The Author’s Voice

#SFWAPRO

Recently, a writer friend posted about a conversation he had with his agent regarding his voice. The writer is a self-confessed style chameleon, meaning he can mimic the styles of other writers, a laudable skill. However, the agent was curious what his voice would be when he wasn’t copying someone else. I tried to express what I thought the agent meant, but I’m not sure I expressed my thoughts well, so I’ve decided to tackle it here in a longer form.

If you’re a writer, or in the writing world, you’ve probably heard the term ‘writer’s voice’ before, but what is it? Unfortunately, a lot of people see it a bit like pornography in that “you know it when you see it.” It’s also one of the hardest, and most important, things a writer will do. As I’m a fan of philosophy, particularly Socrates, let’s start by trying to define the ineffable voice.

First, to be clear, I don’t mean a character’s voice. Each character (hopefully) has their own distinct voice expressed through word choice, emotional responses, and the like. A writer’s voice is a style, or feel to their writing. It doesn’t matter what genre the story is, their voice is the foundation upon which the story is told. Here’s an analogy that might help. There are some musicians who have such a well-defined style, or voice, that you can recognize one of their songs that you’ve never heard before. I think Santana is an excellent example of this because of his guitar. Mumford and Sons, the Pogues, Gaelic Storm, Tom Waits, David Bowie, and Social Distortion are a few more examples just off the top of my head. Just about any die-hard fan can recognize the style of their favorite bands though.

So how does this translate into writing? Well, like music, style is built from different factors. Not many people make it a point to sit down and dissect a piece of writing to try and find the author’s voice, but it can prove to be a useful exercise in your own work. Here are just a few examples of what makes up a writer’s style or voice:

Word choice and sentence structure is often a key element in an author’s voice. Are their sentences long, or do they tend to use shorter, more clipped sentences? Do they use a lot of descriptive terms, or are they more direct? Anne Rice is a good example of the former and Hemingway of the latter. Do they use a lot of ‘ten dollar words’? Does the use of them come across as authentic? What about profanity/curse words? How much? Is it creative? i.e. does someone get called an asshole or a bloviated shit weasel.

The pacing of a book can be another aspect of the writer’s voice. It goes without saying that most stories, and (hopefully) all novels have a pace that varies: faster in action scenes, slower during deliberations, etc. But the story will also have an overall pace. Most people have read books where a hundred pages feels like ten, and other books that are the reverse. That level of pacing is determined by things like exposition, plot complexity, and even the characters.

Dialogue use versus narration could be considered part of pacing. The more dialogue used, the more ‘white space’ there will be (usually), and the more pages a book will have. The denser the text, the slower a book tends to feel. Despite the impact they can have on pace, I think dialogue versus narration deserves its own consideration. Narration doesn’t always have to feel slow and dialogue doesn’t have to feel fast. A long stretch of dialogue can be as dry as narration, and I’ve read narration that is more thrilling and energetic than the dialogue. Genre can have some impact in which way things lean, epic fantasy tends to have more narration for example, but there are exceptions. I tend to favor dialogue over narration, sometimes too much, even in my high fantasy stories.

The tone, or feel, of a story is a bit harder to define, but just as key. I’ll use my books as an example. They tend to the darker side, but not dark as in horror. If my books were people, they’d carry the scars—physical and emotional—of a hard lived life. They’d know how it feels to be hungry, and not know when you’ll eat again. They’ve been preyed upon by someone more powerful, and regularly come out on the losing end. But they still cling to hope, and in fact derive their strength from it. I’d classify my books in the neighborhood as Richard Kadrey and Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files particularly). This obviously begs the question: doesn’t the individual story drive the tone? Of course it will have an impact, but with my work at least, I find the story adds depth to the tone rather than wholly defining it.

Lastly, there’s plot. I don’t just mean complex versus simple, but how the plots tend to be constructed. Does the story have seemingly disparate pieces that don’t come together till the end, or is each branch obviously part of the whole? Does the author use misdirection, throwing twists that turn out to have nothing to do with the main thread? Do they rely more on subtext, or are the hints more overt? Does the plot twist and turn, or does it just emerge from the fog? Again, the plot structure can shift from book to book, but it can also be a common thread that adds to the writer’s voice.

I could list other elements that can define a writer’s voice, but I think these are the easiest to see and breakdown. But style isn’t a recipe. Some writer’s might find their voice from all the examples I listed, some from only a couple, and others from elements I didn’t list at all. As writers we tend to start by mimicking the style of writers we like, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The more you write though, the more you’ll probably see your own voice shining through. There’s no secret to finding your voice, and no timeline. I started to find mine by the second book I wrote, and really felt like I’d found my groove by the fourth. Some people may need more time and some lucky bastards might find their voice right out of the gate. It’s okay to hate those people, we all hate them.

However long it takes to find your voice is how long it takes. It isn’t a race and taking more or less time to find it doesn’t make you a better or worse writer. Regardless, I hope this post helps you along the way. It’s rarely an easy journey (unless you’re one of those previously mentioned lucky bastards) but it’s an important one, perhaps the most important. At least that’s my opinion.

Seriously though, if you found your voice the first time you sat down to write, screw you.

The Art of not being an Asshole: Representation, Stereotyping, Appropriation, and Erasure

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For those of you who don’t know, I’m white. In fact, I’m very, very white.

I’m also a man, and straight. Basically, I hit the privilege lottery. It doesn’t mean my life has been easy, or that I haven’t worked hard to get where I am. What it does mean is that there are a lot of challenges and obstacles that I never had to face. However difficult my life was, it would’ve been more so if I were a woman, or black, or trans, or all of the above.

If you’re someone who struggles to understand the idea of privilege, and you’re still reading this, here is a great video that explains it.

As a general rule, I try to avoid being an asshole. Having privilege doesn’t make me an asshole, but it does make it easier to be one, and it means I suffer fewer (if any) consequences from it. It doesn’t even have to be intentional. For example, dismissing or diminishing the struggles of those who don’t look like me because I’ve never had to face them.

What does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit actually. I wrote a couple of blog posts about it here and here, if you’re interested in reading them. If you aren’t, here is the tldr: as a writer, I have a certain amount of power. My stories and characters can reinforce stereotypes and tropes. They can dehumanize or reduce a group of people to a caricature, or their culture, beliefs, and history to a plot point or set piece. They can even erase entire groups of people entirely. They don’t have to, but they can. What’s more, the blind spots I have that are born from privilege make it super easy; stomping around, blithely unaware of what I’m stepping on. That, to me, is a good example of an asshole.

So, if I don’t want to be an asshole, which I don’t, I have to be mindful of my figurative surroundings. It takes effort and requires a willingness to recognize and acknowledge when, despite my best efforts, I still wind up being the asshole. And when that happens, apologizing sincerely, accepting the consequences, and striving to do better in the future.

This isn’t easy to do. In fact, this blog post was spurred by a recent conversation with an author friend. This person is one of the kindest, selfless, most thoughtful people I know. In fact, they are so averse to causing anyone harm that they feel paralyzed at times. They want their writing to be diverse and inclusive, but they fear screwing it up and how that will impact others. Some will use this as example of PC culture run amok. To those people, I cordially invite them to fuck off. This author wants to do the right thing, to be a good person, but they’re not sure how. I know my friend isn’t the only person who worries about this, so I’m going to share some lessons I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made.

In case you didn’t know this, representation is important. Everyone should get to read stories with characters like them in it. However, you need to do it correctly. If the only black character in a story is the magical negro, the only Asian is a ninja assassin good at math, or the only LGBTQ character is a super effeminate man with a lisp and limp wrists, you’re not doing it correctly. Proper representation is why #ownvoices is so important. When members of marginalized groups tell their own stories, it gives them representation and the world some cool new stories. Additionally, it also shows those of us not in that group what positive representation looks like.

So, does this mean non-marginalized people should never write about marginalized groups? No of course not, and for a couple of reasons. First, the current lack of diversity in the writing world means the only way to get broader representation is if non-marginalized people include marginalized characters. Second, and for the same reason as above, this will result in the erasure of marginalized people from literature. Obviously the ultimate goal should be increasing diversity of creators, and while it is improving, like all social changes, it’s a long slow march. In the meantime, I think those of us with privilege owe it to readers to provide them with positive, accurate representation. BUT when someone who isn’t marginalized creates characters that are, they owe it to those groups, their readers, the story, and themselves, to do it right. That means avoiding stereotypes and negative tropes.

