stories

 

Star Tree // Jon Lasser

I was fourteen years, not yet grown, the summer my father, my brother, and I moved across the vast red desert from one domed city to another, a dusty two-and-a-half day trek in a pressurized train car whose glass dome looked so much like the ones over the cities we passed between, as though it was our world in miniature. The car smelled of solvents, aerosolized lubricants, and unwashed bodies.

We were the only people traveling first class on an oversubscribed train, though a number of miners squatted in our car, smudging the seats with dust from their rough, ill-fitting work clothes. The women had the same broad shoulders as the men, the same short-cropped hair and flinty gazes, the same fingertips stained with miners’ grease, even under their close-bitten fingernails. Only the men’s thick beards, bushy and unkempt, distinguished men from women. A shiver passed through me: I’d never seen miners up close. Some of them weren’t any older than I was, perhaps even younger. One woman, a little older than me, had my mother’s piercing green eyes. She saw me looking at her, and made an obscene gesture with her pinkie.

When their mother takes a job on a distant planet, and their father shuffles from one diplomatic post to another on their small mining world, seven-year-old Chiq divides his time between seeking his father’s attention and burying himself in a trading card game featuring dead planets. Marq, fourteen, has discovered their father’s hypocrisy, and directs the resulting outrage at Chiq’s childish behavior. When Chiq reveals a terrible secret, Marq must decide what’s truly important.

Written by Jon Lasser; illustrated by Killian Mckeown; 1st place, 4th quarter.

 

Images Across a Shattered Sea // Stewart C Baker

The air on the cliffs above the Shattered Sea was hot as a furnace and twice as dry. Still, Driss couldn’t suppress a shiver at the way the shimmering message-globe moved through the sky, dozens of meters above the churning, black waves of the sea.

He had seen the globes before, of course, but only after they’d been captured and put on display in the village’s little museum. It didn’t quite seem real, the way the little ball bobbed and danced on the breeze, drifting ever so slowly towards Fatima where she stood atop a heap of boulders at the edge of the cliff.

“Here it comes,” she said, waving her net back and forth as she hopped from foot to foot.

Her eagerness just made the dangers of the place worse, Driss thought. It was as if she didn’t care that one misstep would send her tumbling to her death. He himself would have been happy never to have seen the coast in person. It had always been a deadly, desolate place, even in the days when the message-globes blew across the sea in huge clouds which blotted out the sun. And those days were long since past: They had seen only three globes during their two week hike, and this was the first that had come anywhere near them.

“Gotcha!” Fatima leapt into the air, hooking the bubble-like ball in her net and pulling it down from the sky. “What do you think is in it?”

For at least a hundred years, message-globes have blown in across the Shattered Sea. The globes come from a pre-apocalyptic past, and carry the technology and culture of earlier times--as well as more inane and useless things. When Driss accompanies Fatima, a young woman who’s obsessed with the globes, to the coast, she pulls one out of the sky that seems to be transmitting images of them, setting off a series of events that could change not only the future of their world, but its very existence.

Written by Stewart C Baker; illustrated by Paul Otteni; 1st place, 2nd quarter.

 

Möbius // Christoph Weber

Detective Elizabeth Arus surveyed the illegal laboratory through her nightsight monocular. Boarded up, she noted. But not abandoned.

“So what should we expect to find inside?” Musk asked. He flexed his trigger finger, as if to warm up for the coming raid. A patch reading GCTA: Enforcement stood stark on his black uniform. The acronym for GeneCrime Termination Authority was, by no accident, comprised of the four nucleobase letters in the human genome. The original genome. Before gene-tweakers synthesized six more letters.

“Could be cloning, genhancements, maybe even some good old-fashioned organ harvesting. Maybe we’ll find someone crossing cats with spiders. I might even let that one slide,” Liz lied. In her career with GeneCrime, Liz had never let off a gene-tweaker.

Detective Arus finds an undercover gene-tweaking lab--a lab that someone has tried very hard to keep secret. A lab that someone has taken steps to defend. When the raid goes wrong, Liz finds herself drawn into a web of deceit, with old secrets at the heart of it--personal secrets.

Written by Christoph Weber; illustrated by Talia Spencer; 3rd place, 3rd quarter.

 

The Last Admiral // L Ron Hubbard

Admiral Barnell sat at his desk, chin upon his threadbare chest, and read his final orders: “Complete dismantling of last surface craft and Portsmouth Naval Station. Disband all crews and personnel. When duties assigned are complete, report to Secretary General of Military Defense for final retirement.”

