|Art by Alan Bao|
"Later, Let's Tear Up the Inner Sanctum" by A. Merc Rustad (8740 words)
Okay well fuck. This story is about superheroes, but more than that it's about power and corruption and perception. It's also a tightly plotted, devious piece that slowly brings a setting from fun romp to nightmarish oblivion. It looks at the rather complex issue of superheroes and the role of villains. It asks, among other things, what happens to heroes without villains. Asks if villains in some ways keep superheroes in check by distracting them from the corrupting influence of their power. And it's an interesting idea that this story finds some new ground with. It unravels across multiple narratives, the first being with a young woman hospitalized because of a superhero fight. And then accidentally (or not so accidentally, it might have turned out) witness to further carnage. But her story is only one part of the larger narrative being constructed and what's here straddles the line between glorious trope-filled super-heroics and OMG-level subversive emotionbombs. And it builds in this elegant way, hiding certain things from sight and then weaving together a fuller and fuller picture. What's left when the dust settles is this mosaic of harm and power, a picture of desperation and what might come to be because some people couldn't handle their powers responsibly. Because the system was built on deceit and violence. It's hard to talk about everything I want to in this story without spoiling the fuck out of it, but I love the way that it slowly complicates itself, the way it pulls its masks off only to reveal new ones underneath. And I love the theatrics of it, the drama and the stakes and the playacting. It all works and reads true to the history and nature of superheroes. It's also a bit terrifying. It's also amazing. There's this chilling tone that only grows toward the ending as the story layers the atrocities and the potential resolutions, as the line between hero and villain is blurred and then blown away. It's an incredibly story with an ending like an icicle slowly severing your spine. Go read it!
"The Last Garden" by Jack Skillingstead (4110 words)
This story is another wrenching story on a much lighter topic than the last—the end of the world. Okay, I lied, there really is nothing light about this story really. It's dark, about the annihilation of human life on Earth, and on one person, Casey, who was in space at the time, who comes back. The feeling of isolation that the story builds is palpable, is a thing alive throughout the story, is a trauma that Casey tries to avoid even as it eats away at her. She's not completely alone, though, and is watched over by the Surrogate, an advanced AI robot who seems just as lonely as Casey. And really the story builds that relationship even as Casey seeks to deny it, seeks to find some way to undo the damage done. It's a bleak story in many ways because it imagines a plague that then initiates a doomsday-level event, and even beyond that because it scraps those doomsday contingencies that were supposed to be in place. Even on a barren Earth Casey is still threatened by the still-active defenses left behind, humanity's way of poisoning the well so that their enemies (always themselves) can't have access to it. It makes for a rather sorrowful experience, and yet there's also a heart of hope to the story, as well. Not exactly for recovery, but for at least a release from loneliness. The story looks at the drive toward annihilation and how that can be stepped away from, but typically only with help. It's a story that doesn't pull it's punches, and emotionally speaking it might well break your nose. But it will help you set it afterward, at least. And it's rather fun and rather sweet, showing these characters who grow to depend on one another, who need to find a bit of compassion in all the cold waste around them. A great story!
"Probably Still the Chosen One" by Kelly Barnhill (7347 words)
This is another story that treads very carefully between happiness and despair. Between fun and devastation. And it's another that plays with tropes in an interesting way, though here the main trope in question is that of the Chosen One and the person who embodies that trope is a young woman named Corrina. And the story is a lot about the way that portal fantasies fail people, and especially how they fail women, not acknowledging the realities of life and not really preparing girls for the realities that they will face. The stories gloss over how those worlds treat women, how those worlds deal with bodies and with menstruation, with childbirth and with child raising. There are not really discussions of child care or boxes of tampons sitting around. And while that's bad enough, these stories also teach girls and women that they have to wait. Which is at the heart of this story, as Corrina is dropped off at home following a year and a day in a fantasy realm and told to wait. A week. But it turns out to be much longer because of how time works. But she waits. Waits to be rescued and in so doing puts her life on hold. Because she has been told and taught to wait. For a man to save her. For a man to take her back into the fantasy. But to wait all the same. And where the story does a great job is in showing what she does with that, and her own resolve and her own agency as she learns just how badly the people supposedly watching out of her failed her and how badly, in turn, she failed at being a Chosen One. Luckily, the story retains some hope that these failures are not endings. That we can still pick up the threads of the story that has come undone around us and create an ending worth telling. Worth living. That doesn't erase what it is to be a person. That doesn't value any gender above another. That doesn't require all women to wait. It's a lovely story that blends a subtle humor with a great vision and critique of Chosen One stories. Definitely check it out!
"Six-Gun Vixen and the Dead Coon Trashgang" by Ashok Banker (8115 words)
This story takes aim at another set of tropes—those surrounding the Western—only to blow them away with six barrels of smoking death. This story unfolds in a likely enough place, a town called Dead Gulch, where the locals are whores and cowpokes aiming to do wrong. And from the start the voice fits right in, too, only instead of the grizzled white, male rogue normally associated with the role, the main character is Six-Gun Vixen, an Indian woman who has been all over the world only to come to Dead Gulch looking for a drink and a meal for her half horse/half wolf steed. The setting is gritty and wonderful, reminiscent of Westerns but with enough of a supernatural flare to make it original and captivating. This is a world where there are no saints, where there are only sinners of various levels of dead and waiting-to-get-dead and Six-Gun is one of the later who is very good and leaving a trail of the former in her wake. There is some uncomfortable language in the story, especially at the beginning when the nature of everything is still unknown, but I think the story justifies the choices that it makes. This is a story that jumps right into the muck of Westerns and knows that it means getting dirty. What it finds in the filth, though, is something resembling hope. Not really of salvation or innocence, but that sometimes the storm of death that rolls through takes the worst with it. That even in a land of sinners there are some sins that don't go unpunished. It's a fast and furious kind of story, with a heady action and main character who can afford to take some damage and so isn't in the practice of being cautious. Which makes for a bloody good time. A fine way to close out the issue!