Featured Image from “Investigate” by Andis Reinbergs, cover art for Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298-299
Must Read Stories
“A Study in Shadows“, Benjamin Percy [Nightmare Magazine Issue 90, March 2020] Short Story
“A Study in Shadows” is a grim, phantasmagoric character study of the appropriately named Dr. Harrow, a psychology professor who engages in a field study “on the belief in the invisible”. He has a penchant for manipulating his subjects to induce a state of terror, unleashing deadly havoc but always escaping the consequences of his actions. The calmly anecdotal tenor of the prose is what really twists the knife.
A tour de force of old-fashioned Outer Limits-style existentialist sci-fi, “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” follows internet reporter Cory, who is handed the story of a lifetime when his ex-girlfriend Milagros creates an extraordinarily complex simulated reality. Milagros generates a race of beings more suited to problem solving than humans, and by throwing one cataclysm after another at them she uses their virtual solutions to solve real world problems like climate change and cancer. Things go horribly wrong, of course, when her creations turn out to be even better at solving problems than she could have anticipated.
I love stories that create their own rules and teach the reader how to follow them. Santiago’s second-person narrative deposits you in a mad scientist b-movie, where you pine for the nefarious and charismatic Dr. Markoff while you are both complicit in and victimized by his dastardly schemes. It’s a flick with a flexible fourth wall, continually re-shooting and re-editing itself, wandering offscreen and backstage at its leisure and blurring the line between performance and reality.
“Tend to Me“, by Kristina Ten [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 118, March 2020] Short Story
Nora is stuck in a pattern of taking on the interests and hobbies of whomever she is dating at the time. She has no real interest in any of these activities (which include rock climbing, scuba diving, beekeeping, gardening, auto repair), in fact she often actively disdains them. Her life shifts gears in a totally unexpected but weirdly logical way when she starts dating an acupuncturist. Ten’s very short story is propelled by sly, ticklish prose and a generous empathy for its characters.
More Recommended Stories
“The Amusement Dark“, Mike Buckley [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 162, March 2020] Novelette
A sober and engrossing story about people looking for meaning in life after humanity loses the war against the AI. The peculiar, murky relationship that develops between the humans and their new “benevolent” oppressors is fascinating.
A constable is instructed to arrest, without evidence, a young girl from another town who may be connected to the disappearance of five local boys. The girl has some unusual habits and is definitely hiding something, but she’s not the only one. An eerie little dark fantasy, and a devilishly satisfying one.
Ever down-on-his-luck Ardal flees town after assaulting his bully of a co-worker. After a sequence of further misadventures he stumbles upon a house in the woods beset by mysterious enchantments, its sole inhabitant afflicted with a strange kind of memory loss. Hughes charming, episodic meta-adventure lives up to its title in the literal sense.
Izuchukwu is in trouble with his school and his family when he is caught kissing a boy. He is also an “amusu” who can transform into a finch, and he’ll be in more serious trouble if they find out about that. A smart, well-crafted and poignant coming-of-age fantasy.
This exciting and suspenseful novelette draws together the characters and storylines from Sanford’s two previous “Grains” stories. This time, Alexnya is being prosecuted for Frere-Jones’s crimes (from “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories“) by the inflexible grains, who zealously “protect” the earth from the people who would harm it. A glimmer of hope arrives when she crosses paths with Colton’s day-fellow caravan (from “The Emotionless, In Love“). There’s enough context to anchor new readers, but the other stories are well worth investing your time in.
A fun caper story about a coffee-obsessed waitress who discovers she can create the perfect cuppa joe, if she can just get her hands on a newly invented mini-collider. A fresh and quirky concept, well-realized.
“The Spoils“, Aliya Whiteley [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298, February 27, 2020] Short Story
Citizens of an underground-dwelling civilization covet pieces of a massive, recently deceased creature known as an Olme for its magical properties. Most have little idea what to do with their cut, but Kim knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Or, at least she thinks she does. “The Spoils” is the kind of story that gradually peels back its layers to reveal a wider and deeper world than it shows at first glance.
