The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 2: Science Fiction

My “Best of 2019” is split into three parts: Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror; Part 2: Science Fiction; Part 3: Fantasy. My choices in each category are not ranked; they are presented in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Each title is accompanied by a quick introductory statement and a short excerpt from the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers. For the purposes of this column, short fiction is defined as less than novel-length, or under 40,000 words.

The Best Short Science Fiction of 2019

mission critical“By the Warmth of Their Calculus”, by Tobias S. Buckell (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 7586 words

A civilization survives among the icy, rocky ring of a great planet, hiding from alien predator drones determined to destroy them. Fiana commands a dustship trying to harvest genetic material from an ancient seedship, but when a rival nation’s meddling inadvertently sets off a trap, the mission turns into a slow, measured survival flight where the slightest miscalculation could lead to their deaths.

“How fast can we get out of here?”
“Using consumables, it’s dangerous, Mother. We need to coordinate with Ops. The margin will be thin, if we want to get out of here before the Hunter-Killers.”
Fiana swept the transparent sheets around her away. “I’ll get Ops ready to follow your commands.”
To stay put would be to wait passively for death, and she wasn’t ready to welcome the Hunter-Killers onto her ship.
Within the hour, the far side of the dustship was venting gases as crew warmed the material up (but not too much, or the heat signature would be suspicious and hint at some kind of unnatural process), compressed the water and hydrogen in airlocks through conduits of muscular tubes that grew throughout the ship, and blasted it out in timed dumps at F&O’s orders.
Slowly, faster than the natural differential drift already there, Fiana’s dustship began to move away from the seedship. It trailed a tail behind, gleaming like a comet.

Clarkesworld 159Such Thoughts are Unproductive“, by Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 159, December 2019) 6584 words

In this post-climate disaster, post-truth dystopia, Mar is coping with separation from her mother, who has been interned for engaging in subversive activity. It’s clear Mar herself is under suspicion by association, and the authority’s duplicitous strategies to keep her in line hit where it hurts.

Sophie talked about grad school and Mom, about parties they threw together, about staying up late crying over deadlines and supervisors, about graduation, and how Mom had blown hers off for the government job, but been there the next year for Sophie’s, already pregnant with me.
“So you were at my graduation. Good luck charm.”
I slid into this the way we slid into so many things: the loss of cities to the encroaching waters and deserts, the swamps and the Zika virus creeping north along the Mississippi, as the days grew hotter and the mosquitoes adapted. A kind of compliant quiet—pleasant, safe—overtook me as I thought yes, of course I had an aunt named Sophie. Of course.
She slept that night on the couch. It was the obvious thing to do. Curfew.
That night I lay in bed and recited the facts of my life: I do not have an aunt named Sophie; my mother did not have antibiotic-resistant TB and was not in a sanatorium on one of the quarantine islands. My mother is in an internment camp with yellow cinder block walls, somewhere in the mountains, far enough north that she’s surrounded by tamarack, maybe by black spruce. At the end of the road with no exit.

Lightspeed 112Sacrid’s Pod“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) 8741 words

Sacrid Henn planned to leave the repressive society she was born into as soon as she came of age, so her parents contracted AIsource to imprison her for life as punishment for rejecting their faith. Inside her pod, her AIsource caretaker tries to make her as comfortable as possible and to accommodate her needs, but Sacrid won’t give up on obtaining her freedom. The caretaker is oddly encouraging of this attitude.

It is virtually impossible for you to escape your pod, escape its extensive support system, find your way to some access corridor, and subsequently find your way out of that portion of this deep-space facility that is devoted to the care of guests, a distance that is itself the size of a small country. Even then you would have to worry about escaping this artificial world, without cooperation from us, and somehow making it back to the nearest human habitation, a further distance of fifteen light years. It would be like escaping a jail cell, only to then face the necessity of escaping the prison, only to then have to escape the surrounding city, only to then have to escape the surrounding landscape, only to then find yourself with an ocean separating you from your homeland. It is virtually impossible.
I can tell you that this feat has been accomplished one hundred and fifty-eight times in our many years of operation. This represents a fraction of one percent of our current detainee population. Still, it remains a remarkable testament to human ingenuity.
This interests you.
We have not plugged that hole in our security in large part because of its usefulness as a form of recreation, and as a source of hope.

f48coverThe Message“, by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire 48, February 2019) 4221 words

Sarah has as normal a life as a teen can have in world where everyone is a climate refugee and world politics is mired in a state of perpetual brinksmanship. Her favorite activity is writing fan fiction with her best friend Chloe, who lives on the other side of the world and whom she has never met in person. Sarah also has a direct connection to the most culturally significant event in human history.

