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Death comes for us all.

Keep her as your friend.

 Read "La Santisima"

What's New:

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.

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 science fiction (17)

Monday
Sep092013

Writing other cultures -- Diversity in SFF

Or writing outside of your comfort zone, as I like to call it.

I'm not talking about sprinkling people with different colored skin throughout my novel, or even about adding a gay person here or there to show diversity. I'm talking about taking the time and energy to immerse myself in another person's skin. It's not an easy thing to do, but writing about other cultures has broadened my world view and raised my awareness; it has made me more empathic to other people who live differently than me.

I try to follow three rules when writing outside my comfort zone: 

  1. Talk to people from the culture or who live the lifestyle that I'm trying to represent, and if possible, ask someone from that culture to beta read the story for me. That is the best way possible to prevent stereotypical errors that I might be blind to but that someone from that culture would be highly sensitive about.
  2. Read and watch documentaries about the people and/or time period that I want to portray. I try really hard to immerse myself in someone else's world before I put the first word down.
  3. Be respectful.

When I first started Garden in Umber, I had one character who I knew was gay. He was a very minor character, not one who I saw as rising up to take over the story, but he did. In the beginning, Diago was almost an afterthought, a side-character and a very stereotypical gay man. I'm almost ashamed to admit that now, but if I don't tell you where I began, you won't truly understand how I learned the lessons that I did.

While I worked on my character sketches, I happened upon some blog posts about the lack of competently rendered gay characters in novels, especially in SFF. The more I read, the more I realized that my character was exactly what people hated to see, and they very clearly articulated why they found a lot of the gay characters offensive.

Sometime around this same period, Dark Scribe magazine did an interview with several gay horror authors (The Fear of Gay Men: A Roundtable Discussion on the New Queer), one of whom I had met online and whose work I greatly admire. I emailed Robert Dunbar, explained the situation, and Rob set up a place for me to ask questions. Then he did the most generous thing of all and asked some of the fine gentlemen who participated in the Dark Scribe interview to answer my questions.

Other members of the online gay community showed up and were very generous with both their time and their honesty. One thing they said, over and over, was that they were tired of seeing gay characters being all about sex. They said (and rightly so) that gay people are whole, complex people with many passions and many loves--that there was more to being gay than sex.

In short, they taught me many things and directed me to some wonderful resources. My character Diago went from being a frivolous stereotype to being a much darker character, but he has reason to be dark.

I don't know anything about being a gay man in the 14th century, but I do understand what it means to have people treat you badly because of who and what you are. I know what it means to be shut out of "polite" society, and all I can do is translate those feelings of loss to Diago and Miquel.

To honor all those people who took the time to answer my questions, Garden in Umber is about love, not sex, because sex is not always about love. Love is about acceptance and thinking beyond yourself, and those are the themes of Garden in Umber.

Writing Garden in Umber took me far outside my comfort zone, but it was a worthwhile journey. I learned to understand love from an entirely different viewpoint. Hopefully, I've translated all these things accurately, and if I haven't, I hope people will at least appreciate the fact that I tried.

Of course, if I hadn't read those posts on gay characters a few years ago, I never would have undertaken my journey the way I have. If I hadn't asked questions or reached out, I would have written another stereotypical gay character from a heterosexual viewpoint.

Having learned my lesson with Garden, I decided to use the same approach when I wrote my short story "La Santisima." The story initially began as a story about the drug war, but I was at a loss for a supernatural element for the story. I contacted Sabrina Vourvoulias, who kindly answered my questions and pointed me toward some valuable resources. Through those resources, my story opened up to shift completely away from drugs to immigration. The story became less of a cliche and more realistic than I imagined.

Sabrina kindly read the story for me and she advised removing and rewriting portions that were stereotypical and might be offensive to people. Neither of the things that Sabrina picked up on were intentionally introduced to be racist, but they reflected my ignorance about the culture. So I tweaked the trouble spots again, and now I'm very pleased with the story.

Writing diversity into stories takes the author (and the reader if the author has done his or her job properly) outside of the confinements and comfort of commonly perceived notions. It's not easy writing, but that is why I call it writing outside of my comfort zone.