Featured Image from the Cover Art for “Yiwu” by Feifei Ruan
My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.
Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could work in more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update the links when possible.
Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)
In 1975 a meteor shower seeds the planet with strange alien life forms. This story looks in on nine different days throughout the long life of LT, who seeks to understand them and help the world adjust to this new reality.
This was the popular theory: that aliens had targeted Earth and sent their food stocks ahead of them so there’d be something to eat when they arrived. LT had spent long, hot days in the apartment listening to the boyfriend while Mom was at work, or else following him around the city on vague errands. He didn’t have a regular job. He said he was an artist—with a capital A, kid—but didn’t seem to spend any time painting or anything. He could talk at length about the known invasive species, and why there were so many different ones: the weblike filaments choking the trees in New Orleans, the flame-colored poppies erupting on Mexico City rooftops, the green fins popping up in Florida beach sand like sharks coming ashore.
Ellen is doing a field study of a newly discovered, intelligent sea creature. She is also searching for her father, who disappeared in the midst of his own study. Ellen hopes to get one of the creatures, a female, to trust her enough to show her where she keeps her eggs.
Ellen wonders if their mutual subjects entranced him as much as they do her, whether he ventured out against his better judgment for another blissful hour in their midst. The ice below her creaks, creaks, creaks – footsteps on an old staircase. She shivers, burying herself into her oversized thermal jacket. She replaces her headphones and listens to the colony’s chatter from below. The twist of a dial slows it down, makes it indecipherable. Makes language out of noise. She closes her eyes, leans against her rucksack, and clicks her tongue in near-perfect mimicry.
Cu is an uplifted chimp, the only of her kind, who works as a police detective. Her current case has her investigating a murder that appears to have been committed by remote control.
“Yeah,” Huxley says, letting the bag fall to his lap to sign back. “No receiving or transmitting from interrogation. As soon as she lost contact with that little graft, she panicked. The police ECM should have shut it down as soon as she was in custody. Guess it slipped past somehow.”
Acting under instructions, Cu suggests. Huxley see-saws his open hands. “Could be. She’s got no obvious connection to the victim. We’ll need to have a look at the thing.” Cu scrolls through the perpetrator’s file. Twenty years’ worth of information strained from social media feeds and the odd government application has been condensed to a brief. Elody Polle, born in Toronto, raised in Seattle, rode a scholarship to Princeton to study ethnomusicology before dropping out in ’42, estranged from most friends and family for over a year despite having moved back to a one-room flat in North Seattle. No priors. No history of violence. No record of antisocial behavior. Cu checks the live feed from the interrogation room. Heart-rate down, she signs, tucking the tablet under her armpit. Time to talk.
“What is Eve?” by Will McIntosh [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 95, April 2018; 10,145 words]
Ben is shipped off to a new school with the other “good kids”, the ones who follow instructions and always behave and turn in their homework and get good grades. They are told they have a special new classmate, and that it’s important to act normal around her. It’s not easy to act normal around Eve.
It was taking up two seats pushed together. It was black, and lumpy with all of these folds, and, oh God, were those her eyes or her ears? She had four legs and no feet and she was wearing a purple dress and weird round patent leather shoes and a bow in her hair, only it wasn’t hair, it was more like black spaghetti, and I couldn’t breathe. The thing in the seats flexed, and suddenly it wasn’t lumpy anymore—it was hard, and sharp, with pointy barbs sticking out of it. It hissed like a giant punctured tire. “Direction,” the man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Do not stare. Put a damned smile on your face and find your seat and look at the board.”
Yaphet is a “player” living in a simulated reality ruled by an AI called Goddess. He dreams of flying, though their laws forbid it.
