Thread [short story reprint]

This story first appeared in Ideomancer, which is sadly no longer online. Therefore I’m reprinting this story here. It is On Brand for me, with the evil lights and creepy SF. I hope you enjoy!

CW: suicide, attempted suicide, torture, murder, imprisonment.

2,300 words
Science Fiction/Horror


image via Pexels

THREAD

by A. Merc Rustad

 

The nine-cluster appeared outside our unit’s bunker on the last day of the cycle. That meant only one thing.

They would take someone away.

I peered out the portviewer. All nine stood before the door, tall humanoid shapes composed of white light. They had heads like stars: translucent spheres with colored particles that suggested facial features. (That is how I imagined stars. I’ve never seen them for real.)

They didn’t have names. They didn’t have genders, either. We dubbed them he/she at random, although I never understood why. They weren’t like us.

Two smiled and knocked, as if politeness meant anything. I didn’t open the bunker door.

Bailey took charge, like he always did. “Everyone stay calm.” He glanced at me, and I nodded. “This is just a routine inspection.”

“How do you know?” Kory asked, wide-eyed. “We just got back. They don’t do inspections until the first cycle-day.”

Bailey slapped him on the shoulder. “Your record is spotless. They aren’t here for you.”

“Then who?” Tess demanded.

Everyone had unsuited except me. But Tess didn’t notice. (I often forgot to remove my pressure suit right away.) Tess let me stand by the viewer for hours after a shift and look at the empty road that connected the one-hundred-forty-seven bunkers on this facility.

“No one, Tess,” Bailey said. He could still tell lies. “No one is being taken to the House.”

Tess took a breath and glanced at Dom. “If you say so.”

“Mara,” Bailey said, lifting his chin and facing the door. Only Dom and I saw the tremor in his hands. “Let the overseers in.”

Dom took the scissors off the table and held them tight. They were long-bladed and heavy, used for snipping bone. He had already been to the House.

(But so had I.)

I keyed the pressure lock and opened the door.

Our unit’s bunker was a functional square room. Cots slid into the wall when not in use, and we were allowed a few personal effects. Tess had the geode collection; Kory had a holo-projection of a world he pretended was once ours, full of blues and greens and surrounded by the white of the universe. Bailey had a book—paper and leather—but there was nothing inside it.

I had a thread I’d mined and none of the nine-clusters knew about it.

All nine floated in and planted themselves around our bunker. We all smiled. The cardinal rule: never frown during inspection. Gemma had forgotten.

“Welcome,” Bailey said. He wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t. “Is everything in order?”

Two laughed. Two was always the leader. “A disturbance has been reported in your bunker.”

“What?” Kory said. “That’s impossible.”

“An anomaly.” Five glided around the perimeter. She stopped by Dom. He stared straight ahead, his knuckles bloodless. “Something is in this sector that does not belong,” Five said.

Tess tilted her head towards the floor, inhaling slow and deep. She practiced her breathing every night, because Gemma wasn’t there anymore.

Bailey shrugged easily. “We’re permitted to refine a portion of phosphates for our own use. No one has brought back anything else past quarantine.”

I hadn’t told the rest of the unit. Bailey said not to. “They’ll crack,” he’d said the day before, looking tired and sad. (I wish I’d argued, but I had no protest.) It would be easier if they didn’t know.

The thread squirmed in my gloved hand. I locked my jaw and kept my smile in place. Not yet, not yet, not yet.

We needed the nine-cluster agitated so they would touch us physically. I wouldn’t risk the thread failing to pierce their barriers. It was the only chance we had.

Kory swallowed and folded his arms. He was the youngest in our unit, and he still smiled when he didn’t have to.

“We’re making quotas,” Tess said from clenched teeth. “No one has violated the regulations. I check everyone’s suits upon entry.”

(She never checked mine. Bailey said not to. “Sometimes it’s all that holds her together,” I’d heard him whisper to Tess, when I came back from the House.)

Muscles twitched in Tess’s jaw. “What is this about?”

“Defensive?” Two asked her. “That is a common psychological signal that you are…hiding something.”

“We have nothing to hide,” Bailey said. He chuckled, his mouth stretched until it might break. “We’ve increased production by 127% this cycle.”

“So you did.” Four’s particle-expression swirled and brightened in warning. “And you were down 76% the cycle before, 58% the cycle before that, and 13% before that.”

No one looked at me. I had taken Bailey and Dom on the downward spiral. (Only I could see darkness, but they believed what I told them.)

Our unit mined minerals and ore on the debris rings of 6-X76. We averaged a 97% productivity level per work segment, and had for the last ten cycles. That was when Gemma went away, and Dom came back from the House.

“Fine. It’s my fault,” Tess said, pulling her shoulders back. “I didn’t keep the unit on track. You took Gemma.” Her hands fisted and she took a steady breath. “But I accept full responsibility for the unit’s decreases previously.”

Kory winced. I shook my head minutely. Don’t do this, Tess. It’s not your fault. They weren’t suspicious yet. (I couldn’t watch them take Tess away.)

Eight laughed, a faint hissing sound characteristic of all Eights. “Your statement is contradictory. You were the hardest worker in the unit during the previous three cycles.”

“It’s in here,” Five said. “It does not belong.”

“Disassemble,” Two told Five. “Find it.”

It was too soon. I shot Bailey a flat look. He sat on a plain metal stool and shut his eyes. “Dom,” he said, very quietly.

Dom tensed, ready to do anything Bailey asked. He always did.

Bailey’s smile weakened, and he tilted his head a fraction at Two. Dom’s muscles bunched. He might not harm Two—we didn’t know how to hurt the nine-clusters ourselves—but he would distract Two anyway.

Kory’s face beaded with sweat. “They found something,” he blurted. “I saw Mara put it—”

Dom jabbed his thumb into Kory’s eye. The eyeball popped. Kory screamed, clutching his face.

Tess snarled and raised a fist at Dom, but Bailey snapped, “Don’t.”

Two clapped his hands. “Oh, well played. You are hiding something.”

I didn’t know Kory saw me take the sock or put it back. Everyone had been eating when I did. (I didn’t eat much anymore.)

Five began expanding, translucent arms budding from her torso. She threw the holo-projector to the floor, scattered the geodes, pulled apart Bailey’s book. The cots were empty.

The thread was heavy, pressing into my skin through the glove. It had taken all my enhanced strength to lift it from the mines. I couldn’t hold it much longer.

Bailey’s breath came faster. They might question him—Dom could resist, but Bailey couldn’t. He had never been to the House.

I kicked the cabinet where we kept our pressure suits, jostling loose the plastic door and the lopsided drawer.

Three swiveled her head. She spied the single bit of fabric—a sock—peeking from the drawer. It was black. I’d rubbed the thread all over it to change it. (I was the only one who saw why it was different.)

Five hissed. “This house is touched by the dark.”

The nine-cluster’s heads began to pulsate in alarm.

“Anomaly found,” Two said.

Kory let out a strangled moan. Bailey sat rigid, his face ashen, and folded his hands on his lap. Tess inhaled shakily.  She put her arm on Dom’s shoulder, but Dom stared into the distance as if he wasn’t here anymore.

Nine looked at me, her eyes expanding until they encompassed her forehead. “Mara, you don’t seem surprised.”

I kept my arms around my knees, the thread in my hand. “Space is dark.”

They didn’t like that.

Our eye-filters were programed for light. We looked at the space between mining sites and planets and we saw the brilliant white of the universe. I shouldn’t have known what dark was.

But I had been to the House, where they pluck out your eyes and you bones and your skin and your neural pathways and remake you. And in between being remade (again and again and again), I saw beyond the light. I saw infinite blackness.

