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Escape Pod 706: Rule of Three (Part 2 of 3)


Rule of Three (Part 2 of 3)

By Lawrence M. Schoen

“I have been exploring your solar system for most of a century,” Foom said.

“Why?”

“Cataloging.” Foom led me down to the riverbank. A giant pearl sat in the water not ten meters away. “You would call me a completist. Visiting each and every one of Jupiter’s moons alone took more than a decade. Some were truly majestic. Which is not to say your own moon is not interesting, but I am still processing what I learned there. It was my penultimate destination in this system. I saved your world for last.”

We stepped into the river and were quickly engulfed above our waists. The water was cold but the current not especially swift.

“Did you find life anywhere else in our solar system?”

“Life, yes, but nothing alive that was also self-aware and sapient as you are. And I found death, too. But only on your world is there unlife. Your pardon, can you swim?”

“Excuse me?” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 705: Rule of Three (Part 1 of 3)


Rule of Three (Part 1 of 3)

By Lawrence M. Schoen

Popular culture failed to prepare me for first contact. Countless starships bristling with canon and rail gun turrets did not fill the skies. The aliens didn’t flood our television and radio bands with messages of conquest or world peace or miracle cures. They didn’t present themselves to the United Nations or to any government leaders. None of that. I was sitting in my condo in a suburb of Washington, D.C. when my mother phoned me from California. It was a Sunday afternoon. I’d just ordered a pizza and I’d planned to watch the big game on my new television. But my mother was on the phone. She’d just had a call from her own mother in her tiny mountain village back in China.

An alien had landed.

I charged the plane ticket to my credit card and was on a plane to Beijing two hours later. I didn’t watch the big game and I never got to eat my pizza. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 704: Failsafe


Failsafe

by Tim Chawaga

When the machines finally decided to replace Liv, they broke her heart.

Her desk was tiny and wedged in between two massive automatons: The Vial Dispenser, which Liv called DJ, and the Vial Accepter, which Liv called Alvin. Above the desk were a couple of dusty posters that she had hung years ago and the big red button. The security camera that was pointed at her was broken, and she knew that it would probably not be fixed. There were no windows.

Liv had worked at Autagro for almost twenty years. She had spent countless hours crocheting little koozies to cover DJ and Alvin’s valves, which burned so hot with efficiency that they would melt the plastic parts around them. Countless mornings making up songs and raps to the rhythm of their whirs and clicks, which had become so fast that she had started doing vocal warm-ups on the bus ride in to loosen her lips.

Liv’s job consisted solely of grabbing the vials of extremely concentrated pesticide that DJ held out with its tiny arm, just inches away from Alvin, and pushing them through Alvin’s receptacle slot. The instant she removed a vial, DJ would retract its arm and shoot it out again faster than Liv could blink, holding another vial with a stillness that Liv couldn’t help but interpret as impatience. No matter how fast she moved, she would never be as fast as DJ, but she was a Failsafe. Her speed wasn’t supposed to matter.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 703: Light and Death on the Indian Battle Station


Light and Death on the Indian Battle Station

By Keyan Bowes

Diwali, the Festival of Lights is a magical time of the year, even on the Indian Battle Station. A hundred tiny oil-lamps decorated our apartment, glimmering along window ledges, glowing at the corners of the rangoli floor pattern, shining in the little niche with the image of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity.

“Savitri!” My sister Ritika called me, a glittering sparkler illuminating her excited face as she held out the firework.  “Here! Light yours for the spinners!”

My sparkler spluttered into flowers of light as I touched it to hers. Mom and Ritika quickly moved out of the way and I ignited three ground spinners. The gunpowder-scented coils flung a scarf of fiery sparks across the balcony.

We were the lucky ones. I breathed in the scents of Diwali, smoke from the fireworks, incense from the Lakshmi niche, the warm coconut smell of Diwali sweets sitting on an ornate silver tray. Our cousins down in Delhi celebrated with strings of LED lights and chocolate and factory-made fireworks from China. It wasn’t the same.

We were lucky because Mom vividly remembered her childhood Diwalis, and because she had the Strength to make it real. That Strength was also why we were far from Earth on the Indian Battle Station, currently at war with the JAYAZ Network.

“Can I light a rocket?” Ritika asked.  “Mom, please?”

Me, I’d have said no.  Bottle-rockets in the hands of daring, impulsive teenagers like Ritika are just asking for trouble. But Mom gave in as usual. “Just be careful, sweetie.”

Ritika lit it, pointing it at the balcony ceiling instead of out toward the sky.