A burnt leaf, edged in incandescence, rose up into the fog, higher and higher, halfway to the treetops before the glow of heat left it. Never before had Yaphet seen a leaf fall up. He stood entranced, watching the flight of the embers, until his father called him again. When he was seven – almost eight – after much experimentation and failure and reassessment (though he was too young to know such words or describe what he was doing) Yaphet launched his first successful fire balloon.
Bodden volunteers for a radical new brain experiment. The researcher, Heidi, can’t help but fall for his charms, even though she knows he’s a creep: she has the data to prove it.
Bodden’s name would float over the table, and people would look at me, signaling their curiosity if not out-and-out concerns. The man was gorgeous, sure. Maybe that was reason enough. And he was certainly young and possibly vigorous. Was I the sort of lady that liked lustful distractions? Bodden also had a talent for funny words and warm, caring noise. When empathy was necessary. But he was one of three sociopaths in our study. Every week, without fail, he came into the shop, undergoing another comprehensive scan for money. And every week, he proved himself to be a self-absorbed boy. No smart professional woman could have feelings for a creep like that. That’s what the glances were saying, and the silences, and those thoughtful sips of coffee while the tea drinker offered little details from last night’s date. Bodden and I were together for ten weeks. Then it was finished, and I was shocked to discover how sad that made me feel.
“Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 136, January 2018; 6447 words]
Teenager Ghost is an orphan under the care of The Agency, who hold onto the troubling memories of their wards’ prior lives and return them when they come of age. Ghost learns that the new girl, Princess, still has all her old memories and Ghost resents her for it.
“You really fucking don’t,” I said. “Me, Flash, Whispers . . . we don’t have something real to share. All those cute, sweet memories of being a kid? Snatched off us when we got to the Agency and locked away where we can’t get ’em. All we know is school and the third floor and a few fosters who couldn’t be bothered to keep us. That’s it. That’s all we fucking got.” Princess stared at me for a second, eyes wide, then walked out, saying I didn’t know and Sorry under her breath like she was doing a Whispers impression. I stayed for a while, playing back the couple of half-decent memories I did have, like the day I figured out how to get the computers in the back to do what I wanted, like a real hacker, or the times the Agency let us go down to the first floor and play with the babies, and then the ones that made my neck shiver, like all the times fosters sent me back ’cause I didn’t fit into any of the smiling family photos—too old, too dark, too “hard to handle.”
Colton escaped the influence of the nanobots called “grains”, and in doing so he sacrificed his emotions. Now he is helping a caravan escape them as well.
“Quiet,” Mita said, glancing around as if she could see the microscopic grains within the land. “Talking of this will jinx our travels.” “Our caravan didn’t use the laser,” Colton protested. “The grains know the difference.” “Drop it!” Mita snapped. She then sighed and shook her head. “Sorry. But you know everyone else will shit if they hear you talking boneheaded stuff like this.” Anyone else in the caravan would have been insulted by Mita’s words, but Colton knew she was right. He didn’t understand how day-fellows saw the world. To him there were no jinxes. There were merely the grains, the microscopic machines which protected all the lands and existed in every animal and plant and insect and anchor. If the grains judged you wrong—decided you’d harmed the environments they protected—you were dead, jinx or no jinx. Still, he’d been with these day-fellows the last eight years and had learned not to debate their beliefs. He also appreciated that Mita always used polite words such as ‘different’ to refer to him, instead of the terms the other day-fellows whispered behind his back. Words like disturbed; sick; psychopath.
“Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar [Tor.com, May 23, 2018; 5305 words]
Esham works in the market selling lottery tickets that instantly grant the winners their heart’s desire. One day, when one of his regulars, Ms. Qiu, buys a ticket, something unusual happens and he can’t understand why.