He had been sitting where he as for two hours reading that somber message but now he straightened and put it on the desk before him. He was a fighting man, a deck officer user to all weather. Defeat, he told himself, was something a sailor had to learn to face. But it was very hard facing this.

The Navy was no more. He was the last of it: the last of a race which had started with John Paul Jones and Biddle. He was the last admiral, as David Glasgow Farragut had been the first. It was hard to take, hard to be the last man to be piped over the side of a gleaming man-o'-war, hard to know that after him the traditions of the blue and gold were dead.

Written by L. Ron Hubbard; illustrated by Irvin Rodriguez; © L Ron Hubbard Library 1949.

 

The Jack of Souls // Stephen Merlino

In two hours, Harric would host his own wake.

By sunrise, he’d be dead.

The knowledge hung on him like a skin of lead. There would be no shrugging it off or bearing it patiently. There would be wine, and there would be cards. Plenty of both. And with luck, there would be no tears.

Standing against the sun-warmed side of the inn, he sipped his wine and scanned the courtyard for a mark to follow into the gentleman’s card hall. Free men crowded the courtyard tables, a throng of road-sore bodies under a square of bright blue sky. These were drovers and wagoneers, all drinking or calling for cider. It was their masters Harric watched for: wealthy lords looking for drink and cards in the company of their peers.

A gentleman rogue is cursed to die on his nineteenth birthday--two hours hence. The only way to escape this fate is to attract the attention of the gods--but what would be grand enough to do that?

The short story The Jack of Souls is a prequel to the novel The Jack of Souls, the first book in The Unseen Moon Trilogy.

Written by Stephen Merlino; illustrated by Maricela Ugarte; 2nd place, 4th quarter.

 

Swords Like Lightning, Hooves Like Thunder // K. D. Julicher

When her horse stumbled near the edge of the bluff, Yvina leaned against its neck and prayed that the animal had merely missed its footing. The roan took another two steps and then faltered.

Yvina glanced over her shoulder. Her pursuers rode along the treeless top of the last ridge, maybe two miles back. Too far below her, the river glinted in the early morning sun. She was exhausted from riding all night. She hadn’t eaten in a day, and her tongue was thick with thirst. Acrid fear and horse-sweat clogged her nostrils. She’d never make it but had to try. She urged the horse on. It’s no use, her bear whispered inside her mind. He’s spent.

Can you give more of your strength to him? she asked. She’d already shared the bear’s power with the horse once. It was a trick reserved for dire straits, where the risk of death was stronger than the risk of having your soul come unraveled.

His tendon is strained, the bear said. I don’t have enough strength for that.

Then share mine, she urged.

If I drained us both, it might work, but then we’ll be helpless, the bear warned.

Yvina, a strong-willed woman aided by a magical familiar, has no chance of rescuing her brother without the help of the mysterious stranger Mahkah. But he has an agenda of his own, one he’s not telling her. Will her sword, her courage, and her bear be enough to save her brother?

Written by K. D. Julicher; illustrated by Eldar Zakirov; published finalist.

 

Hellfire on the High Frontier // David Farland

Morgan Gray sat alone, peering into his crackling campfire, eyes unfocused, thinking of girls he’d known. In particular, there was a dance-hall girl he’d once met in Cheyenne. What was her name--Lacy? She’d had red hair and the prettiest smile--so fine he almost hadn’t noticed that she’d worn nothing more than a camisole, bloomers, and a green silk corset while she lay atop the piano and sang

For weeks now, he’d been trailing a skinwalker, a renegade Arapaho named Coyote Shadow, but the skinwalker had taken to bear form and lost Morgan in the high rocks of the Wind River Range.

A schoolmarm murdered, her child eaten. Morgan hadn’t been able to avenge them.

Sometimes you lose a trail, he knew. Sometimes you lose the fight. You have to figure out how to keep fighting.

Lawman Morgan Gray is down on his luck, tracking a skinwalker, when he gets caught up in a mission from a stranger.

Written by David Farland; illustrated by Rob Hassan; first published in Dead Man’s Hand: Tales of the Weird West, edited by John Joseph Adams, 2014.

 

Squalor & Sympathy // Matt Dovey

Anna concentrated on the cold, on the freezing water around her feet and the bruising sensation in her toes. So cold. So cold. So cold, she thought. A prickling warmth like pins and needles crackled inside her feet. It coursed through her body to her clenched hands and into the lead alloy handles of the cotton loom. Each thought of cold! kindled a fresh surge of heat inside and pushed the shuttle across the weave in a new burst of power. Anna’s unfocused eyes rested on the woven cotton feeding out of the back of the machine. It looks so warm.

The constant clacking of looms that filled the factory changed tempo, quieted slightly. Anna glanced to her right, where Sally White worked.

