A Few Favorite Fictions: August 2018

Some months are just a chaotic blur in which my brain is out of commission for one reason or another. In July, that was dayjobbery—and I literally read nothing that month. Fortunately, August was a little better! Still didn’t read very much, but I loved what I did consume, and so I present to you a list!

 


Beneath Their Hooves by Katharine E.K. Duckett (Pseudopod)

A creepy, unnerving story about unicorns and the children who ride them. Duckett tells this tale from the POV of an eight-year-old child, and the voice is perfect, which makes the horror of what has taken place in Grandmère’s house even more sinister. It’s a fantastic voice and will leave you tense and on the edge of your seat the entire time. Protip: don’t ride the unicorns.

Buried Conviction by Dave Ring (Speculative City)

This one is awesome: told in the style of board game instructions, it’s a story about fey foundlings and loneliness and hope. It’s short, punchy, and leaves you satisfied in the end.

Dead Air by Nino Cipri (Nightmare)

A ghost story told in a “found footage” format, which I love, and which works amazingly well! It’s creepy af and has a wonderful sense of building dread the further along it goes. Shivery-good.

Every River Runs to Salt by Rachael K. Jones (Fireside) [novella]

I love this so much. This story has a stunning voice, a gorgeously rendered picturesque setting, full of creepy underworld monsters and people just trying to get by; vivid prose so sharp and sweet you can taste the after images on your tongue and behind your eyes; epic and personal, funny and frightening and full of friendship. Absolutely marvelous work! Jones has created a masterpiece of myth, a story that will stick with you like the memory of the oceans and rivers that have always been.

Buy links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Fireside
For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough by Eden Royce (Apex)

This gorgeous, evocative story (part of the Zodiac special issue) is full of feels, with stunning prose and visceral imagery. Royce has created a gem, a story that will stick with you like the best memories and the promise of good things to come.

Pigeons by Nibedita Sen (Fireside)

A smol drop of delightfully dread family drama! Necromancy, siblings, birbs, and all rendered in Sen’s deliciously evocative prose. This one may be tiny but it packs a hell of a punch!

The Atrocities by Jeremy C. Shipp (Tor) [novella]

Modernized Gothic horror in Shipp’s stylistic blend of grotesque and vivid beauty. A governess takes a position in a weird family mansion to, in theory, educate the ghost of a young girl. Things get weirder from there. It’s visceral and chilling, and although there is a fair bit of ableist language (mostly in dialogue), overall this is a strange, unsettling drama in the Gothic tradition, with imagery that will haunt you long after you’re finished reading.

Buy links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Tor
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor) [novella]

Set in a steampunk alternate history New Orleans, Clark delivers a rambunctious, wild ride so full of vivid setting and delightful characters, it’ll take your breath away! Voicey, fast-paced, charming, this is a story of a young girl who carries a bit of a goddess in her thoughts and sets out to save her city from enemies who would destroy what they can’t conquor.

Buy links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Tor
The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon, California, and the Unknown by Brit E. B. Hvide (Uncanny)

Macabre and marvelous, this story re-imagines elements of the doomed Donner Party—with dinosaurs. It works so well, the reader’s awareness of what’s going on counterpoint to what the narrator, in his journal entries, thinks is happening. It’s creepy and clever (like the raptor who joins the group) and has a deliciously nasty bite to it.

The Nine Bajillion and One Names of God by Aimee Ogden (Daily Science Fiction)

Wonderful, sharp, hopeful and fierce—this is a brilliant riff off an old SF classic, with more nuance and thought about the consequences of what the scientists are building. Plus, the ending is such a powerful statement that closes this flash fiction in a way you won’t soon forget.

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean) [novella]

Breathtakingly beautiful, a sweeping epic space opera that is at its heart a deeply personal, intimate story of a mindship and the detective she works with, both of them trying to untangle past tragedies and prevent future atrocities. De Bodard’s prose is a boutique of sensory delights; her worldbuilding is a galaxy of detail and history; the characters in this story will win your heart forever. I love this story so much!

Buy links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble |Subterranean
Worth Her Weight In Gold by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com)

Do you like hippos and murder? Gailey has plenty of both in their delightfully bloody short story about Houndstooth and Ruby, set in an alternate history of the U.S. (the same world of Gailey’s novella duology, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow). It’s such fun—humorous and haughty, with fabulous characters and the perfect authorial voice. This romp will give you the perfect taste of Gailey’s American Hippo ‘verse, and I highly recommend all their stories!


(It is true my open tabs on the browser have approximately nine billion more things I want to read and haven’t managed yet…so we’ll see how September goes!)

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!

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: 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!

highfive
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!

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!

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. 😀 )


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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!

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!

Some Awesome Stories From 2017

Every year I swear I will keep up on short fiction, and, as usual, I never quite manage to read as much or as widely as I’d like. This is far from an exhaustive list, because I simply didn’t get to read everything I wanted to this year. That said! Here is a list of some of my favorite stories I read from 2017 (short stories and novelettes; I’ve not gotten to longer form fiction yet).

