Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fear and Genre Jumping - Writing What I Would Read

When I decided to refocus my efforts on learning to craft fiction, I assumed my gifts would best serve the dramatic genre. After all, up until that point all of my best short stories (and the one novel I finished for NaNoWriMo back in 2008) were LGBT dramas.  I loved writing those sorts of literary tales of love lost and regained, of personal epiphanies and modern degeneration, and most of all, of hope in the here and now and the promise of a better tomorrow.

But the more I thought about it, the sillier my assumption seemed.  I didn't really like reading those sorts of stories most of the time. Why would I want to write them?  If you asked me what genre I preferred as reading material, I would have answered speculative fiction and fantasy, no questions asked.  But I was absolutely petrified to cross that bridge, to tackle a story that was too fantastic.  What if it came off as cliché?  Silly?  What if my world-building was unbelievable?  What would I do then?

As it turns out, I'd do what I always do.  I'd go back, start from scratch, and re-write the piece.  In my own methods, I've found no difference between revising speculative fiction and revising realistic drama.  At least with speculative fiction I wrote pieces I'd genuinely enjoy reading (at least the first thirteen times). My first novel, due out this spring, is a lesbian feminist drama.  It's also fantasy.  And it's the book I've been dying to read (even if someone else might have executed it far better than I).  Instead of feeling bogged down at the prospect of rewriting, I'm excited, because with each revision I come that much closer to something I hope others can enjoy as much as I do.

I believe that every author finds more success in specific genres than perhaps in others.  These variations in quality naturally reflect our talents and our personal preferences.  But I also believe that if someone is afraid to tackle a particular genre--not uninterested, but afraid-- they owe it to themselves to make an attempt.

In the spirit of my own ever-present fear and attempts to overcome it, I'd like to offer my readers a short piece I wrote a year or so ago.  It was written for a very small-scale prompt-based contest, and is definitely not one of my favorite pieces. The multiverse in which the story takes place is much larger than I have the time or energy to tackle right now, but perhaps in the future a novel or two will come out of the ideas.  We'll just have to wait and see.  

So, without further procrastination, in honor of my 300th Twitter follower (hey, you've gotta start somewhere), I present to you "The Gate." Enjoy, comment, burn, etc.  Just keep in mind that I blister easily.  ;-)

"Thunderstorm at False Kiva," by Max Seigal (copyright 2013).  This picture was the prompt/inspiration for the piece below. Check it out at The Atlantic.

 * * * * * * *

The Gate
by Amalie Cantor
**Note: An earlier version of this short story is housed at my online portfolio at writing.com.  If you like this little piece, be sure to go check out some of my other stuff!**

“Blindfold off,” the harsh voice snapped.  Isra lifted the black velvet wrap from her eyes as the Jeep's asymmetrical jerking lurched to a stop. She squinted, blotches of blue and green swimming in her vision.  Her eyes stung with the salt of sweat as they readjusted to the faint light.

Six hours of almost constant shifting over rugged terrain had left her shaky and unbalanced. Isra braced an arm on the Jeep's frame as she stumbled onto jagged stone. Her eyes finally focused as she examined her new surroundings.

She’d expected the base to be hidden in some remote military bunker, sterile and devoid of life. Instead she gazed at a vast canyon, its ruddy walls lit sporadically by the yellow lightning crossing the purple sky to the northwest. The Gate--for it could be nothing else--stood upon a surprisingly small stone platform flanked by an assortment of monitors and control panels. The surrounding ten or so technicians flurried from screen to screen in preparation for--

--for what she couldn't be precisely certain.  Each wore an unpretentious Egyptian blue uniform, their cream and crimson badges firmly attached to the right breast pocket of each wool jacket. Isra's own uniform, which Red had thrust into her hands earlier that afternoon, stretched uncomfortably around her chest and lay overly baggy around her torso. The top few buttons refused to stay snapped, which had entertained Red endlessly as the two women traveled.
"I'm glad you accepted the mission.  At least I've got a great view for the drive," Red snickered as she hit another bump in the gravel road.  Isra could hold either the torn leather seat or her chest, not both.  Unfortunately, she valued her skull more than her dignity.