First, let’s be clear; all stereotypes are bad. Yes, even positive stereotypes. No group is a monolith, and stereotypes deprive them of individualism, internal diversity, and complexity. In order to avoid stereotypes, you need to be aware of them. Some stereotypes are so old and have been repeated for so long that people forget the origins, or that they are stereotypes at all. As such, when writing about a group that you don’t belong to, never assume what you know is accurate or correct. Do research! And I don’t mean just Googling a list of common stereotypes (though that’s a start). Read articles by members of that group; multiple articles (again, no culture is a monolith). Find colleges/universities that have classes or departments dedicated to that group and ask to talk to someone there. If you reach out to individuals, always be respectful. Remember, no one owes you their time and attention, and it’s not the responsibility of a marginalized person to educate you. If they do give you some of their time and attention, recognize they’re doing you a favor, not the other way around.

Unlike stereotypes, not all tropes are bad. Some are neutral, and some are just overdone. Others though are truly offensive, hostile, and/or bigoted. The white savior, magical negro, noble savage, fridging, bury your gays/dead lesbian syndrome, and manic pixie dream girl are just a few examples. There are many, many more, so again, do your research.

Another, all too common, problem area is cultural appropriation. If you’re unsure what exactly that means, it’s the seizure of aspects from a marginalized culture by a non-marginalized people, with no regard for those whose culture is being seized. Some dismiss the idea of appropriation. They say it’s an homage or celebration of the culture they helped themselves to. Make no mistake, that’s utter bullshit. In most cases, the person doing the appropriating is part of a group that at one time actively tried, or succeeded, in destroying that culture. Black culture is the result of successful destruction. Enslaved people were often punished for practicing their native religions, or speaking their native languages. Over the course of centuries, any memory of where they’d come from was lost. As such, they were forced to creature a new culture of their own. American Indian boarding schools represent a real effort by the US Government to destroy Native American culture in the name of assimilation and “civilizing savages”. As such, avoid including any ceremonies, rituals, or religious beliefs of marginalized groups in your stories. Even if you’ve done a mountain of research, if you’re not a member of that culture, it’s unlikely you’ll have a deep enough understanding to do it justice. Some groups (understandably) actively work to keep aspects of their culture, or all of it, from outsiders. Respect that choice. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a character from that culture in your story, but don’t include any rites or ceremonies. Also, avoid using a thinly veiled stand-in for a group or culture. You won’t fool anyone.

Another invaluable tool is hiring a sensitivity reader. This is an invaluable service that not enough people use. Keep in mind that a sensitivity reader will provide feedback on problem areas. They don’t give you a seal of approval, and you should never, ever use them as a shield from criticism. As has been mentioned (repeatedly) no culture is a monolith. The idea of sensitivity readers has gotten a raw deal lately. Part of that is a knee jerk reaction to “PC culture” but it’s also a result of less than scrupulous people taking advantage of the need. So, again, do your research. Make sure the person you’re hiring belongs to the group you need help with. I know from personal experience how hard this can be. My current project, Two-Gun Witch, is set in the years just after the civil war. A concern was raised that one of my characters, an elf, seemed to be a stand in for Native Americans. While I made a concerted effort to avoid this, and included Native American characters (Lakota specifically), I recognized this as a legitimate concern. It took time, and help from a friend, but I found a Lakota sensitivity reader.

When the reader gets back to you, don’t argue with them. You hired them for their feedback, so use it. You should also be prepared that you might need to scrap the project. If your reader says the story is just too problematic, listen to them. It’ll hurt, and it will suck, but it’s the right thing to do. If you feel strongly about it, hire another sensitivity reader. If you do, however, be honest with them from the start. Explain that you had a reader look it over, what they said, and that you’re looking for a second opinion. Lying or holding back is just setting yourself up to be the asshole.

If this sounds over the top, or too much work, disabuse yourself of that idea. Writers do research. I don’t know of any who haven’t spent hours researching some minute detail that will only show up once. The characters and, more importantly, the readers who will connect with that character, deserve the same consideration.

Now, here’s the downside. You’re almost certainly going to offend and upset people, even if you do put in the time and effort. For some people, the minority in my experience, there won’t be anything you can do to not offend them. In other cases, you will have legitimately missed something. Regardless of which it is, do the right thing. Don’t make excuses, or dismiss the offense. Acknowledge that you came up short and that you’ll strive to do better next time (and actually strive to do better).

My (admittedly privileged) view is that I’d rather screw up trying to make a more diverse story than play it safe and not include any character who don’t look like me. I know I’m going to get it wrong, and I’ll accept the consequences of that. It’s just part of not being an asshole.


Note: Please feel free to comment, especially if you think I’m off base on something, or got something wrong. I don’t claim to be an expert or to know it all, and I’m always looking to improve.

Imposter syndrome (A Long Hiatus)

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I know it’s been a long, long while since I’ve posted anything, aside from posts promoting other authors and the occasional short story anyway. As I mention in my Post “Your Baby is Ugly…Again” my contract with Harper expired, they didn’t offer another, and I started on a new project.

I’d like to say that project is what occupied my time, but it wasn’t.

I’d be willing to bet all of you are aware of Imposter Syndrome, even if you don’t know it by that name. In short, it’s the feeling that an achievement isn’t earned, and as such, you feel like an imposter just waiting to be found out. Now, imposter syndrome isn’t limited to the creative fields, in fact, I’d be surprised if many of you haven’t suffered from it at some point or another in your life. Maybe when you became a new parent, landed a new job or promotion, or just faced some sort of challenge. The more significant the achievement, the more likely it seems imposter syndrome will rear its ugly head, and for any reason it can find.

Perhaps that’s why so many authors, nearly all of those I know, struggle with it. It’s not easy to get there, and oddly, everyone else who achieved it has clearly earned it. Just not you. The most insidious part of imposter syndrome is that successes don’t count, only failure, even just failure to succeed. Very early in my writing career, I met a multi bestselling author (New York Times, USA Today, etc) who has been writing for almost 30 years. He is, by every metric, a success. I told him I was terrified my first book would be my last. He told me he feels the same way after finishing every book. He worries people will finally see he has no talent and his writing career will be over. As you can imagine, that was both reassuring and depressing. It’s good to know you’re not alone in how you feel, not so much to find out those feeling won’t go away.

Here’s another excellent example of how those at any level can suffer from imposter syndrome.

As I’ve said before, when Harper passed over the next book in the American Faerie Tale series, I was exceedingly disappoint, though not entirely surprised. My imposter syndrome had been expecting it, and he relished that rejection like a fine meal. Hoping to keep him at bay, I threw myself into a new project. Everyone I’d told about it said I needed to write it because they wanted to read it right now. So I worked, and wrote, and when it was done I was very happy with it. Honestly, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Which is how it should be, you should always be improving in your craft.

My agent started sending it out, and the initial response was amazing. Nearly everyone it went to wanted to read it. I felt certain it was only a matter of time before I was offered a contract and then I’d be a writer once again, and this time it would be for real.

Why do I say it like that? Well, my path to publication was unconventional. If you’ve read my other posts, you know I had no agent when Harper offered me a deal for my first book, normally a requirement. Instead, I was one of 4500+ people who participated in a, very rare, open submission window open to unagented authors. In the end, I was one of a dozen or so picked for publication. The Stolen even launched Harper’s new imprint, Harper Voyager Impulse, and for a time, the cover was on the header of Harper Voyager’s website (yes, I have a screenshot saved). But none of that mattered to imposter syndrome; I’d only won a contest, I hadn’t earned my way in, so I wasn’t a “real” author. I thought selling this new project would, finally and definitively, prove I was a real author.

Yes, I’m fully aware how ridiculous that sounds. But like phobias, depression, or other dark states of mind, reality has very little, if anything, to do with it.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The rejections started rolling in, one after the other. Almost without exception they were effusive in their praise. They loved the story and the characters, and felt the writing was really strong…BUT.

