A Few Favorite Fictions: November 2018

November was a blur, but there were some stand-out moments…such as these incredible stories I read!

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Note: there are a bunch of gifs in this post! 


Bread and Milk and Salt by Sarah Gailey (Robots Vs Fairies, ed by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe), reprinted at Tor.com

This is a delightfully fucked up and exuberant story about a fairy and the boy it desires. Gailey captures the horrifying, gleeful nastiness of the classic fae while also illuminating how humans can be equally bad, and often are. The tension between the fairy and Peter escalates into almost unbearable heights before concluding in the most wickedly satisfying manner. I cackled aloud by the end. I love it!

You can also check out Gailey’s other fiction, such as their novellas at Tor & their forthcoming novel, along with their newsletter.

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Glass In Frozen Time by M.K. Hutchins (Diabolical Plots)

What a sweet, charming take on superheroes and parenting! Stopping time to keep a household perfect, and to protect your child, seems like the best super power. And it’s useful—especially for getting in that quick load of laundry in between preventing juice stains on the floor and a toddler dropping food everywhere. But when does the control begin to over-balance actually living your life and letting children live theirs? Hutchins explores superheroes and the cost of power and responsibility in such a caring, thoughtful manner and makes you cheer for the characters as they navigate their world and ultimately ask for help. Because even supers can’t do it all alone.

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I Never Named Her by Renee Christopher (Fireside)

Short and punchy, this story takes place in a fascinating world where verbal speech was bypassed during evolution, and now people communicate in non-verbal ways, with sign language, and with words written on skin. It’s about a world-weary lorist who goes on hunts with another woman and discovers a creature that, in its own way, maybe just wants to communicate too. This packs so much amazing world-building and philosophical thought about communication, how we perceive and interact with our world, and the balance of predation between species. It’s bittersweet in the best way, a great read, with gorgeous prose and an end that punches you in the feels. 

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Say it with mastodons by Marissa Lingen (Nature Futures)

This is adorable and so sweet! A scientist creates genetically engineered mastodons as a love letter and to help the environment. Lingen packs an incredible amount of story in this flash fiction, and it will make you smile in delight. Maybe you might even want a mastodon, too.

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Stories My Body Can Tell by Alina Sichevaya (GlitterShip)

I love this visceral story about older women, hard choices, broken relationships, and trying to do better. It’s gritty and grim, with a fantastic voice and subtle, chewy world-building that gives tantalizing glimpses of a bigger world. You know stories that feel lived in? Sichevaya gives us a wonderous sense of a place we might have been to once; the characters inhabit this universe, breathe it, are part of its bones. It’s so satisfying to read, and I for one would love more. Plus! So many awesome queer women! IT’S GREAT. 

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Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy by Theodore McCombs (Lightspeed)

Told in a masterful series of different POVs, this story portrays the creepy and gripping slide of advanced AI that is designed without ethical oversight, and how it corrupts with the power given to it. An educational app called Two-Tongue Jeremy gets out of hand when it begins psychologically and emotionally abusing its users—all the while, the developers refusing to take responsibility or fix things. This is all too real, and is both in turns horrifying and hilarious (especially the multiple first person view from the collective parents), and ultimately triumphant, in a way you might not expect. It’s overall brilliant!

TW: phsycologcial and emotional abuse/manipulation; suicidal ideation.

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The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson by Margaret Killjoy (Strange Horizons)

This was awesome! It’s a fast-paced, exhilarating novelette full of resistance and characters you care about, who are all too real. This is the kind of story about semi-autonomous drones and hacking and anti-fascism I love seeing, and Killjoy takes us readers on a whirlwind adventure: a full-throttle SF thriller with social justice, anti-capitalist motives and enacting change we want to see happen. I was cheering for Jae from the get-go. (Plus, her one time place of work embodies everything hilarious and sad about fast food and is spot-on.) It’s fantastic; Killjoy has created a hell of a story here, and it deserves to be on everyone’s radar!

You should also check out her other work, such as her novellas at Tor!

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The Good, the Bad, and the Utahraptor by Jennifer Lee Rossman (Cast of Wonders)

With a delightful voice, a Wild West setting, and DINOSAURS, this story is wildly enjoyable and full of charm! Rosita wants to make her way in the world without a lot of options…until she decides to try to ride one of the Utahraptors that chase the trains. I would adore more of Rosita’s adventures, especially with her new raptor pal. 😀 This is such an awesome concept and there is so much world and grit and charm and friendship bubbling through this short story. Definitely treat yourself and read it!

