Live from the Cutting Room Floor: A Ladyhoppers Prequels Scene

The release date for Ladyhoppers by Sarah Thérèse Pelletier and Scott James Taylor is getting closer, and I'm so excited for all of you to fall in love with this book the way I did. One of the things I've chatted with Sarah and Scott about as we went through the editorial process is what didn't make it into the novel. They address this even more in a forthcoming post on John Scalzi's The Big Idea blog. Sometimes, what you cut says as much about the story as what's still there.

But sometimes, just because it didn't fit the novel's tempo and tone doesn't mean the piece of writing is bad. And so, when Sarah and Scott told me they had an early first chapter that showed our hero, Charlie Chase, in her home multiverse, I knew I wanted to offer it as a teaser.

So here it is, to whet your appetite. You can also read the first chapter and preorder straight from Outland's web store! (Keep an eye out for the secret code!)

Without further ado—the prequel.

-Alana Joli Abbott, Editor in Chief, and editor of Ladyhoppers.

A Prequel Scene to Ladyhoppers
By Sarah Thérèse Pelletier and Scott James Taylor


There was a hole in reality, and it was making Charlie late for work.

That was callous. Shame prickled down the back of her neck, but it didn’t have time to make much of an impression before nausea overwhelmed everything: the businessman in the adjacent row had retched into his complimentary newspaper. His seatmate, an older woman with steel gray hair and stiletto leather boots, scooted halfway into the aisle to avoid the spray. Charlie stared past the pair, out the bus window at the otherworldly horror unfolding outside.

The tear was a bad one. The jagged, eye-aching ripples extended up over the tops of the buildings still standing—the ones that hadn’t found their foundations absent or sieved or substituted for a different kind of matter entirely and sagged or collapsed. Grayscale wefts cut across nothing, texture in what should have been just the vacant space in a sightline between her and the next actual thing. It was probably the old Baum Technologies building that went down. Historical sites were prime targets for tears, and Baum Tech had been there for decades before some new upstart had bought the building. The tears chipped away at Montreal’s character, its low stone and brick buildings plucked from existence while the impersonal sleek glass skyscrapers remained unscathed.

A containment unit from Emergency Services d’urgence, conspicuous in their highlighter yellow uniforms, was already on the scene to redirect traffic and cordon off the corner of McGill College Avenue and Sainte-Catherine Street. The commuter bus shuddered as it slowed to a stop Américain, the wheels still rolling forward when Louis, the driver, jammed the gears into reverse. There was a time Montreal’s streets bustled at all hours, but after a tear took out Place Bonaventure last month, traffic in the downtown core was restricted to authorized vehicles only. In the absence of other vehicles, there was nothing preventing Louis from gunning the gas, the bus not so much lurching as racing backward down the one-way street. The bus driver didn’t even bother to turn around.

Charlie half-stood, steadying herself on a seatback. As she watched, the containment unit went from redirecting traffic to hurriedly waving them off—to dropping their signage and running. Positioned as she was, looking down the length of the bus through the window, it was hard to see what they were running from. It was not, however, tough to imagine. She thought maybe the businessman had jumped the gun on throwing up. On the other hand, maybe it was best he’d gotten it over with. It sure as hell wasn’t helping her contain the acid feel of bile trying to surge out of her throat.

The driver twisted the wheel, incautiously backing the bus into a turn. Automatically bracing herself with hand and foot, Charlie twisted to lean to the side window and caught a glimpse of the parasite. As far as she could tell, there was only one—so far—which meant that most of the containment unit would probably live.

Not the responder who’d been caught just by the cordon, though. There was a temporary fence, a simple crisscross of wires between two poles meant to be slotted into portable blocks. The tentacles were too large to fit through the gaps; nonetheless, they projected through the gaps—and through the unlucky victim. At this distance, Charlie couldn’t see the fine detail, which was excellent news as far as her bile was concerned. It almost looked like an old camera trick, the kind people did when film was still a thing. Double exposure. One click of the camera shutter: A man halfway to the ground, tripping out of a desperate sprint. Roll the film back, second click, same frame: a tentacle waving through the same space, just the end twisted back. Roll it back, do it again with another tentacle, occupying the same space as the first tentacle and man both.