"At least mine are real," Isra sneered before they hit another pothole.
Isra stared after Red, who had approached the platform and now shared whispers amongst the technicians.  A young man snorted under his breath as she'd whispered something into his ear.  Red smiled that same coy smile she'd attempted on Isra that very afternoon. Rationally, Isra should not fault her.  Why not use your charms to get what you want?

Isra despised her nonetheless.  Kari would have--

--but it didn't matter now did it?

“The guest of honor arrives!” A deep voice, smooth with humor and charisma, called from behind the platform. The gentleman--The Colonel, Isra assumed--approached with certain footsteps and offered her his hand. “Welcome, Violet!” Isra’s lip curled at the pseudonym but she said nothing. “You made great time! The storm is rolling in faster than anticipated, so I’m afraid we won’t have time for introductions.”

Isra nodded and accepted the handshake. She barely restrained a sneer when his eyes flickered toward her chest. “I understand, sir.” She studied him for only a moment. His dark hair and eyes twinkled as an impish grin stretched across his face.  Exactly as she’d been forewarned.  Best not to encourage familiarity then. “I am here strictly for the mission. If we succeed, we will have plenty of time for introductions later. If not--"  A giant clap of thunder shook the very ground as it rumbled.  She raised her eyebrows.  She needn't finish the sentence.

“Few words and strong intentions: the two things I love most in a woman.” His grin brightened.  He glanced toward his technicians, who froze at his gaze.  The hairs on the back of Isra's neck prickled as he placed a hand on her back and guided her to the platform.

Isra, for the first time, turned her full attention to the mechanism in front of her. The cylindrical base, no more than three meters wide, grew organically from the surrounding stone, yet its smooth surface shone as if polished. Standing vertical its very center, a flat metallic disc sporadically flashed white in time with the ever intensifying lightning. She approached the side of the platform to examine the disc’s mirrored surface. Silver, perhaps platinum, polished to a flawless shine, reflected her image perfectly. Still, the image felt unnatural. Synthetic. Aberrant. For one, it displayed none of the equipment, make-shift chairs, and consoles scattered around the apparatus.  Nor did it reflect the mountainous orange slopes behind her. The device displayed only the reflections of herself and The Colonel, who’d stepped up behind her. She stared at the strange aura of light surrounding each of them in the reflection: hers, a murky blue-gray; his, a dark copper.

“Amazing, isn't it?” Even at a whisper, his voice cut through the speeding wind and thunder. “Vertolium, the most unique substance yet known to man. I personally refuse to call it a 'metal;' it’s too fluid, too unstable. But when polished and prodded just the right way, it produces the most astonishing reflections. They show the grounded things, those things that are eternally true, those things that cross time and space and even from one universe to the next.  Your essence never changes, though your personality, your looks, everything else might fade away.” 

"It's beautiful," she whispered.  She reached a hand out as if to touch the smooth surface, but jerked back as a streak of lightning crashed into a tree not thirty meters away.  Isra couldn't help but deeply inhale the fragrance of burning pine.

"I suppose we should proceed,"  The Colonel called as he turned his gaze on Isra. “They’ve told you why you’re here?”

Isra swallowed the hard knot that had formed in her throat. Perhaps she wasn’t so resigned to this mission as she pretended. “Yes,” she whispered. “To seek her out, to measure whether our connection can be sustained, even now.” She took a deep breath. “To discover whether I might successfully cross The Boundary.”

The Colonel nodded. His grin disappeared.  With a snap of his fingers Isra was surrounded by the flurry of his team. They systematically and efficiently placed wireless electrodes at strategic points of Isra’s skin: temples, heart, navel. A particularly rotund gentleman pressed the barrel of some sort of gun to her left wrist. With a slight hiss, the gun pierced the skin and placed the final microtransmitter. Isra examined her wrist, tingling with an almost imperceptible current. Her hazel eyes widened.  No mark.