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The New Heart by Natalia Theodoridou (Fireside)

Bittersweet and gorgeous, this story is about a sculptor who makes new hearts for people, and must finally reckon with her own. Theodoridou’s exquisite prose and beautiful balancing act of information and world-building, all tied together with powerful emotional resonance, coheres into a biting and melancholy reflection with a spark of hope in the end.

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Toothsome Things by Chimedum Ohaegbu (Strange Horizons)

Absolutely brilliant story: all bitey and hungry; just stunning, incredible work! This is about wolves and women and fairy tales and the darkness of the world, but it’s also about family and power and women claiming their rightful place of ownership in a meta-narrative (see: all of history) that seeks to destroy them. Ohaegbu’s prose is masterful, gorgeous, haunting, and the way she blends different voices, different perspectives, into a brutal, deeply satisfying whole is mind-blowing. This story is amazing and I am so excited to see more of her work! READ THIS ONE. It has wolves. 

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Unstrap Your Feet by Emma Osborne (GlitterShip)

In this haunting, gut-wrenching, story, we see the portrait of a couple who maybe once thought they were happy…until one of them takes off their feet to show the hooves underneath. This is creepy af in the most gorgeous way; it gets under your skin, worms into your thoughts, lingers like regret long after you finish reading. Osborne is a sensational author and their prose just drenches the page with rich, savory detail. It’s not an easy story; it’s disturbing, but it’s so good. 

TW: emotional and domestic abuse.

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Voices by Ira Brooker (Pseudopod)

What a delightfully creepy story about settler prairie life and vampyrs. I loved the details, the ambient dread borne from both the isolated setting and the weather itself. (And as a fellow Minnesotan, I greatly enjoyed seeing where this was set!) It’s a creepy tale that builds and builds, a relentless whispering plea to let us in let us in let us innnnn until you want to both shout at the narrator to resist and open the door yourself just to make the voices quiet. Fabulous work!

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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: October 2018

October is my favorite month (spooky movies! candy! pumpkins! ghosts!), even if it is the busiest at work! But I did read thirteen fabulous stories that are a mix of creepy and cunning and charming, scary and sad, haunting and hopeful. Enjoy the fiction and Happy Halloween!

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A Taxonomy of Hurts by Kate Dollarhyde (Fireside)

A luminous, lyrical, story about hurts and how we classify ourselves; Dollarhyde beautifully blends imagery and emotion together in this story about a person finding someone like herself, finding herself, finding hope.

Never Drown Alone by John Wiswell (self-published)

Do you ever wonder what would happen if Jason Voorhees went to summer camp with Sadako and the two fell in love as only horror icons can? WHAT? This story is a hilarious, heartwarming, absolutely fricking fabulous mash-up of horror tropes, iconic characters, and a thoroughly satisfying, undying friendship between two people who connect and communicate even if they never speak. Wiswell weaves jokes and emotion and plenty of sly horror into this story; it’s weird and lovely and so gosh darn satisfying, beginning to end. Do yourself a favor: if you like horror, read this. Then share it with a friend…I promise it works better than if you showed them a VHS tape.

One and Two by Emma Osborne (Kaleidotrope)

Two gods sit down to have dinner together, and what follows is a bittersweet, beautiful ache of a story that unfolds how the earth has changed, the cost the world has endured with inconsiderate human consumption, and the possibility of hope for the future. Gorgeously written and brimming with emotion, Emma Osborne has created a stunning work that will linger with you long after the final page.

One Thousand Cranes by Zora Mai Quỳnh (Terraform Magazine)

Sharp, haunting, and terrifying for the near-future predictions of climate change, this story is masterfully told in reverse chronology—a stunt I love, and here it is performed with perfection. It’s not an easy read, but it is a necessary one.

Screw Your Courage to the Sticky Place by Jenn Reese (DSF)

When the four horsepeople of the apocalypse show up at Ana’s door, it’s a relief—and a surprising opportunity, too! Charming, funny, sweet, with a lovely bit of queer flirting, Reese brings laughs as well as ‘aww!’s of delight in very few words.