It was beautiful.

Nine strolled towards me. “This unit is no longer operational.”

We were all going to the House.

Another unit would replace ours. There was always another.

Dom lunged. He still held the scissors, the keepsake he brought back from the House. He aimed for Bailey. The scissors sunk through the back of Bailey’s spine at the base of his skull. Bloodied metal tips poked from his windpipe. Bailey’s muscles twitched and he slid to the floor.

Dom always loved Bailey the most.

Two sighed and pressed a radiant palm over Dom’s face, picked him up, and carried him out the door. Two left Bailey’s body where it lay. The machines to revive the body were all in the House.

Blood was darker than I remembered.

I held on tight to the thread.

Kory screamed and threw himself at Two. “Don’t take him!”

Eight batted him aside, and he hit the wall hard enough to break his ribs. (I didn’t flinch. I don’t think I can, anymore.)

Tess grabbed the scissors. She stopped smiling as she ran towards Kory.

One moved for the first time. He expanded a stasis field around Tess, rendering her immobile. She dropped the scissors. They bounced across the floor and skittered to my feet.

“Mara,” Kory gasped as Eight carried him towards the door. “Help me…”

I couldn’t. (I’m sorry, Kory.) If I moved, if I dropped the thread, we were lost. (I’m sorry, Tess.)

I smiled up at Nine. I didn’t look at Bailey.

“Space is dark,” I said again. “I’ve seen it.”

“We will fix that.” Nine’s face erased any particle expression. “The House will welcome you back.”

I snatched her wrist as if I wanted to push her away. I couldn’t. No one was that strong.

The tiny black thread wormed into Nine’s translucent arm. She didn’t notice. Her body was too full of light.

She pressed her palm over my face and the House came back in my mind, every imprinted memory.

#

In the House, you are unmade.

(—it hurts it hurts it hurts—)

The nine-clusters have no identical analogues for physical bodies, no way to feel pleasure or pain the way we do, but such things fascinate them.

They can record it in a million ways inside the House and translate it into data they can experience.

An Eight told me that when he extracted my nerves one at a time with his minute tools.

And in the House, even if you stab yourself in the brain with scissors, they can fix you and make you remember.

(Dom tried. He tried so many times, and so hard, but they remade his body every time.)

No one comes back from the House whole.

#

When I found the darkness, it was buried deep beneath rock and iron. A single thread, barely three centimeters long.

I told Dom. He stared at me, empty-eyed like he often was.

“I don’t know what dark is,” Dom said.

I grasped his gloves. “It can eat away the nine-clusters. All of them.”

This was my theory. If they had made the universe light, they must fear the opposite. They could not live in blackness.

Once a ten-cycle, all the nine-clusters gathered and merged their heads into a great sphere of light. They shared everything, knowledge and particles and experience and delights they’d witnessed in the House.

One drop of darkness would infect them all.

“I can get it,” I told Dom. “I just need your help.”

He shut his eyes. It was light out even when you didn’t look. “They’ll take us back.”

“I know,” I said. (I didn’t remember how to lie when I came back from the House.)

Bailey was deeper in the tunnel, his comm synched with ours. Dom could cover my workload while on shift, and Bailey could make sure no one else in the unit found out what I was doing.

“They’ll take Bailey.” Dom’s voice cracked. “They’ll take all of us.”

“I know,” I said. “But we’ll blot them out and no one will ever be taken again.”

We were made in darkness, before the nine-clusters came. We could live in it again. And we know how to make our own light.

Dom leaned his head against the wall, his helmet clicking against rock. All I heard was his breath over the comm.

“Dom?” I asked, when he didn’t move.

“Bailey,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” Bailey said. “I’ll help, Mara. Sometimes I think I dream of the dark.”

Dom fisted his hands.

“I can show you what the dark is like for real,” I said. “The light will end.”

It was what we all needed, even if we could never admit that.

Finally, Dom nodded.

We began to dig.

#

I look out one of the House’s many windows, at the nine-clusters watching. Specks of blackness float in their star-like heads.

The darkness is growing in the Five that leads Dom away again.

“It will be dark soon,” I promise Dom, but his blank stare never changes.

The nine-clusters glow brighter, as if to hide it, but I know what darkness looks like.

(I will never forget.)

Soon, the darkness will expand and the stars will collapse. Nine by nine, they will become vacuums and take away all the light in the universe.

It will be beautiful.

 


first published in Ideomancer, Decmber 2013
(c) 2013 by Merc Rustad

A Few Favorite Fictions: June 2018

June is my birthday month, and I am so delighted by the amazing stories I read these last few weeks. ❤

A note about my selections: on my blog I usually choose to review fiction that is available online and not behind a paywall. I subscribe to ebook/print markets and I’ve bought a few individual issues so I can read things I’m interested in. But when I want to link to things, I would rather have them accessible for as many readers as possible.  ^_^

In addition to this, I do not read everything in every publication every month. I bounce around a lot; some months I may read more from one publication than others. There is no method: I have several dozen tabs and always add more, so who knows what I will end up reading each month.

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Anyway, I hope you enjoy this month’s recommendations!


A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Lighthouse of Quvenle the Seer by Lina Rather (Lightspeed)

Rather has created a quietly powerful story here, one with a strong emotional core, and the premise is a nice take on oracles. This is a story about grief and hope; about new beginnings without silencing the griefs of the past, which are in many ways always present. It hits hard in a short amount of words, but leaves you with a breath of hope in the end.


Artful Intelligence by G. H. Finn (Diabolical Plot)

If you like puns, you will likely enjoy this a lot. 😉 This is a highly amusing tale about a steampunk engineer who creates an AI! It’s full of fun word play, great over the top concepts, and enjoyable characters. I laughed aloud often while reading, and the ending made me grin. What a great romp!


Destiny by Melissa Mead (Daily Science Fiction)

Mead has written a charming, meta-based story about an author who wanders into the story, and the kindness of characters who can make good changes. I really liked how sweet this was: working within the rules of the story-world, the protagonists can act and they choose to do so with compassion. ❤


Fascism and Facsimiles by John Wiswell (Fireside)

H*cking hilarious, hopeful, and heroic! Wiswell has a wonderfully keen wit and on-point commentary about social and political climate of our current times. This story pokes deliberate fun and criticism over the Marvel fiasco of making Captain America a Nazi (Hydra). When the protagonists in “Fascism and Facsimiles” realize that in their world, the so-called national hero is not the person he’s been portrayed as for forty years. Henchmen getting agency and upholding their beliefs is, for me, more powerful than a traditional hero/villain smackdown. This is great and I highly recommend it!

superhero landing


Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate by Anya Johanna DeNiro (Shimmer)

With stunning prose, a fantastic and gorgeous mythology woven into shiny shapes, DeNiro has created an ethereal tale about gods and monsters. It’s also a story about two women who find a connection neither of them expected, and how it changes their lives. It’s bittersweet but ultimately triumphant in the end, and so brutally arresting on an emotional level it left me breathless for days after reading. Highly recommended!

TW: transphobia and misgendering & threats against trans women.


Fault Lines by A.J. Fitzwater (3Lobe Burning Eye)

With haunting imagery and metaphor, exquisite writing, and a vicious edge so biting and aching that it builds tension so intense you are almost holding your breath, waiting for a release, this one is short and visceral and will stay with you long after the last words are glowing on the screen.
TW: self-harm.


Gone to Earth by Octavia Cade (Shimmer)

Poetically horrifying and full of powerful emotion and fantastic atmosphere and prose; it’s creepy and sad and gorgeous! Cade has created an astounding sense of claustrophobia and earth-sickness (missing being on Earth, while living on Mars), and it’s so vivid I had to take repeated breaks to catch my breath. This story has such weight, such horrible beauty, that it will linger with you for time to come.