Nor will I lie to you, it is harder to get these stories published, at least for now. Publishers are hesitant to try new things, but to their credit, publishers are giving us works by Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed and more. Authors like Sabrina are utilizing small publishers like Crossed Genres to get their important works and voices heard. Maybe if we write more and more stories with people of different lifestyles and cultures, these works will become easier to sell. I'm willing to take that chance. I hope you'll take the chance and read a book by someone from a culture different from your own.

If you have a moment, recommend a novel or story that has changed the way you think about a certain culture or lifestyle. Name an author whose work put you outside of your comfort zone.

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?"

Wednesday
Dec262012

Gender Bending Entry #3 The Education of Rebecca Cavendish

I hope all of you had a wonderful holiday. We're back, as promised, with the continuation of the gender bending experiment. 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 a short piece already written, 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 Education of Rebecca Cavendish by Alice Leakey

Rebecca took the stairs two at a time, heels drumming on the boards. She slowed her pace too late, the sound echoing up the staircase, like likely to alert Simon to her hasty departure.

She froze, listened. The wood creaked gently beneath her feet, but no other sound reached her save the cry of gulls and the salty songs of the fishwives, crying out their wares.

She sighed in relief and proceeded more slowly now, careful of her steps, careful as the mouse who saved the lion in mother’s stories. She turned sideways at the landing, walking like a crab. Her hooped petticoat still brushed the walls of the narrow staircase, so that she clucked and swatted at the dust.

It was not Sunday, yet she’d still insisted that Mary dress her in the hoops, and her best gown as well, with the blue silk stomacher, bright with gold thread. She had even worn her silk kerchief, though it had gone sideways in her rush. Mary had looked on in silent disapproval, but did as Rebecca bade her. She might report it to Simon later, but Rebecca did not care. She would look her finest today even if King David himself commanded her to wear sackcloth.

Because today, he was coming.

She won free of the staircase and stopped in the parlor that doubled as the entry of their small counting house. She arranged her skirts, dusted them once more and straightened her kerchief and hat. She cursed that she had forgotten her mirror, but there was nothing for it. She had marshaled such beauty as God had given her. It was enough.

Her heart raced as she opened the door, stepping out on to the wide columned porch, hand going to her hat as the salt breeze threatened to sweep it from her head. She settled it on the lace cap and shaded her eyes, looking out to sea.

The Majesty sat at anchor in the distance, masts gently tossing against the bright morning sky, one of her boats was already at the quay, the sailors making fast the lines, the boatswain shouting at them to look lively. She smiled, swallowed, her breath coming in short gasps now. She tried to calm herself. The boat could be putting in to bring a factor out to inspect the Majesty’s holds, or it could be a . . .

And then she saw him. The sun sparkled on the gold braid at his shoulders, on the wrists of his jacket, on the hilt of his sword. His step was as steady as the rolling of the ship behind him, his eyes blue as the sea.

Did he smile at the sight of her? Yes, she was sure of it. And here he came on, walking across the cobbles, his boots splashing the mud away, shining as if the dirt did not dare to touch him.

His long strides took him to the steps, and he was smiling, smiling at her as if she were the only thing in the world, putting his hat under his arm, bowing deeply from the waist, returning it to his head, speaking. He was speaking to her!

With a start she realized she was standing in silence, horribly rude, not answering. Her hands were wrapped in her apron, twisting the fabric, wrinkling it in her balled fists. She forced herself to drop the cloth and smoothed it, cleared her throat. What to say? She coughed, began to speak. Stopped.

He frowned. “I said, madam, I do greatly admire your gown.”

She found words. Words totally unsuitable to the compliment. “My dear Lieutenant Percy.”

His frown deepened, only making him more beautiful. “It is good to see you well. I trust your father is recovering?”

He had said he would come and he had. Here he was, speaking to her, asking after her family. She scrambled for words and found one that seemed to fit. “Yes.”

