QSFer Kelly Haworth has a new sci fi book out:
In the last surviving cities of a ruined world, the concept of “woman” has been forgotten to history. Those unfortunate enough to lack a Y chromosome live as second-class citizens in a world dominated by mascs.
Ember is Y negative. He is scorned, bullied, abused by every masc he encounters, at work and at the gym. Not even his Y negative roommate cuts him any slack. He wants so desperately to be accepted as a masc that he’d rather buy black market testosterone than food. Something’s gotta give—he needs a change in his life, but has no idea how to find it.
Jess is a masc with a passion for studying the recovery of their devastated world. His boyfriend is pressuring him for more commitment, and his father expects him to take over the family business. He can’t wait to get away from civilization for his seasonal research out in the wild.
When Jess offers Ember a job, their lives collide in the isolated wasteland, and their initial attraction turns into a relationship that horrifies those around them. Soon their struggle to stay together and to be who they are turns into a fight for their lives.
Part One: Ember
This would be one of those days, I could tell. One of those days when clients would underpay me, the hot water would run out before I could shower, or some masc would decide I’m looking at him funny and bust my lip to teach me a lesson. It was the stink in the air, that acidic humidity. Made people irritable.
“Hello, this is Ember Dawson, from K Street Repair and Upgrade. Your console will be ready to pick up from the hours of ten to seventeen. Thank you!”
I took off my headset and dropped my head to my hands, my thumbs cupped under the short beard on my chin. Come on, it’s too early to wallow. I can get on with my life; that’s what andros do.
At least it was time to work out. “You ready to go?” I called, shoving myself to my feet and hefting my gym bag.
“Yeah, just a second.” Niche’s reply came muffled through his door.
Standing at the desk I had sandwiched between the couch and the hallway to the bedrooms, I downed a glass of water mixed with nutritional supplement. Ugh, so bitter. But at least it would sustain me through the workout.
“Let’s go.” Niche popped an earbud into one ear as he walked past me.
I grabbed my Common and earbuds off my desk and followed Niche out, scanning the hallway for mascs. It was vacant, thankfully, except for the damp, bitter-smelling air. Niche hummed to the song playing in his ear, his unused earbud swinging against his chest. He was wearing his old surrogacy shirt, which hung loose on his frame. I didn’t get why he still had his; I had burned mine.
“Let’s do three miles today, okay?” He bounded down the stairs to the first floor of the apartment complex.
“If you don’t want to go the whole distance, you can wait for me.” I pushed open the door at the end of the hall that led straight into the next building over, which was more apartments.
“So I spend the last ten minutes admiring your abs. I see how you like it.”
Not this again: complimenting my body as if it made me feel better. “How many times have I told you it takes more than running to get these?”
We passed through another doorway into the gym, masc perspiration pleasing my senses. Continuing past the free weights, I ignored the men staring at us as they lifted.
“Right here.” Niche jogged ahead of me and bounced onto a treadmill. I stepped onto the one next to him, stretching as I tapped at my Common. What was I in the mood for . . . Dirty Code has some good beats. I started a playlist, and met Niche’s eye.
He grinned, hand poised over the start button.
We ramped up our treadmills, and the bass line in my ears drowned out his laughter.
Within a few minutes, my body eased into the exercise. Next to me a masc left his treadmill, shooting me a harsh look as he moved to one farther away from us. Whatever, masc, see if we care. I increased my pace, reveling in the exertion, then Niche did the same to match my full run.
My pale-blue eyes stared back at me from the gym’s mirrored wall. Sweat soon plastered my shirt to my chest. And for the thousandth time I analyzed every inch of myself that I could see—the shape of my jaw, the breadth of my shoulders and rib cage; they mocked me. Five years at the gym and thousands of wattcreds in testosterone in an attempt to bury the origins of my body under muscle. If only that could be enough.
Fatigue caught up to me as I ran. I glanced at Niche, who had already slowed to a walk, a hand on his side. He met my gaze and shrugged. I forced myself onward, mouthing the words that my mind screamed at the mirror. I want to be a masc . . . I want to be a masc . . .
When I hit my goal, I stumbled off the treadmill, panting and running my hands through short brown hair, then flicking sweat off my fingers. I scanned the gym. A few men wore wide smiles as they traveled from one group of machines to the next, their conversation lost to the music in my ears. One masc performed multiple pull-ups on a high bar, and the effortless working of his arms, the serenity of his demeanor, was beautiful. What I wouldn’t give to look like him. What my body wouldn’t give to be under him— No, wrong. I couldn’t think that.
Niche’s hand rested on my shoulder, and I pulled out an earbud. “Weights next?”
I tore my gaze from the glistening muscles of the masc on the high bar. “Yeah.”
We settled at a bench, and I led Niche through our regimen. We lifted, and I focused on breathing steadily, and the comforting strain in my muscles.
A pair of mascs left their machines and started toward us. One of them was Loren, who I had ogled the past several months, his shorts revealing sculpted thighs and calves, his shirt hiding what I knew were perfect abs, the kind I wished I could have. He smirked right at me, malice shaping his cheekbones and sweat spiking his light-brown hair.
“What do we have here?” he said to his comrade. “Two little andros pretending to be men.”
