Cold Open Stories
July 2020 Fast Fiction Collection – ‘Everyone Can See It’
I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration at the moment for me to say that the state of the world in mid-2020 is pretty grimdark; with a worldwide pandemic, protests and riots breaking out across the United States, and an economic downturn likely to affect the entire planet, it’s almost as grim and dark as a Warhammer 40,000 story. And that’s without even specifically considering some of the scandals and horror stories that have rocked the Warhammer community in the past few weeks, which I certainly don’t intend to go into here on the blog itself. It’s becoming exceedingly difficult to see items of good news, and things to be cheerful about, differentiate themselves from the general tone of doom and gloom in the world at the moment; which is why, when such an item comes along, it’s worth shouting about from the (virtual) hilltops so that everyone can hear about it and celebrate with me.
One of those rare items is the fact that Cold Open Stories – publisher of incredibly high-quality Warhammer 40,000 fan fiction and audio dramas, and more generally a force for good in the community – has been saved from Exterminatus. Thanks to the care and generosity of that very same community, a crowd-funding project raised more than $4,000 for Cold Open Stories and its creator Colyn, which has allowed the site hosting for Cold Open Stories to be paid for, as well as direct some much-needed funds to Colyn himself. Colyn is an incredibly passionate, warm-hearted and talented individual who built a unique platform for the Warhammer fan community, and I was devastated a few weeks ago when he announced that he had lost his job and housing, putting himself, his family, and Cold Open Stories in danger. Fortunately the community was able to rally around him and give him a little breathing space financially, which in turn has allowed Cold Open Stories to remain open, and even allow the publishing of the July 2020 Fast Fiction collection. Based on the intriguing theme of ‘Everyone Can See It’, ten slices of Warhammer 40,000 fast fiction (approx. 1,000 words each) have been released as part of this collection, and I thought I would do my part in celebrating the survival of Cold Open Stories by taking a look at those stories and reviewing them.
An End to Inequity by J.M. Addy is a story that takes an unflinching and, quite frankly, long-overdue look at one of the most common, mundane and yet deeply horrifying technological aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 universe: the Cyber-Cherubs used by the Adeptus Ministorum and various other factions within the Imperium of Man. Tiny, cherub-like amalgams of tiny flesh and cybernetic parts, they feature in practically every Warhammer 40,000 story to some degree or another, and are often described as being unsettling or abhorrent in some manner; yet until now, I have never seen a Black Library author take the concept to task in a manner anywhere near as gripping and quietly horrifying as Addy. Their writing is crisp, fast-paced and well-honed to allow a laser-tight focus on the concept, and the plot of the short story asks a simple yet disturbing question: what happens when people find out the realities behind the creation of these ubiquitous machines?
To even begin to describe the concept of Boman Modine’s Abomination would be to ruin what I consider to be nothing less than a masterpiece in miniature, but I believe it would not be a spoiler to state that this is perhaps one of the most striking pieces of science-fiction fast/flash fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Somehow, despite it being 1,000 words or less, Modine has managed to create an artful, engaging and multi-faceted character study of the titular abomination and mesh that with a thought-provoking and action-packed story that has a hell of a punch loaded into its last few words. Absolutely fantastic, and proof (as if more were needed) of why Colyn and Cold Open Stories’ success is vital to the health of the wider Warhammer 40,000 community.
Another character-focused piece is The Burning of Sebastian Chiara by H.M. Moran, which focuses on the afore-mentioned Sebastian Chiara, a member of the eponymous Missionaria Galaxia which sends preachers to the distant reaches of the Imperium to bring word of the God-Emperor to the teeming masses on unconverted worlds. It’s a fascinating decision by Moran, particularly because this faction has always been buried in the Warhammer 40,000 background and has long-deserved more of a focus. Moran delivers that in spades, giving us a taut, atmospheric and thought-provoking short that vividly demonstrates the pitfalls of faith, and digs into the notion of the worthiness of sacrifice in the name of the God-Emperor. With an ending that is perfectly-pitched for the tone of the piece, and stays with you long after finishing both the short and the collection as a whole, I am confident in saying that Moran is another author – like Pera, Summerbell and Strath – that is destined to become a Cold Open Stories regular.
The Eye On A Distant World by Hayden Beardall has the rather fascinating scenario of a planet in the Imperium suddenly having a hole appear in its surface without explanation or apparent cause. As the planet reacts to this incursion – including the darkly hilarious idea that it would become a tourist attraction – the local Arbitrators continue their savage interrogations of suspects near the hole in an attempt to seek out the truth. Beardall gives us an intimate look at the trade and tools of a senior Arbitrator as Warden Letron interrogates the man who discovered the gap in the planet, as well as the consequences of such an incursion going unchecked. Personally the ending didn’t quite land for me – I’m afraid I still don’t understand it – but it’s still a potent piece with some excellent writing.
Delio Pera gives us another story that delves deeper – perhaps even uncomfortably so for those fans unused to critical analysis of the setting – into the exacting nature of faith in the Imperium of Man in the 41st Millenium. No More Hiding sees a planet begin to be torn apart as rival factions claiming to worship the God-Emperor in different manners begin to clash, with peaceful protests rapidly escalating to violence on the part of the authorities, and responses from the protesters. Not only are there some deft links to current events in our own world, Pera also makes some wonderfully incisive points about the concept of worshiping the God-Emperor, and how the Imperial Faith can simultaneously be flexible and rigidly doctrinaire when it comes to the idea of orthodoxy versus heresy. Deep, thoughtful stuff that I’d like to see more of – especially as this feels like it could be continued in another story.
