Samhain Publishing, $3.50, ISBN 978-1-60928-517-3
Sci-fi Romance, 2011
Barbara J Hancock’s Ghost in the Machine is set in the bleakest post-apocalyptic setting of all the three stories in Samhain Publishing’s steampunk series Cybershock. In this one, humans (“warmbloods”) are scavenging to survive in the ruins of cities while living in warrens. They live in fear of the Shadows and Sweepers, enforcers of the alien biological computer SoulEater that has taken over everything. Shadows used to be humans, until they were captured and mutated by the SoulEater, while the Sweepers are machine-like things that capture humans for the SoulEater to create more Shadows.
When the story opens, our heroine Bet’s brother Douglas is missing, most likely captured by Sweepers. While trying to avoid being captured herself, she is rescued by a hunk who looks like an angel. Of course, he could be a Shadow, since one can never tell what kind of things the SoulEater will make out of captured humans. When Gabriel Sanchez offers to help Bet get back Douglas, can she trust him?
Wow – that’s all I can say after reading this story. Where had all the time gone? Ghost in the Machine is one of those rare short stories that manages to capture my attention so fully that it like a much longer story. The atmosphere is bleak and terrifying, and the narrative is taut and engaging even as it moves at the right pace to the finish line. Everything seems to fit and fall into place perfectly to create an excellent read that has me at the edge of my seat.
This would be bad news to some readers, though – the romance in this one isn’t a conventional sort as it doesn’t follow the typical “meet, make out, have sex, marry” pattern. Sure, Bet is attracted to Gabriel, but given the situation they are both in, the author wisely doesn’t force them into any clinch situation that will seem out of place in the context of the tale. The romance is there, but it’s part of the story instead being the focal point. This isn’t a weakness, if you ask me, as the romance elements provide a welcome human element as a counter to the bleakness of the setting.
It’s not every day that a short story sweeps me off my feet and make me feel as if I’m reading something epic, so yes, here’s my two thumbs up. I’ll even toss in an extra two pinkies up, how’s that?