Sally was standing, her feet still in her water bucket, and talking to herself. “Sodding thing, gone and jammed on me again. No wonder I can’t meet numbers.” She was peering into the loom at where her shuttle must have caught.

“Here, let me help.” Anna took her bare feet out of the bucket and stepped over. Her own shuttle slowed and stopped as she released the handles.

In an alternate Victorian England, the industrial revolution is powered by Squalor, a magic of necessity, and so the British Empire is fuelled by the deprivation of the working classes. Anna only wants to keep her head down and get by, but when her younger brothers get caught up in the machinations of a factory owner, she has to ally herself to dangerous folk--and discover what she’s really capable of--to save them.

Written by Matt Dovey; illustrated by Adrian Massaro; 1st place, 3rd quarter; Golden Pen winner & Golden Brush winner.

 

Dinosaur Dreams in Infinite Measure // Rachael K. Jones

Mom had hands like dinosaur bones: fragile at a glance, but old and strong, hardened by time and pressure. Fossils endure. My mother had endured 80 years already, through disease and bereavement, through a long career ended in humiliation and disgrace, and now this final insult: her own daughter demanding she leave it all behind, the house and farm and everything in it.

“I’ve worked hard for this house. I worked for everything I ever had.” Her voice was a tight, tense warble. Fossil-hard fingers bent around a mug painted with a cowgirl on a lavender T-rex, lasso roping round the handle.

It wasn’t just the house, not really. Primrose Farms Poultry had forced her from her life’s work as an industrial engineer, and thanks to an intellectual property clause, Mom hadn’t even kept the rights to her own inventions.

“No one’s trying to take away your stuff,” I told her gently. “We’re just worried about you, alone out here and with the animals, and the house like this.” The farm was expensive, too. The upkeep outstripped its worth.

“I can take care of it myself. I’ll clean it up. I just need time.”

The farm that Liza’s mom lives on is old, run-down, and cluttered with the detritus of a lifetime. Liza can’t let her stay there. But her mom has a secret worth staying for--a secret even Liza can’t resist, that speaks to the forgotten dreams of her childhood.

Written by Rachael K. Jones; illustrated by Preston Stone; 2nd place, 1st quarter.

 

Cry Havoc // Julie Frost

I wanted to feel something, anything, as I gazed down at the body of my packmate on the medical examiner’s table. All I could muster was a kind of numb stoicism. Katrina was the eighth, and last. A single silver bullet to the back of her head had burned her brain to a crisp and left her beautiful face a ruin. She hadn’t even had the chance to see it coming.

But as a werewolf, and, moreover, her alpha, I didn’t rely on facial recognition. Not only could I smell who she was, even over the stink of death, chemicals, and stainless steel in the morgue, but I knew her, down in my marrow. I’d felt her die, a lightning-stab through every nerve ending and a scorching blaze in my skull that jerked me awake screaming in the wee hours of the morning. She’d gone in for some kind of crisis at the all-night restaurant she managed--and been ambushed.

Brushing a strand of her dark-brown hair behind her ear, I swallowed and closed my eyes, nodding. “Yeah, Lou.” After four meetings very like this in the horrible place--during the third, I’d had to identify five of my pack all at once--the ME and I were on a first-name basis. “It’s her.”

What happens when the conscience of a werewolf pack loses the pack... and his moral compass?

Written by Julie Frost; illustrated by Vlada Monakhova; 3rd place, 4th quarter.

 

A Glamour in the Black // Sylvia Anna Hivén

Keani’s parasite, nestled between her shoulder blades, always ached in the rain. Even the smallest of droplets slipping beneath Keani’s cloak would remind her that the knotted creature was there, its shimmery form visible beneath her skin. It would shiver and burn, crackle and groan, jitter and flare. Spring drizzles annoyed it, and the rain season maddened it: when purple-smeared skies rumbled and torrents thrashed the volcano city, the parasite even split Keani’s flesh open and bled crisscross marks over the embroidered hibiscus flowers on her tunics.

The rain season was almost over now, but the pain was not, and it wouldn’t be for a while. As Keani slipped down the slick volcanic paths to the clam caves, the ocean roaring in through jagged crevices, there were to be many days of wet, and many days of pain, and many days of being many things but herself.

Far down the rough-hewn steps, one of the clammers appeared out of the darkness to meet her as agreed. The woman was young and barefoot, braids tangling on either side of her face like black eels. Crude knives clinked where they hung at her hips. She stopped ten feet from Keani, squinting her pale-cloudy eyes.

“They didn’t lie,” the woman said, her voice husky. “I’ve never met you, yet I want to take you into my arms. How extraordinary.”