But.

That dreaded word, so small, but powerful enough to wipe out all the words, however good, that came before it. Sure, Intellectually I knew, and my agent continually reminded me, that such praise was a good thing. It meant the book was good! They just didn’t know how to sell it, or they’d just signed a book like it, or other entirely valid reasons. Intellectually I knew, logically I knew. But that didn’t matter. The imposter syndrome kept whispering that this just proved I’d been right all along. I wasn’t a real author, I’d just gotten lucky. To be fair, luck plays no small in life, especially when it comes to achieving dreams, but in the end it only gets you so far. My luck, it seemed, had run out.

That’s when imposter syndrome’s friend showed up: depression. I’ve made no secret of my struggles, especially in my youth, with depression. This wasn’t a chronic or persistent depression though, this was acute. We all get depressed sometimes, and if we’re lucky, it’s circumstantial rather than biological. It’s no less valid, but usually easier to overcome. This particular depression didn’t prevent me from getting out of bed, it just made sitting down to write anything seem pointless. So I didn’t write, not much anyway. I worked on short stories, and when I did write it felt good, but actually getting my butt in the chair took effort. As such, this blog and posts for it fell further down my priority list.

What was the point? No one was going to read them anyway, right?

So what changed? Well, the especially observant among you might’ve noticed I haven’t mentioned the title, or much of anything, about this new project so resoundingly rejected. The reason is, there’s some new interest in it. Obviously I can’t say who, but that influx of hope gave me the strength to push imposter syndrome, and his friend, to one side. Nothing may come of this interest, but I decided to put this new found hope to good use and write a blog post.

I chose this topic partly because writing about it, and as such naming it, takes away some of its power. Don’t look at me that way, I’m a fantasy writer, okay? But I also chose it because I know others struggle with it too, and, well, it’s always nice to know you aren’t alone. I’m lucky in having good friends and a group of writer friends in much the same boat as me to offer support. But, for me at least, it’s too easy to dismiss their kindness and encouragement; they’re your friends after all, it’s what they’re supposed to do. Again, recognize this has nothing to do with reality. Your friends, and family, aren’t obligated to blow sunshine up your backside. Sure, sometimes they do it anyway, but even then it’s because they love you, believe in you, and want to help.

That being said, when a stranger offers encourage or support, it can stick better because they have no reason to do it.

So, dear readers, as a stranger, I tell you this: Imposter syndrome, for all his power, is a fucking liar. He is utterly and entirely full of shit. So tell that bastard to fuck right off whenever he shows up and starts whispering. Yeah, I know. It’s soooo much easier said than done. But how about this, I promise to do it if you do? Deal? Make no mistake, we’ll both give in sometimes, and that’s okay. Feel bad. Let the little shit have his moment, then remember that you‘re made of pure, high grade, artisanal, fair trade awesome. You can do the thing! More than that, you earned that achievement, that job, that relationship, that thing! You heard me, you earned it! So don your steel-toe boots, kick imposter syndrome in the balls as hard as you can (repeatedly), tell him to fuck right off, and that Bishop sends his regards.

Beth Cato is Back, and Brought Treats!

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Beth Cato is a really talented writer and an awesome person in general. In fact, she’s so awesome that she’s been here three times before (here, here, and here). This time, she comes baring gifts. Not only is she a skilled author, she’s also an AMAZING baker (I speak from personal experience).

She’s got a new book out, Roar of Sky, which completes her Blood of Earth trilogy. You will not regret picking them up, she really is a brilliant writer (Hello, Nebula Nominated!).
Now, without further ado, here’s Beth to tell you about her latest book and share a recipe for Bourbon-Glazed Pound Cake.

Don’t drool, it could damage your device.


My book, Roar of Sky, just came out, and I’m here to share cake! Well, a cake recipe, anyway. You’ll need to make it yourself, but I promise, it’s not that difficult, and the end result is a bundt cake that has the taste and texture of a gigantic boozy cruller.

Now that you are (hopefully) enticed to read onward, let’s talk books.

Roar of Sky is the finale of my Blood of Earth trilogy. The series kicked off with Breath of Earth, wherein I rewrote the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake with geomancy and giant monsters. The second book is Call of Fire, wherein I threaten to erupt volcanoes across the Pacific Northwest. This is alt history with a strong and sassy heroine with a knack for earth magic–hence the difficulties with earthquakes and volcanoes. On that note, Roar of Sky starts off in geologically-volatile Hawaii. Bad things ensue.

If alternate history with a magical twist is your thing, now’s the time to grab the whole trilogy! No need to wait until the next release.

Breath of EarthCall of FireRoar of Sky

 

Now, how about celebrating the trilogy’s completion with some cake? If you want more recipes like this, come by BethCato.com and sign up for my newsletter!

Bourbon-Glazed Pound Cake (Tube/Bundt Cake)

This glorious cake tastes like a boozy cruller! The inside is soft and tender like a pound cake, with the glaze creates a crunchy crust. This cake is great warm or cold, and slices can be frozen for later enjoyment, too.

Cake:
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 3/4 cup white sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup milk or half & half
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Bourbon Glaze:
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup bourbon
7 Tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat oven at 325-degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch-or-larger tube pan or bundt pan.

In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar, and beat until fluffy and white, about 7 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour, nutmeg, and salt. Gradually add it to the butter mixture, alternating with the milk. Follow up with the zest and vanilla. Pour into the ready pan.

Bake until it passes the toothpick test, about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes, then upend onto wire rack. Set aside the pan–don’t wash it! Let the cake completely cool for a few hours.

To make the glaze, combine the sugar, bourbon, and butter in a small saucepan. Constantly whisk at a low heat until the butter melts and sugar dissolves. Take off heat. It will look like a lot of liquid, but the cake will soak it up.

Place the cake back in the pan. Poke holes all over the base with a chopstick or skewer. Spoon about half the glaze over holes and sides of cake. Let sit a minute. Upend cake onto a serving platter or plate. Poke more holes all over top. Spoon rest of glaze into holes and over sides. Use a basting brush to mop up drippings and make sure cake is fully glazed.

Store under a cake dome at room temperature or in fridge. Can also be cut into slices and individually frozen. Eat cold, at room temperature, or warmed in microwave.

Originally posted at Bready or Not:

http://www.bethcato.com/bready-or-not-bourbon-glazed-pound-cake-tube-bundt-cake/

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.


Buy the books, make the cake, and enjoy them together! Boozy Cruller! BOOZY CRULLER!
Or just get the books, but definitely sign up for her newsletter. you’ll not only know where she’ll be, and what’s she’s writing, but also get super tasty recipes in your inbox. Well, the recipes aren’t tasty, but what you can make with them is.

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Guest Author – Auston Habershaw (again)

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Auston, aside from having the most Bond villain name ever, is a fellow Harper Voyager author. If the name sounds familiar, and how can it not? It’s because he’s been here twice before; first to discuss writing a second book, then again to talk guilty pleasures. Quite fittingly, his third visit is for the third installment of his Saga of the Redeemed series, Dead But Once, available today! It’s a really great series, and I can’t recommend it enough.
His post today is about writing in exciting times, which I think is a fair description of the current state of the world.


Writing in Interesting Times

By Auston Habershaw

The truest and most direct answer to the age-old author question “where do you get your ideas” is simply this: from the culture and environment in which I live. We authors are not tuned into some alien frequency; we are not getting divine inspiration in nightly installments. We’re just paying attention in a way other people aren’t. That doesn’t mean we’re brilliant or clever or more perceptive, mind you—it just means we’ve got a cauldron in our heads marked “story ideas” in which we throw a lot of the junk we see and experience on a daily basis. Then, at some point, we make ourselves a stew out of all those random ingredients and, if we’re very lucky and persistent and skilled, a story or a novel or a poem or a play pops out. What pops out is a funhouse mirror reflection of our world around us. It seems crazy and random and strange, but it’s just a bunch of ingredients mixed together that maybe you haven’t tasted in that combination before. Not magic, exactly; more like alchemy.

So, what kind of alchemy happens when the world seems to be crazy all on its own?