It is alphabetized by story title!

A Human Stain by Kelly Robson (Tor.com, January 2017) [novelette]

Lesbian gothic horror that builds to a slow, horrifying climax. Wickedly delightful and creepy. You’ll never look at teeth quite the same way again.

Helen had first seen the nursemaid’s pretty face that morning, looking down from one of the house’s highest windows as she and Bärchen Lambrecht rowed across the lake with their luggage crammed in a tippy little skiff. Even at a distance, Helen could tell she was a beauty.

______

 

Bear Language by Martin Cahill (Fireside, May 2017)

The voice is perfect in this bittersweet and fierce story about family and strength and survival. Plus, Susan is such a good bear—and one should never get between a bear and her cubs.

I crawl out from under the covers, shivering at the memory of his anger, and go to the door. The house is dark; ghosts made of sunlit wallpaper peek through curtains and down hallways. It smells like pine needles and mud.

______

Caesura by Hayley Stone (Fireside, November 2017)

Grieving her brother’s murder, a girl develops a neural network AI that becomes self-aware—but it’s how she learns to reconnect to the world and her family, and her AI, is what gives this such heart. Language is used with incredible precision and perfection.

She should probably be documenting this. Taking notes. Instead, she fidgets on her desk chair, adjusts the mic absently. “And what, what’s the organ’s name?” she asks. At the same time she opens another window, hits the letters L and then I, highlights the word life from a list and deletes it.

______

Don’t Turn On The Lights by Cassandra Khaw (Nightmare, October 2017)

Brilliant and unsettling, this horror story shows you just how much stories change, depending on who tells it. And sometimes, it’s far worse than you imagine.

Sleep wasn’t in the cards, though. Hell, I don’t know if she ever slept again. I know I wouldn’t be able to. Because when Sally finally walked all the way to her room, pushing past co-eds in their flower-printed pyjamas, she found police tape and policemen.

______

Every Black Tree by Natalia Theodoridou (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 2017)

Haunting, beautiful and intimate, this story looks at loss and ghosts and family. How do you rebuild a life taken apart? One day at a time, with ribbon and whispers and learning how to live again.

“So did someone hang you from my blacktree, or did you hang yourself?” she asks, placing a cup of hot tea in front of him. She’s still mad, but he hears something soft in her voice now.

______

Fandom For Robots by Vina Kie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

This story is pure joy. Computron, stuck in a museum, discovers a TV show and begins writing fanfic—and in turn, makes friends and discovers he is not alone.

The Simak Robotics Museum is not within close proximity of a black hole, and there is close to no possibility that time is being dilated. His constant checking of the chronometer to compare it with the countdown page serves no scientific purpose whatsoever.

______

The First Stop Is Always The Last by John Wiswell (Flash Fiction Online, December 2017)

A charming time-loop story about cute lesbians! Two women on the same bus, repeating the same few hours, bond and learn how to move forward into an unknown future.

Selma got an itch in her brain. She asked, “How many times have we talked about this today?”

______

The Ghosts of Europa Will Keep You Trapped in a Prison You Make for Yourself by Matt Dovey (Escape Pod, May 2017)

Heartbreaking and raw and honest, this story shows us the grief of loss, and one woman’s revelation at what has been and how she can bring peace to the one she loves.

Amira knew that for a lie. Degradation took years of bit decay, even in Jovian radiation. The synaptic data was remarkably resilient to corruption. Even in virtual form, the brain found new pathways to work around any damage.

______

The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant by Rachael K. Jones (Lightspeed, December 2017)

Deliciously disturbing and messed up, Jones’ story about cyborg cooks trying to earn stars for her newly opened restaurant is hilarious and gruesome in turn, and has sharp (knife-like) observations about humans. And food.

Humans were helpless, mewling children, so utterly dependent that they couldn’t even feed their meat without a steel fork to guide the process. And what were cyborgs, except meat-wrapped steel pressed into the service of lesser creatures? But now the forks were rebelling.

______

If We Survive the Night by Carlie St. George (The Dark, March 2017)

What happens when the horror movie is over and everyone who’s not a Final Girl is dead? St. George’s horrific and unsettling story is about dead girls, the subjection and judgement women endure, and the power of stories. And revenge.

Harper makes Abby a cup of tea. It’s a soothing liquid, the universal sign for calm the hell down, and Abby thinks it’d be a lot more successful if the girl who made it hadn’t taken a fire axe to the back exactly one year ago.

______

Listen and You’ll Hear Us Speak by A. T. Greenblatt (Flash Fiction Online, September 2017)

A small, perfect gem of a story: no one is ever truly voiceless, even if they do not speak.

My aunties always said there’s a market for everything in the universe. They said, watch out, everyone has a price.

______

Maybe Look Up by Jess Barber (Lightspeed, April 2017)

A charming, understated time travel story that explores the relationship between two people who have the power to change the past. But what they do with this power is where the heart of the story lies.

The list lives in a little palm-sized flip notebook, plastic purple spiral holding it together at the top, glitter-outlined unicorn on the front. An Li claims the notebook is a metaphor for the risks of nostalgia. She brandishes a pink gel pen that smells like plasticky strawberry foam.

