Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about.

The Vital Abyss by James S.A. Corey (2015, $2.99 Kindle, $4.95 audio)

I haven’t read or watched THE EXPANSE yet, but I purchased some of the related novellas when they were on sale at Audible. The first one I read was The Vital Abyss and I loved it. This is my type of science fiction.

The story opens with 37 people held captive in a large room. They’ve been there for many years. One day a man comes in and asks for one of the prisoners to interpret some information that’s on a handheld computer. Thinking this may be a way for one of them to be released, some of the prisoners begin scheming and fighting over the information. Slowly we learn who these people are, why they are in prison, and what important information might be on that computer.

The Vital Abyss was exciting and chilling. I don’t want to say too much more about it because the mystery and suspense is necessary for the success of the story. It will be most appealing to readers who are interested in ethics, especially as it relates to science and its methods. That’s totally up my alley, which is a large part of why I loved this story, but I expect that most readers will agree with me.

The audio version, which is 2.5 hours long, is produced by Hachette Audio. Jefferson Mays, the narrator, gives an excellent performance. ~Kat Hooper

Umbernight by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Feb. 2018, free at Clarkesworld)

The colony on the world known as “Dust” has a hardscrabble existence, huddled in a cave habitat with only a few brave souls, like the narrator Michiko (Mick), venturing to explore any distance from the habitat. The ancestors of their group broke away from their homeworld due to oppression by the religious majority, taking a spaceship to Dust to live lives based on purely rationalist principles ― which have become almost a religion in themselves, especially for the older colonists. To make matters worse, Dust is a binary system with a second star, Umber, that is mostly shrouded by a dust cloud, but during the world’s years-long winter the shroud periodically parts at night, bathing Dust in fierce radiation, which killed two-thirds of the original settlers.

The colony is slowly recovering, and is now a few hundred people. But living conditions are still basic, so everyone is immensely excited to realize that a cargo capsule from the homeworld, sent long ago by their ancestors by slow solar sail, is due to land in 650 hours, several days’ journey away. Its contents are unknown, but the previous two capsules contained vital supplies. Unfortunately, winter ― and the radiation-filled nights ― are due to begin at any time. When Mick is chosen to lead a team of volunteers to fetch the capsule, she knows their quest might be a deadly one.

Umbernight is a tension-filled story, where danger, horror and ironies abound. Courage manifests in different ways with the various characters … but courage isn’t always enough to get you through. The setting reminded me of another SF short story I read several years ago, the name of which now escapes me, about a colony world where unspeakable dangers come out at night, traumatizing the reporter sent to experience a day or two of life on this planet (if this older story is familiar to anyone, I’d love to be reminded of the name of it!). Gilman puts her own unique twist on the tale of a hostile planet, with her gripping description of the group’s fight to survive and make it back home with the unknown supplies from the capsule. ~Tadiana Jones

Where Would You Be Now? by Carrie Vaughn (Feb. 2018, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Where Would You Be Now? follows a couple of days in the lives of the people in a medical clinic in dystopian America, just a few years after the breakdown of society. Twenty year old Kath and the other thirty-odd people who are associated with this California medical clinic are trying, against all odds, to keep providing at least some medical care to the people who live in their area. As the story begins, Kath and two medical personnel are on an excursion to a small settlement. Kath keeps guard with a shotgun while Melanie and Dennis help a woman to give birth in primitive conditions. Luckily they have a Tesla, and enough solar panels at the clinic to recharge it.

Melanie practically fell into the back seat, and Dennis started the motor and pulled away. Kath rode in the front passenger seat. Literally shotgun. That had stopped being clever a while back. She kept the window rolled halfway down and listened for the sound of approaching engines.

The challenges in their new society are almost overwhelming: no more telephones or mass communication, rampant disease, insufficient medical supplies and food, and other problems. Kath and her group have turned their medical clinic into a barricaded compound, with makeshift walls to protect them against hostile attacks. The barricades and guns come in handy when a gang roars up to their walls with cars and motorcycles … and two severely injured gang members.

It’s all very slice-of-life, but I was impressed with how Vaughn addresses the small details of life for people trying to get by and preserve what they can of the benefits of technology and society. “Where would you be now, if the collapse hadn’t occurred?” is the question Kath and her friends often ask each other.

