by Gillian Daniels
Monica rides her bicycle into a dusty, half-abandoned town populated by black cats. She wishes to rent a room from Murphy, a solitary and unfriendly man who runs an inn. He insists he won’t rent it to her because he only rents to men, but she wins him over anyway.
For the rest of the story, Monica attempts to get to know this man better—his habits, his home, and his gory secrets. She, however, has oddities of her own, including bouts of insomnia where she receives unexpected visitors:
“Some nights, sleep comes to me as a tiny owl. This was that sort of night. I scanned around and found her, perched silent on the chair back. […] Now this is odd magic, but here it is: with the owl on my shoulder, no one hears my steps.”
This story unspools like a dream, but not strictly in imagery. It wanders, quiet, through a world where we’re never really sure of the rules. Monica knows them, maybe, but in her first person perspective, you, her confidante, are already meant to be in on it, too.
I would be happy to sort this piece into the horror genre because of its dark implications, but this story is so gentle and the main character so fearless. It won me over with ease, all polished prose and a twisting world.
Shikaze’s weird yarn is more American folk lore than old world fairy tale. Everything about it is magic, but it’s the magic of a mid-century abandoned town and all its possibilities. Monica wants to aid and sort through that magic, and so do we, with all its dust and black cats, owls and secretive innkeepers.
This story left me aching.
In this rendition of first contact with alien life, humans can’t talk to the aliens in real time, but receive a signal: detritus information from the Corona Borealis, “all of the drama, news, bulletins, pleas, shopping lists, everything that went out into their infospace.”
Human scientists and scholars excitedly pick through this wealth of entertainment, messages, and space junk to reconstruct a culture they’ve never seen. One such person is our main character, a longtime professor attending a conference regarding their alien brethren.
Predictably, with such a massive event, there are humans who use the broadcasts to form cults. The narrator’s son, Wallace, is a past member. What begins as a family saga, with some hints at tearful, melodramatic confrontations, swerves in a very different direction.
It becomes slowly apparent that the aliens who made the broadcast, who left a trace of themselves behind, may not be there anymore, like stars still visible from Earth that went out a long time ago.
The melancholy and joy of its revelations are stunning. The conclusion is not a funeral dirge but a song of triumph. As I read it, the story transformed into an affirmation of the importance of communication and art, the achievement of immortality and life through one’s own work and leaving something of yourself behind.
“Straight Lines” by Naru Dames Sundar (Published: May/June 2016) Mothership Zeta, Issue 3
Em, or Emergent Behavior, is an artificially intelligent ship who has made a terrible mistake. Xiao Quan-Fei is looking to help them not with physical repair but therapy. This troubles the ship greatly as facing up to their OCD is terribly painful.
This story exists between comedy and drama, something with the flavor of hard sci-fi but the warmth of fantasy. Em, humiliated by their own behavior, initially resists the overtures of Xiao. But Em needs help. The foul-mouthed AI recognizes that their germaphobia doesn’t actually make logical sense, what with it being a metal ship rather than an organism, but the fear is still real. It can also be dangerous.
A sympathetic look at an AI who isn’t always in control and wants to be better. I found this piece personal, funny, and moving.
Another narrative about an engineered lifeform in need of psychiatric help, but this one from the point of view of his human caregiver.
Tawn Altamirano is a veteran and wheelchair user who has recently decided to play host to a silent, traumatized fellow veteran, a “Mark” combat robot. The model doesn’t “allow for complete resetting or non-consensual dismantling; he was only five years old, so [falls] under the Autonomy legislation.”
That autonomy is thrown into question, however, as Mark is uncommunicative, a quiet mystery to Tawn. The latter is all too willing to give this new roommate space, but is unsure what to make of the AI looking out the window all day or making “a tearless keening noise” when he wants to cry but isn’t programmed to do so. More than a few images seem reminiscent of foster care, though Mark is not exactly a dog.
Only Tawn’s mother has a hint of flatness about her, an emotionally manipulative woman perfectly happy to bully her child regarding a back injury. Her cruelty feels convincing, however, and that’s enough for me.
I love this piece for the warmth it gives its protagonists. Tawn’s understanding of Mark grows slowly and their getting-to-know-you dance is patient and real. Lowachee has constructed a slow burn of a piece, but a wonderfully rewarding one.
Gillian Daniels is a writer of prose, poetry, and criticism. After attending the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in 2011, her poems and fiction have been published in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Flash Fiction Online, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine among others. Her reviews are available at The New England Theatre Geek blog and other venues. She is a transplant from Northeast Ohio and is highly suspicious of her home in the New World, i.e. Boston.