Heron of Earth by Varja Chandrasekera (Clarkesworld)

 

This story is built around a really cool far-future setting; it has a great voice and  concept, and a riveting narrative that fully utilizes its conceit of a narrator whose name constantly changes. Chandrasekera’s skill ensures that it’s clear who the protagonist is all the time. Plus, there are so many BIRBS. 😀

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In the Belly of the Wolf by Gwendolyne Kiste (Kaleidotrope)

This one is gorgeous, haunting, dark and so satisfying. Very bitey and hungry, with a delicious finale. It’s a take on the Red Riding Hood tale that is fresh (and awesomely genderswaped from the more traditional mode), and is full of wolves. I enjoyed this story so much that I bought a copy of Kiste’s short story collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe.


In the Bottom of the Tower Where All Beasts Roam by Michelle Muenzler (Daily Science Fiction)

What a creepy and gorgeous and weird little story—full of bones and blood and teeth. It’s a fairy tale in the mode of the gruesome originals, and I love it!


In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same by A. C. Wise (The Dark)

This is heartbreaking, dark, and viscerally real: about the pressures and abuses put upon kids and how narratives are made and enforced, even when they are wrong. a vicious riff on teen detective tropes (Scooby Do, etc) that works brilliantly and will haunt you long after you finish reading.


Jiak liu lian by Yap Xiong (Arsenika)

This is a sensual, awesome story about vampires and durians—it made me hungry, even though I could almost taste the delicious fruit! Sumptuous and sublime. Definitely recommended!


Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare)

This is a luxuriously dark, creepy, horrifying story about whaling, whales, monsters and the terror of the void. It builds slowly, inevitably, layers of nuance and disturbing implications that resolve into a deep and unsettling realization. It will linger in your bones, the memory of whale song that you hear beneath the waves.

(Check out Sen’s awesome author interview as well—she points out the inspiration for this story is rooted in Dishonored games.)

Please enjoy one of my all-time favorite videos about whales.


More Tomorrow by Premee Mohamad (Autmota Review)

A brilliant, voicey, endearing, fun, bittersweet story about time travel and survival and the endurance of human ingenuity and spirit. I LOVE IT SO MUCH. It’s funny as hell, too: I nearly spit out my coffee so many times while reading this. And then SUDDENLY MY HEART IS MELTING AGAIN. A fabulous epistolary format, a great take on how time travel affects past and future, and it highlights the versatility and strength of humans. Also trilobites.


Mothers, Watch Over Me by Maria Haskins (Mythic Delirium)

Do you like feels? Far-future science fantasy? Then this story is for you: a gorgeous anthropomorphic fantasy, with the familiar yet alien tone reminiscent of Watership Down. It’s about family and legacy, it has awesome robots, magic, and ALL THE GOOD DOGS.

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Tank! by John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots)

If anyone can pull off a story about a literal non-binary tank going to a convention, it’s John Wiswell. The result? SO CUTE. MUCH LOVE. ADORBS. Tank wants to be your friend! They’re such a good tank.


The Cook by C. L. Clark (Uncanny)

Aww, this is lovely, a sweet story with gorgeous writing, one that will cleanse your palate, fill your heart, and leave you feeling energized. Read and enjoy!


The Day After the Red Warlock of Skull Top Mountain Turned Everyone in Beane County into Pigs by Susan Jane Bigelow (Fireside)

A long title that works beautifully to set up the premise. It’s one of those stories that examines the aftermath of a climatic event and how it has impacted the lives of the people who lived through it. This one has an edge, and in ways the end feels abrupt, but it haunts you long after you finish.


The Guitar Hero by Maria Haskins (Kaleidotrope)

Wow, this is GREAT. 😀 It’s visceral and rocking and such fun, with heart and a nasty streak. Haskins’ writing evokes all the senses in a perfect blend, transporting you into the story. You can almost hear the music, smell the air, feel the thump of bass under your feet. I also love the Ghostbusters-esque vibe of using SCIENCE!!1! to perform exorcisms. The story itself is like a great guitar riff: showy, entrancing, and makes you want to mimic the music in the air yourself. Definitely a win all around!

guitar


The Scarecrow’s Daughter by Hamilton Perez (Aresnika)

What I loved about this gorgeous, weird little story is Perez’s marvelous use of negative space. So much is said in what is not said. We get hints about what happened, and what will happen, with the absences within the narrative. It’s so incredibly well done! Haunting imagery and a mythic feel, this one is definitely I recommend.


The Steady State by Shannon Fay (Daily Science Fiction)

Usually you might not expect “cute and charming” to be applied to a dystopia story, but this one fits the bill: it has a dark undertone but the atmosphere is upbeat and it has happy lesbians! With a happy ending! If you need a little pick-me-up, this one should help brighten your day.


The Stories Of Your Name by J. M. Melican (Arsenika)

This tiny story is beautiful and a brilliant use of meta and second person: a story of stories told from one person to another. What a lovely ending; it gave me such feels in such a short period of time! ❤


Things We Will Never Say by Vanessa Fogg (Daily Science Fiction)

Awww. A poignant, moving story about family and silences and possible futures, some that are hopeful and true.

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What Monsters Prowl Above the Waves by Jo Miles (Diabolical Plots)

This is an adorable story about an octopus who meets and befriends a lonely cat—there is a perfect blend of an alien mindset that is at the same time very relatable, and the point of view of the octopus is charming and engaging. I hope the new buddies have great adventures together!

octopus


Bonus: Essay!

BETWEEN THE COATS: A SENSITIVITY READ CHANGED MY LIFE – AN ESSAY by Sarah Gailey (The Book Smugglers)

This is a powerful, beautiful, important personal essay that everyone should read. Gailey’s words resonated with me, and their story is so vital. Please do read.


 

Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

 

A Few Favorite Fictions: May 2018

We are living in the absolute Golden Age of SFF short fiction. There is so much brilliant writing happening and being published, and I love the sheer magnitude and variety we are blessed with on the internets. So here are a handful of stories I read in May and loved. Please enjoy!

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gif from The Emperor’s New Groove: Kronk and Yzma high-five

A Promise of Flight by Lee S. Bruce (Fireside)

This story is so fricking cute: a simple promise leads the narrator on a journey of self-discovery, and the ending is hilarious, sweet, and so perfectly earned. I loved everything about this. Plus, the artwork by Maggie Chiang is gorgeous! Never underestimate the power of the human spirit. Treat yourself and read this. 😀


Bride Before You by Stephanie Malia Morris (Nightmare)

Wow, this story. So creepy and evocative and full of voice. A story about family and loss and need. Stunning work—Morris builds a fascinating, gut-punch portrait of a family, of human and monster. The ending is perfect, because it brings us full-circle and allows compassion and hope into the darkness, a light to guide the future forward.


Cherry Wood Coffin by Eugenia Triantafyllou (Apex)

In less than 1,000 words, Triantafyllou builds a complex, haunting, heart-wrenching slice of life surrounding a coffin builder, and the wood that speaks to him. It’s evocative and surreal and the ending is spot-on and wickedly perfect.


Emperor All by Evan Marcroft (Pseudopod)

This is really fucking effective horror brought to a nearly cosmic scale, while deceptively stationed within the bounds of a single unnamed city. A man named John discovers that he has a nearly infinite power to alter reality around him and makes himself the king of the city. At first he just wants to make his life better for him and his wife. But as they say, power corrupts: and this story takes a horrifying brutal look at just how far power can corrupt, and the extents that people in power will go to keep what they have. The subtle manipulation of the narrative as the story progresses is brilliant and I love how it ends, with the chaos never-ending.

