Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories that caught our eyes this week.
“The Secret” by Mark Lawrence (2015, $1.95 at Audible)
I haven’t read Mark Lawrence’s BROKEN EMPIRE series yet, but after reading “The Secret,” I definitely want to. This story gives some background into Brother Sim, an assassin who is part of Jorg Ancrath’s brotherhood. Brother Sim has snuck into a princess’s bedroom (invited) and is telling her the story of an assassin. I saw where this story was going, but I didn’t care. I liked Lawrence’s storytelling style and I was intrigued by Brother Sim. I want to know more about his origins and his goals and motivations. I want to know why he did what he did.
“The Secret” was originally published in the anthology Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues. The audiobook, published by Audible Studios, is terrific. It’s narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds. This is one you want to pick up, whether you’re a fan of the BROKEN EMPIRE series or whether, like me, you haven’t started it yet. It’s 29 minutes long. ~Kat Hooper
“I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn (April 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)
A small bedraggled group gathers around a campfire on the seashore: a knight, a magician, a thief, a princess, and a disturbed, possibly mad woman, Kat. The knight, Jared, has fetched the princess Mariana from a distant temple, where she had been anonymously hidden from the man, known as Wrath, who usurped the throne.
Returning his country’s rightful heir from exile, in anticipation of the usurper tyrant’s defeat, would be his greatest feat, the fulfillment of a hundred boyhood dreams of adventure and noble deeds.
Now they are only a brief boat ride away from the end of their weeks-long journey, but Jared can’t shake the feeling that trouble is still going to find them. And the focus of Jared’s mistrust is Kat, who is an odd, unknown quantity. Could she be a spy?
“I Have Been Drowned in Rain” is a fairly straightforward, traditional swords and sorcery type of tale, a brief but intriguing slice of a larger adventure. This is one of those short stories that feels like it would have benefitted from more in-depth world-building. I would have liked to have read more about this group’s prior adventures, as well as what happens afterwards.
We don’t get to know any of the characters well except Jared and Kat; the rest remain one-dimensional sketches, though one gets the impression that it would be worth getting to know, for example, Mariana the princess and Baerd the thief. But Kat’s character is more multi-layered, and it’s worth the price of admission. ~Tadiana Jones
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel (March 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
Reuth Bryan Diaso, once a citizen of Mars, has traveled across the galaxy to the planet Ardabaab. Reuth is slowly dying, and has decided to spend his final days on this tropical planet, handwriting a final story. He’s an anachronism, an author who insists on handwriting his novels on notepads, and then binding them by hand, when everyone else uploads their thoughts instantaneously on their neural web connections.
The locals on the planet ― identifiable by their polydactyl hands, violet eyes and pidgin English with trace elements of Yiddish ― are more annoying than interesting to Reuth. But when a young local girl interrupts him to ask about this odd thing he’s doing (writing with pen and paper), he finds himself unexpectedly interested in talking to her. The girl, who introduces herself as Fish, reminds him of his own long-dead daughter. When he realizes that she’s also a talented artist, he conceives the idea of having her illustrate his final book, and teaching her the lost art of bookbinding.
“The Last Novelist” is a soft SF story, with dubious scientific underpinnings (glowing violet eyes? A gorgeous tropical planet with a red dwarf sun, and uniformly familiar animals from Earth?). Also, the metaphor of the dead baby lizard that Reuth finds in his yard is too overt and in-your-face, especially with its pointed inclusion in the title. Still, I enjoyed the developing friendship between old and young, and the circle of life theme. The planet Ardabaab is like a vivid dream, teeming with warmth and life, but death is never too far away. “In the midst of life we are in death” … but also vice versa. ~Tadiana Jones
“Mental Diplopia” by Julianna Baggott (April 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
In this apocalyptic tale, humanity is dying off of a strange new airborne virus. Patient Zero was a 72 year old woman who suddenly became lost in her memories of a few happy events in her childhood: a Russian lullaby constantly runs through her head, with lyrics that are objectively horrifying (a wolf dragging a child into the woods) but are comforting to the woman. She still experiences the present in limited ways, but most of her senses are engaged with these vivid memories in her past. Until she dies a few weeks later … as does everyone else who catches this highly communicable disease. They all die, though they die happy.
A few humans are able to avoid the infection by cutting themselves off from the world in an airtight survival bunker and constantly wearing hazmat suits. The narrator is an epidemiologist who is searching for an answer to the disease, while falling in love with a man who’s also in the bunker. They illicitly take off their hazmat suits to make love, and try to understand what it is they’re going through.
“It’s the eternal return,” Oliver said. “Did you take philosophy in college?”
