SHORTS: Vernon, Pinsker, Leigh, Swanwick, Young

our weekly exploration of free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. This week’s (entirely coincidental) theme seems to be the monstrous elements within us.

The Dark Birds by Ursula Vernon (Jan. 2017, free at Apex, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

This creepy story is told by one of the ogre’s daughters, who lives in a home where the cannibalistic ogre stays in the basement and is fed by the mother. There are always three daughters, even though the mother has a child every few years. The daughters always have the same three names: the oldest is Ruth, the middle child is Susan, and the youngest is just called Baby. When a new daughter is born, she becomes the Baby, the former Baby takes Susan’s name, and the former Susan becomes Ruth. And the former Ruth … disappears.

Ursula Vernon (who also writes as T. Kingfisher) lays out these facts right at the beginning of this absorbing novelette, and then fleshes them out. Her language is so vivid: the dark birds with moon-colored eyes crying oh-die-will instead of whip-poor-will; the gray-faced, tired and angry Mother; the thick-voiced Father, growling and scraping his teeth against the house’s foundations. The desperate girls, hoping that the prior Ruth has really just run away. And it becomes apparent that there are more monsters than just the one in the basement.


“Under One Roof” by Sarah Pinsker (Sept. 2016, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Courtney and Josh, a young married couple, have recently rented an old home in Baltimore for an unexpectedly reasonable price. The only catch to this dream home is the locked attic, which the rental agent explains away as containing the owner’s furniture and belongings while he’s abroad. But now Josh and Courtney are hearing strange noise in the attic at night: murmuring voices and footsteps. Josh’s curiosity and annoyance get the best of him, and soon he’s working on picking the lock of the attic door. What they find there at first seems innocuous, but soon becomes disquieting.

Sarah Pinsker draws this young couple and the details of their domestic life so well: their love, their inside jokes, but also their irritations and differences. Josh is urging Courtney to start a family, but she isn’t sure she even wants to have a child. Josh becomes somewhat obsessed with the attic and its contents, further annoying Courtney … which may be part of what leads Courtney to take a disturbing action. “Under One Roof” is both delightfully unexpected and quietly creepy.


“The Atonement Tango” by Stephen Leigh (Jan. 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Once again we visit the WILD CARDS shared universe, in which an alien virus kills 90% of the humans who come into contact with it and mutates the rest, with 9% (the “jokers”) developing useless powers or, if their powers are useful, physical deformities, and just 1% (the “aces”) gaining superpowers without an adverse effect on their appearance. Michael, known as “Drummer Boy” or DB, has six arms and six built-in drumheads on his chest, rings of tympanic membranes.

Michael is part of an all-joker band called Joker Plague, which has seen better days, but can still pull in decent crowds in the smaller venues. While they’re playing an outdoor concert at Jokertown one night, a bomb explodes, killing most of Michael’s bandmates and thirty people in the audience, and severely injuring Michael. But since they were all jokers, the investigation into the cause of the explosion, apparently an anti-joker terrorist act, isn’t getting the official attention that Michael thinks it needs. So he decides to undertake his own investigation … and revenge.

Michael lives a rough life as a rock band drummer and a joker, and “The Atonement Tango” reflects that, along with his anger and sense of loss. As he pursues the culprit behind the bombing, he tries to work through his bitterness, with mixed success. The confrontation with the bomber unfortunately plays the overused religious fanatic card, but in another sense the bomber was a surprise, while one befitting the plot.


“Day of the Kraken” by Michael Swanwick (2012, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

“The Day of the Kraken” continues Michael Swanwick’s THE MONGOLIAN WIZARD series of short stories, all available on Tor.com, set in a magical version of early 19th century Europe where the mysterious and as-yet-unmet Mongolian Wizard is moving to take over Europe. In England, Franz-Karl Ritter, who shares a mind link with his wolf Freki, is an aide to Sir Toby and part of Britain’s intelligence agency.

Ritter and Sir Toby begin this story by uncovering a plot to seed the Thames with kraken eggs, while debating Ritter’s lack of a sense of humor, but they soon move on to a separate plotline, a mystery involving the disappearance of five young girls, in a manner that suggests they will be victims of a human sacrifice. A priest’s vestment suggests that Catholics will be blamed, creating religious strife in a time when unity is badly needed in Britain. Ritter sets off to investigate, beginning with abandoned buildings near the Thames that have Catholic connections.

The mystery is not particularly mysterious, but there are a couple of interesting twists to it. In particular, Ritter makes a controversial and somewhat horrific decision in the course of solving the crime, raising the question of whether the end was worth using this particular means. I would have liked to have seen that line of thought pursued further, but I think it’s clear that here, as well in The Dark Birds and “Under One Roof,” there’s a theme of the beast that lurks in each of us, justifying the title of the story.


“Cease and Desist” by Tyler Young (Jan. 2017, free at Nature.com)

This brief story is in the form of a legal cease-and-desist letter sent to all of humanity by the lawyers for the dark-matter swarm known as X-o4, which holds Galactic Patent No. 40419513934343. Unfortunately for humankind, X-o4’s patent is for “the concept of self-assembly driven by the hydrogen bond in any living organism.” And it’s a sad fact that all humans (not to mention the Earth’s animals) use hydrogen bonding in assembling our DNA.

Thus, at any given moment, your species is collectively perpetrating 12 billion individual violations of X-o4’s Patent (hereinafter, the ‘Infringing Activity’). Every instance of the Infringing Activity causes incalculable and irreparable harm to X-o4’s intellectual property.

It’s a one-joke story, but I got several laughs out of it, especially since I’m an intellectual property attorney. Tyler Young, a lawyer himself, has the cease-and-desist letter terminology down pat, and pursues this concept to its awful but humorous conclusion.


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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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5 comments

  1. I’ll definitely have to make time for the Vernon story. Thanks, Tadiana!

  2. With “Day of the Kraken” I think you had me at “mind meld with his wolf Freki.”

    • :D You should check out these short stories, then. Start with the first one, “The Mongolian Wizard,” but after that I don’t think the order matters a lot. There are seven, all on Tor.com. Hopefully Swanwick will write more because the overall story arc isn’t finished yet.

      In fairness, I should mention that, while the man-wolf mind meld does play a role in each story, it’s a subordinate one.

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