I hear the new special aired, she says. Have you seen it?
She means the new documentary special on the Message. Timed to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of its reception. The moment fifteen years ago when my mother looked at a pattern of radio signals and realized she was seeing a message from a distant star.
Yeah, I write back. It was okay. There was nothing really new.

That’s part of the reason my mom’s in a funk: because there’s nothing new. That’s why it’s hard to drum up private funding. Well, that and the ongoing economic recession and the fact that the Message is publicly available, all of it freely accessible to the world, and thousands of experts and hobbyists have taken a crack at it and thousands of research papers and blog posts have been written, but still no one knows what it means. Scientists have tried to analyze it in all kinds of ways, programming deep neural networks to comb through the signal, applying various models, taking it apart bit by bit. Artists have played with it, translating patterns to musical notes or colors. There are those who still say that the signal is dangerous, that it’s a viral code, that if you look at it too deeply it will take over and reprogram your mind. There are those who think it’s the key to salvation. And from the start, there’ve been those who insist that it’s all an elaborate hoax.
The newest documentary special has a lot of recycled footage. Old interviews from fifteen years ago. Shots of those first hectic press conferences. Mom doesn’t speak in the first big briefings. She wasn’t director of the Institute then. She was a new postdoctoral fellow, fresh from her Ph.D. Her group leader and the Director are the ones at the podium. But Mom was the one who recognized the signal for what it was. She saw it in real-time.

FIYAH Issue12_150“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019) 7019 words

Like all colonists on the distant moon of Corialis, Thandeka underwent an arduous process of microbial adaptation to prepare for her new life there. Thandeka suspects that something about the moon – some unseen system or presence – is rejecting them, and if her family is to have any future there she needs to find out what it is and how to make peace with it.

“I’m looking at?”
“I’m measuring the impulses running through the biomass, and it’s incredible.” Garande brings up another graph, squiggly lines running through. “See that correlation with a standard neural map? This is far more complicated. For a start, the level of activity far exceeds anything a single brain could do. The info here is overlaid, multiple processes running parallel to one another, but fully integrated with sophisticated feedback loops.”
“Inga.”
“Now, if I—” He takes a crude device, a low voltage battery and wires, and shocks one of the strings. “See how the multimeter peaks, right? That’s my signal going through, but then the natural signals stop after the interruption. The reading on my meter goes to zero… wait for it… there it is; do you see that? A low intensity signal passes one way, and then the other. And it’ll keep doing this, almost like it’s testing for something. If I shock it again, the test signals change in frequency. Check that one out—it’s exactly the same as my input.”
“So it reacts to stimulus. Every living thing does.”
“I think the data points to some kind of non-sentient intelligence built by all these interlinked unicellular life forms, Thandeka. Information flows that span the entire moon.”

FSF 7-8“Mighty Are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2019) 6375 words

The war between machine and man ended with a peace treaty, but that doesn’t mean everyone has moved on.

It was death by a thousand small grievances. The French were making a national sport of maligning British cuisine, while the Italians and the Greeks busied themselves privatizing transportation, education, automotive export, luxury import. Music now pivoted on the approval of the Spanish. Worse still, the Nordic countries, much to Henrietta’s despair, were taking over the airwaves with their suicidally bleak comedies.
And China.
Henrietta didn’t even want to think about China or how the country had oh-so-politely excused itself from the debacle that was the rest of the world, content to be self-sufficient, the insufferable twats.
Treasonous as the thought was, Henrietta missed war and she missed being an apparatus of war. Conflict was honest. The protocols weren’t half as byzantine. There was no need to asphyxiate in endless meetings or equally endless dinners, the menus fastidiously tailored to minimize risk of offending the collective palate. Henrietta wasn’t an alcoholic when armistice began, but now she had a wine cabinet in her office. It distressed her.