“I speak pidgin philosophy,” I said. “Enough to cover my ass at a cocktail party. Nietzsche?”
Then, one day, the surveillance cameras in the outside world offer a possible answer to their question ― an alarming one.
In “Mental Diplopia” Julianna Baggott vividly describes the fatal virus and its effects on people, and I felt engaged with the main character as well as with the fate of humanity generally. The Russian lullaby of Patient Zero was a nice metaphor. I also was intrigued with the theory the narrator and Oliver came up with for the reasons behind the virus. I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the downbeat, rather understated ending of the story, although its Jane Eyre call-out (even if it didn’t strike me as particularly apropos) was amusing. ~Tadiana Jones
“The First,” “The Sparrow,” and “The Choice” by Jason Mott (2013, 99c each on Kindle)
“The First,” “The Sparrow,” and “The Choice” are three prequels to Jason Mott’s novel The Returned, which Bill reviewed a few years ago. In “The First” we meet Edmund Blithe, a man who shocked his co-workers by nonchalantly walking into his office a year after he had died. Emily, his fiancée, had just recovered from the loss and is devastated again when the government takes Edmund in for questioning and testing and won’t let him return home. “The Sparrow” is about a 10 year old girl named Tatiana who was killed during a civil war in Africa. When she “returns” and shows up on the side of a highway in the United States, a young woman takes her home and tries to help her reconnect with her family. In “The Choice” we meet Peter, a man nearing middle age who has a wife and daughter. When his old girlfriend returns from the dead, his marriage is suddenly in jeopardy.
Despite the major speculative element to these stories (dead people coming back to life), they don’t actually feel like speculative fiction in the usual sense. The focus isn’t on the mechanics of how the “return” works, but on the way that the return affects the lives of the people who were still living. The stories are personal; they’re about letting go and moving on and what happens when, after we’ve managed to do that, our loved one returns. It’s unsettling.
I listened to the audio versions narrated by Victor Bevine, Therese Plummer, and David Ledoux. All three narrators did a nice job. Unfortunately the audio price is $4.86 (each) for Audible members, which seems a little steep for stories that are only around 40 minutes long. The print versions, however, are only 99c each. In case you want to know, I liked “The Choice” best, “The Sparrow” next, and thought “The First” was skippable. ~Kat Hooper
“Crescendo” by J.S. Veter (March 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)
In a post-apocalyptic world, four young teenagers sneak away from their home, where they have multiple mommies and daddies, although apparently none of the parental figures are watching for their kids sneaking off (“the mommies were settling the wee ones down for their naps and the daddies were cleaning up the kitchen”). The four kids sneak off to the ruins of a place called the Stat, where they investigate a Hole. Normally Holes are filled in by the authorities (the Finders) as soon as they appear, but this one has been missed so far. It’s a mysterious Hole; voices seem to come out of it, telling Yakov and Thalia stories that change them forever.
“Crescendo” is a portentous story, examining the importance of History and remembering it (or not, as the case may be). It makes a good point, that some people will listen to the lessons of the past while others just metaphorically fill the Hole with dirt. But the world-building is slight and rather murky, and in the end it didn’t particularly interest or move me. J.S. Veter never explains how all of these voices come out of the earth, so in that key sense this feels more like a fantasy, though otherwise this reads as science fiction. There’s also a slight whiff of incest here, with some of the teens (presumably not related, but raised together in the same home) having sexual relationships. ~Tadiana Jones
“A Walk in the Dark” by Arthur C. Clarke (1950, free at Baen (sample from In Space No One Can Hear You Scream anthology); $4.95 at Audible)
“A Walk in the Dark” was originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1950 and is now out of print, so it can be easily found free online in print or audio versions. However, I wouldn’t bother with it. I didn’t think it was worth my time even though it’s only a few minutes long (26 minutes in the audio version I listened to.)
Robert Armstrong is on a sparsely populated backwater planet. He’s been walking for hours to the space port to catch a spaceship off planet. It’s nighttime and he’s been told disturbing stories about man-eating creatures that may live on this planet. He doesn’t see how that could be true since there’s nothing for them to eat there, but when his flashlight dies, he gets spooked … especially when he imagines that he hears something behind him. As he’s psyching himself up to complete his journey, he can’t help but think about the stories he’s been told about scary creatures on other newly discovered planets.
Perhaps in 1950 this story was a “thrilling wonder story” since it imagined what it might be like to travel all over the galaxy discovering various types of man-eating monsters, but today the story seems basic and boring. However, it is useful as an indication of how science fiction has evolved since 1950. The audio version I listened to was excellently narrated by Mark F. Smith. ~Kat Hooper