It was just an ordinary day, the way Esham liked it. Order and routine, a knowing of what was expected. At the usual time, Ms Qiu emerged from the market doors. She crossed the road. She came to the stand and smiled at him and said, “Hello,” and asked for a ticket. He sold her one. She scratched the silver foil with a 10-baht coin. She looked at the card, almost puzzled, then shrugged and left it on the counter. “No luck?” Esham said. She pushed the ticket towards him. He glanced down, barely registering the impossible at first: the three identical symbols of a beckoning gold cat that meant it was a winning ticket. He glanced up at Ms Qiu. Nothing happened. “Thank you,” Ms Qiu said. She gave him a last, almost bemused smile, then turned and walked away. Still nothing happened. He stared at the good luck cats. Nothing. Ms Qiu crossed the road and walked away the way she always did, until she turned a corner and was out of sight.
At age fourteen, Amelia is supposed to find and catch her fairy soon. Every girl does: it’s a rite of passage. But Amelia just wants to use science to figure out what the deal is with all these stupid fairies.
When her mice weren’t running the mazes, she kept them in gallon pickle jars with holes punched in the lids, with newspaper to shred and ladders for stimulation. There were four pickle jars waiting for new occupants, clean and lined up under her window. She grabbed one, unscrewed the lid, and took it back downstairs. Outside, the sun was low in the sky. She crunched her way across the snowy yard, back to the car, looking nonchalant. She didn’t see the fairy right away. She opened the car door, sat down in the passenger seat, and waited. The fairy bobbed in front of her, maybe ten feet away. She looked at it, then looked away. It came closer. Closer still. She could see the delicate folds in the fairy’s dress, the shining strands of its hair, the tilt of its head, when she sprang. She didn’t want to touch it—she wasn’t entirely convinced that touching the fairy wasn’t what actually made the magic happen—but she swooped up with the jar and brought the lid down, trapping the fairy inside. Then she screwed the lid down, took it upstairs to her room, and set it on a shelf next to her mice.
Ben learns that his estranged brother Denny, a failed screenwriter, died of a heroin overdose. He travels to Hollywood to deal with Denny’s affairs and finds some things in his brother’s apartment that shouldn’t exist, not in this world anyway: a stack of videotapes of movies that were never made.
Retrieving The Ghoul Goes West, I glanced at the sticker on the case: Dimension Video. Then I turned on the television and slotted the tape into the VCR. The film opened with a black-and-white shot of the Amazing Criswell seated behind a desk, delivering a bizarre monologue about “the mysteries of the past which even today grip the throat of the present to throttle it.” The speech was portentous and theatrical, overcooked, the framing static. Then the image faded, to be replaced by a flat desert landscape with a saguaro cactus, obviously fake, on the right side of the frame. The credits came up on the left, each new name preceded by the sound of a pistol shot. Autry had first billing, Lugosi second, both of them above the title. The rest of the cast followed, among them Vampira and Paul Marco and Tor Johnson, Wood’s usual suspects. My only thought as the attribution credit came up— Written Directed Produced by Edward D. Wood, Jr. —was that I was looking at some kind of bizarre forgery. Then Lugosi, in full Dracula garb, appeared on screen, rising from a casket in a dim crypt that looked like a suburban garage. It was unmistakably him. By that point in my thesis research, I’d seen virtually every movie Lugosi had made three or four times. I knew the shape of his face almost as well as I knew my own.
From a one line entry in a 1784 Mount Vernon account book (“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire”), historian Clark spins nine fantastical stories of the men and women those teeth originally belonged to.
The second Negro tooth belonging to George Washington came from a slave from the Kingdom of Ibani, what the English with their inarticulate tongues call Bonny Land, and (much to his annoyance) hence him, a Bonny man. The Bonny man journeyed from Africa on a ship called the Jesus, which, as he understood, was named for an ancient sorcerer who defied death. Unlike the other slaves bound on that ship who came from the hinterlands beyond his kingdom, he knew the fate that awaited him–though he would never know what law or sacred edict he had broken that sent him to this fate. He found himself in that fetid hull chained beside a merman, with scales that sparkled like green jewels and eyes as round as black coins. The Bonny man had seen mermen before out among the waves, and stories said some of them swam into rivers to find wives among local fisher women. But he hadn’t known the whites made slaves of them too.