New Suns“The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon (New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, editor Nisi Shawl; Solaris Books) 6482 words

Life goes along swimmingly for the “Enhanced”, whose brain implants seem to make them happier, more well-adjusted people than the un-enhanced. The narrator’s close friendship with his ex-wife’s fiancée Sollozzo – despite his disappointment over the end of their relationship – attests to that. But having a brain that spackles over your negative thoughts may have unintended consequences.

“Are you working on a new novel? Your fans must be getting very impatient.”
“I haven’t written anything new for a decade,” said Sollozzo, with a smile. He stroked Padma’s cheek. “She’s worried.”
“I’m not!” Padma did look very unworried. “I’m not just your wife. I’m also a reader. If I feel a writer is cutting corners, that’s it, I close the book. You’re a perfectionist; I love that. Remember how you tortured me over the translation?”
Sollozzo nodded fondly. “She’s equally mad. She’ll happily spend a week over a comma.”
“How we fought over footnotes! He doesn’t like footnotes. But how can a translator clarify without footnotes? Nothing doing, I said. I put my foot down.”
I felt good watching them nuzzle. I admired their passion. I must have been deficient in passion. Still, if I’d been deficient, why hadn’t Padma told me? Marriages needed work. The American labor theory of love. That worked for me; I liked work. Work, work. If she’d wanted me to work at our relationship, I would have. Then, just so, I lost interest in the subject.
“I don’t read much fiction anymore,” I confessed. “I used to be a huge reader. Then I got Enhanced in my twenties. There was the adjustment phase and then somehow I lost touch, what with career and all. Same story with my friends. They mostly read what their children read. But even kids, it’s not much. Makes me wonder. Maybe we are outgrowing the need for fiction. I mean, children outgrow their imaginary friends. Do you think we posthumans are outgrowing the need for fiction?”

Asomovs 092019Winter Wheat“, by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) 22559 words

Jimmy grew up on a farm in the small town of Biggar, and plans on continuing the family business when his time comes. When an agricultural mega-corporation introduces a new patented strain of wheat to the market, young Jimmy fails to fully grasp the implications.

“Lemme put it this way: they’ve gone in and messed with how the starches stack together, twisted them all around the opposite direction to usual. Nothing on Earth has the right enzymes in its guts to break those carbs down into sugars – not you, not me, not the bugs, nothing,” he said, pausing briefly as if hesitating to wade too deep into the science. Then he continued: “If it doesn’t go through the industrial processing they use on it in the mills, well: you take this wheat and grind it into flour in your kitchen, and then bake yourself some bread, and I’m telling you that you can literally starve to death on a full stomach of that bread every day. It’s not just pests: anyone can starve off it, like rabbit meat. They made it that way, so we’re dependent on them for processing and distribution and everything. Now, what that means is that growing this wheat may give you a better yield, but it also locks you farmers into working with specific buyers, into a specific distribution model. And then you gotta deal with the ecological collapse that comes when all the vermin dies out, and if the genes they’ve spliced in transfer to other plants, or if it mutates… Well, it’s just not so simple as they’re saying, that’s all.”
Jimmy noticed his dad nodding, but he seemed to be the only one who was. All the other farmers were mumbling among themselves, and honestly, Jimmy didn’t really get what the big deal was either.

Clarkesworld 155Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) 1327 words

Abigail’s mom is happy to see her daughter’s face, but once the elation passes, she realizes things are a little off.

But you can’t really go home. You know that. Right, Abigail?
Obviously.
You’re only in the computer. You can’t come out.
I know.
I don’t know. Maybe this was a bad idea. Is it cruel? Am I just bringing you back to kill you all over again?
You’re freaking out, Mom. Stop it.
I realized I’ve been putting this off for almost five years. It would have been your thirtieth birthday last week. Maybe I should have come earlier, but I just wasn’t—sure if it would be cruel—
It’s fine.
And I . . . didn’t know if I wanted to.
Oh.
I’m sorry. Oh, God. I’m terrible.
Whatever. It’s not important.
Now you’re angry.
Don’t tell me how I feel.
No. This isn’t right. You don’t sound like you. You look like you . . . but you don’t sound like you at all.
Excuse me?
You’re so flat . . . You sound . . . like you’re champagne, and someone left you open.
I don’t even know how to respond to that.
There’s nothing in your voice but frustration.