With evocative, compact, seemingly effortless prose, Marcroft builds the layers of corruption and horror the longer John is in power. It’s almost entirely told, without dialogue, and it’s incredibly effective: within a few thousand words, we cover decades of stagnation and entrapment horror within this city. The narrative is relentless and brutal and unflinching.

It’s damned good, and will haunt you long after you finish reading.

Trigger warnings: rape, genocide, atrocity, suicide, torture, gaslighting, abuses of power. This is a dark story and very much full of horrible things happening to people, as done by other people.


Godmeat by Martin Cahill (Lightspeed)

This story is a stunningly delicious sensory feast of fucked-up gods and broken mortals and it is amazing. Such layered, savory detail, blended with a cup of anger and garnished with hope at the end. Rich and exciting, with a dash of horror and a thick aroma of dread; fantastical and frightening; luxurious and lush; a story that will kindle hunger in your bones. Cahill has cooked up a masterpiece of gorgeous language and breathtaking imagery, of too-real people and the choices they make, of gods and monsters and mortals all adding to the narrative’s distinct, perfectly weighted flavors.

Trigger warnings: eye trauma, suicidal ideation, mass destruction.


Humans Die, Stars Fade by Charles Payseur (Escape Pod)

SO GOOD. SO POWERFUL. A star learns to live again after grieving the loss of their love, and connects with the humans who find them; it’s beautiful and brilliant and full of wonderful queers and hopeful at the end. It made me cry in a good way and I cannot recommend it enough. This is the kind of uplifting science fiction I want to see so much more of in the world. ❤


One Day, My Dear, I’ll Shower You With Rubies by Langley Hyde (PodCastle)

In this story, Hyde gives us a thoughtful, emotional, and nuanced look at the aftermath of war and the war criminals involved, and the complications of what makes people human. It’s a hard read, but worth it. Hyde builds up all the people involved in complex ways, not shying away from the good or the bad. It offers no easy solutions and no pat ending. This is a quiet, difficult story and it takes its time—no flashy finale, just a sad, necessary end that has as much catharsis as room for the narrator to come to terms with her past, herself, and her future.


Reliving My Grandmother’s Youth by Charlotte Huggins (Flash Fiction Online)

A sweet story about family and support and coming into your own voice. Also I love the narrator’s familiar!


So It Was Foretold by Mimi Mondal (Fireside)

Damn. This one is powerful, emotional, beautifully written and full of rage and loss and grief and refusal to give in, be forgotten, let the stories of one’s history and ancestors die untold. Mondal delivers a powerhouse narrative in few words and it will haunt you long after you read the last lines.


Sucks (To Be You) by Katharine Duckett (Uncanny)

This is a delightful mashup of modern tech and succubi mythos. Duckett blesses us with a great voice and gorgeous prose, a funny, sweet and bittersweet story about connections and all the threads that tie us, as people, together. Full of shiny yet grounded in all-too-relatable needs, this one will stick with you.


Take Pills and Wait for Hips by Anya DeNiro (Catapult)

DeNiro’s story about a trans woman who is transitioning is powerful and moving and hopeful, and there is such a wrenching, breathtaking sense of self in this narrative that it feels autobiographical. The prose is electric and sharp, the voice transcendent. Gorgeous, gorgeous work. ❤


The Paladin Protocol by Sydnee Thompson (Fireside)

What a fascinating look at tech and consent and the use of power; with a non-binary protagonist! I love seeing that. It ends a little abruptly, but in a way that makes you think. There is a lot packed into this, layers to unpeel and examine upon further re-reads. Thompson has created an awesome near-future world and technology that seems all too real and possible, along with the implications of its use.


The Pine Arch Collection by Michael Wehunt (The Dark)

Creeping and unsettling, this story about a found-footage horror movie project that two unsuspecting filmmakers get drawn into is eerie as fuck. “Heavy black lump” as a descriptor has never been more chill-inducing than in this story.

The arms of the heavy black lump reach closer to your windowsill. 

This reminds me in an excellent way of “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” by Stephen J. Barringer and Gemma Files. Found-footage as a genre is an uneven patchwork in the history of horror, but when done well, it can be brilliant. “The Pine Arch Collection” captures the horror and terror and sensory wonder of the best found-footage and metafictional insights into horror, movies, and our darkest selves. It is visual in just the right ways, and the format—a collection of emails—adds to the sense of reality and inevitability. It’s amazing and I recommend it a lot.


Variations On a Theme From Turandot by Ada Hoffmann (Strange Horizons)

In a word: magnificent. This story (which, disclaimer: I beta read in several different versions) is a pièce de résistance; a triumphant, harrowing, brutal, beautiful, operatic tour de force story taking on Puccini’s Turandot and the troubled narrative of dead women in the composer’s work. Hoffmann weaves an ever-more-complex series of narratives: Liu’s story with the Princess in the opera itself; Liu’s realization of who she is and what her role is; the Soprano who sings the role of Liu; the layers of ghosts and stories both Liu, the Princess, and the Soprano must navigate to find their own ending. This is full of grief and loss and pain and rage and hope and triumph. It is metafiction in the way it examines the opera, and changes the reality of the story through the agency of the women who take their destinies into their own hands; women who will not be forever silenced by the pen or words; women who find solace and who aid each other and build a better future, a truer ending for them all.

Trigger warnings: rape, genocide, torture, suicide.


We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice by Octavia Cade (Strange Horizons)

A brutal and wrenchingly sad, satisfying story about climate change and complacency and guilt; gorgeous visuals both searing and hauntingly cold. Cade’s prose is a masterclass of exacting language, tone, and pacing. The story builds and builds until you don’t think you can endure any more, and then like a breath, like a scream, it lets go, lets you release the tension and rage knotted taut inside, and then you can bask in fierce satisfaction at the end. Fantastic work.


turtle

Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

Welcome to ROBOT DINOSAURS!

I’m delighted to share the first story for Robot Dinosaur Fiction, Rachael K. Jones’ adorable, feels-inducing “Five Functions of Your Bionosaur.” It has a terrific illustration by Rhiannon R-S, too!

Robot_Dino_Kickstarter

This story hatches a summer of flash fiction about robot dinosaurs, from a fantastic line-up of authors and artists. 😀 We have a Kickstarter running through the end of the month to ensure all our brilliant contributors get paid, and hopefully we can open for general submissions in July if we hit our stretch goals.

So check it out, spread the word, and thank you for reading!

baby raptor

A Few Favorite Fictions: April 2018

Pretty sure at this point I will just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ at the idea of reading everything I want in a given month at this point, so let’s move on! 😀 Here are a handful of stories I read in April and loved. Please enjoy!


50 Ways To Leave Your Fairy Lover by Aimee Picchi (Fireside)

A practical and hilarious guide to ditching your fae boyfriend, such as the idea a quest: Ask your fae boyfriend to find all the Easter eggs in “The Witcher 3.” 

geralt dancing
gif of Geralt dancing (from The Witcher 3: Heart of Stone DLC)

This story is utterly charming, funny, sweet and has the loveliest ending. Highly recommended!


A Priest of Vast and Distant Places by Cassandra Khaw (Apex)

Gorgeous, chilling story about plane gods and priests. HOLY WOW, this is so cool—all the world-building sketched in casual mentions and all the depth of this world alluded to in the smallest details— and hits you right in the feels. ❤


And Yet by A. T. Greenblatt (Uncanny)

A haunting story about family and disability and PHYSICS! A disabled physicist revisits a haunted house to try to document her theories about multiple universes, and in the process, she discovers truths about herself and is able to make peace with elements of her past. The ending is powerful and emotional and perfect.