Silence. His eyes ranged to the boards beneath her feet. So polite, so proper. Was he shy? Could it be possible that he was shy of her? Her heart soared.

She would make his courting easier. “Father is well. Simon still tends to the books, and all is well in order, sir. I should be delighted to tell him you are here.”

His eyes at last rose to hers. Was he fearful she would refuse him? Oh, how delightful!

“Your pardon, madam. I am not here on business today.”

She swallowed, steadied her legs. You will not faint. You will NOT.

Dull thumps behind her, pattering on the stairs. The swish of skirts in the parlor.

Sarah emerged onto the porch, Mary in tow. Both wore their best, as Rebecca had. Sarah’s big brown eyes shined at Lieutenant Percy, sweeping past Rebecca, not seeing her at all.

The Lieutenant’s smile lit up the morning.

Sarah’s morning.

Rebecca stood in shadow as he bowed again, turned to her sister. They were speaking, he was taking her arm, laughing as they moved across the cobbles to the boardwalk.

Mary moved to follow, her old face turning to Rebecca, eyes dark with sympathy.

Sarah, always Sarah.

Rebecca spoke, something pleasant, she hoped, to their departing backs.

The sun shone over the wharf, its rays moving to follow the couple and their chaperone, its rays powerless to penetrate the stout eaves her father had been so proud of when he had built the house where she was now certain she would remain, until spinsterhood claimed her.

“Sarah.” The word was an oath, a sin. Yet, she could not stop from forming it. Bile in her throat, in her hands on her apron again. In her heart.

Friday
Dec212012

Gender Bending Entry #2 The Ballad of Sophie Nu

NOTE (it's in bold so that means it is important):

There will be NO posts from December 22-December 25, 2012. I promised my husband to use some of my vacation time on him. I value my marriage. Therefore, all Gender Bending will resume in full force on Wednesday, December 26. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program:

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 I knew once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

Due to large amounts of spam, I have to moderate all comments. Don't panic if you don't see your comment show up immediately. I'll release them as soon as I can and they will show up in batches.

Please don't break my website.

Here we go ... remember the rules: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

The Ballad of Sophie Nu by Dirigible Elephant

“So you’re going to sit in the dark all day listening to classical music?”

That’s what Eve would say. Didn’t need a sim to model that.

Sophie lay back and let the ancient words flow. Time had robbed their meaning leaving just the pattern and beat. A woman’s voice, young, fierce.

I’m-a eat ya food up, boo

I could bust your 8, I’m-a do one too, fuck ya gon' do?

Food. That still meant something. “Open.” The capsule slid apart, revealing her to the world, puzzle-box pieces assembling themselves into some new form. The apartment lay bare, white, waiting instructions.

“Wood. And something to eat. Something current.”

The walls flushed dark, patterned themselves into panelling, furniture grew, polished oak sprouting into chairs. In the larder she found a scorpion, waiting without motion in a Perspex box. Only when she lifted the box did it move, raising both claws, arching its impotent tail.

Now she wanna lick my plum in the evening

 And fit that ton-tongue d-deep in

“Enough music.” The tune faded, beats hanging longer than the lyrics. Sophie opened the box, chased the scorpion into the corner with quick fingers, and tore off the closest arm. The creature writhed and twitched as if the music were still playing. She studied the claw in her palm, a deep glossy brown, a shade darker than her skin. “People are still eating live?”

“Yes.” Eve’s voice. It was probably a mistake to set the responder to Eve’s voice.

Sophie popped the claw into her mouth and crunched it. Nutty with a bitter edge.

“Call from Karen Kusack.” The responder, torturing her with the way Eve could never quite put enough bite on a K.

“Sim?” Karen would sic a sim on her. Maybe she still checked the summary, probably not.

“Unknown.”

“Sim her.” Sophie’s sim would gossip with Karen’s sim, exchange confidences, fake affection. For a moment she wondered how many models of her were out in the data right that second, talking to how many other extrapolations of people she’d lost interest in and who’d lost interest in her. Were the sims spawning sims in endless cycles? The responder would know. She didn’t ask. Instead she swallowed and took the scorpion’s other claw with a twist and a snap. Its legs made a dry and furious scrabbling on the plastic.