I grabbed the kid away as the thing ricocheted against the ceiling, fizzed, and exploded. “”Ritika! That’s so stupid!”

But before I could scold her properly, the sound of divine footsteps echoed in the hall and inside our heads. We froze.

Was Lakshmi coming to visit on her festival day? Did Mom have the Strength to bring her? We all held our breath.

The door opened. Instead of the radiant Goddess and her owl, there was a fierce blue-faced God with flaming hair. Two four-eyed dogs followed him. We dropped to the floor in obeisance. It’s never a good idea to disrespect Yama, Lord Death. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 702: Inheritance


Inheritance

By Elise Stephens

Carmen would have expected a gold necklace or tarnished antique, maybe some money or a secret family recipe card, but she’d never dreamed her grandmother would try to immortalize herself through an inheritance like this.

The attorney was holding a velvet-covered box in his open palms as he explained, “Maria Elena had these memory grafts discreetly extracted prior to her death. She chose not to inform the family beforehand. I believe she felt her memories could safely be left to the care of the third generation, that is, the three of you.”

Carmen was relieved to see that both her siblings were likewise surprised by the news.

Mr. Hoffman tapped the box with his thumbs. “As you may know, memory grafts are a practical-application variety of memory extraction. They’re a refined amalgamation of all memories and experiences related to specific fields or areas of expertise.”

“So there’s no real estate or stocks. It’s just her memories,” Mario said, eyebrows raised.

“She was never rich to begin with,” Daniela said. “Living in that tiny place after Grandpa died. Unless she was secretly saving up, how did she afford an extraction?”

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 701: Martian Chronicles (Part 2 of 2)


Martian Chronicles

by Cory Doctorow

I didn’t go back to the Junior Colonists’ Lounge for a whole week. Instead, I spent the time with my dad, who seemed pleasantly surprised that his son wanted to hang out with him. It made me feel bad, like I’d been neglecting him. But it also made me ask myself why my father didn’t think it was weird that I wasn’t spending any time with kids my age. Dad had always been busy on Earth, traveling half the time for work, spending his time at home with his computer over his face, barking angrily at it while his hands worked the keyboard like a mad player attacking a church-organ.

I didn’t mind, to be honest. Actually, I preferred it to those times when Dad decided to get all “dad-like” and insist on throwing a ball with me or take me to some kind of sports-match or play some game on the big living-room screen with me. It wasn’t that it wasn’t fun, but there was always a moment when we stopped talking about the game or the project and found ourselves sitting in awkward silence, trying to pretend that the reason we had nothing to say was that we were concentrating too hard on the matter at hand.

On Earth, Dad had been a hotshot statistical risk-analyst. This is not an easy thing to explain. But basically, what he did was tried to figure out how to balance investments to minimize risk. Say there’s an industry that benefits when someone finds a better way of growing wheat — the bread industry, say. And then there’s another industry that suffers when someone finds a better way of growing wheat, like, maybe, I don’t know, the corn industry? I forget how he explained this, to be honest, but this is generally the idea. So what he does is figures out how to invest some money in both industries, so that if someone finds a better wheat-growing technique, the investment in bread pays out, and if no one invents it, the investment in corn pays out. That’s the rough idea. What he did was like ten million times more complicated, though.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 700: Martian Chronicles (Part 1 of 2)


Martian Chronicles

by Cory Doctorow

They say you can’t smell anything through a launch-hood, but I still smelled the pove in the next seat as the space-attendants strapped us into our acceleration couches and shone lights in our eyes and triple-checked the medical readouts on our wristlets to make sure our hearts wouldn’t explode when the rocket boosted us into orbit for transfer to the Eagle and the long, long trip to Mars.

He was skinny, but not normal-skinny, the kind of skinny you get from playing a lot of sports and taking the metabolism pills your parents got for you so you wouldn’t get teased at school. He was kind of pot-bellied with scrawny arms and sunken cheeks and he was brown-brown, like the brown Mom used to slather on after a day at the beach covered in factor-500 sunblock. Only he was the kind of all-over-even brown that you only got by being born brown.

He gave me a holy-crap-I’m-going-to-MARS smile and a brave thumbs-up and I couldn’t bring myself to snub him because he looked so damned happy about it. So I gave him the same thumbs up, rotating my wrist in the strap that held it onto the arm-rest so that I didn’t accidentally break my nose with my own hand when we “clawed our way out of the gravity well” (this was a phrase from the briefing seminars that they liked to repeat a lot. It had a lot of macho going for it).