FSF 052019“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May/June 2019) 24135 words

Through generations, after the collapse of human civilization, the surviving population struggled and succeeded in building a new world that shed the troubles of the past. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of a long and difficult journey she undertook to reach New Atlantis.

“It is said the harvest will be plentiful in Gomrath this spring,” Mowgai said. “And that a heron was spotted for the first time in centuries near Esh.”
We had been traveling for days. For a while yet we were still in the world as I mostly knew it, with its familiar terrain of good, black earth, and in the bloom of early spring, so that we rose each morning to the sight of thousands of pink and purple cyclamens, red poppies, yellow daisies, and blue-and-white lupines that stood stiffly like guards in the breeze.
“It is also said a vast Sea monster washed ashore in Sidon, dead upon the sand, and that a manshonyagger of old was seen near Dor-Which-Fell-To-Ruin,” Mowgai said, and shrugged. “But such stories are often told and there is seldom truth in them.”
“The sea monster, perhaps,” I said, thinking of the ocean and its mysteries. I smiled at him, imagining our faraway destination. The New Atlantis lay beyond the Sea. “If we’re lucky, we might get to see one.”
He shuddered. “Salvagers survive by avoiding danger, not running headlong toward it,” he said.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “So my mother always tells me.”
“And you never listen,” he said, but he smiled when he said it.

Fireside 67bAll the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) 2211 words

You keep snapping in and out of different realities, different iterations of your hometown. But what exactly are you looking for?

In so many realities, there are headstones carved with your mother’s name. Sometimes your mother is buried under headstones with different names. And there are realities where she’s still alive, and even ones where you never left.
In the ones where she’s alive and you never left, the other yous seethe with resentment and jealousy, like you are a reminder of everything they don’t have. You know just how they feel. In the ones where she’s dead, the other yous have the look of cornered rats and you know all over again why you had to get out.
Sometimes you tell yourself you are looking for the right reality, maybe one where you made peace and she died holding your hand. Or one where she screamed at you until you knew leaving was right. Or maybe she got better and you went off to college and this is your triumphant return. In one reality, your sibling (your sister, this time) explains the paradox of choice: choosing between three salad dressings is easy; choosing between one hundred, a nightmare.
“Narrow your choices,” she tells you, somewhere into the second bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey. “Settle for good enough.”
In that Topeka, your mother is dead and so is that version of you. Your sister doesn’t ask to come with you.

 

mission critical“Cyclopterus”, by Peter Watts (Mission Critical, editor Jonathan Strahan; Solaris Books) 5742 words

In a bleak future plagued by perpetual super-storms, Galik, a representative of the Nautilus corporation, goes on a potentially dangerous dive in the mini-sub Cyclopterus with a pilot who isn’t too eager to accommodate him.

“I told you: nothing’s decided.”
Moreno snorts. “Right. You dragged Sylvie hundreds of kilometers off-site, so you’d have your own private base camp. You put everyone’s research on hold, and you’ve got me spending the next eight hours planting your money detectors on the seabed. You think I don’t know what that costs?”
Galik shrugs. “If you’re that sure, you could always refuse the gig. Break your contract. Take a stand on principle.”
Moreno glowers at the dashboard, where the luminous stipple of the thermocline thickens and rises about them. Cyclopterus jerks and slews as some particularly dense lens of water slaps lazily to starboard.
“They’d probably send you home then, though, right? Back to the heat waves and the water wars and that weird new fungus that’s eating everything. Although I hear some of the doomsday parties are worth checking out. Just last week one of ’em ended up burning down half of Kluane National Park.”
Moreno says nothing.
“’Course, if you really wanted to stand up and be counted, you could join the Gaianistas.” And in response to the look that gets him: “What? You gonna let the fuckers who killed the planet get away scot-free again?”
“That’s rich. Coming from one of their errand boys.”
“I chose my side. What about you, hiding out here in the ocean while the world turns to shit? You going to do anything about that, or are you all sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 3 – Fantasy HERE

Additional Reading:

The above choices are based on my own personal tastes from my own reading experiences, and are meant to be taken as such. There are many other “best of” and “recommended reading” lists that offer up quality reading choices for short SFF. Here are a few:

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

Rocket Stack Rank 2019 YTD (aggregate list), compiled by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

More links will appear as I find them!