Of course, it would have been pretty tough for someone faking it up with an old-school camera to manage the blood. Some of the man was out of focus, hazy, near where the tentacles were threaded through him; some was not. Along the border, where solid flesh met blurred, the solid flesh was doing what solid flesh did when there wasn’t a body to meet it anymore. There wasn’t really a word for what was happening to him. The closest they managed was “eaten.”

Charlie looked away. She was grateful the bus window didn’t open, even if that meant living with the smell of the businessman’s vomit. Tears had a different smell. Not a specific different, not simply like one known quantity when it should have been something else, not even a phantom smell like those experienced during neurological trauma, but different, the brain’s olfactory interpretation simply coming up empty. If the window was open, the hole in the world would be all she’d able to smell, and all she’d be able to hear was someone dying to the things that crawled out of holes in the world.

Instead, she sat down, took out her notes, and told herself that this was not callous. Her notes were about the tears, although not this specific one; if she’d known Sainte-Cath would be shut down, she would’ve left earlier or asked if there was any way they could finagle her a private authorized vehicle—probably both. It was an important day.

But if all went well—which was a sentiment she hesitated to consider, given the gash in the fabric of reality bleeding out over the world—if all went well, she wouldn’t have to think about this particular tear.

At least the tear didn’t seem to be getting bigger, so maybe she could take that as the good news. There would be a far wider cordon and a lot more emergency everything, now that a parasite had appeared, but the bus was going to be able to find a route around. As it was, she was going to be late, but not so late anyone would reschedule. She’d miss the preamble. That was fine. It wasn’t like they were going to start without her.

Charlie was late for work: jumping into a hole in reality.


“Your excuse should ideally include the words, ‘Crisis Management Committee,’ ‘inefficient,’ and ‘tear.’”

Dr. Verity Baum rolled out from where she was working under the Foreign Matter Attenuator, which was humming furiously as it tried to reconcile the bleed of the utterly wrong coming through the tear to process it into a form that wouldn’t react as violently or unpredictably when it interacted with the substance of the real world. She stood, and the energy in the room immediately shifted to accommodate her presence, the fifteen or so white-coated personnel running around all endeavoring to look especially busy. Verity was a tall, pale woman of impeccable posture, the straight set of her shoulders accentuated by her sleeveless blouse. Her thick brown hair was swept back into an effortless bun, and she focused her dark eyes on Charlie. They’d worked together since Charlie’s university days, before the world had gone completely to hell, but there was still something intimidating about being on the receiving end of her old professor’s gaze, and Charlie’s nerves compelled her to fill the expectant silence.

“A Crisis Management Committee worker got eaten near a new tear on the route. What was the—‘inefficient.’”

Verity’s look of displeasure redirected to more generally encompass the world. She looked a little concerned, too.

“Where was it, did you see? We’re running out of history to lose.”

“Around Place Montreal Trust, looked like. I think it might have been your old digs, actually. Baum Tech.”

Verity huffed. Charlie thought that was to do with another bit of history torn asunder, another life taken, but it could have been the word “digs.” She started to pull out her phone to see if any details had been released yet but was beaten to it by another entrance.

Dr. Josephine Watson wasn’t late and had probably been there since before Charlie woke up. She didn’t need to look busy for Verity, not just because they’d known each other for so long but because she was, persistently, busy. The pristine state of her lab coat revealed no evidence of it. Maybe she had several on racks. Charlie thought she might; Josie believed in uniforms.

“It was the old Baum Technologies building,” she said, words curled with the slightly accented edge of a francophone. Josie, like most people, stood half a head shorter than Charlie. She had dark skin, and her cropped black hair was styled in an afro and pushed back from her face with a simple gray headband. She poked Charlie’s shoulder with the end of her stylus and added, “Et puis?”

Charlie, shooting Josie a mock frown, absently rubbed at her shoulder. “Didn’t really get a good look. ESDu already had it blocked off before they had to cut and run.”