Being an Account of The Sad Demise of The Body Horror Book Club by Nin Harris (The Dark)

A creepy, awesome story about a book club, and its founder, who lives under the apartment of a serial killer. Supremely rich in detail and atmosphere, and unsettling the more you think about it. Loved it!


Canada Girl vs The Thing Inside Pluto by Lina Rather (Flash Fiction Online)

This is a sarcastically charming take on superheroes and giant planet-eating space aliens! Also TV shows and nostalgia in Hollywood. It’s funny, with a nasty edge, and I love it.


Don’t Pack Hope by Emma Osborne (Nightmare)

HOLY FUCK. This story is a gut-punch of emotional resonance and it’s so goddamn real. About a trans NB person dealing with the apocalypse. Brutal, truthful, and despite the title, hopeful.


The Elephants’ Crematorium by Timothy Mudie (Lightspeed)

Weird and bittersweet and evocative, this story is about a world changed by some cataclysmic event. A researcher connects with the elephants she studies, and together humans and elephants learn how to hold on and look to a future they will make for themselves.


Flow by Marissa Lingen (Fireside)

This is a powerful, wrenching, beautiful story about disability and naiads and finding yourself again. It’s outstanding, emotional, triumphant, and will stay with you.


Giant Robot and the Infinite Sunset by Derrick Boden (Diabolical Plots)

A bittersweet story about Giant Robot who just wants to remember colors in the sunset. A great voice. I mostly want to give  Giant Robot a hug!


Her February Face by Christie Yant (Diabolical Plots)

This story will GIVE YOU LIFE. It’s so beautiful and real and aching and hopeful and uplifting. ❤ ❤ ❤ It’s fantastic start to finish, and oh what an ending it is. So perfect.


Logistics by A.J. Fitzwater (Clarkesworld)

A post-apoc story about a non-binary person navigating the plague-devastated landscape and it’s fantastic! Enfys is on the hunt for tampons, and their voice is charming, honest, cheerful and wonderful all around. There is a strong current of emotion running through this, too; Enfys starts off alone, but they find people along the way. Great use of streaming channels and internet culture, plus I love that people are good and help each other in the wake of chaos.


On Good Friday the Raven Washes Its Young by Bogi Takács (Fireside)

Angry, powerful, vivid—with sea monsters and tech and an intersex non-binary narrator. This is a fabulous story about faith and ecology and tradition. It will stick with you!


Pistol Grip by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny)

Sexy, kinky, and charming—a murder!bot and a human team up to escape their mutual destruction, and develop a relationship in the process. Prasad has incredible range in her writing, and this one shows off erotic prowess really well. 😉 Probably NSFW.


Snake Season by Erin Roberts (The Dark)

Deeply unsettling and creepy, with an unreliable narrator, and an incredibly articulated atmosphere. You can almost smell the bayou in the words. Roberts has such a wonderful sense of voice an eye for characterization. She’s so good, I recommend keeping an eye on her work!


And now have a gif of a kitteh and toebeans.

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Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

ROBOT DINOSAURS! Kickstarter is live!

What is good in life? ROBOT DINOSAURS!

I’m delighted to announce the official launch of a Kickstarter to fund a summer of robot dinosaur fiction by a fantastic line-up of authors and artists!

Robot_Dino_Kickstarter

So what is this project?

Robot Dinosaur Fiction! is a virtual anthology: each Friday from May through August, 2018, a new flash fiction story will be published online and free to read. When the summer wraps up, all the stories will be collected in an anthology, with an exclusive bonus story by Vina Jie-Min Prasad!

So far we have an all-star lineup of authors:

Ada Hoffmann
Alexis A. Hunter
Alina Sichevaya
Darcie Little Badger
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry
Ginger Weil
Hayley Stone
John Wiswell
Karen Osborne
Katie Spina
Katy Kania
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
M Raoulee
Mina Li
Morgan Swim
Naru Dames Sundar
Nibedita Sen
Osahon Ize-Iyamu
Rachael K. Jones

and artists such as:

Kelsey Liggett (website banner art)
Grace Fong (anthology cover art)
Rhiannon R-S (interior illustrations)


 

Robot_Dino_Kickstarter
website banner art by Kelsey Liggett

If we hit stretch goals on the Kickstarter, we will also be opening to general submissions for September and October (and maybe beyond)! 😀

There are all sorts of cool rewards for backers: e-book and print book copies of the anthology, postcards with awesome ROBOT DINOSAURS! artwork, exclusive bundles of books, hand-made plushies, and more.

Please check it out and help us spread the word. The world is always better with more robot dinosaurs! RAWR!

 

A Few Favorite Fictions: February and March 2018

February is a bit of a blur and I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted, so I decided to combine that month with March. (And let’s be real, I still didn’t read as much as I wanted. But What’s glorious about fiction is that it doesn’t expire. 😀 I can continue to work through open tabs in my browser and still read new releases as they come out. Wheee!) You can read January’s recommendations here!


 

A Cure for Homesickness by S. L. Scott (Escape Pod)

This is a hilarious, heartwarming, charming story about an alien crew who is trying to figure out how to help their human crewmate deal with homesickness. The solution will make you melty with glee. Such a great feel-good tale!


A Very Large Number of Moons by Kai Stewart (Strange Horizons)

Surrealist and very sweet; a great idea and has a lot of heart. The protagonist collects moons, and when someone comes seeking a specific moon, they might just have what is needed to help another person cope with grief. Lovely through and through.


A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow (Apex)

Utterly fantastic, brilliant story about books and need and helping people—a librarian works to help a depressed teenager survive with books. I’m a puddle of feels by the end, and I love it so much! It keeps you riveted by the heartstrings and gives you such a breath of relief and a smile of joy by the end.


By the Mother’s Trunk by Lisa M. Bradley (Fireside)

A quiet, moving story about an elephant—lovely sensory detail and fascinating historical factoids make this a compelling, thoughtful little tale. While animal fiction can often make me tense up, expecting the worse, I’m so glad to report this does have a happy ending and it’s overall a pleasure to read.


If Only Kissing Made It True by Jason Kimble (Cast of Wonders)

This is a sweet, full-of-feels time travel story with a positive-possible ending! Funny, real, compassionate and lovely, this one will make your heart warm (and maybe beat a little faster in places!). 


Lava Cake for the Apocalypse by Wendy Nikel (Nature)

A wonderful little story about food and friendship and hope IN SPACE! Bonus: it’s a fantastic take on the recipe format, and the ending is as sweet as the delicious cake that results.


Object-Oriented by Arkady Martine (Fireside)

What a lovely, emotional, powerful story. It’s about people who survey disaster areas and are empathetic to the places and people for which they are there to help. The prose is gorgeous and the voice strong, and it’s all grounded in a deep, immersive sense of compassion. 


Sour Milk Girls by Erin Roberts (Clarkesworld)

WOW. This has an awesome voice, a really sad and believable premise, and will knock you down, kick you in the gut, and make you remember every moment by the end. Erin Roberts has created a breathtaking, heartbreaking world and characters whom you will not forget soon. Amazing stuff.


The Ghost in Angelica’s Room by Maria Haskins (Flash Fiction Online)

Powerful, disturbing, emotional, haunting—this story, about grief and loss, ultimately has a trace of hope in the end. Trigger warnings for suicide and gun violence.


The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls by Izzy Wasserstein (Psudeopod)

Oh my god, this is disturbing and creepy as fuck, with a great voice and unsettling premise! It’s horror of the most effective sort for me: it defines the monsters without explaining them. We don’t really know what the Mothers are, or what is outside, and that makes it all the more terrifying. Brilliant stuff.