I don’t know about you guys, but these last two years have been quite harrowing. Each and every time I turn on the news or look online, new and terrible things seem to be afflicting my country and other countries too. My idea cauldron is chock full of anger and fear and hysteria and riots and death and violence and corruption. So, when the time came to write the third book in my fantasy series (NO GOOD DEED, available in e-book now!), I had a lot of toxicity ready to be thrown in.

I’d always known that the Saga of the Redeemed would wind its way towards popular revolt. My main character, Tyvian, is trying to become a better person (even if he isn’t sure what that means or what that is), and so a discussion of social justice is inevitable. But when I was writing the first books, our problems as a society, while certainly large, at least seemed to be bending in the right direction, however slowly. I genuinely believed the balance of my fellow Americans wanted what I wanted—justice, equality, stability, and happiness for everyone. As I watched Trump shout and scream on stage, cheered on by sign-waving supporters, I began to wonder if I was right. For the first time in my life, I felt uncomfortable being an American. I was uncertain about our future in a way I never had been. I felt like I’d been wrong about us, all this time.

How do you let that color your writing? Do you? I don’t want to write a political screed. I don’t want to preach and I don’t want to come off as angry or bitter. I want the people who read my book to enjoy themselves; I’m after the highs and the lows, the oohs and the aahs. I’m not a political science major trying to push my agenda.

But it also has to get in somehow, right? How can it not?

I’ve always been skeptical of revolutions. I don’t like fanatics, no matter what they stand for. The lessons of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution are not lost on me—innocent blood spilled right along with the guilty, horror and atrocity, and then a new order that doesn’t quite live up to its promises, anyway. But, also, aren’t these things needed? Don’t we have to have revolutions once in a while, if the tree of Liberty is to grow? But how do you do that? How can you do it responsibly, without needless bloodshed and violence? Is such a thing possible? If it isn’t, can a revolution, no matter how well-intentioned, be seen as a good thing?

I can’t say I have the answers to these questions, but I have my characters wrestle with them. They wrestle with them with the same anguish and fervent hope that I do in my real life. How does one fix the world without breaking it first? That was what was in my cauldron this time around. I mixed myself a potent brew. It took my six drafts to get right and, like all novels, I probably still got it wrong. But I can’t tell—I’m too close. That’s what I need you for.

Care for a taste?


A brilliant schemer never rests, but for Tyvian Reldamar, he might finally be over his head. The Saga of the Redeemed continues with Dead But Once, Auston Habershaw’s latest fantasy following The Oldest Trick and No Good Deed.

Arch-criminal Tyvian Reldamar has gotten complacent.

For him, he’s reached the pinnacle of all he’s really hoping to achieve: he’s got money, he’s got women (some of which aren’t even trying to kill him), and he’s got his loyal friends and family nearby and safe.

Except…maybe not so safe.

Because this is Eretheria, a city known as much for its genteel aristocracy as for its diabolical scheming. Long without a king, the scions of the ruling families scrabble for control–including levying cruel taxes and drafts on the peasantry in order to wage “polite” wars against each other.

And now, of course, Tyvian is finding himself drawn into it.

With a swashbuckling flare, old fans and new readers alike will be swept up into this world of magic, crime, and political intrigue where life is cheap and justice too expensive.


The entire series is available at any of the links below. Do yourself a favor and check it out!

HarperAmazonB&NGoogleiTunesIndie Bound


(how can you resist this handsome bastard? I know I can’t)

About the Author: Auston Habershaw writes fantasy and science fiction and has had stories published in Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge and other places. His epic fantasy novel series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is published by Harper Voyager and the third installment in the series, Dead But Once, releases on 4/17/18. He lives and works in Boston, MA and spends his days teaching composition and writing to college students. Find him on his website at aahabershaw.com or on Goodreads, Amazon, or on Twitter at @AustonHab.

 

Another short story

#SFWAPRO

Continuing my plan for the end of last year (if a little late) here is another short story. Let’s call it farcical fantasy. It’s dark, and loosely based on a similar encounter in I had in college, though in that case, the lich’s eyes burned purple, not blue.
You can read it in it’s entirety here (also linked below the sample), and view my other short story here. Enjoy.


Erstwhile Thaumatecnic University

By Bishop O’Connell

“What is that smell?” someone in line behind Walter asked.

He didn’t look up or acknowledge it. It might not be him. Sure, he was a shit farmer from a long line of shit farmers, but it could be someone wearing Battle Axe body spray.

“Yeah, something smells like shit,” someone else added.

It could still be Battle Axe.

“Next,” the kobold working the desk said.

Walter hurried forward and held out his class course selection parchment.

“Name,” the kobold said without looking up. A nametag on his tunic read “Marvin.”

“Walter,” he said and lowered his voice. “Dungharvester.”

“Dungha—” Marvin looked up, his yellow eyes going wide. He sniffed the air a couple times and leaned back.

Walter didn’t move, just held the parchment out. He’d prepared himself for this, though apparently washing all his robes and undergarments eight times, taking three showers, and loading up on deodorant didn’t do any good. He made a mental note to pick up some Celtic Spring body wash.

Marvin reached out, took the parchment between two claws as if it might explode and coat the room in a layer of crap. After a careful examination, Marvin reluctantly set the parchment on his table, well away from anything else.

“Student ID,” he said.

“What?” Walter asked.

“Student identification card,” Marvin said, as if to an idiot child. “It’s a little card with your name and picture on it.”

Walter reached into his bag and began fishing through it. “Sorry, I didn’t think I’d need it anymore.”

The kobold just sighed and rolled his eyes, hand still out as Walter removed items from his bag and set them on the table: registration paperwork, quills, ink, comic scrolls, dorm room key, student handbook—

He cleared his throat and gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I know it’s in here.” He pulled out the small checkbook—the account contained the princely sum of two copper phalluses, one of which would soon be claimed by the bank as a monthly low balance fee—and found the ID underneath the cover.

He sighed, handed it over, then set to shoving everything back into his bag.

Marvin checked the ID, handed it back, then opened a gigantic tome. He flipped through pages of remarkably small text, ticking marks every now and then.

“You’re lucky,” Marvin said, marking another tick. “‘Hexes, curses, and the unholy art of retributive magics’ is being taught by Dr. Heckel. She’s a great teacher, but watch out for her assistant. Mr. Jyde can be a monumental asshole. I suggest sitting near the back and try not to show any fear.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Walter said and peered at a line of ticks. “Did I get into ‘Necromantic studies in horde building’?”

“Second to last spot,” Marvin said.

“Yes!” Walter did a little happy dance.

Marvin drew in a breath. “However, I’m now required to point out that it’s horde building, with a ‘d’.”

Walter blinked. “I don’t follow. What else could it could—oh dear Gods!”

Marvin nodded. “Yeah, an undead brothel makes one hell of a mess. It’ll be another year before ‘Ratigan the Fleshy’ hall is cleaned up enough for anyone to stay there.”

Walter shuddered. He wasn’t a prude, but he’d never understood not-so-necrophilia.

“You do not want to meet the ghosts that haunt that place,” Marvin said as he resumed marking the tome. “Sorry, ‘Raining fire and destruction 101’ is full.”

Walter knew that’d been a long shot. “What about ‘Intro to outer-planar contracts’ instead?”

“It’s open,” Marvin said and made a mark. “But you’re still missing the required athletics and liberal arts courses.”

“Um, well,” Walter said, adjusting his robes, which reminded him they were secondhand and freshly mended, by his mother no less. “I’m either majoring in Applied Necromantic Arts or Thaumaturgic Annihilative Studies,” he shrugged, “maybe a double major I don’t know, so I—”

“Tough tinkles, Dungharvester,” Marvin said, giving him a flat look. “It’s required that all freshmeats take an athletic, and an arts course in their first two semesters—”

“Freshmen.”

“What?” Walter asked.

“You said freshmeat,” Walter said. “You meant freshmen, right?”

“No.”

Walter opened his mouth to question further, but decided against it. “What are my options for athletics and arts?”

Marvin flipped to another page. “For athletics we have openings in beginning jousting.” He smiled. “You know the Erstwhile Ents tourney and jousting team made it to the all kingdom finals last year.”