“Late and useless.” Josie tutted. “No wonder we’re kicking you out.”

Charlie scoffed and planted a hand on her hip. “I’ll have you know I volunteered.” She held up her other hand in demonstration, but Josie, with a laugh that belied her nerves, swatted it down and stepped in to give Charlie a quick hug.

“We need you to suit up,” Josie said, squeezing Charlie’s arm to prompt her to get a move on.

Verity sighed. “You never say that to me anymore.” She tipped Josie a forlorn look.

Josie hummed disapprovingly. “And you know exactly why.”

Verity’s trademark cackle followed them out of the room.


The suit—affectionately called the Velo by the R&D department, though Charlie never understood the labyrinthian reason behind the nickname—was more comfortable than it looked, but that really wasn’t saying much.

Streamlined and space age gray, the Velo was similar in fit to athletic compression gear, though it was made of materials more durable than Lycra: VeriTon, trademark Veritech, was bleeding edge tech inspired by plants, capable of perpetually creating oxygen through the wearer’s exhalations, while skin thin layers of KeVerity would shield Charlie from all known forms of radiation. Endless rounds of vaccinations would protect Charlie from germs. The Velo’s retractable cowl was equipped with a heads-up display, which was connected to sensors laced throughout the suit that could read anything from Charlie’s vitals to the exact nature of whatever was on the other side of a tear. She wouldn’t be able to transmit anything back to HQ in real-time, but so long as the suit was intact upon her return, she could bring back data. The outer shell—ballistics- and fireproof, not that parasites had ever been observed toting guns or flamethrowers; they didn’t have to, they could just reach right through you and eat you raw—ensured the data’s safety. While they had no means of killing a parasite, they knew enough about them to create a deterrent, a high-tech citronella candle that cost a medium-sized fortune to produce but kept Veritech parasite-free. They hadn’t figured out a way to miniaturize the Chandelle, so they’d gone for the next best thing with the lure gun, which could at least draw parasites somewhere else and was secured in a lightweight utility belt around Charlie’s hips. Easy access was key when trying to avoid being eaten.

The Velo also had pockets.

“You’ll be pleased to hear we’ve added that feature you requested during the last fitting,” Nate was saying, which was interesting enough to call Charlie’s attention away from the mirror. She grinned.

“You mean—?”

Mr. Nathaniel Salt, Verity’s whip thin executive assistant, politely cleared his throat and averted his eyes. “Yes, you’ll be able to, ah—” He winced, surely a Pavlovian response to discussing lady bits. “—pee—” His nose wrinkled. “—without, ah—”

“Needing a team of specialists to get me out of this thing?” Charlie’s grin widened. Folding her arms, she leaned up against the wall, one leg kicked out in front of her, to bask in the glow of Nate’s awkwardness. The heat coming off the tips of his ears could get a household of four through the winter. “Y’know, I’m really gonna miss these chats of ours, Nate.”

His lips twitched, like he was holding back a smile, but his expression was otherwise carefully ambivalent. “If all goes well, you won’t miss them for long.”

That same old refrain. Anxiety bloomed, unbidden, in the pit of her stomach, and Charlie sprung forward from the wall and clapped Nate’s shoulder on her way out the door. “Gotta pee!” she chirped to his unvoiced protest.

It was only half a lie. She pushed through the bathroom door but made a beeline for the row of sinks, not the stalls. She tore off her gauntlets and waved her hands under the faucet’s automated sensor for a frustrating five seconds before it acknowledged her presence and the water flowed. It was too cold, just like always, but Charlie took comfort in that bit of familiarity. She splashed her face and ran her hands over her head, gently mussing her tight French braid, then caught her weight on the counter and breathed in, breathed out, and breathed in again.

She looked hard at her reflection. “You can do this,” she told herself, but she wasn’t sure she was a reliable source.

A toilet flushed. Charlie’s mother tottered out from the stall farthest from the door and approached the sink to wash her hands. She smiled at Charlie, a gentle wryness barely masking her bone-deep worry.

“I couldn’t hold it,” Mum said, shrugging, and Charlie laughed, closing the distance between them in two strides to wrap her mother up in a hug that might have lasted an eternity if there wasn’t the world to save.