______

The Moon, the Sun, and the Truth by Victoria Sandbrook (Shimmer, July 2017)

A gritty, fierce, sharp postapocalyptic western about rebellion and sacrifice. Tyranny can’t last when there are people who will speak the truth.

“Fleet of foot and light of heart,” he said.

The truth-rider salutation only made her stomach turn. She touched her hat and turned the horse toward the next town.

______

Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree by Nibedita Sen (Anathema, August 2017)

This fantastic, charming, delicious story is about food, ghosts, and lesbians. Reading it makes me hungry!

My search had finally turned up two promising results: a temple in Rajasthan and another in Gujarat. Both still performed exorcisms for the princely sum of five thousand rupees and three boxes of chickpea-flour-and-sugar sweetmeats. The money was supposedly for the priests, and the sweets for the gods, but I had the sneaking suspicion the sweets, too, would end up going down the priests’ gullets the way the pret had gone down mine.

______

Presque Vu by Nino Cipri (Liminal, November 2017)

Gorgeous, queer, and filled with longing and ghosts. Hauntings connect people and give them hope for closure and a future.

The postcards were vintage, with terrible puns and bland innuendo: the one he’d seen had had a naughty librarian with stacks of books propping up her cleavage, Interested in a thriller? On the other side was a spidery scrawl of words in faded brown ink.

______

The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017) [novelette]

Bot 9 is SO FRICKING CUTE I CANNOT HANDLE THIS PERFECT LEVEL OF ADORABLE. This is a delightful, hilarious, charming story about bots!

The Ship had not actually told it what was in cargo bay four, but surely it must have something to do with the war effort and was then none of its own business, the bot decided. It had never minded not knowing a thing before, but it felt a slight unease now that it could neither explain, nor explain away.

Skins Smooth as Plantain, Hearts Soft as Mango by Ian Muneshwar (The Dark, August 2017)

Food horror is my jam, and this story is ripe with gorgeous descriptions and mouth-watering detail that will make you hungry…maybe not in the best way.

He ate a heaping forkful of the pie. It was wonderful: the goat was soft, savory, fatty; the salt and animal juices and hot water crust all came together on his tongue. The beast pushed up, stretching open the base of his esophagus, unfurling its own eager tongue.

______

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017) [novelette]

An #ownvoices (sans the vampire part) story about a gay trans man who’s bitten by a vampire and deals with the after effects of being turned. Raw, sharp, and so often unbearably human, Szpara examines many axises of marginalization and the trials and joys inherent in living in an imperfect world.

But vampires who break the law, who feed from un-certified donors, who steal blood bags, or drink without asking first, are put on the Blood Offenders Registry, which is basically a hit list for corrupt cops and stake-wielding bigots.

______

Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus by Bogi Takács (Clarkesworld, April 2017)

Brilliant and subversive, the story examines how colonialism destroys environments and people alike. Also OCTOPI. ❤

I am going to meet Pebblesmooth. Pebblesmooth, who doesn’t have all the answers, but who has the best questions. Once I am there, I will ask, “Pebblesmooth, can a dead human affect the field?”

______

The Sound Of by Charles Payseur (Nightmare, May 2017)

This story has haunted me since I first read it. The story shows a dystopia that is all too real, too believable, and will chill you. It has no happy ending; this is a horror story and the tragedy comes from the wrenching understand that sometimes, we cannot endure everything.

He checks his friends, makes sure no one is saying anything that could possibly be viewed as a violation. Just to be safe, he unfriends a few people who knew him back in college. His fingers stop when Ren’s profile comes up. He hovers, weighing his options, then swallows and closes the app.

______

The Whalebone Parrot by Darcie Little Badger (The Dark, October 2017)

Ghosts. Dead whales. Colonialism being interrogated and resisted against. The voice is perfect, the structure and mix of narrative and journal entries firmly grounds this in time and setting, and it builds to a slow, excruciating and unsettling conclusion. Wonderful horror-fantasy!

“Not especially.” It was only a partial lie; Loretta’s married name still sounded like it belonged to a stranger. When Emily was summoned to the island, Loretta asked her to be discreet. Tell nobody that we are sisters.

______

There has been so much excellent fiction published this year; the wonderful field of SFFH is growing and diversifying and shining with amazing gems. I’m so excited to read more breathtaking stories in the future!

—–

ETA: I had one more story in this list which I mistook as a 2017 publication, when it was 2016. Still keeping it here as a postscript because it’s SO good.

All the Colors You Thought Were Kings by Arkady Martine (Shimmer, December 2017 2016)

Gorgeous, riveting space opera on an epic scale that still remains deeply personal. Radiant with imagery and intense with emotion.

Even barefoot in gauze, your Tamar looks dangerous. You could die of pride if you weren’t half planning to die of something else first.

______

 

 

 

How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps

First published in Scigentasy (2014). Reprinted in Cicada, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, GlitterShip, Great Jones Street, and Medium.