With one hand she keyed in a search, a three-layer variation. Karen, or one of her sims, had once asked what Sophie did.

“I search the data flows for correlations relevant to the hypothetical purchase of high order derivatives on options to buy intellectual property rights.” A dozen Sophie simulations were probably telling a dozen Karen sims that right now, hearing the same pause. Some sense of duty had prompted her to return the question but Karen’s answer made as little sense to her.

I look into the data. We all do. And it looks right back into us.

“How many of my friends are real?”

“Most of your friends have been real at some point,” the responder told her.

“How often have I asked you that?”

“Many times.” The responder avoided numbers where it could. It knew them all, but released figures with miser’s care. Somewhere behind that voice Eve sims talked endlessly to Sophie sims, spiralled around the same arguments, fell in love, fell out, made up, fell out, spat out new sims to field each other’s calls. Fractal cycles consuming energy, excreting still more data.

Data is easy to create and hard to destroy, like life it multiplies and spawns. Henry told her that a very long time ago. Back among the years where memory and extrapolation devour each other, Oroborus eating tail. Eve-memories bubbled pornographic, filling Sophie’s mind until the search concluded and divulged its graphic. The lurid colours grated one against the next, revealing transient patterns. Sophie found herself not caring. There’s no center in the world, Henry had told her. She didn’t need to be told. Not even the scorpion had a center, the whole of it coded in every cell. The responder could manufacture hundreds more in a second from the traces left on Sophie’s fingers, or the DNA printed even more indelibly into decentralised memory banks.

“When did I last see someone?”

“Six minutes before entering the sleep cap-”

“I mean without a screen between us.”

“A long time ago,” the Responder said.

“I want to go out.”

“Out?” As if such a thing had never existed.

“Yes. Make a door.”

Sophie stood, faced the wall, waiting. An unease nagged at her. That sense of dissociation, of falling through days without a core. The responder made a door. A dark planking of teak amid the deepness of the wooden panels. “I search the data all day.”

“Yes. You assemble information into new forms. You give it commercial value.”

“But not meaning.”

A pause. The responder seldom paused. “Perhaps not.”

She reached for the door and it opened. A corridor behind, branching into infinity. “Windows,” she said and windows opened, windows onto video streams, onto data, onto artworks, even some onto the architecture of the city, veined hulks burgeoning like tumours, so vast as to defy any point of reference.

Sophie began to walk, resisting the urge to request a flow. Something in the primitive act of unnecessary exercise spoke to her. The repetition of it.

“Did Eve ever love me?”

“Yes.” The responder often said what she wanted to hear.

“I saw a shape in the data today.” It reminded her now of the scorpion, maimed and scrabbling.

“There are many shapes in the data.” The responder saw them all. It didn’t need her help – that was just the games people play against each other.

Sophie stopped. “Door.” And a door appeared. If she wanted it her room would lie behind, reproduced to a fidelity that would admit no difference. Would the responder delete her old room or leave it?

“Eve told me our great work, humanity’s new craft, is in constructing a language beyond our imagination.”

“I know.”

“She said if you build a language in which truths can be spoken, then someone will come to use it.” Or something. Something risen from the deep hot core of the data storm.

“In 1755 the Reverend Thomas Bayes first wrote the theorem of statistical inference that bears his name,” the responder told her in the voice Eve reserved for lecturing. “He hid this truth out of fear that he had trespassed on God’s domain, but could not bring himself to destroy it. The equation was found among his notes and published after his death. He laid the foundation for a theory of data as deep as any of matter, a quantum mechanics of information if you like. This is the language that shapes the invisible.”

Sophie turned from the door and walked on. Pulsing behind the voice that followed her, deep within multidimensional spaces and far beyond imagining, many-angled gods were being born.

The need to do something rose within her, a bitter taste at the back of her throat, to do something radical. But nothing radical existed. Every twist and turn she made had been modelled, predicted, costed in, costed out.

“Show me a real window,” she said.

A thousand appeared to line the walls.