“Yeah, I know,” Walter said, “but, um, jousting isn’t really my thing.”

“You sure?” Marvin asked. “Coach Horzrath, eater of spleens, teaches the class himself. And we only had seven student deaths last year. That’s an all-time low.”

“Yeah, tempting, but I have really bad carpal tunnel syndrome,” Walter said.

Marvin shrugged. “Archery?”

Walter tapped his spectacles. “Far sighted.”

“Hammer throw?”

“Anything less, um,” Walter bounced his head from side to side. “Physical?”

“You do understand what the word athletic means, right?” Marvin asked.

Walter opened his mouth.

Walter glanced down then back up. “What about bowling?”

“Oh, I like bowling.”

“Huzzah, I’m sure we’ll have a festival to celebrate,” Marvin said in a flat tone. “For arts class we have—”

“I don’t want to be a bard, why do I—?”

“Because it’s the rules,” Marvin said and pointed across the room. “And the line for people who give two shits is over there. This is the line for people give a single shit, and I’m fresh out.”

“I see why they have you working the table.”

“Yeah, my people skills are the stuff of legend and song,” Marvin said. “You can take a philosophy course in lieu of art. What about ‘Discussions on Current Events’? It’s taught by Sarlakin the baby gnawer—”

“The ogre that invaded the kingdom a last year?” Walter asked. “He wasn’t list in the handbook.”

Marvin shrugged. “Part of the peace treaty granted him tenure. He also teaches ‘Human privilege and non-human studies’ as well as ‘Intro to interpretive dance.’”

“I’m from the Feculence Hills,” Walter said. “I’d rather not take a class taught by the ogre who slaughtered a third of my neighbors.”

“Typical human,” Marvin said. “There’s a spot in ‘Crumbling Towers: The Toxicity of damsel in distress stereotypes’?”

“Probably a lot of girls in that one,” Walter said to himself smiling.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Marvin asked.

“What? No! I didn’t mean, uh, I just—”

“I know what you ‘just,’” Marvin said. “You think the rampant sexism princesses have had to deal with all these years is some kind of joke? You don’t suppose they’d rather armor up and take on that dragon themselves instead of waiting for Sir Bro to rescue them?”

“No!” Walter said. “I mean yes! I’m sorry, I. Um.” Walter cleared his throat. “I guess, um, put me down for non-human studies?”

“Good choice,” Marvin said and marked the book. “I think you’ll find it quite enlightening.”

Walter nodded as the memory of his neighbors being pulled apart like string cheese flashed in his head.

Marvin marked up the parchment and thrust it at Walter. “Your required tome list is in the class catalog next to each course,” he said. “Orientation for freshmeats is in Lord Tautkeister the Frugal auditorium every three bells, starting at noon.” He looked at the line. “Next.”

A human girl dressed in all black, probably a student acolyte of the dark goddess Penelope, stepped around him, and handed her paperwork to Marvin.

Read the entire story here…

Holiday Wishes and a Short Story

#SFWAPRO

It’s Christmas Eve, for those of us who celebrate it. If you celebrate it, or don’t, I hope this season is filled with warmth, joy, family and/or friends, and lots of cookies/cake/pie/beer.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was considering sharing some short stories, and what better time to do so than right now? The first of these is one I’m rather proud of, and a bit disappointed no magazines were interested in. However, if they were, I wouldn’t able to share it now. I didn’t write it as a holiday themed story, but I think the overall message is one that fits quite nicely (you’ll see at the end). I hope you enjoy it. I’ve posted it below in its entirety, but also added a menu tab for short stories, and it’s the first.

I wish you all a wonderful, happy, and safe holidays.


A Quick Errand
By Bishop O’Connell

Sarah turned the music up loud and sang along as she drove to Bambi’s house; or rather her Aunt Carol’s. Sarah didn’t know all the details behind that situation, only that Bambi’s mom, aside from being a Disney fanatic—hence the name Bambi—had some kind some kind of mental illness. Neither Bambi nor her aunt had ever explained and Sarah didn’t pry.

“Hi, Carol,” Sarah said as she walked in, closing the door behind her.

“Hi, Sarah,” Carol said from the kitchen. “Are you staying for dinner? It’s meatloaf night.”

“Then I’m staying for dinner,” Sarah said.

“Bam is down in her cave,” Carol said.

“Thanks.” Sarah made her way to the basement door and descended the stairs.

The basement was unremarkable: a couple of old wooden work benches, and stacks of colored plastic tubs against the wall. Bambi was nowhere in sight. Sarah proceeded to the metal cabinet on the far wall, opened the door, and typed a ten digit code into the old keyboard on the top shelf. There was a click before the cabinet slid to one side, and Sarah stepped through.

The surprise of learning her best friend had a hidden lab—one that looked like it belonged on the set of a sci-fi movie—in the basement of her Aunt’s house hadn’t lasted long. Knowing Bambi as well as she did, Sarah would’ve been more surprised if there hadn’t been one.

Bambi was working on what looked like a laser pistol made from a hairdryer, parts from a computer, and a DVD player

“Tell me that isn’t like a death ray or something,” Sarah said.

Bambi looked up. “Oh, hi. Thanks for coming over.”

Sarah waited.

Bambi blinked. “What?”

“Not a death ray, right?” Sarah asked again.

Bambi looked from her contraption to Sarah. “That’s a loaded question. I mean—”

“Never mind,” Sarah said. “Just promise me you’re not planning to use it to take over the world or anything.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

Sarah smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t.” That was why she loved her friend, she didn’t have a mean bone in her body.

“Do you want a soda?” Bambi asked and went over to an old style vending machine, the kind that dropped cups and filled them.

“Sure.”

“Two Dr. Peppers,” Bambi said.

On the spot a paper cup would normally drop, a can of Dr. Pepper materialized. Bambi took it and handed it to Sarah. An instant later a second can appeared.

Sarah took a drink. “I’ve always meant to ask,” she said. “Does that thing work like a replicator on Star Trek, or does it like teleport the cans in from somewhere else?” She’d learned early on not to ask ‘how’ when it came to any of Bambi’s inventions; as their English teacher would say, that way lay only madness.

Bambi opened her mouth to answer when Sarah saw a cage in the far corner, and something inside it moved.

Sarah approached the cage for a better look. She glanced away for a moment, then back, making sure she wasn’t imagining it.

“Why do you have an otter in a cage?”

Bambi opened her mouth again.

“This crazy bitch is holding me against my will,” the otter said. “You gotta help me!”

Sarah blinked. “Why do you have a talking otter in a cage?” Anyone else would’ve probably freaked, but this wasn’t even close to the strangest thing she’d encountered in Bambi’s lab. That had probably been the failed attempt at semi-sentient cabbage.

“Because I don’t want him running around the lab,” Bambi said.

“I mean, why do you have a talking otter in your lab?”

The otter got on his hind legs and leered at Sarah. “Hey, sweets, you’re not too bad looking for a shaved monkey. Let me outta here and I’ll make it worth your while.” The otter winked.

Bambi pointed a modified garage door opener at the cage. “The warrant clearly states dead or alive.”

The otter muttered something and sank back down into the cage.

“He’s in my lab,” Bambi said, clearly unsure why Sarah was having a hard time with this. “Because where else would I keep him?”

Sarah closed her eyes, took a deep breath and reminded herself that this was Bambi and she wasn’t being intentionally obtuse.

“I’m missing something again, aren’t I?” Bambi asked. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Sarah said, her calm returned. “Let’s take one part at a time; why do you have a—rather skeevy—talking otter in your possession?”

“Hey, who you calling—?”

Bambi held up the garage door opener again and the otter went quiet. “He’s not really an otter,” she said. “He’s an alien that just happens to look like an otter. He’s here because my portal has to recharge before I could take him to Earth-771A and collect the bounty, which I need in order to—”

Sarah held up a finger. “Sorry, overload. I need a second.”

Bambi nodded and took another pull from her soda. This happened a lot in the lab.

“He’s an alien?”

“Yes, from—”

Sarah put up a hand. “What is Earth-771A?”