I couldn’t say the same for Niche, but there was nothing little about me. Loren and I were almost the same height and build. I put down the weights and stood.
“Let’s check out the high bars, Niche.”
As I turned from them, Loren grabbed my arm. “Leaving before we get to say hello?”
I tried to pull away but his grip was tight enough that the motion simply stung my skin. His brown eyes pierced mine with a malicious edge never present in my fantasies. This probably wouldn’t end how I had fantasized either.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Loren growled, yanking me toward him and grabbing my hips. The other masc laughed as Loren pressed himself against me. “This is how your kind says hello, right?”
Damn it . . . I blamed the hormones when my face flushed, and I stifled a moan. Loren shoved me toward his friend, who twisted one of my arms behind my back before I had gotten my bearings.
“Damn, you should have seen his face!” Loren’s friend exclaimed. “I think he likes you.”
At least he had the decency to call me “he” instead of “it.” For a moment I struggled, and then he wrenched my arm and pain shot through my shoulder. I hissed to keep from shouting.
“Ember!” Niche gasped.
Loren cocked an eyebrow and knocked my forehead with hard knuckles. “What’s wrong with you? Do you think you’re a masc? ’Cause I doubt there’s a dick in those shorts.”
“There could be if you’re inviting yourself,” I quipped.
Loren snarled and pulled back his arm. As he swung, I clenched my abs as hard as I could, and his fist landed square in my tensed gut. Nice try, asshole. Pain blossomed, and I fought my captor’s grip, so he twisted my arm harder.
“Let him go, please!” Niche tried. They ignored him.
“Are you het?” Loren asked, like it was illegal. With reactions like this, it may as well be.
I coughed a laugh. “What difference does it make?”
He punched me again, and again I anticipated his blow, though just barely. He narrowed his eyes and shook out his hand.
Niche let out a whine, then the bastard dashed out of sight.
“Why do you need this guy holding me down?” I challenged. “Don’t think you can beat me in a fair fight?”
Loren’s friend crowed with laughter.
“Know your place and stay in it, andro.” Loren’s fist flew at my face, and my nose exploded with pain.
Loren’s friend shoved me to the floor. As their chuckling receded, I pushed myself up to hands and knees, the green tile speckled bright red.
Letting out a groan, I sat down with shaking limbs. “Niche?”
Hands gripped my shoulders, and I recoiled.
“It’s just me; it’s me,” Niche soothed, helping me up. “They left. Let me get you a towel or something.”
I wiped my nose, smearing red on my arm, and the familiar metallic flavor tainted my taste buds. Loren sure had gotten close to breaking my nose. I breathed slow and deep, trying to brush off the shock.
Niche returned with a small towel, and I cleaned up as well I could.
Then he put a hand on my arm, which I shoved off.
“Why do you act like this?” he asked. “If you keep daydreaming you’re a masc, it’s gonna get you killed.”
Not this again, Niche. Where had my Common gone? Ah, it was under a bench. I retrieved the device and sat down.
“Why do you inject?” I countered.
He shrugged, sitting next to me. “It’s what a Y negative does when he’s finished his damn service for society. Become an andro.”
“Well I don’t inject to be an andro.”
“It’s a daydream, Ember. Sometimes I daydream that I can jog outside and not be fried under acid showers. It’s never gonna happen.”
“Yeah, it’s a daydream. And when I’m living it, you can eat your words.”
Niche let out a sigh and retrieved our gym bags from beside the treadmills. “Let’s hit the showers.”
It was definitely time to rinse off this sweat and blood. We crossed the gym and entered the changing room, then continued past changing and showering mascs. I averted my gaze so my voyeurism wouldn’t start another fight. Once in the andros’ section, Niche tapped his Common on a sensor outside the shower stall, then shed his clothes and got in.
I lingered near the waist-high mirror that ran the length of the changing room. My red, swollen nose looked ridiculous, and my mustache still held flecks of blood. It wasn’t the first time I had seen myself like this, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
Pulling off my shirt, my lower abdomen jiggled. Like I could ever be fond of my abs when they were obscured with this loose, scarred skin. The jagged silver lightning bolts of stretch marks radiated out from my pubic hair to my belly button, the result of six surrogacies. I resisted the urge to grab the hated skin and twist. Like that would help.
My gaze slipped up my torso, past healed gashes from fights with mascs, to the thick scars that lined the bottom edges of my pectoral muscles, where my breasts had been removed. So much of my body was a disgusting reminder, after I had tried so hard to forget. And when I pushed down my shorts, I looked away; that was a difference I didn’t need to be reminded of.
A tap of my Common paid for my shower, and I soon shivered as the lukewarm water ran down me. The water washed away more than just the grime as the pain in my abdomen eased up and the knots in my muscles loosened. I’d survived another morning. That had to count for something.
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Kelly Haworth grew up in San Francisco and has been reading science fiction and fantasy classics since she was a kid. She developed way too active an imagination as a result, thus, she started writing. Being genderfluid and pansexual, she loves to write LGBTQ+ characters in genres such as science fiction with diverse aliens, and urban fantasies with shifters and fire sorcerers. With degrees in both genetics and psychology, she works as a project manager at a genetics lab. When not working or writing, she can be found wrangling her toddler, working on cosplay, or curled up on the couch with a good TV show or book.