The Best Short SFF – March 2019

Featured Image from the cover for Lightspeed Issue 106 by Grandfailure

Must Read

tram car 015
Cover by Stephan Martiniere

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (excerpt only), by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing, February 19, 2019) Novella

Set in 1912 in the same alt-history story universe as the author’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 excels on multiple fronts: as a [magical] detective yarn, as a chilling, classically structured haunted house story, and as a vehicle for historian Clark’s speculative re-imagining of modern Egyptian civilization. The story follows Hamed Nasr, an agent for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and his eager but inexperienced new partner Onsi and they investigate the titular event. The intricate detail imbued in the story’s setting is the star of the show—I would be happy to get lost wandering the streets of Clark’s Cairo—but that takes nothing away from the wonderful cast of characters and sublime plot execution. The climax is a true nail-biter, with a resolution that resonates. Extra points for a protagonist who can wax anthropological about folklore.

“A Mate Not a Meal”, by Sarina Dorie (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March/April 2019) Novelette

At first, Sarina Dorie’s alien spider love novelette “A Mate Not a Meal” seems like it would be a better fit for Analog’s more character-driven sister magazine Asimov’s. Taking place on a tech-free giant spider planet with a tight 1st person POV of its giant spider protagonist, it’s hard not to wonder for a time how it fits in with Analog’s stated goal to publish “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.” It does find its way into Analog’s wheelhouse, though explaining how is too much of a spoiler to reveal here. The spider hero of the story is Malatina, whose mother and sister are murdered and eaten by a male spider who tricked mother into believing he wanted to mate with her. This is a not infrequent occurrence on giant spider world, and Malatina must figure out on her won how to tell the difference between a man who truly loves her and one who just wants to devour her liquified insides. Her dilemma is human-relatable, but also convincingly spidery. The narrative is riveting and suspenseful and harrowing and action-packed and romantic and yes, also full of science that the story couldn’t live without.

Highly Regarded

Nightmare 78
Cover by Yupachingping

All the Hidden Places“, by Cadwell Turnbull (Nightmare Magazine Issue 78, March 2019) Short Story

The savviest genre authors use conventional story elements to manipulate readers’ expectations. “All the Hidden Places” is the story of Sherman and Nikki, a father and daughter journeying from the Virgin Islands to Sherman’s family home in Michigan through a plague-ravaged America where the infected turn into violent raving lunatics. Sherman is hiding something from his daughter, and if only she can figure out what that is, she would have a better understanding of their circumstances. Skillful tone-setting, subtle atmospherics, and the easy relatability of Sherman’s overprotective father and Nikki’s bright but confused teenager, elevate the familiar setup. What really sets it apart, though, is the interplay of foreshadowing and misdirection, which guides the story to a chilling and inevitable conclusion.

Also Recommended

FSF 3-4-2019
Cover by Kent Bash

“The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets”, by Gregor Hartmann (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Short Story

A police detective investigates a finance-related murder with broader social implications. Another of Hartmann’s wonderful stories set on the far-future frontier world of Zephyr; like the others, it stands on its own while rewarding fans of the previous stories. There is a nice little undercurrent of tension between the philosophically minded Inspector Song and her faith-oriented partner that lends the story extra weight.

Self-Storage Starts with the Heart“, by Maria Romasco-Moore (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 106, March 2019) Short Story

James can’t deal when his best and only friend Christopher moves away. Storing your loneliness can get expensive, so he builds his own discount loneliness storage apparatus and his equally lonely neighbor Emil convinces him they can start a business together. Author Moore makes building a world around a casual absurdity look easy, not to mention building a story around a protagonist with entirely selfish motives.

Curse Like a Savior“, by Russell Nichols (Apex Magazine Issue 118, March 2019) Short Story

Junior is a tech who repairs malfunctioning “Halograms”—religious-themed hologram devices—but there’s something different about Mrs. Fisher’s potty-mouthed Jesus. Nichols transforms what could have been a one-joke premise into a devilish surprise.