“It’s one of the infinite alternate earths,” Bambi said as if describing a chocolate chip cookie. “It’s technologically about sixty years ahead of us, and the dominant societies are matriarchal instead of patriarchal.”

“Seriously?” Sarah asked, smiling.

Bambi nodded.

“You should call it super awesome lady future earth,” she said.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Sarah said. “And you use this portal, which is currently recharging, to travel to these infinite Earths?”

“Yes,” Bambi said and pointed.

Sarah looked over and saw a thick a tablet plugged into— “That’s a radiation symbol.”

Bambi nodded. “Yes.”

Sarah massaged her temples. “It’s some kind of nuclear reactor, isn’t it?”

“Small scale fusion reactor, yes,” Bambi said. “It’s just a proof of concept though.”

“I’m just going to stop asking about the things in your lab,” Sarah said. “Okay, skeevy alien not-an-otter, is he from Earth-771A?”

Bambi nodded. “He’s a terrorist.”

Sarah blinked, glancing from Bambi to the otter and back. “A terrorist?”

“He’s part of a separatist group that opposes the treaty his people signed with Earth 771-A,” Bambi said. “He was convicted of war crimes, but he escaped on his way to prison and the government put a ten million dollar bounty on him.”

Sarah gave serious thought to taking up drinking. Sure she was only sixteen, but she could probably get her hands on a fake ID.

“And you caught him?” Sarah asked.

Bambi nodded.

“You.”

Bambi knitted her brows together but nodded again. “It wasn’t that difficult.”

“I’m going to regret this,” Sarah said and drew in a breath. “How?”

“He had a portal too,” Bambi said. “I tracked the quantum decay to Earth-97621B and found him hiding at a Sea World.”

Sarah looked at the skeevy not-an-otter. “Sea World? Really?”

“It was actually pretty sweet,” not-an-otter said. “I ran that joint. The humans kept their distance and I had all the female otters and clams I could want.” He glared at Bambi. “Until this—”

Bambi pressed the button on the garage door opener and the not-an-otter went in convulsions. When it stopped he collapsed.

“Did you just tase him?” Sarah asked.

“Taser is a copyrighted product made by Axom,” Bambi said. “But if you’re asking if I used a high voltage electric discharge to render him compliant, the answer is yes.”

“Nice,” Sarah said and opened her mouth but was interrupted by a microwave chime.

“Oh good, it’s ready,” Bambi said.

“Your burrito?” Sarah asked.

“The portal,” Bambi said and began putting some of her inventions into a backpack.

Sarah was afraid to ask what they were.

“Do you want to carry him or the portal?” Bambi asked, pointing at the still unconscious not-an-otter.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I suppose I could carry both if you get the doors,” Bambi said.

“Where are we going?” Sarah looked from the nuclear reactor to the not-an-otter, unsure which she wanted to be farther away from.

“Earth-771A to collect the bounty,” Bambi said.

Sarah opened her mouth to protest but stopped herself.

Ten million dollars. Awesome future earth.

“I’ll grab the not-an-otter,” she said. “I don’t want anywhere near that reactor.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Bambi said, unplugging the tablet. “So long as the containment field doesn’t collapse there’s no really risk at all.” She hit a button and the door opened onto the basement.

“Ten million dollars,” Sarah whispered to herself and followed with not-an-otter in hand. “Awesome future earth.”

Bambi made sure her Aunt Carol was still in the kitchen before motioning for Sarah to head for the front door.

Sarah opened it as quietly as she could.

“Where are you two going?” Carol asked from the kitchen.

“Just a quick errand,” Sarah said.

“Well don’t take long,” Carol said. “Dinner will be ready at six-thirty.”

“We should be back long before then, Aunt Carol,” Bambi said.

“While you’re out, would you pick up some butter and a gallon of milk?”

“No problem,” Sarah said from the doorway and motioned with her head for Bambi to hurry. When they were halfway down the steps, she stopped. “Wait a second,” she said, her voice low. “Why didn’t we portal from your lab?”

Bambi went past her and walked to Sarah’s car. “My lab doesn’t exist on that earth. The portal would just open into a block of solid earth. We also will need your car.”

“My car?” Sarah asked. “We’re taking my car to an alternate earth?”

“Yes.”

Sarah opened her mouth to argue, but knew it was pointless.

“Are you okay?” Bambi asked from inside the car.

“Fine,” Sarah said. She popped her trunk, glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and stuck not-an-otter in before slamming it shut.

Sarah started the car. “Wait, if it’s an alternate earth, will the money be any good here?”

“Of course not,” Bambi said and pulled out her phone. She plugged it into the tablet and dialed a number. “They have different faces on most of the bills and they use a composite material instead of the cotton based paper here. Head to Grandston park.”

“Then what good is the ten million dollars?”

Bambi pointed to the phone.

Sarah let out a sigh, backed out of the driveway and headed to Grandston Park.

“Agent Pricilla Thompson,” Bambi said into her phone.

Bambi tried to stay focused on the road.

“This is Thumper,” Bambi said, presumably after agent Thompson got on the line. “Grandston park in twenty minutes.”

Sarah tried to listen in, but gave it up when she almost drove onto the sidewalk.

“I wouldn’t be calling if I didn’t have him,” Bambi said. “Have you made all the arrangements as we agreed?” She nodded. “Thank you, twenty minutes then.” She ended the call.

“Did you just call an alternate earth?” Sarah asked.

“Yes.”

“Does your cell plan cover that?”

Bambi opened her mouth, then closed and looked at Sarah for a long second. “That was a joke, wasn’t it?”

“I guess not,” Sarah said and made a left.

Fifteen minutes later they arrived at the park.

“Stop the car,” Bambi said, tapping the tablet screen.

“You’ve done this before, right?” Sarah asked, gripping the steering wheel with sweaty palms.

“Seventy-four times,” Bambi said and tapped one last time.

The air pressure increased and Sarah had to pop her ears. The portal rolled down like a projection screen a few feet in front of the car. It was a little anticlimactic. There was no bright white light, no glowing outline. In fact, if you didn’t view it at just the right angle you probably wouldn’t notice it at all. There was only the faintest hint of an edge to the portal, and the scene on the other side matched up perfectly with this side. The trees and grass looked more vibrant, but that was it.

“Drive through slowly,” Bambi said.

Sarah did and parked in the empty spot in front of them. A moment later the portal rolled closed behind them.

“We can get home, right?” Sarah asked.

“Of course,” Bambi said. “Fully charged the portal allows for four trips.”

“I’ll get not-an-otter,” Sarah said and climbed out.

Bambi slid the portal tablet into her backpack and pulled out a handful of what looked like metal golf balls.

“What are those?” Sarah asked, immediately regretting it.

“I call them multiphase disruption shield generators,” Bambi said. “They generate—”

“A multiphase disruption shield?”

Bambi smiled. “Exactly. They’ll stop the agents’ technological equipment from working, in case they try to bring us in for questioning. It won’t affect the functioning of the hover cars though, don’t worry about that.”

“Did you say hover cars?”

Bambi nodded.

“Awesome,” Sarah said and opened the trunk. She decided to just enjoy the trip. They might not be able to use the ten million dollars back home, but they could spend it here and bring stuff back. Right? Maybe she could talk Bambi into buying a hover car! Not that she didn’t love her old Camry, but, well, freaking hover car! Maybe she could land it on Bridget Thompson’s beloved BMW.

Bambi walked into the park and set the disruptor golf balls in a large circle. When it was done she motioned for Sarah to join her.

She hefted the cage and started walking.

“Where the hell are we?” not-an-otter asked.

“Getting ready to hand you over, creeper,” Sarah said.

“Listen, toots, I’m sorry about that shaved monkey thing,” he said. “I can pay you double the bounty. Triple even, my people have access to lots of cash.”

“Not a chance.”

“Listen, primate,” he said. “If you let me go now, I promise not to come after you and your friend and exact a terrible rev—eeee!”

“Thank you,” Sarah said.

Bambi nodded and tucked the garage door opener back in her pocket.

After a few minutes of waiting, Sarah decided to try her luck. “Any thoughts on what you want to buy? I mean, I know it’s your money, but how cool would it be to have a hover car? I mean, I do drive you everywhere right? We might as well do it in style.”