This story is set in the same world as Vaughn’s novel Bannerless and her Hugo-nominated short story “Amaryllis,” about sixty years before those works. The main character Kath plays a minor role in Bannerless as old “Auntie Kath.” ~Tadiana Jones

Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Countess Ida Rathangan by Ian McDonald (2015, free at Clarkesworld, Dec. 2017 issue (reprinted from the Old Venus anthology)

Ian McDonald rarely disappoints with his vivid and nearly always strange worlds and strange stories. This tale, imagining a Venus formed and populated like the Venus from the pulp era, with lush vegetation and strange inhabitants, follows the adventures of a Victorian-esque gentlewoman, apparently visiting Venus to write and sculpt, through an elaborate process of cutting and pasting paper, the flora of the planet.

The narrator of the story is not Ida herself but one of her descendants, assembling the sketchy history of Ida’s visit to the planet from the remains of her journal and the papercuts themselves. Ida travels with her companion, Princess Latufui of Tonga. It becomes clear rather quickly that Ida’s reason for the visit to the disorienting and often dangerous planet is rather more than making sketches of local plants. Ida is searching for her ne’er-do-well brother, and as the quest takes Ida deeper into danger, we learn more about the brother and about life on Venus. Ida presumably transcribes parts of her conversations with others as she searches for her brother, and so there are several points of view provided here.

This is a novella, and there were a couple of places where I thought it was too long for the story. Part of the reason for this is style: this is how Victorian-era explorers wrote their journals, because they knew they would be on the lecture circuit, or writing a book, upon their return. The secret of a missing jewel that disappeared back on Earth was not very mysterious, but it made a believable reason for Ida’s quest at the beginning.

While I liked the narrative voice of Ida, and I was intrigued by the story of her brother Arthur, I was captivated by McDonald’s descriptions of both the ambulatory Venusian plants and the papercuts themselves. Anyone who has tried something like quilling, or seen it in a museum, will enjoy this strange story for those details. ~Marion Deeds

The Churn by James S.A. Corey (2014, $2.99 Kindle, $4.95 audio)

The Churn is referred to as Installment 0.2 in James S.A. Corey’s THE EXPANSE series, meaning that it’s a prequel. It tells the origin story of Amos Burton, a member of the Rocinante crew. This story takes place entirely on Earth, in Baltimore, a cramped, run-down, seedy city that’s been overrun by crime organizations.

Amos Burton is the boss of one of those organizations and lately he’s been adding extremely violent men to his team, a move which signals to some observers that “The Churn” — a police crackdown on organized crime — is imminent. One of these violent men is Timmy, a man who seems like a big dumb cold-hearted brute — the kind of guy who walks around smiling and oblivious until his boss asks him to “take care of” someone. When The Churn arrives, Burton gives Timmy a job that will end up changing the course of both of their lives.

On its own, The Churn doesn’t offer much but a short, bleak, violent (and well-written) story, but as an origin story for a main character in the beloved EXPANSE series, it is an important episode that fans will definitely want to read. I highly recommend the audio version produced by Hachette Audio and read by Erik Davies. It’s 2.5 hours long. ~Kat Hooper

“The Cockroach Hat” by Terry Bisson (2010, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Sam Gregory woke up one morning and found, to his dismay, that he had turned into a big cockroach. “Oh, no,” he thought. He had some idea of what was happening because of the Kafka story. He hadn’t exactly read it, but he had heard all about it back when he was in college.

Terry Bisson goes on to describe the adventures of Sam, loopily jumping from one plot point to the next, not to mention switching from third-person narration to first-person midstream. It reads like a stream-of-consciousness journal written by a slacker who’s smoked a little too much weed. He and his girlfriend roll up a towel and put it in a stroller, pretending it’s a baby … and lo and behold, Sam discovers it really is a baby, “crying like crazy.” And things get crazier from there.

There’s humor in Sam’s tendency to focus in on mundane details while skimming over the exciting parts of his story, like a great Quest briefly summarized in an offhand manner:

It took all day and involved more things like leaf boats and jumping onto the back of a pigeon and riding it like a dragon. I got to know the sewers too. I wished I had six little shoes.

This surrealistic, absurdist short story is one of those that I feel like I should really enjoy but just didn’t. I read it twice (it’s quite short), hoping to better engage with its screwball sense of humor, but it was only marginally better for me the second time. Still, if you love absurd humor, or if a wacky parody of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis sounds like it might be your cup of tea, give this one a shot. ~Tadiana Jones


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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