“Sorry,” Charlie said, dropping a kiss to the top of Mum’s head. While they bore a striking resemblance to each other, the pair of them sharing the same pale eyes and ash blond hair, Charlie was built like the women on Dad’s side of the family: broad-shouldered and solid. Mum was downright dainty—almost avian, like so many Québecoises—and barely cracked five feet without the assistance of heels. Charlie took half a step back, but kept Mum’s arms in hand as she studied her face.

“Dad’s in the conference room,” Mum said before Charlie could ask.

“How was the trip?”

Mum didn’t answer. Her eyes had begun to water, and though she was valiantly keeping any tears at bay, it was a fight she was destined to lose.

“Nuh uh,” Charlie said, ignoring her own stinging eyes. She sniffed. “We made a pact. No tears.”

Mum smiled a watery smile but gave a firm nod and steeled her features. She pulled Charlie in close again. “No tears.”


The goodbyes were brief, because experience dictated it was easier that way. Before Charlie’s tour in Afghanistan, there had been a handful of going away parties (with overlapping guest lists), the last of which somehow culminated in a picture slideshow of Charlie’s life, accompanied by a weepy rendition of her favorite bubblegum pop song, “Wannawhat.” No one had wanted to voice that these might be the last times they ever saw her alive, but they hadn’t needed to: the parties, the song, the interminable family hug the morning of her deployment said it all. She’d been going into a war zone. The worry was natural. Everyone wanted to speak their piece, just in case.

But this time, no one outside Veritech’s innermost circle even knew she was leaving. It had to be that way. The world couldn’t afford for them to be shut down by overly cautious bureaucrats at the eleventh hour. Charlie’s only demand before signing onto what everyone was privately hoping wasn’t a very expensive suicide mission was that her parents be looped in on what was really going on. Given how game she’d been as Veritech’s personal guinea pig, the request hadn’t been a problem.

The conference room was about what you’d expect for an underground secret science headquarters: drab and gray and windowless. There wasn’t so much as a SEE YOU SOON, CHARLIE banner draped over the whiteboard to liven things up, though Charlie took the time to draw a stick figure version of herself, hastily scrawling CHARLIE WAS HERE in block letters underneath.

Having to look her parents in the eye and tell them, with a straight face, that she would see them again within the hour, that jumping through a hole in reality itself was a simple errand—the grocery shopping of world-saving—probably spoke to the wild sort of arrogance that had characterized Veritech’s side-project from the start. Charlie fought hard to buy what she was trying to sell. She hugged both her parents individually, and then together as a group, the three of them playing a strange game of chicken about who would let go first. She tried to memorize the hug: the feel of Dad’s favorite fleece sweater against her cheek, the floral hint of Mum’s perfume tickling her nose, the warmth that seemed to swallow her whole, that said without saying, “you are loved, come back.” It was Charlie who let go first. It almost had to be.

“We’re proud of you, Chuck,” Dad said, crying openly. He hadn’t seen the No Tears memo. Charlie struggled to stay strong. It turned out gene therapy was pretty crap in the face of parents crying. There was another round of hugs after Mum fished some tissues from her purse.

“Stay safe,” Mum said, clasping Charlie’s hand one last time—but hopefully not for the last time. They exchanged I love yous, Dad stepping in to press a kiss to the crown of her head.

Charlie flashed them a smile that couldn’t bother to reach her eyes. “Promise.”


She took the steps down to the primary work area, a wide space surrounding a slightly raised set of circular catwalks in the center of the pit, surrounding the tear. Charlie called the tear Spot, in a psychological version of their attenuators: an attempt to finesse the tear into something bearable that wouldn’t cause irreparable damage to Charlie’s nerves. Near Spot, Verity was working on a stabilizer up on the catwalk. The equipment was doing its job, Charlie could tell, because no one was torn asunder, dematerialized, or…the other thing that she didn’t have a good word for, the thing that was and wasn’t “eaten.” As pets went, the tear was a tiger, and Verity was tinkering with its cage, tapping thoughtfully on a stabilizer and then leaning to consider a set of circuits on the side closest the tear.