“Flow” by Marissa Lingen [Fireside Magazine Issue 53, March 2018; 2956 words]
The magical forest-dwelling naiads know Gigi is one of theirs by her “flow”, the way she carries herself, which marks her as her father’s daughter. Things change when a sinus infection permanently damages her equilibrium.
I return to the first stream I ever met. I walk so slowly through the forest, the tip of my cane making unfamiliar sounds against the rocks and the leaf mold of the path. I am exhausted from balancing on such a long walk. There are two naiads sitting by the stream, one of them visiting from a local lake I also know. I greet them eagerly, finding the right place to put my cane to step forward to the banks of the stream. The stream naiad shrieks. The lake naiad steps in front of her protectively. “What’s wrong with you?” I ask them. They don’t answer. They are staring at me with wide, terrified eyes. I haven’t been there in a year, a full turn of the sun and then a little bit. But I didn’t think they would forget so quickly. They didn’t when I was away to college, when I was hanging out with other naiads somewhere else for awhile. “Guys, come on, what’s your problem?” The stream naiad quavers, “Who are you?” The naiads don’t recognize me.
Bette is devastated by the murder of her beloved brother, Cary. She longs to experience his last moments, and she believes her schoolmate Hiram can help her with that.
“Hey,” I said to Hiram Raff, who was right where I thought he’d be, polishing shoes in a corner where hardly anyone ever looked. Off the high school baseball field, Hiram was all awkward stammers and intentionally poor posture, ashamed and afraid of the adulation he had unwillingly earned. “Hey,” he said, a little nervously, like What does this person want from me? “How you doing?” I asked, fingers rubbing at an invisible spot on the counter. “I’m all right,” he said, and his ruddy, lovely face said he most certainly was not. I felt awful, like I was frightening a small animal for selfish reasons, but I could not stop now. “I heard you can make people see things,” I said. Lines appeared between his eyes, and at the edges of his mouth. Poor boy looked close to bursting—into tears, maybe, or, simply bursting. I was a monster, I knew, but I had to say what I’d come here to say. I owed it to my brother. “Can you help me? Can you come on a road trip with me?” I had two pieces of information about Hiram Raff, both of them ill-gotten, gossip-derived. Common knowledge. Things he was deeply, irrationally ashamed of, for reasons that were his own. The first was what I’d already said: that under certain circumstances he could cause visions—of the past, of the future, of fictional scenarios that had never been and would never be, and whether he or anyone else could tell the difference was subject to much conjecture. The second was that he was had a congenital, terminal case of politeness. Hiram was a boy who could never tell anyone No.
(Unlike most Lightspeed stories, Conspicuous Plumage is not currently available to read online, but only in a purchased copy of the issue.)
The Filipino deity Mebuyen helps guide innocent souls to the afterlife. Usually she only gets infants, but now older children and adults who have been murdered by the police are coming her way. And her river isn’t washing them clean like it’s supposed to, so she can’t even send them on their way.
I think they took me to a side street. It smelled like pee. There was garbage on the floor. I prayed to the Lord that I trusted He would not put me in hell even if I am transgender. I don’t pray very often but I was scared. I kept thinking don’t let it be painful, I don’t want to die suffering. They asked me two questions and I answered, then the one that shouted at Jel came forward, and the one that dragged me told him to shoot. And he shot. Babygirl sighs. “I’m glad I’m not in hell,” she says. “At least—I don’t think this is hell?” “It’s not,” Mebuyen says. “But what is this place? Does this mean I don’t have peace?” Mebuyen hands her a glass of milk. “This is Gimokudan—my domain. You’re safe here. But as for your second question, I would like to know the answer too.”