Young Keani gets infected with a glamour parasite through a freak accident, and gains a temperamental ability to become the deepest desire of those around her. Using her ability to facilitate trade she tries to help her sick father get out of debt, but in the process she risks tearing herself into pieces.

Written by Sylvia Anna Hivén; illustrated by Brandon Knight; 3rd place, 1st quarter.

 

The Broad Sky Was Mine, And the Road // Ryan Row

We’re hunting a stage four in some menial wage suburb. Packed claustrophobic tight with Taco Huts and dirty white apartment buildings with no parking. Samantha drives and I hang my head out the window like an old dog, thermal goggles weighing down my neck.

The world’s a blotchy mess of shifting blue and green and red and dead black. What I see when I close my eyes after staring at the sun. The colors swim across my sight like recycled dreams. The things I’m not willing to let go of when I wake up. The phosphene wonderland of no pain that’s always in the middle of slipping away. All that’s left of dreams upon waking are their blotchy afterimages on the insides of my eyes.

Rule: Dream whenever you can.

“Sensors’ll find it before you do, David.”

“That a challenge, little girl?” I say it into the wind, but I know she hears it over the com that’s on at all times and burrowed in our ears with temp adhesive. I smell fire on the air.

“It’s a fact.”

The Broad Sky Was Mine, And The Road is a story of survival. Set in a post-apocalyptic world of fire and madness, David and Samantha are compelled by their broken pasts to hunt the monsters responsible for the end of the world. Creatures of smoke and ash. It’s a losing battle.

Written by Ryan Row; illustrated by Jonas Špokas; 2nd place, 2nd quarter.

The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star // Sean Williams

 

“You must get me out of here, Michaels. I have important work to do.”

Those were the first words uttered by Hugh Gordon in my presence. I remember them clearly. On the one hand, I was relieved that he was willing to acknowledge me as a fellow professional, for a man of his standing, even in his dire circumstances, might have been tempted to dismiss me as a physician of no great renown, as in fact I am (and would very much like to return to being, Inspector Berkeley, once you have read this deposition). On the other hand, he seemed genuinely convinced that I could effect his release.

When I declared that this was quite impossible, he became irritable and even aggressive. He accused me of gloating, of malpractice, even of spying. The last is outlandish, of course, but might have seemed plausible before his arrest. You are no doubt aware of his reputation--as a scientist, I mean. His advances in aeronautical engineering have been considerable; many have even been adopted by the Ministry of Calculation for employment throughout the empire. Now that his laboratory has been razed, is it too ghoulish to imagine that someone might want to pick his brains for knowledge the gallows might otherwise claim?

Written by Sean Williams; illustrated by Daniel Tyka; First published in Ghosts by Gaslight, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Fevers, 2011.

 

Freebot // R. M. Graves

Danny charged down the high street toward the hospital, dodging freebots all hell-bent on being useful. He could still make this, he could still get to Sally in time.

“Danny Clark, a Dad? Congratulations!” A chromed, headless horse skittered toward him and dropped to its knees. Danny stumbled to a halt, thumping his thighs in frustration, his chest fit to burst. The horse waggled its saddle. “You need a ride! Sorry you lost your benefits, big guy. Hard times. Can my sponsor help you out over the next few months? Hop on, they’ll sort out the details on the way.”

It was only then his hoodie buzzed. The hospital.

In a subscription-serviced future overrun by robot hawkers, an unemployed new father struggles to cope.

Written by R. M. Graves; illustrated by Dino Hadziavdic; 3rd place, 2nd quarter.

 

The Sun Falls Apart // JW Alden

A crack between the boards revealed a meager smattering of light, but Caleb took any glimpse of the sun he could get. Thick wood and rusty nails denied it everywhere else in this house. Here in the old guest room, it struggled through. The razor-thin sunbeam cut a swath through the darkness and landed on his chest. Stepping into the light felt like stepping out the front door.

“Wait until Dad hears,” Josh said.

“What?” Caleb put a hand over the crack. Too late this time.

His brother's silhouette loomed in the doorway. At fifteen, Josh was only a few minutes older, but half a foot taller. “You’re trying to look out that window.”

“So?”

“So that’s cheating. I’m getting outside first, so you’re trying to cheat. If you’d earn something for a change, maybe you wouldn’t be such a shit-stain.”

Caleb has never seen the sun. Boarded windows and a fortified door have kept the outside world a mystery his entire life. The only way out is passing the strange tests his parents conduct on him--tests that require Caleb to grasp at a power he doesn't understand.

Written by JW Alden; illustrated by Christina Alberici; 1st place, 1st quarter.