|Art by Reiko Murakami|
“Longing For Stars Once Lost” by A. Merc Rustad (4540 words)
Kitshan has run out of ship and almost run out of space to run from the forces pursuing him, hunting him across the galaxy for his crimes and for his hopes. Forced down to a seemingly-uninhabited world in search of a power source that will get his ship star-bound again, the story follows Kitshan as he remembers the conflicts he’s left behind, the people that he’s lost, while he reaches for a hope that seems always slipping away. The sweep and world building of the story is fun and rather impressive, building up a science fiction universe where the Principality has waged war on a scale difficult to fully appreciate. With god-like powers, their wills are law. But all laws can do with a bit of breaking, and Kitshan, betrayed by his superiors, has cut loose in the hope of finding a way to revive his ship, who destroyed itself to save him. And I love how that part of the story, that one action, echoes throughout the rest of the piece, Kitshan angry and trying to make up for that sacrifice, not wanting to face the finality of it, and unable to really live in the absence of his ship, who meant so much. He himself moves through the setting with incredible powers but a bit more perspective now that he’s not at the head of giant armies, now that his scope has become much more intimate. Partly responsible for the deaths of trillions, he finds that his world narrows to just him and one other, a strange creature of energy, a demi-god trapped and hoping for freedom. And in many ways then the story becomes for me about freedom, from captivity and from obligation. Kitshan has been in a prison of his own devising, a rather hopeless quest that he decided to run alone because of the weight of what he had done and what others had done for him. And yet as others had failed to propel him out from the gravity of his past, he is able to perhaps take one step toward accepting what has happened, refusing to let more die to further his goals. It’s a lovely and nicely paced story that you should definitely check out!
“What I Told My Little Girl About the Aliens Preparing to Grind Us Into Hamburgers” by Adam-Troy Castro (2490 words)
This story does an excellent job of mixing a pitch-dark premise with something rather sweet and heartwarming to create a nicely balanced story that’s rather fun, actually, and rather funny, and rather heartbreaking. The premise? Well, the title rather gives it away, so it’s not really a spoiler. Aliens have arrived and are basically going to order everyone on the planet to present themselves for slaughter. Using some brain-manipulation-signal, the aliens will just make the people all okay with this. In many ways everything about the story is civil and neat. The explanations, the feelings, the language—it’s all neat in the face of a very, very messy future that doesn’t exactly offer much in the way of hope. At the same time, though, it captures this great relationship between the narrator and his daughter, this bond that is in some ways being tested by this reality where they will all be killed very quickly. To me, in some ways, the story is about the realities and futures that we can just accept because they seem unavoidable (and a bit that we’re being manipulated not to think about it, really). In some ways it could almost be a rather blistering critique of parenting in an age when climate change is a very real and present threat and yet no one really treats it like a big deal, even though people with children’s logic can look to events and ask why and the answer is, must be, that if something is not done we’re in huge trouble. That’s not really the scope of the story, though, which focuses very much on this situation that almost feels absurd but grounds it in the loss that is being suppressed, the grief that we are made to feel in lieu of the narrator. It’s a touching and moving piece that has a healthy dose of gallows humor and a great voice throughout. A fine read!
“The Dragon of Dread Peak” by Jeremiah Tolbert (23,950 words)
This novella sees the return to d-space and the strange sci-fantasy world where video games, table top gaming, and real life merge into a rather nightmarish landscape where humanity must navigate a very hostile environment. Ivan, Domino, and Basher all return as an adventuring party...not really doing that well since their earlier success. Ivan, who’s supposed to be the leader, is full of self doubt, and on top of that is keeping secrets—from his teammates, from his mom, and in some ways from himself. It’s not ideal and with the need for money quite pressing, it’s leading to a rather large crisis. Good thing a completely different crisis, the return of someone from the anomaly that supposedly killed his brother, focuses things down a bit. Now Ivan must find a way to steal from a dragon in order to learn more about what might have happened to his brother—a dragon with a reputation for capturing adventurers and never letting them go.
It’s another fun exploration of not only the world of the story but the insecurities of Ivan, as he continues to deal with his fears of not living up to his brother, his fears of letting his friends down, his mom down, and himself down. He’s a bundle of angst and it moves the story along nicely, showing him starting to get more confidence despite the setbacks that plague him and his party. The stakes are certainly raised here, and there’s the definite feel that with this longer work that the world that’s being revealed is...well, rather large and complex and, most of all, dangerous. Ivan is starting to learn some things about himself and what make him special, and while this doesn’t do too much to complicate the Chosen One tropes surrounding the story so far, it’s still rather fun and, dare I say, classic. The aesthetic is a mix of older-school D&D with newer MMORPGs and the result is somewhat strange but also rather fun. Some of the references don’t really feel like they mix well for me, but overall it strikes an interesting mood and is certainly a memorable setting with a strong set of characters. I might wish that things were a little less strictly classic, but the story unfolds as Ivan has to figure out how to trick or fight a dragon while beginning to unlock his own latent abilities.
The action moves nicely and definitely has a classic fantasy flare, and I’m intrigued with where the plot might be moving. There are elements here that deepen the experience (that the “game” is also a way to make money, and that for many of the players it’s the only way to avoid extreme poverty in a world where technology has been completely rewired), and I do like the family dynamic that’s being build with Ivan and his missing brother. I’m not quite sure if it’s going for more of a YA feel, but it certainly has a lot of the hallmarks, and while the setting has a lot going on, the plot is pretty straightforward and feels more YA to me. It’s about growing up and family and friends and confidence and figuring yourself out. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Another good read!