wheels to look like giant gears so the whole thing almost, almost looked like it was a genuine steampunk bar.

Chet sidled up to the bar and ordered a wetpack of brandy. They couldn't do anything to disguise the serving containers. Even in the gravity portions of the station, everything came in low-grav packaging, just in case they lost spin. He hated drinking beer with a straw, so brandy had long ago become his drink of preference.

Drink in hand, Chet turned to see who else was holed up here. Across the room, Mbali stood at one of the bar tables talking to Gerhardt. Even from here, the way the slender black woman leaned back, arms crossed, obviously meant that she wanted to escape Gerhardt's company, but on a station with a population of 352, you couldn't risk alienating anyone. Not even a sixty-year old physicist who would hump a water line.

"Howdy, folks," Chet said, sliding between Mbali and Gerhardt as unobtrusively as he could.

Mbali latched onto him like a shuttle to a loading door. "Chet! Gerhardt was just telling me that Starky saw an alien last night."

"Been talking to Brokedown Sal, huh?" He sipped his brandy, trying to pretend that he could smell it.

Gerhardt shook his head. He said, "Heard it from Starky."

Chet squeezed the wetpack in surprise, spraying his drink in his face. "You're kidding me."

"Nope." Gerhardt put his hand on Chet's chin, delicately wiping the brandy off. He licked his fingers, smiling at Chet. "Come back to my bunk and I'll tell you all about it."

At least the man was equal opportunity. Chet exchanged glances with Mbali. "You know I wish I could, but seeing Mbali has reminded me that we need to prep for the influx of newbs. When you have time?"

"Now's good." Mbali said, pushing away from the table with a tad too much eagerness for subtlety.

Chet capped the straw on his drink and slid it into his pocket. "Great. Come on."

"Anything I can help with?" Gerhardt rested his hand on Mbali's shoulder. "You let me know." He just brushed her breast as he pulled his hand away.

She smiled tightly. "Great. Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."

The moment they were in the corridor, Mbali let out her breath in a long string of curses. Chet raised his eyebrows appreciatively. "How many languages was that?"

"Six. If you count Middle English and Early Modern English as separate languages." She ran her hand over her cropped hair. "Which you should."

"I'll keep that in mind. That's the second time I've heard Starky's name today."

"Where've you been? It's all over the station."

"I was out doing EVA repairs on the solar panels for most of the morning. First I heard was from Brokedown Sal."

"Yeah, well, he's telling the truth for once. Probably. What did he say?"

"Just starting to tell a bunch of newbs that Starky didn't show last night."

Mbali's eyes lit up. "I'd forgotten they were coming on board today. Sam Brooke is supposed to be in this batch."

"And he is?"

"She. She is the other prog--"

A klaxon sounded and the hall jolted under them. Chet grabbed for a handrail, but inertia hurled him away before he could. Mbali grabbed his foot as gravity faded and died. Up and down the corridor, people cursed and shouted questions.

The intercom cut in with a buzz of static. "All hands. All hands. Unidentified boarders. Recommend full EVA gear. This is not a drill. Repeat. This is not a drill."

Mbali hauled him in so he could grab the handrail. He clenched it, palms sweating. "You said aliens?"