Content Warnings: suicidal ideations, depression, slurs against queer people, emotional abuse.


 

HOW TO BECOME A ROBOT IN 12 EASY STEPS
by A. Merc Rustad

 

How to tell your boyfriend you are in love with a robot:

  1. Tell him, “I may possibly be in love with a robot,” because absolutes are difficult for biological brains to process. He won’t be jealous.
  2. Ask him what he thinks of a hypothetical situation in which you found someone who might not be human, but is still valuable and right for you. (Your so-called romantic relationship is as fake as you are.)
  3. Don’t tell him anything. It’s not that he’ll tell you you’re wrong; he’s not like his parents, or yours. But there’s still a statistical possibility he might not be okay with you being in love with a robot.

#

On my to-do list today:

  • • Ask the robot out on a date.
  • • Pick up salad ingredients for dinner.
  • • Buy Melinda and Kimberly a wedding gift.

The robot is a J-90 SRM, considered “blocky” and “old-school,” probably refurbished from a scrapper, painted bright purple with the coffee shop logo on the chassis.  The robot’s square head has an LED screen that greets customers with unfailing politeness and reflects their orders back to them. The bright blue smiley face never changes in the top corner of the screen.

Everyone knows the J-90 SRMs aren’t upgradable AI. They have basic customer service programming and equipment maintenance protocols.

Everyone knows robots in the service industry are there as cheap labor investments and to improve customer satisfaction scores, which they never do because customers are never happy.

Everyone knows you can’t be in love with a robot.

I drop my plate into the automatic disposal, which thanks me for recycling. No one else waits to deposit trash, so I focus on it as I brace myself to walk back to the counter. The J-90 SRM smiles blankly at the empty front counter, waiting for the next customer.

The lunch rush is over. The air reeks of espresso and burned milk. I don’t come here because the food is good or the coffee any better. The neon violet décor is best ignored.

I practiced this in front of a wall a sixteen times over the last week. I have my script. It’s simple. “Hello, I’m Tesla. What may I call you?”

And the robot will reply:

I will say, “It’s nice to meet you.”

And the robot will reply:

I will say, “I would like to know if you’d like to go out with me when you’re off-duty, at a time of both our convenience. I’d like to get to know you better, if that’s acceptable to you.”

And the robot will reply:

“Hey, Tesla.”

The imagined conversation shuts down. I blink at the trash receptacle and look up.

My boyfriend smiles hello, his hands shoved in his jeans pockets, his shoulders hunched to make himself look smaller. At six foot five and three hundred pounds, it never helps. He’s as cuddly and mellow as a black bear in hibernation. Today he’s wearing a gray turtleneck and loafers, his windbreaker unzipped.

“Hi, Jonathan.”

I can’t ask the robot out now.

The empty feeling reappears in my chest, where it always sits when I can’t see or hear the robot.

“You still coming to Esteban’s party tonight?” Jonathan asks.

“Yeah.”

Jonathan smiles again. “I’ll pick you up after work, then.”

“Sounds good,” I say. “We’d better go, or I’ll be late.”

He works as an accountant. He wanted to study robotic engineering, but his parents would only pay for college if he got a practical degree (his grandfather disapproves of robots). Computers crunch the numbers, and he handles the people.

He always staggers his lunch break so he can walk back with me. It’s nice. Jonathan can act as an impenetrable weather shield if it rains and I forget my umbrella.

But Jonathan isn’t the robot.

He offers me his arm, like the gentleman he always is, and we leave the coffee shop. The door wishes us a good day.

I don’t look back at the robot.

#

A beginner’s guide on how to fake your way through biological social constructs:

  1. Pretend you are not a robot. This is hard, and you have been working at it for twenty-three years. You are like Data, except in reverse.
  2. (There are missing protocols in your head. You don’t know why you were born biologically or why there are pieces missing, and you do not really understand how human interaction functions. Sometimes you can fake it. Sometimes people even believe you when you do. You never believe yourself.)
  3. Memorize enough data about social cues and run facial muscle pattern recognition so you know what to say and when to say it.
  4. This is not always successful.
  5. Example: a woman approximately your biological age approaches you and proceeds to explain in detail how mad she is at her boyfriend. Example: boyfriend is guilty of using her toiletries like toothbrush and comb when he comes over, and leaving towels on the bathroom floor. “Such a slob,” she says, gripping her beer like a club. “How do you manage men?” You ask if she has told him to bring his own toothbrush and comb and to hang up the towels. It seems the first logical step: factual communication. “He should figure it out!” she says. You are confused. You say that maybe he is unaware of the protocols she has in place. She gives you a strange look, huffs her breath out, and walks off.
  6. Now the woman’s friends ignore you, and you notice their stares and awkward pauses when you are within their proximity. You have no escape because you didn’t drive separately.
  7. Ask your boyfriend not to take you to any more parties.

#

Jonathan and I lounge on the plush leather couch in his apartment. He takes up most of it, and I curl against his side. We have a bowl of popcorn, and we’re watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“I have something to tell you,” he says. His shoulders tense.