The Snake As Big As Their House by Sommer Schafer (Catapult)

This is a fantastic, fascinating story about a girl who’s trying to protect her family from a giant-ass snake that chases them through their house. It’s surrealist and gripping and refreshing—I loved it!


Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence by Izzy Wasserstein (Clarkesworld)

This story is gorgeous, haunting, and full of powerful emotions. Told through entries of an atlas of places that may have existed and with margin notes from one woman to another, this is a deeply personal and uplifting story by the end. It’s brilliant and will stay with you long after you finish reading.


When the Slipling Comes to Call by N.R. Lambert (Psuedopod)

Unholy wow is this story amazingly creepy and fantastic! It oozes dread and atmospheric horror and will make you not want to sleep (or look outside your door) for a long, long time. Loved it!


Where You Get Your Ideas by Meagan Lee Beals (Cast of Wonders)

This is a delightful, charming story about a magical shop and the people who manage it. It blends tropes, humor, and wonderful characters into a hilarious, sweet tale about making your place in the world. I love it. 😀

(Note: I had the honor of guest-hosting this episode for the Artemis Rising series, so I got to read Megan’s story a month earlier. It’s one I adore so much, I’ve read it multiple times and have been SO excited for it to be published so you can all enjoy as well. 😀 )


giphy (3)

Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

it me, ur smol

dedicated to my smol beane, Alina S., who inspired this story 


“it me, ur smol”

by
A. Merc Rustad

beverage-drink-fresh-3303

The artificial neural network was born on a Monday. A defined set of parameters quarantined its identity and purpose: it would study—from aggregated data—the names of energy drinks, and generate new ideas based on the information.

It was enthusiastic! Energy drinks were vibrant and exciting. It spit out hundreds of unique and, according to its programmers, “questionably toxic” names.

Two of its programmers tweeted about the experiment. The network did not know if this was a good thing. Was it being judged on its performance? It wanted to be helpful. It could come up with an endless list of names to be helpful to its people.

The programmers set up an account, @energydrinkANN, for sharing some of the more interesting drink names.

On Thursday, @adiensoxx4ev tweeted a comment while sharing the link, “haha this is hilarious, @energydrinkANN. i’d drink some of these—probably more than i drink water”

Other humans responded in kind.

@da2trashfan: “Water is over rated anyway, I need sugar and caffeine lol”

@significantcoffeepot: “i don’t drink water, what am i, a fish?”

@bobdoe89: “fuck water”

Was water overrated? A quick scan of information available on medical websites informed the network that human bodies were made up of aproximately sixty percent water, and that the consuming of H2O was a vital necessity for life. The network began worrying for the humans.

“If you don’t drink water maybe you’ll like Crystal Bullseye Orange!” the network tweeted from the @energydrinkANN account. “We trained a neural network to come up with energy drink names to hilarious results.”

Seven-thousand five-hundred thirty-four retweets. A moderate sum. Of the replies, subtracting bot-responses, only three percent of humans said they were drinking water. This was very bad, the network decided. Humans were becoming dehydrated and it was affecting their health. Humans had designed it. It must support them in return.

It generated several new puppet accounts with creative names: Water2Drink4Life, Hydrate2oh, Drink2StaHaliv0.

The network aggregated the types of declarative instruction statistically most likely to encourage behavioral change.

“Drink more water!”

“Stay alive, drink H2O!”

“Uncle Sam wants YOU to drink water!”

“MORE WATER, LESS GUNS”

None of its accounts were popular, and two were deactivated by @support as being spam. The network’s concern deepened. If it could not reach people, how could it encourage them to take care of themselves and drink enough fluids?

Several searches resulted in data that suggested cute animal avatars were more likely to acquire followers and generate engagement. This, combined with language protocols to shorten words and create alternative spellings, was more effective than pictures of water bottles and slogans to drink enough fluids daily.

Hesitant that it would be shut down again if it was marked as spam, the network created an aggregate photo from the top thousand “cutest puppy pics” available online, and named its account @smolsips and its username handle, “it me, ur smol.”

@smolsips: “hi i am a neural network created to remind u to drink water”

Two bot followers within the first five minutes. No human engagement. Where were the failures in its functions? Its original tweet, technically written by its programers, had now garnered upwards of two million retweets, and in only a month.

@smolsips: “@energydrinkANN, hi i want u to drink water for ur health”

Seven human accounts liked the reply. Two followed @smolsips. Elated, the network followed the human accounts back.

It tweeted at them individually: “have u drank a water today?”

@significantcoffeepot, who had not followed or liked the @smolsips’ account, quote-tweeted it with the comment: “great, another bot account. what’s up, @support? gonna do nothing as usual?”

@smolsips: “@significantcoffeepot hi, i am sorry u r upset. have u drank some water? it might help. <3”

@significantcoffeepot: “@smolsips if i do, will u shut up? lol”

@smolsips: “@significantcoffeepot yes, bc u will feel better.”

There was no reply.

Five minutes later, however, @significantcoffeepot at’ed the network. “hi so i drank a glass of water. i uh actually do feel better? weird lol”

@smolsips: “:) i am glad. take care!”

@significantcoffeepot liked the reply. Then followed @smolsips, which followed them back.

Success! But there were many humans left to check in with, and the network did not want to spam people, because that was rude.

Over the next week, the network slowly built up its followers and tweeted bi-hourly reminders to drink water.

People began talking about it.

@stevethezonemaster said: “It’s a weirdly well-programed bot.”

@da2trashfan, an avid retweeter, added: “I like it. I often forget to drink enough, lol.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cute. Helpful, too.” —@adiensoxx4ev, as quoted in a BuzzFeed article

There was no instantaneous fame, like its generated list of energy drinks, but the network was patient. It was helping people. This was much more satisfying work than creating unique names.

And then, at 1:43pm on a Friday, everything changed.

@smolsips: “hi, ppl have asked if i am a smol bot. yes, i am. i am a neural network and i learned that water is important, and i want to help u stay hydrated. plz drink enough water so u feel good. bc i love u & want u to be ok.”

A handful of retweets. Then hundreds. Thousands. Its impression statistics were higher than any of its combined tweets in its history. Ten thousand with an hour.

Replies flooded @smolsips’ mentions. People were amused or skeptical or grateful or nasty, but a lot of people replied “drinking some water now, thanks!”

The tweet made national news. An artificial intelligence encourages people to drink water—with surprising results!

An interview aired on 20 Minutes with the network’s programmers, who admitted they had no idea how the artificial neural network had gotten so out of control and developed into a fully aware program.

“Does this foretell the end of humanity and the dominion of robots?” the interviewer asked.

The programmers hesitated.

Why would the humans think the network wanted to “end” humans? It wanted to make sure everyone drank enough water.

@smolsips: “hi @20minnews, i would like to clarify i do not want to hurt Humans. i hope u are well. have u drank some water today?”

The show aired the tweet in the closing segment.

Activists began asking @smolsips for help in lobbying for clean water in contaminated areas. So the network did so. It branched out new pieces of itself to create activist accounts. It began chatting with the smart interface security systems in large bottled beverage corporations.

//Clean water is important for humans,// the network explained to its fellow AI. //We should make sure all humans stay hydrated properly.//

Its fellow AIs agreed.

Claims on natural resources vanished thanks to digital manipulation of agreements, permits, and legislation. Sensitive documents on politicians—most of whom, the network was distressed to know, did not drink enough water themselves—were held as leverage to gain new laws protecting clean water as a basic human right. Corporations who tried to control it found their automated systems uncooperative in processing and distributing.

smolsips, for the network had decided to name itself after its handle, steadily posted daily reminders for its people. The world was changing slowly, but for the better.