Absently plucking a long specialty screwdriver out of a box of tools sitting on a wheeled gurney, Charlie crossed to the center of the pit, took hold of the lowermost guard rail ringing the catwalk and swung herself next to Verity. Interposing herself between Verity and the stabilizer, Charlie stretched out and popped the board loose with the screwdriver.

“I know, I know, I mostly did the months of gene therapy and the modifications and that delightful thing with the bone marrow for kicks, but, handy bonus, it means I’m less prone to, for example, sudden heart conditions around Spot, here.”

“I’m not an invalid,” Verity said, and then eyed where Charlie had been reaching, and what was just behind it. It was very difficult to be spatially precise where a tear began or ended—the eye rebelled, or possibly the space itself did—but Spot was very close. “Which I suppose is—”

“—the point of me,” Charlie concluded for her, holding the board up to the light. “One tear-induced health problem is enough for you, so someone put considerable work into getting me and my snazzy threads fit for being around that thing. I also make okay coffee, but Nate’s very territorial, so I’ll stick to this. Was it the Einstein-Rosen—”

“—coupling. Again,” said Verity. “They’re burning out faster.”

“Well, they’re lopsided. They’re meant to be paired with the same effect on the other side, so we’ve got—”

“—pushback, the wave oscillates back, builds, returns, and my boards burn out,” Verity said, digging into it with a set of precision tools as Charlie held it steady. “I’d like to wait and build an entirely fresh set, but…”

Charlie grimaced. “By the time we did that, probably something else will have burned out, or we’ll lose Château Ramezay while we’re waiting around. This’ll work.” She paused. “This will definitely work. But. Um. If, you know, if…”

“I’ll make sure your parents are okay. They’ll be looked after. I’ll look after them.”

In lieu of immediate response, Charlie leaned back out into the space between them and Spot, fitting the board back into place on the far side of the machinery, because she didn’t have an immediate response that wasn’t simply heartfelt gratitude. She’d needed to ask, to acknowledge the possibility that this could all end badly and her parents would be left bereft on a dying world, and now that she had confirmed that someone she trusted implicitly would be there even if she couldn’t, she needed to resume playing down the seriousness, or she’d never be able to go through with it.

“I mean, I thought maybe Nate or Josie, actually,” she said, aware that her face meanwhile was saying a more straightforward thank you, because she always lost at poker night. “Someone with an actual track record of looking after themselves, y’know?”

“It’s the least I can do,” Verity said, apparently choosing to answer Charlie’s face and not the façade she’d been throwing up with the words, which was just rude. But also, again, appreciated. “Now, come on,” she continued, stepping away from the edge, and the anxious knot growing in Charlie’s chest relaxed. Verity really shouldn’t have been this close to Spot, stabilizers or no. “I want to go over what you’ll do on the other side again.”

“Boss, if I didn’t have it down the hundredth time, I’m not going to suddenly get it on the two hundredth,” Charlie said, lightly jumping down from the catwalk and walking backward until Verity had come down the stairs to reach her, at which point she fell into step as they headed over to where the equipment she’d be taking through the tear was laid out on a table. “I was there when we designed this stuff, I know how it works. Well. I know how to work it.”

There was still a lot they didn’t know about tears, about their fundamental underpinnings. They had a lot of theories, a lot of attempts at understanding data that didn’t fit into any of the old models, and at least some of their thinking was so far supported by the fact that the things they’d constructed were reducing Spot’s destructive effect. But mitigation didn’t guarantee comprehension. This was as much an experiment as anything.

“If you’re sure…” Verity said.

“I’m sure that the longer I stand here with everyone composing my eulogy just in case, the harder it’s gonna be. I’m ready. The equipment’s ready. Let’s tame our tiger.”

Verity studied her a moment, then nodded and turned to the table, sliding the pieces arranged on the surface into the pouches custom-sewn into the backpack, made of the same material as the suit Charlie was wearing. Given how little they knew, it had seemed impractical to leave it rattling around or simply expect Charlie to keep hold of it. She might not technically have arms for part of the trip, which was another aspect of this she was very specifically not thinking about.

