The Best Free, Online Short Stories from February and March

Those of suffering through unseasonably cold weather in the Northern hemisphere have one consolation (just one!): staying inside wrapped up in a warm blanket is the best way to get some reading done. And if your tastes run to bite-sized fiction, then I have some tasty treats for you.

Illustration is a detail of a work by Christopher Silas Neal

Before we get to that, I want to take a moment to lament the loss of a fiction market that only got a few months to shine. Eclipse Online, the monthly continuation of Jonathan Stahan's Eclipse anthologies, ceased publication due to the impending sale of Night Shade Books assets. I'm very sad to see EO go as it consistently published stories that I either loved or at least appreciated. I had a feeling that it would go on to be one of my top magazines this year.

Two of my picks below came from Eclipse Online. In reading them I hope you'll see why the loss of this magazine is such a bummer. On the bright side, there are still a lot of great magazines and other sources of fiction fantasticness, as the list below will attest.

Sanctuary by Susan Palwick | Eclipse Online
Snippet: I’d just finished putting new eyebolts in the St. Andrew’s cross in the Red Room — I hadn’t installed the old ones, and they’d turned into pipe cleaners — when the angels came fluttering in, mewling and bumping into things. One of them veered into a wall, ricocheted, and got caught in the black leather bondage sling; the other smacked its shin into the cross and went down with a howl.

The world Palwick creates here is terrifying and rich. The characters pulled me in, but I found myself specifically intrigued by the powers they display and how that interacts with their personalities. I'm not a big fan of post-apocalyptic stories, but I enjoy them most when they deal with how the issues we face today get magnified not erased by world changing tragedy. This vision of the apocalypse is also new and fresh to me. I wouldn't mind seeing more set in this world.

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu | Tor.com
Snippet: The water that falls on you from nowhere when you lie is perfectly ordinary, but perfectly pure. True fact. I tested it myself when the water started falling a few weeks ago. Everyone on Earth did. Everyone with any sense of lab safety anyway.

I love the idea of a world where lying causes an immediate outward reaction from the universe. This story is about the effects this has on family dynamics and thus focuses on character and not on the hows and whys of the phenomenon mentioned in the title. I dig that.

Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love by Merrie Haskell | Apex Magazine
Snippet: I am Robot!Ophelia. I will not die for love tonight.

Apex Magazine did a Shakespeare themed issue in February and the result is a string of very different and mostly very good stories. The majority are reprints, but this one is original and one of my favorites. Among all the commentary about media and art and the emptiness of performance in the digital age, there is a compelling narrative about what it means to be an actor in a world where people think they know what they want out of you. Is it imperative that you give it to them?

Mermaid’s Hook by Liz Argall | Apex Magazine
Snippet: She found him falling. He fell fast, tangled in chains, his shirt billowing up around him, shedding bubbles in all directions as his body tore through the water. She surged towards him, caught him in her arms, then paused. Here was no special prize. Normally, they would let humans sink to the bottom and serve as bait for delicious crabs and tastier morsels, but this one still struggled.

Mermaid stories rarely do it for me because I grew out of the idea of mermaids as beautiful human-looking women with fish parts easily discarded. The mermaid in this story is a fearsome sea creature who feels alien and other, as a mermaid should.

Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince by Jake Kerr | Lightspeed Magazine
Snippet: Prince was a pioneer of Impact Nihilism, a genre that embraced themes of helplessness and inevitable death in the aftermath of the Meyer Impact. His travelogue, Journey Into Hopelessness (2026) outlined Prince’s return to North America, ostensibly to survey the damage to his home state of Texas. The book’s bleak and powerful language of loss and devastation influenced musicians, artists, and writers worldwide, giving voice to the genre as a counter to the rising wave of New Optimism, which sprang out of the European Union as a response to the Meyer Impact and the enormous loss of life.

If only most biographical Wikipedia articles were this well-written. I'm a fan of the way Kerr keeps the semi-journalistic tone going yet still managed to get me to connect to the character under discussion. I do wish this was more hypertextual and that the citations actually led somewhere.

The Shattered World Within by Patty Jansen | Giganotosaurus
Snippet: Seated next to the pilot, in the bluish glow of the controls, Zhyara didn’t realise how tightly he’d been gripping the edge of the seat, all the way while they’d drifted past the scratched surface of the station, all the way while he listened to the pinging of their unanswered broadbeam probes. His instinct, after being cut off from his associates on Zhiminda station for so long, ached for confirmation that personal networks were still intact.