“We’re in,” a new voice from the left called, but Isra ignored it. She watched intently as The Gate began to glow an electric blue. The Colonel clasped her unaltered wrist and gestured to the platform. She refused to face him but nodded and stepped forward.

Isra exhaled slowly as she stepped onto the cylindrical base. As soon as she stood in its center, a visible barrier snapped into place around her. The slight discoloration of the atmosphere separated her from the flurry of activity beyond the mechanism’s invisible walls. Though she could still see each team member working diligently to prepare the machine, their images were overwhelmed by auras as clear to her as spotlights, and as natural to her as breathing. What had seemed foolish speculation was suddenly comfortable, real, even inherent to the nature of existence.

“You’re feeling it already; that’s good.” She glanced back over to the Colonel, who eyed her with that same grin. “This will be both the simplest and the most difficult thing you have ever done.” He gestured to the sky above them, startlingly dark as the purple faded to deep blue and yellowed lightning created an electric charge in the air. Though power surged all around her, she felt as comfortable as if she’d taken this journey a million times.

“You have,” the Colonel’s voice interrupted her thoughts. Isra’s brow furrowed in confusion, but he made no attempt to enlighten her. “Your instructions are simple. Stare into that disc and study yourself, until you see the image of that which you seek. The lightning will provide a power surge, during which you must release any remaining anxiety, and do what you will know to do. Once you’re on the other side, we have no way of knowing how long your body will be able to sustain the paradox. Here, you feel more confident and at home than you’ve ever felt in your life; you will not have that luxury there. You will be the outcast, the abomination: every cell in your body will try to call you back. You must ignore it. The longer you are on the other side, the more information we can gather.”

“If I don’t return?”

“Neither success nor failure is ever absolute. We’ll still get what we need.”

Isra took one last look at the Colonel before she turned to focus on the disc. She could hear endless activity surrounding her, but it reached her ears as if through a dozen walls, each thicker than the last. The commotion around Isra faded into white noise, insignificant and irrelevant. Each tiny hair on her body rose as the growing electric current surrounded her like a halo. As the halo grew, the murky gray-blue aura surrounding her fanned out in every direction until she could see it not only in the disc’s reflection but also radiating from her skin. The aura snaked out in tendrils, searching, searching--

--And then a snap. The murky gray condensed into a solid, almost tangible line, extending from Isra's navel and reaching into the depths of the mirror in front of her. Her reflection faded into a hazy maze of colors: pinks, reds, and mauves. The cord from her navel reached into the haze and merged with it.  It gradually faded into a bright green and reached out into the distance. The Colonel had been right. She knew exactly what was at the other end, and her chest filled with familiar longing. The lightning surged, and feeling more like herself than she ever had, she stepped forward and through the open doorway. She felt a cold tingling rush as the atmosphere of the world beyond fell upon her skin, and with an explosion of light, sound, and electricity, all was darkness.

* * * * * * *

The irritating prickle of light pressed tiny needles into her closed eyelids. A bitterly cold breeze brushed across her exposed fingers. The air felt charged in a way Isra found disconcerting, even repulsive. Her skin throbbed as if submerged in a churning vat of electrified slush.  Her mind could not integrate the physical pain with her awakening vision. As her eyes awoke, she gazed upon an orchard in springtime, a dozen spindly trees covered in tiny pink flowers, occasionally swept from the branches by a light breeze and gingerly tossed onto the lush grass beneath her. Yet, as she swept her hand along that lush grass, the sting of thousands of tiny razors licked at her fingertips. She jerked her hand to her face in pain.  Her skin remained perfectly intact.

The Colonel was right. Every atom in her body vibrated with longing to return from whence she'd come. Yet she could not, would not, leave just yet. She hadn't found her; her mission was yet unfulfilled.

"I wondered when you'd arrive," a melodic voice called from behind her. Isra moved achingly slowly, using all her hard-won concentration to ignore the pain as she turned to face the voice. Her face flushed in anger as the voice chuckled.