I keep watching the TV.  He knows I pay attention when he tells me things, even if I don’t look at him. “Okay.”

“I’m…” He hesitates. The Borg fire on the Enterprise again. “I’m seeing someone else.”

“A guy?” I ask, hopeful.

“Yeah. I met him at the gym. His name’s Bernardo.”

I sigh in relief. Secrets are heavy and hurt when you have to carry them around all your life. (I have to make lists to keep track of mine.) “I’m glad. Are you going to tell anyone?”

He relaxes and squeezes my hand. “Just you right now. But from what he’s told me, his family’s pretty accepting.”

“Lucky,” I say.

We scrape extra butter off the bowl with the last kernels of popcorn.

We’ve been pretend-dating for two years now. We’ve never slept together. That’s okay. I like cuddling with him, and he likes telling me about crazy customers at his firm, and everyone thinks we’re a perfectly adorable straight couple on the outside.

The empty spot in my chest grows bigger as I watch Data on screen. Data has the entire crew of the Enterprise. Jonathan has Bernardo now. I don’t know if the robot will be interested in me in return. (What if the robot isn’t?)

The room shrinks in on me, the umber-painted walls and football memorabilia suffocating. I jerk to my feet.

Jonathan mutes the TV. “Something wrong?”

“I have to go.”

“Want me to drive you home?”

“It’s four blocks away.” But I appreciate his offer, so I add, “But thanks.”

I find my coat piled by the door while he takes the popcorn bowl into the kitchen.

Jonathan leans against the wall as I carefully lace each boot to the proper tightness. “If you want to talk, Tesla, I’ll listen.”

I know that. He came out to me before we started dating. I told him I wasn’t interested in socially acceptable relationships, either, and he laughed and looked so relieved he almost cried. We made an elaborate plan, a public persona our families wouldn’t hate.

I’m not ready to trust him as much as he trusts me.

“Night, Jonathan.”

“Goodnight, Tesla.”

#

How to tell your fake boyfriend you would like to become a robot:

  1. Tell him, “I would like to be a robot.” You can also say, “I am really a robot, not a female-bodied biological machine,” because that is closer to the truth.
  2. Do not tell him anything. If you do, you will also have to admit that you think about ways to hurt yourself so you have an excuse to replace body parts with machine parts.
  3. Besides, insurance is unlikely to cover your transition into a robot.

#

I have this nightmare more and more often.

I’m surrounded by robots. Some of them look like the J-90 SRM, some are the newer androids, some are computer cores floating in the air. I’m the only human.

I try to speak, but I have no voice. I try to touch them, but I can’t lift my hands. I try to follow them as they walk over a hill and through two huge doors, like glowing LED screens, but I can’t move.

Soon, all the robots are gone, and I’m all alone in the empty landscape.

#

11 Reasons you want to become a robot:

  1. Robots are logical and know their purpose.
  2. Robots have programming they understand.
  3. Robots are not held to unattainable standards and then criticized when they fail.
  4. Robots are not crippled by emotions they don’t know how to process.
  5. Robots are not judged based on what sex organs they were born with.
  6. Robots have mechanical bodies that are strong and durable. They are not required to have sex.
  7. Robots do not feel guilt (about existing, about failing, about being something other than expected).
  8. Robots can multitask.
  9. Robots do not feel unsafe all the time.
  10. Robots are perfect machines that are capable and functional and can be fixed if something breaks.
  11. Robots are happy.

#

It’s Saturday, so I head to the Purple Bean early.

The robot isn’t there.

I stare at the polished chrome and plastic K-100, which has a molded face that smiles with humanistic features.

“Welcome to the Purple Bean,” the new robot says in a chirpy voice that has inflection and none of the mechanical monotone I like about the old robot. “I’m Janey. How can I serve you today?”

“Where’s the J-90 SRM?”

Robbie, the barista who works weekends, leans around the espresso machine and sighs. She must have gotten this question a lot. The panic in my chest is winching so tight it might crack my ribs into little pieces. Why did they retire the robot?

“Manager finally got the company to upgrade,” Robbie says. “Like it?”

“Where’s the J-90 SRM?”

“Eh, recycled, I guess.” Robbie shrugs. “You want the usual?”

I can’t look at the new K-100. It isn’t right. It doesn’t belong in the robot’s place, and neither do I. “I have to go.”

“Have a wonderful day,” the door says.

#

How to rescue a robot from being scrapped: [skill level: intermediate]

  1. Call your boyfriend, who owns an SUV, and ask him to drive you to the Gates-MacDowell recycle plant.
  2. Argue with the technician, who refuses to sell you the decommissioned robot. It’s company protocol, he says, and service industry robots are required to have processors and cores wiped before being recycled.
  3. Lie and say you only want to purchase the J-90 SRM because you’re starting a collection. Under the law, historical preservation collections are exempt from standardized recycling procedures.
  4. Do not commit physical violence on the tech when he hesitates. It’s rude, and he’s only doing his job.
  5. Do not admit you asked your boyfriend along because his size is intimidating, and he knows how to look grouchy at eight a.m.
  6. The technician will finally agree and give you a claim ticket.
  7. Drive around and find the robot in the docking yard.
  8. Do not break down when you see how badly the robot has been damaged: the robot’s LED screen cracked, the robot’s chassis has been crunched inwards, the robot’s missing arm.
  9. Try not to believe it is your fault. (That is illogical, even if you still have biological processing units.)