The Dark Stabba by Chris Buxey is not only a story told from the point of view of an Ork, it is also an incredibly funny story told from the point of view of an Ork, meaning Buxey joins the incredibly small group of authors (both official and unofficial) who seem to actually get the Orks as a race, and how they should be portrayed in fiction. We follow the trials and tribulations of Kommando Kaptin Gron as he employs his best kunnin’ and strategy to lead his Boyz to victory, sneaking through a human military base in search for the fabled Dark Stabba. He’s been told by Warboss Grimzod to bring the artifact back to the bigger Ork, but Gron has his own ideas about who should have something so big an’ shooty. Interlaced with some genuinely laugh out loud humour that’s perfectly executed, and some great characterization despite the brevity of the story, The Dark Stabba is one of the highlights of the collection.
It wouldn’t be a Cold Open Story fiction collection without a story from Daniel Summerbell, by far the finest writer that the site has given voice to; I’m certain Summerbell will be a future Black Library author if the publisher has even the slightest bit of sense (though this is perhaps less certain these days than it used to be), and First Redoubt merely reinforces that point for me. Reminding me of the recent Astra Militarum stories by Peter McLean that do much to peel away some of the glorious mythology built up around the average guardsman, with First Redoubt Summerbell highlights the vicious realities of service within the Militarum, and the distinct absence of honour and glory to be found in a last stand. There’s some fantastic characterization here, echoing the high quality found in New Moon, the author’s first story published by Cold Open Stories, combined with an oppressive atmosphere that blends melancholy, fatalism and determination in equal measures. It all makes for an excellent slice of fast fiction, and one I’d like to see expanded upon at greater length in future stories as it has a huge amount of untapped potential.
A Riddle In Three Parts by Giles Gammage is not just a riddle for the three characters that form the backbone of the story, but also for the reader themselves; in many ways it reminds me of a venus fly trap, luring both characters and reader in with some fascinating ideas and first-class dialogue, before slamming shut and sealing their fates with an abrupt and terrifying ending. The three crew members of the freighter Wings of Deliverance sit and talk idly, little else to do while their ship slices through the inky black void outside the hull. But a casual attempt to resolve a riddle posted by one of the crewmembers leads to that compelling philosophical debate between the trio, capped off with a hideous revelation about a presence onboard the freighter. A genuinely original and thoughtful take on the Warhammer 40,000 setting, Gammage has given us as readers something to ponder on long after the story has come to an end.
The Good Citizen is a deeply ironic title for Jenny Strath’s contribution to the collection, because no-one featured in the story can be considered anywhere near a ‘good’ citizen of the Imperium; and indeed, that’s the central conceit of Strath’s marvellous and multi-faceted tale. In the dog-eat-dog world of the Imperium of Man, every citizen does what they have to do in order to survive through to the next day and ensure they have sufficient food and water to avoid dying in the filth of the Hive. This isn’t the usual sort of story to be found in the Warhammer setting – no demons, heroic Guardsmen or imperious Astartes striving to stave off the forces of Chaos for another day – but instead the grim, uncaring and utterly brutal realities of life for the average human. Beautifully written and masterfully told, The Good Citizen is exactly the sort of story that demonstrates why Strath will also, I suspect, be a Black Library author in time.
We’ve had many Warhammer 40,000 stories, both official and unofficial, that show the realities of being a member of the Officio Assassinorum and the abilities of the members of the various temples within the Officio. But Thinly Veiled Dagger by Justus Ackermann shows us another side of the political assassination game – and what happens when it isn’t a highly-trained member of the Officio sent to assassinate some recalcitrant individual who has betrayed the Imperium of Man in some heretical or disloyal manner. I rather enjoyed following along with the young and arrogant Lieutenant Aloysio Vysterian as he infiltrated the palace of a secessionist Governor and attempted to kill the official, Ackermann deftly illustrating just how difficult it is for someone who isn’t a member of one of the temples – and also the price to be paid for sending an amateur rather than a professional.
Finally, Everyone’s Seen It by Markus Grey is another highlight of the collection, Grey providing a story that would easily fit within one of the Warhammer Horror anthologies recently released by Black Library. Cleverly playing up the concept of memetic imagery and events, Interrogator Lorne of the Emperor’s Holy Inquisition deals with a citizen arrested while attempting to forcibly show people something on his dataslate. Puzzled by his actions, Lorne questions the man, only to discover that something has burrowed into his mind and made him become singularly obsessive about showing anyone he can reach the item on his dataslate. While the citizen in question is dealt with, the Interrogator soon realizes that the combination of memetic imagery and a futuristic communication network make for very dangerous companions indeed for the cities and citizens of Iotha II. After all, everyone’s seen it.
So there we have it – another outstanding collection of Warhammer 40,000 fast fiction stories released by Cold Open Stories, all of them providing ample proof of just how vital the website and its team is to the Warhammer fan community as a whole. Without its existence, none of these fine authors would have had the chance to showcase their undoubted talents and innate understanding of the grimdark scifi setting, nor would the community have had a chance to enjoy their stories while visiting such a slick and well-constructed website. The future may still be uncertain for Cold Open Stories, but regardless of what happens collections such as this provide undeniable proof of the positive effect Cold Open Stories has had on the Warhammer fan community – and hopefully one that will continue for a very long time to come.