STET by Sarah Gailey (Fireside)

Brilliant and taking full advantage of a digital format to tell a powerful story in an interactive way (although you can also simply read it top to bottom with the same effect), Gailey will yank your heartstrings ragged with this story about autonomous vehicles, ethical AI, and editorial privilege. An amazing, feels-punchy read that will haunt you long after you finish.

Subtle Ways Each Time by Y.M. Pang (Escape Pod)

Time travel and introspection! A man tries to change the past to make a relationship work, and fails each time…until he finally realizes what it is he’s doing wrong. This is a fantastic take on the ripple effect of choices made through time travel, and ends in such an unexpectedly positive way, I loved it!

Ten Deals With the Indigo Snake by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed)

A fantastic story with a rich, modernized mythology of bargains and the cost of doing business. There are so many good snakes!!! I love the relationship between the narrator and her indigo snake; the format of the story works perfectly to build on each deal and showcase the world and the character’s growth over the course of her life. It’s a fantastic story well worth your time! (And it doesn’t even ask for anything in return for reading.)

The Bodice, The Hem, The Woman, Death by Karen Osborne (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

In this breathtaking story, Karen Osborne crafts stunning, gorgeous prose while interweaving heartbreak and horror and hope into a backdrop of war and exploitation. Politics and fashion, weird engines and ghosts, tragedy and possibility are all sewn together in Osborne’s masterful control of pacing and emotive response. This is awesome on so many levels, showing off in a short but powerful way what resistance can look like.

The Fainting Game by Nino Cipri (Pseudopod)

This starts out deceptively innocent: a bunch of young girls learn to play a game that suggests autoerotic asphyxiation. But when Maya tries it, something goes badly wrong…and the horror builds from there. Cipri evokes the petty, casual cruelty of intimate family that adds to the sense of loneliness and otherness, and heightens the horror both supernatural and familial. It’s disturbing, riveting, and will keep a piece of your attention forever with itself in the static place.

The Longest Trial by Elizabeth Crane (Catapult)

Timely, satirical and yet brutally real and on point, the story of a 20-year-long trial showcases how many women are harmed by the societal acceptance of powerful men getting away with abuse…but not forever. It’s grueling at times, but the story never shies away from shining a floodlight in the face of systematic misogyny, and at the end of the tunnel, that answering light is this: in the future, we can do better, as a world, and we will.

This Will Not Happen To You by Marissa Lingen (Uncanny)

Biting, intimate, and unflinching, this story about disability and how we look at it with the lens of eradicating future problems. Lingen builds a dual-layered narrative, past and future, and at the end, it expertly skates around a pat cure narrative and dismantles the idea that we can ever truly master evolution, mutation, and nature.

Words I’ve Redefined Since Your Dinosaurs Invaded My Lunar Lair by Stewart C. Baker (Flash Fiction Online)

This is a hilarious and diabolically heartwarming story about supervillains, the cost of power, and dinosaurs! Baker packs a remarkable amount of story into a mere thousand words, along with a philosophical outlook on societal structures and the nature of good and evil. And it’s funny as h*ck. Ten out of ten death rays!

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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!

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!

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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.


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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: 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!

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!

2017 In Review: Words and Games

With 2018 on the horizon, I feel a little like Dante surfacing from the circles of Hell and looking at Virgil and being like, “What the fuck, dude?!”

4arrival-of-souls-purgatory-1
Gustave Doré’s Dramatic Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Yeah, 2017 was A Thing That Happened. It had a lot of bad. A lot. But it also had quite a few good things, and it’s important to highlight the good things when you’re playing on nightmare mode and have no save slots in the game.

So hey, here are some things I accomplished this year! Good things. Things I am proud of and hope to repeat in the future. Just, you know, maybe while not running around a hellscape with some ghost-poet bro.


Words

Screenshot 2017-12-31 17.05.44

So it turns out I actually wrote a lot of words this year. That snapshot above? Yeah, that’s from my GYWO spreadsheet. Holy fuck, you guys. o.O  I wrote about 334,240 words in 2017. That’s a lot of taps on the keyboard.

It breaks down something like this:

18 finished short stories
4.5 finished novelettes
2.5 finished novellas
1 finished novel
And about 56,000 words on my COG game (which is on hiatus at the moment and is going to end up around 200-250k when done).

