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Art by Melissa Mead

W is for When

Tim Pratt's stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places. He's won a Hugo for his short fiction (and lost Sturgeon, Stoker, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards). He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife and son. Find him online at timpratt.org

Jenn Reese lives in Los Angeles and is currently writing a middle-grade adventure series for Candlewick Press. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Follow her adventures at jennreese.com.

Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, gardener and aikidoka living in Berkeley, California with her husband and son. She's had fiction in Strange Horizons, Polyphony, The Year's Best Fantasy, Escape Pod and other nice places. She just finished her first middle-grade novel, "Keaton T., Junior Gene Hacker" and is looking for representation. For more, visit heathershaw.org

Greg van Eekhout's fiction for adults and children includes the novels Norse Code and Kid vs. Squid and stories published in Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other places. He lives in San Diego, CA. For more information, visit writingandsnacks.com.

The warden found me in some dusty little town in 1897. He wrinkled his nose with distaste. "You smell awful."
I glared.
"A whore, hmm? With your intelligence you were expected to at least achieve a..." He consulted his notes. "School 'marm,' or seamstress position."
"The teaching gigs all go to respectable wives, warden. And you have to know how to sew with a needle and thread to get a seamstress gig. As I have no such skills, no husband, no family, and no one to vouch for me, whoring is the only way I can support myself." My throat felt funny making the vowels of the language I'd grown up with again. I hadn't spoken it since my exile six years before.
"You were expected to marry."
"Do you know what most of these men do to their wives when they don't produce sons, let alone never get pregnant at all? I'll pass on the regular beatings because of my contraceptive chip, thanks."
The warden looked around the room--he'd had to pay my whore price just to come in. Bare, splintery wooden floors and walls contained only a straw-stuffed bed, a nightstand, and a water pitcher. The mattress was saggy and hadn't been cleaned for some time.
"I suppose a whore's job seemed an appropriate alternative, in that case."
I sighed, wishing he'd just get on with it. I knew how it looked to him. I doubt he ever visited his prisoners, and coming from the gleaming future--with its constant hygienic services and garment crispers--to this dusty little hellhole must be quite a shock. It was part of the point of my punishment--placed in a female body and sent back through time to an era when women were considered less than human. Simple. Horrific. A fate worse than death, though of course, it was the modern way of avoiding such barbarism as a simple death penalty. Effective, too. Violent criminals had a hard time causing much trouble in these conditions, though there were a few notable exceptions, like Belle Starr and Pearl Hart. Even they had to endure the fact of being female in such debased times, and to deal with rough, violent men. Most of us ended up on our backs, staring at the ceiling and holding our breaths many times a day just to eat. "Why are you even here, warden?"
"They've decided that feminine exile is cruel and unusual punishment. They decided this some years ago, actually... you were one of the last to receive that sentence. But now they're reviewing old cases. I'm visiting inmates to find out what sort of lives you're living, whether you're moral enough to be transported back, or moved to a different era."
"I see. And here you caught me, whoring."
"True. Doesn't look good, you falling into criminal ways." I didn't like the way he was eyeing the bed. "But you know... I might be able to help you out."
I knew what he meant, but I said, "Oh?"
"I mean... you do it all the time with... well, I am surely much cleaner than..."
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. In his clean world, filth was the ultimate kink. I took a quiet breath, then put on my whore's role. "And if I... let you be dirty with me... you'll report that I was working as a...?"
He blushed, but the front of his pants told me I'd titillated him. Dirty talk wasn't usually so literal.
"We'll go with school marm."
I made the appropriate purring reply, coaxed and caressed him, and before I knew it I was on my back, staring at the ceiling again. He was right; he was much cleaner than my other customers.
Of course, I wasn't.
With luck, he'd have me transferred to a slightly less barbarous era--the 21st century, say--before he started to show the symptoms of my assorted sexually transmitted diseases, all of which had been eradicated in his world's distant past. An inelegant form of revenge, I know, but my time in the "Wild West" had given me a taste for whatever sort of frontier justice a woman like me could get.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 8th, 2011
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