Hands Made for Weaving, With Nails Sharp as Claws“, by Eden Royce (Fireside Magazine Issue 65, March 2019) Short Story

This beautifully written story follows the efforts of the world weaver, who rescues magical creatures when they accidently slip through the veil between worlds. Full of wonderful imagery and memorable characters.

“How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers”, by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Novelette

This long-gestating, standalone sequel to Watt-Evans’ Hugo-winning classic is the most perfect tribute imaginable to Asimov’s late, legendary former editor Gardner Dozois. A private investigator tracks the source of a mysterious object called a “neural resonator” to the titular diner, which is also a waypoint to the multiverse. A first-rate illustration of the kind of classically structured sci-fi Asimov’s has trafficked in since its inception.

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 3)

Featured Image from the cover art for “Strange Waters”, by Julia Griffin.

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)

Second World Fantasy

Desert Island Pick

A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018; 5990 words]

lightspeed 98
Cover Art by Saleha Chowdhury

I could probably conjure a thousand words to describe this fantastical re-imagining of the Crimean War, but you only need three: Zombie. Attack. Monkeys.
The deck shakes; all other sound is muted as our six starboard cannons fire wicked harpoons. Attached to the harpoons are giant chains. Three harpoons punch through the hull of the Russian ironclad. Our airship jerks as the chains go taut.
The Russian guns are still swinging skyward and nearly have us sighted. These cannons have caused the iron-hulled British vessel to belch black clouds. I imagine what they would do to our hull of wood.
The organ grinder slides the copper plate into his organ and closes the lid. He turns the cranks slow at first as if he is fighting it. Faster, now faster, “The March of the Janissaries” fills the air like the keening wail of a thousand grieving mothers.
The monkeys burst from the hold, a faceless black tide with brief flashes of white. They rush around us, past and over the organ grinder and me. I feel a million cold hands. They speed past so fast they sound like a crowd shushing me. Shhh . . . shhh.
They spread beyond us, onto the chains, where they stream down to the ironclad ship. The black furred bodies seem like oil spilling down the three chains, like the dark fingers of Şeytan.

The Best of the Rest

The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 143, August 2018; 15,501 words]

Ada and her amazing talking chicken Blanche must run from the unstoppable horde of deadly wastoures ravishing the land. This may or may not end well.

The wastoures came. The trees shook and the tall grasses shivered, first from animals fleeing, every deer and mouse and marten and vole running for its life, but then from the wastoures themselves. They trampled the grasses as they poured like a flood across the clearing, eddied wherever they found some living thing to eat, crashed against the trees and scoured the bark with their claws and talons, until swarming they swept past. But always more.
The night was bright-mooned, alas. Ada saw a fallow doe pulled down in her flight (for she would not run faster than her fawn) and skeletonized quicker than a hen lays an egg, and the fawn even faster than she. The wastoures swirled around a pile of stones in the clearing until they unearthed a fox den and ate the kits. There was a great anguished roaring in the forest, which Blanche whispered surely was a bear pulled from her hiding place and killed.

We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018; 25,051 words]

The rot hounds have breached the border, and Reyna knows that means her sister’s prophecy will come true. Convincing their leader Talgrun that they must find a new land for their people proves difficult, if not impossible.

“Omens are the crone’s art,” Ymaera said. “So what say you, crone?”
The old woman cocked her head one way and then the other, and in the thatch her crow cackled a laugh. “She speaks of omens but stinks of rot,” she said. “Of things not new and dead but old and dead. Old wounds, old grudges, old corpses cold and pretty.”
She split her lips in a yellow grin. Evahr’s hand gripped brief and tight on my shoulder, as if I’d be fool enough to leap, to shed blood beneath the beam. Acidic anger pulsed in my gut, but I was long accustomed to its slow, liquid pain. I no longer bit at every provocation like a wounded animal.
“This is not about my sister,” I said. Our sister, Imri’s and mine. Titha. Cold-born, blood still as a corpse’s and yet living. The cold spoke prophecy, and since Korohn’s time we had listened. Until Titha’s final Telling.
“Not about your sister, you say. Yet the first words you spoke to me were ‘we should not have stayed,’” Talgrun said, settling back in his chair as if weary of me.
Perhaps I was growing more temperate as the cold leached years from my bones. I did not tell him that my sister had warned us—that she had died to warn us, and we had not heeded her. Two years now since Titha had spoken her prophecy, and still Talgrun listened to the crows and their mistress.
“Your husband has brought a bounty, and you will share in it,” Talgrun said. “Celebrate, and put this beast out of your mind. The threat is no more. You slew it, and a fine trophy it will make for your home.” Your home, not his. He did not claim it, as was his right: a final insult masked as a gift.
Perhaps I had not grown so temperate after all.

Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire [Tor.com Publishing; 39,193 words]

sugar sky
Cover photo illustration by Sean Rodwell; Cover design by FORT

The sequel to McGuire’s Hugo-and-Nebula-winning Every Heart a Doorway. This time Rini, a young girl from a nonsense world, crashes Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, looking for her mother Sumi. There’s just one problem with her request: Sumi was murdered as a teenager, and never had any children. Rini is not deterred.

“—and that’s why she can’t be dead,” concluded Rini. Her story had been long and rambling and at times nonsensical, full of political coups and popcorn-ball fights, which were like snowball fights, only stickier. She looked around at the rest of them, expression somewhere between triumphant and hopeful. She had made her case, laid it out in front of them one piece at a time, and she was ready for her reward. “So please, can we go and tell her to stop? I need to exist. It’s important.”
“I’m so sorry, dear, but death doesn’t work that way in this world,” said Eleanor. Each word seemed to pain her, driving her shoulders deeper and deeper into their slump. “This is a logical world. Actions have consequences here. Dead is dead, and buried is buried.”
Rini frowned. “That’s silly and it’s stupid and I’m not from a logical world, and neither is my mother, so that shouldn’t matter for us. I need her back. I need to be born. It’s important. I’m important.”
“Everyone is important,” said Eleanor.
Rini looked around at the rest of them. “Please,” she pleaded. “Please, make the silly old woman stop being awful, and give me back my mother.”

Strange Waters” by Samantha Mills [Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018; 6183 words]

Mika is lost at sea and desperate to be reunited with her children. Finding her homeland isn’t the problem; finding the right year is.

Strange waters flowed beneath the hull of her fishing boat, illuminating the midnight darkness with phosphorescent swirls of yellow and green. The thick scent of pepper and brine tickled her nose, and she knew that a juggernaut swam far below, vast and merciless and consuming shield fish by the thousands.
Mika squinted up at a familiar night sky, at the Dancing Girl, the Triplets, the Mad Horse. She had fished off this coast for nearly twenty years, eight of them lost in time. She’d seen green waters, pink waters, blue. She’d been to Candorrea when it was a loose collection of fishing villages, and she’d been to Candorrea when the buildings were so tall she could hardly look at them without shaking. No matter what century she washed up in, however, the constellations were there to guide her home.
It was a windless night. Mika pulled out her oars and set course for Maelstrom, keen to find out when she had landed.

Blessings” by Naomi Novik [Uncanny Magazine Issue 22, May/June 2018; 2267 words]

A sideways reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, in which all the fairies get hammered and the blessings go a little off script.

“Oh, wealth’s all well and good,” said the third, from out of the depths of her dark cloak. She was a shadowed fairy, and rather alarming even to her companions, but she lived nearer the father’s house than any of the others, in a deep cave somewhere up in the mountains. The baron had known better than to slight her, of course, but his lady had gone beyond that, and sent the invitation with a personal note written in her own hand that they very much hoped to have the pleasure of her company, and a small package of sweetmeats. It was not the traditional sort of courting sent to shadowed fairies—the kind of lord who really wanted their attendance was more likely to send a gift of the knucklebones of plague victims—but the sweetmeats had been carefully made with rotted walnuts and pig’s blood, and at the feast, the fairy had discreetly been served a plate of raw calves’ liver dressed with a sauce of nightshade on a plate of tarnished silver. She had refused the fairy wine, but the hostess had quickly had a word with her steward, and a great goblet of steaming beef blood fresh from a newly slaughtered ox had been brought to the table, laced heavily with old brandy, and the fairy had drunk the entire thing down.
She now covered her mouth and belched out a thin trail of smoke. “Well and good indeed,” she went on, “until someone takes it from you,” and rose from the table in turn.