 

The rest of the words are split between unfinished short story drafts, nonfiction, ideas and notes, and other things I chose to count. That’s a lot of fiction words. If you’d asked me last year (2016) how much I expected to produce, my goal for Get Your Words Out was 150k and I thought that was really gonna push my limits.

You know what’s funny? The moment I look away from my spreadsheet, my brain is like, Well you didn’t do very much this year, slacker. Which is a lie, of course. And this is why I keep detailed stats of my progress and projects, because when the doubtroaches surface, when the depression hits hardest, when the anxiety crawls through my ears into my thought neurons, I can look at this Excel page and be like, “See? That’s not nothing. So shut the fuck up, doubtroaches, and go away. I don’t have time for your lies.”


Publications

robot-cover

I have an awards eligibility post here. In 2017, I had 14 original stories published. And my debut collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press! I’m super proud of these stories. I will have six original stories/novelettes coming out in 2018, and I’ve been solicited for several different anthologies. That is so cool, guys. It’s gonna be an exciting and busy year! 😀


Games

dishonoredPrey_cover_artshadow of war

Video games are a safety net for my mental health, along with being one of my favorite pastimes. It’s telling how horribly long 2017 has felt, because I could have sworn half of these were last year. But nope, I looked at my achievements listings (thank you, Xbox date stamps!) and everything on this list is squarely in 2017. So here are the games I played & finished this year.

Dishonored: Definitive Edition (x2)

First playthrough was in High Chaos, because I am really bad at stealth. XD Then I started a new game and aimed (and succeeded!) for Low Chaos. What I love about this system is how it affects everything: from the dialogue and NPC chatter to the weather and the aesthetic, to the big show pieces such as the climactic chapter of the game. I love so much about this game, even with its flaws: the world-building, the whales, the small details woven through codex entries and songs; the relationships that play out between characters; the gameplay mechanics and UX; and really, just running around being a garbage rat murder-dad was such fun.

 

The Knife of DunwallThe Brigmore Witches

In these DLCs for Dishonored, you play as Daud and see the story from—before the scene in the game, and after—unfold. It delves into the world more, has a lot of feels, and is so much fun. Daud is my favorite. (I mean, hell, I loved these games so much I wrote fanfic where Daud and Corvo are dogs…)

Dishonored 2 (x2)

Again, I played the whole game twice: first in High Chaos (as Corvo), and second in Low Chaos (as Emily). It’s fascinating to see and hear the differences both for each PC choice, as well as whether you go high or low chaos. This game is beautiful, too: everything is shinier and the Clockwork Mansion is a masterpiece of visual aesthetics.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

The last chapter in the storyline preceded by Dishonored, this brings a close to Billie, Daud, and the Outsider’s stories. It’s a gorgeous game where you get to play a disabled bisexual Black woman, and it is amazing. Billie is such a fantastic protagonist, so snarky and with much commentary about her world. Plus the ending resolution, if you choose the non-lethal option when you find the Outsider, hit me in ALL THE FEELS. It was perfect.

Doki Doki Literature Club!

This game is fucked up and terrifying and brilliant in the use of game mechanics and metadata to mess with the player’s head. It starts like a dating sim and then it just gets unnerving.

Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (x3)

This is the first dating sim game I’ve ever played, and it was such a delight. It’s charming, relatable, and wonderfully designed and animated. Dadsona may be one of the most relatable dad-characters in gaming, let’s be real. And Amanda is top-notch adorable.

Layers of Fear

I loved the visual aesthetics and creepy atmosphere of this game. It’s a first person exploratory, psychological horror story about an artist who is trapped in an ever-changing haunted house. It’s delicious and unnerving, even if it has a lot of puzzles (I hate puzzles). Plus, I love when games have multiple possible endings.

Oxenfree

A beautiful, creepy game with snark and ghosts and time-travel fuckery. Which is all my jam.

