"It Happened To Me: I Melded My Consciousness With the Giant Alien Mushroom Floating Above Chicago" by Nino Cipri (967 words)
I very much enjoyed the first installment of this series and here’s another, shifting from doppelgangers to a enormous floating alien mushroom. And I love the framing of these stories, the way that they are shaped into confessionals but more of the reality-television-style confessional where it’s not private, where you’re not really saying it to banish it or to deny it or to move on from it but that you’re saying it to share it. Kind of like a speculative version of Maury. And here the main character is living in Chicago, which is beautifully captured. I might be a bit biased having been born and raised in the shadow of that city, but I like the little details, the way that after the initial freakout it’s just business as usual. Something to complain about but really something to ignore as best as one can. Not even as bad as winter, which I feel is how things get framed in Chicago. Is it worse than driving through a blizzard and breaking your back shoveling? No? Well then, whatever. But there’s also this great feeling in the story that something’s happening. That a bridge is being created, and though for many it would be a disturbing experience there’s something compelling about it. Which works into that confession, because it’s showing people that this thing they assume is horrifying isn’t. It might be sensationalism that gets people to want to read about what it’s like, what once they have it’s the heart of the story that makes that final offer of the piece tempting. That echoes in the empty places that loneliness makes and shows that in a city full of people sometimes the largest obstacle is feeling alone. It’s a short but fun and powerful read that you should definitely make time for!
"The Resurrectionists" by Alec Austin (2969 words)
This is a violent and action-packed story of two people, two survivors of a long conflict, scavenging a living as they move through a desolated world. The setting is what strikes me first about the story, a mix of post-apocalyptic science fiction with urban fantasy. The main characters are Kade, a gunslinger who can be resurrected because of a magic engine in their body, and Marya, who is a necromancy. The two make for an interesting pair, and Kade drives the story’s perspective with a wry bitterness and an overwillingness to die. The story moves with the speed and power of a bullet, finding Kade and Marya in an abandoned town hoping to cash in on some corpses (which have various and creative uses in this world) only to get drawn into a conflict with other magical beings. Against this current battle is a war that stretches far back to before everything got so bleak. And it’s in examining the scars of that war that the story starts coming together for me. Because while Kade is an interesting and rather fun character, his wry bitterness well suited to the setting, it’s Marya who is more mysterious and more compelling. Kade seems to move in part because he doesn’t know what else to do, because he’s a weapon to be pointed and fired. Because he’s looking for the conflict that will finally end him. But Marya has other plans, and her motivations are more opaque and, to me, more complex. She a person touched by both sides of the great war that waged for so long, is a child in some ways of the peace that followed, and yet peace is a misleading word. It’s not peace so much as exhaustion that seems to have led to a reduction in the scale of the slaughter, but there was no winner to the war, only losers. And yet Marya seems to be reaching for something, is pushing toward something, and the story does a great job of showing that, of showing how hard she’s willing to fight for a future that might only be a blasted waste. It’s a fast, pulse-pounding read and another wonderful story!
"Radio Werewolf" by Cassandra Khaw (644 words)
This is another very short piece that unfolds during what is probably the Allied invasion of Germany in World War II, where two soldiers look out into a forest and wonder what might be out there. The story does a great job of calling into question what’s really going on, though, and what the nature of all the players are. Is there a werewolf in the forest, like the radio propaganda seems to want the soldiers to believe? Or is the wolf already among them? Or is the true nature of the wolf, and the soldiers, more complicated still? And I love the way the piece stalks these ideas, circling them, ready to pounce and rend—and yet not. Holding back and holding back and letting the doubt linger and grow. It’s not a story that really answers much when it comes to the questions. It sets the scene and the mood, these soldiers tense, almost afraid of each other, or of themselves. I get the feeling at least that part of the story is about hiding, is about wearing different clothes. Something that the characters return to, in their dialogue, is the idea that under the surface, under the skin, just inside the darkness of the trees, things are different. Dangerous. Sharp. Given that the story is set where there are literal Nazis, this can be so many different things. That these soldiers are wolves, all of them, all of them pretending to be human. Or that some of the characters are more sheep pretending to be wolves in order to stay safe. Or that they’re hiding other things. Their identities that aren’t safe. Their true selves that are shunned and feared and hunted. And regardless of what it might or might not be, it’s a nicely creepy piece with a haunting, hungry mood and a beautiful ending. An excellent read!
"The Praetorian Guard" by Lucas J.W. Johnson (8508 words)
This story takes the Roman Empire and imagines if it never really fell. If it lasted well into industrialization. If it still controlled much of the land it did, with its structure evolved with the times but still essentially the same. It follows Lia, a Praetorian whose task it is to protect the Empire from corruption. Or, perhaps more accurately, to protect the people of the Empire from corruption. To that end she has come to a fortress that floats above Londinium in order to try and find out what’s going on with a suspicious senator and a pirate’s confiscated cargo. The story moves with a great momentum that overcame my lack of previous knowledge with the setting or characters (there are two linked stories that appear to come before this one but I don’t have time right now to check them out. With how charming and fun this story is, though, I will have to make some time to). Lia is driven in what she does, working not for the ideals of the Empire, of which she isn’t even a citizen (because of her Chinese ancestry mostly), but for the good of the people who are so injured by corruption, by their leaders taking steps that benefit the few, the actual citizens, while ignoring and exploiting the masses of people who live under Roman rule because they have no choice. The cast of the story comes together nicely, four people brought together at least in part because they don’t fit in, because they don’t have a secure space in the Empire. They’re all queer and from various colonies, so none of them are citizens (or seem to be). And they have a bad habit of sticking up for the truth and for justice, which makes them all targets when some of the major players in the Empire start plotting and planning. The plot is mostly mysterious, punctuated by moments of violence and flight, resolve and bravery (and maybe a bit of stubborn pride). The setting is deep and there’s definitely the feeling that the surface here has just been scratched. The game is afoot and here we have a tantalizing taste of what’s to come. And I, for one, will be looking forward to checking out what’s in store for Lia and the rest of the gang. A great read and a nice way to close out the month!