The main character of this story struggles with issues of assimilation that are familiar to many minorities, yet don't write this off as a parable. Jansen is juggling a lot of balls with this one and manages to weave together two separate timelines and two different situations into one well balanced story. (This is one of the reasons I love novelettes and novellas, you have the space for complexity.) The story also gets a thumbs up for portraying sexuality as fluid without placing a stigma on it or basing the struggle around it.

Loss, with Chalk Diagrams by E. Lily Yu | Eclipse Online
Snippet: Never before in her life had Rebekah Moss turned to the rewirers. She took few risks and accepted all outcomes with equanimity. But when her old friend Linda was found beneath a park bridge in Quebec with her wrists slit lengthwise to the bone, leaving no note, no whisper of explanation, she hesitated only a moment before linking to the rewiring center.

There are times when I wish I could erase traumatic events from my life and I know there's even a medical procedure for this now (developed for PTSD sufferers). Yu explores the impact on society if such a thing became widespread through the lives two women.

Town's End by Yukimi Ogawa | Strange Horizons
Snippet: At the counter of a marriage agency at the end of the town, I felt my lip twitch in spite of myself. "Pardon me, ma'am?"

"I need a male," the woman in front of me repeated. "I badly need to bear a child."

I looked down at the PC and tapped the corner of my mouth, hoping it would stop twitching. It didn't help. "Well, I see you're a very straightforward person. But perhaps that sort of statement could wait until you are closer to the man."

"But why?"

"It'd scare the man."

When mythological creatures start trying to solve their problems by dipping into the real world, you know there's the potential for some scary shit to go down. What I love about this story is how the tone remains even and practical throughout, contrasting nicely with the weirdness. Reminds me a bit of Genevieve Valentine's writing.

The mMod by Ken Liu | Daily Science Fiction
Snippet: Raymond poked his finger against the glass. The screen rippled like a pool of water. The swirling colors cleared to reveal colorful, rectangular icons leisurely drifting across the surface like a school of koi. "I don't need an ebook," Raymond said. "Or a tablet, or whatever you call them now."

This is the second story I've read by Liu that reminds me of Cory Doctorow's fiction, but not necessarily in a good way. The first one was "The Perfect Match", which you can read right here on io9. That one is all about how evil Google is and felt very similar to a story Cory wrote about how evil Google is a few years back. This wouldn't have been an issue for me except that Liu's story had the same flaw: it wasn't enough about the characters and the world and felt pedantic. We all know Google is evil. What else have you got to tell me?

"The mMod" is a similar tale about the evils of awesome gadgets. It's far more successful as an actual story than "The Perfect Match." I may feel this way because I'm a huge gadget nerd myself and I identify with how the main character feels about his new tablet. However, I also think the characters feel more like real people in this story. I'd be interested in seeing comments from people who've read both stories.

The One Called Wander by Alexandra Erin
Snippet: I am the one called Wander, and mine is the lonely road. My road leads to many places, possibly every place. It never forks. It never branches. Sometimes it doubles back around, but the only direction it offers me is forward.

The One Called Wander is a serial story published in small bits on Dreamwidth by Alexandra Erin of Tales of MU fame. If you're at all familiar with Tales of MU, you know Erin is capable of epicness as well as a really great story. Wander is her newest effort, and right now is only 40 bits in (and the bits are bite sized, so it won't take long to catch up). Since this is a serial story it may seem weird to include it in this list. But it drew me in almost immediately based on Wander's voice alone. The mystery plot unfolding bit by bit is intriguing, too. The best part is that the story never quite goes where you expect. There are a lot of reversals and paths it could take that are then abandoned for even better paths.


In addition to these stories, check out the newly released Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. I haven't finished the whole anthology yet, though I'm very impressed with the title story by Delia Sherman, “From the Catalogue of the Pavilion of the Uncanny and Marvelous, Scheduled for Premiere at the Great Exhibition (Before the Fire)” by Genevieve Valentine, and “Charged” by Leanna Renee Hieber.

The stories above represent the cream of the crop. If you're interested in keeping up with all of my favorite stories as I read them, you can subscribe to my Flipboard magazine. And, as always, I welcome your comments on the February and March picks.