As usual, I feel like I didn’t read enough this past month. Just like my TBR-pile of novels and anthologies and collections is ever-growing, so is the list of short fiction I should be reading. Still, I did read a lot, and here are 15 fabulous stories from around the web.

The Worldless, by Indrapramit Das in Lightspeed. “Sometimes the starship looked like a great temple reaching to the sky. All of NuTay’s customers endless pilgrims lining up to enter its hallowed halls and carry them through the cloth that Gods made.” Every now and then you read a science fiction story that makes you remember exactly why you fell in love with the genre in the first place. This is one of those stories. It’s a story that deals with the small universe of relationships and love, while also creating a dizzying and believable, vast future-verse where humans can travel between worlds, but are still haunted by the all-too-familiar specters of poverty, oppression, and inequality. The language is inventive and evocative, the characters are original and complex, and the world-building is stunning. Breathtaking.

Come-from-Aways, by Julian Mortimer Smith in Lightspeed. “The fog brings the wreckage in, and it’s the wreckage of a space-faring civilization. Those are the local facts. There are various theories to explain those facts, and they depend on who’s doing the telling.” The visuals of this story had me gasping for breath. There’s a scene when the main character heads out into the mysterious fog in his boat, and ends up…well, let’s just say, somewhere other than the ocean. A mysterious and strange, yet oddly heartwarming read.

Dos and Don’ts, by Paul DesCombaz in Flash Fiction Online. “Don’t forget about the sense of taste. The creature certainly won’t. Do watch the creature lean over Esme’s body.” This story got right underneath my skin. The list of “dos and don’ts” is used very deftly to build tension and ratchet up the horror bit by bit. An excellent scare!

Stepping Out of Stream, by Marie Vibbert at T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog.  “The sound fills the space, fills my chest. It should rip tiles from the walls like a wire torn free. Beauty slides effortlessly off ear-buds and simulator-shades like water around salmon.” Vibbert’s science fiction short story is a vivid slice of life that drops you right into a near-future world where people avoid interacting with their surroundings, and other people, even when they literally bump up into each other on public transit. The prose is fluid and beautiful, and the story has vibe that is both wistful and hopeful.

LIKE/ NOT LIKE, by Natalie C. Parker in The Hanging Garden. “Good girls don’t curse, good girls don’t have sex, good girls don’t shout or drive fast or dream big. But the one that haunts you is this: good girls don’t use firegift.” A sharp and well-told story that deals with how society tries to shape, and often distort, how we judge ourselves and others. What do good girls do, and what are they not supposed to do? What does it take to be a good girl, and what do you have to give up, if you don’t want to be “bad”? I love how the story twists and turns the subject as the main character grapples with who she is, and what she can be. (Btw, if you’re on Tumblr, you should definitely follow The Hanging Garden!)

One Thousand Paper Cranes, by Julie C. Day in Kaleidotrope. “The brain is constantly rewriting memories and cutting off unnecessary neurochemical connections, allowing the next version of a person to step forward. Dried lizard skins. Caterpillars forgotten in a flurry of butterfly wings. People are never who they were before.” I really love this unsettling, strange, and dark story. I love good stories about sibling relationships, and Day captures the magic, and the love/hate bond really well. There’s darkness here, pain and violence lurking just below the surface, and the longing for something different, for the world to change. And then there’s the visceral horror of being changed, having society decide to change you, to make you “better”.

The Cold, Lonely Waters, by Aimee Ogden in Shimmer.  “In the end, it’s loneliness that drives the mermaids outward from Earth, not curiosity. But fear plays its part in the story, too, as fear always does.” Mermaids in space. I really don’t want to say more, except that: in this story, there are mermaids, and they are traveling in space. A must-read.

Balancing Act: Or, Things They Don’t Teach You in Circus School, by Christina Dalcher in Syntax & Salt. “His name will be Emil and he will walk the highwire as if he is one with it, swaying to a rhythm no spectator can feel, oblivious to the gasps and intakes of breath fluttering through the house.” A very short love story that is also absolutely heartbreaking. The prose is wonderful, and in just a few sentences, Dalcher brilliantly captures the characters, their romance and tragedy, and their circus-world, in piercing and illuminating detail.

Two Ways of Living, by Robert Reed in Clarkesworld. “The dog is what trips me. I don’t see it and suddenly I’m falling, somebody saying, “Bad bad,” and then I’m lying limp on the floor. “Sorry bad sorry,” her dog says.” That’s how Reed’s story starts, and since I’m a sucker for any story that involves dogs, I was a goner from the get-go. The main character is extending his lifespan using cutting edge technology, and he keeps running into the same woman and her (talking) dog over and over again. The relationship between the three of them is both touching, disturbing, and darkly hilarious. And that dog? I want to meet him.

Luminaria, by John Hornor Jacobs in Apex Magazine. “Victoria watches her. She is old enough, and changed, that her thoughts have become a wave front, many things moving at once across time: consideration for the woman before her, examination of the past, evaluation of the probable.” This is an exquisite story: a slow-burning, southern gothic tale that is mesmerizing to read. Right from the start you know there’s something twisted going on beneath the surface, and the slow reveal of what is actually happening as the main characters get ready for a very special birthday celebration is brilliantly done. Dark, ominous, original.

Waste, by Mary Elizabeth Burroughs in Apex Magazine. “I was born with a tongue, but the others were not. This is how it is: We who live on the edge of the Heap are different.” By the time I reached the end of this story, I had only one problem: I wanted to keep reading. Burroughs’ characters, living in a wasteland of garbage, refuse, and chemical waste on the outskirts of society, gripped me and grabbed me from the first sentence to the last. The hints of the larger world that surrounds them are intriguing, and I’m hoping there’s more where this came from!

Porcupine, by J.B. Park in Gamut. “He accomplished his tasks with a silent, dedicated fervor. The shovel in his hands, blisters breaking once more, a pale liquid running down its shaft. Things of that nature. The gun in his hand. Bury the bodies. Knife out, cut the rot.” A devastating story of war, death, and survival. There’s a strange creature in a cage, and while that creature might seem like some kind of monster, the real horror here is what human beings do to each other. This is a story that’s been stuck in my mind since I read it.

Seven Minutes in Heaven, by Nadia Bulkin in Nightmare. “A ghost town lived down the road from us. Its bones peeked out from over the tree line when we rattled down Highway 51 in our cherry red pick-up.” A brilliantly told story, that builds an increasing sense of unsettling, goosebump-inducing creepiness as the main character starts to uncover what really happened to her family and her town. Bulkin takes on ghosts and ghost towns, all well-used genre-fixtures, and gives them a very original spin.

In The Shade of the Pixie Tree, by Rodello Santos in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “She feels the course of the venom, oozing towards her heart. There is a bone-shaking roar, as if she has been swallowed by a waterfall. Thunder booms, unending, above her and within.” This story starts as a rather sunlit fairytale, but a storm is gathering, and the tale twists ever darker as things go more and more awry. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I loved the fragmented timeline, and the way the structure of the story was actually a part of the story itself…

The Absolute Temperature of Outer Space, by Sandra M. Odell in Cast of Wonders. “He sets down his left hand, the rock crumbles, and he tumbles backwards in slow motion, head-over-heels. He lands on his back. The gash in his suit opens onto a gray and lonely nothing.” Loss, grief, and a child’s fear of moving to a new place (in this case, Earth) are beautifully captured in this story by Odell. The story captures both the raw feelings of missing someone who can’t come back, and the love and caring that can bring you back from the brink.

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