#

Two techs wheel the robot out and load it into Jonathan’s car. The gut-punched feeling doesn’t go away. The robot looks so helpless, shut down and blank in the back seat. I flip open the robot’s chassis, but the power core is gone, along with the programming module.

The robot is just a shell of what the robot once was.

I feel like crying. I don’t want to. It’s uncomfortable and doesn’t solve problems.

“What’s wrong, Tesla?” Jonathan asks.

I shut the chassis. My hands tremble. “They broke the robot.”

“It’ll be okay,” Jonathan says. As if anything can be okay right now. As if there is nothing wrong with me. “You can fix it.”

I squirm back into the passenger seat and grip the dash. He’s right. We were friends because we both liked robots and I spent my social studies classes in school researching robotics and programming.

“I’ve never done anything this complex,” I say. I’ve only dismantled, reverse-engineered, and rebuilt the small household appliances and computers. No one has ever let me build a robot.

“You’ll do fine,” he says. “And if you need help, I know just the guy to ask.”

“Who?”

“Want to meet my boyfriend?”

#

Necessary questions to ask your boyfriend’s new boyfriend (a former Army engineer of robotics):

  1. You’ve been following the development of cyborg bodies, so you ask him if he agrees with the estimates that replacement of all organic tissue sans brain and spinal cord with inorganic machinery is still ten years out, at best. Some scientists predict longer. Some predict never, but you don’t believe them. (He’ll answer that the best the field can offer right now are limbs and some artificial organs.)
  2. Ask him how to upload human consciousness into a robot body. (He’ll tell you there is no feasible way to do this yet, and the technology is still twenty years out.)
  3. Do not tell him you cannot wait that long. (You cannot last forever.)
  4. Instead, ask him if he can get you parts you need to fix the robot.

#

Bernardo—six inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than Jonathan, tattooed neck to ankles, always smelling of cigarettes—is part robot. He lost his right arm at the shoulder socket in an accident, and now wears the cybernetic prosthetic. It has limited sensory perception, but he says it’s not as good as his old hand.

I like him. I tell Jonathan this, and my boyfriend beams.

“They really gut these things,” Bernardo says when he drops off the power cell.

(I want to ask him how much I owe him. But when he says nothing about repayment, I stay quiet. I can’t afford it. Maybe he knows that.)

We put the robot in the spare bedroom in my apartment, which Jonathan wanted to turn into an office, but never organized himself enough to do so. I liked the empty room, but now it’s the robot’s home. I hid the late payment notices and overdue bills in a drawer before Jonathan saw them.

“Getting a new arm might be tricky, but I have a buddy who works a scrap yard out in Maine,” Bernardo says. “Bet she could dig up the right model parts.”

“Thank you.”

I’m going to reconstruct the old personality and programming pathways. There are subsystems, “nerve clusters,” that serve as redundant processing. Personality modules get routed through functionality programs, and vestiges of the robot’s personality build up in subsystems. Newer models are completely wiped, but they usually don’t bother with old ones.

Bernardo rubs his shaved head. “You realize this won’t be a quick and easy fix, right? Might take weeks. Hell, it might not even work.”

I trace a finger through the air in front of the robot’s dark LED screen. I have not been able to ask the robot if I have permission to touch the robot. It bothers me that I have to handle parts and repairs without the robot’s consent. Does that make it wrong? To fix the robot without knowing if the robot wishes to be fixed?

Will the robot hate me if I succeed?

“I know,” I whisper. “But I need to save the robot.”

#

How to tell your pretend-boyfriend and his real boyfriend that your internal processors are failing:

  1. The biological term is “depression,” but you don’t have an official diagnostic (diagnosis) and it’s a hard word to say. It feels heavy and stings your mouth. Like when you tried to eat a battery when you were small and your parents got upset.
  2. Instead, you try to hide the feeling. But the dark stain has already spilled across your hardwiring and clogged your processor. You don’t have access to any working help files to fix this. Tech support is unavailable for your model. (No extended warranty exists.)
  3. Pretend the reason you have no energy is because you’re sick with a generic bug.
  4. You have time to sleep. Your job is canceling out many of your functions; robots can perform cleaning and maintenance in hotels for much better wage investment, and since you are not (yet) a robot, you know you will be replaced soon.
  5. The literal translation of the word “depression:” you are broken and devalued and have no further use.
  6. No one refurbishes broken robots.
  7. Please self-terminate.

#

I work on the robot during my spare time. I have lots of it now. Working on the robot is the only reason I have to wake up.

I need to repair the robot’s destroyed servos and piece together the robot’s memory and function programming from what the computer recovered.