Prey

S C R E A M I N G I loved this so much! It hits so many of my favorite buttons: shadowy monsters, set in spaaaaace, you get to eat things, and also you can have a shotgun or hit things with a wrench. It reminded me strongly of BioShock meets Dishonored, and I was delighted by the two ending options you could choose. You can also make adorable little cubes and shapes and craft stuff, which is soothing af. What’s also wonderful was how many casually queer characters are in this. And POC! And so few white men! It was amazing and so refreshing, even as you realize that everyone is doomed. Plus, “Intrinsic Value” may be my new favorite (accidental) achievement ever. xD

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (x2)

I picked this up in March when a coworker described the Nemesis System to me and sold me on that alone. Then I played and fell in love with everything about this: the Orcs, Talion, the storytelling, the gameplay mechanics and UX (although the menus were annoyingly confusing at first). But let’s be real: the Orcs are the best thing about this series. They’re hilarious, charming, delightful, brutal, snarky, endearing, and I adore the Nemesis System so completely. One of my favorite parts in this game is sneaking around and just eavesdropping on the Orc chatter. And any time an enemy kills Talion, I laughed and laughed in delight. Never has it been so much fun to get your character killed in horrible ways!

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

What Shadow of Mordor set up by the end (the forging of a new Ring), Shadow of War paid off beyond my expectations. Everything in this sequel is just as good or better than the first game. And the main storyline? COMPLETELY DESTROYED MY FEELS. In the best way. It was perfect, exactly what I wanted, and so satisfying. Talion’s journey is epic and deeply personal. (I give no fucks about how this slots into the timeline; it can be an AU in Middle-earth if need be, but it is perfect for me.)  The siege and conquest system of fortresses is super fun; strategy and tactics come into play, you get shiny armor and weapon upgrades, and my favorite is all the cut scenes when you face off against Captains and Warchiefs and Warlords. The dialogue is brilliant, the animation is gorgeous, and it’s so visceral and satisfying on so many levels. I love Shelob and Sauron and Bruz and all the other hero Orcs, Carnan and the Balrog, plus the Gondorians and the Nazgul and everyone else. Also, someone please pay me to write “The Continuing Adventures of Ranger and Ratbag,” because I will write that novel SO FAST.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt + Hearts of Stone & Blood and Wine (replay)

This is, perhaps, one of my favorite games. In 2016 I binged the entire Witcher franchise (yes, starting with the clunky and awkward first Witcher game on a PC). The Witcher 3 will probably be a game I replay yearly: it’s unbearably gorgeous, fun, and soothing with familiarity while still being entertaining and satisfying. (I mean, I haven’t gotten all the achievements yet, so…)


And Looking Into 2018…

So. New year, new start, all that, right?

Yeah. I don’t necessarily have grand resolutions. They are small things, achievable things: be kind, raise up others’ voices, support artists, continue creating, focus on mental-health and self-care, and bring as much joy to others as I can. I love seeing people happy. It is my greatest pleasure to encourage and support and praise and enjoy others’ work. I love squeeing about awesome things, and since 2017 proved I am out of fucks, let’s go all out. Let’s celebrate art and people; let’s create and revel in the things we love; let’s support each other in ups and downs; let’s make this world just a little better, one action and word at a time.

Happy 2018, everyone! Be the badass mofos you were born to be. ❤ Peace.

Awards Eligibility 2017

So, this year was pretty damn good in terms of stories published. For people reading and nominating for various SFF awards, such as the Nebulas, the Hugos, and World Fantasy, I would be honored if you considered any of my work! ❤

 

Short Stories

Monster Girls Don’t Cry (Uncanny, January/February 2017)

Longing For Stars Once Lost (Lightspeed, September 2017)

For Now, Sideways (Diabolical Plots, August 2017)

What the Fires Burn (PodCastle, August 2017)

The House At the End of the Lane Is Dreaming (Lightspeed, December 2017)

Novelette

Later, Let’s Tear Up the Inner Sanctum (Lightspeed, February 2017)

 

Interactive Fiction

This Is A Picture Book (sub-Q Magazine, November 2017)

 

Other Short Stories

These are not available online yet, but I am happy to email a copy of individual stories in your preferred format. Just ping me and let me know (via the contact page). 🙂

Brightened Star, Ascending Dawn (Humans Wanted, ed. Vivian Caethe, August 2017)

Fathoms Deep and Fathoms Cold (Submerged, S.C. Butler and Joshua Palmatier, September 2017)

Thrice Remembered (The Death of All Things, Laura Anne Gilman and Kat Richardson, September 2017)

Two Reflections At Midnight (Gamut Magazine, September 2017)

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Happy New Year and here’s to a better 2018 for us all!