"Always were the stubborn one," it called again. Isra furrowed her brow as she managed to turn toward the new arrival. The cord at Isra's navel had grown even more tangible, the blue-gray reaching out, twisting into a brilliant green, and connecting her to the unearthly form standing before her. The woman looked like no one she'd ever known:  dark skin, violet eyes, hair so deep and dark it shone purple as the sun danced upon it through the branches above. The woman wore only a light tunic and skirt as she strolled towards Isra. Isra's heart clenched in pain even as she gazed upon her.

"Amaranthe?" Isra whispered, though she was sure she’d never known that name. She shook her head. "Kari?"

The woman smiled and cocked her head to one side. "I was called that once. I've been called many things, both before and after. You were most correct the first time. I'm Amaranthe." She gave a deep curtsy, and Isra realized she was being mocked. Without thinking, she reached out to swat Amaranthe's arm, but met only air. Amaranthe had ducked out of the way and landed several feet away. Isra frowned.

"You mustn't touch me," Amaranthe warned. "The paradox would not be sustained, and you would be ripped from this world with a speed that would destroy you." The corners of her lips turned up, her teeth bared in a gruesome smile. "I learned that one the hard way.  Let's say our first few meetings have made me more cautious."

Isra stared. "The first few?" Amaranthe sat on the grass a few yards away, perfectly content in her bare feet, digging her toes into the soft earth. Isra--and why did thinking of herself by that name feel so disconcerting?--continued to grit her teeth in pain as the grass inflamed every inch of skin it touched.

"Yes, dear Peregrin." Peregrin. Yes, that was her name. Why had she never known, not until this very moment? "This is at least the fifteenth such time I've stumbled upon you in this place. For some reason you're always drawn back here." Amaranthe's eyes danced casually over her form before they focused with interest at the still-exposed cleavage. "You didn't look quite this good the last time, though." She smirked and returned her eyes to Isra's.  "But, oh, how I’d love to tug at those fiery curls now."

Isra’s facial muscles spasmed with the first genuine smile she’d felt in months. “God, I’ve missed that. Missed you.” Water gathered at the corners of her eyes.

Amaranthe sighed. “I know, love, I know. I often seem to leave you a bit too soon.” Her eyes hardened. “But that’s no excuse for your cowardice."  Isra flinched, but Amaranthe pressed on.  "You shouldn't be here. What would happen if you ran into yourself? It might rip apart the fabric of every universe, not just yours or mine." Isra's eyes widened.

"You mean...I'm here?" She looked at the cord connecting the two of them and realized there was a second, less visible protrusion extending from Amaranthe's navel into the distance.

"Where else would you be? Of course you're here. You’re meant to be with me; you were destined to eventually arrive here.”  Her lips thinned even as her smirk continued.  "Just, not yet."

Isra’s face heated as her blood began to rush. The increasing ring in her ears reminded her that she didn't, in fact, belong here. They wouldn’t have long; she hadn’t meant the conversation to turn this way. “This is a regular occurrence, then? You abandon me and I follow you here?”

Amaranthe sighed. “I’d forgotten your propensity for melodrama.” Isra smirked as Amaranthe’s serene facade cracked, evidenced by her down-turned lips and shadowed eyes. “But no. Many times you abandoned me. Suicide. Accidents. Old age a few times. In one sense death is very reliable; in another, he has a bit of a fetish for variety.” Her lips curled into a sneer. “I at least was never fool enough to try to cross The Boundary to find you.”

Amaranthe’s eyes glowed faintly as the world began to melt into blurred colors and lines. Isra’s body couldn’t sustain the displacement much longer.

Amaranthe shook her head.  “You shouldn’t be here. You are giving him too much information. He’s using you as his damned guinea pig. He has ambition grander than you can imagine and will never be satisfied with power in one reality: he wants control of them all. Should he finally discover how to cross himself, he’ll do everything he can to make that dream a reality, even if he must annihilate everything in the process.”