“It wouldn’t work in our world,” Bambi said. “There’s a phasic difference in the electric currents that would keep the car from being able to recharge.”

“Really?” Sarah had no idea what phasic difference meant, but she better than to ask.

Bambi nodded.

“Well that sucks.”

“You can get something else next time,” Bambi said.  “But I need to buy some tampons this time.”

Sarah blinked. “I’m sorry did you say—?”

Her words were drowned out by a collection of flying cars appearing overhead. They looked like, well, like futuristic flying cars: awesome. They formed a circle and hovered overhead. Three more hover cars—these only a foot or so off the ground—glided into the lot, parking next to, and behind, her car.

Sarah tried not to panic, unsuccessfully, and considered what jail in super awesome lady future earth would look like.

The cars set down on the ground. Four women and two men, all wearing dark suits and sunglasses got out. Apparently agents everywhere dressed the same.

Sarah swallowed and tried not to pee a little. Bambi looked as she always did; just this side of bored.

One of the women took up the lead and walked toward them. When they passed through the circle of golf balls, everyone stopped and began tapping at the side of their glasses.

The lead agent, Sarah assumed it was Thompson, looked at Bambi. “This isn’t a very good start to this meeting, Thumper.”

“It’s just a safety precaution,” she said. “We’re here to turn over Doctor Alstran and collect the reward. We have to be home for dinner soon, so we don’t have time for you to question us.”

Sarah winced.

Thompson gave Bambi a long look, then exchanged some words with her fellow agents. When they were done, two agents stepped back out of the circle. The remaining three and Agent Thomson approached.

“Hello, Doctor,” Thompson said to not-an-otter.

“There’s been a terrible mistake!” he protested. “This woman captured me and—”

“Really?” Thompson said. “You’re going that way? Aside from the fact I have your facial fur pattern memorized, we’ll be doing a DNA verification.”

“Well, it was worth a try,” no-an-otter said.

“You’ve performed a great service for your country and all humanity,” Thompson said to Sarah and Bambi then turned to the agent on her left. “Wing, take the Doctor into custody.”

Wing picked up the cage.

“No prison can hold me, toots,” Doctor Not-an-otter said to Sarah. “I’ll find you and your friend, you can’t hi—eeeeeeeee!” The doctor convulsed then collapsed back into unconsciousness.

Bambi released the button and offered the remote to Agent Wing. “It’s a strictly non-lethal voltage.”

Wing looked at Thompson, who nodded, then accepted the garage door opener. He looked from it to Bambi and back again before pocketing the device and carrying the Doctor to the waiting hover cars.

Thompson produced a couple of credit cards from her pocket and offered them to Bambi. “Ten million dollar reward,” she said. “Sequestered accounts keyed to the pin you provided.”

Bambi took the cards. “Thank you.”

“I have to ask,” Thompson said. “How did a couple teenagers capture the most wanted criminal on the planet?”

“Actually it was just her,” Sarah said and pointed to Bambi. “I’m the one with a car.”

Thompson looked back at the Camry. “Yes, and quite an interesting car at that.”

“So,” Thompson said to Bambi, “how’d you do it?”

“He used a quantum tunneling device to flee to an alternate dimensional earth,” Bambi said.

Sarah winced again.

“I tracked the quantum decay to Sea World Orlando on Earth 97621B,” she said. “Once I identified which of the otters he was, I shot him with a neural suppression ray—”

“So you have a quantum tunneling device?” Thompson asked.

“Whaaaaat?” Sarah said through what she hoped was a sincere smile and trying not to imagine becoming a test subject in some government lab. “No, she’s just kid—”

“Of course,” Bambi said. “How else could we have traveled here?”

“My friend has a really active imagination,” Sarah said.

“What are you talking about?” Bambi said. “She’s an authority figure, I wouldn’t lie to her.”

“Are you saying that you’re from an alternate earth?” Thompson asked.

“Yes,” Bambi said.

“No,” Sarah said.

“Look,” Thompson said looking from Sarah to Bambi and back. “You retrieved the most wanted being on this planet. That’s all I care about. I was curious how you pulled it off, but if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine.” She nodded at Bambi. “Let me know if you find and capture any other international war criminals.” Then she turned and walked back to the hover cars with her agents in tow.

“Thanks,” Sarah said and waved. “Love your shoes!”

A few minutes later they were alone in the park.

“Holy crap, you’re a freaking millionaire!” Sarah said, almost vibrating in excitement. Sure, they couldn’t spend it on their Earth but—

“So are you,” Bambi said and handed one of the credit cards to Sarah. “The PIN is your birthday; four digit year. I’m sorry, it’s only three million. I need the other seven. And I’m sorry you can’t spend it right now, but I promise we’ll come back so you can.”

Sarah just stared at her friend. She knew she had the ability to speak, but she couldn’t seem to remember how to do it just now.

Bambi furrowed her brow. “I missed something again, didn’t I?”

“No,” Sarah said and accepted the card. “No, not at all. But I am going to hug you now, okay?” She learned early in their friendship that Bambi needed to be asked to be touched.

“Okay.”

Sarah hugged her friend. “Thank you so much,” was all she could manage to say.

Bambi hugged back, stiff and awkward, but Sarah didn’t mind. It was a Bambi hug, and that meant it was awesome.

“We need to go,” Bambi said. “Aunt Carol will be mad if we’re late for dinner and we need to stop at the store.”

“Right,” Sarah said. “Let’s go.”

They returned to the car, got in, and Sarah started the engine. She backed out of the parking spot and waited, but Bambi didn’t move.

“Are you going to open the portal?”

“No,” Bambi said. “We have to go to the store.”

“We’re going to a store here?”

“I told you I needed buy tampons,” Bambi said.

“Um, I have some in my purse—”

“They’re not for me,” Bambi said.

Something in her tone told Sarah not to push, so she put the car into drive and headed for the exit.

“Which way? Is there a store in the same place as on our earth?”

“It is,” Bambi said. “But it’s a Safeway instead of Kroger.”

On the way to the store, Sarah had to admit she was a little disappointed in super awesome lady future earth. It was cool, and she saw quite a few hover cars, but other than being cleaner and more vibrant, it wasn’t much different than her earth. The houses were sleeker, there were more trees and grass, and the few people she saw all looked trim and fit, but that was it.

“I expected it to look more futuristic,” Sarah said.

“It’s roughly fifty-eight years ahead of us in terms of technological advancement,” Bambi said. “If we drove around in the 1960’s, apart from fashion,  it wouldn’t look much different than our time.”

“Huh, I hadn’t thought about that,” Sarah said. “So how many different earths have you been to?”

“Thirty-seven,” Bambi said and pointed. “Here it is.”

“Thirty-seven?” Sarah asked as she pulled into the parking lot and found a spot.

Bambi checked her watch. “We don’t have much time,” she said, got out, and began walking to the store.

Sarah locked the car and hurried after. She couldn’t help but notice her car, which was a piece of crap—albeit her piece of crap—looked even more so among the sleek and shiny vehicles parked around them. She caught up with Bambi just as she was pushing a cart into the store. Sadly, it was not a hover cart.

The inside of the store was a let-down as well. There were holograms floating in the air instead of signs, which was cool, but other than that, nothing really impressed Sarah.

“What’s ‘everfresh’?” she asked as they walked by the produce department.

“Everfresh is the Safeway brand patented process that maintains produce in stasis,” A woman on the touch screen attached to the shopping carts handle said. “Ensuring fresh fruit and vegetables when you want them. We guarantee no spoilage, no matter what. That’s the Safeway difference.”

“You should develop that back home,” Sarah said to Bambi. “You could literally end world hunger.”

“That’s a good idea,” Bambi said, grabbing a couple of apples wrapped in plastic, and putting them in the cart.

Passing through the meat department, Sarah did not ask about the “100% lab grown” label on everything. She didn’t want to know.

“You don’t think it’ll be a problem bringing this stuff back with us?” Sarah asked as she put the butter into the cart next to the milk. “I mean, won’t she notice the difference?”

“It’s possible.”