There are subroutine lists in my head that are getting bigger and bigger:

  • • You will not be able to fix the robot.
  • • You do not have enough money to fix the robot.
  • • You do not have the skill to fix the robot.
  • • The robot will hate you.
  • • You are not a robot.

Bernardo and Jonathan are in the kitchen. They laugh and joke while making stir fry. I’m not hungry.

I haven’t been hungry for a few days now.

“You should just buy a new core, Tesla,” Bernardo says. “Would save you a lot of headaches.”

I don’t need a blank, programmable core. What I want is the robot who worked in the Purple Bean. The robot who asked for my order, like the robot did every customer. But the moment I knew I could love this robot was when the robot asked what I would like to be called. “Tesla,” I said, and the blue LED smiley face in the upper corner of the robot’s screen flickered in a shy smile.

Everyone knows robots are not people.

There’s silence in the kitchen. Then Jonathan says, quietly, “Tesla, what’s this?”

I assume he’s found the eviction notice.

#

Reasons why you want to self-terminate (a partial list):

  1. Your weekly visit to your parents’ house in the suburbs brings the inevitable question about when you will marry your boyfriend, settle down (so you can pop out babies), and raise a family.
  2. You don’t tell them you just lost your job.
  3. You make the mistake of mentioning that you’re going to your best friend Melinda’s wedding next weekend. You’re happy for her: she’s finally marrying her longtime girlfriend, Kimberly.
  4. That sets your dad off on another rant about the evils of gay people and how they all deserve to die.
  5. (You’ve heard this all your life. You thought you escaped it when you were eighteen and moved out. But you never do escape, do you? There is no escape.)
  6. You make a second mistake and talk back. You’ve never done that; it’s safer to say nothing. But you’re too stressed to play safe, so you tell him he’s wrong and that it’s hurting you when he says that.
  7. That makes him paranoid, and he demands that you tell him you aren’t one of those fags too.
  8. You don’t tell your parents you’re probably asexual and you really want to be a robot because robots are never condemned because of who they love.
  9. You stop listening as he gets louder and louder, angrier and angrier, until you’re afraid he will reach for the rifle in the gun cabinet.
  10. You run from the house and are almost hit by a truck. Horns blare and slushy snow sprays your face as you reach the safety of the opposite sidewalk.
  11. You wish you were three seconds slower so the bumper wouldn’t have missed you. It was a big truck.
  12. You start making another list.

#

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jonathan asks, more concerned than angry. “I would’ve helped out.”

I shrug.

The subroutine list boots up:

  • • You are not an adult if you cannot exist independently at all times.
  • • Therefore, logically, you are a non-operational drone.
  • • You will be a burden on everyone.
  • • You already are.
  • • Self-terminate.

“I thought I could manage,” I say. The robot’s LED screen is still cracked and dark. I wonder what the robot dreams about.

Bernardo is quiet in the kitchen, giving us privacy.

Jonathan rubs his eyes. “Okay. Look. You’re always welcome to stay with me and Bern. We’ll figure it out, Tesla. Don’t we always?”

I know how small his apartment is. Bernardo has just moved in with him; there’s no space left.

“What about the robot?” I ask.

#

How to self-destruct: a robot’s guide.

  1. Water damage. Large bodies of water will short-circuit internal machinery. In biological entities, this is referred to as “drowning.” There are several bridges nearby, and the rivers are deep.
  2. Overload. Tapping into a power source far beyond what your circuits can handle, such as an industrial grade electric fence. There is one at the Gates-MacDowell recycle plant.
  3. Complete power drain. Biologically this is known as blood-loss. There are plenty of shaving razors in the bathroom.
  4. Substantial physical damage. Explosives or crushing via industrial recycling machines will be sufficient. Option: stand in front of a train.
  5. Impact from substantial height; a fall. You live in a very high apartment complex.
  6. Corrupt your internal systems by ingesting industrial grade chemicals. Acid is known to damage organic and inorganic tissue alike.
  7. Fill in the blank. (Tip: use the internet.)

#

Bernardo’s family owns a rental garage, and he uses one of the units for rebuilding his custom motorcycle. He says I can store the robot there, until another unit opens up.

Jonathan has moved his Budweiser memorabilia collection into storage so the small room he kept it in is now an unofficial bedroom. He shows it to me and says I can move in anytime I want. He and Bernardo are sharing his bedroom.

I don’t know what to do.

I have no operating procedures for accepting help.

I should self-destruct and spare them all. That would be easier, wouldn’t it? Better for them?

But the robot isn’t finished.

I don’t know what to do.