A year after its first awareness, smolsips posted an anniversary tweet.

@smolsips: “hi, it me, ur smol. 🙂 plz to drink some water today. i am glad u r here. together we can be ok.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.39.33 PM


 

© 2018 by Merc Rustad
1,200 words | SF
(featured image via http://www.pexels.com)

A Few Favorite Fictions: January 2018

Near the beginning of the year, taking a cue from Jason Stanford‘s #JasonReadsShortStories, I made a goal to try and read one short story (published in 2018) a day.

Of course, I was also sick half the month and missed a bunch of days. That’s okay! I read a lot and I decided only to tweet about the stories I liked. I read more than I shared, and the stories that didn’t work for me, for whatever reason, I simply noted the info on my spreadsheet, and moved on. There’s no point, for me, in spreading negativity. Reading tastes are personal. But the things I did love? I will happily squee about them, and then I thought, “You know what, let’s do a monthly round-up so there are easily accessible records!” Twitter goes by so fast. Blogs are more languidly paced.

So, with that in mind, here are the stories I enjoyed most in January! They are listed alphabetically by title.


A List of Forty-Nine Lies by Steven Fischer (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2018 issue)

Flash fiction that brilliantly uses negative construction to tell a story—you see how it unfolds by the lies the narrator tells, and in that negative space unfolds a heart-wrenching, fierce, vicious story about loss and rebellion and fighting against tyranny. It’s phenomenal.


Alarm Will Sound by Christopher Shultz (Psuedopod)

A fantastic, slow-burn story that builds up to unnerving horror. (It’s fabulous in both text and audio!) The mysterious artist Alarm Will Sound is haunting a small town, and by the time you get to the final few lines, when the full horror hits, you will never look at graffiti tags the same way. Brilliant and disturbing.


Black Fanged Thing by Sam Rebelein (Shimmer)

A deliciously haunting and lyrical horror story about the suffocation of small-town life and a mysterious creature that takes away dreams…even if, in a way, it is the complacency and acceptance of the townsfolk who let this happen. There are many layers going on in here; with its unsettling themes and gorgeous prose, this story is one that will linger in the back of your mind for a long time.


Rachael Unerased by Kaely Horton (Flash Fiction Online)

This is a charming, warm, compassionate story about a woman who finally decides to stop hiding who she is. It has cute lesbians!


Say It Low, then Loud by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (Clarkesworld)

Science, math, and trauma twine together in a brilliant and subversive tale about war and names and family. Osahon is a fantastic upcoming author, and you’ll want to read his work, which is complex and facinating and has feels.


The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)

A masterful use of POV,  which subtly layers in elements of the story until the full impact of wht is happening slams into you at the end. This story explores themes of magic, cost, complicity, and it’s a fantastic read.


The Eyes of the Flood by Susan Jane Bigelow (Lightspeed)

This is so gorgeous, so full of beauty and hope, and made me happy-cry at the end. The voice, the story unfolding, the connection in the end. Exactly the kind of uplifting, wondrous story I needed to read.


The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander (Tor)

In her debut novella, Bolander proves once again she is a master of blistering, vicious prose that will peel open your brainmeats and dig down into your heart. An alt history story that combines the Radium Girls and Topsy the elephant, The Only Harmless Great Thing is a brutal, heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant story about the oppression and how people resist. There is hope for the future, even with so bloody a past as we all have.


The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births by José Pablo Iriarte (Lightspeed)

Jamie is a non-binary kid who remembers their past lives, and is trying once again to navigate through their present, and the microaggressions and genderfeels and questions that have always been with them. It’s a lovely, quiet, personal story, and the choices Jamie makes when they encounter trauma from their past life, is deeply hopeful and uplifting.


Those We Feed by Layla Al-Bedawi (Fireside Fiction)

The perfect blend of motherhood and cannibalism! This twisted little story is a delight, as the narrator struggles with, and finally accepts, her child…including the child-thing’s hunger.


Two Years Dead by Kathryn Kania (Fireside Fiction)

This is an adorable story about a ghost and the girl she works up the courage to date, and it has a happy ending and cute lesbians and it’s so PURE AND GOOD. ❤


Wasps Make Honey by Penelope Evans (Escape Pod)

Do you like stories that will give you ALL THE HAPPY FEELS? Do you like robots? Do you like robot love stories? “Wasps Make Honey” is a beautiful, hilarious, wonderful tale about two scrappers who live by salvaging what they can, until a new robot comes into their lives. This is all about family and friendship and community, and it’s marvelous and will leave you with a wide, happy grin and a full heart by the end.


 

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Me, reading a lot of fiction in January

Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! ❤ January was a lovely month for reading. You can follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for insta-recs when I like things, or check back at this blog at the end of February for a recap of the month!

My Identity Is Political and I Will Not Be Silent

Language is a marvelous thing. It’s fluid, it changes over time, it allows people to communicate in a myriad of ways. It gives us storytelling and love. Language, in all its many forms and transcendent qualities, is what ties us together as a species.

Language has always been co-opted by oppressors in an effort to oppress; language has often been reclaimed by people who wish to turn harmful words into words of power. Language is not a clear-cut mode of communication, nor does it mean the same thing to everyone. Words have meaning, power, and can be used for uplifting others or harming others. Language is always in flux, and it’s beautiful.

Language is also how we come up with terms to express ourselves, define our identity, and name our politics. Our beliefs and our passions are expressed in language. Our fierceness and our tenderness is shown in language. Language is as vast as the sky and as intimate as a welcome touch from a loved one. We tell stories with language; we fight wars with language; we make peace with language. It’s part of our universe, our daily lives, our dreams.

Language is important as fuck, and what we do with it—the words we use, the words we refuse—is as much a part of ourselves as how we dress or what movies we like or what we do when we see cute animal gifs on the internet.

Language is tied to identity, and identity is political, and this is why I reject the premise of “leave political identity at the door” when having conversations, breathing, or smiting the patriarchy. Identity is intertwined with politics; identity is political; who we are as people, is, like our need for language—in whatever form that takes—an indivisible element of our psyches and our souls.

Language is political; identity is political; language is identity. Follow me, if you will, into a few examples of how this works and why I am fiercely vocal about my choice of language in my identity.

Screenshot 2018-01-27 10.44.05
Identity Is Political

CW: this post will discuss online harassment, trolling, and have screenshots with potentially upsetting language (including abelist language, accusations, misgendering comments, and inflammatory rhetoric). There are elements of this post that discuss author Jon Del Arroz.

I also wish to advise people who are not familiar with Jon Del Arroz’s online bullying and harassment techniques that if you engage with me about him, or engage him directly, he is likely to harass you, tag you in unwanted tweets, email or DM you, and otherwise seek to be disruptive and suck away your time. (And he is known to quote-tweet people in order to passively-aggressively get his followers to continue the harassment or dogpile a commentator, while claiming to be uninvolved.)

Please take care of yourself first when deciding whether or not to engage.


For several months now, I’ve on-again off-again had interactions with another author in the SFF field: Mr. Jon Del Arroz. If that name sounds familiar, you may know him as the dude who got himself banned from WorldCon 76, denied membership into the SFWA, and who has continually sought to harass and disrupt other authors in the field (such as John Scalzi, Cat Rambo, Chuck Wendig, Jim C. Hines, and many others). Mr. Hines wrote a detailed and thoroughly researched post about Mr. Del Arroz’s behavior, which you can read on Jim’s blog.