“And you don’t see that as a problem?” Sarah asked as they went to collect Bambi’s tampons, which she decided would be the name of her next band.

As soon as they reached the personal health aisle, Bambi began loading boxes of tampons and pads into the cart.

“Jeez, how many do you need?”

“As many as we can carry,” Bambi said and continued stacking boxes.

Rather than question, Sarah helped fill the cart. When she spotted the price, she stopped and blinked. “Fifty cents for a forty pack? Is that right?”

Bambi nodded, still adding boxes. “They’re recognized as a necessity here, so they’re kept inexpensive. They’re also tax free.”

“It’s not personal jet packs, but I still call that a win,” Sarah said and topped off the cart.

“Did you find everything okay?” the young man at the register asked as Bambi began stacking boxes upon boxes of tampons and pads onto the little conveyor.

“Yep, thanks,” Sarah said.

He gave them a look but shrugged and started scanning.

“That’ll be sixty-seven, forty two,” he said when it was done.

“Damn that’s cheap,” Sarah whispered.

Bambi inserted the card Thompson had given her into the reader and entered the pin on the little keypad. Sarah’s stomach knotted a little when nothing happened for a long moment. She looked around, half expecting to see suited agents drop out of the ceiling or teleport in.

Instead, the receipt printed and the clerk handed it to Bambi.

“Have a nice day.”

They filled Sarah’s trunk—and most of her back seats—with the boxes and drove off.

Bambi activated the portal on a road with no one on it. And just like that, they were back on their own earth. Sarah couldn’t help but notice it seemed drabber than before, but she ignored it and drove on. Her baseline for “normal” was different than most people’s.

“Turn here,” Bambi said and pointed to the right.

“That’s not the way home,” Sarah said but made the turn.

“We need to make one more stop.”

“Okay, but we’re getting short on time.”

“It won’t take long.”

Sarah wanted to ask where they were going, but didn’t. Her friend was acting odd, odder than usual, but something told Sarah this was important. So she kept quiet and followed her friend’s directions.

“Turn in here,” Bambi said, pointing to a road next to what had once been a department store, but the sign out front now read ‘Women’s Shelter’. “Follow the driveway around to the back.”

Sarah made the turn and drove down the alley till they came to the back of the building. It had a couple of loading docks, complete with metal roll up doors but was otherwise empty.

Sarah looked over at Bambi. She was looking down and tapping her thumbs to each of her fingers in series. She was counting, one of the ways she coped with stressful situations.

“Hey, you okay?” she asked.

“No, but it’s okay,” Bambi said.

They got out and Bambi led them to a metal door. She hit the doorbell button four times and waited, still counting on her fingers. Sarah wished she could put her arm around her friend, but she knew that would only make things worse. So instead, she just stood next to her and waited, offering what comfort she could.

After a couple minutes, and a few more sets of four button presses, someone looked through the peephole. The door opened and a woman about Carol’s age smiled at Bambi.

“Hey, this is a nice surprise!” she said. “How are you? And who is this?”

“I’m okay,” Bambi said. “This is my best friend, Sarah.”

“I’m Nancy,” the woman said smiling at Sarah and offering her hand. “I run the place, or try to.”

“Very nice to meet you, ma’am,” Sarah said and shook the offered hand.

“I brought some donations,” Bambi said. “But there’s a lot and we need some help.”

“Donations?” Nancy asked.

“Eighty-three boxes of tampons and twenty four boxes of pads,” Bambi said.

“Sweetheart, that’s so generous, but how can you afford it?” Nancy asked.

Bambi opened her mouth, but Sarah cut her off. “We, um, did a fundraiser at school,” she said. “It went really well. Better than we expected.”

Bambi looked at her in confusion.

Nancy smiled and her eyes grew a little wet. “Thank you, you have no idea how much that will help.” She wiped her eyes. “Sorry, it’s just such a struggle sometimes and you start to think no one cares.”

“I imagine,” Sarah said. “Um, why don’t we start unloading the car, if you have a cart or something…”

“Yes, of course, I’ll get it,” Nancy said. She propped the door open and disappeared back into the building.

“You never cease to amaze me,” Sarah said as she began grabbing boxes from the back seat and handing them to Bambi.

“You lied to her,” Bambi said.

“Let’s just say it was easier, and harmless in the long run. What’s Haldermycin?” she asked, reading the box as she handed it over.

“It’s a broad spectrum antibiotic infusion designed specifically to prevent menstrual based toxic shock syndrome,” Bambi said. “It attacks the bacterial infection in a way that prevents resistant strains from developing.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Sarah said.

“It doesn’t exist on our earth,” Bambi said. “That’s why we needed to get them on Earth-771A.”

Bambi started carrying her arm load back to the door. Sarah filled her own arms and hurried after. Pieces started to come together. If women’s shelters were hard up for tampons and the like, it made sense the women they served would use whatever they could get, and probably longer than they should. She tried to imagine a life so hard that something as simple as access to tampons was a seen as a luxury.

“I’ve never seen this brand before,” Nancy said as she stacked the boxes on a flatbed cart.

“We, uh, found it on Kickstarter,” Sarah said, once again cutting Bambi off at the pass. “It has a special new antibiotic infused in it, see.” She pointed to the box.

Nancy looked at Bambi.

She didn’t look back. She never looked people in the eye.

“I’ll make sure your mom gets all she needs, sweetheart,” Nancy said.

“Thank you,” Bambi said. “Have you seen her lately?”

Nancy nodded. “A couple weeks ago.”

Sarah wished she could become invisible.

“How was she?” Bambi asked.

“I, um,” Nancy said, glancing at Sarah.

“It’s okay,” Bambi said. “She’s my best friend. You can talk in front of her.”

Nancy smiled at Sarah, but it was a sad smile. “I’m sorry, honey. She’s off her meds again.”

“She always said they made her feel numb,” Bambi said. “Was she still sick?”

“No,” Nancy said. “She looked really healthy, the antibiotics worked. We gave her some clean clothes, and she took a shower.” She gave another sad smile. “She asked about you. She always does, just like you ask about her. I know she said she didn’t want you to see her when—” She swallowed. “But I think she’d like to see you. She loves you very much.”

“I know,” Bambi said. “I love her too. Will you tell her for me?”

Nancy nodded. “Of course, sweetheart.”

“Thank you,” Bambi said then turned to Sarah. “We should get the rest.”

Sarah nodded and they finished unloading the car in short order.

“Thank you again,” Nancy said when the cart was fully loaded. “I can’t tell you how much this will help.”

“They’ll be more,” Bambi said. “Every two weeks, and it’ll be more than this.” She looked up, not meeting Nancy’s eyes, but almost. “Make sure my Mom always has some, okay?”

“I promise,” Nancy said. “Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome,” Bambi said. “Goodbye.” She turned and walked back to the car.

“Um, do you ever need volunteers?” Sarah asked.

“Always,” Nancy said and smiled.

Sarah nodded. “Okay, I’ll be back then.”

Bambi was already inside the car with her seatbelt fastened when Sarah got in.

“You know,” she said, “you never have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but I hope you know you can tell me anything.”

“I know that,” Bambi said. “It’s just sad and I don’t want you to be sad too.”

“I’m your friend,” Sarah said. “It’s okay for us to be sad together.”

Bambi nodded. “My mom has schizophrenia,” she said. “She has a hard time telling what’s real and sometimes she forgets to keep herself clean—”

“And she got toxic shock syndrome?”

“Three times now,” Bambi said. “The second time she almost died.”

“Is that why you built the portal?”

“No,” Bambi said. “I was looking for a world that had cured schizophrenia. None that I’ve travelled to have yet, though some appear close. I did find one that cured toxic shock syndrome so—”

Sarah smiled. “So you figured out a way to become a freaking millionaire just so you can ensure a steady stream of it to this world.”

Bambi smiled too. “Yes, exactly, I knew you’d understand.”

“I do,” Sarah said and started the car.

As they drove away, Bambi reached over and took Sarah’s hand. “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome.” It took all Sarah had not to cry. Instead, she squeezed her friend’s hand. When Bambi squeezed back, she did cry, but only a little, and they were good tears.