Isra frowned. “What am I to do, then?”  Both voices now rang hollow, as if the words themselves traveled through water to reach her ears.

“Stop following me, Peregrin. Each time we’re separated, he seeks you out, lures you in with promises he won’t fulfill.” Her eyes dimmed. “Yes, I’m she whom you've loved and lost, but I’m not Kari. In each universe, time and time again we are reborn; we meet, we fall in love, and we are eventually heartbroken as we part ways. We feel the heights of both ecstasy and pain, and it is terrible and wonderful and breathtaking. Eventually, we both are born here, and we are happy. Be patient, and that time will come for you--unless you allow him to destroy it all.”

“But I can’t, Amaranthe,” she whispered. “I could never stop myself from searching for you, even if I wanted to.”

Amaranthe smiled. “Well, you’ll admit that much at least. I suppose you’ll just have to figure out a way to stop Him.”

“And how should I do that?”

“Live. I warned you: it’s your cowardice, your fear of being alone that drove you here. You hoped to find me, yes, but you expected to die. Your ultimate goal was to stand by my side once again, no matter what that cost you or anyone else.  But Peregrin, you are the only person in your world who has experienced what you have and who knows what you know. There is much good left to be done in your world even now, even on your own.  The world--all worlds--need your help.  Use your brain and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.” As other colors faded from Isra’s vision, the violet of Amaranthe’s eyes pierced into Isra’s. “Even now you make a choice: to die, to move onto your next life where you will find me once again; or to live, to face the rest of this life with courage. Please, for me, make the right decision.” Unable to fight any longer, Isra gave herself over to darkness.

* * * * * * *

“We’ve lost the connection,” Red snapped as the activity on the monitors spiked and then crashed to almost nothing.

The Colonel’s smile didn’t diminish. “Five minutes of data this time. A new record, ladies and gentlemen!” He turned and gestured toward the platform. “Take care of the mess, would you Greenie?” He fondly slapped the rotund man on the back. Green’s eyes narrowed, but he moved to obey nonetheless.

The Colonel turned his gaze to the monitor and begin the painful process of scouring the data. Red frantically typed away at the primary control panel.  She periodically shifted screens as The Colonel called out instructions. He groaned under his breath.  He always hated this part. Brilliant though he may have been--and he was neither naive nor humble enough to deny it--making definitive conclusions based on millions of minute pieces of data was still tedious as hell. He could only hope that the The Subject's hard won measurements could produce a clearer picture this time. With each attempt the formulas gained clarity and precision. Another few tries and the team might be able to attempt the crossing with an Untethered Subject.

“Boss,” Green’s voice called from the platform. “You might want to come take a look at this.”

The Colonel’s smile slipped for the first time that evening. “A bit busy here, Greenie.”

“Trust me; you definitely want to see this.”

The Colonel furrowed his brow and scowled as he approached the platform. The electric hum had ceased as the power had shut down.  The barrier had vanished, its metal disc melted back into its gelatinous state. The Subject lay perfectly still in the middle of the platform.

“Green, what’s the meaning of this?”

Green gestured to The Subject. Frowning, the Colonel knelt and pressed two fingers into the limp body’s throat. His eyes widened as he recognized the faint thump of a still beating heart.

The Colonel flew back to the monitors. At the top of an auxiliary screen, a weak but slow and steady beep pulsed almost silently. The Colonel’s eyes lit up in wonder, his restored grin stretching the sides of his face.

“Well, team, tonight has gone even better than expected!” The team crowded around the monitor in astonishment as that slow and steady pulse refused to cease. They watched for five minutes. Ten. And still the heart kept on beating.

“Initiate Plan B! Finally!” The team immediately dispersed to enact the emergency protocols. The Colonel went back to the platform and grinned down at the still Subject. “Welcome back, Violet. I suppose we’ll have to introduce you this time.”

He pulled out his phone to begin the necessary flurry of calls. With an excitement he’d not genuinely felt in lifetimes, he spoke. “White? Prepare for Phase 2.”

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