“Not an image of a window. A real window. A hole in the superstructure.”

The floor flowed beneath her feet and she stole into motion, picking up speed, the rush of air the only clue as the flow took her along featureless corridors of seemingly infinite length. The song from her apartment rattled discordant in the back of her mind - fuck ya gon' do? People once thought their music, their culture, might be the language that let them explain themselves to themselves, a translational grammar. Sophie had no songs for the world that spun around her.

The flow stopped. The corridor stopped. A blank wall faced her and as Sophie watched the whiteness of the surface ebbed until a small and dirty porthole appeared, the glass thick and stained. She knelt, a trembling rising through her. Excitement? She had to kneel, had to squint. And far below, wreathed in mist, a confusion of dark greens, of reaching broken arms.

“What is it?”

“A forest.”

Sophie stared for the longest time at this distant and unruly chaos, stared until her knees hurt and her eyes grew twitchy. Were there scorpions down there, resting on ancient trunks, stings in their tails, envenomed? Did monkeys swing from one branch to the next. Her imagination could paint no more into the arboreal gloom. What did Sophie Nu know of forests? The porthole with its dirt and edges confined her.

“Show me more.” And a clear window replaced the porthole, broad, clean, without distortion. “Simulation?”

“Extrapolation. A composite of images from cameras 12A33 through 12A60,” the responder told her.

“Zoom in.” Sophie touched the window to guide and control the point of view. Within seconds a sea of glossy leaves filled the window. She edged the view deeper in, among the branches, a wet and dripping place. “This is real?”

“Real. But not current.”

“I could... go here?” At the corner of the window some scurry of motion, the briefest glimpse of a furred limb, gone behind dark leaves.

“Monkey?”

Silence.

“I was just thinking of ...” The responder has enough sims to know what she was thinking. “Show me the first window again.”

The extrapolation gave way to the porthole. “Is this real?”

“All windows are real.”

“Show me what is really here. Really in front of me.”

“Anything you want can be there. Anything can be put in front of you.”

“Show me what was here when I woke and asked for food.”

The wall rippled to blankness, the smooth grey of quiescent nano-structure. “How close are we to the outer wall?”

“There is no outer wall.”

“How far from me is the forest I saw.”

“A long way.”

“Remove all optical simulations employed since I woke.”

And Sophie Nu found herself kneeling in the bare whiteness of her apartment. A chill ran through her. Her knees hurt. She held up her hands, studied them, remembered Eve’s softness. “Remove all simulations.”

Layers peeled, slid, scenes dissolved, reintegrated, faded, like shadows with nowhere to hide. And as the transformations ceased Sophie lay in the sleep capsule where she had begun, just a whisper of light to show the enclosing surface an inch above her nose.

“Is this it?” An image rose from within, swallowing her, Alice and the rabbit hole. Alice falling through days without centers. A code danced on the tip of her tongue. A code so old she had forgotten to remember it. “Show me the truth.” And she spoke the code.

There is only blackness. Blackness, a white table, a scorpion in a box. And Sophie Nu, naked and old, hunched in her chair. “The truth.” She demands it from thin and bitten lips.

Now there is only darkness, and a ten thousand Eve’s suspended in a single thread, talking, laughing, crying, each one a jewel.

“Delete them.” It feels like murder.

“Deleted,” the responder said, its voice anodyne, cleaned of all trace of Eve.

“Delete all the data,” Sophie said. That felt like suicide. But right. Clean.

“Process initiated.” The responder betrayed no emotion. The darkness around her shredded, reduced to something less, an enfolding nothingness. On each side emptiness devoured dark, an expanding bubble centered on Sophie.

“Now we have a center.” And Sophie Nu smiled. “How long will the deletion take?”

“An infinite number of years. Data is generated faster than it may be destroyed,” the responder said. “But no search initiated in this place will be able to catch up with the deletion horizon. This data void is self contained.”

Sophie Nu hung in nothing, beheld nothing, and for the longest time said nothing. And when at last she knew herself to be alone and at the center of all things, she spoke.

“Let there be light.”