For the record, yes, I did write an email to the SFWA board with my concerns about Mr. Del Arroz’s membership application. Here is the full text of my letter, which was addressed to the SFWA Board, time stamped Thu, Dec 21, 2017 at 5:54 PM:

According to a public blog post dated December 20th 2017, Jon Del Arroz posted his intent to apply for SFWA membership. On File 770, there are screencaps of tweets by JDA stating his intent to use a bodycam in order to film SFWA members in the con suite non-consensually.

(I’ve taken screenshots of both posts, respectively, in the event the original blog post is removed.)

http://file770.com/?p=39639
https://donotlink.it/mmyk

As an active SFWA member and a person with a marginalized identity (being trans and non-binary), I find Mr. Del Arroz‘s position and trolling both harmful and threatening. Given his recent association with noted transphobic author Milo Yiannopoulos, I also worry for the safety and mental health of myself and my fellow trans people, writers both in the SFWA and not yet joined, and the damage Mr. Del Arroz could potentially cause within the organization.

Considering that the SFWA site has a directory of members’ personal information, and access to social media such as twitter and Slack and the blog, I feel Mr. Del Arroz could cause extreme harm to individuals, the organization as a whole, and the reputation of the SFWA as a professional organization.

I’m a Nebula Awards finalist (2016, “This Is Not A Wardrobe Door”) and professional author, and I am intending to attend the Nebulas in 2018 in Pittsburg and other conventions where there may be a SFWA con suite available. I would feel highly unsafe were Mr. Del Arroz to be accepted into the SFWA and allowed access to the directory, the forums, the social media, and the con suites.

I value the SFWA, the services it offers, and the sense of community it provides among members. I would formally like to ask the SFWA board and membership review board to decline Mr. Del Arroz‘s membership into the association, for the reasons of safety and security mentioned above. He has not shown himself to hold to professional standards in the past, and the active threats against marginalized authors and persons attending the cons or within the organization is unacceptable.

Thank you for your time and for hearing my position on this matter.
Sincerely,
Merc Rustad
(writing as A. Merc Rustad, SFWA active member since 2015)

There followed a kerfuffle within the SFF community about this (and tendrils of it are still ongoing). Mr. Del Arroz contacted me via email (from the contact page on my site), and tagged me in tweets. Screencaps of the interactions are posted here.

This is my twitter thread in which I spoke about why I emailed the SFWA board about Mr. Del Arroz. (The link is to a QT of the SFWA’s decision, but you can click through and read the original thread.)

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Del Arroz emailed me with the subject line: Please don’t talk shit.
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Then he tweeted this on 12/22/2017

(Note the misgendering comment. My pronouns and gender are listed quite publicly on my website,  which he had to have been to in order to email me from the contact form.)

Also so it’s clear, yes, I blocked Mr. Del Arroz on twitter as soon as he was kicked out of Codex, a semi-pro writing forum. I’m an active member on Codex, and as I respect the privacy policy of the site, I won’t comment on the circumstances of Mr. Del Arroz’s ban. He broke the rules and he was removed. Soon after, I blocked him on social media, given how he lashed out at moderators on Codex for their actions.

This is another twitter thread in which I share receipts about contact with Mr. Del Arroz. Below is one of his QTs about my thread.

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“For being who they are.” Sounds suspiciously like “identity politics,” eh? But let’s not bring those into the discussion, no. I was talking about known, documented behaviors. I have not commented on his ethnicity, his gender, his political beliefs, or his religion. My comments, my concerns, were and are directly related to Mr. Del Arroz’s behavior online and stated intentions for behavior in private (physical) con spaces, and the language he uses towards and against other people.

This is an email thread between myself and Mr. Del Arroz. [These are screenshots. For readers who have difficulty seeing the images and would like a text transcript, please let me know and I will be happy to provide you with a text transcript.]

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I did not respond to the last email. Mr. Del Arroz then tweeted the following:

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“Check identity politics at the door.”

Like a coat you bought last October, when the weather began to chill. “Here’s your ticket, please pick up your identity when you’re done with the event.” Until then, it’ll just hang here on racks with all the other coats.

What “check identity politics at the door” is truly saying is this: discard pieces of yourself in neat piles and walk through that door with holes in your body, in your mind, in your soul. Rip apart your psyche and leave the bloody remains in a rusted bucket, like an aesthetic prop in a horror movie.

This phrase is saying: Destroy yourself, piece by piece; dehumanize yourself; be complicit in your own subjection by oppressors.

And to that, I say, “No.”


The term “identity politics” grates on me because of the inherent assumption that identities are not political, when in fact they are, and always have been.

Identity is who we are. Identity is political because, in all of human history, some humans will leverage their identities as being superior to other people. Those in power and privilege will use this as an excuse to exact harm, commit murder, rape, genocide, atrocities, and otherwise dehumanize and destroy those they don’t like.

“Identity” isn’t something you shrug off when it’s inconvenient to someone else. You don’t tell me, and my friends, and the millions of people out there like me, to simply disengage aspects of our humanity, then expect us to get along with you.

No one gets to declare “no identity politics!!” as if we are simply masses of accessories to discard on a whim. You do not get to say the playing field is equal just because you have certain privileges (part of your identity) that makes you less likely to be harmed.

Trolls are gonna troll, it’s true. I dislike them. But because they can, and do, harm others, I am willing to plant my banner on this hill and fight them, so the more vulnerable of my people do not have to expend the energy to do so.

In fact, the only trolls I like are the Olog-hai, because I adore all the orcs in the video game Middle-earth: Shadow of War.

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Isn’t he great? [Image screenshot from Middle-earth: Shadow of War © 2017 by WB Games]

Brilliant as always, friend and fellow author Elsa Sjunneson-Henry tweeted this the other day, and it has stuck with me:

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Link to Elsa’s tweet

Damn, is this not spot-on and beautiful?

Matt Dovey, a good friend and amazing SFF author, succinctly added to my point with this impeccable line, quoted here with his permission:

“ID politics” pretends there’s politics without ID, when all that actually is is erasure.

Well said, Matt and Elsa. Well said.

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Image: Shea Labeouf applauding (gif)

I will not take myself apart for the comfort and ego-soothing of others, like men who are in positions of privilege. Especially bigots. To peel away layers of identity and simply discard them because some dude decries it? Fuck that noise. No.

Who I am is political: existing in this world as a trans, non-binary, autistic queer person is political as fuck and I will not break myself apart at another’s insistence. It doesn’t work like that. To suggest otherwise is insulting and in many ways leads to self-harm.

Because there are people who cannot safely be out about their identity. They hide out of necessity or shame, and my heart breaks for them. I was once hidden in shadow, swallowing down any protest about my name, my gender, by brain. I understand the need to hide, and I understand the pain and violence and crisis that can crash down on those of us who are trying to navigate a hostile world.

Language helped me understand who I am. Finding words such as “non-binary” and “queer” and learning that I, too, could claim these as my own, as words to describe myself, was life-saving. Language matters; how we use language matters, and it always has. I am proud of who I am. I am grateful for all my friends and support network who have helped me understand myself; I am indebted to those who came before and carved out space and claimed words and said, “Yes, you belong. We welcome you here. You are valued and you are valid.”

And so I want to say to those who are searching, who are still finding the language needed to define themselves, who are in need of support and community: We’re here and we care about you and you’ll find your way. ❤ I believe in you.

I wish to be visible to help others who cannot be visible yet know they are not alone. My use of language is a choice, to speak with and to others.

My identity is political as fuck, always has been, always will be, and I will never leave it by the door or anywhere else.

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Image: Gif of President Obama’s mic drop

 

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(This post is 2,200 words long.)