The Thought That Counts” by K.J. Parker [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018; 8683 words]

bcs 250
Cover Art: “Legendary Passage” by Jereme Peabody

Lawyer, moral philosopher, and fraudulent alchemist Constantius takes up the case of a young artist named Sinneva accused of murdering her clients with the bewitched portraits she paints. Suing for her acquittal proves a little too easy for the arrogant Constantius.

“My learned friend made a perfunctory effort to connect the status of the alleged victims to their dreadful fate, as though my client had sought to strike down the flowers of our society. The fact is, all her customers came to her clamouring to be painted; she didn’t choose them, they chose her. Twenty-eight rich, famous, influential, talented men and women were painted by my client and have suffered no ill-effects. Once again, the facts don’t simply speak for themselves, they shout at the tops of their voices.
“Recently, the wise and distinguished Senate of this city ruled unambiguously that there is no such thing as witchcraft or sorcery. But witchcraft and sorcery, I put it to you, are precisely what my client is accused of; tacitly, because to say so openly would be to invite ridicule. Therefore, for consistency’s sake, if for no other reason, I call on this rational, truth-loving court to dismiss these ridiculous charges and let my poor, long-suffering client go free. I rest my case.”
God, I’m good, though I do say so myself. The magistrate shook his head, blinked a couple of times like a dazzled rabbit, and said the magic words: case dismissed. You could have heard a pin drop.
I left, quickly.

“The Lady of Butterflies” by Y.M. Pang [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2018; 8952 words]

Lady Rikara, First Sword of the Kejalin Empire, becomes the companion and protector of Morieth, a mysterious woman who appears out of nowhere in the Emperor’s garden with only fleeting impressions of her life before. Soon, political circumstances threaten to cause a rift between Rikara’s personal feelings and her loyalty to the Empire.

Morieth stopped, saw the Queen, and fell into the bow we’d practiced. Eriha approached with measured steps, gems dangling from her gathered hair. Her face was perfectly painted, carefully blank. Her eyes locked on Morieth. I could’ve been one of the asters.
“I hope you are enjoying your stay,” Eriha said. “The Emperor was most…welcoming, was he not?” She raised a hand, and I bit back a warning. I remembered how she’d killed that tiger. Even now, many years later, a single blow from her would break bones or worse. But Eriha only slipped index and middle fingers around a lock of Morieth’s hair. I shook my head. What was I thinking? This was the Queen, she wouldn’t do something like that, and even if she did.…
Eriha rolled the fine gold strands between her fingers. “Such an oddity you are, appearing out of nowhere and capturing the Emperor’s heart. What boneskin magic did you use, butterfly girl? What is your goal?”
Morieth spoke. Her Kejalin was accented but unhesitating. “No goal. Just…survive.”
I didn’t know what to make of her answer. Nor did Eriha, it seemed, for she dropped her hand, held Morieth’s eyes for a moment, then turned away. Eriha stalked off, trailed by silent attendants, and I struggled to find the right words to say to Morieth.

The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 21, 2018; 8915 words]

Jiteh’s village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. After taking her father and her beloved twin, Jiteh questions whether the Tree’s protection is worth the cost.

Jiteh pounds her sandals against the cobbled path that loops behind their family hut to the bee hives stacked in tiers. Fog sweeps in thick damp breaths across her village as if the ancient mountains far beyond the forest have sweated off layers of mist.
The bees are slow, readying for the winter. She walks the hives, brushing her fingertips against the wooden slats. “I wish I was a bee,” she tells them. “I’d fly from here, far beyond the Boundary. I’d find flowers no one has ever seen and make the sweetest honey and give none of it to the Tree.”
The bees don’t answer her in words, but she feels their sluggish sympathy. Ever since she was little, barely upright on her feet, she has loved the hives. She’d sit amidst the swarms, stick her chubby hands into the honeycomb without being stung. The Treekeepers blessed her skill and named her one of the tenders of the hives.
She loves the bees, even though they can’t help her. No one can save her brother.
Jiteh presses her palms against her mouth and screams.

Don’t miss Parts 1 and 2 for the rest of my 2018 favorites.

You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!