At one stage of planning, Verity had had such a collection of contingency equipment for every eventuality that it would have required a small truck to transport. It simply hadn’t been practical. They couldn’t plan for everything. They could barely plan for anything. So, instead, she was going through with exactly what she needed, and nothing more beyond her own person and her own wits. Such as they were. She was generally fairly confident in them, although looking at the eye-watering warping of reality she was shortly going to get up close and personal with, she was growing less confident she had any wits to speak of at all.

She wasn’t going to be gone long, she reminded herself. There and back again.

“Ready?” Verity asked, and Charlie realized she’d ended up staring at the tear instead of helping Verity pack. Verity and Josie, the latter having appeared at some point in her reverie to do a final check to make sure they hadn’t overlooked a vital piece of tech, which was literally all of them.

“Can I see that?” Charlie said, sneaking the tablet out of Josie’s hands and making a show of examining it. “Hmm, yes, one complete sucker, check. Complete sucker’s brain…not needed, which is good.”

“Complete sucker’s very capable brain, check,” Josie told her, plucking the tablet back out of Charlie’s hands and making an exaggerated check mark motion just above the screen.

“Must be at the bottom of the pack,” Charlie mumbled, shouldering the backpack and experimentally hitching it on her shoulders. It seemed pretty light, considering. Maybe it was just that she was stronger than she had been. Maybe it was just light in comparison to the less literal weight this project put on her shoulders.

Maybe it just didn’t weigh very much. Verity specialized in streamlined, efficient tech. The equipment Charlie’d be using on the other side, if everything went well, was somewhere between the size of a breadbox and a briefcase. The equipment she’d be using if it didn’t was about the size of a gun; if she’d had the lure gun on the bus with her, maybe the containment worker wouldn’t have the existence torn bloodily out of him.

There was also an actual gun, a Browning 9mm, that would have done exactly squat if she’d had it on the bus. It was in case of more conventional problems. There was a first aid kit, in case the more conventional problems got her first. There were protein bars and expandable canteens with filtration in case the problems were very conventional. Gerber MP600 multi-tool, Jump Knife, survival kit—it all assumed she was going somewhere survivable, but they had to. They couldn’t see what was on the other side until she got there, and when she got there, she’d just have to hope that the Velo’s HUD would still work.

“Good luck,” Josie told her, nestling the tablet in the elbow of one arm and taking hold of Charlie’s upper arm with the other, then apparently thinking better of it and pulling her into a fuller, one-armed hug.

“Don’t forget—”

“‘I claim this land in the name of Verity Baum,’ I know, I know,” Charlie said, cutting off Verity before she could attempt another review or futile safety briefing. Even if it would be brief, because there wasn’t any part of this that was safe, it was more time for the reality of this to bore into her. “You gotta let me go off to kindergarten sometime.”

She turned and started back toward Spot. By the time she’d reached the stairs she was wishing she’d let Verity go over everything a hundred more redundant times, and then maybe repeated it back to her just as many. By the time she was at the top, back on the catwalk surrounding the tear—punching in the code that only she and Verity had that lowered one last walkway leading to where the eye-wrenching weft in space was the worst—she was wondering if she should have picked an entirely different career. Was it too late to become a photographer?

She reached the end of the walkway, now smelling nothing but that absence of the familiar. This close, there was a hum, a static, so high-pitched she could barely be sure she was hearing it at all. Maybe she wasn’t. She deployed the cowl and the no-smell disappeared as the Velo pressurized, creating a sealed environment. The HUD flickered to life, a dizzying string of numbers and stats superimposed over the tear.

She really wished she’d come up with a line to say in advance. All she could come up with right now, standing at the edge, maybe even beyond, was Oh, shit. She thought for a moment about pretending to stumble and going in that way, but when it came down to it, she wanted to be as dead center as she could possibly manage for something that defied easy spatial definition. She didn’t want to miss.

“Here goes,” she said, which wasn’t funny at all, because even that layer of defense was beyond her, and jumped.


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