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 699: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide (Flashback Friday)


A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide

By Sarah Pinsker

Andy tattooed his left forearm with Lori’s name on a drunken night in his seventeenth year. “Lori & Andy Forever and Ever” was the full text, all in capital letters, done by his best friend Susan with her homemade tattoo rig. Susan was proud as anything of that machine. She’d made it out of nine-volt batteries and some parts pulled from an old DVD player and a ballpoint pen. The tattoo was ugly and hurt like hell, and it turned out Lori didn’t appreciate it at all. She dumped him two weeks later, just before she headed off to university.

Four years later, Andy’s other arm was the one that got mangled in the combine. The entire arm, up to and including his shoulder and right collarbone and everything attached. His parents made the decision while he was still unconscious. He woke in a hospital room in Saskatoon with a robot arm and an implant in his head.

“Brain-Computer Interface,” his mother said, as if that explained everything. She used the same voice she had used when he was five to tell him where the cattle went when they were loaded onto trucks. She stood at the side of his hospital bed, her arms crossed and her fingers tapping her strong biceps as if she were impatient to get back to the farm. The lines in her forehead and the set of her jaw told Andy she was concerned, even if her words hid it.

“They put electrodes and a chip in your motor cortex,” she continued. “You’re bionic.” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 698: Points of Origin


Points of Origin

by Marissa Lingen

Most people who have reached their eighties without raising children have every right to believe that they will go on not raising them, and Judith and I were no different until the day they turned up with the social worker, neatly scrubbed and pressed inside their vac-suits and carrying cases with all their remaining worldly possessions. There were three of them like stairsteps, their black hair cut in fringes across their foreheads and their dark eyes shining out disconcertingly familiar at me. But it wasn’t until the social worker said, “Mr. Chao and Ms. Goldstein, these are your grandchildren, Enid, Richard, and Harry,” that I remembered, sheepishly, about the genes we had given all those years ago, to that nice couple from New New Prague, before they left for the Oort Cloud.

I gaped like the tank fish I grow. Judith murmured in kind confusion. It was Enid who settled them all, gently and efficiently, in what used to be our spare room. Later it occurred to me that she was very practiced at it for a ten-year-old, but later I knew why.

The paperwork was lengthy, and some of it required actual paper, reminding us why it had been called that. I thought that was cheeky, given that the social worker was dumping the children on us without even a message to warn us, but you can’t give people children without at least some protocol. Even I understood that. And I had known about the collapse of the Oort Cloud economy, in a vague news-feed sort of way. I had just not thought to connect it with myself, much less my guest bedrooms.

Judith peered at them in her mild dismay when the social worker had left. “What . . . sorts of things do you eat?” she asked, the bundle of questions on her mind turning to the most immediately practical matter.

“We’re omnivores, thank you,” said Enid. Not only her composure but also her vocabulary was so much older than ten.

“But—what do you like?” said Judith.

“We don’t propose to be any trouble,” said Enid, but her brother Harry said, “Noodles. We really like noodles.”

You do,” said Richard, rolling his eyes.

“We will eat,” Enid insisted, “whatever it is convenient to make. I can help if you like. And the boys, they’re big enough to do easy things. We won’t be a bother.”

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 697: The Last Stellar Death Metal Opera


The Last Stellar Death Metal Opera

By Elly Bangs

Raya eases power into the singularity engine and all her senses sharpen with the glorious, brutal reality of the moment: dead ahead there’s the blacklight-purple disk of Wolf-Rayet 104, twenty-eight subjective minutes before it goes core-collapse supernova. In her rear view there’s the brown dwarf she’s dragging on a graviton leash. She aims to hurl it down that deep purple star’s gravity well fast and hard enough to nudge it a degree off its axis just before it blows, in turn tilting the jet of its impending gamma ray burst away from an ocean planet and sparing a half-billion bronze-age octopodes from a gruesome flash-boiled apocalypse.

After aeons of waiting and searching, finally everything is in order, all her conditions met: she’s the only one who can do it, this is the only way it can be done, and there’s no scenario that doesn’t end with her being blasted so effectively to smithereens that no tech in the universe can put her back together again.

She cranks up the music (some ancient pre-Unimind death metal) and cracks her neck. She verifies the integrity of her mohawk, the wicked glint of her spiked bracelets in the cockpit lights, the wings of her void-black eyeliner: She’s going to be the first human being to die in a very, very long time, and she’s damn well going to do in style. She plants a kiss on her fingers and transfers it to the photo of the late, eternal Jex Epsilon-James stuck to the cockpit ceiling.

“This is it, Jex. It’s going down.” (Continue Reading…)