#

How to have awkward conversations about your relationship with your boyfriend and your boyfriend’s boyfriend:

  1. Agree to move in with them. Temporarily. (You feel like you are intruding. Try not to notice that they both are genuinely happy to have you live with them.)
  2. Order pizza and watch the Futurama marathon on TV.
  3. Your boyfriend says, “I’m going to come out to my family. I’ve written a FB update, and I just have to hit send.”
  4. Your boyfriend’s boyfriend kisses him, and you fistbump them both in celebration.
  5. You tell him you’re proud of him. You will be the first to like his status.
  6. He posts the message to his wall. You immediately like the update.
  7. (You don’t know what this means for your façade of boyfriend/girlfriend.)
  8. Your boyfriend says, “Tesla, we need to talk. About us. About all three of us.” You know what he means. Where do you fit in now?
  9. You say, “Okay.”
  10. “I’m entirely cool with you being part of this relationship, Tesla,” your boyfriend’s boyfriend says. “Who gives a fuck what other people think? But it’s up to you, totally.”
  11. “What he said,” your boyfriend says. “Hell, you can bring the robot in too. It’s not like any of us object to robots as part of the family.” He pats his boyfriend’s cybernetic arm. “We’ll make it work.”
  12. You don’t say, “I can be a robot, and that’s okay?” Instead, you tell them you’ll think about it.

#

I write another list.

I write down all the lists.  In order. In detail.

Then I print them out and give them to Jonathan and Bernardo.

The cover page has four letters on it: H-E-L-P.

#

Reasons why you should avoid self-termination (right now):

  1. Jonathan says, “If you ever need to talk, I’ll listen.”
  2. Bernardo says, “It’ll get better. I promise it does. I’ve been there, where you’re at, thinking there’s nothing more than the world fucking with you. I was in hell my whole childhood and through high school.” He’ll show you the scars on his wrists and throat, his tattoos never covering them up. “I know it fucking hurts. But there’s people who love you and we’re willing to help you survive. You’re strong enough to make it.”
  3. Your best friend Melinda says, “Who else is going to write me snarky texts while I’m at work or go to horror movies with me (you know my wife hates them) or come camping with us every summer like we’ve done since we were ten?” And she’ll hold her hands out and say, “You deserve to be happy. Please don’t leave.”
  4. You will get another job.
  5. You will function again, if you give yourself time and let your friends help. And they will. They already do.
  6. The robot needs you.
  7. Because if you self-terminate, you won’t have a chance to become a robot in the future.

#

 “Hey, Tesla,” Jonathan says, poking his head around the garage-workshop door. “Bern and I are going over to his parents for dinner. Want to come?”

“Hey, I’ll come for you anytime,” Bernardo calls from the parking lot.

Jonathan rolls his eyes, his goofy smile wider than ever.

I shake my head. The robot is almost finished. “You guys have fun. Say hi for me.”

“You bet.”

The garage is silent. Ready.

I sit by the power grid. I’ve unplugged all the other devices, powered down the phone and the data hub. I carefully hid Bernardo’s bike behind a plastic privacy wall he used to divide the garage so we each have a workspace.

We’re alone, the robot and I.

I rig up a secondary external power core and keep the dedicated computer running the diagnostic.

The robot stands motionless, the LED screen blank. It’s still cracked, but it will function.

“Can you hear me?” I ask. “Are you there?”

The robot:

I power up the robot and key the download sequence, re-installing the rescued memory core.

The robot’s screen flickers. The blue smiley face appears in the center, split with spiderweb cracks.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello, Tesla,” the robot says.

“How do you feel?”

“I am well,” the robot says. “I believe you saved my life.”

The hole closes in my chest, just a little.

The robot’s clean, symmetrical lines and tarnished purple surface glow. The robot is perfect. I stand up.

“How may I thank you for your help, Tesla?”

“Is there a way I can become a robot too?”

The robot’s pixelated face shifts; now the robot’s expression frowns. “I do not know, Tesla. I am not programmed with such knowledge. I am sorry.”

I think about the speculative technical papers I read, articles Bernardo forwarded to me.

“I have a hypothesis,” I tell the robot. “If I could power myself with enough electricity, my electromagnetic thought patterns might be able to travel into a mechanical apparatus such as the computer hub.”

(Consciousness uploads aren’t feasible yet.)

“I believe such a procedure would be damaging to your current organic shell,” the robot says.

Yes, I understand electrocution’s effects on biological tissue. I have thought about it before. (Many times. All the time.)

The robot says, “May I suggest that you consider the matter before doing anything regrettable, Tesla?”

And I reply:

The robot says: “I should not like to see you deprogrammed and consigned to the scrapping plant for organic tissue.”

And I reply:

The robot says: “I will be sad if you die.”

I look up at the frowning blue pixel face. And I think of Jonathan and Bernardo returning and finding my body stiff and blackened, my fingers plugged into the power grid.

The robot extends one blocky hand. “Perhaps I would be allowed to devise a more reliable solution? I would like to understand you better, if that is acceptable.” The blue lines curve up into a hopeful smile.

The robot is still here. Jonathan and Bernardo are here. Melinda and Kimberly are here. I’m not a robot (yet), but I’m not alone.

“Is this an acceptable solution, Tesla?” the robot asks.

I take the robot’s hand, and the robot’s blocky fingers slowly curl around mine. “Yes. I would like that very much.” Then I ask the robot, “What would you like me to call you?”

#

How to become a robot:

  1. You don’t.
  2. Not yet.
  3. But you will.

 

©  2014 by Merc Rustad
5,000 words | Science Fiction